Graffiti art and local dining: get out of the house

“An idea that began from our need for such a space…”

This is the message that greets visitors to the restaurant’s website (in Greek), and the reason that co-owners Giannis Petrou and Asterios Ganas created the concept for the locally-sourced food establishment that is Klimax (klee’-maks). This local business in the Greek city of Larissa celebrated two years this month. I sat down to speak with Giannis Petrou about his experience launching this small business, the graffiti mural he painted on a neglected wall across the street, and his perspective on food, art and public spaces. [Note: our discussion took place over a year ago, but it does not make his story and perspective any less interesting, or make me miss the place and the environment any less.]

“It’s been two years now that my partner, Asteris, and I have spent unbelievable funds, energy and time for this concept called Klimax,” says co-owner Giannis Petrou. The concept of Klimax is physically centered around a small self-service restaurant that sells locally produced food and wine, but it encompasses more. “It is not an establishment that sells wine, cheese and pasta. It is something different.”

Klimax is a place for people and community. “There is a great need today for people to go out on the streets and see that something is happening.” They need spaces to do this.

IMG_2366-Klimax2Klimax is situated along one of Larissa’s pedestrian paths, and directly across from the First Ancient Theater of Larissa (excavated recently, and dating to the 3rd century BC). “We waited for a shop to empty out in this part of town,” emphasizes Giannis, “and as soon as we found it, we rented it and fixed it.” In the evenings, seating expands from the little corner shop to either side of the pedestrian street, in a way that makes one wish it would continue along the entire length of the path. There are cushions for people to sit casually on the short wall along the railing that separates the path and the field of the ancient theater. It hosts live music, book presentations, local wine tastings. People meet friends, greet staff and friends as they pass by, make new introductions, comment on the jazz music playing.

On the other side of the railing, there is a large mural painted on the crumbling side wall of a building, which faces the ancient theater and looks down the length of the pedestrian path. This is Giannis’s work. I ask what inspires him. “I try to improve the image and, more broadly, my life and the lives of everyone around me, to try and improve what they see,” he says. “The wall we photographed that stands behind us was created for that very reason.”

IMG_2361-Gianni2

Giannis Petrou, co-owner of Klimax, discusses the mural he created across from the restaurant, and the importance of art in public spaces.

I sat all day in the business in the winter and I could see this wall. It was crumbling, neglected, and full of weeds – in the most beautiful point in the city. I thought it would be good to take the initiative to jump over the railing and do something secretly because if I were to seek a permit to use the wall, neither the Municipality of Larissa, nor the archaeological department would grant me the permit. I jumped the railing three Sundays in the early morning hours before dawn, I created [the mural] and then I gained the people’s congratulations, ‘good for you’s’, etc. And that’s my intention from here on, to be honest: to trespass into fields and create wall murals.”

“Beyond seeing an ugly wall that I could not stand to look at, I wanted to make something that someone would see and ask ‘what is he trying to say?’ For me this is more valuable. If I made this piece or any other piece and kept it at home or took it to a gallery, no more than 50-100 people would see it. But here I see that there is not a person that goes by all day that does not say, who did this?

For Giannis, the reaction of the people passing by is the best outcome of the mural. “People’s reaction was very warm… The most important thing is that the archaeological department embraced this, and they liked it a lot, and they left it there. And they want to keep it. I admit I was not expecting that. I expected them to tear it down, to destroy it.” To the contrary – they installed the spotlight.

The concept and story of Klimax is integrally linked to the location: “Despite our disappointments for two years that there was no available spot here at the ancient theater, we waited because we did not want to do at another place in the city. We wanted Klimax to be created here only.”

Climbing over obstacles and creating new something new
The name Klimax is from the ancient Greek word κλίμαξ/κλίμακα, meaning ladder. It was inspired from the Byzantine icon of The Ladder of Divine Ascent, or Ladder of Paradise, an ascetical treatise for monasticism in Eastern Christianity. “This work describes the 30 steps that we must all climb to be closer to God. All this – steps, God, etc – is in parentheses,” explains Giannis, “in the sense that we are not referring to a theocratic issue, but we try to overcome obstacles, ‘climb the rungs’ and create new things.”

“This is for us our great secret, and our ‘climb’ progresses daily. We search for new producers, look for new people who with small unit production, who do not have someone to support them and they produce a product. Meanwhile, we want this product and we provide it to customers. This happens every day. It is a piece of the city that concerns the people; they respect it and they support it….Not all of Larissa can understand this.

We simply created a place where we would want to go. That’s it. And because nobody had created it, we have done it now.”

People still ask Giannis and Asteris about their experience in setting up the business – how and why they did it.  “All the time. Every day.” Giannis smiles. If not for the restricted economy, he expects there would be several similar establishments in Larissa already. “To do this, we got funds from our own people: our wives, our mothers, our families, our siblings. They gave us whatever they had so we could create this establishment. This makes us feel great responsibility, but more so, when this goes well, it makes us more proud, because these people were proved right and we did not disappoint them. They gave us their money without asking us exactly what we wanted to do. We did not know exactly what it would look like. So when this goes well and progresses, it does justice to them.

“We wanted an establishment like this – me, Asteris, our wives – so we could go out, but it was missing from this city so we were forced to go to Athens.” To develop their idea of what they wanted this space to look like in Larissa, the business partners made several trips to cities across Europe to meet people with restaurants based on such a concept. “We went on around 15 trips to create just one spot in this city, in front of the ancient theater, where everyone can come, chat with friends, listen to beautiful music, drink a nice wine, and feel human. This is what we intended to do.”

“Our friends support this idea. We did not communicate the idea, because the two or three people we first told mocked us. They thought it was a given that a 30 square meter self-serve establishment across from the ancient theater would not last 2-3 months, it would go out of business immediately. After that we decided not to pay attention to those who had knowledge on the subject, the “experts”, but decided to do what we wanted.”

Art finds people, people find perspective
I ask if he wants to be more involved with painting and art, and he admits it was his childhood dream.“For me, to say that you exist and you are a painter and an artist is asceticism. You must work on it from morning till night and torture over a canvas…Unfortunately, I could not achieve this in my life. However, as you can see, I catch a few breaths, I sneak small opportunities, like this wall here, to exercise it.”

He chose to exercise this ‘small opportunity’ in a public space, so I ask him about the relationship between art and public spaces. “In my opinion, this is the point. Art must leave the «galleries». I worked for six years as an art director at the Larissa Museum of Modern Art, and… unfortunately, at all the openings that I recall, there were 50-60 people. This means what? That painting and art in general that is ‘shut away’ in galleries or museums in Greece unfortunately reaches very few. Art must provoke…it must stir people and get them out of the house, pull them out of their shell. This is the role of art around the world and across time.”

“[If] you cannot bring to people to the galleries and museums, what do you do? What Banksy did in London, what others did earlier in New York: provoke people in public spaces so that they become sensitized. Art does not wait for people to come to it; art goes to the people. For me, this is what it is all about and this is my purpose… I do not plan to create paintings [on canvasses] and put on a gallery show, it no longer interests me. When an opportunity presents itself, I will paint walls.

As you see, we can say all these things with many words, but it is very simple. To make a wall or an installation outside is nothing tremendous. Simply, you must have a goal of engaging as many people as you can.”

Giannis observes that a key consequence of constantly increasing sales taxes on consumer goods and consumption in the country is that people have less options for spending time with each other in public.  “People must go out, not necessarily to go to establishments, [but] to sit at the public squares, to speak, to mobilize.”

“I try to encourage young people who have an artistic vein to get out of the house and create something that will provoke people…For me there is a value in creating something that makes you stop and say ‘why did this person do this, what is this?’” Gianni nods at his mural on the wall behind us, to illustrate the point and bring it all back together – and local. “The man that climbs the ladder and sees the city from above, the paper dove that is at the top of the ladder, why is it there? Bring people into a process of reflection.”

This past year, Klimax opened another piece of the original Klimax concept: a garden, consisting of greenery, recovered materials, art and more seating.

Happy two-year anniversary and many more to Klimax, a space and place for community.

This is part of a series of interviews from Larissa. Read the introduction here and the first interview with artist Melas Karagiannis here.

Tour Klimax through this video.

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When grownups won’t build lemonade stands

On a recent visit home, I learned that I almost built a lemonade stand. My mother was telling a story to her friend, and indirectly informed me of an incident of which I had no memory. One afternoon, second- or third-grade Me approached the property manager of our apartment complex in a small Midwestern city and requested that he help Me construct a small lemonade stand. He later told my mother about my request and they chuckled. Mother and friend smiled at the story.

I, however, stared at my mother. First, I cross-checked the witness:

Me: “That really happened?”
Mother: “Yes.”

“And he didn’t build it?” This part of the story could have been the foundation for several more chapters to the story, and based on the blank expressions around me, I was the only one to notice.

My mother was not sure why a) he did not help build the lemonade stand, b) she didn’t backup my request, c) encourage me – or, more likely, allow me – to find an alternative solution.

I do not spend much time thinking about lemonade stands, though I hear them referenced frequently, including by politicians. Now that I know I was an aspiring lemonade entrepreneur, I thought about it, and I believe we can do better.

There may be individuals that insist and make it happen on their own: find a chair and a box, sneak some lemons and a pitcher out of mom’s kitchen, and get it done.  When she sees all the shiny quarters (revenue), it will assuage her rage over the fact that you were speaking to strangers (customers) without her knowledge, right?

Think bigger: how much better would it be if each child that expressed their first interest in doing something entrepreneurial received some encouragement and support to take a chance and try it out? Could we help each child unleash new levels of confidence and creativity by supporting this first experience in pursuing an idea?

The founder of Lemonade Day thinks we can. For four years, he works with city officials and business groups to register kids – with a parent, teacher or mentor – for a one-day event. The program provides a guide and a process that the kids and their supporting adults can follow to start their lemonade business. The program is in several states, and tens of thousands of kids have started their own stands. (More in this great Inc.com feature.)

Ashoka’s Youth Venture does not focus on lemonade stands, but it, too, is founded on the understanding that when we make a conscious effort to tell young people that they can launch their own venture to make a positive change in society, and we support them, this experience empowers them to dream and act even bigger in the future.

The lemonade stand is about kids, but it is also about adults. We can congratulate the lemonade stand owner, but we can also be attentive and ready to offer encouragement.

Note: Apparently, it may be a good idea for adult lemonade stand mentors to check in with the city clerk’s office in case there are laws that are not lemonade-friendly.

Image by New Diaspora. New Dialogue. illustration contributor.

Grumpy in Greece?

At the beginning of this summer, I thought I might become the best decision-maker in the world.  Going back to school, taking a special training course, you ask?  No.

Apparently – I have research backing me up on this – being grumpy makes you a good decision-maker.  And at the beginning of this summer, I was preparing to spend the whole summer in Greece, an excellent place for being grumpy.

Now that I am here:  not as grumpy as I thought I’d be.

I certainly had my moment.  After spending a couple days on an island, I took a ferry boat and two buses to reach my family’s hometown in the north. I was welcomed by a two-hour blackout on a Friday night, the result of the power company’s labor union strike, in opposition to the planned privatization of the power company. It seems that the only reason we didn’t have a complete blackout is because the power company’s management was regulating and timing the power cuts. All I heard from people around me was that the power company union workers already have some of the highest pay and benefits around. With the weather at over 80 degrees and a very young niece with a fever, I was not at all amused.  You could say I was grumpy. After the union realized the Greek public was also not amused, and the power company took the union to court and had the strike declared illegal, and small business owners threatened to suit, the union I believe has backed off the strike. Basically, while many people are struggling, some are still pushing the line.

However, overall, I have not found sufficient reason to be grumpy and thereby strengthen my decision-making skills.

I spent one night in Thessaloniki and two and half beautiful days on the island of Skiathos with two lovely American ladies. Everyone we encountered was open and friendly. Every discussion here includes attention to the economic challenges the country and many of its people are facing, but the hospitality of the table next to you buying a round because you shared a laugh, or the restaurant bringing out dessert on the house is still here.

This hospitality brightened all the more for the Special Olympics.


Skiathos hosted the team from the UK while we were there, and I ended up on the same departing ferry as the athletes. While waiting in a crowd at the port at high noon in intense heat, everyone held back, and clapped for several minutes straight as the athletes boarded the ferry, beaming and waving back at the support. The ferry departed 30 minutes late. Not a single person anywhere around me grumbled or complained.  The volunteers stood in the sun and waved at the team until the ferry was well on its way. There were as many smiles in the general crowd as there were among the athletes who were on their way to the games in Athens. Not a grumpy time at all.

Innovation: “In With the New” Without “Out With the Old”

This past January, the New York Times ran an article highlighting the struggle of a Greek entrepreneur to get a Greek beer onto the Greek market, and to convince the government to repeal an outdated law preventing his brewery from producing mountain tea – or anything other than beer. Timely article. Currently there is a heightened focus on the need to reform laws and regulations that impact (read: hinder) business, entrepreneurship and innovation in Greece. According to the World Bank Group’s Doing Business 2010 report, the country’s business regulation environment placed it in a ranking of 109 out of 183 economies on the ease of doing business.

To address these challenges, the current administration is passing new legislation and courting large international investors, particularly in the Greek diaspora communities, and turning to its own new and potential entrepreneurs. In a speech at the 75th Thessaloniki International Fair in September, Prime Minister George Papandreou announced that: “Over the forthcoming months we will create an Investments Council with top investors and businessmen from abroad and with Managing Directors from the best companies in the world, especially of course from the Greek Diaspora so that they can contribute to drawing up a new investment effort and give us their credibility when talking to the investment community.” More recently, at a Regional Development and Competitiveness Ministry event, the Prime Minister reiterated the administration’s focus on encouraging and facilitating innovation and business.

In addition to going after large international investors, the Greek government is looking to its young entrepreneurs. As Kostas Mallios pointed out in his presentation at the TEDxAcademy in Athens last year, young people are an excellent source of innovation and creativity. Many of our most recognized inventors – Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Bill Gates – were in their 20s when they made their big discoveries or creations.  In January, the Greek parliament passed a new investment law that includes incentives for young entrepreneurs (see a discussion, in Greek, of the new law on the Generation 700 euros blog here).  On October 20, 2010, the Regional Development and Competitiveness Ministry organized a gathering of about 100 young entrepreneurs. Much of the news coverage missed the significance of this event, covering mainly the comments of Prime Minister and Minister Michalis Chryssohoidis. What I found more interesting was that through this process, the prime minister invited comments and suggestions from participants, and responded to their input. Key feedback included the need for less bureaucracy and more regulatory and financial support for entrepreneurs and startups, recognition of the importance of failure, and facilitation of relationships between universities and entrepreneurship. Search “#younginnovGR” on YouTube to see videos of participant comments.

As part of this initiative, the government, in collaboration with young entrepreneurs, launched StartUpGreece, an online networking and collaboration platform where members (currently 2,163) can meet and exchange ideas. The site also hosts information on starting a venture or obtaining government funding. Further, the new investment law, passed in January 2011 and launched April 13, includes incentives for young entrepreneurs. In March, the Regional Development and Competitiveness Ministry announced the New Innovative Entrepreneurship, a program to offer incentives, including financial support, for innovative new enterprises or products.

While innovation may open up new job opportunities and attract foreign investment, the country’s population faces a range of hardships, such as layoffs, loss of small businesses, decreasing social welfare services, increasing taxes and fees for services no longer provided by the government. Any approach to economic development must also address how to ensure the impact reaches the broader population, from the middle and lower classes to marginalized communities. The administration must work with the private sector and citizens to address declining industries, in addition to creating new jobs. Given the specific context of Greece, investment professional and economic sociologist Aristos Doxiadis emphasizes that economic development in Greece should include a focus on the small scale economy, including small and household- or family- owned businesses and the informal rules and institutions which many of these observe.

Most importantly, the government and private sector in Greece will have to focus on developing a national strategy. As Steve Blank argues in a discussion on Startup America, a White House Initiative announced in February 2011, “an entrepreneurship initiative needs to be an integral part of both a coherent economic policy and a national innovation policy,” and must recognize and support different types of entrepreneurship. While the economic crisis is weighing on policy leaders in Greece right now and many pressing reforms need to be made, this is a desperately needed opportunity to develop a new, strategic and inclusive approach to helping both new and existing industries or businesses grow. Just as importantly, as the Greek diaspora community joins the discussion and mobilizes to support the efforts of Greek entrepreneurs or to invest in Greece, it should also consider how its efforts contribute to or impact a national growth and innovation strategy.

Peaceful organizing in cities across Greece

Yesterday, May 25, thousands in Greece gathered at public squares in cities across the country to protest peacefully and demand solutions.  The rallies were organized through social media sites under the banner ‘Aganaktismenoi sto Syntagma’ (“Indignant or Exasperated at Syntagma”) and ‘Aganaktismenoi’ at other cities. The effort was modeled on Spain’s Los Indignados movement.

There were no molotov cocktails and no signs or evidence of allegiances to the political parties, unions or associations. Just organized, peaceful people that are struggling and expect better solutions.

Source: Enet.gr - Ελευθεροτυπία

Some news outlets are reporting that as many as 10,000 (ekathimerini.com) to 30,000 (ANA-MPA) people showed up at Syntagma Square in Athens alone. Individuals reported through social media (#greekrevolution, #25mgr, also follow Asteris Masouras @asteris for updates) and Greek blogs that the crowds included many youth but people of all ages. The protesters in Athens also reportedly blocked a group of anarchists that attempted to filter their ranks, keeping them at a distance and away from the parliament. The rallies served as a sort of public assembly, with participants of different ages and backgrounds discussing their thoughts and opinions.

The rallies did not become a sit-in (though there were some tents in Athens), but this may serve as the long overdue, concrete example that peaceful organizing and mobilization is possible in Greece. Even if an organized, long-term movement with clear goals and proposals does not immediately follow, this is a message that people in Greece and in Greek diaspora communities have been waiting to receive, and that the international media and financial institutions should heed.

Some great photos from the Thessaloniki rally: Spanish style protests reach Greece

The Smile of the Child Needs Us.

In the fall of 2004, I spent the afternoon in one of the community houses of Hamogelo tou Paidou, or The Smile of the Child, a Greek non-profit that helps children when they are most in need. The founder of the organization knew the value of a child’s smile more than most of us ever could. Ten-year-old Andreas Yannopoulos, while suffering from terminal cancer, expressed with clarity his belief that all children, regardless of race or ethnicity, deserve to smile, and that if everybody came together, this could be accomplished.  Thus the organization was established in 1995 and began fulfilling Andreas’ vision.

After 16 years of growth and tens of thousands of children’s smiles, the organization is at risk of closing its doors in less than two months. The economic crisis is about to hit children who have already suffered abuse, neglect, abandonment, poverty, illness.

Six years ago, as the children played outside, the head of social services and the child and family counselor at the Kareas shelter discussed the organization’s latest activities in the free moments they had before they received a call to pick up a new child in need. I was with a member of the U.S. Embassy’s American Citizen Services section, which maintains contact with several Greek organizations offering services that could assist American citizens in Greece. The Smile of the Child is an invaluable resource in helping American children in cases where their parent or guardian is hospitalized or unable to care for them while in Greece.

With over 4,000 volunteers and teams of professional educators, counselors, psychologists, social psychologists, social workers and administrators, The Smile of the Child impacts the lives of thousands of children and families every year, and is one of the most trusted and recognized civil society organizations in Greece.

Since 1997, Smile of the Child has established 11 shelters housing 275 abused or neglected children, from infants to young adults, sent through court order.  Its 24/7 national emergency hotline, 1056, received 270,000 calls for help in 2010, including reports of abused or abandoned children. It also runs 116000, the European Hotline for Missing Children, in Greece. The website www.lostchild.gr reports and tracks the cases of missing children in Greece. The group also activates Amber Alert Hellas at the request of the police, runs outreach programs for homeless children in Thessaloniki and Athens, and maintains a fleet of eight ambulances for infants and children and vehicles to reach and transport children in emergencies.

Please help a very important organization maintain its services.  If you are in Greece, you can make a donation via phone or SMS.  If you are outside of Greece, you can make a donation online or through a bank deposit. Instructions here.

Digital Civil Society

The 7th issue of the e-Civil Society newsletter is out.  This electronic newsletter is the digital edition of Paremvassi’s printed magazine on civil society.  Paremvassi puts together an interesting collection of articles,  in both Greek and English, written by regular contributors or gathered from Greek and international media.   This edition focuses on journalism in a digital age.   Earlier editions focused on e-government, virtual volunteerism, privacy and social networking.  They are available online and by email subscription.

Paremvassi or Citizen’s Union Intervention, founded in 1995, encourages progress and modernization through the strengthening of civil society, promotion of electronic governance and civic participation, and promotion of corporate social responsibility and social entrepreneurship.

Check out this edition’s English articles to read about, among other things:

  • how media is evolving and changing our culture and etiquette of communication
  • how to balance the increasing openness of the Internet with security and national or corporate interests
  • different views on Wikileaks, and
  • how public policy might support declining newspapers.

Check out the Greek articles to read about, among other things:

  • a proposal by Paremvassi’s VP on how ERT, Greek national television, can serve as a tool to help Greece out of the crisis
  • the impact of the increase in blogs on traditional media
  • how the law applies to blogs
  • a code of ethics for blogs proposed by a Greek lawyer focusing on digital media, and
  • young people pursuing innovative business rather than the public sector.

This last article, based on the results of a survey conducted on behalf of the Thessaloniki Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is pleasantly surprising. Despite the odds being stacked against an entrepreneur in Greece thanks to a myriad of obstacles, young Greeks are innovating.  The article spotlights OpenFund (invests in and supports businesses in emerging technologies), kapou.gr (an online photomapping service), the second method (develops educational software), Total Eclipse (a leading company in computer games), and novo1 (an educational robot currently under development).  Interestingly enough, this TED talk, Let’s Raise Kids to Be Entrepreneurs, was posted online around the same time this article was published in Kathimerini – June 2010.  But I digress…and reveal my favorites.

Take a look at the newsletter and choose your favorite articles.