Sunday, June 1, 2014

TEDx Thessaloniki - events of an EVENT

This story is part fantasy, part fact and part fiction and then some. Many of the things described here happened, some didn’t, some I wish had happened and some I wish hadn’t plus the people are real as my imagination could conjure them up but some are more real than others and some are more imaginary than their real counterparts. So please exercise caution and discretion not necessarily in that or any order as you skim or sink or swim through this one. Life without pun is no fun and I take intentional dig at everyone; that they approve the victims of my dig, I am not sure but I presume they do and also allow me literary digression as well as liberty. So here goes a first hand and totally true account of something entirely fascinating, alluring, charming and decidedly desirable that I am willing to experience again and again.

Everything that begins or happens has a genesis and mine was in a mail written by a beautiful Amazonian woman I happened to chance upon in the by-lanes of Zurich near the end of previous year. Don’t ask what I was doing in so drab a place and I have no idea what she was doing their either, but fate made our paths cross and then collide into close proximity. We exchanged mail address and mobile numbers and became FB friends just like it happens to anyone these days you even remotely meet anywhere across the planet. And then everything quietened. I went away winter climbing, trying to kill myself in various ways, while this woman of my dreams disappeared into her own world perhaps trying to kill someone else in her own ways. Long story short, I never heard back from her and neither did I drop her a line till a fine morning I found a mail from her in my inbox asking me to be the saviour and pathfinder (Moses like) for the vagrant and disillusioned Greek youth. Oh, did I forget to tell you that she was from Greece!

She claimed (and I had no means of verifying) that she managed the speaker’s list for TEDx Thessaloniki, an annual affair where speakers from various facets of society with dubious achievements (that’s why I qualified as one) were invited to speak for 18 minutes in front of a raving crowd of Greek populace out looking for doing something crazy on a Saturday or just sleeping in a nice auditorium and munch some good food in between for the want of any better preoccupation. She invited me to be one such speaker for the event on May 10, 2014. It was an all expense paid trip to speak for only 18 minutes; not a bad idea at all; totally worth spreading.

Those of you not aware of TED or TEDx or TEDx Thessaloniki please first ask my close friend Mr Google and then come back to this narrative. And in the mail, which really caught my attention, is that she believed only I could uplift the sagging morale of the Greek youth who thought their country was already doomed and so were they and they were wont to say: what can I do? for every situation. I nodded, yes that is a doomed situation for sure, so what can I do? Well, what I can certainly do was to accept the invitation since it would get me in close proximity to beautiful women (all the main organizers of TEDx Thessaloniki are gorgeous women) and of course some nice food. So I read up and learnt that Thessaloniki is a city with a past full of grandeur and history but with a bleak present where the biggest challenge the citizens faced each day was to locate parking space for their cars. Great, I told myself, perfect place for me to spend few days since I dedicatedly hate everything man made. But to compensate, it had a beautiful seafront with poppies growing along the pathway and on a clear day an enchanting view of Mt Olympus floating into the misty sky across the Aegean Sea. So I confirmed and then all hell broke loose and I knew it was coming.

I am a TED veteran being a TED Global Fellow from 2009 batch, that elite batch of men and women (all crazy as nuts) numbering only around 350 worldwide, handpicked and coached and polished and washed by TED to be their ambassadors of goodwill and good humour. After many TED conferences of all sorts including talks and coaching, mentoring etc I thought I had seen it all and certainly knew it all. Mind you, TED Fellow is a title we wear with as much élan as we can muster as it is one of the smallest and secretive groups of the smartest brains in the world; therefore I sometimes wonder if I got a wildcard or if they were high on something when someone popped the idea in their NY office, ‘hey, I like this crazy brown Indian guy, who either stays underwater chasing whales or above clouds chasing the sun, maybe we need him to make our brand a real crazy one.’

So I knew what was coming next from Thessaloniki.

They wanted a script, presentation slides and rehearsal of my talk, at least 45 days in advance. I mean for a guy like me, I have no idea what I am going to say or do in the next five minutes; this was absolutely out of question. So I sent a tactical mail (since I never upset or irritate beautiful women) telling them to relax, chill, sip pinacoladas if they wanted or hike up Olympus. The sirens would take none of it. So we Skyped and I was able to assure them with my charming smile. Then the tickets arrived and the hotel confirmation so I knew I was well on my way even if I still had no idea what I was going to talk about. Though my beautiful friend and her beautiful friend had threatened me coyly that I had to come up with something that would suit their theme ‘Every end is a beginning’ and inspiring the youth at the same time. Easier said than done. So I hummed and hawed through all the pre-event mails and messages. Even as I boarded the flight I was thinking more about which cheese I would try out or who would I meet than what my mouth would eventually utter on stage.
The Amazing TEDx Thessaloniki Team, nothing would be possible, including this story, without them. A BIG Shout out to each one of them and the others who are not in this picture
At Thessaloniki airport I found a petite lady waving a card with my name on it, she played lovely music in the car of which I understood nothing but I rapped the beat on my seat just to keep her happy since she was in the driver’s seat, and dropped me at the most fancy hotel of the city; the Macedonia Palace overlooking the deep blue sea. My room already had a couple of instruction manuals, introductory blah blahs from the organizers, which I promptly dumped into the waste-bin without reading. I had very little idea about my fellow speakers and neither did I know if they had arrived, and at that point, neither did I care. I walked along the sea in the evening and ate at a quiet corner on the boulevard.

Next morning after breakfast I met up with my fellow speaker Dianna of Plastic Pollution Coalition fame from LA and walked to the Vassiliko Theatre for the so called ‘final rehearsal’ and I still had very little idea of my talk. Dianna and I hit it off really well from the word go; she is crazy as bat out of hell and our combined craziness was enough to burn the city down so it went off really well. At first glance I was super impressed with the venue. A magnificent nouveau-classical structure of imposing dimensions, the majestic Vassiliko Theatre which apparently could hold over 800 audiences. I like to face large number of people, larger the better, so I already felt better. Inside someone was already on the stage and we met our first pretty tormentor named K who escorted us further. And then in the darkness I met the second pretty tormentor named E, in fact she continued to remain a big tormentor all through the event and then my friend who started it all named I and then R, a lady who I believe had suffered maximum stress due to my no-rehearsal policy. We all laughed and joked as if nothing had happened and we all were great friends since decades. So I quietly told them that I was here only escorting Dianna and I had absolutely no intention of any rehearsal at all, as I still had little idea of my talk. It was anyway too late for them or for me or for anyone else to do anything about it so we all smiled some more and I only went up to the stage to do a little jig and test the mike. And I was told, though I knew it all, that I had a small red circle to stand upon and blah blah blahs.
Speaker's nightmares, our Chief Tormentors in action - Ms E and Ms R, phew!!! 
We went for a speaker’s evening dinner where I met all my other fellow speakers, each little preoccupied or pre-emptive or pre-absolutely-chilled. Several were Greek and others were scattered across the planet, with me and Dianna bringing up the extremities. I sat with Dimitris Korres and his lovely wife Yota for most part since he is a very senior and serious climber. He is almost unknown outside of Greece but I have a feeling very soon the world will know of him for his work. Wait and watch, I am not going to tell any more about him. We had great time sharing crazy climbing stories along with great food and desserts. The night went in a dreamless sleep.

I woke up energised and still not sure of my talk and had a great hearty breakfast full of fibre and fruits as the day ahead would be gruelling. The theatre was buzzing with excitement, people were spilling from every window and doors, corners and staircases, and it was like entering a vaudevillian fair. Ms E handed over our bag and name card both of which I promptly dislocated so most people had no idea who I was as I sauntered casually through the throng wondering who I really was and what the hell was I doing there on that morning of May 10, 2014! Suddenly a bespectacled girl with a great smile blocked my path and exclaimed, ‘I am so looking forward to your talk Satya.’ Well I thanked her and told myself silently: well even I am looking forward to my own talk.
Fellow speaker Dianna Cohen of Plastic Pollution Coalition striking a fancy pose outside the auditorium
I checked out the layout of the hall, the food stalls, the coffee corner, ice cream corner, the main and emergency exits, the fire extinguishers, etc all part of my past special forces training where I keep myself ready for any emergencies and rescues and evacuations. Then the clock struck 11 and the curtain parted and the hall darkened and then Ms E and R invaded the stage. I have been many things in this life but linguist was never one of them so I had no idea what was being said but I was completely awestruck and bedazzled by Ms E and Ms R in their mesmerizing dresses and beautiful dulcet tenors and the charming movement of their limbs and eyes as they welcomed the audience.

The first speaker took the stage and only then did I realize that all the Greek speakers were likely to speak in Greek so I watched the slides and tried to make connections. Of course they had instant audio translations available through headphones but I didn’t wish to burden myself with another gadget. I like it easy and breezy with as less manmade objects upon my person as possible or ethically permitted. No doubt, each one of us was brilliant and enchanting and captivating, no matter if I understood entirely or not, but the energy of the audience and the speakers were totally riveting. I was the last speaker of the third session so it was a long time before I would take the stage.

After the first session I discovered the food stalls outside under the sun along with a live band playing by the sea. What a great idea, I absolutely loved it. To top it, the weather gods literally smiled upon us; blue ocean, halcyon breeze, verdant soft grass to sit or lie upon, healthy organic food, lilting music and pretty girls everywhere I turned my eyes to. I wondered if Greece really was in some crisis or if I really needed to inspire the Greek youth; I had in front of me the choice of Greek youth in their full regalia and no one seemed morally challenged or perturbed. By now more people had started recognizing me since I was the only dark-brown-black individual there so I stood out like coal in a diamond pile. As more people (read girls) told me that they were waiting for my talk (I am sure they were just being polite) I swelled with happiness and pondered more on what to say. Each session break was better than the previous one. The food, the music, and the breeze they all changed and became merrier and crazier. The speaker’s having already done their gig were now being mobbed by audience, shaking hands, kissing (twice on either cheek true Greek style), clicking pictures, etc as I wondered what would my fate be soon. For me there’s no middle way, I will either crash out or crash in. Either Ms I and Ms R will curse me or thank me for the rest of their lives.

I found a fellow collaborator in Ms El who was introducing the speakers, she loves mountains and mountain people and I totally loved her since she spoke so well and looked like a living dream on stage (and off stage as well). So I enjoyed her company backstage just before I would go. Myrto, the famed photographer preceded me and her talk was not only moving but emotionally vulnerable. Even without really understanding her words I was deeply drawn into her world of pain and pathos that she etched for us. She got a brilliant ovation. And then Ms El introduced me of which I understood absolutely nothing. Now all I had to do was to just go out there do my jig and let the world carry on with its life.

I took the red circle and looked out into the audience, and every seat was full and everybody seemed awake and many were already smiling (I know I look funny under the light) and what a sight it was. I felt so happy and relieved; yes, I told myself I love this audience. The rest was easy. The audience was simply fantastic, clapping and cheering me on every now and then, even following my words obediently when I asked them to do some limbering workouts. I made fun of myself, of them, of everyone, of fellow speakers and of Zeus and anyone that came to my mind and everyone laughed. There was no great story that I told, just simple very down to earth lessons I had learnt all my life from the mountains and they seemed to love it. Predictably I exceeded my 18 minutes but no one seemed to care or remember. The thundering applause and cat calls said it all – I had indeed crashed it in true and proper.

In the session break I just wanted to be hugged and kissed by all the pretty lasses but Ms IT will have nothing of the sort as she herded my reluctant self and that of willing Dianna to the first floor portico for some close informal chats with some of the audiences. They threw us questions and we fielded and fended. I think it really went well. And while I stood little undecided, eyeing the big ice cream cups in some of the hands around, wondering where is my ice cream (Dianna didn’t seem so perturbed about the ice cream), Ms IT wrapped up the session. While she wanted to shepherd us back inside the hall I absolutely refused to do so without my ice cream. A guy with huge moustache solved it promptly and for the first time I felt some empathy for the male species.

The last session rolled magnificently followed by impromptu dance by all the organizing team members and the audience. Greeks love to party and dance and they did it very well on that day. The speakers were relieved that they won’t have to earn their living anymore, the organizers were happy that they will have few more months of respite now before starting for the next year’s event and the audience must be absolutely relieved that they could now get on with their lives with so much inspiration and novel ideas cramming their heads.
The super charged audience. We speakers are nothing without our audience and they were the best
Besides the speaker’s with 18 min gigs, we had brilliant theatrical performances, live bands and dances that were scintillating and truly thought provoking. I really loved the live band on stage that played mostly English romantic numbers. I guess every girl in that auditorium wanted to tango with the lead singer.

The evening terrace party was great, I met many great people (read ‘girls’), and even few shy ones (Greeks and shy, who would have known!). I kept to non-alcoholic beverages and curvy companions. Then all the speakers were herded to a restaurant across the street, Ms E my eternal tormentor literally tearing me away from the grips of a red apparelled Athena. The food and conversation were excellent. I finally retired to my room around 4 in the morning wondering if I should sleep at all.

Well that in a big nutshell is my impressions about TEDx Thessaloniki. Few positive observations – it was a great effort and team work, everything worked like Swiss precision, I can’t really find a flaw anywhere. Real efficiency is the one that is invisible and this was at its best here. I suddenly had greater respect for the Greeks. The audience were among the best I had seen anywhere. Their sheer enthusiasm, exuberance and physical display of their excitement were addictive and really motivating. I loved each one of them, the men a little less of course. There were some really unique ideas about the location, food, stalls, gift bags, design and layout of the venue and the brilliant team of volunteers, not to forget the book with details about the authors along with an empty page for jotting down notes from their respective talks. No one showed any fatigue, irritation or annoyance no matter how stupid our questions were. This was display of humane qualities at its best. The hotel we stayed was the best in the city barely 5 min walk from the venue that made commuting really easy. The only thing I wish they had was a bigger screen since my visuals look better on bigger screens.

Post Event – right from the next day I started receiving mails and messages from many members of the audience telling me how much they loved us all and my talk, several asking me direct questions about how to find their passion and dreams. This was serendipity since I hadn’t expected to move so many people in so many ways just by speaking of my lessons from the mountains.

In few days I left for the Epirus Mountains to do some hiking and climbing. One day after I had climbed Gamila Peak and a neighbouring one and had just come back to Astraka Refuge to collect my big backpack, when I noticed two men at the refuge shade (the refuge was shut at the time). Suddenly one of them looked at me and jumped up in the air with arms raised like a gladiator exclaiming ‘I am awesome.’ You could have knocked me out with a feather! That was my opening mantra at the talk in TEDX. So this guy comes rushing down to me, wearing only a thin tee and military fatigues, obviously at the pink of his health, followed by his other friend. We shake hands and he just couldn’t believe that he would see me again so far and high up in the mountains. He told me how much the TEDx speakers had energised him into dreaming big and hope for the future. He was at the threshold of a new career and had to decide what he should do next and he claimed my talk had made him think in new ways; so we had an impromptu career counselling and dream big session upon the snow. This incident alone was enough gratification for me to be in Greece. Then we bid goodbye as I had another mountain to climb and more to explore. So I shouldered my pack and taking one final look at the imposing ice covered slopes of Astraka peak plunged my foot into the snow to find yet another trail leading high into the misty mountains above.

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