With a profile of a national representative in every issue, Diplomat has thus far managed to avoid stereotyping Consuls General like National Day at a second tier international school.
But there is something of the philosopher in the Greek Consul General, Christodoulos Margaritis – ‘Christos’ to his friends. His take on a career in diplomacy is that it must be lived in the here, in the now. The arc of his career has brought him, again and again, into the heart of flux, turmoil and dramatic change. He has seen cities and nations hurtling towards uncertain futures and away from tumultuous histories. His foreign affairs superiors have seen fit to send him to the hottest of hot spots time and time again. And when the hot seat was Athens, he came home.
A German-educated lawyer by training, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1998, after brief stints working for the German Parliament (Bonn), the United Nations (New York), and the European Patent Office (Munich). Greek diplomacy norms include 8 years abroad, 2 years in-country. His first two years in Athens in the Minister’s Office were the starting point of his great adventure in diplomacy – an adventure that almost cost him his life.
“Kazakhstan happened out of the blue.”
Almaty was a city that had recently suffered a demotion. It had been superseded when its then-and-now leader decided to move the ca pital to Astana – a newly built homage to the country and himself. It had only emerged from the Soviet Union ten years earlier and change was in the air. The government had decamped, leaving the diplomatic community behind. Commuting on both sides became the norm as Almaty was still the cultural and commercial centre of Kazakhstan.
Shortly after Christos arrived, “the ministries, the whole governmental structure” moved to Astana. This situation was not without precedent as Christos pointed out – Brazil had previously done the same.
When asked if it was possible to accomplish anything in 2 short years, the answer was an emphatic ‘Yes’. There were reciprocal presidential visits between the countries during this time. Diplomats will know what a coup this is – and what an incredible workload. As the Deputy Head of Mission, Christodoulos had his work cut out for him.
He seemed almost wistful when speaking about Kazakhstan. “The snow…A wide landscape with blue skies… The people were very authentic…They were nomads, so sometimes very harsh in their appearance, but they are very hospitable, very kind.”
“Kazakhstan was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had in my life…The most enriching and most enjoyable.”
“I would have liked to have stayed on.” But warmer climes beckoned. From the cool of Almaty, he headed for Cape Town.
Clear Moral Purpose: South Africa
Again he landed in a society striving to adapt to their new realities. Christos was struck by the struggle of people trying to learn to live side by side with their former oppressors. Nelson Mandela made a huge impression on the young diplomat.
“Mandela didn’t leave any room for doubt. I visited Robben Island, his [former] prison off Cape Town many times….I met him personally. You meet a person who has been deprived of his life for 27 years – and then he doesn’t even give you a doubt of his determination to make this country work in harmony. He is the man I admire most.”
Philosopher in the Holy City: Jerusalem
Christos moved on to the Holy City of Jerusalem when tensions were at their height during negotiations that were part of the Middle East Peace Process. Relations with The Palestinian Authority and the Greek Orthodox Church took up the bulk of his attention. His frequent visits to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip ensured he was in the thick of the action and never, ever bored.
2006 was a time of war, as Israel launched Operation Summer Rain and Operation Autumn Clouds against Gaza and Lebanon in an unsuccessful bid to secure the release of soldier Gilad Shalit. Israel invaded Lebanon and the war lasted 34 days. They were tense times in a troubled part of the world, but good training for what was to come.
Another kind of crisis was breaking out in Europe. With the maximum 8 years abroad behind him, he was ready to go home – to face the global financial crisis.
Jerusalem. Procession in the Nativity Church at night, during Christmas Mass.
Stand By Your PM
Christodoulos was adamant that even though he was at the centre of the action in both the Foreign Ministry and later the Prime Minister’s Office (as Deputy Director of the Diplomatic Cabinet of the Prime Minister), his was a supporting role from 2008-2011.
2010 was the year terms like ‘Grexit’ and ‘austerity’ entered the lexicon of global budgetary finance. Athens was rocked by riots. It was a “very challenging task for everybody involved…The entire state structure was challenged at that time.” He had the 24/7 role of supporting the visits to Greece and the Prime Minister’s trips abroad – “day and night.”
After three years he had earned, no doubt in spirit if not through official protocol, the right to a less rigorous posting. He was awarded the coveted assignment of Hong Kong. But there was more adventure to be had and danger to be endured before he could make his way to China.
Clear and Present Danger: Benghazi and Tripoli
Libya erupted in revolution and once again, Christos put his hand up for a short term assignment. He was chosen to get on a military transport with a laptop and a satellite phone, and fly to Benghazi to establish communications with the National Transitional Council (NTC) – the rebel forces’ representation to the world.
Christodoulos stayed in the Tibesty Hotel, one of only two in which foreigners of any description could stay. During his stay, gun play and explosions – ‘incidences’ as Christodoulos called them – were a daily occurrence.
“At that time, even though Benghazi was liberated, there were, every night incidences: shootings, explosions. There was no single night of my entire stay without this background music.”
On June 1, the roof fell in.
Christos was sitting in the lobby having a conversation with a Libyan contact when he was hurled to the floor. A car bomb exploded at the front of the hotel – it went dark as the shockwave ripped through the lobby. Only an improperly set bomb meant that the people in the lobby, including Christos, survived. If not for the bomb maker’s incompetence, “we would have all been dead.”
Benghazi, in front of the Tibesty Hotel, scene of the June 1 car bombing. Satellite phone and a laptop and ready for action.
This happened only a bit more than a month after his arrival. Later attempts of a similar nature were thwarted literally at the last second. Undaunted, he continued to keep the communication flowing between the Greek government and the NTC. Later that year he re-opened the Embassy in Tripoli.
After seven months in Libya, he was ready for his posting in waiting. He was ready for Hong Kong.
Chef Margaritis Concedes His Title
“When it comes to Greek food, until now…probably the best Greek food in town you would find at my place. As of now, I am in the very happy position to be able to name right away two new Greek restaurants in town, Santorini in Soho and Souvla in LKF.” A soft opening for both restaurants is expected in August. Both will be serving, according to Christos “out of this world’ Greek food.
“The world is discovering Greece!”
Folli-Follie: Greek jewelry and fashion. Apivita and Freshline: Greek cosmetics. Greek exports to Hong Kong have grown by 30% in each of the last two years, a stunning number. And now the restaurants. Christodoulos can finally settle into a somewhat normal role with a focus on promoting trade as his nation’s business community focuses on export markets in Asia as part of the solution to their present financial challenges.
Of course, with his keen eye for transition, he’ll no doubt be watching to see how Hong Kong develops.
The only constant is change.
Heraclitus, 535-475 BC
Post-Soviet, post-apartheid, post-Nakba, post-austerity, post Gaddafi, post-colonial. All his experiences abroad could be defined as places seen through the lens of the past. But this isn’t for Christos. He is about the ‘now’. Here we finally find the philosopher.
“Diplomacy is not only a profession, it can be sometimes an art and it definitely is lifestyle, mindset, philosophy.”
Speaking on life as a diplomat, he felt strongly that the role drove people, more so than any other lifestyle, to live in the ‘now’.
“You don’t go somewhere to go somewhere else…You don’t count the days. This work comes with a different mindset. You count time differently.”
“We [diplomats] are forced to live in the ‘now’ moment. There is no past and there is no future.”
In 2 to 3 years, Christodoulos will discover his future. He will not seek it – he’s too busy being in the here and now of Hong Kong. The future will reveal itself. But if there is a place where Greece needs the man for change, Christodoulos Margaritis will be there.