For some time now I had been hearing about the disruptive, tattooed, former business tycoon and former alcoholic mayor of the second largest city in Greece. Just like his Toronto counterpart, Thessaloniki's colourful mayor has managed to put his town on the world map in a hurry; but, entirely unlike our fumbling Ford, Yiannis Boutaris is admired all around the world for the effectiveness of his disruptive leadership style, his powerful change-making skills and his immense, broad and steady popularity across all generations and social groups.
On a recent visit to his beautiful Northern Greek city I had an opportunity to spend some time with Mr. Boutaris. Instead of his office, he invited me to meet him at his favourite afternoon hangout: a small and eclectic world-music café in the very centre of town. I arrived first and I was immediately shown to his favourite little table at the back of the café. A few moments later, the tall, slim, white-haired, casually elegant 72-year-old mayor walked in and instantly offered me a giant smile, a warm handshake, a bear hug and a warm European double-kiss! It was as if he had known me all his life. With gorgeous espressos in hand, we got down to business right away.
First came the honest disclaimers: "I am a recovering alcoholic, you know," he said with a genuine smile, "and that's why I couldn't join you for a drink." BAM! In my face! No demons left unchecked. He's a smoker. An elderly widower. A proud wearer of earrings and tattoos. A millionaire (he only jumped into politics, out of pure civic passion, after he retired from running his family's giant winemaking business). An urbanist. An impatient changemaker. And an absolute misfit.
He has taken his semi-obscure city of over a million souls and given it a global brand, almost overnight. He turned it into a magnet for youth, culture, sophistication, environmentalism, healthy living, urbanism and leading-edge thinking. By contrast with car-dominated Athens, just a few hundred miles down the coastline, Thessaloniki boasts a vast network of bike routes and a massive new waterfront boardwalk that spans more than 5km across the entire centre of town and is lined with museums, theatres, parks, music gardens, bars and gorgeous restaurants. In an obvious assault on his compatriots' all-too-common homophobic tendencies, this proud septuagenarian started an annual and already very popular Pride parade three short years ago. The streets are lined with brand new recycling bins and filled with busy, happy young people. According to the proud Boutaris, 125,000 of his young citizens choose to live in the centre of town -- and he is very proud of that. "The energy of this area is absolutely magnetic," he says. "It's like a snowball; happy young people attract more young people and that's exactly what we want!" And of course he celebrates the fact that his new young urban class doesn't own or drive cars and don't create any more congestion in their city.
I mention to him that nearly a thousand young people had crowded into Thessaloniki's TEDx event a few hours earlier -- and his proud smile doubles in size. "That's the future" he responds. "Those people are fueling our future. They are curious. They are enterprising. And they're driven." His city is celebrated as Europe's youth capital this year. Those who come here from other parts of Greece never want to leave. And they proudly adopt this place as their hometown -- you ask them where they're from and they say they're Thessalonikians! And you ask them what they love about their town and they say "everything"!
Boutaris is in the middle of a re-election campaign right now, just like someone else we know too well. Even a superficial glance at the creative for his campaign reveals so much about this guy: In a country that's hardly known for its inclusiveness, his main logo just screams diversity -- a bunch of stacked hands, all of them different colours and genders. And, of course, somewhere among that stack is a hand with a little lizard tattoo -- identical to the one I spotted on Boutaris' wrist!
What a startling contrast from our unfortunate excuse of a civic leader back home. And what a gorgeously pleasant surprise, in the most unlikely of places!