Problem-Solving and Opportunity-Seizing

(photo by Jim Marshall)


Ana and David Alexander Grant run a mountain pension in Southeast Europe. Life in the back of beyond is not without incident.  


Ana announced the conference booking with what seemed to me to be rather naive (if engaging) enthusiasm.

“This could be a huge revenue stream!” she said.

“That would be a revenue river, then?”

“If these people are happy, that’ll attract more conferences!”

“The river will flow all the way to a revenue ocean?”

“They’ve booked lunch as well as dinner – which most of our regular guests don’t do.”

“A port call as they travel downstream?”

“You can be quite exasperating.”

When a wife describes her husband as exasperating, said husband should quickly moderate his tone.

“How many are coming, and for how long?” I asked helpfully.

“Fifteen to 20. They’ll confirm tomorrow. They want three nights.”

“Where on earth are we going to put them!”

“We can bring up the bed frames from the cellar and do dormitory style.” Ana looked sheepish. “I offered them a concessionary rate for lunch.”

“But if they’re here anyway, why not charge them the full rate!”

“Seemed mean.”

My helpmeet’s absence of entrepreneurial zeal sometimes astounds me.

“And where is the conference to be?”

“In the lounge. We’ll move the sofas.”

Dino, our chef de cuisine and general factotum, is in charge of sofa moving (and bed-frame lifting) but he cannot discharge his duties without assistance from the owner of the hotel – that would be me.

Dino and I spent the next day lifting and laying. I’d like to say the physical exercise was therapeutic, a sort of impromptu workout. But it wasn’t. Sometimes I’d rather own a luxury hotel than a modest pension. If I owned a luxury hotel I could hire a second Dino.

“What sort of conference is it anyway?” I asked Ana. (Till then, I’d been concentrating on the furniture-moving side of event preparation.)

“It’s for entrepreneurs,” Ana said. “Problem-solving and opportunity-seizing?”

“It’s actually called ‘problem-solving and opportunity-seizing’?” I was sceptical about the revenue river generating propensities of people who gave their conference such an ungainly title.

My scepticism, I feel, was vindicated. The conference participants when they arrived did not convey an aura of imminent commercial success.

For a start, they arrived in a vehicle for which the word “vintage” would have been a euphemism. It was piloted by a man who, in the finest tradition of bus drivers the world over, looked as though the task of steering his ancient machine up our pretty but uneven mountain road had been a monumental professional imposition. The sixteen conference goers staggered onto our forecourt looking as though they had just spent an extended period on a particularly precipitous and unpleasant fairground roller-coaster.

I felt we were dipping our toe in the commercial waters very much at the no-frills end of the conference spectrum.

The group leader, a short bearded man in his thirties with the slightly irritating pushiness of the up-and-coming entrepreneur (I used to be an up-and-coming entrepreneur so I recognise the type), explained to me that his company was building what he described as “a 21st-century creative community”.

He had to speak above the noise of the bus, which departed amid a cloud of petrol fumes. The creative community might have been in the 21st century but the bus was definitely still in the 1960s.

When the weather was fine they held their sessions on the terrace. Dino and I moved the sofas out through the French windows (with no help from the creative community, I might add). They ate lunch, as advertised, and in the evenings they made responsible but robust use of the bar.

Ana’s revenue stream started to flow, and I began to entertain visions of a mighty river.

On their last day, however, there appeared to be something of a dip in the collective confidence of the creative community.

“They all look glum,” I said. “What’s the matter?”

“The bus hasn’t come, and some of them have tight connections.”

“We can ferry them into town,” I said. “I can borrow Sejo’s van.” Sejo is Dino’s cousin, a man of many talents and about fourteen vehicles, in various states of disrepair.

“That would solve their problem.”

“And we can charge the difference on the lunch rate.”

“You’re ruthless sometimes.”

“Just seizing the opportunity,” I said.

In the afternoon, feeling smug no doubt to a degree that was certifiably insufferable, I drove the creative community back down the mountain.

Germans and Greeks

The Germans arrived by Mercedes; the Greeks by bicycle. They checked in at around the same time.

The six cyclists occupied the dormitory room on the top floor. Helmut and Magda took the ground floor suite, looking onto the terrace through French windows that offer a pleasing view of distant mountains.

Cheerful and polite, the cyclists were on a tight budget. When I asked if they’d like a late lunch they explained that they had brought their own supply of bread and cheese. Not music to the hotelier’s ear, but I was nonetheless taken by their unselfconscious and commendable commitment to no-frills touring.

The Germans were of a different vintage.

Helmut was a short, grey man in his fifties. Magda was as colourful as her husband was grey. She wore a red and blue trouser suit of a kind last fashionable circa 1975; an Hermes scarf was tied around her head turban fashion and her large tinted spectacles made her look a bit like Sophia Loren.

“I would like you to tell me where I must walk,” Magda said.

“Where you must walk?”

“Helmut has to work.” She looked at her husband with a combination of exasperation and indulgence.

I glanced down at Magda’s feet. Peeping from beneath her flared trousers were white patent leather shoes that looked better suited to dancing than walking.

She followed my gaze and said. “Just a little walk.”

Helmut went off to the room. I accompanied Magda onto the terrrace and pointed towards the path that winds through the meadow to a stream half a mile from the hotel.

“Follow the stream and it will bring you back round,” I said. “It doesn’t take more than half an hour.”

Before she set off, she lit a cigarette. Not the average hiker.

“What is it that he does anyway?” I asked Ana when I returned to the reception.

“He’s an economist.”

“With a German bank?”

“The European Central Bank. He has to draw up a strategy paper while he’s here.”

We looked together along the corridor at the end of which Helmut might at that very moment be saving the Euro in bedroom number three.

“They’ve booked dinner for seven,” I said, “I hope he can fix the debt crisis by then.”

Magda gave me a wide smile when she came back from her walk. “So refreshing!”

She was still smoking.

The Germans had the restaurant to themselves until eight, when the Athenian cyclists trooped in.

Magda had drunk quite a lot of wine. Her cheeks were red, like the jacket she had put on for dinner.

“It’s such a shame you have to work when you are here,” I told Helmut as I served coffee. I spoke as one harassed professional to another (though he was rescuing the European economy while I was just filling in for Dino in the kitchen – so, not absolutely comparable).

“Oh, it isn’t work,” he said. “It’s very satisfying!”

“He loves the endogenous zones!” Magda remarked with, I felt, an almost disconcerting degree of playfulness. She exhaled and gazed at her husband through a plume of smoke. He had lit a cigar.

“But I imagine things are rather difficult at the moment,” I said, “ what with the Euro and so on . . . there isn’t enough money to go round . . . ”

Helmut smiled. “No, no! There is enough money!”

I wondered if the ECB wasn’t being a tad unrealistically bullish.

“There is enough money,” he repeated, “but it isn’t going anywhere. It isn’t going up; it isn’t going down; it isn’t going round.

I hoped our middle-of-the-range Dalmatian red wasn’t about to reduce economic theory to a series of insupportable assertions. “Well, what’s it doing then?”

“It’s waiting!”


“In the banks.”

Ana was attending to the cyclists. They had ordered plain water. Magda, who, I was fairly sure, was four sheets to the wind, smiled at the Greeks in a beguiling way.

“And how are you going to get the money to come out of hiding?” I asked Helmut. A seasoned TV anchor could not have put it more succinctly.

“That’s what I’ve been considering all afternoon,”Helmut said. “And I’ve come up with a plan!”

I waited.

“But I will need your assistance.”

I’ve never been called upon to help rescue a whole economy before. I was rather gratified.

“If you can oblige us, we’d like to stay another day,” Helmut said.

So, he wasn’t after my Keynsian insights – but of course I was happy to oblige on the booking front.

“And if you could bring us some more wine . . .” Magda added.

When I returned with the wine, Helmut raised the bottle in an affable and courteous way and called over to the cyclists, “Will you share with us?”

At some stage in the evening, Helmut and Magda moved to the cyclists’ table, and as is the way of things, Ana and I joined in due course.

“Consumption!” Helmut concluded over a multilingual cocktail. “We must get people to spend!”

“Ah,” I nodded sagely. “The German propensity to save?”

Helmut looked at me with surprise, and then at the cyclists with expectation. “Not the Germans!” he said softly. “The Greeks!”