Nine Fridays of Summer: Notes from Vienna

0-Arriving

As far as first impressions go, my first ones of Vienna – shaped as they were by images seen from my window seat as my flight in from London drew to a close – were largely pleasant ones; green fields and the Danube snaking away into the distance being evocative of chilled weekends and evenings filled with coffee and cheese cake, not hard work. I suppose those who have to live and work out here must necessarily see the city differently, their perspectives being rightly more functional and less head-in-the-sand romantic than mine. Over the course of the weekend, I would gain a more nuanced view of the city, the good significantly outweighing the bad and the ugly to such an extent that if a role worth which was worth my while came up, I wouldn’t think twice about upping sticks and moving permanently.

Coming in, my biggest worry related to how I would manage to communicate given my nonexistent German, this being the first time I would be traveling alone into the non-English speaking world. I needn’t have worried so much, as between gestures and the passable English of a lot of the people I had to deal with in shops and elsewhere, I managed to do just fine. It did put my lack of language literacy in context, and has left no doubt in my mind that one needs the ability to engage in meaningful conversation – at least at a basic level – in a language other than English. Being in Europe at the moment, French and German spring to mind as two which would be of most use to me. The Chinese are poised to take over the world, but given my limited interactions with financial heavyweights and the low likelihood of my upping sticks to move to China anytime soon, I suspect Mandarin will remain low on my priority list. My experience did also raise a question in my mind about how the typical Aberdonian coffee shop barista or MacDonald’s employee might fare if they had to deal with non English speaking folk. London is a different matter although given that said employee is as likely to be French, German or Polish as English.

01 - Chaos

The sense I got of Vienna was one of a well organised city – bar the small matter of a trying to get through passport control at the airport. The long walk from where we disembarked and where we had passports checked made me wonder if there wasn’t a more efficient way to do this. In the end, in an overheard conversation, it transpired that several flights had arrived at the same time which complicated procedures at passport control. Before leaving the airport I made to sure to grab a Vienna card which offered free transport across the public transport network within the city as well as discounts on a number of attractions I was keen to visit.

A surprising number of ambulances and police vehicles blasting their sirens managed to insert themselves into my consciousness over the cause of the weekend. I am not entirely sure if this was typical, or if they were more obvious to me because I was coming from Aberdeen which is comparatively smaller, and sleepier.

***

Two open bus tours and plenty of walking later – I walked 9 and 16 kilometres on Saturday and Sunday according to my Fitbit – I got the added sense of a city actively looking to own its (checkered?) past, building a modern, egalitarian narrative around it. For what it is worth, counting Hitler, Stalin, Freud and a host of world renowned composers including Beethoven, Strauss, Vivaldi amongst other equally noteworthy ones amongst people who have lived and worked in the city at various times is a burden of heritage to live up to.

As to my actual itinerary, Friday was about settling in and getting to know the layout of the part of town I holed up in (the area around Mariahilfer Straße), Saturday was about the bus tours and exploring the museum quarter. Sunday surprised me with how many shops and places in the shopping district were closed, at least by the time I passed through in the afternoon, a stark contrast to Oxford Street to which it was often compared in the various commentaries on the bus tours. Early on Sunday morning, I did manage to make it across town to the Vienna Christian Centre’s International (English Language) Service.  The message was an interesting one, the most memorable section being an interesting analogy for melding faith and works as part of one’s spiritual practice  – a bicycle with two pedals.

Amidst the grand buildings and sense of history, it was a bit of a shock to come across people sleeping in the rough, one particular gentleman popping up a few times on a bench next to the hotel I was staying at; a regular?

***

I consider myself a world citizen of sorts, comfortably engaging with different cultures, races and peoples. What surprised me as I reflected on my Vienna experience was the feeling of self-consciousness that seethed beneath the surface for most of my stay here. I suspect this has to do with having spent my formative years in Nigeria, and then most of the last ten years in the UK with occasional visits to the US (read Houston, Chicago and Tulsa), places in which one has a fairly significant chance of running into other black people without actively seeking them out. This was not the case in Vienna, which perhaps speaks more to my need to travel more often and more widely than I have in the past as opposed to anything akin to Teju Cole’s experiences in writing Black Body (To be a stranger is to be looked at, but to be black is to be looked at especially). In a rare occurrence, whilst loading up on chicken at a KFC on Mariahilfer Straße, I overheard a conversation in Pidgin English, the tonality and vocabulary of the version being spoken meaning that the people in question could only have been from the Warri area in Nigeria. We did share a nod as they walked out, perhaps a recognition of a shared heritage of sorts.

***

Overall, I came away with a feeling that I needed to return here in the near to medium future. I suspect the next trip will be planned around a week in early spring or late autumn to avoid the nearly tropical temperatures I experienced this time. Not since my Newcastle days has a city impressed me enough to make me want to come back in fairly quick order.  Two things are certain; I will be back soon, and for longer than a weekend.

– – –
Currently listening to Vienna (Billy Joel, from the 13 Going on 30 soundtrack)

Nine Fridays of Summer: Of Heat Waves, Vienna and A Perfect Month of Sorts

02_Travel

In what can only be incontrovertible evidence of Sod’s law, the air-conditioning at work chooses the worst week possible to break down in; a week of unseasonably warm August weather. Loads of meetings to attend, lunch time walks and endless cups of water help ensure that I don’t end up too listless; not that broken air-conditioning ranks high on the list of life threatening things humans have to deal with, or should be an excuse for reduced productivity.

Thankfully, that First World ordeal is mitigated by the fact that it is a 3.5 day work week for me; a half day tacked on to this week’s summer Friday meaning that by lunch time Thursday I am putting finishing touches to all the things I have been chased on during the week in preparation for heading out into the sunshine. What follows shortly is a brisk walk back home to grab my bag and then a quick dash to the airport for my flight to London. Not until I am settled into my seat, flying away to London, does the tiredness hit me, the low similar to what I imagine users of psychoactive substances must feel after the effects wear out.

London, I find, is not much better- heat wise at least; the hour and thirty minutes I spend to get to my hotel on the DLR and then the Underground the perfect illustration of all that is bad about heat waves – people in varying stages of undress, a heightened sense of smell and the feeling of being tightly packed.  When I think my ordeal has ended, I find I have somehow mixed Hounslow Central up with Heathrow Central, which adds another forty five minutes to my commute from airport to hotel. The front desk manager at the hotel does a magnificent job of defusing my frustrations, her wry smile when she announces I have not being the first to make that same mistake on the day notwithstanding. Food, sleep and a quick phone call are all I manage before sleep sucks me in.

The next morning passes in a blur, the highlights being making the airport shuttle bus with seconds to spare, whizzing through security and ending up on the flight to Vienna with only a few minutes to spare, very much by the skin of my teeth.

***

01_Run

This has been as close to a perfect month as I have had all year. Thanks to continued pressure focused attention from the friends who keep me accountable, I managed to run three times each week this month, pushing the envelope each Sunday until by the last Sunday I was up to 5 km. Besides now being able to (barely) fit into my size 34 jeans which I was on the verge of giving away, the beautiful sunrises I catch each morning that I run make it all worthwhile.

The  intent is to keep these  runs going, slowly making up the distances until I am at 5 km for each run. 10 km three times a week has been mooted by said friends as a target for year end, I think that is more a next not-quite-a-milestone-birthday target though. Fingers crossed. The most important thing is to keep walking running I guess.

In books and reading, I finally managed to finish Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before as well as starting off on Faithfully Feminist, an anthology of essays on being feminist whilst maintaining spiritual practice within the context of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. I am only four essays in, but I suspect there will be a lot to both agree with and disagree with for me. The upside I guess is that I am reading, again.

***

00_Vienna

As I write this, I am looking out from my hotel window onto the sun bathed train station across the road and an old church a name for which a search on google and google maps failed to turn up. In a round about way, this is the culmination of four years of pondering; Vienna as a destination first being mentioned to me by an Opera-loving, Birmingham-bred English man who I happened to share office space with offshore for two weeks in 2012.

It is still too early to form any strong opinions but I am already beginning to get a vague understanding for why Vienna is considered one of the more liveable cities out there. The rest of today is to rest and fine-tune my plans for the weekend.

After today, there is only one more Summer Friday left. Oh bummer!

– – –
Currently listening to the Gil Joe single – Mayo 

Nine Fridays of Summer: The Not-Quite-A-Milestone-Birthday Edition

East&WestO2

Months ago – when it became apparent that my birthday this year would fall on a work day – I made a mental note to take the day off. The act of making that official – signing into the absence management software we use at work and requesting the day off – never happened, which was how I ended up stuck behind my desk at work on the day. That the only slot for a meeting I had been trying to set up for months opened up on the day, the Friday before, didn’t help either.

The day itself was just like any other. At work there were issues to deal with, the occasional bit of banter with R who remembered, and phone calls. Around all of that were personal phone calls from friends and family and messages on the two  main Whatsapp groups I am part of. I didn’t get the gift I most deeply craved; my subtle prod aimed at pointing (and I use that really loosely here) a few people towards Teju Cole’s new collection of essays failed to convince any one. That the weather was a reasonably warm, dry and sunny 18 C only compounded the sense of misery I felt. My consolation though is that next weekend, Summer Friday #8 (of 9), is being spent in Vienna.

***

The Year of Being Thirty-Six was an interesting one. For key events I would have to point to the trip to St John’s where four years’ worth of catching up with the kid brother were compressed into ten days, finally excising the ghost of F from my memory,  a new job in the middle of the oil patch downturn and turning up on (online) radio.

Having taken a moratorium on travel in the second half of 2015 and into 2016, the last few months have seen a lot more travel; London for visa interviews, Hillsong and S made a few appearances as did Birmingham, Leicester and Newcastle. Not doing Nigeria all through 2015 made it imperative to get it out of the way early this year. That happened in April, providing an opportunity to see J get hitched. On the family side, I became an Uncle again, twice for good measure.

***

This next year, the year of being thirty-seven, has big milestones I need to deliver on.  For one, I take the next big step on my quest to become a global citizen in a few months. If I had my way, after that’s in the bag I’d take the next week off just to breathe a sigh of relief and recover from the subtle pressure of the last few years.

On the Spiritual Practice front, I would like to finally land that discipline of daily prayer and bible study. I made a few big strides in 2015 – morning prayers at church twice a week helping in that regard but the goal for the next year is to reach a place where the desire to reach for my notebook with time blocked off becomes more automatic.

Physically, my weight has see-sawed between 84 kg and 90 kg, currently sitting just shy of shy of the upper bound, far too much pizza – and handmade burgers – having their say, loudly. In this regards, M is as good an ideal as can be. In spite of being in his seventies, he remains a fierce physical competitor; rowing, cycling and hiking being key parts of his non-work life. For me I’d settle for turning my current practice of running between a mile and a mile and half three times a week  into a 5 km run five times a week.

With People, I’ve historically been a very big fan of my own space, tending to favour doing things that interest me than share my space and time. A concious effort earlier in the year to meet up with a few key friends more regularly led to some improvements (but perhaps contributed to far too many downed burgers). A couple of these meet ups are now firmly established. The goal for the next year is to keep those monthly meet ups going and also find a mentor of sorts with whom I meet up once a month to compare notes. I am increasingly keen to see how the S thing evolves over the next few weeks, hopefully I don’t end up in this kind of place again.

Although I notionally make an extra 3% in my new role, it often feels like I am in a worse place financially than I was last year. Keeping the financial numbers in check has to be a key objective for this next year, especially if marriage and fatherhood are phases of life I hope to participate in over the next few years.

Work has been great, bar the  twin pressures of the commodity market and the increasing recognition of one’s skills and knowledge. That is not a bad thing by any means, particularly given how many people are out of work at the moment. Maintaining progress here, delivering consistently and growing my sphere of influence are the key objectives in this category. A promotion, and more than a 3% pay rise would be nice to haves too, i I say so 🙂

The impact of all that work, travel and people time I have dedicated myself to is that sadly a lot less reading than usual is happening. A book a month seems like a sensible target to work towards from a Mental and Personal Development perspective. There is also the keenes on my part to explore addition technical certifications in this rust geeking business. Some more work on my part to identify which add the most value to me is required but the intent would be to pursue this aggressively through the next year. When I was younger, I had aspirations of becoming a programmer of some description (I spent my free time in my service year trying to write a text based football simulator in Visual Basic 6 – it obviously wasn’t very good!!). One side project I’d like to pick up again is something coding related.  Ideally it would allow me understand enough about computers and open source OSes enough to allow me customise one enough to provide a quick, light weight OS that allows me run the key applications that support my life. I suspect it will have to be Linux, Chromium or Android based, but fingers crossed.

Causes and Charities remain near to my heart. Alongside serving on my church’s tech and media team, i currently support a couple of children via World Vision and Compassion as well as a few other charities. Beyond what I believe are the Judeo-Christian worldview imperatives which underpin these, I suppose the feeling that one is making a difference does do wonders for one’s mood too, all things considered. This is something I hope I can continue going forward, with a future visit to be considered. Depending on how much time and energy I find I have to spare over the next year, a technical volunteering cause is one I’d like to add to my current ‘portfolio’. STEMNET springs to mind as one that fits the bill. I hope to be in a position to make a decision in time for the start of 2017.

***

Amidst the less than stellar year in reading I have had, Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before stands out as one of the more useful books I have read.  In it she explores how we change; how habits are built and sustained. New beginnings are one group of triggers she considers as being useful – beginnings which wipe the slate clean being particularly relevant here.

So here’s to my Clean Slate and New Beginning. Let the year of being 37 begin.
– – –
Currently listening to: The Best Is Yet To Come (from the Donald Lawrence Album, Go Get Your Life Back)

Nine Fridays of Summer: Coming Up For Air

friday_window

It feels much longer than 12 days since I was last in London, mixing it with the young, free and saved at the Hillsong Europe conference but I suppose life and adulting can do that to you, particularly when that sometimes indecipherable line between work and life is crossed. Shed loads of emails and the cumulative effect of multiple weekends away finally caught up with me both in my work and personal lives, leaving me wondering if it was all worth it after all. All told, the amount of time I have spent scouring YouTube for snippets of the songs I heard, and the satisfaction going over pictures from that weekend still brings, suggests that there is still some lingering benefit.

Added to all of that controlled chaos is perhaps the fact that this period – bookended by the 21st of July and the 15th of August – is a deeply emotive one; not least for all the mementos to loss, the search for a new normal and a looming not-quite milestone birthday embedded therein.

***

I am slowly realising that managing controlled chaos is something I will have to deal with, given the phase of life that I am. For one, gradually becoming one of the older heads around at work has meant that there is more of a recognition of one’s knowledge from peers and younger colleagues. That means that one gets volunteered for non-routine tasks more often, ones which require a lot more thought and reflection on how solutions to increasingly complex problems can be found. That these non-routine tasks are often highly visible, of a time-sensitive nature and transcend multiple timezones multiplies the pressure they place one under.

The looming not-quite milestone birthday adds several layers of complexity to everything else too. The passage of time places certain expectations, desires and long held aspirational goals in context, eroding the comforts the illusion of time once provided. Each year, with the lengthening of one’s chronological age, the room for error – and the time left to achieve said objectives – becomes ostensibly shorter. That adds a pressure of its own to everything else.

***

This state of living on the edge, juggling multiple balls and straining every sinew to stay ahead of the burgeoning task lists is one that does have its thrills. The joys of checking things off the to do list and coming to the end of the week having delivered tangible solutions does feed a sense of accomplishment and heightened purpose. How sustainable that state is over the long run is one question I am not sure I have the answer to, particularly given my natural predisposition is to take my time to try to unravel thorny, convoluted issues rather than bludgeon my way through them.  On a simplistic level, the solution is to find a balance between work and life that works, one that does not prioritise one over the other so much that it effectively starves one of focus.  Sadly, finding that balance isn’t something I have historically managed very well, the events of just over a year ago being a case in point.

For today, the pressing need to get a report out ahead of a deadline has dictated my actions, requiring me to spend pretty much all day in at work, Summer Friday or not. With that deadline just met, there is finally space to catch my breath and breathe a little, until the next big one comes due…

– – –
Currently listening to: When the Fight Calls (from the Hillsong Young & Free Album, Youth Revival)

Nine Fridays of Summer: London, Again.

hillsong_

I never cease to be amazed by how flights which ostensibly last an hour end up morphing into all day affairs, which leads me to think that flying is perhaps one of the greatest swindles on earth.  In my experience, by the time one arrives at the airport, goes through security and then waits to board, the better part of two hours has very easily been burned. When the inner city travel requirements are tacked on, everything very easily rolls up to between three and four hours. On this occasion, my flight due to leave at 12.05 pm ends up delayed which is how it is well past 4.00 pm by the time my train rolls into Romford where I plan on basing myself on this trip. All that leaves me is time to get myself checked into my room, find a quick bite and then start heading back to the O2 Arena for the opening night of the Hillsong Conference Europe, which is my primary reason for this trip.

***

With Hillsong, you can always count on great music, a fabulous atmosphere and youthful exuberance. We get loads of those: worship by Young & Free (topped off by an on screen cameo by Lecrae on This Is Living on Day 1 and a particularly moving arrangement of the hymn Then Sings My Soul) and a couple of interesting messages by Steven Furtick and Chris Mendez (who stood in for Carl Lentz on Friday night) over the course of the remaining days. As always a slew of fab songs to look forward to get sung during the conference. What a Beautiful Name It Is is one of those for me. I’ll be pre-ordering the album as soon as it drops, that much is a given.

As an aside, Chris Mendez’ story of turning his back on a life of addiction awakens a question which I’ve never quite answered for sure- do those who have a passionate faith have that because they’ve been forgiven much or is it just a personality thing? Jesus comment about he who has been forgiven little  loving little suggests to my simple mind that there is some correlation. I’m sure smarter minds have sussed out the answer to that one.

An unexpected bonus on Friday is finally getting to meet  Siren Lune, whose journey from questioning orthodoxy to tear-streaked made up face (her words) seems to me the stuff 1500 word essays are made for (if I can convince her to write it though). Before the Friday night session, I take the opportunity to climb to the top of the O2, standing astride the world in a manner of speaking – one foot in both east and west hemispheres. Our guide manages to find that sweet spot between chucking information at us and letting us be that allows the group move along at a steady pace.

Conference ends with the communion, after which we leave with strains of yet another Hillsong special ringing in our ears. Quite the experience as always, with quite a few things to mull over on a personal note as I leave.

***

Conference out of the way, I turn my attentions to the meet ups I’ve planned. S offers up a slot on Saturday, one which takes me into the lush green countryside of Kent and the Hevercastle grounds. Seven hundred years of history is the grounds main selling point, one that is hard to argue with given that that history includes arguably England’s most licentious of kings, Henry VIII, and Anne Boleyn. Trying to detangle the mess of consort, sister, sister-in-law, woman in waiting and mistress just about does my head in before I give up, opting to go along with the tour through the castle grounds instead. At the yew maze, we take the wrong turn several times, somehow exiting at the entrance having doubled back on myself several times. The castle and grounds are the sort of thing I suspect will be better enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, with great company, food and blankets for a chilled lunch and plenty of time to kill, to allow one take in all there is on offer.

For dinner, we head back into the comparatively dystopian borough of Lewisham for some proper Nigerian fare. The scent of all soups Nigerian wafting into my nose tempts me sorely to break my self imposed pounded yam moratorium but some chicken suya rescues me from tossing five years of abstinence down the drain.

***

Sunday is comparatively more laid back than any of the days which have gone before. A late decision has me leaving my bags in storage and hailing an Uber to one of my old Sunday haunts, Trinity Chapel. R, the Lithunian driver and I get along, he’s intrigued when I say I am from Scotland by way of Nigeria, our talk seguing into the weather. Oddly for a cabbie, he holds interesting views on global warming, his concerns being around the low lying regions of the world which could disappear for good. Interesting is all I can mutter under my breath, before a quick google search leads us to World Under Water which I recommend as light bedside reading for him.

Significantly changed from how I remember it is the only way I can describe how I find Trinity Chapel but it is an entirely enjoyable, if different experience. The message is about leaving the past behind and focusing on making the most of today. In between I drift off into thoughts of how forgetting can be a mercy. A line from Lesley Nneka Arimah’s Caine Prize shortlisted story, ‘What it Means When a Man Falls From the Sky’ comes to mind, in which the protagonist Nneoma ponders what being unable to forget could do to one. Her conclusion,  the sense of a thousand falling men landing on you.

The lure of jollof rice, dodo and chicken is more than I can resist, which is how I end up at S’s, the plan being to down a quick lunch before my long slog up to Heathrow for my return flight begins. A couple of detours later, I find I am done with lunch and setting off at 5.30 pm with a nagging thought that I might have left it too late. Two train changes later – at Stratford and at Holburn – I end up at Heathrow just before a quarter to eight. Thankfully, the walk through security is quick and I end up having a bit of time on my hands – delayed flight notwithstanding.

***

It is nearly midnight when I eventually get home, late flight issues being compounded by several late arrivals overwhelming the capacity of the taxi rank to deal with the influx. An hour’s wait endured, I am soon speeding home to my corner of the world. Home, and the safety of routine beckon – laundry, reheated left overs and work. Adulting, eh?