#97 – In Conversation

#97 - Nandos

On my return to my favourite eating-out place for the first time in just over a month, I find I am served by a face I don’t recognise. The accent is also one I can’t place which is why after I place my order, my curiosity gets the better of me. It turns out he’s from New Zealand – he describes his accent as having the Australian twang and the South African heft.

Apt I suppose, but perhaps more important for me is how much that conversation is an indicator of just how much I have evolved over the past year. Natter, of any sort with a complete stranger, has never really being my strong suit but perhaps this is evidence of progress of some sorts? I’d like to think it is.

#Evolving

Fortuity

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I chalk it up to the much vaunted persistence of vendors, when T. insists on coming into the office to drop off documents that require my assent rather than pop them in the mail. Part of me is more than mildly irritated at his insistence, given how much I have got on my plate at the moment – and the hour or so I will have to carve out of my day to attend to him. He comes bearing gifts, two large, sturdy umbrellas with alternating green and white panels; splashed with a large copy of his company logo. That does little to mollify me, but I manage to be courteous enough to make small talk and have a quick whiz through the documents I need to sign off. Just before he leaves, he enquires about the potential for future work, a subject I am unwilling to discuss given the state of the industry. When it is time to go home later that day, I leave the umbrella, that decision my nod to its unwantedness.

A few days later, the bright lunch time sunshine – deceptively sunny is how we choose to describe these days, given how one is always only a misstep into the shadows of wincing at the bitter cold – morphs into a deluge. In three or so hours, it rains enough to flood the street; the drains overpowered by the burst of rain. I still insist on leaving my umbrella, believing that my wind breaker and hood would do me just fine, until just before I step out of the back door a fresh gust of rain convinces me otherwise. That makes up my mind for me, as I grudgingly walk all the way back in to pick up my unwanted umbrella.

That unlikely sequence of events – a vendor visit, the gift of an unwanted umbrella which I leave at work and a fresh gust of rain just when I am about to leave – is what leads to me standing next to a petite woman who is wet to the skin at the corner of East North Street, waiting for the lights at the pedestrian crossing to change. I catch her eye, and seeing how wet she is offer her the cover of my umbrella. She accepts, and I end up walking the short distance until she has to turn off to her house with her.

Just before we split up, she asks if I am Nigerian, when I hesitate, she adds that the green -white-green umbrella is what makes her ask. I confirm I am, but explain that the umbrella was a gift, an unwanted one at that and that if the rain hadn’t had chosen the exact moment I was heading out of work to dump a fresh load, we might not have had an umbrella to share.

Just how fortuitous it all is is not lost on her, I suspect I feel the same way.

Of Hair and Odd Conversations

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Image Source: Dionysius Burton, Flickr

As far as dubious honours go, being asked what part of The States I am from in Union Square has to come near the top of my list; not least because it is unclear what prompted the fairly ancient gentleman to tap my arm and initiate the conversation in the first place. On reflection, my friend A., or more correctly her hair, must have had some input, if his eyes which never left her face had anything to do with it.

I had been standing, back to the milling crowd, eyes focused on my A’s face, whilst wrapping up our late Sunday afternoon conversation, and wrestling with the decision I knew I would have to make soon about departing – side hug, full hug or the relative safety of a firm handshake – when I felt him touch my shoulder.

Spinning round, I found myself face to face with a somewhat dapper old man, albeit dressed a bit too much for a casual Union Square afternoon; three piece suit with a gold brooch to match and very well polished brogues. He must have seen the look of puzzlement on my face, because the next thing he did was to stretch out his hand for a handshake, a broad smile plastered on his face. I took the proffered hand, noting the firm grip, as he proceeded to talk about the weather, which was warm and dry, a bonus at this time of the year. We must have spoken for a further six or seven minutes; an all over the place ramble about everything the point of which I am still not entirely sure. Somewhere amongst all that talking, he complemented A about her hair and then asked what part of the states I was from.

A. does have a thing for wild, all over the place hair – in the last year she has gone the full gamut from having it all out, an assortment of weaves, locs and now twists of various descriptions – which is why she wasn’t particularly surprised by the conversation, somehow assuming it was someone I knew from work. There might have been good reason for him to assume I was American I guess – my English isn’t the worst, and does have twangs and inflections picked up from years of watching American sitcoms in my youth, but still even to me that was a wild stretch.

The silver lining to all that? My agonising over what constituted an appropriate final greeting turned out to be much ado about nothing. In the end we were only too happy to escape the gentleman’s clutches and go our separate ways. Saved by the geezer, I guess.

Bait and Switch…

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My father, very much like me, is not a great talker- the sum of our conversation over the course of the year is little more than fifteen minutes. In the main these – 3 minutes here, 2 there, and 5 there have mainly come about as intermissions, snuck in between typically lengthy conversations with my mother – if her constant probing and interrogating can count as conversations. When I wake up to find a couple of missed calls from him on my phone , a whatsapp message from my kid sister, and a BBM message from my brother – all relating to the fact that my father has been trying to get hold of me- it sets the alarm bells in my head off. After arriving from my weekend trip to the middle of nowhere (link) I ordered the largest, most decadent pizza I could from PapaJohns – with a barbecue chicken side- devoured it and promptly fell into my bed for sleep, which was how I ended up oblivious to the clamour for my attention.

Resigning myself to whatever it might be, I call him, bracing myself for whatever it might be. It turns out, it has to do with a conference down south he wants to attend- he wants guidance on visa applications, money transfers and all the associated arrangements required to smoothen his first trip out of Nigeria in a while. it was from my. Not quite any of the urgent, life threatening things my mind had invented then. we chit chat, a bit after that, work at mine, failed driving test and all get a mention, and then an uncomfortable silence. My unease increases exponentially.

So…. He begins, have you called K yet? I haven’t and really don’t intend to. She is the doctor daughter of a friend of a friend of Mum’s whose folk perhaps as agitated by the lack of visible progress towards marrying as mine are have somehow dreamed up this match.

I explain, I’ve had a lot on my plate- offshore, work, eyeing a job change and the like. I assure him I have it on the front burner though..

My father disagrees, by his estimation, if I had even a hint of seriousness, I would have placed the phone call to K, and or being on a flight to nigeria already. He thinks I’m overly focused on progressional development .

You know, people are worried too, they ask me what’s happening all the time.

By now my irritation has built up a head- the people who are worried won’t be in a marriage with me I interject. I may have overdone my curt ness as he falls silent, our little attempt at detente dying as quickly as it rose…

The resignation in his voice is palpable. It’s alright, just call her, OK?

I mumble a response back, just before I terminate the call… Bait and switch, classic…. My folks are getting better at this!!!

An English man abroad… Of sorts

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Seems like you’re having a ball for one, the ginger haired man who had seemingly popped out of nowhere said to me as I attempted to retrieve my cup of tea, and turn around at the same time.

Epic fail. I managed to do neither, very nearly tipping my life giving cup of tea over in the process. I had been waiting on our epileptic coffee maker to finish pissing a shot of hot water into my cup, passing the time by whistling to myself and looking out with longing for the clear, sunny day that was out there, just beyond my reach for the next few hours.

The most I could do for a reply, given how startled by his sudden appearance I was, was to mumble something about TGIF counting for something at least, at which we both smiled.

It had been a relatively quiet Friday up until then – Fridays in the summer months tend to be like that on this current work gig as half the team takes alternate Fridays off. Thanks to the sunshine I had slipped into a reverie of sorts, mentally gearing myself up for a long and lazy weekend – hence my whistling – until said ginger haired man popped up and ruined my little party.

We ended up at the coffee table, I leafing through the Times Sports pages and he the Press and Journal. That was the little accident of happenstance that led to him asking me what part of Africa I was from.

Nigeria, I replied to which he flashed a satisfied, slightly smug – I thought – smile.

I very nearly guessed that! You seemed to have the two things I’ve come to expect from Nigerians – a great, happy personality and good English.

I laughed at that – pointing out that having to learn an official language does wonders for your ability, more so if it is the formal language of discourse between people from 252+ ethnic groups.

He nodded. Must be something having to manage all those ethnicities in a country that size.

I nodded in agreement, mentioning that in my home state of Edo, there were at least seven fairly distinct ethnic groups with numerous language and custom delineations within them.

It turned out that he’d never worked in Nigeria, despite having worked across the African oil patch from Algeria’s Hassi R’Mel, via a number of stints in Libya, Egypt and Angola to Esso’s Doba development across the border in Chad.

Missed opportunity pal! I told him. His response was a smile and then a slip into a slightly more reflective mood.

Nigeria never did work out for me. Had a few opportunities to work out of Calabar and Warri. Pay was great but the wife never was comfortable with the security situation.

We were quiet for a few minutes. Until he interjected, again.

I did work with a Nigerian bloke once – offshore Angola.

I looked up as he proceeds to reel off a tale about some bloke called Boma. They’d been drilling offshore Angola back in 2003 – Boma the drilling engineer aboard had shown up to a morning meeting late one day. The drilling supervisor had had a few choice words to say about him in his absence but Boma, ever the jovial, friendly chap had shrugged it off.

The drilling supervisor wouldn’t let up, leaving Boma with no choice but to pull a sheaf of papers from the side pocket on his coveralls.

You know, if I hadn’t stayed up late correcting your English, he told the drilling supervisor, I would have been here earlier. The man across the table from me swears the report was riddled with red ink. That definitely shut the drilling supervisor up for good he swears, to everyone else’s satisfaction. Said Supervisor had a reputation for being a right twat, apparently.

We fell silent for a few more minutes with only the rustling of the turning pages breaking our moment of introspection. After a while, he stood up, stretched and yawned.

Have to run off mate.

He extended his hand for a handshake as I made to leave also.

Iqbal’s the name. Yours is?

Seni, I replied, taking his outstretched hand. He must have spotted my furrowed brow as I tried to process the unspoken question – how did a very English man have a Muslim name, and live and work in Scotland.

Long story, mate. Short version is  I’m English and Muslim, the wife is Tunisian.

I nod as it finally sunk in. That might just have explained why after all his interest in African oil, he did not make a pit stop in Nigeria.

West End Conversations

She taps me on the shoulder, seemingly after several attempts to get my attention. In my defence, I have my earphones plugged in, cranked up to the maximum as usual, and have my hands in my fully done up jacket, braced up for the nip in the air, a far cry from the fairly balmy weather we’d had for all of three days that week.

I am waiting for the Number 5 bus from Seafield Shops to Union Street, at a little before 20 minutes to 5pm, and besides the slowly lengthening line of cars on the opposite side of the road queuing up to get off Seafield on to Springfield road, there is an uncertain quietness to everything. At the time she tapped my shoulder, the only thing on my mind besides the cold was clearing my head of PRENs, Carbon equivalents, hydrogen embrittlement and all the other buzz words my ears had been filled up with at the training course I was on.

The bus can’t have left yet? She asks, when it is clear she now has my attention as I pull my earphones out of my ears.

I want to respond with a retort along the lines of I’m still here, silly, but one look at her wrinkled face peeking out from beneath the scarf she has on head and tied up beneath her chin, slight stoop and thick  blue jacket perishes the thought from my mind. My grandmother would roll in her grave if I so much as disrespected this woman I think.

It doesn’t leave till ten minutes to five, I finally respond, just before she shuffles over to the bus timetable and traces the next run with her finger. Finally convinced she lets out a whiff of pent up breath and seems to relax a little bit more.

We share a few moments of uncomfortable silence where it seems she sizes me up. I must cast a sorry picture – overgrown bushy hair, dirty brown moccasins, blue jeans and a knapsack.

You don’t live around here, no? I respond with a shaken head and explain that I am only in the vicinity thanks to a training course I am at, at the hotel across the street.

Ah, I see. You’re Nigerian though?  I nod in the affirmative. Uncomfortable silence broken we share a moan about the cold weather and how summer only lasts two days in our corner of the world. Somewhere in the midst of our idle chatter she lets on that her son worked for Shell in Port Harcourt in the mid 90s.

He’s away to Australia now though, she adds. Left in 2006, she lets out a sigh, evocative in my mind of a pining mother, much in the way mine might bemoan my seemingly lack of application in delivering a daughter in-law to her pronto.

Labour’s sold the country down the river, she adds. I maintain silence. These are dodgy waters to be treading. Presumably Labour’s selling the country down the river has something to do with their less than glorious record, the perception that is, on immigration and border controls.

We are saved by the appearance of the Bus down the road, Two stops away. Here it is she says. I nod, surreptitiously plugging in my right ear bud back in. The bus arrives, and I let her get on first inspite of her attmepts to wave me on first.

I plant my bum in a seat in front, just behind the driver. She seats in one of those reserved for the elderly and promptly whips out a Sudoku book

Twenty minutes later, we’ve snaked our way on to Union Street. I am dropping off at the last Union Street stop, just before the bus goes up Union Grove. She presses the bell and shuffles off three stops before mine.

As she gets off, she waves when she goes past me.

Stay happy son..

I have no riposte for that.

About Town: The Essential Guide to (Aberdonian) Cab Conversations

There are only so many taxi rides that you can take before you begin to pick up on the subtleties of maintaining inane conversations. And if your default mode of transport is a taxi, you have no choice but to cultivate the art, unless awkward silence is your forte. Here then in no specific order are the non threatening things that keep coming up for me in my journeys in the Aberdeen area.

  • Moan about the weather: If it’s nice and sunny, complain that it might rain and ruin your plans. If it’s rainy, moan away. One of the guys at work, who’s been up here since like forever once told me joke about the city. On his first day up here as an offshore construction engineer, he was chomping at the bit a little, wanting to get some materials delivered offshore. His older, wiser boss took him aside to a stretch of land overlooking the harbour and asked him what he could see. As he recalls, it was a clear bright day with only a little cloud, and he told his boss so. The boss’s answer – when it’s clear, know that it will rain tomorrow, if it is not, then it’s raining already!
  • Be prepared to discuss holiday plans: Perhaps it is due to the general consensus that the weather is lousy, but I find that cab drivers are keen to discuss holiday plans. The last cabbie I hired had a trip planned to Tenerife. I had to oblige him with a spun-on-the-fly tale about my holiday planned to Houston this year over Christmas.
  • Be prepared to talk about ‘where you’re originally from’: You will be asked where you’re originally from – and if you’re Nigerian like I am you’ll likely hear an anecdote about the country. Thanks to the length of time the likes of Shell, Sparrow and OIS/Oceaneering have been involved in the industry in Nigeria, more often than not I run into cab drivers who have pulled a stint in Port Harcourt, or who know someone who has. There is also a growing Nigerian community – current students, ex students and staff on International postings also swell the complement of Nigerians, which makes for good banter with cab drivers.
  • Be prepared to hear a moanful earful about the City Council: Scotsmen have a reputation for being miserable sods. ‘Legend‘ – and I use that as loosely as possible –  has it that copper fire was formed inadvertently as two Scotsmen fought over  two pennys in the street. My favourite moan has to be the one where the cab drivers complains about having to pay a 500 pound registration fee to be able to pick up custom from the train station. In the interest of  keeping the conversation flowing, I usually hum and ahh and toss in a word of mock outrage from time to time. In reality, I probably don’t care.
  • Know your football:  Once in a while, I have had to entertain football questions, from Scotland being lousy at the game to how dire the Aberdeen team are.
  • Have an opinion on Sir Ian Wood and the Union Terrace Gardens project. More recently a key moan topic has been the botched city centre revamp, bulk of peeps detest the plans

It’s not all doom and gloom, on the odd occasion you will run into an Ian McEwan lover. Savour those moments!

On My Return to the Middle of Nowhere

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I seem to have the knack for choosing the shittiest days to go offshore. Last November I end up stuck for an extra three days, thanks to Ambisagrus going berserk and my helicopter flight getting cancelled. Speaking to the heli-admin late on Monday as I confirm my booking, I have her take a quick look at the weather forecast; she confirms there are no extraordinary weather events forecast for the rest of the week. Satisfied, I confirm my check-in time and head out to pack my bags and plan.

When I wake up the next morning, it is to gale force winds and rain. Steaming cup of coffee in hand, looking out from my kitchen window, the streets  – and Pittodrie in the distance – are a distant haze, shrouded in a fine mist with leaves and twigs tossed and blown around like meat in a giant cooking pot over wood. By the time I get dressed and jump into the cab I have called, it is a little quieter but the aftermath of the storm we have been battered by remains – bin bags floating around King’s and boughs ripped off trees onto the road the least of my worries.

It might be the weather, but the cab driver has the heater on full blast and has the radio tuned to the weather report. He is atypically taciturn; the one thing he does say to me as we hit the long tail backs on the final turn to the airport is ‘You’re nae going anywhere today pal’. Given the weather conditions – I secretly hope he is right.  What he doesn’t know then- and what I get to find out eventually – is that by some quirk of nature, the weather’s a whole lot better up in the Shetlands and any doubts about the trip are quickly dispelled when I am called up to check in and screened.

It turns out that the flight up north is actually the smoothest I remember – so much for my having second thoughts about the trip. Safely landed on the platform, glasses off whilst trying to divest myself of my immersion suit, someone taps my shoulder. In the hazy, barely there, seeing men as trees world that is mine without my glasses, I make out the silhouette of the platform’s head honcho. He is a bloke I have previous history with – we once argued opposing ends of a decision a few months into my current role, and our relationship has been frosty at best (at least to me). Sensing my discomfiture, he stretches out his hand for a firm handshake and proceeds to welcome me  on to his turf.

– You’ll stop by the office for a wee chat when you’re settled in, aye?

He says it in the manner of a half question, half statement – implied request laced with more than a hint of a threat that my interests might best be served by having the chat. I nod my acceptance, as he moves off, before he tosses over his shoulder almost like an afterthought.

 -The galley’s staying open longer, you’d better hurry and grab lunch.

We had arrived around 1.30pm, a full hour after lunch had been served. A skeletal lunch had been laid out, but given the state the motley crew of the new arrivals were in, it was very likely that the food would be gone in next to a flash. By the time I run through the safety video and all, my worst fears are confirmed, the dregs of the food left do not appeal to me and I end up being extra thankful for the bacon roll I grabbed whilst waiting for the second leg of my flight earlier in the day. It is not till 3.30 pm before I get to see the head honcho again. It is the very much more relaxed setting of the coffee table. As per custom, the guys lay out a modest spread of roll and biscuits to go with our tea and coffee during the regular breaks. I find myself seated right next to him to the right. We make small talk, my primary contact is on hand to ease us into conversation, and we hit it off much better than I ever recall. He has a few concerns over the small project I’ve taken a decision to defer to next year and he minces no words in telling me so. Thankfully, I have my ‘we’re all in it together‘ speech at the ready – about how I am as much an underling in the overall scheme of things as he is and merely executing orders. Whether he buys it or not is unclear, but all told we have a much more amiable conversation than we have had in a while.

 At dinner, I share a table with a couple of the lads – one is ex Royal Marines, the other is an ex (Music) school teacher who took his chance at reinvention a mere fifteen years ago. Several NDT tickets down the line, he’s now one of the lead techs, earning way more than he would have as a teacher. On the odd occasion he still thinks back wistfully at what might have been had he remained a school teacher, usually when the subject of wives and their shopping sprees comes up, which is often a lot on these trips. The ex Royal Marine, Dusty Dan, named for the extra layer of grime his coveralls tend to pick up regales us between sips of tomato soup and bites of bread of his ordeal at the hands of the wife at an Ikea shop. Dragged out early one Saturday morning ostensibly to shop for furniture for an upcoming baby, he ends up being dragged to each and every corner of the Ikea, criss-crossing every square inch multiple times as his wife meanders her way through the items on display. Three hours later, still no closer to any major purchases and almost dead on his feet, he is allowed the one bit of respite he has grown to look forward to on these interminable trips – 10 meat balls and mash at the Ikea restaurant.

Oh the bliss of married life!