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

aberdeen summer

For the first time in a very long time,  I have four day work weeks to look forward to. The theory behind getting these nine Fridays off is that they have been earned by working an extra thirty minutes each work day. How productive those extra minutes have been remains to be seen, but I suspect their value to our employer lies more in promoting a sense of being cared for in us than anything more tangible. The first of these was spent down south, catching up with friends and reacquainting myself with Stratford and the Olympic park.

Being a creature of routine has its perks – one wakes up, does the needful and shows up at work to deal with whatever is thrown one’s way that day – but without the requirement to go into work, I suddenly have the hassle of trying to find stuff to do. The big rocks are in place already – a trip to London to catch Erwin McManus and Carl Lentz amongst others at the Hillsong Conference Europe is all planned up and good to go, as is an extended weekend in Vienna in August. It is what to do with the rest of these summer Fridays that is the problem. Of course summers in Scotland have a reputation for being wet and windy with dry, sunny spells the exception.

Doing a lot of traveling comes to mind as something to do, particularly given getting to know the West Coast of Scotland is something I’ve wanted to do for a while.  Besides the time spent in train stations and airport waiting areas this requires, it is also likely to require a significant outlay in cash. A lot needs to be worked out from a logistical perspective to make this happen but I suspect the dividends – pretty interesting pictures and pretend travelouges – might make this a compelling option.

Another option is to spend the time catching up on all that reading I’ve failed dismally at this year. In addition to the books I have on the go, Teju Cole has an eagerly anticipated collection of essays out in August which I am sure I would be keen to read. Laziness though is the greatest obstacle to this objective, one will have to see how this pans out.

I have toyed with the idea of spending my Fridays cranking out a podcast about nothing especially important. The working title for this – which is likely to only be a spoken version of the things I whine about on here – is A Bloke’s Life. Although I do have a penchant for waffling on things of interest only to me, I also happen to know a number of interesting gentlemen who – logistics permitting – I might be able to convince to come on such a show. Don’t hold your breaths on this one though. What is more likely is a return to the online radio station I’ve previously appeared on.

Movies appear to be the easiest, safest option, particularly as I still have a stash of discounted Cineworld tickets to hand, and the beach cinema is less than 10 minutes away from my house by foot. The significantly reduced movie time since May does  lend its support to this argument, not least because a rash of movies are due out in the next few weeks.

***

Star Trek Beyond – which I managed to see after a couple of hours at work – was the first of these, after habit had drawn me into work for a couple of hours first. Simon Pegg’s performances in these Star Trek movies have always intrigued me – given his attempts at affecting a ‘Scottish’ accent, and his English heritage. To his credit, he manages to throw enough Scottish colloquialisms in to make his parody recognisable. My ears have however not evolved enough to be able to say definitively that he has it nailed down. I suppose the nod to Scotland on the big screen – spot on or not – has to be celebrated and accepted?

Nine Fridays of Summer: Sleepers, Stratford and basking in Sunshine

Caledonian Sleepr

She is wolfing down a doughnut, cup of coffee in hand when I appear, trying to find my assigned seat. I feel like I have startled her somewhat, given how quickly she begins to organise the stuff she has all over the place. The sense of having intruded on a private, unguarded moment is made worse by finding my assigned seat is across from her, in seats so tight our feet play that dance of hide and seek beneath the table until we find a system that works.

We both apologise for the clumsiness inherent in the touching of our feet, almost at the same time, as though we have anything to do with our long feet and the tight space we have to share. I don’t remember who laughs first; the funny side of our attempts at using space eventually becoming apparent. The laughter does serve as an ice breaker of sorts; by the time the train begins to move off at 9.43 pm, we have somehow managed to develop a resigned familiarity.

By then we have been joined by a number of other people, most notable of which are a clearly inebriated English man with a strong Scouse accent and someone who I guess is Polish (who gets on his phone from the instant he comes aboard till we go past Inverkeithing, a full 2 hours and some, a pox upon him!!). The drunk Scouser rambles on about just getting back onshore from a three week stint offshore. He has clearly hit the brew to sate his deep ache.

 We are all cattle class passengers on the Caledonian Sleeper, the overnight train service that connects London in the south to a number of locations in Scotland, both ways. In the aftermath of my irritation and anger with the appalling service on my last jaunt down south – that EasyJet inspired comedy of errors  – my search for other options leads me here. Although there is a range of proper sleeper options, my inner Scotsman – we have a reputation for being tight fisted frugal –  opts for a basic ‘sleeper seat’, my gamble being that regardless of how comfortable or uncomfortable the seats are, I’ll manage enough sleep to be awake for the couple of hours I need to be lucid for on Friday morning before I get to my hotel and can sleep off my journey.
Tight spaces and loud fellow travellers with smelly feet aside, it turns out a rather pleasant journey, one on which I manage to catch a few winks and feel a sense of vague familiarity with. Only when I am about to disembark does the slight niggle at the back of my end get resolved – the vague sense of familiarity with all these is because I have used the sleeper service before, ending up at Manchester Piccadilly en route Sheffield  back in 2013.
***
waiting_
We arrive at London Euston, sometime after 7.47am following which I make a beeline for a coffee and a baguette to wake myself up properly. Warm coffee in my insides, google maps comes to the rescue in helping plot a path to an internet cafe where I print off the appointment letter that will grant me access to the Visa application centre which is one of the main drivers for the trip. At the cafe, Brexit (yet again) makes an appearance. The proprietress and a customer are deep in conversation, the subject being applying for a British passport in a bid to avoid having to leave the country. His English is pretty much spotless to my ear – it turns out he’s lived out here for 25 years – so I am unable to guess where he is originally from.
My destination, the VFS centre, is a few stops away on the under ground, so after sorting out my paper work, I walk to Oxford Circus and make my way to the Liverpool Street Station, leave my bags at left luggage and attend my interview. A few terse moments at the front desk – I arrive fifteen minutes early and get told to wait outside for a while – aside, the interview wraps up fairly quickly. By the time it turns 11 am, I am back at Liverpool Street looking to head out to my hotel, £10 affording me the luxury of an early check in.
***
ilford_
The rest of the weekend -mainly dry and warm – is spent reacquainting myself with East London. Colourful street markets in Ilford, TfL Rail trips between London Liverpool Street and Ilford and a Saturday idled away at the Olympic Park sipping bubble tea are the highlights, marred only by closures on the way back after some poor fella opted to throw himself in front of the train.
***
For my return, I opt for hopping a bit of a round trip – by train from London Euston to Birmingham International Airport and then a FlyBe flight up to Aberdeen. How that managed to work out significantly cheaper than a direct flight to Aberdeen from London is perhaps an indication of how much demand there is for London/Aberdeen flights. All told, I enjoyed my little Birmingham detour so much I suspect it will be my preferred routing if I have to pop into London in a bind. If ever there was proof of concept, this was it.
Bring on the #SummerFridays. #Options

A Comedy of Errors

esayjet

Image Source

Two weeks ago on a whim, I decided I would book a short trip away from the ‘Deen, to London. The plan was simple — fly out on Friday night after work, catch up with a few friends, particularly S, and then head back on Sunday night, with no one the wiser at work. At such short notice, British Airways to Heathrow was a non-starter, as was Flybe to London City. This left EasyJet to Luton or Gatwick as the only viable options. In the end, I settled for Luton, the weekend of the 10th of June being the best fit with friends and family. On the day, having packed my go to travel bag and done work, I hopped on to the 727 from the bus station next to work, arriving just past 6.00pm for what was meant to be a 7.35pm flight.

The first sign of trouble was the continued absence of a boarding gate on the departures display against my flight. The details blur in my mind but I suspect it wasn’t until after 8.00pm that a gate was displayed- gate 1. Between then and 9.30pm when I left the airport, we managed to get in line for boarding before being stood down and then get asked to return to the front desk for further information. A ‘recovery’ flight was announced, departing at 9.00am the next morning- key because anything later than noon would have made the trip no longer worthwhile for me.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the flight the next day was also delayed, eventually leaving at 10.46am. S, thankfully, had re-jigged her plans to accommodate the delays, otherwise I might have been in a spot of bother.

The mood overall wasn’t particularly great, a couple of people seemed to have been affected multiple times in the recent past by similar events as these

Once in London, I briefly flirted with the idea of booking a quick return via BA. I however convinced myself that the bother with the inbound flight was a one off. Surely thunder couldn’t strike twice. My faith would prove misplaced, in even more spectacular fashion than the in bound flight.

Arriving at the airport just before 6.30pm, I managed to get through security in six or so minutes, not shabby given how things have panned out differently in the past. A long wait ensued, punctuated with a call to proceed to Gate 10 at about 9.30pm. Whilst waiting at Gate 10, it turned out the air craft we were meant to fly on had arrived but not one of the ground staff seemed to know its whereabouts. A further call to go to Gate 2 raised hopes briefly, before we were stood down at about 10.20pm with reports of the flight being cancelled and a request to return to the front desk.

All outward EasyJet flights from Luton were cancelled that night — Aberdeen, Belfast, Berlin and Glasgow all getting the chop. That led predictably to bedlam, worsened by the lack of relevant information flowing. There must have been 300+ people thronging the EasyJet customer service desk at departures, waiting to be advised of new flight details and hotel accommodation (in the end the advise was to book one off the mobile app and keep the receipts to be reimbursed afterwards). Amongst the mix, I spotted a number of fellow travellers on the cancelled and then recovered in bound flight from Aberdeen.

All told, it took me till 1.20am to get my cancelled flight rescheduled to a Glasgow one (as there was no Aberdeen flight till Tuesday) and a hotel sorted.

Predictably, the flight the next morning was also delayed; from 10.55am to 12.15am which meant I had to miss work as well as hop on a bus at 2.10pm, only arriving in Aberdeen at 5.00pm; almost 24 hours after I should have.

I suppose EasyJet and Luton airport cannot legislate for the impact of acts beyond their control. It turned out the Aberdeen to Luton flight was delayed due to a damaged nose tire which needed replacing, whilst the Luton to Aberdeen leg was cancelled due to the knock on effect of Gatwick flights being diverted to Luton following runway closures.

A few things could have been handled much better to ease the impact on stranded and confused travellers such as me and avoid the comedy of errors which ensued:

  1. Better Communication: One of the more frustrating elements of the ordeal was the near total black out on information on what was happening. Getting information to passengers earlier might have allowed me make alternative travel arrangements, or at least reassured me that everything was in hand. Trying to make inferences from the mobile app was hardly the most efficient way of trying to keep us informed.
  2. Better planning: That one of the reasons for delays on both legs of the trip had to do with crews going over their hours is surely unacceptable. I would imagine it is someone’s jobs to track crew hours, and having realised that hours would be exceeded by the delays, a decision to cancel the flights should have been taken earlier than after almost four hours.
  3. Enhanced mobile app capabilities: The mobile app, good as it is, fell apart significantly for me, when I tried to get on to a Glasgow or Inverness flight. All the app allowed me do — once the cancellation had been updated — was attempt to book another Aberdeen flight. Tuesday was most certainly not an option, which was how I ended up in Glasgow.
  4. Locked down amenities: On the best of days, Luton is not the greatest airport for a long wait — seating being at a premium, and the wi-fi being restricted to a free 30 minute access. Perhaps more could have been done to grant extended access to us stranded folk, particularly as the instruction was to get on the mobile app and get accommodation booked.

Perhaps these are the compromises we make when we go for no frills, budget flights, ones in which the schedules and timelines are so finely tuned that all it takes is one anomaly to unravel everything. On the basis of this weekend’s debacle and what is bound to be a slew of demands for compensation from EasyJet, it seems to me that their scheduling model projects a false economy. It is also a false economy for me too as a traveller; missing a day of work, the stress and strain I went through to sort out the journey and get home surely have costs, monetary or not.

It is difficult to think of any scenarios in which I’ll fly EasyJet again, or through Luton for that matter. I just like the certainty of knowing I’ll arrive on time, given my usually tight schedules.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. S was an absolute delight to hang out with as always; her sharp, sarcastic tongue, allied to her controlled excitement the highlight of what would have been an otherwise ruined weekend.

Something about shared adversity sometimes brings out the best in us. Watching people rally around each to help with crying, antsy babies, managing to have civil conversations and staying in line for the main part gave me renewed faith in humanity.

Politicians and the weather get people talking in good old Blighty. Waiting in line on Monday morning whilst the shenanigans around my Glasgow flight unfolded, I ended up in conversation with a gentleman on his way back home. His distaste for the SNP and their particular brand of lip service and blame shifting resonated with me as did his views on the Brexit referendum. I still haven’t made up my mind on that one. Not much time left on that one.

Credit too must go to the staff who manned the customer care desk at Luton into the small hours of the morning, until we stranded customers had gotten rearranged flights.

home

As my bus made the final approach into the bus station, my relief at finally making it home was unquantifiable. Never did the sight of Union Square feel so welcome to me as it did that Monday.

E may be for EasyJet, in this case it definitely stands for error-strewn and perhaps excruciating..

Of Weddings, Cheesecake and Paper Planes

05 Wedding

The somewhat impromptu trip to Lagos was designed around three main objectives; making an appearance at a (self-proclaimed) protege’s wedding, dinner with the Lagos based elements of my old work crew and appeasing my father, who as early as New Year’s Day had begun to sound his dissatisfaction at my conspiring to avoid making what used to be an annual trip to Nigeria last year. For the wedding, the plan was to arrive at 10.00 am, 9.00 am invitation notwithstanding. That decision was one I rationalised away by assuming that as with all things Nigerian, a certain element of tardiness was expected. By the time I arrived at 10.30 am – sweating profusely following my ill thought out attempt to walk till I found a yellow cab – I was as undressed as I could be, my tie slackened to let what precious little fresh air there was get to my skin and my suit dispensed with. That meant I had to find somewhere to cool off for a few extra minutes and get my outfit put together again before popping into the venue. In the end I had to settle for the wing mirror on a parked car, studiously avoiding the gaze of the soldiers sat on the bench only a few feet away. Once in the building proper, I managed to find a seat next to a rotating fan to ease my pain.

The ceremony was in full flow by then, the sight in front of me a mix of colours aplenty; of which green and white stood out being the colours worn by the family and selected guests. The signing of the marriage register and the thanksgiving shuffle by the bride, groom and friends followed in quick order, for which I had to overcome my long standing aversion to dancing. The upside was I managed to catch a good glimpse of my friend, all glammed up for her big day, as well as shake their hands as we passed them once we had divested ourselves of our tokens of appreciation. Being doused in holy water was an unexpected bonus of sorts.

Picture taking and then the reception soon followed, the highlights of which were the food, the long speeches and dancing, elevated to the heights of an extreme sport. Part of me wonders if there isn’t a sense of competition between in-laws at these shin-digs; both sides of the marrying families being keen to not be outdone by the number and quality of guests invited, as indicated by the number of suffixes they carry. The MC was perhaps the singular blot in my opinion, choosing to walk a tight rope more than a few times with his joking. A chance conversation with someone I had not seen in ages highlighted the fact that I could pay for Uber rides with cash which considerably eased my movements thereafter.

My time at the wedding over, the next pit stop was the Ice Cream factory. I was there to meet my friend D and his wife whose acquaintance I was yet to make. I ended up waiting for over two hours before they showed up – poetic justice I suppose given my decision making around the wedding. His Mrs was his excuse – having dragged him to a wedding in a different part of town she had insisted on divesting herself of her wedding clothes before heading out to our meet up. For my pain whilst waiting, I dug into some cheese cake, appropriately sized for killing time. Across from me, a gentleman typed away on his MacBook, dipping into a tub of ice cream now again. By the time D and Mrs arrived, they were dressed very comfortably in Saturday evening, heat-appropriate wear whilst I still had my suit and tie from the wedding. A third friend F joined us eventually, making for a four strong group with a lot of catching up to do. In a tongue in cheek way, my friend D moaned about just how little a life he has had since he got married in 2014 – being driver, cleaner, occasional cook and two or three time punch bag. We both laughed knowingly; truth is he is a much better person than he used to be – more focused, no longer scrawny and generally happier, Lagos traffic issues notwithstanding. Somehow we managed to fit a conversation about loss, lostness, identity and the travails of living Lagos in the two hours and some we spent catching up.

red earth

A quick catch up with my friend A with whom my paths crossed for the grand total of five hours – a logistical nightmare on any day – was quickly followed by a dash across town to the airport for my flight to Benin the next day. The final leg of the journey was made a whole lot easier by a ride from the brother in-law, the added benefit being the opportunity to reacquaint myself with niece number 3. For all the stories her mother relates of how she continually sings my name, our reconnection was muted. I suppose we can blame her being sleepy for that, not my sloppy uncle skills.

Ekpoma – home – this city of red earth baked hard by the relentless beating of the sun which I have come back to time and again since I first left for good as a seventeen year old in the late nineties was the same as I remembered it. By the time I arrived, it had already been three days since the national grid last supplied power to the area my folk live in. Fairly typical, with a chuckle, is how my cousin relates their ongoing ordeal with NEPA – or whatever the disco in the area is. To ease my arrival, we had the generator run for a few hours to charge up phones, laptops and get the fans whirling and moving air for a bit. The days when I was waited on hand and foot out here are sadly long gone, the joys of a cold shower – the first time since I had one here – did help me get to sleep.

fam_ (1125x1500)

The next few days passed in a blur – eating, sleeping and catching up with family the subject of my days. The third day was spent getting to see nieces #1 and 2. The day itself, as unremarkable and indistinguishable from the rest of them in being boiling hot and powerless was greatly improved by all the playing I managed to get in with the nieces. The Peppa pig books I managed to travel with helped a sight, as did being able to google up how to make paper planes and origami houses. The day enjoyable as it was had a bitter sweet after taste to it. For all the fun and games we got up to, it was only a few hours long. Doting Uncle or not, I am missing the opportunity to be a big part of their lives. Hopefully the iPhone their mother managed to blackmail me into giving her will mitigate that. The other days were more of a pain, filled with difficult conversations skirted around, and visits to old friends of the family to keep up appearances. Not the most exciting stuff, but I suspect getting to see my nieces more than made up for that.

There was time to get back to Lagos, catch up with old friends, make a pit stop at chicken republic and tuck into some cake and ice cream at Hans and Rene – before I had to pack it all in and head to the airport to catch my flight back. All told, it was a largely enjoyable trip, one that put into perspective all the things I miss about Nigeria – family and friends mainly. Whether that lure is strong enough to save this lost son, only time will tell.

On Lagos

01 Nigeria 1

That my relationship with Nigeria is somewhere between strained and non-existent is something I have made no bones about time and time again. That sense of lostness rather than easing with time has only become stronger, the key events in my life over the last few years – Newcastle, the bookend to a horrendous year of work and the somewhat forced decision to not return to the bedlam and then H – all chipping away at what bonds are left, leaving them increasingly tenuous.

H’s passing cast a long pall over the last time I was here, so much so that by the time it was all done and dusted the sense was very much one of reeling and sinking, waiting for rock bottom to hit. The hope, as perverse as it might sound, was that hitting rock bottom would be the jolt to initiate a search for a new normal. There is the sense that a new normal of sorts has taken shape, somehow emerging without much intentionality on my part from the bits and bobs of life and duty that I have had to deal with. A significant part of that new normal for me has been very much work focused, part of why it has taken this long to plan a return here; the opportunity to take a week off work only presenting itself now that I have managed to shift perhaps my biggest work deliverable on to its next phase. The objectives for this trip are a lot happier than the last time – a wedding in Lagos (someone I claim somewhat loosely as a protégé) has thrown up the intriguing prospect that I might run into people I haven’t seen in far longer than I care to admit. There is also the opportunity to catch up with very special work mates whom I haven’t seen since 2011 and the niece I’ve never seen, #4, who is all of seven months old.

Everyone I tell I am going to Lagos has a cautionary tale for me bar L (whose opinion I suspect lacks any real objectivity). Mrs O, the latest in a long line of naysayers, regales me with tales of long queues for petrol, the near absence of power and the heat. She should know first hand as she has just come back from a 17-day sojourn. At work, G jokes that he’d be glad to be rid of me forever if I get kidnapped. We laugh it off at banter but when in speaking to my sister she mentions in passing the kidnap of yet another not so well off, but publicly visible person, in the area I grew up in, I wonder if it is indeed the right thing to be doing. In the end my self belief in my ability to blend in wins – I am sure I haven’t changed so much as to stand out like a sore thumb. That my pidgin English still remains impeccable and I intend to turn up in jeans and a very crumpled t-shirt all add additional layers of comfort around my decision.

– – –


In keeping with the desire to minimise the disruption this trip brings to my new normal, my entire strategy has been based around flying with only carry-on luggage. That informs every decision I make; from buying a new cabin sized travel bag, to restricting my gift buying to 10 Peppa pig books for my nieces, and the plan to turn up at the wedding in jeans and a blazer. When I tell C the latter, she considers it the latest in a long line of fashion faux pas. I ask the twitterverse for a second opinion, but quickly give up on that as the consensus that is reached only confirms the need for a proper suit. That is how I end up getting fitted for a suit at 5.30 pm the day before I am due to fly.

Between arriving and leaving over £210 lighter, I get to hear of the sales assistant’s Nigerian connection – grandparents who ran a franchise of saw mills in Sapele, and a dad who spent time between the ages of 7 and 18 in Nigeria. We swap stories about the great home brewed liquids and reminisce about just how different Sapele is today from the one his father knew as I run my card through the card reader and pay. So completely taken in by everything am I that it is only when I get home I realise that this jeopardises my 2 bag carry on allowance. I spend the bulk of the evening googling furiously, ending up watching YouTube videos which purport to show us how to pack a suit in carry-on suitcase without ruining it. In the end I decide to take my chances.

– – –

03 Waiting
I toy with the thought of calling a taxi for a 5.00 am pickup given my flight out of Aberdeen is at 6.45 am. In the end my inner gambler miser drives the decision to take my chances with the 727 from Broad Street. The next morning my alarm goes off at 4.00 am, by which time I have already been up for half an hour. That is not enough to prevent me from missing the 4.30 am bus. By the time the next one comes around at 5.05 am, I am biting my nails and kicking myself for gambling. In the end I manage to make it through security by 5.45 am, aided by the fact that I do not have any luggage to check in.

Safely through, I chase down a flapjack and a coffee to wake myself up properly. I am in the middle of that when a woman approaches me to share the seat at the corner of the airport I am plopped in. I suspect she has chosen to come my way because I happen to be the only visible black face in the not-quite-filled airport at that time. I nod a greeting whilst trying to swallow as she sits down, hands folded in her lap, bags in front of her. When she senses I am able to talk – flapjack downed – she asks if I am headed to London. When I reply in the affirmative, I sense that she is relieved, more so when she finds out I am going all the way to Lagos. We end up being travel companions through to Heathrow and until we board the Lagos flight. Her enthusiasm for the trip is palpable – in the various conversations we have she lets on that it has been her first time in the ‘Deen, helping her daughter out with her new born baby for all of 5 months. Her memories of Aberdeen this time are the cold and the boredom. Her expectations for Lagos and what lies beyond that for her contrast with mine – she is very much looking forward to reconnecting with the family members she left five months ago, I am largely ambivalent.

Whilst boarding, I pick up a Glaswegian accent from one of the cabin crew. I ask him is he’s Scottish, to which he beams widely, replying in the affirmative. I let on that I have travelled on from Aberdeen and share a quick joke about how both Glasgow football clubs – Rangers and Celtic are a bit long in the tooth. Another member of the cabin crew – as prim, proper and English as could be – hears us yakking on about Celtic and Aberdeen and jokingly retorts that the Scottish are taking over. Great banter which sets us up very nicely for the rest of the flight.

The only blot on that is I end up sat next to a very vocal Arsenal fan, with the scarf from the 2015 FA Cup Final around his neck. Like most Arsenal fans I know, he is all talk and bluster, somehow managing to ignore the fact that I have my headphones plugged in and have my phone in hand trying to select a playlist – a painful reminder of what lies ahead I suspect. Thankfully, the fellow in the seat behind us – and the Glaswegian – are more than happy to talk football with him; that I suspect is part of what makes the trip that bit more bearable for me.

– – –


No amount of mental bracing ever quite prepares one for the shock with which the humidity and heat hit. That, and the almost sudden metamorphosis of a regular, fairly well controlled crowd into a seething mass of jostling, aggressive personalities, is all the proof one needs that this is indeed Nigeria. To be fair, my walk through Immigration is a comparative doodle next to what I remember from the last time; but then memory is notoriously fickle, particularly mine. Perhaps the much mooted change  is beginning to trickle down after all.

Once through immigration, my first order of business is to grab and register a SIM card to allow me get in touch with the contact I’ve been given to pick up keys to the apartment I’ll be staying in. My peculiarly spelt surname – thanks to my grand father it contains a ‘Y’ and has made people guess my nationality as Polish, Czech and Cameroonian until they meet my very Nigerian self. I field a few questions  – Mother’s maiden name, house address amongst others – and leave with a registered, functional SIM card for the journey that lies ahead.

Away from the airport, over 30 minutes of walking pace, bumper to bumper traffic ensures it is 8.30 pm before I pick up keys and can then begin to breathe a little easier. The only thing on my mind – when all that has been sorted – is a cold shower and food. By the end of the day, two things are clear in my head: the next week is going to be a long, hard slog  and this thing, this love-hate relationship with Nigeria is one that will not go away anytime soon – tenuous bonds or not.  Thankfully gala, real meat pie, pepper soup and suya are proven coping mechanisms; I am beginning to relish this.

Letter from St John’s – The wrap

flying_in

The view from 26F as we descended towards St John’s International was great, not particularly dissimilar to what one might see at a similar stage of the journey towards Aberdeen, the West Coast of Scotland or Ireland; which must now be a travel objective for me over the next few years.

Once safely parked and disembarked – to 19°C weather – my first impressions of the airport were of how hastily put together it all seemed, with construction continuing in various parts. That lent a rustic, uncomplicated – perhaps even idyllic – air to everything, the sort of chilled, back water one might go to escape the lures of technology.  Before travelling I had searched extensively for a duty free shop at YYT, walking the short distance to the arrivals terminal made the reasons for my futile googling apparent.

As my flight was only an A319, and a barely half full one at that, the line in to the immigration and customs desk was not particularly long. With no distinction between Canadian passport holders, permanent residents and international visa arrivals like myself, things moved fairly quickly and it soon became my turn to approach the desks and have my passports looked at. Upon presenting my passport the officer at the desk asked a few questions; why I was in town (to see my brother), what did he do (studied previously but now works), where he studied and what I did myself.  The atmosphere was one of civil discourse, a far cry from the tense, emotionally charged one around passport control at Heathrow. How much of that was due to the much talked about mild temperament of Newfoundlanders or the smaller volume of passengers the airport handles remains to be seen, but what I realised – and made a mental note of for next time – is that sticking with the simple ‘Engineer’ answer when asked what I did was far more sensible than going for the full fat, tongue twister – Corrosion and Materials Engineer which is usually my standard answer.

stjohnsnewbuilds

St John’s appeared to be a city in bloom – at least to my first time visitor eyes. In addition to work on the airport, whole new blocks of housing have sprung up over the past few years, with a lot more construction ongoing. That much was visible as we sped away from the airport towards the corner of the city in which my brother lives. The similarities with Aberdeen bear repeating – in many senses both are historical fishing outposts that have grown and diversified off the back of offshore oil and gas. For St John’s the future looks even brighter, if the noises coming out of an independent review of the offshore acreage is to be believed. In addition to the flagship developments of Hibernia, White Rose and Terra Nova, recent estimates indicate volumes in the region of a further 12 billion barrels of oil to be extracted, certainly one to keep an eye on for my next move if I decide I have had enough of treading water in the North Sea.

waterfront1

The next day, belonged to the water front. After a few frantic google searches to find the lowest priced boat tour, we finally settled on Iceberg tours and booked a ride for two. It was too late in the tour season to be guaranteed a whale or puffin sighting or an iceberg for that matter but we decided to do it anyway for the sights of the city we would get from the sea. At the front desk, whilst chatting with the chap in the booth, I asked about getting screeched – from which it transpired he was/is originally from England. He promised to ask before we board if an official ceremony could be organised whilst we are out at sea. As we boarded, the Captain, gave his spiel – with great wit and sarcasm – about the safety features and what to expect. Having boarded and as final preparations progressed, I cast my eye across the motley crew of people assembled – all largely in good spirits and up for the adventure, save for a young woman who appeared unwell. It turned out much later that she had had too much fun on George Street the night before, her apparent unease the remains of a most monumental hangover.

The weather was great, blue skies a rarity for this time of the year, the Captain mentioned as he rambled on with his narrative piece, the complement to the visuals we were taking in. Much like Aberdeen, St John’s is a supply base for the offshore industry, which was why as we pulled out of the harbour, we passed a number of supply boats bearing the Maersk imprint in various stages of loading and unloading. Just before we slipped out finally, we got a good wave from Mr Pearcy as we passed his place on the outer battery. Over the course of the next two hours we passed a number of other landmarks; Signal Hill (where Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal), Cape Spear, Dead Man’s Cove to name a few. I did get screeched, an ‘official’ certificate welcoming me from the Royal Order of Newfoundland Screechers proof of the pudding.

On Sunday we popped into P.’s church, a small but rapidly expanding one on Peet Street. Largely African, the enthusiasm and joy were obvious as always, as was their commitment to engaging their local community. Being the anniversary of their first service added to the atmosphere of gaiety and celebration. After church I got to meet a slew of P.’s friends which reassured me he was in safe, good hands, and that his existence was not as banal as mine on the other side of the Atlantic.

ducks

Over the course of the next few days we took in visits to the University’s Botanical Gardens, the Geo Centre with its models of Hibernia and the Titanic story, walked (a short section of) the Signal Hill trail  where we got to pretend to fire the cannons and wrapped up everything by attending a small reception in honour of J and C’s marriage.

All told, it was a great time to be in St John’s with good weather on most of the days – dry and sunny with temperatures between 5°C and 10°C degrees but with a number of days with temperatures in the high ‘teens and even a 24°C day. The people I met seemed chilled, and friendly enough, as evidenced by the number of people who nodded as we passed them or who came over and said hi as we passed each other in parking lots.

The facts are what they are – my ten day sojourn in this corner of the world is over, gone with only the memories to hold on to. I never got to see Bell Island, but given what I have heard, it will probably make a lot more sense as part of a larger group. George Street, and the prospect of a proper Irish pub – I hear Shamrock Cafe is a must do – are delights I didn’t get to explore this time out. Between the missing bits of the experience I need to fill and the bright future for oil and gas, I suspect I will be here again many times over the next few years. Who knows, maybe even semi permanently, if the stars (and the opportunities) align.