Wrapping up the Christmas Party Silly Season

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Each year, my Christmas party silly season kicks off earlier than the last – this time on the 24th of November – the venue being the soon to close Marcliffe set in the lush woodlands of the Royal Deeside. We are there at the behest of the black and minority ethnic engineering association, for an evening of music, dance, networking and speeches to celebrate the fabulous year they have had of making engineering sexy to BME kids across the ‘shire. My initial response of excitement when news of the gala breaks segues into one of trepidation as the day draws near, the black tie dress code nothing like my far more typical jeans and t-shirt fare. On the day, just before leaving my house, I find out that I have somehow failed to spot the one key fact, arrivals being scheduled for 6.30pm, not the 7pm I have planned for, cue a rushed final phase of preparation and a quick hop into my old banger for the drive across town. I arrive almost forty five minutes late, thanks to a wrong turn and some traffic down Great Western road. In the end, it turns out I really shouldn’t have been that worried, people are still arriving at 8.30pm, african time I guess. The event itself goes well – overly posh food aside – I get to prance and pose for pictures with a few old chums, and a wide range of people; current students, professionals across a range of Engineering professions and a number of industry stalwarts. By the time I sneak off at 11.30pm, there is no doubt in my mind it has been a thoroughly engaging evening.

***

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The Friday afterwards, I am at the Stage Door off Rosemount for a far less formal event, invited out by the team I work with at the motherlode, work being used very loosely here given how little face time I actually get with them. Plan is to kick things off with drinks at 5pm and then a set meal for 6pm. By the time I arrive at five minutes to six, my crowd is no where to be seen, still loading up on the brew. The first few people begin to show up at five past six, with very nearly a full complement by six-thirty by which time I am ravenous. D somehow ends up lost with a dead battery across town, which provides plenty of comic relief material. Meal done and dusted at very nearly 8.30pm, the younger crowd – and quite a few older ones too – decide they want to hit a couple of pubs to wrap up. Seeing as my day started at 5.45am, I am in no state to join in and plead tiredness, to quite a few raised eyebrows. The small silver lining is that on my way out, I get hit on by a somewhat  attractive woman – never mind she was a bit woozy, clearly having had way too much to drink.

***

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Gig number three is the Young Adult’s group party at D’s. It turns out a damp squib of sorts, the turnout being far less than I recall for a long while. I suspect it being sandwiched between preparations for our show piece holiday event, the Christmas Carol service amongst others, and a slew of stalwarts who have elected to take an early Christmas are to blame. Plus side is I get to take away several packs of rice, gizzdodo and pepper soup when I leave at just past 10.30pm on the day

***

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For the 15th and 16th I am away in Manchester, swotting for  – and then writing – my final exam of the year. Having had to work full pelt on a number of emerging issues at work right up to the day before impacted my ability to create time to study, so understandably I find the exam itself iffy. I help myself to one of the works omelettes at Frankie and Benny’s to help myself forget, just before hopping on to the tram for Piccadilly gardens. Fortuitously, at Cornbrook, I find out that the tram line extension to the airport is now in place, and hop on to that, halving my journey – and leaving a few friends and family cross at me – in the process.

***

I’m into work the next day, back to the hurly burly that has been December, getting just enough done to show up with an element of credibility to a meeting on the 18th. That turns out to be the last credible bit of work I do on the day as it’s also the day for our traditional christmas lunch as an Operations Team. Drinks start off at 12 – I have a gin and tonic to get myself into the groove (number 10 I reckon) – followed by a set lunch. I have chicken soup as a starter, Turkey as the main and cheese cake for dessert. Beyond the food which is typically passable, the highlight usually is the raffle, and the opportunity for expressing the typically acerbic Scottish variant of British humour it provides. At lunch I end up next to one of the bigger wigs; as we chat it turns out he does have a proper engineering background – a technical PhD as opposed to an MBA – and I get to gush a bit too much on rust and my future plans – to my chagrin in retrospect, blame the gin and tonic. We all have a good laugh, helped along by a free bar. For my ten pound investment in the raffle I win a bottle of whisky.

***

I toy with not attending the church’s tech team meet up on the 19th – yet another late day at work and meetings nearly putting paid to my participation –  but a few sternly worded comments from F give me the kick up the back side I require. I miss the bowling though, arriving just in time to sit in for dinner. Venue is the Frankie and Benny’s close to my house, a brisk walk and the nip in the air clear my head sufficiently enough to not be a grump of epic proportions. Loads of meat balls, and great conversation later, it’s a proper Friday evening of chilling and friendly banter – a fitting end to the week and a slew of christmas gigs for the year.

***

One of the more head scratching – and truth be told happy – things that happens to me does on the 24th. I catch the 727 at mid day to the airport, enroute Heathrow for a catch up with B. At the security screening desk it turns out there are more security folk than fliers, the irony of which is not lost on us travellers. For good measure, no thanks to forgetting to remove my watch, I get the enhanced pat down, and my phone swabbed, which in the end ends up being fortuitous as it delays me enough for a certain portly gentleman to slide up to me. Quite the cheerful bloke, he says the one thing we have all noticed but haven’t vocalised, about the security team out numbering flyers. On a whim, he offers to buy me a beer. When I decline, and upon being pressed by him, I accept a coffee instead. At the bar, he flirts so charmingly with the bar tender she is beetroot red by the time we grab our drinks and head off to a table. In a different life, and a different skin he might have been my friend S, from under grad. In the thirty minutes we spend together, we manage to drag four other people into our happy bubble, get to swap war stories about our various professions and he gets snogged by one of the guys, all very love actually-esque.

London goes by quickly; hanging with B, food (loads of), dish washing and meat chopping duties as assigned, and yet another Xmas party number – a far more family friendly, lower key event than the lot I’ve been dragged through up here in Aberdeen – help the time pass quickly enough until I am being sped all the way to Heathrow to catch my flight back to my version of civilisation.

A Week’s Worth…

Monday
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Driving into work on Monday morning, the sense is one of wonder at where the weekend went. Not so long ago – my knackered brain thinks – it was Friday afternoon, and thoughts of a restful weekend filled my mind but here, tottering on the verge of a return to work, the memory of the weekend already seems like a blur. Looking back, the two things that stand out are a cringe worthy gaffe, one occasioned by a particularly blatant reading of a certain situation on my part, and a head scratching conversation with S.

Later this week, the team at work has an away day pencilled in, one which it must be said the vast majority of us are not overly keen on. I suspect our collective irritation has not been helped by the instruction to come with two objects that symbolise the team for us – one for how it has been and one for how we would like it to be in the future. All sort of Zen-ish, feely, metaphorical stuff, but not being one for exercising my brain unduly over the weekend, I find myself fretting over what to take by the time Monday rolls in. One part of me wants to take a rotten banana in as my now object, given how dysfunctional I feel the team is at the moment. In the end I decide to leave the decision for another day, opting to buy a golf ball as my future object; in my mind a sphere and its surface to volume ratio is the closest thing to an efficient object I can grab at short notice.

By the time night comes around, that sense of disquiet has eased off slightly; an extended conversation with Sister #1 helps. Later as I lie in bed mulling over the events of the day and my conversation with S, what ifs and maybes loop continuously through my mind, not helped by the fact that the conversation with S goes far better than I could have hoped for, historical antecedents notwithstanding. Sometime between sheep number 4,597 and infinity, I fall asleep to a mercifully dreamless sleep.

Tuesday
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I choose to walk into work on Tuesday, the nip in the day notwithstanding. Invigorated by the fresh air – or perhaps the copious amounts of green tea I down – I’m down to inbox zero by 10am. After that it’s a meeting with a service provider keen to sell some new-fangled technology to the team. That meeting, which ends just after lunch, goes like a breeze; the usefulness of the tech being pretty much self-evident for the application we require it for.

After lunch I am half way through some paper work when I get an email from the gaffer. It transpires that I have been volunteered for a trip offshore the next day; I am assured it will be a quick night’s trip only, and that a requirement for a slightly above average materials knowledge is the reason why I have been volunteered. The rest of the day passes quickly – briefings to come up to speed on the scope of the trip, check-in details and a quick chat with the chaps more familiar with the specifics of the situation. I finally manage to extricate myself from the mad house at 5.45pm, by which time I am rueing my decision to not drive into work. The silver lining is that the team away day which I was worrying about is canned, ostensibly to allow us focus on the pressing issues at hand.

At home, I debate the merits of driving the next day to the airport, decide it is safest to call a cab instead – traffic on the way to the airport in the morning can be a nightmare – and get it all set up with the City’s taxi rank. Such is my intense focus that is only at 11pm, in the middle of my night time catch up with B that I realise my passport is still down in London.

Wednesday
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I wake up just before my alarm, set for 5.30am, goes off. Last night’s dishes are the first order of business. I battle a dense layer of charred rice for the better part of fifteen minutes before a semblance of cleanliness comes to my pot. I rush through my washing up, final checks to confirm I have packed all I need and a response to my email from last night about my passport. From the looks of it, I will need a dispensation to fly – better than nothing I guess. I drop my old passport in my bag just in case.

I hop into my taxi, traffic is not light, but it does move on at a fairly reasonable clip. The driver and I pass the time in light conversation, beginning with the usual suspects – where I am originally from, how long I have been in the country for, how long I’m booked to be offshore for, where I work and such. When I mention I’m due out for a day only, he laughs, unlikely for this time of the year he adds. I agree, not forgetting my luck with the weather (only once on my previous seven trips offshore have I returned as planned, no thanks to the weather.) .

The conversation moves on to other subjects as we head down Great Northern road towards the notorious Haudagain Roundabout. Falling oil prices, North Sea lifting costs per barrel and the potential impact on business in the city also get discussed as we inch along towards the airport. In between, I fire off an email to the gaffer, alerting him to the situation with my passport.

By the time we arrive the wheels have started churning, a flurry of emails ends in my getting a dispensation to fly with a copy of my passport. There is still time for Google Drive to nearly prove my Achilles heel. Having shared a copy of my passport with the lady at the check-in desk via Google Drive, it turns out she can only view it with a goggle account. In the end I have to log on to her machine, download a copy and then send it off to her office printer before I get checked in. Thankfully I am at the end of the queue and don’t hold anyone up. On this evidence, a return to Dropbox as my default cloud storage is required.

I arrive offshore at just past 11.30am, listen to the site induction, get introduced to the high and mighty and hop off to my lodgings. The agreement is for us all to have a huddle after lunch to kick off the program of activities which has dragged me offshore this time. The meeting goes well; short, quick and frank, after which I get asked to provide an ‘expert’ opinion on the subject at hand. I offer as much information as I have and then leave the rest of the team to it. I spend the rest of the evening catching up with the offshore team, given it’s my first time out here.

Thursday
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The plan is to have a wash up meeting with the work party to discuss findings and then break up to prepare for the return trip. Just after the briefing, I hear I’ll have to spend an additional day. It is for a good cause though as the chap who’ll be taking ‘my’ seat has a holiday lined up.

Out here boot covers, ostensibly to ensure dirty boots don’t get worn within the accommodation modules, are the rage and I end up running through quite a few as I walk about the plant. In between, I get more conversation time with the various supervisors, running over data collection for a different project I have on the horizon. The conversations about me that I over hear are good, helped perhaps by the fact that I’ve worked with a couple of the guys on a different platform before; my we’re all in it together spiel also helps I reckon. The chopper eve mind set kicks in at some stage – all I can think about is home.

Friday

Overnight it feels like the platform is rocking a lot more than I have grown accustomed to. The next morning, my suspicions are confirmed when the Planner who seat next to the desk I have commandeered shows me the weather report, with wind speeds in excess of 60 knots. Outside the wind is howling, and the waves at the cellar deck crash with increasing regularity.

We still go through the motions – bags dragged up to the admin office, checked in and safety brief watched – even though it is clear there’ll be no flight given the conditions. I spend the time at the desk catching up on email. The disillusionment is palpable. A couple of the guys are due off on Monday, the potential impacts of my not getting off on schedule are not something they want to consider.

Saturday
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Morning brings bitter sweet news – the weather has improved enough for a flight to be put on, even though it’s a shared one The slightly bitter news is that a medivac situation is the priority.

We check in, watch the safety brief again,and head back to the offices to get the day started. This time, remembering that I’ve got the Kindle Cloud Reader set up on my portable Chrome version, I fire up John le Carré A Delicate Truth. It’s a good, if cultured read – far more nuanced than the swash buckling Nick Carter/ James Bond-esque sorts I gobbled up growing up. I enjoy it so much that I am up till 11.30pm reading. In between I have lunch – a dubious mix of chips, roast turkey and chili beans; and then dinner – more of the same topped up with a plum and apricot flapjack tart with custard that tastes heavenly.

Sunday
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My on-off flight out is back on, apparently. When the heli-admin tells me that, I tell her I’ll believe when I see the helicopter coming in. She laughs. Far more seriously my paltry five day stint is far less critical than a number of people who are nudging the three week mark.

We go through the routine again, this time getting interrupted as we watch the helicopter safety brief by a general platform alarm. We go the full hog – from mustering to getting counted off and then wait whilst the OIM speaks over the tannoy to give us information. About twenty minutes later, we’re stood down and allowed to return to our various endeavours.

Sometime after 11am, the chug of the in bound helicopter rises to a din as it hovers above. We – the three of us joining this flight – drag our bags upstairs and get led into the helicopter for the ninety minute flight back to the ‘Deen. Thankfully, sleep takes over after a few minutes, the rhythm of the rotor blades and the bland monotony of the never ending water all around lulling me to sleep.

Thankfully, the sun is out in Aberdeen when we arrive, small mercies given that out here, summer (and sunshine) lasts for two days only.

Brunch…

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The things with kids – at least non-Nigerian ones, if my experience was indicative – is that they do not hesitate to call BS-ing adults out. In a moment of subtle pressure – and not for the first time – the unofficial God daughter got me to agree to take them for a meal to the Frankie & Benny’s across the road from mine. At the time, I was only slightly worried – it was late August, and the school holidays were not till October. I assumed that the kids, being kids, would have forgotten by the time October rolled along. My bunch didn’t, which was how I ended up dragging two children – with a third, the chief instigator, planning to arrive after a birthday party – through the doors at just past 12.30 on a Saturday afternoon; as far removed from my typical Saturday as could be. No gym, or light cleaning or an early Cineworld movie to look forward to.

Having managed to get everyone seated, and settled in at our assigned table which thankfully was tucked away from the hustle and bustle, we ordered our drinks – a diet Pepsi for me, a Tango for their father, fruit shoots for them; and then food. The peace and quiet that came with their intense concentration on food lasted no more than a few minutes, the first toilet break the precursor to a game of me too in which both V and M alternated toilet breaks. It didn’t help that the adjoining table was chock full of excitable children either, whose craned necks and general restiveness captured the attention of my crowd, once they had downed their meal.

F, who has evolved into a precociously talented – not young, her words not mine – nine year old, joined us an hour later. Being the bundle of energy she is, she lit the place up like a banshee, getting her usually more reserved baby sister a lot more agitated in the process. I think we did OK – between her father and I – also managing to catch up a few key issues deferred from our last proper catch up a couple of months ago. All told, we were pretty much done in two hours flat, bar last minutes requests for ice cream instigated by F, and channeled through her baby sister. In fairness to her, she did pick up toilet escorting duties after she’d downed her meal, allowing the adults a bit more catch up time.

Plenty of positives all round, if I say so myself, not least of which was my Favourite Uncle creds surviving in tact for another season. Labouring up the stairs to my house having bade all and sundry goodbye, with my jacket fitting a bit too snugly from all the food, the one niggle at the back of my mind was a sense of slight unease. If the strategic five year plan comes together, this – without the get away clause and with the potential for diapers and late nights – could be my life. That, is still more than a wee bit scary.

Finally, Fall…

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Only a few days ago, the sun was out – weakly warm but out regardless, even though the first day of autumn was officially past. As I made my daily lunch time walk from the office to the Boots Store at the back end of Union Square, the sense was one of making hay whilst the sun still shone, enjoying the final blast of warmth, before Autumn took hold. An old lady, bless her heart, bumped into me as we waited for the little green man before crossing the road into the parking lot adjacent to work. In fairness to her I had my nose in my phone – make of that what you will – but that little bump did create the context for a short quick chat whilst we waited. Not so long ago, the arrival of spring,  and the warmth it portended was the focus.

Summer ended up a damp squib of sorts, bifurcated as it was by the events of last July – that made July pretty much a month to forget. August fared little better, the bright spots in an otherwise dreary existence being a milestone birthday and B’s first hop into Aberdeen. September and October fared slightly better with four books downed in quick succession, the kid brother completing his MSc in and then preparing to take the next steps on the journey to his Canadian dream with his first job. As I found out, impromptu trips are more than a little expensive, my bank balance doesn’t look like it will recover from this summer any time soon, with the prospect of a quick hop into Canada to come. Comfort eating returned also – Pizzas, Nandos, and the odd KFC providing sustenance to the detriment of all the weight lost from last year.

These days, leaves litter the ground, a carpet of glowing reds and golden browns a reminder that Summer is well and truly a thing of the past for yet another season. The last brush with Summer too has faded,  leaving us with the far more typical wet, cold and windy weather that is our lot up here. There is a very real counting-down-to-the-end-of-the-year feel to everything, not helped by the spate of Christmas party invites  which kick off the Christmas Party silly season. In a sense, the change in the weather feels like a beginning in reverse; an opportunity to,  like the trees shedding their leaves, hunker down, shed the excesses and focus on the key things through the coming winter months. In the end, change is the only constant they say – birth, growth, spawning new life and death continuing in an infinite loop, like the seasons change, and yet stay the same. Not there yet then – with respect to finding a new normal – but a large part of the journey feels complete. Progress then, if slow and steady rather than quick and painless…

About Town – Conversations, Nandos and Catching Up on Reading

Somehow last Friday, I found myself at Nandos. Somehow doesn’t quite tell the full story given it had more than a hint of conscious effort to it, and my history with the darned place. I suspect it had more to do with a sense of longing than anything else seeing as the last time I was here was in early July. Then, the closest thing to the distinctly autumnal chill I now felt was the distant memory of spring’s tail as she ambled past, urged on by our nearly – but not quite summery  – summer.  I managed to score my regular table, number 11, proceeding to order the self-same meal I have ordered on each of the 100 + times since May 2012 that I’ve been here – half a chicken in lemon and herb, and a mixed leaf salad.

Extra hot sauce and cutlery in hand, I managed to navigate the maze of tables and chairs to my seat before that odd feeling of being watched compelled me to look up, upon which I caught the eye of an old friend I hadn’t seen since his short sojourn in Norway back in 2010. Dropping all, I made my way to the table he was sat at, where his wife and children were digging into a bowl of olives waiting for their own order.We shared a chest bump, to the consternation of more than a few onlookers.

This man! You still dey do this your Voltron moves abi? It was a reference to my gift of invisibility. Enquiries with more than a few mutual friends had failed to turn up my current whereabouts. In my defense, the one friend who might have known was offshore, and had been for the better part of three weeks already. We made small talk – interspersed with regular rather loud handshakes – during which it transpired he had been in town for a couple of weeks already, holidaying with his family, taking the opportunity to escape from the bedlam that is Nigeria, most especially the old motherlode I used to work at. In the space of five minutes or so, I’d caught up on a lot – a steady stream of exits form the old mother lode, which expatriate was back in the country as a contract consultant and what high flier had earned a move to Houston, and of course the developing Ebola story.

The Scottish referendum – I am as yet still undecided – came up too. In theory, I’m in favour of a ‘Yes’ vote, but neither argument has been put forward particularly compellingly enough to me so far. His take was a cautionary tale – based on his experience of Norway – about high taxes, and the North Sea oil numbers which depending on who you talk to might not be so secure after all. That the SNP which has made a big song and dance of protecting the NHS actually has underfunded it, or so the fact checkers say, hardly builds any confidence me that they’ve got a clue. All done and dusted, we swap phone numbers with a promise to catch up properly before he heads off to Nigeria, leaving me to reflect on my way home on just how small margins of coincidence can be. Nandos does have a reputation for being the defacto Nigerian embassy in Aberdeen, at least so says Tolu Ogunlesi. One suspects he should know, even though some would disagree.

The theme of running into old acquaintances continues over the weekend. Sorting out my groceries at my local ASDA after my Saturday morning gym session, and the movies to go see Into the Storm, I run into another old chum – this time an old school mate from Nigeria. He wants to chat a bit more and offer commiserations, aisles at the mall chock full of people are hardly the place for that, and I am neither keen nor remotely interested in being dragged all the way back so I speed him up and move on with a promise of a phone call to catch up properly.

By the time I am headed home, my weekend has pretty much ended. All that is left is for me to settle in with my copy of Gay Talese’s Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, and while away what is left of the Saturday. By and large, it is pretty much back to regular programming at mine, not quite perfect but an ever more stable, new normal.

About Town: 172,800 seconds of summer…

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If you accept the recurrent narrative – regurgitated without so much as a bated eyelid by everyone from office mates to cab drivers – summer out here lasts a mere 172,800 seconds; two days. Making my way home, by way of the ASDA superstore, it is not hard to accept that as fact, given there are scores of people milling about, or seated in the outdoor stalls the pubs on Castlegate – most notably Black Friars, Carltons and Sinatras – have managed to set up. The two recurring decimals are pints of golden brew and bare arms of all shapes and colours; the sun deigned to shine in all its glory today, and we its doting worshippers have come out to play.

At the store, I find myself stuck in a line which is only inching along slowly, even though it is a tad shorter than the others. When it is my turn, I find that the till keeper is not dressed in the normal green garb of the ASDA check out assistant, but rather in a pair of unofficial jeans and a t shirt. The cause of the delays soon come to light. It would appear that he is not someone who normally mans the tills, he has to receive guidance from the attendant in the booth next to his from time to time – a much younger kid than he is by all accounts. Shopping done and dusted, I leave wondering if I have just witnessed first hand the teething pains of re-skilling, or more likely the floor manager stepping in to help get the queue moving.

With time I am finding out that there is a certain method to the madness of banal conversation. Drilled down to the bare essentials it is largely about feigning just enough interest to appear engaged –  uhhms and ahhs inserted into the dialogue at the right times – whilst steering very well clear of any difficult subjects  that might break the thin veneer of enforced civility, the point being to ruffle as few feathers as possible. I suspect it is that acquired reflex that makes me – not entirely out of context – bring up the JayZ song, Hard Knock Life when our Friday afternoon office lunch time conversation segues into the far too serious territory of death, faith and the afterlife. It does achieve the intended effect as we are drawn from the brink of an entirely unnecessary conversation into the safer realms of an argument around who the credits for the line should go to. I eat humble pie in the end – blame my tv starved childhood- when wikipedia confirms that the refrain from what is universally accepted as JayZ’s seminal rap song – is actually a sample from Annie the Musical. So much for my pretensions to being cultured. The positives though are well taken – saved from the brink of another difficult conversation.

About Town: A Mancunian frolic of sorts…

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The sense is part foreboding,  part nonchalance – if both feelings can coexist – and sitting in the departure lounge at Aberdeen airport, waiting – seemingly interminably – for the announcement of my flight to Manchester does little to ease those feelings. Back in January when I decided the API 571 exam was going to be one of my key personal development deliverables for the year, April seemed a lifetime away. Now, on the eve of the exam, the harsh reality hits home squarely not helped by the bad weather which has led to the delay of the inbound flight. The mood around the waiting room is one of tired resignation. It is chock full, fuller than I have ever seen it, perhaps a result of all the flights bunched up. Added to that for me is hunger, having skipped breakfast and hopped down to Boots at work for a meal deal lunch; hardly the sort of fare my inner Nigerian subsists on on a normal day.

We get the announcement we have all been dying for a further forty five minutes later, and board the flight – nearly three hours later than we should have left. Thankfully, the flight is shorter than advertised, we arrive just past 9.30pm. It is still raining. It might be my tired mind but for a brief moment I wonder if this is indeed Manchester not Aberdeen, given the deluge of biblical proportions pelting us as we make the short walk from the steps to the terminal building. My hotel is across town in Salford Quays so I make a beeline for the taxi rank. The driver of the one I get is in the middle of some conversation – one of such importance that he carries on for all of the twenty five plus minute journey. Our only communication is a brief pause within his soliloquy, as he indicates that the fee will be £22.30 – I hand £23.00 to him, he gives me no change in return. The bugger!

Check-in at the hotel is a breeze – the front desk assistant finds my name without needing to eyeball my printed off reservation slip. The room I have assigned is on the third floor. When walk in and dump my bags, I find the view very much to my liking – decorated in soft, white in the main and looking out on to the bright lights of the quayside. It is much larger than typical for the similar prices I’ve paid down in London. True to its ‘budget’ moniker though, there is no proper restaurant of note within the premises, there is a sandwich bar, which I attack, plumping for (yet another) bacon and egg sandwich and two bottles of water. So much for healthy eating.

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The next morning, I am up by 5.30am,  study till 7.00am and then head downstairs to reception to grab a sandwich and a diet coke for breakfast. Having had a look in google maps I plot a route to the exam venue. It is a fifteen minute walk away, pretty much through the centre of town. This I confirm when after paying for my sandwich I ask the small crowd of six clustered around the reception desk in a meeting of some sort. First turn on the left past the traffic lights and follow the curve of the metro is the advice the woman who appears to be the chairing the little huddle gives me.

The musty smell of wetness is overpowering when I turn into a side street en-route the Victoria – proof definitive of just how wet Manchester is I guess. Not since Nigeria in the rainy season have I smelled something this intense. When I arrive at the Victoria building – at just past 8.00am, there is only one other person hanging around the building. He is in the middle of what must be his pre-game ritual, fag in mouth, peering into an iPad. My arrival seems to make his mind up for him as he nods in my direction, puts away his ipad and holds the door open for me. At the lifts I step in before him and punch the button for the seventh floor.

Exam today he asks? when he notices we are headed for the same floor. I nod. It turns out he is around for a Microsoft exam of some sort. I explain I have got an API one – that brings as much cognition out of him as water in the middle of the Sahara.

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The first Prometric staff arrives ten minutes later. She nods a greeting as she takes us in a sweeping gaze. After swiping herself in and knocking a few things about for another couple of minutes, she opens the main doors and lets us in. Ten minutes later, they appear to be ready for us and we commence the exam sign in procedures – ID  documents, a quick pat down and then bags and coats stowed away in lockers. By the time I am signed in for my exam a fourth and fifth person have arrived.  The exam itself is one of those – not terrible, but not a roaring success either. Given it is based on the ability to recall a slew of facts – pressures, temperatures, pH levels and material compositions, one either knows the right answers or doesn’t and I finish inside 90 minutes from the 4 hours allotted. . Having gone over the questions two more times to bottom out which exactly I’m sure of and which I am not, I decide I have had enough and punch out. On my way back I take a different route, ending up with a gorgeous view of water in one of the basins. On a whim, I make a pit stop at a Frankie and Bennys. An English breakfast downed – and £10 lighter – I feel a tad better, dodgy exam or not.

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I plan to meet up with my friends E and C later in the day. We agree on somewhere central – Piccadilly Gardens – and by 1pm I hop onto the tram from Salford Quays towards the city centre. Chugging along at a steady pace, one gets the sense that Manchester is all red brick and high rise buildings – a bit blind man meets elephant I guess. They are ten minutes late. Whilst waiting, I pretend to be interested in the notices at the Piccadilly Gardens tram stop.The sun is out, and there are loads of people about – burkas, veils, jeans and tees and skimpy skirts and tank tops all coexisting, peacefully it seems. The joys of multiculturalism I guess. To my left two guys and three girls, hardly teenagers I think, materialise, blowing smoke all over . After a few seconds it becomes clear what it is they are trying to achieve – the age old male-female detente . They succeed – it seems – because by the time I’m heading off to meet E and C, they are all a happy huddle – swapped cigarettes included. Whilst waiting, I post a picture of the wheel – I get a quick call back from someone I haven’t met in a while who now happens to live in Manchester. We agree to meet up for five thirty.

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I grab coffee and a waffle with E and C and catch up . It’s been three years since we last met, the bulk of the intervening communication occurring via facebook and instagram – terrible I know. They are great sport, but have to leave in just an hour thanks to prior engagements. We agree to speak more often going forward – small positives I guess.

Waiting for J, I stumble on a piece of interpretative dance in the gardens themselves. A group of musicians from the Gambia thrill the crowd with their repertoire of dance and music. It is so engaging from time to time people from the crowd join in in the frenzied dancing. It keeps me occupied, and when the bucket comes around, I drop a fiver. Very enjoyable it has been.

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J is delayed – he finally shows up at six thirty. By this time, the sunshine has vanished replaced by a biting wind and overcast skies.I rue my decision to ditch my fleece for only a wind breaker. Three black guys and an asian try to rile a police community support officer. One of them, clearly aggrieved, goes off in a rant about being subservient and being slaves to the system. The PCSO doesn’t as much as bat an eyelid. He’s clearly seen and heard a lot more. I move off – the last thing I want to do is to be caught up in something I have no business in. J arrives, and we grab a burger, seat on one of the benches and chat. We go over the usual – work, Nigeria, and the pressures from our parents to marry or be damned. Life I guess.

By Sunday, I am mentally drained and end up not going to church – terrible given how much I have looked forward to going in Manchester. I blame stumbling on a blog which wasn’t very complimentary of the one I wanted to attend for dissuading me. I do go out though – a final  meetup up with R is planned at the gardens again. She does her nerd creds no harm by dragging me across to the Central Library – it’s impressive, circular facade one that intrigues me. It is however locked so we don’t get to see the insides. Lunch is a KFC three piece meal wolfed down with a diet pepsi. On the way back, we run into a number of street acts – Iron man, with whom I get to score a picture, and some bloke levitating as it were.

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Pretty much tired and sleepy, I make my way to the train station for the airport. Under five pounds it is this time.. The next time, there will be no cabs for sure.

About Town : On (yet another) return to the middle of nowhere

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Wide awake, with not even a lingering hint of sleep to becloud my eyes, I pause to ponder the day that lies ahead of me. Difficult as it may be to wrap my head around them, the facts are what they are. It is very nearly six months since I last made the journey that lies ahead of me. Back then, LK was the developing conundrum, one that those days spent in the middle of nowhere ended up resolving, ultimately to my pain – not that I knew that at the time. My alarm snaps me out of my little reverie – I have a 6.00am check-in at the other end of town to contend with, and a 15 minute walk to catch the bus that will haul me across town – small margins for error given it is already 4.05am.

A bath, shave and a quick swig of water done, I heft my two bags onto my shoulders – two changes of clothes and work boots and covies in one, my laptop in the other – and make my way down King’s Street and then across to Broad Street where it turns out I have a ten minute wait till the 727 chugs along to pick us up. There is one other person in the bitter cold, she hops on to the number 11 after a few minutes, leaving me all along again till ta second co traveller appears at ten minutes past the hour. He doesn’t disappear – into the number 17 when it comes. The quiet wetness is that bit more bearable for company – silent though it is.

On to the 727 we are the only ones who are aboard, the driver’s reply to my muttered greeting is terse – a hint of an Eastern European accent to boot. Ear phones plugged in, I settle in to my chair , Tenth Avenue North my music of choice on this bitter cold morning. Somewhere between the Great Northern Road stop and the Bucksburn Police station, five or so others hop on, and my silent companion from Broad Street morphing into a pilot’s uniform, with as much efficiency as  women who go from hag to wag on the tube.

We arrive at the airport at 5.30am – good time seeing the advertised time of arrival was meant to be 5.35am. My flight is only the second one so check-in for the first flight is still ongoing – it stretches for a further fifteen minutes, due , it turns out to particularly stringent checks today. I have to flash my passport and vantage card, get patted down quite intrusively and have my bag unpacked and repacked by the young lady who is conducting the baggage checks for me. My inner jacket doesn’t fit into my knapsack when she tries to fit it. She is apologetic about it – a small hassle for me – I opt to have it on me for addition to the big bag that gets tacked on to the flight for jackets and other small items.

The flight to Scatsta is quick – Scatsta ends up drier – and feels warmer – than Aberdeen does, even though it is nearly 300 miles closer to the North Pole. The quirks of my wet, cold and windy corner of Ruralshire I guess. The call to suit up comes at about 10.00am. It should take just under an hour but we end up with our feet on fairly stable ground – for what it’s worth – in an hour and thirty minutes. We make a pit stop on the NS platform, where the helicopter gets refuelled – and one of the pilots vanishes for nearly fifteen minutes. It is the first time in my six trips offshore where this has happened. If the motions the other passengers who like me are forced to disembark whilst all this goes on are anything to go by – the pilot has had the need to take a sudden shit.

It is very nearly 11.30m before I get to squirm out of my boiler suit, go through the shortened version of an induction and then dump my bags in the room I’ve been assigned. Long day coming up from the looks of it, given it is still not yet 12.00 noon.


The room I am assigned, it turns out, I will have to share with a chap on the night shift. The slight positive is that it will give us both a measure of privacy – whilst I am sleeping he will be working, and vice versa. It does means too though that my morning ablutions are completed in a tip-toe of sorts. By 6.00 am I am done, and I head out to the galley to grab a cup of tea to kick start my day. On the way I run into G from my last trip. We shake hands, a little too firmly as we exchange pleasantries in the hallway. Six months ago, we had bonded over bad weather and a delayed flight that meant that a two day trip for me – and a three week one for him – ended up stretching an additional five days. This time, he is due off the day before I am to go. ‘Thank goodness’ he says, ‘at least you won’t be a Jonah on my flight this time’. I smile and walk away – his acerbic wit is one that is growing on me.

I run into G again at 9.30am, the small matter of a spread of bacon rolls, cheese toast and cheese cake attracting a small crowd of six for a tea break and a natter. G is sat in the massage chair across from me, one of the guys, a Ross County football fan is the butt of his wit this time. The night before a couple of contentious referring decisions gifted G’s home town club a win over County, and he never one to miss the chance to goad a fellow human obliges. For once I am glad to be out of the eye of the storm.

I dig into a bacon roll – doubled and a lorne sausage for good measure and enjoy the spectacle. M has a bacon roll too, and having downed that, at G’s encouragement digs into half a cheese toast. That, as I find out over the next few days provides plenty fodder for G to rib M about his weight.

Just after lunch B stops by to alert me to the fact that my flight out on Monday is over booked – I’ll thus be spending an additional day. A bit of a nuisance given I have driving lessons booked for Tuesday evening. I toy with cancelling them to avoid losing my fee but decide to hold fire just yet. I guess given my luck, there was always the sneaky suspicion that it might come to this (it’s the fourth time out of six i’ll be delayed an extra day at least

Sunday starts off early for me, the situation with the bloke on the night shift not exactly helping matters. At the mid-morning tea break, a new face shows up – a Canadian drilling engineer with a love for dirt bikes and trucks. He seems a pleasant enough guy, and take no offence to G’s ribbing about his love for cheese cake and the pin-ups splashed across his computer desktop.

Lunch is beef roast. I grab a couple of slices of roast beef with a small portion of curried rice – my nod to my stop start low carb diet, and at the chef’s insistence some haggis. Between mouthfuls of roast beef, I get sucked into a conversation on cars. A number of the guys are eyeing up sports cars – Jaguars, Audis and the like – out of my price range, even if I did not have the small matter of passing the driving test to contend with.  I hum and ahm at the right moment, taking in the brake horse power, the number of cylinders and the acceleration stats with the right amount of (feigned) admiration I hope. For dessert, I have pick up two pieces of cheese cake – #4 and 5 over the last three days.  On my return, I find the seat next to mine has been filled by K. The conversation has taken a slight detour into diet territory. K’s  on a modified Atkins one, where he’s sworn off carbs. Uncomfortable territory given how much cheese cake I have downed so far.

 Sometime after dinner, P stops by with slightly more relevant news – a medevac on Monday means a second flight will be put on, and I just might make it to the beach on the same day I am planned for a change – some consolation. J emails to check up on me – I give her a call and we chat about how the weekend has panned out. Hectic at hers, slightly less so at mine but plenty to look forward to on Monday.

Monday passes in a blur – tense anticipation ruling the day as first I am informed the original flight I should be on has been cancelled. I am promised a later one will arrive at 1.45pm. In the end, it arrives at 4.00pm. Late enough to have had lunch but not dinner. By the time it touches down in Scatsta, it is nearly 6.15pm. We spend another 30 minutes waiting, before we wing our way back to the ‘Deen.

I am far too tired to care at this stage – I must come across as a right grump to the cab driver as after three or so attempts to make small talk, the ride passes in somewhat uncomfortable silence. All that is left by the time I arrive at my door, at very nearly 7.30pm, is to order a large Papa Johns, devour it in short order and fall into my bed fully clothed till the gentle vibration of my phone alarm the next morning jolts me back to life.

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The March Wrap – Reboots, London and Bits and Bobs…

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Down South, the overwhelming narrative is one of a spring in full flow, cue a flood of selfies on Instagram and Facebook, complete with the obligatory sunglasses, sleeveless tops and sandals. Up here, in my North Eastern corner of Ruralshire, the best that we have had is six degree weather and intermittent sunshine – not quite spring, but very nearly as good as it gets up here, being thankful that we are not having snow in March like we did last year.

March pretty much sped by – leaving in its trail a raft of ups and downs. For one, my on-off dalliance with LK was finally put to the sword, common sense finally prevailing over blind, senseless hope. Six months and some of walking on egg shells, being treated like crap and being used a a dump for wildly swinging emotions have been exchanged for clarity and distance – still slightly hurting but a step in the right direction.

In one week from hell, I got a tooth pulled out, flunked my driving test spectacularly and got turned down for the dream job – a mid level rust geek role at a Company  I had always wanted to work for since my (Nigerian) under graduate days. Being on the verge of turning 35, coming up to 5 years in my current role and changes to the operational status of the plant I support have all been elements of the perfect storm which seems to have hit a tad early.

It has not been all doom and gloom though – J’s been a refreshing breath of fresh air by all accounts, and (finally) some clarity around my current work situation.  Catching Zara MacFarlane at the Aberdeen Jazz Festival, thanks to boredom at the office and some googling was also a highlight. Rocking at the Blue Lamp, she  delivered a nuanced performance, high in energy at times but also deep and sombre at times. Much value for money, the one blight on the night being that I ended up sat at the same table as someone I had done lunch with in the past who spectacularly failed to recognise me. Some impact i must have left I guess!

The monthly lunches with the guys from work have become a staple. This time we returned to the Bistro Verde to take in the fantastic sea food on offer. It delivered as usual, if the service was somewhat slow this time. Calamari, Gin and tonics and pan fried haddock set me in the mood for an extended weekend of luxuriating, capped off by meeting J in London, Hillsong and a fabulous kebab in Harrow after being dragged through the Currys computer aisles by C.

In books, I ended up completing two – half way through a third. Much progress given how February delivered zero completed books. Both books, by some quirk had to do with the making and breaking of habits – Charles Duhigg’s New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do, and How to Change and Heath Lambert’s Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace. Both books take an ax to the root of habits from different perspectives – Duhigg’s the more pop science based approach with Heath Lambert’s  a very much biblically focused one.  Two of the better reviews I stumbled on provide a good summary of both books – Business Week on The Power of Habit and Tim Challies on Finally Free.

In other news, I somehow managed to pick up 3kg in weight. Those darned two for one Tuesdays from PapaJohns be damned 😦

Christmas… In Eight Days

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Aperitivo, on Bon-Accord Street, is where this year’s Christmas silly season kicks off for me, and coming so soon after my return from Nigeria – with all the food I was force fed – part of me cringes at the thought of yet more food. In the end my desire to avoid giving yet more ammunition to the AJ-is-a-snob brigade makes me decide to attend. I just about make it to the party, keeping G waiting on the corner of Union and Bon-Accord for almost fifteen minutes. It is a terrible time to be out and about; it is piddling, there is a strong wind and Union Street is chock full of the rush hour traffic at just before six pm. In going home first, rather than directly from work, my gamble has failed spectacularly; missing the bus from across the road at home meaning I have to walk briskly to cover the twenty minute walk in fifteen. G – never the type to let an opportunity to lay in to someone – does give me a right going as we walk the short distance from the junction towards our final destination for the night after I arrive. It matters little that we are the first ones in by ten minutes past six, or that the table has been booked for a seven pm start.

We order gin and tonics whilst we wait for the rest of our party to show up. They do eventually, between ten and twenty minutes later. Our host, held up by a power cut due to the atrocious weather, arrives somewhere in between, waving us over to a private lounge which she had reserved for the purpose of drinks for an hour before dinner’s due at seven pm. Confusion resolved then. I grab my third gin and tonic of the night, joining in the yakking until we all sit down to dinner. Dinner for me is a fried calamari starter and a costolette di agnello for a main. The food takes a while to come through, being served in three or four batches. By the time we are all done, and several bottles of red wine later, it is very nearly ten pm, and home time for me. As I grab my coat, I overhear two of the guys talking about hitting Espionage. Loads of energy to expend yet.. O_o.

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A week later, I am at the Monkey House for our now annual Christmas ritual – drinks, and then a large, hearty Indian meal at the Nazma. Walking up the road from the Monkey House, it all feels very Christmassy, the city lights above Union Street glowing bright against the dark skies as we walk along, all our personal niggles from work forgotten – for one night at least.

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Parties #3 and 4 take place the Saturday after. The Tech team at church – choc full with very married people and their children – has us all out on the 14th to catch up on food, pepper soup and Nigerian music. It is slow going at first, like all things Nigerian with our penchant for African time, but it does start rocking two hours in. By then, we – our small group of single peeps camped out in our own little corner of the room- have made a few frantic calls to our contacts at the other party across town – and made up our minds to slip out quietly. We pile into U’s car just shy of 8.30pm and hop the three or so miles across.

When we pour in through the door at party #4, things are a little more raucous – blame shed loads of young people and too much food. I shake a few hands as I am ushered to a seat at the corner next to my friends R and P. A plate of rice, some coleslaw and fried chicken gets dumped in my lap in short order. My one surviving image from the party is me with the plate in my lap, shaping up a victory sign/ trying to prevent a picture of myself being taken. I clearly succeed at neither. Sometime later, S. waltzes in, making for a few awkward moments. Thankfully, we are off in a few – major danger averted.

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Party #5 sees us return to the Albyn for my third straight year. The plan is to kick off with drinks for an hour before seating down to lunch and the raffle. G has had way too much to drink by the time the food arrives. That, and his form for being an inveterate windup, account for the extreme irritation I am feeling by the time we break up for the raffle. Between sips of cognac, gin and tonics and tomato soup, I get a book recommendation for 2014 – Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. That, and the spicy haggis and beef I have as a main, more than make up for the evening. At the earliest opportunity, after my well documented rotten luck with raffles plays out yet again, I slip off to my house and some peace at last.

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For the second year running, I get invited to my friend O’s house, which ends up being my sixth Christmas related event of the month. He drops by mine to pick me up after a not so quick Christmas morning service at church. The kids usually are the highlights of this one for me – I get to faff around and act like I am a big kid all over again. The youngest V and I have a tenuous relationship. She, as she has grown older, has become less trusting and icier towards strangers. By the time the evening ends, she and I are rolling all over the rug together, to her Mum’s surprise. Such is the strength of the bond that we have built by the end of the evening that she insists on accompanying us when her dad drops me off at mine. That and the bowl of soup, additional rice and turkey bits I get in a bag to take away,  make it a super Christmas for me. 🙂

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For a last Christmas do, my friend O and I head out to the Soul Bar on Union Street. Their chicken fahitas are the best I have had. And two or three times each year, I have gone back since my first time there in 2010. It is a quiet, guys only evening out. In another time and space, we would moan about our wives at this.. 🙂