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

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

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

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

Cabbie Chats…

Scotland play Brazil down south today. Today’s cab driver is a chatty Scotsman merrily drawing puffs from his nicotine inhaler. From the get go it seems like he is in the mood to talk. The bright sunny weather offers him a starting point.

– Sunny day today, he says when I finally get my seat belt fastened and the journey kicked off. We make small talk about the weather, and how spring seems to have come a little earlier this year. He gently chides me, warning me not to tempt fate by celebrating the weather.

– It can change any time you know. We just need to enjoy it while it lasts. His comment is delivered with a faint air of brooding, like an indulgent father warning a son to mend his ways after drinking a keg of palm wine, and belching for good measure.

Silence descends as we meander through the streets – packed with cars during the lunch time rush hour. To break the uncomfortable silence, I ask what his predictions for the Scotland game will be.

– The lads will get beat, he says. They’ve got nae talent, he adds. I ponder his words. The Scottish male national football team has been dire of late. The coach, a certain Craig Levein seems more intent on not losing than winning, nearly coping a 1-1 draw with Lichtenstein who are not exactly known for football.

Out of the blue, he asks me if I’m Nigerian. I reply in the affirmative. There is a certain lustre in his eyes as he proceeds to recount his memories of watching Scotland play Nigeria in a football friendly just before the 2002 World Cup.

-It was my son’s birthday, he says. I took the entire family down to Pittodrie for the game. Great occasion too, he adds. Lots of colour, happy fans, and singing. Oh and Scotland lost the game any way.

I laugh, uneasily. It is yet another stark reminder of how poor his National football team have been since the halcyon years of successive World Cup qualifications.

Us Nigerians have always been colorful performers I say. We love to sing and dance.

He smiles wistfully. You know even when Nigeria was leading, the fans kept singing a song, ‘All we are saying, give us one goal’

I laugh out loud, its a popular song in Nigeria I say. It’s been used in diverse situations from protest marches to football games.

-Maybe they were protesting, and asking for more goals, he says. We laugh together.

The rest of the journey is spent ruminating on how football songs evolve. One more good cab trip I’ve made – well worth the 20 pounds I paid I think.

2010: The Year in…. Cabs

I think cab drivers are a microcosm of the larger society and that if a sufficiently large sample is analysed, one can gain critical insights into the mind of a city. This has to be the year where I used cabs the most. Tight deadlines at work, atrocious weather conditions, moving houses and a few late night jaunts around town conspired to leave me needing cabs at various times this year. The downside was largely financial – I ended up racking up significant costs on renting cabs over the year. On the plus side, I think I gained a window into the mindset of this city.

The experiences were largely good. In general, the cabbies provided a lot of friendly banter on a variety of topics – the shambolic performance of the Scottish National football team, Wayne Rooney’s theatrics in the bid to snatch an enhanced pay package, the delights of summer in the shape of scantily clad women, and pregnant Nigerian women and their inclination to take cabs even over short distances and the like. There was the occasional complaining cabbie who had stories to tell of how the city’s taxi regulators milked him of the genuine profits he made; or more regularly the one who bitched about the weather.

There were the touching stories too – the bloke whose niece was dying of cancer and had been sent home to die in peace, the one whose children had ganged up to wring a couple of hundred pounds worth of Christmas gifts from his grasp and the one who knew someone who had fallen victim to a Nigerian scam artist.

I had the pleasure of meeting a few thinking cabbies too. There was the one whose immersion in Ian McEwan’s ‘Solar’ I was loathe to disrupt, the one who wistfully harked back to memories of night life in Port Harcourt sandwiched between two buxom lasses, and of course, the ex-professional footballer (his claim, I didn’t verify anything).

Inevitably, three questions never failed to come up… “Where are you from originally?”, ” How long have you been in this city?”  and “Where do you work?”