Over the past few weeks, temperatures have slowly crept lower and lower, dipping below zero on occasion and leaving the city centre sidewalks crunchy and slippery underfoot at times. The leaves that the trees – once leafy and full but now stark against the light of the reluctant mornings – shed haven’t helped the state of affairs, trapping moisture which turns into treacherous ice once the temperatures dip below zero. All of that, and being this side of Halloween, means that it is the beginning of the Christmas Party silly season. This year, I have just the two to attend, a far cry from the halcyon days of $100 oil. I suppose this belt-tightening regime can only be a good thing, given it underscores a more prudent, sustainability-focused outlook for the industry. Tight belts or not, there is a certain bluntness which alcohol engenders, that is one of the things I am looking forward to witnessing.
Speaking of uninhibited truth-telling, I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on how you look at it) of sitting next to a somewhat inebriated gentleman a few days ago on one of my recent flights down south. Very clearly in the mood for a natter – in spite of the fact I had headphones on and had a book in hand – he proceeded to interrogate me for most of the flight, all whilst being apologetic about intruding on me. Questions about where my parents were originally from ( I am visibly black), if I had been subjected to racism in the past, Brexit and what I did for work were a few of the potential banana skins our conversation navigated. A few years ago, I might have taken umbrage at his line of conversation but I am learning that context is everything. In this case, it turned out that his wife is a black South African. It also turned out that the book I had in hand, Bassey Ikpi’s I’m telling the truth but I’m lying, had played a part in encouraging him to engage, particularly the essay I was on provocatively titled ‘Becoming A Liar’. Slippery grounds apart, our conversation eventually turned to mental illness, which is part of the focus of the book. Given the stigma around mental health issues, particularly amongst men, I suppose anything that prompts conversations about it is a good thing. Silver linings then I guess.
Lately, I have been thinking a lot about crossroads – the metaphorical kind of course – points in one’s life where decisions with the potential to change the trajectory of one’s life are foisted upon one. The triggers for this latest bout of thinking are varied but the one common thread is a sense of dissatisfaction which has simmered below the surface for most of the year. Turning forty is certainly part of that, particularly as in its immediate aftermath, it felt like I had reached the top of a mountain only to find there was nothing to be seen there. There is also the desire to head down south for good for family reasons, which perhaps has declared open season on everything I have done for work over the past fifteen-ish years. In the rarefied atmosphere in which my thought experiments exist, everything is an option: from a complete pivot away from oil and gas into something more tech-related, through a less severe move away from being the (siloed) technical specialist I have spent the past few years evolving into becoming more of a generalist to a gap year, travelling the world.
10 years ago if you asked me, I would have sworn off getting into the world of managing people and the (in my opinion) the murky world of office politics but I am finding my revulsion for that less iron-clad than it once was. Truth is when it all comes down to the brass tacks, the things which drive my decisions are the things which drive us all: family, financial security, flexibility and opportunities to get ahead not some rose-tinted version of reality.
Of course, desires are one thing, but they only materialise when desire meets real-world opportunity. Time is also a factor, which is where I find myself now with irons in the fire taking however long they will take whilst I ponder what viable options remain. The option to cut ties and sail off into a different vista is one my friends M and O have taken over the past few months, as have a steady stream of people in my wider cycle. If all goes to plan, I may not be far behind them. Fingers crossed.
All it takes is an extended patch of wet and cold weather for things to descend into chaos on these islands, this latest batch of snow, heavy winds and cold weather culminating in flight cancellations and severe weather warnings amongst others. For the most part, I manage to survive – extra warm clothing, walking gingerly to and from work in the wet slush and almost continuous heating being the sum of the adjustments I have to make. It is at the weekend when the rooster comes home to roost in a manner of speaking. Having turned up at the airport for my 8.20pm flight down to Heathrow, delays till almost 11 pm are announced until at a few minutes before midnight we are advised the flight has been cancelled. Remarkably, everyone who should be on our flight is remarkably sanguine about it all, helped I suspect by the sense that the weather ‘gods’ have been at it again. Between the final announcement of delays and the flight being cancelled, we find (from Flight radar) that the ‘plane designated to carry us away to London has made several attempts to land at the ‘Deen but has failed due to fog rolling in. They eventually get diverted to Glasgow whilst we make an orderly line at the front desk to get our flights rebooked. I move my flight by a week and then head home, not before I find out that the woman in front of me in the queue has family in the same area of Surrey that I’m headed to, and very much like me, she makes this trip every two weeks so. Joking about being four-day spouses, does have a ring of truth to it though. For me, it offers evidence that this thing – having a foot in two different countries – isn’t exactly impossible to maintain, mild weather-induced irritation notwithstanding.
Ok British people, my brunch companion and I have a question: what is tea? Is it a snack? A meal? Does one eat supper after it? Do you have 4 meals in a day? What does it involve other than the obvious, e.g. tea? Is tea real or is it a hilarious hoax you pull on Americans?
I have to thank this tweet, and the replies it spawned, for helping most of that time pass. Growing up in my other country, meals were all about being three ‘square’ meals: breakfast, lunch and dinner. Tea – and apples amongst other things – were alien constructs I first came across in the various Enid Blyton books I scrounged off my more exposed friends. As I became older, tea became synonymous with instant cream milk (usually the Peak brand) and Bournvita (a chocolate drink) and on the odd occasion a cup of Lipton tea. Reading the replies and comments thus brought back memories of my first few years up here, particularly offshore and the contact with people from across the spectrum of UK regions it brought my way and brought more than a few chuckles to me too. A silver lining to all that waiting I would like to think.
Elsewhere, I have been slowly catching up with the first season of Aria Code,Rhiannon Giddens’ deep dive into a number of the most famous arias along with interviews with singers and capped off with the full aria from the Met Opera. The penultimate episode from this first season features the “Letter Aria” from Jules Massenet’s Werther, which opens with Charlotte at home on Christmas Eve, rereading letters that she has received from Werther an ex-lover she has sent away to be focused on her marriage to her husband. One of the themes explored in this episode of Aria code is the subject of long-distance love, a theme lived and explored by one of the show’s guests Peter Bognanni (after briefly meeting his wife, they fell and grew in love over email before eventually marrying) in his book Things I’m Seeing Without You. Well worth a listen if Opera is your bag, or if like me you have good memories from having made friends and loving over significant distances.
I come upon them suddenly as I emerge from the arch on Peacock’s Close onto the parking lot. I have my headphones in as always, humming under my breath as I drag myself home, the combination of the low light , my tiredness and that they have their backs to the road being the reasons why we startle each other.
What becomes obvious when I eventually take in the scene is that they — a woman and a girl I can only assume are mother and child — have been taking turns at blowing bubbles and squealing in delight as the light wind drives them away towards the road.
I get the sense they are enjoying themselves — at least the smile that plays around the woman’s lip when I draw level with them suggests she is.
A pop up on LinkedIn is how my memory of him gets reawakened. He, O, is an old friend whom I haven’t spoken to in a very long time, far longer than I care to admit.
It is with some trepidation I send a request to connect and a message. That gets accepted, following which we exchange a few messages, ending with obtaining his phone number.
A forty five minute conversation on the phone today reminds me of all what I have missed from that friendship. All things being equal we plan to catch up properly when next I am in London, wives, kids and all…