I finally got round to migrating my contacts to my local phone, the process of downloading them from one account to a new one the last grudging act of acceptance at being here, a signal as it were of the finality of moving. It felt great to be able to do all I use my phone for – WhatsApp, podcasts, ebooks and all – from one device. What I did not bargain for was the trip down the rabbit hole of memory that exercise would be.
If you had asked me, I would have said I was great at moving on, never letting the detritus of the past hang around too long – this exercise put the lie to that. There were contacts from my Eket days, from Newcastle and every pit stop in between; with a few very dead people in there. The longer I think about it, the more I suspect that finality is difficult, and keeping phone numbers of lost or atrophied connections is one last stand for hope against hope. It is a false hope of course. Although I haven’t called H’s number in years, P did a few years ago and found out the number had been reassigned to someone else, which given the time that has passed is reasonable.
One could argue that with the undead, the situation is much less nuanced. There seems to be little benefit to keeping contacts for people I haven’t spoken to in many years, especially in situations where the spheres and cycles we live in have significantly diverged. Sentimental attachments make the decision less clear cut for some though, not least because there is at least one such person who I have the (fortunate or unfortunate) coincidence of sharing a birthday with.
I took the opportunity to clean up my contacts and remove a number of these dead and lost connections. H, E and F remain. Ridding my contacts of their numbers – even if those might have been reassigned to someone else – seemed a bridge too far this time. Maybe someday in 2030, I’ll finally bring myself to do that.
Speaking of the dead, I found this interview with Fabrice Muamba on the subject of those 78 minutes fascinating, not least for his thoughts on faith and community and how it helped him pull through the dark days after his cardiac event when it became obvious his footballing career was over. Well worth a listen if I say so myself.
The less common variant of the “Where are you from” question I get comes from the unconventional way my surname is spelt. Family folklore suggests that my great-grandfather, whether in a fit of pique or an attempt to be contrarian – no one is certain which it is, took his rather mundane Yoruba name, replaced a couple of vowels with consonants, and declared himself unique. To this day when I ‘goggle’ myself, every reference is to someone I know and have met, bar a frankly confusing article that includes TB Joshua, Togo and Canada. Make of that what you will.
On this occasion, the question came whilst filling out a form in preparation for getting my ears tested – a hearing conservation test for work. The chap in question, from a South East Asia country I shall not name, wondered where I was from, as he had not seen a name spelt that way before. I gave him the short answer – The UK, but when that clearly did not provide the clarity he required, I explained the Nigerian great-grandfather connection. That put paid to that line of questioning and allowed me to take the test. The good news is I have the hearing of a twenty-five-year-old, whatever that means. I would much rather have the metabolism (and thus the mid-section) of a ripped sixteen-year-old, but then the one about wishes, horse and beggars comes to mind. We revisited the subject of where I was from as he wrote up the test results. From that conversation, it transpired that he was waiting on a response from the High Commission on an application which would enable him to move there. His eyes seemed to light up at the opportunities he looked forward to, ‘ a lot of travelling’ he said in addition to working in a London hospital and potentially offshore in the future.
A few months ago, the vistas that greeted my eyes were the verdant greenery of the Surrey countryside, a corner of the world crisscrossed by canals, streams and protected forests. At the time, the uncertainty of what direction the future lay clouded my mind, preventing me from truly appreciating all that great nature. Now that I have swapped that for the sterile, over-engineered badlands I am now in, those days seem dim and distant. Until the COVID restrictions get properly lifted, I may not get another opportunity to enjoy them at length. I look back and miss those days, being wary of not falling into the same trap again and failing to appreciate what I have got now (‘til its gone again). The irony in all of that is perhaps that it took going halfway around the world and meeting someone excited about going to the place I left with nary a shed tear to remind me of some of the good things about it.
One of the non-perks of living at the edge of the world is that everything has to be ferried in, and even the small matter of activating a registration requires a 60km ride into the nearest town. All of these meant that having finally received a critical piece of documentation, I needed a taxi ride for the third time in a week. As it turns out, I got the same chap as I had on the past two trips, my experiences of which varied from merely irritating to downright terrible. The full story is too long to recount but involved a couple of wrong turns and ending up in a different place, which added thirty minutes to what was already a lengthy forty five minute lunchtime dash into town. That ordeal was compounded by a malfunctioning temperature scanner at the gate which required three tries before I was eventually granted access to the office.
All of this came rushing to my mind when I saw him, along with a sinking feeling of despair, especially because the trip was a complicated one involving several stops. He and I had no choice though. Our fates, tossed together that very afternoon, were inextricably linked for all of Time. He needed to earn his pay, I needed to get to the next town, so make do with each other we did.
An uncomfortable silence punctuated by the sounds of the road – other passing cars, the clump of going over a bump now and again and the air conditioning on full blast – was all we had for most of the journey, the silence easier than trying to communicate across the language barrier. To my shame, I pretended to poke around on my phone then look thoughtfully out into the distance where there was truly nothing to see.
I will never know how long that state of affairs could have lasted for because halfway through the journey he asked if I was Nigerian. I answered in the affirmative, which prompted further revelations of other Nigerian folks out here he had worked with. After that, I had to ask where he was from. It turned out he was as local as it could get, being born in the very town we were speeding towards. That helped allay some of my anxiety about the journey and defused the building tension in the car.
The journey did not go without any hitches: the aroma of the cigarettes he lit up every time he had to wait for me at a stop never quite left, his meter stopped working three-quarters of the way through the journey which meant I paid an estimated fare (which probably worked out in my favour, to be honest) and he had to take a call from his wife at some stage. It wasn’t the greatest of afternoons but then nothing involving humans, not least two people navigating a new thing, ever goes perfectly. I did come away with a reminder that behind every transactional relationship lies a human: with quirks of character, needs and maybe an irate wife or two. I can – we all can – deal more graciously with others.
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.