05. Lessons Learned


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A year ago if you asked me how well I enjoyed my own company, on a scale of 1 to 10 I would place myself somewhere between 9 and 9.5, the 0.5 my attempt at modesty. Pressed for evidence, I would point to the various things I did alone without so much as a flutter of an eyelid — Football Manager, a substantial list of feeds subscribed to in my Feedly, a number of series I watch obsessively and any number of books I have my nose in from time to time.

That is why I find the sense of listlessness I begin to feel mid-way through my two weeks away from work doubly disconcerting. Far from being painstakingly planned and flawlessly executed, the two week holiday happens to me suddenly, the result of a perfect storm of failing to request the days (hoping I can convince S to go away with me for a week) and a month at work which frankly seems to have come from hell. I barely have time to send out the notes from the last meeting on the 21st before I have to leave the building, a compromise which still leaves me having lost three days of holiday.

I do manage to hatch a cunning plan to make the most of the enforced holiday — the first of the weeks till after Christmas up in my corner of Scotland and then a quick hop down south to London till the New Year.


What my plan fails to account for is S’s Spanish jaunt getting off to a dodgy start, the absence of wifi at their lodgings meaning that communication is at a premium, limited to the occasional text message sent by international text. The combination of loads of time on my hand, and a limited number of places I can go to at short notice drives my mind into overdrive, what-ifs, maybes and should haves jostling for primacy in my mind. I find myself twiddling my thumbs, counting the hours and finding little comfort in the things that used to fill my alone time, hardly the most productive or healthy use of my time and energy


This sense of discomfiture at the absence of someone is one of the things I have perhaps struggled most with over the last few months, particularly as this thing with S has evolved. Part of me realises that there is a balance somewhere, between retaining individuality and yet becoming a collective that is greater than the sum of its parts.

I suppose NCIS:LA’s Nell Jones (Renée Felice Smith) captures this most succinctly in the Season 8 Christmas episode, “Tidings We Bring”, when in a conversation over a gift she gives to Eric Beale (played by Barrett Foa), she describes them as pendulums which keep time individually but when placed on the same wall sync up.

#RelationshipGoals?

Wrapping up the Christmas Party Silly Season

marcliffe_road

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.

***

stage door

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

***

fandB

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.

Christmas… In Eight Days

aperitivo

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. 🙂

boxing day

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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.. 🙂

About Town: The Recapping Christmas Edition

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And so I survived my first Aberdeen Christmas in a long while. It was with more than a little trepidation that I faced the end of the year; the niggling thought at the back of my mind initiated by the sudden realisation that my policy of disengaging from the myriad friendzoneships I was mired in had left me with no real excuse to make what had become fairly regular trips across the pond. Newcastle and London, as always, were temptingly good options – Newcastle because of the old school mates still down there, and London for the promise of piping hot moi-moi and the chance of a first face to face in near on two years with my super wing-woman K. Given my memories of my one and only Aberdeen Christmas to date – bucket loads of snow, lugging suitcases on to and off trains as I made the move up North, and missing a rendezvous with the only guy I knew in town at the time – I suppose my fears were justified if not entirely expected.

It didn’t take very long, after the long and drawn out Christmas party silly season wore itself out, for the exodus to begin – OO fled to Nigeria on the 7th, Izz following a week later on the 12th and L on the 19th. By the time I headed into work on the morning of the 24th of December, my normally bustling commute was a ghost of itself; and from the corner of Castle and King’s, Union street was about as empty as I had ever seen it – save for the odd person ambling along casually as I was. At work, there were only eight people on my floor – all of us time writing contractors, for whom the lure of a full day’s pay for a half-day’s work proved too strong for us. Three hours later, the fourth floor was all but empty, and by the time O dragged myself downstairs at 3.00pm, the main revolving doors had been shut.

George, the fairly ancient, gregarious ex Royal Marine was the only one at Reception at that time, and as I made to slip by he caught my eye and waved me over. Over the course of the year, he and I had shared more than a few moments of borderline irksome banter – thanks in part to my work mentor who insisted on making my love life, or the absence of one, and my fixation on corrosion the subject of our lunch time prattle. [In what was probably not all too unexpected, I did return from my Nigeria holiday to a picture of a Nigerian wedding plucked off the Internet with my head photo shopped on with the caption ‘the secretive bridegroom’.]

Not trying to slip one past my blind side today son are you? he says, his tell-tale half smile in full effect as I walk the few feet to his desk, giving his out stretched hand a firm handshake. I laugh and reply that given his location, even the Flash wouldn’t be able to slip by unnoticed.

Yous the last one out the building today young man, he says giving me a raised eyebrow. My standard reply -which I give once again- is to lay the blame for a bungled (imagined in my head entirely apparently) romance with the intern who filled in at reception for a month in September at his feet. We trade accusation and counter accusation before we segue into a chat on Christmas plans. I mention I’ll be in Aberdeen over the entirety of the holidays, same as he will, except for the fact that he will have to come in every other day till the 31st.

Go get pissed young man! It’s Christmas, and forget corrosion. I laugh, wave and head out on to the street, still smiling at his parting shot.

Christmas morning itself was dry and warm – for this time of the year – with temperatures hovering in the region of 6 degrees C. First up was church, and an NCIS Season One marathon, at least that was the plan. By the time I made it into church a full ten minutes late, there were barely twenty other people around, loads of us still struggling with the Christmas morning blues. Church fills up slowly, turning from a sea of red seats with gaily dressed people scattered around into a profusion of colours as people dressed to the nines turn up, almost like a time lapse video of a flower blooming. What was perhaps most surprising was that church finished in an hour five minutes – a record of some sort in my opinion.

Church done and dusted, I shook a few friendly hands, with one side hug thrown in for good measure, and made the quiet walk home to my couch, with only the prospect of watching Love Actually to look forward to. Thankfully, my friend B’s wife had other thoughts, giving me a phone call at just shy of 2pm. The incentive of free food and company were too much to refuse and I accept her offer. Thirty minutes later I was seated on their couch with F, their precocious eight year old, sharing what she had been reading recently with me – an assortment of fairly tales which I have a hard time keeping up with – and her 9 month old sister stretching her hands in my direction asking to be carried. I obliged them both, between sips from a plate of awesomely fiery pepper soup. When Mrs K sticks her head through the door and finds me smothered by both kids. She insists it makes a pretty picture, one that she quickly captured on her camera phone for future reference, as she put it. Christmas lunch was a hearty affair – fried rice, wine, and a whole roasted turkey, pieces of which remained in my fridge for reheating until New Year’s morning.

The next few days till New Year’s Eve pass in a blur – marathon sessions of football manager on my laptop at night till I eventually fall asleep, sleep ins the next morning, a quick bite grabbed and then off to the movies to see whatever’s on offer. I take in Silver Linings Playbook, Seven Psychopaths, Jack Reacher, Pitch Perfect, parental guidance and finish the NCIS Season one DVDs over the course of the next few days

When I stumble into work for a couple of hours on the 31st to clear my inbox, I don’t quite know if I’ve enjoyed my holiday or not. The three things which are not in any doubt whatsoever are that I hung out way too much with babies and children, my favourite pair of jeans fit a little too snugly at the waist, and L didn’t call.

Memories of Christmas

My earliest memories of Christmas – and ultimately of growing up – are inextricably connected to the sounds of roosting chickens, the anticipation of a hearty Christmas afternoon meal and the Chapel’s annual Christmas carol night. We were by no means very well off. Those were the dark days bookended by SAP and its attendant devaluation of the Naira and the Abacha dictatorship in which people in the Academia essentially lived hand to mouth. What was an already thinly stretched wage was steadily eroded until my proud, well read father resorted to farming yams and cassava in the space behind his house to augment his wage. The main garnishing to the routine fare we got served as soups and stews was beef bought in abundance from the local butchery, and fish.

Chicken was reserved for special occasions – the odd milestone birthday and Christmas. Over time, a family tradition would evolve around Christmas. Two to three weeks before Christmas, the University farm would hold a sell off of their old ‘layers’ – mother hens which had been pumped full of feed and chemicals would be auctioned off. Mother had excellent links with the farm management – the farm manager had been a classmate from her under grad days – and would give her a heads up which allowed her to scout out excellent bargains. Typically, she would buy two chickens – in one particularly good year, I reckon she bought three. The chickens would be kept alive till two days before Christmas; fed ground corn to keep them fattened and to induce them to lay whatever eggs they still had in them. Two crates of coke would be bought and kept under lock and key in the store, only to be served during the Christmas celebrations.

In tandem with her preparations, an assortment of students from the main church would get us prepared for our special guest appearance at the Chapel’s carol night. Us children from Sunday School would gather twice a week in one of the houses in the Quarters to memorise bible verses from the Nativity narrative, as well as learn our parts in its re-enactment. These usually started off in bedlam – children ages all the way from five to eleven are hardly poster children for law and order – but due to the persistence of the teachers a semblance of order would finally emerge. One year, in one of my less proud moments, I earned the dubious honour of memorising an eleven verse portion of scripture – a punishment for pushing my friend Ejemen so hard she fell and scrapped her knee. The year after though – older and wiser – I would redeem myself by giving a stirring performance as the King of Myrhh from ‘We Three Kings’. Interestingly that would be the only time of note that I would sing a solo.

Two days before Christmas Father would sharpen his knives, command that the chickens be brought before him, and then he would slit their throats – each with one smooth, fluid motion. We would gather around to watch their final gory, macabre dance of death as their surprised hearts pumped out their final life blood. The sisters and I would be tasked with de-feathering the chickens – copious amounts of boiling water would be poured over the now dead chicken to soften the quills and then we would proceed to remove them until the chicken was picked clean. Father would then proceed to quarter the chickens into reasonably sized portions for storing in the fridge for cooking on Christmas morning. Mother allowed us a sneak preview of the chicken meat – the feet, wings and head would be boiled by her in her biggest pot after stewing in all sorts of spices. We would have this as a communal meal – a preview of the Christmas feast.

Early on Christmas morning, Mother would wake up – I don’t remember waking up before her on any of those days – to commence her marathon of dicing, slicing, boiling and frying. All told by the time the rest of us woke up at seven there would be several pots going at the same time as she made up her special Christmas rice recipe, infused with the smell of wood smoke. Church would follow – there would be a short homily (perhaps the anticipation of chicken meat and rice made time seem to pass that bit quicker on Christmas day) and soon enough we would pile into Father’s old beat up Peugeout 505 to head back to the certainty of a hearty meal.

Mother had a thing for refusing to let us drink too many cokes, the thing we quickly learned was that on Christmas day she pretended to turn a blind eye.

Kicking off the Christmas silly season, breaking my beer duck and the 2011 wrap

 

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Mid December usually kicks off the Christmas party silly season out here. Given that as far back as October, our coffee room conversations had started to take on a decidedly Christmas-sy bent, it was no surprise that the first event of the season came early this year – a team lunch at the Soul bar on Union Street in November no less. Thanks to the atrocious weather I ended up marooned offshore, restricted to taking to Facebook to moan about missing the free food and a half day off work.

I get my chance to make up for that miss one chilly December evening. The team gathers for drinks at The Monkey House, an event I arrive for a full six minutes late. Between navigating the crowd of early evening revellers in various stages of alcohol induced headiness and striving to zone out the not inconsiderable din, I catch the eye of the Boss who waves me over to the tables where they are already seated. There are a few faces I do not recognize, and after a few introductions and handshakes, he clamps his hand on my arm and drags me to the bar to order a drink. It just so happens that my preferred pub drink – a (supposedly) alcohol free bottle of Becks Blue is not available and I have to go one up to a bottle of regular Becks. I grab the bottle and settle in between my Irish work buddy Si and one of the blokes I do not already know. Between sips of our brews, we make small talk – what we do for fun in town, christmas travel plans and the like. When it is my turn, I mention books – I stress these are of the non-academic variety, football manager on my laptop and a couple of evenings at the Opera House as highlights of my evenings from 2011. It so happens that the man I don’t know is an avid Opera go-er himself – his poshy, self assured manner might have hinted at a more cultured interior if I had taken the time to notice I guess – and he recommends The Battle Proms as something I should definitely add to my 2012 plans.

We wrap up the evening with a meal at the Nazma – one that I have some history with. I have some really chili-hot lamb tikka, a side of rice and a sauce chock full of mushrooms. I am wont to chalk my light-headedness at the end to hallucinogens in the mushrooms, not the mere three bottles of Becks I have downed.

Given the way 2011 started – slouched on a couch in front of the TV watching the ball drop in Times Square – I could be forgiven for expecting that 2011 would be a breeze. The reality of 2011 has been markedly different – breaking up with EJ, getting the two year itch and almost leaving my job twice [having said that, I suspect I’ll still leave in 2012], and a significant amount of disruption to my world view made 2011 interesting, if difficult  in bits.

All in all, its been a decent, steady year which ultimately flattered to deceive. The cliff notes version? Shitty in bits but otherwise quotidian. Looking back, I got a few big decisions right when they really mattered and got to celebrate a number of family milestones.

All in all, life happened, but then Life ‘happens’ after all, doesn’t it?

Christmas in the City..

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Waking up to the strains of We Three Kings Of Orient Are on the BBC’s Radio 2 brings back memories of days long lost – of youth, of creativity and an unfettered enjoyment of life.

When I was much younger (close on twenty years ago now, cringe), I took part in the carolling, recitals of bible verses committed to memory, and nativity plays which were the highlight of the Christmas season in our small University town in Nigeria.  This hymn though, is one especially important to me because it marked the first time I was selected to sing a lead vocal. Granted, I ran over the lines, forgot some, went ‘off key’, and probably knocked my knees so loudly a few well placed microphones might have picked up on them, but it was still a ‘solo’ performance.

As it goes it is yet another Christmas of solitude –  bar the phone calls to family which must be made, the rest of the day will be spent in front of my computer playing games and piling myself full of fried chicken. Thankfully, the sun chose to spread its brightness around today. That is cause for a little cheer after all.

Randoms….

Christmas was ok.. It was WHITE at the third time of asking- wish I took pictures of me trying to move around in knee deep snow. Got invited out to a bash by the guys where there was a wee bit too much alcohol. That is guaranteed to loosen up a few tongues – and I heard a lot about certain people I shouldn’t have heard! Thankfully I’m out of here in a bit, so I can forget I ever heard those things.

I finally burnt the stash of things, I did try one last time to talk but the conversation was forced, almost alien. Clearly I’ve had my nose in the wrong cloud all this while. We lose some and we win some, that keeps life moving..

Something about Christmas makes people want to be on their best behaviour – I got a call from an old friend, and it was almost like the old days.

The work folks want me to start in January. A project came up that they require extra hands for. So much for my lounging till February. In a way it’s good though, because boredom was already doing things to my mind!

I like the Taking stock thing. I think it will be a great way to measure what progress, if any, I have made on resolving the issues that spawned my mid life crisis.