I’m currently sitting in Melbourne, Australia where I am spending 3 weeks in the offices of a large engineering company who are carrying out works for us in relation to a major project in Nigeria. After the 3 weeks I’ll be going to Phuket for 2 weeks holiday and to remind myself what my wife looks like, and then it’ll be back to Lagos for 3-4 weeks for a handover and what ought to be my demobilisation. The intention is I’ll be coming back to Melbourne in late July or August to live here permanently for the next 12 months or so.
Which isn’t bad.
I flew via Paris where I’d spent the previous week on an excellent and long overdue training course on Interpersonal Skills. Trust me, I needed it. I flew via Hong Kong, the 11-hour first leg on Air France where they gave us a crappy old plane with obvious signs of wear and tear. I was in business class (thank God) and all my kit worked, but the chap next to me couldn’t get his seat to recline properly. Given what they charge, it’s pretty poor service, especially on what must be a flagship route for them. Okay, send a crap plane to Lagos, but not to Hong Kong. The flight was pretty miserable, albeit through no fault of Air France, although they did provide the bottle of Wild Turkey of which I did drink half, fell asleep, awoke an hour later with a thumping headache and remained that way until we landed in the Orient.
The next leg was with Cathay Pacific who were fabulous. The business class seats are less seats than your own personal den, with a bed that lies completely flat. It was the best I’ve been on yet, and knocked Air France into a cocked hat. The stewardesses called me by name and fed me, perhaps sensing that the latter goes a long way to keeping me quiet. It was 9 hours of complete comfort and relaxation, and I can highly recommend it if you have a few grand to spare or an employer with deep pockets.
Melbourne airport was a breeze, especially compared to Lagos. I’m sure the Australians think it a grand facility, but by European standards it’s a small regional airport. Within 20 minutes I’d passed immigration, collected my bags, convinced the quarantine officials I wasn’t carrying seeds, fruit, or timber about my person, and jumped in a taxi which had a meter that worked and was on. Three minutes out of the airport and we passed Sexy Land, the Adult Entertainment Superstore. What sort of perverts do they have down here, I wondered? I hit a snag halfway to the hotel when I discovered I’d left my iPhone on the plane. I was about to fly into a rage but, remembering my Interpersonal Skills training and trying it out on myself, I resorted to quietly kicking myself instead.
When I got to the hotel I called the Melbourne Airport information desk, and somebody answered who was not a complete fuckwit. They put me through to the Cathay Pacific lounge (the office was closed for the night) where the phone was too answered and by somebody who was not a complete fuckwit. That put the score Australia 2 Nigeria 0 so far for each overseas assignment. The Cathay Pacific girl said she’d check and asked me to call back in 30 mins or so, which I did, but they’d not found anything. That made me pretty depressed and I stayed that way for the next 5 minutes until she rang me back and said they’d found it after all and I could collect it from their office the next day! I was pleased as hell, and Cathay Pacific rocketed even further up in my estimation.
I’d never been to Australia before, indeed I’d only briefly stepped over the equator once during a week’s holiday in Bali, so I had much to learn. Or as things turned out, I didn’t. Melbourne city centre looks a lot like that of any British city at ground level, only when you look up you see high-rise buildings you barely see outside of London. The autumn weather was very Manchester-like. We had rain, wind, overcast skies, cold, sunshine, and blue skies in the space of my first few days. Manchester even had a tram system, too. But for all that, the place is obviously foreign – mainly because the shopfronts and adverts are not immediately recognisable, and it just feels different. And this is where it feels strange for me. Jokes about Aussie English aside, and bearing in mind I’ve not been to the US in almost a decade, being in a foreign country where English is the native language feels deeply, deeply weird. I’m a complete stranger – obviously – and hence I need to ask people for help and directions (I did feel particularly stupid asking “Where is the river?”) I’m used to forming a simplified English sentence in my head before asking, and waiting to decipher the garbled reply which comes back. Or forming the question in Russian or French, hoping the reply is simple enough for me to understand. Normally you have to get yourself as close to your goal as possible before asking somebody for help: for instance, make sure you’re in the right shop before asking to buy something. No such need in Australia, you can just go into a 7-Eleven and ask “Excuse me fella, where do I get one of them there cards you use on the trams and stuff?” And you’ll be instantly understood and the answer will be in English. I’m not used to this, and it feels odd.
The other thing I’m not used to is how easy everything is. I call people on the phone, arrange to meet them, and they turn up. They then proceed to do as I ask and provide the service they are supposed to. I didn’t see a great deal of this sort of thing in Russia, Thailand, and Nigeria. Just the array of places to choose from to go to lunch is unusual for me. For my first two years in Lagos our choice at the staff canteen was either chicken with spaghetti or spaghetti with chicken. And the chicken got smaller and smaller as my assignment went on until the situation ended up with a Nigerian sitting above an egg with a hammer waiting to whack the hatching chick over the head.
Making the transition from French to Australian wine might take some doing, though. I normally drink wine which has been approved by my French colleagues or recommended by a French waiter, but last night I had to pick an Australian plonk from a menu. It tasted like boiled gooseberries, and the glass cost about as much as a bottle in a French supermarket.
I can see I’m going to have a lot of fun here. I always wanted to come to Australia but didn’t see quite why I should have to fund the trip myself, and now I’ve found somebody else to pick up the tab, here I am. Some people are saying I am very lucky, which I suppose I am, but given I’ve spent 8 of the last 10 years in Kuwait, Sakhalin Island, and Nigeria I reckon I deserve it!