Corner Turned

I’ve now been in Nigeria for just over two months, and am eleven days short of my first leave, which will take the form of a two week trip to Phuket.  Since I’ve been here, things have changed quite a bit.  Not the place, of course.  That is unlikely to change in the next millenium, never mind over the course of my assignment.  But things for me have got a bit better.

Firstly, I’ve started meeting people and forming a bit of a social life, which was non-existent in the first five or six weeks of being here.  There appear to be a few young(ish) fellows here in a similar situation to myself and gradually we’re all meeting each other and starting to get stuff organised, stuff which invariably involves drinking something somewhere.  This is probably the most important thing, and it was the area which had me most worried when I first mobilised here.  The social life in Sakhalin was spectacular, and in truth will probably never be matched again, and Lagos having few of the factors that made Sakhalin good, I was concerned that I might end up being pretty bored here.  One of my chief concerns was that I had no idea what the French were like socially, my company being French.  I had heard dire warnings from British and Australian colleagues that they are as cliqued and unwelcoming as far too many of the Shell Dutch proved to be on Sakhalin (with notable exceptions), but to my considerable surprise they turned out to be nothing of the sort.  It appears that the French, or at least the ones working here, like to attend large parties which involve lots of drink, music, food, and more drink followed by dancing and more drink in which everybody – even a lonely Brit like me, able only to babble in English – is made to feel very welcome.  Your rank within the company, it appears, counts for nothing at French parties.  Your ability to dance counts for something, an area in which I score as well as a British Eurovision entry, but I make up for that on the drinking and telling of tales, mostly about Russia and, usually once I’ve been given a prompt in the form of a nudge and a wink, specifically about the Russian women.  These are Frenchmen, after all.  I recently went so far as to show up to the St. Barbe’s party, an annual event which celebrates the French patron saint of mine workers (a definition which the oilmen have expanded to include themselves) wearing a Union Jack tie.  The French loved it, more so than the dour Scotsmen who grumbled when I wore it in Dubai.  The French seem confident in themselves and their nationality and don’t feel threatened by a Brit who comes in wearing a flag.  Quite the opposite, in fact.  It must be a confidence born of colonial success, something which few nationalities enjoy.  You hear that, Aussies?  We don’t need to be good at cricket, etc. etc.

Where was I? Ah yeah.  The French are a good laugh, and intelligent to boot, more so on average than I have seen in other oil companies.  They all speak a minimum of two languages – French, and a comedy version of English which is grammatically perfect but with an accent so thick I reckon they are taught to speak it that way deliberately – which makes me realise that I’d better start learning French maintenant! I will start once I return from Phuket, having collected the textbooks I had sent there last month.  Indeed, being able to converse in two languages is almost a minimum requirement.  I know an Italian who is fluent in French and English, a Norwegian who is fluent in English and Portugese, a Dutchman who is fluent in English and French, and an American who I discovered was fluent in French, Russian, and Mandarin before I thought better of asking her what other languages she knew.  It makes me pretty glad I learned Russian, and I’m now to the point of conversational fluency (in a social setting), which is a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card when surrounded by those who are multilingual.  I would hate to be a Brit here who doesn’t speak another language, especially as all the other British staff members I’ve met speak French (learned whilst in the company).  The social events here can therefore involve a bewildering array of languages being spoken by an even more bewelidering array of nationalities, something I’ve always thought was great about working in the oil business.  The choice of places to go seem somewhat limited, ranging (from what I’ve seen so far) from fairly mundane clubs through reasonable bar-restaurants to bars that should a bunch of viking raiders land in after a successful pillaging of a village or two, they would leave in disgust at the state of the place and its patrons within a matter of minutes.  And at least one of them would lose his axe.  But whereas the choice of places to go might be limited, the choice of people to hang out with seems to be pretty good, which is much better than (and the complete opposite of) my situation when I lived in Dubai.

Another reason why things have improved is I am finally mobile.  I took delivery of my car, a basic Japanese 4WD, last week and hired a driver who was recommended to me by somebody who recently left.  Being able to get around is essential in a place with no public transport, no taxis, no pavements, and only a twice-daily shuttle bus to and from the office. Unfortunately, whoever built Lagos (who I suspect was the same person that designed Russian airports) originally thought parking spaces were not necessary and then later decided that pavements should be parked on.  Some other dickhead then decided to build office blocks with no parking except for the pavement outside.  What this means in practice is you need a driver primarily to drop you off and then take your car to some point, usually some distance away, and park up and sit there until you need him again.  True, it helps to not have to negotiate Nigeria’s roads, which are a better described as a collision of misplaced egos more than anything else, yourself but a driver’s job in Lagos consists mainly of sitting about waiting all day.  If there was anywhere to park close to where you actually want to go, you’d not need one.  Personally, I’d be much happier driving myself about but it’s practically impossible.

But my driver is already giving me trouble.  You end up in a bit of a no-win situation here.  You have to hire them privately, and there are many available but few decent ones.  There is a market rate per month which is well known.  If you pay them at the low end, they will be rubbish.  If you pay them at the top end, they think you’re a soft touch and take the piss.  I decided to pay the top end – which is about 25% more than the low end – and pay on-the-spot bonuses for any extra hours.  I was told that what I was paying should be more than enough for my driver to be pretty damned happy with what he was getting and not complain.  I bunged him the equivalent of 3 days pay for helping me collect the car from the garage, and even though he only started work on the 9th I said I’d consider his employment as having started from the 1st, meaning he would get 8 days’ pay for nothing.  I also said I’d pay him his December salary before Christmas.  Having worked for a week, he asked for Saturday off (he is paid to work Saturdays, but not Sundays).  He didn’t offer to work the Sunday instead, he seemed to be asking for a paid holiday.  I wasn’t going anywhere on Saturday, so I said he could do what he wanted, but I needed him for a few hours after work on Friday.  On the Friday, he drove about 3km and sat for an additional few hours in the car, for which I paid him a bonus equal to about a third of his day-rate, an amount everybody I’d consulted with said was about right.  Immediately he started complaining that it wasn’t enough.

Which pissed me right off, because he’d obviously taken me for a mug, which unfortunately is common amongst people in lots of places when they meet somebody who doesn’t act like a complete arsehole.  I’ve seen it in the Middle East, Thailand, and in some scenarios in Russia, where acting with the slightest generosity, kindness, or compassion is seen as a weakness to be ruthlessly exploited at the very first opportunity.  By showing this man I would treat him reasonably well in comparison to others, all I did was invite contempt.  Had I whacked the bastard with a stick and made him crawl around on the floor for a while, as the Nigerians do with their drivers, he’d probably not have made a peep.  One of the reasons I was keen to get out of the Middle East was because the place forces you to act like a twat just to avoid everyone you deal with on a daily basis taking the piss.  Contrary to what some people might say, I’m not an arsehole by nature and generally believe in doing someone a good turn.  Having to be a ruthless bastard goes against my nature, and having to haggle, hand out tips which then get sneered at, and argue money on a daily basis goes against the nature of most Brits, me included.  But sadly, I’m finding already I’m having to resort to being a ruthless bastard in my daily life in Nigeria, and I was pretty much one of those when I dealt with the situation with my driver.  Stupidly, he thought he’d try arguing the point with me, obviously judging there would be some mileage in doing so.  Had he just shut up and done his job for a while, he’d have found me a lot more forgiving.  He’s still in my employ, just.  But I doubt he’ll be with me long, and frankly I couldn’t care less what happens to him afterwards.  Such is life in Nigeria.  But I’m going to have to work pretty damned hard at knowing when to be an arsehole and when to stop being one.  This is stuff they don’t tell you in the interview.

But enough of that.  Things are also looking up on the accommodation front, and in the next week or so, or maybe once I’m back from holiday, I’ll be moving into an apartment and out of the Best Hotel in Lagos, where they don’t bother to clean the floors and the staff at every level expect you to tip them before they’ve lifted a finger.  This will make a big difference as I’ll be able to ship some of my personal effects over, stuff which wasn’t contained in the two suitcases I’ve been living out of the last two months.  It will also mean I won’t be on trial for murdering one of the useless cretins who work in my hotel.  The apartment is nice, of a very high standard, and comes with a huge communal pool and a decent gym.  The downside is that it is located quite far from the office and, with the Lagos traffic being what it is, this can be a bit of a trial each day.  But this is the best place to be living, there are a few bachelors there and it’s where most of the French live.  The social scene there is supposedly quite good, and weekends should be quite nice.

I’m hoping that the most difficult phase of my Nigerian assignment is over and I can start to get into a balanced routine.  I’m not sure if it came across in my writings on this blog, but the first few weeks I was here were a lot tougher than I’d expected, and it’s not a period I’d want to revisit any time soon.  With the people I’ve become friends with here so far, I’m fairly certain I won’t have to.  And that’s worth ten good drivers.

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5 Responses to Corner Turned

  1. dave killion says:

    I am learning Chinese from the same folks who offer these French lessons – http://frenchpod.com/ – I think you will find it worth investigating,

  2. I wonder whether the dislike of the French doesn’t rehearse old prejudices. My father has lived in France for 25 years and I’ve visited many times and, as a result, speak passable French. For years I thought that the French were insufferable because they would pick you up on every small error when you essayed speech in their language. I thought they were annoyed because the phrase ‘lingua franca’ means English. Then I realised that it was just my step-mother and a bloke I’d met at a party who had been so silly and picky. In the main, they are actually incredibly welcoming of another’s attempt to speak French – especially if you’re English.
    Also, whereas the combination of my PhD and a job as a caretaker in the UK brings a barely suppressed snort of derision, in France you are worthy of respect for your academic achievements even if you shovel merde for a living.

  3. Tatyana says:

    Time to get a helicopter!

    About certain type of contemptuous extortionists, I’ve seen my share – and not just among people one employs…unfortunately, they are abundant among the employers.

  4. Such fertile ground for comment, foreigners, Brits and Languages, Servants and Drivers …

    .. and when I get an hour I will share some experiences … in the interim, if firm but fair doesn’t work then just move on to the next one … no need to be a complete bastard, it will makes you feel bad …

  5. dearieme says:

    Aha, languages: you have just given me an excuse to trot out the fact that I learnt once from a seminar. In the late 50s the chaps graduating in Chemical Engineering at Edinburgh not only had to have French and Latin to get in, they had to learn German as part of their course, to a standard that one of their Finals papers was in German. You young bastards are spoiled rotten, ain’t cha?

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