Saturday, January 03, 2015

2014 now officially declared as an "annus difficilus"

I don't think I'd go so far as the Queen did in her 1992 Guildhall speech and describe the year just gone as an "annus horribilis" but it certainly did present some unique challenges. Watching my erstwhile Sandton employer perform the strategic equivalent of climbing out to the end of a long tree branch and then sawing it off close to the trunk was educational in a way I suppose; the subsequent voluntary redundancy in 2013 and then the slow realisation that I would need to relocate quite some distance if I wanted to continue working in the field of people and organisational alignment all added to the lead-up to what has been quite a tough time.

Luckily I am a dual citizen and, in one of the two countries I'm entitled to live in, race is not a factor when seeking employment. Of course I am still middle aged and male, not to mention obviously weather-beaten and sartorially challenged, but at least I can compete on a relatively equal footing with the other HR and OD job seekers in the UK. So, after some lukewarm efforts at peddling my services around Gauteng, I packed up and split for London in January 2014 to find a job and a home for my long-suffering and much-relocated family. Given that the kids were well set in their schools, and that Marcela is much more organised and hard-working than I am, I decided to once again go ahead and blaze the trail (or, less kindly, duck all the packing and associated trauma!).

So far the adjustment back to Old Blighty has been reasonably easy; not surprising given that I first moved here in 2001 from Johannesburg, and then again in 2005 from Riyadh. Socially all is much the same, with a more positive atmosphere than in 2009 when I packed for South Africa and all was doom and gloom in London. The infrastructure and systems are still the same mix of relative sophistication undermined by short-termist thinking, underinvestment and woeful customer focus and the return to the tender mercies of the National Health Service has been a shock, about which more later. But all in all a good thing; the weather was kind at least and I recall a long and mild summer with temperatures occasionally exceeding 30 degrees.

Car thermometer - north of London

In fact, the endless daylight and mild temperatures prompted me to spend quite a bit of time in the gym adjacent to the refurbished Victorian lunatic asylum where I was renting an apartment. After a month in a "Comfort Inn" at a motorway service stop I was delighted to move into something quite luxurious, and the old Three Counties Asylum, now re-branded as "Fairfield Hall" was just the ticket.

Sadly the first project I worked on was not appealing,  and after less than half a year I jumped ship and moved across from the chemicals industry to some short-term HR transformation stuff in the financial services industry. At the same time I needed to find a suitable landing zone for the family - not only a house that wouldn't feel claustrophobic after our big African open-plan, but of course schools that would handle the kids being completely out of chronological alignment with the UK system. That proved the most difficult part of the exercise, and I spent many an hour playing the catchment area game with the multiple, un-coordinated and often very unhelpful educational authorities in each county. For those of you in large countries, a county can sometimes be pretty small and in fact the first role I worked on was in a little town in Hertfordshire, and the schools in a ten mile radius fell into Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and even Suffolk - each with their own application criteria, forms, procedures and even variance in the number of tiers of schooling they offered. Of course it is not so simple as pitching up at a school and saying "Have you got any places?" The immediate answer is "Who wants to know? Are you living within half a mile of here?". My charming attempts to explain that I would happily buy or rent a place anywhere I could get my kids into a decent school were fruitless; there is bitter competition for places in schools with a good OFSTED rating and you're supposed to pick a home first and then take your chances. Given that there is a high probability that the nearest good schools will be full, you will then end up spiralling outwards in an ever-increasing search for somewhere else, with the added complexity that in some counties Lily and Henry might be accommodated in the same school up to age 11 before heading to high school; in other counties they'd be together until Lily turned 9 and had to go to Middle School for 3 years and of course in the smaller villages, just finding two places in the same school is a challenge of its own.

And it is necessary to begin with the end in mind; even though our Harry is just turned six and Lily not yet eight, I need to be thinking of where they might go to high school. In a very few counties, or even parts of counties in England, grammar schools still exist (despite the Labour Party's phobia about academic selection) and so returning to my 2001 roots of Buckinghamshire was an easy decision. And, thank God, we've managed to get both kids into the lovely little school in the adjacent village to the tiny hamlet we're living in, even if they both ended up being propelled forward some considerable time to adjust for the different academic years, Effectively, Henry went from term two in Reception Year to term one in Year One and poor Lily ended up skipping from term two in Year One in South Africa to term one in Year Three in the UK, so as to align both of them with their respective age groups.

But I digress - before the family landed in the UK in early September 2014 they needed to stage themselves in Eastern Europe a wee while, to synchronise their arrival and that of our enormous 40-ft container of household effects. And, fatefully, I took the decision to have some minor elective surgery to investigate a pesky lump in my thigh muscle a couple of weeks before starting a new role with a major transport group in London.

I'm going to spare your sensibilities and gloss over the quick and easy removal, under local, of what turned out to be a completely innocuous lymph node; the subsequent bouts of cellulitis that had me hospitalised (the first of which was on my second day of the new job I had just started in the passenger transport industry); the fact that the delightful old surgeon who did the work inevitably managed to sever a cluster of lymph vessels and then the slow realisation that I had swapped a grape-sized and harmless node for the grapefruit of lymph fluid now resident, despite two further operations under general this time, in my upper thigh. I got out of the last hospital at the end of November, having used up pretty much all the goodwill at my place of work, only to find that the damn reservoir has re-filled and will likely continue doing so no matter what we try.

My Speedo days are mercifully long over, and so the cosmetic aspects of this are less devastating than if I were David Gandy. Even the intermittent nerve pain due to damage from the last incision is bearable. But what has really put the difficilus into the flipping annus is spending the entire tiny 2-week Christmas break (which is all I get in this land of dark Decembers) poleaxed with viral bronchitis. O me miserum! Eheu fugaces etc etc in the words of old Horace! So I am up at 02h00, dosed to the lethal level with anti-tussive codeine and wheezing like a walrus. And the blessed NHS advice is "Try to get some rest, there's nothing we can do". And the poor kids, wanting their first White Christmas since 2009, all brim full of energy and excitement, have to deal with a miserable and limping lump of brick-dust, barking like a seal.

But on the positive side I have discovered a forgotten box of Christmas Toblerone, the kids are infinitely forgiving of their ancient dad's foibles and we have two more days of watching DVDs sprawled in front of our enormous fireplace before it's back to school for them and back to work for me.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Q1 been and gone ...

Crikey is it already after Easter? And here's me with no published blog for months :( In mitigation I have been travelling like a Romany on his holidays - Perth, Lima, Accra and Manila in the last short while, not to mention the associated mine sites for each region. Why we don't have any mines in, for example, Vienna I do not know. It seems that gold is always in the most remote and harsh environments. Our one Peruvian project is at 5000 metres of altitude; one of the Aussie ones is 1000km into the desert from Perth and the Philippines one is accessible by means of an 800 metre runway which I cannot recommend for the faint-hearted. I thought the services of a proctologist would be needed to retrieve the front seat cushion of the ageing Beechcraft Baron after our landing up in the hills at Mankayan, Luzon Island.

But still, I'm having fun. The kids have now started school and are depicted here with Lily dressed up as a Red Indian (or Native American for the more PC among my readership) and Henry as a generic Indian from India, for the pre-school's multicultural day. The fact that Lily's bag comes from Peru and Henry's shirt from Ghana does not detract from how good they look.

Over Easter we had Mom staying with us, and Brett and family also visited. The combined mass of kids (6 in all) had an uproarious Easter egg hunt in our small garden, extended to the point of exhaustion by my cunning ploy of stealing eggs from the central collecting bucket and re-hiding them in amongst the shrubbery.

All in all a jolly good day, with an adequate braai administered by yours truly. I learned a lot about ventilation, cooking temperatures and other characteristics of our built-in barbecue which is used very seldom, and the charred meat was salvaged by Marcela's trademark roast potatoes, salads and pudding.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Season's Greetings

And a very merry Yuletide to you all - as well as my wishes for a peaceful, prosperous and thoughtful 2012. We're back from a holiday in Port Alfred where the lovely beaches were uncrowded and the kids got to set up their own ecosystems in tidal pools (of course these were gone the next day to the bafflement of Lily and the relief of the dozens of captured hermit crabs and starfish).  Henry was more concerned with running into the waves than any eco-research; with the water being fairly rough and given his brick-like swimming abilities, I was kept on the hop. All in all though it was a fabulous time.

One of the excursions we made was a little North of Port Alfred, to the Fish River lighthouse. Chivvied on by a very strong and chilly wind we took some quick pictures of this imposing Victorian edifice and the completely deserted beaches nearby and then fled back to our cottage to apply an insulating layer of KFC grease to our innards.

Another excursion was to the Big Pineapple at Bathurst – a hilariously kitsch structure once again subject to some gale force winds which meant I was clinging onto the kids at the top, 17 metres above the concrete.

 Ice creams all round (or, in Harry’s case, all over) and then off to Grahamstown to marvel at the Victorian architecture I recalled vaguely, details having been blurred by alcohol when I was at Rhodes in the Eighties and the decades since then. The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George was well worth a visit although Henry Alexander decided the acoustics were perfect for a clog dance cum ballet routine and needed to be chased down to ground behind the baptismal font and silenced.

We ended off with a night on a farm near Addo Elephant Park, and then the next day drove through the park on our way to PE Airport - seeing, strangely enough, quite a few elephant :) they survive surprisingly well on the low thorny scrub that grows near the coast there.

All in all a great and long overdue return to my old haunts in the Eastern Cape..

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Davey's on the Road Again ....

A track from Manfred Mann's Earth Band, an old favourite and very appropriate right now. I'm moving on from my current consulting role with SAP to take up a corporate OD and change role with one of the major mining houses here in Joahnnesburg. It's been an interesting 2-odd years back in South Africa with much travel (mostly to Nigeria); many conferences, lots of new friends and of course the growth and development of my beautiful children. It's hard to capture such eventful times in a few photos but here we go ....

Monday, June 27, 2011

Autumn in Africa

It's been a while since I posted anything, I see. A very busy few months which have seen us moving into a newly purchased house, and sending Lily off to the vastly overpriced pre-school on our estate. She is now 4 going on 28 and developing a nice line in looks to keep her old Dad in his place ...

The new house is a lot larger than our Berkshire home, and the renovators we hired kept asking us if our furniture was still coming from the UK. We blushingly admitted that what they saw was the sum total of what we own, less some antiques we stored, and we're still working on how to fill an extra 200 sq. metres of space we never had before.

We took the kids to a fantastic zoo around 90km north of Pretoria - called Mystic Monkeys it is the first one I've seen with decent sized cages for the simian cousins. Lily and Henry found the apes very amusing, but were far more impressed with the tiger and white lion cubs they encountered.

Otherwise all well - we're adjusting to our second year back in Africa. Hellish expensive now, Johannesburg, but we are keeping our heads just enough above water to allow the occasional smile.

The glamorous side of international management consulting

I thought I’d write a brief account of my week in Nigeria just to give some kind of indication what it is like to travel there on business. Not my first trip there of course, just the most recent. And not the worst either – this one was about average. I’ve done about a dozen such trips in the last year or so, all economy class because even though the total journey time can stretch to 14 hours or more, no one leg is 8 hours long so we don’t qualify for business class travel.....

To start off with, my Nigerian multiple entry visa expired on 11th May, which meant I was taking a risk with the hostile immigration officials in Lagos, by trying to gain entry for a week starting on 8th May. I thought I’d chance it and so booked the trip, even though they’re a bit touchy right now after the elections.

My shuttle driver got lost on the estate I live in, because their system has two addresses for me and he chose the old wrong one. That meant he eventually arrived about half an hour late for my pickup, which in itself was already arranged for a bit too close to the check-in time. After I growled at him for being late he got nervous and drove fast and erratically until I told him I’d rather be late than dead, whereafter he slowed down a bit.

Check-in for the SAA flight in Johannesburg was OK, although a sudden gate change at the last minute meant hundreds of people galloping a few hundred metres to the new gate. Once boarded, I realised with sinking heart it was the oldest plane in SAA’s aging fleet of Airbus 340-200s, which meant no individual movie screens but rather a rattling drop-down central monitor every 15 rows or so, with flickering pictures of Eddie Murphy in shades of purple and green. The plane was 99% full but mercifully the only empty seat was the one next to me so I managed some fitful dozing across the partially raised armrest. The food was the usual dire 1970’s SAA rubbish, with a salad composed entirely of large rough cut pieces of wilted green pepper, a main course of oily lamb stew over sloppy mashed potatoes and a pudding straight out of my boarding school decades ago. The Nigerian lady over the aisle from me kept trying to put her headphone lead across into the arm of my chair (hers wasn’t working) but was eventually repelled by my hostile glares. It was a single socket system so my double-socket noise cancelling headset didn’t work.

We landed an hour after the scheduled time with no explanation from the pilot, who just baldly informed us we were late. Frankly I was glad to just get there even if a bit slower than usual. The standard mad dash for the aircraft exit took place, with the cognoscenti shoving all and sundry out of their way in the rush to be first in the very very long immigration queue. If one is late in that race, one ends up being part of the “escalator follies” where the relentlessly-running steps deposit a stream of non-Nigerian passport holders into a small, finite space – providing much amusement to all as people crash into the end of the queue, drop briefcases or vault madly over the edge of the escalator to avoid the impact. The Nigerian immigration staff are usually somewhere between abrupt and openly hostile, and best not provoked.

I guess I was about 40th in the queue, which gave me enough time to read and internalise the cover story sent via text message to me by my driver waiting outside. When the immigration screening officer asked me what I was doing in Nigeria I said boldly “I have a meeting at the Presidency and I’d like to leave the country on 11th May” which was at least 50% true. I got a 2-week entry visa and scampered madly off to the baggage carousel, where I waited an hour for my luggage to arrive.

Once out into the hot steamy late evening in Lagos, I was glad to see my driver who shepherded me out into the dark and mosquito-riddled car park to find the car. On the way there I spotted a Nigerian policeman with the ubiquitous Kalashnikov on a sling - he must have been bored because as I passed him he body-checked me quite hard with his shoulder and then lifted the rifle and said “Do you like this?” “Yes” I replied “It’s an AKMS, folding butt parachute model, 7.62 intermediate,. Not bad even at 600 rounds a minute!” and walked away. Unusual behaviour even in Nigeria, but still it was even more proof that I can get into trouble anywhere without even trying... my driver was aghast at this unprovoked bit of bullying but I was in a eerie state of calm (or early dehydration) and forgot about it almost immediately. Not the first time I have been thumped by someone with an AK, anyway.

A long drive all the way into Ikoyi to my hotel, because the hotels close to the airport are too expensive for our project. Too late for dinner and, as usual, leaving for the next airport too early for breakfast although I did manage to steal some sausages from the buffet as they were laying it out. Driver slapping at mosquitoes in the car all the way while I frantically slathered myself with Tabard repellent, there are only so many trips you can safely take antimalarials and this wasn’t chosen to be one of them.

Monday morning and early to the MM2 domestic terminal, and luckily I am well briefed in what happens if you have booked a seat on Air Nigeria from South Africa and then you change your flight also from South Africa. You are depicted as a “no show” in the systems in Lagos and need to queue to have your ticket revalidated before queuing somewhere else to pay the “date change” fees and then queuing somewhere else again to check in. I eventually completed this process as they were closing the checkin and scuttled upstairs to board the flight.

The trip to Abuja was uneventful , although the 35-odd km from airport to hotel took over an hour thanks to some very bad traffic. They’ve been working on the road there for years now, with no real sign of getting close to completion. We eventually arrived at the Hawthorn suites, where we are compelled to stay while in Abuja, and I was given a room which was pretty standard, although only half the light bulbs were working. A quick freshen-up and then off to the client.

Dinner was room service (it’s too dangerous to wander round outside at night and the hotel is in the middle of nowhere anyway) and I ordered a steak which was a silly error. The rare grilled steak I was promised turned out to be an extremely tough and vastly overcooked piece of leather, served with an enormous mound of plain white rice (no gravy) and some stir fried cabbage. Should have gone with the local dishes, although I wanted at least one night’s sleep before smiting my colon with loads of chilli and meat.

Breakfast was the usual oily mix of strange foodstuffs, all liberally soused with chilli pepper. I chose some crumbly local bread to support the Nigerian scrambled eggs, chilli beef sausages and chilli chicken stew, then headed to the office.

The aircons were working this time, thank God, and the day was pleasant enough inside, although 36 degrees outside. I had lunch with the OCM team in the “Mama Cass” canteen, and attracted some strange looks for humming “California Dreaming” and then giggling helplessly. Lunch was, as ever, jolloff rice and chilli chicken, with some sauce from the chilli beef stew to moisten the rice. I could feel my tummy whimpering...

... and remembered my wife telling me last year just go to “Pret a Manger” to pick up something rather than eat all the spicy food ha ha. Nigeria is not like that. Anyway, time for some ghastly instant coffee with powdered milk (there’s no fresh milk in the whole country for some weird reason, and almost nobody drinks coffee either).

It’s now 12h00 on Friday and I will try and find another bottle of water somewhere to keep hydrated, it will be a very long and hot afternoon leaving here for the airport at 13h30, arriving in Lagos around 17h00 and taking off for SA at around 23h00 to arrive in Johannesburg at around 05h15 local time without having slept on the flight as usual. Then time to try and cheer my family up after they lost me halfway through Sunday and I arrive back grumpy and tired on a Saturday. And not tell them I am probably going to need to do this all over again soon, as we get closer to go-live.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Roll on Christmas


It's 1 December in sunny Gauteng (actually cool and overcast today) and I am in sole charge of our Harry who turned 2 last week. Lily is in pre-school and Marcela has gone shopping with my Australian cousin Misty, who is visiting us this week. Work emails are coming through slowly, although there is still not the end of year lassitude I'd been bargaining on. One good thing is that it looks like I am done travelling for the year - apart, of course, from our Christmas sojourn to Maritzburg when we will join the Great Annual Gauteng Lemming stampede to the seaside. Still, work looms in Dubai, Istanbul, Abuja, Lagos and Addis early in the New Year and I am also looking at an internal project which will have time in Germany and the USA.. 
Lily checking if this was a real spider!

Our last trip to PMB was pretty good - Kim and I got to spend time together and the kids got to play with various of their cousins. Just up the road from where we were staying is Cordwalles School - which has a decent play area for kiddies although some of the decorations verge on the macabre, as can be seen..

We had a great and relaxing time and look forward to visiting our Natal relatives again soon. It's good to be there and no great challenge to put our watches back 20 years for the time difference :)

Otherwise we're all setting in pretty well. It has already been six months since I collected the family in Istanbul and brought them to our rented townhouse in Midrand. Lily and Henry are doing well, thriving on being able to play outdoors pretty much every day and I must say it's good to see them doing so. They get on well as siblings - although Lily tends to boss her little brother a bit there's very little fighting and he even sat still for her art class.. 

Before official cleanup

After cleanup for family photos

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Voortrekkers en nuwelinge

Last weekend after staggering back from my regular trip to Abuja via Lagos I thought I'd take the family to see the Voortrekker Monument (also known as the Pop-up Toaster) which is around ten miles north of us here.
Dad doing local culture immersion training with Lily and Henry

A surprisingly large block of granite, on the top of a hill and surrounded by gardens, the Monument was built way back in the Thirties to celebrate the Great Trek of Dutch folk a century before. The "Trekkers" left the Cape Colony to avoid British domination, and headed North. Some, including ancestors of ours, kept on heading north at the slightest hint of domination, interference or even the odd dirty look - an irascibility and antisocialness that had them settling remote and uninhabited parts of Rhodesia. Some of these proto-Hodgsons apparently pre-dated the explorations of Selous and Livingstone - the discovery of Victoria Falls by the latter was quite some years after one of the Swart or Erasmus family arrived there in transit.
Henry and I found a seat next to some garlic plants and relaxed in the winter sunshine. A little way down the hill the sound of The Last Post wafted into the air - the annual South African Defence Force remembrance day service was taking place at the Wall of Remembrance which, like the US one in Washington, lists the names of the fallen. My war dead are mostly in Rhodesia I guess, and anyway I hate memorial services and funerals so we stayed up the hill, avoided all the old folk wearing black blazers and medals and contented ourselves with watching the parade of bearded Afrikaners, camera-toting tourists and the odd local low-budget families like ourselves who couldn't find anything else kid-friendly to do on a Sunday in Gauteng.

Lily inside the 64-wagon laager
Mindful of the fact that I was heading for Istanbul on Tuesday, I resolved to make the most of our Sunday outing and allowed my pale European kids to get more sun than they were accustomed to in Newbury. Lily explored the flower gardens inside the ring of concrete ox-wagon bas-reliefs symbolic of the laager that defended the Volk from Zulu attacks at Blood River and Marcela ascended to the parapets, no doubt thinking how her ancestors would have found such a structure useful in repelling the marauding Turks that threatened Bessarabia regularly.