Dinner inna grove

It’s not yet 7pm and I’m sitting in a grove of trees on a hillside overlooking the sea. Below me on the beach I can hear the excited voices of people enjoying an evening splash. Everywhere around me is the evening shout of hundreds of horny cicadas.

The catering tent is open, although it serves food pretty early – until half six for dinner. Will lent me his sealable tupperware, so I loaded it up with fregola and took it hot in a random direction, seawards. Hunger, the waning light and blisters from my new sandals led me to stopping where I am. I’ve wolfed down the fregola. They are Sardinian roasted pasta nibs. They work out like a risotto. They are all safely in my belly so I’m sitting awhile, listening to the sunset cicadas and writing this.

Extreme-E have come to this particular venue before, last year, their first year in existence. “It’s weird isn’t it, rocking up somewhere and knowing where everything is. I’m not sure I like it,” says one of the lads I picked up this morning. I can see that. I love the newness that this recurring job has brought into my life. Going to strange places and saying yes. It’s easier the second time. I’ve had two good venues. By all accounts Chili will be harder, up in the barren north. If I go. And then Uruguay will be perhaps easier again… For now though I’m just thinking about this one as it’s what is in front of us all.

All the inflatable tents are up. Catering is up. The structure of the main site is mostly done. They’re flagging the race track. I’ve been helping put up signs, but then I had to jump into a pick-up and drive an hour to this guy called Aldo’s house in order to get a huge rented air conditioning unit and bring it into the medical tent. The inflatable tents look like they’ve come out of Dune, but they get very very hot. If somebody gets heatstroke, they need to be cool in the medical centre. Most other tents will be without such luxury, because the whole operation exists in order to pioneer offroad electric car racing with a focus on gender equality and sustainability. I think it’s the coolest thing I’ve got tangled up in this year. I love this work. The hours can be weird, but the community is great.

It’s getting dark and I need to do some clambering in bare feet to get back to the car. A few days ago I lost my bearings at about this time and walked through thick scrub in circles for about an hour before I oriented myself. I completely failed to panic as I was listening to the cricket on BBC Sports Extra. There’s no cricket to keep me company tonight, so I’m gonna head back up the cliff before it gets dark. Bye bye lovely grove.

And hello car.

I’m back at the hotel. Shower and early bed. No big old beachy gathering tonight for me. I just fancy an early night.

Languages

Plugging into cultures quickly is not easy, but its part of what I have to do in this job. In Saudi I made friends with the Saudis, but Arabic was out of my reach and I knew it. I had to understand and respect the devotional codes – the importance of prayer at various times, the habitual gestures, the basics of shared space. I made sense of the behaviours and timings and integrated them. But the language barrier… outside of parroting phonetic phrases it was way too big to cross. Arabic is HARD.

Here in Italy it is simpler for me. Back at university, Tim studied Italian. We were best friends at the time. He went out to Venice for an Erasmus year. He lived with Lucio. I visited a few times.

My special skill from Lucio is swearing. I can’t really use that on this job. But he did teach me functional Italian use. Then I fell for Marzia and promised her I would learn Italian properly and come find her in Rome. I didn’t. She called me on it about three years ago. “When you come learn Italian like you say?” “Doppo.”

Problem is, all of that with Tim and Marzia… That was decades ago. More recently my brain has been in Spanish, in French and in Portuguese. Italian is frying my cortex. Every day a little better. By the time I leave I’ll be able to have a conversation. Right now I’m all over the place. “Per me, il mismo … Lo stenzo … Discupla … lo stesso?” Usually people assume I’m Spanish, so then because I’m hoovering up their words and inflections when they don’t speak English, I get even more confused because I’m not sure if I’m hoovering up half remembered Spanish phrases helpfully spoken to me by an Italian who knows from the fact I speak in bullets that I’m not an Italian speaker.

“Hi. Fire blanket. Long drive. Bathroom? Pay after. Thank you. Bye bye bye see you soon goodbye thank you.” That’s pretty much what somebody got today. They directed me to their floor level loo in an outhouse and then took almost £200 for five fire blankets. I don’t think I’d have been directed to the distant run down loo if I hadn’t been able to ask in Italian. But at least we got the blankets… This is a colonised place, with many almost lost non-Italian languages, but the thrust of a swell of anger against outsiders is coming from Italian speakers unable to appreciate the irony of their position. “Tourism = destruction,” says the graffiti, in Italian. Italian tourists are fine to the writer. It’s just people who don’t speak Italian. Foreigners. Like us.

One of us got punched by a bouncer the other day. His face was upsettingly badly hurt. He was trying to say “I’m sorry,” after something escalated, but he didn’t know how in Italian. Things clearly got out of hand quickly, and knowing the lad in question he’s got the best intentions. He’s not picking fights. I reckon he fell foul of the wrong kind of nationalist. I let the same lad fuck up in the pizza restaurant the other night. “I don’t need to look at the menu,” he told us all in the Italian pizza restaurant in Italy, with absolute confidence. “I just want pepperoni on my pizza.” I watched the exchange with the waiter. “Pepperoni.” “Peperoncino? Yes. Pepperoni. PEPPERONI.” Of course he got a pizza covered with red peppers and he probably learnt something and to his credit he ate it, didn’t complain, and wryly told the rest of us. We only really learn by our mistakes. I could’ve intervened but nothing would have been gained. But this good solid young man – you need to be really angry to hurt someone like that.

So… There’s anger here. This is much closer to civilisation than we often go with this event and we are bundled up with a rage about tourism the has some basis – this place is lovely but the rash of McDonald’s has started to establish in the conurbations from whence it will spread and bring secondary infections like Starbucks and Burger King. I’m not sure if the American market could ever possibly make everybody in Italy want to eat food that tastes like cardboard and drink coffee that tastes like feet. But Joe wanted pepperoni pizza in the land that invented pizza. I’m not pleased he got punched. I am pleased he got the wrong pizza and ate it anyway. This place is tame. Super-tame. Saudi was tame too really – it’s a vassal nation. They really follow hierarchy even if that involves some extremely sketchy human rights stuff. Some of the other race venues in consideration are much more hostile than this hippy dippy place.

We don’t need an armed escort here. But… the better I can speak the language the easier it’ll be for me to get things. Duolingo is not a practical workbook. It really isn’t. It tries too hard to ground you into apples and boys and bread and girls. How do you teach a language without the person? It’s why some people can do mass and more people can tell you that Caecilius est in Horto, but time travel them to ancient Rome and they wouldn’t have a clue. “Um … Vo est Matella?”

Bloody classical education. Useless. Unless someone needs to know the location of Caecilius. He’s always in the garden. Bloody hippy.

Oh and on the way home there was some physical theatre. 3 clowns an MC and an audience member, doing gym exercises… We live in Pontins.

Castle on a hill

My route to the airport tends to see me careening around hairpin bends in the picturesque mountains of Southern Sardinia. Vineyards and scrubland. The occasional dog at the reservoir. Goats in the road. It requires concentration. With no passengers I’ll hear the faint screaming of my tyres if I’ve slightly rinsed the throttle on a hairpin. With passengers, their screaming drowns that out… To be honest I rarely do the route with passengers. I go the flat straight way around the mountains, so they can do admin on their phones without feeling ill. Mobile reception is gone in the mountains and the radio gets no signal either, so it’s a good half an hour of active drivemeditation. I get lost in thought as my concentration and sense memory take over. I’m not slinging it recklessly. But I’m driving it actively. It’s a strange long joy. My rental car has “lane assist” though which you have to disable every time. It is lethal and ruins your line in the road. When you can see the road ahead it often makes sense to cross the line without indicating, and it tries to automatically adjust you into a tree on the right. You can fight it and win. But it’s better switched off.

On the far side of the range from Porto Pino the road flattens out into a big straight Roman road again, shooting through the Acquafreddo valley, down towards Cagliari. Dominating this valley is a squat tall rock with views for miles and, sharp against the summer sky, right on top, you see the ruins of a medieval castle.

When I first saw it, I thought the rock was wind eroded into looking almost like a goat skull. Yesterday, John the medic identified it as a castle.

I stopped today in a layby, and walked into the middle of the empty road to take that photo. Warm wet heat hits as soon as you leave the vehicle. Cicadas chirring. A cacophony of bells and bleating from the semi governed goats who pick from the roadside and defy you as you pass. And there, watching it all, surveying the kingdom of the goats, the horned castle from the judges of Cagliari in the wake of Byzantium when the Roman attempts to run things from Turkey were beginning to disintegrate. I might try to go up there some time. My eye and attention are drawn hard to it every time I pass.

I’m starting to make sense of the history here. It’s been busy. The graffiti calls for an independence which has been more idealistic than nationalistic. A referendum proposal was overturned by one vote. We are out on a limb here from Italy though. It’s not as bad as Byzantium but this doesn’t feel like Italy despite everybody speaking Italian. This feels more creative and less regimented. More hairpin bend and less Roman road. More goats and cows and less traffic cops.

Involved in making a thing

These guys I’m working for… They are very serious. They have a full on legal team. Joe is writing his dissertation about them and he had to “check in with the legal team”about his dissertation which, inevitably, gets me curious. I’m thinking I need to find out who to talk to and talk to them so I can stop being vague. I feel free here, but there will be humans in an office who, given the messiest context, will be terrified about what this wildcard fixer-driver is capable of.

I don’t feel mired in bureacracy with this. I feel free. Everybody is lovely. I’ve experienced the opposite. When I worked on the river I was advised : “Don’t go to the office, it’s poison.” I went to the office. It was poison. I no longer work on the river. Because the office was poison.

With these guys there’s no such poison. None at all. Bad – Ego has completely left the building for the team that I’m exposed to… It is rare and it is wonderful. It’s a huge talentspread. The Excel spreadsheet-humans jump into the sea at the end of the day, alongside the dust-humans and the vehicle-humans. And the Excel humans can BE the dust humans who can BE the vehicle humans who can BE the Excel humans. And so we band together to make a wonderful thing that is trying to make a difference in a racing industry that is ready to embrace change. And somehow I’m part of it.

But… I gotta be careful. Legal teams etc. These people have become my friends by recognising my competence. I bring something slightly different to the mix. I fit by not fitting. But I can’t blog it firmly without permission and I always forget to ask for permission until I start writing. Because I write the contents of my head. And that’s mostly “aaargh”, as you all know.

The medic called me cos he needed a lift to the airport. He’s blown two of his tires and is swapping for a lighter vehicle. “It’s nothing to do with the way I’m driving on the dirt track,” he assures me multiple times. I’m a driver, to him, before anything else. He’s doing drivertalk. I get it a lot. “The tyres are too weak. That’s why I got two punctures in two days. They put bad tyres on the rental vehicle…”

I’ve driven a two ton 4×4 down that cow-haunted track too many times, up and down, and I’ve done it on two wheel drive setting when I was in the 4×4 because I forgot there’s another option. The 4×4 was terrifyingly new – less than 100km, so … Good tyres and admittedly I was being extremely alert. But… Big rocks are visible!! You anticipate your tyre track, no? Through the medium of “eyes” you can tell if you’re gonna scupper yourself on a spiky rock.

Lou could tell you about a rained out track we drove in Sao Miguel. If I wasn’t watching tyre tracks we would still be stuck there in a ditch.

Anyway. Yeah, I want to write about this job but I don’t identify as being important enough to be called an “influencer” and if you try that shit with me I will rebuke you. I mostly avoided detail in Saudi until it was all official… I might try and talk to the PR team. Because this is going to be my existence for the next few weeks. If I have to be careful of “the legal team” then you’re going to get a lot of blogs about insects. It is much more interesting to be able to talk about the way in which this race is all made.”

So yeah, I’m gonna do some research about who I am allowed to talk to. Because I can write better than many of the box-ticking media humans they might be throwing money at. Plus I’ve got the hands on experience of being part of the build of something that is powerful. A race about gender equality and sustainability? Why the hell is this not the most important thing on everybody’s calendar?

ROAD COW SAYS “I LOVE YOU” #ROADCOW

Airport statues

One thing I haven’t had time to think about here is the culture. I’m sitting in the airport on a little uncomfortable plastic bench surrounded by floodlit replicas of “I giganti di Mont’e Prama”. They are characterful replicas of Iron Age Gods or heroes that were broken into fragments and buried only to be found and dug up in the 1970’s. Sitting with them here reminds me that this strategically well located Mediterranean island has been a hive of human activity dating back to the very early days of humanity.

I’m tired and I’m only going to get a short sleep. Nothing like as bad as Saudi, but this flight gets in just before 11 and then it’s an hour and a half back to the hotel. I’ve been out in the sunshine helping bang in pegs all day. I was fried at five when we all went to the beach and I left my towel and trunks on the rocks. Since then I’ve had a cold shower, a Quattro Stagione and a litre of pineapple juice. The idea of going to sleep is somehow extremely appealing, but I can’t do it while I’m driving so it’ll have to wait until about 1am.

So I’ll sit here in this horrible airport. Nobody comes to this little bench by the statues. It would be almost peaceful if there wasn’t an escalator grinding away overhead. I wonder what the culture that made those stone giants would make of us all in this airport, where an advert for a car rental company dwarfs their ancient monoliths. What would they think we are doing?

One thing I imagine I would have in common with those long dead people is that I’m swimming in the sea every day. The water is just perfect right now. There’s a little bay not far from the hotel, and as you get into the warm water, the rocks give way to sand very quickly. There aren’t so many urchins – or I haven’t seen them. I know they’re about though so I’m treading carefully. They are edible, and a local delicacy, so I expect the better attended beaches have none left.

What a perfect time of year to be working in a warm place near the sea. But I’m falling asleep now, fat with pizza and tired from heat and swimming. I’d better go get a coffee from the grumpy man who only takes cash but doesn’t take big notes. It just be late, but with droopy eyes like this I’m a liability without a touch of wake-up juice. It’s only half ten. I’ll be good to sleep at 1…

Clicking into gear

A mixed day today, here in Sardinia. I haven’t had time yet to scope the local area. Local knowledge will eventually be part of the service. But… one thing at a time. Right now it’s just about multitasking. I had no choice but to put on the uniform. Hi-vis over bare chest.

Some of the lads have fluorescent cables that cover like the skinniest bikinis, were they badly done up. Letter of the law. A bit of fluorescent material means you are being H&S correct. I had this waist cinched hi-vis on, and figured I had little choice but to front it with no T-Shirt. I’m surprised I got there so quickly. I’m often pretty slow to strip down in company. But needs must. Sun and dust. Hot sun and aggressive dust. The only bits you really need to have protected are your head and your feet.

We all went to the beach after work, and walked across a long bridge where Sea Hares plopped about in the brine below. We live by a lagoon right now. There are even flamingos. This evening one of them flew over the car, and I realised I have never seen one in flight before. They look strangely even from below – you can’t tell one side from the other if you discount the direction they’re traveling. Beautiful underwing plumage. A joyful avian visitation.

We swam in the sea again, from a beautiful beach in walking distance from the hotel. I was encrusted with red dust and glad to wash it all off. Two of us joyfully played crap watervolleyball, and only for a split second did I remember that my crap volleyball partner had a huge part in making all of this happen for all of us. They run this little world. So many people well placed in nebulous jobs.

So many more people to come, too. But… already it is starting to take shape, with so many extremely skilled humans. It’s a big ask – to be skilled but also chilled about the hard conditions and unusual places and weird hours etc. I know why my skillset fits in this group. I’m happy here and I’m working and I feel understood and valued. And I feel like I’m part of a group who are making something genuinely new and fresh in an industry that needs new ways. Essentially, I’m happy. It helps that I’m either working with my body, or driving. There’s no time to overthink. It’s time to do.

More of it tomorrow. I’m finishing late tomorrow so I’m gonna allow a late start. But again, this is the joy of the team I’m in. I can organise my own hours – and I do. They know I will do everything I have to do plus whatever else I can add to the mix.

Today I picked up a lovely man called David. He is a family man. We remembered the adventure together. It’s been a while for him, but he got stuck in. We ended up on the beach. I swan, but he didn’t. I thought he would have, but he found somebody to talk to about tractors. I was proud of him for nearly getting into the sea. Also he plugged quickly into a group of humans that are well enough bonded that I found them intimidating in Saudi.

I’m happy here. Tired but happy. Hopefully I’ll get to learn the area before long – it’ll be helpful for my work. But right now, better to just get on with what needs getting on with.

Beaches

The above photo shows a stretch of beach in the early evening at Porto Pino. The sea around this side of Sardinia is full of Posiedona Oceanica – a kind of seagrass. The mass of detritus in the foreground is not litter. It has long helped with erosion prevention here just north of Africa. It is seagrass necromass. It’s the dead grass bits, mown by the tides. There are thick piles of it lining the rocks all along the coast.

As we frolic in the water, the grass is floating all around. It’s partly why we are here. This remarkable company – they work hard to bring benefit to the (frequently remote) areas they race in. This time they are looking at the care and conservation of seagrass. This evening, after a hot day, we all went swimming near it.

I am inevitably a wild card, but right now, thanks to geography, I’m able to get stuck in when I’m not driving. The site was so far from the hotels in Neom that I frequently just had to hang out around the airport. Despite one pick-up, today provided me with more upskilling work on site, and pretty much the first shot I’ve had of finishing at the same time as everybody else. So I got to go swimming with the group. So, I got to do bonding. So, I got to feel more of a part of the team… Groups emerge and solidify quickly, and once they are established it is hard to squeeze in if you’re a funny shape. I’m a funny shape. That’s something I’ve learnt to be peaceful about after years of fighting it.

I was lonely in Saudi until I made friends with the Princess. I wasn’t lonely because the people on the job weren’t lovely. I was lonely because my hours meant I missed all the crucial bonding bits where the social shorthand is developed. My working friendship with her and Doctor Jesus and her bodyguard made me feel part of a little weird group where I had a little space to be me. Our silly high energy chaperoned jaunt between pick-ups to get tea before I knew she was a princess – it felt like friendship, and it was. I’ll always find something / someone… I like things and people too much not to. But I was strangely nervous of returning to this team knowing I’d been generally a little socially awkward the first time – not counting the little world of my car where all of that goes out the window and I’m the happy driving guy.

Right now I’m happy. And I’m shattered. Work was hard. Fun was hard. Bed is soft. Zzzz

First day on the job – mostly about the distractions

Up in the morning and out into a new place. The first thing I find outside the compound is a tree full of egrets. I honestly didn’t know they did that. Parakeets, sure. Starlings? Well duh. But … Lanky great big egrets? Well, in Sardinia they like to hang out in trees.

I jumped in the car and headed to the tank range. In many ways, this is reminiscent of the Neom base out in Saudi. A patch of desert scrubland under a relentless sun. There are even local cud-chewing ungulates, about which the road signs warn you. In Saudi it was “beware of the camel” but here it is “beware of the cow”. There are whole families wandering freely through the tank range. They might move a bit further from the track when they start to notice the volume of traffic we generate.

The morning was spent with inflatable tents. Huge great big incredible affairs they are, that look like you’re in Dune. I learnt a fair amount about their inflation and erection. Incredible pieces of engineering.

I reckon, if everybody else on site were to suddenly go to the rapture, I might be able to get them all inflated – although likely I wouldn’t be strong enough to move them together and get the zips attached. They are big fuckers, and work much like RIBS – the boats.

We got them up. They were full of Saudi sand from when they’d been packed up. We slammed them into the ground.

Fun in the heat with pumps and mallets and pegs and rubber and sweat. I had a collared linen shirt on and a Rolex watch. I was the only man there with a shirt on. Everybody else just had highvis draped over tight abs. Manly male men and me. Honestly I need to work a bit harder on my physique. Once upon a time I had a six pack. Most of these guys are in their twenties and they still do. Dammit.

I’ve eaten well so far out here, even though I’ve gone way over the per-diems. I had a 50 euro dinner including this grilled dorado. Better than the one I had in Cornwall…

Early start again tomorrow. Feeling good… Long way to go.

Arrival in Sardinia

We landed at Cagliari at dusk this summer solstice. Somehow I had hoped the light would stretch a little longer tonight but by the time we British passports were given our turn at control, the world was darkening. I rushed over to the car rental place to pick up my great big silver Fiat, chasing the last of the light. The garage was full of bats waking from the eaves and wheeling. Guano everywhere. Immediately I knew this was a new place.

A friendly man was there to do the paperwork as the bats circled and shrieked.

Two lads to pick-up. I found them. And so we struck out, into whatever Sardinia might turn out to be.

The one thing the three of us all agreed on was that we were hungry. Very very hungry. Our initial blithe assumption that we would find vittals on the road from the airport to the hotel slowly began to cede to a simmering anxiety as we found ourselves whipping through unlit scrubland and up and down mountain pathways bereft of signage, of lights and of even the rudiments of civilisation.

The drive is an hour and a half. After 40 minutes the car was silent and tense. Our only real conversation was about how hungry we were. When we finally hit a village the pizzerias were open but the ovens were off. Everybody was still there drinking in the warm evening. No food. Happy Italians drinking. We gave up. “Breakfast starts early,” we comforted ourselves.

Then, a minute from the hotel, bustle and an oven with fire still lit, just by the road. We stopped. We rushed in. “Yes we will serve if you take it away!” We had pizza. We arrived back into our bodies. We tore it with our hands and rolled it into our faces. Smack.

I have no idea what the roads are like from Cagliari to Porto Pino having driven them hangry in darkness. Narrow and precipitous at points I’m sure. They might be quite beautiful in the light of day. I’m going to know them very very well before long I’m sure, like that long track into Neom from Tabuk.

Tomorrow is gonna be boiling. It’s hot tonight and it’s late now. 1.05. Just gone midnight back home. Outside the cicadas are really going for it. Sardinia then. Let’s make sense of a bit of you, shall we?

The Bravo Hotel Porto Pino is our base. I’m here now, writing from a room where I’m not sharing a bathroom. This will fit well with what tends to be antisocial hours for me. I’m honestly not sure what I’m doing tomorrow but I know it’ll be something. I’m just gonna show up at 7 for breakfast and start saying “yes”.

Oh yes, the hotel has loungers in a paddling pool… I imagine I’ll have a cup of tea there before long.

Shoutyman

Outside in the darkened streets somebody is shouting at the top of their voice. They’re assisted by something, as they haven’t stopped for about half an hour. Drugs? Booze? Love? “I love you!!” That’s been part of it. Their voice is a high tenor. A young voice. They might lose a few notes from the top of their range tonight at this rate. It’s all on one note, the noise they’re making. Both musically and sentimentally. They honestly might be going “nah nah nah nah nah”. Our brain can shut it out easily enough when it is so monotonal. What does he think he will achieve? Did anyone really ever change anybody’s mind by shouting at them? And yet, people try and try and try. I opened the window and stuck my head out to try to make sense of the words. He’s close. He’s not coherent enough. All the vowels are bleeding. I only made out “I love you” when it repeated four times with a little dying fall on the fourth as his breath ran out. Pitiful. But I wish he’d shut up. I thought about suggesting it, but I have a feeling that the rage-serenade would turn towards my windows instead. I can’t see him through the tree, but he’s over there somewhere.

I’m pretty much packed. This is my last night in London. Good of the city to help me remember why it’s good to get out. London gave me a headache and shat all over my car. I think we had a spot of acid rain the day before yesterday when I had my headache. Whatever it was, I washed it off Bergman today.

Moss is in my bed. He’s the measured teetotal son of a friend of Lou’s and he’s working at The Opera House. I’m on the sofa. I think I’m packed, even though I’m packing very very light. And I’m exhausted.

Shoutyman is still shouting. I’m thinking back to when that was me. I remember shouting at a nightbus driver who shot by me at 2am without stopping, and then he hit lights just past the stop. “Why didn’t you open the door! I hope you rot in hell!” All that stuff. Thinking about it it does feel nice to get that shit out in the open. ‘nah nah nah nah nah” he says, and the target turns up the music and all the rest of us wish he’d fade into the background, but that little sad lad with his only-just-broken voice – he might find catharsis in his repetitive squealing. We can only hope.

The fish tank is in my room, and it’s piling out irregular noise through the filter. That’s gonna be my company as I sleep. It’ll partly drown out shoutyman, who will surely run out of steam before long. “Nah nah nah”. To him, this is Cyrano de Bergerac. Oh to be young. But we have all been shoutyman. It HURTS to be shoutyman. But it’s nice too, just to put it all on everybody else. Aaaaaaaaaargh. Let all all those flies out of your mouth in a big solid black stream. Graaaaaaaa. Spit the little ones. They can all just coalesce briefly in noise and then disperse like the plaintive wailing of that rejected young man. Who appears to have stopped now. Just as I’m going to sleep.