Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Snakker du Norsk?

“Snakker du Norsk?” Means “do you speak Norwegian?”, in Norwegian, to which my answer is “Ja, jeg snakker litt norsk”, yes, I speak a little Norwegian. (Only in present tense and I’m a bit rusty, it was quarter of a century ago!)

My first trip abroad was working Contract for Mobil Exploration Norway. I was effectively head-hunted (or my job was), an advert appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph during mid November 1980 for an SL1 installation & project specialist, 12 month contract, £12k tax free, accommodation provided, 6 flights home. Seeing as how I was earning about £8k at the time, it was too tempting not to explore.

I had a first interview in the Bar of the Coventry De Vere Hotel and it was arranged for me to have my actual interview in Stavanger a few days later (fortunately, I had some holidays left so managed to fit it around other arrangements.)

I flew from Newcastle To Stavanger one evening which was a first for me, I’d never flown commercially before. I’d also never appreciated that a small bottle of wine could be so much more effective at altitude!

Arriving at Stavanger, I met Richard Llewellyn, the local contact, who took me to the best hotel in Stavanger, the Atlantic, for my overnight stay. From my room window, I had a nice view of the town lake. The room seemed a little gloomy, as the style was to have dark shaded lamps rather than a central fixture. The décor was strongly wood based, unsurprising for a country that excelled in forestry as well as fishing and oil. The other thing that stuck in my mind was that whilst it was a double bed, it had two single quilts.

The following day, I was picked up after breakfast (which was a very fishy one), driven round to the harbour and met the team. The main Project manager was a Brit called Derek Bassett, who had a sidekick called Paul Hocking who was working on a message store and forward system (using Telex, a 110 baud text transmission system using teleprinters that pre-dated the Fax and was mostly killed off by it). They were both Contractors for Mobil and the Head of the Department was called Od Haugen. Od was indeed a little odd, but he was always interesting to talk to and a bit of a visionary.

Anyway, they liked me, so it was agreed that I’d start early in the New Year. I then had to work my notice, move out and sort out all the loose ends. GEC were rather disappointed to lose me (The Head of Engineering, Nick Dowty, had me in his office and told me I was “an absolute fart” with a twinkle in his eye). My immediate line manager asked if I could complete one last project, the installation of the training system for British Telecom, as it had just then been renamed. That was a fun fortnight and worth a blog in its own right.

Starting in Norway after the Xmas & New Year festivities, I stayed in the Victoria Hotel for the first week or two, until I was sorted out for an Apartment. The Victoria was one side of the harbour and the offices were in a converted warehouse the other side of the harbour, in a building known as “Crossed Fish”. Getting to and from work was a pleasant stroll, provided it wasn’t raining. Whilst Norway gets very cold, Stavanger catches the gulf stream so it has a maritime climate the same as England. For snow, think rain.

Stavanger is the Texas of Norway, the main oil town. Whilst there was a state owned oil company (StatOil), they couldn’t do it all on their own so most of the other big names were in town as well. I was working for Mobil Exploration Norway Inc., abbreviated to MENI internally. I actually worked for a joint venture company called Anglo-Nor Engineering AS (AS being the equivalent of Ltd), whose only employee was Richard Llewellyn. They were based in the offices of the Norwegian partner and I don’t recall what they were called now (or the British arm either) but they basically picked up UK Television with a very large dish and retransmitted it via Cable to nearby communities with inevitably variable results. At the time there was only one Norwegian TV station (NRK) which was state-run and a little dull so there was certainly an opportunity.

In my first week, I rapidly grasped what the job was about. Mobil had managed to persuade the local PTT to allow them to buy a Northern Telecom SL-1 phone system in the face of strong opposition, the incumbent preferring to supply Ericsson and Siemens systems. Mobil wanted someone who knew the SL-1 and could ensure they were making best use of it. The installation was about to start the following week and plans were well advanced for it.

I was keen to get out of the hotel and so was Richard, as it was eroding his margin. Richard and I visited various possibilities for accommodation, some of which needed a car, some which were not quite finished and some which were not too nice. My favourite one was about three miles inland in a small hamlet called Vaulen, an easy bus ride away. It was the upstairs of a reasonably sized house, consisting of a large lounge, reasonable sized bedroom (with big bed), a kitchen and a bathroom/WC, all off a hallway. My front door was glazed at the top of the stairs and there was also a smaller bedroom there that the landlady’s son used. Apart from the occasional tendency to play Pink Floyd loudly when his mum was out (which didn’t bother me at all), the family were little bother and I could use their washing machine in the basement. The bedroom had a small balcony and it was refreshing to go out in the morning and take in the view, you felt you could lean out and touch the mountains, or scoop up the water of the fjord.

Richard also took me shopping- he bought me sets of sheets, pillows, a duvet, a record player/receiver, a clock radio & a few odds & sods missing from the inventory. He also arranged for hire of a TV and video, although this being Norway, there was a waiting list for the VCR so I bought myself one once the first month’s wages came through.

Work was interesting and enjoyable. My main business contact was Gro Walters, the switchboard supervisor who headed up a team of eight or nine operators. I also befriended the Telex supervisor, a tall Nordic fair haired bloke called Hans who became a good drinking buddy. The Scandinavians are mostly good looking, athletic outdoor folk which makes the women look stunning, but the men seem gay…

Derek Bassett was good to work for, he knew what he wanted and made it clear what the goals were. He also cooked an excellent Curry, so visiting him socially was never a chore.

Socially, Norway was very anti alcohol. There was one proper pub in town on the waterfront called Dickens, beer was 25NKR (Norwegian crowns) a half litre, so this worked out at nearly £3 a pint. The Pub was so popular that after 5pm, you had to queue to get in. There were three other Pubs elsewhere in Town, one which I liked was called the SkipperStuen, or the Captain’s Cabin. The Hotels had bars as well and there were a couple of Night Clubs, my favourite being one called Skagen which was in a converted warehouse. Prawn night was popular, they brought a special rowing boat onto the dancefloor full of cooked (but whole) prawns that you then peeled & made into open sandwiches. If you wanted to buy booze, you went to the State Off-Licence, known as the VinMonop, or Wine Monopoly shop. Here you could buy wines and spirits behind discreet curtained windows. This was also where you went if you needed Meths…

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