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Cabbie love

Talk to him!

Talk to him!

In Turkish, if you want to say "no problem" or "you're welcome", you roll out the all-purpose phrase Bir sey degil.

I know this because a Turkish cabbie taught it to me, as well as how to say "hello" and "goodbye", during a long, traffic-plagued trip to the airport last year.

It's something I do with pretty much every taxi driver I meet - 95 per cent of whom don't speak English as their first language.

I ask: "Where you from originally?", then "how do you say 'hello' in your language?"

If I'm sober, I might even remember what they said in the morning.

Of the hundreds of times I've asked these questions, never has the driver not smiled as he replied, then chuckled or been helpful when I butchered my first attempt at pronunciation.

The red-light glaze lifts from their eyes and it begins ... an unveiling. We'll talk about their home town, the geography, what they manufacture, has he returned, who's the most famous person from his region and why.

He'll sense I'm not taking the piss, not judging him for having flown here, while I've grown here and open up, talk about his heritage, his family and, without fail, how much he loves Australia.

In this way, I've learnt snippets of Bengali, Hindi, Farsi, Turkish, Macedonian, Russian, Arabic as well as Vietnamese and, along the way, heard some incredibly funny, sad and horrific stories.

I once asked a Macedonian cabbie why his people were so cold on the neighbouring Greeks and he told me about the battle of Kleidion in 1014, when tsar Samuel of Bulgaria (which included Macedonia) was defeated by the Byzantine emperor Basil II.

Basil captured roughly 14,000 of Samuel's troops and blinded them, leaving just one man in 100 with one eye to lead the others home, upon which Samuel had a heart attack and died two days later.

I'm not sure what this has to do with the Greeks, but I've dined out on the story for months because it makes American troops peeing on the corpses of al-Qaeda rebels look like the Red Cross (though those actions were nonetheless debased).

I've had a former South Vietnamese army officer tell me about his escape from a Viet Cong prison, a Pakistani dude laugh about his brother nearly getting castrated by his in-laws after he impregnated a Chinese woman who was not his wife.

I've had a Muslim driver tell me how the first converts to Islam prayed towards Jerusalem instead of Mecca until Mohammed changed his mind, and an Egyptian man speak of the mamluk slave soldiers who ruled that country for 300 years.

I like to think I read widely, but I'm still surprised by the torrent of history I never learnt at school and how so many great stories there are out there that don't involve photogenic white people with American accents.

What my conversations with cabbies have taught me is these men, who the media and public are so often guilty of scorning and ridiculing, are an incredible cultural resource, hidden gems you need only buff once with a friendly question before they explode into a starburst of stories.

Taxi drivers are living history, gutsy men who've left everything they know to be in this country and I thank you all for the patience and tolerance - so seldom returned - that you've shown as you ferry home 10 million drunks each weekend.

One day soon, it might also dawn on these ingrates that painfully unfunny jokes about cabbies' body odour and English skills mark them as blinder than a Bulgarian prisoner of war.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here. His email address is here.

27 comments so far

  • Great article sam

    Commenter
    shane
    Date and time
    April 02, 2012, 8:01PM
    • I agree with this. I've heard some of the funniest stories from cabbies and they're awesome blokes. I always speak to them but every time I just think "this guy probably gets asked the same questions every time he picks someone up."
      So make sure you mix it up a bit!!!
      My only dislike for cabbies is when they pull over then drive off because your fair is only going to cost you $20.00-$30.00.
      SO FRUSTRATING!
      But otherwise, no one wants trouble. They're just doing their job and I'm sure they'd far less want to be sitting next to drunk kebab smelling passengers than you wanting to sit next to them so be nice, have a chat, pay the cash and get the f*** out.

      Commenter
      L
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      April 02, 2012, 8:06PM
      • I haven't lived in Sydney for a while, but most of the cabbies I met were Australian. There was one black lady with dreadlocks who spoke in a very strong Caribbean accent and spent most of the trip laughing. I couldn't really understand what she was saying, but it was a cool trip...

        Commenter
        JEQP
        Date and time
        April 03, 2012, 1:18AM
        • I love this story! My Dad was like that when I was growing up, he was always so interested in people. Back in the day when it wasnt fashionable, he used to ask people where they were from and did they like it here. He was in the Royal Navy during the war and went to a lot of countries so he was always finding out things. My Mum befriended a young Greek woman in town who didnt speak english and came here for an arranged marriage and knew nobody because they bought a cafe in the country. She helped her celebrate her babies and we were invited to functions and learned a lot about their culture.
          My son in law is Muslim and his family are Turkish/Kurdish/Lebanese so he speaks Arabic Turkish, Farsi, Kurdish and English and its such a mix. It's been interesting sharing religions and cultures with other people and blending it in to your family.
          On topic, we dont use taxis much but the last one we took was driven by a young guy who was Sikh. He was going to Uni in Ballarat and driving to Melbourne every weekend to drive a taxi catching a few hours sleep here and there and studying in between. He thought Australia wasnt too bad in the racism stakes not as bad as some but he had been called a rag head more than once which is a shame.

          Commenter
          two-minds
          Date and time
          April 03, 2012, 1:35AM
          • The most interesting conversation I've had with a taxi driver was a couple of years ago. He was Polish and it was in the aftermath of the plane crash which had killed their president. He had a lot to say about Polish politics.

            It is pretty hard to find a cabbie who actually has something interesting to say, rather than banal historical and cultural pleasantries.

            Commenter
            hired goon
            Date and time
            April 03, 2012, 7:07AM
            • I love this post Sam and agree totally... I have had some great conversations with Cabbies both originating from o/s and Aus(sometimes drunk sometimes not)...

              Doesn't take much to talk to someone you are in a confined space with and I have always walked away amazed by what I have learnt.

              Commenter
              Purple
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              April 03, 2012, 8:18AM
              • Nice piece Sam. When you apply yourself you are an awesome writer. Recently I had a ride with a very polite and friendly older gent who had driven many notable villains about back in the day. We had a great old reminisce about Abe Saffron, George Freeman, Murray Farquhar, Lenny McPherson and sundry other dearly departed 'colourful Sydney racing identities'

                Commenter
                randomguy
                Location
                back seat buckled up
                Date and time
                April 03, 2012, 8:41AM
                • Im sorry sam, but I don't share your sentiment.

                  Of course, it's preferable to have a decent exchange but essentially, these drivers are no different to the thousands of other migrants (my family included) who have settled in Australia.

                  How about this - they don't cherry pick the fare, they pick me up in a clean cab wearing the uniform they are prescribed to wear, follow the road rules, be considerate to other drivers on the road, know where my destination is or at least have some idea which direction they should be heading, take me via the route I prescribe if directed without cheating the fare, asking me personal questions (whether Im married, what religion I follow), don't treat me with disdain because my head is in whatever work I have going on, or Im simply quiet because Ive had a particularly difficult day and want to get home "safely".

                  Commenter
                  CityChick
                  Date and time
                  April 03, 2012, 9:19AM
                  • lol! delightful passenger you must be. fail.

                    Commenter
                    far canal
                    Location
                    boganland
                    Date and time
                    April 03, 2012, 11:12AM
                  • Spoken like someone who has to get taxis after work. Having a regular driver does make life easier.

                    My favourite 'fare extension' was from an asian cabbie who decided to take me on a detour that added $60 to the fare. After telling him that I would only pay the regular fare and how we could sort it out at the local police station, he was happy to accept the amount I was prepared to pay.

                    Taxi drivers can lose their licence for taking unjustifiably long trips in order to boost the fare. It is a good way to deal with the issue. Maybe you need a taser or pepper spray or something, if they decide to 'react'.

                    Commenter
                    hired goon
                    Date and time
                    April 03, 2012, 12:12PM

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