Cabbie love

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.