Meaning of life in the fast lane

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, if he returned there or who's the most famous person from his region and why.

He will sense that I'm not taking the piss and not judging him for having flown here - while I've grown up here - and open up, talk about his heritage, his family and, without fail, how much he really 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 about 14,000 of Samuel's troops and blinded them, leaving just one man in 100 with one eye to lead the others home. When he saw his men Samuel had a heart attack and later died.

I'm not sure what this really 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 as if they're from the Red Cross.

I've had a former South Vietnamese army officer tell me about his escape from a Viet Cong prison, and 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 that I read widely but I'm still surprised by the torrent of history I never learnt at school, and how there are so many great stories out there that don't involve photogenic white people with American accents.

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

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

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

This article Meaning of life in the fast lane was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.