The River Bank
I have always found it profoundly pleasurable to be beside a river. There is something wonderful about the way in which water moves, purposeful yet playful, full of cool, soothing promise; the gently shifting patterns of light have the same quiet, hypnotic effect on the viewer as the dancing flames of a log fire. The incessant flow of a river reassures us of life’s continual forward motion: standing on a bridge and gazing dreamily downstream, it feels as if each worry that drifts through one’s mind is borne gently away by the current.
Homesick and Heatstruck as I am, I miss the characterful waterways of home: the Thames where we used to live in West London, with its impressive, masculine span, sweeping dignified, grey and tree-lined towards the distant city; the River Stour in Kent – particularly charming at its most shallow and glittering as it winds its way through the cobbled streets of Canterbury and the fields and villages beyond. I love to sit beside the River Stour in Canterbury’s Westgate Gardens, or in the garden of the Fordwich Arms or the Tickled Trout at Wye on a summer’s afternoon, relaxing in the sunshine with a pint and a packet of crisps, as the river trickles, green and glassy, just yards from my feet.
When I moved abroad I told myself that these much-loved places would all still be there when I returned. Rather than looking back and dwelling on all the places I missed, I should focus on the exciting adventures that lay ahead of me – the places I would discover in this brand new chapter of my life. Despite my optimistic intentions, however, I seem to have inadvertently stitched the feelings of contentment and comfort to these icons of home (much like an unfortunate late-night hemming incident). I am doing my best now to unpick these single threads, attempting to attach permanently positive feelings to some of the new and unique places I have found.
Last weekend I enjoyed a pot of Moroccan tea with a dear friend, sitting in a restaurant called Bayt al Wakeel on the bank of the Dubai Creek. I go here quite often when the weather is cool enough. It is a lovely place – a wooden structure on stilts in the Creek, built onto one of the city’s oldest traditional buildings. The Creek, full, broad and sapphire blue, glitters in the late afternoon sun, the bright, choppy waves dancing beside and beneath you. There’s always a breeze at the Creek. The air smells of the sea and smoky diesel fumes from the little water taxis or abras that motor back and forth, ferrying workers and tourists. Seagulls wheel in noisy flocks above the water and the cargo dhows move heavily in from the sea like cattle coming home from the fields. It isn’t tranquil at all, but its busyness is a joy in itself and a source of great contentment for the onlooker. I can be quite still and contemplative here, pouring myself glass after glass of the sweet mint tea, allowing my mind to wander as freely as the hundreds of bright boats on the water or the gulls in the clear blue sky.
Living abroad isn’t all about wonderful new experiences – it isn’t a big happy holiday; it’s the reshaping of your whole life. It is the single biggest challenge for all expatriates to find new sources of genuine day-to-day contentment and comfort. For me this is very much a work-in-progress. It helps to think that one day I will look back at my sunny afternoons sipping Moroccan tea by the Creek with the same warmth and nostalgia that I now feel for my memories of sitting beside the sparkling River Stour.
As my thoughts drift back to the waterways of England, I shall leave you with an extract from the first chapter of my beloved Wind in the Willows, as Moley discovers the joys of life on The River Bank…
He thought his happiness was complete when, as he meandered aimlessly along, suddenly he stood by the edge of a full-fed river. Never in his life had he seen a river before – this sleek, sinuous, full-bodied animal, chasing and chuckling, gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with a laugh, to fling itself on fresh playmates that shook themselves free, and were caught and held again. All was a-shake and a-shiver – glints and gleams and sparkles, rustle and swirl, chatter and bubble. The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spell-bound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea… Absorbed in the new life he was entering upon, intoxicated with the sparkle, the ripple, the scents and the sounds and the sunlight, he trailed a paw in the water and dreamed long waking dreams.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame, 1908