The Paths Untaken: Making the Most of Where We Are…

Rye signpost

Rye

We’re all guilty of it: never visiting that National Trust property that’s only half an hour away; never getting around to trying that lovely looking restaurant passed every day on the way home from work; never walking the promising public footpath that cuts back across the fields just before the motorway turn-off; never exploring the historic building that’s tucked away just off the high street… We all have a Must-Get-Around-to-Doing-That-Soon List somewhere on a back-burner in our minds – a list of all the things nearby that are worth investigating. It’s a quiet sort of list, much quieter than the every-day To Do list of errands, dentist appointments and home improvements. It just sits there silently, invoking mild feelings of guilt and frustration whenever we remember all those lovely things we really ought to have got around to doing by now.

Growing up in Canterbury, a tourist hot-spot in the South East corner of England, I often took for granted all the beautiful old buildings, the forgotten cobbled lanes and, indeed, the magnificent Cathedral itself. I would walk past them all at a purposeful pace whilst reciting a shopping list in my head and navigating the numerous crocodiles of French school children. Tragically, familiarity can turn beauty into mere wallpaper, and over time we just stop seeing the wonderful things we are surrounded by. When we first moved into our new apartment, we used to sit on the balcony in the evenings and have a drink watching the magical lights of the Dubai skyline; two years later, it’s simply not something we take the time to do.

Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

Westgate Gardens, Canterbury

Opportunity is part of the problem too – or rather, too many opportunities. I think it works something like this: I could visit the nature reserve any time I like – it’s just down the road… But it’s precisely because it’s so close and so easy that we never actually get around to doing it, and after a while it just fades into the background. Perhaps this is even more likely when we have grown up in a particular place: what surrounds us is simply ‘normal’ – it has always been there and it always will. How many of us have been only vaguely aware of a pretty yet familiar view or admired it only in a purely two-dimensional sense – like a picture on the wall or a theatre back-drop – without ever taking the time to explore it on foot? (Now I’m thinking of Mary Poppins jumping into the chalk paintings on the pavement… View halloo!)

Leeds Castle, Kent

Leeds Castle, Kent

Being an expatriate has not always been a happy experience for me (hence the Homesick and Heatstruck thing…), but I am very grateful for the way in which it has sharpened my appreciation of the many Untaken Paths of home, both literal and metaphorical: don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone (they paved paradise and put up a parking lot…). When I return home to England for a holiday, I am essentially a tourist, and see things through the eyes of a tourist – each time noticing and appreciating so many more details in the previously ignored wallpaper patterns of home (Alain de Botton writes about this sort of thing much more eloquently in his fabulous book ‘On Seeing and Noticing’). I am a holiday-maker, so I can make home into a holiday. This is something I wish I had done a lot more of when I actually lived there, and I hope to continue to do so when I return for good.

In the meantime, the reverse is also true, of course. Am I really making the most of living abroad? Am I appreciating the many opportunities I have here for new and interesting experiences? If I’m honest, the answer is no… I certainly did when I first emigrated, and I get a resurgence of enthusiasm for it all every now and then, but I’m afraid ‘real life’ has all but taken over.  And, to be frank, the novelty has rather gone out of it all. As dazzling as Dubai can be, its charms are not exactly diverse or profound. In fact, much of it is rather predictable in its superficial, shop-bought shininess. I feel I know exactly what lies at the end of most Untaken Paths and have therefore lost all impetus to go and find out. It’s only when we have friends or relatives visiting that I now make the effort to be a tourist… I might take an abra ride on the creek, go shopping at the Textile Souk, or go swimming at a quiet bit of beach.

Organic, oasis restaurant - The Farm

Organic, oasis restaurant, The Farm

Since moving to Dubai four and a half years ago, I have had a ‘UAE Must Do List’. I am ashamed to say that there are items that have been on that list for precisely four and a half years: I still haven’t had afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab, for example. Every now and then, when I have an appropriate surge of energy or enthusiasm (not to mention the corresponding requirement of cash) I do get around to ticking something off the list – not long ago, we had breakfast at a wonderful restaurant called The Farm, situated in an artificial but beautiful oasis in the desert; a few months ago we made the most of our geographical location by hopping over to Sri Lanka for a few days (AMAZING).

For reluctant expatriates such as myself, the element of choice is crucial. Am I just going to kill time until I move back home?

Burj al Arab

Burj al Arab

– sitting in our local pub (the one I like because it feels like an English pub and I can pretend I am actually in England), or curled up on the sofa, transported home by the BBC’s gorgeous remake of Mapp and Lucia? OR am I going to make the most of my remaining time as an expatriate, conquer my cynicism, get off my arse and choose to explore some of the Untaken Paths that are still appealing?

*sighs*

It’s a fair cop.

Looks like my cynical arse and I will soon be going for afternoon tea at the Burj al Arab. I’ll let you know how it goes…

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26 Comments

  1. Rmcarlysle

    How very true this is, and eloquently expressed I must say. One of the ‘mostly harmless’ aspects of retirement is that it gives one time to walk some of those Paths Untaken.

    • This is why I am already looking forward to retiring! 😀 Looking forward to reading more about these Paths Newly Taken on your blog soon! x

  2. Anneka Reece

    So true! I still haven’t been up the Burj Khaleefa….

  3. Rick

    Beautifully written (am I getting boring and predictable saying this to every one of your blogs?), but how true it all is and how clearly thought out. It puts into words what must be at the back of all our minds and gives us all a bit of a kick up the cynical arses. Excellent.

    • 😀 Boring and predictable is fine by me – especially when it is complimentary! Determined to make the most of the next few months – and then making the most of England! Hooray!!! xxx

  4. Cate

    Brilliant! As always cous. I loved the ‘familiarity can turn beauty into mere wallpaper’ – how true! I do the same in Bath. xx

    • Bath is a very beautiful place – I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit in February – and hope to be back again soon! Lots of love xxx

  5. Great post. I’ve been an expat for 16 years, so I can relate to what you say about the novelty wearing off and needing to make more of an effort to discover the place I live. For me, writing and blogging has provided some of that impetus, but it seems to be just the way things go – as things become familiar we lose interest (even though “the familiar” is not quite as familiar as we think – there’s plenty that I overlook).

    I write about expat themes as well over at bosmosis.wrodpress.com and I’m always looking to connect with thoughtful bloggers who share similar interests. Please drop by if you have a chance. Cheers!

    • Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, John – I shall check out your blog this very day! 🙂

  6. Well done…. and we’ve all got that list! For me, it takes an imminent move to jolt me into doing……. and the afternoon tea at Burj Al Arab’s Junsui is a pretty wonderful experience…. you must go! http://debbiemovestodubai.com/2013/08/22/asian-tea-at-the-burj-al-arab-a-review/

    • Thanks, Debbie – thoroughly enjoyed reading about your Asian tea – it looked fabulous! 🙂

  7. This is so true. We’re moving to South Africa from the UK in the summer and I’m trying to make the most of our last few months here. We finally got round to visiting the Eden Project in December and every weekend we try to do something. Now, just to get round to visiting that castle up the road…

  8. Gorgeous photos! And a great post — I am in the U.S., originally from Scotland, and whenever I go “home,” there is a bittersweet feeling of knowing the “untaken paths” and yet not knowing all the new ones that have cropped up in the years since I’ve been gone.

    • Hi Louisa! Thanks for stopping by! Yes, I have to keep reminding myself that most of these things will still be here when I come back – the castles and the countryside aren’t going anywhere fast… New paths to explore are always exciting – and don’t come with the guilt of those older, long-ignored paths… 🙂

  9. Anne

    Beautiful photos!
    I really must go and visit The Farm some day, your photo is so lovely! I would suggest Afternoon Tea at the top of the Burj Khalifa, as well as at the other Burj. Going to Atmosphere for tea is better than going to the viewing platform at the top of the Burj Khalifa and the tea is delicious. (Have not been to tea at the top of the other Burj, though, so can’t compare directly.)

    • Great idea – I shall add that to the list! Thanks for visiting, Anne! Hope all is well with you 🙂 xx

  10. Excellent post! You write so well. You also make some excellent points! I’ve seen more of France since we returned to live in the UK than we ever did while we lived there. We have also all but stopped exploring the beautiful, culture-full Gloucestershire countryside we now live in. Hopefully this post will remind me to get off my arse too!

    • Thanks, Liz! I love the Gloucestershire countryside – especially in the summer! (Not long now…) 🙂 x

  11. I love your photos – especially the Leeds Castle one. I know what you mean about not making the most of where we live. I have lived near London for 25 years, and haven’t really seen very much of what it has to offer. It’s usually when we have visitors that we go and see the ‘sights’. I really must do something about that!

  12. Marvelous photos.

  13. Jessica Worswick

    I’ve lived in Dubai one year and it does have great things to offer but how right you are about familiarity. I left the UK in search of excitement and new culture etc and I have been so homesick and cant wait to return to what I thought was a dull and boring place to be ! I now long for familiarity and now see all the wonderful things about my country I failed to see before. I definitely have become more self aware and done plenty of soul searching and have certainly discovered more about who I am and what I want in life. It’s been a hard time so far, I lost my parents 6 years ago and was fine in the UK but I feel like the wounds of their death have reopened since being here which is very painful. But I am not going back home yet I’m hoping to do at least 2 more years although my very supportive husband would like to do 4. I’m hoping i can last from week to week at the moment but at the end of every week I keep thinking well I’ve made it. We do try and get out and about I too want to do afternoon tea at the burj and also a camping trip in the desert. I hope when I go back to the UK I wont be missing Dubai.

    • Hi Jessica, Thanks so much for these thoughts. Well, I can honestly say that I am grateful for my years abroad (now that they are over), and, who knows, I may well get itchy feet again one day, but for now I am absolutely loving being back home and appreciating all those things I took for granted when I grew up here (trees, rain, rule of law, freedom of speech etc..!!) Best to make the most of it while you can though – there are lots of exciting and fun things to do out there (I am actually missing sundowner cocktails on a Thursday night, for instance…!). The temperature will be dropping soon, and the winter will be LOVELY. Hang in there and et me know how you get on! x

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Lucy Strange

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