The Paths Untaken: Making the Most of Where We Are…
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.
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!)
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.
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?
– 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?
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…