Expecting the unexpected

As Christmas approaches in Dubai, it’s an unusual combination of the familiar and the unexpected

Sometimes when I’m wandering aimlessly around a new city I spot things that set off snippets of famous literature that then bounce around in my head and get mixed up with what I’m seeing. It’s one of the quirky side-effects of having spent the better part of an undergraduate degree dissecting lines of poems and the like, searching for hidden meanings that you could expand into a four page essay at 3 o’clock in the morning. The lines I think of aren’t always completely sensible and sometimes they morph into something entirely different, but I like it. It feels whimsical and extraordinarily appropriate when living in new places. It reminds me to expect only the unexpected and to appreciate unlikely connections that crop up out of nowhere.

Last week, the weather had started to cool off a little – down to the mid-20s, which is downright chilly when you’re used to Dubai’s blistering high-30s – so I thought I would risk a stroll from the cafe where I had lunch back to my apartment. Most of my movement around the city has been limited to taxis, the metro, and friends’ cars. It’s unfortunate in that I feel like I don’t often have the opportunity to see those narrow backstreets, where a city truly comes alive.

On a regular day, my travels mainly include leaving home, going to work, and then back home again. There may be the odd jaunt outside for an evening ice cream, but I wind up sticking to my neighbourhood (which in itself is a bit insane considering I live on a ten-lane road). The views from my window mainly include massive high-rise buildings, brand new facades, and far less foot traffic than automotive.

Wandering through the back streets offers a different side of the usually-glitzy Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.
Wandering through the back streets offers a different side of the usually-glitzy Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.

So, on my meandering stroll through the narrow roads between my neighbourhood and the beach road where the cafe is, you can understand how my mind went wandering as well. I thought of the Robert Frost poem, Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening. Now, at the risk of offending someone, I’ll admit that I used to like reading Frost when I was a kid but no longer do. And at risk of further offense, I never remember the first line of his poems accurately. As I ambled past the sand-coloured houses I kept thinking, “Whose streets these are, I think I know.” That is not how the poem goes, but it’s how my head went as I walked along streets that looked nothing like what I was used to.

In the distance I could see my apartment building and the grand buildings next to it that make up the impressive stretch of the main thoroughfare. On either side of me were one level homes, beige and simple, with laundry hanging out to dry and bicycles propped up against the side. If I didn’t know any better, I would have thought I was in Mexico somewhere. It’s funny how skyscrapers can become your “normal”, and how jarring it can be to see something so clearly that wouldn’t have made it on your radar anywhere else.

From palm trees to Christmas trees

As I mentioned earlier, the weather is finally starting to cool off here. Mind you, when I say “cool”, it is completely relative. I have never lived through the month of November with flip flops as my primary choice of footwear. Even when I lived in Spain, the temperature in fall and winter demanded footwear that covered your toes. Sometimes the weather makes me feel a little bit sideways. I feel like something isn’t quite right, nor quite real. I think it may have something to do with the fact that seasons don’t change here like I’m used to. Despite rationally knowing that time has passed, my hard-wiring isn’t entirely convinced. I think my Canadian bones are waiting for the first frost to set in.

Since last week, I’ve started planning Christmas presents and packages to send back home. I also had to get my decorations organized because every other weekend from now ’til the tinsel-covered day itself will be devoted to something else. It is bizarre to shop for Christmas presents in the biggest mall in the world, while taking an iced coffee break on a terrace shaded by palm trees. Around the city, shops are filling up with Christmas-themed window displays in all the shops, with winter coats and toques on the mannequins and everything. I bought my Christmas tree in a Japanese dollar store this year. I could have got a real tree – there are no lack of options as stores around the city have stocked up on the best pines from around the world.

Sometimes I feel like I’m in a time warp that’s frozen in summer mode, but the outside world is still experiencing the passage of time and I have to throw Christmas parcels and knitted scarves through any holes I see. Perhaps that’s a bit dramatic, but I really find it hard to write ‘December’ on documents at work. It just doesn’t seem possible without snow. I don’t know if it was what she was after when she wrote the song River, but Joni Mitchell always makes me think of palm trees when I listen to that song. Maybe it’s the part where she mentions everything staying green. It makes me imagine a lost snowbird in L.A. somewhere, looking for a snow-covered pine tree.

'Winter' in Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.
‘Winter’ in Dubai. Photo by Nancy Cater.

Seeing the unexpected and coming to expect it is filled with wonder, but it’s also a little lonely. It’s lonely in that your heart doesn’t always recognize what your mind does as truth or reality.

It’s jarring and unpredictable, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often it reminds me of why I run madly in the direction of adventure. Sometimes, however, when my inner child is waiting for the first snowfall I want only to feel the warmth of the familiar, no matter how cold the walk home has been.

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