I'm standing on the cobbled streets of Rome, surrounded by politely pink pastel walls. It's my final stop.
I had moved to Dubai shortly after my 25th birthday - grasping the opportunity to work abroad for a luxury fashion magazine with both hands. I had been working for an award-winning newspaper in Scotland since my student days and like the body of my native land, it was beginning to look unpredictable.
I craved the immensity of a large, cosmopolitan city - I still do.
It was an 8-hour plane ride that I will still remember when I'm 90, sitting reminiscing in a hot-as-a-greenhouse nursing home. One empty seat away from me was a nurse, and she was running out of pocket-sized tissues. From someone with the crying ability of a dead dinosaur to another trying hard to emulate the rhythm of the Niagara Falls, I dug (very) deep and offered some sympathy in the form of a piece of gum. It transpired she had been back and forth to Dubai for months on end to see her husband, and now the time had come for her to leave behind everything she knew as the norm and start nursing the Middle Eastern world.
But karma is a true friend. When my company's driver failed to show (I'd had high, *imaginary* hopes of a movie made moment: he was waiting, smiling and holding high a sign with my name emblazoned across it) my teary-eyed companion offered her mobile - not gum.
I didn't know a single person when I arrived in the desert. Well, not anyone that I could count on or call up if I found myself in the back of a taxi with another driver asking me: "Are you married, Madam?" Avoid: No, I don't want to get married - unless you want to be looked upon like the cursed, bastard child of Lord Voldemort. Instead, I would divulge details about my (fictional) fiancée and ask him about the place he calls home.
I looked up at one endless skyscraper after another from the car window. Everything felt futuristic, everything felt new. I unpacked my suitcase in my temporary hotel for a home, called my family, and proclaimed: "Its like luxury Legoland in a sandpit!" And then, every day for the next 14 nights I watched Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love (cliché?) on repeat whilst munching on a shawarma and deliberating as to whether or not I'd made the right choice - all in between hunting for a permanent place of my own, on my own. A single thought pulled me through: if Gilbert could do it, so can I.
Daily life in Dubai sometimes made me feel like I was an extra in the 90's film classic The Truman Show. None of it actually felt real. And I was never destined to play a main character because I was never fully committed to the show - but is anyone? From where I was standing it looked as though all expats shared one thing in common: they were adverse to commitment. My parents only further confirmed this on day two of their initiation: "This isn't your city". It wasn't my city, but that didn't stop me from lapping up everything it had to offer: The parties, the brunches, the beach, the sun-drenched enviable lifestyle. Like living on a boat, you knew you'd docked, but how long for was a question with no definitive answer. Should I date this guy? But, what if he just decides to ... leave? Should I extend my rental lease for another year? But, what happens if I want to go home for good? Oh, a pack of 4 tubes of toothpaste for the price of 3? But, what if I don't stay long enough to use them all? (I promise you it crossed my mind for a fleeting moment.) I never bought anything in bulk. I never visualised my future there. Luckily, I did have a brother-like companion who constantly reminded me to live in the present (for the important things) during the entirety of my stay on the sand.
You start to live a double life. Friends are your new family, and they only hear faint whisperings about your life-long friends back home. But, oh boy, are the friendships first class. You cross paths with people you've only read about in books or seen lit up on your TV screen. From a hillside farm in Austria and small villages in Spain to partying pals from Paris, you'll always be in awe. And when you meet a fellow countryman? It's like you've been reunited after decades apart. Truth be told, I made a conscious effort not to follow the easy route of only socialising with Scottish expats - but a feeling for the familiar never fades. You learn more about other cultures and customs that any text could ever teach. From fishing on a dhow in Oman and dune bashing in the desert to hopping over to Zanzibar, you visit incredible places at a moment's notice and see how others truly live. But, most of all, you learn a great deal about yourself.
People land and leave the city every day. And yet - they're both incredibly difficult acts to master. Aviators tell us that the most dangerous part of flying is taking off and landing. Leaving your life behind (and everything and everyone you know) to a start a new one is no easy feat. But, after you've succeeded in building a life for yourself in foreign lands, it's hard to wave it off with a quick swipe too. What was once strange is now safe and secure.
What's the secret to garnering success in the 'sandpit'? Surround yourself with good people and get out before the bubble bursts - or before you burst. Enjoy it while the love lasts. A common catchphrase amongst expats: "I'll stay one more year". Of course, that year comes and goes, and a few more too. Like a baby bird leaving its mother's warm nest, some would hesitatingly fly off only to retreat back to safety a few (unsteady) months later. And that's okay, but what's not is developing a lingering loathing towards the things you first liked about the new place you call home. When a city starts to gnaw at your edges like a wooden woodpecker on acid, it's time to go. As one young-but-wise friend put it to me, "leave while it's still a party".
While I was still happy to be dancing at the party, I bowed out. I resigned. I packed a backpack and I took flight. After two and half years, my fiercely fun flatmate and I wanted new lives - on different oceans. Saying goodbye was excruciatingly difficult, but the amount of love shared was wonderful. Like Gilbert, I visited Bali. And India. I cycled around the Gili Islands, flew up the east coast of Australia, jumped on a train ride around Sri Lanka and ate pasta in the piazza in Rome, and then went home. And I'd do it all again tomorrow.