On Monday I was glad not to be waking up in Paris, but I wasn’t especially glad to be waking up in Nice. The apartment where I was staying still had an interminable problem with flies, and it was getting me down. I wanted to go home. Because I couldn’t go home, I stayed in bed all day. And then I did the same thing on Tuesday. The intended effect of this was to make the week go quicker, by cutting out loads of time, but strangely it was making it go slower. My unpleasant surroundings were making me sink into a depression and I had to get out of it. So, in spite of vows made over the weekend not to spend any more money, I had to say “fuck it” and book into a hotel in the centre of Nice for the remainder of my stay. It would eat even further into my savings than I would have liked, but I didn’t think I could seriously put up with another night where I was.

I was glad to find a room in a hotel where I had stayed before, on my trip in 2012. I remembered it being a nice hotel and as soon as I had the room booked the clouds of depression began to lift. Money may not be able to buy long term happiness but it can certainly sweeten things in the short term. I figured out that by then, with all the last minute changes to plans and extra hotel bookings on the trip, I must have gone over budget by about £1k in total. Not a catastrophic amount to lose, but it’s hardly ideal, and I’m going to have to be very prudent from the moment I get home tomorrow.

The move to the hotel was a good move for me. When Wednesday dawned I felt 1000 times better, and I didn’t want to stay in bed all day. The weather was glorious again, so I went to the train station to catch a train to the nearby city of Cannes. I hadn’t planned to go to Cannes at all on this trip, but it had been years since I last went there and it would make a nice change from being stuck in Nice. Plus it’s only half an hour away by train and the ticket was extraordinarily cheap.

I spent a couple of hours there walking around in the sun, lapping up what would probably be the last beach weather of 2015, then returned to Nice and spent a few hours at the hotel writing. Today I caught the train in the other direction, to Menton near the Italian border. Not as posh or as vibrant as Cannes, it was still a good afternoon out, as the sun managed to break through the clouds that had drifted in overnight.

It’s my last night in France and it’s fair to say I’m very happy to be going home. Being abroad for so long, for someone of my character, is tough. I didn’t know how tough it could be. But of course, the past five weeks haven’t all been bad. I’ve enjoyed many of the places that I’ve been lucky enough to stay in. Even in France, which has proven to be much more stressful than I expected, I’ve achieved what I wanted to achieve, namely an improvement in my French language skills. Whilst watching a news report last night on the Paris attacks I was able to follow nearly everything they were saying. That could be because I had been watching reports on the same subject all week and was used to the vocabulary being used, but I think being immersed in the culture and the language for two weeks has definitely helped. I can’t know for sure but I think I’m approaching level B2 now, which means I am an advanced user of the language, just below the level of proficiency. Another six months to a year of practise and I could be fluent. That would involve solid daily practise – once a week won’t cut it. I intend to do some more studying when I get home and take a course in conversational skills at the Institut Francais next year.

I can’t wait to get home to London, because it is my home – the only place I always feel safe in. Before this holiday I knew I loved London and that I would miss it, but the past five weeks have made me realise that I belong there. So my plans for moving to Manchester and leaving the south behind have been discarded; I can’t leave London. Not now, anyway. In ten or twenty years, maybe I will be ready to reconsider and relocate somewhere else. But at this point in my life I feel comfortable with staying put, despite all of London’s faults and all the things I was complaining about before. I think a lot of the complaints stemmed from my unhappiness in my old job. Now that that’s all behind me, I’m free to enjoy the pleasures that London has and call it a friend again.

The time for me to think about the future is approaching. I know I’m going to wait until January to start looking for work, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to stay at mum’s during the first few months of my new job until I’m ready to apply for a mortgage and move again. To consider staying at mum’s for an indefinite period right now is either madness, or a sign of maturity and patience. I hope it’s the latter. The truth is that I need to save as much money as I can in preparation for buying a place, especially after the wild overspending of recent weeks. If I can earn a wage for six months without having to pay rent, I’ll undoubtedly be in an advantageous position when it comes to furnishing my own property. It is going to need a lot of patience, but that’s the position that many in my generation find themselves in these days.

Buying a place of my own is the priority for 2016. It’s the goal I’ve been working towards for years, even at times when I thought I wasn’t. It’s the whole reason why I waited so long for the shares bonus at my old company. 2016 will have to be my year of austerity – I need to secure my mortgage deposit and save money for making a house a home at all costs. Without doubt I’ve never done anything so responsible before. Around a year ago, I thought I would never do it. But now more than ever, it’s what I want to do.

This time last year, my hope for the end of 2015 was that I would have left my job, got the shares money and found a new more fulfilling job. I’ve achieved two of those things and completed a major tour of Western Europe as well. By the end of 2016 then, I hope I will be in a new career that I love, and paying a mortgage on a home that I love, somewhere on the outskirts of London. I’m putting it out there, HP!


On Thursday I woke with every intention of making a fresh start in Nice, of beginning to enjoy myself properly and putting negative homesick thoughts behind me. But after another day of walking around for hours feeling like I had already seen and done it all, with different negative strands of thought clamouring for dominance in my mind, I couldn’t do it any more. I was tired of the place where I was staying, of the long and often crowded bus journey between here and the centre of town, of not having anywhere to sit with a book and a cup of coffee except one small and noisy Starbucks in the middle of a shopping centre. Any possibility of starting afresh, of persuading myself that there were plenty of things I could do to liven up the rest of my stay here, was gone. For about a week I had been thinking about cutting my losses in Nice and moving on to Paris. It would cost a lot of money, which is why I hadn’t committed to it so far, but on Thursday I went back onto the SNCF website and gritted my teeth as I forked out over €200 for a train ticket and hotel in Paris. As soon as I had booked my weekend there I was relieved. I would stay for three days and then return to Nice on Monday, hopefully refreshed and ready to face the remainder of the stay here with more positivity after a fun weekend in my favourite French city. In my dreams I would have been able to book a whole week in Paris and abandon Nice altogether – but I couldn’t justify the cost of it, and something told me that I needed to come back and see the last week of the trip out here, given I had paid for the accommodation for two weeks, and it would only be a few more days.

I got the train to Paris on Friday morning excited and happy to leave my fly infested flat behind for a few days. I had plans to fill the entire three days in the capital, including trips to museums I’d never been to, as well as cafés and bars and nightclubs that I liked from previous trips. When I’ve been there on my annual summer trip with P for the past three years we’ve always gone to the gay Tango Nightclub in the Marais district on Saturday night, where the night starts off with couples ballroom dancing before turning into a disco and all out cheesefest. It remains my favourite nightclub in the world, one of very few I would stay out late for now, and I had no fear about going there on my own this weekend, because I knew the atmosphere would be friendly and welcoming as it always is, and I’d get to dance to some of my favourite French pop classics.

The train arrived at Gare de Lyon punctually Friday afternoon and I headed to the hotel that I had booked at the last minute, thrilled to be back on the Paris metro and on the Paris streets, which are the most similar out of all the cities I’ve visited on this trip to those in London. Many of the same shops and coffee brands appear in Paris as those that appear in London; being closer to home geographically than I had been in over a month, I felt like I was at home in a way. I checked into the hotel, which I found to be clean and modern and comfortable, then, hungry, went out to a nearby McDonalds to fill my stomach cheaply and conveniently before heading off for a long walk across the nighttime city.

At that point there was no hint of any danger on the streets, nothing out of the ordinary to feel panicked or anxious about. It was a normal Friday night in Paris, the city of light. I walked straight through the trendy young streets of the 10th and 11th arrondissements, in the general direction of the Marais, intending to immerse myself in the culture and see some of my favourite places before heading back to the hotel for sleep. I had never been through those areas before and I was impressed with the vibrancy and the colour of all the hip little cafés and bars that I passed. I’ve been to Paris a number of times and whenever I discover a fun new part of it, it’s always exciting. I eagerly texted P to tell him about the area I had discovered, saying that we would have to try some of the places together when we come for our trip next year.

I crossed Place de la Republique – somehow despite it being a big famous square I’d never been there before, always just passing it on the metro – I enjoyed the lights and the abundance of yet more brightly lit and trendy cafés, then strolled on to the Marais to see what was going on in the bars and cafés that I knew there from past visits. Everywhere was busy with people seated at tables or standing outside with glasses of wine and cigarettes in hand, chatting animatedly in French about unimportant things and having a good time. I was unlikely to stop in any of the places – the only place I was considering spending money in was the Tango club on Saturday night – I just wanted to walk past and get a taste of the atmosphere, to feel like I was back in a place I loved. After the Marais I jumped on the metro at Hotel de Ville and returned to the hotel.

I was tired, but not quite tired enough for sleep, so I switched the laptop on and got lost in a Netflix binge watching session for a few hours. Around 9.30 I saw a text from P that started with the words “Hope you’re OK and not affected by this…” and then a link to some news story about something that seemed to have happened in Paris. I didn’t think anything of it immediately – I was still in the middle of my Netflix binge and not ready to look at the news.

An hour later I was finished with Netflix and decided to follow the link that P had sent me. Immediately I was confronted with images of carnage on the streets that I had just walked down three hours before. A group of armed terrorists had pulled up outside the Cambodian restaurant that I specifically remember passing and opened fire on the diners outside; they had then moved on to do the same at other unsuspecting bars and restaurants before ending up at the nearby Bataclan concert venue, where we all know what happened.

To say that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing is an understatement. I turned on the TV news and became transfixed for the next several hours, trying to make sense along with the rest of the world of what had happened. As a clearer picture emerged and the number of casualties grew to horrifying levels, the thing I kept thinking about was that I had been there, that I was still in the city where this had taken place, that I had paid to come here when I could have stayed in the south and been relatively safe. Although I was clearly safe in the hotel I didn’t feel very safe. I’m sure no one in Paris felt particularly safe that night. How do you feel safe in a city where a group of men can just open fire on innocent people eating dinner in a restaurant, for no reason? I kept going back to that street with the Cambodian restaurant and Le Carillon Bar, where at least twelve people were thought to have died; I remembered walking along that small unassuming street feeling so alive and happy, at the point where the terrorists were probably already on their way with their weapons and their suicide belts, getting ready to kill. It would be morbid to say something like “how different it would have been if I’d been there two hours later”, but given the anxiety bordering on paranoia that I had already been experiencing all week, my rebellious mind was determined to think these things. I sat watching the news in horror until three in the morning, knowing that I would essentially be stuck in my hotel room until I could go back to Nice.

I got up and went down to breakfast in the hotel yesterday morning not knowing if there would be anyone there to make or serve breakfast. Luckily as soon as I got to the restaurant it appeared to be business as usual. The hotel staff was present and a full array of foods were laid out for breakfast, so luckily I wouldn’t have to consider going out to find somewhere on the dangerous streets of Paris. As I sat down with my cereal and croissant, I couldn’t tell if there was a subdued atmosphere around me or not. Clearly with the announced closures of all museums and public places in Paris that day, the hotel was now full of tourists like me who wouldn’t be able to go out and do much, yet people were chatting and laughing as if everything were normal. The only sign that anything had happened was the TV screen on the wall showing the news. Tired and agitated, I grumpily wanted people to show more concern or respect; every conversation, every burst of laughter irritated me. I ate up quickly and returned to my room, contemplating what the hell I was going to do all day.

The news was saying that despite all the closures and the atmosphere of tension in the city, most people were going about their business as normal and people were already drifting to the sites of the attacks to pay their respects and lay flowers. This even though there was a strong possibility of there being accomplices to the terrorists still out there, on the run. I could have gone to those places to pay my respects, or I could have just gone for a walk through the city, through the parks and the national monuments, maybe stopped off at any cafés that happened to be open for a much needed coffee. I could have been brave and just gone out, but I couldn’t face it. I was too weary, too beaten by hours of being glued to the sensationalist news. I turned the TV on and watched more of it for a few hours until I fell asleep, totally exhausted.

I woke just as evening was drawing in. I was hungry and, although I would have been quite happy to stay locked in my room, I knew I had to go out and eat something. I could have eaten in the hotel restaurant, but when I got to the ground floor it was empty and it wasn’t clear if it was even open. For a moment I dithered until I realised that it would be stupid to stay inside the hotel all day out of fear. I could see people out on the street walking about without fear of being gunned down. If all those people could take the leap and go outside then I could. I walked five minutes down to the McDonalds where I had been the night before and ordered myself a Big Mac meal. Of course, it’s a shame to eat Big Macs two nights in a row in a city that is renowned worldwide for its home grown cuisine, but what could I do? Maybe other brave tourists who weren’t on their own could face going into the sorts of local places that had been targeted by terrorists the night before, but I couldn’t. If that’s letting the terrorists win, then so be it.

After dinner I returned straight to the hotel, having met a basic physical need. Any idea of sightseeing or doing anything remotely interesting this weekend was gone. I went onto the SNCF website and booked a ticket on a train back to Nice for Sunday, a day early. Another €100 euros gone. It seemed I had done nothing but waste money out of fear and panic these past few weeks: wasting even more of it came naturally to me last night, when all I really wanted to do was go home. But I couldn’t go home. The cost of getting a last minute flight or train to London, while thousands of other British tourists would undoubtedly be clamouring to get on the same flights and trains, would be prohibitively expensive, not to mention hugely stressful since I’d have to go back to Nice first to get the rest of the stuff that I had left at the flat. The easiest and probably safest thing to do was just to come back to Nice and stick the rest of the week out here, and that’s what I’ve done.

After I’d booked the ticket mum called me to see if I was all right. Of course she had been watching the news all day too – she does nothing but watch the news at home. She had no idea that I was in Paris, and I was happy to keep her in the dark on that score. She wasn’t particularly relaxed about me being within French borders, but thinking I was in Nice, hundreds of miles away from the epicentre of the attacks, was far more comforting to her than knowing where I really was would have been. I couldn’t have done it to her. I told her I was fine staying in Nice and that I’d see her again next weekend as planned. She told me to be safe and that was that. God, if I could have just got on a plane then and seen her that night, how comforting it would have been. Why did I have to book that stupid last minute trip to Paris? Why did I have to leave half my stuff behind in Nice? I had put myself in a harrowing situation, but there was nothing I could do, no point in regretting decisions that had already been taken. I’d have to go back to Nice in the morning and just see out the rest of the week as stoically as I could.

This morning my fear of venturing back onto the Paris streets was mitigated somewhat by my desire to get out of Paris as quickly as possible. I checked out of the hotel early, hoping they wouldn’t ask why. They did ask why, which I found a bit baffling. Had they not heard what was going on? Could I really be the only guest checking out early? I pressed on with my escape and walked out to get the metro, seeing no signs anywhere of a city under siege. Perhaps because the hotel was in an area slightly removed from the centre its inhabitants weren’t as directly affected and therefore less prone to show their fear, at least outwardly. If I hadn’t watched any news or looked at any facebook this weekend, if I hadn’t known anything of what had happened, then I wouldn’t have been able to tell from what I saw in Paris this morning. The atmosphere on the Metro was as it would be on any other day. Even at Gare de Lyon, a major transport hub, I saw no police and no army, despite the media’s report that all major train stations and public places in France were to be subjected to extra policing as part of the emergency state.

I found my seat on my train and breathed a very small sigh of relief as it pulled out on time. I said goodbye to Paris, not in all honesty knowing when I would ever go back. I’m sure P, always positive, will want to return for our traditional summer trip next year, and by then maybe I’ll have forgotten the paranoia and want to return to a city that has cast off its traumatic 2015 and regained a sense of normality. I hope I will be ready to return then; I hope nothing else will happen and I hope by the summer Paris will once again be the city of light, the world’s most beautiful city.

For now, it is tainted in my thoughts and I would far rather be in an uncomfortable flat on the outskirts of Nice tonight than in that hotel. At Nice Ville station I saw a small group of soldiers, the first real sign that I had seen all weekend of what’s gone on. I rushed back to the flat so I could lock the door behind me and feel safe again. Although realistically I know the chances of coming to harm here are very slim, I couldn’t stop that paranoia creeping into my thoughts as I had to make my way across Nice, through busy streets full of people that could in my darkest nightmare harm me. It seems that being on the streets anywhere in France now feels threatening, even with the army out in force. If I think about it too much I could get very upset at the thought of coming across difficulty when I return to London next Friday. This state of emergency that’s been imposed means that border controls are going to be stricter than they normally are, for everyone coming in and going out of the country. What if I get asked difficult questions at Gare du Nord on Friday night? What if they want to know why I look so paranoid?

I’m having to use all my CBT skills to counter these ridiculous paranoid thoughts. Of course it’s absurd to think that I could be stuck in France forever – it can’t feasibly keep people in its borders who have done nothing wrong and who just want to go home. But a malignant thread of doubt remains in my mind, telling me that I won’t really be safe until I’m past those border checks and back on British soil, which will undoubtedly make this week feel very long.

When I have these paranoid episodes they don’t usually last more than a day or so, and I may wake up tomorrow or Tuesday feeling quite normal again. What’s not clear is that I will fully be able to embrace being on holiday again. I was already tired of being a constant tourist before Friday; part of me would like nothing more than to just spend the rest of the week indoors eating, sleeping and reading. In fact I might just do that. Although there surely are more places I could see in the Cote D’Azur, I don’t know if I have the energy to plan yet more day trips. For five weeks non-stop I’ve had to meticulously plan days out, looking up maps and train timetables, buying tickets and searching for places that look friendly to tourists where I can eat. A couple of weeks ago I was starting to think that maybe I’m not cut out for long term expeditions of this nature after all; now I’m quite sure of it. I’ve said it before, but I do miss my home comforts too much. And now that I’ve wasted so much money and been within a hair’s breadth of terror in Paris, the heart has essentially gone out of this holiday.

One side of the debate about what it all means has wheeled out the usual clichés about not letting the terrorists win, while the other side is saying that it has already won. Can we honestly say that the terrorists have not got what they wanted when people are debating ferociously about whether to pray for the victims or not? When France has closed its borders and imposed a form of martial law for an indefinite period? When people are blaming the migrant crisis for what’s happened, completely ignoring the fact that most of the attackers seem to have been from Belgium?

I don’t want to be this pessimistic; I don’t want to dampen anyone’s spirits; I definitely don’t want France to give into fear and become a police state where no one can do anything in case it causes panic. It’s probably because of my extreme sensitivity rather than anything in reality that I am this pessimistic at the moment. The world will carry on; Parisians will pull together; the state of emergency will eventually end and in a generation or two, the war on terror will probably be won by the allies. But at the same time for some of us there is a price to pay; there are those who were directly affected by the attacks, killed or injured, their lives and their families’ lives changed forever; and there’s the rest of us who can’t always be bright and optimistic about it all, who just have this special ability to see the worst in a situation. I’ll tire myself out thinking about it this week. On Friday I’ll go home and feel OK again, until the next time something blows up and I’ll gravitate to the worst most sensationalistic accounts online. You know the drill.

Wednesday 11th November

I want to be happier than I am in Nice. I was looking forward to this part of the holiday so much, because I’ve always enjoyed trips to Nice before – I’ve been on my own and had a pleasant time here a couple of times. I know the place well and it should have been a chance to relax and settle a little. Instead I’ve been willing the time to pass, to get me to next week when I can finally go home. On my second day here, I actually looked up the price of last minute flights and trains to London. I was prepared to waste the money I had already spent on accommodation here, so I could run away and resume my normal life. If I hadn’t already spent a small fortune on changing my plans in Spain, when I booked three nights in a four star hotel in Barcelona at the last minute instead of completing my stay in Madrid, I might have actually booked myself a seat on a plane or train home. But I had already vastly overspent on this holiday – I can’t bear to calculate the total figure – and if I was to maintain any sense of self control, I had to stay in Nice. Two weeks here couldn’t be that bad. At the least the weather was good when I got here.

The bug bear of the whole holiday has been my accommodation choices. Nearly every place I’ve stayed in has had problems of some sort. You can’t control these things, of course – it’s not my fault that I felt unsafe where I was staying in Madrid, or that the place I’m staying in now has a chronic problem with flies. That’s right, the flat seems to be infested with these tiny flies that don’t make any noise but which buzz around you all day if you don’t kill them. At first I was more bothered by other issues, such as the fact that one of the entrances leads directly onto a main road, meaning I have to keep the blinds shut on that side of the flat to avoid the stares of passers by. I could also have done with the bedroom and shower room being a lot bigger; as it is there’s barely enough room to move and get changed in them, which is frustrating. But with the passing days I’ve come to accept those things; it’s the flies that are getting to me now.

During these two days I intended to relax, go on some nice walks by the sea, do a lot of writing. I’ve certainly done the second and third things in abundance; I can’t say I’ve done much of the first at all. I don’t know if I’ve managed to do any real relaxing on this holiday. Isn’t that a shame? I ask myself if it’s because the places I’ve stayed in have genuinely been riddled with problems, or if I have brought a negative mindset everywhere with me.

The first argument, that most of the places I’ve stayed have suffered from real problems, seems more likely when you consider how much I enjoyed Lisbon, Porto, Venice and Geneva. I could happily have stayed in those places a lot longer. It’s Madrid, Rome and now Nice that have spoiled things.

The other argument, that it’s all down to my mindset, is lent more support when you consider that even in Porto, Venice and Geneva I didn’t really feel like I was on holiday relaxing. I loved seeing the sights and walking round, taking all those pictures – but it was more like I’d been forced to do it than I had actually chosen to. I think this comes down to more than me being stressed out – everything that’s going on in my life today has contributed to the issue. I want to get home so much because I want to see how the next stage of my life is going to pan out, to find a new career and finally sort this issue of lack of friends out. Originally I booked the long holiday as a way of taking a break before I had to face those things, but now more than ever I wish I had just decided to get straight on with them.

I’ve always believed that it’s not worth regretting past decisions, but that doesn’t mean I don’t spend a lot of my life regretting them. In my natural state I’m always regretting things that have happened in the past, whilst worrying about the future at the same time. Once I get home and get a job, I know I will be looking to the next big turning point, waiting anxiously for it to come so that I can say I’ve made it past that milestone. I’m a typical AA member in that sense, never happy in the present.

Realising that I’ve been doing it on this holiday, I’ve tried to step outside the mindset and just make the most of the present. This week I’ve taken advantage of glorious weather, walked all around the French riviera and taken hundreds of photos, reminding myself that it’s just a feeling, not fact when I start to feel like I miss home and wish I wasn’t here. By today, I was feeling a little better, but as soon as I remember that there are nine long days still to go I can sink back into that pit of yearning if I’m not careful.

The unignorable fact that I’ve been in Europe for over a month without having a single conversation with anyone is the pin that will burst any bubble of positivity that I try and console myself with. It’s true: the only real communication I’ve had is the weekly phone call to my mother and an intermittent facebook conversation with P. Apart from buying things in shops and cafes, I’ve had no face to face contact with anyone since I left home. I’ve tried counting myself lucky that at least I can look forward to those facebook messages from P and those phone calls from mum, but I know it’s not enough. I didn’t intend to travel around Europe without speaking to anyone new. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but on that plane to Lisbon I hoped that at some point in the next five weeks I was going to make a friend somewhere. In 2015, a year that won’t exactly be remembered for wild socialising, I’d made dozens of friends in Bulgaria. If I could do that I could do it in one of Western Europe’s big cities, surely.

Of course the situation in Bulgaria was constructed for me by work. I had to train and talk to those people day in and day out; making no friends would have been strange. Here I’m entirely on my own, with no arrangements or groups that I can rely on. I somehow would have to make something happen, and in the end I’ve failed by not really trying. Until Nice I wasn’t going to be in any one place for more than five days, so realistically it never seemed possible to forge something with someone in the time that I had.

In Nice I could go to English AA meetings, I could hang around in gay bars, I could look online for English ex-pat social groups. So far I’ve done none of that. The same old excuses have been used: after days of walking round taking pictures I’m often too tired to find an AA meeting or a gay bar and talk to people. The ugly truth of the matter is that I haven’t really wanted to make the effort here either, even though I’ve got a fortnight and I’m feeling pretty goddamn lonely in the evenings. It’s the same problem that has plagued my social life at home for the past few years, a lack of desire to put the work in. I bloody wish people would come to me for a change, but they never do.

When I get home next week I’ll still have time to do something. I’ve planned not to return to work until January, so I’ll have five or six weeks in the lead up to Christmas to re-establish some kind of social circle, if I decide that it’s a pressing need. Alternatively I could just wait until I have a job again. Experience has shown that being in a work environment eight hours a day leads naturally to friendships: it did time and time again in my old job, until the end. Perhaps I’ve stumbled on some great truth about society: that unless we’re put in situations with each other we don’t go out of our way to make friends. Or perhaps I’m using that opinion as an excuse not to make any changes in my life as it currently is.

Something else I wanted to do in Nice was improve my French – and it’s happening, slowly. By listening into conversations in shops and on TV I’m learning new vocabulary and grammar, all of which is good. But it’s so difficult! When I think I’ve got a handle on it, I hear someone say something that makes no sense, with words that I’ve never known before, and the frustration of the novice comes back. If I watch any French TV programme, whether it’s the news, a soap opera or game show, I can probably understand around 40% – 50% of what they’re saying, if they speak slowly and clearly. That reduces to 20% – 30% if they speak quickly, which the French are more wont to do.

I understand that to get better I have to keep listening and practising. If it’s true that it takes around 10,000 hours of practise to become an expert at something, then I have a lot of hours of practise ahead of me. The problem with French is not the vocabulary, it’s the grammar. I assume it’s the same when learning any language. Translation becomes problematic when the verbs we use in every day language are not used in French. For example, to disappoint in English is to deceive in French (décevoir). To learn in English is to teach in French (apprendre). To like and love in French are the same thing (aimer). To earn in English is to win in French (gagner). When you consider that there are thousands of such discrepancies between the languages it can begin to seem like an impossible task, becoming fluent. That is my ultimate goal, to speak French like a French person, not necessarily because I want to live here but because I’m halfway on the journey already and I can see it enriches my life. I respect and admire anyone who is bilingual. Learning another language expands your mind and your horizons; it adds a layer of interest to the personality. When you tell people that you speak another language it normally impresses them, and if they happen to speak the same language it can create a bond. So I want to carry on; I hope I can, in spite of the frequent difficulty and frustration!

Friday 6th November

I adored Venice’s beauty and its elegance, but after two days it was time to pack my bags and move on again. On Wednesday I had a train to catch to Geneva. I wasn’t looking forward to the train journey at all. The more I thought about it on Tuesday night the more I wished I could cancel and stay where I was. I sorely regretted the decision I made several months ago to visit all these different cities and countries, spending just a few days in each. I became convinced that I am not cut out for grand European tours after all; give me a sedentary, long term stay in one place any day.

But, as was clearly the case, I couldn’t stay where I was. I had to get that train on Wednesday – I had to move on again. The three main things I wasn’t looking forward to were: the length of the journey (nearly 7 hours), the likelihood of the train being late, and the possibility of the conductor not recognising my e-ticket. If there had been just one thing to feel anxious about it might have been OK, but with me if there’s more than one thing to think about I always begin to stress out.

It seemed likely that the train would run with a delay because it had happened to me on every train I’d taken in Italy so far. I would be taking two trains to Geneva, changing from one to another at Milan, with just half an hour’s connection time in between, so I needed that first train to run on time, as I couldn’t bear the thought of missing the second one. Now that I was on my way out of Italy I wanted to get out quickly. If I got stuck in Milan without a place to stay it would be a nightmare.

For most trains in Italy if you book a ticket online you’re just given a reservation code with nothing to print out – or so I had been told by the website that I booked my seat on. Everyone else on the train that day had paper tickets, which seemed strange, and although my reservation code for the previous Rome to Venice train had been accepted by that conductor, I couldn’t relax until it had been checked and accepted on this one. Paperless tickets and online reservation codes seem a very modern thing – they don’t do it that way anywhere else in Europe that I know of. So when I got on the first train to Milan on Wednesday I was very apprehensive indeed.

The conductor came along after half an hour and, thank God, accepted my online code without a fuss. The train had left Venice on time and seemed to be running perfectly punctually all the way to Milan. Maybe I would get to my destination without a hitch and everything would be OK? Unfortunately, just as it was approaching Milan station it stopped suddenly, and stayed stopped for many minutes, with the platforms in sight up ahead. There were no announcements to explain the hold up, no apologies (it had been my experience on other Italian trains where there were delays that they don’t explain or apologise, which is why I was so anxious about it). It was the most nerve racking ten minutes of the whole trip, knowing that my connecting train to Geneva was sitting in the station up ahead of me and I couldn’t get to it. I began to think about what I’d do if it left without me and I had to find somewhere to stay in Milan. I didn’t want to stay in Milan – I was ready to leave Italy now. Any back up plan for spending an unplanned night there was sure to be very expensive and, of course, stressful.

After ten minutes the train slowly started moving again and we were on our way. The second the doors opened to the platform I jumped off with my suitcase and ran to the Geneva train, which was fortuitously waiting on the next platform. Once on that train, I could relax a little.

The journey into Switzerland would be passing right through the Alps and alongside Lake Geneva for much of the way. Sadly by then it was completely dark, and I didn’t see any mountains or lake. Had it been the summer it would have been a very pleasant train journey, I’m sure.

On arrival in Geneva I found the tram that I needed to take to the hotel and got on, looking forward to a bed and a nice relaxing sleep. When I got to the hotel I was pleased to see it was a comfortable, large and warm room with a very big bed and a TV that I could watch French speaking TV on to my heart’s content. I did that for a while until my eyelids began getting heavy and I had to call it a night.

The next morning before I could do any sightseeing in the Peace Capital I had an important trip to make to the airport. When I left London three weeks ago the airline had mistakenly sent my suitcase to Geneva instead of Lisbon – I’d confirmed that the suitcase would be at Geneva airport waiting for me to collect. Now here was something new to stress about: finding my way to the correct part of the airport and explaining the situation to whoever I found there. It seemed highly unlikely they would just let me into the baggage area and give me my case. There was also the possibility that it wasn’t there any more. It had been over three weeks after all, maybe the person who assured me they would keep it there had left his job or made a mistake.

I got the bus to the airport first thing in the morning during a cold, grey rush hour that reminded me of going to work in London. Soon I was at the airport, speaking to someone in French about my situation and being shown to the baggage depot. Because of the anxiety I made a few mistakes with my French grammar and the lady who was accompanying me may have thought I was a bit strange, but we made it in the end. There was my suitcase, unopened and in the same condition that I had last seen it in three weeks ago. I would have clean clothes again! My favourite toiletry brands! My warm winter jacket! My nice shoes!

I took the suitcase and left the airport just a few minutes after I had arrived. It was hard to believe I’d been so lucky – me! Yet again, all prior worries and doubts had been proved wrong. And yet the next time something happens I’m sure there’ll be more stress even so. My worrying head doesn’t go based on experience. Still, such good luck coupled with the fact that I’ll be in French speaking territory with familiar customs for the rest of the trip meant that everything would surely no longer be such a hassle for me. A turning point had been reached.

It was still pretty early which meant once I got back to the hotel I’d have a full day to do sightseeing in Geneva. As soon as I could dump the suitcase there I was back out of the door, heading into the city. My main destination was the famous lake, where I was sure to take a million photos of the scenery. When I got there it was cloudy and foggy, but in spite of the other side being invisible, there was an eery beauty to the huge body of water in front of me. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. The water was clear and blue; I realised I’d never been to a real inland lake before. It seemed to be an outward representation of the peace and stillness that I want to achieve in my head when I’m meditating. I was drawn to it; I would spend most of the day walking around the vicinity of the water, taking countless pictures of the changing landscape as the fog lifted and the sun came out.

I found Geneva to be a charming, compact city with all the big stores and international coffee chains you need. I was happy to see the Starbucks logo on the high street again – some familiarity for me. When I was tired of walking around taking pictures I stopped in Starbucks for a large cappucino and read a book for a while. Very relaxing. In the afternoon I did a couple of museums – the Tavel Museum, about the history of Geneva and its people, and the Phillipe Patek Museum, about the history of watchmaking. Both were enjoyable pit stops and an interesting insight into Genevan history.

By evening I was ready to return to the hotel. I’d had a thoroughly pleasant day, one of the best on the trip so far, not least because I had been able to speak passable French in the shops and cafes instead of trying to get servers to talk in English. I edited and uploaded my photos to Facebook and watched TV for a couple of hours until it was time to go to bed.

Today I’m on my way to Nice, France, where I’ll be based for the rest of the holiday. Dragging two heavy suitcases to the train station instead of just one was a pain, and I considered just throwing away the small suitcase with the temporary clothes I’d bought in Lisbon – but I never like to throw clothes away, so I determined to take it with me, even though I didn’t really need it. Ahead of me is another 7 hour train journey, but I’m not really anxious about this one. I’ve got a paper ticket, and as it’s a French train I know it will be on time (I’ve never experienced delays on French trains, at least not without some kind of explanation and apology!)

In Nice I look forward to being able to settle a bit. Since I’ve been there a few times already, I don’t expect to be doing as much sightseeing. I’d rather use the time for some proper relaxation, as well as a lot of creative writing. I’ve got two weeks – plenty of opportunity for both. As much as I’ve enjoyed all the different cultures and histories that I’ve experienced so far on this trip, I’m ready now to just stop for a while and breathe.

Tuesday 3rd November

I’ve passed the halfway point of my holiday; time is beginning to speed up and there’s an end in sight. I’m in Venice at the moment and for the first time all week, I want to be exactly where I am. In Rome, I could work hard to deny it, but I didn’t really want to be there. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I’ve been to Rome. It’s an extremely interesting place, with some sights of remarkable beauty, but I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I felt so far from home while I was there, thanks to the lack of cafés where you can go and sit and the difficulties in moving around. It all just sort of got to me by the end of the week.

The train journey to Venice on Sunday could be classed as a nightmare. It was due to take six hours – thanks to some unexplained delays it ended up taking more than seven. I could have kicked myself when I found out there was another much faster route, and I could have been in Venice in just three hours. No, there’s no point in regretting things that have already happened, but I was in a sour mood nonetheless when I got here.

I cheered up when I got to the hotel and discovered how nice it was. So much better than the hotel in Rome, which I didn’t like so much by the end. The room here is big and cosy and has all the necessary things. I stayed up for a while on Sunday night watching TV then went to bed and slept really well. I was exhausted.

Yesterday when I woke up I panicked for a while about getting the bus into Venice proper (the hotel is situated on the mainland). It’s always a worry in foreign countries: figuring out how to navigate public transport. I’d found out online that you can’t buy tickets on board buses in Venice most of the time, but none of my research could tell me where you can buy tickets. After breakfast I went and stood at the nearby bus stop, trying to see if there was any information there, but there was none. I decided I’d have to risk getting on the bus when it came and asking the driver. It was sure to be an embarrassing conversation – me the annoying, unprepared tourist, trying to talk to an Italian bus driver who doesn’t have time for such stupidity. But I had no choice – I couldn’t just stay at the hotel all day.

When the bus came, the driver waved me away and told me I could buy a ticket at the hotel reception. Of course he wasn’t going to wait for me: he drove off as soon as I’d stepped back onto the pavement. Pissed off, I went back to hotel reception to get a ticket, wishing they’d told me when I checked in that they had them. It sure would have saved a lot of stress.

With my ticket finally I could get on a bus and head into Venice. The weather was beautiful yesterday, and despite the initial stress of buying a bus ticket, once I was on the bus crossing the bridge to the island, I felt excited. My excitement was well founded: from my first moment in Venice I saw that it was beautiful. With no cars, it has an old romantic charm about it that I’ve never seen anywhere before. Of course, there’s a canal to cross after every other block, which gave me many opportunities to take great memorable pictures.  The architecture too is truly lovely. There are no modern glass and concrete slabs: everything is historic and classical in style. I walked pretty much the whole way across the island, through all the busy alleyways with the lovely little shops, until I got to St Mark’s Square, a place I felt I had been meant to visit all my life.

When I was a kid my mum used to take me to this old Italian restaurant down the road in from home. It’s not London’s best Italian restaurant by any means, but it’s been there a long time, it’s family run, they’re always friendly and the food’s made traditionally. We recently went back there for my birthday a couple of years ago, after not going for many years. At the back of the restaurant there was this huge mural painting of the iconic St Mark’s tower in Venice, with the square and the port in front and all the boats docked by the waterside. When we went back to the restaurant a couple of years ago they had had a makeover, but I was pleased to see that the old mural was still there. It looked as if it had been painted a long time ago, and it was clearly depicting Venice in a past century. Something about that painting always stuck with me. As a kid looking at it, I could never have imagined I’d go there. It seemed so removed from my life, so different to anywhere in London.

Arriving in that square yesterday, I was spellbound by it. The square itself didn’t look much like the painting – it’s obviously changed a lot since the era that the painting was meant to depict – but the huge cathedral tower did look the same, and then out by the waterfront with all the hundreds of gondolas, I could see what the place must have once been like. With such good weather, I could have stood there looking up at that tower all day. I walked around taking countless photographs; there’d be a lot to upload to Facebook later on.

I went to enjoy one of the best pasta dishes I’d ever had in a nearby restaurant, then I decide to go into the Doge’s Palace next to the square. This is where the Venetian government used to convene when it was a republic, thus the palace had a great deal of grandeur and opulence. I took countless photos of ornate ceilings and paintings; by the time I came out evening was drawing in, and I thought it best to make my way back to the hotel before dark.

I’d had a wonderful day in a wonderful place. If I could have spent the whole holiday here, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad. Last week I was so down, probably because I wasn’t so connected to the place I was staying in, even though it was a great historic city that I’d always thought I wanted to visit. I’m dreaming about my former workmates pretty much every night. The other night I dreamt that it was years after I’d last seen any of them, and I heard that two of them had died. It was a horrible, shocking thing to find out – I woke up terrified for my own life, perhaps because their mortality had reminded me of my own, perhaps because it had made me regret not keeping in touch with them.

There is no easy message to decipher in these dreams, but I think this latest one may suggest that I am going through a grieving process; the subconscious death of two people that I liked could reflect a real life grief over losing touch with so many people. I don’t want to keep going on and on about this forever, but at the same time, I already know this sadness is going to be with me for a long time, because the exact same thing happened when I left school sixteen years ago. At the time I left school to go somewhere different it was definitely the right decision for me, but I still grieved it, because I think my brain just couldn’t take the fact that I had done something so drastic. Now, even though leaving that job was definitely the right thing to do, it’s like I’ve taken too big a risk for my brain to cope with, and it can’t believe what I’ve done.

After I left school I had the same recurring dream about the people there for years, so I’m sure I’ll be dwelling on my former workmates for many years to come. I guess the good thing is, I’m not dreaming about school any more. Even up until the last months at work I was still dreaming about it on occasion: now all I dream about is work.

The other day some of the Bulgarian team posted a bunch of pictures on Facebook of their Halloween party. It looked like amazing fun. As I was in Rome, still feeling pretty sorry for myself, I stared at those pictures for an unnecessary amount of time, wishing I hadn’t left the job, so that I could have made a trip to Bulgaria and enjoyed that Halloween party with them. I would have got to feel like part of a huge group of friends again; it would have made me forget any doubts I ever had about myself for a while.

The reality I have to face up to is that I couldn’t just stay in that job for the occasional trips to Bulgaria. They’re a thousand miles away – they could never have been the group of friends I really needed. Sure, it was always nice when I went there – but the whole reason I left the job is that I used to have that same team of friends in London, and it was destroyed when they decided to move everything to Bulgaria. This is what my brain can’t take at the moment: that my whole life was turned upside down by a corporate decision taken in 2014 to move a whole team to another country. It will probably sound strange, but I guess it’s traumatized me, in a way. I lost a secure group of friends at home, found another group 1,000 miles away, realised it wasn’t a real replacement and had to change my entire career because of it. That’s it, in a nutshell. And because of that job that caused me such trauma I am in Venice now. There’s no way I could have afforded this trip without the money I took away from that job. I really can’t believe how it all turned out.

Thursday 30th October

With sadness I left Barcelona on Tuesday. I was excited about coming to Rome, but Barcelona had been a great stop off for me, unplanned as it was. I was leaving a familiar city and heading to another one that was unknown, and I had another dreaded flight to face. As expected, I hated everything about the flight even though it was smooth and quick. When I got to Rome, it was late and dark outside and I was more tired than I thought I would be, so all I could do was head to the hotel and go to sleep. Getting to the hotel from the airport was a bit of a pain, thanks to Rome’s awful metro system. Despite the city’s size it only has two metro lines, both of which are packed all the time, so at 10 o’clock at night it felt like rush hour in London. With my heavy backpack and suitcase I was shoved from side to side by angry locals who wanted me out of their way.

When I got to the hotel I was in a bad mood and went straight to bed once I’d checked in, taking just a quick look around my room, which seemed nice. The next morning, I hesitated to go down to breakfast, even though it was included in my room price, because I always find facing other hotel guests first thing in the morning a bit nerve racking. I braved it because I was hungry, and I really hoped they had the type of thing I normally like for breakfast, namely cereal and toast. I don’t like meat or big bowls of fruit in the morning, like most people seem to. Unfortunately when I got down there, meat and bowls of fruit was all they seemed to have. I forced some of it down, then left as quickly as I could once a loud family came in to sit down.

I had a whole day of sightseeing planned, but the minute I stepped out of the door I knew it was going to be difficult because it was pouring down with rain. It didn’t stop raining all day. At first, I was determined not to let it get to me, as I walked round taking pictures of the famous sights regardless, trying to mindfully avoid negative thoughts. But by lunchtime, once I’d seen the Pantheon and the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, I was ready to go back to the hotel and watch Netflix in bed. No matter where I am, even if it’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit, if it’s raining and cold I can’t make myself happy, it just doesn’t work.

With the rain came the negative thoughts and the loneliness. I started to think about the fact there were still over three weeks to get through, three weeks of just my own company, three weeks of struggling through foreign countries where I don’t know where to eat for dinner. I felt very sorry for myself as I headed back to the hotel. Once here, I got into bed and watched Netflix for a few hours. It was the middle of the afternoon.

Later in the evening I had to go out for dinner, so I made myself get the metro back into the city, where there was an authentic Italian restaurant that had been recommended to me. OK, all restaurants here are authentic and Italian, but this place seemed worth trying. Before coming here I was keen to try a real Italian pizza, so I ordered that as well as some bruschetta. When it came, it was kind of mediocre. On the way I’d passed loads of places that had actually seemed nicer, and although I wasn’t supposed to be feeling negative, I allowed myself to feel disappointed.

In Rome I couldn’t help noticing that all the restaurants here are pizzerias; I haven’t seen anywhere that doesn’t serve mainly pizza. There’s no other kind of restaurant that I can see. Also, there are no coffee chains – all the coffee houses are independent and traditional here. After wondering about it I looked it up online and it’s true, none of the international chains has a branch in Italy yet, not even Starbucks. All of the coffee houses here are old and traditional, and apparently people don’t go to them to sit around reading all day; they go in for a quick coffee standing up and then they leave again. Discovering this also contributed to the negative mood yesterday, as if I wasn’t feeling pitiful enough already. Sitting in coffee chains reading all day is my thing – it’s what I spend half my time doing at home, it’s what I enjoyed doing in Portugal and Spain when I was tired of walking around and didn’t want to go back to the hotel. Here, if I want to read or do some writing, I have to go back to the hotel because there’s literally nowhere for me to sit with my iPad or laptop.

When I got back last night I went straight to sleep again, wishing I could fast forward to next week when I go to France.

This morning, I woke from what had been a decent night’s sleep feeling strangely better. The sun was unexpectedly shining, and I had a plan for the day: a visit to the Vatican. I booked my ticket easily online and then I made my way there, glad I wouldn’t have to queue for the museums thanks to the online ticket. When I got there, my breath was immediately taken away by the scale and the beauty of the architecture. Plus there was something magical about being in such a place – I guess it’s the history of it, the prestige. And it’s a different country, which is interesting in itself.

With the sun still shining I went into the museums and started following the crowds towards the most famous bit, the Sistine Chapel. On the way I passed some magnificent works of art, as well as some fabulous internal decor. The whole thing was glorious – I was extremely glad I’d come. When I got to the Sistine Chapel a hush descended, and everyone turned to look up and admire the world’s most famous ceiling. This was the most magical part of the day for me, being in a place where 500 years ago a man, a genius, spent years painting with his neck craned up, such massive and iconic works of art. I am not a religious person at all, but you don’t have to be religious to admire the place.

From the Vatican I walked back into the city along the river bank and took some more amazing pictures of Rome. My mood was vastly improved on yesterday, I’m glad to say. But then I got back to the hotel, and I was on my own again, thinking too much. Maybe it’s because the Vatican had been so nice, and now it was over, and I was back to the real world. I thought about work again, how I miss the people who left last year, how I just have to listen to a song now and it reminds me of them, of what we had, what was lost. I thought about how I miss London, how I miss my mother, how it will be so long before I see her again.

Of course I’ve got to stop doing this to myself. I didn’t spend all that money on this holiday just to sit around moping; I don’t have to spend my time doing it. I don’t know how to stop missing these people though – I don’t know how to get over how much my life has changed this year. It’s like I’ve gone on the holiday of a lifetime by mistake: I should be celebrating a positive milestone in my life, but instead the milestone happened to someone else, not to me. I left a job I hated for years and received a life changing sum of money, along with dozens of other people in the company – but I’m the only one who can’t feel excited about it at the moment. I don’t know, maybe I’m not the only one – I’ll never know because I’ll never see or speak to those people again.

I knew this holiday would be a direct challenge to my anxiety, and it’s certainly proving to be that. Every time I have to eat I’m anxious about going into places, trying to speak the language and make myself understood so I can get some food. In reality getting food here is easy, as it is everywhere in Europe because they all speak English – but that anxiety won’t let go. If it had its way I wouldn’t go anywhere except McDonalds, or starve, just to avoid the risk of embarrassment.

I took myself off to Europe to see a bit of the world and celebrate the beginning of a new chapter in my life; but at the moment it feels a bit like I’ve taken myself off too far. My anxiety would have me go back in time and just book a week or two in France, forget all about Portugal and Spain and Italy where I can’t speak the language and where I don’t know anyone. It seems such a shame to say it, and I don’t want it to seem like I completely regret the entire holiday, because I don’t – it’s just the way I’m feeling today. Once I’ve left Rome, maybe I’ll feel differently again. I just wish I wasn’t on my own tonight. I wish there was a way of bringing a friend here, someone I trust.

Monday 26th October

Friday I moved apartments as planned, to a place about ten minutes away from the centre of Madrid, and straight away it felt like I had made a bad decision. On the plus side, the new apartment was quiet – but that was about it. The area around it didn’t feel particularly safe, inside it was much smaller than I had expected, there was nothing to cook food with, and the wifi connection was extremely poor.

On this holiday I’ve come to look forward to the evenings when I can catch up on my favourite UK TV programmes using a proxy IP address, and in order to catch up on them I need a good wifi connection. I had it throughout my stay in Portugal; at the first apartment in Madrid it had been hit and miss, but mostly it was enough to get by with. Here it was terrible – I couldn’t stream anything. Using my phone’s 3G connection as a tether wouldn’t be possible. I know I’m not on holiday just to watch TV programmes, far from it! But there’s just something about being able to sit down of an evening and make myself feel a little bit at home with my favourite programmes. If I have to sit quietly in the evening doing nothing I can get to thinking about how lonely I am, how much I miss home and want to go back. TV can distract me from that for an hour or two, and it makes me feel better.

I decided I’d worry about the internet connection later as I went out to do some more sightseeing in the city. On my way out of the flat, I fell victim to a really stupid incident with the main door leading to the street. It was a big old wooden door with lots of metal locks and bolts, none of which seemed to do anything. I tried turning all of them and the door wouldn’t budge. I tried really hard not to panic but for a moment I felt like I was trapped and I began to hate where I was staying. One of the neighbours, who had been sweeping his balcony, saw me and started shouting something at me in Spanish. I assume he was trying to tell me how to open the door, but I couldn’t understand him. For five minutes he kept shouting and I kept panicking; his shouting started to become more of a hindrance than a help.

Eventually he came over to show me what to do – why he couldn’t have done it sooner I’ll never know – as he pressed a small button that was hidden away in the dark near the ground and opened the door for me, he gave me a look that told me I was the stupidest person he had ever met. Stupid English tourist, he seemed to be thinking. I didn’t thank him for his help as I walked out and slammed the door behind me.

I was so rattled by the incident all my plans for the day were forgotten and I had to just start walking in a random direction, to get away from the flat as quickly as I could. I walked for ages, not knowing or caring where I was going. It was horrible – one of the things I hate most in life is confrontation. I couldn’t stop thinking about how the man had shouted at me for ten minutes and made me feel like a complete fool. I was a fool. I’ve got two bachelor degrees and yet I can’t figure out how to open a door? It was like I’d exposed myself back there, and I didn’t want to go back. I decided to stay out as long as possible that day. I wouldn’t be able to face going back for hours, and I certainly didn’t want to risk seeing that man ever again. He might not be sweeping the balcony for much longer, but to be sure I made sure I was going to be out for the rest of the day.

I ended up at the river and sat on a bench by the river bank for a while. It was a cloudy day and slightly cold and I felt thoroughly gloomy. I’d made a really bad decision about where I was staying, there was no doubt about it. Just the thought of going back to it made me tear up. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went on my phone and looked up prices for hotels in Madrid. Everything was really expensive at such short notice. I really wanted to get away from that apartment; I would have gone anywhere. A hotel would have been nice: I would haven’t to worry about cooking food or dealing with angry neighbours any more. The wifi connection in a hotel was sure to be much more reliable.

But I wasn’t that keen on staying in Madrid, the more I thought about it. My flight to Rome this week is going from Barcelona – what if I ended my stay in Madrid early and went to Barcelona for a few days? I looked up hotels there, but of course they were all really expensive too.

I decided to sleep on it. I’d have to go back to the apartment at some point anyway – once I was back inside safely behind a locked door I could sleep knowing the horrible neighbour wouldn’t be able to bother me. I walked up into town and stopped off at a modern art museum, where I saw some great works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Renoir, Chagall. I wanted to enjoy it more – God, what I would have given to get back to feeling like I was on holiday! All the time the knowledge that I would have to go back to the flat eventually weighed heavy on my mind. As it got later and later the fear grew and grew. I tried to convince myself I was worrying over nothing. I had done nothing wrong. It’s not as if the neighbour was going to kill me if he saw me again. It was that place: it had a bad feeling about it now, and I wouldn’t be able to shake it no matter what I did.

After a quick dinner in McDonalds I returned slowly to the apartment. Luckily the neighbour wasn’t out when I got there, so I crept along the balcony to the apartment and closed the door firmly behind me. As soon as I’d taken my coat off I went online to look up hotels in Barcelona again. I was determined to find a good price. I would stay one night in this apartment, but I couldn’t do any more than that. I needed to go to Barcelona the next day: I needed the familiarity of it. I’d fallen completely out of love with Madrid. Barcelona was calling me.

Thanks to the weak wifi signal it took me about three hours to book a train and a hotel. As soon as I was done I felt a little better, and I could go to sleep looking forward to the next day. Every now and then I heard a neighbour walking around in their flat next door. The noises were strangely close, as if they were in the flat with me. I knew they weren’t, but it spooked me every time it happened nonetheless.

I slept fitfully. When dawn came I got up pretty much straight away to start packing. My train wasn’t until 1.30 in the afternoon, but I thought there could be no harm in preparing early. I messaged the owner of the flat to tell them I was leaving early. I was terrified of them telling me it was such an inconvenience, there was nothing wrong with the flat, they’d be leaving me a bad review on Airbnb. I knew logically that me leaving early would make no difference whatsoever to the owner – I’d paid for the full stay in advance and I wasn’t expecting a refund. Still, the whole upsetting experience had made me extra sensitive to anything that could go wrong, and I was sure that I’d be leaving this owner with a really bad impression.

I checked my messages all morning at regular intervals, but there was no reply. The owner had either had a really late night and was still asleep, or he just wasn’t that bothered about me leaving. At 10 o’clock I’d had enough of waiting and decided to head into town with my suitcase. When I closed the door on the apartment for the last time I was so glad I can’t tell you. I’d never disliked anywhere as much as I disliked that place. Thinking about it even now gives me the creeps. It really did spook me. I don’t know what was the worst thing about it. All the things that happened were bad, but even together they don’t seem like enough now to make me loathe it as much as I did. There was just a bad energy about it. Thank God I’ll never have to see that place again.

I hung around in Costa Coffee for a few hours until it was time to head to the train station. The wifi in Costa was thankfully strong and I could surf the internet normally as if I was at home. When it was time to go to the train station, I felt like jumping for joy. I was going to my favourite city, Barcelona! I must admit, it felt a little crazy having spent all that money to change my plans at the last minute. I am never normally that spontaneous. The need was urgent, admittedly, but I guess I could never do that sort of thing before because I would never have been able to afford it. Thank God I can afford it now. Maybe I’d been a little frivolous in choosing a nice beach hotel in Barcelona rather than another cheap Airbnb apartment, but at that point I couldn’t face another apartment. I needed to be in a hotel, where rooms are properly managed, where people are around all the time, where they do breakfast, where I could watch TV and order room service and not have to make my bed in the morning.

The train was relatively quiet when it left Madrid. If it had been in the UK, it would have been packed. The three hour journey to Barcelona didn’t go too slowly, thankfully. When we got here I can’t say how relieved I was. It was a little like going home. I knew Barcelona so well – this would be my fifth visit here in five years. The metro was easy to navigate thanks to its familiarity, and although the hotel was all the way on the other side of town from Sants mainline station, it didn’t take long to get there.

Check in at the hotel was smooth and painless. I opened the door to the room and my breath was taken away by how large and lovely it was. I’d certainly chosen well. I jumped onto the bed and sighed with pleasure. Now I felt like I was on holiday.

After resting for a couple of hours I went out to find somewhere to eat. The beach is only a ten minute walk away; I walked along the promenade that I knew so well, passed the gay beach where P and I go every year; past the bar on the gay beach where we always sip our diet cokes and watch the men go by when it’s hot and sunny. I was surprised to see the bar open in late October, despite it being dark and a bit chilly; there were even people in there. I briefly considered having dinner there, before I realised it would be really expensive and I wanted to be closer to the centre of the town.

I ended up at a slightly more lively Italian restaurant further down the promenade near the port. I enjoyed a delicious pizza there and I also enjoyed my own company. So far on this holiday I haven’t thought much about being on my own and trying to enjoy my own company. On Saturday night I tried to act as if I was treating myself, or taking myself out on a date, being nice to myself. It was nice. It had been nearly two weeks since I last had a conversation with another human being, and I didn’t mind because I was being my own friend.

In Madrid I had meant to meet P’s friend, C, but due to leaving early it couldn’t happen. On Saturday night he kept messaging me to ask me what happened, why had I left so suddenly. I found it strange that he seemed so concerned about me, given we had never met. P would have said oh he’s just a really nice considerate person – I couldn’t decide whether to buy it or not. I tried to explain via whatsapp that I hadn’t felt safe in the apartment where I was staying, that I had changed my mind about Madrid and wanted to spend some time in Barcelona instead. C didn’t seem to get it. He kept asking if I was really all right. In the end I decided to ignore his messages. They were too distracting and I wanted to enjoy the night by myself.

After dinner I walked up through the Ramblas and the lights of Catalonia Square. It was a pleasant stroll. The air was warm and the streets were crowded with tourists. It was nice to see there is still a tourist industry here at the beginning of winter. At 9 o’clock I caught the metro back to the hotel feeling refreshed and happy.

The wifi connection here is, unfortunately, about as bad as it was in Madrid, which is a real bummer. I desperately wanted to watch that evening’s edition of a programme that I love, but I couldn’t. I had to give up and go to sleep. I was a little upset, but because I was in Barcelona in a nice hotel, I didn’t let it get to me too much. I’d wake up in the morning, go for a lovely stroll by the beach and have a nice Sunday with myself.

Yesterday I did just that. I spent a few hours in Costa with my laptop later in the afternoon, and I actually managed to write 2,000 words for my novel. In the evening I couldn’t think what to do for dinner, so when I was passing the Hard Rock Cafe on Catalonia Square I randomly decided to go in. A brave thing to do, perhaps, given that no one goes to the Hard Rock Cafe on their own. I wanted to see what it would be like. And it was actually OK. No one looked at me like I was strange for being on my own. I enjoyed a huge spicy beef burger and non-alcoholic cocktail whilst watching 90’s rock music videos on the TV screen near me. I forgot all about Madrid and what happened there.

After dinner I was stuffed and kind of ready to go back to the hotel. But P kept asking me if I was going to pay a visit to our favourite gay bar in Barcelona, where it’s always friendly and you can easily have a good time on your own. I wasn’t that far from it, and I couldn’t think of a good reason not to go. Although I normally hate going into gay bars on my own, I was in a good mood, and since I do really like the place I couldn’t see the harm in supporting them by spending some money there.

My heart was beating anxiously as I walked in – that fear of being seen as a loner was back with me – I forced myself to ignore it and walk in like I was perfectly entitled to be there. When I got inside I was amazed to see it was completely packed. It was their happy hour, apparently a popular time for all of Barcelona’s gay community to be seen there. I fought my way to the bar and ordered a diet coke, then fought my way to a free corner where I could stand and appear friendly.

As much as I was in a good mood, I couldn’t completely shake this cynicism that I always get about talking to people in gay bars. I noticed a friendly looking, much older guy standing near me who kept looking in my direction. He obviously wanted to talk to me. I didn’t know whether to encourage him or not. P would have encouraged me to encourage him, whether I was attracted to the person or not, because it’s nice to speak to people in bars and it couldn’t do me any harm. I wasn’t so sure. All of my experience in gay bars over the years has led me to the conclusion that if you give anyone the slightest encouragement they will assume that you want to sleep with them. I don’t know if I’ve ever just had a friendly conversation in a gay bar that didn’t have any expectations attached to it.

Of course it would have been great to chat to someone there last night. The place was full of friendly looking people, and other guys who I had noticed on their own at the beginning were chatting to neighbours within fifteen or twenty minutes. Back home over the years friends have told me that the way to get talking to someone, anyone, is just to smile and say something pleasant. You can make a friend and feel like a part of the world. But I can never just do that. With the threat of expectations hanging over me I could barely stop myself from looking at my phone every five minutes, the phone acting as a crutch so that anyone seeing me would think I was too busy to approach. I really didn’t want to lead anyone to think that I was after sex, because I definitely wasn’t.

After half an hour I decided I’d done enough and went home. I refused to see the night as a failure, even though I’d chatted to no one. Why do I need to talk to someone in a gay bar anyway? I’d done the hard thing by going in and standing on my own for half an hour. I’d supported a business that I like; I’d even enjoyed some good foot tapping music. Whether I could have made a lifelong friend by being more approachable or not, I hadn’t had a terrible time. If anything, it had been something interesting to do for half an hour, instead of just sitting in my hotel room watching TV.