We got to France on the Friday with high expectations. On the journey there I wondered if I was bringing too many expectations with me. In one part of my head it simply had to be the best holiday ever, and I knew it couldn’t be if I thought that way, but the more I tried not to think it the more I kept thinking it. When we got to Paris the heat was so intense it was like stepping into an oven. P immediately wanted to dump bags at the hotel so that we could go on a walk along the little known Coulée Verte or Garden Path, a trip I had suggested. We couldn’t go at any time during the rest of the weekend because Saturday was due to be taken up by gay pride and Sunday we were dedicating to Versailles.
I was really hot and tired that night but I didn’t want to miss the garden walk, so I did it, with P bounding along ahead of me, full of enthusiasm all the way while I felt like I was melting. We must have done about 3 miles, when with 2 to go I couldn’t manage any more. That was the first disappointment of the holiday. We’d ended up in one of Paris’s less salubrious neighbourhoods as well, somewhere in the lower 11th, surrounded by kids smoking pot and men shouting with lager cans in their hands. P was dying to carry on walking but I made him leave the path with me and get on the nearest metro. I was in a mood for the rest of the night.
The next day I was required to get out of bed at the indecent hour of 11am so that we could head into town and find a good spot at the day’s gay pride parade. I wasn’t looking forward to the day as much as I would have hoped to. When we got to Luxembourg Gardens, the crowds were predictably horrid and more than ever I felt twice the age of everyone else there. P was buzzing and raring to go; from virtually the start I just wanted to go back to the hotel. It was turning into another hot day and I loathed the palaver of having to put sun cream on. I mean, I know it’s safety and everything but it’s also really, really boring. I felt eyes on me as I had to spray it on in full public view.
We took a spot near a busy junction in the road as thousands of rainbow coloured youths started to march past in stop start motion. At first there was more stopping than starting. It took the parade a while to get going, due to some delays up ahead that no one seemed bothered about. Everyone was there to have a good time, sing and shout a lot, get drunk and hopefully pull – everyone except me of course, who couldn’t help but loathe everything about the event. It had become just as predictable and generic as every other Pride in my eyes. When I first went to it a few years ago I guess it was different and novel, but this year I knew early on that it was going to be my last.
Every float that drove past was playing loud booming house music, all day long. Being so near to the road at P’s insistence meant I was nearly half deaf by the afternoon. At 2 o’clock I was desperate to leave, but I couldn’t say anything because I knew it would annoy my friend. I agreed with myself I would stay till 3 for him, and then I would go. Just another hour; how bad could it be?
At various points I was irritated to notice that P was barely paying any attention to the parade; he was too busy trying to find the nearest wifi hotspot so he could chat to someone on Grindr. It became really infuriating. At 3 I abandoned any worries about pissing him off and insisted that we leave. Luckily he agreed, after saying goodbye to his new Grindr beau who he would undoubtedly never meet.
And so a pattern was to emerge for the whole week. Every time we came near to a wifi hotspot, wherever we were, P would have to log into Grindr to check his messages. I had always known him to be a bit obsessed with the app, but this week it was on a whole new level. It was really disturbing. His need to be noticed by men in the area never let up. And he didn’t meet a single one of them all week. Now I’m not one to say that Grindr is always a bad thing – I’ve had some successes from it in the past, and I was on it a fair bit this week myself, only because there was nothing else to do, no conversation to be had with P. But come on! Seriously.
On Saturday night we continued with the annual tradition of visiting an obscure gay club in the Marais where they start the night with ballroom dancing. It’s one of my favourite gay clubs in the world. They always play excellent music and the crowd is always fun, and this year didn’t disappoint. For a few hours I could forget my cares and dance to music that I loved from the 80s and 90s. It was there that I first discovered French pop music a couple of years ago; ever since I have obsessively listened to French radio stations so I can learn these songs and sing along with everyone else when they come on. This year for the first time I knew nearly all the French songs that they played, and I could sing along properly. For a few minutes I could actually pretend that I was French, that I had grown up with these anthems in my life like everyone else there. If only that were true!
Versailles on Sunday was meant to be really nice, but the heat by then was beginning to be overbearing, and the queues to get in were unbelievable. We queued obediently because we’d bought the ticket, but it put a damper on the day from the start. Once we got in the palace it was all very impressive, but my back was aching from too much standing still, and I wanted to get through it as quickly as possible so I could get back to the hotel, shower and lie down for a few hours.
On Monday we left Paris to get the train down to the Mediterranean. I suppose this was the part of the trip I had been really looking forward to. A four hour train journey through the French countryside, in first class, landing up by the beautiful turquoise sea. Our train dropped us at Toulon, which instantly brought back memories from 2007 and my last visit there with P, when I was just a few weeks away from stopping drinking. It made the place meaningful when it shouldn’t have had any meaning. My memories of Toulon were not great, let’s put it that way, but on Monday afternoon it was pleasant enough. They’d done up the area around the train station nicely, put in a few cosy little cafés where we could sit and wait until it was time for our bus to where we were staying.
It was on that trip in 2007 where I had one of my last alcohol-fuelled breakdowns. I don’t even remember most of the stuff that happened there. P has since told me that it was a nightmare holiday. We arrived at the holiday flat early in the evening, and it was such a relief to set the bags down and crash out on the bed. The place looked much the same as it did eight years ago. P opened the gates onto the pretty little garden and set some chairs out so we could enjoy the evening sun if we wanted to.
Sadly for P there was no wifi at the flat, so it looked like I might have his full attention for the next three days. It wasn’t to be though; when we ventured out into the town later for dinner we managed to find a nice looking bar on the way to the restaurant where – amazingly – they had a decent wifi connection. Predictably, P wanted to spend every available minute there for the rest of the trip. We had to stop outside the bar for five minutes so he could try and connect and check his all important Grindr messages – without actually going in, because we were still on our way to dinner. Obviously we’d be coming back to the bar after dinner, so that he could check up on things properly.
I really wanted this trip to be relaxing – why else would I go to an obscure resort in the south of France where there isn’t much to do except sit on the beach – but I don’t think I ever fully relaxed. By the end of Monday night, I was sure that P and I were going to fall out at some point.
On Tuesday we walked along the very long beach to try and find somewhere that was quiet and relaxing. We were prepared with towels and umbrellas and lots and lots of suncream, but still, I couldn’t just relax. I was desperate not to get burnt, and paranoid that no matter how much cream I put on, I was still going to get burnt. I’d had so many bad experiences with the sun in the past, thinking I couldn’t possibly have missed a spot with the cream but still managing to come home with red blotches everywhere.
Until a few years ago I would never have taken my top off on the beach, but P’s nagging over the years got me to loosen up finally, so that now I can go naked if everyone else is doing it. Last year in Spain I had the time of my life on a nudist beach – nothing sexual happened, I promise, it was the pure liberation of it.
This year on the other hand, I felt as if I was condemning myself to hell just by taking my t-shirt off, but it was so hot and my t-shirt was so drenched in sweat I had no choice. While P went to splash about in the sea, I got a book out and tried to take my mind off things. It was a good book, and eventually I managed to get so distracted I forgot that the sun was moving across the sky, gradually taking the shade of the umbrella away from me. At 4 o’clock I looked at my right arm and I noticed it was entirely red. At first I tried to console myself with the idea that at least it was just one arm – I could live with that. But later that night when we arrived back at the flat, I was mortified to find that most of my upper body was burnt. I really hadn’t put enough cream on. I couldn’t have felt more stupid – I was supposed to be the expert at covering up!
On Wednesday we made a planned trip to nearby St Tropez on the bus. Things there were a little nicer, I suppose. We saw some wonderful artwork for sale at the port and I cheered myself up by treating myself to some of it. Things nearly went downhill as we bickered about where to sit and rest later on. St Tropez doesn’t have much of a beach; instead it has lots of rocky little coves that you have to make an effort to get to. I wanted to sit on one far away from the town, where it was quiet and shady. We climbed over rocks and mounds for half an hour until we found one that I thought was perfect. After five minutes of sitting there, P announced that he was dying to go back to a cove nearer the town, where it was more “buzzing”.
I don’t know what this obsession with things being “buzzing” is but it was beginning to drive me mad. I refused to get up and move for an hour. P didn’t argue much but I could tell he was pissed off. And I was glad.
Thursday it was time to leave the family resort and head for more metropolitan climes in Nice. Once we were there things should have improved; I had only good memories of Nice and I knew P was going to like it. The train journey there was beautiful, and for once I didn’t mind the excessive heat as we arrived in the city and found our hotel.
I was looking forward to dropping bags off and exploring the city for a good place to eat, but of course once we were in the hotel P had to get on the wifi so he could check Grindr. It had only been a couple of hours since he’d last checked, at the bar in the resort, but two hours is more than enough for him. At first the wifi in the hotel wouldn’t connect for either of us, and at this P threw a tantrum, yelling and hitting the table and swearing. I couldn’t help but laugh at how ridiculous he was being, which made him only angrier. I sensed some resentment; I was lucky enough to be on a phone network that allowed me to use data in France, so I never had to be without the internet. Maybe I wouldn’t have been so blasé about it all if I’d been deprived, although I’m sure I wouldn’t throw a tantrum like that.
When he had finally connected to wifi and learned that he had no new messages, we could go out and eat. Exploring one of my favourite cities for the first time in years should have been heavenly, but the mood at the hotel had spoiled the evening and I was keen to just sit and eat at the first place we could find. Much to my delight and surprised there was a Pizza Hut around the corner from the hotel. Not very healthy or continental, but, you know: needs must.
Stuffed full of pizza I wanted to go straight back to the hotel and sleep, while P wanted to check out what the Nice gay scene. I used my data to check it out on google. I got a list of nearby gay bars and reluctantly agreed to go and find them. I wasn’t in the mood for gay bars at all; it secretly came as a relief when we got to them and found that most of them were closed. P could barely contain his disappointment. Apparently all he’d been looking forward to all day was the gay bars. It’s easy for me to shake my head at that because I just don’t get it; we’ve been friends for years, we’ve been on so many holidays together. How did our tastes end up being so different? I hope I’m not being snobbish when I say I’d rather look for culture and architecture in a place than search out its gay scene. P meanwhile is only interested in everything that’s gay, gay, gay. He is more than a decade my senior and it’s like he’s only just come out.
We’d heard that there was a gay only beach to the east of the city and so we had to go and find that on Friday. I had no excuse not to go; P couldn’t go on his own because he’d never find it without data, I had nothing else better to do. We walked seemingly for hours in the blistering heat until we got to the place where this gay beach was supposed to be. It was absolutely stunning; small rocky coves and dramatic cliffs ate into a clear turquoise sea, much like the beaches at St Tropez. But there were no gay people to be seen, just straight couples and teenagers frolicking around like it was any old tourist beach. P’s face dropped; I thought he was going to cry. We’d walked so far – we had to go and sit down. P briefly piped up about walking further to see if it was the next cove; I wasn’t having any of this. If we could ignore the small groups of tourists nearby then we could make do with the perfectly pleasant beach that we had. I didn’t care about being surrounded by naked men who happened to be be gay. Seriously, was he just there to spend all his time cruising?
Once again it was a very hot day and a dip in the sea might have been lovely, but after a week of faffing around with suncream I just couldn’t be bothered to take my clothes off. I found a shady corner and listened to French music on my headphones while P went off and did his thing.
When night came we couldn’t let the night pass of course without looking for gay bars again. Early on we managed to find one, a loud neon-coloured bar in the old town that was similar in tone to the places you find in Spain. They had wifi and both me and P were on Grindr straight away. hardly any conversation passed between us all night. Later on P had heard about a sex club somewhere nearby and was desperate to try it out. Rather than being immediately put off the idea, I was intrigued because part of the club was supposed to be a dance floor in a converted swimming pool with great DJ’s. Never one to resist a good boogie on holiday, I went with P at 11pm, thinking it better be good.
All the way there P couldn’t stop banging on about how excited he was by the chance to pull a French guy. He really seemed to believe it was possible, even though he had spent the entire week on Grindr finding no success. We both had on our best clothes for the occasion, and I couldn’t help wondering what it was all for: even if you do meet someone, they’re not going to be the great love of your life. It’s always going to end in disappointment, whatever happens.
My belief in disappointment was proved right early on in the evening, when we got to the club and found it was closed. P couldn’t believe it. He’d built his hopes up so much and was so disappointed I thought he was going to kick the door. Tired and disillusioned, we returned to the hotel for sleep.
Saturday we had another fun packed day trip planned, this time to Monaco. There wouldn’t be a lot of time to explore Nice itself this weekend just because there were so many other places P wanted to see. Before we came to France he was keen on the idea of a day trip to Monaco followed by Sanremo – both within easy reach of Nice on the train. I thought it was a great idea and was really looking forward to this more than anything else in the week. When it got to Saturday morning, P was still disappointed about not having found a gay beach the day before. He’d researched other nearby gay beaches on google after going to bed the night before, and had found one that happened to be on the route between Nice and Monaco. His suggestion over breakfast was that we go to Monaco, and then skip Sanremo to go to the gay beach instead.
At this I snapped. All week I had wanted to go to Sanremo with him. I don’t know why but there is nothing cooler than being able to cross the Italian border and say you’ve been to Italy for the day. More than that, I didn’t just want to skip it so that I could have a few hours on a “gay” beach. At that point I couldn’t think of anything more tacky. I said as much to P, who instantly went quiet.
We’d gotten up pretty late that morning, which meant that by the time we were out the door it was nearly midday. If we were going to fit both Monaco and Sanremo in we were going to have to speed things up. Sunday we’d be going home, so we didn’t have any more days to fit things into.
Sadly there was no controlling for the train, which took bloody ages just to get to Monaco. When we got there we needed lunch; P wanted to find the only McDonalds in Monaco, which took about an hour of us walking around to find. At 35 degrees it was the hottest day of the week so far. The heat of course was oppressive and made walking much harder and slower. We didn’t end up getting to the beach on the other side of the city until about 3. By then I knew there wasn’t going to be a second part to the day; it was too late. I didn’t say anything to P about it and he didn’t say anything either. As usual, I sat in the shade with all my clothes on while he went for a solitary dip in the sea.
Not much was said on the way back to Nice later that evening. It felt like there was nothing more to say. In London I can talk to P about anything. In France, we had spent too much time in each other’s company and I just wanted to be on my own for a long time. I didn’t seriously ever think that our friendship was at an end in France, but it has shown me that 9 days is far too much time to spend in someone’s constant company. You can love that person dearly and it would still be far too much.
That night, knowing it was the last night and that we’d be out of each other’s hair again in 24 hours, I decided I was up for trying the sex club that we’d heard about again. This time when we got there, by some miracle it was open. I know there’s generally a script for what can happen in gay sex clubs, but nevertheless, in spite of my reticence around “gay” things and cruising during the rest of the week, I was curious to see what would happen, I guess.
The first thing that struck us was the interior decor. It was done up like an old upmarket bathhouse, with arches and plush sofas and mock marble floors. The place looked empty when we got there, but then people started drifting out of dark corners and soon we were practically surrounded by men. Some of these men to my surprise seemed attractive; dangerously so.
It was my first visit to a sex club in a number of years. My old aversion to the seediness had to be fought against. “It’s OK, there is nothing inherently immoral or bad here,” I had to keep telling myself. But once I had gotten over the immoral arguments I was reminded of what happened to me the last time I visited one of these places, when I was dumped unceremoniously by the love of my life in one of them. I remembered how G had used me up and spit me out in a place like this; how that was all anyone in these places wanted to do to me.
To date and to bed a sexy French man is a secret dream of mine – all tied into this fantasy of speaking French and living in France, becoming French – there were a number of very attractive French men in that club that night, some of them were looking at me and I could tell one was getting ready to make an approach at around 10.30. What happens to me when I’m on the verge of realising a fantasy is that I seem to get threatened, and I want to run away. So the case was on Saturday. Before the guy could start talking to me I turned to say goodbye to P and made my exit.
I still get very lonely and I really crave sex sometimes, like any man; I know it would have been very easy to have sex that night, god knows it’s not always so easy. It may not have been the greatest sex ever but then again it might have been OK. I turned my nose up at it like I regularly have in the past because I couldn’t help thinking into the future, wondering what the point would have been. I could see guaranteed failure, an inability to perform, an unceremonious dumping, heartbreak. I couldn’t just stay in the moment and try to enjoy some possible connection with somebody. I had to run away because after all these years I still can’t bear the slightest chance that someone will take a look at my body and my failings as a man and reject me.
I kind of wish I’d stayed at that club now. But what’s done is done.
Yesterday it was time for the long train journey home. We chose to do it by train instead of plane this time for fun. The cost was a lot more, but sometimes you just think hey, what the hell. Unfortunately I’d caught something overnight and I wasn’t feeling particularly well when the train left Nice. For the next twelve hours of travelling I said barely anything to P. By the time we finally got home I was ready to collapse. And I really wished we’d got the plane.
It may be ironic at this point to say we’re doing it all over again in August, when we’ll be getting the train all the way to Barcelona. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I hope by then I’ll be in a better place, having left my job. On that holiday, hopefully the lesson will be taken on board that we don’t spend every minute of our time together.
Back at home, I’m left to reflect on things. I’m glad I can go on these holidays with P and we generally trust each other enough not to fall out over the silly things. But I’d love to go on holiday with someone else for a change. Where do I find someone else? Once again I find myself looking through a glass window at other people, who manage to go on big group holidays and have the time of their lives. In AA, groups of lifelong friends form and go to big AA conventions in America. I meanwhile don’t seem to stand a chance of being invited to anything like that.
Another question I’m left pondering on. Where will I find a sexy, intelligent man who will love and respect me? Someone I can actually enjoy sex with and not feel afraid?
I’ve come to strongly feel in my heart that moving to France later in the year will change everything and be the answer to my problems. I want to know for sure if that’s true or if it’s just a stupid fantasy. I won’t know until I get there; until then I just have to wait, keep pondering.
Another answer which I keep trying to ignore is the whole sharing in AA thing. Sharing in AA meetings, leaving my comfort zone again and again; in an even deeper part of me than the part that wants to go to France I feel this knowledge strongly telling me that I have to do it, I have to get over that fear, to be happy and find the people I want in my life. Honestly, the thought of going back to the meeting this week and sharing, actually speaking to people, after three weeks’ absence, is terrifying. I couldn’t even drag myself to any meetings in France. I just didn’t try very hard, I’m afraid – so once again I am on the edge of AA where I have been for three or four years, and I’m literally at a brick wall trying to get back in. The brick wall is me, there’s no doubt in that. The idea of just opening up my mouth in the meeting this Friday is the same as the idea of jumping out of an aeroplane. And I have to keep doing it again, week after week, to keep up the momentum. How the hell do you live with that?