It could be so nice


“Life is a hospital in which every patient is obsessed with changing beds. This one wants to suffer in front of the radiator, and this one thinks he’d get better if he was by the window.”

– Charles Baudelaire

  • Contemporary central Vesterbro apartment
  • Casa do Largo – 2 br Alfama Castelo in Lisbon
  • A beautiful place to stay in Biddenden

When I was 20 I’d arranged to leave a big group of friends holidaying in a villa near Granada, Spain to join some other friends from university for the remainder of their month-long trip around Europe. The first part of the holiday was a dream group scenario: people fitting happily into either do-ers or lie-ers by the pool, lots of great food and wine and silliness and a roaring fire at night in a compound-style casa with old walls and an olive grove down the hill. We played games and sang songs loudly and I lay on a rock too late with a charming man who was not my boyfriend and crept to bed in the early hours of the morning, feeling just on the side of that being ok.

The time came to leave them and I got a lift then a bus to a wrong place then a right place and finally met up with the girlfriends I was due to travel with. We saw an old church and had a meal and stayed in a quaint B&B. Immediately it was clear that I had made the wrong decision. I did not want to be there. I did not want to travel around Europe for a month. In the toilet of a bar I tried to choke down the boredom and alarm of a panic attack. The next morning I told them it was not going to work out. I remember a few sympathetic faces and a few blank with incomprehension, the kind that make you feel infinitely lonely. (Since then I have not worried myself about people who don’t have enough imagination to empathise with the full, mad gamut of human neuroses. These neuroses are like multiple wriggling newborns; they are so alive.)

By the evening I was back at the villa. Everyone was very kind, one of the boys nailing that combination of teasing and compassion that allows those kind of boys to speak of Complex Things. “See,” he said. “I told you it wasn’t safe to leave the compound.”

My history is one of not wanting to leave the compound. I have begged to come back from holidays early, then come back from holidays early, stuck out holidays by counting down the days and generally wished even the best holidays were at least 1-2 days shorter. Nearly everywhere I have ever gone, even if the trip was by my standards a relative success, I have felt some of these feelings regularly, sometimes frequently: an acute sense of dread about “something bad happening”; hypochondria, usually related to sunstroke or food poisoning; fear of some kind of accident occurring or something preventing me from getting home as planned, like missing a flight or losing a passport; mighty tear-stained meltdowns precipitated by my frustration about these feelings; a terrible sense of being sick of myself; relief when I get home because I’ve “made it through” without anything awful happening.

Certain things make it easier: going somewhere with bigger groups of friends or family, going somewhere familiar, not going too far, not going for too long. There are exceptions to the rule – America (a bigger version of Britain) is further but much easier than North Africa. 10 days somewhere familiar can be less problematic than 5 more exotic. I seem to forget every time that this will be part of most trips, and each time feel surprised – oh it’s me again, this me. Alain de Botton observed this in The Art of Travel – we forget the person we always have to travel with, ourselves, as well as the difference between anticipating and actually going somewhere.

This gap between states is the paradox – coexisting with this anxiety I have huge, regular cravings for a “change of scene” which leads me to frequently plan holidays, usually when I see pictures that tell a certain story, even if it is not exactly the truth.palm-tree-wallpaper-2I consistently forget that the reality of this change of scene might not be quite what I thought it would.

There are some places where I have felt an amazing sense of peace and calm, as I imagine you are supposed to feel on holiday:


Joan Miro’s studio in Palma, Majorca

Every holiday to my parents’ house in Ireland, ever

Hiking in a national park, Big Sur

Hiking in a national park, Big Sur

Now I am seven months pregnant and our new flat is just starting to look like our home and it’s spring and I don’t want to go anywhere. I do not want to go to South Africa or Sri Lanka or India. I do not want to have dinner on the beach in Maui and I do not want to walk the Great Wall of China or travel on the Trans Siberian Railway. It seems like everyone else dreams of these things and other people’s decisions to do these things are immediately accepted as impressive and positive. The truth is that going to places just does not – usually – contain the truth I think it will. Its truth is messier, and for now I am done with it and I am done with trying to fix myself into a certain type of person, am done with apologising to myself. Like a stubborn alcoholic too fond of their fun, booze-addled persona, I have started to question how much I believe in self-improvement anyway – the unquestioning kind where we blindly put all our efforts into change, into creating the best possible versions of ourselves. To fight against our natures in this way takes a huge amount of effort and self-wrangling and instead I could be reading books or helping old ladies across the road or encouraging my future daughter to be a feminist.

I no longer care about being the intrepid type of traveller that I longed to be when I was younger, partly because it is hilariously over-ambitious and also because that person was tied up with how I wanted others to perceive me, and I mind much less about that as a 32 year old than a 19 year old. These people are so fundamentally different from me in almost every way, in terms of traits and values – I know that now – that wishing to be like that would mean wishing myself away entirely.

For now, I choose my life. I choose holidays in Derbyshire. I choose rainy disappointment and getting stuck on the M25. And then coming home.


2 Responses to “It could be so nice”

  1. 1 robgeorge57

    Although my starting-point, and some of my detail, is different from yours – I managed 7 weeks in Greece and a similar time in Morocco as a fairly callow youth, with nothing worse to show for it than a week’s diarrhoea in Mykonos and an enormous boil on my bottom near Casablanca – my end-point at the ripe old age of 68 feels very similar to yours. I have no desire to travel outside Europe or to challenge myself with unfamiliar experiences and exotic locations, and am less inclined to berate myself about this or feel embarrassed to admit it. County Cork, where I’ve been probably well over 100 times, pretty much fits the bill as a ‘change’ of scene. I can justify this lack of ambition in terms of appreciating the micro rather than the macro – ‘the hydrangeas are looking even lovelier this year’ rather than ‘it’s Tuesday so it must be Rome’. Anyway, why should I have to justify it, to myself or anyone else, as you so wisely point out.

  2. County Cork forever! xx

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