This was another post for Medium. You can read it here: https://medium.com/@puzzledbyadream/most-of-us-our-only-surviving-this-mental-health-awareness-week-and-we-cant-just-talk-about-it-9c880f8eacc4
I’m trying something a bit different with this blog post. In a perhaps misguided wish for a larger audience (sorry wordpress) I’ve decided to give Medium a try. You can see my post here: https://medium.com/@puzzledbyadream/whats-normal-anyway-weirdness-storytelling-and-being-your-own-bully-d9cf6b4d6dff#.ek8661wwr
I’ve always had a plan. I’ve always known where I was going and pretty much how I was going to get there. And although my plan has changed a fair few times, I guess I’m lucky that I’ve been able to stay in control of most of it in the past few years. I changed career , I got into my Masters, I moved to Bristol. I wasn’t prepared for things to suddenly not go to plan at all.
The plan was I’d move to Bristol, do my masters and work alongside it. I got a job with an education agency who promised me teaching assistant work. I enjoyed my summer holidays, my first as someone working in education. I had 2 weeks unpaid leave, but that was OK. I’d have work soon. Then the first week of September rolled around, schools went back but I did not go back to work. For two further weeks I phoned the agency at 7am every morning and then waited whilst my phone stayed silent. And then I struck lucky, I got a temporary role as a school receptionist. It wasn’t being a teaching assistant but it paid and was in a school. But I knew it couldn’t be forever, and half term came and went, also unpaid, and then I only had 3 days more work. And I started to get worried.
I’ve applied for a lot of jobs since the first week of September. For the first time in my life, and I know I have thus far been lucky, I have not got interviews for most of the roles I have applied for. Closing dates went, reply dates passed and one by one hopes were lost. It has been my Masters work which has suffered most, I want so much to do well but Maslow was definitely right with his hierarchy of needs, and it is difficult to focus on academic work when you are completely financially unstable. My mental health has suffered too, I am highly anxious. All I can do is worry and avoid those little responsibilities which seem so pale in comparison to being unemployed.
Faced with having to pay my rent and spending so many days without pay, desperation set in. The jobs I applied for became less and less to do with teaching. And finally I got an interview. For Tesco. The place of my first proper job and also my least favourite. Desperate times really do call for desperate measures. So now I have a job picking online orders for 12, extremely early morning hours a week until the new year. It feels like a step backwards, but it feels wrong to be thinking that. I got a job, it might not pay my rent initially but of course it’s a start.
Eventually a new plan formed, as plans tend to do. I will go against what I said and get a Professional and Career Development Loan, just as soon as they believe that I am on a valid course (but that is another story). Uni have loaned me the money for this month’s rent so it’s all a little bit less dire than it was. I have a casual job washing up plates and tea cups at a vintage fair once every couple of months. I sold my old phone. I am working on funding the contribution I need to make towards the laptop Disabled Student’s Allowance has deemed I can have to make uni life with dyspraxia a little bit easier.
It might be vulgar to speak about money, but I wish people did it more. I had no idea that as a part time student I’d be eligible for no help at all from benefits, and that agency work was so unstable. The government Postgraduate loan is fantastic for paying fees but very little help beyond that. Life gets frustrating when every job requires a driving licence but you had to give up learning because you took a minimum wage job to secure a different future for yourself. Life is frustrating.
Things will be ok. I will eventually find a job. Or 5 jobs. Literally whatever it takes to keep me afloat. I have not failed, I’ve simply hit quite a large bump in the road. But I am working towards my dream career and I have a new plan. Not the one I originally made, but resilience is being able to live with change. I have lovely friends, an excellent partner and I am surviving. And sometimes that is all you can do.
I found a blog from when I was 17 this morning. I won’t share it with you because it’s really not fit for human consumption. Teenage ramblings, a complete lack of understanding and self-awareness around depression: I just seemed so young back then. I suppose that I was. At seventeen I was obsessed, maybe unsurprisingly, with the song At Seventeen by Janis Ian (yes, the Mean Girls character is named after her). It speaks of being an ugly duckling teenager realising that it’s the beautiful people in this world who get the boys. This holds much less significance to me now, but when I was 17 it was practically gospel. I always held 17 as being a pivotal time in my life, it was the year I broke out, gained some independence. Now I look back on it, I hadn’t even begun to learn the lessons that would truly shape my life.
At 25 I’m hitting yet another chapter of my life, or maybe it’s one of those sections in a chapter after a set of stars. I’m going back to uni to do a Masters, something I never thought I’d be able to do, and I’m moving to Bristol. When I was 17 I was also preparing for university, the first time around. I dreamed of life away from home. I never imagined I’d go into teaching. In fact there’s a lot of things I probably assumed would be different about being 25 all those years ago, and I should try to make sure those assumptions don’t shape my thinking too much in the present.
I think I assumed, at 25, that I would be in a stable job. As it is I’ve gone from fixed term contract to temp job to fixed term contract, and this is just the way of the world now. Part of this is my fault, giving up my dream of working in environmental science (because it so much wasn’t my dream any more) has meant throwing myself into an even more underfunded and uncertain profession. Having just completed a teaching qualification in a year, half the time it usually takes, it feels like a step backwards in a way to be going into learning support work. At the same time, however, you can’t teach students with additional needs without experience, and experience is the most important thing now. I’ve settled myself down at the bottom again, and I’m working my way up. The next 2 years of my life will be spent studying and working with living in a city I love as a sweetener. Getting into Bristol University was huge for me. That’s certainly something my 17 year old self wouldn’t have believed.
Another area that feels a little like a step backwards is going back into shared housing, but since I’m moving in with two of my best friends it actually feels nicer than living alone. I have no idea what I thought my living situation would have been like at 17, but I probably assumed that once I lived alone I would stay living alone. I’ve loved having my own places, but right now living with friends, having company and a social life is so much more important. Something that struck me from reading the blog is that I was so lonely as a teenager. My friends seemed to be constantly drifting away and I spent all my weekends with my mum or in coffee shops. I’m still partial to reading a book over a chai latte, but I have the option now. And I’m so pleased.
At seventeen I wrote “I need to get used to casual relationships, because I think that’s how things are going to be”. The funniest thing about this is that at that time I hadn’t really had any relationships at all. At twenty five I’ve finally sworn off ever getting into a casual relationship at all. I’m too old for people who don’t want to commit to me now, too old to be messed around. Around me people my age are getting married, having children and buying houses. This is so far outside of my experience I find it hard to fathom it at all. When I was 17 I think I assumed I’d have been in more than relationship when I hit 25, but this is something I am coming to accept as I get older. I don’t especially want to get married and I certainly don’t want children yet. I guess what I crave is stability, and that’s a thing I’ve always craved. I know it will happen, I will meet somebody and settle down. It worked out for Bridget Jones after all, but then she is a fictional character. I’m not quite on the shelf yet.
Things are always up in the air, things are never settled, but this is partly my doing. This all makes for an interesting life if nothing else. Something that feels like a marker of adulthood is buying my first ever bed and mattress, one that is new and belongs only to me. Its things like this that tell me I’m slowly getting there. I know you never truly feel “grown up” but sometimes I have flashes of it. I feel like I’ve nearly grown into myself. And part of that probably is Janis Ian’s words having less meaning for me now.
There isn’t a song called At Twenty Five. But Wake Up Boo! by The Boo Radleys is actually one of my earliest memories and has the line “25, don’t recall a time I felt this alive”. Well, here’s hoping hey.
I wasn’t worried when the referendum was called. I mean, it wasn’t really going to go the way of Farage, was it?
I wasn’t worried when the Gove and Johnson joined the Leave campaign. Nobody likes them, right?
I wasn’t really worried when the polls dipped in Leave’s favour, and then back again. I really thought the undecideds would swing it for the status quo.
I wasn’t worried by Lexit. Because they were such a tiny group.
I wasn’t worried when there was a battle on the Thames. I thought it showed what a farce the campaigns really were.
I wasn’t worried when the newspapers put their cards on the table. Perhaps I should have been.
I wasn’t even worried when that graph showed the older population wanted Brexit when the younger did not.
I started to get worried when the Newcastle and Sunderland votes came through. But still, it couldn’t really happen.
But then. This morning. Farage’s maniacal grinning face.
Now I worry about my friends who live in the EU.
I worry about the economy.
I worry that now Cameron’s resigned we might get Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Look at me, I’m not even pleased he’s resigned!
I’m worried we have no plan now.
I’m worried that we aren’t big enough to actually go it alone.
I worry for the EU migrants living and working in this country. I worry about what would happen if they were repatriated. Who’s going to fill all those jobs?
I worry for everyone in receipt of EU grants. Much of Britain was built on them, much of the arts are funded by them. You can bet your last, lower valued pound that the money spent each week on the EU won’t be spent on these projects. I work in FE and we get those grants too.
I worry about Human Rights. I like having them. The Tories do not.
I worry about travel. About being able to live where I want. About house prices and rental prices.
I worry that my generation is going to be the tester for all this. We’re going to have to live with the effects the longest and so few of us voted for it.
I worry that we won’t have any control within the single market, even though we’re going to be trading in it.
Seriously though. Tell me what the good part of this is. On the world stage we just look like xenophobes with no common sense. I like being European, I’m fine with migration. And I’m worried.
Just over a year ago I lived in a lovely mezzanine flat with a balcony. I had a graduate job. A boyfriend. I didn’t have many friends. I lived in Bath. A year ago things began to change and now my life is unrecognisable from that life that I had before. It wasn’t a bad life but it was missing an awful lot, and the year from then has been quite a journey.
The first thing to go was the boyfriend. At 20 months, this had been my longest relationship. But we were upset with each other more than we weren’t, and at the stage where we should have been discussing moving in together and beginning adult life we were at a stasis where I was ready and he was not. All around us couples lived together, were planning trips to Australia together, some were even (and I have no idea how) beginning to buy houses together. But we weren’t there yet, and it began to be clear that we never would be. So he told me he didn’t see a future with me, and we split up. At first I was gutted, but only at very first. As time moved on and the initial grief began to clear I found that I missed him less and less. I got used to living an independent life again, which was ironically the sort of life he’d wanted me to lead whilst in the relationship. I made friends and so began one of the better summers I’ve ever had.
Before we split up, we’d started going to a board games group in a local pub, where we met a couple we vaguely knew from political gatherings. After the break up I continued going to the board games group, and this is how I met my best friend. The group was so supportive and lovely and we quickly began meeting up outside of Tuesday nights. A trip to VegFest, a highly spirited birthday party and then just the usual hanging out sort of friendship ensued, and soon I began to feel like part of the furniture, something I hadn’t felt since university. This is when I really started settling into Bath, 18 months or so too late, and I began to love my city with a deep passion. I went for bike rides, cycling as far as Bristol and Frome, I spent time in summer parks and summer pubs. Little did I know that the next thing to go would be Bath.
I hated my job. Everybody knew I hated my job. It was a pretty boring subject by about May. I worked for a water company doing a sort of combined map-making and data entry job and I was bored out of my nut. I didn’t like my colleagues, or the journey to work, or the cold building, or the pressure to learn to drive in order to progress. I started looking for other jobs as I was put on an informal disciplinary due to the sloppy nature of my work. The truth was, I could do the work very well, I was just too bored to want to do so. Initially I looked for work in the environmental field, but this is notoriously tricky. And one day, during my searches, I spotted a job at a college which would train you up to be a lecturer.
I’d had wonderful experiences working with people with learning disabilities in the past, and I’d often said that if I hadn’t gone into Geography I would have become a special needs teacher. And so here, all of a sudden was my chance. I was so excited at the prospect of the job that I applied straight away, and then panicked immediately afterwards that I hadn’t done a good enough job on my application. Thankfully I must have been wrong.
My workplace was a signal blackhole, and on a fresh air/phone signal break at work I received a voicemail inviting me for an interview at the college. I quite literally jumped up and down with delight and booked a day’s holiday for the interview straight away. It was finally here, my chance to leave the drudgery of the job I hated so passionately. I had to do well.
First came the assessment day, then a formal interview, and then I got the job. I am still semi-convinced that my experience of working in a library got me the job more than my passion for teaching, but whatever the reasoning, life was about to change an awful lot.
I had 6 weeks to arrange somewhere new to live in a town I didn’t particularly want to move to. Weston-Super-Mare does not have the best of reputations, and Bath was going to be a particularly hard act to follow. A landlady on SpareRoom invited me to look at a bedsit she was renting, and although I was swapping a kitchen for a kitchenette, the Best Sofa Ever for solitary armchair, a balcony for no outside space and a double bed for a single, it was cheap and so I agreed to move in.
I bid a cheerful farewell to the water company in August. There was no love lost there and working there feels like a lifetime ago now. I commuted from Weston for a week before leaving and whilst paddling in the sea on the back from the train station one day I felt like maybe I had made the right decision.
So now I teach Personal and Social Development in the mainstream, Computing and Leisure Pursuits to students with SEN and work in the library, all the while completing the hardest teaching qualification ever to exist. Usually you do the Level 5 Diploma in Education and Training over two years, but we were to do it in just the one. There are 16 assignments, 5 reflective pieces and 8 teaching observations. All to be completed whilst working full time. The 8 of us on the graduate team have cried together more than I care to admit, but we get each other through, sharing knowledge from our specialisms and bemoaning having to stay until 9pm on a Tuesday night.
Life looks so very different now. Many of my weekends are taken up with assignment writing, and I am 40 miles from my friends. It’s a little bit lonely, but my life often has been. Having the love and support of the friends I made in Bath has made all the difference, however. I see them a lot more than I expected, and we drink gin and play with rats and have barbeques and play boardgames. Sometimes it feels like leisure time is sparse, but what I do get is certainly well-spent.
Doing a teaching qualification is an absolute rollercoaster of emotions. A bad lesson can ruin your week, whereas a good one can make everything feel worthwhile. Sometimes it’s the smallest wins, like an autistic student asking you for help, or a PSD class where everyone engages, which get you through the week. Observations, where an assessor watches you teach, are brutal. You get told what you did well, but also what didn’t go well, and sometimes it’s not easy to hear. I never considered myself a perfectionist before starting this job, but when I don’t get the grade I wanted for an observation I feel like I have failed. At the time of writing I’ve only got two more observations to pass which need to be graded as “good”. This is not impossible.
As we near the summer term, thoughts move to the future, life beyond the graduate internship. I have found the confidence to apply for an MEd in Special and Inclusive Education at a Russell Group university, and I am waiting to hear if I’ve got in. Regardless of whether I am successful, my future is very clearly in Further Education, and I am determined to carry on working with students with additional needs. I care so much about my students, and I find it hard to believe I was ever in a job where I did not care so very deeply. Pipelines are difficult to care about.
I hope to move to Bristol in the late summer to once again be in close proximity to my friends and finally living in the place I set out to move to all those years ago. I’ve survived all that life has thrown at me so far, so I feel prepared for everything that will come.
My relationship status changed, but it was me who changed my career. This has probably been the least settled year of my life, but it’s been an adventure. Having good friends and a vocation has made my life so much the better. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
I was a confident child, believe it or not. I auditioned for every school play, always had my hand up in class and cultivated a loud speaking voice so that I would be given good parts in said plays. In fact I was a bit of a show off. As I got older, however, the differences between myself and my classmates became more obvious, and throughout secondary school I was very badly bullied. Instead of being a confident, extroverted teenager I retreated into myself and began to find fault with everything I did, because it seemed everybody else found fault with it too. And there began my journey with constant low self-esteem.
At the beginning of this year I didn’t like myself very much. It’s hard to admit that but it certainly isn’t untrue. I thought I was selfish, that I didn’t help myself, that I was lazy and that I never seemed to say the right thing. I didn’t believe other people liked me very much, and as a consequence, I felt this was a self-fulfilling prophecy at times. When you don’t like yourself it’s very difficult to understand that other people like you, and you push people away. Still I don’t make the effort I should with people because part of me believes it isn’t worthwhile and that I am not really worth knowing. And I absolutely know this is irrational but it’s hard to believe the rational when this part of my brain is shouting so loudly. I stopped writing because I didn’t think people would want to read what I wrote. However, I made some steps to change this and slowly but surely the above is becoming less true to me.
Back in April this year I started to get ill. I was constantly anxious, incredibly unhappy and couldn’t seem to focus on anything. I started crying for what felt like no reason and developed a fear of walking past the living room in my house due to a housemate who wasn’t very nice to me. I went to the doctors and was diagnosed with depression, although really I felt like the anxiety was the bigger issue. I was given the option of either a low dose of medication or talking therapy. Something about the medication scared me so I decided on the latter and joined a very long waiting list whilst concurrently managing to get a bit better without outside help. Whether this means I wasn’t actually depressed I don’t know, but all I know is that I felt very bad and had thoughts of hurting myself during this period, and I needed help.
By the time I got to see a Mental Health Practitioner from LIFT Psychology at my local surgery I was having a lot more good days. And when he asked me what I needed help with, I decided to go for a root cause and said that I had very low self-esteem and that I would like one to one Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Unfortunately the MHP seemed to be under a remit to not put people on the waiting list for this and instead encouraged me to sign up to one of the group CBT sessions. I was getting a bit peeved at this point as I didn’t even need to have an assessment to go to one of the group sessions and could sign up for one under my own steam so I stood my ground and asked to be put on the waiting list for the one to one sessions. I am so grateful that I felt strong enough to do this; I am extremely worried for those people who approach the same service whose mental health may prevent them from asking for what they want in the same way.
So why did I opt for CBT? Well I’ve had person-centred counselling twice before now and have never found that it helped me very much. I am already an open person and able to talk about my issues and so I found that speaking to a counsellor just dragged up things from my past which weren’t helpful. I’m not saying it didn’t help at all, but it certainly didn’t help as much as it could have done and I always found myself feeling much worse when I came out of my sessions.
Whereas in counselling you should be lead to your own conclusions, in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy you are given the tools to change the way you see the world and the way you react to situations. Rather than talking about the past you discuss how you might handle a situation in the future, or you discuss in rational terms something which has been bothering you that week. It seems to work.
I was offered 6 sessions of CBT focussing on self-esteem. I soon discovered that the course was the same as the course offered in a group format, but being one to one it meant that we could discuss the way the tools could be applied to situations which were relevant to me. My therapist was young and relatable and very patient with me, and where as I dreaded going to see my counsellors I quite looked forward to CBT.
CBT is hard work; it requires homework and constant thinking about what you are thinking. If you think something negative you are encouraged to think about why you are having that thought. The main basis of CBT is described in the diagram below:
There are four ways you react to a situation; you have thoughts, emotions, behaviours and bodily sensations. So for example if you are scared of heights and you find yourself up a church tower you might experience the following:
Thoughts: “I am scared; I don’t like heights, what if I fall? What if someone else falls?”
Emotions: Fear, panic
Behaviours: Refusing to climb higher, clinging onto something
Bodily reactions: Crying, shaking, hyperventilating.
In CBT it is believed that by changing one of the above you can affect all four of the reactions, and usually the easiest reaction to change is either thoughts or behaviours. So in the situation above (and I have deliberately chosen something that doesn’t apply to me here) you might instead think “I won’t fall, I am safe, and I am with people who won’t let anything happen to me” and instantly you have reassured yourself about the situation. Sounds difficult? It is, and that’s why there’s so much homework involved in CBT.
You might also find you can change your behaviours, as I mentioned above. When you don’t feel comfortable with something then you tend to avoid situations which might make you uncomfortable. Using an example which is relevant to me, I don’t feel comfortable starting conversations with people online because I don’t believe people want to talk to me. However, through my CBT I was encouraged to start doing this as my irrational brain (my monkey brain as it is referred) was winning out over my rational brain. And so I am still trying to work up the courage to do this but I know that by changing this behaviour I will become more social and speak to the people I want to speak to.
Another issue I have, and apparently this is very common, is that I assign a lot of blame to myself when things go wrong. This can be a small thing like saying something that stops the flow of conversation, or a big thing like thinking I have fallen out with somebody. I was encouraged to draw pie charts and to think about not only my contribution to that situation, but that of other people who are involved and outside factors. For example if you say something and everybody stops talking it could be that something happened somewhere else in the room that distracted people. In some ways it is self-absorption which leads to people taking all the blame for a situation, but I have been told not to think of it that way.
When I began the course I was told that the biggest thing I needed to aim for was to become my own best friend. Because if I am not my own best friend, how can I show a version of myself that I like to other people? A few months on from my sessions and I don’t feel that I have achieved this, but I do feel that I am beginning to get there. I know the things I need to work on, and I know that I can’t attribute all blame to myself when things go wrong. I know that people do like me, and even if I still don’t like myself as much as I could do, that perhaps I am more worth knowing than I first thought. It is going to take years to undo the damage from school, but I feel I have some of the tools to tackle this. And so in 2015 my one hope is this: That I can become my own best friend. And I hope the rest will follow.
I grew up wanting to be a journalist; I wanted to be one right up until I took my GCSEs. And then I had a change of heart and did a Geography degree at university. It seems, though, I’m still chasing the urge to be published, and today it happened:
It’s not in print, and I’m not getting paid for it, but my writing is on the website of a national newspaper. I am really proud of myself, despite the horrible comments. I just wanted to share that.
On my second full day in Paris I ate my small but perfectly adequate breakfast of a baguette, butter and a coffee at my hostel, AIJ Hostel in Bastille, and then decided that rather than getting the metro from the nearest metro station I would walk down to Bastille station instead. This walk was extremely pleasant; the main thing I noticed about the area was that every other shop seemed to be selling shoes! Perhaps Bastille is the shoe district of Paris, I don’t know.
Anyway, I got to Place de Bastille, which has an opera house and a monument and, oddly, the canal seems to go underground here. But more on the canal later. I boarded a metro train and headed to my first stop of the day: the Eiffel Tower.
I sort of felt like I had to see the Eiffel Tower, being in Paris, and a tourist. I had a little bit of trouble getting to the famous tower as one of the RER lines was completely close for what appeared to be an entire month (just think, it’s only weekends on the underground!) but with a bit of faffing around I got to Trocadero metro station. And there in front of me was La Tour Eiffel. And what was the first thing I did at the site of this famous landmark? Well I sat in the shade by the aquarium and read; you see I’d got to this really good bit in my book…
After a while I thought I should go and have a look at the tower. It is… very tall, that’s for sure. I walked up to it, dodging people hawking miniature versions, and then ducked and dived through the crowds to stand underneath it. The thing about the Eiffel Tower is that whilst it’s completely as it is in pictures itself, the setting of it seems quite different. I’m not entirely sure how the surroundings of the Eiffel Tower would look, but I was just a little bit overwhelmed really. The queues to go up it were enormous; I’d tried to buy a ticket the day before I travelled but it was fully booked, and in hindsight I’m quite glad I didn’t. And really that’s all I have to say about the Eiffel Tower I’m afraid.
I knew that I could go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe for free, so this was my second famous landmark goal of the day. Peering at my map I realised the arch was completely walkable from the Eiffel Tower, so I set off across the river, trying to avoid the hundreds of petition people who kept accosting me with a disability petition. I’d already signed this petition, possibly unwisely, at the Pompidou the day before, but it was now that it struck me that the fact they were seemingly trying to get English people to sign it and nobody else, even though it was a French petition, was a little odd. Further research revealed this to be a scam of some description, but whether it’s a pickpocketing scam or a donation scam seems to be under hot debate. I fortunately survived without having anything stolen, but the density of this clipboard wavers at the Eiffel Tower was fully ridiculous. In the end I just pretended I couldn’t speak English or French and fought my way out. I have a feeling this was a pickpocketing “pinch point”, but my system of knotting the drawstring on my rucksack at least 5 times and keeping my real valuables in a bag around my body seemed to work.
Having escaped this, I crossed the Seine, as I said before, and headed up a very posh street with classy hotels and designer shops, and then, there I was, on Champs-Elysees. This is another place that was very different to how I imagined it; really it’s like Paris’s Oxford Street, I suppose my images of it have only ever come from the Tour de France. After buying some postcards I walked towards the impressive arch, which is actually pretty cool.
It’s on a roundabout in the middle of what is known as Charles de Gaulle Etoile, a group of roads which come away from the arch in a sort of rough star shape. Approaching the Arc de Triomphe I couldn’t seem to work out how to get across to it. I saw some people holding hands and running across the road, pretty much risking their lives, but I figured there must be a way of crossing somewhere…
I crossed pretty much every road of the etoile in my quest to avoid getting run over, and about halfway round I spotted the opening of an underpass on the other side. You’d think this would have made it easier to find the entrance, as now I was looking for an underpass, but still it evaded me. I even went down into the metro station, in case this was the entrance, but it was not. Finally, after I’d walked a full circle, I spotted the matching underpass entrance and walked down underneath the road.
I presumed the queue in the underpass was for tickets to go up the arch, so I joined the queue just ahead of a group who I assumed were Americans. I think it must have been the McDonalds cups. But as I eavesdropped on their conversation (I presume every lone traveller is a terrible eavesdropper) I realised that they weren’t American at all, but Northern Irish, and as their conversation turned to entry fees I realised I could help and told them it was free for under 25s from the EU. This started off a flurry of searching for ID, but nobody in the group had any on them, so instead they decided to pass off as many people as possible as under 18s. When we reached the ticket office they pushed an actual under 18 towards the window, and an adult was asked for. One of the older members of the group stepped forward and the ticket seller asked them if they were together.
“Well we’re not together, like” said the older Northern Irish bloke, to which there was quite a lot of laughter from the queue. He turned round, grinning “a lot of you understood that, didn’t you?”
I got my free ticket and headed up the steps, onto the sort of glorified roundabout. And then, after queuing again for a short time, I got to walk up what seemed to be an absolutely never ending staircase. Honestly, I nearly died (I didn’t, but I like to exaggerate) and by the top I was out of breath and cursing all the people who told me I’d get really fit working as an outdoor instructor. But, beyond one more set of steps, was Paris, all of it.
The view was stunning. I’d seen my first glimpse of Paris’s skyline from the Pompidou the day before, but this was stunning. I picked out the landmarks I recognised: the Eiffel Tower, of course, Notre Dame nestled down by the Seine and in the distance, standing proudly on its hill, the Sacre-Coeur. I walked around, taking rubbish photos on my phone, all the time seeming to be in the way of other people’s photos. I had this quite a bit in Paris, everywhere I stood I seemed to be in the way of a photo, but I’ll write about the worst instances of this tomorrow.
From the Arc de Triomphe you can see right up to a second arch at La Defense, which is Paris’s business district, and there’s a third arch down by the Louvre but I missed that one completely. La Defense, with its sky scrapers, surprised me quite a lot, as did Tour Montparnasse. I’m not sure why I imagined Paris wouldn’t have tall, modern buildings really! Really though, Paris is laid out fascinatingly, it makes London look quite random in comparison.
I wrote a postcard at the top of the arch, and then I walked back down the spiralling staircase and sat at the bottom of the arch whilst mad motorists drove their cars at clearly irresponsible speeds around me. I’m certainly starting to wonder, from my limited experience, if the British are the most sensible drivers in Europe… After writing two more postcards, it was time to travel back under the underpass and decide what to do with the rest of my day. It was getting on a little bit but I fancied going to Musée d’Orsay so I, for some strange reason as it’s so close, got on the metro and popped out by Jardin des Tuileries, which is a very nice garden between the Louvre, the Seine and Place de la Concord. I was feeling pretty tired, as it was still quite hot, so I took some time to put my feet into the pond and to read a bit, and then headed off to the art gallery I intended to go to.
On my way round to Musée d’Orsay I passed some boys wearing beanies (in thirty degree heat!). They looked lost, and sure enough they asked me where the Louvre was. I knew the answer to this:
“You’re looking at it, it’s over there” I said, and they shuffled off looking rather embarrassed. As I got to the side of the museum, which is rather stunning as it is a converted disused train station, a woman next to me appeared to pick up nothing from the ground next to me. She then came over to me proffering a ring and asking if it was gold. I told her it could be and she forced it into my hand.
“You must have. Lucky day!” she said. Then: “Lucky for you, lucky for me”, gesturing towards her mouth with her hand. She kept saying this, and I realised she was expecting me to give her money because she’d given me the ring. This stunk of “scam” and I tried really hard to give the ring back to her but she wouldn’t take it. In the end I put it on the railings by the side of the road and walked off, and it was no surprise that she went over and picked it up immediately. I later read that this was a popular scam using brass rings. I’d been subjected to two scams in the same day, how lucky was I?
Anyhow, I went into the art gallery about half an hour before it shut, which was poor planning on my part I’ll admit. I saw some Picassos and some post-impressionism and some jolly large paintings, but as much as I’m probably a philistine for admitting this, I sort of like modern art a lot more than I like, er, not modern art. Sorry. It would have been nice to have a bit more time to explore, but I found myself back out in the Paris sun all too soon.
After this I sat in the grounds of the Louvre for a bit, as I thought I should even though I had no plans to go in, and then I got the metro back to the hostel, stopping to buy a spinach and goats cheese ready meal from monoprix as I just didn’t think I could cope with wandering the cafes that night.
After a revitalising shower and internet-using session at the hostel I decided to do something a bit different with my evening and walk to the Canal. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but being near water is usually a good place to be, so once again I got the metro from Bastille.
When I got off the metro I had a small walk along a boulevard with a park in the middle and after purchasing a beer from a monop’ (do you see what they did there?), I found said boulevard and walked along it. I was accosted by a very rude French boy in French about something, I think it was a lighter, but as I can’t really speak French he got very aggressive and I had to walk off at quite a pace. Aside from this there were a number of French youths playing petanque and table tennis on the boulevard; indeed I’d noticed that in the evenings any vaguely sandy patch of ground was used by petanque. We just don’t have an equivalent of that in the UK, except for perhaps football. I think I’d rather like to have an evening game of French boules in the street.
Eventually I came out at the point where the canal re-emerges from where it dips underground at Bastille, and to my surprise, as far as the eye could see, there were people. I sat at the closest end of the canal for a bit, sipping my beer, and then I decided to wander up it. There were people having picnics, drinking wine from plastic cups, mostly younger people but many were a little older. It was all terribly civilised. I walked along, taking in all the sites as people around me talked and laughed and just seemed to be having a lovely time. Until I reached a young man sitting on the barrier by the canal, headphones in, staring straight ahead with his back to the canal. He looked as though he might be about to cry and was in such very stark contrast to the other people sitting by the canal that it was actually him who inspired me to start writing down what I saw. I wondered what his trouble was, why he was here amongst all these jovial people. But it’s perfectly possible that was just his normal face and he was waiting for somebody.
As I continued along the canal, I sat down to write in my notebook and once again a French boy started talking to me. I sort of looked at him with an “I have no idea what the hell you’re going on about” look on my face, so he asked me in English if I could move to my left. Which I did, but still, bit rude. Especially as people were fishing to my left, you see, the canal is very diverse.
There seemed to be a masquerade party going on, with masks ranging from traditional eye masks to all out creepy V for Vendetta masks. I wondered why the canal was such a party hot spot, but it certainly seemed to have a good vibe.
I crossed over the canal and on this side a boy was strumming a guitar whilst is friend flicked a lighter in accompaniment. On this side it smelt quite strongly of weed, although the civilised, chilled out picnic vibes were still in existence (probably because of this actually). There was another boy strumming a guitar further up who had the most bizarre skull tattoo, I definitely hope it had just been scribbled on in marker pen.
I spotted a sign asking people to respect the tranquillity of the canal and not play music. The guitars and the ipod docks tunefully disobeyed this rule, and I don’t think it really think it spoilt the ambience at all. A girl leaned back, laughing, and nearly fell into the canal, but fortunately she realised in time, next to her was a man in flashing glasses. A man walked by with a large rucksack selling “boissons fraiches”, clearly the canal is a renowned Saturday night hotspot.
It was very late, midnight in fact, by the time I decided to head back to the hostel. On my way back I saw a whole family asleep in the street, it was not the first.