Barcelona is a wonderful place, and I should have had a truly wonderful four days to go with it, but alas, the neuroses that seem to have become dormant in recent years at home, have unexpectedly reawakened. It has thus come to my attention that going abroad alone is one of the last remaining stimuli reliable enough to make me regress into lonely, anxious child mode. The language barrier is the main force behind the regression: I couldn´t speak a word of Spanish before I came here, and therefore I´ve been plunged into that sense of ´outsider-ness´which never bothers me at home any more.
The overriding fear amongst all this prickly, persistent anxiety is that I didn´t prepare myself for the trip very well. I didn´t learn enough Spanish, I didn´t bring any euros, I didn´t buy sun tan lotion, I didn´t bring paper to write on at times when I couldn´t access the internet. Hence I have faced extortionate charges for using cash machines all the time, had to pay ridiculous prices for sun tan lotion in the local chemists where tourists are evidently a lucrative source of income.
I´ve spent the last couple of days of my holiday in Sitges, the beautiful seaside resort about twenty miles south of Barcelona where there is a world famous gay scene. As soon as I got here I knew I´d come to the right place: the streets are filled with obviously gay men in swimming shorts and hard worked for tans. It should have instantly put me at ease, but it really hasn´t. If I´m honest with myself and with you, I have to admit that I only came here to meet ´someone´. To find a holiday lover, in other words. It wasn´t going to happen in Barcelona – I spent hours searching for the gay bars there on Sunday evening before realising that it was too early and I was too tired to stay out late until everywhere opened.
Knowing that I´m here for just one reason is either the best or the worst thing I could have done to myself. Sitges has beautiful, golden beaches, rocky cliff faces and hill paths where you can watch the sea crash and the air never gets cold, even when it´s cloudy. Every beach, every street, every bar and every restaurant is packed with gorgeous men to go with the scenery. For a sexually active and confident gay man it is paradise. It´s no wonder gays from all over the world come here to holiday every summer, and most of the bars play recognisable English pop music for the tourists all day and night.
For me, the two days have seen me teeter dangerously on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I do this to myself – the place isn´t doing it to me, I´m wise enough to know that. I ought to be taking it easy, not thinking about anything – there´s nothing to do here except sit around all day admiring beauty, so to spend the whole time worrying about unimportant things is doing it an injustice. My problems are really trivial, they always have been, but I can´t stop thinking about them. I can´t stop wishing that I had a manto lie in the sand with, a man to paddle in the sea with, drink non-alcoholic cocktails with, watch people with and go to bed with. A man to hold at night after the bars and restaurants have closed, a man to share all of this with.
The more I analyze it, the more I try and ponder on why it´s not happening, the worse I´m making it. I had hardly any fun in Barcelona because I couldn´t stop running around looking for shops that sold sun tan lotion and internet cafes where I could check on public transport prices and the time of my flight back to London. Now I´m not enjoying Sitges because I have so much time on my hands and not enough to do. I am admittedly more inclined to walking around taking pictures of things than sitting down all day – that´s why I´ve always taken holidays in big cities rather than small ocean resorts. Being on my own in a place where there is very little to do is probably lethal to someone like me. Yet I can´t help getting the impression that this was meant to happen, that I needed this experience to learn something about myself.
Determined not to let the Sitges stop-off go entirely to waste, I plonked myself at a table in one of the gayest bars I could find last night and sat there for hours, waiting for someone to approach me. A few years ago when I used to do the same thing all the time in London I never had to wait long for an approach. Wherever I went, whatever I was wearing, it always happened in the end. Here in Sitges I was horrified to still be sitting there after three hours, without even getting a look from anyone. In Sitges the main street where all the gay bars can be found is affectionately referred to as ´Sin Street´; you´d think it would be as easy to find a lover in such a place as it would be to buy a drink. But no. Halfway down the street you have two bars facing each other, both with large patios full of tables and parasols, and there the men just sit on either side, looking at each other. That to me is a perfect encapsulation of the gay scene: we spend a ridiculous amount of time just looking at each other, compared to the tiny amount of time we spend making love, if you can call it that.
Finally at midnight I´d had enough and decided I had to find somewhere better if it killed me. Around the corner I found a dark little disco, much like every gay disco I´ve ever been to in Europe, where the people were surprisingly friendly. I got talking to an older gay couple from London who had been together for twenty-three years. They, like me, were here to relax and have fun, and they were seemingly doing a much better job of it. We ended up chatting long into the early hours of the morning, about all of the stuff I have just written on. They told me nothing I hadn´t heard before: that I needed to loosen up a bit, stop thinking about things and start doing them. The more attractive, drunker and chattier one said he would take me to bed if he weren´t with his husband. If I had a pound for every time I´d heard that in gay clubs over the years!
At first I thought they were both making fun of me, but by 3 in the morning it dawned on me they were just trying to be friendly. Not everyone in gay clubs has an ulterior motive, though it´s usually the ones already in relationships who you can trust. I did notice a couple of random guys staring at me lasciviously as the night drew to a close. Both were much older than me, one looked scarily like the first man I ever went to bed with, nearly nine years ago. In a strange way I was reminded of that time, when I was first discovering the gay world in provincial Norwich. A time when I was so innocent, so unknowing. It´s like hardly anything has changed, except I´m a bit more knowing these days, and I don´t have the luxury of being able to get drunk to deal with how tragic the whole thing really is.
I could easily have gone home with one of those guys last night. It was the thing I most wanted when I set out first thing yesterday evening, to find someone and have great sex in a beatiful foreign seaside town. At the very end I just couldn´t go through with it. They were all so drunk, I doubt I would have been able to put up with the taste of booze. I said goodbye to my new friends, not entirely sure if I´d be seeing them again. I guess it doesn´t matter. At least I´ve proved I can still make friends, even in places as sordid and dark as that.
The less attractive of the gay couple from London told me about the famous psychologist Ellis, who inadvertently invented cognitive behavioural therapy in the late 50´s by sitting on a park bench in New York and forcing himself to talk to women. I imagine my new friend mentioned this to me to try and comfort me somehow: you see, even internationally respected psychologists can start from humble, insecure beginnings. If I was to follow in Ellis´example maybe I would, at some point, find what I have always been looking for. Last night I was essentially doing what Ellis did, if you look at it from a certain angle. I was sitting in a place deliberately chosen to increase my chances of meeting and talking to attractive, available men; I had told myself in no uncertain terms that I wasn´t allowed to go home to bed without having at least spoken to someone. I had to overcome all those old anxieties and beliefs about myself, which tell me that I´m ugly and unworthy and completely uninteresting, etc. When I caught my reflection in the toilet mirror at one in the morning the negativity exploded from within, and all I saw was a skinny, loner freak. And then I had to go back out and face everyone.
I don´t know why, but I was thinking the other day about people who self harm: do they do it to try and destroy the bits of themselves that they don´t like? Does it turn into an addiction when they find that they can´t stop, because there are always more unlikeable bits becoming apparent?
I´ve never self harmed and I have no plans to start now, though I wonder if the answer to all of this, if there is indeed an answer, is to somehow destroy the neurotic, self loathing part of me that has made Spain such an unbearable hell. As soon as I consider such a quandary I am faced with the question of how one is supposed to go about destroying a part of their own psyche. It is clearly not my entire psyche that I need to change: there is evidently a confident part of me that has enabled me to sit through all of this angst and keep going. Instead of sitting in my hotel room all day I´ve continued to go out and face the world, though I haven´t always wanted to. That part of my personality I would like to keep: the healthy part that knows I have to spend as much time doing the things that scare me as possible.
I haven´t allowed the neuroses to hinder me much so far, though when I look back on this holiday in years to come I doubt I will remember it as one that I particularly enjoyed. I don´t know why the fears have been so bad this time around, maybe I haven´t been to enough AA meetings. I managed to get to one on Monday night in Barcelona, and that was nice, though I haven´t really had the time since.
What´s very clear is that as my recovery progresses I become increasingly aware of the damaged, sick part of my personality. Coming to Spain has unexpectedly made me keenly aware of how damaged it is. I can hardly imagine what this holiday would have been like were that old part of me not there. I suppose finding a lover isn´t the be all and end all of life, but it´s something I wanted to do on this trip, to see if I could – and today at the end of it I remain as celibate as I always have been.
I go back to London tomorrow, and I suppose the familiarity will be a comfort. The ability to speak to someone in English without worrying that they´ll be offended, the knowledge that I can go on the internet and find a lover within minutes if I become desperate enough. That sort of thing is possible here, as is everything else, if you know where to look. But I´ve been just too scared the whole time.
Would I come back next year? I think the place is nice enough to say yes. Maybe coming back to Sitges every year from now on could be like an annual test of how much progress I´m making. Knowing how much I´ve changed in the past three years, it would seem stupid not to come back just because this first time was a bit tough.