Back in Paris

I returned to Paris this weekend. When I was last here nearly six months ago, the city was in the midst of a terror attack. I left that weekend in November not knowing if I would come again, but hoping I would feel safe to, one day. A lot’s happened in six months, I needed to come back, and the fear that I left Paris in is behind me. It has been a wonderful short break. I needed a break, period. Paris has once again shown me its beauty and its charm, and I’ve been able to fall in love with it again.

When I made my way here on Saturday morning, I wasn’t expecting much of the holiday. I was down, almost inconsolable. I’d had another restless night worrying about work. Despite it being the start of a long bank holiday weekend and there being a trip to Paris ahead of me, I’d panicked as if I had to go back to work that very day. Like the panic attack I had in the middle of the night a couple of weeks ago, this time I couldn’t stop going over the problem in my head again and again. None of my colleagues liked me; I didn’t know what I was doing; another day there would be torture. I took these thoughts to the train station with me. It seemed that the weekend was going to be spoiled before it had begun. I couldn’t pull myself out of the anxiety as it drove me into melancholy, even as I was about to get on the train and set off for France. It would have done no good telling me to perk up and appreciate the brief time I had to enjoy my holiday. It’s well known that nothing can make my mood change course once it’s set.

Friday had not been one of my better days at work so far. There was no particular reason for it to be bad. The company was having a monthly dress down day, so everyone had come to the office in casual gear, meaning that there was a more relaxed atmosphere in the office than usual. With that and the long weekend to look forward to, and a French holiday for me in particular, it should have been pleasant. But I was bothered for most of the day by the fact I still wasn’t talking to the four people apart from B and V who I sit closest to. It played on my mind incessantly as the afternoon dragged on. V had asked to leave early that day, which meant that after 4pm I was alone and invisible, while B chatted to her neighbours on the other side.

I attempted to meditate. It was a quiet day work-wise, so I had nothing else to do. In a loud open plan office, silent meditation is not an easy feat. I think I barely managed five minutes.

To stop myself from looking at the clock I decided to fill the rest of the afternoon with customer calls. A new task that B has recently trained me in involves calling customers to check up on tax details. It’s part of some new government legislation recently introduced – we have to do it. Having done a couple such calls on Wednesday I knew it wasn’t exactly a fun task, and I hardly relished doing it on a Friday afternoon. But there was literally nothing else to do, and there was a whole queue of these calls to get through.

I’d forgotten one of the laws of working with customers: when you decide to approach one at the end of the day or week, you’re asking to stay late. I couldn’t get through to most of the people that I called that afternoon; when I finally got through to someone, they were, shall we say, a bit miffed with being called out of the blue for what they saw as a suspicious reason. It didn’t go well. My explanation for the call made them bristle and they wanted to complain. I must have been on the phone for twenty minutes apologising. After practically ignoring me all afternoon, B was by my side when she heard the call as it started to go awry. She wrote tips on what to do on pieces of paper. She was comforting and helpful afterwards, telling me I’d done everything right and I’d just caught a customer on a bad day.

Earlier in the week she had announced that she was leaving the team soon, something I’d already guessed. She’ll be going to head office in May or June to work in a role which sounds mysterious and impressive. I’m sure she’ll be great there. I may never see her again, she may never think about me again.

All of which means I will have to get used to the complicated and dreary tasks that I’m currently still practising. I’ll have to start getting things right. Frankly, I no more feel as if I want to stay at the bank in the long term than I did when I started nearly a month ago. But I feel that I have to stay now. The longer I stay there, even though it makes me unhappy and resentful, the harder it is to contemplate leaving and going back to unemployment, uncertainty, purposelessness.

Oh sure, I’ve made progress in the job this past month. It’s just not the progress I would have liked. When I left on Friday my mood was sinking, but I knew I’d feel better as soon as I got to the meeting. The chair was given by S, a shining example of how the program works. He was once painfully shy, barely able to look at anyone when he came into the rooms six years ago; today he’s a member of the service committee at several meetings, he helps countless newcomers, he’s friends with everyone (even me!), and he has a healthy, sane partner in the rooms. Recently he started a new office job that’s been driving him a bit mad. He shared about it with honesty and wit, so I felt able to share about my own work challenges again. It was what the doctor ordered.

After the meeting I’d arranged to go for dinner with my sponsor. I wanted to tell him everything about the difficult day I’d had and what it all meant, but we were both pretty tired, and there wasn’t much frank conversation to be had for once. Still, it was a more honest conversation than I’d had with anyone all day.

When I arrived in Paris yesterday I felt much better, and the holiday could begin. I’d dozed a bit on the train, which probably helped. I felt comfortable navigating my way to the hotel, having done it quite a few times in the last five years. Later on I enjoyed walking down to Place de la Republique and through the narrow elegant alleyways to the centre of town, along the same streets that I last saw in November hours before the terror attacks. Paris seems to have recovered well from the event, which I’m glad about. Republique seems to have been taken over by a mass political occupation, with stalls and marquees crowded full of people listening to speeches that I didn’t have enough time to stay and follow.

I crossed the river and ended up in the Odéon quarter where I relaxed with a nice hot chocolate in a branch of Paul. It was about as authentically French as I’d get that day. With the chattering crowds outside the cafes, accordion music playing in the background on every street, a little summer sunshine breaking through the clouds, it was a good evening. Last week when I was thinking I’d give anything to go back in time to the autumn when I was able to do this every day, well, here I was. I’ll be back at work on Tuesday, but so far it hasn’t felt like it. It’s hard to believe I was there suffering just two days ago.

Today’s been a beautiful day. I’ve taken myself on a romantic date around the city, walking for hours on end and finding yet more new areas that I didn’t know before. From Place des Vosges to the Grenelle quarter, I’ve explored and taken pictures and enjoyed myself in gorgeous spring sunshine. I haven’t spent a moment stressing out about being alone. I guess I’m quite familiar with Paris now and I know my way around. For most of the day I’ve had my headphones in and I’ve listened to music that means something to me. Sat on a bench this evening on the Ile des Cygnes, listening to Debussy’s Clair De Lune with a blue sky above me and the gently lapping waves of the Seine below me, I felt at home. The weather’s definitely helped with the mood this weekend – I couldn’t have asked for better.

I’d love to have got to an AA meeting this weekend, but I arrived too late yesterday and it turned out that today was a public holiday in France, so they were all cancelled. Oh well. I’ve been happy anyway. Right now, even though tomorrow’s my last day here and my last day of freedom, work still feels far away.

P wasn’t upset when he found out that I was coming here without him. He’s liked all of my pictures and posts on facebook about the trip. He’s messaged me to ask if I’m enjoying myself and if I’m planning to visit any of the gay bars. I’ve tried to reply politely without engaging in long conversations. I can’t deny that it’s been a bit strange, firstly coming here without him (we’ve always come together in the last few years), secondly not messaging him constantly to tell him about what’s going on. The temptation to message him about how beautiful the Seine was today, or how nice it was to discover tranquility in Place des Vosges, was strong. He was always the person I’d confide my thoughts in; now he isn’t. My thoughts about things don’t really mean anything to him, so I’m keeping them to myself for the first time. I will share them with my sponsor later, or in a meeting when I get back to London.

It’s been more than a month since I last saw him. He doesn’t seem to realise that anything has changed yet. I’ve begun to compose an email that I may or may not send to him when the time comes to make the final break. In it I have explained everything. How I feel that we’ve grown apart in the past couple of years; how I don’t remember the last time we had fun together or had an interesting conversation with each other. How I hope that he’s noticed it too; how I’m sorry for the way things have turned out.

I can’t say anything until we’ve got Barcelona in July out of the way. I can’t ruin that holiday for him before it’s begun. Once it’s out of the way, I’ll have to tell him the truth, whether it’s by email or face to face. After finishing the draft email, I think face to face might just be easier (and fairer). It can’t wait after July – it will have to be then. Yes, I’m dreading it. It’s like telling a spouse that I want a divorce. Necessary, but painful. It’s going to hurt him, but given that my feelings on the matter haven’t changed in almost a year, it’s clear that there’s no way around it any more. Somehow I just have to get through the next few months without letting on how serious things are. Somehow I have to keep my distance from him for my own sanity, without telling him outright that our friendship is over. The only consolation is that it will be over in July, which isn’t that long away.

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