My Grandma kept asking me what I wanted to do for my 18th birthday and the only thing I could think of was: “I just want a weekend away”. This idea didn’t materialise for me as my birthday passed. In the days that followed that, the urge kept growing stronger; I had a desire building within me to do the most spontaneous thing I had ever done. Hours later, there I was, sitting at the computer I’m sat at now, staring at a confirmation email for my three-day solo trip to Brussels… in 72 hours time. The screen stared back at me like that old man looks at Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky movies, telling me that this is a challenge I cannot refuse.I naively assumed that going on holiday alone was just as simple as when I go to London by myself. At the end of the day, all that was different was that I’d be sleeping in that city in between my excursions, which, if anything, seemed much more convenient.When I arrived in Brussels, everything was absolutely fine. In fact, everything was great until the evening rolled in and I had another bizarre idea. For some reason, I thought it would be a good plan to go walking in the brisk evening air under those bright city lights to discover one of the city’s most beautiful buildings: the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Once I got there, looking up at the vast structure in awe, I felt inferior in its shadow, swallowed up by the dark light it cast across the field it sits in. I took a moment to sit down on the steps in the forecourt and watched over a group of young boys having a football training session. It seemed hilarious that this was occurring in the dark of night and it did nothing but make me smile even more; I had managed to travel across Europe all by myself – completely unaided in any way shape or form – and I was proud.
As I looked out at the view in front of me, I saw skyscrapers and city towers in the distance, a sight that’s very common in London but a diamond in the rough when it comes to Brussels. I checked my phone for the time, got my things together and set out on my walk.
It took me about 20 minutes to go through the big park between the Basilica and the long main road that took me down to the skyscrapers. Then as I approach the road, I immediately felt this strange sense of sadness. The only word I can really put to the feeling was shame. Shame that I was there; shame that I looked the way I did; shame that I didn’t speak French. There didn’t seem to be a single thing that I wasn’t ashamed about.
This overwhelming sense of insecurity grew as I walked down the road. I knew it was unjustified: no one was even looking at me, but I just felt it consuming me as I walked further and further down the path. The feeling started to get so intense that I could almost feel it physically pushing down on my head and my shoulders, closing me in to feel smaller and smaller as the seconds passed. I started to hear footsteps behind me as cars rushed past and I physically recoiled at the noise, terrified that someone was about to touch me. I kept walking and moving because I knew that I had to; I knew that I had to get to the end of this street to prove to myself that it was all nonsense and that I was safe.
I came across a gang of boys about 70% of the way down this road. I don’t use the word “gang” in the same way we’d use it in England, I just mean a group of boys, about my age, stood outside a shop sharing cigarettes. It’s a sight that I’m used to being intimidated by but in the state that I was in, you might as well have put me in front of a set of spinning blades. Nevertheless I persevered, telling myself repeatedly that nothing was going to happen if I just kept walking… and the boys started to follow.
Or were they following? Maybe they were just walking in the same direction as me? Normally I can gauge this by what they’re talking about but alas, I don’t speak fucking French! The shame is back! My pace increased in tandem with my heart beat and I found myself practically sprinting down this road towards the skyscrapers- towards safety. I finally got there, crossed the street and took the briskest two-hour walk that I have ever taken in my life. Closing the hotel door, I felt the security that I can only compare to how you feel when you sit down on the toilet after needing the loo for a long car journey. My feet were bleeding, my eyes were watering, my heart was pounding, but I was safe.
The next day passed with ease and I made sure to be home before it got dark this time as that level of anxiety wasn’t worth playing around with, especially for a second night in a row. I was exhausted so as soon as I got into my room, I got undressed, put on some music and climbed into the shower to reflect on the awesome day I’d had in comparison to the night before.
Until that moment, I had never realised that being lonely comes in a multitude of different layers. In all honesty, I am a generally lonely person: I do a lot of things on my own, I say a lot more things in my head than I do out loud (would you believe), and I would well and truly consider myself to be my own best friend. I know I’m lonely, but in a good way. When I embarked on this holiday, I saw this as a comical, literal representation of how lonely I really am: going to the extent of holidaying alone. And when you’re out and about on the streets, walking around and visiting museums and tourist spots, you aren’t that lonely. Other people are around you all the time and you constantly hear voices and feel the comforting presence of others.
Then there’s the other stage of loneliness, which is one that I very rarely experience, but when I do, it haunts and terrifies me. It’s the same kind of feeling I felt that night before when I was in my hotel room alone and I felt safe, but this time, that feeling was not as fleeting. A wave of thoughts came over me in that shower as I soon realised how truly alone I was in that moment. And I was fucking scared.
My breathing started to pick up. “I’m in a foreign country where no one speaks English!” The pounding in my head from the night before started to come back again. “If something happens to me, then who is going to rescue me?” My vision started to blur. “I’m doing this alone!”
The next thing I knew, I hit the side of the bathroom wall and landed – blacked out – in a heap on the floor.
When I came to, the shower was still running and I couldn’t feel my legs. My body felt like I’d been vomiting for an hour and now it was time for me to go back to bed. I extended my arm, turned off the shower, pulled my body up and sat there cross-legged looking at the shower curtain in dismay. Perhaps my worst nightmare of this trip had come true: I was in a foreign country, something had happened to me, and I was all alone so no one was there to rescue me. I’d had a panic attack (luckily, a rarity for me) and here I was, with no one to talk to about it. I finally had understood what my aunt had told me days before: going on holiday on your own is never easy.
After a few moments of sitting there, I got myself up, realised that I still needed to actually shower, and got on with my evening; it wasn’t the big awakening I was expecting. In fact, the arrow of wisdom that I was hoping for didn’t hit me whilst I was in Belgium at all. I went to bed, fragile and confused, waiting for the next day to roll in.
By the time I got on the Eurostar to come home again, I was mentally and physically exhausted, but the comfort of knowing that I was on a direct route back to London – home – meant that I could give myself some time to properly think things over. Going on this holiday didn’t give me the chance to see the Maneken Pis and the Atomium exclusively, but it also gave me the chance to look loneliness and vulnerability right in the eye as well.
When I sat on that bathroom floor, looking straight ahead at that shower curtain, I wasn’t just trying to work out why the hotel had chosen such a funky pattern for it: unbeknownst to me, I was giving it that same Rocky-style stare that the confirmation e-mail had given to me days before. In that moment, without me even realising it and in the same subconscious way that the dread crept up on me in the first place, I gave those emotions the intense stare that I’d been given that Monday night: this was my challenge and I had accepted it.
Going on holiday alone is terrifying, there’s no question about that, but that isn’t to say that it’s a bad experience. The idea of doing the same thing again terrifies me to my core, but it’s the kind of fear that’s secretly mixed with notes of excitement and thrill. I know that going abroad again in the coming months will be just as frightening as it was before, but now that I’ve been introduced to those demons, I’ll have a battle plan ready, just waiting to fight back.