The lighting was perfect, the set-ups flawless, the camera suitable expensive and yet my holiday photographs were still an enormous disappointment. Beautiful shots of Baltic roofs and sweeping views failed spectacularly to capture the moment, any moment, actually worth remembering. These weren’t my memories, these were postcard shots and trained smiles. This could be anyone’s trip. Where was Nathanial playing Patience on the steps of the Parthenon? How had it not occurred to me to snap Pete eating crisps in his boxers for breakfast? Or capture that night curled in a nest of rubbish on the floor of a night train giggling over something inane with Richard?
We parted in Paris. Them, home to the turning leaves and familiarity of England and I on to my next adventure. My lively optimism was swiftly crushed, no colourful signs advertising cheap and cheerful hostels, no riotous locals merrily clambering to dispense advice and directions, no helpful free backpackers maps. Brussels had quietly cleared its streets, locked its doors and shut down for the evening. I trailed around looking like a heroine from a low budget horror in a ketchup splattered white dress; perfect for the muggy end of summer days, but a month on and several hundred miles north, autumn had caught up with me.
“Hey where you going?” a taxi drew up beside me.
“I don’t have any money for a taxi sorry.”
“Hey, hey that’s okay, where you going?”
“I need a cheap hostel, can you direct me?”
“Ha! You’re in Brussels girl! There is no cheap. Maybe you get a hotel in Midi, for 40Euro. Buts that’s not nice for a nice girl like you.”
“Thank you, I’ll take the train there.”
“No I’ll take you. Tell you what, you’re too nice to be wondering around, I take you back to my place, we have a nice time.”
“No, thank you.”
Midi is the area of Brussels were hotels go to die. Unfortunately for me, a large conference was happening the next morning, and each of these miserable, overpriced hovels was full. I trailed from door to door like Mary, the very picture of pathetic, and was repeatedly met with the same answer:
“We are all booked. But it’s not safe for you to go walking around. This is a dangerous part of town for a young girl.”
“Thank you.” I said wearily, as the forth receptionist turned me away. A couple of men were loitering in the lobby, clinging limply to their bottles, and mumbling in French.
“This man will take you.” said the receptionist; they exchanged smirks “You can go with him to his house. He has a very nice place.”
“I’ll keep looking. Thank you.”
The fifth place was the same. And the sixth. At the seventh I finally found my stable.
“It is not safe to be walking round this place, you can sit here. I’ll get you a drink.”
I sat with my legs curled beneath me, the hum of 24hr CNN, my eyes trained on the clock. At 6am the first insipid fingers of dawn began to creep over the window frame and the mew of trains had become regular. I bid my goodbyes and ran, boarded the first train to Amsterdam and fell asleep with my forehead pressed against the window. I woke up to flat green fields studded with windmills, a mild headache and a wave of relief. I’m not sure if I wish I hadn’t gone, or just wish I hadn’t gone without them. I have every confidence that even fully-booked Brussels at 2am on a drizzly October night would have been infinitely more palatable with a side of rubbish jokes, cheap biscuits and my three best boys.