Coffee is my kryptonite, except it’s worse than kryptonite because at least Clark Kent doesn’t wake up every morning going ‘Oo a tell thee, a wouldn’t mind eating a nice shard of old krypto’. My relationship with coffee is a testament to the blasted duality of Dan: I love it, I love it so much, and yet it slays me. It ruins me. It gives me powerful, throat-punching acid reflux, and it kickstarts my anxiety with the rumbling force of a shifting tectonic plate. I know all of this, I experience it every single day, and yet… I just cannot say goodbye to my lovely, warm, bad-breath-making drink.
So I drank a coffee, sitting hungover between Amelie and Jeanne, and the coffee did to me precisely what it does every time, which every time I somehow manage to believe won’t occur. As we wound through the narrow streets of Strasbourg’s old town, I felt it: the first lurch of an anxiety episode. I’ve not been dealing with anxiety for long; it mostly began around December last year, when the UK election coupled with a ton of stressful deadlines at work sent me sprinting to the hospital with chest pains and heart palpitations. To my surprise, rather than strap me to a gurney and wheel me into the nearest operating theatre, the doctor I met with simply leant back in his chair and cocked an eyebrow at me.
“Things alright with your family?”
“Reasonably?” I replied.
“Social life okay?”
“Ha ha, oh goodness no.”
“How’s your job?”
“Ohhh, absolutely hate it – but you know how it is!”
“Anything else on your mind?”
“The election, I guess. And I think I have cancer quite often but it’s usually just dehydration or wind.”
“Why are you worried about the election?”
“I just hope the right guy gets the job.”
The doctor ran a test or two and told me I was absolutely fine, and that the vast majority of people reporting to hospital with chest pains have undiagnosed anxiety, and would I like some medicine for it? I said no. I dunno why I said no. I suppose I felt as though I wanted to get a handle on it by myself. Now, almost a year later, I’ve gotten used to the occasional lurches of anxiety that spice up my existence. I know what they are and I know they will pass – however that doesn’t make them any more bloody enjoyable.
While drunk and merry the night before it all kicked off in Strasbourg, I’d told Jeanne and Amelie I wanted to go up to the top of Strasbourg cathedral. It’s an absolute leviathan of a structure looming almost 150 metres above the city. It took four hundred years to build and is over a thousand years old, and it’s dizzyingly ornate; it makes Paris’s Notre Dame look just… wank. It was the tallest building in the world for over 200 years, and today is the sixth largest church in existence. You can see it on the plains of Alsace for hundreds of miles around. Photos cannot do it justice; it is, quite simply, the most fantastic, imposing, impossible piece of architecture I have ever seen in my life.
Aand now, as my hangover booted at my skull from the inside and my anxiety chewed on my heart, I found myself in a very long, snaking queue for the cathedral roof. Amelie and Jeanne began chatting in French, and I occupied myself with trying to prevent my thoughts from straying onto anything vaguely related to doom, mutilation, destruction – that sort of thing. It’s surprisingly hard, actually. When I’m trapped in the web of dread, even a passing seagull can spook me: wasn’t there a Greek philosopher who was killed when a turtle was dropped on him by an eagle? When I’m anxious, my doom may come from anywhere, and not even the city’s pigeons escape my fearful glower.
I was doing okay until a duo of dads joined the queue behind us, along with an apparently infinite number of children. There were two frizzy haired twins of perhaps five years old, a brunette boy of eight or nine, a toddler in a puffy coat, an androgynous blonde child who looked a bit like Peter Pan, a red-headed, freckly kid who was perhaps six, and a lanky teenage girl with braces. Now, I don’t mind kids. Kids are alright. But when I’m queuing for a holy monument, hungover and focussing on trying not to die, I do not like kids. As Amelie and Jeanne chatted in front of me, I closed my eyes and took deep breaths as the children ran in circles around me, rebounding off my knees, throwing mittens at one another, singing and burping and farting, dragging each other down onto the paving slabs and making snow angels in the dirt – and screaming. All the while, screaming.
The two bespectacled dads didn’t seem to notice. I suppose if you are around that sort of hubbub every day you grow accustomed to it. I, however, am very not accustomed. The children began making a human pyramid, then one twin fell off and bumped her knee and started crying, then the children all crowded around her to placate her until the other twin got jealous of the attention and started crying also. I fought to relax my jaw and exhaled; we were almost at the ticket booth. We paid in, and with my heart audibly pounding from the stress we began finally to ascend the gargantuan spiral staircase to the roof. Behind us, the dad duo pulled out their wallets. I figured that’d be the last we saw of them; they’d surely take forever to pay for each child.
How wrong I was.
I was perhaps thirty metres up the spiral staircase when first I heard the screams. I was huffing my way up the steps, legs aching, when a chorus of shrieks reverberated all the way up the tower, echoing and growing, overlapping one another like grinding violins. And laughter, coming from below. Hurried footsteps, and scuffling, and laughter. I looked out of the tower, through the thin stone pillars that separated me from the stone earth far below. Round and round we went, my head spinning from the remnants of last night’s alcohol and now too from the endless twisting of the staircase. I began to feel trapped: people above me, screams below me, no way to hurry, no way to turn back now! The way is blocked! We cannot get out! But how far remains above? How much higher to rise?! And the children are coming; feral screams from the deep! They come now, hark! Racing up the staircase, coming to snap and shriek at my heels, and what if they try to overtake me and I fall down? What if I fall down and crush them, and we all fall, and the dads fall too, and the twins and the ginger kid and the weird blonde angel child, all somersaulting back down the cold stone staircase, bones breaking – Oh! – and the headlines back in England will read Absolute Fanny Causes Human Death Avalanche in Strasbourg Stairwell, oh my fuck, oh Christ on a bike nooooAAH! AAAAH! HELP! HELP! HELP!
And then we emerged onto the roof and there was a very handsome view of the city, and my anxiety was instantly drained by the nice old rooftops and the puffy clouds.
“Look,” said Jeanne, “you can almost see Rue de Bitche from here.”
Ah yes, I thought, so you can. And Petite France is over that way, to the west, and in the distance are Les Vosges, the French mountain range, while to the east is Le Foret Noir – Germany’s Black Forest. How curious, the notion of standing in one country and being able to peer over into another. How curious indeed.
And just like that, I felt myself drifting back to sanity, the world solid and safe beneath my feet. I put my arm around Jeanne and together we surveyed the realm; our new home.
The onset of autumn had worked wonders for Strasbourg’s complexion. Hundreds of miles away in the distance, I saw sunlight race down between gaps in the clouds, illuminating the yellowing leaves of acres of vineyards. And one hundred metres below I saw people criss-crossing the cobbled streets, weaving in and out of old wooden buildings with brown tiled rooftops rising to precarious points like pinched marzipan. And standing there above it all, I thought yeah: yeah. I live here now, I’m settling in, and day by day this place feels like somewhere I want to be, and maybe even need to be. A month ago it was hard to picture the future; everything was just a swirling grey mist. Staring out from the rooftop I realised that those vapours had begun to part now – just a tad more each day – and perhaps, soon, a new path forward would emerge.
Then the clock struck three and all the bells in the cathedral chimed at once and I fucking shit my pants.