The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

When I was discussing my travel plans with a friend back in Sydney, I remember saying to him, “Part of me just wants to escape, and be totally disconnected, you know? Like, just set off into the world without a phone, or a Facebook, and just get completely lost in the world around me.” It was a highly romanticised idea, and one that I obviously didn’t follow through on, but reflecting back on that moment gave me reason to pause and reflect on just how far from that original idea my journey has deviated. In the 21st Century, with so many different media platforms and channels of communication, it’s never very difficult to stay logged in and connected. In fact, quite the opposite is true – no matter where you are in the world, your online identity is essentially able to follow you everywhere.

***

South-East Asia is very in tune with the needs of its tourist population. Not so much in Bangkok, but all through southern Thailand in the islands, in Ho Chi Minh City, and all throughout Cambodia, free WiFi is prevalent like a digital plague. Every bar, restaurant, club, hostel, even some of the charter buses between cities provided you with Internet access. Unfortunately it promotes the rampant and semi-narcissistic holiday Facebook posting – be in statues, photos or check-ins – that I know I myself am entirely guilty of, but it meant that keeping in touch with family and friends back home was as easy as if I was in the next suburb rather than the neighbouring continent. What I did find particularly interesting in Cambodia though, was that the rise of the wireless connection saw a steep decline in the provision of regular desktop computers. I noticed this when I was chatting with Laura in our hostel in Phnom Penh.
“They have the WiFi, which is good for most people, but I don’t have a smartphone or anything like that,” she’d told me. “All I want to do is send a quick email to my mum, but the guy over there can’t even get the computer to work properly.” The hostel had a single ancient computer stuffed away in the corner of the common room, which I’m pretty sure was mostly occupied by one of the hostel employees, who I’m fairly sure was either playing online poker or watching porn most of the time.

I offered Laura the use of my iPad to check and send her emails, for which she was incredibly grateful, but it really made me wonder how the hell I had ever expected to get anywhere on this journey without the assistance of my iPhone and a web connection. Thankfully the GPS system even works without Internet connection – to this day I would probably still be wandering around the streets of Saigon if it weren’t for that brilliant piece of Google Maps technology. But the relatively constant connection still has its drawbacks – you’re afforded all the luxuries you didn’t want to give up, but are simultaneously stuck with the things you would rather go without. Arguments and dramas within groups of friends back home, which have really nothing to do with you since you weren’t there at the time, are suddenly just as much your problem since you can be CCed into a discussion at the click of a button. It’s slightly frustrating, but thankfully there were many opportunities to switch the devices off and go and lose yourself in a city that couldn’t care less about your trivial dilemmas.

***

On my last night in Thailand, Rathana shocked me with a revelation that I had somehow managed to overlook in planning my visit to China. “How are you gonna let people know you arrived safely? You can’t use Facebook in China.” Say what? Of course, I am an idiot for not knowing more about China’s heavy Internet censorship laws, but I just said to myself, No worries, I’ll only be in Beijing for a couple of days anyway.
Flash forward to the Vodkatrain briefing meeting with Snow, and afterwards Tim was telling us about some of the journeys he’d already had through China. “Yeah, it’s been a few weeks without Facebook,” he said when the topic was raised. “But you know, I don’t even miss it. It’s been kinda liberating, really.”
A couple of hours later, and a few of us were sitting around the lobby of the hotel in China. A few minutes before we had been chatting away, until my Googling of “How to use Facebook in China” back in Bangkok had finally paid off, and I found a free and reliable VPN connection that allowed us to connect to the Internet via a portal somewhere in Texas. Tim was singing a different tune now that access to Facebook was a feasible thing again, and we all posted from our Facebook accounts in China, simply to show off the fact that we could.
“Robert! You’ve created a monster!” Alyson said in a tone of humorous exasperation, and we all laughed at the comment, though there was an echo of truth in the statement. I don’t really know whether or not I should have been surprised, but it was bizarre the way a proper unrestricted Internet connection could so heavily impact upon the experience.

Yet once we were on the trains across the Trans-Siberian, not even a VPN network was going to save us from technological isolation. But I found myself feeling very accepting with that. I mean, in the end I was being forced to do something I had actually wanted to do, but had proved a much harder task for my self control. I guess there’s more than a grain of truth in the term ‘Facebook addiction’. With the exception of a couple of restaurants and our hotels in Ulaanbaatar and Irkutsk, Beijing to Moscow was a relatively Internet free zone. Being out in the Mongolian wilderness was like a dream, untouched both physically and mentally from the outside world. The train from Irkutsk to Moscow gave all of us plenty of time to really get to know each other, and I ended up making some pretty good friends in people like Kaylah and Tim. True, we all went a little stir crazy by the end of the four day trek, but I don’t think the ability to numb our minds with the Internet would have made much of a difference. In a lot of ways, the freedom from the grasp of demons like Facebook and the ability to enjoy the uninterrupted attention and company of my fellow travellers is one the things I miss the most about that epic train journey.

***

Europe is a different story. “Finland has recently made access to wireless Internet a basic human right for all it’s citizens”, Susanna told me when I arrived in Finland. “So you can pick up WiFi pretty much anywhere in the city centre.” Despite that, the Internet in Susanna’s apartment was not WiFi, but a portable data device which was plugged into her laptop. So while I couldn’t use my own devices, I was able to use a real computer for the first time in many weeks, which actually took a little getting used to. The rest of Europe was pretty reliable in providing free public wireless Internet, whether it was in a bar, a hostel, or the nearest Starbucks. If I was lost or needed directions, it was less a matter of asking the nearest person for directions, and more a matter of looking for the closest, strongest signal.

My stay in Berlin involved a peculiar set up when it came to connectivity. “Yeah, so, we’re still working on the Internet”, Donatella told me when I first arrived. “Someone was supposed to come today, but they said there was something wrong with the building, and they’re coming next week. Which is a load of crap, because every other apartment in this building had WiFi – you can see them all whenever you search for a network!”
The only Internet access we had at home was when Simon was home and we were able to piggy-back off his 3G connection. Which was easy enough, except that you could never be sure of when Simon would or wouldn’t be home. Eva and I often made little outings together to grab a coffee, with the ulterior motive of logging back into the online world. The whole time I was there, the Internet was never sorted out – half the reason I stayed with Ralf on my last night in Berlin was so that I had a reliable Internet connection to make my booking for the hostel in Cologne. It did made organising meeting up with Dane during my stay a little more difficult: he didn’t have a working SIM card, and I didn’t always have WiFi – it really makes you wonder how people did anything back in the days before all these technologies. Postcards weren’t a novelty to send home, they were actually a way of letting people know you were still alive!

***

When I checked into the hostel in Paris, the woman in reception gave me a run down of the facilities in the place. “The wireless Internet isn’t free – you have to register, log in and then pay as you go.” The expression on my face must have been pretty filthy, because the then added: “But… there is a McDonalds just around the corner, so… yeah… do what you will with that.” Needless to say, I was a regular patron at that McDonalds while I was in Paris. The fact she even threw in that last comment proves just how much travellers rely on things like an Internet connection close to where they’re staying. Whether its for communication, organisation or research, for better or for worse, the Internet has become an integral part of traveling for tourists and travellers everywhere.

Advertisements

A Family Affair

After a light late breakfast at the apartment with PJ, Tony and Nasser – and a bit of playtime with their adorable pooch, appropriately named Toy – I bid the Frenchmen farewell as I headed back to my hostel. Check out was at noon, and I was desperate to not have a repeat of the incident that happened in my hostel in Moscow. Nasser got a little sentimental – I’d learnt that the French can get very intense and passionate very quickly – and even invited me to visit and stay with him at his place in Nice. While the south of France hadn’t featured as a stop on my itinerary, the thought of it sounded marvellous, so I told him I’d see if I could work it into my travel plans, and that I would keep in touch either way.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

***

My plans for Sunday afternoon were a little different from anything a tourist would be doing, or indeed even a traveller. When I arrived at Greg’s apartment – a beautiful, classic apartment complete with a gorgeous view of the Parisian streets below and an elevator that was smaller than an airplane bathroom – he told me he would be meeting some of his friends to chill out in one of the many parks around the centre of France. Normally I would have jumped at the offer, but there was something else I was looking forward to, so Greg and I left his place together but went our separate ways – him for his friend, and myself for my family.

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

It’s not every day that you accidentally end up in the same foreign city as some of your relatives, so it had been quite a surprise when I had seen my Aunty Therese posting photos on Facebook of herself, my Uncle Jason and my cousins Sophie and George, in England. They’re also Sydneysiders, it seemed that our European holidays had conveniently coincided, and the four of them had landed in Paris on the Saturday that I was there. They were renting out an apartment through Air BnB for their stay, and after coordinating schedules with Therese, I made plans to go over and visit them for some Sunday afternoon drinks.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the parks had been full of people, locals and tourists alike, lounging around on the vast green expenses and soaking up the European summer sun. I would later joke with my friends that I had a better tan after a summer in Europe than I ever had during any of my summers in Australia. While Australia’s UV levels inevitably scorched to a crisp anyone who stayed in direct sunlight for over 30 minutes, I found European sunlight to be the equivalent to Mama Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it wasn’t too harsh, but it wasn’t too weak that it couldn’t warm you up: it was just right. The sight of all the sunbathers made me realise something else too: in a vast city where there was just so much to do, one also needs to schedule in time to literally just do nothing. To sit, to relax, and soak up some Vitamin D – things like that are just as important in a holiday, in my opinion, and you don’t get the time to do it if you’re too busy rushing around trying to cram in as much as you can. It was a revelation I would inevitably revisit many times throughout my journey.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

Hôtel National des Invalides - passed on my way to Jason and Therese's.

Hôtel National des Invalides – passed on my way to Jason and Therese’s.

Once I reached Therese and Jason’s apartment – located quite centrally, near the Eiffel Tower – we cracked open some drinks, and all of a sudden we could have been back in Sydney, enjoying some sunshine on the back verandah while catching up over a family drink-together (what my extended family calls get togethers). Therese had been keeping up with my blogs, though they weren’t up to speed with real time, so I caught her up on some of latest adventures, and all about the pride festivities the day before.
“Yes, well, we couldn’t have timed that one better ourselves”, she said with a laugh as she sipped her beer. “Yesterday afternoon – took us about two hours to get a cab. Jason was about to lose it!” I couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image of my uncle staring incredulously at a main road full of parade floats and near-naked go-go dancers, searching in vain for a cab to get his family out of the madness. “But what are the odds of landing in the city smack bang in the middle of a gay pride parade, right?”
“Well, unlucky for some, but very lucky for others”, I said with a laugh.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason was in a better mood than he supposedly was the day before, when he arrived back at the apartment with bread, cheese, wine and more beer. As impressed as I thought my male relatives would be with the fact I was now a beer drinker, instead we indulged in the fact that we were not in an Australian backyard as we ate three kinds of cheese and said a toast with the sparkling wine: “Viva la France!” Though it really was lovely to see more familiar faces, and to even relax into a relatively familiar setting – it was just enough to ward off any homesickness that could have started creeping its way in after three months on the road. We sat in the afternoon sun and stayed there well into the evening, sharing holiday stories and working our way thought the food and drink until it finally became full dark. And that was when the Eiffel Tower begins to sparkle.

“Sophie! George! Quick, come look at this!” Jason called out to my younger cousins. From a particular vantage point of their balcony, we could see the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower through gaps in the surrounding buildings. At night the Eiffel Tower lights up, but once an hour, on the hour, she puts of a show. What look like hundreds of fairy lights all begin to glitter and flicker against the dark night sky. Walking through some of the smaller streets on my walk today had been enchanting, but this was a sight that, when seen for the first time, felt truly magical. The five of us stood on the balcony watching the tower until the glittering eventually flicked off, and I felt that finally the City of Lights was proving itself worthy of its name.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

Eventually I had to head back to Greg’s. I thanked Jason and Therese for having me, wished all four of them all the best for the rest of their trip and then stumbled into a cab to head home, but not before stopping for a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower at night. I didn’t have time to stick around to see it sparkle again, but gentle glow itself is enough to create a distinct ambience in the area that feels so ingrained that it would be almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

My last day was my final day of sightseeing, and then having dinner with Greg and one of his friends at his apartment before gathering my stuff and heading for the train station. That proved a little stressful when one of the metro lines I had intended to take to the station was experiencing a partial closure, and I had to frantically call Greg to try and figure out an alternative route. The only alternative appeared to be covering some of the ground by foot, so I was barging through the streets and waving my ticket around, desperately trying to find the terminal as fast as possible once I finally reached the station.

Of course, this was France, so things weren’t running on time and I made my train with time to spare. But as the train pulled out of Paris and headed south, I couldn’t help but smile, intensely satisfied with my time spent in Paris. In just four short days I’d seen the sights, I’d experienced the parties, caught up with old friends and family and made new friends, future friends who I would hopefully see again one day.

“We Are Not Afraid”: French Kissing and Parisian Pride

On my first night out in Paris, I learnt that I had arrived in the city on the weekend of their celebration of gay pride. From that moment on, my entire stay in the city became a balancing act between being a responsible tourist and a dedicated gay man. There was so much to see in this huge city, but there was no way I was going to miss out on all the partying either. While Paris had steadily been filling up with homosexuals over the past week, the main event of their pride season was the pride parade on Saturday afternoon. I had intended on going along to see it, but unfortunately visiting the Eiffel Tower took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I did, however, have plans to meet with a friend of a friend. Darrin, one of the San Franciscan guys who I had met in Bangkok, put me in touch with Greg, a friend of his who lived in Paris. Greg had plans to meet some of his friends in the city centre later in the afternoon, so we coordinated to meet at one of the metro stations and travel in together.

***

Greg was a nice guy, mild-mannered and very sweet, and I quickly caught him up on my situation, my travels, and how I’d come to meet his American friend in Bangkok despite being an Australian myself. It was actually quite funny how the web of connections and friends of friends kept expanding further and further the more I travelled. Eventually we emerged near the Bastille monument, where pride was definitely in the air. It was a similar feeling to Mardi Gras in Sydney, with people walking sound the streets in all kinds of crazy costumes, and copious amounts of glitter, sequins, feathers and body paint. The streets were lined with rubbish and parade debris, and there were DJs on a stage erected near the monument, where a huge outdoor dance party had started. “This is the ending point of the parade,” Greg said as he pointed towards the crowd of revellers, and then up one of the streets that led into the huge circle, where the tail end of the parade was trickling in to join the party. After seeing the hordes of people around me, I slightly regret not seeing more of the parade, because it would have been a fantastic show.

We moved to a nearby restaurant where Greg was meeting some friends who had been having a boozy lunch. Their table faced out onto the street where all the excitement was going on, so Greg and I each pulled up a chair and were offered a glass of wine from the bottles on the table. Then a waiter came by to clear some things off the table… and to my surprise, I recognised him.
“Xavier?”
He looked up at me, and I saw the recognition register in his eyes. He seemed just as shocked as I was, if not more. “Hey! Robert… Hi. Wow… what are you… what are doing here?” He sounded a little nervous, almost freaked out, and it wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that showing up at his work like that probably made me seem like a bit of a stalker. I had sent him a few text messages when I had gone out again by myself on Friday night, but he had told me he was resting because he had work the next day. “I work at a kind of fancy restaurant,” was all he had told me. “I have to wear a… suit, tie, tuxedo type thing.” Sure enough, there he was in is uniform, looking more like a posh butler than a waiter.
“I’m just… I’m just here with friend, and… his friends,” I said, motioning towards the group around the table that I had just met.
“Oh, okay… well, I better keep working.” The exchange was starting to attract a little attention, from both Greg and his friends, and Xavier’s co-workers.
“You’ve been in Paris for two days and you already know our waiter?” Greg said to me with a laugh after Xavier had left, and I gave him a brief rundown of what had happened on Thursday, as one of his friends poured me a glass of wine. He looked a little uneasy at the end of the story. After we’d finished our drinks, Greg informed me this was actually only a brief stop on the way to meet some other friends, so we bid them farewell, and I threw Xavier a small, unnoticed wave as we headed off into the crowd.

“It’s just funny, because…” Greg spoke up once we had started walking. “Because… well, not funny, actually. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty surer that that guy has a boyfriend.” With one revelation, everything about Xavier’s behaviour made sense. He’d keen very keen but still somewhat nervous when he’d first approached me at Spyce, and today he’d acted extremely on edge, as though he’d been sprung or caught out on something. I sighed, rolled my eyes and just nodded. Greg let out a gentle, sympathetic laugh.

***

Greg and I walked through the crowds and twisting streets until we finally made it back to what I had been calling the ‘gay quarter’, although there are supposedly several gay friendly areas in Paris. But this was the main one, and the one I had visited the past two nights, though it did look rather different in the daylight. The sun doesn’t set quite as late as it does in Scandinavia, but the afternoons are longer, and the dying afternoon sunshine bathed the small cobbled streets in glowing warmth. The French gays were out in full force in what appeared to be some kind of street party. There was a main intersection where a couple of bars had completely opened up onto the street, serving beer in plastic cups with which patrons could wander out onto the crowded streets to socialise, so the crowds flowed out of the main square and down and around all the adjoining and adjacent streets.

“Are you allowed to drink on the streets in Paris?” I asked Greg as we twisted and squeezed our way through the crowd.
“Well… not exactly,” he called back to me. “But pride is just a once a year event, so they’re a little more relaxed about it on this night.” Much like pride in Berlin, it was a super relaxed affair, with no fences, restrictions or red tape, except there was a little less debauchery from the Parisians, which was supplemented with a simple, joyful elegance. Somewhere in an apartment above, an electric bubble-blowing machine whirred away, and the scene was sprinkled with a stream of bubbles that refracted in the sunset and caused a rainbow sheen to hang above the partygoers. I think I stopped at one point – nearly getting left behind as Greg pressed on – and just stared up at my enchanting surroundings. The romantic Paris I had been dreaming of was finally starting to show it’s face.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

First things first, Greg and I grabbed some beers, and then moved through the crowds as he looked for his friends. Now, I have to admit, I’d heard some mixed reviews about the French, and the unfriendly attitude towards foreigners that was somewhat resounding in their stereotype. Just the night before, when I had gone back to Raidd for a couple of drinks, I had overheard a conversation where one guy complained about “f**king tourists,” loudly enough, and in English, for me to assume that he’d probably wanted someone – specifically tourists – to hear him. If you’re going to complain about tourists, in a city that has more annual visitors than nearly any other city, in peak tourist season and in pride, in a gay bar that is well known for being popular with tourists… well, to be frank, that guy was an arrogant moron. So I was a little nervous going in to meet Greg’s friends, but I rationalised that to be friends with someone as nice as Greg, they would have to be pretty nice themselves.

And I was right. I was introduced to a bunch of guys, many whose names I didn’t remember, but they were all incredibly friendly towards me, and the ones with better English skills asked me various questions about my travels and held some pleasant and interesting conversations. My theory, based on the experiences of others and my own, is that French guys can simply be a little closed off to talking to people outside their immediate social groups, if those people haven’t been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Had Greg not been with me, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have talked to and socialised with half as many guys as I did that evening, but as it was I met quite a few nice and interesting people. One of them was Pierre-Jacques, or PJ for short, who told me about some of the queer activism he’d been involved with in France.

“This year is a very special pride for us,” PJ told me amidst the celebrations, “because it’s the first pride since gay marriage has been legalised. So there’s a real milestone for us to celebrate.” The topic of marriage equality in Australia came up quite often, and it was almost embarrassing to have to confess that we were still lagging behind on the issue.
“It wasn’t easy for France, either,” PJ assured me. “People think of us as very… free love, and revolutionary, but there are still lots of conservatives who think marriage should still be between man and woman.” The other people I spoke to the most that evening were Tony, PJ’s boyfriend, who is originally from Belgium, and Tony’s best friend Nasser, a Frenchman from Nice. Tony told me a little bit about the social politics between Belgium and France, and PJ pointed out the differences in their accents – Belgians spoke French with a rougher, less elegant style, a result of their proximity to countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Nasser was quite charming but aggressively flirtatious – Tony even pulled me aside at one point and told me to let him know if it was a little too much. I just laughed and told him that I could handle myself – Nasser was quite charming, and I didn’t mind the attention. It wasn’t too long before he was stealing a few kisses from me, but I figured there was no better time than Parisian pride to let a French man have his way with you.

As the afternoon turned into night the partying got a little heavier inside the clubs, though outside on the streets the scene was still much more conversational, though the standards to which the conversation dropped was directly proportional to the amount of beer consumed, and there was frequent cheekiness thrown in here and there by Nasser. The question of where in Paris I was staying came up while I was talking to PJ and Tony, and I told them I was staying out in the 20th District for one more night, and that I still had no idea where I was staying on my final night.
“Oh, really? Well, we have Nasser sleeping in our spare room tonight, but if you need a place to stay tomorrow you are more than welcome to stay with us. As long as you don’t mind dogs?” I assured him dogs were fine, thanked him for the generous offer, and said I would let him know. PJ must have said something to Greg after that, though.
“You should have said you needed somewhere to say,” Greg said as he was getting ready to leave the party. “I have room in my place, if you want you can bring your stuff over to mine tomorrow. Any friend of Darrin’s is a friend of mine,” he said with a friendly smile. It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders to hear that, as the problem of accommodation on my last night had always been nagging in the back of mind, and I was glad to find that all the negative stereotypes about the French people were being proved 100% wrong to me. I said goodbye to Greg and told him I would see him soon.

When the party was really wrapping up though, Nasser became a lot more concerned with where I was going that evening.
“How are you going to get all the way out there?” he exclaimed when I told him where my hostel was. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I was assuming I would just get a bus as close as I could and walk the rest of the way, like I had the night before. Nasser was having none of it.
“I’ll ask PJ and Tony, maybe if you want you can come with us? They live quite close to here.” Though I was highly aware that Nasser probably just wanted more alone time with me, I couldn’t say no when the other option was a trek back to the 20th District. PJ had already offered to have me the following night, so he said as long as I didn’t mind sleeping on the couch, or sharing the bed with Nasser, I was welcome to join them. So off the four of us went on a stroll through the tiny streets of classical Paris, dim golden street lights lighting the way.

***

We walked down the streets as two pairs holding hands, the crowds around us dissipating as people took turns down other streets to their respective homes. Before long the four of us were all but alone, and as we walked past a small park Nasser called out to PJ and Tony. “Wait! Show Robert the advertisements!”
There was a chain link fence around the park – strung up along the fences were signs and placards depicting same sex couples. “These are real actors and celebrities,” PJ explained to me. “Some of them are gay, but many of them are straight. This was part of a campaign to promote that being gay is a normal thing, and that it’s okay to be gay.” He pointed to some of the pictures of the men, who were smiling, holding hands, even kissing. “These guys are all straight,” PJ continued, “but they did this to show their support to gay marriage. Many of them are quite famous in France. Some even more so…” He pointed to a picture of two women wrapped up in a loving embrace, facing towards the camera.
“She is from… how is it called in English?” Nasser paused for a moment to think. “Desperate Housewives?”
Sure enough, one of the women in the picture was Eva Longoria, making a very sultry looking lesbian. Yet there was something more peculiar about all these pictures.

“They’ve all… All the pictures have been cut in half?” I turned to PJ.
“Yes,” he said, lamentation in his voice. “As I said earlier, we still have many homophobes and conservative people in France. When this campaign went up, it was soon vandalised by these people.” Tony put an arm around PJ’s shoulder to comfort him.
“But then… These other ones…” I was only able to form half sentences as I gazed at the scene around us. Beside each of the vandalised signs, a replica had been placed, with the exact same pictures and the exact same slogans. None of the secondary signs had been touched. The imagery was somehow more powerful than just having the original pictures alone. And so PJ explained:

“When the signs were vandalised, at first people just wanted to take them down, and replace them with the new ones. But then we decided that… No, that would be them winning, that would be giving in. So we left the destroyed signs up, and just put the new ones beside them. It’s a way of saying that, yes, we know they are out there. But we are not going to let them tell us what we can or cannot do. We are proud to be gay, but we are not going to pretend they’re not out there. It’s a way of saying that we… that we…”
“That we’re not afraid,” I finished for him, and the scene around us descended into a solemn silence.
“Yes. We are not afraid,” PJ echoed, breaking the moments silence. He started to move along the street again with Tony, and Nasser and I quickly followed suit, his arms wrapped around me to shelter me from the chill that was settling into the air. We didn’t talk much more about what we had just seen, but I think it was a message that rang loud and clear in us all.

Even in countries where marriage equality has been achieved, there is still significant amounts of discrimination. People often say, “What exactly do you need to be proud of?”, or claim that equality has all but been reached, and there’s nothing left to fight for. But there in the streets of Paris, I was reminded that the fight is never really over. There’s always going to be people out there that hate us, and pretending otherwise will never help anyone. Being proud is about being gay, and not being afraid to admit it. I loved the decision to leave the vandalised posters up on display, because it sent a message to the homophobes, a message with a meaning as clear as that initial act of vandalism – we are gay, we are proud, and we are not afraid.

Icons: Sightseeing in The City of Lights

Continue reading

Glow Sticks and Green Lights: Parisian Nightlife

For my first night in Paris I headed towards Rambuteau, one of the gay quarters in central Paris, to meet one of my friends from Australia. I had known my friend Arie had been travelling through Europe with another friend of his on a Contiki tour, but the tour had finished and they were doing a bit of travelling on their own before heading home. Back in Berlin, when I had been deliberating over where to head next, I had sent Arie a message to learn his plans and discovered he would still be in Paris for a few more days. Arie and his friend Daniel would be leaving on Friday, but the earliest I would be able to arrive was Thursday. Even so, we had decided we couldn’t miss the chance to spend even one night partying in Paris, so we’d arranged to meet up in city centre once I had sorted things out at my hostel.

“Oh my God! Robert, we’re in Paris together!” Arie had exclaimed when I finally caught up with them. It was still a strange sensation to meet people who were so familiar in places that were so foreign. We exchanged stories about our travels: Arie and Daniel shared their crazy adventures in Amsterdam, while I recounted my trek across the Trans-Siberian, and the exploits of Berlin that were still fresh in my mind. After my day of travelling and stressful afternoon at the station, I had been keen to head straight into a bar and grab a beer. However, Arie and Daniel both had plastic bottles of lemonade mixed with vodka, so we had to take a seat in the gutter around the corner of the first club while Daniel finished his ambitiously strong beverage. It was a throwback to the kind of drinking we had done in Australia, and after meeting and talking to Ralf in Berlin I was seeing it from a different perspective, through a whole new set of eyes. It was still relatively early in the night, and even when they offered me some of their pre-drinks, I declined. I found myself in a frame of mind where I wanted to go out, explore, mingle, maybe have a few beers – not get supremely drunk and wasted, make a fool of myself, or do something I might regret later. A lot of people who know me will probably be reading this thinking I’ve been hypnotised or brainwashed or something, but the truth of the matter was that I’d realised I wanted to make some changes in my life – there was no harm in trying out a few of them now.

When we finally entered our first place, a venue called Sly Bar, I was rudely reminded as to why we would usually drink so heavily before we went out. There are ways to cut costs when it comes to getting hammered, but simply drinking socially can rack up a bill, especially in Paris. I took small mouthfuls of my €7 beer in an attempt to make it last, watching as Daniel ran around the bar collecting different coloured glow sticks from the traffic light party that seemed to be happening – “I wonder what the blue ones mean…?” The bar itself was quite a small, dark space, trimmed with lots of neon lighting and, despite lacking a dance floor, loud pop music that required you to lean in close to the person next to you just to be heard. Smoking is quite prevalent in France though, so a good portion of the patrons were congregated in the courtyard out front to smoke their cigarettes. I continued catching up with Arie, and in general just enjoying the company of somebody familiar. It was the perfect comforting antidote to the post-Berlin blues that I’d had trouble trying to shake.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Rather than getting another drink at Sly Bar, we decided to move on to see if any of the other places were cheaper. To cut a long story short, they weren’t – Paris was an all around expensive city and the sooner I came to terms with that and just accepted it, the happier I would be. The next venue was called Spyce, and it was the first time we encountered a trend that turned out to be common in the Parisian nightclubs. There is a first initial door which you enter, and then you have to wait in a small chamber until the outside door closes. Only then will a second door open and allow you to enter the main nightclub. I’m not sure if this is designed to keep the cold out of the club during winter months, or if it’s to restrict the amount of noise that seeps out of the nightclub and into the street with every opening door. Spyce itself was even smaller than Sly Bar, but it was completely enclosed, the loud club music bouncing off the walls and turning the place into an intense, compact discotheque. We bought another round of expensive beers and took a seat at one of the tables.

There was a decent crowd, but it wasn’t packed and there wasn’t too much dancing going on. As I scanned the crowd, I made eye contact with a handsome looking gentleman, who smiled at me when he noticed I was looking. I returned the smile, but then turned back to Arie and Daniel. We hadn’t been there for too long, but eventually the gentleman approached us and introduced himself. His name was Xavier, and I introduced myself and Arie and Daniel. Arie and I chatted to him for a couple of minutes, while Daniel wandered off into the crowd to do his own thing, as he so often seemed to do.
“What is this?” Xavier said as he reached down and grabbed my wrist. Back at Sly Bar I had picked up a green flow stick and attached it around my wrist.
“Oh, these? We got them from Sly Bar.” I motioned over to Arie, who had taken half a dozen glow sticks and was busy constructing bracelets and necklaces out of them. “I think there’s a traffic light party or something going on.”
“A traffic light party?” Xavier seemed intrigued.
“Yeah. Green means I’m single,” I said with a grin.
Xavier returned the smile. “Are you guys going to Raidd?” I knew that one as the bar that Arie and Daniel had said we should visit later – they had been in Paris for several days already, and had been to a few of the hot spots.
“Yeah, I think we are. I just have to finish my beer first,” I said, pointing to the table and picking up my almost full glass.
“Oh, okay,” Xavier said. “Well I’m heading over there now, some of my friends want to get there already. But if you are coming, hopefully I’ll see you there?”
“Yeah, hopefully,” I said with another smile. He smiled back, and there was a knowing in his expression as he read between the lines. He leaned in towards me, placed a hand on the side of my face, and placed a gentle kiss of my lips. A touch so delicate seemed out of place in a club like Spyce, and it was almost ridiculous how quickly things had progressed from the initial glance across the room. After a few moments, Xavier pulled away, smiled again, and slipped away to the exit.
“Woo hoo! Go Robert!” Arie laughed from behind me, patting me on the back. “I guess some things never change.”
“Oh, shut up, you,” I laughed along with him, though I made a point of us finishing our beers rather quickly and ushering us on to the next bar.

***

After passing through the double door entrance to Raidd, I could see why the other two had insisted that we visited this club this evening. The bar was huge, with a vast dance floor that was flanked by several fully stocked bars and covered in good-looking men. Something curious I had noticed in all the bars was that a lot of people were drinking wine. Australians love their wine as much as the next nationality, but you would be hard pressed to find people waltzing around the night club with a glass of chardonnay. It seemed common practice here in Paris though, and the only thing that stopped me from ordering any was the fear of having it poured only to be told it was more expensive than the beer!

But that wasn’t the most noticeable thing about Raidd – that title would definitely have to go to the shower in the wall. In the centre of the feature wall of the club was a glass box. It didn’t seem like much… that is, until an underwear model stepped into the booth, sans underwear, and turned on the shower and began to clean his body in an extremely seductive manner. He was a picture of physical perfection, his masculine body so chiselled it could have been a sculpture taken straight from a Parisian art gallery, and he was completely naked, shaking his fully semi-erect penis around and pressing his impeccable buttocks up against the glass. To say the shower show was steamy would be literal, but also a huge understatement. Men were crowded around the glass panel, groping hopelessly at the Adonis within, but he just smiled, continued to hose himself down, and teased his audience as he continued to play with himself. It was an impressive show, though I’d be lying if I said I was shocked – Berlin had tested and broken my limits when it came to being shocked at anything I saw in European gay bars. Yet this was still different: where Berlin had been filthy and grungy, a dirty kind of sex appeal, Paris was putting on a performance that was equally explicit but in a much more refined manner. The show was clean and immaculate – I mean, he was in a shower – and despite baring all to world, no one was allowed to touch him. In a lot of ways it was the opposite to the shocking things I saw in Berlin, but it still managed to be equally sexual. The best part about the whole thing was that while some guys ogled and groped at the shower window, there were plenty who were sitting around casually chatting and sipping their wine, as though there was really nothing that different or special about someone taking a shower in a panel of their clubs wall. Though I guess, for the locals, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary.

It wasn’t too long until I ran into Xavier, though. He wasn’t a Frenchman as I had first suspected, but Portuguese, though he had been living in Paris for a few years. That didn’t make him any less sexy though, and there was a good portion of the evening where we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Though between the fierce make out sessions, I managed to talk to Xavier’s friends and some other people about the club.
“Are you guys here for Pride?” one of Xavier’s friends had asked Arie and I.
“Pride? No, my friend Daniel and I are leaving tomorrow,” Arie said, motioning across the club to where Daniel was making friends and mischief. Our questioner turned to me.
“Me? Oh, no I’m just here for the weekend.”
“Pride is this weekend.”
“Oh…” Suddenly it seemed as though my decision to come to Paris had been guided by some kind of higher power, and hasn’t been so random after all. “Well then, I guess I’m here for pride!”

We continued to dance the night away, but at one point I found myself outside with Xavier while he was having a cigarette. I stood close by him in the crisp night air as he took a puff.
“You know, I usually have a blanket rule about not hooking up with smokers,” I said, leaning away from his exhalation.
Xavier just chuckled. “What made you change your mind?”
“Well, I didn’t realise at first,” I said, “But I told myself I’d have to be a little lenient when I was in Paris. I’ve never met a Frenchman who didn’t smoke.”
“But I’m Portuguese,” he reminded me with a cheeky smile.
“You live in Paris though,” I said, laughing as I gave him a gentle shove. “Close enough.” He chuckled to himself again, and pulled me back in to plant a kiss on the side of my face.
“I’m gonna have to go soon. I have work tomorrow and my friend is picking me up.”

We said our goodbyes, but we exchanged phone numbers, and Xavier told me he wanted to see me again. I assured him I would be around for a few more days, and his leaving me was actually perfectly timed. As soon as he left, Arie stumbled out of Raidd with Daniel and another guy named Omar, who was visiting Paris from Israel. Daniel wanted food, and I decided to end my night on a high, so we left the club in search of a greasy, post-drinking feed.

***

Arie and Daniel got kebabs. I realised that I’d only had about two or three beers the whole evening, and so consequentially wasn’t that drunk, which meant I wasn’t exactly hungry either. I just stole a couple of chips here and there from Daniel’s meal while the four of us chatted.
“I’m sorry, but what’s going on with this“, Omar said as he pointed at my outfit like a real-life male Karen Walker. “You’ve got the nice blazer, the mustard chinos, and then…” he trailed off as all four of our gazes fell to my shoes. “You’re wearing, like, sneakers! That does not look right at all!”
“Hey! Why don’t you try travelling halfway across the world living out of a backpack? Stylish shoes were one of the first luxury items to go.” To be honest, I was actually surprised at myself at how comfortable I was at caring so little about things that would have mortified me back home – I had to assure Omar that I would never have normally worn this outfit.
“Well luckily you’re in Paris now,” he said with a smile. “Perfect place to get some new ones.” I just laughed and nodded – I didn’t have the energy to explain backpacking or budgeting to someone who had moments ago confessed to spending 100% of all his pay cheques on clothing. He was a nice enough guy, but I sensed some core ideological differences between the Israeli fashionista and myself.

It was starting to get late, so eventually I decided to call it a night. It was sad to say goodbye to Arie after only seeing him for a short time, but it had been so nice to see another familiar face and to hang out with a good friend. As we parted ways and took our different routes home, I tried to figure out the best way for me to get back to the hostel. It was well into the early hours of the morning, and it wasn’t even a weekend, so the metro had closed, and all the bus routes looked far too complicated for me to navigate. Though I did have my map with me, and the inner boy scout kicked in and decided that it wouldn’t be that hard to navigate my own way home – I was still staunchly opposed to wasting money on taxis. However, one thing I didn’t take into account was the scale of the map. “It won’t take me too long… 20 minutes, half an hour at best.” Half an hour in, and I was barely halfway there. “I’ve come this far already though”, I said to myself, out loud, needing the physical motivation once it had reached 4 in the morning. “No point in getting a taxi now.” Of course, that was the point where it began to lightly rain. I think I half ran, half power walked the rest of the way back to the hostel, cold and wet as I was. It had taken me well over and hour, and I was completely exhausted, though even after I’d snuck into the dorm and curled up in bed, sleep did not come. I felt horrible. I’d only had a few beers though, not enough to make me feel this sick. I laid in bed, hoping it might be a stomach ache that would just pass. But the pain grew worse to the point where it was physically crippling, then I remembered eating a few on Daniels chips, and the sauce that they had been smothered in…

My night had been going so well right up until I’d left the club. If someone had told me that in another hour I’d be ending my night with my head in the hostel toilet bowl, being sick from both ends until the break of dawn, I would never have believed them. So I guess if I learnt anything on my first night in Paris, it’s that it was a city full of surprises – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.