Amsterdamned: Pride in the Canals

The official Amsterdam Pride parade was during the day on Saturday, but the celebrations kicked off the night before. Joris and I got cleaned up after the rugby workshop and then got back on our bikes and headed out to the city centre. We had a quick bite to eat along the way before arriving at what was called the Homomonument – a memorial in the centre of Amsterdam that commemorates the all the men and women who have been subject to persecution because of their homosexuality. The monument consists of three large pink triangles – the symbol Nazi’s gave to their homosexual prisoners – and are laid out in a way so that each triangle is the corner of an even bigger triangle that makes up the main plaza of the memorial. However, that evening it was as far from a solemn memorial – instead, had been utilised as a space of celebration. There was a stage set up nearby, with DJ’s filling the night with electric tunes and heavy beats, and there were party goers and revellers everywhere. I had been to enough European pride festivals by now to know what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. The street had been overrun by a party, with drinks being sold from vendors stationed nearby and people dancing away under the open air.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

One of the pink triangles was an elevated platform, so I climbed up onto that with Joris and looked out over the crowds. We were waiting to meet André and his friend, as well as some more of Joris’ friends who were coming out tonight. We weren’t staying at the Homomonument though, and when everyone finally arrived it was back on the bikes and off to Reguliersdwarsstraat, one of the main gay strips in the city. We secured our bikes before descending into the crowds on foot, and in what I had now gathered was the typical fashion of pride in most European cities, most of the bars had overflowed into the streets and the whole thing had just become one huge outdoor party. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure of all the bars that we went into or what any of them were called – I just followed the group of Dutch men I was with and tried my best to keep up with them and their drinking, although I always remained fairly conscious of the fact that I did have to ride my bike home. We were briefly inside a place called Taboo, but we ended up getting our beers in plastic cups and returning to the street, since the insides of most places were just too cramped. Then we crossed the street to a bar named SoHo, where the style and design was obviously influenced by a typical English pubs. It was a huge three storey building, and I lost and found our party several times throughout our time there, as well as sneaking into the bathroom without paying the fee that seemed to be in force that evening.

The pub crawl down Reguliersdwarsstraat continued, and I chatted to a whole different bunch of guys, some of them Joris’ friends, or friends of those friends. Towards the end of the road, we were standing around outside finishing our beers when Joris asked André and I if there was anything else we wanted to see, or anywhere else we wanted to go that night. We weren’t planning on having a big night, since we did have the parade in the morning, but the night was still fairly young.
“I don’t know…” I replied, trying to think if there had been anything specific any of my friends had suggested that I see. “Is there anything else around that you think we should see? Something quintessentially Amsterdam?”
Looking back I can’t remember if it had been Joris’ idea, or whether André had asked him to show us, but the three of us parted with the rest of the group and got back on our bikes and rode a short way to another gay street that was… well, it was definitely a different vibe. Warmoesstraat is adjacent to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, and is well-known as the home of the leather fetish scene in the city. Long after my stint of working in a fetish store, I still found such things quite fascinating, so it’s no surprise we found ourselves in a bar called Dirty Dicks, one of the many cruise bars in the area.

It reminded me of some of the smaller bars I visited in Germany, with a main bar upstairs and then the dark rooms downstairs. Except this place somehow felt cleaner – I have no idea how I can use ‘clean’ to describe any of these places but just roll with it – than Tom’s in Berlin, and the dark rooms weren’t even really all that dark. André and I ventured down to have a look, and under the blue fluorescence you really didn’t need to have much of an imagination. Joris had a good chuckle at our expressions when we resurfaced into the main bar. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I was so shocked. I’d seen plenty of places that were equally as confronting – if not more – but I guess it was always still a bit of a slap in the face to round a corner and walk straight into such gratuitous orgies. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll finally get used to it… or maybe I won’t. I don’t know, but it was definitely all the sex and the sleaze that I had been expecting from Amsterdam. We had another beer at Dirty Dicks before calling it a night and heading back home. Tomorrow was going to be a long, gay day.

***

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was meet Thijs, Joris’ boyfriend, who had just arrived home that morning. After a hearty breakfast cooked up by Joris, the two of them took André and I on our newly acquired bikes to the supermarket on our way to the parade – it was BYO where we were going to be, so we stocked up on our booze. André, having lived in Copenhagen for quite some time, was very used to the intense bike culture, but I was still getting used to the whole thing, almost losing sight of the others a couple of times. But eventually we made it into the centre of the city, where the streets were becoming crowded and swelling with people. The unique thing about pride in Amsterdam is that they really embrace one of their city’s – and indeed most of the country’s – most defining features: the canals. The parade floats literally float down the canals, boats that are decked out with rainbows and glitter and leather and flags and music and everything. The streets around the parade route – it travels across through the city via several of the larger main canals and the river Amstel – were particularly busy, with people staking out and securing their position so they could ensure they had a good view. However, we were going one step better. Joris and Thijs had a friend, Frans, who had a boat – well, more like a detached, floating jetty – at the edge of one of the main canals, and so was hosting a small parade viewing party. We were literally down on the waters edge watching the boats glide past.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

Joris and I during the parade.

Joris and I during the parade.

Myself, André's friend, and André.

Myself, André’s friend, and André.

After missing most of the parades in Paris and Madrid, it was fun to actually be present and see the parade, especially from such a great vantage point. It was also a beautiful day – the sun was shining bright and there was barely a cloud in the sky. “Let’s hope this great weather continues,” Joris had said earlier in the morning, peering out the window of his apartment. “It’s rained on the day of the parade for the last few years now.” But today there wasn’t even the slightest threat of rain, and we danced and drank and cheered for the floats in the gorgeous sunshine. Some of the float designs were actually really remarkable. Due to having to pass under numerous bridges on the parade route, many of the boats had to be under a certain height to pass through. However, rather than having a bunch of relatively flat floats, many of them incorporated designs that allowed for things to be lifted and lowered, so that they could shrink down to go under the bridges before emerging on the other side. I guess it was a normal thing for most of the locals, but I was considerably impressed.

Gay drag unicorn - because why not?

Gay drag unicorn – because why not?

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam.

Mermaids and mermen.

Mermaids and mermen.

The cheeky Mr B float.

The cheeky Mr B float.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

It wasn’t too long before we started getting quite intoxicated – the mix of being out in the sun and all the alcohol dehydrates you a little faster than normal, and eventually things started getting a little silly. I don’t know who did it first, but at some point during the afternoon someone jumped into the canal in a playful attempt at splashing one of the floats. Then someone else jumped in. Then someone from a float jumped in. I don’t know if it was peer pressure or the fact that it was actually getting pretty hot out, but the idea of a cool dip sounded mighty refreshing, so it wasn’t long before I had stripped down to my underwear and was jumping in after them. It became something of a playful water fight, pushing people in as soon as they just climbed out, and dragging other people in with them. It was a lot of fun, I must admit, though being drunk as I was it was also thoroughly exhausting. Towards the end of the parade, when the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, I was sitting on the edge of the jetty next to Thijs.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” he said with a deep, exhausted sigh, referring to diving into the canals and the water fight we’d had with the floats. I just let out a chuckle.
“You can’t believe it? How come?”
“Well…” A slightly uneasy look spread across Thijs’ face. “It’s not… it’s not exactly the cleanest body of water.”
“Oh…” I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah. I mean, they do usually clean it before big events like this, but… They’ve pulled a lot of bikes out of these canals over the years. And far, far too much rubbish. Who knows what else is in there.”
It wasn’t a comforting thought, but I guess at the time I was too full of adrenaline and alcohol to let myself be too bothered by it.

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns...

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns…

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

When the parade came to an end but the sun was still up, the partying moved to the streets. Someone from somewhere had some kind of speaker system – I had lost my attention to detail at this point, okay? – and a huge bunch of people were all just dancing and raving in the streets. Some of them were my newly made friends from earlier in the day on Frans’ boat, while others were people who I was only meeting for the first time. It was all a little crazy. There was a car that tried to drive through the street we were on. It proceeded to get rocked side to side to the beat of the music on its way through, but the driver didn’t even seem to mind that much. It was just a crazy and fun afternoon where it seemed like every single person in the city was getting into the spirit and celebrating. We stayed there until dusk started to roll around, at which point Joris came and found me to let me know they were heading home. We still had another party to attend later that evening, and after the day we’d had I definitely needed a power nap.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

***

“We’ll just have a quick lie down, to recharge and get some more energy,” Joris had said. Famous last words, if ever I’d heard them. Fast forward, and Joris was knocking on the door of the spare room André and I were sharing. I had laid down on my air mattress for what I thought was going to be a few seconds, but Joris was taking us up more than a few hours later.
“Looks like we were all a little more tired than we thought,” he’d said as we stirred from our slumber. “It’s almost midnight.”
“What?!” We’d had plans to head to the party at 10 o’clock, but that obviously wasn’t happening any more.
“Yeah,” Joris said. “We’ve ordered a couple of pizzas that should be here any minute, so we’ll down them and get going.” No rest for the wicked, I suppose.

Ideally I would have liked to shower before heading out to a big pride party – especially after swimming in the Amsterdam canals – but due to our extended naps we just didn’t have the time. However, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too much of an issue at the party we were going to. When I had been e-mailing Joris prior to my arrival in Amsterdam, he’d told André and I that the Lowlanders could get discounted tickets to the Bear Necessity party that was being held over the pride weekend. It’s wasn’t exactly my scene (for anyone not familiar with homosexual jargon, Google “gay bears” at your own risk/discretion – and use Safe Search), but I’m always open to trying new things, and the ticket was a considerably good price, so I agreed to join Joris and Thijs at the party, and so did André. We ate our pizzas and were off on our way again.

I was completely expecting to be the odd one out at a bear party – full of larger, older and hairier men – and I wasn’t wrong. André and I were in the minority of the smooth and hairless, but other than that it wasn’t too different from your standard gay party. The music was a little more electronic and house and a little less pop for my liking, but then it reminded me more of the trance-like beats I’d heard at places like Berghain, and I actually found that that was something I was getting more and more into. Some of the men were dressed up in their best leather outfits, and it was actually kind of interesting to see the kind of stuff that I had sold for so long at my previous job actually being put to use. Despite the kinky outfits some of them donned, most of them were incredibly nice, and I had a great time dancing with Joris and Thijs and the rest of them. One of the highlights was meeting last years Mr Bear Germany – I had no idea who he was, but I figured it would be something cool to tell my former colleagues about, so I stopped and made sure I got a photo. André left relatively early, somewhere between two and three in the morning, but Joris and Thijs and I stayed until the party wrapped up some time after five.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

As we stumbled outside, the sun was already on it’s way up. On top of being drunk, I was incredibly tired – at this stage, standing up was proving to be a challenge, let alone keeping my eyes open or riding my bike home. In the end Joris asked one of his friends who lived nearby if he could help us out. He hadn’t ridden a bike, so he took the handlebars of mine while I took the passenger seat – a flat wire grid on the back of the bike, to which one could strap a basket or some other cargo. I sat sidesaddle and wrapped my arms around their friends waist for support, and the four of us on the three bikes set out from the Red Light District and into the quieter streets of Amsterdam. It was so still and peaceful. I don’t remember my bike riders name, but I do remember leaning my head on his back, and just watching the dawn unfold around the beautiful city, so still and undisturbed. It was rather magical, the best antidote to the day and night of crazy partying, and the perfect end to Amsterdam pride.

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From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

As much as I had wished Lola’s prediction was true, there eventually came a time, again, when I had to leave Berlin. However, this time the departure would end on a much lighter and livelier note, despite having to get up before 6am. Last time Ralf had seen me off at the U-Bahn station on his way to work, and I’d waved goodbye as I descended down the steps onto the platform. This time, Ralf would be coming with me to Amsterdam. Throughout most of my travels around Europe, I had always been planning to finish up in Amsterdam on the coming weekend because – you guessed it – that’s when they were celebrating pride. I had already planned ahead with my Couchsurfing hosts a couple of months in advance, but as it happened Ralf was also travelling over to the Netherlands to visit a friend, and join in with the pride festivities. While we both had our own plans for while we were in Amsterdam, Ralf had suggested that we catch the train there together, to provide each other with some company on the 8 hour journey. With the exception of Itzel on my way to Prague, most of my train trips had been moments of solitude, so I gratefully accepted the change of pace.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

During the journey Ralf told me a little bit about Amsterdam and their pride celebrations. When I was in Groningen, Gemma had also told me a little about what she had heard of Amsterdam pride, so unlike my experiences in Madrid and Paris – which had been completely unexpected – pride in Amsterdam was something that had been highly anticipated for quite some time now. Towards the end of the journey, I saw rows of rainbow flags strung up across the city, waving gently in the wind, and suddenly my heart swelled with excitement. Pride or not, Amsterdam was one of those cities with a worldwide reputation for a lot of different things, and I was excited to get amongst it and experience it all for myself. When we disembarked and stepped out into the bright sunshine – something that was apparently quite uncommon in this city – it was time for Ralf and I to part ways. He was going to meet his friend, and I would be meeting Michael – an Australian friend of mine who was also travelling in Europe – and crashing with him in his hotel for the night. We bid each other a quick farewell, assuming we would probably run into each other at some point in the weekend.

***

Michael had had a big night of partying the previous night, so we ended up just having dinner out and hanging out at the hotel, catching up and relaxing. He was catching a train to Berlin the following day, and I was more than happy to take it easy in anticipation for the coming weekend. As much as I love meeting foreigners and new local people, it’s always nice to sit down and have a chat with a familiar Australian and not having to worry about running to cultural barriers of any kind. It was a fleeting encounter though, and the next morning we parted ways – him to the train station and myself onto the next friend I was catching up with. Asja was was the ex-girlfriend of my best friend Gemma’s older brother Brendon, who I’d met up with in Thailand. The connection really isn’t as complicated as it sounds when you try to say it out loud, and I had met Asja a few years ago when she was living in Australia. Originally from Germany, she was now living and studying in Amsterdam, so at Gemma’s suggestion I had gotten in touch with her and arranged to meet up. After arriving via foot at her small flat – located above the shop she was working in – I was dripping with sweat, so I was delighted to learn that she was planning on taking me to the beach.

“It’s such a beautiful day! You don’t get many sunny days like this in Amsterdam, so you have to make the most of it!” We were going to be joined by a couple of Turkish guys Asja had made friends with earlier in the week, and so I left my luggage in Asja’s room and we set off to the train station. The city limits of Amsterdam itself are so small that the beach Zandvoort aan Zee, Asja had explained, is technically outside of Amsterdamn, but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. However, as Asja had said before, you need to make the most of days like today, and so the train was absolutely packed with beach goers. We squeezed like in like sardines for the relatively short train ride, but it wasn’t that much better when we finally arrived at the beach. The shoreline stretched on in both directions for what seemed like miles, and every inch of it was covered in people. We made our way down to the sand and eventually found a space to claim as our own. We laid out on our towels and began to soak up some sun.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

“This sunshine is so amazing! It almost feels like I’m back in Australia,” Asja said with a grin.
“Well, I guess I just brought the weather with me,” I responded. “But at least this sunshine isn’t going to kill you.” I had been using sunscreen here and there, but I was amazed at how impossible it seemed to be to get sunburnt around most of Europe. No wonder so many Europeans came to Australia and got burnt to a crisp – the strength of the UV in our sunlight really just seems to be in a whole new ballpark. A few more of Asja’s Dutch friends joined us for a little while on the beach – I briefly met so many people during such a short period of time that I had no hope of keeping track of all their names – but I chatted to a few of them between dips into the cool water. It was lovely and refreshing, but if someone had told me the first thing I would do on my first full day in Amsterdam was go to the beach, I’m not quite sure I would have believed them. Yet it was a much needed escape from the heat wave that was currently moving across Europe, and it was great seeing Asja and catching up with her. Eventually we packed ourselves up and headed back to Amsterdam – Asja had plans to meet another friend, and it was time for me to go and meet my Couchsurfing hosts.

***

Asja’s place was relatively near to the centre of town, and just a short tram ride later I had arrived at my new hosts place. Asja had been right in saying that Amsterdam was a relatively small city – in comparison to sprawling cities like Sydney, nothing was actually that far from anything else. When I arrived I was greeted by Joris, who loomed over me in height – the Dutch are typically one of the tallest races in the world – and had a short buzzed haircut and a warm, friendly face. His two beautiful Russian Blue cats, named Stoli and Bolli, also made a point of introducing themselves as they came up to inspect the new visitor.
“So my boyfriend Thijs is away on a work trip, but he’ll be back tomorrow morning. We’ve actually got another Couchsurfer staying with us this weekend too, and I’m pretty sure I just accidentally gave him the wrong directions,” Joris said with a sheepish grin. “So we may have to go pick him up from another tram stop.” So I’d barely been in the house 10 minutes before we were off to pick up André, who was originally Portuguese but now lived in Copenhagen. When we arrived back at Joris’ place he offered us a beer each, so we cracked them open and had a brief chat as we got to know each other. But it wasn’t too long before it was time to move again.

“So, I have to go and help run this rugby workshop.” Joris was a member of the Amsterdam Lowlanders, the city’s gay rugby team. As part of the pride celebrations, the team was organising a workshop for anyone who was interested in getting involved, or even just learning a thing or two about the game. André was meeting up with another friend of his that evening, but I had no other plans, so despite having somewhat of an intense fear of team sports, I decided to go along with Joris and check it out. But instead of driving, we would be getting into the local culture and riding our bikes there. Joris was planning on borrowing a couple of bikes from a friend for André and I for the weekend, but for now I would be borrowing Thijs’ bike. I found it remarkable just how popular cycling was in the city, and in the Netherlands in general.
“Why, don’t people ride bikes in Sydney?” Joris had asked me when I’d seemed rather incredulous.
“Well, they do… But you have to be, like, really serious about it. It’s mainly an exercise thing. You need to be motivated, since most drivers just hate cyclists.”
I think that surprised Joris a little. “It’s nothing like that here. Everyone rides bikes. It’s just an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. Nothing too extreme about it.” Indeed, it would appear that bikes too precedence over cars in most of the city. Amsterdam was similar to Copenhagen in that it seemed as though bikes really did have right of way in almost any circumstance. They had their own lanes and their own traffic lights, and if there wasn’t a cyclist whizzing by you at any given moment, you could be sure there would be at least half a dozen locked up no more than a few metres away from wherever you were standing. I think I remember Gemma telling me that there were actually more bikes than people in the Netherlands, a statistic that was extremely believable when seeing cities like Amsterdam.

Still, the cycling culture was a little intense to the point of being terrifying, as I’m not the strongest cycler. I did my best to stay as close behind Joris as possible so that I didn’t get cut off or intercepted, and have to manage the intersections on my own. It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the park, where a fairly large crowd had assembled for the rugby workshop. I was an obvious beginner, but after getting over the initial nerves I found that for the most part I could adequately pass and catch the ball – well, maybe not according to the more experienced players, but I don’t think they minded too much since it was a workshop for beginners. After the passing practice came something even more terrifying – learning how to tackle. Team sports? I can deal with that. But contact sports? Terrified. Absolutely terrified. I’d done a couple of crazy things that should probably have killed me over the last few months, but this one was still by far the scariest for me.

Or at least, it was at first. But as the experienced players explained it to us, it became a lot more simple to understand. In fact, the whole logical behind tackling, and being tackled, was to not be afraid of falling. If you’re going down, be aware of how you’re falling and just go down. It’s when you try to resist it or when you’re afraid of falling that your body reacts in a host of weird and potentially painful ways when you inevitably do eat the dirt. I have to admit that by the end of it I was actually quite enjoying myself, getting down and dirty with a bunch of sweaty guys – hey, maybe Amsterdam wasn’t quite so different to the initial expectations? At the very least, I was able to prove to myself that I wasn’t completely devoid of any masculinity in a traditional sense, or that I wasn’t a complete gay stereotype. I was also once again I was reminded, like I had been with Robin in Zürich, that I really needed to get some more hobbies when I got home. After all, I did know I few team members of the Sydney Convicts… well, we’ll see how I go.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

After the rugby workshop, we got back on our bikes and headed back home to get cleaned up. It was the Friday night of Amsterdam Pride weekend, and the adrenaline I’d been pumping during all that rugby had made me more keen than ever to get out and experience the city’s nightlife.

“Home is where your phone recognises the wifi”

After the weekend of depravity and sin, it was mostly back to the working week for Ralf, which gave me some time to sort out my next move in the bigger scheme of things on this world tour. While I was flying by the seat of the pants for the majority of the trip, there were times when I really had to sit down and look at a map and figure out at least the general direction of where I would be heading next. My romp through mainland Europe was almost at an end, so I had to start thinking beyond trains and onto planes and international airports. However, there was sufficient time to just hang out with Ralf, and some of the other friends I had made in Berlin.

***

One afternoon, Ralf took me to a park near his house that had a lookout with a view over the north-eastern side of Berlin. He pointed out certain structures and gave me interesting, little historical facts about the area. Afterwards we took a walk through some of the greenery, stopped for ice cream, and I just enjoyed not being on such a tight schedule of trains and sightseeing and searching for Couchsurfing hosts.

A sculpture at the lookout in  Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf's place.

A sculpture at the lookout in Volkspark Humboldthain, the park near Ralf’s place.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

Berlin's TV Tower from a new angle.

Berlin’s TV Tower from a new angle.

Another afternoon I went on a trek down south in the city to visit Tempelhof Airport, not because I had a plane to catch, but because the airport had ceased operation in 2008 and been converted into a huge parklands area. Rivalling the Tiergarten in size, the park was full of people enjoying the afternoon sun – riding their bicycles, walking their dogs, playing sports and having picnics. I swear I saw a couple of shady looking guys hanging out in the trees, beckoning me over in what I can only assume was an attempt to sell me drugs, but they spoke in German so I just shook my head and kept on walking.

The transformed Tempelhof Airport.

The park surrounding the transformed Tempelhof airport – the old airport itself is much more flat. 

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

After that I met up with Micha for a drink. The last time I had seen Micha was on his birthday, during my last weekend in Berlin, and I had been slumped over the bar at Rauschgold, struggling to stay awake. He’d said to drop him a line if I was ever back in Berlin, though like Ralf, I don’t think he was expecting me to be back quite so soon. Yet we did catch up for a drink, and I told him more about my travels throughout Europe, and it was a strange but nice feeling to actually have familiar faces to catch up with in a familiar city. Micha had work to do though, so it was only a quick afternoon drink before he had to head off again. Though on my way back to the U-Bahn station, who should I run into but Donatella and Eva, on their way out to get some dinner. I guess it wasn’t too much of a surprise, considering that we were only a ten minute walk away from the apartment where I had been staying during my first time in Berlin, but randomly running into people you know on the street was definitely an experience that I had not had in a long time – the closest thing would have been bumping to Xavier at his work during Parisian Pride, and that wasn’t exactly a good thing. I had told Donatella I would be back in town, but I’d spent a lot of time on the other side of the city in Ralf’s neighbourhood, so hadn’t gotten around to catching up with her again. We stopped and chatted for a little bit before saying farewells and parting ways, knowing that it would most certainly be a much longer time before I was ever back in this crazy city. But I skipped off down the street with a little spring in my step and a grin on my face. I felt like a bit of a local, or at least like I had left my mark in the city, by the fact that there were even familiar faces I could bump into on the street.

***

When I’d arrived at Ralf’s for this second visit to Berlin, I’d collapsed on the couch and tried to sort out my personal belongings a little bit, without taking over his living room entirely. When I pulled out my iPhone I almost went to ask for the wifi password, but then I remembered that I had been here before, and the bars of signal had already appeared at the top of the screen.
“I have this friend”, Ralf said to me when he noticed, “who has this favourite saying: home is where your phone recognises the wifi.” He smiled as he helped me unpack my things and sort out my dirty laundry. “So welcome home, or at least, home for now.” It was nice to have a familiar place to crash, and it did feel a little like home away from home. But it wasn’t just Ralf’s apartment – it was Berlin itself.

I remember talking about it with my sister via Skype, who had just relocated to Hawaii a month or so beforehand.
“I know what you mean,” she said when I told her of the unexplainable connection I felt with the place. “I never thought I would ever want to live in another city, let alone another county! But the first time I came here I just loved it – I hated having to leave, and I knew I had to come back.” I had been to quite a number of cities on my travels so far, but there was something that had drawn me back here, and I knew exactly what my sister was talking about.
“I just really feel like I could live here, you know? Like if someone told me ‘Your trip ends here, you have to stay’, I would be completely okay with that.” Of course, there were still so many destinations in my future that I was so excited to see, so that wasn’t entirely true – I’d be pretty upset if I was unable to do all the other things I’d been planning. But in terms of actually spending time in a city, getting amongst it and actually living there – Berlin had already truly won my heart.

Berghain 2.0 – The Lab.Oratory

The city of Berlin in general had left such an impression on me, and I had enjoyed my time there enough to warrant a round trip and pass through a second time, but I would be lying if I said that my arrival on a weekend had been at all left up to chance. The first time around I had arrived on a Friday night and proceeded to have a wild night out with Donatella and Simon, making a bunch of temporary bender friends and stumbling home in the sunlight. This time around I was staying with Ralf, and as a fellow gay man he had a few more ideas of other places in Berlin that I might want to experience. He assumed – correctly, of course – that I would want to return for a final night of dancing at Berghain, but we both agreed that going again on a Sunday evening was probably a better plan of attack. But it was Friday night, so we had to do something. Ralf tossed around a few ideas.

“Well, depending how adventurous you’re feeling, we could go to the Lab,” Ralf said, in a rather nonchalant way that I would later discover to be very misleading. I knew that Berghain was a huge venue that was split up into different, smaller venues in the same building – I had experienced both Berghain proper and Panorama Bar during my last visit – but Lab.Oratory, or simply “the Lab”, was another one of the minor off-sets. I have to admit, my experience with sex clubs was practically non-existent at this time, so I was more than a little intrigued when Ralf was explaining the Lab. “It’s more of a bar for hanging out and cruising rather than dancing,” he continued. “Saturday nights are speciality nights, but on Fridays its pretty open and general.” Speciality, it was explained, referred to the variety of wonderful and kinky fetishes that the Lab catered for. “You don’t want to end up there on the wrong night, or you can be in for a bit of a nasty surprise,” Ralf said with a giggle. As someone who used to work in a fetish store in Sydney, some of the more eccentric themes Ralf listed even made me squirm. “But if you wanted to see it, we could go tonight? It should be pretty… well, not vanilla. But less… extreme.”

As adventurous as I would consider myself, I decided that I did have some limits, and so I agreed to check out the Lab that night. When we were getting ready to go, I felt like I was missing something, and it wasn’t until we set foot out the door at around 10:30pm that I realised I was completely sober. Back home my friends and I would almost never head out to any kind of club or bar without first consuming at least a few alcoholic beverages, and even in a lot of the other cities during my route around Europe I had bought a couple of beers to polish off before heading out, which was to ease away some of the social anxiety of entering a new place by myself as much as it was to save a bit of money by not buying so many drinks in the club. But as a non-drinker, I guess it wasn’t even a blip of Ralf’s radar when he was preparing to go out, and I wasn’t enough of an alcoholic to demand a beverage before we left. It was just a subtle reminder by omission of the kind of crazy partying life I used to have, and how it was possible to divert from that every once in a while. Having said that, though, we were going to one of the most notorious nightclubs in the world. I guess I’d just finally learnt you don’t have to get wasted to have a good time.

When we did get to Berghain, Ralf led me away from the main door, where a substantial line was beginning to form, and around the corner to another entrance. There was already quite a line for that door too, but he assured me were in the right place. The same could not be said for the rest of the people in the line, however. There were the usual suspects – pairs or small groups of men, a variety of body shapes and sizes, even a range of ages, but all looking very stern and solemn as they waited around. Some were dressed up with a suggestion of leather fetish, others were dressed rather plainly. “Dress like you’re not trying to impress. At all.” Ralf had given me advice when I’d been unsure of what to wear myself. “You’re more likely to get in looking like a homeless person than you are an attractive or pretty model.” So it was obvious who wasn’t going to get in the Lab – although I can safely say most of the people who weren’t going to get in were probably in the wrong line anyway. Guys dressed up in fancy collared shirts, or groups of people that had girls with them (Lab.Oratory, for obvious reasons, is restricted to males) were turned away at the door, but most of them looked slightly embarrassed or confused as they passed back down the line, rather than the disappointment or even devastation often exhibited by people who had been turned away by the infamous bouncers of Berghain.

I was a little nervous as we approached the front of the line, but having Ralf there to guide me was definitely a reassurance. He did all the talking, in German, and we paid and walked through the dark club entry. Upon entering we were each given a large plastic garbage bag to put our things in. Some people just stripped down to their underwear of jockstraps, other got completely naked, while some people kept their kinky outfits and just deposited their valuables. I followed Ralf’s suit and put my phone, wallet and keys in the bag before handing it back over the counter. They wrote a number on my bag and then, using a big black permanent marker, wrote that same number across my bicep. When we ventured further into the depths of the club to the bar, all you had to do when ordering was point to your number, and they bar would keep a tab for you that you would fix up when you were leaving.

It was definitely a handy system, because the Lab isn’t the kind of place you’d want to be carrying valuables around in. It’s dark and gloomy, the lights angled in such a way that they created more shadow than visible light. It was grungy and dirty, and the main crowd of people was an even mix of silent solo cruisers, pairs or groups of guys engaging in conversation, or pairs – or groups – of guys having sex. Ralf had been right in his basic description – it was essentially like Berghain, just with no women, less dancing, and a lot more blatant, hardcore sex. For the most part Ralf and I were rather well-behaved, with him giving me the grand tour of all the different sections of the club. There were private discreet corners, there were more open areas to accommodate larger groups, and there was even elevated levels that would appear to be stages, where other patrons could play spectator to whatever happened to be going on. I watched on for a few minutes – half horrified, half intrigued – as the hopefully self-explanatory act of double fisting happened right before my very eyes. Even all the work in a fetish store and the theoretical knowledge that came with it couldn’t have properly prepared me to witness some of the things I saw in the flesh.

Other highlights were the shower rooms which hosted a whole range of water sports – no, I’m not talking about water skiing – and metallic structures with grid floors, so you could either stand up the top and urinate through the drain, or you could stand at the bottom and… well, you get the idea. Given my work experience I found it all incredibly fascinating just to watch, but my participation was extremely minimal. Ralf and I left to head home at some point in the early morning, still rather clean in the physical sense, although some of the things I saw will never be unseen.

***

Berlin, and quite a lot of Europe actually, was experiencing a heat wave that weekend. For an Australian, low thirties in Celsius is hardly a heat wave, but German buildings aren’t really designed to have to cope with such temperatures. As a result, Ralf’s top storey apartment became something of a furnace, so we threw open all the windows and sat around in our underwear trying to keep cool for most of the weekend. But come Sunday evening, we donned our shabbiest outfits and headed back out to east Berlin so I could experience Berghain one final time.

It was quite a different experience to actually go there with someone else. Ralf told me that last time he had been to Berghain – the time he had met me – he had arrived with a small group of people and proceeded to lose them in the crowds as the night progressed. I asked him, trying my best not to sound too needy, if he would please not lose me tonight, since I had no idea how to get back to his apartment from here after the U- and S-Bahn’s stopped running. He just smiled at me, pulled off the plain white shirt he was wearing, and stuffed it behind one of the lounges in the more chilled out rooms next to the dance floor, seemingly oblivious to the threesome of blowjobs that was happening on said couch. “As long as the shirts still here, then so am I.” I could find a million and one flaws in that logic, but his cheeky grin and carefree attitude reminded me that this was hardly the place to be pedantic about such things. Regardless, we still spent most of the night together, dancing under the intense speakers, getting up close and sweaty with the other ravers, and losing ourselves to the beat.

“I think so much when I’m out there on the dance floor,” I remember explaining to Ralf on the bus ride home. “Like, when you’re drunk I guess you just forget a lot of things, and your mind goes to jelly and you don’t think of much at all. It’s all pretty basic and primal. But when I’m with you… well, I was relatively sober. It’s almost like meditation – the beat just blasts through my body and sends me into this kinda trance. Except my mind is going at a million miles an hour and I can’t stop thinking.” Visiting Berghain has been described by many as an almost religious experience, and while I didn’t have quite that kind of connection, it was definitely a surreal place for me. It kicked my mind into overdrive and forced me into having several minor epiphanies.

We weren’t there for quite as long as I was last time, but my second time at Berghain was just as ridiculous, getting lost within the cavernous rooms, passing people on the dance floor who were completely naked, and seeing orgies take place next to a group of people having a casual chat over some drinks. And those are some fond and freaky memories that I’m sure I will treasure for life.

Where Art Meets History: East Side Gallery

The train from Prague to Berlin was probably one of the worst trips in the whole of my travels through Europe. It sat idly at the station for over half an hour before it finally departed from Prague, and suffered major delays along the way. Parts of the air conditioning weren’t working, and the cabins inside the train were reaching ridiculous temperatures, with everyone on the train dripping in sweat before we were even halfway there. When the train attendants came down the aisle at one point handing out bottles of water to everyone, I knew that the problems were actually pretty serious, and I had no hope of getting to Berlin at my previously anticipated time. But as it is with such unavoidable nuisances, all I could do was sit there in the stinking hot train with a bunch of other travellers around me. Everyone was was so hot and bothered and looking rather fed up with the whole thing that I wasn’t even going to bother trying to strike up a conversation to pass the time. I listened to my music, read my book, and closed my eyes, dozing off and dreaming of my current destination.

The last time I was in Berlin I had stayed with my family friend Donatella and her assortment of wild and zany housemates – Lola’s words about never leaving the city were still nagging at the back of my mind as I found myself drawn back to it. But after meeting and staying with him for the last two nights of my previous stay, Ralf had said that I was welcome back to stay with him any time I was in Berlin. I don’t think he had anticipated my return being quite so soon, but he agreed to let me stay with him when I told him I would be coming back on my way west to Amsterdam. I’d really enjoyed the brief time I had spent with him last time, so I was pretty excited to seem him again. Of course, the train was running late, so some of the logistics in actually finding each other were a little difficult. Yet when I stepped off the train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof there was a slightly different feeling that I hadn’t felt in quiet some time, and that was the feeling of returning to a familiar city. Not since arriving back in Bangkok after the bus ride from Hell had I arrived in a city where I was able to say: Yes, I recognise this place. I know where I am and I know where I have to go. As much as I love the excitement that comes with discovering a brand new place and city, that kind of familiarity with a place is strangely comforting. When I finally met Ralf – and had changed out of my soiled travel clothes, showered and freshened up – we had dinner, and I told him all about the adventures I’d had throughout Europe since I had last seen him. He listened and smiled as I told him my stories, and I was glad I had come back to Berlin – that adorable smile was the cherry on top of all the things that I already loved so much about the city that had drawn me back here.

***

Ralf had to work during most of the week, so I had to find other things to do to amuse myself. I spent a lot of time just resting and hanging out, happy to have a place to myself while Ralf was out, but one of the major things to do in Berlin that I hadn’t gotten around to doing last time I was here was see the East Side Gallery, which is actually the painted and decorated remains of the Berlin Wall. I had only briefly seen it in the dark with Dane on our first attempt to get into Berghain, and I wanted to go back and really take it in. I have to say, I had seen to some pretty amazing art museums on my travels – famous notables include the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Louvre, and the Vatican Museum – but I have to say that out of all of them it was the East Side Gallery that captivated me the most. The artworks are such a diverse collection, from detailed masterpieces to simple murals that could have been done by children to sections that looked more like elaborate graffiti more than anything else. In fact, despite it obviously not being allowed, many sections of the wall had been vandalised, but in a way I feel like it was almost some kind of artistic extension. The wall is part of a long history for Berlin and Germany, but the periodic graffiti that marks it almost gives the face of the wall itself a traceable history, a reflection of ideas presented in both an official and unofficial capacity.

Whether it was the graffiti or the actual murals, the thing I loved about the East Side Gallery is that there is such a strong and powerful meaning behind each and every word and image. With the wall itself long being a symbol of division and oppression, that’s hardly surprising, but I often found my slow stroll coming to a gradual halt just so I could stand there and look both ways, up and down the wall, and just take it all in. I have no idea what it would have been like here during war time – I couldn’t even begin to imagine – but for me these paintings scratched the surface of the emotions and impacts of the wall that inspired them. It was art and history seamlessly combined into one, and it gave me shivers to behold, something I can’t say for any of the other artworks I’d come across.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

I got excited because I'd been to all of these places - well, almost everywhere.

I got excited because I’d been to all of these places – well, almost everywhere.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

Doves carrying the Brandenburg Gate, an iconic symbol of Berlin.

An image that doesn't need much explaining.

An image that doesn’t need much explaining.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

I loved this painting. So simple yet so powerful and suggestive.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

Even exchanges between graffiti like this I found fascinating, the ever changing face of the wall and the continuing history or perspectives.

That’s not to say that all those artworks in the previous galleries didn’t have any meaning – there was plenty of beautiful and moving pieces in all of them. But there’s just something kind of sterile about the museum environment, where things are locked away behind glass cabinets, or sectioned off with velvet ropes. There’s a division between the viewer and the art, and it’s kept pristine and preserved in its slice of history. The East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall had none of that – it was real, it was there in front of you. You could feel it with your hands, and it had moved forward and changed, developing its own history, for better or for worse. It’s not your conventional art gallery, but then I suppose I don’t really like conventional art galleries all that much. There were plenty of other ones I could have visited while I was in Berlin, but I had found such a sense of fulfilment after seeing the East Side Gallery that I really didn’t see the need.

***

It felt great to be back in Berlin, but there’s a danger in getting too familiar and thinking that you really know the city when you still have so much to learn. Previously in Berlin, I had only bought tickets for the U-Bahn about 50% of the time, rationalising it with the fact that you don’t need them to actually enter the trains or platforms, and I had never seen anyone ever checking for them. I had bought them the couple of times I’d travelled places with Ralf, because I wouldn’t be able to play ‘dumb tourist’ if I was hanging out with a local. But for the times I was out on my own, I took a chance and skipped the ticket machine on my way into the subway.

Never really expecting to have it happen, you can imagine my surprise when someone did come around inspecting tickets – of course, on my journey back from the East Side Gallery when I was not in possession of a ticket. I fumbled wildly through my backpack, triple checking my wallet for a ticket that I knew wasn’t there, trying to convince the plain clothed inspector that I had bought one, and I must have lost it somehow. He wasn’t buying any of it. “For not having a valid ticket you will have to purchase an increased fare ticket,” he explained to me, which essentially is a glossed over way of saying you’re going to get a fine. “It’s going to be €40. You can pay for it now, or you have two weeks to pay for it at one of our offices.” I stopped and thought for a second.
“I’ll pay for it later, thanks.” I was only going to be in Berlin for another 4 days, so I figured if I skipped town there was little they could do about it. The guy had already taken my Australian drivers licence to record my name and address, and he told me it would be in the system for two years. He gave me a pice of paper with the payment details and was on his way again. I hadn’t given them my passport, which I feared might have caused migration problems, but he did have my address in Australia. “I’m not going to pay it though. There’s no need, right?” I had said in a discussion with Ralf. “It’s not like they’re going to send me a fine to the other side of the world.”

Fast forward a few months to me sitting on the couch, finally in the United States, with my new friend Mike in Washington, DC. As we were drinking red wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix, my phone vibrated. It was an email from my mother with the subject line: “The Germans are after you!”
Yo Bob, got a bunch of what appear to be angry German letters from your letterbox today. Something about not having a ticket. Care to explain?
Well I’ll be damned – I certainly got a schooling in German efficiency. They sold the debt on to debt collectors who had also sent me letters. I have to admire their tenacity, as I had never really expected them to send a single letter, let alone a few. In hindsight, it was a reckless disregard for another countries rules and I do feel a little bad about the whole thing now – though not bad enough to pay the fine, which to this day I still haven’t done. But I did learn a lesson from the whole ordeal – from that day on, no matter what country I was in, I made sure I always bought tickets for the public transport. 

Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.

Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

I’m not going to lie – of all the major touristic attractions that I had known about, heard about and made plans to visit, the thought of going to Prague Castle made me unexplainably excited. I’d heard so many things about Prague being such a beautiful city, and the thought of a castle on a hill that overlooked the city inspired foolish, romantic notions of fairytale settings and wonder and magic. Of course, realistically I know it was just going to be a castle, but I let part of myself get swept up by the fantasy daydream.

***

The following morning both Tomas and Matej had to leave for work, so they left me to my own devices to explore the city, with nothing but a key so I could come and go as I please. And a fair bit of advice, of course, as to which buses to catch to get where, and what things I might like to see. “If it’s your first time in Prague, I assume you want to go to the castle,” Tomas had said as he’d told me all this before he’d headed out the door. He’d been right. So I set out on the bright and sunny morning to catch a tram that would take me across the river and up the hill to the castle. As we got closer, it became harder to see the castle, as we drove through areas of greenery and it became a lot harder to look up from inside the tram windows. The line map on the top of the tram car had a little picture of a castle next to the stop that you were supposed to get off at to visit it, but… it was sort of in between two stops. I wasn’t sure which one to pick. My Lonely Planet guide was no help. There were no obvious English speakers that I could ask, and no one seemed friendly enough to approach. Oh well – in the end I just followed a bunch of other tourists who seemed to be on some kind of tour.

When I got off the tram, my surroundings were slightly off-putting. It was like a ghost town – other than the group that had gotten off with me and were wandering slowly away, there was not a soul in sight. But I was left standing in the hot and heavy sun, in a cobblestone area that looked like a set from a Shrek movie (except it was obviously real, not an animation), making me feel like I was in a deserted theme park more than anything. Was I already inside the castle complex? Was this just some random town, or village? I was so confused, but in the distance down one main road, I could see the spires of the castle emerging above the closer rooftops. I set my course towards them, and made it just in time to see the final procession of the changing of the guards, not unlike the display I had seen in the Old Town of Stockholm in Sweden. As they marched off down in the direction I had came from, I turned to the main gate of the castle grounds. It was topped with intricate golden metal framework and statues of men that appeared to be in various stages of combat. The picture was, of course, completed by the tourists doing typical tourist things such as taking photos with the stern, solemn looking guards at their posts at the castle grounds entry. I chuckled and took a few photos of the gate itself before wandering into the grounds.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

As I began wandering through the courtyards, I realised that the castle itself was not one huge ancient building, the the greater limits of an area that included a few large churches and palaces. I wandered through the first courtyards looking for my way into these said palaces – I could see the spires pointing up into the sky above the buildings immediately in front of me, but it was like a maze to get through everything.

The spires of the chruch taunting me - just out of sight... sort of.

The spires of the chruch taunting me – just out of sight… sort of.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

When I finally made it to the churches, there were some guide ropes set up, as though there was some kind of line to get inside, but there was no one lining up so I simply walked on through and into the building. I had just entered into the halls of the St Vitus Cathedral, and was gazing upon the St Wenceslas Chapel. The echoing chamber was full of people, but the chapel itself was beautifully lit up by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. However, while it was gorgeous, it was just another church, so I headed back outside after taking a quick look around.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

I doubled back the way I came until I came to a ticket office – wait, tickets? Yep, while wandering the castles courtyards and gardens were free, apparently you needed tickets to enter into each of the main attractions… including the St Vitus Cathedral. I wasn’t about to pay to visit it again, and they had weird ticket packages and bundles that had different validity dates for certain things, and it all just seemed too confusing. I had managed to sneak into the first church undetected, so I figured I would move ahead and see if there was any way around the entry fee to see some of the others. I never ended up even finding the Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, but I did come across the Basilica of St George. However, it was a much smaller building than the first cathedral, with one entrance where someone was collecting tickets. I pressed ahead, figuring I could return later with a ticket if I so desired.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

There were a lot of beautiful courtyards and minor buildings throughout the castle grounds, and when I reached the edge wall there was a view that stretched into the horizon, the view from the castle of the old kingdom below. However, in the end I found the whole of Prague Castle to be an underwhelming disappointment. Yes, it holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, and it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Yes, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are there, but they’re kept in a secret, hidden room, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of them. In the end it was just another set of churches to look inside, and unlike most of the churches I’d seen in my travels, like the ones in Cologne, Rome and Zürich, you had to pay to get inside all of these. After swearing that I had seen enough churches to last me this journey, it was a little more than I was prepared to do. So I followed the stepped walkway that led to Prague Castles exit, and crossed the Vltava River and headed back to Old Town Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Truth be told, even though the castle ended up being a bit of a let down for me, I still took immense pleasure in wandering the streets and enjoying the ancient and natural beauty that resonated throughout Prague. The castle was a nice aesthetic touch, visible across the river in the distance, but there was no need to actually visit it to get that fairytale feeling.

***

The next day was something a little bit different. Tomas was a landscape architect, and when I arrived on Tuesday he had told me that on Thursday they were going to get a visit from the mayor of Prague. The apartment complex in which they live had had a garden that was ugly and dying, not good for anything, so Tomas had taken it upon himself to put in hours and hours of hard work to restore the garden, complete with spaces for children in the complex to play, for people to plant gardens and vegetables, and a general sitting area for anything from an outdoor feast or picnic to catching up with a neighbour over a cigarette. Somehow, their garden had been entered into a competition, and unsurprisingly, had won. “There’s going to be a TV crew and everything,” Tomas had told me about the mayors visit. “They’re probably going to interview me too.” I could tell he was excited about the whole thing, but a little nervous about being on TV. Matej had been busy preparing food the day before, and that morning there were a bunch of official looking people, camera crews, TV hosts, as well as all the neighbours out in the garden. I watched on by the table of food, not really understanding any of what was being said, but feeling a little special to catch an inside glimpse into what was probably a special event for a lot of them, but what was for me as authentic an experience as I might get in everyday life in Prague.

Or maybe that’s selling my time in the city short. It was an interesting and non-touristic experience, but I also spent a lot of my time in Prague just hanging out with Matej and Tomas, eating local food at their local favourite places, walking around the beautiful city, or hanging out at night and watching movies, with them introducing me to some strange Czech ones as well as sharing their favourite Hollywood films – Death Becomes Her was a hit all around. I just only just now started to feel fully recovered after my excessive Pride binging in Southern Europe, and I realised it had been roughly two weeks since I had done any kind of crazy partying – extremely uncharacteristic of me – but I was rather enjoying the break, and it had given me the time to fully regain my strength.

I did spend one afternoon with Tomas and his friend Ondra having a stroll through a lush green garden area. I was amazed at the luck I had been having with the weather, and the daylight had been coming long and strong for weeks now. Beer was free flowing in most parts of Prague – you could could get it in plastic cups to go from many places, much like the set up for Pride in Paris, and so the three of us got our big cups of beer and took them outside to enjoy them on the grass. Ondra was a little quirky, but still a nice guy. He only spoke in English half the time, the other half in Czech, which made him a little mysterious to me, but I think Tomas explained it as that his English just wasn’t that good. Or he just didn’t like speaking English, whatever. But the three of us managed to have some funny conversations, with Tomas a relaying translator, having a couple of deep and meaningful discussions as well as laughing at the random and silly things we observed in the park around us. Tomas also took me over to a nearby church at the park. It was open, and free to all, but photography was prohibited. Inside, there was a case that contained some ancient relics, including bones and artefacts that belonged to saints from centuries past. It was a cool little thing to glimpse, and the church was virtually empty – a sign that I had definitely diverted from the tourist path and off the beaten track.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

***

I’d enjoyed my very brief time in Prague, and once again it was a little upsetting to have to leave behind people who I had just met, yet had grown so close to in such a short amount of time. “Don’t worry,” I had assured them as I had packed my stuff up on my final night. “I’m breezing through Europe so quickly this time, it just means that I’ll definitely have to come back one time to do it all probably.” They seemed to like that, although they were such nice guys that I’m sure they’d find plenty of new and fun Couchsurfers to fill my place when I left. But I was glad that once again I had taken the opportunity to Couchsurf and meet some amazing people and see some pretty cool and interesting things.

But for now, my time in Prague was at an end. I headed back to the train station on Friday morning, and when I saw the crowds I felt a moment of panic, having not reserved a ticket in advance. But there was just enough room on the train, luckily. I couldn’t really blame everyone for wanting to go where I was headed, because as I boarded the train I was overwhelmed with anticipation and excitement. I’d tried my best to see as much as I could during my time in Europe, and while you would think that that wouldn’t involve visiting a city for the second time, there was just something about the allure I felt that I hadn’t quite managed to shake: I was heading back to Berlin.