The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

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Drunk and Drunker: Dublin Bars Continued

As I previously mentioned in some of my earlier posts, I always thought the drinking culture in Australia was a little excessive. That never stopped me from taking part in it, but that’s what made me notice it with a little more clarity when I finally left and went to places like Germany and Italy, where I found that I didn’t always need to get blind drunk to go out and have a good time. I remember it felt like somewhat of an epiphany. However, as soon as I arrived in Ireland, it seemed as though the tiny country’s mission was to reverse that notion and re-corrupt me with a level of drinking for which even I was quite unprepared. I’d given up counting the number of pints Matt had brought me that evening, and eventually we stumbled out of the George with me leaning into his side, almost unable to walk by myself. In any other situation, a guy buying someone that many drinks, to that point of intoxication where they were all but helpless, would have been considered a pretty shady or suspicious thing to do, and leaving with that guy is probably the last thing you should be doing. Yet Matt seemed quite genuinely surprised at how the booze had hit me, and in my drunken haze a remember thinking with crystal clarity that maybe I had finally found a country and a people that gave me a run for my money when it came to alcohol tolerance.

I knew my hostel wasn’t too far from where we were, but I had no idea exactly where, and was also aware I was unlikely to make it there by myself. But I’d always had a feeling Matt would take care of me – one way or another – and he insisted that he had a surprise for me. He seemed a bit frustrated, and I wasn’t sure why, but we hopped in a taxi which drove us for a short while – I have no idea in what direction – until Matt got a phone call, after which he asked the taxi to pull over. We got out, seemingly in the middle of no where, but Matt was still all smiles and carefree so I went along with it. We were waiting by a main road that was fairly quiet at that time of night, but there was one car I could see in the distance. As it approached it slowed down just enough for the driver to wind his window down and hurl some homophobic profanities at us. That riled me up, and in my drunken stupor I went to scream something back at him, but Matt caught my arm and calmed me down.
“No, don’t worry, he’s just joking. He’s my mate, the policeman from Panti Bar.” Sure enough, the car was turning around to come back towards us and pulled up beside us.
“What’re you two lads doing out here at this time o’ night?” He said with a mock stern look on his face.
“Ah, we’re just a little lost, officer,” Matt played along. “Would yer mind takin’ us home?” They said hello after that and had a bit of a laugh, and we climbed into the unmarked police car so that Matt’s friend – who’d probably best remain unnamed – could drive us home.

I’d never bothered to ask Matt where exactly he lived, and it wasn’t until we were whizzing through what felt like the countryside that I realised that he definitely didn’t live within central Dublin. I couldn’t say whether or not this was exactly far out, given that Dublin itself seemed like such a small city, but I guess I would find that out eventually. Matt, who was sitting in the front passenger seat, asked his friend if he could flick some of the switches on the dashboard. All of a sudden we were roaring down the road with the sirens blaring and the lights flashing through the night, and I couldn’t help but sit up like an excited child and stick my head out the window like some enthusiastic puppy. Part of me wondered how many boys they’d tried to impress with a stunt like this, but at that moment I didn’t really care. It was definitely a memorable experience for my first night in Dublin, and I wondered what my mother would say if she knew that I’d been escorted home in a police car that evening.

***

The next day was probably one of the laziest days I have ever had in my life. After passing out very heavily in Matt’s bed, we woke up at some point in the middle of the morning. We spent most of the day there, hanging out and messing around, watching videos on YouTube about anything and everything – mainly Matt giving me a comprehensive cultural education about Ireland – and we chatted and I told him all about my year so far and the travels I’d been on, where I’d been and where we were going. With the exception of skipping out to use the bathroom once or twice, I never actually left his bed. At some point close to noon he disappeared for a little while, so I just stayed put and had a nap, and he returned with a full plate of Irish breakfast – toast, eggs, sausages, bacon, tomato, and even black and white puddings. He didn’t tell me what those last ones were, but I’d had a pretty good idea of what they were when I started eating them. He was surprised I wasn’t more grossed out when he told me what their major ingredients, but then I reminded him about the time I ate fried tarantulas in Cambodia. “Fair point,” he had said.

To say that I spent most of the day in bed was actually an understatement. By the time we finally decided it was well and proper time to get up, the sun was already on its way down again – we had literally spent the whole day in bed. Part of me felt extremely guilty, like I had wasted the day, and I supposed I had from the perspective of a set itinerary. But as I so often reminded myself, I didn’t have a set itinerary, which allowed me to do crazy things like spend an entire day eating breakfast in bed with an Irishman who I had just met the night before and not worry about whether or not I was missing out on a day of sightseeing.    I had no idea where the hell I was though, so Matt said he would take me back to my hostel. It had gotten so late in the day that it was almost time to get ready to go out again for Saturday night, so after Matt had gotten ready I ventured out to see the rest of his house for the first time – other than the drunken stumble up the stairs in the dark.

“Just got to say goodbye to the Mammy first,” Matt said, using the typical Irish jargon for ‘mother’. And then I realised – oh my God – he lives with his mother! I suppose I should have realised that earlier given it was obviously a large family home. But still, I had never gone home with a guy who still lived with his family before – I mean, I’d never met the parents of any of my previous boyfriends, let alone a one night stand! I thought I would quietly wait in the hallway while Matt said goodbye – nope, he called me in to introduce me. She was so nice, and seemed completely unbothered by the fact a random Australian had spent the entire day in her sons bedroom, but nevertheless I was mortified, and died a little on the inside throughout the whole exchange. But apparently the mothers of Irish men play a significant role in their lives, and it seemed important to him that I met her before we headed off, so despite being severely embarrassed I sucked it up and paid my dues before we headed back into the city.

***

Honestly, I still can’t tell you where Matt lived, but it was at least a half hour ride on the local bus back into the centre of Dublin. In places like London, or even Sydney, that’s probably considered not too far away, but for Dublin it was like we were literally not even in the city anymore. I’m not even 100% sure we were. I was completely disoriented, but I stuck with Matt and eventually we alighted in the main street of Dublin, a short walk from where my hostel was. I went back to quickly get changed before we hit the town again for more drinks. Now, I have I have to be completely honest here – on my next two nights in Dublin, so much happened and I drank far too much, to the point where they have blurred together and I’m unable to fully distinguish between them. So here is a general overview:

In an attempt to show me more than just the gay scene, Matt took me to one of his favourite local pubs. From the moment we stepped through the doors, I knew that I was in the true definition of an Irish bar. Up in the back corner there was an old bearded man surrounded by a bunch of other patrons, and he was playing a guitar as the crowd chanted through some traditional folk songs. The ceilings were low, the room was narrow, the walls were polished timber and the whole place seemed to glow with warmth.
“Right, I don’t care what you say, but you have to at least try a Guinness,” Matt said as we walked up to the bar. Last night, I’d insisted that the last Irishman to attempt to convert me was unsuccessful, but Matt assured me that whatever Guinness I’d been drinking in Australia wasn’t the same as when it was fresh from the brewery in Dublin. We sat down at a table as I stared at the thick, black monstrosity of a drink.
“I just… I can’t get over the head,” I said, as I poked a finger into the thick foam that covered the stout. It was so thick that there was an imprint, a little dent in the creamy foam from where my finger had been. I proceeded to draw a little smiley face in my Guinness, having a little giggle to myself.
“Ah, yer edgit! Stop playing with your food!” Guinness was such a heavy drink that it was sometimes considered a meal in itself, and even my own father had once told me you could have two Guinness’ instead of dinner. So I tried to drink it, pursing my lips to try and drink through the foam. But I had to tilt the glass so much to even make it to the thick, dark liquid, that all I got was a nose covered in foam and just as much Guinness dripping around my mouth, out down my chin and onto the table, as I had going into my mouth. Matt found that rather hysterical, but to top it all off I didn’t even really like the taste either, so it made the whole ordeal a rather unpleasant and pointless exercise.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Other highlights of the weekend were finding myself in the most crowded midnight kebab shop I have ever seen in my life, meeting another one of Matt’s friends in another more alternative nightclub – down at Temple Bar, the main nightlife strip – that felt more like an old house that had been fitted out with a few bars, giving it a pretty chilled house party vibe, and ending up in the George again, lost in the dark hallways and dank, grungy bar rooms. One particular memory that stands out through the haze is being at the George, completely unaware of where Matt or any of his friends were, and being so drunk that I could hardly keep my eyes open. I sat down on a couch or a seat or something and… well I didn’t fall asleep, but I would definitely have been well on my way to passing out. I closed my eyes, and must have been slumped over or something, because the next thing I knew I was being shaken at the shoulder by someone. I opened my eyes to find a security guard staring back at me.
“You alright, mate?” He stood back as I pulled myself up to sit up straight.
“Yeah, yeah… I’m fine… I’m just… I’m waiting for my friend.” I had no idea if that was even true or not, but I wasn’t capable of saying much else at that point.
“Alright, well, don’t go falling asleep here,” he said to me, and carried on with his patrol of the venue. I was in shock. I was practically passing out in the club, and all I got was a smack on the wrist? Not even that – literally just a shake of the shoulder. I had been tossed out of a number of Sydney venues for much, much less. But as if right on cue, Matt came along to find me sitting there, and decided it was best we be on our way home.

***

The weekend also introduced me to a few extremely Irish cultural customs. The first involved GAA, which is kind of like Irelands answer to AFL in Australia – or for readers of any other nationality…. ah, local football? I don’t know, I’m not great with sports. Matt had a ticket to the final on the Sunday afternoon, so we had to get out of bed a little earlier that day so that he could make it back into the city centre. It was a sold out ticketed event, so I couldn’t go to watch the game, but I did join Matt and another friend of his in a nearby pub afterwards for celebratory drinks, given that the Dublin team had had a victory over the visiting team from Kerry, a county to the far south west of Ireland. If I had thought Matt’s accent was difficult to understand, then the people from Kerry must certainly have been speaking another language. In all honestly, I thought that they were when I first overheard some of them speaking when I went to the bathroom.
“Do they speak a lot of Gaelic in Kerry?” I asked Matt upon my return. He had a good laugh at that.
“No more than anywhere else, really,” he said with a smile. “No, that’s just how they talk down there. It’s okay, even most people from the rest of Ireland have trouble understanding them.” So we sat there as the afternoon post-match crowd grew bigger and bigger, watching the rows of pints of Guinness as they settled on the bar in front of us, and listening to almost comical, undecipherable accents of the GAA enthusiasts.

A round of Guinness' in their various stages of settling.

A round of Guinness’ in their various stages of settling.

But perhaps the most special of my authentic Irish experiences was that of a lock-in. Now, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me in the beginning – and I’ll be frank, I’m still not sure it does now – but from the way Matt talked about it I knew that it definitely meant something in the pub culture. Essentially, when it becomes the time that the bar is legally required to close, a lock-in happens when the owner of the bar allows drinkers to stay on the premises after they have closed up shop – it technically becomes private property from that point, existing as a loophole in licensing laws. I’m not sure of how the monetary exchange works, but technically no drinks can be “sold”. No more newcomers are allowed in, most people don’t leave, and patrons are allowed to smoke inside since we are all ‘locked in’. The bartenders join in the drinking, and it becomes a cozy little evening of tradition that wears on well into the night.
“You’re lucky to see this,” Matt had said to me once the lock-in started. “Definitely something most tourists aren’t allowed to hang about for.” It was quite funny to observe, and an interesting experience, but the pub was mainly occupied by middle-aged or older straight men. Matt, who outwardly appeared as straight as the rest of them, seemed right at home, but it wasn’t exactly my scene, and in the end being locked up in a room where everyone was free to smoke started to get to me a little bit. I can’t be 100% sure, as I was most certainly quite drunk as well, but we said goodbye, passed through the locked in doors and out into the night, in search of our next adventure – which was probably me passing out in the George. It was definitely another unique experience to add to the list though – I hadn’t experienced this much culture shock when I was in London though, and it was crazy to think that just across that narrow sea existed this place that sometimes, for better or worse, felt like a completely different world.

“What’s the craic?”: Drinking in Dublin

So after getting my things up to my dorm room and settling into the hostel, I spruced up and headed out into the chill of the Dublin evening. It was only the tail end of summer, but I don’t think it ever gets particularly warm in Ireland, so for someone used to an Australian climate it felt very much like the middle of autumn, at least. But it was a Friday night, so even though I was still rattled from my lack of sleep and full day of transit, I couldn’t bring myself to just sit around a hostel all night. I was in a completely new city, and I’d grown to love that feeling of heading out into a world where you knew absolutely nobody. It was full of possibility, and new and interesting faces just ready to make your acquaintance. I’d done some research into the local gay venues and there was one not too far from the hostel, so I made it my first destination.

The place was called Panti Bar, and it wasn’t at all like your standard Irish pub. Apparently it was owned by a drag queen named Panti, and the décor was a little bold, quite artistic and slightly alternative, with lots of bright posters along the walls, colourful bar stools, and funky decorations all over the walls. I passed through the big glass doors and into the venue, which was toasty warm in comparison to the chilly wind outside, and took a seat at the bar and ordered a cider. Oh, yeah, and all the bartenders were hunky Brazilian men. Definitely not what I was expecting from my first pub experience in Ireland, but needless to say, I was not complaining. I sat there with my cider at the end of the bar, looking down the slab of polished wood to see who were my companions at this establishment. Overall there was quite a healthy and varied age range, though most of the men sitting along the bar were a little older and greyer, with the younger crowds scatters among some of the other seating around the place, or outside on the balcony.

“Here, let me buy you a drink before one of the old bears starts hitting on you.” Out of no where a man had appeared at my elbow by the bar. He was about 6’2” and probably only a few years old than myself, and he had these beautiful, pale blue eyes and a cheeky yet charming grin on his face. “Go on then, what are yer drinkin’?”
“Ah…” I looked into my glass, still a third full, feeling a little caught off guard. “Just a cider, thanks?”
“A cider? Ah, grand,” he said with a smile, and called over one of the Brazilian bartenders to order us a few drinks. I was a little confused – he seemed very friendly, but he didn’t seem… well, he just didn’t seem very gay. I hadn’t been 100% sure of the location of Panti Bar, and for a moment I had my doubts as to whether or not I’d ended up in the right location – or maybe he was in the wrong location? If it hadn’t been for him calling the older men ‘bears’, then I still might have been unsure, but he knew the lingo, so I just went on the assumption that the guy buying me a drinking in a gay bar was gay too.

I thanked him for the drink, and he stuck around and we got chatting.
“So, what’s the craic?” he said to me, a word that is not pronounced how it’s spelt (it’s pronounced ‘crack’), so I was more than a little confused.
“Um… it’s… I’m… I’m sorry, what?”
He had a good laugh at that before he explained – ‘craic’ was a very typical Irish term that was used to describe… well, just about anything. It can mean news, gossip, fun or entertainment, or just a way of asking how you were, or what was going on. Kind of like the Irish equivalent to asking ‘What’s the 411?’ Once we had established that, we got chatting a little more, and I could eventually confirm that he was, indeed, a homosexual. His name was Matt, and he seemed to know quite a lot of people around the bar that evening, and he threw quick nods and the occasional “How’re yer goin?’” to several people as they passed us by.

“So where are you from?” Matt started to ask me. “I can’t quite pick your accent, but from the moment you walked in I could tell you weren’t from around these parts.”
“So you saw me the moment I walked in?” I playfully teased him. He got a little bashful and his eyes went downcast, but his face never lost that cheeky grin.
“Ahh, well… just sayin’, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen you around before.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have. I only arrived tonight.”
“Oh yeah? Where from?”
“London.” He looked a little taken aback by that.
“But… wait, no – you’re not English, are you?” There was a mild horror in his tone.
“No!” I sighed and rolled my eyes. My already weak accent must have been fading with every day I spent away from home, because I’d lost track of how many times I’d found myself in that tedious guessing game. “I’m Australian!”
“Ahh, Australian! Well, there yer have it. Welcome to Ireland!” Matt held up his glass in a toast.
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. “Cheers.”

***

Matt had asked me what the rest of my plans for the evening were, and I had to awkwardly admit that I didn’t really have any. “Do you know what’s good tonight? I was hoping to check out some of the bars. I think there’s a few on the other side of the river, right?”
“Sure, there’s a few. Do you know which ones?” I just shook my head, having failed to commit the names of any of the other ones to memory. “Ah, c’mon. I’ll take you, show you ‘round.”
“Oh, really?” I wasn’t surprised by his generosity, but I hadn’t meant for my lack of plans to sound like a desperate plead. “You don’t have to do that – aren’t you here with your friends?” I glanced toward the smoking balcony where he had come form, and where a few of his mates were still having a drink and a smoke.
“No, no, don’t worry about them,” he dismissed my concerns. “They’ll be grand. An’ besides, me best mate is on duty later, so he’s not even drinking. He’s one of the Garda.” Matt would later explain to me that that was what the police force of Ireland was called, in Gaelic.

So I set out into the night with Matt, still chatting about this and that and making small talk, although I inevitably had to ask him to repeat every second or third sentence, purely because I had no idea what he was saying. At some point during the previous year I’d even had an Irish boyfriend back at home, but I guess his accent hadn’t been as strong as Matt’s was, although sometimes it sounded like he was speaking another whole language. Then they would use strange slang or phrases that I had never heard of, and it wasn’t simply a matter of slowing down and repeating, but actually asking him to use different words to explain what he meant. It was rather hilarious, but eventually I managed to get a grip on the vernacular and understand the linguistic variations of our common tongue. The weather, however, was something that I wasn’t getting used to.
“Are you shivering?” Matt asked me, probably noticing that I was hugging myself to trying and stay warm.
“No, no I’m okay,” I lied. Then I gave myself away when my teeth started to chatter.
“Jesus! You’re seriously cold?” Matt was only wearing a t-shirt and a puffer vest, but he took the vest off and made me wear it.
“Aren’t you going to get cold, though?” I exclaimed.
“Me? Nonsense! It’s a glorious night!” It was that moment that I learnt that Irish people truly have a warped sense of the weather. I admit, it wasn’t the coldest weather I’d been on during my whole trip, but there was a slight wind that was picking up that evening that cut right through to my bones. Matt seemed completely unaffected by it as he strolled along in just his t-shirt, so I gratefully kept the vest as we continued along, over the River Liffey to our next destination, The Front Lounge.

This place was a a little more upmarket than Panti Bar. I don’t want to say fancier, because Panti Bar was still fancy in its own artistic and alternative chic way, but The Front Lounge was a lot neater and tidier, almost a cocktail bar, with an atmosphere of simple elegance rather than creativity. But then, this is Ireland, so when everyone is drinking like the Irish do there always a slight, inevitable rowdiness as patrons begin to sink their pints. One thing I noticed at The Front Lounge – which had also happened at Panti Bar, though at the time I had been oblivious to it – was that for every draft drink that came out of the bar taps, there was a style of glasses with that beers, ciders or stouts logo on it, and the bartenders would only ever pour that specific brew into that glass. At first I thought it was a little pedantic with a hint of OCD, but in the end I did appreciate the kind of authenticity you felt from drinking your Bulmers out of a specially designated Bulmers glass. At first I thought it was just a fancy trait of The Front Lounge, but Matt assured me that it was a doctrine adhered to everywhere in Ireland like it was written into the law itself.

Matt's pint of Guinness and my pint of Bulmers cider at The Front Lounge, complete with their appropriate glasses.

Matt’s pint of Guinness and my pint of Bulmers cider at The Front Lounge, complete with their appropriate glasses.

Just like in Panti Bar, Matt was frequently stopping to quickly say hello to people as they passed by on their way in or out of The Front Lounge. I was starting to realise that I wasn’t in a huge city like London anymore, and that Dublin comparatively felt like a small town, with everybody knowing almost everybody else in the local community – although I figured that was almost no different to going out to any of the gay bars back home in Sydney, and still never being too far from a familiar face. I knew nobody here, but that didn’t stop the overall attitude of the people from being extremely welcoming. Other than the first drink I had bought for myself at Panti Bar, I was yet to have paid for a single one of my ciders. On every attempt to offer some euros when Matt asked the bartender for another round, he would scoff and brush my hand away.
“Are you sure?” Being Irish and all, he had already ploughed his way through several rounds, pulling me through with him as I almost struggled to keep up.
“Yes, of course I’m sure!” he said with a laugh. “You’re a visitor, a guest of ours! We’ll look after yer, don’t you worry!” A typical Irishman through and through, Matt was as stubborn as he was jolly and generous, so he wouldn’t hear another word about it. There was nothing I could do except slip my wallet back into my pocket and raise my glass to him in another toast.

***

After several more drinks, Matt decided there was another place he was going to show me. Having no plans of my own – or any idea of where else to go, for that matter – I didn’t have much of a choice but to go along with him. Not that I didn’t want to go with him – I’d sussed him out over the last few hours and decided that he was quite genuine in his gentleman status, and he was definitely the kind of person I wanted to have around if I should find myself drunk and disoriented in a foreign city. He also claimed that he knew quite a lot of the bouncers at all of the gay venues, which would be particularly useful, he assured me, in getting out of the cover charge when we went to the George, the biggest and arguably most popular bar and nightclub in Dublin. Our arrival the the George was indicated by a pink circular sign glowing above the door to the bar, brandishing the letter ‘G’.

G for 'George'.

G for ‘George’.

Matt waiting for me to stop being a tourist before we headed into the George.

Matt waiting for me to stop being a tourist before we headed into the George.

The inside of the George was quite big compared to the previous bars Matt and I had been to, probably due to the fact there were multiple levels open. There was a dance floor downstairs, and an opening in the floor of the level directly above, so that the drinkers at the bar could gaze down upon the dancers below. There were more levels, I think, and a smoking area outside, and it was only when I arrived in this dark maze of a venue that I realised that, as a result of trying to keep up when drinking with an Irishman, I was well and proper drunk. I peered down to the dance floor, but given that I had even questioned his homosexuality at the start of the evening, it was fairly obvious that Matt was not a dancer. He told me so, just to confirm my suspicions. So he bought us more drinks, and showed me around a little bit before we sat down at one of the tables.

While Panti Bar and The Front Lounge had both been bars, the George had definitely become a nightclub by this point in the evening, complete with loud, conversation hindering music. Matt kept trying to talk to me, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to hear him over the tracks the DJ was pumping, as though the accent wasn’t enough of a hearing handicap already.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” I thought I eventually heard him say.
“What?” I called out to him, despite him being less than a metre away. Whether I was asking him what he wanted to do, or whether I needed him to repeat what he said, I don’t think we’ll ever really know. 
As set he set his beer down on the table, he mumbled something else that sounded like he was light heartedly cursing to himself. Then he quickly leaned forward, and our faces collided in a rather forceful yet passionate kiss. I didn’t try stop him. While at that particular moment it had come as somewhat of a surprise, I think I had been waiting for it just as long as he had.

Rail and Sail: Dublin Bound

And so I found myself getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning (by my standards, at least) with not nearly enough sleep (even by my standards, which really says something) to get back to Euston train station. I was heading across the Irish sea, and while I had originally thought it would be easy to get a cheap flight across, I soon learned that with Ryanair the baggage I would be carrying would double the price of the ticket to the point that it simply wasn’t worth it – especially not after the traumatic experience I had had trying to fly with them last time. During my scouring the internet for travel options I discovered a deal called the ‘Rail and Sail’ offered by Irish Ferries, which was a package deal that included a train ticket from London to Holyhead, a small port town in Wales, and a ticket for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It was roughly 4 hours on the train and 6 hours on the ferry, as opposed to a flight from London that took an hour at most, but I had heard so many complaints about getting to the various airports in and around London – as well as the endless Ryanair horror stories – that I decided that trying to organise a flight for such a short distance was just not worth the hassle. I was in no rush, so I was more than happy to take a full day out to make the trip. It was cheaper than the flight, there were no extra baggage costs or restrictions, and I rather enjoyed the last trip I had made via ferry, so I thought it would be something nice to do again.

In the end it was the train ride that proved to be a little hair-raising. At one point the tracks travelled along the ground at such an angle that I could feel the slight pull of gravity dragging me towards the window. It was a brief terrifying moment, but other than that the ride went along smoothly and without much other excitement. When we finally arrived at Holyhead, the passengers disembarked and headed down the platform and towards the ferry port. I think it was almost a unanimous migration – aside from the ferry port there didn’t really seem to be much other reason to visit a town like Holyhead. I know that a lot of people said that same thing about Ancona, but at least I knew that in Italy there was sunshine and beaches to be found – the coast of Wales was as gloomy as I would ever have imagined it that morning, and in no way did I feel compelled to hang around, even if I’d had the choice. When I’d booked the ticket it had said that there was a bit of a wait between the arrival of my train and the departure of the ferry, but in reality it was just enough time to wait in the long queue with the rest of the mob, have my ticket and baggage checked, and board the vessel that would carry me across the Irish Sea.

The boat was similar to the one I had caught from Helsinki to Stockholm, except this time it was a shorter trip so I didn’t have a cabin, or any kind of personal quarters. The ship did have a huge variety of rooms and activities though, including a bar, restaurants, duty free shops, games rooms and theatres for the kids, as well as plenty of lounging spaces to sit around and enjoy the views of the open seas. To get in the mood for my arrival on the Emerald Isle, I tucked into a hot steak and Guinness pie from one of the cafeterias, and after a quick walk around to see the rest of the ship, I curled up on one of the lounges in the main area and tried to doze off and have a nap, given that I was running on very little sleep due to my late last night out in London. There were a lot of families travelling that day though, with some particularly noisy children, so in the end I really only managed to shut my eyes and rest my physical body. The mind would have to endure until Dublin, although being able to stretch out and have my own personal space to relax in was definitely a highlight of travelling via ferry rather than a plane. The Rail and Sail option was an experience a thousand times better than anything I would likely have received from Ryanair, and if you have the time to take the day trip and are travelling between Ireland and Great Britain then I would definitely recommend it.

When the ship finally pulled into port early that evening, I gathered my things and made my way off the ship to collect my checked baggage. When I got to immigration, I was a little confused as to where to go. There were basic directions to the exits, but rather than queues and individual gates and passport checks, everyone just seemed to be walking through a main gate with very little resistance. I assumed it was just for returning EU citizens, so I approached one of the desks to the side.
“Hi,” I said to them as I set my bag down.
“Hello there! Well, what can do for yer?” one of the two gentleman said to me with a friendly smile.
“Ahh… Is this where you stamp my passport?” I’d never seen security personnel being so relaxed around the new arrivals – welcome to Ireland, I suppose?
“Why, do yer need one?” The other man said.
“Um… I think… ah, I probably do?” I held up my Australian passport, seriously confused at this point.
“Oooh, yes! Yes.” Obviously they had just assumed I was another Irishman returning home. “Alright, here we go,” they said as they briefly checked my passport before stamping it and handing it back. I was a little dumbfounded as I walked out of the terminal and over to the bus stop. I’d thought the security at Southend airport in London had been pretty lax, but Dublin Port had well and truly usurped that title. I chuckled to myself, realising that all I’d heard about the carefree Irish nature was turning out to be remarkably, incredibly accurate.

The bus into the main city of Dublin was rather uneventful, but the whole time I was still riddled with anxiety. During my last days in London I had been searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Dublin – I had been living at Giles’ for so long that I’d all but forgotten the very real need to search for accommodation, or the very ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style in which I had been doing it. Unfortunately, all my searching had come up with nothing, but in my desperate hanging on for a potential, miraculous breakthrough, I had put off booking any hostels either. Eventually I alighted from the bus in the centre of the city, and hacked into some free wifi at the bus station to search for a nearby hostel. There was one around the corner, so I lugged myself over there and was overjoyed to learn that they had some availability. I enquired about the room prices, and the helpful guy at the front desk told me everything I needed to know.
“But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a discount,” he said with a little smile, without even lifting his eyes away from his computer screen to look at me. “Our little secret.” I was genuinely stunned – was he flirting with me? He didn’t seem like he was flirting with me? Not even a cheeky wink. But hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a price reduction. He gave me my key and directed me to the stairs towards my room, and I don’t think I even saw him again during my stay at the hostel, but it turns out his little gesture would be the first of a few rather unexpected surprises during my time in Dublin.

Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Last Call: London Leftovers

I spent so long in London that it was rather tricky to catalogue the events chronologically – there were days when I did absolutely nothing, and lounged around with a hangover watching TV in Giles’ living room, and there were some days were I just had short, simple excursions to certain minor attractions. I didn’t feel all of them warranted their own blog posts, so here are the some of the minor sub-plots that occurred as part of my overall London adventure:

***

After Richard had dropped me home from our trip to Cambridge, he said he’d be in touch if he and his friends would be doing anything fun over the next few weeks. I eventually got a rather hilarious message from him with an offer that I couldn’t refuse just because I found it so bizarre. Apparently Richard is a huge One Direction fan, and him and some of his friends were meeting in Leicester Square that evening, outside the cinema where the famous boy band were set to appear for the premiere of their documentary film. I have quite a few girlfriends back home who are quite literally obsessed with One Direction, and so in my head I said I’d do it for them. At the very least I would be ending up in the heart of Soho, and I didn’t have any other plans for the evening anyway, so I jumped on the tube and went in to meet them.

The scene was insane. Teenage girls were everywhere, screaming their lungs out every time one of the boys so much looked at the camera with an attempt at a smouldering look, which was then projected onto the huge screens around the place. Personally I think they just looked like douche bags, but whatever, I was more amused at the hysteria emanating from the crowds… and from Richard and Tim, another guy who was also friends with Giles and John. It was the three of us and their female friend Hannah, and we stood around trying to get a glimpse of the famous quintet. However, there had been many security measures put in place – rightly so, given the delirium the boys inspired – including a huge blackout fence that greatly restricted the number of people who were allowed to be inside the main area where the boys and the other attending celebrities were. We did our best to catch a glimpse of any of them in the flesh, but in the end we had to concede defeat to the hordes of teenage girls who had literally been lining up for days to come even remotely close to the teen heartthrobs.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a "1D" sign with our arms.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a “1D” sign with our arms.

We retired to a pub for dinner and beers, and afterwards we bid farewell to Hannah we eventually moved on to G-A-Y. It was early enough to go to the main bar on Old Compton Street, meaning I’d been inside two of the three G-A-Y venues located in London. The music was the same trashy pop and the drinks were so ridiculously cheap that I was genuinely shocked. Tim was a teacher, but he had just taken a new job which meant he wasn’t working at the moment, so he was keen to keep on partying. Richard had to work in the morning – he’d already “worked from home” once due to a night of drinking with me, so he kept his word and got the tube home once he’d had enough drinks. I had no excuse, though – not that I wanted one – so Tim and I continued to party all the way to G-A-Y Late, and were embarrassingly still there at 3am when the lights came on and they made us all get out. Despite the presence of One Direction, and not being able to find an open McDonalds at 3am on a Wednesday morning, it had turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

***

As far as daytime excursions went, I had been told by many people back home that I had to visit Camden for the weekend markets. From what I could gather it was an alternative area of the city, the equivalent to Sydney’s Inner West, where artists and musicians and other crazy creatives could congregate. To get to Camden from Hackney was rather simple – just follow the canal west from Victoria Park and sooner or later you’ll hit it – so I decided to borrow Giles’ bike for the excursion and ride along the water. It took a little while, but probably less than it would have if I had walked to Mile End to catch the tube all the way there. I timed my visit to make sure I went on a weekend, when the market was in full swing, and I could tell I was getting close when the distinct scent of marijuana wafted in on the breeze. Knowing I wasn’t in Amsterdam any more, I made very sure to steer clear of that. But near the main bridge in Camden that crossed the canal there were flocks of people spread out on the grass, the paths – anywhere where there was room – and were simply just chilling out. I found somewhere to lock my bike up and began wandering the streets. Everywhere you turned there were shops, stalls, markets, food stands, and the limits of what you could find were seemingly endless.

Camden.

Camden.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Despite all that, I didn’t really want or need anything, so I never ended up buying anything. Except, of course, when I came across a world food market. There were so many options from a range of different cuisines from all around the world that I ended up having several lunches just because I was unable to choose just one. Afterwards, I rode home with a detour to Kings Cross train station, to visit Platform 9 3/4 and have my photo taken with the trolley. There was actually a bit of a line to get it done, but it was totally worth it, especially when they gave your a house scarf of your choice to wear in your photo. Harry Potter fans die hard.

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

I also spent one Sunday morning wandering over to the Columbia Road Flower Markets, located not too far from where I was staying in Hackney. It was a single narrow road that was completely transformed into a giant floristry market, and while I had absolutely no need to buy plants or flowers of any kind, it was rather nice to walk down the road and take in all the beautiful colours and smells.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

***

I also had more dinner outings, with friends both new and old. I made it out to Greenwich again, to visit the observatory and to have dinner with John, where I could see the beautiful sunset over the London skyline, and see the lights of the business district in Canary Wharf glitter in the distance as darkness settled over the city. However, on the evening of the afternoon I had spent with Ellie at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, I had dinner with Angus and Margaret, a pair of old family friends whom I had met almost 15 years ago when I had visited Scotland with my family. It felt a little strange at first, although I expect it would have been a bigger change for them to see how I had eventually grown up. We had a lovely meal and some nice wine, and while it was nice to see them, dinner was only the beginning of the evening for me. After bidding them farewell, I decided I would hang around Soho some more and check out some other bars. I found myself at a place called Ku Klub, quietly people-watching and sipping on some cheap drinks, before I was approached by an English guy who was from out of town, in London for a night out. He was with a group of friends, so I ended up tagging along with them to a place called Candy Bar. I would later find out that it was actually a lesbian bar which the “Ku Bar Boys” took over every Tuesday evening. Once again, I was astounded at just how many bars and venues there actually were in London, even just around the Soho area.

Sunset over the city as seen from John's flat.

Sunset over the city as seen from John’s flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John's flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John’s flat.

Honestly, that part of the night was a blur. I met some other people at Candy Bar, and the guys and girls who I had originally tagged along with from Ku Klub were starting to creep me out a little bit, so I ended up leaving with some other people and ending up at… G-A-Y Late? I don’t even know how that happened. Where did the time go? Was it midnight already? Maybe I went to G-A-Y first, I can’t even be sure. Oh, it was tragic. I met a guy named Tim who said he lived around the corner, so we went back to his apartment to drink more and do some shots. He wanted to show me his new sound system, so he started playing some party music. His boyfriend, who had apparently been sleeping next-door, wasn’t too impressed by that. After sitting there silently in the middle one extremely awkward and passive aggressive argument, I grabbed my coat and bailed back to G-A-Y Late. More drinking and dancing ensued. I ended up chatting to a young guy named Jonny, and we hit it off straight away. He was a little little younger than me, and seemed quite shy, buy super nice. He was there with a girlfriend of his, a boisterous little lesbian named Anna, and she was very protective of him, but we got chatting and in the end she warmed up to me and even tried to set the two of us up.

And it worked. Boys will be boys on the dance floor, but come 3am we were all booted out to the streets again. Anna had already disappeared at that point, so I stuck with Jonny as we wandered through the streets, jumping fences to pee in the bushes of Soho Square, and just galavanting around like the young and drunk fools we were. Instead of heading back to Hackney, he insisted that I stayed with him, which is how I came to find myself wandering through some unknown park further south at 4am with a pretty young man who was all but a stranger to me. I ended up accompanying him home – something I may not have done if I had bothered to figure out where exactly where that was. We walking from tube station to tube station to train station and then I think eventually ended up in a taxi. I was literally falling asleep on Jonny’s shoulder at that point so I just had to roll with it and hope he knew where he was going. It was a very “Where the hell am I?” moment when we woke up at 2 o’clock the next afternoon and he told me were in Uxbridge. I looked it up on a map.
Uxbridge? We’re not even in London anymore!” It was like going out in the centre of Sydney and waking up just past Parramatta, or going out in Manhattan and waking up in New Jersey. He offered me a sheepish grin, and all I could do was laugh. “Okay then, well… this has been fun, how the hell do I get home?”
It was a train ride followed by a long way on the tube, but I finally made it home at the delightful time of 5pm. Even for me, that’s some kind of record.

***

Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more markets, on one of my final days in London, Tim – Richard’s friend with the One Direction obsession – took me to the Borough Markets just south of London Bridge.
“The goal here is,” he informed me as we walked into the crowds that were milling around the stalls, “To eat lunch for free. If you go to claim enough free samples, you can basically get a free meal for nothing!” It was quite hilarious watching him chat to the stall owners, as we sampled a variety of cheeses, breads, cookies, cakes, and a host of other treats, and then telling them, “Yes, we might be back later. Just going to keep having a look around for now.”
While we did eat our weight in free samples, we ended up buying some gourmet burgers for lunch anyway, and then abandoned the markets for a walk down along the River Thames. We went into the Tate Modern, since it had been closed when I’d last walked past it with Anthony, but the exhibit Tim had wanted to show me was closed, or otherwise unavailable.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

In an attempt to try and show me something new in my final days in London, Tim and I took a train north, and from there we walked through the streets of Camden until we reached Primrose Hill.
“It’s one of the best views in London, of London, people say,” Tim told me as we marched up the gentle slope. All around us, couples and groups were lying about and soaking up the last of the afternoon sun, dogs running around between them and children frolicking about playing games. It was such a pleasant scene, and Tim and I took a seat for a little while and chatted as we watched the afternoon fade into evening. Tim had plans to see the One Direction film that evening, so we said goodbye at the Camden tube station, where he was heading off to Soho, and I hired a bike from one of the numerous bike rental stations and followed it back along the canal again until I finally reached Hackney.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

***

Giles had actually arrived home during my final days in London, so for my last night out I met with him, John and Richard in Soho for some drinks. After getting the tube back into the city I met them at a pub for a few drinks before Giles wanted to take me to a club called Manbar, a place that was particularly popular with gay men of the older and hairier variety. Despite that, it still played all your typically gay pop-trash, and the drinks were once again extraordinarily cheap. If there was one thing I could confirm about London, it is that the price of drinks in most of the gay bars blew Sydney out of the water for any kind of value for money. We had a few drinks at Manbar before bidding farewell to John, who unfortunately had to work the morning. But as the night carried on, Richard and Giles decided that it was only fitting that they took me to the third and final G-A-Y venue that I was yet to have visited: G-A-Y Heaven.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London's iconic red telephone booths.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London’s iconic red telephone booths.

“Heaven is a little more special,” Giles explained to me as we walked there. It was down near Charing Cross, not in quite the same area as the rest of the Soho bars. “It’s massive, and it’s the place where all the famous pop stars do their surprise gigs or shows in London.” G-A-Y Heaven has hosted shows by Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Spice Girls, Katy Perry, One Direction, Amy Winehouse and scores of other artists. When we arrived we walked up to the door and straight on in – most of the people seemed to know Giles by name and there was definitely no wait for us. And so once we were inside I was introduced to a phenomenon that I had read about in all of the guides and social magazines but had never had the… er, pleasure, of seeing first hand: Porn Idol.

Yep, it’s basically a spin-off of the Idol singing competition franchise, except instead of showing off their voices, they are showing off their bodies. And their junk. There were about 10 contestants that night, and when they’re given a song they’re required to strip down to the music. They must get completely naked and full-frontal, with the music not coming to a halt until the crowd as actually had a decent glimpse of his manhood. Yep, they were literally getting naked on a stage in front of hundreds of people. There was no actual sex going on, as the ‘Porn’ in the title might suggest, but in true Idol tradition there was a panel of bitchy judges who were present to make all kinds of horrible and degrading comments to about 90% of the contestants – the exception was the two gorgeous Brazilian men who seemed to be competing that night. Everyone seemed to take it on board as a bit of laugh though (or they were just too drunk to care about anything), even as the judges doled out their harsh critiques and scores.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

“You should get up there! They’d love you!” Giles jeered, and I could tell he was only half joking. However, I’d seen pictures of this event from the previous weeks, and knew full well that many of the people who got up on stage ended up having their photos in the local gay papers, completely uncensored, and I just didn’t think I was ready for that kind of risk. Or commitment, I guess. So we laughed and we cheered and we ogled until the show was over, and we continued to drink and dance as I explored the cavernous rooms of Heaven. The place was huge, but because it was only a Thursday night it was half as empty as I presume it would be on a weekend. But it was a fun way to end the night, and a great way to finish off my entire London experience. I chatted to a guy from Essex who was sad to hear that I was leaving for Ireland in the morning. He settled with a cheeky pash before I found Giles and we headed back home to his place.

I think it was just after 4am by the time we got home and I finally collapsed on the couch. I had about 2 hours of sleep before I had to get up and make my way to Euston train station, but it was worth it. My time in London had been a wild roller coaster ride through a huge and diverse city. I’d met new friends, caught up with old ones, had lovely nights in and obscene nights out, I’d traversed the city limits and had done everything I’d set out to do and more. Even though there are numerous gaps in my memory, my time spent in London is a time that will not soon be forgotten.

Eye on London

On one wet and miserable evening in London I set out to meet a guy named Anthony who I had been talking to for a little while on one of the gay networking apps. The inescapable truth is that most guys on such apps are only looking for a quick hook up, but on the odd occasion you’ll find someone who is actually interested in having a long and decent conversation. From the chats we’d had I gathered that Anthony was a really sweet guy, a little bit of a nerd – between us we had shared a collection of geeky confessions – and I thought he was pretty cute. He lived nearby in Hackney, so after several nights of long conversations via the app we decided to meet up for drinks at some of the local watering holes. On the night we were set to meet it was bucketing down, but Anthony assured me the bar was still going to be “rammed”. I had a bit of a giggle at the terminology, and when he met me at our arranged meeting point I explained how the word ‘rammed’ had created a more vulgar vision of a gay bar in my mind. I’d struggled through thongs and flip-flops, and singlets and vests, but that was by far one of the strangest Australian/British English word confusions I came across in London.

Rammed, of course, meant full of people, and it seems that wet weather has become a way of life for the people of London that even the iciest downpours can’t keep them at home when a night of drinking beckons. The first place Anthony took me to was Nelsons Head, a smaller pub that was nice and toasty warm inside, and it was, as Anthony had said, rammed. We struggled through the crowds and made our way to the bar to order a few drinks, and ended up having to stand against one of the walls, unable to find a table or even any stools. We put our drinks down on the short bench that lined the walls, and I turned around to soak in the atmosphere. There was a lot of interesting and sometimes slightly erotic art that lined the walls, and high tables full of boisterous men and women who were slugging back pints like water and somehow still managing to not fall off their stools. Overall it was a relatively small venue, but I hadn’t read anything about it on any of the gay maps or guides I had picked up, so it was unlikely I ever would have made it there if I hadn’t met up with Anthony. We stayed there for a while, sipping our drinks and talking more about London, my travelling stories, and our range of geeky shared interests.

After a while we decided to move on to another venue, which was a little further away, but luckily the rain had pulled pack to barely a drizzle so we were fine to walk there. On the way there Anthony stopped to get money out, and he showed me the bizarre language options some ATM’s offer: English or Cockney. I asked him to do Cockney, but he flat out refused. “I have absolutely no idea what it says,” he laughed.
“But isn’t it still English?”
“Well, yes, but… It just isn’t.” Fair enough. I suppose it would have to be fairly different to warrant having its own language option, but it was as baffling as it was hilarious.
We were bound for The Joiners Arms, one of the more popular pubs on the eastern side of London, which I had just missed out on visiting last time I had been out in Shoreditch, although upon arriving at the bar I realised that it was less of a pub and more of a nightclub than I had originally thought. We had to get stamps on our wrists upon entering, although I think we arrived early enough so as not to have to pay, but after we’d ordered our first drinks and sat down at a table, we were informed we would have to stand up while they moved the tables in order to make room for the dance floor. From then on more and more people began arriving at The Joiners Arms, and the music moved from background ambience to the main focus. I love a good dance as much as the next party boy, but I wasn’t so much in the mood that evening, so Anthony and I just spent the rest of the night sitting on one of the sofas along the edge of the room, leaning into each other and having our conversations in brief outbursts of shouting to be heard over the music. Which of course turned into using our mouths for an exchange that was a little less verbal. In the end we called it a night and returned to the cold night to walk home, although Anthony let me stay the night with him so I didn’t have to walk the rest of the way home by myself. We drank tea and watched a few episodes of Family Guy on TV, and I was grateful to have such a cute man to cuddle on such a chilly evening.

***

I’d been telling Anthony about how riding the London Eye was one of the few majorly touristic things that I wanted to do while I was in London, but that I hadn’t wanted to do it by myself. Any attempts at finding other tourists or travellers to join me had failed, but Anthony had said it had been a long time since he had been on the Eye, and wouldn’t mind going again. I’d also mentioned I’d wanted to go at nighttime, something he had never done, so we made plans to meet up and get a bus over to the City of Westminster. We met at a halfway point that was close to a bus stop, and on the bus ride I saw Anthony doing something with his phone. I didn’t mean to pry, but I noticed he was in the middle of writing a status update on Facebook. The incomplete update read: “Thanks everyone for all the birthday love-” and he was staring at the screen, obviously trying to figure out what to say next.
“Um, what the hell?” I couldn’t just sit there and pretend I hadn’t read that. “It’s your birthday! Why didn’t you tell me?” Anthony just smiled and let out a shy chuckle.
“Ah, well, I’d forgotten what day it was when we made these plans. I wasn’t doing anything else anyway.” I looked at him slightly incredulously – the idea that anyone could forget their own birthday was just baffling to me – but then I just smiled.
“Well then, happy birthday! Tonight is just going to have to be extra special, isn’t it?”

We didn’t go straight to the city, but alighted a little further east. Once we got off the bus, I took us down to the water so that I could get a photo with Tower Bridge, arguably the most iconic sight of London along with Big Ben (I had been shocked, though, when Giles had told me that Tower Bridge was not called London Bridge, and that London Bridge was something completely different). From there we crossed the Thames and walked along the southern bank of the river, with Anthony pointing out some of the major sights along the way, such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral from across the water, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the Millennium Bridge, which perhaps excited me the most, as I remembered seeing it get destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was also just a really pleasant walk, on a night that had considerably nicer weather than the last time I had met up with Anthony.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

The Shard.

The Shard.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

London Bridge.

London Bridge.

St Paul's Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

We underestimated the walk, and by the time we got to the London Eye it had been almost an hour of walking, and darkness had well and truly set in. The good thing about arriving so late is that there was relatively no line, and so we purchased our tickets and walked right on in. From a distance, the London Eye looks like any regular ferris wheel, but once you’re up close you realise that you ride not in rickety little carriages, but fancy looking, high-tech berths that can comfortably hold about 15 to 20 people, and look like something out of a sci-fi film. There were a few other smaller groups of tourists in our berth with us, but they were spacious enough that you can move around to get a proper view of they city from all angles. In retrospect, I probably would have been able to see a lot more if I had gone during the day, but there was something about views of a city at night that I find a little breathtaking, and being there with Anthony also made it a little romantic. We stood there watching the scene unfold and the Eye took us higher and higher into the sky. Right beside us there was a small temporary theme park, with rides shooting up into the air, and across the Thames the Westminster Abbey and Big Ben glowed in darkness. In the distance we saw some fireworks going off, clusters of red sparks exploding on the horizon.
“Look! They knew it was my birthday!” Anthony joked. We both took some photos, but from the amount of pictures he was taking, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Anthony was the foreign tourist, not myself. But it was cute to see him enjoying himself so much – I’d unintentionally given him quite a memorable birthday.

Inside the London Eye berth.

Inside the London Eye berth.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

Anthony's birthday fireworks in the distance.

Anthony’s birthday fireworks in the distance.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

A full rotation of the London Eye takes about 30 minutes, so we had plenty of time to soak it all in. Upon returning to ground level, we stopped for a classy birthday dinner at McDonalds. We got it to go, and sat by the river to eat it as we watched the occasional vessel glide past us on the water. Then, hand in hand, we began the walk back along the river Thames, soaking up the riverside culture. The were lots of restaurants and cafes that overlooked the water, as well as parks with children running around and all kinds of street performers and entertainers. There was a stretch along the river where every single tree had been entwined with fairy lights, so we walked under a canopy of luminescence as we left the sounds of the inner city behind us. Eventually we crossed the Millennium Bridge and caught a bus back to Hackney, where we returned to Anthony’s place for more tea and Family Guy. And cuddles, of course. It turned out to be a really lovely evening, and I hoped that he’d enjoyed his spontaneous birthday celebrations as much as I had.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.