Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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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.

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.

The Worldwide Web: Connectivity on the Road

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

A Family Affair

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

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

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

***

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

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

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

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

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

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

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

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

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

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

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

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

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

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

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

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Icons: Sightseeing in The City of Lights

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