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.

Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.

***

The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.

***

The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.

Bathroom Breakdown

The hostel that I stayed in during my time in Madrid would end up being the last one I stayed in for quite a while, but it was also one of the most fun and sociable hostels that I stayed in during my entire journey. The open layout and the party atmosphere meant that it was incredibly easy to strike up a conversation with whoever happened to walk into your dorm room. After my night out at Studio 54, I stumbled into the hostel with just enough time for a quick power nap before my check-out time. However, it was Monday morning, and the flight to Rome I had booked while I was in Barcelona didn’t fly out until Wednesday evening. I had two more nights left in Madrid, and since I hadn’t found anyone who had been able to put me up for those final nights, I had to try and book into the hostel again.

“We do have some room,” the guy working at reception said to me, “but…” There’s always a ‘but’. “You’re going to have to switch rooms. The bed you’re in now has been assigned to someone else.” I have no idea how their booking system works, or why they put particular people where, because I ended up moving from a full four bed dorm to an empty one, but I was way too tired and hungover to care. It actually worked out perfectly – I just dragged everything down the hall, down one flight of stairs, and into my new empty room, where I spent most of the day having a prolonged and much needed siesta. Later that evening, I was graced with the presence of some new roommates. Rachel was a girl around my age from Missouri, and she collapsed onto one of the bunks in an exhausted heap as soon as she arrived. She’d been travelling with her brothers and cousin, and now Rachel and her cousin Talon were in Madrid after being at the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona. We got chatting straight away, as she unpacked the mess that was her backpack and began sorting out all her things. I have to say, despite the reputation that American travellers have as the typical “stupid American tourists”, they were ultimately some of the nicest and friendliest people that I met during my time in hostels. Rachel and her traveling family crew had been all over Europe via train as well, so we shared stories and experiences and before long it felt like I was catching up with an old friend. She was exhausted at that point, but we made plans to meet up later for a drink at the hostel bar.

***

I headed out to have some tapas for dinner, and drink a small bottle of wine that was served not with a wine glass, but a large shooter glass… okay then. Very confused, I took my shots of red wine while I contemplated what my next move was going to be. I had my flights to Rome booked for the following evening, but absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I got there. During my down time over the last few days, I have been frantically searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Rome. It was high season in Europe at that moment, and I had made the horrifying discovery that almost all of the hostels and accommodation within my price range were completely booked out. It was exactly like my arrival on that Friday night in Hamburg, except this time I had sufficient time to search for alternatives on Couchsurfing. I wrote over a dozen long, personalised requests to hosts from all over Rome, but I only ever received replies from about a quarter of the people I contacted, and none of them were able to host me while I was in town. It seemed a little strange, given the size of the city, and by Tuesday evening I was stifling the rising panic inside myself.

Tiny bottle of wine with a glass that is probably highly appropriate to Spanish culture.

Tiny bottle of wine with a glass that is probably highly appropriate to Spanish culture.

After a few deep breaths and a final shot of shiraz, I headed back to the hostel to meet Rachel and Talon for a beer. I found them on the rooftop with a pitcher of beer, and the warm evening air was giving way to a cool change that blew through the balcony. They were sitting with a pair of brothers, also around our age and also American, and the five of us sat around chatting, only moving to take cover under the large cloth shade umbrellas when a brief but heavy downpour of summer rain bucketed down on us. After a couple of pitchers of beer, Talon decided that he wanted churros, the traditional Spanish doughnuts, and so we headed out into the streets, the smell of rain on the hot asphalt filling the air. We got a dozen churros and a bottle of chocolate dipping sauce to go, and walked on up to Puerta del Sol, where we saw crowds of locals and tourists alike, hanging out in the square doing tricks on their skateboards, or playing instruments and busking for money. We sat by the edge of the fountain and watched the world go by. It was there, relaxing in the plaza with my new friends, that I didn’t feel so bad about the way I’d spent my time in Madrid. I had done minimal sightseeing – there hadn’t been any major sight or particular attraction that I had wanted to see, and I had passed up every opportunity to visit museums. But I had been partying like crazy – for me, Madrid was a city that you do, not a city that you see. I had spent almost my whole time in the streets amongst the people and the nightlife, and as I reflected on my stay in Madrid, I was incredibly satisfied with the experience I had had, and my time spent in the city. I’d made friends, both locals and other travellers, and I had done things that no admission price could have bought me.

***

I had fun in Madrid, but my time spent there also took its toll on me. In my attempt to make up for the failed nights out in Barcelona, I had managed to go out drinking and partying every night for over a week straight. That, combined with the unanticipated lack of Couchsurfing hosts and the spending on accommodation in the last few cities, threw my budget a little out of whack, but the biggest blow the week of partying in Spain had dealt me was to my health. A week of excessive alcohol consumption, lack of sleep and very little nutritious food left me feeling like something of a train wreck come Wednesday morning. It was a combination of a summer cold and mild malnutrition, coupled with the stress and anxiety that it was now less than 24 hours until I was due to land in Rome and I had absolutely no idea where I would be going after that. I had secured a single night in hostel in town, which was a long way from the airport I would be arriving in at approximately 11pm. I had to check out of my hostel room in Madrid at 10am when my body was telling me “Lie the Hell down, you exhausted idiot!”, so there I found myself, sitting alone on a sofa in the common room of the hostel, searching desperately through Couchsurfing profiles, scared and alone.

I’m not really proud of what happened next, but I’m going to tell you, because it was actually somewhat of a milestone in my journey. I had a bit of a breakdown. I went into the  bathrooms, locked myself in a cubicle, sat down, and cried. Not just cried – I sobbed, balling my eyes out into my palms and wiping my nose on my sleeve, to little avail given that I was already pretty physically sick on top of being an emotional mess. And I can’t exactly put my finger on what it was that cracked me – sure, there had been a couple of disappointments and a few close calls and rather scary or stressful incidents, but for the most part my journey had been an incredible experience that was overwhelmingly positive and fun. I suppose I could put it down to the deterioration of my current personal situation – if something in the outside world of my surroundings goes wrong, it’s not difficult to come up with a plan or solution or something else to fix it. But as soon as my body began to be the thing that was going wrong… Sometimes we’re not as tough as we think.

I also felt a bit lonely, which seems a little paradoxical. Physically, there were always people around, and aside from sleeping I very rarely had time to myself – and in the hostel environment, sometimes not even then. But it was the familiarity of close friends that I was starting to miss. Meeting new people every day was an amazing experience, and it’s always fun to get to know people and start fresh with that kind of thing, but there are days when things begin to catch up to you, and all you want is that friend who knows exactly what you’re thinking without you having to say it, knows exactly what’s wrong without having to ask it, and knows how to make you feel better by seemingly doing nothing at all. Ever since leaving Ralf behind in Berlin, this trip had been a crazy whirlwind of faces coming and going – and I guess somehow it all became a little too much. I wouldn’t exactly  say I was homesick – Hell, I knew I was doing a lot more fun and exciting things here than I thought I was ever going to do back home – but I was definitely tired, and in dire need of some of the more homely comforts that are hard to come by while on the road.

Sometimes I think everyone just needs a good cry. Whether the matter is trivial or life-altering, sometimes things just upset us, and the straw that breaks the camels back is enough to burst open the waterworks too. People might think it’s a sign of weakness, but afterwards you sometimes feel significantly better. I sat there for a little while after the heart of the breakdown, sniffling and wiping the tears from my cheeks, but in the end I got to the realisation that no one was going to come looking for me. No one was going to notice I was missing from the common room and ask if I was okay. I’d seen no sign of Rachel or Talon that morning, but to be honest I was glad that they didn’t see me post-cubicle breakdown: it wasn’t a pretty sight. I was on my own. But now, as the emotional storm was clearing, being alone wasn’t such a scary thing. It was a challenge. I’d been accosted by a shady monk in Thailand, I had survived motorcycle accidents in Cambodia, I’d had money scammed right out from under my nose in China, and I survived as an openly homosexual man in Russia without getting arrested, or worse. I’d made it through a lot worse: was I going to let a mere week of partying be my undoing? Not a chance in Hell!

With new resolve to take better care of my body and an optimism that I would overcome whatever obstacles my travels had in store for me, I emerged from that cubicle a better man. I could have easily left out this chapter of my journey when telling this story, but I think it’s important for anyone who is thinking of travelling, to let them know it’s not always a walk in the park. It’s not always a holiday or a vacation. Sometimes things go bad and it really sucks and at that very moment you really wish you weren’t there, that you were back home, or some place else a little more comfortable. And that’s okay. Because thats why we – or why I, at least – choose to travel this way. It pushes you to your very limits and faces you with challenges where you really have no choice but to overcome them. My little emotional breakdown was a milestone in that it taught me the true value of character building that comes with extensive travelling. And I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Walking in Sunshine: Summer on the streets of Madrid

While pride continued to be a defining feature of my time on Madrid – day and night, you couldn’t walk up or down the street without being cruised several dozen times by some sensationally attractive men – I did manage to play the tourist card while I was in the Spanish capital and visit a few of the landmarks that the city has to offer. I didn’t do a great deal on my first morning other than potter around a few plazas and lazily practice my dreadful Spanish while ordering a light breakfast. After that, it was all systems go for the afternoon of drinking at the hostels pre-pride party.

However, on Sunday afternoon I took a break from walking on the wild side to discover some of the more tranquil corners of the city, in particular Parque del Buen Retiro, the huge public gardens that stretched out next to the botanical gardens and the train station. I stopped by a corner store and gathered a few bits and pieces for a small picnic, then headed over to the park. It was a fierce summer day, and I periodically had to step out of the sunshine and into the shade of the trees. I eventually took a seat at a park bench to sit and eat my lunch and attempt to read my book, but I must admit that for the whole time I was in Parque del Buen Retiro, I was extremely distracted by the amount of people I saw exercising – mostly because they were all ridiculously attractive and obviously very fit, both men and women. It was such a hot day that even the idea of going for a light jog brought a slight tear to my eye, and I had a sneaking suspicion that – given the attractiveness quota that was being met this afternoon – that a good deal of these people chose to exercise at this time of day purely to show off the bangin’ bodies that they were rocking. In all fairness, I would probably do the same if had that body, and I certainly wasn’t complaining about the view.

There were a lot of people who weren’t exercising though. They were generally older and not as attractive, and more often than not they were staring at me, rather than vice versa. I wouldn’t know it until later when I was casually scrolling through an online guide to gay Madrid, but the area of the park where I had chosen to eat my lunch also happened to be a popular cruising area. Whoops!

After lunch I wandered further into the park to see some of the more official attractions, starting with La Rosaleda, or the Rose Garden, at the southern end of the park. I strolled along the loose pebble paths and passed under wire archways that were overgrown with vines, the whole way admiring the vast collection of roses. When I reached the edge of La Rosaleda I encountered a rather more sinister landmark – the statue of El Ángel Caído, which in English means the Fallen Angel, the title bestowed to Lucifer of Christian mythology after he was cast out of Heaven. It’s one of the few statues in the world that is dedicated to the devil himself, and it rather eerily sits at 666 metres above sea level. I stood next to that fountain for quite a while, actually, contemplating the story of Lucifer. He butted horns with his dad and broke a couple of rules that were set for him, and suddenly he’s kicked out of home to be forever hated to anyone who would hear the story the way his dad tells it. The story obviously has a little more meat to it, and Lucifer probably didn’t have to continue on as the Prince of Darkness, but I can’t help but feel a little sympathy for the devil. Take away the fire and brimstone and Christian heresy, and his story actually seems rather human in nature. I mean, who hasn’t had one or two heated arguments with their parents?

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The rose gardens in Parque del Buen Retiro.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

The statue of the Fallen Angel.

After I was done feeling sorry for the devil, I ventured further into the park. I followed a bunch of winding and twisting pathways, not really sure where I was going to end up, but eventually I stumbled upon the structure Palacio de Cristal, which appeared to be a palace made of glass – or, if you will, crystal – that was set on the edge of a small lake. The palace was completely empty on the inside, but was currently the home of a rather abstract art exhibition, so I stepped inside for a quick peek. The place was essentially a greenhouse without plants though, so it was far too hot to stay inside for longer than a few minutes. The final major attraction I visited, and arguably the focal point of El Retiro, was the Monument to Alfonso XII, a huge structure complete with about half a dozen marble lions around the base. I didn’t go all the way up to the monument – it’s set on the edge of a huge artificial lake, or estanque, and I had ended up on the other side and was far too exhausted from the afternoon sun to walk the whole way around it. Instead, I admired it from afar as I watched other tourists take paddle boats out across the lake, considered them mad for intentionally depriving themselves of shade for so long. On the western side of the lake where I was situated, I happened upon a pair of buskers, a cellist and a harpist, who were playing the most beautiful and enchanting music. I lay down in the shade on a nearby lawn and listened to them play recognisable classics such as Beauty and the Beast and enjoyed the sweet, relaxing music. After the nights of partying I’d previously had, I could have very easily fallen into a deep sleep there in the park. However, I decided that that wasn’t the safest thing to do, so I headed back to the hostel for a siesta before heading out for my last night of pride partying.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

The beautiful Palacio de Cristal.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Inside the Crystal Palace.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

Monument to Alfonso XII next to the artificial lake.

***

On my final full day in Madrid I decided that it was probably about time to hang up my dancing shoes and actually see some of the true culture and history within the Spanish capital. It was another bright, blisteringly hot day, so I got up and ready in time to join the free walking tour that was run by the hostel. I was still thoroughly exhausted from the weekend, and I knew that I didn’t see the city as some part of guided tour, I wouldn’t have the motivation or the energy to trek through the scorching heat by myself. I’d also done minimal research on what sites there actually were to see in the centre of Madrid, so I figured that for once, a group tour was probably the best option.

Almost as soon as the tour had begun, I remembered why I despised such touristic activities. There was an overwhelming amount of Australians in the group, with perhaps a small smattering of a couple of Americans and one of two people from elsewhere in Europe. Now, I don’t want to sound like I hate Australians, because I don’t, but Jesus Christ – there were so many bogans! I’ve often stated that I didn’t come halfway across the world to simply hang out with more Australians, as was the case in the first nightclub I visited in Barcelona, but that doesn’t mean I refuse to interact with them at all. After all, all my friends back home are Australian. But most of the people in the group were people who I could never see myself being friends with. There were a few strained attempts at conversation with a girl who was so okka that she might as well have been plucked from the middle of the Australian outback and placed straight into the walking tour. She seemed like a nice girl, but eventually the stifled conversation died and we walked along in a far less uncomfortable silence. The rest of the tour was in seemingly impenetrable groups of rowdy Australian men, though I really had no interest in engaging with them anyway. I walked along just listening to the guide and trying not to faint in the heat.

The first destination on the walking tour was Plaza Mayor, the main public square of Madrid. Plaza Mayor was an important site for many key spectacles throughout the history of Spain, including the beatification of San Isidro Labrador, the patron saint of Madrid, in 1619, bullfights which garnered 50,000 spectators that continued until 1878, and the interrogation and condemnation of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. It was partially destroyed and rebuilt after a fire in 1790, and ever since it has been a focal point of city life in Madrid, supporting many markets and festivals. The statue in the centre of the plaza is Felipe III, the man who ordered the plazas construction, and is used as a common meeting point for residents. Around the base of the statue, I noticed padlocks engraved with lovers names attached to loops in the iron frame, much like the bridges I’d been in Irkutsk and Helsinki. I guess there weren’t any bridges in Madrid that were as important, or provided as much of a spectacle, as Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Statue of Felipe III in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

Padlocks in Plaza Mayor.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The classical streets of Madrid.

The next interesting stop along the tour was Restaurante Sobrino de Botín, a quaint little restaurant that holds the Guinness World Record for the Oldest Restaurant in the World. It has been in operation since 1725, and is famous for its suckling pig and roast lamb that is cooked in wood-fire ovens. Of course, it was early in the day and the restaurant wasn’t yet open for business, but as part of the tour we were able to go inside and have a look around, including the wine cellar downstairs. Some of the bottles were so dusty that I felt like they’d also been here since 1725, and were now probably nothing more than bottles of vinegar. We took a few photos of the charming little venue and continued on our way.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín - the oldest restaurant in the world.

Restaurante Sobrino de Botín – the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

Inside the oldest restaurant in the world.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

The kitchens where the pork is prepared.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Dusty old wine bottles in the cellar.

Other sites we visited were the Palacio Real, the Royal Palace that was rebuilt in 1755 after the previous palace burnt down. Visitors are welcome, but not without a fee, and since this was a free walking tour most of us were happy to simply marvel at the architecture from the outside. Beside the palace, in Plaza de Oriente, is the famous monument of Philip IV on horseback. Nearby was Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena, the Catholic cathedral that was built after the capital of Spain moved from Toledo to Madrid. This stop provided us with some shelter from the midday sun, and I paced the halls of yet another elegant and lavishly decorated European church.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Palacio Real, the Royal Palace.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Philip IV in Plaza de Oriente.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Catedral de Nuestra Senora de la Almudena.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

Inside the great Catholic cathedral.

The trip took us on a loop around the centre of Madrid, and after blindly following the tour guide through the streets I realised that the final stop on our trip, the famous Puerta del Sol, was actually one of the plazas I had been partying in a couple of nights ago for pride. It looked so different in the daylight – it was still extremely busy and bustling, but the crowd appeared sparse compared to the tin of sardines the plaza had been on the weekend. After the tour concluded, the group dispersed among the crowd and we all made our own way, whether it was back to the hostel to commence siesta, or to one of the many eateries that lined the edges of the plaza and the surrounding streets. For all the negative feelings I harboured toward mass group tours and anything overly touristic, I have to say that on this day I was very glad they had existed. After Madrid pride I don’t think I had the mental capacity or brain functioning to navigate the city’s main sights by myself, and it truly is a vibrant and beautiful place that I would have been very sad to not fully experience.

Beers in the Barrio: Madrid Pride

On the train between Barcelona and Madrid, I felt like I had used to as a little kid on Christmas morning – waiting impatiently for the rest of the family to be ready so that we could begin the present opening ritual with all in attendance. Except this time the only thing I was waiting on was time itself, and the high-speed train that was hurtling me towards the Spanish capital city, and while there were no presents waiting for me when I stepped off the train, there was a guaranteed weekend of fun and debauchery. Earlier in the week, I had got in touch via Facebook with another friend of Darrin, the friend in Bangkok who had put me in touch with Greg. Greg was actually the one who had told me about Ricardo – all three of them had met and become friends at the same time in San Francisco – but Darrin formally introduced us. When I let Ricardo know when I would be arriving in Madrid on the Friday afternoon, his response brought on a wave jà vu: “Great, you’ll be here right in the middle of pride!” It was be the third European pride celebration I would attend, and the second time it had happened completely by accident. Needless to say, after my slightly disappointing experiences with the nightlife in Barcelona, my spirits were soaring with anticipation at the prospect of pride in Madrid, a city famous for its partying and in particular its exuberant gay nightlife.

The warm air engulfed me as I finally stepped off the train in Madrid, but it wasn’t the sticky kind of humidity that weighs you down – it was a dry heat that was somehow invigorating, and I don’t think I’d ever felt as excited to be in a place as I was to be there in Madrid. I lugged my bags down into the metro and followed the directions I’d written down to the hostel that I had booked in advance. The hostel was so busy I had to wait in the lobby for almost an hour before I was able to check in, but my previous impatience had been lost to the overwhelming thrill I felt from simply being in the city. As I’d wandered down the small classical European streets on my way to the hostel from the metro station, it really had felt like I had slipped into a movie. The warm air felt heavy around me, as though the vibes and the very essence of the city was emanating from the buildings and coming forth to fully emerge me in the culture of the Spanish capital.

After I checked in and had a quick siesta, I got myself ready and descended back into the raw and eccentric streets of Madrid. I had not been walking for more than a couple of minutes before I brushed past an elder Spanish gentleman in one of the narrow streets. He wasn’t exactly my type, and I paid him no real attention until I heard him softly whisper “guapo” under his breath. Knowing enough Spanish to know that that had essentially been a cat call, I stumbled to a stop, a little taken by surprised. When I turned around, I watched the man wander off, not so much as missing a beat to his step, let alone looking back over his shoulder at me. I patted down my pockets to make sure nothing was missing before continuing on my way. I found the whole thing a little bizarre, but little did I know it was only the beginning of a weekend that would blow the doors off Madrid’s closet and would flood the streets with sexy and explicitly suggestive men.

***

I eventually met up with Ricardo and the group of friends he had been having dinner with at Gran Via, one of the major streets that runs through the heart of Madrid. After a rushed round of introductions that would be forgotten almost as soon as they happened, we were led into the throng of the crowd by one of Ricardo’s friends. In some ways the setup was similar to the pride celebrations in Paris: the narrow, traditional Europeans-style streets were packed with people, although while the Parisians had maintained an air of sophistication to their street party, the Spaniards seemed to be all about abandoning their inhibitions and letting out their wild sides. Everywhere you turned there was an elaborate costume, an excessive lack of clothing, or party goers who were simply losing themselves to the music that boomed through the streets. People were carrying drinks around as well, though rather than plastic cups that were provided by bars in Paris, most of the revellers were carrying around cans of beer. I questioned Ricardo on the legality of drinking in the streets, and yet again the answer was similar to what Greg’s had been in Paris.
“Well… it’s not really legal,” he said with a cheeky grin. “At least, not all the time. This weekend is a special exception. They catch you with beer tonight?” Ricardo shrugged and gave a laugh. “It’s pride!” As we squeezed through the crowds, he continued to school me. “Look out for the Chinamen,” he said with a giggle, as we passed gaggles of tiny Asian men and women pushing their way through and holding their own in the crowd, with their huge bags of cold beer which they were selling for €1 per can. Ricardo grabbed us a couple each and we kept making our way through the winding, twisted streets of the barrio (Spanish suburb) until our leader decided on a place to halt.

One of the numerous Asian people who were running around Chueca with their bags of beer cans.

One of the numerous Asian people who were running around Chueca with their bags of beer cans.

We were in Chueca, the gay barrio, but I wouldn’t have needed to read ahead in the Lonely Planet guide to know that that’s what it was. The air was thick with cologne, a sweet-smelling atmosphere that was almost as intoxicating as the beer in my system. After a while of drinking, chatting and flirting with the local Spanish boys, Ricardo pulled me away and into the crowd again, with some more of our party in tow. We emerged from one of the smaller streets into a huge plaza, where a huge stage had been set up. “There are stages like this all around the city,” Ricardo informed me. They were blasting out music that was echoing throughout the whole of Chueca, and probably beyond, and it was there that we danced the night away, under the stars on a hot and sweaty night in Madrid. Eventually the outdoor party came to a close, and I joined Ricardo and his friends as they walked back through the city to get a bite to eat. I spoke to quite a few people, telling them about my travels and helping them practice their English, but in the end the exhaustion that comes with a day of travel caught up to me, so I bid the group farewell and stumbled back to my hostel.

The street party raging in the middle of Chueca.

The street party raging in the middle of Chueca.

***

The hostel I was staying in seemed to have a strong social presence, unlike the place I had stayed in Paris, with parties and activities pretty much every day and night of the week. While it was a normal youth hostel and in no way specially marketed towards a gay clientele, they had organised a pride party on the rooftop balcony, which had been decked out with rainbow streamers and balloons and other gay-themed decorations. Normally I avoided hanging out too much with other tourists, but I hadn’t made any plans to meet Ricardo and his friends until later on in the evening, so in the afternoon I went upstairs to join the party. It was a little slow to pick up, and there was only one other gay person there – an American girl who was travelling with her brother and another friend of his. “I had no idea pride was going to be on this weekend,” I had confessed to her over a Blow Job, or one of the other custom cocktails named with appropriate innuendo. “But hey, I am certainly not complaining!”
“Wow, that’s such a lucky coincidence,” she’s said with a laugh. “We’re not specifically here for pride, but…” she glanced over to where her brother was sitting. “Let’s just say I do most of the planning, and I knew where I wanted to be, and exactly when I wanted to be there.”

Drinking games at the hostels pre-pride party.

Drinking games at the hostels pre-pride party.

I spoke to a few other people, including the inevitable Australians, of which there were plenty. The British girls who were working at the hostel tried to organise some drinking games, but I don’t think anyone was struggling to knock drinks them back. We were all sitting around in the blazing sun, so within a few hours most of the crowd was probably very dehydrated and well on their way to being wasted, myself included. Then at about 6 o’clock, the hostel workers rallied everyone up and prepared to take us down to the street where the gay pride parade was happening. I’d only been wearing thongs on my feet, since the partying on the roof had involved a few water fights, so as everyone was preparing to leave, I quickly ran back down to my dorm to put on some more comfortable walking shoes. Or at least, I thought it had been quickly. However, I returned outside to find the entire party was gone. I ran down onto the street in an attempt to follow them, but when I stumbled onto the street there was no sign of them in either direction. The pride party going, leaving behind 50% of its homosexual representatives. I would have been upset, until I realised that I hadn’t really planned on hanging out with the other tourists for the rest of the night anyway, so I set off to meet Ricardo and his friends.

After the afternoon of heaving drinking, I decided it would be a good idea to eat some food before I continued partying, to keep my energy up and hopefully soak up some of the booze. However, finding my way around the city proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated in my current state. Having absolutely no idea what street I was on, I stumbled into a Mexican eatery that was all but empty and plonked myself down at one of the tables towards the front of the restaurant. Those particular tables were quite low, more like coffee tables than dining tables, and seats weren’t proper chairs but sofas; low and comfortable to suit the table they surrounded. As I picked at the nachos that I had ordered, I found out just how comfortable those sofas were when I fell asleep on one. It hadn’t been an extremely long sleep, and I don’t think the waitress really minded, if she even noticed at all, but there had definitely been a solid lapse in my consciousness. I awoke with a startle, sat up with a yawn, attempted to finish the nachos which I really had no appetite for, and then finished up and left the restaurant. Ricardo hadn’t returned any of my messages, and I only had the vaguest idea of where I was supposed to be meeting him. Or where I even was myself, for that matter.

The streets were swarming with people – not just in Chueca this evening, but the entire city. I thought I had finally stumbled across the parade only to discover it was just one of the streets that had been closed for the parade, and the people walking along it were… well, I have no idea where they were going! To the parade? Away from the parade? Were they leading it or following it? It was completely chaotic – to top it off, the sheer volumes of people in the area had caused all the cellar networks to go down. I had no way of contacting any of my friends, and I was trapped in a seething mass of ridiculously good-looking gay men from all over the world… Okay, so I guess things could have been worse. I simply allowed myself to get lost in the moment, and flow with the crowd. Two hours later, after a few confusing phone calls and (apparently) dozens of undelivered text messages, I met up with Ricardo and his friends in time to catch the tail end of the parade. The floats rolled past as people cheered and screamed, and while it looked like it had been an awesome parade I didn’t feel too upset for not missing it. The parade was only half the event, and the following party was where the fun was really at. I followed Ricardo as someone led our group through the masses and we ended up at another one of the city’s major plazas. There we danced the night away again, and some of the guys taught me how to sing along to Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ in Spanish (“Me encanta!”). At around midnight the party was officially brought to a close, and police dispersed the crowds as the music came to an end. I’m sure that people in the know would have been able to direct me to some of the raging afterparties, but the day I had had had left me crying for my bed. I finished another day of pride exhausted but satisfied.

Saturday night party for Madrid pride.

Saturday night party for Madrid pride.

The city went to great lengths to decorate and prepare the city for the occasion.

The city went to great lengths to decorate and prepare the city for the occasion.

***

Sunday was the final night of the pride weekend. While I had had an amazing time dancing in the streets with the party goers, I was still keen to check out what the nightclubs of Spain really had to offer. I still don’t think my experiences in Barcelona were a true representation of Spanish nightlife, and while the main event of pride had been on Saturday, if I’d learnt anything in my short life it was that any main gay event is always followed up by a recovery party. Unfortunately Ricardo was heading out of Madrid to visit some family, so I once again turned to gay social networking apps in order to find a partner in crime. The city was still brimming with tourists, and I ended up meeting a German guy named Jansen, and we shared a few glasses of sangria as we hopped around some of the bars in Chueca, waiting for midnight, or whenever time it was deemed appropriate to hit up the nightclubs in Spain. We found it peculiar that a lot of the places were closing uncharacteristically early – one of the bars was rushing to have us out and close up by 11 o’clock, something I thought would be unheard of around here. We put it down to the fact it must have been the end of a very busy weekend, and they’d already completed the bulk of their trading.

We trawled the streets of Chueca, which were littered with banners and confetti and other rainbow remnants of last nights pride party, until we finally found a bar that I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide. It was called Studio 54, both named after and fashioned in replica of the famous New York bar, although when we stepped inside I felt that tiny ping of nostalgia that hits me whenever I walk into a gay bar anywhere in the world. Jansen and I squeezed through the crowds to the back of the club, where we each bought a beer and surveyed the scene, where hips were swayed and hands were being raised to Cher and Madonna and all the classic anthems. Jansen was a nice guy, but he was a little too serious for my liking, and after a couple of drinks I left him on the edge of the dance floor to mingle with the boys within. There was smoke and mirrors, shiny, sweaty bodies, and boy, some of those men could dance. There’s a certain Latin flair that goes into nearly every movement they make, so that even simple gestures come across as choreographed routines. I wouldn’t say I was a bad dancer, but I was positively clumsy compared to some of the men around me. I flirted, I danced, I drank, and I probably kissed a few guys – by this point of the weekend I was feeling so strung out that the whole thing was now simply a blur of beer, boys and body shimmer.

There was one particularly cute guy who I kept dancing with and even kissed a few times, but every now and then he kept running back to another guy who was even more good-looking than him, complete with a killer body and washboard abs. In a sea of this many half-naked Adonis’ it takes a lot to stand out, but whatever “it” is, this guy had buckets of it. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have a chance with either of them, and it wasn’t until 5am, when we were all ejected from the club and out into the street, that the cute guy told me the ridiculously good-looking one was actually his straight brother who he had brought out for a night at a gay bar. I was a little shocked by the revelation, and they were gone before I had a chance to say anything, so in the end I was strolling home with Jansen, the air of the dawn surprisingly warm as we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

Maybe it was fate, karma, or just dumb luck, but I’d had more fun partying in Madrid than I had thought physically possible. It was as though the universe was making up for the nightlife failure that had been my few nights out in Barcelona. While I actually hadn’t befriended too many locals the way I had in Paris, I’d still met a bunch of people through fleeting encounters that I will always half-remember through the drunken haze of a weekend that was Madrid Pride 2013.