Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

Advertisements

Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

IMG_4351

They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

Strippers and Drag Queens and Bears, Oh My!

One thing that I knew about Montreal, from my friends who had both visited and lived in the city, was that it was very gay. Even though everyone had told me about this ‘Gay Village’, I don’t think I was entirely prepared for it. I’ve seen the gay districts from Sydney to Madrid to London to New York, but I have to say that Rue Sainte-Catherine, the main street that runs through the area, was one of the gayest I have ever set foot in. Apparently during the summer months the entire section of the road becomes closed off to traffic, and the shops and cafés all spill out onto the street, and the swarms of people enjoying the summer really do turn the street into a camp little village in the middle of the city. Unfortunately I’d arrived at the beginning of autumn, so the cars were back on the roads, but that didn’t stop the vibe of the place from being incredibly gay, whether we were walking down the street during the day and checking out all the kinky shops and gay-friendly eating establishments, or out on the town after the sun had gone down, checking out the myriad of gay bars and clubs that Montreal had to offer.

***

During the week that I was in town, Stuart and I had several nights out in the village. On Wednesday evening we went to a bar called Cabaret Mado, the stomping ground of Mado, a drag queen who was apparently somewhat of a celebrity within the Montreal scene. There were a couple of amazing looking drag queens in the show, but there were also a disappointingly large amount of rather mediocre queens, and some who just looked downright awful. I had seen some extraordinary drag queens in New York City, and after some of my travels I like to think that the queens I know back in Sydney set the bar pretty high in terms of standards and expectations, but still so many of these Montrealian queens just didn’t cut it, in my opinion. There were a couple of humorous acts though, and the ones that didn’t take themselves too seriously almost always got the most favourable reaction, so I guess it goes both ways. There were also moments of audience participation – these were the times Wrecking Ball and the rise of the wild child Miley Cyrus, and she was bringing twerking to the attention of mainstream pop music. Stuart urged me to enter the twerking competition, and even one of the drag queens tried to coax me up on stage, but I told Stuart I was going to need a lot more alcohol before I was about bust out of my jeans and shake my butt on stage – not to mention the fact that I didn’t think I could twerk if my life depended on it.

However, it’s probably worth noting that a very large part of the show was in French – some of the songs the drag queens mimed to were in English, but other than a few sentences here and there, I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on in the dialogue and the obvious slapstick humour that was going on between the queens. Which I didn’t mind so much – I never have and never will expect to get special treatment for not knowing a native language – except that the lines that they did say in English, directed at a fellow Anglophone towards the front of the stage, seemed really rude and condescending (and Montreal technically is a bilingual city). I know throwing shade is typical conduct for many drag queens, but in this case it just seemed so unnecessary. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but it was the beginning of something that I came to notice more and more during my time in Montreal – most of the Francophones in the city were really arrogant when it came to their language. In fact, all the warnings that I’d been given about Parisian people being extremely rude could easily be applied to almost all the native French-speakers that I met in Montreal – and of course, all the people I had encountered in Paris had been nothing but lovely. I understand the French-speaking Canadians are striving to preserve the language within the region, but I don’t think it gives them the right to be such jerks about it.

Regardless of how nice the drag queens were – or weren’t – Stuart and I stayed and watched most of the show. While we were there in Cabaret Mado, we also ran into some people that Stuart knew from back in Calgary. As it turns out, one of them was the owner of the only gay bar in Calgary, Stuart’s hometown, and him and his small group were also enjoying a week away in Montreal. We ended up sticking with them most of the night, and after the drag show had finally finished (I have to admit, even when they were performing songs in English, it lost it’s entertainment value pretty quickly), we followed the guys next door to see a different kind of show. With the exception of some of the kinkier places I visited in Berlin and I guess that one dodgy time in Thailand, I’d never actually been to a male strip club – come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conventional strip club for either gender, so I guess it was a first for me when Stuart’s friends took us to the nearby Stock Bar. The interior of Stock Bar looked like a typical gentlemen’s lounge, with a bar to one side and a floor full of polished wooden tables and chairs situated in front of a stage that was edged with red velvet curtains. At the end of the catwalk that protruded from the stage and into the audience was a pole. We bought some drinks and sat down, and it wasn’t long before there were guys emerging from behind the curtains to come up to the pole and show off their… um, “muscles”.

The guys all had great bodies, and a fair few of them were pretty cute, but… most of them were pretty boring to watch. I was excited at first, thinking that they were going to strip down to their underwear, get up on the pole and do some impressive moves. Some of the guys did a little trick here and there, holding on and spinning around before pulling down their jeans, but most of them did these weird movements that I guess was supposed to be sexy dancing while trying to maintain some level of macho masculinity. They hardly touched the pole, and if they did it was just to lean back on something in an attempt to look… sexy, I guess? The result was truly laughable. It wasn’t masculine, and it wasn’t sexy. It was just awkward to watch, and I shovelled my face full with the free popcorn from the bar in order to stop myself from giggling. Some guys kept a little mystery, their tight underwear still clinging to them as they strutted back behind the curtains, but plenty of them left nothing to the imagination, and full frontal nudity was rife. Our newfound companions kept nagging me, asking which ones I liked, saying they would pay one of them to give me a private dance. I couldn’t take any of them seriously, though – when I couldn’t decide they ended up dragging us to the other strip bar, Campus, but at that stage of the night there was hardly anyone there, and nobody was performing.

I’m one of the last people in the world that anyone would consider a prude, but I decided that sitting in a dark room watching people dance in the hopes of earning your money, in addition to your attention, was just not something that I was interested in. They weren’t even very good dancers, and seeing how underused that pole was, and all that missed potential, was actually partially what inspired me to take up pole dancing lessons when I arrived back home in Sydney. Stuart and I walked home together that night, and stopped at McDonalds on the way, an ending that was weirdly anti-climatic – yet somehow still preferred – after an evening of drag queens and strippers.

***

However, by the time the weekend rolled around we were ready to go a little harder and party a little bit more. Stuart and I stayed in two different hostels while we were in Montreal, so on Friday afternoon we checked out of the first one and walked a short way across town to the second one we had made reservations for, which happened to be conveniently located a lot closer to the Gay Village – a perfect way to kick off the weekend. We started off our Friday night at Sky Bar, where we had actually had our afternoon beers earlier in the week, as they had $2.50 drink specials. We met up with a couple of Stuarts friends who were living in Montreal, but unfortunately they were just passing through or too busy to stay for long, or had to be up early in the morning so couldn’t stay too long. A lot of the weekend was a carousel of faces and names of Stuart’s various acquaintances who were all lovely but none of whom I really got to well enough for them to leave any kind of impression. That’s a pretty lame way of confessing that I don’t remember any of their names, but hey, there was a lot of alcohol involved so it’s not really that surprising. There was also a sizeable dance floor on the upper levels of Sky Bar, so after his friends had departed Stuart and I left the chilled out ground floor for the upper floors where the party antics had kicked in.

It was dark and smokey, with fog machines and laser lights and the electro-pop thumping in the atmosphere of the room. After we had been moving around for a while, a young, shirtless, skinny blonde guy pulled me up onto the podium where he was dancing and urged me to stay and join him. I won’t try and transcribe what was ultimately a lot of drunken conversational dribble, but he eventually coaxed me into joining him in his shirtless-ness. He didn’t seem to be hitting on me at all though, but rather just wanted someone to dance with. Eventually he pointed across the room towards the bar, where a significantly older gentleman was standing with a couple of guys who were younger than himself but obviously older than my skinny blonde dancing partner.
“That’s my boyfriend over there,” he shouted as he leaned into me, so he could be heard above the music. “Let’s go say hi!” He pulled me down off the podium to follow him, and I managed to grab hold of Stuart, who had stuck relatively close to the podium where I was, and dragged him over with me. I didn’t like where the foreseeable future of this situation was going, and I was definitely not going into it alone. Of course, the boyfriend was very wealthy and very generous. He bought everyone shots and drinks, including Stuart and myself, and I guess we hung around them for as long as we had to before we could leave without seeming too rude. It was so bizarre, though – in fact, I probably wouldn’t have believed it had happened if I didn’t have a hotel address and a bunch of phone numbers saved into the notes on my iPhone, which I rediscovered in the morning. They had invited us to join them at a party the following evening, but Stuart and I were both pretty skeptical. I wasn’t particularly keen to be offered up as bait for the sugar daddy, so we took our leave as soon as physically possible. And no, we didn’t attend the party the following night.

We did, however, have another destination that Friday night – just down the road from Sky Bar was a nightclub called Apollon. It had always been our original intention to end up there, so after we had slipped away from the sugar daddy, his mates and his boy toy, we headed down the street. It was a huge place with both upstairs and downstairs rooms, playing various styles of pop and house music respectively. I guess by this stage we were drunk enough to not be too fussed about the music – at least, I knew that I was ready to dance. We chatted with some bartenders, got some drinks, and hit the dance floor. Downstairs next to the pool tables I also discovered a machine that dispensed free – yes, free! – popcorn, and in my intoxication it was exactly what I wanted and needed. We danced the rest of the night away, but one other crazy thing that happened was that we met someone that we knew from Sydney. I’d only bumped into Sam a handful of times on the gay scene back home, but when you unexpectedly run into someone you know on the other side of the world, it’s always kind of a big deal.
“I knew you were travelling – I mean, it’s impossible to not know by now – but I didn’t realise you were coming to Canada! What are the odds, hey?” Sam was visiting Montreal with his Canadian boyfriend, and we had brief introductions and catch ups before returning to the dance floor. It was a fun night, but also a messy one. Drinks were bought. Boys were kissed. Names were uttered but soon forgotten, and Stuart and I did not walk home together that night. In fact, by the time I was heading back to the hostel it was broad daylight, an obvious walk of shame through the village from wherever the taxi had taken us last night. I frantically tried to memorise directions and street names from Google Maps as my iPhone battery teetered on the edge of depletion, but at least I had learnt an important cultural lesson about French-Canada: not all of the Francophones were that bad.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

***

After an attempt to not make Saturday a complete write-off, Stuart and I were pretty exhausted come Saturday evening. But it was the only weekend that we had in Montreal, so there was no way we were going to not go out, so we had a quick afternoon power nap before getting ready to head out again. Stuart was trying his best to get to me see every single gay bar in Montreal, or at least in the Gay Village, and in the end I think he was pretty successful. At the beginning of the evening I was sitting on my bed in our hostel, waiting for Stuart to get ready. I was sitting with my legs crossed, and at one point when Stuart turned to say something to me, I saw a shocked expression wash over his face.
“What?” I asked, puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you sure you want to wear those jeans?”
I looked down into my lap, and sighed. “Oh… well…” I had been aware of a tiny hole in the crutch of my jeans, and I was slightly aware that it had been continually expanding with everyday use – I only had 2 pairs of jeans with me, and as the weather had started to get colder I was usually always wearing at least one of them. The position I was sitting in stretched the hole in such a way that you could see an excessive amount of my inner upper thigh and the underwear around it. “Goddamn it!”
“They have needles and thread downstairs,” Stuart informed me. “If you know how to sew you could try and patch it up yourself.”
I considered it for a moment. I’d learnt how to sew, back in high school textiles classes, and before that as a Boy Scout, and while I didn’t remember anything too specific, I figured it couldn’t be too hard. I so slipped into my other jeans and headed down to the hostel common room where I found a wall of communal needles and thread that could be used for clothing repairs.
I obviously didn’t do a very good job, because I earned a few sniggers from Stuart when I returned.
“Just… why did you use white thread?” he asked me through his laughter. They were black jeans, and I guess I hadn’t really considered the fact that a white repair seam was going to stick out like a sore thumb. In the end I had also just thrown in random stitches across the whole thing in the hopes it would hold as long as possible. I’d successfully closed the hole though, and that was all I needed from them for tonight.

My... ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

My… ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

We headed over to Rue Sainte-Catherine for dinner, and afterwards our first stop was a bar called L’Aigle Noir (French for ‘Black Eagle’). We had plans to crash a university party that we’d heard about a little later in the evening, but it was still relatively early, so we went on over to L’Aigle Noir for a beer, and to continue our quest on visiting as many of Montreal’s gay establishments as we could. What Stuart either failed to tell me, or I’d failed to hear when he did, was that it was actually a leather bar. Not strictly leather in that there was a dress code you had to abide by, but a large majority of the patrons were kitted up in their full leather gear: boots, jeans, shirts, hats, jackets – the works. Having worked in a leather and fetish store back in Australia, it wasn’t a sight that particularly surprised me, although the atmosphere in a bar is very different to that of a retail store. Stuart and I got some beers and sat by ourselves and one of the high tables with bar stools, taking in the scenery. There was definitely a lot of cruising going on, with guys coming up rather close to one another to check them out. Stuart and I weren’t exceptions to this, but part of me wondered whether they were actually checking us out, or just looking at us with annoyance or disdain, since we clearly weren’t regulars, or obvious members of the scene in any way. It felt like the equivalent to a bridal party or hens night crashing a gay bar, where every gay man in the bar rolls his eyes, tired of having their regular venue treated like a zoo for straight people.

There were also television screens all over the bar showing hardcore porn scenes, many of which were pretty kinky.
“I bet you wish you hadn’t sewn up that hole in your jeans now,” Stuart said with a chuckle when he noticed me watching.
“Hey! I’m just trying to not make too much awkward eye contact with all the bears in here,” I shot back at him. When I’d seen cruising bars like this in Berlin, with porn screens and dark rooms and all those dirty delights, I thought it had been something almost unique – a liberal Berliner, or even European, attitude towards sex. However, the more places that I visited during my travels, the more I thought that it just seemed like Australia was the odd one out, the place where venues like this either didn’t exist, or were so far underground and secretive, as opposed to being a busy and bustling bar on a main nightlife street. While I doubt I would be a regular customer to a bar like this if it ever did exist in Sydney, I knew plenty of people who would, and it made me sad to think that my hometown and city paled into a publicly prudish place compared to the rest of the world.
I won’t lie, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself, making eyes with some of the scruffy, leather clad gentlemen. In the end it was Stuart who was urging that we should leave – as though I was the one who had dragged him there in the first place – so we finished our beers and departed for our next destination.

In a weird twist of fate, L’Aigle Noir was probably the place I enjoyed the most that evening. Stuart and I walked all the way down to the other end of the village to where some Halloween themed university party was being held. It was no more than a year since either of us had graduated, so we didn’t think we would look that out of place. And we weren’t, really… but the party still sucked. We didn’t know anyone, but the whole thing was very cliquey – groups of friends hanging out, people trying to be cooler than each other and acting really exclusive. We tried to mingle, but in the end it was just really boring, so we bailed and headed back to the heart of the village, where there was one more venue that we were yet to visit. The nightclub Unity was a few doors down from Cabaret Mado, and it was packed that evening. It wasn’t anything too special, just your average gay bar with strong drinks and a nice mash-up of pop and house music, but the night before was starting to catch up with us, and neither Stuart or I were in the mood to party too hard. I don’t even remember how long we stayed there before we decided to call it quits, but it can’t have been too late because we ended up stopping off at one last place on the way home.

“Do you wanna go back to Stock Bar?” Stuart put the idea forward, saying that he hadn’t really enjoyed it as much with his club owner friends from Calgary around us the whole time, jeering us on and just emanating sleaze. While I’d found the whole concept of the male strippers a little laughable, I conceded that it might be a different experience this time, so we left Unity and walked to the other end of the block were Stock Bar was located. It was a little busier on a Saturday night than it had been during the week, and there were a lot more dancers. Stuart and I took a seat right near the front, because hell, why not? If the strippers weren’t going to be shy, why should we? There were actually some very good looking guys that evening, and I found myself blushing as a few of them made prolonged eye contact with me during their performances. They were all obviously very fit, but there was one guy in particular who actually had a few skills and tricks that he did on the pole, which is what impressed me more than anything. After their performances, some of the guys would come down into the crowd to help take drinks to some of the tables, and to chat to some of the guys. I don’t know, maybe Stuart and I were a bit younger than some of the regular customers, because they all seemed to be drawn to us.

I wasn’t under the delusion that all of these dancers were gay – as it turned out, none of them were – and I know they were just doing their job. Still, I’m not ashamed to say I flirted with them a little.
“Are you guys from around here?” one of the cuter ones – and the one who had some pole skills – said as he sat down next to us. I told him Stuart was from the other side of Canada, and I was from Australia.
“Wow! Australia? That’s so far away!” He leaned forward and put his hand on my leg as he said it, and I couldn’t help but smile. He was super attractive, but I found the whole thing so ridiculously corny that it was all I could do to not burst out into giggles. But I held my poker face as he not so subtly got a little more hands on, and in the end he leaned over and asked me: “So, are you interested in having a private show?”
“Ahh… thank you, but no, not really my thing.” I don’t know if he was disappointed or not, but he took the rejection gracefully. “However,” I said before he could move on, “my friend Stuart here is definitely interested.” We’d both been ogling him, and Stuart had said he’d love to get a private show with him, so before I knew it the two of them were whisked away to the back rooms. I don’t know exactly what happened back there, but I just chuckled to myself while I waited and made more coy eye contact with the remaining strippers.

***

We made our way back to the hostel after it was all over, and so concluded our experiences with the Montreal nightlife for the weekend. It had certainly been a wide and varied experience, and we had seen the gay scene from one end of the spectrum to the other, visiting almost every bar in the Gay Village. I guess I liked the fact that, like Sydney, most of the gay attractions and venues were all located in a big flaming homosexual district, which made getting around and seeing them all much easier. I would love to return to Montreal in the summer one day and experience the village in all its livelihood, but I can still say that I ended this visit feeling particularly satisfied with my experience.

Last Call: London Leftovers

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Camden.

Camden.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

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

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

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

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

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

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

***

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

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

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

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

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

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

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

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

East London is a Vampire

I’d seen the museums of London, and I’d taken day trips to old historic towns, but there was only so much I could see of a city before, like a moth to the flame, I was drawn out of my comfy apartment to venture into the gay nightlife. For me, the most notable thing about the scene in London was that there really wasn’t just one scene. Back in Sydney the gay bars are mostly concentrated around Oxford St, with a smattering of more alternative venues in Newtown and the Inner West. Going out, both at home and in many of the other cities I’d been to, was simply a matter of asking “Where is the gay district?” and heading there. I would soon learn that London, given the vastness of the city, had several gay districts, and the question became one of ‘which’ rather than ‘where’. I’d spoken to a few people and picked up some maps around Soho in order to navigate my way through the sprawling districts – other than the central hub of Soho, there were clusters of gay bars in Vauxhall, Clapham, Camden and Shoreditch. Vauxhall was the next biggest scene after Soho, and the rest were smaller pockets of gay venues around London, which I can only assume came into existence and developed due to the sheer size of London, and that people didn’t want to travel all the way into Soho every time they went out for a drink. While I was quite keen to eventually check out the nightlife in Soho, I’d been told that some of the nightlife around Shoreditch, a district in the Borough of Hackney, was a younger crowd and more alternative, and something that I would probably enjoy. It was conveniently close to where I was staying in Hackney, and so one Thursday evening I set out to a nightclub called East Bloc.

***

It was my first night out by myself in London, and if was definitely a matter of trial and error. I had talked to a few people about the nightclub culture around London, and it wasn’t too different from what I was used to back home. Normally we have a lot of drinks beforehand, either at someones house or at a bar where the drinks are moderately priced. So I honestly can’t tell you what possessed me to catch a bus to Old Street Station and rock up to the nightclub by myself at about 11 o’clock. The bouncers kept a straight face as they checked my ID and waved me on through (it was free entry at East Bloc that night), but they surely would have been laughing on the inside. I made my way down the entrance steps into the club to find… nothing. Well, not nothing, but definitely no one. Apart from a couple of staff behind the bar, the place was literally empty. I did a quick loop of the place to see if there was something I was missing, but nope, it was just a tiny venue of which I was the first patron of the evening. There were £2.50 house spirit and £2 shots all night, and for a moment I contemplated just staying there and having a drink and waiting, or getting wasted on cheap shots until everyone else finally arrived. But I had no idea how long it would be before the club became full, and I had come out by myself with the goal of meeting some new people and socialising, so in the end I took my leave from the club to find the other gay-friendly East London watering holes.

It was then that I discovered something else rather different about London nightlife. Venues very distinctly fall into the categories of ‘bars’ and ‘clubs’, and almost without exception, the bars close at midnight. Clubs stay open a lot longer, and are the places where everyone usually heads to after they’ve been kicked out of the bars at closing time. This explained why East Bloc had resembled a ghost town when I had arrived just after 11 o’clock, only half an hour after the venue had actually opened. What’s worse is that I had known all this previously, and yet had still made a beeline for the club. So now I found myself heading back up Old Street towards Hackney Road, where there were two gay pubs that I had seen on my map: George and Dragon, and The Joiners Arms. Unfortunately, by the time I reached either of the pubs, it was closer to midnight than it was to eleven, and there was a steady stream of people who were being escorted out of the pubs and moved along down the street. No one was going inside the bars, and it was with grim resignation that I realised I had completely messed up the planning of my Shoreditch trip – I had arrived just too early for the nightclub, but far too late to do any drinking in the bars. As I result, I stood there, stone cold sober on a damp, chilly London street, with no real idea of what to do next.

That was when I remembered yet another cultural difference in London, but this time it was one that worked in my favour. In Australia, all our alcohol is sold from dedicated liquor stores, or bottle shops as we call them. In London you can easily pick up a few cans of beer from a corner store or a supermarket, so that was exactly what I did. Alcohol sales cease at midnight, so I ran to the closest convenience store and bought myself two pints of Heineken in cans. It wasn’t exactly classy, but hell, I was a backpacker. I had worn my tired, dirty outfits in the nightclubs of Paris, so I definitely wasn’t above sitting in a gutter in East London and downing a litre of beer before heading back to the nightclub I had originally been at and praying that a few more people had arrived since I had last been there.

And thankfully, there was. It wasn’t exactly packed, but there was definitely a sizeable crowd milling around the bar section, although the dance floor remained rather sparse. I people watched for a little bit, scanning the room. A pair of British guys began chatting to me,  and started asking a bunch of questions when they realised I was a foreigner, but they were quite drunk already – they had been at George and Dragon earlier – and their wavering attention led them elsewhere. I also got a free drink from one of the bartenders. After I ordered my drink, he went off to go and make it, but when he returned and I tried to pay, he just shook his head and waved away my change. I was slightly confused – I hadn’t even been flirting or talking to him, and I thought that there had potentially been a mix up between the staff. But I just couldn’t find anyone to take my money, so in the end I just accepted the stroke of fortune, tossed a few coins in the tip jar and continued on my way. I chatted here and there, talking to some people, avoiding others, and after enough £2 shots I finally hit the dance floor. The event, called Boy Trouble, described the music as “non-stop double-drop pop, Italo, house and anything else that tickles your pickle”, which was an ultimately unhelpful description but it turned out to be a pretty fun soundtrack for the evening. There were some new songs, some classics, some that I didn’t recognise and some to which I had secret choreography planned in the back of my head. Throughout the night I had been making eyes with a guy, and we ended up bumping hips and lips on the dance floor. We encountered some difficulties when we tried to speak to each other, partially because of the loud music, but partially because of our accents. It turns out his name was Yitav, and he was not English as I would have assumed, but on holidays in London visiting from Israel. I can only assume my Australian accent was just as shocking for him when he first heard it. He was there was a friend though, and I started to feel bad, like we might be making a bit of a third wheel out of him, so I got him to come and dance with us, and we played wingman until he finally ended up hooking up with a man of his own. We stayed for a little bit longer, but eventually Yitav and I slipped out of the club and into a minicab.

***

I spent the night at the apartment that Yitav and his friend Guy were renting through AirBnB, a trendy little two bedroom near Chancery Lane. In the morning we awoke to discover that Guy had brought his own lover home, a guy named Tristan who was originally from New York but now lived in Berlin, though he was spending some time abroad (from being abroad?) in London. After awkward introductions between trips to the bathroom, the four of us headed out into a gloomy London day to have a late breakfast. Guy and Yitav told me more about where they lived in Tel Aviv and about life in Israel, and we asked Tristan about living in Berlin.
“Do you go to that club… that… Berg… Berg-” Guy began to ask.
“Berghain? No, I’m not a tourist!” Tristan said it in an almost playful way, though his tone made me believe he wasn’t really joking. I bit my tongue and just laughed along. I had loved my time in Berghain. Whatever, I played the tourist card. You can’t avoid it forever.

It was a really fun morning though. Guy and Yitav were travelling through London and Amsterdam, a tour that they had planned so as to see a couple of gigs of their favourite DJs. They were in holiday mode too, so we were all pretty chilled out, and Tristan had this sassy, camp energy about him that was almost infectious, and you couldn’t help but laugh and smile when you were in his company. I headed back home after our late breakfast, but I ended up catching up with Yitav, Guy and Tristan again during some of my final days in London, having a few cocktails on a Sunday night which turned into drinking all night in their apartment. Yitav told me I was welcome to come visit him in Tel Aviv if I ever made it to Israel in my travels, and while my route for this world trip would ultimately be taking me in the wrong direction, I’m not one to cross off a travel destination before I’ve been there, so I guess Israel is a new addition to the wish list. I would never have expected that to happen after a night out in Shoreditch, but there you go. The vast array of people that I met and befriended on my travels only continued to amaze me, and I look forward to the day in the future where I will eventually get to meet them all again.