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.

New York Nights: reflections under the disco ball

I’d done my fair share of nightlife exploring when I was in New York City, although I think it’s safe to say I barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. It’s just too big, and there’s too much going on, that I doubt you could see it all in a year, let alone a month. However, one thing I think that I can safely assert from my brief time there is that you really have to have a plan of attack, and know where the parties of the evening are and where you want to go. Despite having a huge amount of fun on my birthday – probably due to the company I was with than the places I went to – it’s hard to deny that the night was in a relatively high degree shambles due to a lack of planning. We just drank ourselves stupid and gallivanted around Hell’s Kitchen hoping for the best. But the following weekend I was celebrating Ralf’s birthday with him, and since he doesn’t drink, I too drank considerably less, and therefore my experiences of the nightlife were substantially different. Possibly due to the fact that I simply remember a lot more, but what’s a few shots between four hour memory blanks?

Being the Berliner that he is, Ralf was never in a rush to get to any of the parties on time. I had to negotiate a happy medium of not leaving too early, but not leaving so late that we were stuck in hour long queues around the block just to get inside. In the absence of alcohol I ended up drinking quite a bit of Red Bull to keep myself pumped up until it was finally time to get going. I’d done some event scouting through some of the promoters who I’d come across on my earlier nights out in New York, which is how Ralf and I eventually found ourselves at VIVA – supposedly the biggest Saturday night gay party in Manhattan. It was where Jesse and I considered going the previous week, but… well… that obviously didn’t happen. Anyway, VIVA was supposed to be incredible, multiple floors full of hot guys, strong drinks and good music. Ralf didn’t seem as keen on the idea of pop music, but I gave him a playful shove and told him to leave his Berlin attitude at the door. He agreed that as long he could dance, he would be happy.

And for what it’s worth, it was pretty great party. As the evening continued on the place became packed, and under the giant disco balls and flashing lights writhed a sea of sweaty, shirtless homosexuals. Ralf and I started out dancing together, but during one of my excursions to the bar I lost him, and since we were both foreigners neither of our phones worked particularly well. I kept my eye out for him, but eventually resigned to the fact that I had lost him in the sea of hot and sticky flesh, so I continued dancing on my own.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

A packed out evening at VIVA Saturdays.

***

At some point in the evening I took a break from the dancing, and retreated to the upstairs level, with an open balcony that looked down over the dance floor below. I perched over the edge of the railing and peered down below, trying to see if I could spot Ralf among the crowd. There were just too many people though, and my efforts were futile. After a while of standing there, a man beside me tapped me on the shoulder.
“Hey… I think I recognise your face. Did I see you here last week?”
I had barely paid any attention to the man standing there, so I turned to look at his face, which was completely unfamiliar.
“No… No, I don’t think we’ve met.”
“Really? I could swear I saw you here last week?”
Internally I smirked at what was an obvious pick up line, but instead I just politely smiled. “I’m afraid that’s impossible. I wasn’t here last week.”
He laughed, almost a little embarrassed. “Okay, I lied. I’ve never seen you either. Though I’m glad I’ve seen you now…” It was also at that point, I think, that he noticed my accent. “You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Nope. Sydney, Australia.”
“Ah, Australian. Nice.” He then turned to face the out towards the crowd. “So what do you think of the party? Having fun?”
I turned to look down at the dance floor, examining all the dancing bodes, still no sign of Ralf. “Yeah, it’s pretty a cool. Huge space.”
“Anything like this in Sydney?”
“Well…” I had to reflect back on Oxford Street, my nights at ARQ, and the countless nights I’d danced away there. “Sort of, but… not really. Not like this. This is different.”
He smiled to himself, then turned back to face me. “The go go dancers are about to start upstairs. Have you been up there?”
“There’s another level?” This place as bigger than I had realised. The man just chuckled at that.
“Would you like a drink?”

Dancing under disco balls.

Dancing under disco balls.

I’d given up on ever finding Ralf again this evening, so I decided to go with him and accept the offer. He was a bit older than me, and nothing that special to look at, but I was quite enjoying the banter we had going between us. On the way to the bar he said he had to make one more stop. The next thing I knew, I was sitting in the DJ booth and sound control box while he was talking to a few people who looked like they were in control of whatever displays were going on out over the dance floor. It didn’t quite sink in at first, but in retrospect it should have been pretty obvious why this guy was asking probing questions about how much I liked the event – we was one of the major event coordinators and promoters. He gave me the grand tour of the whole venue, and we chatted to each other for a long time. He had a lot of questions, and myself and what I was doing, and he seemed to be impressed by whatever charisma I managed to exhibit.

“So, what brings you to New York, Robert?”
“I’m just travelling around. Backpacking. Only here for one more week.”
He seemed genuinely disappointed. “That’s a shame. You seem like a really cool guy. You know, if you were staying, I think there’d definitely be a place on my staff for you.”
I scoffed at that. “What, really? As a promoter? Why?”
“I think you’d be great. You seem interesting, but real. Not pretentious. We try to throw great parties, but the one thing we’re not is pretentious.” The conversation was partially lost in the music that throbbed in the air around us, but I found his assertions a little hard to swallow. All throughout my numerous nights out in New York, ‘pretentious’ was definitely a word that stuck out in my mind as a perfect adjective to describe what I’d seen, especially in the gay bars and parties. The way everyone in these clubs and parties seemed to carry themselves, the way they talked, the way they danced like they were God’s gift to gay men – there was just something about the nightlife I’d experienced that almost turned me off it completely. It was almost as though everyone was trying too hard to impress everyone else to even have any real fun. But perhaps that was just me overanalysing everything, because this guy seemed completely genuine when we assured me they were all about keeping it real.

Maybe it was because I grew up in a comparatively small city – not everyone in Sydney has moved from the suburbs in a dreamy pursuit of fame, fashion, riches and glory. At a previous night out with Jesse and Georgia, at an event that I guess had been organised by the guy I was now speaking to, I’d chatted with a guy who was attending.
“Yeah, I didn’t really nice Sydney. It was boring,” he told me when I mentioned where I was from.
“Oh, well… yeah I guess sometimes you just have to know where to go, right?” I maintained composure, but tried to come to the city’s defence. “Some places are better than other at certain times. I mean, I’ve had some average nights out here, just because I didn’t really know what I was doing.”
“No,” he just replied, with a sour, bored look on his face. “It was just wasn’t very good.”
And that really annoyed me. Sure, Sydney is no New York, but it had been my home for the past 22 years and I’d had some amazing nights out on the town there, and had more fun than I could possibly quantify. And I certainly wasn’t going to let some perpetually pouting wannabe model who probably grew up in Nebraska tell me that my hometown was objectively boring based on his sole experiences. I think it was at that moment that I was well and truly over the attitude of arrogance that I was finding among so many people that I met in New York, particularly in these gay venues. There was so much inflated self-importance that you could have gathered the heads of everyone in the room and used them in place of helium balloons at a child’s birthday party.

But here, at VIVA, I found myself with a guy who seemed so genuine in his belief that there was nothing pretentious in the way they flaunted their parties, and that they were just there to have a good time, and not necessarily impress anyone. I guess it really is a subjective matter, and I won’t claim that all these parties or all these people are the same. This was just my experience. He was a nice enough guy all the same, and at the end of the night I even got a behind-the-scenes tour of the building before heading back to his place in Chelsea with him to crash. I slept there for most of the morning and afternoon, mostly because it was so unbelievably quiet compared to Melissa’s apartment in Midtown.

***

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The Empire State Building at night, as Ralf and I headed out for a night of dancing.

The following evening I headed out again with Ralf, this time settling for some of the regular bars rather than any big parties that were going on for the Labor Day long weekend. The guy I’d met last night offered to get me on a list to whatever party he was throwing that night, but I politely declined, mostly knowing I wanted to spend more time with Ralf, but also because I don’t think I could take another event like that. I met Ralf, and he told me how he had ended up at some after party the previous evening. We ended up going to Industry, where I had been at some point on the night of my birthday. I have to admit that as impressive at the big parties and been, I much preferred dancing to trashy 90s pop – cue eye roll from Ralf – in a regular gay bar, there the resident drag queen started a conga line and interrupted the regular DJ program to host yet another twerking contest, a fad that was taking the world by storm at the time. But it got me thinking that maybe the party promoters weren’t pretentious. Maybe it was just me, and that simply wasn’t my scene. Maybe I was just a simple boy from a relatively modest city who likes a simple bar and the simple pleasures of dancing with a friend without feeling like I’m competing to be the hottest piece of meat on the dance floor. Maybe I’m just not ready for the likes of New York City. But if that’s what I was missing out on, then I guess I’m okay with that.

Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made

Upon returning to New York City from my brief trip to New Jersey, it hit me that this was going to be my very last week in New York, and the next time I left the Big Apple it was going to be with all my worldly possessions in tow, and no future return date in sight. There were a few tourist attractions and activities that I was yet to see and do – partly because I might have been a little bit lazy, but also because I was waiting for a fellow tourist to see and do them with. Back in Berlin, as well as talking about my previous travels, I’d also chatted to Ralf about my travel plans for the future.
“And then after the UK it’s off to the USA! I’m going to have my birthday in New York with one of my best friends.” At the time, I thought it was only Georgia who I was going to be seeing for my birthday – I was completely oblivious to my planned birthday surprise.
“Ah, very nice,” Ralf said with a smile. “I’ve also got a trip planned to New York later this year, actually. I’ll also be there for my birthday.”
“Really? When is your birthday?”
“October 9th.”
“No way! Mine’s October 6th!” And that was how Ralf and I discovered that, completely by chance, we were both going to be in New York at the same time. I guess that’s why when we said farewell in Amsterdam after our weekend at pride, it didn’t really feel like goodbye. We both knew it was simply ‘See you in a few months!’

***

So the afternoon that I arrived back in New York, I helped Melissa carry some things she had brought home from New Jersey up to her apartment, but then set off to meet Ralf for the afternoon. He was staying with a friend over in Chelsea, so we decided to meet at The High Line. The High Line is an old train line that has been converted into a long park that stretches more than two kilometres down the western side of Manhattan. I’d visited it a couple of times during my time in New York – once by myself and once with Jesse – but it’s a beautiful place that sits above the hustle and bustle of street level, offering views of the city, yet somehow also a peacefulness that comes with your removal from it, so I didn’t mind returning for another visit.

It was a little surreal to meet up with Ralf again. Meeting him a second time in Berlin had felt relatively normal, since that was where we’d first met, but to sneak up behind him and surprise him on a street corner in lower Manhattan felt like I’d found a glitch in the universe or something. But we hugged like old friends before proceeding to climb the stairs and walk along the High Line, catching each other up on the last few months while taking in the scenery and the artwork that was spread out along the thin, narrow park.

The New York City High Line.

The New York City High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

That afternoon was actually Ralf’s birthday, and although he was trying to not make a big deal about turning 40, I managed to convince him he at least needed a cake, which we shared that evening with the friends who he was staying with. It was still early in the week though, and we decided we’d wait for the weekend before going out dancing to celebrate.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

***

The next couple of days I caught up with Ralf again to do a bit of final sightseeing in New York City. We decided that we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and possibly explore some of Brooklyn. The following day we arranged to meet at a halfway point between both our homes and go from there. We met at Maddison Square Park, but when I started to brainstorm how we could get to lower Manhattan to cross the bridge over to Brooklyn, Ralf said, “Why don’t we walk?”
“Uhhh…” I was hesitant. “It’s kind of a long way?”
“I’m not that old yet,” he joked. “We’re both fit and healthy, right?”
“Uh… sure, yeah. I guess we can walk. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

As it turns out, Ralf has a horrible sense of direction and geographical awareness. I can’t really tell you how we came to the decision, but we decided to walk to the edge of the island and then head south along the bank of the East River. There were some nice views of the various bridges, but when I kept checking our location via the blinking blue dot on the Google Maps app, I was concerned at how little progress we were making in the scheme of things as we walked along. Don’t get me wrong – it was actually a nice walk, and we talked and caught up the whole time, but October was coming along and the days weren’t as warm as they had been when I’d first hit the east coast of the USA. This day in particular was a little bit chilly with a fair bit of wind.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there's almost always something interesting to see.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there’s almost always something interesting to see.

To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to get to the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. At which point we had to stop and rest our feet for a little while.
“Why didn’t you tell it was such a long walk?” Ralf said with a cheeky smile, and I just rolled my eyes and told myself I’d probably needed the exercise. And then we set out to cross the bridge, which actually offers some beautiful views of Downtown Manhattan and the Financial District.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge itself is no walk in the park, and we even had to stop halfway across, partly to enjoy the views but also because we had been on our feet and walking for quite a few hours now. By the time we reached Brooklyn it was already starting to get late in the afternoon. After finding a place to eat and having an extremely late lunch, we were both too exhausted to do too much more walking.
“And we are definitely taking the subway back to Manhattan,” I said sternly when we decided to head home. I wouldn’t make the mistake of listening to Ralf’s judgements of distance again, plus I’d grown so accustomed to the NYC subway over the last month, I found it almost comforting. And as for Brooklyn itself, I never really got another chance to explore it. However, I knew that this was only my first time in New York, and definitely not my last, so I vowed to explore the streets of Brooklyn next time I visited the Big Apple.

Welcome to Brooklyn!

***

Ralf and I spent another afternoon heading down to the southern tip of Manhattan (via the subway this time, of course) to make a trip even further south on the Staten Island Ferry. Melissa used to live on Staten Island, and while everyone had assured me that there wasn’t a lot to do there, it was a nice (and free) ferry ride which once again provided excellent views of the Financial District in all it’s tall and shiny glory.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

A few people had told me that it wasn’t worth sticking around on Staten Island, and that once they’d herded you off the boat it was better to just turn around and march right back on. Defiant and determined to find something actually likeable about Staten Island, Ralf and I decided to had have a wander around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Staten Island, it’s just that Manhattan (because Staten Island technically is still part of New York City) is hard act to follow. Most of Staten Island just seemed to be residential. There weren’t even that many shops – just a corner store here and there and a café or two. There’s is a museum on the island, at least, but it didn’t seem to be that interesting, and we weren’t even going to go inside. But as we turned to walk away, a woman came running out to tell us that entrance was free after 5pm, so we shrugged our shoulders and headed back for a quick scope around, and learnt a little bit about the history of the ferry and the history of Staten Island as a part of New York City. Which was interesting enough, but… overall, if we had turned around and hopped straight back on the ferry, we wouldn’t have been missing much.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

 ***

Of all the sightseeing that one just has to do in New York, I think I must have saved the most important for the very last. There are – at least in my opinion – three major towers in Manhattan: the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Each of them offers stunning panoramic views over the concrete jungle, but there’s really no need to go to the top of all of them – so how do you choose which one to visit? I spent a long time (i.e. my whole life until arriving in New York) believing that the Chrysler Building was actually the Empire State Building. I’d seen more pictures of the former, but I was so familiar with the name of the latter that the two became conflated in my mind.
“That’s because so many photos are actually taken from the top of the Empire State Building – that’s why you never see it,” was the explanation I was offered, and put that way, I guess it makes perfect sense. So using that logic, and knowing that there were three buildings, I convinced Ralf that the Rockefeller Center should be the tower the picked. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it looked like, and climbing to the top of it would offer views of the two towers that I did know.

Walking around New York City, you definitely get a feeling of how big the place is. It seems to stretch on forever, and one wrong turn and you find yourself lost in a place or street or suburb that you never knew even existed. But a trip to ‘The Top of the Rock’ only served to confirm these feelings that New York is an infinite city that stretches almost as far as the imagination.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

Ralf and I lined up to get our tickets and, after watching a short presentation about the Rockefeller family, the building they created and their place in American history, hopped into an elevator that would take us to the upper reaches of the Rockefeller Center. Even the inside of the elevator was fascinating – the roof was made of glass, and as the little box you stood inside zoomed upwards, rows of lights that lined the shaft wall came racing towards you like shooting stars.

The tower we were about to go up.

The tower we were about to go up.

Looking up - inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

Looking up – inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

But once we were on top, the views were breathtaking. To the north was Central Park, and for the first time I think I really appreciated just how huge it really is. It’s just massive. And to think, it’s only a fraction of Manhattan itself. To the south, the Empire State Building rose up from the street, the afternoon sun turning it into a silhouette as it began to set into the west. Words really fail to describe the immensity that surrounds you when you’re standing there, or just how tiny and insignificant you can feel when all that is New York City rises up out of the ground around you. Part of you is on top of the world, but all that you see just reminds you that you’re just another part of it. It’s a rush to be up there, but I somehow also found the experience very humbling.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

However, here's a tip: Top of the Rock doesn't actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

However, here’s a tip: Top of the Rock doesn’t actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

Ralf and I spent a long time up there, just wandering around and taking in the epic views. When it was finally time to come down, we debriefed and unwound with a walk through Central Park. After having seen it from the air, I had a greater appreciation of just how big the park was. We set off without a plan and no real direction, and soon we were lost, taking new turns and discovering new locations in the dying sunlight.

Strolling through Central Park.

Strolling through Central Park.

Night setting in over NYC.

Night setting in over NYC.

We even stumbled across the huge lakes up on the northern side of the park – that I recognised so vividly from episodes of Gossip Girl, as well as a host of other TV shows and movies – but unfortunately by that stage it was too dark to capture any good photographs. Once night fully set in, we decided that Central Park was potentially not the safest place to be, so we made a beeline for the subway, and made our way home. It had been nice having Ralf there – an unexpected surprise that had allowed me to indulge in some of the more touristic elements of New York City. Sometimes I felt like a gushing tourist, but then I know too many locals who feel exactly the same way about their home to feel too badly about it. Because let’s face it – New York is a pretty incredible city.

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.

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.

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.

From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

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

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

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

***

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

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

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Home is where your phone recognises the wifi”

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

***

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

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

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

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

The view of Berlin from the lookout.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

Ralf leading the way through the park.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

The greenery of Volkspark Humboldthain.

Berlin's TV Tower from a new angle.

Berlin’s TV Tower from a new angle.

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

The transformed Tempelhof Airport.

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

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

A rose garden within the Tempelhof airport park.

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

***

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

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

Berghain 2.0 – The Lab.Oratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

Where Art Meets History: East Side Gallery

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

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

***

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

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

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

At the start of the East Side Gallery walk.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

Beginning my walk down the wall.

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

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

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

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

An image that doesn't need much explaining.

An image that doesn’t need much explaining.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

A beautiful and intricate rainbow piece.

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

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

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

A colourful mural tainted by graffiti.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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