O Canada: Day Trip to the Capital

Canada is a huge country: as one of the top 5 largest nations in the world, there is obviously a lot of it to see, with plenty of different cities worth visiting. However, the fact that is it so big also makes it a little more difficult to see all those cities, and the time frame I had just didn’t allowed me to see as much of the beautiful country as I would have liked. However, at Stuart’s recommendation, we were able to visit another city that was relatively close to Montreal: the capital city of Ottawa. It was roughly a two hour train trip, so on our final day in Montreal we got up bright and early to head to the train station and catch the first train that would take us west, out of the French-speaking province of Quebec and into Ontario, home of the country’s capital city.

Ottawa Station

Ottawa Station.

It was mid-morning by the time we arrived, so as we got off the train we found a bus that took us downtown, where our first stop of the morning (well, first stop after a second breakfast at Tim Hortons, and a quick getaway after spotting a Grindr stalker who had seemed a little too keen to meet both Stuart and myself) was to be Parliament Hill, or colloquially known as ‘The Hill’. We joined one of the free tours that were offered, and were guided around the Centre Block as all the features of the buildings and its architecture were pointed out to us. Since Parliament wasn’t in session we were able to glimpse into the empty Senate and Commons chambers, and I was surprised to find them strikingly similar to the rooms I had seen in Parliament House during my Year 5 excursion to Canberra. Of course it shouldn’t come as a surprise – Canada is part of the Commonwealth, after all, and politically we share a lot more with them than I think I’d ever realised. I guess the fact that Canada is in North America made me assume that it would be much more similar to the United States. I also now fully appreciate the resentment each nationality feels when you confuse one of them of being from the other: the cultural differences are significant.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Canadian Parliament Building.

The Senate chambers.

The Senate chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The Commons chambers.

The architecture of the building is actually quite beautiful, with a theme of Gothic revival spreading through most of the corridors and larger halls, as well as the exterior. We also viewed a number of other chambers, offices, and libraries, most of which we weren’t allowed to photograph, although the tour ended with a trip up to the top of the Peace Tower. Officially known as the Tower of Victory and Peace, the tower is located in the Centre Block of The Hill and is almost 100 metres tall. It’s something of an icon in Canada, so much that it is even depicted on their $20 bill, and the viewing room at the top of the tower offers sweeping panoramic views of downtown Ottawa.

Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stuart admiring Confederation Hall, also known as The Rotunda.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

Stained glass window in the parliament building.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Canadian Bill of Rights.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

The Ottawa River as seen from the Peace Tower.

From the top of the tower on the top of The Hill, you could see almost all of Ottawa and off into the horizon.

From the top of the tower on the top of The Hill, you could see almost all of Ottawa and off into the horizon.

On the way out we stopped to take a look at the Centennial Flame, a flame that burns on The Hill to commemorate Canada’s 100th anniversary as a Confederation. We also discovered Parliament Hill is also a place where crazy right wing nut-jobs like to protest with their ridiculous signs. Of course, we just couldn’t help ourselves but take a few mockery snaps before heading off to check out the rest of the city.

The Centennial Flame.

The Centennial Flame.

A "pro-life" sign.

A “pro-life” sign.

The word... I don't think it means what you think it means...

That word… I don’t think it means what you think it means…

The Centre Block and the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill, with the maple leaf proudly blowing in the wind.

The Centre Block and the Peace Tower of Parliament Hill, with the maple leaf proudly blowing in the wind.

***

Ottawa reminded me a lot of other capital cities in the Western world, like Canberra and Washington DC. It wasn’t particularly beautiful, but everything still seems very nice and neat and orderly. It was a clean city, but there didn’t appear to be too much going on, at least not when we were there. I guess that’s what happens in larger nations – when you put all the official business and formality and politics in one place, the excitement and the culture seems to disperse and settle elsewhere. We made a quick trip to visit Stuart’s elderly uncle, where they introduced me to the vile drink known as “Clamato” that is somehow wildly popular in Canada. Admittedly, it’s usually used as a mixer with alcohol, but still, I honestly struggle to fathom the idea that anyone would actively enjoy drinking a cold beverage with a flavour combination of tomatoes and clams. After that visit we wandered through downtown and had some lunch, checking out a few local stores here and there and just being wandering tourists in general.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

Canadian flags depicting the iconic maple leaf were everywhere.

"Get a photo with the bear!" Stuart and I maxing out our tourist quota for the day.

“Get a photo with the bear!” Stuart and I maxing out our tourist quota for the day.

We also took some time to visit the memorials located in the centre of town, including the rather iconic-looking Ottawa War Memorial, and the Canadian Tomb of the Unknown Solider. They’re similar to the statures and memorials of a similar nature that I had seen all around the world, but they never become any less sombre or melancholy. We pottered around the monuments for a little while before moving on to the rest of the city.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The Ottawa War Memorial.

The memorial is a such a dynamic structure that it was difficult to know which was the best angle to capture it in photograph.

The memorial is a such a dynamic structure that it was difficult to know which was the best angle to capture it in photograph.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Ottawa.

 ***

There are a handful of museums and other things of that nature in Ottawa, but neither Stuart nor I were really in the mood for visiting any of them. We’d had a pretty big week of partying and other activities in Montreal, so we were more than happy to just stroll the pristine streets and enjoy the pleasant weather. Winter was coming for North America, so it was important to make the most of the remaining warmer months. I also enjoyed being back in an English-speaking province again – the people were exponentially nicer when they weren’t so fiercely trying to defend an entire language and culture. We simply ended our afternoon lying out on the grass, and watching the clouds roll in at the end of the day. Stuart took a couple of snapshots of the Ottawa Notre Dame Basilica, but my “museum fatigue” was already starting to kick in when it came to all these churches. I was far more interested in the fact that all the squirrels in Ottawa were black, or even in literally showering myself with the national Canadian icon: leaves. Revisiting my childhood in the piles of red, orange and yellow leaves, I rediscovered you didn’t need to see all of the city’s hot attractions in order for a day trip to be considered successful. As long as you enjoyed yourself, and stopped to enjoy the little things in life, it was always worth it.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

The silver spires of the Notre Dame Basilica in Ottawa.

Don't ask me why, but I was fascinated by the regional colour variation of this continents squirrels.

Don’t ask me why, but I was fascinated by the regional colour variation of this continents squirrels.

3... 2... 1...

3… 2… 1…

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Making it rain.

Sometimes it’s the simple pleasures in life that are the most enjoyable.

As the evening rolled around, we jumped on a bus and headed back to the station to catch our train back to Montreal. My train was heading back to New York the following day, so Stuart and I spent our last evening just chilling out and reflecting on all the fun we’d had in the previous week. I’d had an amazing time discovering the city, and I reflected on just how lucky I was that no matter where I found myself in the world, I was never too far away from a friendly face.

This is Canada, eh?

When we weren’t tearing up the town at night, and Stuart and I spent a lot of time just hanging out and catching up, and also trying to cram as many authentic Canadian experiences into one week as humanely possible. If you come from the other side of the world, you might be forgiven for conflating the culture of Canada and the way of life in the US into one big North American culture… actually, the Canadians might not forgive you for that. But Stuart seemed to have a mental list of a whole bunch of small cultural delights that I simply must not leave Canada before trying. A few of these involved food – something that I was more than okay with – and we were often nursing our hangovers with coffee and donuts from Tim Hortons, or tucking into a steaming plate of poutine, a dish native to Quebec. I must admit I felt a little repulsed when Stuart insisted you had to cover the fries and gravy with cheese curds, but in the end it was delicious and totally worth it. Food comas ensued.

Breakfast of champions - a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

Breakfast of champions – a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

The disgustingly delicious poutine. I got mine with added chicken.

***

From national dishes to the favourite sports of the people, Stuart also made sure I didn’t leave the country without attending an ice hockey match. “This is my early birthday present to you,” he told me as he booked tickets for him, myself and Sam, another Australian guy who was also staying in the first hostel we were staying at. My birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, but I would be back in New York by then, so I let Stuart buy the tickets to what he considered a very important Canadian cultural experience.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world – the closest I’d been to playing sport in a long time was learning how to rugby tackle with the Amsterdam Lowlanders. Australian football in any form does not interest me in the slightest, but when you’re in another country it’s a little easier to get excited about their sports because you can put it all down to experiencing their culture. And as I was about to find out, Canadians love their ice hockey. The two teams that were playing were the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians were the team that Stuart backed, so he was especially excited to be watching them play in their home city. We were pretty much in the nosebleed seats of the famous Bell Centre arena, since the tickets were booked relatively last minute, but it was actually a pretty good view of the entire rink. And even from that far away, you couldn’t help but get totally into it, because the entire crowd was consistently roaring with cheers and applause and just going crazy in general.

Our view of Canada's favourite sport - ice hockey.

Our view of Canada’s favourite sport – ice hockey.

Matches of ice hockey are notorious for having their fair share of pretty aggressive, even violent, altercations. Our match was no exception, though from our vantage point it wasn’t always exactly clear when a fight had broken out or when there was just a longer than usual struggle for the puck. I have to admit it was a little exhilarating, watching the players swarm each other while the crowd erupted with simultaneous boos and cheers. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but in the controlled environment of a sporting arena I supposed I could make an exception. As well as watching the fights, I got to experience all the other novelties that come with attending such sporting events, such as the giant screens that put certain dancing audience members on display during halftime, or highlight an obvious couple in the hopes they’ll do an awkward kiss for the camera. And of course, we splurged a little on all of the over priced food – hot dogs, chips and pizza – as well as the huge cups of beer. In the end the Canadians were the winning team, so we all went home happy that evening.

***

There was one other famous building in Montreal that Stuart and I were yet to see, but it was located a little way off from the centre of the city, where the rest of the sights were. As it happened, Stuart had arranged to meet Paul, a cousin of his who was living in Montreal. They had some family-related things to see and do, but it involved driving around the city in Paul’s car, so I was more than happy to just tag along and be chauffeured around a little bit and showed some of the other sights of Montreal. The first stop was Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and the largest church in Canada.

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

I was probably a bit too close to get a good picture that does justice to the size of the church, but it was more of a drive-by visit and a quick photo op as Paul talked about the church and the history of the area of Montreal we were in. From there we drove up Mont Royal for a chance to view the entire city from the upper reaches of the hill. From there you could see all of central Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and beyond.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

Afterwards we went back around the mountain to visit Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, one of the huge sprawling cemeteries that covered a large portion of Mont Royal. Stuart and Paul’s grandmother was buried there, and Paul wanted to show the memorial to Stuart. There was, however, a slight problem, which was the sheer size of the cemetery. Paul had written directions for how to find their grandmothers grave, but the twists and turns and plot numbers and street names were all a bit of a jumbled mess. We even stopped at a visitor centre to see if there was some kind of directory or catalogue, but it seemed like everyone had gone home for the day, because were wasn’t a soul in sight. We drove around for a while, but eventually we gave up. I guess it might have seemed like a wasted effort, but after some of the long days and big nights Stuart and I had been having, it was actually nice to just relax in the back of the car, and watch the haunting yet serene landscape slowly pass me by. After giving up on the search we went back to Paul’s house, where we had dinner with him and his wife – which is always appreciated by penny-pinching travellers – and where Paul also introduced me to Canadian rye whiskey. I have quite the taste for dark liquors, so I enjoyed it straight over ice. Strong but refreshing, it was the prefect way to end the weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one that we were looking.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one for which we were looking.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

***

During the week we also did other things, some rather touristic, and some surprisingly local. We visited the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, or Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. We spent a good long while wandering through all the different rooms full of sculptures and colours and abstract art, although we weren’t allowed to take any photographs in the exhibition. We also did a little bit of shopping, and on Thursday evening Stuart even told me that he was going to meet with the local gay swim team. He’d been on the gay water polo team back in Sydney, and I guess he just had a knack for discovering and meeting up with these random gay sports teams no matter where we were in the world.

“You’re supposed to pay if you’re not a member, but I came there the other day before you got to Montreal”, Stuart said to me as we walked into the college building where the swimming team was meeting. “Just say you’re part of the gay team in Sydney and you’ll be fine.” I used to be a pretty strong competitive swimmer back in my teenage years, but since I’d been travelling I hadn’t really done much exercise, so I had agreed to come along. I dove – pardon the pun – straight into it, and it felt like I’d never stopped the rigorous swimming training of my adolescence. But while I remembered all the technique, my stamina and endurance weren’t what they used to be, and before the end of the session I had well and truly worked myself into an exhausted heap. I managed to pull through to the end, but when Stuart told me that he was going to stick around and play a game with the water polo team, I told him that he was on his own. Maybe if I hadn’t worn myself out with all the swimming first, but I was well and truly ready to go home. I did, however, have to answer the questions of a lot of curious members of the swim team, asking who I was and why I was here, with many of them just assuming that I had relocated here rather than just visiting for a week – I guess joining the local gay swim team isn’t exactly an ordinary tourist activity.

It was well worth it in the end, though – through the swim team I did meet a guy named Geoffrey. With his rugged beard, round spectacles and perfect smile, he was the most adorable little librarian I had ever met – extra points because that also meant he was pretty smart. I ended up meeting up with him later that evening, and we had a short but sweet romance during my week in Montreal. Maybe I didn’t see all the touristic options that Montreal had to offer – and did a few weird and completely random things with my time instead – but the unique and cute little memories like that will always make it 100% worth it.

Drunk and Drunker: Dublin Bars Continued

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

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

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

Unsuccessfully trying to sip my Guinness.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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.