Life in La La Land

I was unsure as of what to expect from my time in LA. I had been there only once before, for a period of less than 24 hours for a long layover on the way to Central America, and I hadn’t been that impressed. The parts of town I went to – which I honestly didn’t even pay attention to at the time – were kind of gross and dirty, and it didn’t appear to be anything like the glamorous California that everyone sings about in pop songs. And while I knew I couldn’t let such a brief and incomplete experience of the city be an accurate first impression, I’d also heard reviews from other people that were less than positive: that getting around was difficult, traffic was terrible, all the attractions were overrated and that staying there was more like a challenge than a vacation. Despite all that, my mother had repeatedly told me that she thought I would like Los Angeles and that I would probably fit in pretty well there. Given that I’d had very mixed feelings about some of the people I had ran into and rubbed shoulders with in New York, and the fact that New Yorkers and Angelenos are often pitted against each other and are constantly comparing their cities, I figured if I didn’t fit so well on one coast, maybe I’d have more luck on the other.

***

Waking up the morning after my first night in LA was a little surreal, given the rather dramatic events of the night before. Upon checking my phone, I found a string of more abusive texts and Facebook messages from Nathan, which I simply deleted before blocking him.
“You don’t even have to worry about him anymore,” Jake assured me. “He’s been pissing so many people off lately, he doesn’t even have that many friends left in dodgeball. His behaviour last night might actually be enough of a reason to expel him from the league.” Which Jake, given that he ran the dodgeball league, could absolutely do. I started to feel slightly guilty, but Jake would have none of it, and assured me that if anything I was finally finishing the problem instead of creating one or starting any trouble. I just had to trust he knew more about what was going on in WeHo and let it be.

“So… what do you wanna do? What was your plan in Los Angeles?” Jake asked me, before turning away and talking to himself. “What can I show you? What’s something cool, something really LA that isn’t super touristy…” The beauty about Jake’s work was that he technically worked for himself, which meant he didn’t have a regular day time job that he had to be at, which meant he had plenty of free time to hang out and show me around, which he said he would be more than happy to do. I assured him that he didn’t have to do anything special or try and entertain me –  I was more than happy to just hang out and join him with whatever he did with his days. So we started out with just going for a walk through West Hollywood along Santa Monica Boulevard, where Jake showed me around and pointed out a bunch of the local spots for drinking, eating and going out. We also saw the colourful rainbow crossing, similar to the one that had been put up in Sydney for the Mardi Gras festival that year, although unlike the rainbow in Sydney, the one in WeHo was a permanent addition to the streets.

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The WeHo rainbow crossing

Jake also said he had some work-related emails to send and some business stuff to take care of, so we stopped at the Starbucks, ordered our drinks, and commandeered a table for ourselves and set up our a temporary workspace.
“There’s two questions you hear every traveller ask, no matter where you go,” Jake said with a laugh. “One: is there wifi? Two: is it free?” I laughed along, although he wasn’t wrong, so I made the most of the free connection and updated my blog and sent some emails while he attended to his work stuff. It was actually quite funny just how full the Starbucks was, and securing a table was a like navigating a small-scale property market. It was full of aspiring writers working on their manuscripts and screenplays, and while I kept laughing to myself and thinking about how it sounded like something straight out of Hollywood, I had to keep in mind that right now I literally was in Hollywood. It would appear that some of those stereotypes and clichés aren’t limited to the actual movies and television shows themselves, but extend to the wider suburbs in which they’re created.

I also noticed that Jake knew a lot of people. Like, a lot. I reckon he would have finished his work in about half the time it had taken him if he hadn’t had to stop periodically to say hello to every familiar face that approached him and wanted to briefly catch up.
“What can I say? I’m kind of a big deal,” Jake said with a playful smirk when I mentioned it to him, and while he said it in a way that was more humorous than serious, I was starting to get the idea that he was somewhat of a local celebrity around the area. But not in a way that everyone knows about you and gossips about you (although I’m sure everyone does that anyway), but in a way that everyone just seemed to like him, and he was genuinely friends with all of these people. It was at that moment that I realised as long as I stuck by Jake during my time LA, I’d always be in good hands and great company.

***

That afternoon, Jake and I started out my tour of LA by checking off some of the more obvious attractions.
“Oh, I know! I’ve got a friend who works for Universal Studios. I dunno, does that kind of thing interest you? She could get us in for free.” As a backpacker I had learned to appreciate literally anything that was free, so we drove up to Universal Studios to meet Jake’s friend Alicia.

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“Oh! Go to that side so I can get Australia in the picture!”

“Man, work had sucked today,” Alicia complained after coming down from her office to meet us and introducing herself to me. “It’s that time of year when half the office is away for the holidays. But there isn’t any less work so…” she waved the thought away, the conversational that would follow clearly already boring her. “Here, let’s get you in.” I just followed Jake and Alicia and did as I was told, and soon enough we were inside the paid section of the theme park, where most of the rides and popular attractions were. She caught up with Jake for a few minutes, but she hadn’t quite finished for the day so had to head back up to her office.
“But it was lovely to meet you, Robert. I’m sure I’ll see you around sometime, I’m overdue for a catch up with this guy anyway,” she said, motioning to Jake. “Always so busy with his dodgeball!” Turns out that Alicia was one of few people I would meet through Jake that weren’t somehow involved in the dodgeball league.

At Jake’s recommendation we went on The Simpsons ride, which was actually… I don’t want to say scary, but it definitely wasn’t a walk in the park. It was a 3D animation rollercoaster, so while physically you didn’t actually move that much or really go anywhere, the dizzying sensations played tricks on your mind to make you feel as though you really did enter their cartoon universe and experience a range of non-human sensations. After that we walked back through the Citywalk in Universal Studios, which had been decorated for the holiday season.

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***

While Jake did have a pretty flexible schedule, he wasn’t on holiday like I was, so he did still have to work sometimes. As well as running the WeHo dodgeball league, he was also a dancer and choreographer, and during the holidays he ran dance workshops and classes for kids. So while he had to do that, I took the opportunity to do some other more touristy things that I didn’t want to have to drag anyone else along to. While I don’t know if you can technically call it a tourist attraction, Runyon Canyon was yet another Los Angeles location that I had seen numerous times in various television shows. I was probably also pretty overdue for some kind (or any kind) of exercise, so one afternoon I got Jake to drop me off at the beginning of Runyon Canyon Park before he had to go to teach his dance class.

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Honestly, there were probably more locals there than tourists. It seemed like a pretty popular place to go exercising and jogging or walking dogs. I wouldn’t really consider it a “hike”, since there were pretty straightforward trails most of the way, but you cover a fair bit of ground on your way to the top, and there is a pretty decent view of the greater Los Angeles area from up there.

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Los Angeles as seen from the top of Runyon Canyon, stretching into the horizon. 

However, it was on my walk through Runyon Canyon Park that I discovered one of the biggest disappointments about LA: how far away the famous Hollywood Sign is. It’s definitely there, off in the distance, but you had to zoom your camera in to the point of pixilation in order to get a somewhat decent view of it in a photograph. I’m aware that this isn’t helped by the fact all my holiday snaps so far had been taken with an iPhone 4, so image quality wasn’t something I was too hung up on. Still, similar to my misconceptions of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, I had just imagined the famous visual icons of the cities to be a little closer to the rest of the action.

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The Hollywood Sign, from a distance. 

After working up somewhat of a sweat in my afternoon hike, it was already time to meet Jake again after he finished his class. We decided to meet down on Hollywood Boulevard, which was only a short walk away from the entrance to Runyon Canyon Park, and from there we had a quick walk up the Hollywood Star Walk, and I pointed out the names of some of the celebrities that I liked, or recognised, and laughed at some of the stranger additions. Yet this was one sight that I had seen before during my time in LA, and if I’m completely honest, I’m not one to ever get star struck or fuss that much over celebrities.

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Stars on Hollywood Boulevard

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Marilyn Munroe’s handprints at the TCL Chinese Theatre. 

“Hey, I’ve just gotta run back to the car and put some more change in the parking meter,” Jake said after our brief stroll up the strip. “It won’t take too long.”
“Actually,” I spoke up before he had a chance to go anywhere. “Um… can we, like… just go?” I’d seen all I really needed to see of the overrated tourist trap.
“Oh, thank God,” he replied, letting out a sigh of relief. “Yes, let’s get out of here.” As we headed back to the car, he explained his own thoughts of the whole place.
“Like, yeah, I get it. If it’s your first time here, it’s kinda cool, or if you want to see the star of your favourite celebrity, that’s kind of nice. Although trying to find them is always a great way to spend the afternoon,” he said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “I don’t mind showing it to people on their first time, but I’m so glad you’re as over it as I am!”

***

There were plenty of other touristy things that I visited during my time in LA (which I will get to in the next post), but honestly I think the reason I had so much fun in the city was because of the people I was with. After the while debacle that was my first night in LA, gossip about the events had spread pretty quickly, but in a weird way that turned out pretty well for me. I had a few people approach me with condolences or apologies on behalf of the otherwise lovely bunch of dodgeball teams, and I ended up bonding and hanging out with a bunch of the guys and girls. I felt like I was officially one of the cool kids or something, although I’m pretty sure initially befriending Jake had probably improved that situation. I went along with him to the evenings when Jake had to run the dodgeball league, where teams dressed up in themes and often battled out the competition in ridiculous costumes, which usually had hilarious results, and afterwards we would inevitably end up in Gym Bar.

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File Under: Photos that seemed like a good idea at the time.

LA was also where I would experience my first bottomless mimosa brunch. Originally we had planned on doing such a brunch on my birthday in New York, but after the night Jesse and I had had, we weren’t really in any state to be drinking, or conscious, for the morning of my birthday. But luckily Warren, one of the guys from dodgeball and a good friend of Jake’s, was having his birthday celebrations on one of the weekends I was in town, and you best believe he was doing a bottomless brunch. I mean, there isn’t really much that I have to explain, right? We sat around all morning, talking and laughing and drank more mimosas and Bloody Mary’s than one should probably consume while the sun is still up. But hey, I was on holidays!

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Other nights out in West Hollywood saw me visiting a string of gay bars, including Revolver Video Bar, Trunks, Mother Lode, Eleven, and the Abbey. I don’t have too many strong recollections about them: Revolver Video Bar had a lot of go-go dancers, which we weren’t that into, so instead Jake and moved next door to the much more unassuming Trunks for another drink. Mother Lode seemed a little more down to earth, even if a little seedy, and the Abbey, despite being one of the more well known places (it was the only one I’d actually heard about before my arrival in LA), was a flashy, overpriced bar with terrible service. When Jake ordered our drinks, they poured them for us, took our money, and then seconds later took them back and poured them down the sink, informing us that the bar was closing. I know they have last call at 2AM in California, but surely a bartender should have more sense than to serve someone a drink when they physically would not have the time to consume it. Jake was livid, but being shouted at by patrons at any level of inebriation is something they are most likely very used to, so in the end we just had to give up and leave, but I promised to leave them a terrible Yelp review.

Another of Jake’s dodgeball friends had a birthday at Eleven, which was a nicer and slightly classier venue on Santa Monica Boulevard. I drank a lot, so I don’t really know when the private function room opened up to the public, but suddenly there was a drag queen on one of the clubs indoor balconies introducing Carmen Electra. Now, I know I said I didn’t get star struck or care much for celebrities, but I suppose I just got caught up in the excitement with the crowd and started cheering along. I didn’t even know what Carmen Electra was famous for (and… I still don’t?), but I still stuck my hand out to get her attention as she walked through the crowds on her way out, and she held it briefly, and smiled and waved. It wasn’t exactly the highlight or my night or anything, but it was something.

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Carmen Electra in Eleven. 

While I always enjoy checking out the gay bars and the gay scene of any city that I was in, Jake was adamant that that simply wasn’t enough.
“What’s something I can show you,” he said one Saturday evening, wracking his brain. “There’s gotta be something that’s very LA and awesome, without being too touristy or too trashy.” I guess it’s no big secret that the celebrity soaked reputation of Hollywood and Los Angeles leaves many visitors believing the city is somewhat of a cliché, but as someone who lived in LA and enjoyed doing so, I think Jake was determined to show me more of his city. Since I was someone who preferred to actually stay with locals and see the more local side of things, and get an appreciation of what it really feels like to live in a city, I think we were perfectly matched in that sense.

After doing some research and figuring out what was going on, Jake and I headed to Bootie LA, a party where these relatively well known DJs play their signature style of musical mash-ups. At the time I had no idea who these Bootie mash-up DJs were, and it wouldn’t be until much later, when I arrived home in Sydney, that I would discover their vast collection of amazing mash-ups, all available to download online. ‘Bootie LA’ was simply the name of the party when these DJs were in town, and given the time of the year, the evening was slightly Christmas themed, although there were a bunch of other crazy costumes from the dancers that evening.

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The eclectically costumed dancers at Bootie LA. 

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The party was a lot of fun. It was a big open space, almost like a warehouse, but the feeling inside was a lot cleaner. I think it might have been a theatre venue of some sort that had been converted for a dance party. We ran into a few of Jake’s friends here and there – because this was LA, and apparently Jake knew almost everyone – and they were all really awesome, and the music was amazing. Mash-ups always keep you guessing: it’s a bit of a tease when you get excited when you hear the beat of a particular song, only to have another songs lyrics layered over the top of it, but it always still sounded amazing. It’s honestly a skill in itself.

Afterwards we drove home, Jake assuring me he hadn’t actually drank that much (I’d definitely drank too much, so I honestly hadn’t been paying attention), and stopped in at Taco Bell on the way home. I know In’n’Out is supposed to be the Holy Grail of fast-food when it comes to the west coast, but I have to admit that despite that (and despite all the warnings I received from friends telling me that Taco Bell will go straight through you), Taco Bell was a guilty pleasure that I couldn’t get enough of. I mean, they have tacos made from Doritos chips!

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Cheesy Doritos Taco Bell taco: my choice of of post-drinking fast food. 

***

The best thing about my time in LA really was just hanging out with Jake and his friends and living what felt like a relatively normal life, despite being in a town where everything was so seemingly influenced by Hollywood and had a tinge of surreality. Whether it was going around to a friends house to drink and play video games and gossip, or have a sit down dinner followed by a hilarious round of Cards Against Humanity, simply hanging out and spending time with cool people turned out to be a real highlight of the city for me.

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Breathtaking view of Los Angeles (obviously looked better experienced first hand) on one of our drives over to North Hollywood. 

And then of course, after the almost 9 months of consistent backpacking, sometimes all I wanted to do was chill out on the couch with Jake and Peter Parker and watch Adventure Time and South Park. After being on the road for so long, no matter how much adventure you crave and new experiences you still want to seek out, sometimes it’s the little, normal things, that you’ve gone seemingly forever without, which feel the most satisfying.

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The adorable Peter Parker (Jake is a huge comic book nerd) keeping my company on the couch. 

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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.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22”

As my Amtrak train chugged through upstate New York, I watched the scenery pass me by. Back where I grew up, changes between the seasons were relatively mild compared to some other parts of the world. The eastern coast of Australia is populated by a lot of evergreen trees that generally don’t lose their leaves during the winter, but the eastern coast of North America was a different story entirely. The autumn equinox had occurred while I’d been in Canada, and summer was officially over. As my New York City bound train travelled through the woods, I could see that the trees surrounding us had already taken on hues of red, yellow and orange, and the normally green scenery was combined with a wash of natural fiery tones. It was something that I had only seen happen very sparsely in my own country, so I soaked in the sight and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It certainly made for a pleasant visual accompaniment on my trek back to the smog of the Big Apple.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

Returning to Manhattan almost felt like coming home. After casually jumping on the S Train across town to Grand Central Station, receiving a friendly welcome from Brandon the doorman as I arrived at the apartment, and letting myself in to wait for Melissa to get home so I could tell her all about my trip, I realised just how much time I had spent here in the the last month. “Home is where the heart is”, as the old adage goes, and there in that moment I don’t think anything could have rang more true in my mind. After being on the road for so long you start to believe that you’ve lost all concept of home, but the reality is that if you have the right attitude, and surround yourself with the right people, anywhere can feel like home – no matter how brief or temporary a home it may be.

***

While I’d been keen to get back and see my New Yorker friends like Melissa and Stefon, there was also another reason why returning to the city this time had been such an incredibly exciting prospect. Georgia, one of my best and dearest friends from back home, had been doing her own tour across the USA for the past couple of months, and now she and her friend Eva had arrived in NYC, just days before my birthday. She’d kept warning me that she had a surprise for me, but that she couldn’t wait until my birthday and would have to give it to me as soon as she saw me. It was well into the evening when I arrived back in NYC, and Georgia had some final plans with the girls who she had been on the tour with, so we made plans to meet the next day at Grand Central Station.

I could barely contain my excitement as I almost ran the few blocks up Lexington Avenue, and it was almost surreal to see her big golden curls of hair and big smile waiting for me by one of the subway exits.
“Oh my God! How are you, baby?” Georgia said as I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight for at least a solid minute. “It’s been so long!”
“I know! I’ve missed you!”
“Let’s never be apart for that long again, okay?”
“Deal.” And just like that, within moments, our casual banter had returned, almost as though we hadn’t been separated for the last six months. I guess that’s the sign of a true friendship.
“So, tell me everything. What’s been going on? How was Canada? How was Stuart?” We set off walking down the street as Georgia bombarding me with questions.
“Canada was great! It was really nice to-”
I was cut off mid-sentence, startled as someone bumped into me from behind. New Yorkers can be very pushy when it comes to their pavement etiquette, and for a moment I thought I might have been in the wrong somehow. “Ah, I’m sorry I-”
“Hey, watch where you’re going next time, fool!” I might have been more offended if the words hadn’t come from a very familiar face.
“Oh… Oh my God. Oh my God!” The person who had bumped into me was my other best friend, Jesse, who was – to the best of my knowledge – still in Australia. “What are you doing here?!”
“Surprise!” Georgia said with a sheepish grin, and suddenly it all made sense.
“We’ve been planning this the moment Georgia booked her tickets,” Jesse said. “I called her up and told her, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you and Robert be in New York City without me, then you’ve got another thing coming!’ The three of us are in the greatest city in the world, your birthday is coming up, and this place isn’t gonna know what hit it!”

***

Apparently everyone had been in on the surprise – from Ellie in London to Stuart in Montreal, and even all of our mutual friends on Facebook – everyone had known about the surprise, and nobody had let the secret slip. Jesse had blocked me on Facebook under the guise that he was “taking a break” from social media, so I’d had no idea of his whereabouts.
The three of us had lunch together and caught up about everything we’d been doing in the past few months, sharing travel horror stories and laughing both at and with each other. Afterwards we decided to visit the Museum of Sex, and as we browsed the halls of artworks and exhibitions we made crass jokes and probably nearly got ourselves thrown out on a handful of separate occasions. But I’d been reunited with some of my most favourite people in the whole world, so right now where I was at was definitely starting to feel like home.

Reunited with my best friends.

Reunited with my best friends.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

And the reason why we can't have nice things.

And the reason why we can’t have nice things.

Over the next few days, it was the little things that made the time around my birthday so special. Whether it was stumbling across a little street market with Jesse and Georgia, where we bought a variety of fresh mini donuts and sat and ate them in the sunshine at Madison Square Park; or when Jesse and I bought $15 tickets to an Iggy Azalea gig at a gay bar on a Friday night; or when we trudged around Midtown for over an hour looking for a place that would cut our hair for $20 instead of $100; or when all three of us visited a phoney psychic just off Times Square, who told us we were all troubled people with shady pasts and dark futures, so we retreated back to Georgia and Eva’s Air BnB apartment with margarita mix to watch The Little Mermaid and feel sorry for ourselves – there are a whole heap of fun and slightly bizarre memories that made it a special week for me.

New York City with my best friends.

New York City with my best friends.

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again...

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again…

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event...

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event…

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

***

When it came to the actual weekend of my birthday, I had a few more intercity and international surprises. Mischa was making a second trip down from Baltimore to join the birthday celebrations, and I even received a little surprise from Ireland. Well, in the end I knew to expect something, since Matthew had asked for my address in New York several times over the past two weeks, obviously anxious as to whether whatever he had ordered would arrive. In the end a package arrived that was addressed to both Melissa and myself, so I know that had to be it. True to his national pride, he’d had a bottle of Coole Swan delivered to me.
“It’s like Baileys, but better,” he’d told when I finally wrote to him saying I’d received it. “Gotta have a little bit of something Irish on your birthday, no?” I could almost hear his accent in my head as I read the words, and imagined that cheeky, playful grin of his.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

The actual day of my 22nd birthday fell on a Sunday, so we decided that we’d go out on the Saturday night for the big celebration. Melissa had offered to have all our friends from far and wide over at her apartment, so that evening Georgia, Eva, Jesse, Mischa, Stefon, Nirali and Melanie, another friend of Melissa’s, all came over to join in the festivities. Melissa and Nirali cooked an amazing dinner, and we all caught up over food and drinks. I was surrounded by so many beautiful people, friends both old and new, and it really was a fantastic evening.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

The meal was delicious, and in true Australian fashion the drinks were flowing freely. Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t over 21, so he wasn’t able to join us when we eventually headed out, and a few other people didn’t end up making it to the clubs. We had vague plans, but I’d be lying if I said there was an overall aim to the night. I was in bar called Therapy with Melissa and Nirali, dropping my phone all over the floor and dancing like a hot mess for over half an hour before they managed to tell me that the rest of our friends still weren’t here yet. Jesse, Georgia and Eva had someone gotten lost, and we ended up meeting them in another place just across the road called Industry. From that point on, my memory of where I was, who I was with and what I was drinking became a pretty intense blur. All I know is that I was definitely having fun.

The one vivid memory I have is stumbling out of somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen with Jesse, jumping into a cab and screaming at the driver to drive. I don’t know where we told him to go, and I don’t even remember where he ended up taking us. But as we sped down a road through the West Village, we hung our heads out of the taxi windows and howled to the moon like wolves, shouting at the top of our lungs. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the taxi driver had stopped and told us to get out, and I know it’s a hideous cliché, but in that moment I felt absolutely, 100% alive. Young, dumb, drunk and free of cares, at least I was never going to look back on my life and regret that I had wasted my youth.

The morning after - birthday brunch.

The morning after – birthday brunch.

I woke up at noon, curled up on the couch with Jesse at Georgia’s apartment. We’d gotten home just after dawn, apparently. Everyone was feeling a little tender as we attempted to sing happy birthday over a very hungover afternoon brunch, but I didn’t mind – the night had been worth it. For a night that I will probably never 100% clearly recollect, it was certainly a special and memorable birthday that I will never, ever forget.

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

Before Giles had set off on his own holiday, he sent out a couple of text messages to some of friends, briefly telling them who I was, what I was doing in London and why I was staying in his house, and giving them my phone number so that they could get in touch with me and hopefully hang out and show me around. John was the first of the friends to get in touch with me, and we arranged to meet up for brunch one morning at Hackney Village, the small main street of the borough that was lined with a whole bunch of shops and cafes, and was also conveniently located around the corner from where Giles lived. John was incredibly friendly, and we instantly got on well as we talked about everything from travelling the world, to the finer details of life in London – and the extensive geography of the city that I was still trying to wrap my head around – as well as stories of my most recent travels and how I had come to meet Giles in Berlin. John himself had done quite a bit of travelling, though it took a little while before I noticed the hint of South African accent in his voice. “England is home now,” he assured me, but he’d also visited some interesting places that were definitely on my travel wish list, as well as having a few crazy stories his life in Africa.

Towards the end of our brunch, John’s phone rang. “Oh, I’m really sorry, I just have to quickly take this.” He answered the phone and spoke for a few minutes before hanging up. “So, I promise there’s a good reason I had to take that call,” John told me. “That was my friend Richard. We’ve got some plans for a late boozy lunch with some other friends of Giles’, so I just confirming a few last things with Richard. But also, you’re more than welcome to join us. We’re going to Richard’s place, which is just down near my place.” John lived south of the River Thames, in Greenwich. “We can go back to Giles’ if you need to grab anything, and then I’ll drive us down there.” I had made no other plans for the day, and a lazy wine lunch sounded like the perfect way to end a Sunday afternoon, so after we finished up with brunch we were off and away to Greenwich. After a quick supply stop at Sainsbury’s, John and I arrived at Richard’s flat. Two more of their friends, a couple named Adam and Dan, arrived shortly afterwards, and I soon found myself in a similar group dynamic that I had when I was Joris and Thijs’ friends in Amsterdam – getting an inside view of the life of the locals – except there wasn’t a mix of languages being thrown around, so I could keep up with all of the conversation. They were all lovely guys, and Richard and John were moving back and forth between the kitchen getting the food ready. ‘Lunch’ was eventually served somewhere between five and six o’clock, but we’d all been drinking so much wine I don’t think that anyone was all that bothered.

“We’ll have to make another trip to Spain soon, John,” Richard said as he opened another bottle of red. “I’ve nearly cleaned out the cellar,” he said with a chuckle. They proceeded to tell me about how they make semi-regular pilgrimages to France and Spain, stocking up the boot of John’s car with as much wine as they could physically (and legally) carry back to England, because it was actually better value for money in the long run. I could definitely believe that, and I was insanely jealous. The fact that they could so easily drive to another country like that just absolutely blew my mind. If you drove that distance in pretty much any direction in Australia, chances are you’d probably just end up in the middle of nowhere. Granted, there could quite possibly be a vineyard in that middle of nowhere in Australia, but you didn’t exactly need to stamp your passport to get there.

It was such a fun night. A wine lunch became a wine dinner, followed by a wine dessert which eventually just turned into wine with more wine – and a few shots of some sort of spirit, if memory serves me correct (although there’s a high possibility that it doesn’t). The next day, Richard would count the bottles and inform us that we consumed 10 bottles between four people – Adam wasn’t a fan of wine and so had been drinking beer. We played music, we danced, we sat on the balcony watching dusk settle over London, and we drank a lot much wine. Despite having been to a handful of pride parties over the last few months, it was quite easily the most I had drank in a very long time. I had absolutely no recollection of the end of the night, which usually never happens to me, but I can only assume I continued to have as much fun as I was having before my memory began to fail on me.

***

Waking up in a strange place is always terrifying. Waking up in a strange place in a foreign country is even worse. I awoke with a start and sat up, looking around and thinking hard for a good minute or two before I realised where I was – I had passed out on Richard’s couch. I guessed that I’d been in no state to catch the tube home the night before, and absolutely nobody had been in any fit state to drive me home. The result was this, and I was greeted by a Richard who looked just as confused and hungover as me.
“What… I… what?” Fully formed sentences were a struggle for everyone at that point, and the sight of all those wine bottles in the kitchen was simultaneously horrifying and impressive.
“I’m definitely ‘working from home’ today,” Richard said sarcastically, holding his head in his hands. We’d later find out both John and Dan had both made the exact same call, for obviously the exact same reason.

I was expecting I’d just have to find my way to the Underground station and catch the tube home, but Richard began asking me what I’d seen so far in London. When I said that I hadn’t really seen much so far, I think he got a little patriotic. “I feel like I should be showing you around or something. I’ve got a car – is there anywhere you want to go?” We Googled the top 20 attractions to see around Britain, and after ruling out ones that weren’t that interesting or too far away, Richard agreed to drive me to see Cambridge. The town of university fame was only about an hour drive away, and by late morning Richard was feeling sober enough to drive, so off we went.

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The main calling card for Cambridge is the university and colleges, so the small surrounding town is heavily focused on the student population and student life. “Where would you go out? I’d go crazy living here,” I said, only half joking.
“I think they just throw a lot of their own crazy parties”, Richard said. “Either that or they’re all too busy studying.” Cambridge was, I’d been led to believe, a pretty prestigious school.
But if you’re not a student living and studying there, there are really only two things to do or see in Cambridge – the colleges and the punts on the river. The terminology of ‘punt’ confused me at first – the word has a range of meanings depending on the culture you’re in – but I soon learnt that it was the name given to the kind of boats that travelled up and down the River Cam, the main waterway that ran through Cambridge. Richard and I followed the signs until we found the docks where the boats were waiting for us. For an extra fee you could hire someone to steer your punt for you, but despite the hangover I was feeling particularly hands on that day, and decided that we should have a go at directing the boat ourselves. Despite the potential for that to go very, very wrong, Richard agreed to it.

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

It was a shaky start, and steering the punt isn’t exactly light work. You have to stand on the flat platform on the rear end of the boat and use the long wooden pole to push against the bottom of the river to propel yourself in the right direction. Then, as the boat is gliding through the water, you have to direct the boat by moving the pole to cause resistance in the water. It might sound fairly simple – the physics behind it certainly isn’t rocket science – but after a few minutes it does become a bit of a workout, especially if you’re hungover. And it can also be a bit of a challenge to get the boat to go in exactly the right direction, or to judge how much power you need to put behind each push. Despite that, we weren’t the worst ones on the river that day. We had a couple of run-ins with a few tourist families who really shouldn’t have been driving themselves, although Richard did almost lose the pole when we went to go underneath a bridge without sinking the pole down into the water – the pole is a few metres long, and it crashed into the bottom of the bridge when we tried to go under. But other than that it was mostly fine, though the one really handy thing about the hired punt drivers is that they also served as tour guides, telling their passengers lots of random and interesting facts about the history of Cambridge. Richard and I were guilty of tailing some of the boats around us in an attempt to overhear some of the stories being told.

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Being a passenger on the punt (right before Richard nearly lost our pole at that bridge).

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

After punting we went to visit one of the colleges. There wasn’t much point going to all of them, since we figured there couldn’t be that much difference between them – at least in the areas visitors were granted access to – but we asked one of the guys down by the punting dock which one he would recommend, and he told us to go see Trinity College. Back home, I’d often heard my own university, the University of Sydney, being described as an ‘Oxbridge’ model – a combination of Oxford and Cambridge, two of the older, more prestigious universities in England. Walking through Trinity College did remind me a lot of the Quadrangle back home in Sydney, except this place somehow felt much more authentic. We wandered through the courtyard, paid a visit to the chapel, and admired the detailed architecture. Despite the trip down the river on the punt being fun, it was somewhat of a workout (when you weren’t being a passenger, that is,) so this was probably a more suitable hungover afternoon activity.

The front view of Kings College.

The front view of Kings College, another of the colleges we passed by on our stroll through Cambridge.

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

As it got later in the afternoon, we realised we’d seen most of the highlights Cambridge had to offer. We’d taken a punt down the river, we’d walked through the prestigious colleges, and wandered down the classical old English style streets. I was starting to get tired, so we decided to call it a day. Richard drove us back to London, and I definitely fell asleep for at least half of the trip. Richard dropped me home at Giles’ place, and we said goodbye knowing that we would most likely see each other again during my time in London. It had been a fun and slightly crazy 24 hours with John and Richard and their friends, but now it was time to curl up on the couch with fish and chips, British TV and definitely no wine, and wait until I finally felt human again.