Making Friends in San Francisco

After bidding farewell to my new flight attendant friend, I was driven by a shuttle bus north from the airport and into the heart of San Francisco. While I had been in Vegas, I finally organised a Couchsurfing host for San Francisco, although things worked out quite differently from my previous experiences. After denied requests, even more ignored requests, and sifting through the offers from a remarkable amount of nudists living in San Francisco who also stated that guests must comply with the nudist lifestyle in their home (look, I’m open minded, but I’m just not quite ready for that), I finally found someone who was willing to host me. After reading my profile, Todd said that I sounded like an interesting person and he’d love to meet me and host me while I was in San Francisco. There was just one problem: he had travelled back to Florida to see his family for Thanksgiving. However, in another case of the kindness of strangers extending above and beyond anything that I could ever expect, Todd freely offered me use of his home from the moment I arrived in San Francisco, even though he wouldn’t be there for another week. When I arrived at his place, I was greeted by Todd’s neighbour Robert, who gave me a spare set of keys and let me into the apartment and showed me around. Todd had obviously informed him of my arrival, and he told me to let him know if I had any other questions or problems.

And then, for the first time in a long while, I had a place completely to myself again. Todd’s place was gorgeous, with two bedrooms, a nice open living room, and a huge bathroom. Seriously, the bath was basically a hot tub that I could completely stretch out and lie down in. So that’s exactly what I did – after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas and the consistent and tedious stints of transit, I enjoyed the private and personal space and pampered myself a little. It was the cleanest I’d felt in months, and I said a silent thank you to whatever mysterious forces in the universe that allowed me to end up in such an amazing situation.

***

While Todd’s extremely generous offer had given me a place to stay in San Francisco, it didn’t much help the fact that I didn’t actually know a single person in the city. Todd was going to be away for another week, and while I planned to be in San Francisco long enough to finally meet him when he got back, I wasn’t going to just sit around waiting for him. So of course, enter Grindr. Back in Austin, I had actually been chatting to a guy named Rob who lived in San Francisco, and although we never met up in Texas, he had told me let him know if I ever made it to his home city. So on my first evening, after my luxury bath in Todd’s huge bathroom, I sent Rob an email and arranged to meet up with him the following morning for brunch. It turned out that he was staying a short walk away from where I was staying in Noe Valley, so I walked to his place to meet him, and then we continued on from there to the Mission District.

One thing that I feel like I’d been warned about, yet never really paid attention to, was the amount of hills in San Fransisco. It’s actually ridiculous. When I’d first arrived, I surveyed the map and saw that Noe Valley was an extremely short walk from the Castro, the famous gay district of the city. However, I would quickly learn that I had to climb and descend three massive hills in order to get there, so what looked like a gentle stroll on a flat map actually became a semi-strenuous trek.
“It’s why my mother says everyone in San Francisco has such nice legs,” Rob told me as we mounted another hill on our way to the Mission District. “We’re always walking up and down all these hills, giving them a regular workout.”
When we hit the Mission District we had breakfast burritos at one of Rob’s favourite places, and chatted about travelling and San Francisco, and he gave me a few tips and suggestions about things to do and how to get around. Afterwards, he took me to Dolores Park, a popular hangout for… well, pretty much everyone in San Francisco. It was a huge park that spanned the length of several blocks, and due to the typical topography of the area it was a more of a huge green slope, with the hills rolling down the length of the park and naturally splitting it up into various sections.

“Up there is what some people call the Fruit Shelf,” Rob pointed out to the top of the park as we made our way through it. It was a section of the park that levelled out a bit and was relatively flat, before the ground fell away and resumed its regular sloping terrain. “It’s kind of a popular section of the park for the gays to hang out in.” We walked all the way up the park to the Fruit Shelf, and from that vantage point I had a pretty nice view of the city and the surrounding area.

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“Where’s the Golden Gate Bridge?” I asked Rob.
“Oh, it’s…” He looked around as if to get his bearings, and then pointed in what I assume now was a north-western direction. “It’s over that way. It’s not really near the centre of town or anything. You can ride your bike out there, but it’d take a couple of hours for a round trip.”
“Oh, right. I guess I just expected the famous landmark to be a little closer, you know?” After living in Sydney, where the Harbour Bridge is the focal attraction and situated smack bang in the middle of the cities harbour, I was a little taken aback to learn that San Francisco’s famous bridge was tucked away on the outskirts of the bay.

“Also, speaking of bikes, do you know where I could hire one?” I was surprised to learn that despite the hills, riding bikes was extremely popular in San Fransisco, and I was very keen to relive my Amsterdam days and get around via bicycle again.
“Oh, you don’t have one? I have an old one I could lend you.” Rob told me had an old bike that he had taken to the Burning Man festival the year before. It had been done up with flashy paint and glitter and tinsel for the event, and he had since gotten a newer and better bike, but he said I was welcome to borrow the old one for my time in the city. He was currently storing it in the basement of an investment property he had which wasn’t too far away, so we walked there and he got the bike out and gave me the keys to both the lock, and to the basement so that I could return it directly there whenever I was done with it. It was surprising how much trust some people will put in you after only knowing them for a few hours, but he seemed like a nice enough guy, and I had no intentions of abusing that trust. He had to head to work after that, and he said he was usually pretty busy, but if I had any other questions or needed advice about the city that I was welcome to drop him a line any time.

***

The next new friend that I met up with was someone else from Couchsurfing. While there are always a lot of hosts who are looking to take in travellers, there are also plenty of people on Couchsurfing who are not able to take in guests, but are still willing to meet up with other people and show them around their cities, or hang out, or have a meal, or anything at all, really. I’d found that finding a place to stay is usually the primary motivation for contacting people on Couchsurfing, but this time I actually found myself looking for people who were just willing to hang out. I messaged a guy named Kayvan, who had only had experience hosting a handful of people himself, and he agreed to meet up with my in the Castro later that night for dinner, since he would be flying back to Los Angeles the following day to be with his family on Thanksgiving. We met at a cute place called Harvey’s, named after the famous Harvey Milk, which was a mix between a café and a diner that sold food and cocktails. I think Kayvan was a little uneasy at first, but I must have made a good impression and not seemed like a loose screw, because eventually we were chatting away and exchanging stories. He was quite interested to know more about my Couchsurfing experiences, confessing he’d been a little reluctant to get into the whole thing because he wasn’t sure what type of travellers it might attract. I’d like to think I may have changed his mind when it came to that.

Afterwards we went around the corner to check out a few of the gay bars. Firstly we went to Toad Hall, which felt like it was half dive bar, half night club. People were sitting around drinking and catching up, and the vibe was pretty chill and relaxed , but there were playing pop music and the floor was pretty sticky, although I guess that’s just standard for gay bars in most places. The highlight was the outdoor patio, which helped bring around the relaxed drinking area vibe. We had a few more drinks out there, and as I started to get a little more tipsy, Kayvan suggested that we cross back over the road to go to Badlands. Badlands was your typical, slightly trashy gay bar where they that played all the pop hits, with TV screens showing the video clips and nice big dance floor for people to party on. It reminded me of G-A-Y Late in London, except it was still well before midnight when the club became full of people, which I had to admit I found rather shocking for a Tuesday. But I certainly wasn’t complaining, and we stayed there for a while and drank and danced.

 

However, before the night was over, there was one other place I wanted to check out. Earlier in the day Rob had told me about a gay party that only happened on Tuesday nights. It was called Truck, and is was a relatively underground phenomenon, given that you needed a password to get in. He had said that if I’d enjoyed the partying in Berlin, then I would definitely enjoy Truck. He didn’t really elaborate too much on that point, but there was definitely an understanding that the vibe would be a risqué, ‘anything goes’ attitude, similar to the one you might find in places such as Berghain. Anything local and underground was definitely something I wanted to check out, but when I mentioned it Kayvan he seemed slightly taken aback.
“You know about Truck?” He seemed shocked, but not horrified or repelled or in any way judgmental. I explained how I’d found out about it through Rob. “And you want to go? I mean, I can take you there, but… do you have the password?” I confirmed that Rob had also given me the password, so Kayvan just kind of shrugged his shoulders in a “Why the hell not?” kind of fashion, and we left Badlands.

It was a short drive and Kayvan assured me he hadn’t drank too much, so he drove us the short distance to the venue where Truck was held.
“I’ve only been a few times. It’s fine, it’s just… something you usually have to be in the mood for, I guess. I don’t mind though, if you wanna see it we can go.”
I got a little nervous as we approached the bouncers outside of what seemed like nothing, and I had a quick flashback to my first time at Berghain. But I had the password, and so Kayvan and I both went inside to find a long, dimly lit warehouse type building that was crammed with mostly half-naked men. The air was heavy with the smell of sweat and sex, but it was pretty much everything that Rob had alluded to so I wasn’t surprised at all. And I know I’d been telling myself that it was nice to unwind after the crazy weekend in Las Vegas, but hey, I was on holidays and there were some seriously good looking men in the club, so I went in and did a bit of mingling.

Eventually Kayvan actually ran into a friend of his. Well, an acquaintance, at least. They said hi, and I couldn’t tell if it was an awkward place for them to be running into each other, but Kayvan introduced me to Gary too, and we hung out for a bit. Gary was actually quite cute, and things started to get a little flirty between us (although that seems like a given when everybody is at least half naked), which Kayvan must have picked up on, because I think he took it as a chance to leave.
“Hey, so you look like you’re doing okay… Do you need me to hang around?” I remembered what he’d said about needing to be in the mood to enjoy Truck, so I thanked him for bringing me and told him that I would definitely be able to fend for myself if necessary. He had a plane to catch the next day, so we said our goodbyes there on the sweaty dance floor. Luckily I now had Gary to keep me company, so he hadn’t left me completely alone. Without going into any graphic details, we stayed at Truck until close, and were present for the awkward shift in atmosphere when the DJ gets cut off and the house lights all come on. Gary and I readied ourselves for the outside world, and then stumbled out of the warehouse and into the cool night. Since Kayvan had driven me to Truck, I had no idea where I really was, so I just ended up jumping in Gary’s Uber, where we asked the driver to trawl through the streets until we found a fast food place that was still open. And that’s how I ended up eating Subway in Gary’s apartment in the early hours of the morning.

***

Gary said he was “working from home” that day, so the two of us stayed in bed for most of the morning, sleeping in at first, and then slowly waking up and recounting the bizarre night and the series of events that had led us to the moment we were currently in. Until we heard a champagne cork pop out in the kitchen, which brought our conversation to a halt.
“Um… oh!” Gary exclaimed, after a brief moment of confusion. “That’s right, it’s my housemates birthday.” We stared at each other for a few second, unsure of what to do.
“Well… let’s go have some champagne then?” I said to him. He just laughed, so I freshened up and got dressed when then went out to meet his housemate.

“Happy birthday, Brandon” Gary said as we emerged from the room and into the kitchen, where Gary’s housemate and his boyfriend were pouring a few glasses of champagne.
“Thank you, darling,” Brandon said as he gave Gary a hug. “And what’s this? Looks like you’ve started the party already, Gary!”
“This is Robert. He’s a traveller from Australia. Robert, this is Brandon and his boyfriend Orlando.”
“Oh, Australia? How fabulous. Well, welcome to San Francisco!”
“Thank you, and happy birthday Brandon!” He was slightly older than Gary, who was already slightly older than myself, but he was already proving to be quite the character.
“Would you like a glass?” Orlando asked me, holding up the bottle. It was only just 11am, but…
“Well, what the hell, I’m on holidays, right? I’ve got no where else to be!”
And that’s how I ended up drinking until the early afternoon, chatting with Brandon and Orlando and playing with their dogs. Eventually Gary had to go out, to pick a few things up and get ready for the coming evening.

“We’re going out to dinner for my birthday, Robert, and you’re more than welcome to join us if you like,” Brandon said as Gary and I were heading out the door.
“Well… I don’t have any plans,” I said with a shrug. I turned to Gary. “Is that okay with you?”
“Ah, absolutely!” Gary said with a grin. “Also… I have to go home and visit my family for Thanksgiving tomorrow, and then I have to stay away for work so… I probably won’t have another chance to see you again.” Despite the overwhelmingly unromantic setting in which we had met, I was definitely starting to develop a bit of a crush on Gary. It was a shame that I wouldn’t get a chance to spend much more time with him, but it was more than enough motivation to join him and Brandon and Orlando, and presumably a handful of other people, for dinner that evening. We left the apartment complex, and Gary called an Uber to send me home so that I could change out of last nights clothes and freshen up a little bit.

In the evening I caught the bus back over to Gary and Brandon’s side of town and met them at their place, where pre-dinner cocktails were already well under way. I was introduced to a few of their good friends, and also a guy named Nathan*, who was a friend of Gary’s who happened to be in town, and was visiting from Los Angeles.
“Oh nice, I’m going to be in LA soon, in a little more than a week,” I told him, and we got chatting as he mixed me up a drink, and said that’d he’d have room for me to crash with him for a couple of nights when I arrived. I thanked him, slightly amazed at how things had been seemingly working out so well for me, and how easily I’d been able to meet a bunch of people and make friends over the last few days. It was only my third night in San Francisco, but with the delicious pizza, flowing wine, hilarious conversation and excellent company, I was already starting to feel rather at home.

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Brandon’s birthday dinner

 

 

*Name has been changed for reasons that will be expanded upon in further posts.

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Space Cakes, Champagne and Other Adventures in Amsterdam

The end of Saturday night (or Sunday morning) had felt somewhat euphoric – the next day, not so much. It had had been a long day of drinking and partying, and we all felt particularly rough. Joris made breakfast again, and we all nursed our hangovers as we reminisced about all the fun and crazy things that had happened – Thijs still couldn’t believe we’d gone swimming in the canal. We all had a good laugh over the memory, but come the end of the morning, it was time for André to leave. He was heading off to Antwerp to compete in the OutGames, so we all said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch. After that, Joris and Thijs were heading over to Vondelpark, the huge, long park towards the south of the city. Their friends were all meeting there that afternoon to hang out in the sun – making the most of it while it lasted – and said I was welcome to join them, but I had a few other things to do beforehand, so I told them I would meet them there later. André wasn’t the only person I would be saying goodbye to today.

Despite our best attempts, Ralf and I had failed to coordinate our actions and movements over the weekend, and hadn’t even seen each other since our arrival on Thursday afternoon. But now it was Sunday afternoon, and Ralf had to get back to Berlin. I hopped on my bike and rode back to Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station, parked and locked my bike and then went inside to find him. I found Ralf on the platform, saying goodbye to his friend who he had been staying with here. We were briefly introduced, but then he headed off to leave me alone with Ralf.
“How was your 4th pride weekend, cutie?” he said to me with that gorgeous smile of his. I told him where I’d ended up and what I’d been doing, and he laughed when I told him I’d been at Bear Necessity. “You must have really stood out there, right?”
“You could say that,” I said with a wink. Ralf had actually been on one of the floats in the parade, though I didn’t remember seeing him on any of them – probably because I was too busy being a fool swimming around in the canal. He found that particularly amusing. “You’ve had a shower since then though, haven’t you?” I mocked outrage, probably to cover the fact that I had gone almost a full 24 hours before showering after the dip during the parade.
“Of course I have!” He chuckled, and then we had one final kiss and a long hug goodbye before he made his move onto the train.
“It’s not even a goodbye this time,” he said reassuringly. “Just a ‘see you soon’.” It was true, but despite knowing I would definitely be seeing him again, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional as we said goodbye. He’d been a big influence on me in a lot of ways, and quite the catalyst when it had come to planning my trip around Europe, and I don’t think it would have been quite the same if we had never met. We waved through windows of the train as it pulled out of the station, carrying him back east, and I blinked back the few tears that I may have otherwise shed, knowing that I would in fact be seeing him in the not too distant future.

***

After I said farewell to Ralf, I went to meet up with another friend who would also be playing a recurring role in my round the world tour. I had met Giles when I was in Berlin during pride, and he actually lived in London, but it turned out that he had come to Amsterdam for their pride celebrations as well. While I hadn’t managed to catch up with him during the weekend either, I met Giles at the train station in Amsterdam for a brief catch up before he was due to fly back home. We caught up and talked about our weekends, and he told me how to get to his house in London from the airport that I was flying into. Yes, my next destination after Amsterdam was London, and Giles had offered me a place to stay while I was there. So we had a brief catch up before he had to depart, and I said farewell knowing that I would be seeing him in only a few days time. After that it was off Vondelpark to meet Joris, Thjis and their friends.

Vondelpark is full of lakes.

Vondelpark is full of lakes.

Statue in the middle of Vondelpark.

Statue in the middle of Vondelpark.

It was another beautiful afternoon, and after riding through what felt like an enormous park – it was long and narrow, and seemed to stretch on forever – I finally found where their company had spread out on picnic blankets to soak up the sun. I met a few new people, and had the same conversations about my travels – what I was doing in Amsterdam, where I was going next, where I had been and how long I was going to be away on my whole trip – with a few different people who I hadn’t met, as well as chatting with some of the people who I had met at the parade yesterday. At the end of the afternoon, when all the beers had been drunk, everyone hopped back on their bikes and cycled to Rembrantplein, a plaza in the middle of the city where the final closing pride party was taking place. More beer was drunk, and we danced the afternoon away. I met a bunch of people here and there, not really not really getting to know any of them but getting on well enough with them to have a good time. There was a performance by Willeke Alberti, Holland’s ‘gay mum’, an older female singer who was something of an icon among the gay men of the Netherlands.
“You don’t have anything like that in Australia?” Thjis asked me. “Australia’s gay mum?” The only Australian female singer I could think of who was something of gay icon was Kylie Minogue (although we did have Marcia Hines popping up all over the place at Sydney Mardi Gras 2014), and I don’t think anyone could consider Kylie a ‘mum’. As the night eventually grew darker there were some pyrotechnics, and it was safe to say that Amsterdam Pride 2013 went out, literally, with a bang. The night was complete with a stop at the fast food shop on the cycle home, and Joris getting a huge bag of French fries and, in typical Dutch tradition, smothered them in mayonnaise. I had watched watched Gemma do that as a teenager back home, but it was only now that I actually believed that it really was a Dutch thing. Regardless, they were delicious, and an appreciated addition from Holland to my list of international drunk food cuisine.

The Closing Party of Amsterdam Pride 2013.

The Closing Party of Amsterdam Pride 2013.

The beer cups knew the score.

The beer cups knew the score.

I don't know who these guys are but they wanted a photo with me. Gotta give the people what they want.

I don’t know who these guys are but they wanted a photo with me. Gotta give the people what they want.

The pyrotechnic display for the finale of pride.

The pyrotechnic display for the finale of pride.

***

The following day was back to real life for Joris and Thjis. While I had only intended on staying in Amsterdam for pride, the best deal on the flights to London were on the Wednesday, and Joris and Thjis generously let me extend my stay in their home for the remaining days. They’d done their time in showing me around though – it was back to the working week and their jobs for them – so I was left to my own devices. I rode around the city on my bike, taking photos of some of the main plazas and squares. I attempted to visit the Anne Frank Museum, which is actually in the house where she hid from the world all those years ago. However, the line was absolutely, ridiculously long. I would have loved to visit it, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to even contemplate standing in the line that stretched down the street and around several corners. So I abandoned the history, and instead spend my time wandering the more contemporary streets of Amsterdam. The Red Light District isn’t that confronting during the day, but the whole area still has this eclectic and kooky vibe that largely contributes to Amsterdam’s international reputation.

Dam Square in the centre of the city.

Dam Square in the centre of the city.

The National Monument is a WWII monument in Dam Square.

The National Monument is a WWII monument in Dam Square.

I also had lunch with Asja on one of my last days. We bought some delicious sandwiches from a shop she recommended, and walked over to Vondelpark and laid out in the sun. We talked about life and travelling, and I got to know her a lot better than I ever had when our paths had crossed when we were in Australia. Back then, if you’d told me that the two of us would one day be hanging out in a park in Amsterdam and chatting away like old friends, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I guess it’s funny how different walks of life end up bringing people together like that, and it definitely reinforces that idea that the world really is a small place after all. After our gossiping and sun baking session, Asja had to get back to work. However, there was one thing in Amsterdam that I was yet to do that I really wanted to try.
“I don’t like smoking it, though,” I confessed to Asja. “I’ve never really been a fan of smoking anything, really. It hurts too much.”
“So, what? You want to try a space cake?” It was weird to think that it would be perfectly legal for me to go and buy a baked good with marijuana in the recipe, but we were in Amsterdam, and it was completely legal.
“Well, I don’t want to be some typical tourist. I know there’s more to Amsterdam than weed, and that not everyone here is a stoner. But… it is legal here.”
Asja just laughed and rolled her eyes. I was probably spouting a lame excuse she’d already heard a dozen times before, but she didn’t seem to mind. I walked her back to her house and her work, and on the way we stopped in and bought me a space cake from one of the infamous coffee shops.
“Now just remember, it takes a while to take effect when you eat it,” she warned me. “You might think it was a dud, and that nothing is happening, but just wait. Don’t go off and start riding your bike around or doing anything stupid.”

So off Asja went to work, and I was left to consume my space cake by myself. I took it home to eat it, and sat in my room and played with Bolli and Stoli while I waited for it to kick in. I know plenty of people who smoke weed back home – I’ll admit to having tried it a handful of times, but it never really did anything for me. I didn’t know I expected this to be any different, but I thought eating it would be different. Maybe it was a dud, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m pretty sure I dozed off at some point in the afternoon – I don’t know if the marijuana made me sleepy, or if I was just tired. But when I eventually stirred the only thing I could think of was how hungry I was. I’d anticipated this, and proceeded to eat the entire bag of potato chips I had bought on the way home and drank a whole bottle of Coke. As I sat there staring at what remained of my munchies, I heard Thjis come home. The spare room I was sleeping in was also used for storage, so he ended up coming in to get something.

Stoli

Stoli.

Bolli.

Bolli.

“Hey Robert, how’s it going?” Thjis said to me. I can’t really explain it – I guess it must have been one of the few noticeable effects of the drug, but as soon as Thjis spoke to me I broke out into a fit of uncontrollable giggling. What was funny? I had absolutely no idea. And I think the fact that I was laughing at nothing made it even funnier (for me), because I was unable to stop.
“Ahh… are you high?” Thjis said with a chuckle. My inability to speak through the fit of giggles probably answered his question, but eventually I calmed down enough to reply.
“I think… yeah, I guess I am.” The giggles only last about 10 minutes or so – the same amount of time as the munchies – and afterwards I felt particularly normal again. In the end I guess the experience reaffirmed my believe that weed didn’t really do anything for me – or that I’ve still only ever tried really poor quality stuff. But if the main effects it has on me are making me sleepy and hungry, and it is a well known fact I do not require pharmacological assistance for either of those things.

***

On Tuesday evening, Thjis asked if I wanted to join him at a BBQ for dinner with some of his friends. Joris had been feeling ill that day and had stayed home from work – a few jokes were made that it was from swimming in the canal, which made me a little uneasy – so he wouldn’t be joining us, but Thjis and I set out across town on our bikes, stopping to pick up some wine along the way. We were going to Frans’ place – the same friend who’s boat we had been on during the parade on Saturday. It was a mild and pleasant afternoon, and we all sat on the building’s rooftop terrace, the barbecue sizzling away in the background as I listened to the group of friends chat and gossip about the weekend that had just passed. There would have been about eight of them, and while I recognised a fair few from Saturday, I hadn’t had much luck with remembering names. Jan, one of the names I did remember, had a black eye – apparently Joris had swung a hand or an elbow too wide when he had been launching himself into the canal, and accidentally hit him in the face. I don’t know how I missed an event like that at the time, but it was a pretty funny retrospective story (sorry Jan).

Houses by the canal.

Houses by the canal.

At one point in the evening, before the sun had sunk below the horizon, Frans helped me up to the highest point of the rooftop so that I was able to get a view of the surrounding city. Frans lived quite close to the centre, and the area was full of old and beautiful buildings. He pointed out a few landmarks and features, and I took a few pictures of the quaint little rows of houses set alongside the canals. We returned to the table with the others, and we stayed out there as long as we could. But as the sun started to go down it became a little cooler. Blankets were brought up from inside, and being the warm-blooded creature some the Southern Hemisphere that I am, I needed several draped over my legs and shoulders to keep from getting the chills. Eventually everyone had to get going though, so I said goodbye to all the guys I had met over the weekend, and thanked them for letting me crash their circle of friends for pride.

Amsterdam rooftops.

Amsterdam rooftops.

In the end there was just Frans, his partner Michel, Thjis and myself. “You know what we should do?” Frans said to us. “We should take Robert to gay bingo!” I couldn’t help but laugh – traditionally I thought bingo was supposed to be a game for little old ladies, but it seemed the world of gay nightlife has adopted it as a popular pass time, too. Holland isn’t the only country I’ve seen it in, but it was actually going to the first time I had attended a gay bingo night. The four of us headed to a nearby bar called The Queen’s Head, and took a seat with our drinks and waited for the game to begin. It was a cozy, dimly light bar, and we were seated near the back with a view over the large canal through the windows, lights twinkling at us from across the water. The evening was hosted by – of course – a drag queen, and I felt that sense of familiarity that you get from walking into a gay bar with drag queens anywhere in the world. The bingo cards were set up in squares so that each game had three rounds – the first to complete a straight line, the first to complete one of the nine sub-squares, and then the first to completely check off the entire square. As it would happen, during one of the rounds I was the first to call bingo for checking off a straight line – the reward for which was the lucky dip box. After the drag queen did the usual run of asking a few questions and embarrassing me in front of the whole bar, a trapdoor popped up in the middle of the stage, and a box full of small white pieces of packing foam appeared.

Setting out to search for my prize.

Setting out to search for my prize.

“Your prize is in there,” the drag queen said. “Now get in there and find it!” I got down on my hands and knees and reached into the polystyrene, while some silly game show music played overhead. I hadn’t expected it to be too hard to find the prize – the people in the previous rounds hadn’t had any problems – but as I scrambled around through the box, I kept coming up empty handed. Judging by the laughs from the crowd, I assumed the drag queen was making some kind of lewd gestures towards me while my butt was sticking up in the air, and for a moment I thought this might have all been a big practical joke on me. But eventually the drag queen exclaimed, “Oh come on, have you still not found it?” and I came up empty handed and shrugged my shoulders. She seemed legitimately confused.
“Well.. that’s not right… there’s definitely something in there.” She ended up getting down to help me search for it, to the point she even stepped in to the box and waded around in the knee-high packing foam in an attempt to find it.
“Well this is a little awkward,” she said with a laugh. In the end she ended up calling over the hunky bartender to help us. To my horror, he fished around in the depths of the box for about 10 seconds before pulling out “Diamonds: The Unofficial Biography of Rihanna” on DVD. It had been lying flat on the bottom of the box, and had very easily escaped most of our clutches and desperate attempts to locate it.

Still looking for my prize.

Still looking for my prize.

We all had a good laugh, and I felt a little stupid but I just had to laugh with it. But in the end the joke definitely wasn’t on me, because the bar also gave me a nice bottle of champagne as a way of saying sorry for having me down on me knees for so long – the pun, surely, was intended.
“Wow, this is actually really nice stuff!” Frans said as I sat back down at the table. “What a nice parting gift from Amsterdam!”
We didn’t stay out too late, since everyone did have to work tomorrow, so I said goodbye to Frans and Michel as Thjis and I headed back to the bikes.
“Have you seen the Red Light District at night yet?” Thjis asked me as we began peddling. I told him I’d been very close, but hadn’t gone through it yet. “Okay, let’s go that way home. I mean, you can’t leave Amsterdam and not see it.” On a Tuesday night there wasn’t as much going on, but Thjis did take me past a few of the windows lined with red lights, girls standing suggestively in the window with their come-hither looks. It was almost difficult to fathom – a world and a concept of prostitution that was so different from my own country, and therefore so far from my own preconceptions – but in the end I guess that’s why we travel, isn’t it? To learn these new things, new perspectives, and to learn more about the world outside the world we’ve always known.

***

The following morning I bid farewell to Joris and Thjis. I was heading over to catch up with Asja one last time before heading to the airport to catch my plane to London. I left them the bottle of champagne I’d been given the night before as a way of saying thank you for letting me stay the extra few days, and I didn’t even know if I’d be allowed to carry it on the plane anyway. “It’s supposed to be good stuff though, so save it for a special occasion!” Later on in the year, I would be delighted to learn that they popped the cork after Joris had popped the question and asked Thjis to marry him. It doesn’t get much  more special than that!

I spent the afternoon with Asja and one of her work colleges visiting a small brewery called Brouwerij ‘t IJ. There was a bar inside with a whole heap of different beers to try, although I thought the production end of brewery made a rather unpleasant smell that was a little off-putting. Still, what made the brewery special was that it was inside a windmill – things don’t get more Dutch than that. My last day there was also very overcast and rainy. “It seems like your luck with the weather has finally run out,” Asja said with a laugh. It was true, and not a moment too soon. I joked with her, saying that I’d packed the sunshine into my backpack and would be taking it to London with me.

The windmill pub and brewery.

The windmill pub and brewery.

I’d been incredibly fortunate during my time in Amsterdam, and not just with the weather. I’d had a great time getting to know Joris and Thjis and the great bunch of guys that was their group of friends, and felt like I’d really been integrated into the locals way of life. I couldn’t thank them enough for the amazing time I had. Also getting to catch up with old friends like Michael and Asja had been lovely, and there hadn’t been a moment in Amsterdam where I had felt lonely or bored. Definitely up there as a major highlight of the trip so far, I was a little sad to be leaving the city. London beckoned from across the sea, but at least I could leave knowing I’d had an amazing, authentic and incredibly enjoyable Amsterdam experience.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.