Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

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

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

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

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

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

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

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

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

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

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

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

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

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

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

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

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

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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

***

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

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

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

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

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

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

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

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Enter São Paulo: The Real Concrete Jungle

After being the last one on the plane – I was hanging on to every inch of news about the looming end of the US Government shut down – and settling down for a long overnight flight, I finally touched down at Guarulhos International Airport just as dawn was creeping over the horizon and into São Paulo. After disembarking, collecting my baggage, and passing through Brazilian customs with no hassles, I wandered through the terminal in a groggy daze, still feeling the effects of the sleeping pills I’d taken during the flight. It was only really sinking in that I currently had a handful of questions and problems, and not a whole lot of answers or solutions.

Firstly, I had been a little terrified at the thought of coming to Brazil at all. I’d heard horror stories of people being mugged at gun point on the beach in Rio, although that wasn’t going to be much of problem for me if I couldn’t even find my way out of the fresh hell that is a foreign airport. That was another thing I had to get used to again – I was in a non-English speaking country and would soon learn that – unlike Europe – it wasn’t even that common and a second language, with many people only speaking Portuguese. My phone was also running low on battery, and I was unable to find any stray power outlets in the terminal, so I felt like I was walking around with a ticking time bomb that would eventually leave me completely stranded as soon as that percentage hit zero. There didn’t appear to be any readily available (read: free) wifi in the airport anyway, so it was looking more and more like I was going to do this the old fashioned way. I had spoken to Fausto a couple of times on Facebook, and while they had been brief, he had provided me with the essential details such as his phone number and address. He’d also told me he would have to go to work the morning of my arrival for an important presentation, so he might not be there when I arrived. My phone was having troubles making regular texts or calls, so I really had no way of contacting him, so I just had to set out for his apartment and hope for the best.

Fausto had warned me that the only way to get to his place from the airport was to get a cab. I’d been skeptical at first, being a traveller who is always willing to brave the public transport to save a few dollars, but what I had failed to realise is that the reason there is no public transport from the airport is because the international airport isn’t even in São Paulo. I thought Guarulhos was just the name of the airport, but it turns out that it was actually the neighbouring city, and the drive to São Paulo would take the better part of an hour. Luckily taxis – and basically everything, comparatively – are pretty cheap in São Paulo, so once I found out where to catch a legitimate taxi (I’d also been scared with rumours of illegal taxis that either charge way too much or simply rob you during the course of your trip) I jumped in, showed the driver the written address, and enjoyed the ride as I was driven through the lifting fog and into the metropolis.

***

I had met Fausto previously in my journey, during my brief stint in Barcelona, where I had joined him and his travel companions for a swim in their gorgeous hotel pool. It wasn’t the first time that someone I had met earlier on my travels had provided me with a place to stay: I’d only met Rich in Bangkok when I met up with her in Barcelona, and Giles let me live in his home in London without him for two weeks despite having only met him briefly in Berlin. But I’d stayed in touch with them more than I had with Fausto, and I was afraid it might be awkward due to the fact I had practically invited myself to come and stay with him (people always say “Sure, come and visit me!” but how many of them actually mean it?). When I finally arrived at his apartment, I received a pretty good impression of what a lot of the homes in Brazil, or at least São Paulo, were like. Before me loomed a beautiful, sleek, modern looking condo, surrounded by ferns, palms and other tropical plants to create a well-kept garden. However, before all that was a huge metal fence that covered the whole side of the property that faced out into the street. A quick glance each way down the road showed me that this was standard practice for many of the more affluent-looking residencies in the area. After paying the taxi and watching it drive off down the road, I approached the gates and was immediately greeted by the security guard. He asked me something in Portuguese, and instead I showed him Fausto’s written address, which also had his name.

“Ahh, Mr. Fausto!” he said, and I breathed a sigh of relief, his recognition indicating that at the very least I had made it to the right place. But the guards face showed a look of concern, and when he said something to me. I recognised a few key words, in particular “trabalho”. It sounded very similar to “trabajo”, the Spanish word for ‘work’, and I knew enough Spanish to make meaning out of the madness. Fausto was obviously at work, and while the guard didn’t seem to doubt my legitimacy as a guest of Fausto’s, he managed to communicate in his extremely basic English that he had no key. I pulled out my phone – wondering if it was simply going to be a long morning of waiting in a lobby – to discover that I had received some text messages. From Fausto! After quickly reading over them, I had to convince the security guard to take me up to Fausto’s apartment. He shrugged, but escorted me upstairs anyway, and in a few minutes we were both standing in front of his apartment door. He kept muttering away in Portuguese, but I got down on my hands and knees and put my fingers along the tiny gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. After a few moments of sliding my fingers along the bottom of the door, I found what I was looking for – a piece of sticky tape. I gently peeled it off and it came away easily, and I discovered what appeared to be a piece of dental floss stuck to the tape. And when I pulled on that dental floss, sure enough the key tied to the end of it slid through the gap and out onto the floor. The security guard cried out in amazement, and I held up the key, smiled, and gave him a thumbs up. He stayed with me to make sure the key worked, and then left me alone to discover Fausto’s apartment.

The view from Fausto's apartment.

The view from Fausto’s apartment.

Fausto lived in a beautiful apartment that looked out over São Paulo. He had left a clean towel out for me so that I could have a shower, and I ended up taking a nap on the couch and letting the sleeping pills wear off while I waited for him to get home. Any fears I had of potential awkwardness evaporated as soon as he arrived home – we was as warm, friendly and charismatic as he had been when we’d first met in the under-crowded Barcelona nightclub, and in no time we were catching up as I was telling him the long story about my missed flight and how I had ended up in Brazil. Last time I’d seen him, South America hadn’t been on my travel plans, so he confessed he’d been a little surprised to hear from me.
“But still, it was a pleasant surprise! I’m glad you finally get to see Brazil now,” he said with a smile. “I actually just came to check up on you after my presentation was finished. I’ll have to go back to work this afternoon, but if you like we can go grab some lunch now?” All I’d had for nearly 24 hours was plane food, so lunch sounded amazing.

When we got down to the street, Fausto ran me by some of the basics about Paulistano life. “There’s public transport, but it’s not that reliable and doesn’t really reach a lot of places. Taxi’s are definitely the way to get around, they’re everywhere and they’re not that expensive.”
“What about walking? Are the streets dangerous?” I wasn’t a fan of paying for cabs, but I guess it was a matter of safety first. Fausto pursed his lips in thought, unsure of how to answer.
“Well, it’s not really dangerous,” he said, “but it’s not the safest place in the world. You just need to be alert.” He shrugged his shoulders with a laugh. “But then you could say the same thing about some parts of New York, right? So who knows.” I guess he had a point, although New York did have an incredibly comprehensive public transport network for a city it’s size. Having just spent such a long time in the Big Apple, during my time in São Paulo I found myself inevitably comparing and contrasting the two cities in various ways.

***

I took the days in São Paulo relatively easy – I hadn’t done an awful lot of planning, so when Fausto returned to work on that first day I headed home to consult a few maps and read up on the local attractions and sights. Fausto lived in an area called Vila Olímpia, which was quite close to what he had described as “the Central Park of São Paulo” (again with the NYC references), Parque do Ibirapuera. Pleased to discover something that was within a comfortable walking distance, I set off one afternoon to check it out. Ibirapuera Park is the largest in the city, although it’s nowhere near as large as Central Park, but as I walked through the streets of São Paulo, the thing that struck me most was how green and leafy the city was. I remember having similar thoughts about Singapore earlier in the year, with trees growing peacefully alongside big shiny malls, but São Paulo took it to the next level. Trees erupted along the edges of the road and stretched out their canopies over the streets, and it was enough to momentarily distract you from the fact you were in a huge city and lose yourself in the surrounding nature. The term ‘concrete jungle’ is so often used to describe cities like New York which, save a handful of dedicated park, are largely void of greenery. I feel as though São Paulo interpreted the term in a much more literal sense, combining equal parts of both concrete and jungle to create a truly unique atmosphere that I had never encounter before, and am yet to experience since.

Street art.

Street art.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

The streets of São Paulo appear to have been sprinkled with tiny rainforests of their own.

When I eventually reached Ibirapuera Park, the greenery took a chokehold on the concrete and exploded into a complete rainforest. I wandered aimlessly along the paths, getting lost amongst the nature and enjoying the slow pace of life away from the city. In the centre of the park the sounds of traffic had almost completely faded away, and it weren’t for the paved path under my feet I could have sworn I was actually in a remote rainforest. When I finally emerged from the denser forest of the park and into the clearings, Lago das Gaças – the huge lake in the northern end of the park – provided the perfect setting for some photographs of the city skyline looming on the horizon.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The density of the trees in the middle of the park increases dramatically.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

The São Paulo skyline as seen from Ibirapuera Park.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Panoramic view of Lagos das Gaças.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Some variety of carnivorous bird I found near the lake.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

Getting lost in the trees under the canopies.

I found the park so beautiful and soothing that I ended up going back several times. The rainy season was well underway, and one afternoon I even walked around in the rain and enjoyed the relatively empty scenery. The park is also home to the São Paulo Museum of Modern Art, which had a free exhibition that I briefly visited, as well as a range of other interesting structures and sculptures.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

A not so sunny afternoon by the lake.

Empty park on a rainy day.

Empty park on a rainy day.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The Marquise, a marquee that connects several of the building and was popular with skateboarders.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the 'Oca', or 'hut'.

The former Lucas Nogueira Garcez Pavilion, now known as the ‘Oca’, or ‘hut’.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

The Obelisk of São Paulo, seen from outside the park.

Park

Park Ibirapuera.

***

When I wasn’t checking out the parks and exploring the concrete jungle, I took a trip up to Avenida Paulista, what Fausto described as the major downtown and shopping area, or “São Paulo’s equivalent to 5th Avenue”. Determined to not spend money on taxis when it could be helped, I ended up walking the whole way. It was a great way to see more of the city, but in the end there wasn’t as much to do in downtown São Paulo during the day, since I wasn’t exactly on a budget that allowed for afternoons of shopping. And still, I couldn’t help but be drawn away from the streets of the city into the greener pastures that lay sprinkled in between the skyscrapers. I discovered a few little extra bits and pieces that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for all that aimless wandering, so in the end it was definitely worth it.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

The Gandhi Square, and the statue that pays homage to its namesake.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

Street art seen off Avenida Paulista.

I also spent a long portion of my days in São Paulo just relaxing, whether it was in a nearby café or Fausto’s apartment, writing my blog and just enjoying the warm, tropical weather. I would hear much of the comparison between between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo during my time in Brazil, and the debate reminded me of my own hometown of Sydney and the comparisons to Melbourne. Both Rio and Sydney have the advantage of natural beauty and being close to a handful of beautiful beaches, so their relative competitors attempt to make up for their lack of inherent beauty with lots of cultural activities and artistic pursuits. With this in mind, I was assured that São Paulo becomes a much more interesting city at night, so I was happy to siesta the afternoons away in preparation for the coming evenings…

From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

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

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

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

***

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

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

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smells Good: A pit stop in Cologne

The end goal was to reach Paris. However, all the direct express trains were completely booked, and it was quite a long distance to cover via the slower, less direct trains. So keeping that in mind, I picked a geographical midpoint to make a one night stopover on my way to the City of Lights. And that’s how I found myself in the west German city of Köln, or Cologne in English.

Tim, an ex-lover and good friend of mine back in Sydney, had spent six months studying abroad and living in Cologne, so I had dropped him a line and asked him what there was to do in Cologne, and what sights were worth visiting. “Even if you don’t spend a night in Cologne,” he had replied, “It’s worth getting off the train just to see the cathedral. It’s right outside the train station – you could literally step outside, have a look around, then jump on another train.” The Dom – which I would later learn is the second largest church in Europe, after the one in the Vatican – was the pride and joy of the city of Cologne, and Tim assured me it was the only really must see attraction. “It’s can be a pretty fun city though. Have a little explore if you get the chance.”

***

When I arrived in Cologne in the early evening, I headed straight to my hostel – booked ahead the previous evening at Ralf’s – and crashed for a little while. Visiting hours at the Dom had finished for the day, so if I wanted to go inside I would have to check it out before I left in the morning. But after a brief chat with some English travellers in my dorm, a quick power nap and a much needed shower, I set out to wander the street a little bit. I’d been told by Simon and some of the other Berlin housemates that many people actually considered Cologne to be the gay capital of Germany, so I felt it somewhat mandatory to at least go out and do a little exploring. Cologne was very different to Berlin – it felt distinctly more… German. Despite having all the well-known German landmarks, Berlin is still quite an international, cosmopolitan city, and I noticed that feature even more when I visited Cologne, which looked like an older, slightly more traditional city. The streets were damp from rain, but they were very clean – a tribute to stereotypical German efficiency, I suppose. I believe they had also recently celebrated gay pride in Cologne too – either that, or there is always a rainbow flag flying outside one of the main government buildings.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

The Cologne Cathedral, The Dom, the evening I arrived in Cologne.

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that's still a rainbow flag!

However limp it appears in the lack of wind, that’s still a rainbow flag!

I was heading towards Hohenzollernring, what I believed to be a main nightlife street if my research skills and Google could be trusted, but I knew it as soon as I hit it. I emerged from the quite, dimly lit roads to a strip lined with shops, restaurants, clubs and bars. I headed towards Loom, the closest gay bar I had read about, but upon arrival discovered that it was more of a nightclub than a bar. In addition to that, it was a White Party – the club was divided into two floors: one for the exclusive admittance of those dressed in white, and one for unrestricted access. I stood out the front for a few minutes, pondering on whether it would be worth it. The thought of being inside a packed nightclub made me realise for the first time just how tired I still was, so I ended up skipping the club and continued wandering down the street. I’d well and truly given up on my goal I had once had of trying to experience the nightlife in every city I visited – there can be too much of a good thing, and I had since learnt that I would need to pick my battles when it came to that mission.

I did, however, descend some mysterious steps into one venue, which turned out to be full of salsa dancers. It was the last thing I had expected to find in a city in Germany, but I hung around and watched some of the dancers do their thing. It reminded me of when I used to take ballroom dancing classes back when I was in high school, and seeing all these people having such a good time reaffirmed by belief that when I eventually got home, I needed to get some hobbies. But for the rest of the night, I contented myself to getting some takeaway KFC and wandering back to the hostel to pass out in my dorm.

***

The following morning I woke up relatively early to head back to the station to book my train ticket to Paris, since the office that sold them had been closed when I arrived in Cologne the previous evening. However, I encountered more difficulties: all the direct trains had no available spaces for Eurail pass holders, and the only way I could get on that train was if I purchased a full priced first class ticket. Assuring the sales woman that that was not an option, I asked if there were any alternative routes I could take. After a bit of searching, she found two trains that could get me to Paris that day, with a connection in Brussels, Belgium. It seemed like my best and only option, so I booked the tickets and returned to the hostel to organise some last minute accommodation in Paris.

The train didn’t leave Cologne until noon, so I used the remainder of my morning to see the famed cathedral, the Dom. It was truly a towering masterpiece, so huge that I had to keep backing up and backing up until I was eventually able to capture the whole thing in a single photograph. The ancient Gothic architecture was exquisite, despite some scaffolding to disrupt the otherwise picturesque sight, but as with any church it was the insides that were the most impressive. Beautiful stained glass windows glittered in the sunlight pouring in from outside, and towering ceilings and long halls created a vast space that subdued all who entered into a respectful silence. Despite having no real affinity with Roman Catholicism, Christianity or organised religion in general, I still can’t help but be in awe of these kinds of places, and feel a sense of the spirituality they once harvested in times gone by. The churches all throughout Europe look nothing like most of the ones in Australia, which are usually fairly modern and quite plain looking at best. The Cologne Cathedral is indisputably a work of art. Even though hundreds of tourists pour through the doors of the church, it still remains an active place or service and worship – though I can’t help but think that a church that has a fully stocked gift shop has turned into a bit of a sellout somewhere along the way.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The Dom, featuring scaffolding.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

The echoing main chamber of the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

Stained glass window inside the cathedral.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

More impressive glass artwork in the cathedrals windows.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

Shrine inside the cathedral, where worshippers can light candles of prayer.

I wandered through the church for a while, observing some of the alters and statues, and by the time I was done it was time to check out of the hostel and catch my train to Brussels.

Berghain

“Well, that sucks,” said Dane as we walked down the lose gravel path away from the warehouse, the techno beats throbbing through the walls and bleeding into the night air with a haunting muffled sound.
“Yeah,” I said with a dejected sigh. “I know how much you were looking forward to it too.”
We’d just been denied entry into Berghain, what had commonly been described to me by my friends as one of the most exclusive nightclubs in Germany, possibly the world. Donatella had assured me that it wasn’t really that hard to get into. “Dress down – they turn away people who are really dressed up, or big groups of really obvious tourists, or too many women. Any women in high heels, usually. Two gay guys though, you’ll be fine, you should definitely get in.” By definition it wasn’t a gay bar, but the techno and house music scene that thrived in Berghain usually attracted a lot of gay people.

As we walked from the bus stop, we were giddy with excitement. The night in east Berlin was eerily quite, and as we passed the remains of the Berlin Wall on our way to the club, we joined in with a somber moment of silence. The only sounds were our footsteps, but after a short while Dane whispered, “There… Can you hear it?” The pulsing of the beat was reverberating in the air around us, and I had never felt such a strong combination of excitement and nervousness. The doorman at Berghain was renowned for being incredibly intimidating – part of the reason why they barely ever gave you a reason for being denied entry. A simple “No, not tonight,” was enough to completely shut you down and send you away from the line with your tail between your legs.

Usually the line to get into Berghain on the weekends is massive. Wait times of up to 3 or 4 hours are not uncommon, which makes it even more of a kick in the guts for those who don’t get in. However, my insider knowledge from the local Berliners had informed us that Sunday nights were generally a better time to go – the crowds were better, less tourists, the lines were shorter, and the experience would be a little more… authentic, I suppose. So Dane and I arrived on a Sunday evening, at around half past midnight. We put on our game faces, marched up the path to the door to confront the bouncers.

There was an awkward moment of silence where nothing happened. Usually a bouncer automatically asks for your ID, but this tattooed, skin head, mountain of a man just sort of stared us down for a moment. After a few moments, Dane finally spoke up: “Can we go inside?” he asked rather casually, though I knew he was just as nervous as I was.
“Do you have stamps?” the bouncer asked.
“Ah… no.”
“If you don’t have a stamp you won’t be coming in.”
“Oh…” Dane paused for a moment. “Should we come back later, or…?”
“If you don’t have a stamp, you won’t be coming in.”
“Right… Okay, thanks.” There was nothing else we could do but turn around and walk away. Maybe it was just the cluelessness that radiated from us. Maybe it was because Dane’s accent was too obviously foreign. Maybe it was because my pupils were the size of dinner plates. Maybe it really was just because we had arrived too late, and they weren’t letting any more new people in. It was a disappointing start to the evening, but we took the night elsewhere in Berlin. And luckily for me, it wasn’t the end of my experiences with Berghain…

***

Flash forward to the following Saturday night, Micha’s birthday at Rauschgold, and I was talking to his friends about where I’d been in Berlin, and what I still had left to do. Berghain was constantly being brought up in that conversation – I recounted the story of Dane and I being refused entry, and the general consensus was that we had left it a bit too late for a Sunday night. “You can easily go earlier,” someone said to me. “It’s not like the partying stops during the day.” Back in Sydney, my friend Blythe had told me to go at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, as that was the only time I was guaranteed to get in. At the time I had laughed at the idea of going to a nightclub at that time – I mean, who actually arrives at that hour? But I was finally beginning to realise just how correct she had been. Some of the Micha’s friends said they might even be going to Berghain the following evening, so I exchanged phone numbers with them, glad that I would have someone to face the supremely intimidating bouncer with again.

After stumbling home at 4 in the morning and passing out on my bed, I woke up just before noon to a message saying that the others had decided to skip Berghain because the weather outside was so nice. It was a valid excuse, given that Europe had just come out of a five month winter and no one really knew how long this gorgeous warmer weather would last. But it meant I was left to consider the prospect of visiting Berghain on my own, yet as a solo traveller it was the kind of thing I had grown used to. In the end it became a decision of ‘now or never’. I had already stayed in Berlin an extra weekend for this – I couldn’t afford myself another one. So I jumped on the U-Bahn and found myself back in east Berlin at around 1:30pm, bright sunshine beating down on my back. When I got to Berghain, there was no line to speak of – just two burly looking bouncers by the door: the notorious one from last time, and another equally menacing looking man. I walked up to them and encountered the same awkward silence I had when I was with Dane, but after a couple of seconds the main bouncer spoke to me: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I understood the German, but I had to reply in English, effectively proving my answer as I said it. “No…” I prepared myself for the worst.
The bouncer looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I answered quickly. I was completely sober, but I wonder if they could tell that my whole body was practically quivering with nervousness.
“Do you have ID?” he eventually asked, and I quickly whipped out my drivers licence. The bouncer studied it for a moment, and then looked up at me, handed the licence back, and motioned for me to enter the club.

I was almost in shock. Suddenly there were more faces, people telling me to move here, pay here, get your stamp here. It was all a blur, but I did as I was told and tried to look not quite so clueless. I found myself in a cavernous, dimly lit room where a cloak room was available, and moved out through the following door. I was plunged into a room of darkness and was basically rendered blind since I had come from the bright sunlight outside, so consequently the first thing I did was trip over a milk crate. Yes, a milk crate. All I could see in the limited light was a huge table that covered in dozens of empty glass bottles, a fair few of which had fallen to the floor and smashed. It was hard to register that this was actually a club, when it really did feel like some dirty abandoned warehouse. I stood still for a moment, the reverse of a deer caught in the headlights, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The area I was in was sparsely populated with a few groups of people, so I ascended the stairs and began my exploration.

Berghain is huge. You’d kind of expect that from a warehouse, but I had definitely underestimated the size of the place. After going up the first flight of steps, I reached the main dance floor. It was packed with people, many of whom were decked out in outfits of leather, latex, rubber and denim, as well as being in various states of undress. There were more bare torsos than a Grindr grid, but thankfully all of them had heads. The spirit of kink was very much alive in Berghain, which was part of the reason I had so badly wanted to visit the club. I personally don’t have any affliction with the fetish scene, but working in the fetish store back home had left me feeling like I was still somewhat part of the scene via association. For the first time, I was seeing the leather vests and harnesses that I used to sell in their natural habitat, and I felt a strange sense of pride for these beautiful, perverted, kinky people. Yet I was still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, so instead of diving straight into the crowd I veered to the right and found a bar room that was sort of separated from the main dance floor. I got a beer and sat down on a bar stool, observing my surroundings as I chugged it down. Despite it being very early in the afternoon, I felt far too sober to be in this environment, because from what I was seeing it would have been totally legitimate to believe it was 2 in the morning, the time when most normal people are at nightclubs.

The bar room I was in was relatively empty though, and so I wandered up a nearby staircase… and found myself in a coffee and gelato bar. I know, I did a double take too. Everything else about the room fitted the style of the dank, grungy underground venue, but there in the midst of it all was a gelato cart, long halogen bulbs lighting up a variety of colourful flavours. I spent a few moments pacing around the small room, pinching myself and trying to convince myself that my beer hadn’t been spiked with LSD. I was finally convinced the scene was real, but decided I wasn’t in the mood for ice cream, so descended down the steps and back into the bar. I got another beer, and with it I walked out into the dance floor room and mingled my way through the people. Berghain has a sound system that is in the Top 10 in the world, and when you’re on that dance floor you can literally feel the music. Every beat in the bass line pulses through your flesh, coursing through your bones and blood. The feeling is ecstatic, and you can’t help but surrender your body to the music and become a slave to the rhythm. It was incredible, and while I’m normally not the biggest fan of electronic music, there was something about this place that made it seem like playing anything else would be just wrong. The vibe, the people, the music – everything just clicked. I now understood why they had such strict door policies – if this place became full of tourists, only wanting to see it for the sake of seeing it rather than being a part of the culture, than the whole thing would quickly be destroyed.

Because it really does feel like some kind of ecosystem, a separate world of its own that operates in its own way, on its own time, completely independent of the outside world. And despite the strict selection process it takes for some to get inside, once you’re inside there are basically no rules. The best way to describe what goes on inside Berghain, I believe, is that there’s no one who is going to say “No, stop, you’re not allowed to do that.” As long as you’re not hurting anybody or being violent, you can do pretty much anything you want – with the exception of taking photos, which is completely prohibited. But if you saw some of the stuff that goes on inside Berghain… well, it makes perfect sense.

I made my way up a staircase to another dance floor room, a second space I would later learn to be called Panorama Bar, technically a separate venue within the huge warehouse but often opened up to join with Berghain. There were windows up there, and every so often the automatic blinds would flash open in time with the music and bathe the party goers in the afternoon sunlight, the only hint that the world outside still existed. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Long Island Ice Tea – the beers weren’t kicking in fast enough. As the bartender mixed my cocktail, my gaze turned to the guy next to me, or more specifically, what he was drinking. He had been served a glass of hot water, and proceeded to take the tea bag he had been given and brew himself a cup of tea, right there at the bar. It was at that point that I told myself I really needed to stop being surprised by the things I saw here – I mean, I had stumbled upon a gelato cart! Yet unsurprising, brewing a cup of tea on the nightclubs bar wasn’t the last thing I saw that would surprise me…

As I sat at the bar, sipping my drink, I watched the crowd dancing. It was the weekend of pride, so it was quite obviously a very gay crowd, though I couldn’t say I had any other experience at Berghain to compare it with. But one person in particular caught my eye – a girl, as it would happen. She was wearing a short, black backless dress with an attached hood that was draped over her head like a shawl, though it did little to hide her long, golden curly locks, which cascaded out from the hood to frame her face. Her eyes were closed, and her face had an expression of pure fun and enjoyment as she danced to the beat. Add to all this the fact that she was surrounded by a ring of half naked gay men and I could have sworn I was looking at the doppelgänger of Georgia, my best friend and fag hag from back home in Sydney. I felt an instant gravitational pull towards this woman, so when I finished my cocktail I got up and finally moved onto the dance floor. I danced over to where Georgia’s look-alike was dancing – I didn’t really expect to talk to her or anything, but there was just something about her vibe that was creating a carefree atmosphere, where everyone just danced together with the music.

While she was holding my attention captive, it seemed like I was attracting some for myself amongst a few of the shirtless men in her ranks. Eventually one of them coaxed me into joining them in their shirtlessness, and inevitably there were was some mild fondling and a few stolen kisses on the dance floor. The man in question was a tall, burly and bearded Italian, and on several occasions he even lifted me up above the crowd level while I was in his embrace. He probably told me his name – I don’t recall it anymore – but I remember asking him who the golden girl was. “Her? I don’t know, I’ve just been dancing here with her and these guys.” I just laughed, and felt a little better knowing that this circle of friends seemed to be no more than a collection of beautiful strangers. However, the Italian stallion made a move to leave. “I have to go to the bathroom to take some speed with my husband.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I actually wasn’t surprised about the drugs – crazy party scenes like this are known for having every drug under the sun. But open relationships, and marriages in places where they’re legal, seemed to be particularly common, especially in scenes like this where freedom and liberal sexuality was just a part of life. But when it slaps you in the face like that, a bolt from the blue, you can’t help but feel a little taken aback. I kissed him goodbye and sent him on his way, but when he returned a while later he slid past me with a sulking expression on his face. When I finally got a word with him, he said glumly, “Yeah… My husband doesn’t really want me talking to you.” Across the room a spied a short, stern looking Brazilian man shooting me a look so cold it could have frozen Hell over twice. I had no time to deal with jealous husbands, so I left the stallion to the probable shit storm he had brought upon himself.

***

At some point in the afternoon, either during or after the scenario with the Italian and his husband, I had a nap. That’s right, a nap in a night club. I was still fairly hungover from the night before, so I was feeling a little tired. All the levels of the Berghain warehouse complex contain smaller rooms full of couches and seats and all kinds if holes in the wall where people can sit and chill out, relax, and yes, even go to sleep. Considering the possibly of having your possessions stolen while you sleep, it’s not exactly something I would recommend, but it wasn’t exactly something I consciously chose to do either. It sort of just happened. I know that having a nap is probably the least exciting thing that I did in Berghain, but I just wanted to point out again how very little anyone cares about what you actually do in the club. In any club back in Sydney, and most other places I’ve been to in the world, if you look like you’re falling asleep on a couch, security is going to come over and ask you to leave. But at Berghain? Nope, I casually woke up half an hour later to someone asking me if I was okay, curled up on a sofa. Feeling a little disorientated but somewhat refreshed, I stood up and made my way back to the dance floor. In retrospect, sleeping at Berghain is potentially very common – when the doors open on Thursday night the don’t close until Monday morning, and I’ve heard war stories of people who have gone in and come out at both of those times, living inside the club for the whole weekend. Granted, most of them are probably high on ecstasy, but I wouldn’t believe that I was the first person to ever take a short power nap within those walls.

At this point it was getting on into the late afternoon, or early evening. The dying light that seeped through the blinds in Panorama Bar was the only indication that the sun had begun to go down, but it made no difference inside – the partying carried on. I eventually found myself dancing near the girl with the golden curls – much like my friend Georgia, this woman seemed the create a gravitational pull that drew in all homosexuals. Once again she was surrounded by mostly half naked men, but from the other side of the circle, one of the few that was wearing a shirt caught my eye. I glanced his way a few more times, and eventually I caught him looking back. What followed was a ritual I’d been a part of numerous times in numerous nightclubs – the subtle but sure eye contact, the casual dancing to the music while slowly shifting your way through the crowd to position yourself just a little bit closer to them. Eventually we came face to face. He was a little shorter than guys I normally went for – a centimetre or two shorter than myself – but he had a defined muscular jaw with just a hint of stubble, and hair that was cropped short and styled slightly messy. But it was his eyes that got me – they were bright, icy blue, yet there was a fire behind them that lit them up and made it almost impossible to look away from them. It was an instant connection, and it was a short amount of time before shirts came off and lips collided.

We danced for a while, then moved from Panorama Bar to the main Berghain room and danced some more, our bodies being audio-assaulted by the beat. Then this beautiful stranger, leaning into my ear to be heard over the music, asked if I wanted to go down further still to the ground floor. Keeping in mind that that level is where the majority of the clubs hidden dark rooms are tucked away in miscellaneous corners, I enthusiastically agreed. As we descended beyond the levels of the dance floors, and bass lines that coursed through your body, we were finally able to exchange words without needing to shout at each other, and after our first verbal introductions I learnt that his name was Ralf. What happened next, however, didn’t involve a great deal of talking. I have to admit though, that after my experiences in the dark rooms at Toms, I decided that I’d much rather put a face to a name, and then see the face of that lover when… well, I’m sure I don’t need to paint that picture for you. So we took a seat on one of the lower level couches, in an area that was far less populated, but by no means secluded or discreet. On paper it seems like a rather seedy thing to do, yet I was overcome with a ‘when in Rome’ attitude around the fact I was at Berghain – also, Ralf may just have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on, so self-control was limited. It was pure, unbridled passion – never mind that by the end we had attracted a small audience. Afterwards, as Ralf drew in for one final kiss, with me flat on my back and him straddled over me, he kissed me on the forehead and whispered in my ear with a playful grin that showed off his perfect smile: “Well look at that – he’s a romantic, too.”

***

I ended up spending the rest of the night with Ralf. We went back upstairs and had a drink – I had another beer while got some water – and sat down in one of the non-dancing rooms and had a bit of a conversation and got to know each other. Ralf, who was German, confessed that he’d been surprised to learn that I myself wasn’t German, and I laughed and told him he wasn’t the first person to think that. Ralf himself was Swiss-German, yet had spent half his adult life in Sweden. After chatting for a while longer, we decided to go and dance some more, and who should we run into again but that mystery golden haired girl. “That girl! Who is she?” I asked Ralf. “You were dancing with her when I saw you.”
“Her?” Ralf replied. “I don’t actually know her. I lost the friends who I came here with… But we were joking, saying she was like the queen of the gays.” That she is, I thought to myself, but as he said it Ralf chuckled and flashed a smile that inevitably led us to another trip to the ground floor, for reasons which need no further elaboration. Returning to the upstairs bar for a drink, this time I decided it was my turn to rehydrate a little. Ralf got a water for me, and a Coke for himself. I must have mentioned something about not eating since that morning, because a tinge of concern crept into Ralf’s expression. “Are you hungry? There’s a garden restaurant downstairs. It’s getting late but it might still be open, they usually have some cakes and things.”
“Hold on… There’s a garden in this club?”
“Well, it’s outside, but it’s still part of the club.” He smiled, stood up and took my hand, leading me towards the stairs. “Come, I’ll show you.”

And so that’s how I found myself in the garden outside Berghain, my head nestled into Ralf’s lap, staring into the starry night sky that had replaced the bright blue sky from when I had entered the warehouse. There hadn’t been any food left, so I just got another beer and we took a seat on the long, wooden tiered benches in the garden beside the club. We continued to talk there, going deeper and deeper into the details of our lives. However, there was one particular topic that would leave a profound impact on me that evening.
“So… you don’t drink, do you?” It was a suspicion that came from the combination of not seeing him order an alcoholic beverage, and seeming… well, not so drunk.
“No… No, I don’t,” he said simply.
“Like… ever? Did you ever drink?”
He laughed at that. “No, I’m not a recovering alcoholic,” he joked. I smiled, and just laughed with him. I know it sounds stupid, but it was probably one of the most shocking things that had happened throughout the entire evening.
“But… you don’t mind other people drinking?” I said cautiously, glancing down at the beer bottle clutched in my fingers. A lot of the non-drinkers I knew were quite anti-alcohol in general principle, so I was having trouble reconciling this characteristic within Ralf.
“Well look where we are – obviously not!” he chuckled.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s just, this is the last place I expected to find a sober person!”

The conversation continued on the topic of drinking and alcohol, and it got me onto talking about the drinking culture in Australia.
“I used to shake it off, say it wasn’t that bad. But now… I don’t know, back home I could never go into a club without being at least mildly shit-faced, mostly because I know if I was sober I wouldn’t be able to stand half the people there… because almost all of them are just so shit-faced!” It’s a kind of cyclical trend that can sometimes be hard to pinpoint until you actually remove yourself from the equation and see it objectively. “Here in Germany, and even in Berghain… I mean, there are people off their faces, but everyone still seems in control, you know? We have so many problems in Australia because they get so drunk and lose control. There’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney.”
Ralf nodded in agreement. “Right, and it was the same in Sweden. Alcohol is so expensive that they drink at home first, and half the time they get so drunk they never even make it to the club. But I think in Germany, if someone was to get that drunk… It’s almost considered rude, or annoying. You know, to be so drunk that you can’t look after yourself. Most people don’t want you around if you’re like that, so if you get that drunk you usually just go home.”
“Yeah, I guess so…” I thought back to many of my nights of drunken debauchery back home, and the amount of times I’d seen friends so wasted that they literally needed help just standing up. “I guess it’s this idea that we can’t have fun unless we’re drunk, and point of the night is to get as drunk as possible.” I redirected my abstract stargazing to look at Ralf in those beautiful blue eyes. “But I guess that’s not always the case here.”
“No,” he smiled down at me. “No, it’s not.” It only occurred to me that while I had had a few beers and a cocktail at Berghain, it had been over the course of many hours, and I myself wasn’t that drunk. Yet I was managing to have an amazing time, even up on the dance floor, moving to the music in the crowds of sweaty people and losing myself to the rhythm and the beat. And I suppose it was rather ironic that here, in a wild club that is known for being full of patrons that are high on one kind of drug or another, I was having the epiphany that you didn’t need to drink alcohol or get absolutely wasted in order to have a good time.

Suddenly a slight wind kicked up, but it was enough to send a chill through my body. I was only wearing a singlet and shorts, so even the warmth of Ralf’s body wasn’t enough to get me by, so we picked ourselves up and moved back inside. On our way back in, I saw two guys standing in front of the extremely intimidating bouncer.
“You’re not coming in tonight,” he said in that firm, authoritative voice of his.
“Ah, okay, so… How do we get inside?” one of them mumbled, a thin brave façade over what was obviously a nervous wreck of a boy.
“Did you not hear what he just said?” piped up the second bouncer. “You’re not getting in!”
Even though I’d been in a similar position the previous week, I couldn’t help but smirk to myself a little, knowing that I’d finally, after the long anticipation, made it inside Berghain.

***

Back inside the club, Ralf and I retreated to the top floors of the complex. We danced some more, but our relaxing time out in the garden had really slowed the pace down a little bit. We moved to one of the smaller adjoining rooms, where lots of people were chilling out and hanging around, and found some space on one of the couches. We made out for a little while, but then ended up lying down and cuddling for a little while, and I eventually drifted off into a light sleep. I think Ralf might have dozed off as well, because we were both startled awake be a commotion coming from above us. I looked up to see a man snorting a line of cocaine from the back of the couch that we had been lying on. He took his time to make sure he got every last morsel, before casually walking away. I looked at Ralf, bewildered. Going to the toilets to take your drugs was one thing, but this guy had very publicly consumed his cocaine for the rest of the club to see. Ralf just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Welcome to Berghain.”

We laid back down for a while, but eventually I checked the time. “Wow, its nearly one in the morning. I’ve been here for nearly 12 hours!”
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Ralf asked me. I had mentioned that this was the last item on my Berlin bucket list, and that I had told myself I should leave the following day.
“Well, there was a train I was planning to catch”, I said to him. “But I don’t actually have anything booked.” Ralf just smiled, and I already knew that I wouldn’t be leaving Berlin tomorrow. “So I suppose I don’t have to leave.” Once again, Lola’s prediction was echoing in the back of my mind. Darling, you’re never going to leave…
“I would ask you to sleep over tonight, but I rode my bike here,” Ralf said. “But if you did stay, maybe you could come over tomorrow night? I’ll make you some food – you haven’t eaten all day, your mother must be worried about you if you’re not eating right!”

I just smiled and nodded. “That sounds lovely.” At that point we decided to call it a night before we actually did have a sleepover in Berghain. We exchanged numbers and said goodbyes, and Ralf set off on his bicycle as I climbed into a taxi. Despite being petrified about going alone to face the big scary doorman and get inside this legendary club, my first Berghain experience actually turned out to be fun, diverse, enlightening, and in general just simply amazing. I had already fallen in love with the city of Berlin, but my time at Berghain was the cherry on top that would earn Berlin the title of my favourite city for a long time to come.