Brits Gone Bonkers: Notting Hill Carnival

During my time in London I’d made some new friends, like Guy and Yitav, or John and Richard, and I’d caught up with people who I had met previous one my journey, such as Tim and Giles. One afternoon I even took the tube out to Euston Train Station to catch up with Laura, who I had befriended in my hostel in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. She didn’t live in London, but she was passing through on the way to a friends birthday somewhere further north, so I’d gone over to have a coffee and a gossip while she waited for her connecting train. It had been months since we’d seen each other, so we filled each other in on all our travels since we’d parted ways back in Cambodia. I’d met of a lot of other travellers during my time in South-East Asia, but Laura was really the only one who I had actually gotten along with extremely well, and with whom I’d actively stayed in touch. It was a completely different environment from the last time we’d been together, but it was so lovely to see another familiar face after so long on the road, even if I had met that face while on the road in the first place!

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

But I was also set to meet up with another friend from back home in Australia. My friend Ellie was moving to Scotland for six months to study abroad, but before that she had also been travelling through Europe. London was one of the last stops before she ended up in Glasgow to settle down, and as fate would have it we were both in town at the same time. So we headed into Soho one evening for dinner and ciders, catching up and sharing stories and talking about all our friends back home, and what had been going on back there since we’d both been away. As much fun as meeting new people can be, there’s nothing quite like the ease that comes with sitting down with an old friend and talking about anything, everything, or nothing at all. Ellie also had some other friends who were travelling through London at the moment too, so after our pub meals and a couple more ciders we headed out into the night to meet them.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

To cut a long story short, Ellie’s Canadian friend dragged us back and forth across the city for the entire night, always seeming to have a rough plan but never knowing exactly where we were going. We waited in line for some club for close to an hour before being informed it was full, or they weren’t letting anyone else in, or whatever, I’m not even sure. Her friend then tried to drag us into some dirty, hole-in-the-wall nightclub with a £10 entry fee. I’m not a fan of cover charges at the the best of times, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay one for a straight club that looked like it might cave in on me the moment I stepped in. It was still relatively early, but we’d actually managed to end up in East London, so I figured I would call it quits and just head home and save myself for tomorrow, when we had plans to go to the Notting Hill Carnival. There’d been a lot of talk about the carnival, which was supposed to be an event that stretches over the course of three days, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared for whatever was going to be happening. Ellie seemed pretty exhausted too, so we threw in the towel and made a McDonalds pit stop before calling it a night.

***

The next day was the Notting Hill Carnival, something I had heard people talking about over the last few days but hadn’t ever previously heard anything about. I hopped on the tube and headed west, where I would meeting Ellie and another friend of hers, a fellow Australian named Sophie who was living in London. When I surfaced from the tube, I found the streets absolutely packed with people. A quick trip to a corner store found the mobs clearing out the stocks of beer and cider on the shelves, so I figured there was going to be some serious shenanigans going on in the street. I bought myself some cans of beer and headed back into the street to find Sophie and Ellie and the swarms of people.  When we finally found each other, it was really just a matter of following the crowds and roaming the streets. If there was any kind of method to the madness, it did not make itself apparent to me.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

There were food stalls all about the place, with all kinds of mouth-watering smells filling the air. Later I would learn that most of the Notting Hill Carnival is led by the West Indian community of London, so the Caribbean vibe made itself known among all the food and the drinking and partying. We also stumbled across what appeared to the be the beginning of a parade, with floats and dancers and music all marching down the street, with the crowds being parted and controlled by police. I’m still not sure whether or not drinking on the streets is actually legal or not in London, but at least for this event I think most of the police had all but given up trying to enforce the ban if it was illegal. We walked alongside the parade sipping on our beers and ciders and no one bothered to trouble us, despite finding ourselves in very close proximity with the police.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

Floats in the parade.

Floats in the parade.

A float resembling the British police officers.

A float resembling the British police officers.

Despite the police presence though, you couldn’t help but get the feeling the carnival was somewhat out of control. It almost felt like the borough had been overrun and turned into an affluent shanty town. The streets were covered in rubbish to the point where little mounds had become acceptable dumping grounds, and you had to watch where you were walking so that you didn’t trip land face first in a mini rubbish tip. Many of the shops in the surrounding area had boarded up their windows and seemingly bunkered down and wait for the whole thing to blow over. It seems staying open for business would not have been worth the risk of the out of control herds of people flooding into their shops, and the wooden planks over all their windows showed that some weary people might still bear some unsavoury memories of the London riots of 2011. I will admit, there were times when I felt a little uneasy, but for the most part all the probable and possible damage was just the dirty streets left in the wake of the mostly heavily inebriated crowds. There were even brave citizens of the area who had opened up their homes to the party-goers so that they may use their toilets for a fee. There was so many people flooding the streets though, and such a lack of public toilets to cope with those kinds of masses, that I’m sure it would have been a profitable endeavour no matter how many revellers passed through their door, inevitably breaking or destroying something along the way. Ellie and Sophie had to stop to visit one of these private bathrooms turned public restrooms, and judging by the time I was waiting for them outside, business was definitely booming inside.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

Equality.

Equality.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Street art.

Street art.

There were some terrifying moments, however, when the push and shove of the crowds became not such a friendly experience. Streets occasionally turned into mosh pits, with people getting packed in from all sides to the point where you could barely breath properly, let alone move. Ellie, Sophie and I all clung to each others hands like our lives depended on it, for fear of being separated in what was starting to become a swarming, seething mass of people. There were even some men getting particularly violent, and at times I definitely felt extremely unsafe. It was a strange juxtaposition, given that on the other side of the street, there were floats full of joyful dancers and Jamaican and Latin music being pumped over the crowd. Despite the terror, you just had to laugh and hold on for dear life. We wandered all over the place, ducking down smaller side streets every now and then to avoid those huge, crushing mobs of people, and we danced along the sidewalks to the completely uninhibited culture that had exploded throughout Notting Hill.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

In the end we were tipsy, sweaty, exhausted and possibly even a little bit traumatised, but it had been such a crazy experience that I ultimately have to say was a lot of fun. Again, as I had after events like Songkran in Bangkok and the various pride celebrations I’d been in throughout Europe, I found myself reflecting on festival and carnival events back in Australia. I’d come to the conclusion that Australian organisations seem to really love their red tap and restrictions, because I honestly couldn’t see anything like the Notting Hill Carnival ever happening in my hometown without twice the regulations and thrice the police presence. I’ve reason to believe that the English even rival Australians in their boisterousness when it comes to drinking, yet they still manage to participate in a large scale party spanning several suburbs with minimal regulations without anybody dying – at least, that I am aware of. Granted, I did fear for my life for a few seconds, so perhaps the Brits aren’t quite as sensible as the Parisians or Berliners when it comes to crowd antics, but they managed to avoid sparking any major riots. I bid farewell to Sophie and Ellie, making plans to meet up with Ellie very soon, and crawled back home via the Underground, satisfied with another weekend of crazy antics.

Siesta to Sunrise

During the day, Barcelona was a charming city with beautiful attractions that brought forth scores of bustling tourists, particularly in the summer. However, for me the major drawing point had been Spanish nightlife that supposedly emerged after the sun had well and truly gone to sleep. Emphasis on the “well and truly”, because that thing about everything running several hours later in Spanish culture is especially prevalent in the nightclub scene. The general idea I had gotten from both friends and guidebooks was that Spaniards usually ate dinner at 10pm at the earliest, which carried on for a few hours. Afterwards they would head to the bars at around 1am, and not even head to nightclubs to go dancing until around 3 or 4 in the morning. I felt like that might have been an exaggeration – how could people possibly function in daily life if they were not just coming home, but going out at 4am? So I was sceptical – but apparently I still had a lot more than the language during my time in Spain…

***

Despite getting a terrible sleep the previous night on the train from Paris, and spending most of my first day in Barcelona walking around with Rich, we still had plans to hit the town that night. So in the afternoon we had a siesta – I swear, the best thing about Spain is that afternoon naps have been incorporated into their way of life so well that it’s basically a sacred ritual – and then made some dinner and drank some delicious Spanish wine as we got ready to go out. It would have been around 11pm when we left, but our first stop wasn’t a nightclub – it was a shot bar called Chupitos Espit, and it exactly like the Chupitos I had visited with Gemma and Atze in Groningen. They did the same marshmallow toasting shot, which was called the ‘Boy Scout’, the blazing and sparkling Harry Potter shots too. Rich picked out one for us to try, which was some sweet multicoloured shot that we drank through a straw. Then it was my turn – in my defence, the list of shots doesn’t detail their ingredients, only the name and the price. In retrospect, I don’t know how I could have expected anything else when I ordered two drinks by the name of ‘Hot Shot’, but Rich and I exchanged looks of horror when the bartender poured two shots of vodka and then topped each of them off with a hearty dose of Tabasco sauce.

The bar around us was packed with other tourists, and most of them looked just as horrified as the two of us, but in the end we just had to suck it up and down them. It tasted awful – why anyone would knowingly order such a drink I will never be able to fathom – and it was also very spicy. Even Rich, a Thai girl who absolutely loves her spicy food, was pretty disgusted by it. We had only planned to have two shots each, but after that disaster I quickly ordered a couple of Boy Scouts.
“I need something, anything, to get that taste out of my mouth”, I shouted over the thumping music as we roasted our marshmallows over our flaming section of the bar. I burnt my tongue shoving it into my mouth after the shot, but at least the sweetness was enough to overpower the Tabasco sauce that had been lingering on my pallet. There were a bunch of English guys and girls around us who were all getting Boy Scouts, so almost half the bar top was ablaze and we all clinked glasses as we threw back the shots.

After that Rich and I left at bar to head to another nightclub at Plaça Rieal called Jamboree. By Spanish standards it was still pretty early, but Rich had got us put on a guest list that meant we had to be at the bar by midnight if we wanted to get free entry. Loathing cover charges as much as I do, I decided it was a preferable option. As expected, it the club was pretty dead when we arrived, so I got a beer and Rich and I wandered around and explored the space. There was an upstairs room that was playing 90s music and current pop hits, while the lower floor played more urban and RnB tunes. We sat down for a little while and I had a few more drinks as crowds of people trickled into the place. Rich had some other friends who would be coming later, but eventually we hit the dance floor and began to work up a sweat, sticking mostly to the RnB room. Rich has an awesome sense of style that earned her comparisons and descriptions such as an “Asian Rihanna”, and she filled those shoes well, so together we busted some moves on the still relatively sparse dance floor.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with Ralf in anticipation to my trip to Spain. “Barcelona is a little more classy, not like Berlin at all,” he had told me when I had been wondering, like a typical gay man, when I’d get a chance to wear some of the nicer clothes I’d brought along – sometimes I’d been dressing like a homeless person to get into places like Berghain. “You can get away with dressing up: collared shirts, that type of thing. Madrid is a little more casual and dressed down though.” Looking around me as the club filled up, I observed that Ralf’s assessment of Barcelona couldn’t have been more wrong about this particular place. Every second guy was wearing a singlet, and I was one of the few people who wasn’t wearing thongs, or some form of open-toed shoes. I wasn’t too drunk, so I started paying closer attention to the people around me. Between overhearing voices as I was jostled between the shoulders of others dancers, and the shouts and cries as multiple glasses were dropped and smashed on the dance floor, I made the horrific realisation that I was surrounded by other Australian tourists, all of whom who were already beyond wasted. I don’t have anything against Australians, but I can safely say I did not travel halfway around the world to dance in a Spanish club full of them, and my evenings with Ralf and my epiphany about the binge-drinking habits in my own culture were still very fresh in my mind. Combined with the fact I was in a straight bar – something I swore I was done with a long time ago – I quickly realised I had no desire to dance with any of the sweaty bodies around me, and they didn’t have much interest in me either.

At which point Rich’s friends arrived. It was getting late – by my non-Spaniard standards, at least – and I had had an extremely long day, so I took the opportunity to take my leave from the club. I had ceased having fun a while ago, and now I wouldn’t be leaving Rich by herself. I said goodbye and left, and on the lonely walk home I couldn’t help but feel extremely disappointed with my first experience of the nightlife in Barcelona.

***

The following day I did a little bit more research, determined to find my way to a gay bar and do the kind of partying I actually wanted to do. I’d had a blast hanging with Rich, but sometimes a gay has gotta do what a gay has gotta do. However, the evening started relatively early when Rich and I headed to a bar where the school she was studying at in Barcelona was hosting a social drinks event. I got a couple of free drinks because I was with Rich, and a few of the other people there were girls who I had met with Brendon and Rich in Bangkok, so we caught up and shared travel stories of how we all ended up in Barcelona. I also got chatting to a couple of other people, in particular a girl named Selma. She was from Morocco, but was studying here in Barcelona with Rich and the other girls. As I told Selma more about my travel plans, she got very excited when I mentioned I would soon be heading to Rome.
“Ahh, yes! I love Rome! Where are you staying?” When I confessed that I hadn’t gotten that far in my planning, she told me of the lengthy time she had spent in Rome, and that she might have some friends who could help me out. “But maybe if you like, I can give you some ideas of things to do, or an itinerary? There is so much to see and do in Rome, you need to plan it to make the most of it.” So we exchanged contact details, and I thanked her in advance for her help. As the event wrapped up, Rich and her friends were planning to head towards another bar down near the beach, but that was there that I parted ways with them in search for a gay venue.

I wasn’t particularly close, but I had so much time I decided to walk. Outside the historical centre Barcelona really feels like any other modern city. One thing that was strangely common was people selling beer on the street – guys with plastic bags with one or two six-packs, selling cans for €1 each. I remembered drinking on the streets was legal in Germany, but I also knew it was a law that differed country to country. Not that that has ever really stopped me – I mean, I drank on the street in Sydney all the time – but the whole thing just seemed slightly dodgy, and with Rich’s warning of crafty pickpockets ringing in my mind, I avoided eye contact with the beer vendors and passed them without so much as a nod of recognition. So after getting lost a few times in the twisting streets and admiring the illuminated city along the way, I finally arrived at Metro, what I had read to be one of the better gay bars that was open on weeknights.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

I could hear music coming from inside, but there weren’t a lot of people around. All the employees I could see were just standing around casually, like they weren’t even expecting anyone to be there. When I moved over the doorman, he gave me a strange look. “You can come in if you want, I guess… It won’t be busy ’til at least 2:30.” I checked my phone – it was only 12:40am. I sighed and headed back to the street. Maybe there was another bar I could have a drink or two at while I waited? But I had already reached the peak of my inebriation, and my stomach was telling me it was more interested in food than alcohol. As a sat down with a greasy burger in the diner around the corner, I reflected on this situation. It was like my night was playing out in the reverse order that it should have – a long, lonely walk through the street, a sobering meal of junk food, soon to be followed by drinking and dancing at the club. Or so I thought.

While I was eating my burger, I tapped into the free WiFi and checked the various apps on my phone, doing my best to kill some time. As I cycled through them all, I opened one of the gay “social networking” apps, thinking I might find some advice from locals about other places to have a drink or kill some time. I got chatting to a guy named Inti, and after some friendly banter and explaining my predicament, he told me he lived literally right across the from the diner I was in, and that if I wanted to I was welcome to stop by and hang out with him while I waited for Metro to pick up a little bit. The kindness of strangers had been working for me so far, and I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I took him up on the offer. Inti actually turned out to be a really nice guy, and he even had a couple of beers in the the fridge that he let me drink while I was waiting. I asked if he wanted to come to Metro with me, but he declined the offer, saying that he did have to go to work in the morning.
“I might have something else for you, though,” he said as he shuffled around and searched through some draws, looking inside pockets of clothes as though he had lost something important. “Aha! Here you go.” Inti handed me a couple of small squares of paper. “They’re passes for free entry into Metro.”
“Wow! Thank you so much!” The cover charge for the bar was €19, something I hadn’t been too keen to pay for a mere weeknight.
“I used to live right above Metro,” he said with a reminiscent smile. “Those things used to cover my apartment like confetti!”
We laughed and chatted more, but as 2:30am rolled around I realised that I was starting to fall asleep right there on Inti’s couch. There was no way I was going to last in that club. but I was dreading the idea of trudging all the way back home in my current state. In the end Inti let me stay at his place, so I gratefully collapsed as he went to bed and relinquished myself to my need for sleep. My second night out in Barcelona had again been not what I was expecting, and while it could be viewed as something of a failure, I ended up meeting a really nice guy and making another friend, so it wasn’t a complete waste. But the following night was my final night in Barcelona, and I was determined to party properly.

***

The next night I did everything right. I had a proper siesta. I ate dinner late. I consumed several beers at home and didn’t leave the apartment until after midnight. I still walked half an hour to the club, but I bought beers in the street and drank them along the way. I even had the entry voucher Inti had given me, but was told it didn’t give me free entry, but rather a discounted price from €19 to €10 and a drink voucher for once I was inside. That still seemed like a good deal to me though, so I passed through the front doors and down the stairs into the booming nightclub below.

The place was… I don’t want to say it was deserted, because it wasn’t, but it definitely did not meet my expectations. It was a Thursday, and everyone knows that for homosexuals and the unemployed, the weekend always starts on a Thursday night. But this night in Metro was looking like some kind of messy, underpopulated soirée. I was given a Bingo game card for the game of gay Bingo that supposed to be happening. It wasn’t, and there was no indication from the staff that it would be happening in the near future. I discarded the Bingo card as I claimed my free drink, and stood inconspicuously on the edge of the bar and watched less than a dozen people awkwardly dance around the open spaces of the place that constituted as the dance floor. It would have been an awesome club had it been full, but right now it felt like a vibrant, colourful, yet empty dungeon.

So I sat back people-watched for a little while. The crowd was sparse and the pickings slim, but eventually I saw a group of people standing in a circle close by the bar, looking around with a similar mixture of nervousness and intrigue that I can only imagine that I was exhibiting too. Tired of standing by myself, and realising that the chances of anyone approaching me in such an underpopulated bar were quite low, I picked myself up, not without minor social anxiety, and took myself over to the group.
“Hey there, how’s it going?” I was hoping that I didn’t come across as awkward as I felt. “Just thought I’d come and introduce myself to the obvious tourist group.” A small joke to try and break the ice, but it was lost due to the noise that was emanating around us. One of the guys turned to look at me, and seemed slightly confused for a moment. I don’t think he had heard me the first time.
“Hi, I’m Robert”, I introduced myself.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Fausto.” He had an American accent, so I knew I had been right in spotting the tourists. He introduced me to his friends, two German guys named Holger and Malte. As it turned out, the other two people with them – a Hungarian man and a Korean woman – were people they had only just met, and as I chatted to the three friends, the two of them both dissipated into the sad excuse of a crowd. Even so, I didn’t see them again for the rest of the night.

Fausto and the two Germans were great guys, and I had a great time chatting with them, but here was some underlying awkwardness on my end of the interaction. I was just trying to be nice, chatting to the guys so I wasn’t standing by myself, but I think some of them – if not all of them, had mistaken it as flirting with them. There were a few subtle, tactile moments, but for the most part I kept my distance with all three – I didn’t want to be losing any friends as soon as I made them. But unfortunately, the crowd never really picked up, and the night at Metro began dying too soon after it had kicked off.

“We’re gonna go now,” Fausto told me, “but you should totally come over and hang out with us at our hotel tomorrow. We’re gonna go down to the pool and relax, it should be really nice.” I had to leave the next day, but my train out of Barcelona wasn’t until the afternoon. I told Fausto I’d have to figure out the logistics and get back to him, so we exchanged numbers, and shortly afterwards I said goodbye to my three new friends as they left the club. I hung around a little longer and spoke to a couple of people – an Italian guy who was spacing out on some kind of substance and, of course, an Australian guy from Melbourne – but no one really engaging, so I picked myself up and left not long after Fausto, Holger and Malte had departed. I stumbled home as dawn broke over the city, glad that I’d eventually made a few friends, but not without the overall feeling that I had been seriously disappointed with the nightlife Barcelona had to offer.

***

In retrospect, there are a few things to take into account. Firstly, it was gay pride in Barcelona the weekend before – the same time I was in Paris – so it was quite possible the gay scene had gone into an extended siesta for the week following their major party season. I was also only in Barcelona for weeknights, which can be hit and miss at best. Finally, I later learned that there had a been a series of violent raids on the gay bars in Barcelona before I had arrived, during the weekend of, and the week leading up to, pride. I can’t say for sure, but that may have had something to do with the turnout at the club, and the lack of locals that I met while I was in Barcelona. I can’t say I was impressed with the nightlife in Barcelona, but I would definitely consider returning one day to give it another chance.