“Reto, reto, reto!”

After the first few nights out on the town in São Paulo with Fausto and his friends, I guess you could say that I was feeling a little more confident about the way I could handle myself in the city. Despite that, I was still a little thrown when Fausto had asked whether I was going to head out on the Sunday evening, this time by myself.
“Are you gonna head out tonight?” he asked me in the early hours of the evening. “I have to go to work tomorrow so I can’t join you, but there are a few cool places that have things going on tonight.”
“Oh… I… I hadn’t thought about it.” Truth was, I was still a little terrified at the thought of going out on the streets at night by myself. Which, in retrospect, seems pretty ridiculous given the amount of foreign cities whose streets I had drunkenly traversed on this journey so far.
“Well, it’s up to you, but if you do wanna go out I could give you a few recommendations.” After mustering up some courage and confessing I might be interested to check something out, Fausto told me about a club called A Lôca. “It’s a little more grunge, with a slightly younger crowd – definitely your type of place, I think.” I checked it out on the map: it wasn’t too far away from where Fausto lived, though I would still have to get a cab, but it seemed straightforward enough that I would definitely be able to find my way home at the end of the night.
And that’s how I found myself showering and getting dressed up – but not too dressed up, as per Fausto’s recommendation – and hopping into a cab by myself to find my way to this mysterious A Lôca.

***

I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous about going out on my own. I had been practicing a little bit of Portuguese but there’s no way I could speak it on any practical level – with the essential exception of ordering a beer – and I was diving headfirst into the complete unknown, with absolutely no safety net in sight. But hey, no one bothers writing a blog about staying at home, right?

When I first stepped out of the taxi, I thought that I must have been in the wrong place. In the dim street lights it was hard to clearly make anything out, but there wasn’t anything that looked like the entrance to a club… and that’s when I noticed the cave. I’m not even  exaggerating, the entrance to A Lôca was a cave. Granted, I’m not sure if the rock walls were real or artificial, but I immediately understood what Fausto was talking about when he had described the club as underground grunge. The was some dim lighting around the entrance, where my ID was checked and I was handed a piece of cardboard. I studied it for a few seconds before realising that this piece of cardboard was the A Lôca version of the electronic tab cards I had used at Lions and Club Yacht. I folded it in half and tucked it into my front pocket, knowing very well it was just as important as any electronic tag in eventually getting myself out of this place.

A Lôca seemed to take the term ‘underground’ in a very literal sense – the hallways were fashioned into rough, earthy looking tunnels so that it actually felt like I was inside a underground mine or dungeon. It was like a maze, with openings to different rooms appearing out of no where, and twists and turns obstructing your view ahead. I happened across a bar, which I tentatively approached as I pulled out my piece of cardboard again. I must have looked like a foreigner, because immediately someone asked me where I was from. I looked up to the guy next to me and introduced myself, and he explained how the whole card system worked. The card was a checkerboard of different drink values and prices, and rather than electronically recording all your purchases, the bartenders simply checked off the equivalent value of whatever drink you ordered, and at the end of the night the cashiers at the exit would tally it up and charge you accordingly. Essentially just a more archaic version of the same system, although I was highly concerned at how much easier it could be to lose a simple slip of paper.

I got myself a beer – Skol being the local favourite in this bar – and continued through the maze. I followed the largest tunnel until I arrived at what was undoubtedly the main dance floor. I’d arrived relatively early, around midnight, so the dance floor was only slowly starting to fill up. The music was a diverse mix of pop hits, 90s classics and deep house, with a traditional Brazilian song here and there, but it made for an interesting sound. I just made my way to the floor and started dancing on my own, and I was approached by a handful of people and had short, fleeting conversations with many of them. I had some guys telling me to stay away from certain guys, which at first I thought seemed quite threatening, but the evil eye looks they were giving each other made it clear that there were just social circles at play, or potentially scorned ex-lovers – I guess gay drama knows no language barriers or culture shocks. I did my best to steer clear from anything like that, and just enjoy the music and the more light-hearted people within the crowd. I think I ended up dancing with some American tourists for a little while, who didn’t say much but were more than happy to bust a few moves with me.

There were also a couple of drag performances that evening. The first one was… well, she was entertaining, I suppose. But not so much in a “Wow, what a show!” kind of way, but more in the ‘car crash in slow motion and so horrible to watch but I can’t look away’ kind of way. She was more like a court jester – something silly to warm the crowds up before the main event. I mean, it was really just her twerking in a bunch of various positions, and getting offended and slapping one of the boys whenever they tried to jump up on stage and cheekily join in, often accompanied with lewd gestures.

The warm-up act...

The warm-up act…

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

The main event, however, was something else entirely. It was a full-blown drag performance with an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme set to Lady Gaga’s Applause, which had only been recently released at the time. As a big fan of the drag performers and shows in my own city, it was pretty satisfying to see another quality performance from another city around the world.

The better drag queen of the evening.

The better drag queen of the evening.

***

When I’d started to get a little tired of dancing, I made my way back through the twists and turns of the cavernous club to where the bar was located. I had another beer and then took my place against a wall, watching the people come and go, observing the different types of characters and just generally people watching. Occasionally there would be a little bit of eye contact, but usually nothing more than a fleeting glance. However, that all changed when I met Rodrigo. He was slightly shorter than me and had gorgeous tanned skin, and I noticed him stealing glance after glance at me between his conversation with his two female companions. It was obvious I was there by myself, and in no time at all the trio approached me and asked me where I was from. I guess it was also really obvious that I wasn’t a local, but in this case it had made it pretty easy for them to approach me and strike up a conversation, so I wasn’t complaining. Rodrigo introduced himself and his friends, Rita and Ducky.
“Why Ducky?” I’d asked, legitimately perplexed. I’d had to direct the question to the others because Ducky didn’t speak English.
“Because,” Rodrigo and Rita tried to explain between fits of giggles, “Well, don’t you think she looks a little… like a duck?” I didn’t know if there was something I wasn’t getting, but I just laughed along as they playfully teased their friend. She didn’t seem to find it quite as funny, but in the end I discovered she was the designated driver, so no one is ever really that impressed to be in that position.

My new amigos.

My new amigos.

I spoke to them for a while, and after a few more beers and a few more flashes of Rodrigo’s cheeky smile, the two of us were all over each other. I don’t know for exactly how long that lasted, but eventually Ducky was rambling about something in Portuguese, and Rita translated. “We’re going to go salsa dancing!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
“Yeah, do you want to come with us?” Rodrigo asked.
“Yes! Come, come!” Rita said with a smile. Between the kisses with Rodrigo I had been laughing and joking around with the three of them, and I was having far too much fun to just throw in the towel now. “Ducky is driving, but don’t worry she hasn’t been drinking.”
So I agreed, and after fishing our pieces of cardboard out of our pockets and paying for the beers, Rodrigo grabbed my hand and led me to where Ducky’s car was parked.

The two girls were in the front, and I climbed into the backseat with Rodrigo. More making out ensued, but it wasn’t until we were actually well underway and driving that I came up for air and actually paid attention to where we were, or more importantly…
“Wait… where are we going?” I said, the gravity of the situation mostly masked in my mind by the alcohol, adrenaline, and probably a few hormones.
“Salsa dancing!” Rita yelled, throwing her hands up in the air. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” From the looks of it we were on some kind of overpass or highway, so at that stage I didn’t really have much of a choice but to stay with them.
Ducky asked something in Portuguese, and the others began replying. Rita was being a little more helpful, but Rodrigo was just yelling out the word ‘reto’ (pronounced “heto” for native English speakers) over and over again. “Reto! Reto! Reto!”
“What’s she saying?” I asked Rodrigo, once he’d stopped shouting.
“She’s just asking which way to go,” he said with a cheeky smile.
“Oh… well, what’s ‘reto’?”
“It means forward. Straight head. Keep going.”
“Oh… I see.” I don’t know what came over me – well, beer and a sense of bravado, obviously – but at that moment I stood up in the back of the car, stuck my head and torso out through the open sunroof, and screamed at the top of my lungs: “RETO! RETO RETO!”

Down inside the car, everybody fell about laughing, and the directions-turned-war cry became our temporary anthem, screaming the word over and over even as Ducky made the necessary turns to get to wherever it was we were going. Eventually we arrived at a bar – I have to admit, when I took a moment to take in my surrounds, it looked like we were just off a highway in the middle of no where – but unfortunately it looked like whatever salsa dancing that had been going on was starting to wrap up. It looked like the night was coming to an end. We all stopped to pee in the service station next door – me praying that my newfound friends actually were my friends, and weren’t going to drive off and leave me stranded. But they didn’t and suddenly, as I climbed back into the car, I was faced with the questions of: ‘What am I going to do now?’ and ‘How the hell am I going to get home?’

I tried to explain to Rodrigo where I lived, but instead he offered for me to come and crash with him and Ducky and Rita at Ducky’s place. “Do you have to be anywhere tomorrow?”
“Well…” I was on holidays, after all. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Perfect,” he said with a gorgeous, playful smile. “Me neither.”
And that’s how I ended up with these three crazy, gorgeous Brazilians, singing and shouting all the way home – “Reto! Reto! Reto!” – and taking selfies in the elevator of a rather nice apartment complex. After getting some water into us and raiding Ducky’s fridge for snacks, the girls retired to Ducky’s room and Rodrigo and I attempted to sleep on the couch. There wasn’t really enough room for the two of us though, so Rodrigo suggested that we should sleep in the other bedroom.
“There’s another bedroom?” I said with a laugh. “Well, um… duh. Let’s go there, then.”

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

Things got a little weird when we opened the door to a full-blown child’s bedroom, complete with city map carpet for playing with toy cars and Disney’s Cars bedspread with matching curtains.
“Umm… ” I stared at Rodrigo, literally having no words to express my current feelings.
“This is her son’s room,” he said, stating the obvious but seemingly oblivious to how shocked I was.
“So… where is the kid?”
“With his father, of course!” he said with a chuckle. I didn’t have the energy to ask any more questions about the complexity of that situation, but I will say that sleeping in the same bed with a guy that you just met, in the bed of child that you’ve never met, leads to a mild crisis of ethics and morality the morning. It felt pretty wrong, but hey, what he never knows will never hurt him.

***

In the morning, both Ducky and Rita had to get up early to go to work, so when they did Rodrigo and I made the shortest walk of shame in history, from one bedroom to another. We spent the rest of the morning there, sleeping in and hanging out. Eventually I heard someone walking about the apartment outside the bedroom.
“Don’t worry, that’s just the maid,” Rodrigo said. This wasn’t uncommon in Brazil – Fausto also had a cleaning lady – but it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with the continually mounting pile of weird upon which I was sitting. But there was nothing I could do except roll with it, and trust that Rodrigo would somehow manage to eventually get me home.

My phone had died during the night, but luckily Ducky had a charger at her house. When the screen finally flashed to life, I had a message from Fausto asking where I was.
“Hmm… that’s a good question… Rodrigo, um… were exactly are we?”
“Well… we’re not in São Paulo anymore,” he said.
I looked at him, an incredulous on my face. “Excuse me, what?”
“We’re not in São Paulo anymore. We’re in São Caetano do Sul.”
“And where the hell is that?!”
Rodrigo just smiled and laughed. “Well technically it’s the next city over from São Paulo.”
I relayed this answer to Fausto, he told me he had no idea where that was and he would ask one of his co-workers. Um, what?! I felt like I’d gone clubbing on Oxford Street in Sydney and somehow managed to end my night in Parramatta, or gone partying in Manhattan and woken up in New Jersey. Except people still know where New Jersey is!
It turned out that São Caetano do Sul was still technically part of the metropolitan São Paulo region, in the same way that the international airport was, meaning that it wasn’t really far but… it definitely wasn’t close.
“How can I get home? Do you have a car?”
“No… Rita works in São Paulo, but… well, she’s already at work.” He grinned sheepishly, and I realised that short of pointing me in the right direction, Rodrigo was not going to be able to take me home.

It was a bit of a sticky situation, but I didn’t have anywhere to be so I didn’t let it stress me out too much. Assuring Fausto I’d be home as soon as I could, Rodrigo and I ventured out of the bedroom to find Ducky’s maid cooking lunch for us. I was about to politely decline and start my journey home, but as it turned out the maid had including my clothes in a load of laundry she was doing, so I was forced to stay and eat while waiting for my clothes to dry. The whole thing seemed a little surreal to be honest, but the food was delicious and it was actually nice to put on some clean clothes – that were actually own, too! – for the journey home to São Paulo. There was no reasonable or logical public transport options that were going to take me to where I needed to go, so once again it was up to the Brazilians best friend – a taxi – to get me home. Rodrigo helped me order one that could take me that distance, and helped explain to the driver where I needed to go when the taxi finally arrived. He flashed me one last cheeky smile as he bid me farewell, and with our parting words I promised to match the hospitality I had received should he, Rita or Ducky ever find themselves in Sydney. The taxi wasn’t even that expensive – though it took almost an hour to get home, it cost about a third of the price that a similar trip in Sydney would have cost.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

I didn’t get a chance to see Rodrigo again during my time in Brazil, but in the taxi ride home from São Caetano do Sul I did see a variety of different environments and neighbourhoods, all of which made for quite an interesting trip. And though I’m yet to meet them again, I would never have guessed that the night that I chose to venture out in São Paulo by myself would be the night that I found the most amazing friends, had the most wild and crazy fun, and created some of the best memories.

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This is Canada, eh?

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

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

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

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

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

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Sports Bars and Gentlemen

On Friday afternoon, after a day at the museums at the National Mall, I headed back to Robert’s where I would meet him to get ready to head out for the evening. He listed a couple of different gay venues and bars where things would be happening, but we decided to grab some dinner first and just play it by ear. We caught a bus to the other side of town, where the street names were all letters – there wasn’t really a dedicated gay district, but there were a handful of places around U Street, a little further east from where Robert lived. We went to a place called Nellie’s Sports Bar, which was – lo and behold – another gay sports bar. I decided that sports bars are just an American thing in general, gay or straight, because they seemed to be more a commonplace venue than I had been expecting. The walls were lined with sporting memorabilia and jerseys and all kinds of all-American decorations, and the bar was actually more of a restaurant where the servers were all cute guys dressed up in sport themed uniforms. We ordered some beers and got some food, and afterwards Robert told me that there was an upstairs area with a balcony and outdoor dance floor, and asked if I wanted to check it out. Obviously I did, so after fixing up the bill and giving our server a nice tip, we headed upstairs.

If downstairs was the sports aspect of the bar, then upstairs was where the gay aspect was fully represented. It was a cool setup – you climbed a few flights of old style wooden staircases until you reached the entrance to a wooden patio that stretched out over the roof of the building. There were a couple of bars along the edges, with bartenders making every drink with such flair and skill that a simple bourbon and Coke came out looking like a cocktail, and in the main area of the deck was a dance floor that was covered by a light, canvas canopy. The edges of the balcony looked out into the street and over the city, and the vibe was almost like that of a house or garden party. We got a couple of drinks, and I ended up hitting the dance floor while Robert sat on the sidelines.
“I’m too old, and don’t really care for dancing anymore”, he said with a resigned smile. “But you go ahead.”

I flitted around the dance floor, dancing with people and having brief conversations here and there. One thing I liked from what I had experienced in America so far was that strangers can be incredibly friendly. People are more likely to approach you and strike up random friendly conversations, not just in bars but even in the street, waiting at a bus stop, on the subway – and while sometimes it can be a little creepy in some of those places, it’s usually really nice, and especially useful in bars when you’re by yourself. I didn’t exactly make any friends while I was wandering around, but at the same time I never felt like I was by myself. Even when I was waiting for my drink at the bar, I was grabbed by the shoulder by a guy standing next to me and pulled into a group of people. They were doing shots to celebrate something or someone, I don’t even know, but they’d ordered too many. The tall shooter glass was thrust into my hand and before I even had time to think about it we raised and clinked them with a booming “Cheers!” and I downed the shot with the rest of them. Somewhere, whoever taught me about stranger danger at school is slowly shaking their head and mumbling under their breath. I thanked the group, danced with them for a little while, then collected my drink from the bartender and moved on. Robert eventually let me know that he was heading home, but he gave me all the information I needed to get home safely, and then left me to the party.

I had a few conversations with guys here and there while I was on the dance floor.
“Are you going to Mix Tape?” one of them asked me. I’d heard a few people ask and mention this Mix Tape, which I assume was some kind of event or party, and from a the few people I spoke to I managed to discern that it was some kind of underground party where local DJs test and preview their mixes, and it was the place where most people began to head once Nellie’s finally had to close the balcony party due to obvious noise restrictions. It wasn’t too far from Nellie’s, apparently, so I thought I would check it out.

That was the plan, at least. However, there was something – well, someone – else that had caught my eye. I had seen him almost immediately when I’d arrived on the patio with Robert, and we’d had brief, fleeting moments of eye contact while I had been making my way around the dance floor. It wasn’t like I was honing in on him or anything – I generally scan the crowds of any room I’m in, assessing the people and the situation – but I definitely caught him looking back at me a few times, with that lingering eye contact that was just a little too long to be considered a passing glance. Anyway, out of sheer dumb luck I was dancing my way around the dance floor and ended up face to face with him. Simply staring and relying on eye contact would now be a little awkward, so I finally plucked up the courage to say hello. We exchanged pleasantries and introductions – his name was Mike – but when I began saying sentences that contained more than a few words, his expression became a little puzzled.

“Do… do you have an accent?” I laughed and nodded, and filled him in on my story, where I was from and what I was doing here. He asked me about the guy that I came with, so I explained who Robert was and how I knew him, and where I was staying.
“So, I’ve heard about this Mix Tape thing that’s on tonight?” I said, trying to move past the same repetitive topic I had to begin with for literally everyone that I met.
“Do you know anything about it?”
“Yeah, ah, well… I know it’s on tonight. It’s a pretty cool dance party.”
“Where is it? Are you gonna go?”
“Me? Oh, nah. Not tonight. I’m just going to head home soon, I think.” He sounded almost a little bashful.
“Oh…” I don’t know if I sounded as disappointed as I was. “Well, I was thinking about it, but I’m still not sure what I’m doing.” Then were was a couple of seconds of awkward silence – except for the thumping music all around us, of course – before Mike spoke again.
“Well, you could come with me if you like?” It was very spontaneous, and a little crazy considering we’d been talking for all of five minutes, but I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh and smile. Mike smiled back.
“Okay.”

***

While I would have had to navigate my way back to Robert’s with the nighttime public transport, or fork out for a taxi, Mike lived about a 5 minute walk away from Nellie’s. We talked as we walked, and he seemed to be a really nice guy, and I found myself a little smitten. If you skim over the rather blunt invitation to join him back at his place – which still somehow came across as charming when he did it – Mike was actually the perfect gentleman. I spent the night there with him, and in the morning he even made scrambled eggs for breakfast. But I had to get back to Robert’s sooner rather than later – Robert was actually in the process selling his apartment and today was the open house, so if I didn’t make it back in time I would be doing the monument walk in my walk of shame clothes from the night before. Mike noticed that I was a little distracted as we finished up with breakfast, pouring over the map on my iPhone, and he asked me where I was going.
“Oh, that’s no problem, I can drive you,” he’s said when I’d told him where Robert lived. “Just let me quickly jump in the shower and we’ll get you home.” I couldn’t believe my luck – was there anything this dreamboat couldn’t do for me?

As I waited, I walked around Mike’s living room and looked at some of the decorations. There were a handful of nursing books on the coffee table – I would later learn that he had left his job in politics, which was what originally brought him to DC, for a career change and had gone back to studying to become a nurse. There was also a couple of photos of what looked like his family, including a couple of solo portrait photographs of a young kid who looked about six or seven years old. When Mike emerged from the bathroom, I asked him about it.
“So who’s the kid? Your nephew, or something?”
“Oh, ah… no,” said with a smile, but with a tone in his voice that suggested there was more to that story. “He’s actually my son.”

There was a moment of intense panic in my mind. “Oh my God, did I just sleep with a married man while his wife was out of town?!” It only lasted a second before I started to calm down again – it was totally possible that he was separated, or divorced, or whatever. Mike was as little older than me, so that wasn’t really out of the question. Then those brief seconds of speculation ended, and I actually asked him about it.
“Your… son? Are you… like…. married, or-”
“No, no, no, no, no! No, not married,” Mike said with a chuckle, and I could only assume that I wasn’t the first person to have ever drawn that conclusion, perhaps in a very similar circumstance. “I have two really good friends, they’re a lesbian couple, who wanted to have a baby, and they asked me to be the father. I said yes, and yeah… that’s him.”
It took everything I had to refrain from letting out a long “Aww!” but it was actually one of those super cute stories that I thought only ever happened in American romantic comedies. Mike told me some more about him as he drove me back to Robert’s.

“Yeah, I’ve known him his whole life, but I was only ever really a family friend, you know? It was only recently when he got old enough to understand and ask questions that we explained to him that I was actually his father. But, you know, he still calls me Mike, and I don’t think I really need him to call me ‘Dad’, unless he wants to. His mothers are his parents, they’re the ones who raise him.” I thought it was beautiful, and the more I found out about Mike, the more I liked him, and the more I was thankful for my decision to go home with him instead of going to the Mix Tape party of whatever it was. Eventually we arrived at Robert’s street, and thanked Mike for a final time as I moved to get out of the car. My future plans were still up in the air – I hadn’t even booked a bus ticket back to New York yet – but we exchanged phone numbers and Facebook names just in case we had time to catch up again before I left DC.
“Well, let me know whenever you figure out what your plans are,” Mike said. “It would be great to see you again before you go.”
“Yeah,” I said with a coy smile, and I leaned back in to kiss him one last time. “Yeah, it would.”

What A Punt: Cambridge on a hangover

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

The River Cam.

The River Cam.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

The Cam winds through Cambridge in between the various colleges.

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

Such maturity.

Such maturity.

Our punts name was Bronze.

Our punts name was Bronze.

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

Captain Dick.

Captain Dick.

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

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

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

Myself having a go at steering the punt.

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

The front view of Kings College.

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

The college from inside the courtyard.

Trinity College from inside the courtyard.

Inside the college chapel.

Inside the college chapel.

Hungover strolls though the Kings College courtyard.

Hungover strolls though the Trinity College courtyard.

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

The Kindness of Strangers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

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

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

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

***

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

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