Clearing Customs and a Stateside Shaman

After a long flight and a short, restless sleep, my flight out of São Paulo touched down in Miami. Although it wouldn’t be my final destination for the day, it was my first stop on my return to the United States of America, which meant it was the place where I would have to clear customs before continuing on my way. Despite having done nothing wrong and having absolutely nothing to hide, going through customs, especially in the US, always made me feel a little uneasy, as though there could potentially be something wrong that I didn’t know about. It had been a bit nicer when I’d done the US pre-customs in the airport in Dublin, I’m not sure why, but this was the first time I would be clearing US customs in a US airport (coming back from Canada via train, customs had been a little stern but on the whole nothing to really worry about). Luckily it was pretty early in the morning when we landed in Miami – around 7am – so there wasn’t an awful lot of queuing or anything. Yet when I lugged my bag onto the X-ray machine, of course they decided it was worth pulling aside and taking a look at.

“Good morning, sir” the man said in a voice that was a little too chipper for that hour of the morning, for me. “This your bag here? You packed it yourself?”
“Yes, it’s my bag, and yes, I did.” I answered, half of me still asleep and half of me just a little on edge from being in customs.
“Do you have any liquids in this bag?”
“Ah, well, yeah… I mean, there’s a bottle of bourbon I bought from duty free stuffed in there somewhere.” It’d been a good price, and I knew it was completely within the regulations.
“What about down here?” he asked, looking back to the x-ray image before pointing to the bottom of my bag.
“Oh, there’s nothing in there except some shoes and my toiletries. So there’s a few creams and yeah, I guess liquids and stuff there too.”
“Would you mind if we take a look?”
I opened the bag to reveal some shoes, a belt, and my little black bag toiletries.
“Can we please take a look inside that bag?” I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, but he barely waited for a response before pulling open the zippers and poking his fingers around my toothpaste, my moisturisers, my sunscreen, my condoms… I mean, I didn’t have anything incriminating to hide, but it was a little uncomfortable to have him rifling through probably the most personal part of my luggage. The only thing worse would have been, I don’t know, going through my dirty underwear or something.

Eventually he was satisfied that I was nothing but an innocent traveller, so once again I was on my way. I had to catch a monorail within the airport just to get the terminal from where my next flight would be departing, and once I was there I grabbed some breakfast and readjusted to the pleasant realisation that I was in an English-speaking country again. The layover in Miami was less than two hours, but by the time I got out of customs there wasn’t even that much of a wait before I was boarding again and onto my next destination: a kooky and mysterious port in the south-west of the country.

When I’d been booking my flights back to the US from Brazil with my mother and travel agent over the phone, my mother had asked which city I wanted to fly back into.
“Just back to New York?”
“No!” I remember saying at once. I was suddenly taking two whole weeks out of my original plan and flying down to Brazil, so I needed to move further west if I was going to catch up and eventually be in California for my flight off the mainland. I also knew that I wanted to be back in the US by the 31st of October to make sure I was in the country for Halloween. As an Australian, I’d never really properly celebrated Halloween, at least not in the way the Americans do it, so I was determined to be there for it. When brainstorming cities and places of where to actually spend it though, most people had suggested the bigger coastal cities. I knew that I would have already left the east coast by then though, and with a few months left of travelling afterwards, it seemed too soon to be heading to the west coast for Halloween. When I scanned the map for more centrally located cities, I couldn’t believe that I had completely overlooked it until then. So when she asked me where I wanted to fly back to after two weeks in Brazial, arriving the day before Halloween, I knew exactly where I needed to go.
“New Orleans! I want to fly back to New Orleans!”

***

When I’d met up with my dad in New York, he’d surprised me with a birthday gift. Well, not so much as a gift as an offer. It was the night before the both of us were flying out of New York, so we were talking about future plans, and where I’d be going in Brazil, and then beyond that.
“And where are you staying when you come back to the states? You’re going to… New Orleans, I think your mother said?”
“Yep, New Orleans,” I confirmed. “I haven’t figured out where I’m staying there though, I usually sort all of that out a little closer to the day.”
“Well… if you’d like – just so that you have somewhere to go when you land – if you like, your mother and I would be happy to pay for a few nights in a hotel. Consider it a birthday present. Would you like that?”
After the continual months of Couchsurfing and crashing at hostels, I don’t think my father quite realised how much I would, in fact, like that. I thanked him with a big hug, and he told me to email my mother to sort out a booking.

Jump forward two weeks and I was loading my bags into a hotel shuttle bus at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, the sunshine beating down on me and the air thick and humid. There were a plethora of different accents around me, and as we drove into the centre of town our driver gave us a warm welcome and a little commentary on the passing scenery. Luckily, the Royal Hotel New Orleans was the first stop on the shuttle route, and that happened to be where I was staying. As the shuttle rounded the corners and puttered down the streets, I suppose the first thing I noticed about New Orleans was that it didn’t really look like an American city. In fact, parts of it seemed distinctly European. A little bit of later research would inform me that this is was because we were in the French Quarter, the oldest neighbourhood and, for many, the cultural capital and the obvious touristic focus of the city. There weren’t as many two storey houses and big green lawns as there were cute little layered terrace houses, wrought iron fences, and beautiful, historic architecture. My hotel was no exception, and as I was shown the way to my room I was led through a gorgeous courtyard that made me feel like I was staying in some kind of sanctuary villa.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The courtyard in my hotel in New Orleans.

The first thing I did when I arrived was take a nap. There isn’t a lot of change in the time zones when flying from South America to North America, but it’s still a long flight, and I hadn’t had the best sleep during any of it. It also felt quite odd to be in a hotel for once, with my own room, a nice big bed and a private bathroom. There was no weird small talk between travellers like there is when you arrive at a hostel, and I didn’t have anyone to introduce themselves or offer to show me around, as is what usually happens when you first arrive with a Couchsurfing host. I obviously don’t mind doing any of that, but for once none of that was happening, so I took a few hours to rest, recuperate, and recover from the long haul travel.

While I hadn’t needed to find a Couchsurfing host to stay with when I first arrived, I was only staying in the hotel for a couple of nights, and I’d had a feeling I’d want to be in New Orleans for a little bit longer than that. So I had done a bit of browsing through potential hosts and gotten in touch with a few, asking if they’d be interested in meeting me when I arrived and potentially hosting me when my time in the hotel was over. And that’s how I came into contact with Brett. He was a self-described shaman, though given the mystical nature of the town and New Orleans being the home of voodoo within the US, that wasn’t at all surprising. I consider myself pretty open-minded and curious when it comes to spiritual or supernatural things, and where I come there isn’t anything quite like the presence that voodoo and magic have in New Orleans. All I knew is that I didn’t want to be one of those tourists who goes to New Orleans and does nothing but party on Bourbon Street – without exception, every single profile on Couchsurfing had said that they were not interested in those kinds of people, who were clearly just looking for a free room on a boozy vacation. In my messages I’d described my situation to Brett, as well as hinting that I was curious about his shamanism, and so we’d arranged to meet that afternoon after I was feeling recovered from my flight.

Brett lived just north of the French Quarter, and an easy walking distance from my hotel, so in the afternoon I headed over to introduce myself. He was a nice guy, probably in his mid-40s with a grey head of hair. He wasn’t a native to New Orleans, but had been a resident for a long time and it was his home, so we chatted and he told me a bit more about the city, some of the local geography and history. He  also gave me a few tips of good places to eat and drink around the Quarter, as well as warning me to be keeps my wits about me when walking at night.
“It’s not that it’s unsafe, but… it’s not completely safe. It’s a strange town, things can happen, just be prepared for situations.”
And then we got talking about the shamanism. Out of respect for the practice, I’m going to try and explain it fully because I didn’t really understand it. The bottom line is that shamans work with spirits and by doing so, reach altered states of consciousness through transcendental energies, which may or may not allow them to achieve certain supernatural things. He offered a demonstration, and even now I’m not 100% sure what he was supposed to be demonstrating. Maybe my heart wasn’t in it, or I was just too tired and jet lagged from the flights, but it didn’t really feel like any more than an intense guided meditation. Which, don’t get me wrong, can still feel deeply spiritual. But it wasn’t really a new sensation for me. It wasn’t exactly magical.

To be honest, I felt a little skeptical after the whole thing, and while Brett had been a nice guy, I didn’t feel like I needed to hang out with him anymore. It had been an interesting experience, at least, and I actually did feel a bit more relaxed after what had essentially been a meditation session. However, the night was young, and New Orleans still had many more surprises and adventures in store for me.

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Strippers and Drag Queens and Bears, Oh My!

One thing that I knew about Montreal, from my friends who had both visited and lived in the city, was that it was very gay. Even though everyone had told me about this ‘Gay Village’, I don’t think I was entirely prepared for it. I’ve seen the gay districts from Sydney to Madrid to London to New York, but I have to say that Rue Sainte-Catherine, the main street that runs through the area, was one of the gayest I have ever set foot in. Apparently during the summer months the entire section of the road becomes closed off to traffic, and the shops and cafés all spill out onto the street, and the swarms of people enjoying the summer really do turn the street into a camp little village in the middle of the city. Unfortunately I’d arrived at the beginning of autumn, so the cars were back on the roads, but that didn’t stop the vibe of the place from being incredibly gay, whether we were walking down the street during the day and checking out all the kinky shops and gay-friendly eating establishments, or out on the town after the sun had gone down, checking out the myriad of gay bars and clubs that Montreal had to offer.

***

During the week that I was in town, Stuart and I had several nights out in the village. On Wednesday evening we went to a bar called Cabaret Mado, the stomping ground of Mado, a drag queen who was apparently somewhat of a celebrity within the Montreal scene. There were a couple of amazing looking drag queens in the show, but there were also a disappointingly large amount of rather mediocre queens, and some who just looked downright awful. I had seen some extraordinary drag queens in New York City, and after some of my travels I like to think that the queens I know back in Sydney set the bar pretty high in terms of standards and expectations, but still so many of these Montrealian queens just didn’t cut it, in my opinion. There were a couple of humorous acts though, and the ones that didn’t take themselves too seriously almost always got the most favourable reaction, so I guess it goes both ways. There were also moments of audience participation – these were the times Wrecking Ball and the rise of the wild child Miley Cyrus, and she was bringing twerking to the attention of mainstream pop music. Stuart urged me to enter the twerking competition, and even one of the drag queens tried to coax me up on stage, but I told Stuart I was going to need a lot more alcohol before I was about bust out of my jeans and shake my butt on stage – not to mention the fact that I didn’t think I could twerk if my life depended on it.

However, it’s probably worth noting that a very large part of the show was in French – some of the songs the drag queens mimed to were in English, but other than a few sentences here and there, I hadn’t the faintest idea what was going on in the dialogue and the obvious slapstick humour that was going on between the queens. Which I didn’t mind so much – I never have and never will expect to get special treatment for not knowing a native language – except that the lines that they did say in English, directed at a fellow Anglophone towards the front of the stage, seemed really rude and condescending (and Montreal technically is a bilingual city). I know throwing shade is typical conduct for many drag queens, but in this case it just seemed so unnecessary. I can’t remember exactly what was said, but it was the beginning of something that I came to notice more and more during my time in Montreal – most of the Francophones in the city were really arrogant when it came to their language. In fact, all the warnings that I’d been given about Parisian people being extremely rude could easily be applied to almost all the native French-speakers that I met in Montreal – and of course, all the people I had encountered in Paris had been nothing but lovely. I understand the French-speaking Canadians are striving to preserve the language within the region, but I don’t think it gives them the right to be such jerks about it.

Regardless of how nice the drag queens were – or weren’t – Stuart and I stayed and watched most of the show. While we were there in Cabaret Mado, we also ran into some people that Stuart knew from back in Calgary. As it turns out, one of them was the owner of the only gay bar in Calgary, Stuart’s hometown, and him and his small group were also enjoying a week away in Montreal. We ended up sticking with them most of the night, and after the drag show had finally finished (I have to admit, even when they were performing songs in English, it lost it’s entertainment value pretty quickly), we followed the guys next door to see a different kind of show. With the exception of some of the kinkier places I visited in Berlin and I guess that one dodgy time in Thailand, I’d never actually been to a male strip club – come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever been to a conventional strip club for either gender, so I guess it was a first for me when Stuart’s friends took us to the nearby Stock Bar. The interior of Stock Bar looked like a typical gentlemen’s lounge, with a bar to one side and a floor full of polished wooden tables and chairs situated in front of a stage that was edged with red velvet curtains. At the end of the catwalk that protruded from the stage and into the audience was a pole. We bought some drinks and sat down, and it wasn’t long before there were guys emerging from behind the curtains to come up to the pole and show off their… um, “muscles”.

The guys all had great bodies, and a fair few of them were pretty cute, but… most of them were pretty boring to watch. I was excited at first, thinking that they were going to strip down to their underwear, get up on the pole and do some impressive moves. Some of the guys did a little trick here and there, holding on and spinning around before pulling down their jeans, but most of them did these weird movements that I guess was supposed to be sexy dancing while trying to maintain some level of macho masculinity. They hardly touched the pole, and if they did it was just to lean back on something in an attempt to look… sexy, I guess? The result was truly laughable. It wasn’t masculine, and it wasn’t sexy. It was just awkward to watch, and I shovelled my face full with the free popcorn from the bar in order to stop myself from giggling. Some guys kept a little mystery, their tight underwear still clinging to them as they strutted back behind the curtains, but plenty of them left nothing to the imagination, and full frontal nudity was rife. Our newfound companions kept nagging me, asking which ones I liked, saying they would pay one of them to give me a private dance. I couldn’t take any of them seriously, though – when I couldn’t decide they ended up dragging us to the other strip bar, Campus, but at that stage of the night there was hardly anyone there, and nobody was performing.

I’m one of the last people in the world that anyone would consider a prude, but I decided that sitting in a dark room watching people dance in the hopes of earning your money, in addition to your attention, was just not something that I was interested in. They weren’t even very good dancers, and seeing how underused that pole was, and all that missed potential, was actually partially what inspired me to take up pole dancing lessons when I arrived back home in Sydney. Stuart and I walked home together that night, and stopped at McDonalds on the way, an ending that was weirdly anti-climatic – yet somehow still preferred – after an evening of drag queens and strippers.

***

However, by the time the weekend rolled around we were ready to go a little harder and party a little bit more. Stuart and I stayed in two different hostels while we were in Montreal, so on Friday afternoon we checked out of the first one and walked a short way across town to the second one we had made reservations for, which happened to be conveniently located a lot closer to the Gay Village – a perfect way to kick off the weekend. We started off our Friday night at Sky Bar, where we had actually had our afternoon beers earlier in the week, as they had $2.50 drink specials. We met up with a couple of Stuarts friends who were living in Montreal, but unfortunately they were just passing through or too busy to stay for long, or had to be up early in the morning so couldn’t stay too long. A lot of the weekend was a carousel of faces and names of Stuart’s various acquaintances who were all lovely but none of whom I really got to well enough for them to leave any kind of impression. That’s a pretty lame way of confessing that I don’t remember any of their names, but hey, there was a lot of alcohol involved so it’s not really that surprising. There was also a sizeable dance floor on the upper levels of Sky Bar, so after his friends had departed Stuart and I left the chilled out ground floor for the upper floors where the party antics had kicked in.

It was dark and smokey, with fog machines and laser lights and the electro-pop thumping in the atmosphere of the room. After we had been moving around for a while, a young, shirtless, skinny blonde guy pulled me up onto the podium where he was dancing and urged me to stay and join him. I won’t try and transcribe what was ultimately a lot of drunken conversational dribble, but he eventually coaxed me into joining him in his shirtless-ness. He didn’t seem to be hitting on me at all though, but rather just wanted someone to dance with. Eventually he pointed across the room towards the bar, where a significantly older gentleman was standing with a couple of guys who were younger than himself but obviously older than my skinny blonde dancing partner.
“That’s my boyfriend over there,” he shouted as he leaned into me, so he could be heard above the music. “Let’s go say hi!” He pulled me down off the podium to follow him, and I managed to grab hold of Stuart, who had stuck relatively close to the podium where I was, and dragged him over with me. I didn’t like where the foreseeable future of this situation was going, and I was definitely not going into it alone. Of course, the boyfriend was very wealthy and very generous. He bought everyone shots and drinks, including Stuart and myself, and I guess we hung around them for as long as we had to before we could leave without seeming too rude. It was so bizarre, though – in fact, I probably wouldn’t have believed it had happened if I didn’t have a hotel address and a bunch of phone numbers saved into the notes on my iPhone, which I rediscovered in the morning. They had invited us to join them at a party the following evening, but Stuart and I were both pretty skeptical. I wasn’t particularly keen to be offered up as bait for the sugar daddy, so we took our leave as soon as physically possible. And no, we didn’t attend the party the following night.

We did, however, have another destination that Friday night – just down the road from Sky Bar was a nightclub called Apollon. It had always been our original intention to end up there, so after we had slipped away from the sugar daddy, his mates and his boy toy, we headed down the street. It was a huge place with both upstairs and downstairs rooms, playing various styles of pop and house music respectively. I guess by this stage we were drunk enough to not be too fussed about the music – at least, I knew that I was ready to dance. We chatted with some bartenders, got some drinks, and hit the dance floor. Downstairs next to the pool tables I also discovered a machine that dispensed free – yes, free! – popcorn, and in my intoxication it was exactly what I wanted and needed. We danced the rest of the night away, but one other crazy thing that happened was that we met someone that we knew from Sydney. I’d only bumped into Sam a handful of times on the gay scene back home, but when you unexpectedly run into someone you know on the other side of the world, it’s always kind of a big deal.
“I knew you were travelling – I mean, it’s impossible to not know by now – but I didn’t realise you were coming to Canada! What are the odds, hey?” Sam was visiting Montreal with his Canadian boyfriend, and we had brief introductions and catch ups before returning to the dance floor. It was a fun night, but also a messy one. Drinks were bought. Boys were kissed. Names were uttered but soon forgotten, and Stuart and I did not walk home together that night. In fact, by the time I was heading back to the hostel it was broad daylight, an obvious walk of shame through the village from wherever the taxi had taken us last night. I frantically tried to memorise directions and street names from Google Maps as my iPhone battery teetered on the edge of depletion, but at least I had learnt an important cultural lesson about French-Canada: not all of the Francophones were that bad.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

Sam, myself, and his boyfriend George and Apollon.

***

After an attempt to not make Saturday a complete write-off, Stuart and I were pretty exhausted come Saturday evening. But it was the only weekend that we had in Montreal, so there was no way we were going to not go out, so we had a quick afternoon power nap before getting ready to head out again. Stuart was trying his best to get to me see every single gay bar in Montreal, or at least in the Gay Village, and in the end I think he was pretty successful. At the beginning of the evening I was sitting on my bed in our hostel, waiting for Stuart to get ready. I was sitting with my legs crossed, and at one point when Stuart turned to say something to me, I saw a shocked expression wash over his face.
“What?” I asked, puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
“Are you sure you want to wear those jeans?”
I looked down into my lap, and sighed. “Oh… well…” I had been aware of a tiny hole in the crutch of my jeans, and I was slightly aware that it had been continually expanding with everyday use – I only had 2 pairs of jeans with me, and as the weather had started to get colder I was usually always wearing at least one of them. The position I was sitting in stretched the hole in such a way that you could see an excessive amount of my inner upper thigh and the underwear around it. “Goddamn it!”
“They have needles and thread downstairs,” Stuart informed me. “If you know how to sew you could try and patch it up yourself.”
I considered it for a moment. I’d learnt how to sew, back in high school textiles classes, and before that as a Boy Scout, and while I didn’t remember anything too specific, I figured it couldn’t be too hard. I so slipped into my other jeans and headed down to the hostel common room where I found a wall of communal needles and thread that could be used for clothing repairs.
I obviously didn’t do a very good job, because I earned a few sniggers from Stuart when I returned.
“Just… why did you use white thread?” he asked me through his laughter. They were black jeans, and I guess I hadn’t really considered the fact that a white repair seam was going to stick out like a sore thumb. In the end I had also just thrown in random stitches across the whole thing in the hopes it would hold as long as possible. I’d successfully closed the hole though, and that was all I needed from them for tonight.

My... ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

My… ah, adequate repair job on my jeans.

We headed over to Rue Sainte-Catherine for dinner, and afterwards our first stop was a bar called L’Aigle Noir (French for ‘Black Eagle’). We had plans to crash a university party that we’d heard about a little later in the evening, but it was still relatively early, so we went on over to L’Aigle Noir for a beer, and to continue our quest on visiting as many of Montreal’s gay establishments as we could. What Stuart either failed to tell me, or I’d failed to hear when he did, was that it was actually a leather bar. Not strictly leather in that there was a dress code you had to abide by, but a large majority of the patrons were kitted up in their full leather gear: boots, jeans, shirts, hats, jackets – the works. Having worked in a leather and fetish store back in Australia, it wasn’t a sight that particularly surprised me, although the atmosphere in a bar is very different to that of a retail store. Stuart and I got some beers and sat by ourselves and one of the high tables with bar stools, taking in the scenery. There was definitely a lot of cruising going on, with guys coming up rather close to one another to check them out. Stuart and I weren’t exceptions to this, but part of me wondered whether they were actually checking us out, or just looking at us with annoyance or disdain, since we clearly weren’t regulars, or obvious members of the scene in any way. It felt like the equivalent to a bridal party or hens night crashing a gay bar, where every gay man in the bar rolls his eyes, tired of having their regular venue treated like a zoo for straight people.

There were also television screens all over the bar showing hardcore porn scenes, many of which were pretty kinky.
“I bet you wish you hadn’t sewn up that hole in your jeans now,” Stuart said with a chuckle when he noticed me watching.
“Hey! I’m just trying to not make too much awkward eye contact with all the bears in here,” I shot back at him. When I’d seen cruising bars like this in Berlin, with porn screens and dark rooms and all those dirty delights, I thought it had been something almost unique – a liberal Berliner, or even European, attitude towards sex. However, the more places that I visited during my travels, the more I thought that it just seemed like Australia was the odd one out, the place where venues like this either didn’t exist, or were so far underground and secretive, as opposed to being a busy and bustling bar on a main nightlife street. While I doubt I would be a regular customer to a bar like this if it ever did exist in Sydney, I knew plenty of people who would, and it made me sad to think that my hometown and city paled into a publicly prudish place compared to the rest of the world.
I won’t lie, I was actually beginning to enjoy myself, making eyes with some of the scruffy, leather clad gentlemen. In the end it was Stuart who was urging that we should leave – as though I was the one who had dragged him there in the first place – so we finished our beers and departed for our next destination.

In a weird twist of fate, L’Aigle Noir was probably the place I enjoyed the most that evening. Stuart and I walked all the way down to the other end of the village to where some Halloween themed university party was being held. It was no more than a year since either of us had graduated, so we didn’t think we would look that out of place. And we weren’t, really… but the party still sucked. We didn’t know anyone, but the whole thing was very cliquey – groups of friends hanging out, people trying to be cooler than each other and acting really exclusive. We tried to mingle, but in the end it was just really boring, so we bailed and headed back to the heart of the village, where there was one more venue that we were yet to visit. The nightclub Unity was a few doors down from Cabaret Mado, and it was packed that evening. It wasn’t anything too special, just your average gay bar with strong drinks and a nice mash-up of pop and house music, but the night before was starting to catch up with us, and neither Stuart or I were in the mood to party too hard. I don’t even remember how long we stayed there before we decided to call it quits, but it can’t have been too late because we ended up stopping off at one last place on the way home.

“Do you wanna go back to Stock Bar?” Stuart put the idea forward, saying that he hadn’t really enjoyed it as much with his club owner friends from Calgary around us the whole time, jeering us on and just emanating sleaze. While I’d found the whole concept of the male strippers a little laughable, I conceded that it might be a different experience this time, so we left Unity and walked to the other end of the block were Stock Bar was located. It was a little busier on a Saturday night than it had been during the week, and there were a lot more dancers. Stuart and I took a seat right near the front, because hell, why not? If the strippers weren’t going to be shy, why should we? There were actually some very good looking guys that evening, and I found myself blushing as a few of them made prolonged eye contact with me during their performances. They were all obviously very fit, but there was one guy in particular who actually had a few skills and tricks that he did on the pole, which is what impressed me more than anything. After their performances, some of the guys would come down into the crowd to help take drinks to some of the tables, and to chat to some of the guys. I don’t know, maybe Stuart and I were a bit younger than some of the regular customers, because they all seemed to be drawn to us.

I wasn’t under the delusion that all of these dancers were gay – as it turned out, none of them were – and I know they were just doing their job. Still, I’m not ashamed to say I flirted with them a little.
“Are you guys from around here?” one of the cuter ones – and the one who had some pole skills – said as he sat down next to us. I told him Stuart was from the other side of Canada, and I was from Australia.
“Wow! Australia? That’s so far away!” He leaned forward and put his hand on my leg as he said it, and I couldn’t help but smile. He was super attractive, but I found the whole thing so ridiculously corny that it was all I could do to not burst out into giggles. But I held my poker face as he not so subtly got a little more hands on, and in the end he leaned over and asked me: “So, are you interested in having a private show?”
“Ahh… thank you, but no, not really my thing.” I don’t know if he was disappointed or not, but he took the rejection gracefully. “However,” I said before he could move on, “my friend Stuart here is definitely interested.” We’d both been ogling him, and Stuart had said he’d love to get a private show with him, so before I knew it the two of them were whisked away to the back rooms. I don’t know exactly what happened back there, but I just chuckled to myself while I waited and made more coy eye contact with the remaining strippers.

***

We made our way back to the hostel after it was all over, and so concluded our experiences with the Montreal nightlife for the weekend. It had certainly been a wide and varied experience, and we had seen the gay scene from one end of the spectrum to the other, visiting almost every bar in the Gay Village. I guess I liked the fact that, like Sydney, most of the gay attractions and venues were all located in a big flaming homosexual district, which made getting around and seeing them all much easier. I would love to return to Montreal in the summer one day and experience the village in all its livelihood, but I can still say that I ended this visit feeling particularly satisfied with my experience.

“What’s the craic?”: Drinking in Dublin

So after getting my things up to my dorm room and settling into the hostel, I spruced up and headed out into the chill of the Dublin evening. It was only the tail end of summer, but I don’t think it ever gets particularly warm in Ireland, so for someone used to an Australian climate it felt very much like the middle of autumn, at least. But it was a Friday night, so even though I was still rattled from my lack of sleep and full day of transit, I couldn’t bring myself to just sit around a hostel all night. I was in a completely new city, and I’d grown to love that feeling of heading out into a world where you knew absolutely nobody. It was full of possibility, and new and interesting faces just ready to make your acquaintance. I’d done some research into the local gay venues and there was one not too far from the hostel, so I made it my first destination.

The place was called Panti Bar, and it wasn’t at all like your standard Irish pub. Apparently it was owned by a drag queen named Panti, and the décor was a little bold, quite artistic and slightly alternative, with lots of bright posters along the walls, colourful bar stools, and funky decorations all over the walls. I passed through the big glass doors and into the venue, which was toasty warm in comparison to the chilly wind outside, and took a seat at the bar and ordered a cider. Oh, yeah, and all the bartenders were hunky Brazilian men. Definitely not what I was expecting from my first pub experience in Ireland, but needless to say, I was not complaining. I sat there with my cider at the end of the bar, looking down the slab of polished wood to see who were my companions at this establishment. Overall there was quite a healthy and varied age range, though most of the men sitting along the bar were a little older and greyer, with the younger crowds scatters among some of the other seating around the place, or outside on the balcony.

“Here, let me buy you a drink before one of the old bears starts hitting on you.” Out of no where a man had appeared at my elbow by the bar. He was about 6’2” and probably only a few years old than myself, and he had these beautiful, pale blue eyes and a cheeky yet charming grin on his face. “Go on then, what are yer drinkin’?”
“Ah…” I looked into my glass, still a third full, feeling a little caught off guard. “Just a cider, thanks?”
“A cider? Ah, grand,” he said with a smile, and called over one of the Brazilian bartenders to order us a few drinks. I was a little confused – he seemed very friendly, but he didn’t seem… well, he just didn’t seem very gay. I hadn’t been 100% sure of the location of Panti Bar, and for a moment I had my doubts as to whether or not I’d ended up in the right location – or maybe he was in the wrong location? If it hadn’t been for him calling the older men ‘bears’, then I still might have been unsure, but he knew the lingo, so I just went on the assumption that the guy buying me a drinking in a gay bar was gay too.

I thanked him for the drink, and he stuck around and we got chatting.
“So, what’s the craic?” he said to me, a word that is not pronounced how it’s spelt (it’s pronounced ‘crack’), so I was more than a little confused.
“Um… it’s… I’m… I’m sorry, what?”
He had a good laugh at that before he explained – ‘craic’ was a very typical Irish term that was used to describe… well, just about anything. It can mean news, gossip, fun or entertainment, or just a way of asking how you were, or what was going on. Kind of like the Irish equivalent to asking ‘What’s the 411?’ Once we had established that, we got chatting a little more, and I could eventually confirm that he was, indeed, a homosexual. His name was Matt, and he seemed to know quite a lot of people around the bar that evening, and he threw quick nods and the occasional “How’re yer goin?’” to several people as they passed us by.

“So where are you from?” Matt started to ask me. “I can’t quite pick your accent, but from the moment you walked in I could tell you weren’t from around these parts.”
“So you saw me the moment I walked in?” I playfully teased him. He got a little bashful and his eyes went downcast, but his face never lost that cheeky grin.
“Ahh, well… just sayin’, I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen you around before.”
“Well, you wouldn’t have. I only arrived tonight.”
“Oh yeah? Where from?”
“London.” He looked a little taken aback by that.
“But… wait, no – you’re not English, are you?” There was a mild horror in his tone.
“No!” I sighed and rolled my eyes. My already weak accent must have been fading with every day I spent away from home, because I’d lost track of how many times I’d found myself in that tedious guessing game. “I’m Australian!”
“Ahh, Australian! Well, there yer have it. Welcome to Ireland!” Matt held up his glass in a toast.
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. “Cheers.”

***

Matt had asked me what the rest of my plans for the evening were, and I had to awkwardly admit that I didn’t really have any. “Do you know what’s good tonight? I was hoping to check out some of the bars. I think there’s a few on the other side of the river, right?”
“Sure, there’s a few. Do you know which ones?” I just shook my head, having failed to commit the names of any of the other ones to memory. “Ah, c’mon. I’ll take you, show you ‘round.”
“Oh, really?” I wasn’t surprised by his generosity, but I hadn’t meant for my lack of plans to sound like a desperate plead. “You don’t have to do that – aren’t you here with your friends?” I glanced toward the smoking balcony where he had come form, and where a few of his mates were still having a drink and a smoke.
“No, no, don’t worry about them,” he dismissed my concerns. “They’ll be grand. An’ besides, me best mate is on duty later, so he’s not even drinking. He’s one of the Garda.” Matt would later explain to me that that was what the police force of Ireland was called, in Gaelic.

So I set out into the night with Matt, still chatting about this and that and making small talk, although I inevitably had to ask him to repeat every second or third sentence, purely because I had no idea what he was saying. At some point during the previous year I’d even had an Irish boyfriend back at home, but I guess his accent hadn’t been as strong as Matt’s was, although sometimes it sounded like he was speaking another whole language. Then they would use strange slang or phrases that I had never heard of, and it wasn’t simply a matter of slowing down and repeating, but actually asking him to use different words to explain what he meant. It was rather hilarious, but eventually I managed to get a grip on the vernacular and understand the linguistic variations of our common tongue. The weather, however, was something that I wasn’t getting used to.
“Are you shivering?” Matt asked me, probably noticing that I was hugging myself to trying and stay warm.
“No, no I’m okay,” I lied. Then I gave myself away when my teeth started to chatter.
“Jesus! You’re seriously cold?” Matt was only wearing a t-shirt and a puffer vest, but he took the vest off and made me wear it.
“Aren’t you going to get cold, though?” I exclaimed.
“Me? Nonsense! It’s a glorious night!” It was that moment that I learnt that Irish people truly have a warped sense of the weather. I admit, it wasn’t the coldest weather I’d been on during my whole trip, but there was a slight wind that was picking up that evening that cut right through to my bones. Matt seemed completely unaffected by it as he strolled along in just his t-shirt, so I gratefully kept the vest as we continued along, over the River Liffey to our next destination, The Front Lounge.

This place was a a little more upmarket than Panti Bar. I don’t want to say fancier, because Panti Bar was still fancy in its own artistic and alternative chic way, but The Front Lounge was a lot neater and tidier, almost a cocktail bar, with an atmosphere of simple elegance rather than creativity. But then, this is Ireland, so when everyone is drinking like the Irish do there always a slight, inevitable rowdiness as patrons begin to sink their pints. One thing I noticed at The Front Lounge – which had also happened at Panti Bar, though at the time I had been oblivious to it – was that for every draft drink that came out of the bar taps, there was a style of glasses with that beers, ciders or stouts logo on it, and the bartenders would only ever pour that specific brew into that glass. At first I thought it was a little pedantic with a hint of OCD, but in the end I did appreciate the kind of authenticity you felt from drinking your Bulmers out of a specially designated Bulmers glass. At first I thought it was just a fancy trait of The Front Lounge, but Matt assured me that it was a doctrine adhered to everywhere in Ireland like it was written into the law itself.

Matt's pint of Guinness and my pint of Bulmers cider at The Front Lounge, complete with their appropriate glasses.

Matt’s pint of Guinness and my pint of Bulmers cider at The Front Lounge, complete with their appropriate glasses.

Just like in Panti Bar, Matt was frequently stopping to quickly say hello to people as they passed by on their way in or out of The Front Lounge. I was starting to realise that I wasn’t in a huge city like London anymore, and that Dublin comparatively felt like a small town, with everybody knowing almost everybody else in the local community – although I figured that was almost no different to going out to any of the gay bars back home in Sydney, and still never being too far from a familiar face. I knew nobody here, but that didn’t stop the overall attitude of the people from being extremely welcoming. Other than the first drink I had bought for myself at Panti Bar, I was yet to have paid for a single one of my ciders. On every attempt to offer some euros when Matt asked the bartender for another round, he would scoff and brush my hand away.
“Are you sure?” Being Irish and all, he had already ploughed his way through several rounds, pulling me through with him as I almost struggled to keep up.
“Yes, of course I’m sure!” he said with a laugh. “You’re a visitor, a guest of ours! We’ll look after yer, don’t you worry!” A typical Irishman through and through, Matt was as stubborn as he was jolly and generous, so he wouldn’t hear another word about it. There was nothing I could do except slip my wallet back into my pocket and raise my glass to him in another toast.

***

After several more drinks, Matt decided there was another place he was going to show me. Having no plans of my own – or any idea of where else to go, for that matter – I didn’t have much of a choice but to go along with him. Not that I didn’t want to go with him – I’d sussed him out over the last few hours and decided that he was quite genuine in his gentleman status, and he was definitely the kind of person I wanted to have around if I should find myself drunk and disoriented in a foreign city. He also claimed that he knew quite a lot of the bouncers at all of the gay venues, which would be particularly useful, he assured me, in getting out of the cover charge when we went to the George, the biggest and arguably most popular bar and nightclub in Dublin. Our arrival the the George was indicated by a pink circular sign glowing above the door to the bar, brandishing the letter ‘G’.

G for 'George'.

G for ‘George’.

Matt waiting for me to stop being a tourist before we headed into the George.

Matt waiting for me to stop being a tourist before we headed into the George.

The inside of the George was quite big compared to the previous bars Matt and I had been to, probably due to the fact there were multiple levels open. There was a dance floor downstairs, and an opening in the floor of the level directly above, so that the drinkers at the bar could gaze down upon the dancers below. There were more levels, I think, and a smoking area outside, and it was only when I arrived in this dark maze of a venue that I realised that, as a result of trying to keep up when drinking with an Irishman, I was well and proper drunk. I peered down to the dance floor, but given that I had even questioned his homosexuality at the start of the evening, it was fairly obvious that Matt was not a dancer. He told me so, just to confirm my suspicions. So he bought us more drinks, and showed me around a little bit before we sat down at one of the tables.

While Panti Bar and The Front Lounge had both been bars, the George had definitely become a nightclub by this point in the evening, complete with loud, conversation hindering music. Matt kept trying to talk to me, but it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to hear him over the tracks the DJ was pumping, as though the accent wasn’t enough of a hearing handicap already.
“There’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a while,” I thought I eventually heard him say.
“What?” I called out to him, despite him being less than a metre away. Whether I was asking him what he wanted to do, or whether I needed him to repeat what he said, I don’t think we’ll ever really know. 
As set he set his beer down on the table, he mumbled something else that sounded like he was light heartedly cursing to himself. Then he quickly leaned forward, and our faces collided in a rather forceful yet passionate kiss. I didn’t try stop him. While at that particular moment it had come as somewhat of a surprise, I think I had been waiting for it just as long as he had.

London Calling

So on my last afternoon I set off to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and boarded my plane to London… well, not exactly London. See, I overlooked one important detail that anyone flying into London should really pay a little more attention to, and that was which airport I was actually flying into. Many people, even Londoners themselves, might tell you that the city has 5 airports, when in actual fact it has 6. “Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and City,” they would say. If you reminded them about Southend airport, they would probably scoff and say “Southend? That’s not even in London!” I think it is, technically, but for all intents and purposes, I basically flew into a small village on the far outskirts of the furthest reaches of suburban London. When I finally looked at the map, I understood why Giles was so shocked when I told him I was flying into Southend. I had booked the cheapest flight, and I suppose I got what I had paid for.

Regardless, my flight from Amsterdam to Southend was actually quite an easy and pleasant experience. The flight lasted all of 45 minutes, and when we landed we were ushered out of the plane and down onto the tarmac, where we were directed over to the arrivals hall. Inside there were two queues: EU passports and non-EU passports. I think I was one of about ten non-EU citizens on my flight, so I breezed through immigration in about two minutes. I’d been told by many people that airport security in London would give me the grilling of a lifetime, but the customs woman barely batted an eyelid as I walked past after collecting my checked baggage. In less than 20 minutes I had landed, cleared the airport and was waiting for a train at the Southend train station, located conveniently next door to the airport. Sure, I would be on the train for over an hour before I got anywhere even remotely close to central London, but I’d much rather spend that time on a train reading my book than standing around in airport halls and queues and being interrogated by British officials at Heathrow airport.

When my train pulled into Liverpool Street station, I met Giles where he was waiting for me at the end of the platform. The first thing we did was go to one of the ticket machines to get me an Oyster Card. Now, the public transport enthusiast in me just needs to stop and hyperventilate for a minute here – the London Underground was, if reports could be believed, something of a Holy Grail of efficient commuting. The Underground metro system – known as ‘the tube’ – stretched all over and out to the furthest reaches of the sprawling and never-ending metropolis that was London, and there were an almost infinite amount of bus routes and services too. The Oyster Card was an electronic ticket that you used to tap in and out of any station, as well as being able to pay for any bus trip with just a single tap of the card on any of the electronic touch pads. No messing about at ticket machines or stations (unless you were putting more money on your card) or missing your train because there are long lines. It wouldn’t even matter if you did though because the trains come so frequently. While it often did take a long time to get to most places, that was usually only because London itself is actually just such a huge city, and the fact that the public transport could get you there in that time was actually quite remarkable. If you ever hear a Londoner complaining about the tube, slap them square in the face, because they honestly don’t know how good they have it. I absolutely dreaded the day I would have to return to Sydney’s public transport.

But that evening we were going to catch a bus to Giles’ house in Hackney. Mile End was the closest tube station, but it was still about a 15 to 20 minute walk from where he lived, and considering I had all my luggage he thought it would be easier to get a bus that took a bit longer, but also took us much closer. At first I was quite surprised at how long it took to get there, given that where Giles lived in East London was considered reasonably close to the centre. It was the beginning of my learning curve in discovering just how enormous the city actually is. It felt a bit like home, though – from the city to the suburbs, there were so many things that made London seem weirdly familiar. Maybe it was the fact I was back in an English speaking country, or possibly because I’d just seen enough parts of England in British films or TV. Maybe Australia is just a lot like Britain in its planning and design – we technically are, as they like to put it over there, “one of the colonies”. But despite that familiarity, it definitely still gave me that exciting feeling of being in another country, filling me to the brim with anticipation. I would be staying in London for longer a period of time than I had stayed anywhere since Bangkok, and I was extremely excited to ground myself for a little while and explore what the city has to offer.

Language Barriers and Being Monolingual in Europe

“So what languages do you speak?” was one thing that a lot of people asked me when I was preparing for my trip. There was also a pretty unanimous expression of shock on the faces of everyone who asked when I replied with, “Other than English, none.” The Asian languages in particular would have been a bit of a challenge that would require a mindful application I just didn’t have, but what of the other languages that use the same Latin symbols and letters? I made a rather naive excuse for it, saying “I’m going to be going to so many countries, there’s no way I could learn the languages of every single one of them!” It sounds lazy, I know, but it was the truth – I was rarely in a country for more than a week, and never exactly knowing where I was going to end up next, so never knowing which language I should prioritise in learning. Because they all had their own languages that were dominant, with no major common lingual factor except – yep, you guessed it – English, in one form or another.

But the honest truth is that I never went into the trek around Europe expecting the world to cater to what was probably my biggest touristic flaw. I was expecting to have a much more difficult time as a monolingual than I did, and the ease with which I actually did around is a surprise for which I am quite grateful. I often found myself playing charades or using broken English in the most obscure or random places, only to be told, “It’s okay sir, I do speak English.” It was slightly humiliating, but it was the one thing I couldn’t escape or distance myself from, or make any immediate move to change that would be directly helpful – by the time I learnt the basics of any language it would be time to move on to the next country! Still, it wasn’t always smooth sailing, and Europe provided me with more than a handful of awkward and memorable linguistic experiences.

***

The Russian and Mongolian languages and their Cyrillic alphabet did inspire a bit of my fascination with other languages, but for the most part, everyone in Russia and Mongolia spoke Russian or Mongolian, and not much else. It was when I got to Finland that the concept of widespread multilingualism really hit me. I watched on, slightly intimidated, as Susanna’s Finnish friends seamlessly moved between Finnish, Swedish – the countries two official languages – and English, which everyone just seems to know anyway despite it not being an official language. Scandinavia and northern Europe were like that, I was told from the beginning – almost everyone learns English in school, so I should have no problems. Yet I was still exposed to what felt like at least three different languages in each country. It actually made me feel a little less intelligent, to see small children yapping away in a foreign language and switch over to what was an impressive command of rudimentary English, especially for a 5 year old, and back again as though it was nothing. In an attempt to make more excuses, I told myself it was the geography and logistics of Europe than lent its residents to learning so many languages. They have many neighbours in close, bordering proximity, with everyday practical uses for the languages they were learning, and a constant need to practice them. How often were my Year 7 French lessons going to come in handy in the middle of Sydney?

Although I shouldn’t speak so soon – the country where I did encounter my first language barrier was, of course, France.
“The French are so arrogant – they’ll understand English, and know you don’t speak French, but they’ll pretend they don’t know what you’re saying because they think it’s beneath them to speak your language in their country.” That was the general idea a lot of people had told me to expect in France, particularly Paris, but I’m so pleased to say that it was not my experience at all. A lot of the guys I was with for Parisian Pride spoke amongst themselves in French, but when they addressed me they always spoke in English, or at least to the best of their abilities. Which was more than I was doing for them, considering I was in their country, so I feeling nothing but gratitude towards the Parisians I encountered. Well, perhaps a little more than gratitude… whatever language they spoke, Parisian men were still Parisian men.

However, during my frantic last morning at the hostel in Paris, packing before my 12pm check-out time, I was accosted by one of the housekeeping staff. She seemed a little flustered when she entered the room and saw me doubled over my backpack, trying to shove everything inside as quickly as I could. I probably looked like a deer in the headlights too, and we both just stared at each other for a few seconds. Then she started speaking to me in French.
“Oh… ah… sorry. I don’t speak French,” I said sheepishly. However, she continued motioning to my bed and speaking to me in the foreign tongue.
“Ahh… Check out is at noon? I still have fifteen minutes?” I said, pointing to the clock. She said something else in French, with some emphatic hand gestures, and stared earnestly at me.
“Ahh… I don’t speak French,” I muttered, before trying again. “I’m about to leave, I’m just packing my things now.” I was mortified to realise I had begun raising my voice, as though the housekeeper might suddenly start to understand English if I said what I was saying loud enough. She just looked and me and said something else in French. We both just stared at each other. It was pointless: neither of us had the slightest clue what the other one was saying, and we weren’t talking to each other anymore – we were talking at each other, and it was achieving nothing except frustrating the hell out of us. In the end she just shrugged her shoulders and left the room, in what I can only assume was a non-verbal cue for “Hurry up and pack your things and get the hell out!”

***

Given that northern Europe was better known for the English skills of its residents, it’s no surprise that Spain was the next country to present me with a language barrier, although this time it was an entirely different situation. I learnt a fair bit of Spanish before a trip I took to Costa Rica a couple of years ago, and even studied it for a semester at university afterwards. Despite all that, the only phrases I had mastered allowed me to tell people I speak Spanish, just not very well, and to order a beer – priorities, right? It wasn’t much, and it really wasn’t enough when I tried to make conversation after locking lips with a guy on the dance floor at a nightclub in Madrid. He spoke about as much English as I did Spanish, or even less, so I basically had to stand there with a blank stare until he finally said something that I even half recognised. Not that he was saying much, other than “guapo“, between our kisses, though. I guess there are some situations where body language really does suffice.

Yet the country does have some other linguistic tensions that are a little bit more important than a Spanish one night stand. When I was in Barcelona I thought my Spanish was just exceptionally poor, but it turns out that in the region of Catalonia, almost everything is written in Catalan, and a lot of the locals get annoyed when you ignorantly launch into speaking to them in Spanish, regardless of your fluency. It meant little and less for me, someone who could hardly speak either, but for a Spanish speaker like Rich it was quite frustrating. But probably not as frustrating as it was to all the local Catalonians who everyone just assumes speak Spanish. I was able to discreetly bow out of that internal national conflict, as my reliance on English wasn’t as likely to offend anyone as much as it would just make them think I was an ignorant tourist.

The way I was able to explore Europe despite only knowing one language does give you an idea of the kind of power that fluency in English can offer you. Some people even find the language rather intimidating. I remember talking about it with Ike when I was staying with him in Ancona. Ike is half Dutch, so he spoke English and Italian as well as a bit of Dutch, but he told me of his own interesting experiences with language in Spain.
“It’s interesting – people are almost afraid of speaking English incorrectly, especially a lot of younger guys”, he mused as I told him my own experiences in Madrid. “I mean, they won’t get better if they don’t practice, but they don’t want to speak it if they can’t speak it perfectly. It doesn’t really make sense. A lot of the guys, they would rather try and speak to me in Italian.” He had a good chuckle remember thing that. “And… I mean, they don’t even know Italian. There’s some small similarities between Spanish and Italian… but, you know, not enough. They’re rather speak to me in terrible Italian than use slightly imperfect English.” It was something that I never came across – most likely because English was the only option they really had when talking to me – and it’s something I still haven’t been able to really explain.

***

Spain and Catalonia aren’t the only regions to have geo-lingusitic tensions. On my first night in Vienna with Kathi, she had explained to me some of the differences between the dialects of German that are spoken in Austria and Germany. “It’s mostly the same, but there are some different words for things that we have that the Germans don’t.” The more she explained it, the more I realised it was much the same as differences between American English and British English and even Australian English. At first it doesn’t seem like much, but you when you think about the different meanings we assign to different words – the use of “thongs” springs to mind – you understand just how much confusion there can be with these slight differences within the language. “It’s also frustrating when we go to Germany,” Kathi continued, “because most of the people in Austria take the time to learn some of the differences in the German they speak in Germany, but not many Germans do they same when they come to Austria.” She sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s like they think they’re the ones who speak real German.” I couldn’t help but giggle to myself a little. It was interesting to see that such little problems could be, quite literally, the same in any language.

Yet there were other times when the different language posed absolutely no problems at all, and appeared to exist side by side with the greatest ease. When I arrived in Prague and was sitting down in Tomas and Matej’s kitchen eating the dinner they made me, the two often had short, lively exchanges in another language. When I asked Tomas what language they were speaking, Tomas seemed like he had to pause and think about it for a minute. “Well… I am speaking Czech, and Matej is speaking Slovak.” Tomas was originally from the Czech Republic, while Matej was a native of the neighbouring Slovakia.
“So… the languages are the same?” It was confusing, and seemed like literally the opposite of the kind of thing that Kathi had been talking about with the German language – instead of one language that everyone had trouble understanding, this seemed to be two languages operating like one.
“No, not the same,” Tomas said, thinking more. “They’re just… similar. I can speak Czech, and understand Slovak. Matej can speak Slovak, so we can just speak either.” He shrugged, not thinking much of it, but I found the concept rather mind-blowing: that you could speak in one language and listen to someone else speak in another. It was almost more than my poor little monolingual brain could handle. Considering they both used to be part of Czechoslovakia, I can only assume that the languages must be very similar, but even still, I was slightly amazed.

While I was impressed with the way the two languages operated so smoothly in sync, Prague was probably the least English-friendly city that I visited in the whole of Europe. Buying a bus ticket in the corner store proved to be a bit of a mission – Tomas had been having a cigarette outside, but I had to call him in to help me when I realised the woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English. After that, I just had to hang on to my old tickets to show her the one I wanted whenever I went to buy a new one. There was enough English to get by in the main touristic parts of town, but I was lucky I usually had Matej or Tomas around whenever I was in the more obscure parts of town, because something tells me I wouldn’t have fared so well there as I had in the rest of Europe. Even sitting down to chat with their neighbours in their award-winning backyard was a bit of a challenge – out of all the places I’d visited, Prague was the city where learning to speak English hardly seemed like a priority at all. Tomas had only learnt it because he had lived in San Francisco several years ago, but he was definitely in a minority of those who did speak English.

***

I am so lucky that the one language that I do speak afforded me so much opportunity to travel relatively unhindered, but the more I saw of the world, the more my status as a monolingual felt like a handicap. I was insanely jealous as I watched people slip between different tongues so easily – I knew they weren’t saying anything specifically more profound than anything that could have been said in English, but it just felt like there was a wealth of knowledge that I was missing out on. Living in a country like Australia, with no countries with direct borders and no extremely obvious choices of a language to learn that might be useful in your own city, I’d never really considered that learning another language would be such a beneficial skill. Now, after travelling around so many different countries and discovering the complexities of a range and huge variety of languages, it’s become another one of my goals to learn, practice, and eventually become fluent in another language. Which language – for now – is undecided, but I have to thank the many companions and friends I made along the way in Europe for inspiring me, and opening my eyes to the importance of languages, and the highly valuable skill of multilingualism.

Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

I’m not going to lie – of all the major touristic attractions that I had known about, heard about and made plans to visit, the thought of going to Prague Castle made me unexplainably excited. I’d heard so many things about Prague being such a beautiful city, and the thought of a castle on a hill that overlooked the city inspired foolish, romantic notions of fairytale settings and wonder and magic. Of course, realistically I know it was just going to be a castle, but I let part of myself get swept up by the fantasy daydream.

***

The following morning both Tomas and Matej had to leave for work, so they left me to my own devices to explore the city, with nothing but a key so I could come and go as I please. And a fair bit of advice, of course, as to which buses to catch to get where, and what things I might like to see. “If it’s your first time in Prague, I assume you want to go to the castle,” Tomas had said as he’d told me all this before he’d headed out the door. He’d been right. So I set out on the bright and sunny morning to catch a tram that would take me across the river and up the hill to the castle. As we got closer, it became harder to see the castle, as we drove through areas of greenery and it became a lot harder to look up from inside the tram windows. The line map on the top of the tram car had a little picture of a castle next to the stop that you were supposed to get off at to visit it, but… it was sort of in between two stops. I wasn’t sure which one to pick. My Lonely Planet guide was no help. There were no obvious English speakers that I could ask, and no one seemed friendly enough to approach. Oh well – in the end I just followed a bunch of other tourists who seemed to be on some kind of tour.

When I got off the tram, my surroundings were slightly off-putting. It was like a ghost town – other than the group that had gotten off with me and were wandering slowly away, there was not a soul in sight. But I was left standing in the hot and heavy sun, in a cobblestone area that looked like a set from a Shrek movie (except it was obviously real, not an animation), making me feel like I was in a deserted theme park more than anything. Was I already inside the castle complex? Was this just some random town, or village? I was so confused, but in the distance down one main road, I could see the spires of the castle emerging above the closer rooftops. I set my course towards them, and made it just in time to see the final procession of the changing of the guards, not unlike the display I had seen in the Old Town of Stockholm in Sweden. As they marched off down in the direction I had came from, I turned to the main gate of the castle grounds. It was topped with intricate golden metal framework and statues of men that appeared to be in various stages of combat. The picture was, of course, completed by the tourists doing typical tourist things such as taking photos with the stern, solemn looking guards at their posts at the castle grounds entry. I chuckled and took a few photos of the gate itself before wandering into the grounds.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

The gate that served as the entry into Prague Castle grounds.

As I began wandering through the courtyards, I realised that the castle itself was not one huge ancient building, the the greater limits of an area that included a few large churches and palaces. I wandered through the first courtyards looking for my way into these said palaces – I could see the spires pointing up into the sky above the buildings immediately in front of me, but it was like a maze to get through everything.

The spires of the chruch taunting me - just out of sight... sort of.

The spires of the chruch taunting me – just out of sight… sort of.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

How anyone actually gets a good picture of this thing is beyond me.

When I finally made it to the churches, there were some guide ropes set up, as though there was some kind of line to get inside, but there was no one lining up so I simply walked on through and into the building. I had just entered into the halls of the St Vitus Cathedral, and was gazing upon the St Wenceslas Chapel. The echoing chamber was full of people, but the chapel itself was beautifully lit up by the sunlight pouring in through the windows. However, while it was gorgeous, it was just another church, so I headed back outside after taking a quick look around.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

I doubled back the way I came until I came to a ticket office – wait, tickets? Yep, while wandering the castles courtyards and gardens were free, apparently you needed tickets to enter into each of the main attractions… including the St Vitus Cathedral. I wasn’t about to pay to visit it again, and they had weird ticket packages and bundles that had different validity dates for certain things, and it all just seemed too confusing. I had managed to sneak into the first church undetected, so I figured I would move ahead and see if there was any way around the entry fee to see some of the others. I never ended up even finding the Vladislav Hall in the Old Royal Palace, but I did come across the Basilica of St George. However, it was a much smaller building than the first cathedral, with one entrance where someone was collecting tickets. I pressed ahead, figuring I could return later with a ticket if I so desired.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

There were a lot of beautiful courtyards and minor buildings throughout the castle grounds, and when I reached the edge wall there was a view that stretched into the horizon, the view from the castle of the old kingdom below. However, in the end I found the whole of Prague Castle to be an underwhelming disappointment. Yes, it holds the Guinness World Record as the largest ancient castle in the world, and it is the official residence of the President of the Czech Republic. Yes, the Bohemian Crown Jewels are there, but they’re kept in a secret, hidden room, and I didn’t catch a glimpse of them. In the end it was just another set of churches to look inside, and unlike most of the churches I’d seen in my travels, like the ones in Cologne, Rome and Zürich, you had to pay to get inside all of these. After swearing that I had seen enough churches to last me this journey, it was a little more than I was prepared to do. So I followed the stepped walkway that led to Prague Castles exit, and crossed the Vltava River and headed back to Old Town Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Even the exterior of some of the random building around the castle grounds were particularly beautiful and enchanting.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Truth be told, even though the castle ended up being a bit of a let down for me, I still took immense pleasure in wandering the streets and enjoying the ancient and natural beauty that resonated throughout Prague. The castle was a nice aesthetic touch, visible across the river in the distance, but there was no need to actually visit it to get that fairytale feeling.

***

The next day was something a little bit different. Tomas was a landscape architect, and when I arrived on Tuesday he had told me that on Thursday they were going to get a visit from the mayor of Prague. The apartment complex in which they live had had a garden that was ugly and dying, not good for anything, so Tomas had taken it upon himself to put in hours and hours of hard work to restore the garden, complete with spaces for children in the complex to play, for people to plant gardens and vegetables, and a general sitting area for anything from an outdoor feast or picnic to catching up with a neighbour over a cigarette. Somehow, their garden had been entered into a competition, and unsurprisingly, had won. “There’s going to be a TV crew and everything,” Tomas had told me about the mayors visit. “They’re probably going to interview me too.” I could tell he was excited about the whole thing, but a little nervous about being on TV. Matej had been busy preparing food the day before, and that morning there were a bunch of official looking people, camera crews, TV hosts, as well as all the neighbours out in the garden. I watched on by the table of food, not really understanding any of what was being said, but feeling a little special to catch an inside glimpse into what was probably a special event for a lot of them, but what was for me as authentic an experience as I might get in everyday life in Prague.

Or maybe that’s selling my time in the city short. It was an interesting and non-touristic experience, but I also spent a lot of my time in Prague just hanging out with Matej and Tomas, eating local food at their local favourite places, walking around the beautiful city, or hanging out at night and watching movies, with them introducing me to some strange Czech ones as well as sharing their favourite Hollywood films – Death Becomes Her was a hit all around. I just only just now started to feel fully recovered after my excessive Pride binging in Southern Europe, and I realised it had been roughly two weeks since I had done any kind of crazy partying – extremely uncharacteristic of me – but I was rather enjoying the break, and it had given me the time to fully regain my strength.

I did spend one afternoon with Tomas and his friend Ondra having a stroll through a lush green garden area. I was amazed at the luck I had been having with the weather, and the daylight had been coming long and strong for weeks now. Beer was free flowing in most parts of Prague – you could could get it in plastic cups to go from many places, much like the set up for Pride in Paris, and so the three of us got our big cups of beer and took them outside to enjoy them on the grass. Ondra was a little quirky, but still a nice guy. He only spoke in English half the time, the other half in Czech, which made him a little mysterious to me, but I think Tomas explained it as that his English just wasn’t that good. Or he just didn’t like speaking English, whatever. But the three of us managed to have some funny conversations, with Tomas a relaying translator, having a couple of deep and meaningful discussions as well as laughing at the random and silly things we observed in the park around us. Tomas also took me over to a nearby church at the park. It was open, and free to all, but photography was prohibited. Inside, there was a case that contained some ancient relics, including bones and artefacts that belonged to saints from centuries past. It was a cool little thing to glimpse, and the church was virtually empty – a sign that I had definitely diverted from the tourist path and off the beaten track.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

The view of the church from our comfy spot on the grass.

***

I’d enjoyed my very brief time in Prague, and once again it was a little upsetting to have to leave behind people who I had just met, yet had grown so close to in such a short amount of time. “Don’t worry,” I had assured them as I had packed my stuff up on my final night. “I’m breezing through Europe so quickly this time, it just means that I’ll definitely have to come back one time to do it all probably.” They seemed to like that, although they were such nice guys that I’m sure they’d find plenty of new and fun Couchsurfers to fill my place when I left. But I was glad that once again I had taken the opportunity to Couchsurf and meet some amazing people and see some pretty cool and interesting things.

But for now, my time in Prague was at an end. I headed back to the train station on Friday morning, and when I saw the crowds I felt a moment of panic, having not reserved a ticket in advance. But there was just enough room on the train, luckily. I couldn’t really blame everyone for wanting to go where I was headed, because as I boarded the train I was overwhelmed with anticipation and excitement. I’d tried my best to see as much as I could during my time in Europe, and while you would think that that wouldn’t involve visiting a city for the second time, there was just something about the allure I felt that I hadn’t quite managed to shake: I was heading back to Berlin.

“Bangkok’s got him now”

Sitting on the Skytrain from Suvarnabhumi Airport to the heart of Bangkok, I peered out the windows at the vaguely familiar landscape. I had spent a couple of days here in my brief South-East Asian stint a little over a year ago, and the expansive field and countryside, littered with small, modest dwellings and the occasional billboard, hadn’t changed too dramatically. I suppose there are a few more modern developments and built-up environments closer to the railway line, and that these elements of the landscape would dwindle the further you went into the countryside – but I won’t pretend I know a great deal about the geography, or even the culture, of Thailand. All I know is that the views frommy seat on the train were as paradoxical as some of the scenic juxtapositions of Singapore, but to an even further, exaggerated extent. It makes for an interesting observation, but from my vantage point it all seemed rather other-worldly in a textbook kind of fashion. But it wouldn’t be that way for long…

***

I was staying with my friend Rathana, another person whom I knew from Sydney but had since moved to live abroad. However, his work frequently takes him to all kinds of places across the globe, and as fate would have it he was to be in San Francisco when I touched down in Bangkok, though he’d generously offered for me to stay in his place without him until his return. I used my basic directional knowledge from last time I’d been in Bangkok to make the short walk from the BTS (another name of for the Skytrain – an above ground railway system just as efficient as Singapore’s MRT) station to his condo, where I met one of his co-workers to collect his keys. After spending the afternoon resting and enjoying having a private space to myself, I began to feel hungry, so I decided to take a wander through the streets of Bangkok and see what I could discover.

Within half an hour I was back in the condo, feeling more than a little shellshocked. I’m not sure what I was expecting – I was well aware that I was in a foreign country, with its own language, rules, customs and culture, but I think it was more of an overestimation of my own ability to adjust and adapt. You can read all the books and reviews in the world, and somehow I don’t think anything can totally prepare you for the real thing. I set out into the streets, taking note of my surrounds yet heading in no particular direction, making turns here or there, wherever there seemed to be something interesting happening. I found myself in what I later discovered was the tiny and localised Muslim district of Bangkok. Street vendors lined the narrow road, young children played in the streets naked, stray cats prowled the gutters and whole families were lounging around in what seemed to be one room houses, surrounded by fans and in various stages of undress, in order to combat the sweltering heat and humidity. Motorbikes weaved between the people, and even cars nudged their way through the street like they were just oversized pedestrians. Determined to not look like the nervous tourist which I so obviously was, I trudged through up the street keeping mainly to myself, occasionally stopping to contemplate some of the street food carts, but moving on when my presence was either ignored, or met with a bored indifference. Of course, I don’t blame them for probably resenting my gawking – I was the one who had wandered off the main concourses into the tiny street which had little to no obvious tourist attractions. Yet in the end the whole thing became so overwhelming that I navigated my way through an alley or two until I reached the main roads, grabbed a handful of snacks the convenience store and dragged my shaken self back home. Maybe it was the fact I had set out into Bangkok by myself for the first time in the cover of night, or maybe it was just because I’d really had no idea what I was doing – I resolved that from now on I would always have a plan of attack.

***

The next day I tried to wind it back and ease myself into the culture shock a little more gently, spending the day revisiting some of the areas I’d been to before. I had lunch in the predominantly English-speaking area of Ari, and then headed to Siam to wander through some of the biggest malls in Asia. I’d noticed my throat becoming quite sore since the morning I left Singapore, so I found a pharmacy with an English-speaking doctor, who gave me a simple three day course of antibiotics. After that, I decided to lay low the rest of the day in an attempt to recover. Another of Rathana’s friends was to be staying at his place for a few days while he was away, so I ventured down to the BTS station to collect her and introduce her to Bangkok as best I could. She was in town for a conference over the weekend, so I would end up seeing very little of her during our shared time in the condo.

The next day I was feeling a bit better, so I set myself some challenges for the day, to help me get used to traveling solo around Bangkok. After doing a bit of research, I picked one restaurant for lunch and a nearby tourist attraction, studied the maps, and head off into the city. I never found the restaurant, and trudged around the streets in the hot sun for close to 40 minutes, getting lost and confused by the mostly non-English street signs, before I eventually stumbled upon a very Western looking burger joint. At that point I was willing to trade a cultural experience for a bit of cool air-conditioning, so I stopped and ate. From there it was on to the Queen Saowaphat Memorial Institute and Snake Farm. A couple of years ago, I developed a pretty intense snake phobia through a bizarre incident that is a whole other story of its own, and have been working ever since to try and overcome my fear. The snake farm is affiliated with the Red Cross Institute in Bangkok, where a lot of research into toxicology and the creation of snake bite anti-venom takes place, but it also offered snake handling shows in the afternoon, so I’d chosen the attraction in the hopes that maybe I could overcome some fears and gain some confidence I had lost after my first shaky night in Bangkok.

The words “snake farm” bring to mind images of pits full of writhing snakes, bred en masse and used like cattle. It would have been a disturbing sight, not to mention a likely case of animal cruelty, so it was a little reliving to see that the farm was actually just a small serpentine zoo. I found a lot of the cobras intriguing, and realised I would never be able to tell I had encountered one in the wild until if was spreading out those iconic hood scales and hissing and/or spitting venom at me – though in reality I doubt I’d ever let a wild snake of any kind get quite so close. However, it wasn’t until the handling show that I came face to face with my scaly demons. I’d turned up slightly late, distracted by the exhibitions, and so missed a seat in the amphitheatre and had to watch from down the sides at the bottom, which happened to be right next to the demonstration area…

Cobra in the exhibition area.

Cobra in the exhibition area.

And the King Cobra that was a little close for comfort!

And the King Cobra that was a little close for comfort!

Looking quite fierce, and most displeased.

Looking quite fierce, and most displeased.

So you can imagine my horror when the first thing they do is dump a King Cobra on the ground, no more than 4 or 5 metres from where I was standing. The snake itself would have been more than half that distance had it been fully extended, but instead it writhed around and coiled itself, its hood scales fully spread and hissing angrily at the handlers around it. After the initial shock, and realising there were quite a few people between the cobra and myself, I managed to calm down and watch the show without being too anxious or nervous at all – quite a feat for someone who had to watch scenes in the last Harry Potter film between slits in my fingers to avoid seeing Voldemort’s giant pet snake. Come the end of the show, they called for a volunteer, and I was standing too close to the demonstration area to not get selected. I’d seen shows like this before, and I knew what was coming – but as per the challenge to myself, I didn’t resist, and allowed for the huge python to be draped across my shoulders. It was such a thrill, and I was surprised to find that I wasn’t really scared at all – phobia smashed! I even held it long enough to ask to get my picture taken, in case nobody back home would believe actually me.

Finally squashing my snake phobia for good!

Finally squashing my snake phobia for good!

Maybe all the attention tired the poor thing out?

Maybe all the attention tired the poor thing out?

***

As I left the snake farm, I was accosted by a tuk tuk driver who asked if I needed a ride. I knew the way back to the station, yet I let myself be dragged into a conversation. “For just 20 baht, my friend, I will take to back to the Sala Daeng BTS station. But please, can we make one other stop along the way?” I told him that I didn’t have anywhere I needed to be, and as he explained I realised that he was trying to get me to visit a shop, presumably that of a friend, or an employer of sorts. Assuring me I only needed to have a look and not necessarily buy anything, I threw caution to the wind and gave in to what might actually be my first authentic Bangkok experience. The store turned out to be a tailor, and I soon realised it wasn’t quite so easy to browse a store that doesn’t actually have a great deal of products already made. I was quite insistent to my salesman that I didn’t need a suit, but in the end I caved, I ended up walking out of the store having been measured up and paid for two tailor made shirts. They were supposed to be delivered to Rathana’s condo the next evening, but are yet to arrive, and now I’m starting to feel I may have been swindled by an elaborate scam. Though I’ll hold my breath just a little longer, in case there was a legitimate delay.

The tuk tuk driver was delighted I’d made a purchase, and I think that was a sign to him that maybe he could pump even more upselling into me. As we continued on our way, he turned and called back to me, over the drone of the traffic, “Lady? You want a lady? Ping pong show, yes?” I politely declined, though I ended up browsing through a jewellery store before I firmly insisted that I needed to go back to the station. He was a very cheery man, though. “I like you, you’re a cool guy,” he repeated several times. He asked me if I was going out partying that night, and when I alluded to it being a possibility, he wanted to get my phone number. Given the tricky nature of my travel SIM card, I managed to squeeze my way out of that one, but in retrospect it seems he had made a pretty big squeeze out of me, in one way or another.

***

After finally returning home and showering, I was off again to catch up with a friend. Brendon was the older brother of one of my best friends from high school, and had spent the better part of the last 3 or 4 years living and studying throughout Asia. He’d gotten in touch when he realised we would both be in Bangkok at the same time, and invited me to dinner with his group friends from his time at university here. Having spent most of the past three days on my own, I jumped at the chance to hang out with some locals and people who actually knew the city. We had dinner at a nice restaurant where I was introduced to the group, but it was what happened after dinner that was the real Bangkok experience. Rich, one of the girls, was going out to help celebrate her brothers birthday, and she urged Brendon and I to join them. Brendon was only in town for two nights and wanted to make the most of it, and I literally had no where else to go, so we jumped in a cab and I let them lead the way.

Our destination was Khao San, the backpacker district of Bangkok. Part of me wishes I’d paid more attention when watching The Beach, the begin of which is famously set in this busy party street. As we made our way through the crowds, I could see that this was definitely the tourist experience of Bangkok that serves as a unanimous reference point among travellers. The wide street was lined with bars, hotels, nightclubs and tattoo parlours, and dozens of pop-up shops filled the street, selling food, drinks and a huge range of souvenirs. It felt like a combination of Kings Cross/Surfers Paradise with Paddy’s Markets in Sydney, with the addition of small children also running through the crowds peddling their wares. After my encounters with over friendly sales people earlier that day, I was quick to shoo away the small children before they had the opportunity to tempt me. We finally found the birthday boy sitting at a table outside this bar:

That's one way to get a target market?

That’s one way to get a target market?

I chuckled to myself at the name, another of the novelty clues highlighting that we were definitely not in any regular Australian party strip. We sat down and ordered drinks – table service in clubs is another thing that I wasn’t used to, although I’m now under the impression it’s pretty common in most places in Thailand, or at least Bangkok. As we sipped on our Singapore Sling cocktail buckets (the only drink worth getting here, Rich assured us), various other street sellers would approach us from the busy road and insistently push their products upon us. Among some of my favourites were the material wrist bands that contained all kinds of messaged woven into them, from sweet to naughty to just plain strange, and what appeared to be char-grilled scorpion skewers. I didn’t buy anything though – the wrist bands because I couldn’t decide on one hilarious slogan without wanting to choose them all, and the scorpions because… Well, nothing about them looked appetising in the slightest. I usually say I’ll try anything once, but after watching a British backpacker dry wretch and nearly vomit everywhere after eating her scorpion, I decided it was an experience I could live without.

Charming.

Charming.

Less charming.

Less charming.

Singapore Slings - where else but Thailand?

Singapore Slings – where else but Thailand?

When we’d decided we’d drank enough, we retreated to the neighbouring nightclub, partly because we wanted to dance and mostly because we knew the place was air conditioned. We danced for a while before we decided to leave and head to another district. After getting some Pad Thai from a street vendor, who cooked the whole meal in under two minutes right before our very eyes, we were in a taxi bound for Silom Soi 4. It was the gay district, Brendon explained to me, which was why Rich found herself there so often. “I just feel so much safer there”, she said with a laugh, while Brendon made a remark about feeling quite the opposite. I was unsurprised that I’d managed to find a fag hag on my first night in Bangkok, and I was pretty excited to check out what kind of gay scene existed here. Unfortunately it was a Thursday night and already well past 1am. We all ordered one more drink each, but by then we were all starting to feel pretty tired. I said my goodbyes to Brendon, and exchanged numbers with Rich in case I should need any more help navigating the party scene of Bangkok, then we all found cabs and made our separate ways home.

The bustling district of Khao San.

The bustling district of Khao San.

Pad Thai as a drunk meal is a bit of a novelty for me, but there were dozens of carts serving them along Khao San.

Pad Thai as a drunk meal is a bit of a novelty for me, but there were dozens of carts serving them along Khao San.

It had taken a few days, but I felt like I was starting to get the hang of Bangkok. There were the obvious language barriers in some places, which I was expecting, but you’re usually never too far from someone who can speak English, or provide a basic translation. The night out with Brendon and his friends had been a nice change from trying to discover and navigate the city on my own, and I began to think that while free accommodation with friends was definitely a bonus, I hadn’t anticipated it to be quite so lonely without Rathana actually being here. I figured it would be easier to make friends when I’m staying in hostels, surrounded by other backpackers, than it was when I was tucked away in my own private apartment. I’d spoken to a few friends back home during my brief periods of feeling a bit lonely, and they all assured me that it would get easier, and I had to remind myself that I’d really only been out of Sydney for a week. That was nothing in the grand scheme of my planned world tour, though sometimes it already felt like I’d been gone for such a long time. I knew all that would change with time though, and so I just took it in my stride as one of the many more personal challenges I’d face this year.

Though the weekend has only just begun, so for now, Bangkok is still calling…