Bridget Jones and British Boroughs

On my first day in London I spent a bit of time with Giles as he showed me around central London, pointing out all the different bars in Soho and all the shops and eateries I should try, and helping me familiarise myself with some of the major landmarks, stations, and even the lingo – I was only given one chance to mispronounce to awkwardly Leicester Square. Giles said most people mispronounce it – it’s pronounced ‘Lester’, as thought the ‘ic’ isn’t even there – and I momentarily wondered what the hell went wrong with the English language for that to have ever happened. After being all over Europe, England was the last place I had expected to have problems pronouncing words or place names.

That evening, Giles and I went to see a performance of ‘The Sound of Music’ at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Giles was a big lover of musicals and theatre, and he had gotten complimentary tickets from a friend of his who worked there. I’m not exactly sure how he pulled it off – they were very good tickets, centred and very close to the front, on a sold out night. The show was fantastic and the cast were amazing – however, there was another learning curve that I would experience that evening, in a theatre that was very much exposed to the elements. Despite it being a relatively warm and sunny day in London, as soon as the sun went down it got cold. Or at least, cold for an Australian. I hadn’t really anticipated that when I’d set out from Hackney during the middle of the day, but right now I was seriously regretting my choice of shirt and shorts. I had to borrow Giles’ big warm coat to drape over myself for most of the second half of the performance. Granted, he didn’t even need it – I guess being a local he was acclimatised to the conditions. It was something I made sure to take note of during my time in London, though – despite it still being their summer, it was the tail end of the season, and it wasn’t going to feel anything like the summer I was used to back home.

After the show we had a quick drink in Soho, but Giles had to get home to pack. Yes, Giles had to pack – he was off to America for two weeks. When I had figured out when I was going to be travelling to London, I’d dropped Giles a line to ask him if he’d be free to catch up at all while I was there.
“When exactly are you going to be in London?” he asked me. I told him when I was flying in, and approximately how long I thought I might want to stay – in my true fashion, I hadn’t really planned that far ahead.
“Oh that’s a shame, I’m only going to be there for one day before I’m going to America,” he’d said. But what he’d said next seemed almost too good to be true. “Have you found a place to stay in London yet?” Of course, I hadn’t.
“No, not yet…” I replied, thinking he might have a couple of hostel recommendations.
“Do you want to housesit my apartment and stay in my room while I’m away?” He didn’t ask for any rent – just that I minded and looked after the place for him. His housemate would be going away for at least a week during that period too, and I guess he may have felt better knowing there was someone around the place and keeping it safe. And of course, I was facing the opportunity of two rent-free weeks in London – one of the most expensive cities in the world, apparently. I didn’t have to consider it for more than a second before accepting Giles’ extremely generous offer. I guess I had proved myself to be trustworthy enough on the few occasions we had met, and I was yet again blown away by the kindness that people who I barely knew would show towards a weary world traveller.

***

And so Giles set off for his American holiday and left me to my own devices when it came to discovering London. I briefly met his housemate, a Canadian guy called Blake, but he was only around for a day or two as well before he set off on a trip to Serbia. We was only supposed to be gone for a week, but in all my time in London he never actually returned home  – I guess Serbia must have been pretty amazing – and I literally had the place to myself the entire time I was there, save a few days at the beginning and end. As someone who had been sleeping in hostels, spare rooms, and sharing both beds and apartments with some of my hosts, it was actually a pretty incredible situation. For the first time since perhaps Helsinki, and I had an entire apartment to myself. As excited as I was to actually get out and see the city, there was something about that circumstance that I just had indulge in. On a Sunday evening, I was flicking through the internet on my iPad to see if there were any parties or anything cool that I could make a trip into town to visit. Then I turned on the TV – basically just for the hell of it because, hey, I had a TV for the first time in months! – and saw that Bridget Jones’ Diary I was about to start. I considered it for a second: I was going to be in London for quite some time, and who knows when I may have the luxury of having a place to myself again? So the only trip I made that evening was around the corner to the fish and chip shop – a great British tradition – and returned home to sprawl out on the couch to watch one of my favourite British rom coms. In the end it did actually feel like I was experiencing a bit of British culture, with all from the comforts of my British living room. I regret nothing.

It was the first time that I would curl up in front of the TV in London – it’s arguably one of the most local things you could do – but wouldn’t be the last. However, there were other nights when I didn’t feel like trekking it on the tube all the way to the city, but I didn’t feel like just staying at home either. Giles had told me he would put me in touch with some of this friends so that I wasn’t so alone to begin with, and I had gotten in touch with some of them to arrange meetings. However, on this particular evening I turned to one of the numerous gay social smartphone applications. While these apps are mostly used to arrange a far less innocent type of rendezvous, as a traveller they’re actually quite useful in their originally marketed purpose which is to “meet other guys”, which is how I found myself walking through the neighbouring district of Bethnal Green to a nearby pub to meet Dean. His background was a mix of French and Greek, and had been living in London for about a year for his work. We met in a traditional looking English pub, but the inside was a different story. It was full of teenagers getting absolutely wasted, spilling their drinks all over the antique, rustic furniture they were lounging on while some house music blared from somewhere on the floors above. It wasn’t really the thing either of us were in the mood for, so we downed our drinks relatively quickly – though assuring I didn’t spill a drop – and hastily took our leave.

I hadn’t really been looking for a wild night out anyway, so Dean and I took to the streets and just talked. The good thing was that at this stage of my trip, I was never short of any weird stories or crazy adventures to share, so I always had something to talk about. We talked about a lot of things, but nothing in particular, and Dean asked me about London and what things I had seen.
“Ahh, I don’t know, I haven’t done much yet,” I said to him, scanning through a mental checklist of things I wanted to see and finding it almost completely blank. “I’m just making the most of my unique living situation and enjoying a place to myself.”
“Fair enough,” Dean chuckled. “Well, there’s this place I can show you that had a really nice view. It’s a bar in the City.”

I was about to getting a rough schooling in the local geography of London. It turns out that the City of London is just one specific and rather small section of the wider region of London (although City of London is actually part of the Greater London borough – I know, it’s confusing), which is made up of a collection of other boroughs and cities, such as the Hackney, Tower Hamlets, and the City of Westminster – which is the relatively larger borough home to Buckingham Palace, Downing Street, and Soho. The City of London was a little more than a square mile where much of the financial district of London is located. The more Dean tried to explain, the more confused I became, and it took actually getting home and looking at a detailed map – and even a little bit of Googling place names – before I even began to slightly understand it. I’m not going to go much more into it – mostly because I don’t think I would be entirely correct – but we ended up walking a fair way to get to a place called SUSHISAMBA. It’s not a Japanese restaurant, and it isn’t a Brazilian nightclub – perhaps it’s a fusion of the two different cuisines, but all I know is that it was super fancy and pretty expensive. I didn’t think I was going to get in – it was smart casual dress code, and I was wearing the only warm jacket I currently owned which was an unremarkable looking black hoodie. But I wasn’t stopped when we tried to enter, and so Dean and went up the elevator to get to the bar on the 38th floor.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The view from the bar at SUSHISAMBA.

The elevator was glass, and gave you a somehow nauseating view of the wider city as it shot upwards with impressive speeds. Once inside, I had a glass of wine and Dean had a beer – I didn’t dare order anything more in such a pricey establishment.
“I wouldn’t come here for the drinks,” Dean said, “But for the view… it’s pretty amazing.”
And it was. Certain parts of the bar were restricted and reserved, so I couldn’t get as close to the windows as I would have liked, but from the bar you could see in all directions, and even though it was dark, you could still get an impressive sense of how immense the city was. Or should I say, City of London? Greater London? It was all a bit too confusing for me, but I told myself I’d have a couple of weeks to get used to it (note at time of writing: that obviously never happened).

On the way home, Dean pointed out to me several dragon statues. “Those dragons mark the boundary of the City of London,” he said to me. The City of London’s Coat of Arms features two dragons supporting the City’s Crest, and there are two original dragon statues which were made in 1849 that stand roughly 6 feet tall. There was also a collection of smaller, half-size replicas, and they are all located at the main entrances into the City. We passed one of the replicas near Aldgate High Street on our way home, and Dean continued to tell me more of the history of the City, although by this point in the night it was so late I was only half listening.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

One of the dragons that guard the entrances to the City of London.

We walked as far as we could until we had to go our separate ways. It was a strange evening – Dean seemed like a perfectly nice guy, but we didn’t get along that famously or anything, and there was no real connection. I never ended up seeing him again, yet I still remember the evening we spent together pretty clearly, and the minor history and geography lessons he attempted to teach me. I’d done a bit of crazy partying while I was in Amsterdam, so I guess taking the time out for myself and taking cute midnight strolls in the city was just the kind of change of pace I’d needed.

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The Churches of Old Town Zürich

When I wasn’t exploring the great outdoors with Robin in Zürich, I took time out of the busy, active lifestyle to do a little bit of sightseeing. The city centre of Zürich itself wasn’t exactly huge, or full of iconic landmarks, but simply wandering around the charming little streets and up the cobblestone footpaths was a pleasure in itself, appreciating the quaint and classical beauty that the city maintained.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

A cute little Swiss street that is obviously very proud to be a Swiss street.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi's Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

Gedenkbrunnen für Bürgermeister Stüssi, or Stüssi’s Fountain, which I accidentally stumbled across in my roaming.

The most notable sights worth seeing in Zürich were probably the small handful of churches located in the city centre. While I had sworn I was done with churches after my trek through the Vatican City in Rome, these Swiss churches couldn’t be more different from the St Peters Basilica in Italy. They were a fraction of the size, modestly squeezed in between all the surrounding buildings, though the classical design suggested that the holy buildings had been there much longer than their neighbouring structures. The first of the three main churches in Zürich that I passed is called Grossmünster, which translates into “great minister”. It is located along the banks of the River Limmat and served as a monastery church when it was first inaugurated some 800 years ago. The Romanesque architecture was impressive from the outside from where I admired it, but it was a beautiful day outside, and I just wasn’t in the mood for trailing through another church museum.

The grand Grossmünster.

The grand Grossmünster.

So on I moved across the Limmat, where the other two main churches were situated – next was St Peterskirche, or St Peters church. The structure itself was significantly smaller than Grossmünster, and it was in the midst of a sea of buildings to the point where I couldn’t actually find the building itself. However, the main feature of St Peterskirche rose above the sea of buildings so that it could be seen from a great distance – the clock tower. Again, I wasn’t particularly interesting in seeing the inside of yet another church, and the main feature was best viewed from a distance anyway. “The clock on that steeple is the largest clock face in Europe,” Umer had said to to me as we’d breezed through the city on my first afternoon in Zürich. It has a diameter of 8.7 metres, but I hadn’t previously managed to capture any photographs of the impressive clock, so I took a few snapshots before moving on to the third and final church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

The clock tower of St Peters church.

Fraumünster was the only church in Zürich that I actually went inside, but in retrospect I’m glad that I had made the time to take a quick peek. The English translation is “women’s minister” and the church, which is built directly across the Limmat from Grossmünster, was built on the remains of a former abbey. From the outside, Fraumünster doesn’t seem particularly impressive. However, once you set foot inside the cool and quiet halls, you quickly realise that it’s the inside perspective and the view from within that truly matters in these sacred rooms. I’m talking, of course, about the stained glass windows. From the outside on a bright sunny day they look incredibly unremarkable: black holes leading into the depths of the church. But from the inside, that sun streaming in lights up the coloured panes of glass to produce something beautiful, mystical, and even a little breathtaking. I reiterate that I’m not exactly religious and have no affinity with the Christian faith, especially after the disillusionment that came with my visit to the Vatican, but something about being in Fraumünster recaptured my sense of mysticism.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Fraumünster, looking deceptively plain from the outside.

Back in my days at university I took quite a variety of sociology courses, one of them being a class titled the Sociology of Religion. In the first lecture, our teacher read us a metaphor about religion being like a stained glass window. You can study a religion from the outside – the rituals, the doctrine, the history, the beliefs – but the real meaning of a religion requires an understanding that one can only get from being inside of the fold, and being a part of that religion. Perhaps thats why, whenever I step into any of these beautiful churches far and wide across this continent, I get that superstitious sense that I just can’t quite put my finger on. Until you’re ready to fully accept it and be a part of it, maybe you’ll never be able to truly understand what it means to be part of a religion. I doubt that I ever will fully know what that is like, but for the meantime I was definitely understanding the stained glass window metaphor first hand. I tried to take a couple of photos, but the quality of my camera did absolutely no justice to the images I was seeing in front of me. Not for the first time, I took it as a sign that some things we experience in this world as just so significant to ourselves as individuals, that attempting to share them with others would simply fail to have the same effect on them as it did on us. So I momentarily lost myself there, in the cold stone chambers of Fraumünster, before saying a silent prayer – to who, I’m still not sure – and exited back out into the sunshine.

***

After my church sightseeing and soulful contemplation, I lightened the mood of my day with a stroll through the sunshine by the lake. This was before the afternoon of slacklining with Robin, so I hadn’t been swimming in the lake or river at that point. I found a seat on a bench and read my book for most of the afternoon, but I did come across a huge diving platform from which people were jumping off, and plunging into the depths of the crystal clear water. I considered doing it myself, but at that stage I wasn’t exactly feeling 100% healthy – I was still feeling a little under the weather, and recovering from the effects of prolonged partying in Madrid during Pride. I knew I would  inevitably be getting wet when I went slacklining over the river, but I didn’t want to wait around in wet clothes for the rest of the afternoon, so instead I contented myself with watching others jump off the huge platform and into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

The huge structure that had been set up in the lake, from which people were jumping off into the water.

There is one thing that I found shocking about Switzerland, even though it wasn’t exactly unexpected, and that was the cost of living. I had been warned about it, but it still hit me like a slap in the face. I wasn’t even paying for my accommodation, but my time spent in Zürich was fairly limited simply due to the fact that I didn’t have the budget to do very much. Even eating was a ridiculously pricey affair. I went to get lunch from what seemed to be a relatively cheap sausage stand – they love their wurst in Switzerland – and ended up paying around 6 francs for a simple sausage and a small piece of bread. I felt like that would have almost bought me a meal in any other country, but from what I had seen of the rest of Zürich, I had basically stumbled across a bargain. I considered it a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t feeling too well during my time in Zürich, because it meant that I didn’t have the desire to go out and investigate many of the bars or nightclubs – something that I just didn’t have the funding to do there. Robin and I visited a bar or two and sampled some delicious Swiss beer, made in various microbreweries around the country, but for the most part Switzerland was a continuation of my much needed down time. My pride tour down western Europe had really gotten the better of me.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

One of the Swiss beers I shared with Robin.

***

Eventually necessity required me to move on from Zürich – there were a handful of other destinations I still had to hit before my Eurail pass expired, and I just couldn’t afford to stay in Switzerland any longer. So on my final morning I packed up my bags, thanked Robin for his hospitality, for introducing me to the world of slacklining, and inspiring me to be that little bit more physically active in my life. Then it was onto the station for another train, another country, and another city on on my ‘greatest hits’ tour of Europe.

Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.

***

The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.

***

The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.

Glow Sticks and Green Lights: Parisian Nightlife

For my first night in Paris I headed towards Rambuteau, one of the gay quarters in central Paris, to meet one of my friends from Australia. I had known my friend Arie had been travelling through Europe with another friend of his on a Contiki tour, but the tour had finished and they were doing a bit of travelling on their own before heading home. Back in Berlin, when I had been deliberating over where to head next, I had sent Arie a message to learn his plans and discovered he would still be in Paris for a few more days. Arie and his friend Daniel would be leaving on Friday, but the earliest I would be able to arrive was Thursday. Even so, we had decided we couldn’t miss the chance to spend even one night partying in Paris, so we’d arranged to meet up in city centre once I had sorted things out at my hostel.

“Oh my God! Robert, we’re in Paris together!” Arie had exclaimed when I finally caught up with them. It was still a strange sensation to meet people who were so familiar in places that were so foreign. We exchanged stories about our travels: Arie and Daniel shared their crazy adventures in Amsterdam, while I recounted my trek across the Trans-Siberian, and the exploits of Berlin that were still fresh in my mind. After my day of travelling and stressful afternoon at the station, I had been keen to head straight into a bar and grab a beer. However, Arie and Daniel both had plastic bottles of lemonade mixed with vodka, so we had to take a seat in the gutter around the corner of the first club while Daniel finished his ambitiously strong beverage. It was a throwback to the kind of drinking we had done in Australia, and after meeting and talking to Ralf in Berlin I was seeing it from a different perspective, through a whole new set of eyes. It was still relatively early in the night, and even when they offered me some of their pre-drinks, I declined. I found myself in a frame of mind where I wanted to go out, explore, mingle, maybe have a few beers – not get supremely drunk and wasted, make a fool of myself, or do something I might regret later. A lot of people who know me will probably be reading this thinking I’ve been hypnotised or brainwashed or something, but the truth of the matter was that I’d realised I wanted to make some changes in my life – there was no harm in trying out a few of them now.

When we finally entered our first place, a venue called Sly Bar, I was rudely reminded as to why we would usually drink so heavily before we went out. There are ways to cut costs when it comes to getting hammered, but simply drinking socially can rack up a bill, especially in Paris. I took small mouthfuls of my €7 beer in an attempt to make it last, watching as Daniel ran around the bar collecting different coloured glow sticks from the traffic light party that seemed to be happening – “I wonder what the blue ones mean…?” The bar itself was quite a small, dark space, trimmed with lots of neon lighting and, despite lacking a dance floor, loud pop music that required you to lean in close to the person next to you just to be heard. Smoking is quite prevalent in France though, so a good portion of the patrons were congregated in the courtyard out front to smoke their cigarettes. I continued catching up with Arie, and in general just enjoying the company of somebody familiar. It was the perfect comforting antidote to the post-Berlin blues that I’d had trouble trying to shake.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Rather than getting another drink at Sly Bar, we decided to move on to see if any of the other places were cheaper. To cut a long story short, they weren’t – Paris was an all around expensive city and the sooner I came to terms with that and just accepted it, the happier I would be. The next venue was called Spyce, and it was the first time we encountered a trend that turned out to be common in the Parisian nightclubs. There is a first initial door which you enter, and then you have to wait in a small chamber until the outside door closes. Only then will a second door open and allow you to enter the main nightclub. I’m not sure if this is designed to keep the cold out of the club during winter months, or if it’s to restrict the amount of noise that seeps out of the nightclub and into the street with every opening door. Spyce itself was even smaller than Sly Bar, but it was completely enclosed, the loud club music bouncing off the walls and turning the place into an intense, compact discotheque. We bought another round of expensive beers and took a seat at one of the tables.

There was a decent crowd, but it wasn’t packed and there wasn’t too much dancing going on. As I scanned the crowd, I made eye contact with a handsome looking gentleman, who smiled at me when he noticed I was looking. I returned the smile, but then turned back to Arie and Daniel. We hadn’t been there for too long, but eventually the gentleman approached us and introduced himself. His name was Xavier, and I introduced myself and Arie and Daniel. Arie and I chatted to him for a couple of minutes, while Daniel wandered off into the crowd to do his own thing, as he so often seemed to do.
“What is this?” Xavier said as he reached down and grabbed my wrist. Back at Sly Bar I had picked up a green flow stick and attached it around my wrist.
“Oh, these? We got them from Sly Bar.” I motioned over to Arie, who had taken half a dozen glow sticks and was busy constructing bracelets and necklaces out of them. “I think there’s a traffic light party or something going on.”
“A traffic light party?” Xavier seemed intrigued.
“Yeah. Green means I’m single,” I said with a grin.
Xavier returned the smile. “Are you guys going to Raidd?” I knew that one as the bar that Arie and Daniel had said we should visit later – they had been in Paris for several days already, and had been to a few of the hot spots.
“Yeah, I think we are. I just have to finish my beer first,” I said, pointing to the table and picking up my almost full glass.
“Oh, okay,” Xavier said. “Well I’m heading over there now, some of my friends want to get there already. But if you are coming, hopefully I’ll see you there?”
“Yeah, hopefully,” I said with another smile. He smiled back, and there was a knowing in his expression as he read between the lines. He leaned in towards me, placed a hand on the side of my face, and placed a gentle kiss of my lips. A touch so delicate seemed out of place in a club like Spyce, and it was almost ridiculous how quickly things had progressed from the initial glance across the room. After a few moments, Xavier pulled away, smiled again, and slipped away to the exit.
“Woo hoo! Go Robert!” Arie laughed from behind me, patting me on the back. “I guess some things never change.”
“Oh, shut up, you,” I laughed along with him, though I made a point of us finishing our beers rather quickly and ushering us on to the next bar.

***

After passing through the double door entrance to Raidd, I could see why the other two had insisted that we visited this club this evening. The bar was huge, with a vast dance floor that was flanked by several fully stocked bars and covered in good-looking men. Something curious I had noticed in all the bars was that a lot of people were drinking wine. Australians love their wine as much as the next nationality, but you would be hard pressed to find people waltzing around the night club with a glass of chardonnay. It seemed common practice here in Paris though, and the only thing that stopped me from ordering any was the fear of having it poured only to be told it was more expensive than the beer!

But that wasn’t the most noticeable thing about Raidd – that title would definitely have to go to the shower in the wall. In the centre of the feature wall of the club was a glass box. It didn’t seem like much… that is, until an underwear model stepped into the booth, sans underwear, and turned on the shower and began to clean his body in an extremely seductive manner. He was a picture of physical perfection, his masculine body so chiselled it could have been a sculpture taken straight from a Parisian art gallery, and he was completely naked, shaking his fully semi-erect penis around and pressing his impeccable buttocks up against the glass. To say the shower show was steamy would be literal, but also a huge understatement. Men were crowded around the glass panel, groping hopelessly at the Adonis within, but he just smiled, continued to hose himself down, and teased his audience as he continued to play with himself. It was an impressive show, though I’d be lying if I said I was shocked – Berlin had tested and broken my limits when it came to being shocked at anything I saw in European gay bars. Yet this was still different: where Berlin had been filthy and grungy, a dirty kind of sex appeal, Paris was putting on a performance that was equally explicit but in a much more refined manner. The show was clean and immaculate – I mean, he was in a shower – and despite baring all to world, no one was allowed to touch him. In a lot of ways it was the opposite to the shocking things I saw in Berlin, but it still managed to be equally sexual. The best part about the whole thing was that while some guys ogled and groped at the shower window, there were plenty who were sitting around casually chatting and sipping their wine, as though there was really nothing that different or special about someone taking a shower in a panel of their clubs wall. Though I guess, for the locals, it wasn’t really anything out of the ordinary.

It wasn’t too long until I ran into Xavier, though. He wasn’t a Frenchman as I had first suspected, but Portuguese, though he had been living in Paris for a few years. That didn’t make him any less sexy though, and there was a good portion of the evening where we couldn’t keep our hands off each other. Though between the fierce make out sessions, I managed to talk to Xavier’s friends and some other people about the club.
“Are you guys here for Pride?” one of Xavier’s friends had asked Arie and I.
“Pride? No, my friend Daniel and I are leaving tomorrow,” Arie said, motioning across the club to where Daniel was making friends and mischief. Our questioner turned to me.
“Me? Oh, no I’m just here for the weekend.”
“Pride is this weekend.”
“Oh…” Suddenly it seemed as though my decision to come to Paris had been guided by some kind of higher power, and hasn’t been so random after all. “Well then, I guess I’m here for pride!”

We continued to dance the night away, but at one point I found myself outside with Xavier while he was having a cigarette. I stood close by him in the crisp night air as he took a puff.
“You know, I usually have a blanket rule about not hooking up with smokers,” I said, leaning away from his exhalation.
Xavier just chuckled. “What made you change your mind?”
“Well, I didn’t realise at first,” I said, “But I told myself I’d have to be a little lenient when I was in Paris. I’ve never met a Frenchman who didn’t smoke.”
“But I’m Portuguese,” he reminded me with a cheeky smile.
“You live in Paris though,” I said, laughing as I gave him a gentle shove. “Close enough.” He chuckled to himself again, and pulled me back in to plant a kiss on the side of my face.
“I’m gonna have to go soon. I have work tomorrow and my friend is picking me up.”

We said our goodbyes, but we exchanged phone numbers, and Xavier told me he wanted to see me again. I assured him I would be around for a few more days, and his leaving me was actually perfectly timed. As soon as he left, Arie stumbled out of Raidd with Daniel and another guy named Omar, who was visiting Paris from Israel. Daniel wanted food, and I decided to end my night on a high, so we left the club in search of a greasy, post-drinking feed.

***

Arie and Daniel got kebabs. I realised that I’d only had about two or three beers the whole evening, and so consequentially wasn’t that drunk, which meant I wasn’t exactly hungry either. I just stole a couple of chips here and there from Daniel’s meal while the four of us chatted.
“I’m sorry, but what’s going on with this“, Omar said as he pointed at my outfit like a real-life male Karen Walker. “You’ve got the nice blazer, the mustard chinos, and then…” he trailed off as all four of our gazes fell to my shoes. “You’re wearing, like, sneakers! That does not look right at all!”
“Hey! Why don’t you try travelling halfway across the world living out of a backpack? Stylish shoes were one of the first luxury items to go.” To be honest, I was actually surprised at myself at how comfortable I was at caring so little about things that would have mortified me back home – I had to assure Omar that I would never have normally worn this outfit.
“Well luckily you’re in Paris now,” he said with a smile. “Perfect place to get some new ones.” I just laughed and nodded – I didn’t have the energy to explain backpacking or budgeting to someone who had moments ago confessed to spending 100% of all his pay cheques on clothing. He was a nice enough guy, but I sensed some core ideological differences between the Israeli fashionista and myself.

It was starting to get late, so eventually I decided to call it a night. It was sad to say goodbye to Arie after only seeing him for a short time, but it had been so nice to see another familiar face and to hang out with a good friend. As we parted ways and took our different routes home, I tried to figure out the best way for me to get back to the hostel. It was well into the early hours of the morning, and it wasn’t even a weekend, so the metro had closed, and all the bus routes looked far too complicated for me to navigate. Though I did have my map with me, and the inner boy scout kicked in and decided that it wouldn’t be that hard to navigate my own way home – I was still staunchly opposed to wasting money on taxis. However, one thing I didn’t take into account was the scale of the map. “It won’t take me too long… 20 minutes, half an hour at best.” Half an hour in, and I was barely halfway there. “I’ve come this far already though”, I said to myself, out loud, needing the physical motivation once it had reached 4 in the morning. “No point in getting a taxi now.” Of course, that was the point where it began to lightly rain. I think I half ran, half power walked the rest of the way back to the hostel, cold and wet as I was. It had taken me well over and hour, and I was completely exhausted, though even after I’d snuck into the dorm and curled up in bed, sleep did not come. I felt horrible. I’d only had a few beers though, not enough to make me feel this sick. I laid in bed, hoping it might be a stomach ache that would just pass. But the pain grew worse to the point where it was physically crippling, then I remembered eating a few on Daniels chips, and the sauce that they had been smothered in…

My night had been going so well right up until I’d left the club. If someone had told me that in another hour I’d be ending my night with my head in the hostel toilet bowl, being sick from both ends until the break of dawn, I would never have believed them. So I guess if I learnt anything on my first night in Paris, it’s that it was a city full of surprises – the good, the bad and the ugly.

Stockholm Syndrome

Scandinavia as a region is not known for being cheap, and Stockholm is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It was an unsettling thought – the progressive price increases hadn’t let up since I left Thailand. However, Susanna had assured me I’d only really need two days each per city to the see the best bits of both Stockholm and Copenhagen, so I could take small comfort in the fact my time in this expensive area would be relatively brief. Aside from being expensive, Stockholm was also renowned for being a beautiful city – both in its physical aesthetic, and the people who lived inside it. “Stockholm is such a fashionable city,” Susanna had told me in our discussion about my future travels. “Everyone there is just incredibly good-looking and so well dressed. I swear, if you lived there you would have to spend nearly your whole paycheque on clothes just to keep up with the fashion.” From what I’d seen of Swedish men during my time in Australia, I can’t deny I was more than a little excited to be entering this supposed treasure trove of eye candy.

***

Unlike the trip over from Helsinki, navigating the Stockholm upon my arrival was not such smooth sailing. From the map in my guide book I could see that the port was a fair way out from the main city. Actually, that’s only half true – I could very easily see the city and the part of Stockholm I was trying to get to. As the crow flies it would have been a relatively short walk. The problem was that it was across a huge gulf in the river that ran through the city. Later, a local would tell me that Stockholm is known as the Venice of Scandinavia – I hadn’t heard the term before, but by the end of my stay I certainly believed it. Unfamiliar with the public transport system that didn’t even really seem to come down this far in the first place, I was forced to catch a taxi. I asked for the meter – he said there was traffic, and offered me a price that would supposedly be better. He asked for it Swedish Krona – I only had Euros. It was a complicated exchange that didn’t even seem to be helped by the fact he spoke English, but in the end I think the price was fairly decent. I tried not to think about it to much – You’re in Stockholm now, I said to myself. It’s not going to get any cheaper than that.

During my time in Helsinki, I had attempted to search for Scandinavian hosts in Sweden and Denmark, so far to no avail. While I was still desperately clinging to the hope of finding a host in Copenhagen, I resigned to the fact that I would also be paying for accommodation in this beautiful, expensive city. I arrived at the hostel without a reservation, hoping for the best. The hostel had a nautical theme, and a large number of the beds were located in cabin dorms, inside a renovated ship docked out the front in the river. Lucky, they still had room in the 17 bed dorm, located on solid ground and considerably cheaper. Check in wasn’t until 3pm though, so I used the shower, dropped off my bags in luggage storage and set out to explore the city. Stockholm lived up the expectations. Everyone just looked so good. Even people who weren’t conventionally attractive were so well dressed that walking down the streets felt like being an extra on a TV show or movie where the detail in every single background character had been so meticulously planned. The fact that I had been wearing the same tired clothes and repeated outfits for nearly two months didn’t do wonders for my self esteem, and a mild paranoia kicked in where I felt as though just being there was letting the city down, and lowering its standards.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

***

Like most cities in Europe, Stockholm had a travellers pass, the ‘Stockholm card’, that you could buy which provided you with either free or discounted entry to many of the city’s attractions, and free unlimited use of the citywide public transport. At first this excited me – regular readers will know how excited I get about good public transport – but further investigation revealed that Stockholm as a city didn’t really have that much public transport. In fact, it just wasn’t a very big city. There were also other passes that gave you access to public bike stands around the city – you swipe the card, the bike rack unlocks a bike, and you can ride it anywhere so long as you return it to another stand somewhere in the city within three hours. However, all these options were only really of any value if you were there for at least 3 or 4 days – the bike pass itself came for a minimum of three days. Given I was only staying for a maximum of two nights, it hardly seemed worth it. I wasn’t planning on visiting a huge number of museums, and I wouldn’t be straying too far from the city centre, which was near enough to my hostel. And so began my extensive walking tour of Stockholm.

Traversing the city by foot was actually a great way to see the city, in my opinion. With the exception of the Gamla Stan area, whose streets mirrored olden days of the 12th Century, there was a quaint, modern beauty to the streets of Stockholm. Clean, refined and operating like a well-oiled machine, it fit the model of typical Scandinavian efficiency that they were generally well known for. Crossing the road was easy because the cars drove slow and steady, but once again locals seemed reluctant to even contemplate jaywalking. I visited a few of what appeared to be the major sights – I honestly didn’t know that much about Stockholm, and had never heard of any ‘must see’ attractions. There was the Riddarholmen Church, a beautiful old building that was home to a large number of tombs, mostly containing nobility from Swedish royal houses. After that was the City Hall, which included a huge tower that provided 360 degree views of the surrounding city. When I went to buy a ticket to go up, the attendant gave me a warning. “The elevator is broken today, so you’ll have to climb the stairs the whole way.” I couldn’t help but laugh – the building looked so old I hadn’t even expected it to even have an elevator. I’d been climbing up the steps of every attraction from the Great Wall of China to St Isaacs Cathedral, and a took a moment to think of Kaylah as I assured the woman that I would be fine with the stairs. It would have been she had wanted.

Riddarholmen Church

Riddarholmen Church

The interior of Riddarholmen church - complete with token scaffolding.

The interior of Riddarholmen church – complete with token scaffolding.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

There were a lot of stairs though – the upper reaches of the tower, where the elevator didn’t go, was a narrow red brick hallway with a pointed ceiling, which went around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around to the point where I thought that I was trapped in some kind of magicians trick and I was going to end up at the bottom of the tower without ever having emerged at the top. I finally reached the summit though, and it was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view gave me a better understanding of the city’s layout: the different islands and peninsulas it was composed of; the wide river and multiple canals that divided them up; the obvious architectural distinctions between the old city and the newer parts of Stockholm. It was a cold and windy day, but I stayed up there for quite a while drinking in the sight. Unlike St Petersburg, Stockholm was a city that was quite beautiful from both the street level and from an aerial perspective.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

***

My second day in Stockholm had substantially better weather, clear blue skies and wam, invigorating sunshine. I set out into the bright morning to explore Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. It was a tiny, charming area of the city, with narrow cobbled streets that were sloping in all directions, with some so steep I was actually a little out of breath after climbing them. This was the picturesque Stockholm that looked like it could have been lifted out of a fairy tale, or a children’s storybook. I wandered around the narrow roads until I got to the palace, where I had arrived just in time for the changing of the guard. A whole bunch of Swedish soldiers marched out of the main courtyard, half of them comprising a marching band on horseback, while another set of guards moved in to take their place. I joined the throng of tourists that had gathered to watch, thoroughly impressed by the ability to play their instruments on horseback, more than anything else.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

There were lots of sightseeing tours in Stockholm, most of them by boat. It seemed like the most obvious and easiest way to see the city, dissected as it was over and over again by the multiple canals, but as I examined the list of tours and respective prices, I couldn’t help but feel it was such a grossly touristic thing to do, not to mention they seemed far too overpriced. So instead I spent my afternoon on an island called Skansen. All the islands of Stockholm are joined by bridges, so I strolled through the more modern streets of the city until I reached Skansen, an island almost completely made up of greenery: forests and parks and grassy clearings and trails through the woods. There was even a theme park with a few rides, but I had a more leisurely afternoon in mind. Everywhere there were people exercising, going for their afternoon and evening runs, and I followed along the roads that ran along the outside of the huge island, stopping to admire some of the statues along the way, before turning inland and hiking off a short way up into the hills. It was like a slice of natural heaven, completely isolated, right in the middle of the city. You would never have guessed it though – there was only the faintest sounds of the city in the distance, so quite that you really had to strain your ears to even notice them. I found a sunny clearing at the top of one the hills, and took a break to sit down and work on my blog. There’s something about that kind of natural environment that really gets the creative juices flowing. Or maybe I was just so far from any kind of distraction – it’s hard to be sure. All I know is that I spent a long time hanging out on that island. It was as though the weather was trying to make up for the unusually long and cold winter, and I was more than happy to enjoy the penance it was paying.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

Skansen selfie.

Skansen selfie.

***

It’s hard to really say what I did with my nights in Stockholm, because there was really so little of them. I’d spent longer than I’d realised on my first night pouring over maps and timetables, trying to get a better idea of where I was going in Europe and when I would be there, to potentially avoid some of the anxieties I’d had upon arriving here. When I decided it was time to start thinking about dinner – I’d assumed it was approaching six o’clock – I was shocked to see that it was already well after nine. The days were so long that I was literally forgetting to eat. I was there during for a Monday and Tuesday evening, so I decided to give checking out the nightlife a miss – it would probably be, yet again, very expensive, and to be honest the city wasn’t really inspiring a party mood in me. I hung around the hostel and chatted to a few travellers – a few nice and friendly people, a couple of shy and quiet ones, but no one of particular note, or anyone I attempted to stay in contact with.

I guess I spent a lot of time on my own, reflecting on how far I’d come on my journey, and how it was really only a fraction of how far I still had to go. After the close confines of the Trans-Siberian the solitude still felt like something of a luxury, though I knew sooner or later I was going to get sick of being alone. But Stockholm had definitely been a suitable city for solitude and contemplation – the gentle and non-confronting beauty was the perfect background for being alone with my thoughts.

Welcomed With Wasps

My train arrived in Helsinki precisely on time at six o’clock, although the sun outside felt as though it should only be about three in the afternoon. I disembarked and made way to the end of the platform where I found Susanna waiting for me. Although we’d never actually met, I guess you could say Susanna was technically a family friend. Her mother is a close friend of one of my aunts, and when I had been telling her about my travel plans and mentioned that I was thinking of going through Scandinavia, she has suggested that I get into contact with her daughter Susanna. She’d Susanna might be able to offer me a place to stay or at the very least show me around Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. Susanna herself was from Canberra, living and working in Helsinki, so even though it was our first time meeting we seemed to have a bit of common ground, and we got on quite well.

Helsinki Station.

Helsinki Station.

We got one of the local trains back to her apartment, which was only five or ten minutes away from the city, and as we walked from the station she explained the public transport system a little bit more, and told me which trains to back to the city. She also explained a few of the other little quirks about the Finnish systems and culture: the tickets were available on trains, but the people who sell them aren’t the people who check for them; beer is available in the supermarkets but only until 9pm, and everything else is sold at shops appropriately called ‘Alcos’; most people diligently obey road rules, including pedestrians – you won’t see any jaywalking from a local in Helsinki; access to free Internet is officially a human right in Finland, and there is free wifi basically everywhere. It was interesting how different things were from Russia – particularly the alcohol availability – when the geographical distance was so small, but that was one of the beautiful things I was soon to discover about Europe. You can travel a matter of hours between countries, or even just within cities, and there is such a rich and unique cultural diversity that just isn’t as prevalent or profound as it is in “multicultural Australia”.

When we arrived at her place, Susanna gave me a quick tour of the building, showing me the laundry room where I could do a much needed load on washing, and the sauna where she had a weekly reservation every Friday evening. She gave me a detailed briefing, to the point where I could essentially be left to my own devices, though it was only at that point that I realised that was exactly what she was doing. She clarified by saying that she had work the following day, a Friday, and then an all day hens party on Saturday, and that she was going to leave me the keys to her place and stay with a friend for a few days. I was a little shocked, and again felt a surge of gratitude towards someone who I hardly knew, yet was going out of her way so far as to give me her apartment for the next two nights. It was a small studio, so realistically it would have been a bit of a squeeze for the two of us, but she assured me that it was no problem for her. She’d mentioned a few times that she had done a bit of travelling herself, so I suppose she knew how much a few free nights of accommodation can mean to a budget backpacker. Furthermore, it would be nice to have my own room and some private space for the first time in weeks.

***

As I was unpacking my things, and Susanna was preparing to leave, I noticed a bug flying around in the kitchen. I moved a little closer to take a look… and then bolted to the other side of the apartment. It was a wasp.
“Ahh, Susanna? Is it normal to have a wasp in the apartment?”
“What? A wasp?” She’d been in the bathroom gathering some of her things, but now she stuck her head out into the main room. “Err, no. No, that’s not normal.” We watched the wasp buzz around, hoping it would fly out the window again. Instead, it circled around and flew to the top of the windowpane – where its nest was hanging from the curtain railing.
“Oh my God! Is that a wasps nest?” It was only the size of a golf ball, but there was no denying what it was it after we watched the wasp climb through the hole at the bottom. “It’s definitely new. They must have come in and made it today, because that was not there this morning.” Her reaction was a combination of disbelief and concern – but I had to drop a bombshell that could potentially add panic to the mix.
“Ah, just before anything else happens, I should probably mention that I’m allergic to wasp stings.”
“Shit, really? Like anaphylactic allergic?”
“Um, I don’t really know. I haven’t been stung in years, but I don’t have an epi-pen or anything.”

After a little while of deciding what we were going to do, the wasp emerged from the nest, and I had a mini panic attack and ran to the bathroom to hide in terror. But by some chance the wasp decided to fly out the window, and Susanna quickly jumped the close them all as soon as it left. We’d previously been deliberating whether or not we could knock it out the window with the broom, but we weren’t sure how many wasps were inside and were too concerned that it might miss, which would be even more of a disaster. We’d even googled “How to get rid of wasps nests” and watched some pretty unhelpful YouTube videos that only inspired more fear. But now, as we slammed the windows shut, the nest seemed lifeless. But it wasn’t a risk we were willing to take, and Susanna had no equipment suitable for removing wasp nests. We made a quick trip to the supermarket to see if we could find some kind of pesticide or bug spray that might help, and on the way back we ran into some of her neighbours who were working in the communal garden.

“The wasps mostly live in the trees around here, like the ones just outside the apartment,” Susanna had reasoned, “so maybe some of them will have experience with getting rid of one.” She conveyed the problem to one of the older women, using a combination of English and Finnish, and it was almost a little amusing to watch the expressions on their faces change as the tale was told and retold in Finnish. Eventually one of the men offered to come up and have a look at the nest for us. When we got there, he simply plucked the small nest from the curtain railing and put it in a plastic bag. There mustn’t have been any more wasps inside, because that was the end of it – we thanked the man and he took the bag with the nest out with him. Later, I would find a wasp angrily buzzing at the closed window, so I made a point of opening none of them for the rest of the evening.

***

After that initial moment of excitement, I spent the rest of my evening – and in fact most of my time in Helsinki – just relaxing. I spent a bit of time in my evenings at Susanna’s sending requests and emails on Couchsurfing – Susanna was only able to offer me a place to stay for two nights, and I also didn’t have any contacts for the next few cities I would be visiting. I also used the sauna during the time when Susanna had her weekly reservation – she wasn’t going to be around and said that I was more than welcome to use it. Saunas are hugely popular in Finnish culture, and my experiences in Russia had reignited my love for their intense steamy heat. However, in Finland it’s customary to always be naked when inside the sauna, and is actually considered quite rude, and in some cases unhygienic, to wear swimwear whilst in a sauna. I don’t really have a problem with nudity in the first place, but since I had the sauna to myself I didn’t see any reason as to why I shouldn’t go naked.

During the day I ventured out into the city to do some exploring. I walked through some shops and ate at a few places, and it was quite startling to see how expensive things were. I’d been warned that Scandinavia in particular was quite expensive, but it was a culture shock that had progressively escalated, all the way from South-East Asia and right across the Trans-Siberian. Susanna had advised me of a lounas culture, a custom in which many places offer buffet style lunch menus that are about a third of the price of similar meals when ordered during the evening. Finding cheap places to eat at night could also be difficult, so Susanna encouraged me to make lunch the main meal of the day. I managed to find a few nice places though, and after all the rushing around with the Trans-Siberian tour, in the end I found one of the nicest things to do was lay in the park and enjoy the seemingly endless hours of sunshine. Even some of the locals agreed that it was one of the best things I could be doing, obviously smitten by their summer weather in the same way that the Russians were.

I was more than happy to sit back, soak up the sun, and access my human right to free wifi in the park. I had an email from my parents, who were also taking a short holiday through Europe, saying that the weather in Spain was cold and rainy. It seemed a little ironic, but I couldn’t suppress the sense of smugness that I felt when I replied to inform them that I was currently sunbathing, in Finland of all places.

Back to Square One: Life Lessons in Beijing

As the captain announced our descent into Beijing, I peered out the window and down at the thick layers of cloud that the plane was heading into. As we emerged from the other side of those clouds… well, it’s hard to be sure if we ever did. I’d heard about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, and as I stepped off the plane and looked out onto the smoggy runway, it was clear – unlike the air – that these tales had been no exaggeration. It took me a while to get out of Beijing airport, considering you have to take a short train trip to get from customs and passport check to the baggage claim area, but after about an hour I was on my way in a taxi. As we drove along the highways and into the heart of the city, I sat staring out the window in something close to a state of shock.

The sky was a distant memory, hidden behind a thick layer of cloud and pollution. It could simply have been overcast, except there was no chill in the weather, nor did the air feel particularly humid. But it was a different kind of heaviness, a weight that hung in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and something that I have great difficulty trying to explain. But every now and then the blanket of smog would ease up a little, and the glowing disc of the sun would be visible through the haze, burning a deep, demonic orange and bleeding into the sky around it. Buildings and warehouses and construction sites whizzed past me on the roadside, and even the regular clusters of trees and other greenery didn’t help to diminish the feeling that I had landed in some kind of post-apocalyptic industrial realm. Even with a population of some 18 million people, all I could see was the gridlock vehicles on the highway, feeling slightly alone in the big grey smog. As far as first impressions go, I guess Beijing was living up to its intimidating reputation.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

The view of the smoggy streets from my taxi.

***

The next leg of my gap year was going to be a tour – the bucket list-worthy Trans-Siberian Railway trek, starting in Beijing and ending in St Petersburg, Russia. I had flown into China a day early, and had a full 24 hours to spend in the city before meeting my guide and the rest of my tour companions the following afternoon. After settling into the hotel room and taking a quick rest, I decided to go for a wander and see what I could discover, and make my comparisons between Northern and South-East Asia.

A short walk from where I was staying found me at the beginning to Wangfujing Street – one of the most famous and busiest areas in Beijing. Though of course, I had set out into the streets with nothing more than my trusted sense of direction and definitely without a map, and had stumbled across the strip by accident. I have to admit, it didn’t look much like what I expected from China. There was obviously a huge Western and/or American cultural influence on this particular street, with an Apple Store, Forever 21, and the Beijing Foreign Language Book Store. It kind of reminded me of the main strip of Pitt St back in Sydney, except it was four times as wide and probably at least ten times as long – I can’t say for sure, since I never made it to the end. There was the occasional car or bicycle nudging its way through the crowds, but for the most part it was a street heavy with pedestrian traffic.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

The corner of the main crossing at the start on Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

Wangfujing Street.

After a short time I was approached by a small Asian woman, probably in her mid-twenties, asking me where I was from. The cautious, mistrusting nature I had developed in South-East Asia suddenly kicked in. Until now, I had just been thinking how less geared towards tourists this place had seemed. There were a few souvenir shops and English speaking shops and restaurants, but there wasn’t someone on every street corner trying to sell you things or screaming at you to get into their taxis. I’d also read that Chinese people are often just naturally curious about Western people, so as she asked a few more questions about myself, I began to slowly warm up to her. She told me her name was Charlie, and offered little bits of information about herself in return to all her questions. I let her walk along with me as wandered down the street.

“What are you doing? Are you shopping?” Charlie asked me as I gazed at the buildings round me, the neon lights developing their own glowing aura within the clouds of low-hanging pollution.
“I’m just looking for something to eat, actually.”
“Ahh… You want to try the night markets? They have some very good street food.”
“Umm…” I hesitated for a moment, but so far Charlie had seemed relatively genuine. Surely there was no harm in going for a little walk, right? “Sure, okay.”

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Wangfujing is a busy street full of lights and colours.

Charlie lead me a short way to a street joining onto Wangfujing, lined with market food stalls on their side. The delicacies were like Khao San Road on crack – there were starfish, dried seahorses on skewers, and even scorpions that were so raw that their legs continued to wriggle and twitch. While I’d been game to try tarantulas served in a Cambodian restaurant, the street food is just one step too far for me, so I settled for a cob of corn. We wandered for a little bit longer, and Charlie suggested finding a place to sit down for a cup of tea or coffee. By this stage I was starting to feel a little more comfortable, so I followed her through another street and into a small tea house. There we sat and chatted for quite some time – we talked about ourselves, the kind of music we like and our different hobbies, about travelling and where we’ve been, and where we want to go, about China and the differences in our cultures. We had two pots of tea, and Charlie explained to me the subtle differences in the flavours, and the Chinese delicacy that is a good brew. Afterwards we also had a glass each of Chinese wine.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I'd seen of Beijing.

The street markets felt a little more touristy than the rest of what I’d seen of Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

They have some bizarre street food in Beijing.

I was just thinking about how I hadn’t had wine in a little while, since the beer had been so much cheaper in South-East Asia, when our bill finally arrived. The waitress handed it to Charlie.”Oh, it’s not too much. Do you want to grab this?”
I have to take some of the blame – I wasn’t looking at the menu, so I failed to look the prices as Charlie had ordered. I was a little taken aback by the way Charlie just assumed I was going to pay, and when I looked at the bill and did a rough conversation from Chinese yuan to Australian dollars in my head, I nearly spat out my mouthful of wine.
“What the hell, Charlie? This isn’t cheap!”
She looked surprised, and stammered through her words for a moment. “This isn’t too much, this is what it usually costs for two people.”
I was skeptical. The total amount could have got two people blind drunk in a moderately priced bar in Sydney – it was a lot more than I was prepared, or willing, to pay for two pots of tea in China.

“Can we split it?” I’d asked her. Not for the first time on this trip, I cursed myself for going along with a girl on what could easily be interpreted as a date. I was not going to foot the whole bill for another night out, and especially not this one.
“Oh, I only have 100 yuan,” Charlie said as she offered me a few notes from her wallet. It was approximately $15, and only about a tenth of the total bill.
“That’s a start,” I mumbled to myself as I snatched the notes up, abandoning any pleasantries or niceties. The whole thing had gone pear-shaped, and only now – obviously too late – but my suspicions started to kick in. I even considered just walking out without paying, but I didn’t want to risk causing any more trouble for myself.

So I paid and stormed out of the tea house, Charlie hot on my heels.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t know,” she said as she shuffled along beside me.
“Know what? How much if would be?”
“I’m sorry, I just thought that Australian are wealthy, I just wanted to show you some nice tea and Chinese culture.”
“I’m a traveller, Charlie. I’m on a budget. I don’t have that kind of money to waste on tea.” She almost seemed offended, as though I was devaluing her culture or tradition, but I refused to believe that Chinese tea should have costed so much in China.
“But, you can just ask your father to send you more money, can’t you?”
I was shocked. “Ahh, no? My dad doesn’t give me free handouts to waste on expen-”
“But you’re his only son!” Again, I was almost shocked into silence. Almost.
“Well I hate to break it to you but that’s not how it works in Australia!”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know Australia! I only know China!”

It was a slightly profound moment. Here we were, voices raised and arguing in the middle of Wangfujing Street, and suddenly I was the one who felt bad for Charlie. I was getting quite rude and annoyed, but I hadn’t even considered that maybe she was just acting on the limited knowledge that local Chinese people seem to have of Western culture and customs. Maybe all abroad Australians are very wealthy compared to her. The bill had been paid for, yet I suddenly felt guilty for berating her in an attempt to take out my anger to feel better about the situation.

I let out a long sigh. “Okay. It’s fine, just forget it.”
“I’m really sorry, Robert. I had a really good time chatting to you. Maybe we can go to karaoke, I can buy you a beer?”
I still couldn’t figure her out, but I wasn’t going to risk my wallet taking another beating. “I should really get back to my hotel now, I’m feeling pretty tired.”
We awkwardly bid each other farewell after our argument, and I quickly paced home through the backstreets of Beijing, the sense of excitement I’d had from being in a new city replaced with the awful feeling of having another country and currency get the better of me.

***

The following afternoon I met with the tour group I would be travelling the Trans-Siberian with, and our guide gave us a run down on the basics of the city. As she warned us about some of the potential tourist traps and scams, I hung my head in shame as she outlined a scenario so similar to the one I had experienced last night – it was almost as though our guide had been there and was recounting the scene blow by blow. I’d been warned that there are lots of false taxi services at the airport who will try to charge you exorbitant amounts to get from the airport to the city, and I had been so proud of myself that I had managed to spot and avoid them and make my way to the hotel in a legitimate taxi. So it was rather deflating to learn I had quickly fallen into the very next scam to come along after that.

It turned out to be more than just a shallow than a culture clash, but I guess I leant something from the experience in the end. In these unfamiliar places, learn to trust your suspicious instincts. Though I can only hope that every tourist trap I do fall for will better prepare me for avoiding the next one.