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.

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Travelling North: Canada, Here We Come

After arriving back in New York City, I only had a few days before I was setting off in another direction to visit another city, this time even another country. I had to visit the Brazilian Consulate to pick up my passport – I had felt very naked being in a foreign country without it, but I hadn’t really had much of a choice – and sure enough my brand new Brazilian was now affixed to one of the previously pages. On long flights or train journeys I often amused myself by flipping through the pages, counting the various stamps and visas that I had accumulated over the course of the year, and even some from previous years, remembering all the places I’d been to and the stories and memories that went with them. But my Brazilian visa would have to wait, because I had another international trip planned before I boarded that plane to São Paulo. Next stop was to the northern border and onwards to Canada!

But I did have a few days in New York to chill out with Melissa for a little while, do my laundry and prepare myself for the next trip, and explore a little more of the city. Melissa ended up having a family emergency that took her back to New Jersey for most of the time I was around, so I set out alone one afternoon to discover a huge street festival that was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, a religious commemoration to the Patron Saint of Naples that has evolved into what is essentially a huge Italian food festival in Little Italy in southern Manhattan, and a celebration of and for all the Italian-American immigrants. There were street vendors congregated for miles along Mulberry Street selling all kinds of food, mostly of the Italian cuisine like pasta, lasagne and sausages, as well as drinks like coffee, sodas, beers, wine and cocktails, and other stores offering souvenirs, trinkets and games. The festival stretched on seemingly forever, and in the end I stopped and grabbed some lasagne as I walked through the scores of other tourists that had flooded the street. My only regret is that I didn’t have a bigger stomach, and a bigger budget, to try all of the amazing food that I saw and smelt.

Tourists flooded the street festival of San Gennaro.

Tourists flooded the street festival for San Gennaro.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

The festival stretches on for dozens of blocks, with road closures so it could open up into one huge event.

***

Only a few days later it was time to head to Penn Station on the east side of Manhattan, where a train would be taking me north to Canada. By this stage of my time in New York I was having friendly conversations with all the doormen in Melissa’s building, since I had got to know them all so well with my frequent coming and going during the last month – except for one of them, who still gave me a sinister look and asked “May I help you?” every time I passed him, despite it being quite obvious I’d been crashing there for the past few weeks. Thankfully, the only interrogations I would be subject to for the next ten days would be border crossings between the United States and Canada. I had decided to get a train because it was a cheaper than flying, it was less stressful to get to the train station than it was to get to the airport, and because if I was perfectly honest, I was beginning to miss the sensation of good old fashioned train journey through the countryside – one of the things I’ll always treasure about my journey around Europe. Granted, at almost 11 hours it was the longest single train trip I’d made so far – with the exception of the Trans-Siberian, of course, and perhaps the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona – but it was made better by a substantially more comfortable seat and a fully functional dining car with a range of greasy foods that were probably overpriced for what they were but tasted so satisfying that I didn’t really care. I watched the countryside of upstate New York fly by through the window, and I passed the time writing my blog and reading my book. The woman in the seat next to me didn’t appear to speak much English, or if she did she – as I would soon learn most French-Canadians do – chose to pretend she didn’t, so I didn’t have much in the way of conversation.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The Canadian flag flying high in Montreal.

The border guards were stern but still friendly. When they flipped through my passport and saw the array of stamps and visas, it was clear that I was a seasoned traveller and they didn’t second guess any of my assertions I was just meeting friends in Canada. We had left Penn Station a little after 8 o’clock that morning, but the sun was already setting on the city of Montreal by the time I disembarked from the train and made it out into the street. When I went to an ATM to withdraw some Canadian dollars, I was reminded that I was no longer in an English speaking country – or at least, a non-English speaking province of the country. There was some English, but all the signs and notices were primarily in French. It threw me off a little, after recently spending so much time in the UK and US, but I recognised enough of the words from my time in Paris, as well as through basic linguistic knowledge, to navigate my way through the metro and to the hostel I was staying at that evening, and where I was due to meet my friend Stuart. I had met Stuart several years ago when we had both been studying in Sydney, where Stuart was an international student rather than an exchange student, so we’d had several years of classes together instead of just one semester. He moved back home to Calgary, on the other side of Canada, but agreed that he could take a holiday himself and meet me in Montreal.
“I’d love to hang out, and Montreal sounds great!” he’d said to me when I’d initially proposed the idea. “Anyway, you wouldn’t want to come to Calgary, believe me. Montreal – let’s do it!”

***

After arriving into Montreal relatively late, Stuart and I went out to have a quick dinner and then spent the evening in our hostel, catching up between ourselves and chatting with some of the other people in our hostel. Originally we had planned to stay with Stuart’s cousin in Montreal, but when those plans fell through we’d had to make some hostel reservations. It was kind of nice, to be honest, to jump back into the hostel culture after spending so long staying with friends and Couchsurfing – if you don’t count the brief stint in Ireland (I don’t, really, considering how little time I spent and how few nights I slept actually there), I hadn’t properly staying in a hostel since I was in Madrid! Although the place we stayed at was more of a house that had been converted into a hostel by putting a large number of bunk beds in a few of the rooms. It was a little bit chaotic, and a few of the people seemed like they had been living there for months from the way they had settled in, but on the whole we were surrounded by other friendly travellers.

On our first morning we decided to get most of our sightseeing out of the way, although to be honest there aren’t a great deal of iconic tourist attractions in Montreal. Nevertheless, Stuart had a list of buildings that his mother had written him of places that we should see, so we went off into the crisp morning air and flawless sunshine to check off the sightseeing list. The French influence on the province of Quebec and particularly Montreal were noticeable in highlights such as their own Notre Dame Basilica, as well as all the streets being named in French. It was a little like being back in Paris, except… not.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The Notre Dame Basilica of Montreal.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

The silver dome of the Bonsecours Market.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d'Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Monument à Maisonneuve, in the middle of Place d’Armes, just across from the Basilica.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Jacques-Cartier Bridge crossing the Saint Laurent River.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

Myself in front of the Saint Laurent.

All up it was a lot of walking around the Old Town of Montreal, so it took us most of the morning. I was warned it would be a little cold this far north – by New Yorkers, at least – but the walking combined with the strong sun meant that we were pretty hot and sweaty towards the end of our sightseeing tour. We also visited a tiny free museum that we stumbled across that was all about the history of maple syrup – Canadians take that stuff very seriously. And of course, our stroll around Montreal would not have been complete without a final destination of the Montreal ‘Gay Village’ for what we believed to be some hard earned beers.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called 'The Village'.

I thought it was just a cute nickname, but the gay area is literally called ‘The Village’.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

Stuart enjoying a beer after our morning of sightseeing.

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.

A Family Affair

After a light late breakfast at the apartment with PJ, Tony and Nasser – and a bit of playtime with their adorable pooch, appropriately named Toy – I bid the Frenchmen farewell as I headed back to my hostel. Check out was at noon, and I was desperate to not have a repeat of the incident that happened in my hostel in Moscow. Nasser got a little sentimental – I’d learnt that the French can get very intense and passionate very quickly – and even invited me to visit and stay with him at his place in Nice. While the south of France hadn’t featured as a stop on my itinerary, the thought of it sounded marvellous, so I told him I’d see if I could work it into my travel plans, and that I would keep in touch either way.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

***

My plans for Sunday afternoon were a little different from anything a tourist would be doing, or indeed even a traveller. When I arrived at Greg’s apartment – a beautiful, classic apartment complete with a gorgeous view of the Parisian streets below and an elevator that was smaller than an airplane bathroom – he told me he would be meeting some of his friends to chill out in one of the many parks around the centre of France. Normally I would have jumped at the offer, but there was something else I was looking forward to, so Greg and I left his place together but went our separate ways – him for his friend, and myself for my family.

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

It’s not every day that you accidentally end up in the same foreign city as some of your relatives, so it had been quite a surprise when I had seen my Aunty Therese posting photos on Facebook of herself, my Uncle Jason and my cousins Sophie and George, in England. They’re also Sydneysiders, it seemed that our European holidays had conveniently coincided, and the four of them had landed in Paris on the Saturday that I was there. They were renting out an apartment through Air BnB for their stay, and after coordinating schedules with Therese, I made plans to go over and visit them for some Sunday afternoon drinks.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the parks had been full of people, locals and tourists alike, lounging around on the vast green expenses and soaking up the European summer sun. I would later joke with my friends that I had a better tan after a summer in Europe than I ever had during any of my summers in Australia. While Australia’s UV levels inevitably scorched to a crisp anyone who stayed in direct sunlight for over 30 minutes, I found European sunlight to be the equivalent to Mama Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it wasn’t too harsh, but it wasn’t too weak that it couldn’t warm you up: it was just right. The sight of all the sunbathers made me realise something else too: in a vast city where there was just so much to do, one also needs to schedule in time to literally just do nothing. To sit, to relax, and soak up some Vitamin D – things like that are just as important in a holiday, in my opinion, and you don’t get the time to do it if you’re too busy rushing around trying to cram in as much as you can. It was a revelation I would inevitably revisit many times throughout my journey.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

Hôtel National des Invalides - passed on my way to Jason and Therese's.

Hôtel National des Invalides – passed on my way to Jason and Therese’s.

Once I reached Therese and Jason’s apartment – located quite centrally, near the Eiffel Tower – we cracked open some drinks, and all of a sudden we could have been back in Sydney, enjoying some sunshine on the back verandah while catching up over a family drink-together (what my extended family calls get togethers). Therese had been keeping up with my blogs, though they weren’t up to speed with real time, so I caught her up on some of latest adventures, and all about the pride festivities the day before.
“Yes, well, we couldn’t have timed that one better ourselves”, she said with a laugh as she sipped her beer. “Yesterday afternoon – took us about two hours to get a cab. Jason was about to lose it!” I couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image of my uncle staring incredulously at a main road full of parade floats and near-naked go-go dancers, searching in vain for a cab to get his family out of the madness. “But what are the odds of landing in the city smack bang in the middle of a gay pride parade, right?”
“Well, unlucky for some, but very lucky for others”, I said with a laugh.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason was in a better mood than he supposedly was the day before, when he arrived back at the apartment with bread, cheese, wine and more beer. As impressed as I thought my male relatives would be with the fact I was now a beer drinker, instead we indulged in the fact that we were not in an Australian backyard as we ate three kinds of cheese and said a toast with the sparkling wine: “Viva la France!” Though it really was lovely to see more familiar faces, and to even relax into a relatively familiar setting – it was just enough to ward off any homesickness that could have started creeping its way in after three months on the road. We sat in the afternoon sun and stayed there well into the evening, sharing holiday stories and working our way thought the food and drink until it finally became full dark. And that was when the Eiffel Tower begins to sparkle.

“Sophie! George! Quick, come look at this!” Jason called out to my younger cousins. From a particular vantage point of their balcony, we could see the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower through gaps in the surrounding buildings. At night the Eiffel Tower lights up, but once an hour, on the hour, she puts of a show. What look like hundreds of fairy lights all begin to glitter and flicker against the dark night sky. Walking through some of the smaller streets on my walk today had been enchanting, but this was a sight that, when seen for the first time, felt truly magical. The five of us stood on the balcony watching the tower until the glittering eventually flicked off, and I felt that finally the City of Lights was proving itself worthy of its name.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

Eventually I had to head back to Greg’s. I thanked Jason and Therese for having me, wished all four of them all the best for the rest of their trip and then stumbled into a cab to head home, but not before stopping for a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower at night. I didn’t have time to stick around to see it sparkle again, but gentle glow itself is enough to create a distinct ambience in the area that feels so ingrained that it would be almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

My last day was my final day of sightseeing, and then having dinner with Greg and one of his friends at his apartment before gathering my stuff and heading for the train station. That proved a little stressful when one of the metro lines I had intended to take to the station was experiencing a partial closure, and I had to frantically call Greg to try and figure out an alternative route. The only alternative appeared to be covering some of the ground by foot, so I was barging through the streets and waving my ticket around, desperately trying to find the terminal as fast as possible once I finally reached the station.

Of course, this was France, so things weren’t running on time and I made my train with time to spare. But as the train pulled out of Paris and headed south, I couldn’t help but smile, intensely satisfied with my time spent in Paris. In just four short days I’d seen the sights, I’d experienced the parties, caught up with old friends and family and made new friends, future friends who I would hopefully see again one day.

“We Are Not Afraid”: French Kissing and Parisian Pride

On my first night out in Paris, I learnt that I had arrived in the city on the weekend of their celebration of gay pride. From that moment on, my entire stay in the city became a balancing act between being a responsible tourist and a dedicated gay man. There was so much to see in this huge city, but there was no way I was going to miss out on all the partying either. While Paris had steadily been filling up with homosexuals over the past week, the main event of their pride season was the pride parade on Saturday afternoon. I had intended on going along to see it, but unfortunately visiting the Eiffel Tower took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I did, however, have plans to meet with a friend of a friend. Darrin, one of the San Franciscan guys who I had met in Bangkok, put me in touch with Greg, a friend of his who lived in Paris. Greg had plans to meet some of his friends in the city centre later in the afternoon, so we coordinated to meet at one of the metro stations and travel in together.

***

Greg was a nice guy, mild-mannered and very sweet, and I quickly caught him up on my situation, my travels, and how I’d come to meet his American friend in Bangkok despite being an Australian myself. It was actually quite funny how the web of connections and friends of friends kept expanding further and further the more I travelled. Eventually we emerged near the Bastille monument, where pride was definitely in the air. It was a similar feeling to Mardi Gras in Sydney, with people walking sound the streets in all kinds of crazy costumes, and copious amounts of glitter, sequins, feathers and body paint. The streets were lined with rubbish and parade debris, and there were DJs on a stage erected near the monument, where a huge outdoor dance party had started. “This is the ending point of the parade,” Greg said as he pointed towards the crowd of revellers, and then up one of the streets that led into the huge circle, where the tail end of the parade was trickling in to join the party. After seeing the hordes of people around me, I slightly regret not seeing more of the parade, because it would have been a fantastic show.

We moved to a nearby restaurant where Greg was meeting some friends who had been having a boozy lunch. Their table faced out onto the street where all the excitement was going on, so Greg and I each pulled up a chair and were offered a glass of wine from the bottles on the table. Then a waiter came by to clear some things off the table… and to my surprise, I recognised him.
“Xavier?”
He looked up at me, and I saw the recognition register in his eyes. He seemed just as shocked as I was, if not more. “Hey! Robert… Hi. Wow… what are you… what are doing here?” He sounded a little nervous, almost freaked out, and it wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that showing up at his work like that probably made me seem like a bit of a stalker. I had sent him a few text messages when I had gone out again by myself on Friday night, but he had told me he was resting because he had work the next day. “I work at a kind of fancy restaurant,” was all he had told me. “I have to wear a… suit, tie, tuxedo type thing.” Sure enough, there he was in is uniform, looking more like a posh butler than a waiter.
“I’m just… I’m just here with friend, and… his friends,” I said, motioning towards the group around the table that I had just met.
“Oh, okay… well, I better keep working.” The exchange was starting to attract a little attention, from both Greg and his friends, and Xavier’s co-workers.
“You’ve been in Paris for two days and you already know our waiter?” Greg said to me with a laugh after Xavier had left, and I gave him a brief rundown of what had happened on Thursday, as one of his friends poured me a glass of wine. He looked a little uneasy at the end of the story. After we’d finished our drinks, Greg informed me this was actually only a brief stop on the way to meet some other friends, so we bid them farewell, and I threw Xavier a small, unnoticed wave as we headed off into the crowd.

“It’s just funny, because…” Greg spoke up once we had started walking. “Because… well, not funny, actually. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty surer that that guy has a boyfriend.” With one revelation, everything about Xavier’s behaviour made sense. He’d keen very keen but still somewhat nervous when he’d first approached me at Spyce, and today he’d acted extremely on edge, as though he’d been sprung or caught out on something. I sighed, rolled my eyes and just nodded. Greg let out a gentle, sympathetic laugh.

***

Greg and I walked through the crowds and twisting streets until we finally made it back to what I had been calling the ‘gay quarter’, although there are supposedly several gay friendly areas in Paris. But this was the main one, and the one I had visited the past two nights, though it did look rather different in the daylight. The sun doesn’t set quite as late as it does in Scandinavia, but the afternoons are longer, and the dying afternoon sunshine bathed the small cobbled streets in glowing warmth. The French gays were out in full force in what appeared to be some kind of street party. There was a main intersection where a couple of bars had completely opened up onto the street, serving beer in plastic cups with which patrons could wander out onto the crowded streets to socialise, so the crowds flowed out of the main square and down and around all the adjoining and adjacent streets.

“Are you allowed to drink on the streets in Paris?” I asked Greg as we twisted and squeezed our way through the crowd.
“Well… not exactly,” he called back to me. “But pride is just a once a year event, so they’re a little more relaxed about it on this night.” Much like pride in Berlin, it was a super relaxed affair, with no fences, restrictions or red tape, except there was a little less debauchery from the Parisians, which was supplemented with a simple, joyful elegance. Somewhere in an apartment above, an electric bubble-blowing machine whirred away, and the scene was sprinkled with a stream of bubbles that refracted in the sunset and caused a rainbow sheen to hang above the partygoers. I think I stopped at one point – nearly getting left behind as Greg pressed on – and just stared up at my enchanting surroundings. The romantic Paris I had been dreaming of was finally starting to show it’s face.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

First things first, Greg and I grabbed some beers, and then moved through the crowds as he looked for his friends. Now, I have to admit, I’d heard some mixed reviews about the French, and the unfriendly attitude towards foreigners that was somewhat resounding in their stereotype. Just the night before, when I had gone back to Raidd for a couple of drinks, I had overheard a conversation where one guy complained about “f**king tourists,” loudly enough, and in English, for me to assume that he’d probably wanted someone – specifically tourists – to hear him. If you’re going to complain about tourists, in a city that has more annual visitors than nearly any other city, in peak tourist season and in pride, in a gay bar that is well known for being popular with tourists… well, to be frank, that guy was an arrogant moron. So I was a little nervous going in to meet Greg’s friends, but I rationalised that to be friends with someone as nice as Greg, they would have to be pretty nice themselves.

And I was right. I was introduced to a bunch of guys, many whose names I didn’t remember, but they were all incredibly friendly towards me, and the ones with better English skills asked me various questions about my travels and held some pleasant and interesting conversations. My theory, based on the experiences of others and my own, is that French guys can simply be a little closed off to talking to people outside their immediate social groups, if those people haven’t been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Had Greg not been with me, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have talked to and socialised with half as many guys as I did that evening, but as it was I met quite a few nice and interesting people. One of them was Pierre-Jacques, or PJ for short, who told me about some of the queer activism he’d been involved with in France.

“This year is a very special pride for us,” PJ told me amidst the celebrations, “because it’s the first pride since gay marriage has been legalised. So there’s a real milestone for us to celebrate.” The topic of marriage equality in Australia came up quite often, and it was almost embarrassing to have to confess that we were still lagging behind on the issue.
“It wasn’t easy for France, either,” PJ assured me. “People think of us as very… free love, and revolutionary, but there are still lots of conservatives who think marriage should still be between man and woman.” The other people I spoke to the most that evening were Tony, PJ’s boyfriend, who is originally from Belgium, and Tony’s best friend Nasser, a Frenchman from Nice. Tony told me a little bit about the social politics between Belgium and France, and PJ pointed out the differences in their accents – Belgians spoke French with a rougher, less elegant style, a result of their proximity to countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Nasser was quite charming but aggressively flirtatious – Tony even pulled me aside at one point and told me to let him know if it was a little too much. I just laughed and told him that I could handle myself – Nasser was quite charming, and I didn’t mind the attention. It wasn’t too long before he was stealing a few kisses from me, but I figured there was no better time than Parisian pride to let a French man have his way with you.

As the afternoon turned into night the partying got a little heavier inside the clubs, though outside on the streets the scene was still much more conversational, though the standards to which the conversation dropped was directly proportional to the amount of beer consumed, and there was frequent cheekiness thrown in here and there by Nasser. The question of where in Paris I was staying came up while I was talking to PJ and Tony, and I told them I was staying out in the 20th District for one more night, and that I still had no idea where I was staying on my final night.
“Oh, really? Well, we have Nasser sleeping in our spare room tonight, but if you need a place to stay tomorrow you are more than welcome to stay with us. As long as you don’t mind dogs?” I assured him dogs were fine, thanked him for the generous offer, and said I would let him know. PJ must have said something to Greg after that, though.
“You should have said you needed somewhere to say,” Greg said as he was getting ready to leave the party. “I have room in my place, if you want you can bring your stuff over to mine tomorrow. Any friend of Darrin’s is a friend of mine,” he said with a friendly smile. It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders to hear that, as the problem of accommodation on my last night had always been nagging in the back of mind, and I was glad to find that all the negative stereotypes about the French people were being proved 100% wrong to me. I said goodbye to Greg and told him I would see him soon.

When the party was really wrapping up though, Nasser became a lot more concerned with where I was going that evening.
“How are you going to get all the way out there?” he exclaimed when I told him where my hostel was. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I was assuming I would just get a bus as close as I could and walk the rest of the way, like I had the night before. Nasser was having none of it.
“I’ll ask PJ and Tony, maybe if you want you can come with us? They live quite close to here.” Though I was highly aware that Nasser probably just wanted more alone time with me, I couldn’t say no when the other option was a trek back to the 20th District. PJ had already offered to have me the following night, so he said as long as I didn’t mind sleeping on the couch, or sharing the bed with Nasser, I was welcome to join them. So off the four of us went on a stroll through the tiny streets of classical Paris, dim golden street lights lighting the way.

***

We walked down the streets as two pairs holding hands, the crowds around us dissipating as people took turns down other streets to their respective homes. Before long the four of us were all but alone, and as we walked past a small park Nasser called out to PJ and Tony. “Wait! Show Robert the advertisements!”
There was a chain link fence around the park – strung up along the fences were signs and placards depicting same sex couples. “These are real actors and celebrities,” PJ explained to me. “Some of them are gay, but many of them are straight. This was part of a campaign to promote that being gay is a normal thing, and that it’s okay to be gay.” He pointed to some of the pictures of the men, who were smiling, holding hands, even kissing. “These guys are all straight,” PJ continued, “but they did this to show their support to gay marriage. Many of them are quite famous in France. Some even more so…” He pointed to a picture of two women wrapped up in a loving embrace, facing towards the camera.
“She is from… how is it called in English?” Nasser paused for a moment to think. “Desperate Housewives?”
Sure enough, one of the women in the picture was Eva Longoria, making a very sultry looking lesbian. Yet there was something more peculiar about all these pictures.

“They’ve all… All the pictures have been cut in half?” I turned to PJ.
“Yes,” he said, lamentation in his voice. “As I said earlier, we still have many homophobes and conservative people in France. When this campaign went up, it was soon vandalised by these people.” Tony put an arm around PJ’s shoulder to comfort him.
“But then… These other ones…” I was only able to form half sentences as I gazed at the scene around us. Beside each of the vandalised signs, a replica had been placed, with the exact same pictures and the exact same slogans. None of the secondary signs had been touched. The imagery was somehow more powerful than just having the original pictures alone. And so PJ explained:

“When the signs were vandalised, at first people just wanted to take them down, and replace them with the new ones. But then we decided that… No, that would be them winning, that would be giving in. So we left the destroyed signs up, and just put the new ones beside them. It’s a way of saying that, yes, we know they are out there. But we are not going to let them tell us what we can or cannot do. We are proud to be gay, but we are not going to pretend they’re not out there. It’s a way of saying that we… that we…”
“That we’re not afraid,” I finished for him, and the scene around us descended into a solemn silence.
“Yes. We are not afraid,” PJ echoed, breaking the moments silence. He started to move along the street again with Tony, and Nasser and I quickly followed suit, his arms wrapped around me to shelter me from the chill that was settling into the air. We didn’t talk much more about what we had just seen, but I think it was a message that rang loud and clear in us all.

Even in countries where marriage equality has been achieved, there is still significant amounts of discrimination. People often say, “What exactly do you need to be proud of?”, or claim that equality has all but been reached, and there’s nothing left to fight for. But there in the streets of Paris, I was reminded that the fight is never really over. There’s always going to be people out there that hate us, and pretending otherwise will never help anyone. Being proud is about being gay, and not being afraid to admit it. I loved the decision to leave the vandalised posters up on display, because it sent a message to the homophobes, a message with a meaning as clear as that initial act of vandalism – we are gay, we are proud, and we are not afraid.