California Dreaming: The Sights of San Francisco

Out of all the American cities that I was excited to visit during my travels, San Francisco was easily one of the top contenders. After the hundreds of times I’d seen the sweeping aerial views of the Golden Gate Bridge after the opening credits of almost every episode of Charmed, I was excited to see the city that I’d viewed so often through a TV screen. Or at least, I thought I was… however, a quick Google search upon my arrival revealed that the Charmed manor was actually located in LA, and that pretty much the entirety of the show, save those sweeping panoramas, was filmed in LA, despite being set in San Francisco. Yet San Francisco was the chosen setting because of the supposedly weird and quirky nature of the city, which allowed a sisterhood of urban witches to exist unnoticed, so in my mind the city was still a mysterious gem waiting to be discovered.

***

When I wasn’t getting drunk and passing out in the Castro or celebrating some wholesome American holidays, there was plenty of time to explore the many corners of San Francisco. Of course, after getting a bike from Rob on my first day in the city, I leapt at the first chance I had to cycle over to the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Make sure you pick a day when there’s not too much fog,” Rob had reminded me when he’d taken me to pick the bike up. “Otherwise  you might not actually see that much of the bridge.” I wasn’t exactly sure how I was supposed to tell whether or not there was fog on the bay, given that I couldn’t see it at all from my place in Noe Valley, but a bright and sunny day was the only cue that I needed to jump out of bed and set out on my way.

What I loved about San Francisco was how bike friendly it was, despite being a huge city with lots of traffic. When I punched in my destination into Google Maps, it showed me a route that I could travel that took me all the way to the northern edge of the city via bike lanes. And most of the cars seemed pretty accommodating to the cyclists too, unlike some of the aggressive behaviour from traffic that I’d witnessed in various places, particularly my home city of Sydney. However, the hills were my biggest downfall. I could power on up the longer, gradual inclines, but I have to admit there were a few monstrosities that were far too steep for me to pedal all the way up, and I had to dismount and walk the bike up those.

Once I hit the northern edge of the city, it was a long and mostly flat stretch of green ovals and parks until I finally reached the Golden Gate Bridge. It hadn’t seemed that far on the map, but it took me the better part of an hour to even get close.

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The Golden Gate Bridge

Once I finally approached the bridge, it took a little while to actually navigate the roads and pathways to make it up to the bridge itself. And then it was only when I got onto the bridge did it really strike me just how long it actually was. But there was no way that I was going to come this far and not ride across the bridge.

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Before crossing the bridge.

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The bridge and Rob’s old Burning Man bike. 

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Bridge selfie.

It wasn’t until I reached the other side of the bridge that I realised that there wasn’t actually much on the other side. I mean, I knew that it wasn’t in the centre of the city, so I wasn’t expecting anything too exciting. But it was, for all intents and purposes, a bridge that led to nowhere. I went to keep following the road that led off the bridge, but saw that it started off into what felt like the countryside, and while I’m sure there is something if you keep following the road, I was conscious of how far I had come, which was exactly how far I still had to go in order to get home. So instead I turned off and headed on a trail down the hill to the waters edge. There I discovered a few fisherman and a small information centre, with not much to offer except a shop where I purchased a bottle of water – I had underestimated the distance and therefore how much water I would actually need.

There wasn’t much else to see though, so I powered back up the hill and once again cross the Golden Gate Bridge back into San Francisco. Once I reached the other side, I decided to take a new route through some of the roads and pathways around the bridges edge, in an attempt to see some more sights. And that is how I found myself passing through the San Francisco National Cemetery. I slowed down a little as I passed the pristine, green grass with the rows of small white tombstones, and paused for a moment and spared a thought for the dead, before cycling on out back into the city and onwards towards home. Rob hadn’t been kidding when he said that a ride out to the bridge would take most of the day, and I promptly collapsed when I got home, and eventually ran myself another long, hot bath.

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San Francisco National Cemetery

***

For my next sightseeing outing, I decided to give my body a break from the cycling and test out the public transport system in San Francisco. On a few occasions when I hadn’t had the energy to walk to the hills to and from the Castro, it had been easy enough to jump  on a bus, but this time once I arrived at the Castro, I kept going and hopped on the metro system known as the BART, which stands for Bay Area Rapid Transport. There are a number of BART stops in San Francisco itself, and the network crosses the bay to connect it with Oakland, Berkley, and a bunch of other cities on the east side of the bay. I jumped off just before the train crossed the bay, which placed me in the Financial District. I then walked up along the edge of the water until I reached Pier 39, which is without a doubt a huge tourist trap, but nonetheless I entered and walked along the wooden boardwalks, passing all the shops and restaurants and food stalls and screaming children. I paid no attention to any of that, but the only thing that really caught my attention was the sea lion colony that lived on a collection of wooden flotsams by the pier.

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View of the sea lions from the opposite pier.

I hadn’t even known about these sea lions, so at first I was rather shocked when I rounded the corner of the pier to see so many of them sprawled out across the wooden planks. Then I thought that I must have been extremely lucky to be here on a day when a huge group of them had seemingly randomly come so close to the shore and decided to hang out, and it wasn’t until later that I learned that the sea lions were as much locals as any of the humans living in San Francisco.

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A strange sculpture that I encountered along my walk. 

I spent a little while longer looking out over the bay. I had contemplated doing a tour out to Alcatraz, but they cost a little more than I was willing to spend on a day out, and none of them were leaving at any convenient times. So I just wandered around the area some more, and took my time watching the thick fog roll in across the water.

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After that I headed back inland, back down to the Financial District and then into Chinatown, where I wandered around a bit more and bought some street food for lunch as I went along. The only other really identifiable attraction that I came across was the Transamerica Pyramid, which had also appeared in many scenic segues during episodes of Charmed, so I was very glad to discover that it too was also actually located in San Francisco. Although much more appealing to gaze upon was what was next to the Transamerica Pyramid – the Transamerica Redwood Park. I knew that there were forests of redwood trees further up the coast of California, not too far away from San Francisco but most likely too far away from me to get there, short of hiring a car, which was practically impossible (or insanely expensive) for me given that I was under the age of 25. The trees in the Transamerica park weren’t nearly as tall as the wild redwoods, I suspect, but it looked like a nice little sanctuary in the heart of the Financial District.

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Transamerica Redwood Park

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The Transamerica Pyramid 

***

There was one attraction in San Francisco that I hadn’t actually heard of before my arrival, but as soon as I studied a map and spotted it, I knew that it would be the site of one of my full day outings. Golden Gate Park, located just south of the Golden Gate Bridge, was San Fransisco’s version of Central Park, and while it wasn’t as big as some of the other huge parks that I’d visited in New York City and São Paulo, it was still of a significant size, rather narrow but extremely long, and with numerous different section inside, my visiting turned into a full day of adventure and exploration.

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Some of the features of Golden Gate Park include, but are not limited to, a golf course, an angling pool, a polo field, the San Francisco Botanical Gardens, several playgrounds, a stadium, De Young Museum, numerous gardens and meadows, an archery range, and a bison paddock.

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One of the numerous water habitats throughout the park.

 

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The Rose Garden

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The Conservatory of Flowers (which had unfortunately closed for the day by the time I reached it)

 

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Sun dial that I found amongst one of the many open meadows.

I also made sure that I took my bike off some of the main roads, and rode through some of the more off-road terrain the park had to offer. I’m not sure if that was really allowed, but it was such a nice experience to turn off into the forest and delve into the depths where it felt like you could disappear and no one would ever find you.

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Although I have to admit, I probably got the biggest kick out of seeing the bison roaming around in the paddock, which really took me back to my Year 8 History classes and flashbacks to Dances With Wolves.

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The bison paddock. 

After making it through the entire length of Golden Gate Park, I emerged on the beach, and I rode down along the edge of the sand a little bit, and watched the flocks of seagulls flutter aimless along the mostly empty beach. I stared out over the Pacific Ocean for a little bit, and while I’d worked up a bit of a sweat with all the bike riding through the park, there was a cool wind whipping off the ocean that made the idea of swimming rather unpleasant. It was also blowing a lot of sand everywhere, which was also quite unpleasant, so eventually I found a beach house to take shelter in and have some lunch, after which I headed back to the park.

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Birds at the beach.

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Dutch windmill located in the western end of Golden Gate Park. 

***

My final bout of sightseeing took me into the city centre again, on a rather aimless afternoon stroll, if I’m perfectly honest. From the Castro I wandered further into the city and stumbled across the beautiful San Francisco City Hall, an elegant building that almost looked like a brilliant royal palace. Across from the City Hall lay the Civic Center Plaza, which had rows of trees that had all shed their leaves at the approach of winter, but the way they were planted in perfectly straight rows created a strange visual effect when you stood in the middle of them that reminded me a lot of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

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San Francisco City Hall 

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Civic Center Plaza, complete with a Christmas tree. 

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The narrow tunnels created by the trees in the plaza. 

I wandered through the centre in the dying afternoon light, before heading back through the Castro and over the hills to get home.

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The gay streets of the Castro. 

***

I had been in San Francisco for almost two weeks, and I had loved every minute of it. While not as warm as I had expected California to be, I’d learnt a little about the phenomenon of the local climate, and the vibrant and colourful culture of the city had more than made up for it. I’d also met a bunch of awesome people, many of whom I’m still in touch with and will likely ensure that my first visit to San Francisco will not be my last. But alas, the countdown to the end of my seemingly endless worldwide journey had begun, and I still had the huge city of Los Angeles to explore before I jetted off from the mainland USA.

The morning of my departure, Todd and I both got up early: him getting ready for work, and me gathering up all my belongings and throwing them into my bag. He offered to give me a lift to the nearest BART station, which would take me across the bay and over into Oakland. It was from there that my Amtrak train would depart, and carry me down the Californian coast to LA. I said a heartfelt goodbye to Todd, who had done so much for me and without whom my stay in San Francisco would not have been the same, before jumping on the metro and heading across the bay to embark on one of the final legs of my worldwide tour.

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The Emerald Isle: Greenery and Guinness

When I wasn’t passing out in a bar somewhere, and when I was actually out of bed during daylight hours, Dublin proved itself to be quite a beautiful place. After making my way back to Dublin proper after another night of crashing with Matt, I spent the day exploring some of the more touristic sights of the city. I started with O’Connell Street, which is the main shopping street of Dublin. There is a monument called The Spire of Dublin, which is a tall, needle-like aluminium structure and, at about 120 metres high, is probably one of the tallest buildings in Dublin. I also swung past the General Post Office – only because I had to post a few postcards – and discovered that it was actually one of the most prominent and important buildings on the street. The post office actually served as the office of the rebels during the uprising of the Irish Republicans in 1916, although most of the structure was destroyed in the conflict. It was rebuilt in the same place, and all that remains of the original post office is the facade, littered with bullet holes and other marks of destruction, as though this regular building in the everyday life of Dubliners also served as a history museum, and a reminder of a past that seemed to bring them all together. At least, that’s how it seemed to me – I’d never even know much a, bout the uprising before stumbling across the General Post Office, so I learnt a thing or two that morning.

The other thing I did on O’Connell Street – although it had been the day before, while Matt was at the GAA game – was try Supermac’s. “Oh have to, you just have to try Supermac’s”, Matt had said to me while we were lying around in bed on my first day. “It’s an Irish institution, that is. Even the Americans are jealous of our fries.” And upon my first visit, I could see why. They had a ridiculous array of ‘dressed fries’, which essentially meant they were smothered in all kinds of delicious, savoury, and completely unhealthy toppings. I struggled to choose just one, but in the end I made my decision to get the nacho fries, and I would do it again in a slow, cholesterol stifled heartbeat.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac's.

The delicious, fast food goodness I ordered from Supermac’s.

South of O’Connell Street, across the River Liffey, were more things to see, including the Dublin Castle and St Stephens Green. The castle was a large complex with museums, chapels and some beautiful gardens, and I wandered throughout each of the attractions. St Stephens Green was further south of the castle, and it was beautiful park that stretched out and marked its claim within the city. There were lakes and bridges and flowers and green lawns, and it was a beautiful day so everyone was out making the most of the sunshine. I myself, still feeling rather under the weather from my weekend of heavy drinking – laid out on the green with my book and enjoyed the uncharacteristically warm Irish weather.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Entrance to Dublin Castle.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

Statue of Lady Justice inside the castle compound.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

One of the castles chapels from the outside.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

View of the castle from one of its several beautiful green lawns.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

Statue in St Stephens Green.

That evening, I took a break from both being a tourist and from trying to live like an Irish local. I spent a night sober and headed out to the live gig of one of my favourite bands, Paramore. I had been checking out their touring schedule a few months prior and noticed that they were going to be playing in Dublin a few nights before I was due to fly out, so I had bought myself a ticket, assuming that I would’ve had to have arrived in Dublin by then. Live music and gigs have always been a pretty big part of my life, and something that I obviously hadn’t been able to do much of while I was travelling, so it was a really nice thing for me to do – and also to give my body a break from the copious drinking I had been doing with Matt.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Sunset by the River Liffey.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Paramore playing live in Dublin.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

Confetti falling as the band plays their final song.

The band was amazing and the show was great, and afterwards I walked back to my hostel from the venue, realising that tonight would actually be the first night I spent in the hostel that I had been checked into during this whole time in Dublin. It would also be the last – I was rudely awoken at about 5am by the train station next door. The train tracks were literally right outside the rooms window, so the screaming engine and seemingly endless stream of following carriages with definitely not my alarm clock of choice.

***

The following day, just when you thought that I couldn’t possibly cram any more alcohol into my short stay in Dublin, I went to visit the factory and brewery of what many Irishmen probably consider the country’s pride and joy, their most famous export – Guinness. While it was hard to see from the outside, the building itself was supposed to shaped like a huge pint of Guinness, including a rooftop bar with a 360º view where the frothy head of a real pint would be. The visit was a tour that took you through the entire brewery, starting with the factory itself where the Guinness was made. Despite smelling a little weird, it was quite interesting to see the steps that went into making the brew, and pretty cool to see all the machines churning through the vast amounts of water, hops, yeast and barley.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Outside the Guinness factory.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

Huge pools of all the ingredients were being prepared to brew the brew en masse.

After the actual brewing rooms, there was a brief tour of the history of Guinness, where we learnt all about the founding of the company by Arthur Guinness, and all about its worldwide spread into a globally recognised brand. There was also a gallery of some of the different advertising campaigns for Guinness over the years.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

Sculpture from the gallery of Guinness advertising memorabilia.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white 'head'.

A lamp shaped to resemble a pint of Guinness, with light shining out of the white ‘head’.

We also did a tasting of Guinness, where we were taught how to properly drink it and identify the different stages and flavours you experienced during the process. I would later give Matt a scolding, because I hadn’t realised that there had been a very particular way of drinking Guinness.
“You can’t just sip it,” the worker in the brewery had informed us. “The head isn’t too tasty, so you have to drink through it. You need to take a big mouthful to get past the foam, and then you roll it through your mouth before swallowing it. Almost like it’s a mouthful of food, rather than stout.” Although my nose was wet and white afterwards, I found that those instructions made it much easier to drink the Guinness without it pouring down my chin and all over the table, like it had when Matt had insisted that I tried a pint the other night.
“No, of course you don’t sip it! It’s a man’s drink – big gulps!” Matt had said when I confronted him about that.
“Well why didn’t you tell me that in the first place!?”

One of the last parts of the pour was a lesson on how to pour the perfect pint. When you pour Guinness it takes a long time to settle – like when you’re pouring champagne and you have to wait for the bubbles to subside so you can finish filling the glass up, except a hundred times worse. Because of this, pouring the perfect Guinness has come to be regarded as something of an art. You have to hold the glass at just the right angle, pulling the tab the right direction and having the stout hit exactly the right part of the glass as it pours out. Once you’ve filled it to a precise level, you have to wait for it to continue settling, which usually takes at least a couple of minutes, before gently finishing off the pouring process by topping the glass up with just the right amount of frothy head. The trick is to have it just slightly swelling above the rim of the glass without it actually overflowing. Over the past weekend I had seen far too many pints of Guinness being poured, so it was kind of fascinating to realise just how delicate a process it actually was – most of the bartenders I’d seen could do it seemingly without even thinking, although I guess that probably comes with the experience of being a bartender in Ireland. I don’t think I quite mastered it in the end, but I feel I did a pretty decent job, and in the end I received my certificate that asserted I was “qualified” to pour the “perfect” pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

The steps to pouring a perfect pint.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

A few mouthfuls into the not so perfect pint of Guinness that I poured myself.

What was most surprising, though, was the fact that I was actually beginning to like the taste of Guinness! Despite all my previous moaning about it to Matt, I think I had had enough samples and been exposed to it enough that I could actually drink a whole pint to myself. Like beer, I suppose, Guinness was an acquired taste that I had finally acquired. It would never be my first choice anywhere else in the world except Ireland though, but at least I could say that I’d sprouted a few extra hairs on my chest and finished a pint to myself. After the pouring I went up to the rooftop bar to take a few pictures as my final stop on the tour of the brewery. There was a complete panoramic view of the surrounding parts of Dublin, and it was a gorgeous and sunny day so the sights were just marvellous.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory.

View from the rooftop bar at the Guinness factory, with Phoenix Park in the distance.

 ***

I finished off the afternoon with a stroll through the nearby Phoenix Park. While it was quite close, I’d rather underestimated its size – you could probably fit at least 50 St Stephens Greens in the park. It was was a gorgeous afternoon, so the place was full of joggers, bikers and family picnics. The Dublin Zoo was also located in Phoenix Park, so I wandered by that to see if I could catch a sneaky glimpse of any of the animals. I passed by a huge obelisk called the Wellington Testimonial, which I had seen from the rooftop of the Guinness brewery, and climbed the shallow stairs around the base so that I was right beneath it, and looked up as it towered over me. It was a long walk through the huge park, and I’d ended up having at least a few pints at the Guinness factory, so I was feeling a little drowsy. I was meeting Matt later that evening for my final night in Dublin, so I turned my afternoon stroll around and set my course for the city, ambling along in the bright afternoon sunshine.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Wellington Testimonial in Phoenix Park.

Once Upon a Time: Prague Castle

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

***

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

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

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

The guards walking away after the ceremonial changing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

The front view of St Vitus Cathedral.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

Inside the St Wenceslas Chapel.

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

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Courtyard in front of the Basilica of St George.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

Side view of St Vitus Cathedral, complete with scaffolding.

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

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

View from the castle grounds over Prague.

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

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

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

Steps leading down to the exit of the castle tour.

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

***

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

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

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

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

The smaller church Tomas took me to that afternoon.

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

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

***

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

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

One Friend, Two Friends: Old Friend, New Friends

When Kathi and I returned from our excursion on the river, we parted ways for our separate plans that afternoon. She had a date, and I actually had another friend who lived in Vienna whose birthday, as it happened, was that very day. It’s not everyday that you accidentally arrive in your friends city on the other side of the world on their birthday weekend, so we had made plans to catch up for a drink to celebrate both his birthday and my being in Austria.

I’d originally contacted Stephen asking if I might be able to crash with him when I was in Vienna, but unfortunately he didn’t have any room for me in the place that he lived in with his girlfriend. Luckily things had worked out through Couchsurfing in the end, and I just met up with him on the afternoon of his birthday instead. I had met Stephen when I was studying at university – he was on an exchange semester at The University of Sydney, and we sat next to each other in one of our philosophy tutorials. Now, almost exactly a year later, we were sitting at a beach-themed bar on the side of the Danube in the middle of the city, catching up and reminiscing and soaking up the sun. I say afternoon, but it was actually closer to 7pm – what I would have typically called “evening”. But this was European summer, and if we measured parts of the day by how much daylight the had, “afternoon” wouldn’t end until approximately 10:30pm. I ordered another Radler and sat down to tell Stephen more about my travels, and what I was planning to do next, both short-term and long-term. “You could always get a working visa and come back to Europe to teach English,” he had suggested. “I know of a lot of places that are always looking for native English speakers to help adult students perfect the language, especially places in Austria and Germany.” Scenarios flashed through my mind of living in Berlin, teaching English to the locals during the week, and spending my weekends on the dance floor or in a dark corner at Berghain. I could definitely think of worse ways to spend my life, but at that stage I was thinking as little as possible about my life after my year of travelling. I’d been on the road for months now, and I wasn’t even halfway through my journey.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Our mugs of beer and Radler in the Viennese sunshine.

Stephen and I.

Stephen and I.

Eventually Stephen had to go, so I wished him a happy birthday one last time as we bid each other farewell. I hadn’t drank too much, and I ended up just heading back to Kathi’s, but that night was still rather significant. After all the travelling I’d done in the past few months, that conversation with Stephen had planted a seed in my mind, an idea in my head – the idea of living abroad. Every following city that I visited, and every time I cast my memory back to the places I’d visited, it wasn’t a question of whether I liked the city or not, but rather, ‘Could I live in this city?’

***

The following day was my final one in Vienna, and since Kathi had to work for most of the day I figured it would be the best opportunity to do my loop around the tourist ring and see some of attractions Vienna had to offer. The inner city, or Innere Stadt, of Vienna is a designated Unesco World Heritage site, and the architecture easily takes you back to centuries past. I wandered the streets and got a little bit lost, just soaking up in the atmosphere as I strolled past the coffeehouses and other eateries and watched the flocks of other tourists come and go.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

One of the older buildings on one of the quieter streets in the city centre.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

Some more classical looking architecture I stumbled upon in my exploring.

A lot of the major sights are situated along a tram line that does a consistent ring around the city centre, but after I finally made my way out from getting lost in the Old Town streets, I decided that it was such a nice and beautiful sunny day that I would walk around the ring, instead of staying cooped up on the public transport. Some of the highlights of the sightseeing in Vienna were Stephansdom, or St. Stephens Cathedral, a 12th Century Gothic church that towered above the streets, and the impressive neo-Greek architecture of the Austrian Parliament Building, complete with a gold trimmed fountain depicting the goddess Athena, with the four figures around the base of the fountain representing the four most important rivers in the old Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

Stephansdom looking overhead.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The Austrian Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

The statue of Athena in front of the Parliament Building.

I didn’t take too many photos, but then I didn’t know too much about all the different sights in Vienna. It was kind of better that way, I think. There was no pressure to see all the important things, like their had been to visit the greatest hits of Rome. I was able to just meander around, stopping when I saw something I thought was interesting, taking the odd picture here and there, strolling through the greenery in the various city parks and just enjoying the relaxing atmosphere the city had to offer. I laid down in grass and had a snooze, had a slice of cake at a coffeehouse – it was all just so chilled out that it didn’t even feel like sightseeing. It just felt like living.

***

In the late afternoon I met up with Kathi and one of her housemates who had returned the previous evening, Anna-Greta. Kathi had suggested meeting at Naschmarkt, a popular market that had all kinds of amazing foods and fresh fruit and produce, as well as flea market stalls that were selling all kinds of things. Unfortunately I didn’t have much need for all that food, since I’d be jumping on another train to a new city the following day, but it was interesting to check out. Kathi and Anna-Greta bought a few things, and then we sat down to have some food at one of the restaurants that was set up along the market. We ate Thai food – something I hadn’t seen since Thailand – and I told them how popular it was in Australia, and we discussed other cultural differences between Austria and Australia. My favourite moment, however, was when it took us at least a few minutes to translate the word “bruise” from German to English. I thought something was seriously strange when they were telling me how they sometimes got “blue stains” on their skin – it still makes me chuckle when I think about it.

After we’d finished eating, the three of us just hung out at home for the rest of the evening. Anna-Greta had been partying all weekend at a big festival, and all three of us had to get up relatively early the next day, so we didn’t feel like heading out anywhere. Kathi and I pulled out our ukuleles and Anna-Greta grabbed her guitar, and I gave them a couple of lessons and taught them some chords to be able to play a few new songs. I introduced Kathi to Paramore, whose most recent album has a couple of ukulele tracks that I had learnt how to play. She loved the music, and was pretty stoked when I taught her how to play ‘Interlude: Moving On’, and we also learnt how to play ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, a challenge that Kathi’s other housemate had set for her. Then we just sat around chatting, and the girls told me about parties that they throw, and the music that they play and all the fun that they have, and it made me a little sad to be leaving the next day. “You’ll just have to come back next time we have a party,” Kathi said with a grin. “And at the end of the night we can run around being crazy while we play the ‘Spanish Flea’.” We all laughed, and I smiled to myself, sincerely hoping that one day that would actually happen. I’d made some great friends during my travels so far, and there wasn’t a doubt in my mind that some of those people such as Kathi – despite the distance – would remain my friends for life.

Berghain

“Well, that sucks,” said Dane as we walked down the lose gravel path away from the warehouse, the techno beats throbbing through the walls and bleeding into the night air with a haunting muffled sound.
“Yeah,” I said with a dejected sigh. “I know how much you were looking forward to it too.”
We’d just been denied entry into Berghain, what had commonly been described to me by my friends as one of the most exclusive nightclubs in Germany, possibly the world. Donatella had assured me that it wasn’t really that hard to get into. “Dress down – they turn away people who are really dressed up, or big groups of really obvious tourists, or too many women. Any women in high heels, usually. Two gay guys though, you’ll be fine, you should definitely get in.” By definition it wasn’t a gay bar, but the techno and house music scene that thrived in Berghain usually attracted a lot of gay people.

As we walked from the bus stop, we were giddy with excitement. The night in east Berlin was eerily quite, and as we passed the remains of the Berlin Wall on our way to the club, we joined in with a somber moment of silence. The only sounds were our footsteps, but after a short while Dane whispered, “There… Can you hear it?” The pulsing of the beat was reverberating in the air around us, and I had never felt such a strong combination of excitement and nervousness. The doorman at Berghain was renowned for being incredibly intimidating – part of the reason why they barely ever gave you a reason for being denied entry. A simple “No, not tonight,” was enough to completely shut you down and send you away from the line with your tail between your legs.

Usually the line to get into Berghain on the weekends is massive. Wait times of up to 3 or 4 hours are not uncommon, which makes it even more of a kick in the guts for those who don’t get in. However, my insider knowledge from the local Berliners had informed us that Sunday nights were generally a better time to go – the crowds were better, less tourists, the lines were shorter, and the experience would be a little more… authentic, I suppose. So Dane and I arrived on a Sunday evening, at around half past midnight. We put on our game faces, marched up the path to the door to confront the bouncers.

There was an awkward moment of silence where nothing happened. Usually a bouncer automatically asks for your ID, but this tattooed, skin head, mountain of a man just sort of stared us down for a moment. After a few moments, Dane finally spoke up: “Can we go inside?” he asked rather casually, though I knew he was just as nervous as I was.
“Do you have stamps?” the bouncer asked.
“Ah… no.”
“If you don’t have a stamp you won’t be coming in.”
“Oh…” Dane paused for a moment. “Should we come back later, or…?”
“If you don’t have a stamp, you won’t be coming in.”
“Right… Okay, thanks.” There was nothing else we could do but turn around and walk away. Maybe it was just the cluelessness that radiated from us. Maybe it was because Dane’s accent was too obviously foreign. Maybe it was because my pupils were the size of dinner plates. Maybe it really was just because we had arrived too late, and they weren’t letting any more new people in. It was a disappointing start to the evening, but we took the night elsewhere in Berlin. And luckily for me, it wasn’t the end of my experiences with Berghain…

***

Flash forward to the following Saturday night, Micha’s birthday at Rauschgold, and I was talking to his friends about where I’d been in Berlin, and what I still had left to do. Berghain was constantly being brought up in that conversation – I recounted the story of Dane and I being refused entry, and the general consensus was that we had left it a bit too late for a Sunday night. “You can easily go earlier,” someone said to me. “It’s not like the partying stops during the day.” Back in Sydney, my friend Blythe had told me to go at 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning, as that was the only time I was guaranteed to get in. At the time I had laughed at the idea of going to a nightclub at that time – I mean, who actually arrives at that hour? But I was finally beginning to realise just how correct she had been. Some of the Micha’s friends said they might even be going to Berghain the following evening, so I exchanged phone numbers with them, glad that I would have someone to face the supremely intimidating bouncer with again.

After stumbling home at 4 in the morning and passing out on my bed, I woke up just before noon to a message saying that the others had decided to skip Berghain because the weather outside was so nice. It was a valid excuse, given that Europe had just come out of a five month winter and no one really knew how long this gorgeous warmer weather would last. But it meant I was left to consider the prospect of visiting Berghain on my own, yet as a solo traveller it was the kind of thing I had grown used to. In the end it became a decision of ‘now or never’. I had already stayed in Berlin an extra weekend for this – I couldn’t afford myself another one. So I jumped on the U-Bahn and found myself back in east Berlin at around 1:30pm, bright sunshine beating down on my back. When I got to Berghain, there was no line to speak of – just two burly looking bouncers by the door: the notorious one from last time, and another equally menacing looking man. I walked up to them and encountered the same awkward silence I had when I was with Dane, but after a couple of seconds the main bouncer spoke to me: “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
I understood the German, but I had to reply in English, effectively proving my answer as I said it. “No…” I prepared myself for the worst.
The bouncer looked me up and down. “How old are you?”
“Twenty-one,” I answered quickly. I was completely sober, but I wonder if they could tell that my whole body was practically quivering with nervousness.
“Do you have ID?” he eventually asked, and I quickly whipped out my drivers licence. The bouncer studied it for a moment, and then looked up at me, handed the licence back, and motioned for me to enter the club.

I was almost in shock. Suddenly there were more faces, people telling me to move here, pay here, get your stamp here. It was all a blur, but I did as I was told and tried to look not quite so clueless. I found myself in a cavernous, dimly lit room where a cloak room was available, and moved out through the following door. I was plunged into a room of darkness and was basically rendered blind since I had come from the bright sunlight outside, so consequently the first thing I did was trip over a milk crate. Yes, a milk crate. All I could see in the limited light was a huge table that covered in dozens of empty glass bottles, a fair few of which had fallen to the floor and smashed. It was hard to register that this was actually a club, when it really did feel like some dirty abandoned warehouse. I stood still for a moment, the reverse of a deer caught in the headlights, and waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. The area I was in was sparsely populated with a few groups of people, so I ascended the stairs and began my exploration.

Berghain is huge. You’d kind of expect that from a warehouse, but I had definitely underestimated the size of the place. After going up the first flight of steps, I reached the main dance floor. It was packed with people, many of whom were decked out in outfits of leather, latex, rubber and denim, as well as being in various states of undress. There were more bare torsos than a Grindr grid, but thankfully all of them had heads. The spirit of kink was very much alive in Berghain, which was part of the reason I had so badly wanted to visit the club. I personally don’t have any affliction with the fetish scene, but working in the fetish store back home had left me feeling like I was still somewhat part of the scene via association. For the first time, I was seeing the leather vests and harnesses that I used to sell in their natural habitat, and I felt a strange sense of pride for these beautiful, perverted, kinky people. Yet I was still a little overwhelmed by the whole thing, so instead of diving straight into the crowd I veered to the right and found a bar room that was sort of separated from the main dance floor. I got a beer and sat down on a bar stool, observing my surroundings as I chugged it down. Despite it being very early in the afternoon, I felt far too sober to be in this environment, because from what I was seeing it would have been totally legitimate to believe it was 2 in the morning, the time when most normal people are at nightclubs.

The bar room I was in was relatively empty though, and so I wandered up a nearby staircase… and found myself in a coffee and gelato bar. I know, I did a double take too. Everything else about the room fitted the style of the dank, grungy underground venue, but there in the midst of it all was a gelato cart, long halogen bulbs lighting up a variety of colourful flavours. I spent a few moments pacing around the small room, pinching myself and trying to convince myself that my beer hadn’t been spiked with LSD. I was finally convinced the scene was real, but decided I wasn’t in the mood for ice cream, so descended down the steps and back into the bar. I got another beer, and with it I walked out into the dance floor room and mingled my way through the people. Berghain has a sound system that is in the Top 10 in the world, and when you’re on that dance floor you can literally feel the music. Every beat in the bass line pulses through your flesh, coursing through your bones and blood. The feeling is ecstatic, and you can’t help but surrender your body to the music and become a slave to the rhythm. It was incredible, and while I’m normally not the biggest fan of electronic music, there was something about this place that made it seem like playing anything else would be just wrong. The vibe, the people, the music – everything just clicked. I now understood why they had such strict door policies – if this place became full of tourists, only wanting to see it for the sake of seeing it rather than being a part of the culture, than the whole thing would quickly be destroyed.

Because it really does feel like some kind of ecosystem, a separate world of its own that operates in its own way, on its own time, completely independent of the outside world. And despite the strict selection process it takes for some to get inside, once you’re inside there are basically no rules. The best way to describe what goes on inside Berghain, I believe, is that there’s no one who is going to say “No, stop, you’re not allowed to do that.” As long as you’re not hurting anybody or being violent, you can do pretty much anything you want – with the exception of taking photos, which is completely prohibited. But if you saw some of the stuff that goes on inside Berghain… well, it makes perfect sense.

I made my way up a staircase to another dance floor room, a second space I would later learn to be called Panorama Bar, technically a separate venue within the huge warehouse but often opened up to join with Berghain. There were windows up there, and every so often the automatic blinds would flash open in time with the music and bathe the party goers in the afternoon sunlight, the only hint that the world outside still existed. I sat down at the bar and ordered a Long Island Ice Tea – the beers weren’t kicking in fast enough. As the bartender mixed my cocktail, my gaze turned to the guy next to me, or more specifically, what he was drinking. He had been served a glass of hot water, and proceeded to take the tea bag he had been given and brew himself a cup of tea, right there at the bar. It was at that point that I told myself I really needed to stop being surprised by the things I saw here – I mean, I had stumbled upon a gelato cart! Yet unsurprising, brewing a cup of tea on the nightclubs bar wasn’t the last thing I saw that would surprise me…

As I sat at the bar, sipping my drink, I watched the crowd dancing. It was the weekend of pride, so it was quite obviously a very gay crowd, though I couldn’t say I had any other experience at Berghain to compare it with. But one person in particular caught my eye – a girl, as it would happen. She was wearing a short, black backless dress with an attached hood that was draped over her head like a shawl, though it did little to hide her long, golden curly locks, which cascaded out from the hood to frame her face. Her eyes were closed, and her face had an expression of pure fun and enjoyment as she danced to the beat. Add to all this the fact that she was surrounded by a ring of half naked gay men and I could have sworn I was looking at the doppelgänger of Georgia, my best friend and fag hag from back home in Sydney. I felt an instant gravitational pull towards this woman, so when I finished my cocktail I got up and finally moved onto the dance floor. I danced over to where Georgia’s look-alike was dancing – I didn’t really expect to talk to her or anything, but there was just something about her vibe that was creating a carefree atmosphere, where everyone just danced together with the music.

While she was holding my attention captive, it seemed like I was attracting some for myself amongst a few of the shirtless men in her ranks. Eventually one of them coaxed me into joining them in their shirtlessness, and inevitably there were was some mild fondling and a few stolen kisses on the dance floor. The man in question was a tall, burly and bearded Italian, and on several occasions he even lifted me up above the crowd level while I was in his embrace. He probably told me his name – I don’t recall it anymore – but I remember asking him who the golden girl was. “Her? I don’t know, I’ve just been dancing here with her and these guys.” I just laughed, and felt a little better knowing that this circle of friends seemed to be no more than a collection of beautiful strangers. However, the Italian stallion made a move to leave. “I have to go to the bathroom to take some speed with my husband.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I actually wasn’t surprised about the drugs – crazy party scenes like this are known for having every drug under the sun. But open relationships, and marriages in places where they’re legal, seemed to be particularly common, especially in scenes like this where freedom and liberal sexuality was just a part of life. But when it slaps you in the face like that, a bolt from the blue, you can’t help but feel a little taken aback. I kissed him goodbye and sent him on his way, but when he returned a while later he slid past me with a sulking expression on his face. When I finally got a word with him, he said glumly, “Yeah… My husband doesn’t really want me talking to you.” Across the room a spied a short, stern looking Brazilian man shooting me a look so cold it could have frozen Hell over twice. I had no time to deal with jealous husbands, so I left the stallion to the probable shit storm he had brought upon himself.

***

At some point in the afternoon, either during or after the scenario with the Italian and his husband, I had a nap. That’s right, a nap in a night club. I was still fairly hungover from the night before, so I was feeling a little tired. All the levels of the Berghain warehouse complex contain smaller rooms full of couches and seats and all kinds if holes in the wall where people can sit and chill out, relax, and yes, even go to sleep. Considering the possibly of having your possessions stolen while you sleep, it’s not exactly something I would recommend, but it wasn’t exactly something I consciously chose to do either. It sort of just happened. I know that having a nap is probably the least exciting thing that I did in Berghain, but I just wanted to point out again how very little anyone cares about what you actually do in the club. In any club back in Sydney, and most other places I’ve been to in the world, if you look like you’re falling asleep on a couch, security is going to come over and ask you to leave. But at Berghain? Nope, I casually woke up half an hour later to someone asking me if I was okay, curled up on a sofa. Feeling a little disorientated but somewhat refreshed, I stood up and made my way back to the dance floor. In retrospect, sleeping at Berghain is potentially very common – when the doors open on Thursday night the don’t close until Monday morning, and I’ve heard war stories of people who have gone in and come out at both of those times, living inside the club for the whole weekend. Granted, most of them are probably high on ecstasy, but I wouldn’t believe that I was the first person to ever take a short power nap within those walls.

At this point it was getting on into the late afternoon, or early evening. The dying light that seeped through the blinds in Panorama Bar was the only indication that the sun had begun to go down, but it made no difference inside – the partying carried on. I eventually found myself dancing near the girl with the golden curls – much like my friend Georgia, this woman seemed the create a gravitational pull that drew in all homosexuals. Once again she was surrounded by mostly half naked men, but from the other side of the circle, one of the few that was wearing a shirt caught my eye. I glanced his way a few more times, and eventually I caught him looking back. What followed was a ritual I’d been a part of numerous times in numerous nightclubs – the subtle but sure eye contact, the casual dancing to the music while slowly shifting your way through the crowd to position yourself just a little bit closer to them. Eventually we came face to face. He was a little shorter than guys I normally went for – a centimetre or two shorter than myself – but he had a defined muscular jaw with just a hint of stubble, and hair that was cropped short and styled slightly messy. But it was his eyes that got me – they were bright, icy blue, yet there was a fire behind them that lit them up and made it almost impossible to look away from them. It was an instant connection, and it was a short amount of time before shirts came off and lips collided.

We danced for a while, then moved from Panorama Bar to the main Berghain room and danced some more, our bodies being audio-assaulted by the beat. Then this beautiful stranger, leaning into my ear to be heard over the music, asked if I wanted to go down further still to the ground floor. Keeping in mind that that level is where the majority of the clubs hidden dark rooms are tucked away in miscellaneous corners, I enthusiastically agreed. As we descended beyond the levels of the dance floors, and bass lines that coursed through your body, we were finally able to exchange words without needing to shout at each other, and after our first verbal introductions I learnt that his name was Ralf. What happened next, however, didn’t involve a great deal of talking. I have to admit though, that after my experiences in the dark rooms at Toms, I decided that I’d much rather put a face to a name, and then see the face of that lover when… well, I’m sure I don’t need to paint that picture for you. So we took a seat on one of the lower level couches, in an area that was far less populated, but by no means secluded or discreet. On paper it seems like a rather seedy thing to do, yet I was overcome with a ‘when in Rome’ attitude around the fact I was at Berghain – also, Ralf may just have been the most beautiful thing I’d ever laid eyes on, so self-control was limited. It was pure, unbridled passion – never mind that by the end we had attracted a small audience. Afterwards, as Ralf drew in for one final kiss, with me flat on my back and him straddled over me, he kissed me on the forehead and whispered in my ear with a playful grin that showed off his perfect smile: “Well look at that – he’s a romantic, too.”

***

I ended up spending the rest of the night with Ralf. We went back upstairs and had a drink – I had another beer while got some water – and sat down in one of the non-dancing rooms and had a bit of a conversation and got to know each other. Ralf, who was German, confessed that he’d been surprised to learn that I myself wasn’t German, and I laughed and told him he wasn’t the first person to think that. Ralf himself was Swiss-German, yet had spent half his adult life in Sweden. After chatting for a while longer, we decided to go and dance some more, and who should we run into again but that mystery golden haired girl. “That girl! Who is she?” I asked Ralf. “You were dancing with her when I saw you.”
“Her?” Ralf replied. “I don’t actually know her. I lost the friends who I came here with… But we were joking, saying she was like the queen of the gays.” That she is, I thought to myself, but as he said it Ralf chuckled and flashed a smile that inevitably led us to another trip to the ground floor, for reasons which need no further elaboration. Returning to the upstairs bar for a drink, this time I decided it was my turn to rehydrate a little. Ralf got a water for me, and a Coke for himself. I must have mentioned something about not eating since that morning, because a tinge of concern crept into Ralf’s expression. “Are you hungry? There’s a garden restaurant downstairs. It’s getting late but it might still be open, they usually have some cakes and things.”
“Hold on… There’s a garden in this club?”
“Well, it’s outside, but it’s still part of the club.” He smiled, stood up and took my hand, leading me towards the stairs. “Come, I’ll show you.”

And so that’s how I found myself in the garden outside Berghain, my head nestled into Ralf’s lap, staring into the starry night sky that had replaced the bright blue sky from when I had entered the warehouse. There hadn’t been any food left, so I just got another beer and we took a seat on the long, wooden tiered benches in the garden beside the club. We continued to talk there, going deeper and deeper into the details of our lives. However, there was one particular topic that would leave a profound impact on me that evening.
“So… you don’t drink, do you?” It was a suspicion that came from the combination of not seeing him order an alcoholic beverage, and seeming… well, not so drunk.
“No… No, I don’t,” he said simply.
“Like… ever? Did you ever drink?”
He laughed at that. “No, I’m not a recovering alcoholic,” he joked. I smiled, and just laughed with him. I know it sounds stupid, but it was probably one of the most shocking things that had happened throughout the entire evening.
“But… you don’t mind other people drinking?” I said cautiously, glancing down at the beer bottle clutched in my fingers. A lot of the non-drinkers I knew were quite anti-alcohol in general principle, so I was having trouble reconciling this characteristic within Ralf.
“Well look where we are – obviously not!” he chuckled.
“That’s okay,” I said. “It’s just, this is the last place I expected to find a sober person!”

The conversation continued on the topic of drinking and alcohol, and it got me onto talking about the drinking culture in Australia.
“I used to shake it off, say it wasn’t that bad. But now… I don’t know, back home I could never go into a club without being at least mildly shit-faced, mostly because I know if I was sober I wouldn’t be able to stand half the people there… because almost all of them are just so shit-faced!” It’s a kind of cyclical trend that can sometimes be hard to pinpoint until you actually remove yourself from the equation and see it objectively. “Here in Germany, and even in Berghain… I mean, there are people off their faces, but everyone still seems in control, you know? We have so many problems in Australia because they get so drunk and lose control. There’s a lot of alcohol-fuelled violence in Sydney.”
Ralf nodded in agreement. “Right, and it was the same in Sweden. Alcohol is so expensive that they drink at home first, and half the time they get so drunk they never even make it to the club. But I think in Germany, if someone was to get that drunk… It’s almost considered rude, or annoying. You know, to be so drunk that you can’t look after yourself. Most people don’t want you around if you’re like that, so if you get that drunk you usually just go home.”
“Yeah, I guess so…” I thought back to many of my nights of drunken debauchery back home, and the amount of times I’d seen friends so wasted that they literally needed help just standing up. “I guess it’s this idea that we can’t have fun unless we’re drunk, and point of the night is to get as drunk as possible.” I redirected my abstract stargazing to look at Ralf in those beautiful blue eyes. “But I guess that’s not always the case here.”
“No,” he smiled down at me. “No, it’s not.” It only occurred to me that while I had had a few beers and a cocktail at Berghain, it had been over the course of many hours, and I myself wasn’t that drunk. Yet I was managing to have an amazing time, even up on the dance floor, moving to the music in the crowds of sweaty people and losing myself to the rhythm and the beat. And I suppose it was rather ironic that here, in a wild club that is known for being full of patrons that are high on one kind of drug or another, I was having the epiphany that you didn’t need to drink alcohol or get absolutely wasted in order to have a good time.

Suddenly a slight wind kicked up, but it was enough to send a chill through my body. I was only wearing a singlet and shorts, so even the warmth of Ralf’s body wasn’t enough to get me by, so we picked ourselves up and moved back inside. On our way back in, I saw two guys standing in front of the extremely intimidating bouncer.
“You’re not coming in tonight,” he said in that firm, authoritative voice of his.
“Ah, okay, so… How do we get inside?” one of them mumbled, a thin brave façade over what was obviously a nervous wreck of a boy.
“Did you not hear what he just said?” piped up the second bouncer. “You’re not getting in!”
Even though I’d been in a similar position the previous week, I couldn’t help but smirk to myself a little, knowing that I’d finally, after the long anticipation, made it inside Berghain.

***

Back inside the club, Ralf and I retreated to the top floors of the complex. We danced some more, but our relaxing time out in the garden had really slowed the pace down a little bit. We moved to one of the smaller adjoining rooms, where lots of people were chilling out and hanging around, and found some space on one of the couches. We made out for a little while, but then ended up lying down and cuddling for a little while, and I eventually drifted off into a light sleep. I think Ralf might have dozed off as well, because we were both startled awake be a commotion coming from above us. I looked up to see a man snorting a line of cocaine from the back of the couch that we had been lying on. He took his time to make sure he got every last morsel, before casually walking away. I looked at Ralf, bewildered. Going to the toilets to take your drugs was one thing, but this guy had very publicly consumed his cocaine for the rest of the club to see. Ralf just laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “Welcome to Berghain.”

We laid back down for a while, but eventually I checked the time. “Wow, its nearly one in the morning. I’ve been here for nearly 12 hours!”
“What time are you leaving tomorrow?” Ralf asked me. I had mentioned that this was the last item on my Berlin bucket list, and that I had told myself I should leave the following day.
“Well, there was a train I was planning to catch”, I said to him. “But I don’t actually have anything booked.” Ralf just smiled, and I already knew that I wouldn’t be leaving Berlin tomorrow. “So I suppose I don’t have to leave.” Once again, Lola’s prediction was echoing in the back of my mind. Darling, you’re never going to leave…
“I would ask you to sleep over tonight, but I rode my bike here,” Ralf said. “But if you did stay, maybe you could come over tomorrow night? I’ll make you some food – you haven’t eaten all day, your mother must be worried about you if you’re not eating right!”

I just smiled and nodded. “That sounds lovely.” At that point we decided to call it a night before we actually did have a sleepover in Berghain. We exchanged numbers and said goodbyes, and Ralf set off on his bicycle as I climbed into a taxi. Despite being petrified about going alone to face the big scary doorman and get inside this legendary club, my first Berghain experience actually turned out to be fun, diverse, enlightening, and in general just simply amazing. I had already fallen in love with the city of Berlin, but my time at Berghain was the cherry on top that would earn Berlin the title of my favourite city for a long time to come.

The Transition: Singapore

A lot of people seemed pretty confused when I told them what the first stop was on this round the world tour of mine.
“Singapore? But that’s not an actual destination, right? It’s just a connecting stop over?”
Assuring them that it was indeed my first destination, I was queried as to how long I would be staying in the city of Singapore, on the tiny island country of the same name.
“Five days?” my uncle had exclaimed. “Well, that’s plenty of time for Singapore, I reckon. You wouldn’t want to be staying any longer.”

I suppose these reactions aren’t completed unjustified. Singapore isn’t exactly a hotspot for backpackers and partying 20-something-year-olds: alcohol is expensive, laws regarding drugs are terrifyingly harsh, and even male homosexuality is technically illegal (though those laws are not as strictly enforced). However, my reasons for visiting Singapore were on a slightly more personal note. An old high school friend of mine named Timothy lives there studying musical theatre, and I had timed the beginning of my journey so that I would be able to stop in Singapore and watch him perform in one his final productions before he graduates from his degree. I’d also visited him once before, so as well as already having seen a few of the typical tourist attractions such as Universal Studios and the night safari, I was descending into an environment that I was already semi-familiar with, with knowledge of where I would be going but not exactly what I would be doing…

Singaporean flag on top of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, formerly Singapore's first police station.

Singaporean flag on top of the Ministry of Information, Communication and the Arts, formerly Singapore’s first police station.

***

The first thing I noticed when I hopped off the plane at Changi Airport, other than the overwhelming humidity, was that one of my two travel money cards was missing. The one that I could find refused to work at any of the ATMs that I could find at the airport – because that’s just the kind of luck that travelers have, right? Luckily, my travel SIM card did work, so I got in contact with Tim and hopped into a taxi to head over to his apartment. The taxi accepted card payment and, much to my relief, this time the temperamental card decided to work. After heartfelt greetings and stressful explanations, I called my mother in Sydney to confirm that I had left the second card at home. While still a little annoyed at myself, I felt a wave of relief in knowing that it was safe, and not out racking up an illegitimate bill somewhere else in the world.

For the rest of the evening the two of us caught up and exchanged stories, as reunited friends usually do, so it wasn’t until the next day that I set out into the city as an explorer. After a lazy brunch with Tim’s family, who were also visiting Singapore to see him in his graduation show, Tim had to return to college for rehearsals and then preparation for that evenings performance. But he only had one set of keys to his place (his family were staying in a nearby hotel – I was the designated couch-surfer), and negotiation worked out that he would require them today. So I set out into the muggy afternoon, knowing I wouldn’t be able to return home until after that Friday night performance.

Without a doubt, the first thing you notice in Singapore is the humidity. Sydney was trying its hardest to make me sweat when I was back home, but it really doesn’t even come close to the sheen across my forehead as I wandered down Orchard Road. It eventually gets to the point where you abandon even attempting to look fresh – it’s hot, it’s humid, and no one expects anything less than a giant ball of perspiration. On this particular afternoon, however, the humidity reached breaking point, and a monsoonal thunderstorm was unleashed upon the city. Rain bucketed down as I scampered into a 7-11 to buy a cheap umbrella (although I’d already been dripping wet with sweat), and the skyscrapers and shopping malls turned the streets into huge metallic tunnels that boomed and echoed with every clap of thunder. I ended up passing through a lot of those shopping malls to avoid the rain, but the air conditioning inside was so chilly that I would continually have to drag my damp self back into the natural air so that I didn’t freeze to death.

One of the many small gardens that break up the mass of buildings along Orchard Road.

One of the many small gardens that break up the mass of buildings along Orchard Road.

The number of shopping malls in Singapore is astounding. I saw virtually every label I know, and plenty more that I’d never even heard of. The thought of walking through them with the intention of actually shopping seemed particularly overwhelming, but the prices in Singapore aren’t exactly competitive on an international scale, especially within South East Asia, so I decided to put off any intended purchases and try again in a more favourable economic climate. Something that I did take a particular interest in was the amount of greenery that fills the streets of Singapore. You won’t go a block or two without finding a small park or garden, or a huge tree holding its own among all the modern architecture. Tim mentioned that it might have been some sort of initiative of the city in order to maximize the space in the city without turning it into a stock standard concrete jungle void of any real kind of natural elements. Then there are buildings like the School Of The Arts, Singapore (SOTA), with its extreme proximity to the surrounding trees and surfaces covered in luscious vines and foliage, which are perfect examples of just how seamlessly this city is able to integrate the man-made and natural worlds.

View from below of the School Of The Arts, Singapore.

View from below of the School Of The Arts, Singapore.

Later in the afternoon, after the thunderstorm has passed, I emerged from the malls and headed south on the MRT train system (which, I must add, are insanely efficient that it makes Sydney’s CityRail look like even more of a joke), down to Clark Quay to take one of the boat tours that operated on the river. The leisurely trip took us on a guided historical tour, down to bay with some impressive views of the equally impressive Marina Bay Sands, a relatively new casino, bar/nightclub and hotel. I was happy quietly taking my own photos, but I couldn’t turn down the offer from the friendly and enthusiastic staff to take some photos of myself with the scenery, and so I ended up with my first, of what I’m sure will be many, awkward solo holiday snaps.

"Hold the flower, hold the flower!" the river tour guide shouted eagerly. I'm still not sure what the building is, but the towering Marina Bay Sands is visible behind me.

“Hold the flower, hold the flower!” the river tour guide shouted eagerly. I’m still not sure what the building is, but the towering Marina Bay Sands is visible behind me.

On the river tour, with the Singaporean CBD in the background.

On the river tour, with the Singaporean CBD in the background.

The Merlion, a popular tourist attraction in the bay.

The Merlion, a popular tourist attraction in the bay.

***

After the tour, I strolled around the streets of Clark Quay, but the ritzy upmarket restaurants and bars didn’t feel like the best option for a sweaty, lonely backpacker, so I jumped back on the MRT and looked for a new destination (Did I mention how efficient the MRT is? No, really, maximum waiting time for a train going anywhere is about 6 minutes – you don’t even look at the timetables and plan ahead, you just go!). I had intended to alight at Marina Bay and explore on foot what I had seen from the boat, but following the instructions on some of the signage, I alighted at Bayfront and found myself on the other side of the towering Marina Bay Sands. Instead of being greeted by the water, I found myself in Gardens By The Bay, an area of roughly 100 hectares of reclaimed land that has been transformed into a huge garden, but with a futuristic twist. The area is sprinkled with structures called the Supergrove, which look like huge wire frames in the shape of trees that are slowly being taken over by a climbing garden. By this stage it was dark, and the odd structures were twinkling and shining with bright, multi-coloured lights, though I was unable to ascertain just what they were, exactly – other than the central and tallest Supergrove tree housing a Chinese restaurant on the top floor.

The Supergrove trees in the Gardens By The Bay.

The Supergrove trees in the Gardens By The Bay.

If I’d thought that the design of Orchard Road had been the integration of modern technology with the natural world, then this little number had taken it to whole new level. There were a couple of ticketed exhibits in the Gardens By The Bay, but they were closing by the time I had arrived there, so I just settled for wandering around in the muggy air and soaking in the beautiful, illuminated sights. Without the harsh equatorial sun beating down on you, the climate was actually kind of pleasant, and with the mood-lit surrounding, I realised given the right company, the setting would have been quite romantic – I began to wish I’d had someone there to share it with. From there, the solitude of my day finally caught up with me, and I decided to call it a day and head back to the city and wait for Tim to arrive home.

***

The next day was Saturday, and that evening I would be attending the Tim’s show. He was busy for most of the day with a matinée performance, so I decided to continue the theme of exploring the paradoxical man-made natural environments of Singapore by visiting the Botanic Gardens. I don’t know what I was expecting, but you can colour me impressed. The gardens are huge, but they also feature an extensive collection of plants from all kinds of environments. There were walks through rainforest areas, gardens of cacti and other desert plants, hundreds of varieties of flowers and orchids, scented gardens full of beautiful and invigorating floral fragrances, and even an area dedicated to plants and herbs that have medicinal properties, categorised by their purpose and function. I spent several hours wandering through the gardens, taking pictures and studying the plants, and I found it quite fascinating. I live in the heart of the city back in Sydney, and while the area does have its share of parks and greenery, there’s nothing quite like the Singapore Botanic Gardens. As the afternoon continued, though, the weather cycle of the previous day repeated itself, and I was caught in another torrential downpour. Having seen the best that the gardens had to offer, I called it quits and headed back home – luckily I had the keys to the apartment that day, so I was able to dry off and spruce myself up for the theatre.

Tree from the rainforest walk in the Botanic Gardens.

Tree from the rainforest walk in the Botanic Gardens.

Arid environment/desert plants.

Arid environment/desert plants.

One of the hundreds of varieties of flowers in the Orchid Garden.

One of the hundreds of varieties of flowers in the Orchid Garden.

Some giraffe statues in the Orchid Garden - figured I should have at least a photo or two with myself in it.

Some giraffe statues in the Orchid Garden – figured I should have at least a photo or two with myself in it.

***

The performance was excellent – it was especially a thrill for myself, considering I knew almost all of the starring cast. Gypsy is probably one of my favourite musicals, but this isn’t a musical review so that’s all I’ll really say on that topic. However, the shows after party was the setting of what was probably the biggest culture shock in Singapore. The party was held at a bar down at Marina Bay Sands, a swish little place called South Coast, which is owned by a lesbian couple who are originally from the central coast of New South Wales – small world, huh? After Tim’s brother bought a round of drinks, I approached the bar to take my turn. I ordered a cider for myself, one for Tim to congratulate him on a fantastic final show, and beer for his brother to repay the drink he bought me. When the bartender added up the cost, I was barely able to stifle a small shriek when he told me the total was just shy of $50. That’s in Singapore dollars, but even with the conversion, it was a hefty bill that I wasn’t expecting. It cleaned out all the cash in my wallet, to say the least. Alcohol in general is just more expensive in Singapore (pro tip: DUTY FREE!!!), so when you go out to nicer places it can only be expected that it will be more expensive.

Luckily for me, this was a musical theatre party. There was no shortage of homosexual men, and I worked the room to my advantage and scored a few frozen margaritas free of charge. Drinks turned to cocktails, cocktails turn to shots, and before long I was sitting there at the bar convincing myself that now was not the time to be sick. I kept it together, thankfully, though in retrospect I’m just a lot more grateful I wasn’t footing the bill of whatever had gone down. As the bar closed around us at 4:30, those still standing stumbled through the hotel lobby to the taxi rank. I may have accidentally given Tim a hickey, and shared a few cheeky moments with one of my suitors in the back of a taxi, but it was all harmless fun, and Tim and I eventually stumbled back into his apartment very close to sunrise, and spent most of the rest of the weekend sleeping off our hangovers.

***

The rest of my stay in Singapore was quite relaxed and mellow, spending time with Tim, his family, and his classmates. We visited the bar at the top of Marina Bay Sands, sipping on some expensive cocktails while enjoying the panoramic views of the 57th storey, but that was the only other tourist-type activity I did. On my previous visit I had wandered the streets of Little India, experiencing the dramatic cultural shifts at every turn of a corner. The extent of the multiculturalism in such a small geographical space is actually quite amazing. Though this time around, I spent my remaining time with my friends, now that they had the stresses and pressures of their show behind them.

Tim and I with our cocktails on top of Marina Bay Sands.

Tim and I with our cocktails on top of Marina Bay Sands.

Panoramic view from the 57th level of Marina Bay Sands at night.

Panoramic view from the 57th level of Marina Bay Sands at night.

As I reflect on the five nights I spent in Singapore, I would say that it was a good place to start my journey, because while it was in a completely new country, eight hours away from my hometown, it was still full of places, people, and experiences that still felt quite familiar. It was a good transitioning period, where my life was a strange mix of the schedules of other people and my own freedom from any specific restraints or responsibilities. In a way it didn’t even feel like the real adventure had begun yet – it was just one last pit stop before I threw myself into the real unknown. It took me away from my home, but not quite out of my comfort zone. I watched other people go about their daily routines while I woke up on their couches, and the fact that I was not going to have that kind of regularity for the next nine months was able to slowly sink in, rather than simply being thrust upon me. A couple of times I felt lonely, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wanted to steal a few kisses in that taxi, but that can only be expected within the first week of leaving your old life behind, and something I’m sure I’ll get used to in time. Now the transition phase is over and I’m truly setting out on my own, and while I’m still a little nervous about the rest of what South East Asia has in store for me, I feel like my time in Singapore was an adequate stepping stone of preparation.

So onwards with the adventure – Bangkok, here I come!