Sports Bars and Gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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Amsterdamned: Pride in the Canals

The official Amsterdam Pride parade was during the day on Saturday, but the celebrations kicked off the night before. Joris and I got cleaned up after the rugby workshop and then got back on our bikes and headed out to the city centre. We had a quick bite to eat along the way before arriving at what was called the Homomonument – a memorial in the centre of Amsterdam that commemorates the all the men and women who have been subject to persecution because of their homosexuality. The monument consists of three large pink triangles – the symbol Nazi’s gave to their homosexual prisoners – and are laid out in a way so that each triangle is the corner of an even bigger triangle that makes up the main plaza of the memorial. However, that evening it was as far from a solemn memorial – instead, had been utilised as a space of celebration. There was a stage set up nearby, with DJ’s filling the night with electric tunes and heavy beats, and there were party goers and revellers everywhere. I had been to enough European pride festivals by now to know what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. The street had been overrun by a party, with drinks being sold from vendors stationed nearby and people dancing away under the open air.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

One of the pink triangles was an elevated platform, so I climbed up onto that with Joris and looked out over the crowds. We were waiting to meet André and his friend, as well as some more of Joris’ friends who were coming out tonight. We weren’t staying at the Homomonument though, and when everyone finally arrived it was back on the bikes and off to Reguliersdwarsstraat, one of the main gay strips in the city. We secured our bikes before descending into the crowds on foot, and in what I had now gathered was the typical fashion of pride in most European cities, most of the bars had overflowed into the streets and the whole thing had just become one huge outdoor party. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure of all the bars that we went into or what any of them were called – I just followed the group of Dutch men I was with and tried my best to keep up with them and their drinking, although I always remained fairly conscious of the fact that I did have to ride my bike home. We were briefly inside a place called Taboo, but we ended up getting our beers in plastic cups and returning to the street, since the insides of most places were just too cramped. Then we crossed the street to a bar named SoHo, where the style and design was obviously influenced by a typical English pubs. It was a huge three storey building, and I lost and found our party several times throughout our time there, as well as sneaking into the bathroom without paying the fee that seemed to be in force that evening.

The pub crawl down Reguliersdwarsstraat continued, and I chatted to a whole different bunch of guys, some of them Joris’ friends, or friends of those friends. Towards the end of the road, we were standing around outside finishing our beers when Joris asked André and I if there was anything else we wanted to see, or anywhere else we wanted to go that night. We weren’t planning on having a big night, since we did have the parade in the morning, but the night was still fairly young.
“I don’t know…” I replied, trying to think if there had been anything specific any of my friends had suggested that I see. “Is there anything else around that you think we should see? Something quintessentially Amsterdam?”
Looking back I can’t remember if it had been Joris’ idea, or whether André had asked him to show us, but the three of us parted with the rest of the group and got back on our bikes and rode a short way to another gay street that was… well, it was definitely a different vibe. Warmoesstraat is adjacent to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, and is well-known as the home of the leather fetish scene in the city. Long after my stint of working in a fetish store, I still found such things quite fascinating, so it’s no surprise we found ourselves in a bar called Dirty Dicks, one of the many cruise bars in the area.

It reminded me of some of the smaller bars I visited in Germany, with a main bar upstairs and then the dark rooms downstairs. Except this place somehow felt cleaner – I have no idea how I can use ‘clean’ to describe any of these places but just roll with it – than Tom’s in Berlin, and the dark rooms weren’t even really all that dark. André and I ventured down to have a look, and under the blue fluorescence you really didn’t need to have much of an imagination. Joris had a good chuckle at our expressions when we resurfaced into the main bar. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I was so shocked. I’d seen plenty of places that were equally as confronting – if not more – but I guess it was always still a bit of a slap in the face to round a corner and walk straight into such gratuitous orgies. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll finally get used to it… or maybe I won’t. I don’t know, but it was definitely all the sex and the sleaze that I had been expecting from Amsterdam. We had another beer at Dirty Dicks before calling it a night and heading back home. Tomorrow was going to be a long, gay day.

***

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was meet Thijs, Joris’ boyfriend, who had just arrived home that morning. After a hearty breakfast cooked up by Joris, the two of them took André and I on our newly acquired bikes to the supermarket on our way to the parade – it was BYO where we were going to be, so we stocked up on our booze. André, having lived in Copenhagen for quite some time, was very used to the intense bike culture, but I was still getting used to the whole thing, almost losing sight of the others a couple of times. But eventually we made it into the centre of the city, where the streets were becoming crowded and swelling with people. The unique thing about pride in Amsterdam is that they really embrace one of their city’s – and indeed most of the country’s – most defining features: the canals. The parade floats literally float down the canals, boats that are decked out with rainbows and glitter and leather and flags and music and everything. The streets around the parade route – it travels across through the city via several of the larger main canals and the river Amstel – were particularly busy, with people staking out and securing their position so they could ensure they had a good view. However, we were going one step better. Joris and Thijs had a friend, Frans, who had a boat – well, more like a detached, floating jetty – at the edge of one of the main canals, and so was hosting a small parade viewing party. We were literally down on the waters edge watching the boats glide past.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

Joris and I during the parade.

Joris and I during the parade.

Myself, André's friend, and André.

Myself, André’s friend, and André.

After missing most of the parades in Paris and Madrid, it was fun to actually be present and see the parade, especially from such a great vantage point. It was also a beautiful day – the sun was shining bright and there was barely a cloud in the sky. “Let’s hope this great weather continues,” Joris had said earlier in the morning, peering out the window of his apartment. “It’s rained on the day of the parade for the last few years now.” But today there wasn’t even the slightest threat of rain, and we danced and drank and cheered for the floats in the gorgeous sunshine. Some of the float designs were actually really remarkable. Due to having to pass under numerous bridges on the parade route, many of the boats had to be under a certain height to pass through. However, rather than having a bunch of relatively flat floats, many of them incorporated designs that allowed for things to be lifted and lowered, so that they could shrink down to go under the bridges before emerging on the other side. I guess it was a normal thing for most of the locals, but I was considerably impressed.

Gay drag unicorn - because why not?

Gay drag unicorn – because why not?

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam.

Mermaids and mermen.

Mermaids and mermen.

The cheeky Mr B float.

The cheeky Mr B float.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

It wasn’t too long before we started getting quite intoxicated – the mix of being out in the sun and all the alcohol dehydrates you a little faster than normal, and eventually things started getting a little silly. I don’t know who did it first, but at some point during the afternoon someone jumped into the canal in a playful attempt at splashing one of the floats. Then someone else jumped in. Then someone from a float jumped in. I don’t know if it was peer pressure or the fact that it was actually getting pretty hot out, but the idea of a cool dip sounded mighty refreshing, so it wasn’t long before I had stripped down to my underwear and was jumping in after them. It became something of a playful water fight, pushing people in as soon as they just climbed out, and dragging other people in with them. It was a lot of fun, I must admit, though being drunk as I was it was also thoroughly exhausting. Towards the end of the parade, when the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, I was sitting on the edge of the jetty next to Thijs.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” he said with a deep, exhausted sigh, referring to diving into the canals and the water fight we’d had with the floats. I just let out a chuckle.
“You can’t believe it? How come?”
“Well…” A slightly uneasy look spread across Thijs’ face. “It’s not… it’s not exactly the cleanest body of water.”
“Oh…” I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah. I mean, they do usually clean it before big events like this, but… They’ve pulled a lot of bikes out of these canals over the years. And far, far too much rubbish. Who knows what else is in there.”
It wasn’t a comforting thought, but I guess at the time I was too full of adrenaline and alcohol to let myself be too bothered by it.

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns...

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns…

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

When the parade came to an end but the sun was still up, the partying moved to the streets. Someone from somewhere had some kind of speaker system – I had lost my attention to detail at this point, okay? – and a huge bunch of people were all just dancing and raving in the streets. Some of them were my newly made friends from earlier in the day on Frans’ boat, while others were people who I was only meeting for the first time. It was all a little crazy. There was a car that tried to drive through the street we were on. It proceeded to get rocked side to side to the beat of the music on its way through, but the driver didn’t even seem to mind that much. It was just a crazy and fun afternoon where it seemed like every single person in the city was getting into the spirit and celebrating. We stayed there until dusk started to roll around, at which point Joris came and found me to let me know they were heading home. We still had another party to attend later that evening, and after the day we’d had I definitely needed a power nap.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

***

“We’ll just have a quick lie down, to recharge and get some more energy,” Joris had said. Famous last words, if ever I’d heard them. Fast forward, and Joris was knocking on the door of the spare room André and I were sharing. I had laid down on my air mattress for what I thought was going to be a few seconds, but Joris was taking us up more than a few hours later.
“Looks like we were all a little more tired than we thought,” he’d said as we stirred from our slumber. “It’s almost midnight.”
“What?!” We’d had plans to head to the party at 10 o’clock, but that obviously wasn’t happening any more.
“Yeah,” Joris said. “We’ve ordered a couple of pizzas that should be here any minute, so we’ll down them and get going.” No rest for the wicked, I suppose.

Ideally I would have liked to shower before heading out to a big pride party – especially after swimming in the Amsterdam canals – but due to our extended naps we just didn’t have the time. However, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too much of an issue at the party we were going to. When I had been e-mailing Joris prior to my arrival in Amsterdam, he’d told André and I that the Lowlanders could get discounted tickets to the Bear Necessity party that was being held over the pride weekend. It’s wasn’t exactly my scene (for anyone not familiar with homosexual jargon, Google “gay bears” at your own risk/discretion – and use Safe Search), but I’m always open to trying new things, and the ticket was a considerably good price, so I agreed to join Joris and Thijs at the party, and so did André. We ate our pizzas and were off on our way again.

I was completely expecting to be the odd one out at a bear party – full of larger, older and hairier men – and I wasn’t wrong. André and I were in the minority of the smooth and hairless, but other than that it wasn’t too different from your standard gay party. The music was a little more electronic and house and a little less pop for my liking, but then it reminded me more of the trance-like beats I’d heard at places like Berghain, and I actually found that that was something I was getting more and more into. Some of the men were dressed up in their best leather outfits, and it was actually kind of interesting to see the kind of stuff that I had sold for so long at my previous job actually being put to use. Despite the kinky outfits some of them donned, most of them were incredibly nice, and I had a great time dancing with Joris and Thijs and the rest of them. One of the highlights was meeting last years Mr Bear Germany – I had no idea who he was, but I figured it would be something cool to tell my former colleagues about, so I stopped and made sure I got a photo. André left relatively early, somewhere between two and three in the morning, but Joris and Thijs and I stayed until the party wrapped up some time after five.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

As we stumbled outside, the sun was already on it’s way up. On top of being drunk, I was incredibly tired – at this stage, standing up was proving to be a challenge, let alone keeping my eyes open or riding my bike home. In the end Joris asked one of his friends who lived nearby if he could help us out. He hadn’t ridden a bike, so he took the handlebars of mine while I took the passenger seat – a flat wire grid on the back of the bike, to which one could strap a basket or some other cargo. I sat sidesaddle and wrapped my arms around their friends waist for support, and the four of us on the three bikes set out from the Red Light District and into the quieter streets of Amsterdam. It was so still and peaceful. I don’t remember my bike riders name, but I do remember leaning my head on his back, and just watching the dawn unfold around the beautiful city, so still and undisturbed. It was rather magical, the best antidote to the day and night of crazy partying, and the perfect end to Amsterdam pride.

Weird, Wonderful, Wasted: Exploring Berlin’s Gay Bars

“Robert, do you know what kind of car this is?” Dane said to me, his voice almost quivering with subtle excitement.
“Um… a really fancy one?” I was slightly off my face by that point in the evening, and hadn’t exactly retained my attention to detail.
“It’s a Mercedes,” Dane said as he stoked the impeccable leather seats. He had always had a thing for cars, so after a disappointing rejection from Berghain this seemed to be lifting his spirits. “There are so many taxis around here like this. How awesome is this?!” That’s right, the Mercedes we were in was a taxi, taking us away from the depths of east Berlin on a Sunday night. We had attempted to get into the notorious Berghain, but had been turned away on the grounds that we were too late, and the only people allowed back in were those who had stamps from previous admission.

The Berlin Wall during our late night trek out east.

The Berlin Wall during our late night trek out east.

Pre-'not getting into Berghain' selfies with Dane.

Pre-‘not getting into Berghain’ selfies with Dane.

So now we were heading back to Motzstraße, the heart of the gay district where Dane was staying. It was the Sunday evening of my first weekend in Berlin, and after my failure of a Saturday night, we had decided we would have one last night on the town before Dane left Berlin. “Let’s just go back to Schöneburg and check out Toms,” Dane had said. “It’s this bar that’s kind of infamous for its dark rooms. Could be kind of interesting to check out, right?” Back in Australia most licensed venues are not allowed to be sex-on-premises venues (SOPV), so there was something of a novelty behind a bar that had rooms that were dedicated solely to meeting and having sexual relations with other patrons. When we finally arrived, we sat down in the upstairs bar area and got some beers. The atmosphere literally oozed of sex, but in a dirty, filthy way, rather then anything refined or classically ‘sexy’ – I suppose that’s a matter of perspective though, but this was far from a cabaret speakeasy or a ‘gentlemen’s club’. There were numerous television screens mounted on the walls – all of them were playing hardcore gay porn. Dane and I both giggled to ourselves at the surreality of it all, and we made eyes with guys as they passed by, though just as frequently dodged glances from those who weren’t our types. While I wouldn’t have minded going to a bar with more of a dance floor, or a setting that better enabled conversation, there was clearly only a few reasons most people came to Toms: cruising, picking up, and hooking up.

After downing a little more liquid courage, I turned to Dane. “Are you gonna go downstairs?” The entrance down into the darkroom looked like a looming cave in the corner of the bar.
“Only if you come with me,” he said.
“What, for moral support? Need someone to hold your hand?” I teased, but in all honesty I was just as curious to check out what really happened down there. I mean, I’ve seen the entire series of Queer As Folk, so I had a pretty good idea, but it’s still something that you really just have to see for yourself. Dane and I are pretty good friends, and weren’t too shy when it came to being naked in front of each other, so we turned out to be pretty good partners in crime when it came to exploring the dark rooms. We descended into the depths with a pact to look out for one another, and each managed to do our own thing while we were down there without ever really straying too far from each others sides. Dane was newly single, and I was… well, I don’t really have a reason, but it’s safe to say we were both a little adventurous when we were down there. But it was fun, albeit a little seedy, and an undeniably interesting experience which served as my introduction to Berlin gay bars.

***

Later on during the week, after Dane had moved on to the next destination in his trip, I decided I wanted to check out some more of the gay nightlife. I was given some advice about where to go by Donatella and Lola and some of the other housemates, but I didn’t have anyone to go with. It was a Thursday night, and I was planning to head to Schöneburg on the Friday night for the opening party of the Christopher Street Day pride weekend, so I wasn’t sure if I should head to the same place or try and find something in a different area. After striking up a few conversations with some guys on one of the various gay chat applications on my phone, I finally found someone who wasn’t looking for casual sex and was also planning to go out for some drinks later. His name was Micha, and it turned out he would be meeting a friend at a bar called Rauschgold, which happened to be less than a ten minute walk away from Donatella’s apartment. He said I was welcome to join them, so I got myself ready and headed out into was what becoming a stormy and rainy evening.

As I scurried inside out of the pouring rain, I was hit with a sensation that I can only describe as the love child of nostalgia and déjà vu. There’s something about visiting that kind of gay bar that can make you feel like you’re right at home, no matter what part of the world you’re in – if that’s the kind of bar you choose to frequent in your hometown, I suppose. It was essentially Kreuzburg’s version of Stonewall in Sydney – rainbow flags and a whole host of other sparkly decorations adorned the walls, the sound system was playing a combination of the latest pop hits and classic gay anthems, and there seemed to be at least one drag queen present at any given moment. Though when I arrived it wasn’t too busy, and I was able to spot Micha fairly easily. He was with a female friend of his, so I introduced myself to them both and sat with them over a couple of beers, but after a while Micha’s friend had to leave to get home to her teenage son.
“No, let’s not stay here,” Micha said when I went to order another beer. “It’s not going to get much better than this. Do you want to see some other better bars around here?” I was delighted that he had offered – locals always know the best places to go – so I took him up on the offer and we jumped in a cab to our next destination.

***

We found ourselves at a bar called Möbel Olfe. “It means furniture shop, in English,” Micha explained to me, “which is what it used to be before it became a bar.” Thursday was ‘gay night’, so other than it being crammed full with men and not a woman in sight, there was nothing overtly gay or camp about the place. There were bits of bare wall behind a broken façade and the drinks list was written on the tiled parts of the wall in a way that would be easily mistaken for graffiti at a passing glance. Then there were high stools and tables made of wood, and a slick wooden bar that was receiving a lot of attention. Throw in a crowd that was rather impeccably dressed, yet packed together like tinned sardines, and the unescapable veil of cigarette smoke that hung above us and the whole scene really just seemed like a mess of contradictions that actually came together to create a really cool bar. “This is a particularly trendy place, I guess.” Micha said as he returned to our table from the bar with our drinks. The room was packed – he literally had to squeeze his way through the tightly pressed crowd to get back to me, and even as we sat there, it was inevitable that we would be bumped and jostled by the stream of people navigating their way through the bar around us.

“Where else have you been in Berlin so far?” Micha asked me. I told him that I’d visited Toms last weekend, and the expression that came over his face informed me that the place indeed had a reputation – one that it had no doubt lived up to.
“I guess it’s an okay bar, if that’s your sort of thing,” he finally said.
“It was more just the novelty of the whole dark room thing,” I said with a shrug. “It’s not exactly the place you can go to have a conversation though.”
Micha let out a small laugh, and slowly shook his head, almost knowingly. “No… No, it’s definitely not.” He motioned around the bar we were in now. “This is a pretty typically Berlin place, though. Sometimes it can be full of… well, they’re called Nylons.”
“Nylons?”
“Yes. It stands for ‘New Yorkers and Londoners’. They’re people who come to Berlin for… Well, they’re people who are like…” Micha cleared his throat, and when he spoke again it was an airy, mocking voice that was quite clearly taking the piss. “I’m over here for six months, working on a project,” with an emphasised snooty tone on the final word. I let out a little giggle, but he continued to explain. “You know, so many people who come over from cities like London or New York, self-described creative types who think its so trendy and artistic to live in Berlin while working… on a project.” I laughed again, but Micha just shrugged his shoulders. “Ah, it’s not that bad. It’s just a more… shallow idea of what Berlin’s all about.” I’d spoken to a couple of locals now, about the kind of people who live here and the kind of people it attracts, so I guess I got where he was coming from. It made me want to avoid being a typical tourist more than ever, though I was glad my own city wasn’t included in the acronym. Though at this point I was yet to meet them, I would remember that conversation the following evening when I met Giles and the other London boys, and have a little chuckle to myself.

***

After a couple of drinks at Möbel Olfe, Micha and I headed out into the rain and around the corner to a third and final bar for the evening, a place called Roses. “It’s a very camp place”, he forewarned me as we approached the entrance. “The walls are… well, they’re… you’ll see.” As we stepped into the bar, I felt like I had been thrown into a funky Austin Powers movie with a gay twist. I understood what Micha had meant about the walls – they looked like an extension of the carpet, covered in long, thick pink fur. I had to resist the urge to stroke it, as though it was the matted mane of some visibly homosexual cat. But the rest of the club was just as eccentric – fairy lights, homoerotic art, quirky and chic furniture. The lights were dim and the room was almost hazy, yet the smell in the air suggested there wasn’t just tobacco being consumed in or around this venue. We sat down after getting our drinks, and I took a sip of mine. I instantly recoiled, making a face as I placed the drink on the table. “Oh my God… That drink is so strong!” That was a big call coming from someone like me, but it honestly felt like I was drinking 2 parts bourbon, 1 part Coke.
“Yeah,” Micha said as he took a careful sip from his own drink. “I’ve sometimes wondered whether they intentionally spike drinks in this place to make people party harder. I’ve have some crazy night after ending up at Roses.” A comforting thought.
“Well, at the very least they’ve spiked it with extra alcohol,” I said as I took another sip.

I wish I could add further details to some more of the conversations I had at Roses, because my vague and blurry memory tells they were quite humorous. I think I met another Australian, a girl who was with a gay friend of hers. Their personalities were somewhere between hipsters and divas, and I think I successfully managed to offend one or both of them by probably being a little too honest about what I thought of them. Then Micha and I also chatted to a Swedish girl who was barely 18-years-old and a complete drunken mess. It was her first time travelling and she just seemed so happy and excited about every single thing that was happening. Which would have been sweet, if it weren’t for the fact she could hardly stand up without resting the majority of her weight on us. Which meant she wasn’t going anywhere, and we were stuck with her emphatic, high-pitched, excited and incessant babbling. Micha left me at one point for a cigarette, and eventually the girl’s 19-year-old boyfriend came to help her, but it very much appeared to be the blind leading the blind as they stumbled out of the bar. When I made a trip to the bathrooms, I was stopped by an American guy. “Hey!” he called into my ear over the music, “I remember you from that other place!”
I stopped to enquire further – I won’t lie, I got a tiny little kick out of already being recognised. “Which one?”
“The… The furniture place,” he said through some mild drunken slurring.
“Möbel Olfe?! Yeah, I was just there with my friend!” I replied, probably also slurring my words due to our obscenely strong drinks.
“Do you know where we can get some…” The guy began to asked me, completely out of the blue. I stared at him expectantly, while he stared at me blankly. He was obviously about as wasted as I felt, probably more. “Do you know where we can get some stronger stuff?”
“The drinks here are so strong!” I exclaimed for the second time tonight.
“No, I mean like-”
Oh!” And right there, I momentarily felt like I was back at ARQ in Sydney, being hunted down by people who just assumed I was the type of guy who would be selling GHB. “Sorry, can’t help you buddy,” I said as I slipped away and continued on to the bathroom.

***

When we left Roses, feeling extremely more wasted than when we had arrived, Micha said he was ready to call it a night.
“Me too,” I agreed. “But first: I need food!” Micha just laughed, ushered us into a taxi, and directed us back towards Rauschgold – conveniently in the direction of where we both lived. Except we got out a little earlier at a place called Curry 36 – and so began what will probably be my life long addiction to currywurst. One of the few original recipes the province of Berlin has to offer to German cuisine, it is now definitely one of my favourites. It’s just a standard sausage cooked in curry spices, but served with ketchup, mayonnaise and a side of chips, it was exactly the kind of food I needed after a night of drinking. Dangerously, it was located just around the corner and down the road from Donatella’s apartment – this would definitely not be the only time I ate currywurst while I was in Berlin.

Currywurst -it tastes even better than it looks!

Currywurst -it tastes even better than it looks!

Micha and I with one of his friends.

Micha and I with one of his friends.

Micha and I at his birthday party on Saturday.

Micha and I at his birthday party on Saturday.

After trying to call Eva – who had our shared key – to no avail, I eventually had to crash on the couch at Micha’s place. We walked back to his apartment as the 4:30am sun was rising, drunk and tired and ready to sleep. I was really happy that I’d decided to go and meet Micha – he was a nice and friendly guy who had voluntarily taken the time to show me the nightlife in his city. As it happened, it was actually his birthday that coming Saturday, and he said I was more than welcome to join him and his friends for the open bar tab he had planned at Rauschgold. Never one to shy away from free alcohol, I wandered on down after the Christopher Street Day parade on Saturday and got to know some of Micha’s friends. They were all lovely, but when they asked me where I’d been in Berlin so far and I mentioned going to the party at Goya on Friday, they all wore the same slightly pained expression.
“Why do you all make that face when I say that!” I exclaimed in my raised octave voice that creeps in after a few too many strong vodkas.
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” they would say. “It’s just very touristy. Have you been to Berghain yet? Now that’s a real Berlin experience.”
“Well, I am a tourist – cut me just a little slack!” I laughed. The talk of Berghain continued to intrigue me though. Micha had shown me a bunch of other clubs, but the elusive warehouse party had thus far evaded me. With intentions to leave after this weekend, I was running out of time, but it was one of the few places that I knew I had to visit…

Christopher Street Day: Gay Pride in Berlin

Up until now, most of my travelling through Europe had been sporadic and unplanned, never really knowing which city I was going to be in on any exact day, with only though vaguest idea of an itinerary. However, my plans for Berlin were different. Some prior research had told me that Berlin would be celebrating gay pride during the middle of June, and so I had based most of my rough plans around the desire to definitely be in Berlin during that time. Pride week was supposed to begin on the weekend I arrived and run right through until the end of the next weekend. If I followed all the strong suggestions to stay for at least a week, I would be in Berlin for most of the festive period. Berlin was supposed to be a pretty crazy city with a huge and diverse gay party scene in general, so it would be an understatement to say I was excited to see what the city had to offer at its flaming homosexual finest.

***

They say the world is a small place place. In an almost eerie coincidence, Dane – the very friend who had raved to me about Berlin just before my departure from Sydney – was in the German capital at the exact same time as I was. I’d seen his movements around Europe through his Facebook page, and couldn’t believe it when he to me the dates he was going to be in Berlin. We made plans to meet, and so on the Saturday afternoon after my crazy first night out, Dane picked me up in his hire car and we drove to Schöneburg, the ‘gay district’ out in west Berlin. The streets were packed – for all of my queer Sydney readers, it was a similar vibe to Fair Day during Mardi Gras season, kicking off the pride period. There were food stalls and restaurants and pop up bars selling beers and cocktails and all sorts of other fun things. One huge cultural difference I discovered in Germany is that it’s completely legal to drink alcohol on the street. I mused to Dane that if this were an event in Sydney it would be an absolute nightmare for licensing laws, and there would have to be so much strict control around the perimeter to make sure no alcohol was removed from the designated drinking zones. Germans have a reputation for being sticklers for rules, but I guess that doesn’t really mean anything when there’s no rule about it in the first place!

The streets of Schöneburg during pride.

The streets of Schöneburg during pride.

Oh, the people you see on the streets - standard Berlin.

Oh, the people you see on the streets – standard Berlin.

Dane and I wandered through the streets, soaking in the atmosphere, and occasionally stepping into some of the shops that lined the streets. Another thing I loved about Berlin was the sheer amount of crazy and kinky fetish shops that they had – it reminded me of home and the shop that I used to work in, except back there we were one of the only stores in the city to sell such quality kinky leather wares. Remembering all the names of places that Lola had listed for me the previous evening, we browsed through the stores and the huge ranges of leather jeans, harnesses, jock straps, butt plugs and… well, I’ll leave something to the imagination. The day kicked on into the evening and the partying in the street continued, though eventually Dane and I left, making plans to regroup later as he dropped me home. Unfortunately those plans never came into fruition – when I arrived back in Kreuzburg, I settled down for a quick power nap to recover from Friday night… only to wake up again at 12:40am, feeling like I’d been hit by a train. I wandered out into the kitchen, which was big enough to double as a lounge and chill out area, where a bunch of people were scattered around the floor, drinking and smoking and listening to music. Someone was on ‘something’, quietly laughing to himself on the floor. Someone else had done a huge bulk order McDonalds run, so I sat down, devoured a quarter pounder and then, after realising I hadn’t heard from Dane at all, decided to call it a night and headed back to bed.

***

If there’s one thing that all gay pride celebrations have in common, other than scores of drunken queers, it’s a full blown, glitter and rainbows pride parade. “According to one of my friends, Christopher Street Day is actually this weekend,” Donatella had informed me on the Monday after my first weekend in Berlin. “I thought it was later, but if it is this weekend then you should definitely stay for another weekend. It will be pretty crazy.” Already the words of Ruth and Lola were creeping into the back of my mind – was I ever going to leave Berlin?

Sadly, Dane’s travel plans meant that he couldn’t stay for the following weekend, so when the weekend finally rolled around after my week of being fairly touristic, it became my mission to find new friends to celebrate pride with. I’d been keeping an eye on the official events online, and so on Friday night I headed out to Schöneburg by myself with the intention of hitting the opening party at a nightclub called Goya. I arrived relatively early though, so instead of heading inside straight away, I wandered up Motzstraße to see if there were any other bars that were busy. I was only half successful – there were plenty of people around, but none of them were in the bars. Since the weather had been particularly warm lately, and drinking of the street is completely legal, throngs of gay men were gathered around outside the bars, on the footpath and the side of the road, talking amongst themselves while clutching their bottles of beers. It was a pretty cool set up, but unfortunately made mingling a little hard, since everyone already broken off into their own seemingly impenetrable groups.

As I was wondering what to do, I was approached by a group of four guys. “Hi there,” one of them said to me in a charming, distinctively British accent. “We were just wondering if you knew of any good bars around here to get a drink?”
I was a little taken aback. “Umm… I actually don’t.” I pointed to the crowd across the street and said, “That kinda looks like the place to be, though. I don’t really know any specific bars.”
“Yeah, but…” A second British man, clearly already a little tipsy, leaned in closer to perform an exaggerated whisper in my ear. “We’re interested in a slightly… slightly…” He glanced back at the crowd.
“Younger?” I offered.
“Less… bear-ish crowd,” he finished with a giggle. His assessment of the crowd wasn’t wrong – while the four in front of me all seemed the be in their mid-twenties, the group across the street contained a high proportion of broad shoulders, silver hair and scruffy, salt and pepper beards.
“Wait a second,” the first guy cocked his head a little as he considered me a little more closely. “You’re not German?” Ever since I’d arrived in Berlin, I’d constantly had people mistaking me for a local German and asking me for directions. I blamed the particularly butch haircut that I’d gotten in Groningen, but I didn’t really mind too much – I’d studied enough maps that half the time I could actually tell the enquirers where they had to go.
“Nah, I’m Australian,” I replied.
“Oh, nice!… And you’re here by yourself?”
“Yep.”
“Well, we’re looking for a place to have some drinks before going to the opening party later, but you’re welcome to join us if you like. I’m Giles,” he introduced himself. I went to shake his hand, but he was a bit of an eccentric character and insisted on cheek kisses, before acquainting me with the rest of the group of friends. They were a bunch of guys from London who had flown over for the weekend. The idea of flying to Berlin for the weekend blew my mind at first, but I realised that the city couldn’t be more than a few hours away from London via plane.

So I tagged along with Giles and the Londoners for the evening, eventually just grabbing some beers from a convenience store before heading back to Goya. The venue was huge and elaborate, with towering domed roofs and chandeliers that sent the laser lights scattering, and curved marble staircases that led up to a vast dance floor. The crowd was full of gorgeous men, but from the ones that I spoke to and interacted with, I quickly realised that a large percentage of the crowd were foreigners like myself and the London lads. It was very drunken and slightly messy night, but I remember encountering very few, if any, German men. There were drag shows and pop music and smoke machines and overpriced drinks – I had a great night partying with my new friends, but reflecting on the night in the morning, I decided that it had been in its own way, for all intents and purposes, a bit of a tourist trap.

The evenings entertainment at the party at Goya.

The evenings entertainment at the party at Goya.

***

Though as a mentioned earlier, for every spectacular pride party, there must be an equally fabulous pride parade. Christopher Street Day is essentially the German version of Mardi Gras, except it doesn’t just happen once a year – apparently an event by the same name happens in cities all over Germany at various times of the year. A perpetual pride of sorts, I suppose, and completely befitting of the the Germans, in my opinion. Despite making new friends the night before, I didn’t end up making plans to attend the parade with them. That didn’t stop me though, and when I emerged out of Nollendorfplatz station onto the main strip on Motzstraße I found the streets busy and bustling with people. Some were on-lookers, wide-eyed and curious. Others were selling water and beer and food and drinks and all sorts of goods, but most of the crowd was decked out in full blown costumes, whether it was leather daddies and their ass-less chaps, drag queens in their finest frocks and wigs, or gym bunnies that had seemingly been dipped in pots of glitter. I had arrived just in time to see the passing parade, so I walked down the road a little bit to find a spot with a good view to stand and watch the parade.

Leather pride marchers.

Leather pride marchers.

One of the numerous party bus floats.

One of the numerous party bus floats.

Anti-transphobia marchers.

Anti-transphobia marchers.

More kinky leather men.

More kinky leather men.

One key difference I observed in the Christopher Street Day parade was that everything was just so casual and relaxed, while still operating and functioning in an efficient German manner. Once again, drinking was a non-issue, and marchers in the parade blatantly clutched bottles of wine and cans of beer as they strutted their stuff down the street, whether it was on foot or on one of the many floats. It threw me back to the comparison I made between the crowds in Thailand during the crazy
Songkran water festival, and crowds at Australian events. While in that example I felt as though an Australian event would have grown quickly out of hand and potentially violent, I feel as though had Australians been given the ability to freely drink in the streets, we’d have a lot more problems of misconduct than the Germans were having. Another key difference in this pride parade was the ability to participate. I was feeling slightly hungover from the previous evening, so I chose to remain a spectator from the sidelines, but there were no fences or barriers between the sidewalk and the road – anyone could step off the curb and join the masses in their dancing and partying, strutting and posing, actively taking part of the pride parade. It was worlds away from the organisation and red tape that goes into the planning of Mardi Gras back home, where no one is allowed to pass over those barriers once the parade has started. The German way seemed so much more open and liberated, which is exactly what you would expect from a pride parade, though I can’t help but think that given the same privileges, Australians would still somehow manage to make a mess of the whole thing. Maybe I’m just disillusioned after several years of seeing more intoxicated bogans roaming the streets of Sydney during Mardi Gras season than actual queer people.

Probably my favourite sign of the day.

Probably my favourite sign of the day.

Definitely my favourite drag queen.

Definitely my favourite drag queen.

Drag queen with fierce bra and shoes.

Drag queen with fierce bra and shoes.

Germans marchig for marriage equality.

Germans marchig for marriage equality.

But is wasn’t just the organisational set up of Christopher Street Day that impressed me – the participants really did put on a show. There were gay pride groups for men in leather, lesbian mothers, transgender and intersex people, drag queens of every shape and size, queer students, campaigners for marriage equality, and many other queer community organisations and businesses – my personal favourite was definitely Dildo King. Everyone was dressed in amazing costumes, and music was blaring out of all the trucks that carried the floats. Free stickers and giveaways were being handed out and thrown from floats, and it was impossible to wipe away the smile that was plastered across my face. As a citizen of a country that doesn’t yet recognise marriage equality, I was really pleased to see that people in countries that do recognise it still continue to be proud and fight for the rights of their international queer brothers and sisters. Because up here in Europe, there is a situation that is far more dire than the right to a same-sex wedding.

The beginning of the Russian marchers.

The beginning of the Russian marchers.

Queer. Russian. Proud.

Queer. Russian. Proud.

Russian float - proud and naked.

Russian float – proud and naked.

The only thing they're guilty of is being so cute.

The only thing they’re guilty of is being so cute.

There were several groups of Russian marchers who genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Whether they were dressed plainly and carrying slogans and banners, or fierce drag queens strutting down that street with their hearts on their sleeves for the world to see, my heart simultaneously swelled with pride and broke just a little, for these people who had been turned into exiles and criminals in their own country, to their point where this kind of march would have them thrown into jail or beaten to pulp, perhaps even both. ‘Dark days in the white nights’, read one of the placards being waved over the weave a Russian drag queen whose pissed off expression should have frightened anyone into giving her equal rights. ‘#putinmyass’ was another popular slogan that was being waved around. I screamed and cheered with the crowd around me as these brave souls marched down the street in front of us. Between then and the time of writing, the situation in Russia has only gotten worse. More than ever I reflect upon my visit to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and how the laws being laid down by President Putin are becoming frightfully similar to a Nazi Germany that the world saw during World War II. It’s terrifying, and my heart goes out to our brothers and sisters in Russia who are being faced with such terrible conditions. But there at the Christopher Street Day parade, I was assured on one thing – the world isn’t watching on silently this time, and these atrocities aren’t going unnoticed. It’s almost a little ironic that these displays of pride are now happening in Germany, but it’s up to us, and the people with the freedom to be proud of who we are, to stand up and protest against the Russian authorities, Putin, and the oncoming homosexual Holocaust.

The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

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!