Midnight Jazz and a Gentleman’s Kiss: my first taste of New Orleans

After heading down into the depths of the French Quarter and having dinner at a dive bar called Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, recommended to me by Brett earlier that afternoon. I finished my burger and my beer, but it was still pretty early in the evening so I headed back to the hotel to figure out what I would do that evening, and just take my time getting ready. It was starting to dawn on me that for the first time in a couple of months I was completely alone in a city where I didn’t know a single person, and I didn’t have a local friend to turn to for advice or ideas. There’s always TripAdvisor and other travel sites you can consult, but I was also interested in meeting more people. So of course, enter Grindr. Or Scruff. Or any one of the numerous gay dating apps that have been connecting the already geographically close gay men of the world for years. Many people consider them to be ‘hook up’ apps, and it’s true that there are a plethora of users who are interested in nothing more than a cheap trick, but over the course of my travels I had met a handful of really amazing and genuine guys via the technology, such as Allistair in Vietnam or Anthony in London, all of who I am still good friends with and am still in touch with. So once again I turned to the grids of headless torsos in search of a friend.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Houses along the French Quarter, decorated for the upcoming Halloween.

Sipping on the Jack Daniels I’d bought duty free in Brazil, I chatted to guys here and there, scoping the place for fun or interesting looking guys, but never really getting past a round of half-hearted introductions. That is, until I got a message from Vincenzo. I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was more than “hi how r u?” or “looking?“, so he was already off to a flying start, and he appeared to be gorgeous. He offered a few compliments, I probably blushed to myself and awkwardly returned them. He told me he was currently at work, at one of the smaller hotels around the corner from my hotel, and I told him an abridged version of my story, how I was just in town and looking for some things to do, or someone to show me around. I also mentioned that I was only in my hotel for a few days, and then I would be looking for some other accommodation, probably a Couchsurfing host. That’s when Vincenzo informed me that he too was part of the Couchsurfing community, and he even sent me a link to his profile, and then suddenly everything changed. I guess I felt like I was able to trust him a little bit more once I knew he was an active member of Couchsurfing, and not just a pretty face I’d stumbled across on an app, and suddenly we were making plans for me to meet him at his work when his shift was over.

I was a little nervous when I set out around the corner to meet Vincenzo. He’d been a little bit flirty, but not at all sleazy, so it kind of felt like an impromptu date or something. When I entered the hotel he was sitting sitting behind the reception desk, looking even more handsome in person. It was a small business-type guesthouse, and since it was getting late he was the only one around. We reintroduced ourselves, this time in the physical world, and then I was introduced to Princess, Vincenzo’s adorable Rat Terrier dog who had been cautiously watching me from the safety of in between his ankles. She warmed up to me rather quickly though, and we were only there a few more minutes before it was time for Vincenzo to close up the reception for the night and head off.
“I’m happy to take you out to a few bars along Frenchman Street,” Vincenzo said as we headed out the door and down the street, in a New York accent that originated from the Bronx, with only a subtle hint of the Southern drawl of the local region. “But first I need to take this one home,” he said with a motion down to Princess, who was trotting along in front of us on her leash.
“Works for me,” I said with a smile. “I’ve got no other plans.”

***

Vincenzo lived in a small first-storey flat in one of the upper corners of the French Quarter, with a lush overgrowth of greenery in the front garden behind the metal gates, and a banana tree whose leaves canopied across the railings of his rustic, wooden porch. When you stood on the porch and looked out onto the road, it was easy to forget you were in the United States of America, and in all the travels I did through the country, the French Quarter – and even parts of wider New Orleans – had a particular charm about it that was undeniably unique. The flat was relatively small inside too, and Vincenzo apologised for the apparent untidiness.
“I have a friend staying with me here right now,” Vincenzo said as he nodded towards a fold-out bed that was set up in the corner of the kitchen, the only other room with space that wasn’t his bedroom or the bathroom. “Although she’s actually not here tonight, but she’ll be back for one more night tomorrow.” He’d been putting out some food for Princess, who was now happily munching away, but now he turned to face me directly. “So, I’m not sure how long you’re staying at the Royal, but if you do need a place…” he half shrugged as he motioned to the room around him. “Just let me know.”
“Thank you,” I said with a smile, already quite sure I’d take him up on the offer. He had a carefree vibe about him which I felt was always good in a host, but his charisma also made him incredibly charming.

“Now, I do wanna change my shirt before we go. But first, how about a drink?”
“I’m Australian – I’m always down for a drink,” I joked with him as I sat down on the edge of the fold-out bed. The space was small, and there weren’t any tables or chairs, perhaps due to the fact the bed was there in the first place.
“Do you drink bourbon?”
“It’s my poison of choice.”
Vincenzo chuckled and looked at me with a friendly smirk. “Ice or no ice?”
“I’m fine without ice.” He poured two glasses of neat bourbon and brought them over to me, handing me one before taking a seat beside me on the edge of the bed.
“Cheers,” I said as I took the glass, and held it up to clink it with his before taking a sip.
“Cheers,” he said in return, and when we held our eye contact as we sipped our drinks, there was definitely some kind of connection. I stared into those beautiful blue eyes as they edged in closer, and Vincenzo leaned in to place a light, delicate kiss on my lips. I kissed him back with equal delicacy, although after a few moments he pulled back again.

“I’m sorry. I don’t normally… No, I never do this to Couchsurfers.” He seemed a little flustered, as though he was really conflicted with what he’d just done. “I just don’t want you to feel pressured or anything, just because you might need a place to stay. You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to.” I just sighed with a smile, and placed a hand on his leg so that he looked up and into my eyes again.
“Well, technically we didn’t meet on Couchsurfing anyway,” I said with a grin. “And besides, does it really look like I wanted you to stop?”
Evidently more relaxed, he let me lean into him this time, his big bright eyes closing in surrender to another delicate kiss.

***

Though I could have kissed his gorgeous face all night, Vincenzo had promised to show me around a little bit, and actually go out for a drink.
Not to Bourbon Street,” he said as he quickly changed his shirt, barely suppressing the shudder seemingly at the idea of it. “We can walk to Frenchman Street from here. It’s a lot less touristy, and there’s a lot of live music. You’re a musician too, right? I remember reading that somewhere.” It’s always refreshing when the people you meet online actually took the time to read your profile first.
“Yeah, I am. Acoustic guitar and a bit of ukulele.” Vincenzo himself was a singer and songwriter. “And live music sounds great!” We finished our bourbons sitting on Vincenzo’s porch, as Princess curiously examined the new stranger in her house, and then when we were ready we headed off into the night.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don't think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo's attention.

Princess was thoroughly investigating me. I don’t think she liked having the competition for Vincenzo’s attention.

It was the end of October but the air was still quite warm, and it was only several minutes later that we turned onto Frenchman Street and I experienced my first taste of authentic New Orleans. There were plenty of people out and about, but the road wasn’t overcrowded and choked with tourists. There were people standing around on the street outside some of the bars, sipping their drinks and smoking their cigarettes, although upon entering the first establishment I realised that they were more than allowed to do that inside too – something I hadn’t seen since Berlin. I simply followed Vincenzo, so I can’t quite recall the name of the venues. I think we hopped between a few throughout the evening, but they all appeared to be relatively small, hole-in-the-wall type places, although they were obviously popular with the locals. Wooden architecture, dull but colourful lighting and grungy, dive bar atmospheres, these places had character, and it was all topped off with the live music. I can’t say that jazz is always my first choice in music, but it was the prevailing genre of New Orleans and boy, did they do it well! Vincenzo and I got our drinks and chatted in between listening to the music, and he explained a little bit more about the city and the street we were on.

“Frenchman Street has been a pretty important entertainment district, especially after Katrina,” he told me, in reference to the hurricane that had ravaged the city in 2005. “It’s definitely more of a local scene, though, for the arts and the music rather than the partying and the drinking.” He went on to tell me about Bourbon Street, arguably the most famous street of the city yet one that so many of the locals apparently loathe, disappointed that the tourist trap ultimately prevents visitors from seeing the rest of what the city has to offer, despite them still claiming to have had an “authentic New Orleans experience.” I’d had a few friends who had travelled through the city, and I had to admit that “when I was out on Bourbon Street” was probably the most common phrase in conversations about their visit. So I actually felt incredibly lucky that I’d chanced upon meeting with Vincenzo, someone who was obviously extremely passionate about his city, and who was able to show me a different side of things and lead me away from the brazen distractions. He’d lived there for a long time, knew of the pre-Katrina New Orleans, and had been there helping rebuild it ever since the storm hit, and just seeing the passion and enthusiasm when he talked about the city was inspiring. Those types of people make the best hosts for travellers, and it was during that evening that I knew I definitely wanted to stay with Vincenzo. The fact he was both totally gorgeous and a great kisser were just an added bonuses.

We stayed out late, and we drank a fair bit and maybe even danced a little, swinging to the beat of the devil’s music. Eventually we called it a night, and though it wasn’t on his way home, Vincenzo remained the perfect gentleman and walked me home to my hotel through the quiet, empty streets of the French Quarter.
“Well, New Orleans isn’t really that unsafe,” he confessed, “but it wouldn’t be right to let you walk home by yourself on your first night in a foreign city.” Ever charming as he was, I couldn’t help but blush and oblige, since his company was more than welcome. “And of course, any excuse to spend a bit of extra time with a beautiful man like yourself.”
All I could do was continue to wear my giddy smile, and in the argument for extra time together I invited him to stay the night. Although with no actual set departure date from New Orleans, I had a feeling Vincenzo and I were going to spend plenty of time together.

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“Reto, reto, reto!”

After the first few nights out on the town in São Paulo with Fausto and his friends, I guess you could say that I was feeling a little more confident about the way I could handle myself in the city. Despite that, I was still a little thrown when Fausto had asked whether I was going to head out on the Sunday evening, this time by myself.
“Are you gonna head out tonight?” he asked me in the early hours of the evening. “I have to go to work tomorrow so I can’t join you, but there are a few cool places that have things going on tonight.”
“Oh… I… I hadn’t thought about it.” Truth was, I was still a little terrified at the thought of going out on the streets at night by myself. Which, in retrospect, seems pretty ridiculous given the amount of foreign cities whose streets I had drunkenly traversed on this journey so far.
“Well, it’s up to you, but if you do wanna go out I could give you a few recommendations.” After mustering up some courage and confessing I might be interested to check something out, Fausto told me about a club called A Lôca. “It’s a little more grunge, with a slightly younger crowd – definitely your type of place, I think.” I checked it out on the map: it wasn’t too far away from where Fausto lived, though I would still have to get a cab, but it seemed straightforward enough that I would definitely be able to find my way home at the end of the night.
And that’s how I found myself showering and getting dressed up – but not too dressed up, as per Fausto’s recommendation – and hopping into a cab by myself to find my way to this mysterious A Lôca.

***

I’m not going to lie, I was super nervous about going out on my own. I had been practicing a little bit of Portuguese but there’s no way I could speak it on any practical level – with the essential exception of ordering a beer – and I was diving headfirst into the complete unknown, with absolutely no safety net in sight. But hey, no one bothers writing a blog about staying at home, right?

When I first stepped out of the taxi, I thought that I must have been in the wrong place. In the dim street lights it was hard to clearly make anything out, but there wasn’t anything that looked like the entrance to a club… and that’s when I noticed the cave. I’m not even  exaggerating, the entrance to A Lôca was a cave. Granted, I’m not sure if the rock walls were real or artificial, but I immediately understood what Fausto was talking about when he had described the club as underground grunge. The was some dim lighting around the entrance, where my ID was checked and I was handed a piece of cardboard. I studied it for a few seconds before realising that this piece of cardboard was the A Lôca version of the electronic tab cards I had used at Lions and Club Yacht. I folded it in half and tucked it into my front pocket, knowing very well it was just as important as any electronic tag in eventually getting myself out of this place.

A Lôca seemed to take the term ‘underground’ in a very literal sense – the hallways were fashioned into rough, earthy looking tunnels so that it actually felt like I was inside a underground mine or dungeon. It was like a maze, with openings to different rooms appearing out of no where, and twists and turns obstructing your view ahead. I happened across a bar, which I tentatively approached as I pulled out my piece of cardboard again. I must have looked like a foreigner, because immediately someone asked me where I was from. I looked up to the guy next to me and introduced myself, and he explained how the whole card system worked. The card was a checkerboard of different drink values and prices, and rather than electronically recording all your purchases, the bartenders simply checked off the equivalent value of whatever drink you ordered, and at the end of the night the cashiers at the exit would tally it up and charge you accordingly. Essentially just a more archaic version of the same system, although I was highly concerned at how much easier it could be to lose a simple slip of paper.

I got myself a beer – Skol being the local favourite in this bar – and continued through the maze. I followed the largest tunnel until I arrived at what was undoubtedly the main dance floor. I’d arrived relatively early, around midnight, so the dance floor was only slowly starting to fill up. The music was a diverse mix of pop hits, 90s classics and deep house, with a traditional Brazilian song here and there, but it made for an interesting sound. I just made my way to the floor and started dancing on my own, and I was approached by a handful of people and had short, fleeting conversations with many of them. I had some guys telling me to stay away from certain guys, which at first I thought seemed quite threatening, but the evil eye looks they were giving each other made it clear that there were just social circles at play, or potentially scorned ex-lovers – I guess gay drama knows no language barriers or culture shocks. I did my best to steer clear from anything like that, and just enjoy the music and the more light-hearted people within the crowd. I think I ended up dancing with some American tourists for a little while, who didn’t say much but were more than happy to bust a few moves with me.

There were also a couple of drag performances that evening. The first one was… well, she was entertaining, I suppose. But not so much in a “Wow, what a show!” kind of way, but more in the ‘car crash in slow motion and so horrible to watch but I can’t look away’ kind of way. She was more like a court jester – something silly to warm the crowds up before the main event. I mean, it was really just her twerking in a bunch of various positions, and getting offended and slapping one of the boys whenever they tried to jump up on stage and cheekily join in, often accompanied with lewd gestures.

The warm-up act...

The warm-up act…

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

In her defence, she was pretty good at twerking.

The main event, however, was something else entirely. It was a full-blown drag performance with an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme set to Lady Gaga’s Applause, which had only been recently released at the time. As a big fan of the drag performers and shows in my own city, it was pretty satisfying to see another quality performance from another city around the world.

The better drag queen of the evening.

The better drag queen of the evening.

***

When I’d started to get a little tired of dancing, I made my way back through the twists and turns of the cavernous club to where the bar was located. I had another beer and then took my place against a wall, watching the people come and go, observing the different types of characters and just generally people watching. Occasionally there would be a little bit of eye contact, but usually nothing more than a fleeting glance. However, that all changed when I met Rodrigo. He was slightly shorter than me and had gorgeous tanned skin, and I noticed him stealing glance after glance at me between his conversation with his two female companions. It was obvious I was there by myself, and in no time at all the trio approached me and asked me where I was from. I guess it was also really obvious that I wasn’t a local, but in this case it had made it pretty easy for them to approach me and strike up a conversation, so I wasn’t complaining. Rodrigo introduced himself and his friends, Rita and Ducky.
“Why Ducky?” I’d asked, legitimately perplexed. I’d had to direct the question to the others because Ducky didn’t speak English.
“Because,” Rodrigo and Rita tried to explain between fits of giggles, “Well, don’t you think she looks a little… like a duck?” I didn’t know if there was something I wasn’t getting, but I just laughed along as they playfully teased their friend. She didn’t seem to find it quite as funny, but in the end I discovered she was the designated driver, so no one is ever really that impressed to be in that position.

My new amigos.

My new amigos.

I spoke to them for a while, and after a few more beers and a few more flashes of Rodrigo’s cheeky smile, the two of us were all over each other. I don’t know for exactly how long that lasted, but eventually Ducky was rambling about something in Portuguese, and Rita translated. “We’re going to go salsa dancing!” she exclaimed with a laugh.
“Yeah, do you want to come with us?” Rodrigo asked.
“Yes! Come, come!” Rita said with a smile. Between the kisses with Rodrigo I had been laughing and joking around with the three of them, and I was having far too much fun to just throw in the towel now. “Ducky is driving, but don’t worry she hasn’t been drinking.”
So I agreed, and after fishing our pieces of cardboard out of our pockets and paying for the beers, Rodrigo grabbed my hand and led me to where Ducky’s car was parked.

The two girls were in the front, and I climbed into the backseat with Rodrigo. More making out ensued, but it wasn’t until we were actually well underway and driving that I came up for air and actually paid attention to where we were, or more importantly…
“Wait… where are we going?” I said, the gravity of the situation mostly masked in my mind by the alcohol, adrenaline, and probably a few hormones.
“Salsa dancing!” Rita yelled, throwing her hands up in the air. “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you!” From the looks of it we were on some kind of overpass or highway, so at that stage I didn’t really have much of a choice but to stay with them.
Ducky asked something in Portuguese, and the others began replying. Rita was being a little more helpful, but Rodrigo was just yelling out the word ‘reto’ (pronounced “heto” for native English speakers) over and over again. “Reto! Reto! Reto!”
“What’s she saying?” I asked Rodrigo, once he’d stopped shouting.
“She’s just asking which way to go,” he said with a cheeky smile.
“Oh… well, what’s ‘reto’?”
“It means forward. Straight head. Keep going.”
“Oh… I see.” I don’t know what came over me – well, beer and a sense of bravado, obviously – but at that moment I stood up in the back of the car, stuck my head and torso out through the open sunroof, and screamed at the top of my lungs: “RETO! RETO RETO!”

Down inside the car, everybody fell about laughing, and the directions-turned-war cry became our temporary anthem, screaming the word over and over even as Ducky made the necessary turns to get to wherever it was we were going. Eventually we arrived at a bar – I have to admit, when I took a moment to take in my surrounds, it looked like we were just off a highway in the middle of no where – but unfortunately it looked like whatever salsa dancing that had been going on was starting to wrap up. It looked like the night was coming to an end. We all stopped to pee in the service station next door – me praying that my newfound friends actually were my friends, and weren’t going to drive off and leave me stranded. But they didn’t and suddenly, as I climbed back into the car, I was faced with the questions of: ‘What am I going to do now?’ and ‘How the hell am I going to get home?’

I tried to explain to Rodrigo where I lived, but instead he offered for me to come and crash with him and Ducky and Rita at Ducky’s place. “Do you have to be anywhere tomorrow?”
“Well…” I was on holidays, after all. “No, I guess I don’t.”
“Perfect,” he said with a gorgeous, playful smile. “Me neither.”
And that’s how I ended up with these three crazy, gorgeous Brazilians, singing and shouting all the way home – “Reto! Reto! Reto!” – and taking selfies in the elevator of a rather nice apartment complex. After getting some water into us and raiding Ducky’s fridge for snacks, the girls retired to Ducky’s room and Rodrigo and I attempted to sleep on the couch. There wasn’t really enough room for the two of us though, so Rodrigo suggested that we should sleep in the other bedroom.
“There’s another bedroom?” I said with a laugh. “Well, um… duh. Let’s go there, then.”

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

Mandatory post-partying group selfie in the mirror.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

With Rodrigo and Rita after finally arriving home.

Things got a little weird when we opened the door to a full-blown child’s bedroom, complete with city map carpet for playing with toy cars and Disney’s Cars bedspread with matching curtains.
“Umm… ” I stared at Rodrigo, literally having no words to express my current feelings.
“This is her son’s room,” he said, stating the obvious but seemingly oblivious to how shocked I was.
“So… where is the kid?”
“With his father, of course!” he said with a chuckle. I didn’t have the energy to ask any more questions about the complexity of that situation, but I will say that sleeping in the same bed with a guy that you just met, in the bed of child that you’ve never met, leads to a mild crisis of ethics and morality the morning. It felt pretty wrong, but hey, what he never knows will never hurt him.

***

In the morning, both Ducky and Rita had to get up early to go to work, so when they did Rodrigo and I made the shortest walk of shame in history, from one bedroom to another. We spent the rest of the morning there, sleeping in and hanging out. Eventually I heard someone walking about the apartment outside the bedroom.
“Don’t worry, that’s just the maid,” Rodrigo said. This wasn’t uncommon in Brazil – Fausto also had a cleaning lady – but it didn’t stop me from feeling uncomfortable with the continually mounting pile of weird upon which I was sitting. But there was nothing I could do except roll with it, and trust that Rodrigo would somehow manage to eventually get me home.

My phone had died during the night, but luckily Ducky had a charger at her house. When the screen finally flashed to life, I had a message from Fausto asking where I was.
“Hmm… that’s a good question… Rodrigo, um… were exactly are we?”
“Well… we’re not in São Paulo anymore,” he said.
I looked at him, an incredulous on my face. “Excuse me, what?”
“We’re not in São Paulo anymore. We’re in São Caetano do Sul.”
“And where the hell is that?!”
Rodrigo just smiled and laughed. “Well technically it’s the next city over from São Paulo.”
I relayed this answer to Fausto, he told me he had no idea where that was and he would ask one of his co-workers. Um, what?! I felt like I’d gone clubbing on Oxford Street in Sydney and somehow managed to end my night in Parramatta, or gone partying in Manhattan and woken up in New Jersey. Except people still know where New Jersey is!
It turned out that São Caetano do Sul was still technically part of the metropolitan São Paulo region, in the same way that the international airport was, meaning that it wasn’t really far but… it definitely wasn’t close.
“How can I get home? Do you have a car?”
“No… Rita works in São Paulo, but… well, she’s already at work.” He grinned sheepishly, and I realised that short of pointing me in the right direction, Rodrigo was not going to be able to take me home.

It was a bit of a sticky situation, but I didn’t have anywhere to be so I didn’t let it stress me out too much. Assuring Fausto I’d be home as soon as I could, Rodrigo and I ventured out of the bedroom to find Ducky’s maid cooking lunch for us. I was about to politely decline and start my journey home, but as it turned out the maid had including my clothes in a load of laundry she was doing, so I was forced to stay and eat while waiting for my clothes to dry. The whole thing seemed a little surreal to be honest, but the food was delicious and it was actually nice to put on some clean clothes – that were actually own, too! – for the journey home to São Paulo. There was no reasonable or logical public transport options that were going to take me to where I needed to go, so once again it was up to the Brazilians best friend – a taxi – to get me home. Rodrigo helped me order one that could take me that distance, and helped explain to the driver where I needed to go when the taxi finally arrived. He flashed me one last cheeky smile as he bid me farewell, and with our parting words I promised to match the hospitality I had received should he, Rita or Ducky ever find themselves in Sydney. The taxi wasn’t even that expensive – though it took almost an hour to get home, it cost about a third of the price that a similar trip in Sydney would have cost.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

Sights on my way back to central São Paulo.

I didn’t get a chance to see Rodrigo again during my time in Brazil, but in the taxi ride home from São Caetano do Sul I did see a variety of different environments and neighbourhoods, all of which made for quite an interesting trip. And though I’m yet to meet them again, I would never have guessed that the night that I chose to venture out in São Paulo by myself would be the night that I found the most amazing friends, had the most wild and crazy fun, and created some of the best memories.

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

G for 'George'.

G for ‘George’.

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

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

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

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

Glow Sticks and Green Lights: Parisian Nightlife

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

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

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

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

Arie and I in Sly Bar.

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

Monkey Business

After the reawakening of my travel bug on the back of a motorcycle, I noticed myself growing slightly restless with the fact that I had been in the same city for over a week now. I’d been all around Bangkok, seeing the sights, tasting the flavours, and soaking up the smells, and while it truly is a huge city and simply impossible to see and do everything, I felt like a wanted to venture out and do some more exploring. At the suggestion of a friend who had traveled through Thailand before, I decided to take a day trip to the small town of Lop Buri, about two and a half hours north of Bangkok via train. Lop Buri, I had been told, was rather famous for its large population of monkeys that inhabit some of the old nearby temples. It might have seemed rather novel, but after spending to much time in the city I was interested in checking out a town that had been partially overrun by the native wildlife. The day turned out to be quite an eventful adventure, though not for the reasons I was expecting…

***

To make the most of my day in Lop Buri, I caught the 7:00 train. To allow ample time for getting ready, getting to the train station, buying my ticket and finding the platform, I crawled out of bed at 5:30 – the earliest I have gotten up for as long as I can remember. Navigating Hua Lamphong Railway Station turned out to be surprisingly easy though, and before long the train was pulling out of the platform and traveling north. It was a slow start, with the train stopping at several smaller stations in the Bangkok area, and a couple of times just stopping, seemingly in the middle of nowhere for no reason. But as the train kicked off again, I realised that the train tracks frequently crossed the streets roads, and I could only assume that we had been waiting for the barriers to come down and stop traffic so that the train could proceed. The further we traveled, the less frequent our stops became, and soon enough I was racing through the Thai countryside, wind in my hair from the open window and a smile across my face. It really was a great way to see more of the country than just flying from city to city, though I have to admit to nodding off into a micro-sleep every now and then – early morning starts have never agreed with me.

Traffic waiting at the crossing while the train passes.

Traffic waiting at the crossing while the train passes.

Thai countryside.

Thai countryside.

Lop Buri train station.

Lop Buri train station.

Due to some of the stops we’d made the train was running about 40 minutes late. I kept a cautious eye out for signs as we pulled into every station, slightly anxious about missing my stop, but it was about 10:20 when the train finally rolled into Lop Buri, so I jumped off and wandered out in to the town in search for monkeys. The sun was high in the sky now, and I wandered the streets for close to an hour, just observing the scenes and the environment, appreciating just how different it really was from the big cities like Bangkok. There were a couple of old relic temples, and I soon realised that these historic buildings were the towns biggest official tourist attraction. However, while I did find the temples intriguing to behold, I had come to Lop Buri for the monkeys, and so far I had not seen any. I told myself that I had a whole day, and that I simply mustn’t have been looking in the right places. I stopped walking and gazed out into the streets around me, and then looked down to the pavement… to see a monkey, casually leaning against a telephone poll and eyeing me with a look of disinterest.

My first monkey sighting of the day.

My first monkey sighting of the day.

It was as though I had stumbled upon them seemingly out of nowhere – one moment I was searching the streets desperately, the next minute there was a throng of them sitting on the footpath ahead of me. Someone had thrown some food on the ground – from what I could see it appeared to be a huge batch of hard-boiled eggs, though they smelt kind of rotten. Or maybe that was just the smell of the monkeys, I couldn’t say for sure. All I know is that the monkeys are scampering around to pick up every last bit of food. Some of them were fighting, some of them were mating, some were climbing up buildings and poles, shrieking wildly, while others sat about casually plucking scraps off the floor. I approached with caution to get a closer look, but they didn’t seem to pay me the slightest bit of attention as they hastily went about cleaning the food off the pavement.

Monkeys eating their feast off the pavement.

Monkeys eating their feast off the pavement.

Monkeys literally took over this street, passing between the gaps of this seemingly abandoned building.

Monkeys literally took over this street, passing between the gaps of this seemingly abandoned building.

Making themselves at home.

Making themselves at home.

That was when I noticed another old temple just down the road. As I carefully stepped my way through the crowd of lunching monkeys and approached the building, I realised that it was covered in monkeys. Some were running around on the grass and dirt that surrounded the temple, but there were more draped over the stone statues and steps, masses of limbs and fur all clambering up the concrete and into the shade that the building provided. Again, I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, and most of them simply looked at me with rather blank expressions – but I’m not sure if monkeys faces are really capable of showing emotion or if I was just reading far too into it. As I circled the temple, however, I encountered a bawdy collection of monkeys that were a little more feisty. It may have been something to do with the open packet of peanuts I’d left in my bag, who can say? But just when I thought that I was the monkey equivalent of a severely unfunny comedian, I felt a tiny pair of hands latch onto my shorts. I looked down to find a monkey crawling up my leg… and then turned my head to realise there was one on my shoulder too, and before I knew it there were about four monkeys hanging onto my various limbs. One was clinging onto my backpack, tugging at the at one of the tags on the outside of the bag, but thankfully none of them managed to unzip it.

Monkeys lounging around on the temple statue.

Monkeys lounging around on the temple statue.

I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, yet they paid me little attention, at first.

I was able to get right up close to the monkeys, yet they paid me little attention, at first.

At that point a local boy came running up to me, screaming and shouting. At first I thought that I was in some kind of trouble, but he began clapping his hands very close to my shoulders, and I quickly figured out that he had rushed to my aid and was scaring away the monkeys. I thanked him… and then awkwardly had to ask if he might take some photos of me, while the monkeys hung from my legs and shoulders. He obliged, so I edged back over towards the curious critters, and in no time at all they were all over me again, tugging at my clothes and calling out to each other. The local boy snapped a bunch of photos, then returned to my side to help scare the monkeys off again. I hung around the temple for a little while longer, though I kept a safer distance from the monkeys for fear that they might eventually figure out a way into my backpack. When I was done, I waved to the local boy and thanked him, and then continued on my way.

The monkeys didn't stay disinterested for long, though...

The monkeys didn’t stay disinterested for long, though…

Good thing I've had rabies vaccinations, I guess?

Good thing I’ve had rabies vaccinations, I guess?

I still think they're kind of cute, if a little dirty.

I still think they’re kind of cute, if a little dirty.

The temple that is home to the obscene amount of monkeys in Lop Buri.

The temple that is home to the obscene amount of monkeys in Lop Buri.

***

It was just past noon, and as I wandered the streets I came to the slightly bleak realisation that, other than the monkeys and the temple ruins, this small country town didn’t have a lot to offer. While I did find it interesting, there’s only so long you can walk through the streets of a little country town and absorb all the cultural differences. The small town couldn’t have been more different from the big city hustle and bustle of Bangkok – in a way it reminded me more of some of the smaller towns in countryside Australia I had been to, except that the element of relative poverty was quite distinct. However, I had not properly visited the rest of the historic attractions, so I consulted the map that I had acquired at the monkey temple and made my way to some of the other sites.

There was one particularly large temple complex that I enjoyed walking through – the scenery looked like it could have been lifted from a Forest Temple in a Legend of Zelda video game, adding to a sense of adventure (for myself, at least). The grounds were huge and as you wandered inside you quickly lost sight of the main road – in some parts it felt as though you were actually lost in the jungle somewhere. It was a different kind of beauty than the Grand Palace, which was still fully functional and constantly had people attending to the paint and decorations to keep the complex looking beautiful and up to date, despite their ancient histories. These ruins had a completely different vibe – the stone was worn and broken, grass had overgrown all the floors, and many of the structures were in pieces. It was not completely abandoned – some on the inner chambers showed signs of recent visits, perhaps to pray or show respects, so it was as though these monuments had been allowed to age gracefully,  growing old and worn, rather than constantly revitalised to be kept new and pristine for all of eternity.

The old temples looked like places from adventure video games.

The old temples looked like places from adventure video games.

Decaying status inside the temple ruins.

Decaying status inside the temple ruins.

I spend a while reflecting on these juxtapositions, when suddenly I heard a voice call out. I turned to see a Buddhist monk walking slowly across the grass, smiling and waving. I had seen many monks during my time in Thailand, though most of them had seemed rather solemn and stern, keeping to themselves whenever I saw them riding the BTS through Bangkok. However, I had personally known a Buddhist nun back in Australia, so I wasn’t too concerned or nervous as the monk approached me. If truth be told, I felt a little special that a monk had stopped and taken the time to even pay me attention, although this time I was the only person in sight, rather than a face in the crowd on a busy Skytrain. We met face to face on the grass, and he spoke to me in what was limited, broken English.

“You alone?” he asked in a gentle voice that almost sounded like a quiet sigh.
“Me? Am I alone?” He nodded slowly, and I looked around, as though some friends may have materialised around me while he had been asking the question. “Ah… well, yes. I’m here by myself. So yeah, I guess I’m alone.”
The monk nodded and smiled. “Ah yes. Come and sit with me.” I didn’t really know how I was supposed to refuse a holy man in his own country, so I followed him to one of the temple ruins. He laid out a small orange cloth to sit on, though it was only big enough for himself, and then motioned at the ground beside him. As I sat, he asked me if I was thirsty. It was impossible to not be thirsty in the ridiculous midday heat, so I told him that I was. He had been carrying some plastic bags, and from within them he pulled out a large bottle of water, and a few smaller bottles of flavoured iced green tea. He offered me one of the teas, and filled up my small empty water with some of his own. They’d all been newly bought, still sealed, and I figured that monks would be known for their kindness and sharing. I knew enough about the teachings of Buddha that greed and material possessions weren’t something that meant a lot to them, so I graciously accepted his offer and drank the tea.

But you can imagine my surprise when, after some small talk about where I was from and what I was doing, heavily strained through the language barrier, the monk proceeded to pull out an iPhone.
“Can I take photo?” he asked me. I was taken aback – it certainly wasn’t the kind of encounter I’d been expected from a revered holy man – but I didn’t see the harm in it. I then asked if I could take a photo of him, thinking that it would make a nice picture to go with the story of how I met Buddhist monk in a tiny village in Thailand.
He smiled and nodded, but as I went to take the photo, he shook his head. “No, no. Of both of us.”
I was even more surprised by that – taking selfies with a monk? Though I wasn’t one to shy away from the unconventional, so I shuffled over so that we were sitting close enough, and leaned out my arm to take the picture. When I showed him afterwards, he gave a little giggle and pointed to our faces, side by side. “Black, and white!” he said through his mirth as he pointed at both of our faces, one by one. He’d told me was forty-nine years old, though I might have guessed older, and it was strange to see a grown man take such delight in the simple juxtaposition of skin tones. He even reached out to take my hand and examine the paleness of my skin, and held our arms together to see the difference. “Black and white,” he repeated with a grin.
“Ebony and ivory,” I chuckled, going along with joke, though I think the phrase was beyond the limits of his English.

The first of (too) many photos I would end up taking with the monk.

The first of (too) many photos I would end up taking with the monk.

Later, Rathana would tell me that the monks were technically not even allowed to touch the lay people. If I had known that, alarm bells might have gone off inside my head a little bit sooner. Yet I put it down to a supposedly gentle nature of the monks, and I myself am somewhat of a tactile person, so I didn’t think much of the gesture. However, he had noticed my tattoos, and became very interested as I began pointing out all the spots where my body was adorning ink. He wanted to take photos. I just laughed and went along with it, although when I went to roll my sleeve up to show him the bird on my shoulder, he said “No, no”, and made a lifting motion to the bottom of my shirt. It seemed a bit odd, but I didn’t really mind, so I went along with his request and removed my t-shirt. He then asked me to stand up, and it wasn’t until I was standing shirtless in the middle of an old, abandoned temple while a Buddhist monk took photographs with me on his iPhone that I fully comprehended how bizarre, and definitely not normal, this situation was.

I put my shirt back on, but the monk wanted to take some more photos of the two of us. He wasn’t as good as taking the selfies so I offered to operate the iPhone camera. It wasn’t until he went to pose for a photo by kissing me on the cheek that I knew something was definitely wrong with this picture. Not wanting to simply grab my things and run at the first sign of weirdness, I instead tried to diffuse the situation by asking if he could take some photos of myself in front of some of the old temples. He agreed, and took a few photos of me in front of the various buildings, but as we sat down again it wasn’t long before he was wanting to take more photos. The bright sun combined with the shadows and shade we were sitting in made it quite difficult to get the lighting right within the photographs – I thought it seemed reasonable that he was simply trying to just get the perfect picture. Though after a while I began to grow tired of the whole ordeal. I had expected to perhaps discuss Buddhism, world peace, the meaning of life – something, or anything, that might have been considered somewhere closer to enlightening. Instead, I’d starred in a topless photo shoot and sat through mostly unintelligible conversations that were completely lost in translation.

One of the other temples within the ruin complex.

One of the other temples within the ruin complex.

When I finally plucked up the courage to tell him that I had to return to the station and buy my ticket – a half-truth, but I wasn’t going to tell a monk I was leaving because I was bored and/or slightly weirded out by his company.
“Ahh,” he said with a sigh. “Wait, sit down a moment.” I had already put my backpack on, so I lightly eased myself down onto the step where he was sitting.
“It was very nice to meet you, thank you very much for the tea and the water,” I said to him, genuinely grateful for that part of our meeting.
“Ahh, goodbye,” he said in his high, airy voice, and outstretched his arms. A hug was a hug, so I thought nothing of it, and lightly leaned into the embrace.

At the most, I had been expecting a light cheek kiss, something appropriate for acquaintances who have just met. So this monk very much shocked me, not for the first time that afternoon, when he turned his head to try and kiss me on the lips. I was stunned – I had absolutely no idea what to do. I certainly didn’t want to kiss him, but in my mind I was still thinking ‘How do you say no to a freakin’ monk?!’
I just sat there, our faces touching for an awkward moment. Then I felt his tongue press against my tightly closed lips, and I knew that I had exceeded my daily limit of weirdness. I firmly pulled myself away from the monk, but I was still at a loss of words.
“No,” he said to me in that soft voice, which had made the jump from gentle to just plain creepy. “You kiss me for longer time. It’s been so long.”
“Ahh…” I just stared at him in disbelief. “No. No, I’m sorry. I have to go now.”
“Okay,” he said, his voice exhibiting that strange quality that made it sound like he was sighing. I was sufficiently creeped out, but as I hurried out of the temple to the main road, I actually spared a moment of sympathy for the man. He’d been a monk for seven years, and I couldn’t even imagine how lonely one would feel after that long.
Then I remembered that he had basically forced himself upon me. I scurried back to the train station and caught then afternoon train back to Bangkok, shuddering every time the moment replayed in my mind.

Statue at Lop Buri station - one of the only clues that suggest the town does actually have the population of monkeys that reside there.

Statue at Lop Buri station – one of the only clues that suggest the town does actually have the population of monkeys that reside there.

***

Over the weekend, I recounted my story to the group I had gone out with last week – Anna & Co., if you will. While they found my experience highly entertaining, none of them seemed that shocked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t even a real monk”, one of the guys said, and suddenly the cynical worldview that my sociological background had gifted me with came flooding to the surface of my mind.
“Yeah, that’s true”, Anna had agreed. “Still, many of the monks don’t even choose to become them. Poor families that have too many sons often donate them to the monasteries.” I imagined being donated to a religious institution, and forced into a life of celibacy, and while for me that seemed like an awful punishment, my experience had left me a little shaken and unable to muster up any more sympathy for the monk. The discussion continued. “In a way it’s pretty similar to the sex scandals of the Catholic Churches and what not, although…” Anna looked towards me with a genuine look of sympathy. “Not to condone what he did to you at all, Robert, but I think we can all agree that we’d much rather them try with 21 year old men than with 10 year old boys!” I returned the smile, and we all had a bit of a laugh at my bizarre experience, while still recognising that perhaps such incidents aren’t as isolated within certain religions as one might first expect.

I don’t think I can say I was glad it happened – the way it turned out with the Buddhist monk was not a pleasant experience in the slightest. Still, it was definitely a unique story I would be able to tell of my travels for a long time – I mean, how many people can say they’ve been hit on by a monk?