Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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Rail and Sail: Dublin Bound

And so I found myself getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning (by my standards, at least) with not nearly enough sleep (even by my standards, which really says something) to get back to Euston train station. I was heading across the Irish sea, and while I had originally thought it would be easy to get a cheap flight across, I soon learned that with Ryanair the baggage I would be carrying would double the price of the ticket to the point that it simply wasn’t worth it – especially not after the traumatic experience I had had trying to fly with them last time. During my scouring the internet for travel options I discovered a deal called the ‘Rail and Sail’ offered by Irish Ferries, which was a package deal that included a train ticket from London to Holyhead, a small port town in Wales, and a ticket for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It was roughly 4 hours on the train and 6 hours on the ferry, as opposed to a flight from London that took an hour at most, but I had heard so many complaints about getting to the various airports in and around London – as well as the endless Ryanair horror stories – that I decided that trying to organise a flight for such a short distance was just not worth the hassle. I was in no rush, so I was more than happy to take a full day out to make the trip. It was cheaper than the flight, there were no extra baggage costs or restrictions, and I rather enjoyed the last trip I had made via ferry, so I thought it would be something nice to do again.

In the end it was the train ride that proved to be a little hair-raising. At one point the tracks travelled along the ground at such an angle that I could feel the slight pull of gravity dragging me towards the window. It was a brief terrifying moment, but other than that the ride went along smoothly and without much other excitement. When we finally arrived at Holyhead, the passengers disembarked and headed down the platform and towards the ferry port. I think it was almost a unanimous migration – aside from the ferry port there didn’t really seem to be much other reason to visit a town like Holyhead. I know that a lot of people said that same thing about Ancona, but at least I knew that in Italy there was sunshine and beaches to be found – the coast of Wales was as gloomy as I would ever have imagined it that morning, and in no way did I feel compelled to hang around, even if I’d had the choice. When I’d booked the ticket it had said that there was a bit of a wait between the arrival of my train and the departure of the ferry, but in reality it was just enough time to wait in the long queue with the rest of the mob, have my ticket and baggage checked, and board the vessel that would carry me across the Irish Sea.

The boat was similar to the one I had caught from Helsinki to Stockholm, except this time it was a shorter trip so I didn’t have a cabin, or any kind of personal quarters. The ship did have a huge variety of rooms and activities though, including a bar, restaurants, duty free shops, games rooms and theatres for the kids, as well as plenty of lounging spaces to sit around and enjoy the views of the open seas. To get in the mood for my arrival on the Emerald Isle, I tucked into a hot steak and Guinness pie from one of the cafeterias, and after a quick walk around to see the rest of the ship, I curled up on one of the lounges in the main area and tried to doze off and have a nap, given that I was running on very little sleep due to my late last night out in London. There were a lot of families travelling that day though, with some particularly noisy children, so in the end I really only managed to shut my eyes and rest my physical body. The mind would have to endure until Dublin, although being able to stretch out and have my own personal space to relax in was definitely a highlight of travelling via ferry rather than a plane. The Rail and Sail option was an experience a thousand times better than anything I would likely have received from Ryanair, and if you have the time to take the day trip and are travelling between Ireland and Great Britain then I would definitely recommend it.

When the ship finally pulled into port early that evening, I gathered my things and made my way off the ship to collect my checked baggage. When I got to immigration, I was a little confused as to where to go. There were basic directions to the exits, but rather than queues and individual gates and passport checks, everyone just seemed to be walking through a main gate with very little resistance. I assumed it was just for returning EU citizens, so I approached one of the desks to the side.
“Hi,” I said to them as I set my bag down.
“Hello there! Well, what can do for yer?” one of the two gentleman said to me with a friendly smile.
“Ahh… Is this where you stamp my passport?” I’d never seen security personnel being so relaxed around the new arrivals – welcome to Ireland, I suppose?
“Why, do yer need one?” The other man said.
“Um… I think… ah, I probably do?” I held up my Australian passport, seriously confused at this point.
“Oooh, yes! Yes.” Obviously they had just assumed I was another Irishman returning home. “Alright, here we go,” they said as they briefly checked my passport before stamping it and handing it back. I was a little dumbfounded as I walked out of the terminal and over to the bus stop. I’d thought the security at Southend airport in London had been pretty lax, but Dublin Port had well and truly usurped that title. I chuckled to myself, realising that all I’d heard about the carefree Irish nature was turning out to be remarkably, incredibly accurate.

The bus into the main city of Dublin was rather uneventful, but the whole time I was still riddled with anxiety. During my last days in London I had been searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Dublin – I had been living at Giles’ for so long that I’d all but forgotten the very real need to search for accommodation, or the very ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style in which I had been doing it. Unfortunately, all my searching had come up with nothing, but in my desperate hanging on for a potential, miraculous breakthrough, I had put off booking any hostels either. Eventually I alighted from the bus in the centre of the city, and hacked into some free wifi at the bus station to search for a nearby hostel. There was one around the corner, so I lugged myself over there and was overjoyed to learn that they had some availability. I enquired about the room prices, and the helpful guy at the front desk told me everything I needed to know.
“But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a discount,” he said with a little smile, without even lifting his eyes away from his computer screen to look at me. “Our little secret.” I was genuinely stunned – was he flirting with me? He didn’t seem like he was flirting with me? Not even a cheeky wink. But hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a price reduction. He gave me my key and directed me to the stairs towards my room, and I don’t think I even saw him again during my stay at the hostel, but it turns out his little gesture would be the first of a few rather unexpected surprises during my time in Dublin.

Last Call: London Leftovers

I spent so long in London that it was rather tricky to catalogue the events chronologically – there were days when I did absolutely nothing, and lounged around with a hangover watching TV in Giles’ living room, and there were some days were I just had short, simple excursions to certain minor attractions. I didn’t feel all of them warranted their own blog posts, so here are the some of the minor sub-plots that occurred as part of my overall London adventure:

***

After Richard had dropped me home from our trip to Cambridge, he said he’d be in touch if he and his friends would be doing anything fun over the next few weeks. I eventually got a rather hilarious message from him with an offer that I couldn’t refuse just because I found it so bizarre. Apparently Richard is a huge One Direction fan, and him and some of his friends were meeting in Leicester Square that evening, outside the cinema where the famous boy band were set to appear for the premiere of their documentary film. I have quite a few girlfriends back home who are quite literally obsessed with One Direction, and so in my head I said I’d do it for them. At the very least I would be ending up in the heart of Soho, and I didn’t have any other plans for the evening anyway, so I jumped on the tube and went in to meet them.

The scene was insane. Teenage girls were everywhere, screaming their lungs out every time one of the boys so much looked at the camera with an attempt at a smouldering look, which was then projected onto the huge screens around the place. Personally I think they just looked like douche bags, but whatever, I was more amused at the hysteria emanating from the crowds… and from Richard and Tim, another guy who was also friends with Giles and John. It was the three of us and their female friend Hannah, and we stood around trying to get a glimpse of the famous quintet. However, there had been many security measures put in place – rightly so, given the delirium the boys inspired – including a huge blackout fence that greatly restricted the number of people who were allowed to be inside the main area where the boys and the other attending celebrities were. We did our best to catch a glimpse of any of them in the flesh, but in the end we had to concede defeat to the hordes of teenage girls who had literally been lining up for days to come even remotely close to the teen heartthrobs.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

As close as we got to the famous boy band, One Direction.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a "1D" sign with our arms.

Richard, Tim and myself getting our fanboy on (mine was forced, of course) to make a “1D” sign with our arms.

We retired to a pub for dinner and beers, and afterwards we bid farewell to Hannah we eventually moved on to G-A-Y. It was early enough to go to the main bar on Old Compton Street, meaning I’d been inside two of the three G-A-Y venues located in London. The music was the same trashy pop and the drinks were so ridiculously cheap that I was genuinely shocked. Tim was a teacher, but he had just taken a new job which meant he wasn’t working at the moment, so he was keen to keep on partying. Richard had to work in the morning – he’d already “worked from home” once due to a night of drinking with me, so he kept his word and got the tube home once he’d had enough drinks. I had no excuse, though – not that I wanted one – so Tim and I continued to party all the way to G-A-Y Late, and were embarrassingly still there at 3am when the lights came on and they made us all get out. Despite the presence of One Direction, and not being able to find an open McDonalds at 3am on a Wednesday morning, it had turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

***

As far as daytime excursions went, I had been told by many people back home that I had to visit Camden for the weekend markets. From what I could gather it was an alternative area of the city, the equivalent to Sydney’s Inner West, where artists and musicians and other crazy creatives could congregate. To get to Camden from Hackney was rather simple – just follow the canal west from Victoria Park and sooner or later you’ll hit it – so I decided to borrow Giles’ bike for the excursion and ride along the water. It took a little while, but probably less than it would have if I had walked to Mile End to catch the tube all the way there. I timed my visit to make sure I went on a weekend, when the market was in full swing, and I could tell I was getting close when the distinct scent of marijuana wafted in on the breeze. Knowing I wasn’t in Amsterdam any more, I made very sure to steer clear of that. But near the main bridge in Camden that crossed the canal there were flocks of people spread out on the grass, the paths – anywhere where there was room – and were simply just chilling out. I found somewhere to lock my bike up and began wandering the streets. Everywhere you turned there were shops, stalls, markets, food stands, and the limits of what you could find were seemingly endless.

Camden.

Camden.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Camden was a sprawl of markets and stalls.

Despite all that, I didn’t really want or need anything, so I never ended up buying anything. Except, of course, when I came across a world food market. There were so many options from a range of different cuisines from all around the world that I ended up having several lunches just because I was unable to choose just one. Afterwards, I rode home with a detour to Kings Cross train station, to visit Platform 9 3/4 and have my photo taken with the trolley. There was actually a bit of a line to get it done, but it was totally worth it, especially when they gave your a house scarf of your choice to wear in your photo. Harry Potter fans die hard.

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

Look out Hogwarts, here I come!

I also spent one Sunday morning wandering over to the Columbia Road Flower Markets, located not too far from where I was staying in Hackney. It was a single narrow road that was completely transformed into a giant floristry market, and while I had absolutely no need to buy plants or flowers of any kind, it was rather nice to walk down the road and take in all the beautiful colours and smells.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

Columbia Road Flower Markets.

***

I also had more dinner outings, with friends both new and old. I made it out to Greenwich again, to visit the observatory and to have dinner with John, where I could see the beautiful sunset over the London skyline, and see the lights of the business district in Canary Wharf glitter in the distance as darkness settled over the city. However, on the evening of the afternoon I had spent with Ellie at Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, I had dinner with Angus and Margaret, a pair of old family friends whom I had met almost 15 years ago when I had visited Scotland with my family. It felt a little strange at first, although I expect it would have been a bigger change for them to see how I had eventually grown up. We had a lovely meal and some nice wine, and while it was nice to see them, dinner was only the beginning of the evening for me. After bidding them farewell, I decided I would hang around Soho some more and check out some other bars. I found myself at a place called Ku Klub, quietly people-watching and sipping on some cheap drinks, before I was approached by an English guy who was from out of town, in London for a night out. He was with a group of friends, so I ended up tagging along with them to a place called Candy Bar. I would later find out that it was actually a lesbian bar which the “Ku Bar Boys” took over every Tuesday evening. Once again, I was astounded at just how many bars and venues there actually were in London, even just around the Soho area.

Sunset over the city as seen from John's flat.

Sunset over the city as seen from John’s flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John's flat.

Canary Wharf at night, also as seen from John’s flat.

Honestly, that part of the night was a blur. I met some other people at Candy Bar, and the guys and girls who I had originally tagged along with from Ku Klub were starting to creep me out a little bit, so I ended up leaving with some other people and ending up at… G-A-Y Late? I don’t even know how that happened. Where did the time go? Was it midnight already? Maybe I went to G-A-Y first, I can’t even be sure. Oh, it was tragic. I met a guy named Tim who said he lived around the corner, so we went back to his apartment to drink more and do some shots. He wanted to show me his new sound system, so he started playing some party music. His boyfriend, who had apparently been sleeping next-door, wasn’t too impressed by that. After sitting there silently in the middle one extremely awkward and passive aggressive argument, I grabbed my coat and bailed back to G-A-Y Late. More drinking and dancing ensued. I ended up chatting to a young guy named Jonny, and we hit it off straight away. He was a little little younger than me, and seemed quite shy, buy super nice. He was there with a girlfriend of his, a boisterous little lesbian named Anna, and she was very protective of him, but we got chatting and in the end she warmed up to me and even tried to set the two of us up.

And it worked. Boys will be boys on the dance floor, but come 3am we were all booted out to the streets again. Anna had already disappeared at that point, so I stuck with Jonny as we wandered through the streets, jumping fences to pee in the bushes of Soho Square, and just galavanting around like the young and drunk fools we were. Instead of heading back to Hackney, he insisted that I stayed with him, which is how I came to find myself wandering through some unknown park further south at 4am with a pretty young man who was all but a stranger to me. I ended up accompanying him home – something I may not have done if I had bothered to figure out where exactly where that was. We walking from tube station to tube station to train station and then I think eventually ended up in a taxi. I was literally falling asleep on Jonny’s shoulder at that point so I just had to roll with it and hope he knew where he was going. It was a very “Where the hell am I?” moment when we woke up at 2 o’clock the next afternoon and he told me were in Uxbridge. I looked it up on a map.
Uxbridge? We’re not even in London anymore!” It was like going out in the centre of Sydney and waking up just past Parramatta, or going out in Manhattan and waking up in New Jersey. He offered me a sheepish grin, and all I could do was laugh. “Okay then, well… this has been fun, how the hell do I get home?”
It was a train ride followed by a long way on the tube, but I finally made it home at the delightful time of 5pm. Even for me, that’s some kind of record.

***

Just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more markets, on one of my final days in London, Tim – Richard’s friend with the One Direction obsession – took me to the Borough Markets just south of London Bridge.
“The goal here is,” he informed me as we walked into the crowds that were milling around the stalls, “To eat lunch for free. If you go to claim enough free samples, you can basically get a free meal for nothing!” It was quite hilarious watching him chat to the stall owners, as we sampled a variety of cheeses, breads, cookies, cakes, and a host of other treats, and then telling them, “Yes, we might be back later. Just going to keep having a look around for now.”
While we did eat our weight in free samples, we ended up buying some gourmet burgers for lunch anyway, and then abandoned the markets for a walk down along the River Thames. We went into the Tate Modern, since it had been closed when I’d last walked past it with Anthony, but the exhibit Tim had wanted to show me was closed, or otherwise unavailable.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

Millennium Bridge during the daytime on my walk with Tim.

In an attempt to try and show me something new in my final days in London, Tim and I took a train north, and from there we walked through the streets of Camden until we reached Primrose Hill.
“It’s one of the best views in London, of London, people say,” Tim told me as we marched up the gentle slope. All around us, couples and groups were lying about and soaking up the last of the afternoon sun, dogs running around between them and children frolicking about playing games. It was such a pleasant scene, and Tim and I took a seat for a little while and chatted as we watched the afternoon fade into evening. Tim had plans to see the One Direction film that evening, so we said goodbye at the Camden tube station, where he was heading off to Soho, and I hired a bike from one of the numerous bike rental stations and followed it back along the canal again until I finally reached Hackney.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

View of the city from Primrose Hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

Myself at the top of the hill.

***

Giles had actually arrived home during my final days in London, so for my last night out I met with him, John and Richard in Soho for some drinks. After getting the tube back into the city I met them at a pub for a few drinks before Giles wanted to take me to a club called Manbar, a place that was particularly popular with gay men of the older and hairier variety. Despite that, it still played all your typically gay pop-trash, and the drinks were once again extraordinarily cheap. If there was one thing I could confirm about London, it is that the price of drinks in most of the gay bars blew Sydney out of the water for any kind of value for money. We had a few drinks at Manbar before bidding farewell to John, who unfortunately had to work the morning. But as the night carried on, Richard and Giles decided that it was only fitting that they took me to the third and final G-A-Y venue that I was yet to have visited: G-A-Y Heaven.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London's iconic red telephone booths.

But first, I still had to get my photo in one of London’s iconic red telephone booths.

“Heaven is a little more special,” Giles explained to me as we walked there. It was down near Charing Cross, not in quite the same area as the rest of the Soho bars. “It’s massive, and it’s the place where all the famous pop stars do their surprise gigs or shows in London.” G-A-Y Heaven has hosted shows by Madonna, Cher, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Kylie Minogue, Spice Girls, Katy Perry, One Direction, Amy Winehouse and scores of other artists. When we arrived we walked up to the door and straight on in – most of the people seemed to know Giles by name and there was definitely no wait for us. And so once we were inside I was introduced to a phenomenon that I had read about in all of the guides and social magazines but had never had the… er, pleasure, of seeing first hand: Porn Idol.

Yep, it’s basically a spin-off of the Idol singing competition franchise, except instead of showing off their voices, they are showing off their bodies. And their junk. There were about 10 contestants that night, and when they’re given a song they’re required to strip down to the music. They must get completely naked and full-frontal, with the music not coming to a halt until the crowd as actually had a decent glimpse of his manhood. Yep, they were literally getting naked on a stage in front of hundreds of people. There was no actual sex going on, as the ‘Porn’ in the title might suggest, but in true Idol tradition there was a panel of bitchy judges who were present to make all kinds of horrible and degrading comments to about 90% of the contestants – the exception was the two gorgeous Brazilian men who seemed to be competing that night. Everyone seemed to take it on board as a bit of laugh though (or they were just too drunk to care about anything), even as the judges doled out their harsh critiques and scores.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

The crowds at G-A-Y Heaven.

“You should get up there! They’d love you!” Giles jeered, and I could tell he was only half joking. However, I’d seen pictures of this event from the previous weeks, and knew full well that many of the people who got up on stage ended up having their photos in the local gay papers, completely uncensored, and I just didn’t think I was ready for that kind of risk. Or commitment, I guess. So we laughed and we cheered and we ogled until the show was over, and we continued to drink and dance as I explored the cavernous rooms of Heaven. The place was huge, but because it was only a Thursday night it was half as empty as I presume it would be on a weekend. But it was a fun way to end the night, and a great way to finish off my entire London experience. I chatted to a guy from Essex who was sad to hear that I was leaving for Ireland in the morning. He settled with a cheeky pash before I found Giles and we headed back home to his place.

I think it was just after 4am by the time we got home and I finally collapsed on the couch. I had about 2 hours of sleep before I had to get up and make my way to Euston train station, but it was worth it. My time in London had been a wild roller coaster ride through a huge and diverse city. I’d met new friends, caught up with old ones, had lovely nights in and obscene nights out, I’d traversed the city limits and had done everything I’d set out to do and more. Even though there are numerous gaps in my memory, my time spent in London is a time that will not soon be forgotten.

Eye on London

On one wet and miserable evening in London I set out to meet a guy named Anthony who I had been talking to for a little while on one of the gay networking apps. The inescapable truth is that most guys on such apps are only looking for a quick hook up, but on the odd occasion you’ll find someone who is actually interested in having a long and decent conversation. From the chats we’d had I gathered that Anthony was a really sweet guy, a little bit of a nerd – between us we had shared a collection of geeky confessions – and I thought he was pretty cute. He lived nearby in Hackney, so after several nights of long conversations via the app we decided to meet up for drinks at some of the local watering holes. On the night we were set to meet it was bucketing down, but Anthony assured me the bar was still going to be “rammed”. I had a bit of a giggle at the terminology, and when he met me at our arranged meeting point I explained how the word ‘rammed’ had created a more vulgar vision of a gay bar in my mind. I’d struggled through thongs and flip-flops, and singlets and vests, but that was by far one of the strangest Australian/British English word confusions I came across in London.

Rammed, of course, meant full of people, and it seems that wet weather has become a way of life for the people of London that even the iciest downpours can’t keep them at home when a night of drinking beckons. The first place Anthony took me to was Nelsons Head, a smaller pub that was nice and toasty warm inside, and it was, as Anthony had said, rammed. We struggled through the crowds and made our way to the bar to order a few drinks, and ended up having to stand against one of the walls, unable to find a table or even any stools. We put our drinks down on the short bench that lined the walls, and I turned around to soak in the atmosphere. There was a lot of interesting and sometimes slightly erotic art that lined the walls, and high tables full of boisterous men and women who were slugging back pints like water and somehow still managing to not fall off their stools. Overall it was a relatively small venue, but I hadn’t read anything about it on any of the gay maps or guides I had picked up, so it was unlikely I ever would have made it there if I hadn’t met up with Anthony. We stayed there for a while, sipping our drinks and talking more about London, my travelling stories, and our range of geeky shared interests.

After a while we decided to move on to another venue, which was a little further away, but luckily the rain had pulled pack to barely a drizzle so we were fine to walk there. On the way there Anthony stopped to get money out, and he showed me the bizarre language options some ATM’s offer: English or Cockney. I asked him to do Cockney, but he flat out refused. “I have absolutely no idea what it says,” he laughed.
“But isn’t it still English?”
“Well, yes, but… It just isn’t.” Fair enough. I suppose it would have to be fairly different to warrant having its own language option, but it was as baffling as it was hilarious.
We were bound for The Joiners Arms, one of the more popular pubs on the eastern side of London, which I had just missed out on visiting last time I had been out in Shoreditch, although upon arriving at the bar I realised that it was less of a pub and more of a nightclub than I had originally thought. We had to get stamps on our wrists upon entering, although I think we arrived early enough so as not to have to pay, but after we’d ordered our first drinks and sat down at a table, we were informed we would have to stand up while they moved the tables in order to make room for the dance floor. From then on more and more people began arriving at The Joiners Arms, and the music moved from background ambience to the main focus. I love a good dance as much as the next party boy, but I wasn’t so much in the mood that evening, so Anthony and I just spent the rest of the night sitting on one of the sofas along the edge of the room, leaning into each other and having our conversations in brief outbursts of shouting to be heard over the music. Which of course turned into using our mouths for an exchange that was a little less verbal. In the end we called it a night and returned to the cold night to walk home, although Anthony let me stay the night with him so I didn’t have to walk the rest of the way home by myself. We drank tea and watched a few episodes of Family Guy on TV, and I was grateful to have such a cute man to cuddle on such a chilly evening.

***

I’d been telling Anthony about how riding the London Eye was one of the few majorly touristic things that I wanted to do while I was in London, but that I hadn’t wanted to do it by myself. Any attempts at finding other tourists or travellers to join me had failed, but Anthony had said it had been a long time since he had been on the Eye, and wouldn’t mind going again. I’d also mentioned I’d wanted to go at nighttime, something he had never done, so we made plans to meet up and get a bus over to the City of Westminster. We met at a halfway point that was close to a bus stop, and on the bus ride I saw Anthony doing something with his phone. I didn’t mean to pry, but I noticed he was in the middle of writing a status update on Facebook. The incomplete update read: “Thanks everyone for all the birthday love-” and he was staring at the screen, obviously trying to figure out what to say next.
“Um, what the hell?” I couldn’t just sit there and pretend I hadn’t read that. “It’s your birthday! Why didn’t you tell me?” Anthony just smiled and let out a shy chuckle.
“Ah, well, I’d forgotten what day it was when we made these plans. I wasn’t doing anything else anyway.” I looked at him slightly incredulously – the idea that anyone could forget their own birthday was just baffling to me – but then I just smiled.
“Well then, happy birthday! Tonight is just going to have to be extra special, isn’t it?”

We didn’t go straight to the city, but alighted a little further east. Once we got off the bus, I took us down to the water so that I could get a photo with Tower Bridge, arguably the most iconic sight of London along with Big Ben (I had been shocked, though, when Giles had told me that Tower Bridge was not called London Bridge, and that London Bridge was something completely different). From there we crossed the Thames and walked along the southern bank of the river, with Anthony pointing out some of the major sights along the way, such as the Tower of London, St Paul’s Cathedral from across the water, the Tate Modern art gallery, and the Millennium Bridge, which perhaps excited me the most, as I remembered seeing it get destroyed in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It was also just a really pleasant walk, on a night that had considerably nicer weather than the last time I had met up with Anthony.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

Posing with Tower Bridge.

The Shard.

The Shard.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

Tower Bridge all lit up.

London Bridge.

London Bridge.

St Paul's Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

St Paul’s Cathedral and Millennium Bridge.

We underestimated the walk, and by the time we got to the London Eye it had been almost an hour of walking, and darkness had well and truly set in. The good thing about arriving so late is that there was relatively no line, and so we purchased our tickets and walked right on in. From a distance, the London Eye looks like any regular ferris wheel, but once you’re up close you realise that you ride not in rickety little carriages, but fancy looking, high-tech berths that can comfortably hold about 15 to 20 people, and look like something out of a sci-fi film. There were a few other smaller groups of tourists in our berth with us, but they were spacious enough that you can move around to get a proper view of they city from all angles. In retrospect, I probably would have been able to see a lot more if I had gone during the day, but there was something about views of a city at night that I find a little breathtaking, and being there with Anthony also made it a little romantic. We stood there watching the scene unfold and the Eye took us higher and higher into the sky. Right beside us there was a small temporary theme park, with rides shooting up into the air, and across the Thames the Westminster Abbey and Big Ben glowed in darkness. In the distance we saw some fireworks going off, clusters of red sparks exploding on the horizon.
“Look! They knew it was my birthday!” Anthony joked. We both took some photos, but from the amount of pictures he was taking, you would have been forgiven for thinking that Anthony was the foreign tourist, not myself. But it was cute to see him enjoying himself so much – I’d unintentionally given him quite a memorable birthday.

Inside the London Eye berth.

Inside the London Eye berth.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

The rides in the park next to the Eye.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

Westminster Abbey and Big Ben.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

London lights stretching into the horizon.

Anthony's birthday fireworks in the distance.

Anthony’s birthday fireworks in the distance.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

Millennium Bridge as seen from the London Eye.

A full rotation of the London Eye takes about 30 minutes, so we had plenty of time to soak it all in. Upon returning to ground level, we stopped for a classy birthday dinner at McDonalds. We got it to go, and sat by the river to eat it as we watched the occasional vessel glide past us on the water. Then, hand in hand, we began the walk back along the river Thames, soaking up the riverside culture. The were lots of restaurants and cafes that overlooked the water, as well as parks with children running around and all kinds of street performers and entertainers. There was a stretch along the river where every single tree had been entwined with fairy lights, so we walked under a canopy of luminescence as we left the sounds of the inner city behind us. Eventually we crossed the Millennium Bridge and caught a bus back to Hackney, where we returned to Anthony’s place for more tea and Family Guy. And cuddles, of course. It turned out to be a really lovely evening, and I hoped that he’d enjoyed his spontaneous birthday celebrations as much as I had.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

The Millennium Bridge, just before we walked across it on the way home.

Wax Wonders: Madame Tussaud’s

Later in the week, I met up with Ellie again to head to the Australian Embassy in London to vote in the Federal Election. It was nice to have another Australian to do that with, because despite getting there quite early there was a fairly long line outside, so we kept each other company while we waited. Afterwards, we headed back towards central London to pick up some snacks and have lunch outside in Trafalgar Square. My good luck streak with the weather had been coming and going during London – there were periods where it would rain for days at a time, and there were afternoons where I actually crossed the road back in East London and went sun baking in Victoria Park. Today was one of the better days, so Ellie and I sat down and watched the groups of tourists flood in and out of the square.

Chilling in Trafalgar Square.

Chilling in Trafalgar Square.

The big blue cock at Trafalgar Square.

The big blue cock at Trafalgar Square.

It was relatively busy on a relatively sunny London day.

It was relatively busy on a relatively sunny London day.

It was Ellie’s last day in London before heading off to Manchester. She’d done most of the things she had wanted to do while she was here, but I was starting to realise how little I had seen of the major types of attractions London had to offer, especially the typically tourist things, because I’d been waving it off saying, “Oh, I’m here for ages, I still have time.” I didn’t have a particular interest in seeing too many of them anyway, but when we were flipping through a couple of brochures one of us had picked up, something caught our eye about Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. I know, I know – there’s one of those in Sydney now – but this was the original London one and was supposed to have a lot more of offer in the way of the wax models. So that’s how Ellie and I decided to spend our afternoon.

Madame Tussaud's from the outside.

Madame Tussaud’s from the outside.

What follows is essentially a photo blog. I don’t take too many pictures while I’m travelling, and I don’t claim to be some kind of photographer – which is the main reason I chose writing as the way of recording my experiences – but in this case I do feel the pictures would be worth much more than a few thousand words.

We start off in Hollywood…

Johnny Depp.

Johnny Depp.

Being glamorous with Marilyn.

Being glamorous with Marilyn.

A very Sister Act Whoopi Goldberg.

A very Sister Act Whoopi Goldberg.

Pretending I'm 007 with Dame Judy Dench.

Pretending I’m 007 with Dame Judy Dench.

Move over, Kristen Stewart!

Move over, Kristen Stewart!

"I'll be back."

“I’ll be back.”

Sean in his finest Scottish attire - a photo must.

Sean in his finest Scottish attire – a photo must.

The creator of Jurassic Park, how could I not?

The creator of Jurassic Park, how could I not?

Not Robert Downey Jr.'s best side but it was all I had to work with.

Not Robert Downey Jr.’s best side but it was all I had to work with.

I found the Mr. Darcy to my Bridget Jones.

I found the Mr. Darcy to my Bridget Jones.

And after the film stars I we came to face to face with some of our favourite pop stars and musicians from past and present…

With Mother Monster, Lady Gaga.

With Mother Monster, Lady Gaga.

Both Ellie and I with Gaga - paws up!

Both Ellie and I with Gaga – paws up!

It's Britney, bitch!

It’s Britney, bitch!

We are the champions!

We are the champions!

Striking a pose with MJ.

Striking a pose with MJ.

Trying and failing to mimic Beyoncé looking fierce.

Trying and failing to mimic Beyoncé looking fierce.

Being less glamorous with Amy.

Being less glamorous with Amy.

The likeness of Adele mid-performance.

The likeness of Adele mid-performance.

Madonna, Queen of Pop.

Madonna, Queen of Pop.

Jimmy Hendrix.

Jimmy Hendrix.

I made a few choice stops in the sport stars section…

Fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a Spice Girl, and Mrs. David Beckham.

Fulfilling my childhood dream of becoming a Spice Girl, and Mrs. David Beckham.

Really... they were asking for this.

Really… they were asking for this.

I was under Tom Daley before he was gay.

I was under Tom Daley before he was gay.

And then came all the British Royals…

And we'll never be royals...

And we’ll never be royals…

Princess Diana.

Princess Diana.

A cheeky photobomb with Mary, Queen of Scots.

A cheeky photobomb with Mary, Queen of Scots.

As well as a variety of other historical icons…

All smiles with the Dalai Lama.

All smiles with the Dalai Lama.

Isaac and Albert. My friends are really smart.

Isaac and Albert. My friends are really smart.

Contemplating the world with Oscar Wilde.

Contemplating the world with Oscar Wilde.

Churchill and Hitler - not a pair I fancied being caught between.

Churchill and Hitler – not a pair I fancied being caught between.

After all the celebrities, there was another section of the museum that was a little more sinister. It was actually quite interesting to learn about the history of Marie Tussaud: she started out using her waxwork skills to create portraits, and in the French Revolution she was employed to create death masks for the victims of the guillotine. The darker underground section included wax replicas of some of the most notorious and infamous killers and criminals over the course of history, although it was unfortunately too dark to take photographs down there. They also had actors running around in the dark, jumping out from all kinds of dark corners to scare the living daylights out of you – although I think I scared them to equal proportions with the volume at which my terrified screams pierced the darkness. Ellie and I hurried through the ghost tunnels clutching each other’s hands before emerging at the last few sections of the museum, which included a short mechanical carriage ride that gave you a history overview of the museum, and finally the viewing of an animated 4D superhero movie that features some of the comic book characters in a prior exhibit.

Saving the world with Captain America.

Saving the world with Captain America.

We were actually quite surprised at how long we spent in Madame Tussaud’s, but in the end it was a pretty good value for money experience – there was just that much to see. It was Ellie’s last night in London, but I had already made plans to catch up with some family friends of dinner, so instead we found a pub and sat down in the afternoon sun for a few more ciders before we gave each other big hugs and said our farewells, knowing we’d eventually be seeing each other back in Sydney.

Brits Gone Bonkers: Notting Hill Carnival

During my time in London I’d made some new friends, like Guy and Yitav, or John and Richard, and I’d caught up with people who I had met previous one my journey, such as Tim and Giles. One afternoon I even took the tube out to Euston Train Station to catch up with Laura, who I had befriended in my hostel in Phnom Penh in Cambodia. She didn’t live in London, but she was passing through on the way to a friends birthday somewhere further north, so I’d gone over to have a coffee and a gossip while she waited for her connecting train. It had been months since we’d seen each other, so we filled each other in on all our travels since we’d parted ways back in Cambodia. I’d met of a lot of other travellers during my time in South-East Asia, but Laura was really the only one who I had actually gotten along with extremely well, and with whom I’d actively stayed in touch. It was a completely different environment from the last time we’d been together, but it was so lovely to see another familiar face after so long on the road, even if I had met that face while on the road in the first place!

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

Travelling buddies reunited! Laura and I catching up at Euston Station.

But I was also set to meet up with another friend from back home in Australia. My friend Ellie was moving to Scotland for six months to study abroad, but before that she had also been travelling through Europe. London was one of the last stops before she ended up in Glasgow to settle down, and as fate would have it we were both in town at the same time. So we headed into Soho one evening for dinner and ciders, catching up and sharing stories and talking about all our friends back home, and what had been going on back there since we’d both been away. As much fun as meeting new people can be, there’s nothing quite like the ease that comes with sitting down with an old friend and talking about anything, everything, or nothing at all. Ellie also had some other friends who were travelling through London at the moment too, so after our pub meals and a couple more ciders we headed out into the night to meet them.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

A cheeky Ellie with her pint of cider.

To cut a long story short, Ellie’s Canadian friend dragged us back and forth across the city for the entire night, always seeming to have a rough plan but never knowing exactly where we were going. We waited in line for some club for close to an hour before being informed it was full, or they weren’t letting anyone else in, or whatever, I’m not even sure. Her friend then tried to drag us into some dirty, hole-in-the-wall nightclub with a £10 entry fee. I’m not a fan of cover charges at the the best of times, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay one for a straight club that looked like it might cave in on me the moment I stepped in. It was still relatively early, but we’d actually managed to end up in East London, so I figured I would call it quits and just head home and save myself for tomorrow, when we had plans to go to the Notting Hill Carnival. There’d been a lot of talk about the carnival, which was supposed to be an event that stretches over the course of three days, so I wanted to make sure I was prepared for whatever was going to be happening. Ellie seemed pretty exhausted too, so we threw in the towel and made a McDonalds pit stop before calling it a night.

***

The next day was the Notting Hill Carnival, something I had heard people talking about over the last few days but hadn’t ever previously heard anything about. I hopped on the tube and headed west, where I would meeting Ellie and another friend of hers, a fellow Australian named Sophie who was living in London. When I surfaced from the tube, I found the streets absolutely packed with people. A quick trip to a corner store found the mobs clearing out the stocks of beer and cider on the shelves, so I figured there was going to be some serious shenanigans going on in the street. I bought myself some cans of beer and headed back into the street to find Sophie and Ellie and the swarms of people.  When we finally found each other, it was really just a matter of following the crowds and roaming the streets. If there was any kind of method to the madness, it did not make itself apparent to me.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Hordes of people roamed the streets, drinking and gallivanting around the place for the Notting Hill Carnival.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

Flags and decorations lined the streets of the entire surrounding area.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

The sun shined on us as we explored the food stalls of the carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

Ellie and I following the crowds through carnival.

There were food stalls all about the place, with all kinds of mouth-watering smells filling the air. Later I would learn that most of the Notting Hill Carnival is led by the West Indian community of London, so the Caribbean vibe made itself known among all the food and the drinking and partying. We also stumbled across what appeared to the be the beginning of a parade, with floats and dancers and music all marching down the street, with the crowds being parted and controlled by police. I’m still not sure whether or not drinking on the streets is actually legal or not in London, but at least for this event I think most of the police had all but given up trying to enforce the ban if it was illegal. We walked alongside the parade sipping on our beers and ciders and no one bothered to trouble us, despite finding ourselves in very close proximity with the police.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

The beginning of the Notting Hill Carnival parade.

Floats in the parade.

Floats in the parade.

A float resembling the British police officers.

A float resembling the British police officers.

Despite the police presence though, you couldn’t help but get the feeling the carnival was somewhat out of control. It almost felt like the borough had been overrun and turned into an affluent shanty town. The streets were covered in rubbish to the point where little mounds had become acceptable dumping grounds, and you had to watch where you were walking so that you didn’t trip land face first in a mini rubbish tip. Many of the shops in the surrounding area had boarded up their windows and seemingly bunkered down and wait for the whole thing to blow over. It seems staying open for business would not have been worth the risk of the out of control herds of people flooding into their shops, and the wooden planks over all their windows showed that some weary people might still bear some unsavoury memories of the London riots of 2011. I will admit, there were times when I felt a little uneasy, but for the most part all the probable and possible damage was just the dirty streets left in the wake of the mostly heavily inebriated crowds. There were even brave citizens of the area who had opened up their homes to the party-goers so that they may use their toilets for a fee. There was so many people flooding the streets though, and such a lack of public toilets to cope with those kinds of masses, that I’m sure it would have been a profitable endeavour no matter how many revellers passed through their door, inevitably breaking or destroying something along the way. Ellie and Sophie had to stop to visit one of these private bathrooms turned public restrooms, and judging by the time I was waiting for them outside, business was definitely booming inside.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The streets literally resembled a tip at some places.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The barricades over some of the shops in the area.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

The carnival takes over absolutely everything.

Equality.

Equality.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Houses opened up their toilets to the public, for a fee.

Street art.

Street art.

There were some terrifying moments, however, when the push and shove of the crowds became not such a friendly experience. Streets occasionally turned into mosh pits, with people getting packed in from all sides to the point where you could barely breath properly, let alone move. Ellie, Sophie and I all clung to each others hands like our lives depended on it, for fear of being separated in what was starting to become a swarming, seething mass of people. There were even some men getting particularly violent, and at times I definitely felt extremely unsafe. It was a strange juxtaposition, given that on the other side of the street, there were floats full of joyful dancers and Jamaican and Latin music being pumped over the crowd. Despite the terror, you just had to laugh and hold on for dear life. We wandered all over the place, ducking down smaller side streets every now and then to avoid those huge, crushing mobs of people, and we danced along the sidewalks to the completely uninhibited culture that had exploded throughout Notting Hill.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

Floats with revellers and partiers pumped music all afternoon.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

The streets were dangerously crowded at some points of the carnival.

In the end we were tipsy, sweaty, exhausted and possibly even a little bit traumatised, but it had been such a crazy experience that I ultimately have to say was a lot of fun. Again, as I had after events like Songkran in Bangkok and the various pride celebrations I’d been in throughout Europe, I found myself reflecting on festival and carnival events back in Australia. I’d come to the conclusion that Australian organisations seem to really love their red tap and restrictions, because I honestly couldn’t see anything like the Notting Hill Carnival ever happening in my hometown without twice the regulations and thrice the police presence. I’ve reason to believe that the English even rival Australians in their boisterousness when it comes to drinking, yet they still manage to participate in a large scale party spanning several suburbs with minimal regulations without anybody dying – at least, that I am aware of. Granted, I did fear for my life for a few seconds, so perhaps the Brits aren’t quite as sensible as the Parisians or Berliners when it comes to crowd antics, but they managed to avoid sparking any major riots. I bid farewell to Sophie and Ellie, making plans to meet up with Ellie very soon, and crawled back home via the Underground, satisfied with another weekend of crazy antics.

Doll décor, dancing, and sleeping on the bus: My first night out in Soho

Come the following weekend, I had done my dabbling in the close-to-home gay scene of East London and was ready to hit the city. Soho was apparently the main place to be when it came to gay London, in general gay culture as well as all the nightlife. By day, I strolled up and down the streets, popping into clothing boutiques, book stores and sex shops, and stopping at a bunch of different eating spots that had either been pointed out to me by Giles on my first few days in London, or I had noticed during my solo exploring. I had also scoped out a bunch of the bars in the area, and had heard mixed reviews about a variety of places, so really the only thing left to do was to head in there one evening and try it all out for myself. At this point in my trip I had gotten in touch with Tim, who I had met and befriended during my trip across the Trans-Siberan Railway. We had actually been in several European cities at the same time over the last few months, but through the blur of parties and day to day travels we’d never managed to catch up again. Tim had finally settled down in London, where he planned to live and work for two years, and given that I was also here for a short (yet extended in my case) period, we’d arranged to catch up for drinks on one Friday afternoon. “Anywhere but Vauxhall – it’s a seedy, drug-filled crack den,” Tim had said when we were discussing where to go. Okay then. Good to know, I suppose. I told him I was yet to go out in Soho, so that soon became the obvious decision, and in the end he had another friend who was going to tag along as well. “We’re starting early because we’re probably not going to have a late night,” Tim had said of him and his friend. Famous last words if ever I heard them…

***

I headed into Soho and made my way to the bar where Tim had suggested we meet, a relatively small bar called The Yard, which was built with a focus around a main courtyard and beer garden area (not dissimilar to the Beresford Hotel, for any readers familiar with Sydney). I would return to this venue during the next few weeks with Yativ and Guy, to have a few Sunday afternoon drinks when the bar was relatively quiet. However, on a Friday afternoon the place was packed wall to wall, and personal space became something of a sweet, distant memory. I shuffled my way through the crowds to the bar, bought myself a cider, and then made my way upstairs to the balcony that overlooked the courtyard, where Tim was waiting for me with his friend Dean. There was a brief introduction, and then Tim and I reminisced about our time on the Trans-Siberian and caught each other up on all our travels around Europe since we had last parted ways in St Petersburg. Tim told me all about the trials and tribulations of finding a place to live in London, and how he was settling into his new job. When we were properly caught up, we decided to move on from the now ridiculously crowded bar so that Dean and Tim could show me some of the other iconic Soho watering holes.

The next stop was around the corner at a pub called Rupert Street, whose namesake was the street that it was located on. It was a little more relaxed there, and considerably more spacious than The Yard, so we all sat down and had a few more rounds of cider as we chatted and gossiped away about all sorts of things, but nothing really in particular. I was quite surprised to find that I recognised one of the bar staff – and even more surprised to find that he recognised me. He was a guy named Kyle who I had met back in Sydney, and despite having a large handful of mutual friends back in Australia I could probably count on one hand the number of substantial conversations we’d had. I knew he had moved to London quite a while ago, but I’d really had no idea what he’d been up to and had not been expecting to see him there, but I guess randomly bumping into anyone familiar is really the last thing you expect when you’re on the other side of the world. Of course, it had been quite a while since any of those previously mentioned conversations had taken place, so we just exchanged a few small-talk pleasantries before I headed back to Tim and Dean with the round of drinks I had just bought. It really is a small world after all.

***

“Where else can we take him?” Tim said to Dean as we were getting ready to leave Rupert Street. “Something a little more exciting than the local pub.”
“How about The Friendly Society?” Dean suggested, and they both seemed to think that was a very good idea because we downed the dregs of our beverages and high tailed it out of there. We rounded a corner and walked down a short street before coming to the beginning of Old Compton Street, which I suppose is comparable to Sydney’s Oxford Street (but definitely not London’s Oxford Street) in that it seemed to be the main hub of nocturnal gay activity in Soho. The surrounding streets were littered with clubs and pubs, but it all kind of culminated and spread out from this main street. The Friendly Society was located at the very end of the street though, and I only caught a glimpse of it before I was descending down a stairway with Tim and Dean and into the bar below. I have to admit, the décor alone made this place one of my favourite pubs in London.
“Look at the ceiling,” Dean said to me as we entered. I looked up to find that the roof was decorated with perhaps the most bizarre ornaments I have ever seen in a nightclub – or anywhere really, for that matter. It was covered in dolls. Barbie dolls, those little colourful haired trolls, and a bunch of other strange plastic figurines. I guess there was nothing inherently weird about them – it was just the fact that they were decorating the walls that made them so peculiar.

The ceiling of The Friendly Society was one of the most memorable sights of the evening.

The ceiling of The Friendly Society was one of the most memorable sights of the evening.

We had more drinks at The Friendly Society, where we started alternating bourbon and Coke’s into our rounds of cider, and maybe even a couple of cheeky shots. We talked, laughed, drank and danced in the tiny little disco bar, and we must have been there for a lot longer than we realised because suddenly it was 11pm and the bar was closing and we were all struggling to scull our drinks as we were being ushered up the stairs and back out onto Old Compton Street. I did love Old Compton Street because, unlike the pink mile back at home, it’s a street that is relatively light on traffic. In fact there is almost always more people on the road than there are cars, and most of the taxis and minicabs have to patiently nudge their way through the hordes of drunken pedestrians. The street itself is quite physically small and narrow, so it makes it the perfect kind of place for nightlife like this, and I have to seriously wonder how more drunk people haven’t died trying to cross the four lanes of traffic on Oxford Street in Sydney on a Saturday night.

Yet people have died in other ways on Old Compton Street. “The next place we’re going to is called The Admiral Duncan,” Dean said to me as we set out onto the street – clearly Tim’s words of having an early night were long forgotten. “But, I should say this before we get too close,” he said as he peered up the road, as though he was gauging how many seconds he had before we arrived at the pubs doors. “This place was bombed back in 1999 by Neo-Nazi’s.”
“Oh my God!” I exclaimed, being quite excitable in my inebriation. “Was anyone hurt? Did anyone die?” Dean gave me a quick but solemn nod that answered my question, but also indicated that I really shouldn’t say anything more about it here in public. We had just reached the doors of the pub, so we proceeded on into the warm, crowded room. We got another round of drinks before finding some space at the back of the bar, and when the jukebox started playing some fun pop tunes, we climbed up onto the low elevated platform that served as the venues stage and began to dance amongst ourselves. However, the resident drag queens did not like that at all, and we were probably up there for less than a minute before who were scolded and shooed off the stage. We just laughed at the old queens and scampered off to finish our drinks before moving on from the the bar that may have been rich with history, but was a little lacking in the way of fun energy that evening.

***

Tim had intended on taking me to G-A-Y, but by the time we arrived it was getting close to midnight. “It’s late enough already, we could probably just go to G-A-Y Late, right?” He said to Dean. G-A-Y was just down the road from the Admiral Duncan, and outside there were several guys handing out flyers for another club called G-A-Y Late. Later, it would all be explained to me that G-A-Y had become something of a gay bar franchise in London – and even in some other parts of England – with three separate and distinct venues. G-A-Y was a regular gay bar that was open until midnight, G-A-Y Late was a nightclub that was open until the early hours of the morning, and G-A-Y Heaven was yet another bar several blocks away. G-A-Y Late was just around a couple of corners though, and so it was there that I followed Tim and Dean with my free entry flyer that I had picked up from one of the cute guys standing around the original G-A-Y.

The flashing beacon of debauchery that is G-A-Y Late

The flashing beacon of debauchery that is G-A-Y Late.

G-A-Y Late was everything you would expect from the nightclub that was the place were everyone migrated to after all the surrounding bars closed had for the evening. It was a long and wide space with a big bar, plenty of podiums and floor space, the interesting aromatic mix of booze, sweat and other bodily fluids, and a general sheen that you just knew couldn’t be sanitary. Regardless, it was a lot of fun. The drinks were cheap and strong, and the music was trashy pop that you could really dance to all night long. Classic hits by the Spice Girls were probably over represented, and I don’t think you’ll ever hear a single complaint about it. Tim, Dean and I all got busy dancing, but by this late point in the evening we were incredibly wasted. Truth be told, I don’t even remember saying goodbye to the two of them, but then it is entirely possible that that never even happened. One moment they were there, the next I was dancing on my own. But I was fine with that, and I kept dancing until I felt like I was sweating cider and I could hardly keep my eyes open, let alone stand up. I couldn’t even tell you what time it was when I stumbled out of G-A-Y Late by myself, but considering it closes at 3am I can safely say it was before the sun came up.

After a pit stop at McDonalds, I made my way to the buses and luckily didn’t have to wait too long before one came along that would take me close to home – I had studied the routes very carefully and committed those numbers to memory so that I wouldn’t have to worry about it too much when I was under the influence. It was a good thing that the buses were a 24 hour service, otherwise the penny-saving backpacker in me would probably have attempted to walk all the way back to Hackney in the now crisp nighttime air rather than catch a taxi. Though getting on the bus was just the easy part – it was getting off the at the right stop that was to be somewhat of a challenge. I had studied the map and everything, so I knew where I was supposed to alight. The problem was that I was just so damn tired. I could feel myself nodding off, almost dropping my McDonalds drink a couple of times. And then I actually did fall asleep. It can’t have been for long, but it was enough to have spilt Coke all over my shoes, and of course it had been enough for me to completely miss my stop. I was jostled awake by the bus coming to a halt, and I looked down at the GPS map on my phone in horror, realising I was already at the stop after the one where I was supposed to alight. I jumped up and sprinted down the steps of the double decker bus just in time to tap my Oyster card and jump off, and on that hit of adrenaline I ran almost the whole way back to the previous bus stop. From there it was still another 10 minute walk home, and I was drunk, cold and severely out of breath. Despite all that, I had had such a fun evening with Tim and Dean out in Soho that I was almost sad that it was all over, although when I eventually got home I slept like a baby.