Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

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They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

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Halloween in New Orleans – “Another magical evening”

The following day was the day that had specifically influenced my travel plans and my intention to be in New Orleans: Halloween. I was excited to be in the US for Halloween in general, because if Hollywood movies were anything to go by (and in this rare circumstance, they were) then Americans take the holiday very seriously, but it was particularly exciting to be in New Orleans due to the towns penchant for the quirky and mysterious. Everyone puts a lot of effort into their costumes and the dressing up side of things, but a lot of people also celebrate the day and the night in a more religious or spiritual sense. Basically, the lore dictates that Halloween – or All Hallows Eve – is a night where the veil between the physical world and the spirit world is slightly weaker, allowing better communication with the supernatural forces from the other side, or something along that train of thought. I won’t pretend to be an expert on pagan religions or voodoo practices, but you get the idea. It’s a special day.

Vincenzo had to work for most of the day, but he told me that his neighbour was having a party that evening and that I was welcome to join him and his friend when they went. It wasn’t until I was actually invited to a Halloween party that I was struck with the horrific realisation that I didn’t have a costume, and if you didn’t have a costume at Halloween then you simply weren’t doing it right – or so those Hollywood movies had led me to believe. So while Vincenzo was at work that day, I made it my mission to find a costume. It was on short notice and would have to be on a short budget, but I figured if there was any city in the US that would have adequate appropriate costume supplies, it would be New Orleans. I walked down the streets of the French Quarter as the afternoon rolled around, ducking into all kinds of novelty stores and and bargain bins that sold mainly joke costumes, as well as one or two more legitimate places that sold magical trinkets of a more serious manner. In the end I settled for something pretty basic – a pair of black feather wings and a fancy-looking black eye mask. It was the kind of thing that, if you were going to some huge gay circuit party, you would wear with a pair of hot pants and nothing else, but since I was forgoing the Mean Girls rule (“Halloween is the one night of the year when girls can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it”) I figured I could just throw on some black clothing and make some abstract horror idea out of it.

“But what is it? What’s your costume?” Vincenzo asked me as he was attaching his very realistic looking vampire fangs to his top canine teeth. I had spent the remainder or the afternoon wandering through the French Quarter, watching candlelit processions making their way through the street, with drums and chanting and brass bands playing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’. Eventually I met Vincenzo at his house when he finished work, where he and his friend Faith were readying themselves for the party we were set to attend.
“I dunno,” I said with a shrug of my shoulders. “Angel of Death?” Vincenzo turned to look at me a little closer this time, examining the outfit as I tied up the ribbons of the mask behind my head.
“Angel of Death…” he said slowly, with an air of contemplation. “I like it.” He smiled, flashing me his fangs. Both him and Faith were dressed as vampires, and when they were ready we made our way to the party next-door.

The neighbours house was a similar style to Vincenzo’s flat, except considerably bigger. It was set on the street corner and had a huge balcony that snaked around the buildings exterior and offered a great view of the streets below. Vincenzo pointed out a tree that was covered in colourful strings of beads, necklaces that had been flung into the branches and gathered like tiny shiny fruits. “Mardi Gras beads. I’m pretty sure I threw some of them there myself,” he said with what was almost a hint of pride.
“Wait… didn’t you say… I thought Mardi Gras was in February?”
“Uh-huh.”
“And… they’re still there?” I mean, it was October. Surely someone would have taken the beads down by now.
“Mardi Gras is a huge part of the culture of New Orleans. They’re just a little reminder of that – I guess no one ever feels the need to rush over and take them all down.” I liked the idea of that, thinking back to parades and events in Sydney that were inevitably followed by a huge and meticulous government clean up that usually removed all and any traces of there even being an event there in the first place. New Orleans not only took pride in it’s cultural events, but wore the aftermath and remnants of them like a badge or medal for the remainder of the year.

I was introduced to Vincenzo’s neighbour, a classic Southern belle who could have stepped out of A Streetcar Named Desire, and I mingled with the guests as we ate and drank. The party was only more a social call, however, and after a few hours of drinking and mingling, Vincenzo, Faith and I headed out and off to Frenchman Street, where there was a lot more partying going on. It was more of a street party though, and the three of us slowly wandered down the street through the crowds, soaking in the atmosphere and marvelling at some of the impressive costumes that would have taken quite a while to put together. The streets were crowded and full of drunken Halloween revellers, but the overall mood wasn’t overly outrageous or obnoxious – I was told that that kind of atmosphere was reserved for Bourbon Street, and that Frenchman Street was more popular among the locals to who had a little more respect for the local area. We didn’t do much partying ourselves, but instead continued our wandering through the streets and back into the heart of French Quarter. There weren’t many trick-or-treating children at that hour, but the rest of the city was out in full force to celebrate the holiday in more adult ways.

We stopped at Cafe Du Monde, the most iconic coffeehouse in New Orleans, where both Vincenzo and Faith insisted that I had to try a café au lait and some beignets. Café au lait is just coffee with milk, except the milk added is hot or scalded rather than simply cold, and the New Orleanian variety has chicory added to it to give it a bitter taste. Beignets are deep-fried pastries served with powdered sugar, a sweet touch to offset the bitterness of the café au lait. I was assured that it would be most improper to leave New Orleans without sampling these treats, so what better time to do so than on my authentic New Orleans Halloween evening? Faith admitted that she was beginning to get tired, so after we finished at Cafe Du Monde we flagged a petty-cab down for her and sent her off home. Vincenzo and I continued on our walking tour of the city, and we eventually agreed to show me some of the gay bars of New Orleans. The majority of the gay bars were on a square of blocks that had become fittingly known as the ‘Fruit Loop’, so we began our walk along that route, stopping into each of them for a short time. I’ve heard some crazy things about partying in New Orleans, so I can’t imagine my experience is an accurate representation of the scene, but a lot of the bars were well decorated but very sparsely populated. Maybe we were just there before most of the other partiers, who were still out on the streets, or maybe there were other specific Halloween parties or events that were drawing most of the crowds, but somehow the subdued moods of the patrons didn’t really seem to match the party environments the venues were trying to create, so we didn’t end up staying anywhere for too long. Vincenzo ran into a few people he knew at a couple of the places, but other than that our tour of the Fruit Loop was interesting, but not all that exciting.

It was when Vincenzo was escorting me back to my hotel that I talked more about my impressions of Halloween, and what I had been expecting compared to what we had actually seen. “I dunno… I mean, I’ve got out partying and drinking in literally every other city I have been to,” I said with a little chuckle. “But I knew New Orleans was supposed to be this hotbed of… well, things that were different. Mysterious, a little magical, I don’t know.”
“Well, if that’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in New Orleans, you’re certainly not limited to Halloween,” Vincenzo said with a knowing smile. “Tomorrow is All Saints Day, which is a pretty important date on the voodoo calendar. I know of a few things that might be happening – if you like, I can see if I can take you to one?” The idea of being at a real life voodoo ceremony was simultaneously exciting and terrifying, but I was instantly intrigued. It was my last night in the hotel, so after assuring him I was very interesting in seeing more of the mystical side of New Orleans, I gave Vincenzo a goodnight kiss and told him I would see him again at his place the following morning after check out.

***

The first thing I discovered the following morning was that Vincenzo was not a morning person. I had to call him a few times while I was standing down at the outside gate, and when he finally stirred from within and got up to let me in, he assured me he’d need at least another hour and a strong coffee before he was ready to face the world. So while he slowly morphed into a functioning human being, Faith took me out for a little stroll and some breakfast at her favourite nearby bakery, where we sipped on café au laits and she told me more about both New Orleans and Vincenzo.
“Vince has always loved this city.” Apparently she was also the only one who could getting away with calling him ‘Vince’. “I mean, we both have, ever since we first visited it when we were just teenagers.” They’d both grown up in New York – her just upstate and him in the Bronx – but had shared a passion for Anne Rice novels and all her vampire stories that call New Orleans home. “But Vince really loved it, enough to move here.” She went on to tell me more about some of his Couchsurfing experiences, and how he’d shown dozens of people around New Orleans during his time there. When we finished up at the bakery we went for a walk through the streets of the French Quarter, which looked surprisingly different in the bright daylight, although they were still full of gutter punks and street musicians and buskers. You would never need headphones or an iPod if you were walking around there – almost everywhere you go there’s a musician playing some decent tunes.

When we finally arrived home it was almost afternoon, but Vincenzo was not longer near comatose, so the three of us took a trip out to New Orleans City Park. There was quite a few art installations around the parks, and Vincenzo and I sat along the banks of one of the swamps while Faith wandered off into the greenery.

New Orleans City Park

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

The park brings a little bit of the surrounding swampland area into the heart of the city.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

City Park is also home to the New Orleans Botanical Garden.

After the relaxing afternoon, it finally came time to attend the All Saints Day ceremony in the evening. There was a rather large turn out, and it made me realise that once you know where to look, there is a strong voodoo presence in the city because of these close communities of people who practice it. Out of respect for the worshippers and the practice of voodoo itself, I’m not going to go into the details of the ceremony – partly because I don’t want to wrongly explain any of the various rituals, but also because there’s a certain value in the mystery, and I wouldn’t want to destroy that. I was, however, allowed to take a few photos of the shrines and alters that were set up before the ceremony took place.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

Alter at the voodoo ceremony.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The shrines were covered in candles, not unlike the array of candles you would find in churches across Europe. To many of these people, voodoo was a deeply spiritual and religious practice.

The last part of the ceremony was something remarkable that I think is worth noting. The final ritual simply involved a slow procession through the streets from the meeting place to the nearby cemetery, a moving candlelight vigil with the intention of paying respects and leaving offerings for the spirits of the dead at the cemetery gates. It was only a short walk, but at one point of the journey someone quietly pointed out that we were being followed at a distance by the police. I was under the impression that the police might have been a little suspicious about what we were doing, and might have ordered us to move along. However, someone went to consort with them and came back to report that they were simply there to keep an eye on things, and be on the lookout for any hecklers that might have otherwise given us grief.
“Only in New Orleans,” I heard Vincenzo whisper with a relieved sigh, as people placed their offerings and candles on and around the gates. I think that was the most remarkable thing of all – that the voodoo procession had an unrequested police escort. The culture surround the practice was so strong here that even the law enforcement recognised and respected it.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

Laying candles along the closed cemetery gates.

The whole ceremony lasted well into the night, and was followed by a feast of sorts – essentially a backyard barbecue for everyone to socialise and debrief. It was very late by the time Vincenzo and I left – Faith had already retired much earlier in the evening, having to get up at ridiculous o’clock to get to the airport and fly home. The night air was cooling off as we sat down by the side of the road and waited for our taxi, and I noticed Vincenzo shiver a little.
“Guess this is cold for New Orleans, hey?” I said with a chuckle as I put an arm around him. He laughed, but didn’t protest as he snuggled into the half-hug. “Well, thanks for another magical evening – in a much more literal sense, this time,” I said, placing a gentle kiss on the side of his head, and shooting him a wink that he probably never saw in the darkness.

Christopher Street Day: Gay Pride in Berlin

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

***

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

The streets of Schöneburg during pride.

The streets of Schöneburg during pride.

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

The evenings entertainment at the party at Goya.

The evenings entertainment at the party at Goya.

***

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

Leather pride marchers.

Leather pride marchers.

One of the numerous party bus floats.

One of the numerous party bus floats.

Anti-transphobia marchers.

Anti-transphobia marchers.

More kinky leather men.

More kinky leather men.

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

Probably my favourite sign of the day.

Probably my favourite sign of the day.

Definitely my favourite drag queen.

Definitely my favourite drag queen.

Drag queen with fierce bra and shoes.

Drag queen with fierce bra and shoes.

Germans marchig for marriage equality.

Germans marchig for marriage equality.

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

The beginning of the Russian marchers.

The beginning of the Russian marchers.

Queer. Russian. Proud.

Queer. Russian. Proud.

Russian float - proud and naked.

Russian float – proud and naked.

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

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

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