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.

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Amsterdamned: Pride in the Canals

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

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

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

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

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

***

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

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

Joris and I during the parade.

Joris and I during the parade.

Myself, André's friend, and André.

Myself, André’s friend, and André.

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

Gay drag unicorn - because why not?

Gay drag unicorn – because why not?

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam.

Mermaids and mermen.

Mermaids and mermen.

The cheeky Mr B float.

The cheeky Mr B float.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

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

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

***

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

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

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

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

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

Beers in the Barrio: Madrid Pride

On the train between Barcelona and Madrid, I felt like I had used to as a little kid on Christmas morning – waiting impatiently for the rest of the family to be ready so that we could begin the present opening ritual with all in attendance. Except this time the only thing I was waiting on was time itself, and the high-speed train that was hurtling me towards the Spanish capital city, and while there were no presents waiting for me when I stepped off the train, there was a guaranteed weekend of fun and debauchery. Earlier in the week, I had got in touch via Facebook with another friend of Darrin, the friend in Bangkok who had put me in touch with Greg. Greg was actually the one who had told me about Ricardo – all three of them had met and become friends at the same time in San Francisco – but Darrin formally introduced us. When I let Ricardo know when I would be arriving in Madrid on the Friday afternoon, his response brought on a wave jà vu: “Great, you’ll be here right in the middle of pride!” It was be the third European pride celebration I would attend, and the second time it had happened completely by accident. Needless to say, after my slightly disappointing experiences with the nightlife in Barcelona, my spirits were soaring with anticipation at the prospect of pride in Madrid, a city famous for its partying and in particular its exuberant gay nightlife.

The warm air engulfed me as I finally stepped off the train in Madrid, but it wasn’t the sticky kind of humidity that weighs you down – it was a dry heat that was somehow invigorating, and I don’t think I’d ever felt as excited to be in a place as I was to be there in Madrid. I lugged my bags down into the metro and followed the directions I’d written down to the hostel that I had booked in advance. The hostel was so busy I had to wait in the lobby for almost an hour before I was able to check in, but my previous impatience had been lost to the overwhelming thrill I felt from simply being in the city. As I’d wandered down the small classical European streets on my way to the hostel from the metro station, it really had felt like I had slipped into a movie. The warm air felt heavy around me, as though the vibes and the very essence of the city was emanating from the buildings and coming forth to fully emerge me in the culture of the Spanish capital.

After I checked in and had a quick siesta, I got myself ready and descended back into the raw and eccentric streets of Madrid. I had not been walking for more than a couple of minutes before I brushed past an elder Spanish gentleman in one of the narrow streets. He wasn’t exactly my type, and I paid him no real attention until I heard him softly whisper “guapo” under his breath. Knowing enough Spanish to know that that had essentially been a cat call, I stumbled to a stop, a little taken by surprised. When I turned around, I watched the man wander off, not so much as missing a beat to his step, let alone looking back over his shoulder at me. I patted down my pockets to make sure nothing was missing before continuing on my way. I found the whole thing a little bizarre, but little did I know it was only the beginning of a weekend that would blow the doors off Madrid’s closet and would flood the streets with sexy and explicitly suggestive men.

***

I eventually met up with Ricardo and the group of friends he had been having dinner with at Gran Via, one of the major streets that runs through the heart of Madrid. After a rushed round of introductions that would be forgotten almost as soon as they happened, we were led into the throng of the crowd by one of Ricardo’s friends. In some ways the setup was similar to the pride celebrations in Paris: the narrow, traditional Europeans-style streets were packed with people, although while the Parisians had maintained an air of sophistication to their street party, the Spaniards seemed to be all about abandoning their inhibitions and letting out their wild sides. Everywhere you turned there was an elaborate costume, an excessive lack of clothing, or party goers who were simply losing themselves to the music that boomed through the streets. People were carrying drinks around as well, though rather than plastic cups that were provided by bars in Paris, most of the revellers were carrying around cans of beer. I questioned Ricardo on the legality of drinking in the streets, and yet again the answer was similar to what Greg’s had been in Paris.
“Well… it’s not really legal,” he said with a cheeky grin. “At least, not all the time. This weekend is a special exception. They catch you with beer tonight?” Ricardo shrugged and gave a laugh. “It’s pride!” As we squeezed through the crowds, he continued to school me. “Look out for the Chinamen,” he said with a giggle, as we passed gaggles of tiny Asian men and women pushing their way through and holding their own in the crowd, with their huge bags of cold beer which they were selling for €1 per can. Ricardo grabbed us a couple each and we kept making our way through the winding, twisted streets of the barrio (Spanish suburb) until our leader decided on a place to halt.

One of the numerous Asian people who were running around Chueca with their bags of beer cans.

One of the numerous Asian people who were running around Chueca with their bags of beer cans.

We were in Chueca, the gay barrio, but I wouldn’t have needed to read ahead in the Lonely Planet guide to know that that’s what it was. The air was thick with cologne, a sweet-smelling atmosphere that was almost as intoxicating as the beer in my system. After a while of drinking, chatting and flirting with the local Spanish boys, Ricardo pulled me away and into the crowd again, with some more of our party in tow. We emerged from one of the smaller streets into a huge plaza, where a huge stage had been set up. “There are stages like this all around the city,” Ricardo informed me. They were blasting out music that was echoing throughout the whole of Chueca, and probably beyond, and it was there that we danced the night away, under the stars on a hot and sweaty night in Madrid. Eventually the outdoor party came to a close, and I joined Ricardo and his friends as they walked back through the city to get a bite to eat. I spoke to quite a few people, telling them about my travels and helping them practice their English, but in the end the exhaustion that comes with a day of travel caught up to me, so I bid the group farewell and stumbled back to my hostel.

The street party raging in the middle of Chueca.

The street party raging in the middle of Chueca.

***

The hostel I was staying in seemed to have a strong social presence, unlike the place I had stayed in Paris, with parties and activities pretty much every day and night of the week. While it was a normal youth hostel and in no way specially marketed towards a gay clientele, they had organised a pride party on the rooftop balcony, which had been decked out with rainbow streamers and balloons and other gay-themed decorations. Normally I avoided hanging out too much with other tourists, but I hadn’t made any plans to meet Ricardo and his friends until later on in the evening, so in the afternoon I went upstairs to join the party. It was a little slow to pick up, and there was only one other gay person there – an American girl who was travelling with her brother and another friend of his. “I had no idea pride was going to be on this weekend,” I had confessed to her over a Blow Job, or one of the other custom cocktails named with appropriate innuendo. “But hey, I am certainly not complaining!”
“Wow, that’s such a lucky coincidence,” she’s said with a laugh. “We’re not specifically here for pride, but…” she glanced over to where her brother was sitting. “Let’s just say I do most of the planning, and I knew where I wanted to be, and exactly when I wanted to be there.”

Drinking games at the hostels pre-pride party.

Drinking games at the hostels pre-pride party.

I spoke to a few other people, including the inevitable Australians, of which there were plenty. The British girls who were working at the hostel tried to organise some drinking games, but I don’t think anyone was struggling to knock drinks them back. We were all sitting around in the blazing sun, so within a few hours most of the crowd was probably very dehydrated and well on their way to being wasted, myself included. Then at about 6 o’clock, the hostel workers rallied everyone up and prepared to take us down to the street where the gay pride parade was happening. I’d only been wearing thongs on my feet, since the partying on the roof had involved a few water fights, so as everyone was preparing to leave, I quickly ran back down to my dorm to put on some more comfortable walking shoes. Or at least, I thought it had been quickly. However, I returned outside to find the entire party was gone. I ran down onto the street in an attempt to follow them, but when I stumbled onto the street there was no sign of them in either direction. The pride party going, leaving behind 50% of its homosexual representatives. I would have been upset, until I realised that I hadn’t really planned on hanging out with the other tourists for the rest of the night anyway, so I set off to meet Ricardo and his friends.

After the afternoon of heaving drinking, I decided it would be a good idea to eat some food before I continued partying, to keep my energy up and hopefully soak up some of the booze. However, finding my way around the city proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated in my current state. Having absolutely no idea what street I was on, I stumbled into a Mexican eatery that was all but empty and plonked myself down at one of the tables towards the front of the restaurant. Those particular tables were quite low, more like coffee tables than dining tables, and seats weren’t proper chairs but sofas; low and comfortable to suit the table they surrounded. As I picked at the nachos that I had ordered, I found out just how comfortable those sofas were when I fell asleep on one. It hadn’t been an extremely long sleep, and I don’t think the waitress really minded, if she even noticed at all, but there had definitely been a solid lapse in my consciousness. I awoke with a startle, sat up with a yawn, attempted to finish the nachos which I really had no appetite for, and then finished up and left the restaurant. Ricardo hadn’t returned any of my messages, and I only had the vaguest idea of where I was supposed to be meeting him. Or where I even was myself, for that matter.

The streets were swarming with people – not just in Chueca this evening, but the entire city. I thought I had finally stumbled across the parade only to discover it was just one of the streets that had been closed for the parade, and the people walking along it were… well, I have no idea where they were going! To the parade? Away from the parade? Were they leading it or following it? It was completely chaotic – to top it off, the sheer volumes of people in the area had caused all the cellar networks to go down. I had no way of contacting any of my friends, and I was trapped in a seething mass of ridiculously good-looking gay men from all over the world… Okay, so I guess things could have been worse. I simply allowed myself to get lost in the moment, and flow with the crowd. Two hours later, after a few confusing phone calls and (apparently) dozens of undelivered text messages, I met up with Ricardo and his friends in time to catch the tail end of the parade. The floats rolled past as people cheered and screamed, and while it looked like it had been an awesome parade I didn’t feel too upset for not missing it. The parade was only half the event, and the following party was where the fun was really at. I followed Ricardo as someone led our group through the masses and we ended up at another one of the city’s major plazas. There we danced the night away again, and some of the guys taught me how to sing along to Icona Pop’s ‘I Love It’ in Spanish (“Me encanta!”). At around midnight the party was officially brought to a close, and police dispersed the crowds as the music came to an end. I’m sure that people in the know would have been able to direct me to some of the raging afterparties, but the day I had had had left me crying for my bed. I finished another day of pride exhausted but satisfied.

Saturday night party for Madrid pride.

Saturday night party for Madrid pride.

The city went to great lengths to decorate and prepare the city for the occasion.

The city went to great lengths to decorate and prepare the city for the occasion.

***

Sunday was the final night of the pride weekend. While I had had an amazing time dancing in the streets with the party goers, I was still keen to check out what the nightclubs of Spain really had to offer. I still don’t think my experiences in Barcelona were a true representation of Spanish nightlife, and while the main event of pride had been on Saturday, if I’d learnt anything in my short life it was that any main gay event is always followed up by a recovery party. Unfortunately Ricardo was heading out of Madrid to visit some family, so I once again turned to gay social networking apps in order to find a partner in crime. The city was still brimming with tourists, and I ended up meeting a German guy named Jansen, and we shared a few glasses of sangria as we hopped around some of the bars in Chueca, waiting for midnight, or whenever time it was deemed appropriate to hit up the nightclubs in Spain. We found it peculiar that a lot of the places were closing uncharacteristically early – one of the bars was rushing to have us out and close up by 11 o’clock, something I thought would be unheard of around here. We put it down to the fact it must have been the end of a very busy weekend, and they’d already completed the bulk of their trading.

We trawled the streets of Chueca, which were littered with banners and confetti and other rainbow remnants of last nights pride party, until we finally found a bar that I had read about in the Lonely Planet guide. It was called Studio 54, both named after and fashioned in replica of the famous New York bar, although when we stepped inside I felt that tiny ping of nostalgia that hits me whenever I walk into a gay bar anywhere in the world. Jansen and I squeezed through the crowds to the back of the club, where we each bought a beer and surveyed the scene, where hips were swayed and hands were being raised to Cher and Madonna and all the classic anthems. Jansen was a nice guy, but he was a little too serious for my liking, and after a couple of drinks I left him on the edge of the dance floor to mingle with the boys within. There was smoke and mirrors, shiny, sweaty bodies, and boy, some of those men could dance. There’s a certain Latin flair that goes into nearly every movement they make, so that even simple gestures come across as choreographed routines. I wouldn’t say I was a bad dancer, but I was positively clumsy compared to some of the men around me. I flirted, I danced, I drank, and I probably kissed a few guys – by this point of the weekend I was feeling so strung out that the whole thing was now simply a blur of beer, boys and body shimmer.

There was one particularly cute guy who I kept dancing with and even kissed a few times, but every now and then he kept running back to another guy who was even more good-looking than him, complete with a killer body and washboard abs. In a sea of this many half-naked Adonis’ it takes a lot to stand out, but whatever “it” is, this guy had buckets of it. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I didn’t have a chance with either of them, and it wasn’t until 5am, when we were all ejected from the club and out into the street, that the cute guy told me the ridiculously good-looking one was actually his straight brother who he had brought out for a night at a gay bar. I was a little shocked by the revelation, and they were gone before I had a chance to say anything, so in the end I was strolling home with Jansen, the air of the dawn surprisingly warm as we said our goodbyes and parted ways.

Maybe it was fate, karma, or just dumb luck, but I’d had more fun partying in Madrid than I had thought physically possible. It was as though the universe was making up for the nightlife failure that had been my few nights out in Barcelona. While I actually hadn’t befriended too many locals the way I had in Paris, I’d still met a bunch of people through fleeting encounters that I will always half-remember through the drunken haze of a weekend that was Madrid Pride 2013.

A Family Affair

After a light late breakfast at the apartment with PJ, Tony and Nasser – and a bit of playtime with their adorable pooch, appropriately named Toy – I bid the Frenchmen farewell as I headed back to my hostel. Check out was at noon, and I was desperate to not have a repeat of the incident that happened in my hostel in Moscow. Nasser got a little sentimental – I’d learnt that the French can get very intense and passionate very quickly – and even invited me to visit and stay with him at his place in Nice. While the south of France hadn’t featured as a stop on my itinerary, the thought of it sounded marvellous, so I told him I’d see if I could work it into my travel plans, and that I would keep in touch either way.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

Toy trying in vain to get a share of my breakfast.

***

My plans for Sunday afternoon were a little different from anything a tourist would be doing, or indeed even a traveller. When I arrived at Greg’s apartment – a beautiful, classic apartment complete with a gorgeous view of the Parisian streets below and an elevator that was smaller than an airplane bathroom – he told me he would be meeting some of his friends to chill out in one of the many parks around the centre of France. Normally I would have jumped at the offer, but there was something else I was looking forward to, so Greg and I left his place together but went our separate ways – him for his friend, and myself for my family.

The view of the streets from Greg's apartment.

The view of the streets from Greg’s apartment.

It’s not every day that you accidentally end up in the same foreign city as some of your relatives, so it had been quite a surprise when I had seen my Aunty Therese posting photos on Facebook of herself, my Uncle Jason and my cousins Sophie and George, in England. They’re also Sydneysiders, it seemed that our European holidays had conveniently coincided, and the four of them had landed in Paris on the Saturday that I was there. They were renting out an apartment through Air BnB for their stay, and after coordinating schedules with Therese, I made plans to go over and visit them for some Sunday afternoon drinks.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and the parks had been full of people, locals and tourists alike, lounging around on the vast green expenses and soaking up the European summer sun. I would later joke with my friends that I had a better tan after a summer in Europe than I ever had during any of my summers in Australia. While Australia’s UV levels inevitably scorched to a crisp anyone who stayed in direct sunlight for over 30 minutes, I found European sunlight to be the equivalent to Mama Bear’s porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears – it wasn’t too harsh, but it wasn’t too weak that it couldn’t warm you up: it was just right. The sight of all the sunbathers made me realise something else too: in a vast city where there was just so much to do, one also needs to schedule in time to literally just do nothing. To sit, to relax, and soak up some Vitamin D – things like that are just as important in a holiday, in my opinion, and you don’t get the time to do it if you’re too busy rushing around trying to cram in as much as you can. It was a revelation I would inevitably revisit many times throughout my journey.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

A gorgeous day over the river Seine.

Hôtel National des Invalides - passed on my way to Jason and Therese's.

Hôtel National des Invalides – passed on my way to Jason and Therese’s.

Once I reached Therese and Jason’s apartment – located quite centrally, near the Eiffel Tower – we cracked open some drinks, and all of a sudden we could have been back in Sydney, enjoying some sunshine on the back verandah while catching up over a family drink-together (what my extended family calls get togethers). Therese had been keeping up with my blogs, though they weren’t up to speed with real time, so I caught her up on some of latest adventures, and all about the pride festivities the day before.
“Yes, well, we couldn’t have timed that one better ourselves”, she said with a laugh as she sipped her beer. “Yesterday afternoon – took us about two hours to get a cab. Jason was about to lose it!” I couldn’t help but giggle at the mental image of my uncle staring incredulously at a main road full of parade floats and near-naked go-go dancers, searching in vain for a cab to get his family out of the madness. “But what are the odds of landing in the city smack bang in the middle of a gay pride parade, right?”
“Well, unlucky for some, but very lucky for others”, I said with a laugh.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason and I toasting to our European travels.

Jason was in a better mood than he supposedly was the day before, when he arrived back at the apartment with bread, cheese, wine and more beer. As impressed as I thought my male relatives would be with the fact I was now a beer drinker, instead we indulged in the fact that we were not in an Australian backyard as we ate three kinds of cheese and said a toast with the sparkling wine: “Viva la France!” Though it really was lovely to see more familiar faces, and to even relax into a relatively familiar setting – it was just enough to ward off any homesickness that could have started creeping its way in after three months on the road. We sat in the afternoon sun and stayed there well into the evening, sharing holiday stories and working our way thought the food and drink until it finally became full dark. And that was when the Eiffel Tower begins to sparkle.

“Sophie! George! Quick, come look at this!” Jason called out to my younger cousins. From a particular vantage point of their balcony, we could see the upper reaches of the Eiffel Tower through gaps in the surrounding buildings. At night the Eiffel Tower lights up, but once an hour, on the hour, she puts of a show. What look like hundreds of fairy lights all begin to glitter and flicker against the dark night sky. Walking through some of the smaller streets on my walk today had been enchanting, but this was a sight that, when seen for the first time, felt truly magical. The five of us stood on the balcony watching the tower until the glittering eventually flicked off, and I felt that finally the City of Lights was proving itself worthy of its name.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

The Eiffel Tower sparkling in the distance.

***

Eventually I had to head back to Greg’s. I thanked Jason and Therese for having me, wished all four of them all the best for the rest of their trip and then stumbled into a cab to head home, but not before stopping for a quick photo of the Eiffel Tower at night. I didn’t have time to stick around to see it sparkle again, but gentle glow itself is enough to create a distinct ambience in the area that feels so ingrained that it would be almost impossible to imagine Paris without it.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Nighttime view of the Eiffel Tower from the Champs de Mars.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

Drunken selfie with the Eiffel Tower.

My last day was my final day of sightseeing, and then having dinner with Greg and one of his friends at his apartment before gathering my stuff and heading for the train station. That proved a little stressful when one of the metro lines I had intended to take to the station was experiencing a partial closure, and I had to frantically call Greg to try and figure out an alternative route. The only alternative appeared to be covering some of the ground by foot, so I was barging through the streets and waving my ticket around, desperately trying to find the terminal as fast as possible once I finally reached the station.

Of course, this was France, so things weren’t running on time and I made my train with time to spare. But as the train pulled out of Paris and headed south, I couldn’t help but smile, intensely satisfied with my time spent in Paris. In just four short days I’d seen the sights, I’d experienced the parties, caught up with old friends and family and made new friends, future friends who I would hopefully see again one day.

“We Are Not Afraid”: French Kissing and Parisian Pride

On my first night out in Paris, I learnt that I had arrived in the city on the weekend of their celebration of gay pride. From that moment on, my entire stay in the city became a balancing act between being a responsible tourist and a dedicated gay man. There was so much to see in this huge city, but there was no way I was going to miss out on all the partying either. While Paris had steadily been filling up with homosexuals over the past week, the main event of their pride season was the pride parade on Saturday afternoon. I had intended on going along to see it, but unfortunately visiting the Eiffel Tower took a lot longer than I had anticipated. I did, however, have plans to meet with a friend of a friend. Darrin, one of the San Franciscan guys who I had met in Bangkok, put me in touch with Greg, a friend of his who lived in Paris. Greg had plans to meet some of his friends in the city centre later in the afternoon, so we coordinated to meet at one of the metro stations and travel in together.

***

Greg was a nice guy, mild-mannered and very sweet, and I quickly caught him up on my situation, my travels, and how I’d come to meet his American friend in Bangkok despite being an Australian myself. It was actually quite funny how the web of connections and friends of friends kept expanding further and further the more I travelled. Eventually we emerged near the Bastille monument, where pride was definitely in the air. It was a similar feeling to Mardi Gras in Sydney, with people walking sound the streets in all kinds of crazy costumes, and copious amounts of glitter, sequins, feathers and body paint. The streets were lined with rubbish and parade debris, and there were DJs on a stage erected near the monument, where a huge outdoor dance party had started. “This is the ending point of the parade,” Greg said as he pointed towards the crowd of revellers, and then up one of the streets that led into the huge circle, where the tail end of the parade was trickling in to join the party. After seeing the hordes of people around me, I slightly regret not seeing more of the parade, because it would have been a fantastic show.

We moved to a nearby restaurant where Greg was meeting some friends who had been having a boozy lunch. Their table faced out onto the street where all the excitement was going on, so Greg and I each pulled up a chair and were offered a glass of wine from the bottles on the table. Then a waiter came by to clear some things off the table… and to my surprise, I recognised him.
“Xavier?”
He looked up at me, and I saw the recognition register in his eyes. He seemed just as shocked as I was, if not more. “Hey! Robert… Hi. Wow… what are you… what are doing here?” He sounded a little nervous, almost freaked out, and it wasn’t until later that it occurred to me that showing up at his work like that probably made me seem like a bit of a stalker. I had sent him a few text messages when I had gone out again by myself on Friday night, but he had told me he was resting because he had work the next day. “I work at a kind of fancy restaurant,” was all he had told me. “I have to wear a… suit, tie, tuxedo type thing.” Sure enough, there he was in is uniform, looking more like a posh butler than a waiter.
“I’m just… I’m just here with friend, and… his friends,” I said, motioning towards the group around the table that I had just met.
“Oh, okay… well, I better keep working.” The exchange was starting to attract a little attention, from both Greg and his friends, and Xavier’s co-workers.
“You’ve been in Paris for two days and you already know our waiter?” Greg said to me with a laugh after Xavier had left, and I gave him a brief rundown of what had happened on Thursday, as one of his friends poured me a glass of wine. He looked a little uneasy at the end of the story. After we’d finished our drinks, Greg informed me this was actually only a brief stop on the way to meet some other friends, so we bid them farewell, and I threw Xavier a small, unnoticed wave as we headed off into the crowd.

“It’s just funny, because…” Greg spoke up once we had started walking. “Because… well, not funny, actually. I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty surer that that guy has a boyfriend.” With one revelation, everything about Xavier’s behaviour made sense. He’d keen very keen but still somewhat nervous when he’d first approached me at Spyce, and today he’d acted extremely on edge, as though he’d been sprung or caught out on something. I sighed, rolled my eyes and just nodded. Greg let out a gentle, sympathetic laugh.

***

Greg and I walked through the crowds and twisting streets until we finally made it back to what I had been calling the ‘gay quarter’, although there are supposedly several gay friendly areas in Paris. But this was the main one, and the one I had visited the past two nights, though it did look rather different in the daylight. The sun doesn’t set quite as late as it does in Scandinavia, but the afternoons are longer, and the dying afternoon sunshine bathed the small cobbled streets in glowing warmth. The French gays were out in full force in what appeared to be some kind of street party. There was a main intersection where a couple of bars had completely opened up onto the street, serving beer in plastic cups with which patrons could wander out onto the crowded streets to socialise, so the crowds flowed out of the main square and down and around all the adjoining and adjacent streets.

“Are you allowed to drink on the streets in Paris?” I asked Greg as we twisted and squeezed our way through the crowd.
“Well… not exactly,” he called back to me. “But pride is just a once a year event, so they’re a little more relaxed about it on this night.” Much like pride in Berlin, it was a super relaxed affair, with no fences, restrictions or red tape, except there was a little less debauchery from the Parisians, which was supplemented with a simple, joyful elegance. Somewhere in an apartment above, an electric bubble-blowing machine whirred away, and the scene was sprinkled with a stream of bubbles that refracted in the sunset and caused a rainbow sheen to hang above the partygoers. I think I stopped at one point – nearly getting left behind as Greg pressed on – and just stared up at my enchanting surroundings. The romantic Paris I had been dreaming of was finally starting to show it’s face.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

Pride bringing a dash of colour to the already charming streets of Paris.

First things first, Greg and I grabbed some beers, and then moved through the crowds as he looked for his friends. Now, I have to admit, I’d heard some mixed reviews about the French, and the unfriendly attitude towards foreigners that was somewhat resounding in their stereotype. Just the night before, when I had gone back to Raidd for a couple of drinks, I had overheard a conversation where one guy complained about “f**king tourists,” loudly enough, and in English, for me to assume that he’d probably wanted someone – specifically tourists – to hear him. If you’re going to complain about tourists, in a city that has more annual visitors than nearly any other city, in peak tourist season and in pride, in a gay bar that is well known for being popular with tourists… well, to be frank, that guy was an arrogant moron. So I was a little nervous going in to meet Greg’s friends, but I rationalised that to be friends with someone as nice as Greg, they would have to be pretty nice themselves.

And I was right. I was introduced to a bunch of guys, many whose names I didn’t remember, but they were all incredibly friendly towards me, and the ones with better English skills asked me various questions about my travels and held some pleasant and interesting conversations. My theory, based on the experiences of others and my own, is that French guys can simply be a little closed off to talking to people outside their immediate social groups, if those people haven’t been introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Had Greg not been with me, I have a feeling I wouldn’t have talked to and socialised with half as many guys as I did that evening, but as it was I met quite a few nice and interesting people. One of them was Pierre-Jacques, or PJ for short, who told me about some of the queer activism he’d been involved with in France.

“This year is a very special pride for us,” PJ told me amidst the celebrations, “because it’s the first pride since gay marriage has been legalised. So there’s a real milestone for us to celebrate.” The topic of marriage equality in Australia came up quite often, and it was almost embarrassing to have to confess that we were still lagging behind on the issue.
“It wasn’t easy for France, either,” PJ assured me. “People think of us as very… free love, and revolutionary, but there are still lots of conservatives who think marriage should still be between man and woman.” The other people I spoke to the most that evening were Tony, PJ’s boyfriend, who is originally from Belgium, and Tony’s best friend Nasser, a Frenchman from Nice. Tony told me a little bit about the social politics between Belgium and France, and PJ pointed out the differences in their accents – Belgians spoke French with a rougher, less elegant style, a result of their proximity to countries like the Netherlands and Germany. Nasser was quite charming but aggressively flirtatious – Tony even pulled me aside at one point and told me to let him know if it was a little too much. I just laughed and told him that I could handle myself – Nasser was quite charming, and I didn’t mind the attention. It wasn’t too long before he was stealing a few kisses from me, but I figured there was no better time than Parisian pride to let a French man have his way with you.

As the afternoon turned into night the partying got a little heavier inside the clubs, though outside on the streets the scene was still much more conversational, though the standards to which the conversation dropped was directly proportional to the amount of beer consumed, and there was frequent cheekiness thrown in here and there by Nasser. The question of where in Paris I was staying came up while I was talking to PJ and Tony, and I told them I was staying out in the 20th District for one more night, and that I still had no idea where I was staying on my final night.
“Oh, really? Well, we have Nasser sleeping in our spare room tonight, but if you need a place to stay tomorrow you are more than welcome to stay with us. As long as you don’t mind dogs?” I assured him dogs were fine, thanked him for the generous offer, and said I would let him know. PJ must have said something to Greg after that, though.
“You should have said you needed somewhere to say,” Greg said as he was getting ready to leave the party. “I have room in my place, if you want you can bring your stuff over to mine tomorrow. Any friend of Darrin’s is a friend of mine,” he said with a friendly smile. It was definitely a weight lifted off my shoulders to hear that, as the problem of accommodation on my last night had always been nagging in the back of mind, and I was glad to find that all the negative stereotypes about the French people were being proved 100% wrong to me. I said goodbye to Greg and told him I would see him soon.

When the party was really wrapping up though, Nasser became a lot more concerned with where I was going that evening.
“How are you going to get all the way out there?” he exclaimed when I told him where my hostel was. I hadn’t thought that far ahead, but I was assuming I would just get a bus as close as I could and walk the rest of the way, like I had the night before. Nasser was having none of it.
“I’ll ask PJ and Tony, maybe if you want you can come with us? They live quite close to here.” Though I was highly aware that Nasser probably just wanted more alone time with me, I couldn’t say no when the other option was a trek back to the 20th District. PJ had already offered to have me the following night, so he said as long as I didn’t mind sleeping on the couch, or sharing the bed with Nasser, I was welcome to join them. So off the four of us went on a stroll through the tiny streets of classical Paris, dim golden street lights lighting the way.

***

We walked down the streets as two pairs holding hands, the crowds around us dissipating as people took turns down other streets to their respective homes. Before long the four of us were all but alone, and as we walked past a small park Nasser called out to PJ and Tony. “Wait! Show Robert the advertisements!”
There was a chain link fence around the park – strung up along the fences were signs and placards depicting same sex couples. “These are real actors and celebrities,” PJ explained to me. “Some of them are gay, but many of them are straight. This was part of a campaign to promote that being gay is a normal thing, and that it’s okay to be gay.” He pointed to some of the pictures of the men, who were smiling, holding hands, even kissing. “These guys are all straight,” PJ continued, “but they did this to show their support to gay marriage. Many of them are quite famous in France. Some even more so…” He pointed to a picture of two women wrapped up in a loving embrace, facing towards the camera.
“She is from… how is it called in English?” Nasser paused for a moment to think. “Desperate Housewives?”
Sure enough, one of the women in the picture was Eva Longoria, making a very sultry looking lesbian. Yet there was something more peculiar about all these pictures.

“They’ve all… All the pictures have been cut in half?” I turned to PJ.
“Yes,” he said, lamentation in his voice. “As I said earlier, we still have many homophobes and conservative people in France. When this campaign went up, it was soon vandalised by these people.” Tony put an arm around PJ’s shoulder to comfort him.
“But then… These other ones…” I was only able to form half sentences as I gazed at the scene around us. Beside each of the vandalised signs, a replica had been placed, with the exact same pictures and the exact same slogans. None of the secondary signs had been touched. The imagery was somehow more powerful than just having the original pictures alone. And so PJ explained:

“When the signs were vandalised, at first people just wanted to take them down, and replace them with the new ones. But then we decided that… No, that would be them winning, that would be giving in. So we left the destroyed signs up, and just put the new ones beside them. It’s a way of saying that, yes, we know they are out there. But we are not going to let them tell us what we can or cannot do. We are proud to be gay, but we are not going to pretend they’re not out there. It’s a way of saying that we… that we…”
“That we’re not afraid,” I finished for him, and the scene around us descended into a solemn silence.
“Yes. We are not afraid,” PJ echoed, breaking the moments silence. He started to move along the street again with Tony, and Nasser and I quickly followed suit, his arms wrapped around me to shelter me from the chill that was settling into the air. We didn’t talk much more about what we had just seen, but I think it was a message that rang loud and clear in us all.

Even in countries where marriage equality has been achieved, there is still significant amounts of discrimination. People often say, “What exactly do you need to be proud of?”, or claim that equality has all but been reached, and there’s nothing left to fight for. But there in the streets of Paris, I was reminded that the fight is never really over. There’s always going to be people out there that hate us, and pretending otherwise will never help anyone. Being proud is about being gay, and not being afraid to admit it. I loved the decision to leave the vandalised posters up on display, because it sent a message to the homophobes, a message with a meaning as clear as that initial act of vandalism – we are gay, we are proud, and we are not afraid.

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.

Getting Cultured: St Petersburg and the Hermitage

After what had been a surprisingly good sleep, on what was without a doubt the best train we had been on throughout our entire journey, we woke up to a miserable-looking overcast day in St Petersburg. I was still excited though – partly because St Petersburg was supposed to be a beautiful city, but also because our tour was coming to an end. While I had made a handful of new friends who I had absolutely loved travelling with, I was itching to break out on my own again and enjoy the free and spontaneous style of travelling that I had done in South-East Asia. It was a little funny to reflect on the fact that two weeks ago, I had been yearning for the exact opposite – a little bit of structure, and someone to tell me where I was going and what I was doing. I guess it’s all about mixing it up and trying to find a balance, as well as learning the style of travelling that suits me as an individual. I think I’ve already learnt a lot about myself in that regard, though I do have quite a while to keep discovering.

We met Vladimir, our St Petersburg guide, at the train station, and there was a conversation between Maria and Vladimir that seemed slightly awkward but was entertaining to watch, though none of us could understand what they were saying. Within the first half hour, after dropping our bags at the hostel – actual check-in to our rooms wasn’t until 3pm – and meeting at a nearby coffee shop for breakfast, it was already clear that Vladimir was a very orderly and structured person. He knew the facts about his city: the main sights to see, how to get there, and when they were open – a welcome change from the Kremlin fiasco. It would have been interesting to know what Vladimir had made of Maria’s impromptu excursion to St Petersburg, but he wasn’t one for a great deal of chit-chat, so we never really got a chance to ask him. Another thing we weren’t quite expecting was for Maria to tag along with the group – she’d said she had a friend to visit, but we would later find out that that friend was busy on the day we arrived, and Maria ended up booking a night into the hostel with us. Her spontaneous holiday just kept growing and growing, and while some of the others in the group thought it was a little weird that she had come along for the ride, I just found it simultaneously awesome and hilarious.

***

We had arrived in St Petersburg on Sunday, and our Trans-Siberian tour officially finished on Tuesday. A lot of people were scheduled to leave on that morning, but Vladimir had advised us that the the Hermitage, the famous art museum of St Petersburg, was closed on Monday.
“Well then, looks like I know what I’m doing today,” Tim had said in the coffee shop where we’d had our briefing. “I won’t have another chance to do it, and it’s of the things that I really want to see here.” Alyson had shared similar sentiments, and while there were other ideas among the rest of our party, the familiar grouping of Alyson, Tim, Kaylah and myself all decided to hit the Hermitage that afternoon. While I was actually staying in St Petersburg for two extra days after the tour was over, I could see myself getting particularly lax after the others were gone, so I decided to do the typical tourist things while I was still with my companions, and save the city exploring for when I was flying solo again.

But first we set out as a group to have a tour of the main streets of St Petersburg. Vladimir showed us the way through some smaller streets around our hostel, taking us past a cathedral called the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood. It takes the morbid name from the location on which it was built – the site of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 – but the style is an obvious homage to St Basil’s cathedral in Moscow. The Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood seemed slightly bigger though, and while I did return on a later, sunnier day to take a picture of the building, as a group we never actually went inside. We continued walking along the streets – stopping at a small souvenir market were I bought a small Russian style pocket watch – until we hit the famed Nevsky Prospekt, a street that in itself was considered an essential St Petersburg experience. A wide and bustling street, it stretches through the southern bank of the city and is home to a number of landmarks, such as the Kazan Cathedral.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

Outside the Church on the Spilled Blood of the Saviour, on a less overcast day.

The Kazan Cathedral - I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

The Kazan Cathedral – I struggled to get a shot of the building in its entirety, it was so wide.

However, we had arrived in St Petersburg in a supposedly exciting time. It was the city’s 310th birthday, and a major section of Nevsky Prospekt had been closed for some kind of parade. The streets were lined with people jumping up and down to get a glimpse, climbing up staircases and buildings to peer over the amassing throng. I myself climbed up onto a concrete ledge to get a better view, but at the time there was nothing more than a group of cheerleaders doing what appeared to be a poorly rehearsed and actually quite boring routine. I could hear marching bands in the distance, so I figured the entertainment was going to pick up a little, but Vladimir had told us that the lines to get into the Hermitage could be painfully long if you wait too long into the afternoon, so those of us who intended to visit set off up the street, making plans to meet up with the rest of the group for a late lunch.

***

My grandmother had been constantly reminding me to visit the Hermitage, wishing she could have been there herself, so this one is for you, Nana! The main façade of the building, which had originally been used as a Winter Palace, was covered in scaffolding and construction materials, which seemed like a bit of a shame – especially since almost every major attraction I’d visited on this tour was undergoing some kind of reconstruction – but I wasn’t too worried, as it was what was inside the State Hermitage that interested me the most.

Outside the Hermitage.

Outside the Hermitage.

It did not disappoint. From the moment you enter the building, you feel as though you haven’t just visited a museum to view the works of art, but rather you’ve actually stepped into one yourself. The walls and ceilings were decorated with the most lavish and extravagant gold trimmings, and the images of gods and men were carved out of marble and extending their limbs into the cavernous rooms. I spent the first five or ten minutes with my eyes pointed upwards and my mouth agape with wonder, so much that stumbled up a few of the stairs. Alyson had wanted to go off and see the museum at her own pace, and I would have been happy to do the same, though I found myself sticking with Kaylah and Tim for most of the time.

There are several floors in the museum, and it was easy to get lost. A couple of times we found ourselves wandering into dead end rooms, or trying to get into rooms that were unfortunately closed for renovations or refurbishing. We moved through room after room of paintings and sculptures, seeing everything from early European art of classical portraits and flawless scene depictions, to the ambiguous and abstract work of Picasso, to the ancient sculptures of characters and gods from Greek and Roman mythology. I’d like to think I have a little bit of culture in me, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m no art critic, and I certainly know I couldn’t do any better. I liked some of them more than others, but I discovered that I had a particular love for the sculptures. I’d always been quite interested in the mythology of those cultures, and there was just something more interesting about a 3D piece of art that you can literally consider from a number of angles.

There was a statue of a man with an eagle perched upon his shoulder, to which Kaylah had said, “Look Robert, it’s you in Mongolia!” After that, I think we may have been a little delirious, because wandered through the rooms laughing at the simple, unoriginal names – such as Portrait of a Young Man – and generally just making humorous observations about the artworks. We also looked at some interesting Asian art, and I recognised many representations of Buddha that I had seen throughout South-East Asia, and together we also recognised quite a number a traditional Chinese and Mongolian styles of artwork. That made me a feel a little cultured, to know that I had come halfway around the world, and recognising the different styles of artwork and culture that I had seen along the way.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

Posing with the statue Kaylah considered my likeness, due to the eagle perched on its shoulder.

We spent a few hours at the Hermitage, getting lost in its beautiful and dazzling halls, but in the end my feet grew so sore I could barely stand up. I hadn’t had a shower since our last morning in Moscow, so after the copious amounts of sweating I’d done on that afternoon combined with the overnight train, I could tell I was starting to get a little foul again, and I was ready to head to lunch and then onwards to showering at the hostel. It had been a good day at the Hermitage, but I think the greatest feat of our day was that there had been absolutely no lines to buy tickets or get inside. Despite Vladimir’s warning of waits that can be up to several hours, we walked straight in with such an ease that it almost felt suspicious. We put it down to the fact that the parade had taken up most of the city’s attention, and were thankful that we had decided to visit the museum when we did.