Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”

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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.