Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.

Sports Bars and Gentlemen

On Friday afternoon, after a day at the museums at the National Mall, I headed back to Robert’s where I would meet him to get ready to head out for the evening. He listed a couple of different gay venues and bars where things would be happening, but we decided to grab some dinner first and just play it by ear. We caught a bus to the other side of town, where the street names were all letters – there wasn’t really a dedicated gay district, but there were a handful of places around U Street, a little further east from where Robert lived. We went to a place called Nellie’s Sports Bar, which was – lo and behold – another gay sports bar. I decided that sports bars are just an American thing in general, gay or straight, because they seemed to be more a commonplace venue than I had been expecting. The walls were lined with sporting memorabilia and jerseys and all kinds of all-American decorations, and the bar was actually more of a restaurant where the servers were all cute guys dressed up in sport themed uniforms. We ordered some beers and got some food, and afterwards Robert told me that there was an upstairs area with a balcony and outdoor dance floor, and asked if I wanted to check it out. Obviously I did, so after fixing up the bill and giving our server a nice tip, we headed upstairs.

If downstairs was the sports aspect of the bar, then upstairs was where the gay aspect was fully represented. It was a cool setup – you climbed a few flights of old style wooden staircases until you reached the entrance to a wooden patio that stretched out over the roof of the building. There were a couple of bars along the edges, with bartenders making every drink with such flair and skill that a simple bourbon and Coke came out looking like a cocktail, and in the main area of the deck was a dance floor that was covered by a light, canvas canopy. The edges of the balcony looked out into the street and over the city, and the vibe was almost like that of a house or garden party. We got a couple of drinks, and I ended up hitting the dance floor while Robert sat on the sidelines.
“I’m too old, and don’t really care for dancing anymore”, he said with a resigned smile. “But you go ahead.”

I flitted around the dance floor, dancing with people and having brief conversations here and there. One thing I liked from what I had experienced in America so far was that strangers can be incredibly friendly. People are more likely to approach you and strike up random friendly conversations, not just in bars but even in the street, waiting at a bus stop, on the subway – and while sometimes it can be a little creepy in some of those places, it’s usually really nice, and especially useful in bars when you’re by yourself. I didn’t exactly make any friends while I was wandering around, but at the same time I never felt like I was by myself. Even when I was waiting for my drink at the bar, I was grabbed by the shoulder by a guy standing next to me and pulled into a group of people. They were doing shots to celebrate something or someone, I don’t even know, but they’d ordered too many. The tall shooter glass was thrust into my hand and before I even had time to think about it we raised and clinked them with a booming “Cheers!” and I downed the shot with the rest of them. Somewhere, whoever taught me about stranger danger at school is slowly shaking their head and mumbling under their breath. I thanked the group, danced with them for a little while, then collected my drink from the bartender and moved on. Robert eventually let me know that he was heading home, but he gave me all the information I needed to get home safely, and then left me to the party.

I had a few conversations with guys here and there while I was on the dance floor.
“Are you going to Mix Tape?” one of them asked me. I’d heard a few people ask and mention this Mix Tape, which I assume was some kind of event or party, and from a the few people I spoke to I managed to discern that it was some kind of underground party where local DJs test and preview their mixes, and it was the place where most people began to head once Nellie’s finally had to close the balcony party due to obvious noise restrictions. It wasn’t too far from Nellie’s, apparently, so I thought I would check it out.

That was the plan, at least. However, there was something – well, someone – else that had caught my eye. I had seen him almost immediately when I’d arrived on the patio with Robert, and we’d had brief, fleeting moments of eye contact while I had been making my way around the dance floor. It wasn’t like I was honing in on him or anything – I generally scan the crowds of any room I’m in, assessing the people and the situation – but I definitely caught him looking back at me a few times, with that lingering eye contact that was just a little too long to be considered a passing glance. Anyway, out of sheer dumb luck I was dancing my way around the dance floor and ended up face to face with him. Simply staring and relying on eye contact would now be a little awkward, so I finally plucked up the courage to say hello. We exchanged pleasantries and introductions – his name was Mike – but when I began saying sentences that contained more than a few words, his expression became a little puzzled.

“Do… do you have an accent?” I laughed and nodded, and filled him in on my story, where I was from and what I was doing here. He asked me about the guy that I came with, so I explained who Robert was and how I knew him, and where I was staying.
“So, I’ve heard about this Mix Tape thing that’s on tonight?” I said, trying to move past the same repetitive topic I had to begin with for literally everyone that I met.
“Do you know anything about it?”
“Yeah, ah, well… I know it’s on tonight. It’s a pretty cool dance party.”
“Where is it? Are you gonna go?”
“Me? Oh, nah. Not tonight. I’m just going to head home soon, I think.” He sounded almost a little bashful.
“Oh…” I don’t know if I sounded as disappointed as I was. “Well, I was thinking about it, but I’m still not sure what I’m doing.” Then were was a couple of seconds of awkward silence – except for the thumping music all around us, of course – before Mike spoke again.
“Well, you could come with me if you like?” It was very spontaneous, and a little crazy considering we’d been talking for all of five minutes, but I couldn’t help but let out a little laugh and smile. Mike smiled back.
“Okay.”

***

While I would have had to navigate my way back to Robert’s with the nighttime public transport, or fork out for a taxi, Mike lived about a 5 minute walk away from Nellie’s. We talked as we walked, and he seemed to be a really nice guy, and I found myself a little smitten. If you skim over the rather blunt invitation to join him back at his place – which still somehow came across as charming when he did it – Mike was actually the perfect gentleman. I spent the night there with him, and in the morning he even made scrambled eggs for breakfast. But I had to get back to Robert’s sooner rather than later – Robert was actually in the process selling his apartment and today was the open house, so if I didn’t make it back in time I would be doing the monument walk in my walk of shame clothes from the night before. Mike noticed that I was a little distracted as we finished up with breakfast, pouring over the map on my iPhone, and he asked me where I was going.
“Oh, that’s no problem, I can drive you,” he’s said when I’d told him where Robert lived. “Just let me quickly jump in the shower and we’ll get you home.” I couldn’t believe my luck – was there anything this dreamboat couldn’t do for me?

As I waited, I walked around Mike’s living room and looked at some of the decorations. There were a handful of nursing books on the coffee table – I would later learn that he had left his job in politics, which was what originally brought him to DC, for a career change and had gone back to studying to become a nurse. There was also a couple of photos of what looked like his family, including a couple of solo portrait photographs of a young kid who looked about six or seven years old. When Mike emerged from the bathroom, I asked him about it.
“So who’s the kid? Your nephew, or something?”
“Oh, ah… no,” said with a smile, but with a tone in his voice that suggested there was more to that story. “He’s actually my son.”

There was a moment of intense panic in my mind. “Oh my God, did I just sleep with a married man while his wife was out of town?!” It only lasted a second before I started to calm down again – it was totally possible that he was separated, or divorced, or whatever. Mike was as little older than me, so that wasn’t really out of the question. Then those brief seconds of speculation ended, and I actually asked him about it.
“Your… son? Are you… like…. married, or-”
“No, no, no, no, no! No, not married,” Mike said with a chuckle, and I could only assume that I wasn’t the first person to have ever drawn that conclusion, perhaps in a very similar circumstance. “I have two really good friends, they’re a lesbian couple, who wanted to have a baby, and they asked me to be the father. I said yes, and yeah… that’s him.”
It took everything I had to refrain from letting out a long “Aww!” but it was actually one of those super cute stories that I thought only ever happened in American romantic comedies. Mike told me some more about him as he drove me back to Robert’s.

“Yeah, I’ve known him his whole life, but I was only ever really a family friend, you know? It was only recently when he got old enough to understand and ask questions that we explained to him that I was actually his father. But, you know, he still calls me Mike, and I don’t think I really need him to call me ‘Dad’, unless he wants to. His mothers are his parents, they’re the ones who raise him.” I thought it was beautiful, and the more I found out about Mike, the more I liked him, and the more I was thankful for my decision to go home with him instead of going to the Mix Tape party of whatever it was. Eventually we arrived at Robert’s street, and thanked Mike for a final time as I moved to get out of the car. My future plans were still up in the air – I hadn’t even booked a bus ticket back to New York yet – but we exchanged phone numbers and Facebook names just in case we had time to catch up again before I left DC.
“Well, let me know whenever you figure out what your plans are,” Mike said. “It would be great to see you again before you go.”
“Yeah,” I said with a coy smile, and I leaned back in to kiss him one last time. “Yeah, it would.”

Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.