Friday, February 19, 2010

Stepping Out

The Midnight Sun is "San Francisco's Premier Video Bar" if you believe their website

It's world famous!

Actually, it's one of the most obvious pick-up bars I have ever seen. You can't even sit at the bar or a table if you wanted to. No dancing. All people do is stand with a drink in their hand and watch videos.

Not really. They watch each other.

Qais did his best to explain gay bar culture to me, but the whole scene made me nervous. Before entering I told Qais that I didn't want to meet anyone. Yes, I was gay, but I didn't feel the need to dive into the bar scene.

On the other hand, I was curious to see what gay nightlife was like. At that time bars and discos were the essential element of almost every gay man's life. There just weren't that many other options if you wanted to meet other gay men.

Different bars have different vibes and different reputations. For whatever reason Qais decided that my first bar should be one that specializes in posers looking to spend a night with someone.

About every 10 minutes he would say, "That one over there is looking at you. He likes you." And I would casually check who he meant, then invariably reply either, "No, he's not looking at me." Or, "Not my type."

Neither of us was ever approached and we never approached anyone. Qais later told me that no one would talk to us because they thought we were together. I don't know if he was right or if he was just being kind.

On a few more Saturday nights Qais took me to other places. The White Horse Inn in Oakland, "the nation's second oldest gay bar." Some techno bar in Oakland, a small old-boy bar in Hayward, and some huge bar in San Jose with a name I never knew.

You would think that after all this bar experience I would have gotten more comfortable. And to a degree I did. I got comfortable entering and standing around with a beer in my hand, but I never got comfortable cruising. If I was going to meet a guy, I wanted a relationship, not random sex. Random sex was the quickest way to get AIDS.

Our bar nights came to an end after only a few weeks. Qais had to go with his family on a trip to Germany for a month, starting in mid-July. Quite coincidentally, I was already planning a trip to Germany and Austria. I had committed to a Fall semester at a school in Oxford so I was planning to travel alone for two weeks before school started. When we compared our schedules we realized that they overlapped by 3 days. Once Qais saw that, he pleaded with me to meet him on a Friday night in Hamburg. "It is the best gay city in Germany, except maybe Berlin."

I hadn't told Qais yet, but my two weeks of travelling alone in Europe were going to be more than a sight-seeing tour. They were going to be the first two weeks in my life where I could be out and never be worried who might find out. It also meant that I could do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. The idea of being so free was exhilarating.

As we had agreed, I called Qais as soon as I arrived in Germany and he explained where to meet him on that Friday. Until Qais had told me that he was going to be in Hamburg, that city had not been on my itinerary. My plan was to start in Cologne.

Cologne is a beautiful city with a relaxed atmosphere, an incredible cathedral and several fascinating museums. I had mapped out my plans in advance so I knew exactly where to find the youth hostel where I planned to stay. I had never stayed in a youth hostel before and I hadn't given them a lot of advance thought. All I knew was they were a cheap, safe place for young people to sleep while they backpacked around Europe.

The hostel in Cologne was clean and well-maintained. The room I was assigned slept about eight guys. I arrived at the hostel just before they closed at 9pm and by the time I got to the room I was shocked to find everyone else in bed asleep. After the long flight, the train to Cologne, and the walk through the city, I was exhausted too. I fell asleep in seconds.

The sounds of voices in a language I did not understand woke me before 7am. All the other guys in the room were up and getting dressed or shoving their belongings into a backpack. I thought they were insane. It's not even 7am!! In a short time almost everyone cleared out of the room and I went back to sleep. I eventually dragged my ass out of bed around 9:30 and learned that I had missed breakfast. If you could call it breakfast. It was a croissant, a wedge of cheese, and an apple.

I spent the first day in Cologne sightseeing alone, as expected. What I hadn't realized was that staying in a youth hostel meant a 9pm curfew. I couldn't believe it. 9pm??? In college we went to bed somewhere around 1am. What was worse, the ridiculous curfew made for a serious challenge when it came to finding gay nightlife. I checked for other places to stay but they were either full or too expensive. Resigned to my fate, I ran into the hostel at 8:58. When I arrived at my room I was again surprised to find that almost everyone was in bed. At 9:15, the lights went out and no one even talked. Boring!!

The next morning I got up earlier, before 8am, so I didn't miss my bread and cheese. Even then I was late compared to everyone else. When I returned to the room there was only one guy still there. He surprised me when he said hello and introduced himself as Philippe.

Philippe was French and from a small town in the north-east of France. He was very friendly and not at all like the arrogant French stereotype. He was cute too. Unfortunately I never got a gay vibe from him so I never outed myself. Instead, I made a new friend and we spent that Wednesday and Thursday together, hanging out in Cologne. One of the highlights was meeting up with a group of Danish girls and drinking with them in a beer hall. We had so much fun that we ended up missing the 9pm curfew by about 10 minutes. It was only because we were a large group, making so much noise by shouting from the street and pounding on the door, that we were allowed in after curfew. It was a close call but it proved that German youth hostels took the curfew cut-off very seriously.

The following morning, Friday, Philippe and I parted. He was headed to Munich and I was due to meet Qais in Hamburg. Although I left Cologne in the morning, it was mid-afternoon before I saw Qais waiting for me on a corner in St. Georg, the gay area of Hamburg.

We had fun that afternoon and evening checking out the cafes, shops, and bars in the neighborhood. Qais loved to people-watch and was always pointing out the best looking guys. After dinner in a small cafe we decided to hang out in the biggest gay bar we could find, which actually wasn't very big. And our timing was not great. Qais had to leave at 9:30 and I had to take an 11pm train to Berlin.

We had been in the bar about an hour when a young and good looking German boy came in with a friend. He and I traded shy glances. I was always shy in the bars but the fact that my German was very poor made me even more shy. If the guy actually came over and spoke to me I would have struggled to understand him. Qais immediately noticed our mutual interest. "Go say hi to him."

"Why? I'm leaving in two hours. And, I probably won't be able to understand him."

"He speaks some English. Most young Germans do."

"Well, I'm leaving soon anyway. It's not like we're going to fall madly in love and run away somewhere together."

"You might be surprised! But seriously, go talk to him. He will not come to you. Germans will never approach you. They will always wait for you to come to them."

"Why is that? What's the point of everyone being in a bar together if no one talks to each other?"

"I don't know. It's just the way they are."

As I learned in the coming days, Qais was absolutely correct.

I stayed alone in the bar for another 45 minutes or so after Qais left. All I could do was people-watch, which was ok, except the bar never had that many guys in it.

The highlight of my trip from Hamburg to Berlin was being awakened by East German soldiers shortly after crossing the border of the two Germanies. The soldiers worked in pairs and were dressed in very formal uniforms; they looked like SS guards from the Nazi era. None of them looked like they even knew what a smile was.

Berlin is a fascinating city, filled with history. I visited at a historic time and was able to experience the city before reunification. I got to see an operational Checkpoint Charlie, the wall and the heavy guarded border.

The Berlin hostel was a very large, stately mansion. It had a large, nicely manicured lawn that surrounded it and a thick, heavy iron fence. The fence was so high and so severe looking that it was like a wall that divided the hostel from the city.

The hostel's curfew was midnight and because it was a Saturday, I really wanted to make the most of my night. At the very center of the city I found a huge disco that was listed in a city guide as being a popular gay club. With the curfew in mind I paid to enter the disco shortly before 9pm. It was desolate. But I could see that it had a good atmosphere so I decided to be patient and see who rolled in.

Steadily more and more guys came in, although it never became crowded. I crushed on one particular guy and we traded stares. But Qais was right, he would not approach me. Still filled with the same anxieties of "my German is poor" and "what's the point of meeting anyone in Berlin?" I never approached him either. Knowing that I needed to head back to the hostel, I left the club at around 11:40.

The walk took much longer than I had estimated; I arrived in front of the hostel's huge iron gates at 12:20. The gates were locked and no one answered the intercom. The nicely manicured lawn was now a moat and the heavy iron fence was a prison. Unless someone answered the intercom, there was no way I could get in. How I wished I had a loud group with me to force the gates open like in Cologne!

Resigned to spending the night outside of the hostel, I thought about going back to the club. But I decided not to. I'd have to walk there and back again, plus I didn't want to pay the cover to enter for such a short time. Besides, who exactly was I expecting to meet there?

Not knowing what else to do alone at 1am in Berlin, I found a nearby bench, curled up on it, and dozed intermittently through the night.

Homeless in Berlin, oh joy!

Thankfully it was August and the night was not unbearably cold.

The next day was Sunday and I could tell from the lack of people on the streets late in the day that the clubs would be empty. Besides, I was tired and wanted to sleep on a real bed. So after playing tourist for a final day in Berlin, I took the train the next morning to Vienna.

Vienna is an incredible city, I would love to go back; I was only able to spend two days and one night there.

The one night was a Monday and therefore not a great night for clubbing. I was quite surprised to find a small but busy gay night club. The patrons were somewhat older than the ones in most discos but I hoped that they would be more outgoing too. As usual, I did my best wallflower impersonation.

I had a midnight curfew and just as I was thinking that I should leave, a guy started to talk to me. He was older, around 40. He was not unattractive but he looked worn for his age. I learned that his name has Cesar, he was Argentinian, and he worked as a silver smith. The fact that he was Argentinian, I guess, explained why he actually spoke to me. When I told him that I had to leave soon, he asked me to stay. I thought about that for a minute, and after being alone in so many bars, I decided that I would. I was just grateful for some conversation.

Cesar and I chatted as best we could but his English has weak and my German was minimal. After a lot of awkward pauses, Cesar excused himself. I was not exactly sad to see him go.

Now that I had missed curfew, again, I decided that I would stay in the bar until closing. I didn't have anywhere else to go anyway.

The final hour in the bar was astounding. There was a flurry of activity as men that had not spoken to each other started to talk, then shortly thereafter left together. As the minutes ticked by, the intensity of finding someone to go home with dramatically increased. It was like everyone was racing the clock; if you didn't find a partner by 2am, your life was over.

I had no designs on anyone. Cesar had other ideas. With about 30 minutes remaining before closing, he approached me again. After a few more minutes of awkward conversation, he apparently thought that he had invested sufficient time with me and that I should go with him. "We get a room." It wasn't a question.

Now I was in a real quandry. Spend another night on a bench, or, spend a night in a bed with a guy I was not interested in??? Sensing my indecision, Cesar pulled me by the arm to a dumpy hotel very near the bar.

I was mortally embarrassed as the woman eyed the two of us while he asked for a single room. My regrets only grew as Cesar told the woman that we were going to split the cost of the room. What??? I didn't have extra money to spare and I would never have paid for a room for myself, even at half the cost. In fact, half the cost was still more than a night at the hostel. But I felt trapped. I gave the woman the money.

The room was a disaster; tiny and filthy. The bed was a twin-sized cot. The only good thing was that the room came with a package of freshly laundered sheets.

As soon as the sheet was on the bed, Cesar was ready to get busy. Sadly for him I was not. If I had anywhere else to go, I would have left. But I didn't. After some very unromantic, but safe, tugging, slurping and "oh yeahs" we settled in to sleep.

Cesar was about average height and weight but he took up the majority of the cot. I curled into him, as best I could, but mostly I "slept" on my side, on the very edge of the bed. The bench in Berlin was only slightly less comfortable. As soon as it was light, I left Cesar sleeping in the room.

I spent most of the rest of the day alone, sightseeing in Vienna.

To be continued...


  1. I read all of your posts. I really enjoyed your blog. I hope to read more in the future.

  2. I am really enjoying your posts. They resonate with me as I have been through similar. You are very honest and write beautifully. Thank you.