4 min

Bringing the best of the Old World home

Old colonial habits die hard

I am a born-again Canadian, birthed somewhere else, striving to observe the habits of my adoptive land; therefore I travel to exotic places to watch the locals.

Step out of the Drive to a land without fleece or Gortex where strangers check me out, and suddenly, I seem to have a body again compatible with a good portion of the local gay fauna: portentous, burly, bearded, Middle Eastern, Anglo, Nordic, and abruptly friendly.

In Berlin, east and west also have powerful meanings and a troubled history. In my reverse colonialism, I am bound to stroke stereotypes lewdly.

My partner and I have come to sip the tourist bubbly and celebrate his birthday. Can’t think of any better place to have come, where age is not a stigma, and diet not a religion. From Schöneberg to Kreuzberg, east to west, our confidence was boosted by passing smiles, the cholesterol-heavy, drama-free delectables, exquisite coffee, and singing bears in bars unafraid to pounce on strangers and have their own bite.

In mid-September, the weather is surprisingly like Vancouver’s but the climate seems warmer to gay men. We are told that Berlin is a tolerant city —used to the ravages of war —with a gay mayor (Sam Sullivan —Could he? Oh, forget it).

In the face of AIDS, instead of banning disease and its citizens, Berlin reportedly opened up to sex and led by example, not wishful thinking, that one can decide and care for oneself, instead of relying on the “nanny state.”

They also tell us that Berlin’s gay community is poor these days compared to other European cities, and this may be one downfall of liberty. Would you put 40 percent of your monthly income into unifying a divided family, including the many social services for gay men?

We stayed in a quirky hotel above a gay pub with a basement of lairs and cages as ample as the main floor, no bouncer, open until late —a fairly standard set up in Berlin.

The patrons are thunderous, self-confident, hyper-masculine, and sturdy drinkers (didn’t see anybody wired on hard drugs).

Comparing is unfair —the grass is often greener somewhere else —and the new-flesh-on-the-market effect is fleeting. However, I feel poignantly the contrast with our syrupy yet standoffish Vancouverite attitude.

A leather bar could be daunting at first, but the gruffest bear stomping there will often be an animated conversationalist with a mischievous smirk on his bearded mouth.

Our time there was relaxed inside, free from the everyday trappings, but rushed outside because there were many harrowing historical sites to see, and one must bask in the German precision of how everything from bathroom fixtures to trains operates!

Someone told us that coming to Berlin is dicey for a gay couple. I see now what that means. It is a city that does something to gay men. Something about being together with joy and little prudish selfishness.

London always makes me slightly scary crazy. It’s a stage with many pivoting parts surrounded by hundreds of Cyclopean cameras that allegedly register you a whopping 300 times per day. How can one not be like Naomi Campbell! The eyes of the most variegated citizens in the globe check you from head to shoe. While in Vancouver we make a nasty, polite point of not looking —making the others invisible in our path —in London, you are glanced at defiantly.

It’s a cauldron of tongues, faiths, lifestyles, and cultures: Hindus, Protestants, smart blue-striped suits, working-class lads crossing paths at Liverpool station with Muslim women wrapped in their black modesty dress and young gorgeous, rough-around-the-edges Polish blondes donning cheesy Eurotrash.

London’s heightened state of alert feels oddly befitting.

A terrorism of the senses is palpable here, people sweating each drop of it in the bawdy steam of the labyrinthine London Tube. Diplomatic and racial tensions converge in the alchemy of fashion and everyday toiling. The “trust your senses” advisory signs all over are Orwellian doublespeak, one more commercial ad in a city that curtsies impishly at your feet, and opens its palms to offer exile to your feral dreams and a cornucopia of world goods at a price that fetches your soul and your visa card.

All tensions are fluid in London. Our most brilliant hostesses, Rachel and Britt, tell us that the current gender feel is “metrosexual.”

In the Club Pigalle, a 1950s dance club off the vibrant Piccadilly Circus, no one seemed concerned with the shape of the body nor the gender of the stare but the groove of the dance and the merriment. In the Soho, drink one can, and smoke up the conversation loudly into the night without wrapping it up in that little hypocritical brown bag we use here. Cities in perpetual helter-skelter may be the least uptight. They are bombed, dusted off, and rebuilt. They must know.

The London Borg assimilates you in a matter of days. It is hell to make the end of the month and fight the constipated streets every day to pay the toll to be in one verifiable cultural and social beehive.

I repeat that I know it’s unfair to compare when one is a tourist but we all need to take a little respite from the neighbourhood and wallow in the dubious privilege of paying for a few days with a dominant escort city that leaves you breathless and wanting more. London candy tastes like a Spice Girl.

Do I wish Commercial Dr would be anything like the outer borough of Walthamstow where we stayed? The wish is fatuous, but yes, I wish that along with our devouring nouveau-riche gentrification, we were stretching our mood. Wearing the colonial British off Vancouver is an old habit hard to break; colonies are often fervent in their imitation of the empire.

The old continent crawls ahead of us with millions serving at its feet. They do not pretend to be world class. They simply are.