Tole checking out the rides in Eastern Europe
I spent most of this summer interpreting Eastern European timetables and hopping on public transport in the hope that it would bring me to where I wanted to go. Usually this worked out quite well and as a bonus I learned where the Balkans actually are and finally understood all that history I was meant to be writing informed college essays about four years ago.
Travelling around the former eastern bloc was fun, amazing, eye-opening, and each day I was able to genuinely remark, “shockin’ warm out today lads”. Often I was just saying this to myself, sometimes it was to a Norwegian or American who would then ask me to translate into English. That was some craic.
Before embarking on my great adventure, my friends and family issued what I can only assume to be standard well wishes for people travelling on their own, “Mind yourself, tis fierce rough out there, don’t step on a landmine” or just, “Jesus. I hope you come back alive”.
Going gay? Go west!
One piece of advice that did seem reasonable was, “Wait until you come more westerly before attempting any gaying”. To be honest, I was more concerned with how I would fit in all the communist tours than sampling some quality nightlife, but as this gem was given by a person who I would call, not only a good friend, but also my worldly lesbian guru, I wrote it down for safe keeping. Then off I set, Lonely Planet in one hand, phrase book in the other, and my nifty new camera in my back pocket. I had also, as a precaution brought other stuff that just wouldn’t fit on my person, or into my pockets, but I won’t bore you with the details.
And so I had a really fantastic time from the baths of Budapest, the mosques of Sarajevo to a random collection of well-fed bears, ‘guarding’ a palace in the small Czech town of Cesky Krumlov. Experiencing neither robbery, abduction or death by landmine (although this was actually somewhat of a risk in Serbia), I made my way around the place like a boss.
Everywhere I ventured I am certain I radiated the demeanour of someone born to cart around a much too heavy backpack, coupled with exceptional map reading skills. However, the latter talent usually fell to pieces half way through a jaunt when I realised I had once again misjudged the direction commonly known as ‘north’.
The more I travelled, the more I realised what an amazing place Eastern Europe is and that, as I had expected, it was not in any way to be feared. I also realised how beautiful the people are, collectively, as a landmass. Ok, so maybe I didn’t pay that much attention to the men, but they seemed like a decent bunch. The women however, were exceptional. And the thing that made them even more beautiful was that so many of them cycled, all of the time. Every day, women just breezing gently past you, happy as could be, or so they seemed as I imagined what their lives were like and how much better these lives would be if only they knew me.
I don’t fully know why, but if there is one thing I love, it’s a girl on a bike. I often worry about having to choose between Rhianna, and some fair cailín competing in the An Post cycle thing and how easily I could just throw away a once in a life time opportunity, regardless of which one I chose. My ultimate cycling dream however involves a lovely basket, the lady herself sporting a straw hat, satchel and some type of flowy dress. And there was quite a lot of flowy dress going on about the place. Sure they have the weather for it.
Anyway, having being love struck by some pedals and a few well-placed bells, along with experiencing surprise pangs for the George, I became rather inspired and thought I should really check out the gay scene somewhere en-route.
And so, in each city I ventured after that (so Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic) which had some semblance of gay life be it a pub, club or café, I thought to myself, “ya, I’ll go check that out tomorrow night”. I would consult ‘le bible’ (Lonely Planet) for any info, search the internet and send an email or two for more advice on where the people were at. These last two were sometimes a bit hit and miss for me, one email just bounced back, while my searches usually brought up more male orientated info. Specific lesbian searches did not yield too much, for example, when googling ‘lesbian Slovakia’, the most helpful thing it showed was ‘Date lesbians now in Bratislava’. I would have, but it seemed a bit demanding and I was just a bit stuck for time to be honest.
I would often bring myself so far as to have mapped out my destination when I would then reason, “it’ll probably be terribly awkward. The communication side of things could be dodge and how will I ever manage to open my mouth to speak to people? And then there’s my friend, who, being well up on the international climate of non-threating regions warned against it. Also I’m not so sure how hopping this place will be of a Tuesday night.”
Things you learn
See, as a traveller, you can usually, in any environment (except places of worship – don’t be that person), strike up an easy (if repetitive) conversation with other travellers as it’s just the thing to do. You may meet over a terrible hostel breakfast and later that evening you’ll go for a drink. Here you will learn all about this thing called the Schengen region, realise being an EU citizen is actually quite handy and finish the night merrily making a note to yourself to look into living in Sweden as they seem to have it all sorted there. You may also spend some time explaining that Ireland is, in fact, not connected to the UK by a bridge. And that they are two separate entities.
However, in a foreign gay bar, where you really don’t know what the score is, it can be much harder and scarier to walk in the door and endear yourself to the locals. Yes, you’ll want to be experiencing a whole host of new things on your trip, but then you find yourself held back by the image of sitting alone at the bar, perspiring, trying to figure out who seems the most friendly, potential English speaking person you can find. You may also, as a mere human, worry about terrible things happening, mostly not coming home alive and proving that your neighbour, who has never been further than Tullamore, was right after all.
And so, while all along you were probably thinking this meandering tale would come to a head sometime soon and would turn out be a guide on Eastern Europe that you could impress your girlfriend with on a love holiday, sadly it is not. I was too much of a sham and so never made it.
However, based on all this lack of experience, I believe I am now in an expert position to provide future travellers with advice on how not to follow in my footsteps and thus maybe actually walk in the door of any given establishment.
Safety first: Yes, life is for living and when you’re travelling you’ll throw caution to a fair bit of wind, as it were. “Consensual homosexual sex is legal in all of the countries in Eastern Europe”. This doesn’t really mean that they like it though. For example, in Croatia being gay has been grand since 1977 and “is tolerated but not welcomed”. So while I felt very secure in most places I visited, more so than Dublin actually, you still need to decide how safe and comfortable you’ll feel in a country where they’re not so keen on you. Do your research, each country will be different.
Where to go: The capital cities will be your only bet really. The exception to this (at this time) are Sarajevo, Tiriana and Skopje which have no LGBTQ venues and are not places renowned for being our friends.
Your guide book will usually list some places (clubs, bars, cafés) and of course check the web for info. One of the best sites I came across was for Prague. Also, should you end up on a walking tour and your guide seems pretty clued in to all things local, hit them up for advice. They’ll also probably be able to give you an idea of how the land lies in terms of tolerance etc.
When to go: This means you’ll need a bit of plan. I had none at all. But here’s what I learned anyway. Most things seem to happen at the weekend. So if you’re looking for a gay old time of it, you should aim to be in the city at the weekend, not mid-week. You could also check and see if there are any specific events on at certain times of the year e.g. Pride, theatre, films festivals etc. These types of events might be a more relaxed way of doing your anthropological lesbian study rather than sweating it out at the bar. And if you do come across something you’d like to go to, be sure to check how the last one went in case there’s a chance of getting glass stuck in your head.
How to not feel like a loner: OK so if you’re really outgoing, don’t encounter the shyness etc and can just walk up to girls and have the chat, then you’ll be fine. I used the language thing as an excuse really, but most people have English. And depending on what time you arrive at you may not need many words, just some slick dance moves.
If you are travelling with a friend, then you’ll be sorted, bring them along and see how the night goes. At least you have a ready to go dance/drinking buddy.
If you’re on your own, this is what can make the whole thing harder. You may be really lucky and meet some fellow gays on your travels who are up for checking out the scene along with you. Or you may not. And you might find it difficult, having just met somebody that you won’t see again come tomorrow, to gauge how they feel about checking out a pub/club, or asking them to maybe forego whatever plans they have (if any) and join in yours.
A few ways to get around this is; plan ahead. If you know you’ll be in Slovenia in two weeks’ time, find out as much info as you can. Most countries seem to have their websites in English so you’ll be able to send off a few emails and you may even be invited along to something by the person you correspond with.
You could also look up travel forums, there are always lots of people looking to meet up with other travellers while they are away and your timing may just coincide. Post with your own specific LGBTQ request and see what happens. Couch surfing with somebody with similar interests to you may also be a good one to try. It’ll save you money, you’ll get an insider’s view of the place and you’ll have somebody to take you out and meet their friends etc. Just try have your profile completed before you set off and build up your list of recommendations before just appearing out of nowhere.
And of course with all these things, ensure the person is not a weirdo, meet in a public place, check them out on Facebook/Twitter etc and if it doesn’t feel right, then just walk away from it.
If all else fails, start on the dating in Bratislava thing before you leave the country. By the time you’ll get there you’ll have at least one person you know there to have a drink with!
And so, that’s my advice. Safety first, followed by good times second. Just like your mother would want it.
Join me next time when I take some of the above advice on board and speak to actual lesbians in Berlin….Huzzah!