“You are perrrrrfect”
I look up from the bags I’m unpacking to see the Russian man I am sharing a cabin with on the overnight ferry to St. Petersburg staring at me intensely. He’s just a little creepy; beer-bellied and googly-eyed, when I arrived was in the midst of combing his greasy fringe, something he would repeatedly do over the course of the 14 hour trip.
“I hope ve are alone tonight”
Um, what? I’ve only been on board for 5 minutes and already my cover seems to be blown. I make a lame excuse about wanting to explore the ship, only to discover that he is intent on following me up and down the decks in silence. By 8pm I can’t take it anymore and pretend to be incredibly tired so I can go to bed. I try to sleep but he just stands over my bunk staring at me. I start making up a story about an imaginary girlfriend, when an old man walks in, promptly strips to his underwear, gets in the other bunk and falls asleep. I’ve never felt so relieved to see a 70 year old in Y-fronts. Crushed, our Russian friend slinks back to his bed and sulks. I breathe a sigh of relief and wonder what I’m getting myself into.
When I told people I was going to Russia, it was usually met with a mix of excitement and concern. As a gay man, I’m not particularly welcome, especially in light of recent events concerning the Sochi Winter Olympics. And yet I was determined to visit this enigma of a country, so when I found out I could visit St. Petersburg for 72 hours without a visa, I picked my least fashionable clothes, practised my straightboy dance and resolved to leave my rainbow-coloured nail polish at home. And yet, before even dealing with the stony-faced border guards I had a man profess his love for me. How would I survive in the actual country?
As creepy as this encounter may have been, having intense, short-lived relationships with people is pretty common when you travel. As someone who has been travelling alone for a few months now, you have to rely on the company of strangers if you don’t want to be lonely and miserable for your entire trip. Platonic or otherwise, these relationships often develop intensely over a very short period of time, usually only to abruptly end when you check out and go your separate ways.
While there are times when you struggle to move past small talk about the weather, there have been more times than I can count where only hours after meeting someone we’re talking about our deepest feelings and emotions (admittedly it’s usually after more than a couple of litres of ridiculously cheap beer). Perhaps it’s because people naturally feel less constrained to usual societal norms of relationships when you travel. After all, you can be completely anonymous – there’s no-one around to disprove that you’re the CEO of a successful digital start-up instead of a flipping burgers at McDonalds. And when you’re sharing such confined spaces in a hostel or when CouchSurfing, it’s easier than normal to let those barriers down.
Back in St. Petersburg, I’ve recovered from my encounter on the ferry and we’re drinking cheap vodka in a courtyard attempting to stay dry in the late August rain. A young Russian guy walks past swigging champagne straight from the bottle so we call him over and he agrees to show us some of the happening clubs in town. Immediately I have a suspicion that he might bat for the rainbow-coloured team, but given recent experiences I decide it’s better if I keep quiet. Of course when Gwen Stefani comes on in the club all bets are off, and he sidles up to me and suggests we go somewhere more quiet.
Out on the street he drunkenly tries to hug me and hold my hand. Putin’s recent words about deviant behaviour spring to mind and I try and push him away. We eventually find a quiet spot and immediately he bursts into tears and admits that he’s never been with a guy before, and that no-one knows he’s gay. My heart immediately breaks for him; the effect that the words of the Russian authorities must have on young people coming to terms with their sexuality really hits home for the first time. He kisses me and tells me he loves me before running off into the night.
The next morning that familiar pang in my chest returns. The downside of building such close relationships in such little time is all of a sudden you part and go separate ways, and it’s as if nothing ever happened. Alas, these are the pitfalls of travelling. Fortunately having Facebook means that at least there’s more of a chance that one day we’ll bump into each other again. Even though I do miss my stable friendships from back home, I know that they’ll still be there when I (eventually) return.
In the meantime, I hope things improve for my newfound Russian friends. The controversy around Sochi has at least brought Russia’s appalling treatment of homosexuals into the spotlight, and hopefully international pressure will eventually force them to change. Despite my best efforts to act straight I still managed to have a gay ol’ time in mother Russia. I even managed to get a smile out of the border guard on the way out. Take that, Putin.