Featured Guest Blogger// Andrew Houchens// Traveling with My Self: A Queer Camino

Travel has always meant to me, literally, the world. From childhood escapes into sweeping, snow-capped mountains to beach time with cousins in the tropical midday heat, travel was a drug and a high long before I knew what a drug-induced high was. I still recall the particular smells and shades of the springtime sun that brought about Spring Break, when each year a family vacation and a new adventure was almost a guarantee. Travel was utter freedom, a step away from the day-to-day. But it wasn’t until I traveled alone for the first time that I tasted its real fruits: true liberation through connections with new places, shared histories, and foreign kinfolk; the beauty of personal – sometimes selfish – fulfillment; the power of isolation and loneliness; and perhaps most significantly for me, sexual expression.

As a gay kid who came of age in the pleasant suburbia of the 90’s, I was always hungry for the new and different. I was reared to play baseball and soccer and to court giggly girls in smiley-faced shirts, to mind my manners and respect thy family. I had an idyllic upbringing but longed for the strange and unknown. I always looked forward to visits to my “sophisticated” psychologist aunt’s house, where her diverse friends would meet and discuss politics and culture, laugh, smoke, and play games or make art. I dreamt of my own bohemian community one day; fantasies of wine-tinged dinner parties where we carried on into the early morning hours. The older I got, the more I ached to escape the world I knew: to seek out my future and the world I knew was out there for me.

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As a college film student, I had the chance to take a summer course on Italian cinema in Rome. I immediately jumped at the opportunity and applied whole-heartily, having to win the selection committee over with my charm and good grades since I’d had a strike against me for a silly, Puritan-esque underage drinking ticket. Within weeks I was exploring the ruins of the Baths of Caracalla and discussing Antonioni with my brilliant professor, exchanging ideas about love death through the lens of Rossellini while wandering Pompeii. It was truly a dream. Yet the suburbia I’d tried to escape was still present in the form of my peers, the great majority of whom opted to play drinking games every night in the most touristic plaza in the city. I found friendship in the only other apparent “minority” among the group, a quiet but sharp and witty black girl. I admired her for having an affair with one of the handsome cooks in our pension, and we shared an instant bond. I still couldn’t believe we’d come this far across the ocean, to a place most of us had never been, and my classmates mostly wanted to do body shots in a trashy bar after our brimming lessons each day. I made it my mission to escape my crew at any opportunity I could, and decided to explore the gay nightlife I’d always yearned to experience in a European capital.

The gay scene in Rome was disappointing, to say the least. With Italian Catholicism and machismo ever the rage, there was only a tiny smattering of gay bars in the city. I spent my first evening out in a common and dull canteen whose only saving grace was a view of the brightly-lit Coliseum. I took a few swigs of whiskey in the hotel to get my courage before trekking in solo, and proceeded to down a number of vodka tonics once at the bar to keep it going. (This was in the pre-iPhone and hookup app era, so instead of digging your head into your smartphone you actually had to talk to each other). Considering that my Italian was sub-par at best, I struck up a barely-there conversation with an older gentleman and we struggled all along the way to eek out the basics of “where are you from?” and “what are you doing here?” He eventually took me home to his apartment, where massive photo portraits of his parents hung directly over his bed. This just wasn’t going to be. He called me a taxi home, and that was that.

With the result of my first night out as a liberated homo a relative flop, I was determined to try again. I’d heard that the “cool” bars were actually on the outskirts of town, so a few nights later I folded my paper map into my pocket and caught a bus going south. I landed in a strange neighborhood, half-suburban half-small town. I entered an open-air lounge on a hill surrounded by lush trees and bushes and soon met a trans woman from Romania, who became my friendly comrade for the rest of the evening. The bar was full of drag queens and questionable characters, much more colorful than the vanilla bar I’d been to a few nights before. While love (or lust) was certainly not in the air, I finally found a group a people I wanted to spend more than 10 minutes with. My bohemians!

As the night gradually went on and new friends disappeared into the shadows, I found myself alone again. It was nearly 2:30am and time to make it back to the pension. I waited an eternity for a taxi and started to worry after thirty minutes, when none seemed to appear. I didn’t know the way back on public transport and began to sweat a little bit, having no idea how I was going to get home. I hesitantly began to raise my arm and extend my thumb. Was I really going to do this? Within minutes, one of those mini-Euro two-doors pulled up with a grinning man at the wheel and a friendly looking woman at his side. What was I doing here?, they asked. I couldn’t remember exactly where the pension was but knew how to walk there from the Trevi fountain, so I asked them to drop me there. In perfect circumstances it turned out that the man was a film journalist, and so our ride was complimented by steady banter on what I’d been studying in class. When we arrived at the Trevi it was gloriously illuminated with floodlights and not a soul was to be found in sight, a certain impossibility at any other time of day. My rescuers said “Ciao!” and drove off into the night, leaving me alone with nothing but the sound of splashing water. It was simply beautiful. For just a second I thought of jumping in the water like Anita Ekberg in the infamous scene from La Dolce Vita, but I was sure some idiot tourist had tried it before, and it was better to imagine than to give it a try. Finding solitude in such a treasured locale, I felt incredibly fortunate. I paused for a few minutes to soak it in before making my way back to the pension.

The next morning I told my only friend all about my incredible evening. Now she had something to admire me for. I went all the way out there alone, and hitchhiked back? The experience was thrilling and I already wanted more. The following weekend most of my class was traveling together to Milan, so of course I made a point to go to Florence and continue riding my solo wave. It wasn’t until I was there, getting off the train, that I realized it was the first time I would be truly traveling alone. There was no one to accompany me all weekend, and I was at complete liberty to do anything and everything I wanted. I slept very late the next morning, and still recall the awkwardness I felt in arriving at breakfast alone. Were people staring at me? It didn’t matter. The prospect of having my own blank canvas of a day ahead of me was glorious. I explored the Boboli gardens, walked the Ponte Vecchio, and saved hours waiting to see the David by cutting the line (something I surely wouldn’t have been able to do as slyly had I been with others). That night at dinner I ordered a half-bottle of Chianti and had gelato and limoncello for dessert. I was the only table in the restaurant with one patron and I spent the meal watching all the crazy Italians around me, with their sweeping and exaggerated gestures. How lovely it was not to have to talk, but to simply observe. These feelings and experiences – so basic in concept – suddenly struck me as ingenious and totally new. To be alone and completely at my own whim in Florence, now drunk on wine and limoncello. Yes, tonight I was going out.

I’d read about a gay disco called Tabasco that was off Piazza di Santa Cicilia and made my way there. Not knowing what to expect, I took a deep breath and pushed open a heavy steel door to a dark and musty corridor. A red light lead me to the end of the hall, where a stout and scruffy Italian asked for a modest cover entry. I entered into another large room with massive stone walls and immediately noted the gay porn blasting on the various TVs hanging from the ceiling. This was a disco? Keeping my cool, I stepped up to the bar and ordered my usual vodka tonic. Within minutes I caught the eye of a handsome blonde across the room who looked a few years older than me, maybe 26? He had a serious cleft chin and flowing hair that made him look like a cross between a Disney prince and John Travolta during his Saturday Night Fever phase. (Not necessarily my type, but this was Italy). His name was Fabio, he was half-Italian and half-Mexican, and his English was perfect. He had a dry sense of humor like mine, and we laughed over the silly stiffness of the porn on exhibit. Within an hour we were making out all over the bar, and soon I was on the back of Fabio’s Vespa en-route to his home nearby. It was almost too much I thought, as I smiled to myself with the summer breeze and Fabio’s hair blowing in my face. Bursting into the apartment, we hardly made it into the bedroom. Unlike my friend from a few nights before, I was relieved to find that Fabio did not have family photo portraits above his headboard. Things quickly lead from one thing to another and the next thing I knew, Fabio was delivering me bedside espresso and aspirin the next morning. We exchanged emails and I eventually wandered back to my hotel in a delightful daze.

I spent another lazy day in Florence, wandering the medieval streets and curiosities with tired eyes but a satisfied soul. I’d have to take the train back to Rome that evening, back to my classmates and the realities of schoolwork and papers, but it had been a wonderful escape. I had loved every minute of my solitariness – and Fabio, of course – and suddenly felt empowered to do anything. Being on my own and enjoying it so felt rewarding, and was an important moment in my growth. From that trip to Rome and the ensuing visit to Florence, I gained a sense of confidence that I’d never had before. I was living my “bohemian” dream on my own terms, settling further into my queer identity and sharing it wholly with those I encountered. For me, this personal evolution is distinctly wrapped into the notion of travel. And specifically, travel on one’s own terms.

Since that trip I’ve had the good fortune to travel to many other destinations and to experience cultures the world over. From working as an English teacher and an actor in Buenos Aires to programming a film festival in Brazil, to spending a summer with my first love in Budapest to producing events in Mexico City; from exploring the glorious mosques of Istanbul to trekking Peruvian valleys and stumbling upon ancient ruins, my endless passion for travel and new experiences has taken me far away, but the road keeps me searching. And, as long as I am able, I will take the journey to discover and re-discover myself.

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