Saturday, September 30, 2017

A Gay Day in Berlin

"You have to make a decision to come out every day. You can't just do it once and be done with it."

So my friend, Dan, had said in a discussion we'd had at lunch on Thursday as I told him about the day trips I had taken out of Paris earlier in the week. The topic of conversation had invariably come around, as I and my fellow tour-mates chatted, to my profession, my family, the fact that I'm retired and why, etc. This led to me talking about Mark, how we had both retired when he was diagnosed, and of course, implicit in those statements is the fact that I'm gay. 

I thought about this conversation throughout the day yesterday as I contemplated a couple of experiences I had as I set out on my walk of discovery across Berlin ...

A canal I passed on the way to the Tiergarten

I was so surprised to see them that my first instincts kicked in. I had set out on my own walking tour of Berlin and was approaching the Tiergarten - Berlin's version of Central Park - when two young men in white shirts approached me with big smiles and black name tags on their shirt pockets, speaking in German and arm extended, offering me some sort of brochure. Mormon missionaries.

I simply smiled and waved and shook my head and walked on. 

Then, a block further on, it happened again. I heard the sound of an electronic piano playing "I Need Thee Every Hour," a Mormon hymn; then before I knew it, I was approached by another set of young smiling faces, speaking in German. Behind them, I could see I was in front of a Mormon church. A young sister missionary was seated at the piano, set up at the end of the sidewalk leading to the church entrance. Again, I was so surprised to find myself in this tableau that I once again just waved my hand, smiled, shook my head and walked on.

The LDS (Mormon) Church that I passed

The Victoria statue atop the Siegessäule

I thought about these encounters as I walked on into the Tiergarten toward the Siegessäule - a large column in the middle of the park. My reaction had been the same as it has been ever since leaving the LDS Church, i.e., to avoid contact, to avoid interaction. What would I say to them? "I'm from Salt Lake City, but I'm not Mormon," or, "I'm from Salt Lake City but I'm no longer Mormon," or, "I used to be Mormon but I came out and left the Church"? It seemed easier just to avoid the conversation. 

After all, I'd never come out to a couple of Mormon missionaries in Berlin. But these young men hadn't done anything to me. I was once one of them, 30 years ago in France. What would have been the harm in talking to them, being friendly toward them? What was I afraid of?

Plaque on the building where Christopher Isherwood lived.

Speaking of being gay, my day had started out by having breakfast with Dan in a cafe near his new apartment in the Schöneberg neighborhood of Berlin - which also happens to be the city's "gayborhood." There are many gay bars, cafes, shops and bookstores in the area, and it was here that Christopher Isherwood - whose writings were the source of the musical "Cabaret" - lived for four years from 1929-1933.

Cool mirror in the lobby of the Isherwood building. It reminded me of a sealing room in an LDS temple.

A "stolperstein" in the pavement in front of a building just down the street from the Isherwood building, commemorating a victim of the Holocaust who had lived there.

From the Siegessäule  I turned and walked up the Strasse des 17 Juni toward the iconic Brandenburg Gate, in front of which the Berlin Wall used to run. 

Strasse des 17 Juni

Workmen had blocked off the area immediately in front of the gate, making preparations for Unification Day celebrations in the next few days. I turned and headed for the old Reichstag, now the Bundestag, or national parliament building. It had been the burning of this building in 1933 that gave Hitler the pretext he needed to assume absolute power in Germany. 

A picture of the Reichstag at the end of World War II

From the Bundestag, I walked a few blocks south to visit two memorials to victims of National Socialist Germany - one to homosexuals persecuted by the regime and one to the millions who perished in the Holocaust. 

As I stepped up to look through the "window" in the memorial to see the film clip of the "kiss" (as mentioned in the previous photograph), I saw that someone had left a single yellow rose in memory. Then as I stepped back, I was startled by my own reflection in the window. It was a poignant and almost jolting moment when I realized that had I lived in Germany during those times, I might very well have been one of those victims. It was also a grim reminder of the disgusting homophobia that still exists - especially in high places of our government - in our own nation.

I then crossed the street to visit the memorial to victims of the Holocaust ...

After visiting these memorials, I walked further east along Unter den Linden. My destination was Museum Island. I had heard about the Greco-Roman collection in the Pergamon Museum and was looking forward to my visit. Unfortunately, when I got there, I learned that this wing of the museum is currently closed for renovation. Super bummer. But I felt better upon touring the nearby Altes Museum.

Statue outside the entrance to the Altes Museum

Berlin Television Tower as seen from the courtyard of the Pergamon Museum

I first learned about Antinous, the lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, three years ago when Mark and I took a private tour of the Vatican Museum. A beautiful young man from what is now northwestern Turkey, Antinous became Hadrian's lover - one might even say husband in all but name. Homosexuality or bisexuality was not unknown, I learned, among Rome's emperors; but Hadrian took things to a whole new level, treating Antinous very much like a consort.

When Antinous, still a very young man, died under mysterious circumstances in the River Nile, Hadrian was grief-stricken and deified his lover. Statues and coins were commissioned throughout the empire, and a number of these are now found in museums across Europe and Britain. If anyone is interested in learning more about this story, I recommend the novel, "The Hadrian Enigma," by George Gardiner.

Two different statues of Antinous standing a few feet from each other in the Altes Museum

A bust of Antinous in the Altes Museum

I was also interested to see references on Greek cups in the Altes Museum to another "gay" couple - Achilles and Patroklos of Iliad fame. 

Detail on a cup: Achilles bandaging his lover, Patroklos

Detail: Soldiers fighting over Patroklos' body outside the walls of Troy

Several years ago, I read a beautiful book by a classicist that dramatizes in a sensitive, tasteful and loving way this legendary relationship between the demigod Achilles and his Patroklos. I would highly recommend it: "The Song of Achilles," by Madeline Miller.

So much to learn and appreciate!

Now, back to the Mormon missionaries. I had thought throughout the day about my morning encounters, and I decided that, if they were still there as I returned to Dan's, I would talk to them. I wasn't sure exactly what I'd say or how far I'd go; but I decided it was silly not to at least say hello. Alas, they had left; no sign of them, but I felt I had made a small amount of progress by at least being willing to open up a vulnerable part of myself and grow through doing so.

The day ended with a fun evening with Dan and Russ. Dan had found the premiere episode online of the new "Will and Grace" show, and we all three sat out the couch in their living room, surrounded by boxes from their recent move, Dan's laptop open on one of them, sipping wine and laughing. It felt so good to me to be with gay friends as I watched this episode. When the series ran 10+ years ago and I was closeted, it was one of those shows that I didn't permit myself to watch: it was too gay. I had watched the first few seasons later on DVD, but it was by myself. So it felt good to be with good, gay friends to see this first episode of the new show. It was one of those special experiences from this trip that I'll long savor.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Reflections on Champagne and Being Gay

I'll admit to never having developed a love of Champagne. There's a part of me that somehow feels inadequate in not having done so. After all, EVERYBODY loves Champagne, right? The marketers in the big houses in Épernay and Reims have been working diligently for over 200 years to convince the world that it cannot live without the bubbly wine, and they have been hugely successful. 

I thought, maybe I just haven't met the right bottle of champagne.

Frankly, as I write this sitting in Charles de Gaulle Airport waiting on a flight to Berlin, this situation reminds me of how I felt about being "attracted to men" during the 10+ years between going through puberty and joining the Mormon Church, when I felt that my lack of attraction to women could be explained - indeed MUST be - by the fact that I just hadn't yet met the right woman.

Both situations required me to grin and bear it if I wanted to be like everyone else. Surely the problem was/is with me and not with the product - in one case champagne, and in the other case heterosexuality. It took me approximately 40 years after suddenly discovering that men turned me on to come out of the closet and embrace the fact that I am gay. And it took me about the same amount of time to discover that, while champagne doesn't (as my dad used to say) "honk my trigger," ratafia does. 


Let me explain.

I joined another small-group tour in Paris yesterday morning. When the driver/guide, the cute Victor, picked me up - mercifully at the reasonable hour of 7:45 instead of 6:30 - there were already three youngish Americans in the back seat. Young Asian-Americans, Michael, his wife and a friend (whose names, alas, I have forgotten), they were in Paris for a week before attending the destination wedding of a friend in Angers in the Loire Valley.

Paris was uncharacteristically foggy as we headed out of the city, east toward Champagne. As we drove, visibility got worse instead of better, and by the time we arrived in the heartland of bubble-land, we could see hardly anything. We chatted along the way, however, getting to know each other a bit. Turns out Michael, who is of Japanese descent, collects Japanese whiskey (who knew?), and had researched just how much alcohol one is allowed to bring back into the United States. Victor gave him the name of a couple of stores in Paris he should visit. I found myself wishing that I had a bit more time so as to visit these stores to look for a particular single-malt Scotch (as if I'd have room in my luggage for one more bottle of booze/wine).

Our first stop was L'abbaye Saint-Pierre d'Hautvillers, a Benedictine abbey that was the home and is the final resting of Dom Pérignon, effectively the patron saint of the Champagne industry.

The tombstone of Dom Perignon in the abbey of Hautvillers

If Dom Pérignon is the patron saint of the champagne industry, then surely the house of Moët & Chandon is one of its most important pilgrimage sites. This was our next destination, where we joined a tour of the house and their famous cellars, carved out of the chalk below the city of Épernay. I desperately wanted to enjoy - really enjoy - the champagne we tasted at the end of the tour, but I found it didn't really turn me on - much like my high school and college (female) dates.

From there, we drove to the village of Monthelon, where we had lunch and enjoyed more tastings at the house of a small producer, Julien Chopin. 

I admit to finding the various types of champagne that they served with lunch more enjoyable. Perhaps it was because they were served with food.

But the epiphany came when the cheese course was served. This is when we were all treated to a small glass of ratafia made from Meunier grapes.

Ratafia? I had never heard of it, and I felt somewhat better when our guides said that, even in a Paris wine shop, it would be unlikely that people would be familiar with it. 

Ratafia, it turns out, is a fortified wine of about 18% ABV that is produce only in Champagne from the same grapes - Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay - that are used to produce champagne. I was entirely hooked after one sip. FINALLY! I had found a champagne product that suited me. The producer at whose house we were eating - Julien Chopin - has a passion for ratafia, and I was so enamored of the drink that I asked if I could sample the Pinot Noir product with our cherry/raspberry tarts that were served as dessert.

I wish I'd had room to bring home a large bottle, but I did make room for three small ones. After all, I had finally "come out" and embraced my true attraction to ratafia. ;)

We rounded out our afternoon by visiting a cooperative in another village across the Marne River, then it was back to Paris. Frankly, by the time I arrived back at my flat, I was day-tripped-out. It's been a wonderful four days, but it's now time to head to Berlin for my birthday weekend, then home.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Lively Lunch in Mont-Saint-Michel

In a sense, I had waited 35 years for the opportunity of seeing Mont-Saint-Michel - a desire fulfilled yesterday. But at the end of the day, it wasn't seeing the Mont that made the day special; rather, it was the lunch I had with two strangers, an experience I'll long remember.

It was another early start as I left my flat in the Marais around 6:00 and walked to the meeting point in central Paris. The driver was waiting for me, and we then left to pick up a couple who were staying near the Arc de Triomphe. They climbed into the back seat of the car, and we set off for Normandy. We all dozed and didn't talk much - except for the driver/guide. He launched into a monologue after picking up the couple, giving us some basic information about the Paris region and about Mont-Saint-Michel, and I immediately thought how much he sounded like Peter Sellers' Inspector Clouseau.

After a 3-1/2 hour drive, we arrived at our destination. I have to say it was thrilling to see when the Mont first came into sight.

I say I had waited 35 years to see this iconic location because I made my first trip to France in the spring of 1982, when I came to Paris to see a college friend who was studying there his senior year. I then returned 2-1/2 years later on a Mormon mission. Though I lived in and visited many parts of France while a missionary, I never made it to Mont-Saint-Michel because of its relatively remote location. And though Mark and I visited France twice during our years together, we were in other areas of the country.

Our tour included lunch at the (apparently) famous restaurant, La Mère Poulard, and by the time we arrived after having crossed the causeway from the mainland, we had about 25 minutes to walk around the village at the base of the Mont before meeting up for our lunch reservation.

It was only after sitting down to lunch that I got to really talk to and get to know my tour-mates, Miesha and Paul. I had assumed they were a couple, but found out that they are merely friends who were spending a few days in Paris. They had decided on a lark the previous day to take the tour, and I'm certainly glad they did; otherwise it would have been just me, and they day would have been far less interesting.

Paul is from a small village north of Manchester, England, and Miesha had met him while going to university some years ago. She is from Malaysia and was back in England on holiday visiting friends. They were quite the crack up. She was relentless in teasing Paul and was downright funny in her irreverence and exuberance. 

Paul was more reserved, but frankly is one of the most interesting, remarkable people I have ever met. During the course of the conversation, I learned that he is a firefighter in a city in central England, though he is looking to possibly move into another field of work in the future. He described how he had been extremely lucky to obtain his position right out of school, as firefighting jobs used to be highly coveted because of job security and pension benefits. He hadn't expected to get the job when he applied, especially when he found out he was up against a decorated war veteran; but he did.

It became apparent as Paul talked that he is an extraordinarily hard-working young man who currently, in addition to his main job, takes on extra shifts in London in connection with the aftermath of the recent Grenville Tower fire. He also works other part-time jobs - and the principal motivation for doing so is to provide financial support to his parents, who apparently recently went through a bankruptcy.

It was this desire to help his parents that led to his current living accommodations: an old camper van. He had made plans to take a nine-month sabbatical from his work, having saved enough money through his frugality to do so, and had sublet his apartment during his time away. Just as he was getting ready to leave, however, he discovered the extent of his parents' financial problems and cancelled his trip.

He went on to describe -- with much prodding and laughter from Miesha -- the troubles he had had with the travel van - how he discovered shortly after buying it that it leaked like a sieve; how he had planned to park it on fire station property but ended up having to park it on a vacant piece of land; how his back-up plan for power was solar panels, but how the place he had managed to find to park the van was completed in the shade; how he therefore had to cart a portable generator to work at the fire station every day to charge it up so that he'd have power in his van. It went on and on, a sort of comedy of errors that made for a fascinating story and would, I told him, make for an interesting reality TV series.

But one of the things that made Paul seem even more remarkable to me was that, as he told his stories throughout the course of our lunch, he was completely self-prepossessed, unassuming, guileless and utterly charming. And authentic. During another part of the conversation, again in response to prodding from Miesha, Paul talked about how he had taken finance and accounting courses in his "spare time," thinking he might like to work in those fields. But at the end of the day, he decided he didn't want to go in that direction. He wanted to find something he truly enjoys doing and in which he can be who he is.

Throughout it all, Paul struck me as an exceptional young man (I say young because I'm easily old enough to be his father), and I could happily have sat there at that lunch table for hours talking to him and Miesha. (I'll admit, too, that the experience gave me renewed hope of finding a special someone someday with whom I can share my life.)

Another beautiful day, another beautiful experience. Grateful.

Today, off to Champagne ...

Monday, September 25, 2017

A Gay Guy from Utah and Two Texas Gals in Burgundy

"Umm, I was married for 25 years, then came out."

It wasn't a conversation I had planned on having. I had met my tour companions and my driver/tour guide at 6:40 in the morning near the Louvre in Paris. Our destination was northern Burgundy (Bourgogne). I had been up since 4:45, and we had about a three-hour drive ahead of us. 

The driver didn't appear to be "Mr. Personality," but then again, neither did I at that early hour. There were only two other people on the tour, a couple of ladies from Texas with broad accents and frosted hair who appeared to be somewhere between 60-80 years of age. It was not a particularly auspicious beginning, and I set my expectations for the day quite low.

There wasn't much conversation for at least an hour as we headed south and I dozed. After we stopped for coffee and a croissant, Olivier, our driver/guide, decided it was time for a bit of conversation. I had had the impression earlier that he'd rather drive bamboo shoots under his fingernails than take the three of us to Bourgogne, but he livened up quite a bit after some espresso.

Olivier asked if this was the first time we had been to France. I replied that I had been before and, after a moment or two of hesitation, added that I had served a Mormon mission in Paris many years ago. "I used to Mormon," I said, "but no longer am." "What are you now?" he replied. "Nothing," I responded.

Me with Bev and Pam in front of vineyards in Chablis

Bev and Pam, the Texas ladies, seemed to be quite intrigued by my statement that I am no longer Mormon. "How did that come about?" Bev inquired in her extremely broad Texas drawl. "If you don't mind me askin'?"

"Well," I replied, "that's a long story."

"Well," she retorted, "we've got lots of time." 

I laughed and shut up. I frankly wasn't sure how two Texans and a French guide would respond to learning that I'm gay.

Our first destination was the Château de Bazoches (pictured in the photo above), the home of Louis XIV's military genius, the Maréchal de Vauban. I had never heard of the guy but was fascinated to learn about him and his importance in the history of France. I was also enchanted by the location of the castle. Already on the way there, as we drove through picturesque villages and through scenic valleys, I realized I was falling in love with Bourgogne. This attraction was confirmed as I looked out upon the views from the castle's windows and overlooks.

I had spent several months in the Loire Valley on my mission and had visited numerous chateaux. I had also served in Brittany and in southwestern France while a missionary and have more recently spent time in the French Alps and Provence; but Bourgogne presented a charm to me that I had not experienced elsewhere in France.

These feelings of attraction only intensified when we moved on to visit the nearby village of Vézelay, selected as one of the prettiest villages in France, home of the Basilica of Mary-Magdalene, originally a Benedictine Abbey. Again, I had never heard of it or the basilica and was fascinated to learn that Richard the Lionhearted and King Phillipe-Augustus had met to pray here prior to the launch of the Third Crusade. 

As Wikipedia states: "Saint Bernard of Clairvaux preached there in favor of a second crusade at Easter 1146, in front of King Louis VII. Richard I of England and Philip II of France met there and spent three months at the Abbey in 1190 before leaving for the Third Crusade. Thomas Becket in exile, chose Vézelay for his Whitsunday sermon in 1166, announcing the excommunication of the main supporters of his English King, Henry II, and threatening the King with excommunication too. The nave, which had burnt once, with great loss of life, burned again in 1165, after which it was rebuilt in its present form."

Roman arches inside the basilica

I was even more affected, however, by the enchanting views of the surrounding countryside and the charm of the village. The effect was completed by a charming lunch in the middle of the village consisting of Boeuf Bourguignon and accompanied by local red wine.

After lunch, we headed to Chablis for some wine tasting. On the way there, Bev piped up at one point and said, "Soooo, Joseph ... We're still waitin' to hear about you no longer bein' a Mormon and all ..."

Deep sigh.

"Okay," I submitted. "I was married for 25 years, and then I came out. So, like, I'm gay. My wife and I divorced, I left the Church, and I met an amazing man with whom I spent 4-1/2 wonderful years before he died of prostate cancer."

Silence. Olivier looked over at me but managed to keep the car on the road.


I can't recall exactly what was said, but both ladies made it clear very quickly that they were totally "okay with it." "Well," Bev said, or maybe it was Pam, "we knew you were handsome and all, and seemed real nice. So I guess we're not too surprised cuz seems like gay men often are so sweet and handsome and all."

I smiled.

There was more back and forth. Discussion of how open and accepting they are. Then Bev asked, "How old are you? If you don't mind me askin'" Sweet, direct, Bev. 

Of course, I responded with my usual response to this question: "How old do you think I am?" They looked at each other. Pam went first: "Oh, 44, 45?" Bev chimed in: "Well, I was gonna say 45, too." I laughed, thanked them, then told them I'll be turning 59 in a few days. They exchanged expressions of astonishment. I just soaked it all in.

Then it was Pam's turn to "take the floor." She conferred briefly with her life-long friend, Bev, then decided to take the plunge.

"Well, my younger son is gay, so of course I am open and accepting."

There followed a discussion about me and my family, Pam and her son and numerous other topics. Lots of laughter. It was amazing to observe and feel the change that came over all of us as we shared things with total strangers as we drove down a road in northern Burgundy. 

We went on to enjoy a wine tasting in Chablis and an uneventful drive back to Paris. I felt that Olivier was totally sincere when, upon dropping me off near the Louvre, he shook my hand, smiled and said that he had really enjoyed the day. Bev and Pam, from their perches in the back seat, offered lots of goodbyes, bon voyages and good wishes.

It was a good day.