Day 4 - Antwerp
So we big a fond adieu to Amsterdam and come to the Belgian side of the border and to the reason for the trip - The World Outgames in Antwerp. This city feels a lot more like a buzzing city of Europe with pedestrian malls, shopping complexes and my personal favourite - cobblestone streets. They are bloody murder! When you are strolling around with a cobblestone lined pavement and you aren't in anything but thongs then you are in for a real treat. My ankles are taking a battering.
The main train station is beautiful to behold. WIth platforms stacked one atop the other like they are in a meccano or lego building. It's almost futuristic if it wasn't for the very traditional and lavish building that is Antwerpen Centraal. Grand sculptures and figures look down imposingly from the heights of the ceiling as you are taken up and up and up from the platform. The entrance to the station is like a grand ballroom and could easily be at home in a Sound Of Music scene.
Antwerp is a gorgeous city with high terraced facades that have been re-invigorated but have kept their true Gothic nature. Squares are massive and are courted on all sides by these huge architectural feats. The main Grote Markt is the gigantic town hall that houses an impressive decorative facade of sculptures, gargoyles, emblems and golden hued birds of prey which seems to be popular here. Flags are emblazoned across the main square but they are truly outnumbered by the hundreds of rainbow flags dotted in various sizes around the businesses that skirt the market.
Eating and drinking is obviously of great delight here in the summer months and we are fortunately in a rather large heat wave at the moment so everyone and everything is happening outdoors and outside. Everyone is out and about and sitting a terre with belgian beer and wine a must for any sitting down. And there's a lot of that. I have caught up with our resident Franco-phile Laurent who has been in his native land for 3 weeks already and so it s great to see him and have him readying for our tournament. We are both rather excited and so we walk around.
After getting ourselves familiar with the town, registering at the games centre and having a look at the venues for the party and where we are closest to, Laurent and I walk the streets, investigating areas and everything looks too appealing. There are many, many markets and small cul-de-sacs that house small brasseries and bars with tiny shops that sell cute little items and fahions. The grand Meir Straaten is the Main Street that houses all the large labels and department stores. Again, very grand buildings and beautiful to behold, but theres something very charming about these little side streets that are, yep, lined with cobblestones. Yeah really quaint and all but - OW!
Laurent and I decide that seeing as Laurent was not there for my 40th birthday that we should move into rectifying that he missed the celebration instantly. After doing the miles we finally settle down in an outdoor terrace and find some Laurent Perrier - appropriate. We wait and sit in the sunshine along with what seems everyone else in Europe. Its the done thing - come the afternoon sunshine its time to sit and have a drink. Unfortunately our lovely waiter informs us that the Perrier is not available. In his innocence he offers us Cava - sweet isnt he - BUT NO.
We eventually find ourselves in a rainbow flagged square just behind where we are staying. It does seem that we are staying right in the thick of it! We get the best bottle of champagne they have (Mumm Cordon Rouge 99) and it comes the cutest little fluro green shopping bag that serves as the ice bucket! CAMP! And fabulous. Now of course, when one orders champagne one instantly attracts attention. But of course. But we spent the afternoon meeting some local Europeans and generally chatting our way to people. This is what is great about coming to an event like this. Random meets with people from all ove the world and you end up having real interactions as the barriers are down and everyone is just happy to meet and greet. Our friends are from Copenhagen and one is an ex-pat american posing as a Dane. We spend the evening have a rather fun time of it and upon ordering the 2nd bottle of bubbles, and making a rather large fuss over the camp ice bucket, we are handed it as a gift.
So we are now fully charged and ready to move onto the Opening Ceremony of the World Outgames. The Team Melbourne guys have been very proactive in organising jackets and shirts for the Team Melbourne walk in. I must say they look fabulous. Well done guys, the camerarderie of walking in your team is grand. Laurent and I are happy to dress up in our volleyball kit aka Mark Bennet at ARQ on a Sunday night after training and rock on into the ceremony. Flanked by our new Danish friends, we arrive at the venue. Now think about the Gay Games Sydney 2002 at the Olympic Stadium and the stage and the frivolity and sound and the colour. Well this was a little different, a stage erected in a sandy 'car park' by the side of the docks in Antwerp. Now, I was actually getting rather excited because I was seeing cranes and hooks on massive freighter boats behind me and I am instantly thinking 'cirque du soleil performers on silks with lights and perhaps some sculptures emerging from the bulkheads of the boats. But no - that was just my 'events' head getting ahead of me. (side note - if I can make a banner for my 40th with dropping balloons on a Singer sewing machine, surely a group of well deserving homosexuals can come up with something similar - just saying)
Upon arrival we are right on the start time for the entrance. I say entrance but it was kind of like a small ramp in front of an old caravan that lasted about 10meters. Solubrious. But it worked for us, for as we enter the space, we see "AUSTRALIA" up on the dais and the athletes of Team Melbourne (with a smattering of Sydney and Brisbane athletes) waiting patiently behind. Well the fact we missed the marshalling wasn't going to stop us from our moment. So Laurent and I both legged it, the wrong way up onto the stage to join our Flag Bearer on the podium, dressed in our Freezone/ACON shirts (advertising of the right variety?) Even a burly Belgian security guard couldn't stop us (Cath and Jack you would have been proud, I think I managed a 'palm off' to get past him).
The evening was a great frivolous and happy occasion with lots of dancing and bouncing around meeting Europeans, Americans, New Zealanders, Brits and even the Russians - who did receive a hugely appreciative welcome for their presence and deserving cheers. There was a great atmosphere after the speeches and formal opening with some pretty amazing people on stage. I was informed by people next to me of the work of people like --------
Day 5 - Sports Time
So Antwerp has provided some fun along the way. Having a buddy here has made it all the more social and enjoyable, running around a foreign city and enjoying being 'a tourist' is double the pleasure when you are with a good chum. We decided to enjoy some of the sports that were on and the first day of competition was wisely relegated to only three choices, Rowing, ? , and Synchronised Swimming. So of course, with synchronised swimming for gay men not being your normal aussie pursuit, we decided to give it a go. trekking out to the stadium there was lots of sunshine and warmth in the trams and buses. Perhaps a little too much as the public transport system here is obviously not geared towards summer heat. The heat wave ensuing throughout europe at the moment makes you realise that the houses here are built for cold not heat.
But to the pool we went. Swimming to music and in a pool you normally associate with lithe, young nubile bodies, something like an Esther Williams movie. But in a gay context, it's all the more hilarious as the bodies are perhaps not as young and nubile as you might expect - or desire! But to their credit, the commitment was definetly there. There were cute caricatures of Cabaret, West Side Story, even the momentary glimpse of classical ballet. There were individuals, couples, trios and teams and it was amusing to see people competing across genres and all of them coming out in different sequined and coloured speedos! there wern't many nose plugs though and there were some small wardrobe malfunctions with goggles but nothing to the extent of a Janet Jackson moment.
The camp flavour of the event was enjoyed and then it was back to the Hotel for a short stint before setting off for evening drinks at the Australian Embassy hosted TEAM WELCOME for Australian and New Zealand athletes. A sombre affair and we caught up with another of our team mates David. It was lovely to meet some of the other athletes and get to know faces on the official teams list. More champagne was provided and of course we were the last to leave. We then enjoyed another night back at the local Deluxe bar with some of the Melbourne boys. They were in full swing and form and it was rather fun just hanging out and enjoying the social ambience of the games and the umpteen amounts of people from all over the world.
Day 6 - Last Day of Spectating
On the Monday it was off to the pool again to watch the swimming. We had met some swimmers at the Embassy function so we decided to go and check out the action. Walking into the pool instantly brought me back to high school swimming carnivals, the smell and the noise of the Dubbo Olympic Pool. Only this was a little different in that there was Gay Pop music pumping out of the speakers! I mean, who doesn't like a bit of Kylie when you are changing into your speedos. The funny thing was, that the music was turned off for the start of the races, but as soon as the gun went, it was back on with gusto. So it felt a little like a gay disco!
The competition was both fierce and fun. There were the serious swimmers and then there were those who were just in it ot have a ago. The lovely thing was, everyone was cheering for everyone else and the ones who were obviously not sports persons, but participating were cheered on with gusto. Couldn't help but think what my Dad would have made of it and especially of some of the swimming styles. I think he would even have jumped in himself!!!! Gay music and all.
Our team arrived during the afternoon and it was down to the serious notion of the reason for being here - oh yes - we have to play volleyball. There was a practice session organised for Monday Afternoon that my colleague Julias was primarily responsible for. So it was rather amusing when I was leaving the hotel to go to the venue where I assumed they woudl all be, and I see a rabble of Aussie volleyballers wheeling their luggage along the cobble stoned streets (yeah hard) looking for their hotel. The poor things had been wandering around for almost an hour trying to find their way! It does make you realise how much we have come to rely on mobile technology to be our personal assistants. ALways there with the means of communication and the maps and the contact lists. AI indeed!
We finally make it out to the venue, which was a tactical journey in itself. Volleyball venues in Europe at least, are usually at the end of a tram/train line and then a walk through gilded fields and parklands before you emerge on a space that was once a power station/school/mental institution and has now been converted into a sports space. We were wandering through a lovely park with Geese, ducks and mallards lining the ponds and grasslands, not really knowing where we were going. The walk took forever and we were wandering through lovely trees with little seed pods floating all around us - like something out of AVATAR. So who's gonna stress about getting there on time.