Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Le Copain

So one of the problems with constantly hopping out of town on the weekends is that I really haven’t gotten to experience the nightlife of Bonn all that much. There’s a bar near the Institute called “Havana’s” that we go to every Tuesday after the department seminar, but it’s more of a restaurant than a bar. I’m usually around on weekdays and I save my evening for catching up with home, practicing my German or guitar (I know I could also go to the bar and practice German, but that’s a goal for next semester. Right now I would be a boring conversation partner to say the least) and I don’t head out for a brew.

Thus during the conference when I was suddenly confronted with a group of international graduate students who wanted to explore the bars of Bonn, I didn’t know where to take them. The German and Bonner grad students went home (another reason I don’t go out on weekdays, as they are really my only friends) and I was left the sole tour guide. I confessed my ignorance of the bar scene to Mike, a PhD student from the University of Michigan who studies the relationships between sauropod groups (I also stayed with him last year when I interviewed at Michigan), Phil, a doctoral candidate from the College of London who works on sauropod biogeography, Lara, a PhD student from the University of Alberta who works on T. rex skulls, Pohan, a doctoral student from Thailand who’s studying sauropods in France, and two other French graduate students named Jacqueline and Anna. Like I said, an international crowd. Everyone was up for just wandering town until we found a bar that looked like a good spot to hang out, have a drink, maybe chat with a local and roll on.

We started in the center of town, near the Beethoven statue, where we saw a lot of restaurant/bars that seemed pretty packed and a little expensive. Near the edge of the old town we saw a bar that seemed to be populated by locals. Mike and I headed for the door, but Lara hung back. “It’s just a bunch of old guys in there.” I hadn’t noticed, but she was right, “It looks like the kind of place where my butt will get pinched a few too many times.” So we rolled on, discussing the different bar search images used by men and women. The next place seemed like a lot of older couples out for a night on the town without the kids, so we kept walking, getting thirsty and I became more apologetic that I didn’t know the best spots.

Then we found a promising window. The sign was a Jever Pilsner logo, one of the non-regional beers, and a sign of a smaller, local watering hole. The front window was a checkerboard of small, thick glass panes lined with red Christmas lights. What we could see of the interior through the slightly fogged windows was a narrow bar with a lot of locals bellied up. It looked like a good spot, and it wasn’t crowded so Lara could watch her rear. We decided to go for it. Lara opened the door and everyone’s heads shot up and stared at us. I thought this was probably because they weren’t used to people under the age of forty entering the premises. The clientele was mostly male with two older women at a table near the back edge of the bar, but there was a booth in the back. Not wanting to seem like a bunch of rowdy college kids, we put our heads down avoiding eye contact with the regulars and made for the oaken booth in the very back of the establishment. After we settled into the booth, we could finally take a moment to size the place up.

Behind our booth hung a colorful rainbow flag. I know what such a flag stands for in the States, but the whole place was pretty colorful, so it was probably just part of the theme. The bar tender came to the table and asked if we wanted anything. He seemed bemused by our presence, but not hostile. I ordered in German, but broke down when I couldn’t figure out what Pohan wanted as he asked for a “digestive.” We couldn’t decide what this was exactly and the bar tender interjected in English that he would bring a whiskey. I guess it helps digestion…

After he left, I noticed the sailor motif around the booth complete with a seascape, lifesaver ring and sailing hat. Mike noticed the gay pride flags over the bar. “Hey guys…I think this is…” “It’s a gay bar,” interrupted, Lara. “Look.” Hanging on the wall was this poster:

Suddenly “Dancing Queen” by ABBA cued up and all the clues fell into place. The stares of the clientele, the décor, the colorful lights adorning the whole otherwise oaken interior, the flag.

“Oh goodness.” I think Phil spoke for us all.

We are all paleontologists who spend most of their days searching for the subtle clues to life’s past. We are detail people. We really should have put things together a bit faster, but I guess that’s why we’re still students. I think our incredibly slow uptake also shows how willing we were to see the flags and sailing gear as a weird German thing instead of using our own cultural morays to figure out where we were. Honestly, the sailing stuff was just too blatant, and yes, the rainbow gay pride flag is universal.

I’ve never seen a table finish their alcohol so quickly. Let me clarify, we aren’t homophobic people. We just weren’t ready to explain our mix-up to a curious German guy from the bar. We already felt awkward and self-conscious because we were clearly not supposed to be there, or necessarily welcome, based on the stares we were getting from the bar. Male and female, we just wanted to find a comfort zone.

When we finished our alcohol and paid the still-bemused bartender (who probably recognized a bunch of clueless foreigners when we walked through the door) and gathered on the street. We looked up and saw the name of the establishment printed overhead:

“The Buddy.” Well, it’s certainly not a place I would have found on my own.

Mike and I figuring out that we might not be over the rainbow, or near a pot of gold.

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