YOU DON’T NEED TO TRAVEL FAR TO FIND CULTURE, SAYS REETA LOI
Staycations: a recipe for culture and diversity
I was sitting in a bustling cafe in the beautiful Saint Germain de Pres area of Paris with my girlfriend. We giggled away as we tried to order scrambled eggs in French, digging deep for the remnants of GCSE knowledge in there somewhere. The waiter did not seem even slightly impressed with our attempts to speak the language, but he was adorable in his little waistcoat and big belly, so it was difficult to take his grumpiness too seriously.
As we chatted away, excited about the weekend ahead of us on our romantic break, I noticed another grumpy Parisian man, in his 50s, staring at me. I didn’t know what to make of this. In London, I can usually tell if someone is looking at me because I’m brown, but was this because I looked too gay or were we in a place where being a visible lesbian couple wasn’t cool? I didn’t know Paris well at the time so I carried on as I was but felt intimidated, judged and awkward, and started to get quite angry as he continued to look at us with a frown on his face as we ate breakfast.
Later, he got up to leave and as he walked past our table, dropped a note in front of us. It was a small light-blue Post-it curled into a cylinder and sealed by the sticky side. I opened it as my girlfriend and I looked at each other in astonishment. Bracing myself for whatever nastiness the note might contain, I read it out loud: “You two are lovely.”
As the man left, he gave us a huge smile and wave. Well, I wasn’t expecting that! I’d spent about half an hour feeling really uncomfortable, but he was looking at us because we looked so loved up and happy. I felt like a right idiot and also felt like the Parisians were really fucking cool.
I was in Cuba a couple of years ago and that felt like a completely unknown culture to navigate as a queer brown woman on holiday with her white wife. We avoided holding hands or kissing in public, but whenever we had to show our passports, which is quite a lot in Cuba when buying bus tickets or taking out cash, we’d sometimes get a quizzical look because we have the same surname but don’t look related. We met this brilliant woman who worked at the bus garage and managed to get us onto a bus to Santiago de Cuba in the middle of the night, despite huge delays and us having to sleep in the station for a few hours. Not the highlight of the trip for me, but she made it special not just by being so helpful despite us speaking different languages, but because she thought we were sisters-in-law when she saw we shared a surname. “Ah, tu es familia!” she said with a smile. To which my wife replied, “Yes, she’s married to my brother!” Good save.
I’d love for us to be accepted as a mixed ethnicity, same-sex couple everywhere in the world, of course. But sadly it’s something we need to consider any time we go on holiday. I try to avoid countries which criminalise homosexuality or where it’s dangerous for LGBT people, such as Russia or the Middle East. I’ve been to India, but sadly it’s not top of my travel list as it continues to persecute LGBT people with archaic colonial homophobic legislations which impede our human rights. As women we also need to consider how safe we feel, and India doesn’t assure me with it’s safety record (or lack of), when it comes to the protection of women. We must ensure we are safe, prepared and vigilant as lesbians and bisexual women when travelling, and also remember to look out for our trans sisters, who may be particularly vulnerable in some of these countries.
And let’s never forget how much the UK has to offer. Fortunately for me, I don’t need to travel far for Indian culture, as there is a wealth of it on my doorstep in London. Whether it’s samosas and ladoos from Southall or the brilliant Hungama Bollywood wedding party in Dalston, there’s a vibrant culture waiting to be explored. Our capital has so much to offer – a diverse melting pot representing every culture in the world. The more we support our global communities at market stalls, restaurants and shops, the more we ensure that London remains not just the capital of the UK, but the capital of the world.
In a Paris cafe, a man stared as we ate. Was I too brown, too gay?