It all started with The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and Hugo Weaving lip-synching "I've Never Been to Me" in the opening scene. In the 1977 pop ballad, one-hit wonder Charlene sings wistfully about all the places her loveless jet-set life has taken her:
"Oh, I've been to Georgia and California and anywhere I could run.
I took the hand of a preacher man and we made love in the sun.
But I ran out of places and friendly faces because I had to be free.
I've been to paradise but I've never been to me.
"Oh, I've been to Nice and the Isle of Greece while I've sipped champagne on a yacht.
I've moved like Harlow in Monte Carlo and showed 'em what I've got.
I've been undressed by kings and I've seen some things that a woman ain't supposed to see.
I've been to paradise, but I've never been to me."
After going with a contingent from my law school to the Greek island of Hydra in 2003, I realized with a shock that I'd been to every location listed in that song, too. I thought, "Could I be any more homosexual?!"
When I was a somewhat newly-minted gay man in 1994, a couple of fresh Australian films with explicit or implied gay themes were released that, among other things, launched the careers of several movie stars. The most obvious link between Muriel's Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert—beyond their origins Down Under—was the frequent use of songs by Swedish Europop icons ABBA. After more than a decade of being deeply uncool, ABBA's music obtained a new fanbase in the early '90s, a reassessment that I'll always associate with my first days coming out at around the same time.
Muriel's Wedding, while not explicitly gay, resonated with gay audiences, and not just because of the soundtrack. As played by then-newcomer Toni Collette, Muriel's transformation from an ugly duckling who sits in her room listening to ABBA to a self-assured young woman (and some of the dodgy things she does to get there) contain obvious parallels to the reinventions a lot of lesbians and gay men have been required to undertake to live openly and successfully. The movie's cheeky, on-the-fly feel—not afraid to be mainstream, but also willing to shock—also makes sense to anyone who feels like they're making it while swimming against the current of the dominant paradigm. (Muriel's Wedding also gave us one of my favorite actors, Rachel Griffiths.)
In Priscilla, of course, it's all explicit, in wonderful, garish makeup, wigs, and costumes. (The film's costume designers, Tim Chappell and Lizzy Gardner, won the Academy Award that year. If you watch the Oscars, you may remember her genius gown fashioned from American Express gold cards.) Three drag queens make their way in an old bus across the Australian Outback, a heroes' journey to a soundtrack of Patti Page, Gloria Gaynor, The Village People, and, yes, ABBA. The film reignited Terence Stamp's career and introduced both Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento, The King's Speech) and Hugo Weaving, who, between the Matrix and Lord of the Rings franchises, is surely the movie star seen by the most people who aren't quite able to remember his name.
As I said, Weaving opens Priscilla by lip-synching "I've Never Been to Me," the loutish audience reception of which prompts the trip across the desert. And I can claim to have set foot in every locale named in the song. But here's where I have to pull off my wig and say my claim is as false as the eyelashes Weaving's drag character Mitzi Del Bra tears off in the dressing room after the show. And that includes my claim to have visited Italy in 1977.
Of course, I've lived my whole life in California, so that's easy. (And at least one point in my life here, I've sipped champagne on a boat, even if it wasn't technically a yacht.) I spent almost a week on Hydra, so I've got the Isle of Greece covered. But here's where things get dodgy...
In 1977—the same year Charlene's contibution to pop-music history, um, came out—I was seven and a half, and my grandparents took me to Europe for six weeks. We spent most of that time in England visiting family and friends in Surrey and Yorkshire, with a week in the North Wales seaside town of Llandudno. (I loved and still love to say the Welsh double-L, with a fleck of spit flying out for verisimilitude.) We also took a week to visit my grandparents' friends in Menton on the French Riviera, situated between Monaco and the Italian border. Yes, I was a spoiled little boy. Remind me to tell you about the fried shrimp sometime.
Anyway, spending a week there covers Nice and Monte Carlo. We also drove to Ventimiglia, the first town across the Italian border, for lunch or something. A long-lost photo of me along the beach there would prove that I'd "been to Italy," if it weren't, you know, long lost. But never mind—does this story convince you that I've really been to Italy? (My "I've Never Been to Me" claim is even worse, since I've only ever changed planes at Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport.) I have say, "Me neither."
What does it mean to have visited a place? Why is it so important to check countries off a list, as though travel were like grocery-shopping? And, more pressingly, how have I gotten to age forty-@#$&! without visiting Italy or, for that matter, France as an adult? Forget Paradise; I've never been to Paris or Rome. And that makes me want to sit in my room and listen to ABBA songs.