The Textures of Cape Point

Has it really been almost a year since I last posted on Confetti Rodeo?

I would like to lie and say that I’ve been working on some grand project during these past ten months, but I’ve been pleasantly distracted with life and perhaps a teeny bit lazy when it comes to blogging. Well, actually, extraordinarily lazy.

Forgive me. And welcome me. I’ve decided to jump back in with some photos I took this past April in one of the most beautiful places in all the Earth, Cape Point just outside of Cape Town, South Africa.

This fine morning, I woke up before six, found some coffee in route in Simon’s Town and entered the park before the buses of tourists arrived to take pictures by the “Cape of Good Hope: the Most South-Western Point on the African Continent” sign. I stuck to the Eastern shore beaches where no one goes except for that lone male ostrich and some wandering baboons and then walked down the long flight of wooden stairs to Dias Beach where I savored the solitude and artsy seaweed.

Nature presents the most beautiful still lifes and compositions along the sand and rocks–almost too perfect to believe the tide and sun were solely responsible.

 

 

 

Vienna and my first Slovakian Wedding

With my new haircut in tow, I left the comfort of the Northern Italian mountains and bused it East to Milan where I had nine hours to kill while awkwardly totting around a stuffed duffel and backpack. What does one do with a long layover while dealing with a couple of heavy, pesky bags? Eat of course! Since I couldn’t wander endlessly with all that added weight, I had to make strategic food/drink stops to kill some time and give my tired arms a break. Picture a Cookie Monster tour around the city. Ok, it wasn’t that bad and there weren’t that many crumbs flying out of my mouth, but I did eat a piadina, a melon/prosciutto salad, three coffees, a giant pizza with bresaola and more arugula, a craft beer and one stracciatella gelato. Time tastily flew by.

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After pacifying my seemingly endless hunger and coming to terms with the fact that I couldn’t live in Italy without gaining 100+ pounds, I reluctantly made my way to the station for my overnight bus to Vienna. When you’re in your thirties, taking a 12 hour bus overnight is no longer very appealing, as if it ever were. For reasons I prefer not to dive into on this blog, I pick driving over flying into new countries whenever possible.

And, no, I’m not running from the law.

It was a sweaty, long-ass 12 hours. But then again, maybe I’m being spoiled. I sort of enjoyed waking up to a pile of drool on my puffy jacket, pressed up against the greasy window, seeing quaint country houses dotting the Austrian hills. I liked being the only American on the bus and one of the only non-smokers at the toilet breaks in random highway rest-stops. I had that much more time to throw cold water on my face in the restroom and look at 4 am snack options as the smokers puffed with fervor while keeping a watchful eye on the driver, hopeful to pull in one last drag before the engine started gently humming again.

Arriving in Vienna was anti-climactic, and as I walked the outskirts of the city past rather dismal and uniformly lackluster post WWII buildings, I thought maybe my vision of Wien as a classical composers’ paradise with gold-adorned, fanciful buildings was a bit off from its most recent history. Silly me, I just hadn’t discovered the center of town yet. My spacious Airbnb apartment slowed down my city exploration― I found myself in one of those nesting moods. My mornings were slow and lazy with cup after cup of milky rooibos tea while reading an actual book.

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Vienna actually turned out to be quite beautiful and is full of apparently wonderful museums that I didn’t get around to visiting. I adore Gustav Klimt, a Vienna native, but I didn’t catch his paintings this time, and I suppose that’s ok.  Maybe this is rather embarrassing to admit, but my favorite part of my 3-day visit was this chain bakery, Anker, that had these amazing vegan sandwiches on seeded, whole-grainy, salty bagels with hummus and lots of crunchy fresh veggies. I ate five or six of these puppies in four days, but who’s counting.

Heading into Slovakia, also by bus with my trusty Anker sandwich in hand, felt exciting and somehow new, as I’d never traveled further East in Europe.  The Bratislava bus station became my home for three hours as I waited for two of my friends to pick me up in their VW bus in route from Croatia via Slovenia. While sitting on my bags, and eating a seeded bagel, I soaked up this new world of Slovakia, or at least one sliver of it – a woman with a Santa Monica Days, Los Angeles Nights T-shirt, tons of passionate smokers posted near garbage cans with XL bud receptacles on top (I felt like it was the last day on Earth to smoke), tall blond Slovakian women in very high heels and tight skirts coming and going, a dairy dispensing vending machine with yogurt and cheese, a fresh berry saleswoman, a whole line of taxi drivers idly waiting for customers (and smoking) in acid-washed, tight jeans, and teenagers with overstuffed backpacks heading to/from the woods. My friends felt bad about arriving late, but I loved having a reason to wait in one spot and people watch. Plus, I was starting to get a feel for the place.

What a divine sandwich!

What a divine sandwich!

My view from my post at the bus station in Bratislava.

My view from my post at the bus station in Bratislava.

By the way, the whole purpose of this trip, the haircut and all the bus travel through these random places was to attend the wedding of my dear friend Zuzuna and her husband-to-be Dave. I couldn’t miss this wedding for the life of me, and I can’t tell you how pleased I was to be part of such a splendid celebration and the joining of a small-town, but very worldly, Slovak lady and her Southern California husband.

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The wedding day, night and late night was one of the merriest celebrations I’ve ever attended. This fête was supposed to last until ‘Sunrice,’ a typo on the one English program available. I liked to imagine celebrating the return of the warm sun alongside the bride and groom with my favorite grain and soy sauce, exhausted from so much dancing. Sadly, I didn’t make it that long. I spun more to the jovial beats of the gypsy band than most amusement park rides do all season. I savored the three dinners spread out throughout the evening and middle of the night, my favorite being the giant barbecue with salty, grilled pork, chicken and sausages. I got good at politely accepting shots of the potent Slivovica (plum liquor) and tossing them over my shoulder while my toasting buddy had his head cocked back in passionate consumption. Although I was in bed my 3:30 am, I think I put in a valiant effort, sunrice or not.

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I felt extraordinarily blessed to have a community of incredible international friends around me and cherished the opportunity to connect with my local hosts even with the language barrier. The wedding was the perfect escape from my guiding and a return to the things I’ve been missing most lately while on the road: friends, family and community.

A couple more shots from Slovakia…

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Potato pancakes with fresh cheese, a cucumber, dill and sour cream salad and a cold bear. And all of this after a big bike ride. What could be better?

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I'm a little bit obsessed with stacked wood piles. I loved how many different shapes and sizes were in this one.

I’m a little bit obsessed with stacked wood piles. I loved how many different shapes and sizes were in this one.

My First Italian Taglio (Haircut)

When I started living aboard, simple daily tasks became infinity more complicated in a befuddling language with new cultural norms. I clearly remember my first Spanish phone conversation during a university study abroad program in Mexico, when I kept mixing up the ever-so-simple pronouns of “I” and “you,” thoroughly confusing the poor man on the other end of the line and resulting in a giggling fit on my end when our nonsensical conversation’s absurdity struck my funny bone. It took me almost a month to figure out that I needed to go in person to the bank in Viña del Mar, Chile to pay the stupid electric bill. Although the process took most of the day to complete, I felt like I had summited K2 when I finally guaranteed my housemates another month of light and heat. In France, I’ve gotten on the wrong train and the wrong half of the train (when they magically split in some random town), more times than I would like to count or admit. I’ve even missed getting off the train at my stop because I didn’t know how to get the doors open. Yes, it’s true, an overpriced, four-year degree at a prestigious university helped me achieve such stupefying brainpower.

And then there are haircuts. The idea of letting foreign scissors destroy my rather ordinary hair terrified me. Haircuts in 8 different countries so far is no small feat, people!  I’ve coped with long, thready Argentine layers, a mullet-of-sorts in Chile, a bowl cut in Mexico and actually some really stellar cuts in Thailand, South Africa and France. The worst part of venturing into a salon abroad is trying to convey in words or gestures exactly what you want, and since most of the time I have no idea what I want anyway, the results are often startling.

Well, folks, a couple of days ago I got the haircut urge, which, for me, is equivalent to a ferocious morning bathroom calling after a giant cup of coffee (sorry I’m so graphic, but I write the truth). Actually, I think my hair was looking quite good before the cut, but sometimes the desire to chop my hair becomes so all-consuming that I just have to pay attention or risk the voices in my head singing an endless cacophony of “Cut your damn hair!” at all hours of the day. Am I crazy, or is this a woman thing? It just so happened that in the small Northern-Italian town of Aosta, I stumbled upon a sparkling salon, filled with stunning, long-haired, well-tanned, stylist goddesses, into which I courageously ventured with my bright, orange tennis shoes, my deflated hair and my broken Italian. It would make you proud to know that not only did I tell the pretty woman what I wanted, but we managed to have one of those superficial stylist/customer conversations about I-don’t-know-what in Italian! This lovely lady more or less gave me the style that I was seeking but with much more Italian flair than previously thought possible.

Hands down, the blow-dry was the highlight! She asked if I wanted my locks curly or straight, and apathetically, I said curly and sat back with wide eyes as the magic unfolded. With each compulsory smiley glance in the mirror (I was careful not to express the dread in my heart with my eyes or mouth) and each subsequent addition of more mousse, my hair gained the volume and height of circus cotton candy― imagine a perfect combination of a really good winter nest for a family of squirrels and Richard Simon’s hair on a humid day in Florida. The dryer stopped. She administered one final coat of hairspray shellac to keep all coiled hairs well in place, and I paid. Then smiled. Out into the street I ventured with my new do, careful not to hit the awnings, feeling nostalgic of my old, less-voluminous hair a mere hour before, but actually quite satisfied with the overall experience! Let’s not forget the pre-cut head massage.

I did it. Add Italy to the haircut list. Check!

I would have taken a picture of my coiffe immediately after the incident,  but I’m afraid there wasn’t a selfie-stick made long enough to capture the height and expanse in one frame, so I’ll leave that to your imagination.

Moreover, and perhaps rather stupidly, I decided to semi-permanently dye my blondish hair dark brown (sorry Mom and Dad, I know you like me blond). Sometimes you just want a change, and sometimes you want to feel different. I’m on a blissful two-week vacation stretch, and I’m reevaluating how I can incorporate more healthy practices into my hectic guiding lifestyle, including a six-week, self-proclaimed betterment stretch. I figure the dark hair, which is also supposed to last six weeks, will serve as a daily reminder to take better care of myself, instead of focusing all my energy on my constantly changing stream of clients.

This morning, I was YouTubing ways to get semi-permanent color to fade more quickly, and I think I’ll spend some of the afternoon washing my hair with Head and Shoulders (according to all the young ladies with bright red hair online, this works well). If only there were lots of men asking me on dates this afternoon, I’d have a legitimate excuse to stay at home and be lazy.

I’m actually in Vienna now, and I’m in good company. This city seems to be the land of older women with poorly dyed hair, so maybe I’ll just roll with it and leave the washing for another day. There are museums to visit, and Austrian beer to drink with salty pretzels.

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Post cut, after a serious amount of deflating.

I think I made a mistake. Too dark, right?

I think I made a mistake. Too dark, right?

Alps Revisited

I’m back in the French/Italian Alps for my third season of leading hiking trips and managing the trip in the region, and these beauties continue to totally knock my socks off. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the most stunning places on Earth. Here’s a quick glimpse from the last couple of weeks.

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We have a new dog at our leader chalet. Actually, he's the neighbors dog, but I'm adopting him!

We have a new dog at our leader chalet. Actually, he’s the neighbors dog, but I’m adopting him!

Basque Beauty

We launched a new hiking trip this spring in the Basque Country, and despite an exhausting work load to get the trip guest-ready without any noticeable major hiccups, I still found time to fall in love with the countryside. What’s not to like with all the lush, green rolling hills, the happy, free-roaming horses, sheep and cows and the spectacular Atlantic coastline. The New York Times recently published an article about the The French Side of Basque Country and equates it to ‘a little sister who didn’t get invited to the dance.’ It’s true, the Spanish side is much more well known and has some beloved wine to boot, but so much of what makes this rural part of France so alluring is that it’s not overrun with tourists and not overly touristy. Unlike Provence or Paris, it’s not high on the must-see list for a lot of foreigners, and I’m grateful for that.

The Basque people’s charm and sincere hospitality only add to the mystique of the area, and of course the food and wine, like so many places in France and Spain, is outstanding. And did I mention the delicious Gateau Basque à la Cerise? I think I must have eaten three of these buttery, dense cakes filled with ripe cherries one day on the trails. Yum. Of course, French fat-laden pastries work significantly better for endurance (and pleasure) than watery old Gatorade.

After many weeks in a row of working, I had some time off to hike on my own and enjoy the beach, and these are a few of the images I captured.  Plan your trip to this region in the spring or fall when the salt-water-seeking crowds aren’t overwhelming and make sure to bring your rain gear. All those hills don’t stay so green and lush without a significant and steady amount of rain, as much as some parts of Ireland, or so they say.

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Mom & Dad in the Old Country

Ma maman and mon papa came for a highly anticipated visit to Southern France this spring.  To date, my domestic and abroad worlds haven’t mixed nearly as much as I would have hoped when I committed to my life abroad.  For me, it really was a gift to have my parents get a glimpse into my life here in Europe, and for them to feel the comfort and relief of knowing I’m in a really spectacular place that I adore.

Our journey began with a quick and dirty tour of Paris, followed by four days in my father’s family’s homeland of Croatia, catching up with our Croatian and Italian family members over long dinners, homemade lunches, and a hell of a lot of hugs. I can’t believe how lucky we are to still have family in the old country! These amazing people treated us like visiting royalty and nearly broke my heart with all their kindness, hospitality, and ‘love made edible’ in the form of handmade gnocchi followed by crusty apple strudel.

After our heartfelt Croatian visit, we returned to Provence to my familiar stomping grounds. In true tour-guide style, I thoroughly wore out my along-for-the-ride parents showing them all that Provence has to offer with a super jam-packed schedule—quintessential hilltops towns, weekly markets, wineries, perfect seasonal produce, aperitifs in the sunshine, and my favorite small-town eateries and preferred bakeries.

I truly love it here in Europe, and I think my parents totally get it now, even though I know they would still love to have me living in the Chicago suburbs, just down the street, but not before a real French bakery opens up in the heartland. Impossible.

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Zadar, Croatia

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Zadar, Croatia

Enjoying their first Croatian beer in Croatia!

Enjoying their first Croatian beer in Croatia!

A delicious rendition of Baccalà!!

A delicious rendition of Baccalà!!

Opatija

Opatija, Croatia

Dad's Birthday in Opatija

Dad’s Birthday in Opatija

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Family Graves in Vranja, Croatia.

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Back in France...

Back in France…

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Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence. It's one of my absolute favorite places in Provence.

Carrières de Lumières in Les Baux de Provence. It’s one of my absolute favorite places in Provence.

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Bologna in 24 hrs.

I planned an intentional but quick stopover in Bologna on my way from Tuscany to Paris, and despite being so excited to revisit the city where this blog more or less started over a year and a half ago, I was still fighting a month-long battle with strep throat and was feeling downright shitty. There’s really nothing worse than being on the road and not feeling good. I tried to visit my old haunts and roamed mindlessly around an antique market, and I even forced myself to eat some gelato just for ‘old time’s sake,’ but I couldn’t get out of my sick funk. Bologna, however, was still charming, and is, in my option, one of the most livable and perfect cities in all the world. I’ll go back when I’m feeling 100% and can devour a cioccolata calda or two.

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This is what it feels like to travel and feel like crap. Not super glamorous, right?

This is what it feels like to travel and feel like crap. Not super glamorous.

Iced Tea = Home

Nothing’s better than spring in California and catching up with my remarkable friends in the Bay Area. You marvelous people, I love you! Thank you for continually making me feel at home, even though I’m so far away most of the time.

When back in Cali, I get the privilege of nesting in a little yellow house with a cheery magenta door in a diverse and dynamic North Oakland neighborhood. I swear this house has some sort of magnetic crystal center, because the door remains open, and it draws and pulls a constant and steady stream of good-hearted souls coming into our community, supplementing the lives of the 3-6 people and two cuddly cats living there. A wild and colorful garden adorns the front yard, further welcoming visitors with cheerful flowers and tasty edibles. The first California poppy that surfaces out front provides pause for seasonal celebration and reflection.

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Family Fun Times in Florida

The last three winters, I’ve been hanging out with my parents in Florida instead of the frigid tundra of the Chicagoland area, and this Snowbird thing is really starting to make sense. Retirement is blissful, especially when combined with walks on the beach and shuffleboard with friends. My sister, Jenny, flew in from Denmark, and with me flying in from South Africa, it was quite a spectacular family reunion from all corners of the globe. I have the best family in the whole world, and I loved seeing them in the sunshine for a few weeks to catch up and lay low together poolside.

Furthermore, Eastern Florida is home to the world’s greatest dive bar, Archies Seabreeze, with its handsome, pirate lookalike bartenders and finger-lickin’ good, deep-fried chicken wings and Old Bay covered shrimp. Combine those tasty treats with dollar, happy hour beers—yes, you heard me right, d-o-l-l-a-r happy hour beers—and you’ve got a recipe for one hell of evening!

Thanks for embracing me Florida, even though I don’t have a head full of grey hair, at least not yet.

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My sister spotted a manatee! What a drama queen! This is a joke, people. 🙂

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South Africa- A lot for words, so here’s some snaps.

Terror struck me as I picked up my rental car from the Cape Town airport. Whoever’s dumb idea it was to put the turn signal on the opposite side of the steering wheel meant that I had one really clean windshield as I quickly locked my doors, hugged the left side of the road, and prayed I wouldn’t be robed blind at the first stoplight I came to in this foreign land. Africa was unknown territory to me, and all the books I read and the horror stories people were feeding me worked me up. Evidently, I needed a couple of days to relax into Cape Town.

I’m still processing my month-long experience at the bottom of the African continent and hoping for a quick return to dive into the country again soon (hopefully this November), but until then, I won’t pretend to have any profound statements on the state of a nation recovering from a recent and brutal history of Apartheid. In many ways, I know South African history isn’t all that far off from our own segregated past (present) here in the US, but there was a penetrating inequality there and at times I didn’t know how to navigate around it except with my naïve, go-to modus operandi of kindness and smiles.

I spent 10 days with my guests in some of the finest, first-class properties imaginable while enjoying/guiding incredibly privileged activities—hiking/road biking on the jaw-dropping coast, mountain biking alongside giraffes, gazing at lion cubs and staring into the eyes of elephants from the safety of the Land Rover and drinking ‘sun-downer’ G&T’s as the light faded on the savannah. At the end of my work stretch, I rented a car for a week, kidnapped my South African, dive master friend, Kyle, and took a road trip through wine country and along the Garden Route coast.  Looking back now, and revisiting my pictures and memories, it was probably the most powerful months of travel in the life, all the while being one of the most confusing and distressing.

I thought South Africa would eat me alive, but really it just strengthened my love of humanity as cheesy as that may sound. Mark Twain articulately sums it up:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

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G&T's in our plunge pool while looking out for elephants and hippos. Really? Is this life?

G&T’s in our plunge pool while looking out for elephants and hippos. Really? Is this life?

My co-worker and good friend, Travis Steffens, is an extremely talented photographer and the following are a couple of his amazing images from our trip together. Travis recently started a non-profit, Planet Madagascar, conserving the remarkable biodiversity in Madagascar while focusing on development projects with local communities and working super hard to protect the endangered and oh-so-huggable Lemur. They’re in the midst of a fund-raising campaign, and I encourage you to donate to this very worthy cause if you find some extra change rattling around in your pocket.

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