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?

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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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Les Alpes, Le Apli

Having grown up in the Midwest, my exposure to mountains was minimal-to-none as a kid and young adult. I was convinced that the hill up the street from my house, the one my sister and I used to ride down zealously on our pink scooters with pom-pom tassles, wind in our hair, was about as high as it got!

It’s been a couple of years now since I have been leading trips in the French & Italian Alps, and I’ve taken to these mountains like bees to nectar. I love it here in the mountain air. I’ll be leaving tomorrow to head back to Provence (by no means a compromise), and I would like to share a couple more pics with you from the season.

They’re all taken from the Italian side with the exception of the last flowery one.

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I really do miss them already.

Hear ye, Hear ye! My Tour de Mont Blanc starts tomorrow, and I’m grumpy

My highly anticipated solo Tour of Mont Blanc (TMB) commences tomorrow, and I’m feeling a bit ill-prepared.

No map. No guide book. No idea how to even reach the trailhead.

Today, three train segments whisked me away from the heat and dryness of Provence to the mountainy coolness of Le Fayet (St-Gervais-les-Bains). Luckily I have a couple of hours before dinner to sort things out, re-evaluate the contents of my 36 liter pack, and mentally prepare for this 200 kilometer jaunt around the Mont Blanc Massif. A few days ago, I returned to France after a two week holiday in Chicago to celebrate my sister’s wedding. Whether it’s on account of my lingering jet-lag or a certain loneliness brought on by losing the company of my smiling family by my side, my energy is awfully low. On top of that, my right knee is acting up.

There’s always a silver lining, and mine happens to be two salted, dark chocolate bars and two bags of jerky in my pack! Plus, seeing these mountains again, incandescent in the strong setting sun, fills me with joy and optimism, as cheesy as that may sound.

Tomorrow will be a good day. I’m certain.

Mont Blanc is in the other direction, but the setting sun lifted my spirits for my adventure ahead.

Mont Blanc is in the other direction, but the setting sun lifted my spirits for my adventure ahead.

TMB: Day 1. Lace up them boots, it’s go time!

The sun was out in full force with a clear view of the mountains on this fine morning, and my grumpiness was but a foggy memory. Undoubtedly, I was in for a splendid day of hiking.

After some milky coffee and a pain au chocolat in the sunshine on a street side café, I reserved a spot on the 9:30 cog train/tram from Le Fayet through St.-Gervais-les-Bains up to Col de Voza (1653 m) to officially start my hike. My pack felt balanced and my legs strong as I made my way through alpine meadow, forest and little hamlets of quaint ski chalets with cheery flower boxes. On my way to my first refuge, Chalet du Nant Borrant, I even passed through a rather unexpected Parc des Loisirs, which could be best defined as a ‘leisure’ park complete with golf, paddle boats, bouncy castles and ice cream!

There’s a whole series of cozy refuges along the TMB, so hikers can pack lightly and have a warm and dry bed to sleep every night. Opting for half-board, or demi pension, guarantees a hearty dinner after a day’s hike and hot cup of coffee and simple, carb-rific breakfast to get you back out on the trail. Unfortunately, the energy in my first refuge wasn’t as vivacious as I’d hoped. I got stuck eating dinner with a old, crotchety and pessimistic Parisian who wrinkled his eyebrows at all my not-so-well-thought-out hiking plans and kept encouraging me to take the bus tranfers in the valleys. I felt a bit stubborn (Is it possible to be more stubborn than a Parisian?), but I wouldn’t take his wimpy advice.

I was going to walk every last kilometer.

In spite of his pessimism and the approaching rain clouds, I went to bed content and full of gratitude for an incredible first day on the trail.

My morning tram dropped me off at the Col de Voza trailhead.  Sunshine all around!

My morning tram dropped me off at the Col de Voza trailhead. Sunshine all around!

My first trail marker...maybe this whole TMB wasn't going to be as tricky as I thought.

My first trail marker…maybe this whole TMB wasn’t going to be as tricky as I thought.

A luminous Mont Blanc ahead.

A luminous Mont Blanc ahead.

Lunch in Les Contamines-Montjoie. My favorite --a ham, cheese and egg galette.

Lunch in Les Contamines-Montjoie. I devoured my favorite French lunch – a ham, cheese and egg galette.

Geraniums love alpine weather.

Geraniums love alpine weather.

Mountain bouncy castles.

Mountain bouncy castles.

If I got tired, at least I could rent a paddle boat or park bench.

If I got tired, at least I could rent a paddle boat or park bench.

The park even had a baroque-style church, Notre Dame de la Gorge.

The park even had a baroque-style church, Notre Dame de la Gorge, just in case you wanted to pray for a blister-free week.

Day 1 recap:
Transfer: Mont Blanc Tram- from Le Fayet to Col de Voza.
5 hrs hiking
Refuge: Chalet de Nant Borrant.

TMB: Day 2. Rain, rain go away…and the Orphanage.

I woke up to the sound of rain.

Not a gentle pitter patter of a spring shower, but a steady, heavy, soak-you-to-the-bones kind of rain.

After a dull breakfast with my pessimistic Parisian and 3 quiet Aussies, I suited up like a sailor out to sea and headed into the storm. And I enjoyed it. When I’m working, I dislike lots of consecutive rainy days because it makes my clients testy and makes my job as a guide that much more challenging. Today, I couldn’t care less about the unrelenting torrent. My trail running shoes were soaked within minutes, but the rest of me remained dry (sweaty but dry) as I trudged along a path that quickly became a makeshift stream. I looked at my morning climb ahead to the Col du Bonhomme with rainy-day goodwill, and somehow it paid off.

I decided to take a tea break after about an hour and a half into my march, and miraculously the clouds began to part, and the heavy rain really did turn into a pitter patter, then a drizzle, and then…voilà, nothing at all!

And on the second day, the clouds burst open!

And on the second day, the clouds parted…

Improving weather conditions in all directions.

Improving weather conditions in all directions.

As I reached the summit of the Col du Bonhomme, there was finally sun and sheep.

As I reached the summit of the Col du Bonhomme, there was finally sun and sheep.

After my first day, I thought that following the Tour du Mont Blanc was really as easy as pie. As long as you weren’t hiking with your eyes closed, you could find your way with ease. Usually, there are sign posts with clear waypoints posted every 200-300 meters, and all sorts of trailmakers on tress, rocks, walls, houses, you name it. Somehow, after the sun came out, I jumped onto an alternate trail (with similar trail markings, mind you) that took me about an hour and a half and a handful of miles out of my way. This detour turned out to be my second favorite trail of the trip. As I stripped off my rain gear, and the sun slowly dried out my soggy self, I felt an up-lifting of my spirit and a most pleasant high that comes both from being perched on a lovely balcony trail and doing something in nature that you absolutely love.

No picture can do this part of the hike justice. The landscape was big, beautiful and extremely moving.

No picture can do justice to this part of the hike. The landscape was big, beautiful and extremely moving.

I finally ended up in the field of cows, dopily looking around for my trusty trail marker, when I realized I had gone the wrong direction and needed to backtrack to make it to my reserved refuge for the night. I admit as a mere, inexperienced ‘Day Two-er’ of the TMB that I was worried about arriving too late to my accommodations, and godfor bid, being late to dinner, but as I’m a speedy little walker, everything turned out fine. I arrived at the Auberge les Mottets to be heartily greeted by my new Russian friend (I met him the night before in Nant Borrant) who I found out had opted to hike the trail while his wife and two kids took a beach vacation in Crete. This, in his broken English, he equated to suffering like a baking sausage on a lounge chair in the sun. He would take no part in it!

Les Mottets reminded me of my middle school days as a blossoming thespian when I graced the stage with the renowned role of Grace Farrell, personal assistant and closet lover to the debonair Daddy Warbucks, in the musical “Annie.”

How you might ask?

Well. Imagine a big long wooden deck in an old drafty cow barn. Throw some ragged matresses and pilling wool blankets on top and call it a ‘group sleeping accommodation.’ These famous dortoirs, or dormitories, staged the perfect orphanage setting for a Little Alpine Orphan Annie Revival! And of all things to forget, I forgot to pack my goddamn ear plugs, so instead of drifting off to Annie’s “The Sun Will Come out Tomorrow,” I lay awake trying to blend the cacophony of snores into a melody to “You’re Never Fully Dressed without a Smile.” Turns out, I was still happy as a clam. Just a bit sleep-deprived.

On the final stretch to Les Mottets, or shall I call it the Orphanage.

On the final stretch to Les Mottets, or shall I call it the Orphanage.

Finally! Homeward bound for the evening!

Finally! Homeward bound for the evening!

Day 2 Recap:
Auberge Nant Borrant to Chalet les Mottets via Col de Bonhomme and Les Chapieux.
Detour: From Refuge Col de la Croix du Bonhomme on the GR 5 (Variante of the Tour de Beaufortain) towards Col de la Sauce.
Hiking 9 hrs
Refuge: Les Mottets

TMB: Day 6. My Return to France, Myrtilles, and the Witch at Col de Balme!

A tired day on the trail is always followed by a really strong one, and I felt like a rock on Day 6. I left Champex bright and early and opted out of the challenging variant to Fenêtre d’Arpette with no regret. I had an amazing climb up to Bovine where I was greeted by a field a gorgeous black cows and sat sipping a hot chocolate looking at the views of Martigny in the valley below.

What beauties!

What beauties I found along the morning trail!

A Swiss Pain au Raisin and an almond cookie.

A Swiss Pain au Raisin and an almond cookie.

Along the trail, I decided to do some research for a future book called "How to Hike 20-30k a Day and Still Gain Weight", and decided that Swiss pastries just don't make the cut. Switzerland, it's time to send your bakers across the border to France.

Happy Swiss Cows make happy cheese.

Happy Swiss Cows make happy cheese.

I had another morning where I hiked too long and too far before finding something to eat for lunch. On the map, I thought a place called Peuty was going to be a lively town, but malheureusement it was a ghost town, and luckily I had the nerve to enter a old, unwelcoming-looking hotel that I thought was closed. There were three other men inside drinking beer and eating lunch, and I gratefully took a seat at a table with another hiker and had the best darn 20 Swiss Franc (20+ USD) salad complete with fresh goat cheese, prosciutto, beets, cucumbers, and crisp lettuce! I even had a beer to blend in so that the gentlemen around me wouldn’t be startled by my foreign presence.

I had no idea I was going to find such a delicious meal in such an unassuming location.

I had no idea I was going to find such a delicious meal in such an unassuming location.

I ascended swiftly to the Col de Balme after lunch with a spring in my step and made the mistake of going into the refuge at the tippy top to ask for some potable water (I was almost out). The ancient, inhospitable woman inside glared at me with glacial eyes and chased me away (I swear she was a real witch in her uninviting creaky refuge on top of the desolate, windy pass). The wind and chill up there was the worst I had experienced all week, and I literally ran down the pass to find save haven back in France, far away from mediocre baked goods and disintegrating Swiss she-devils (Sorry, you know I’m super nice most of the time, but I really think she was a witch!).

I spent the night in my favorite refuge yet called the Chalet Alpin du Tour where I met two adorable, charismatic Spanish brothers who were mountain biking the trail, and we shared stories about of week over pints of cold beer. The refuge served organic food and even had natural peanut butter on the table in the morning. This is a WOW for France. My Spanish friends were equally impressed and decided to spend an extra night there (They sent me a picture of them eating peanut butter with their new American glow the following day).

This place comes highly recommended. Small rooms (5 beds), great showers, amazing food, incredible staff...

This place comes highly recommended. Small rooms (5 beds), great showers, amazing food, incredible staff…

Again, another perfect day.

Tomorrow I planned to finish up the TMB, or at least get an hour or two from my starting point depending if I could catch the cog train back to le Fayet in the late afternoon. If the witch weren’t guarding the pass, I might have just turned back around and started again, but work was imminent, and I really couldn’t go back up in the dark if it meant missing peanut butter.

OOOooooooOOOOOoooooooo (This is the sound of a ghost to add to my scary tale!)

Recap Day 6:
Champex Lake, Switzerland to le Tour, France
7 hrs hiking
refuge: Chalet Alpin du Tour

TMB: Day 7. How did all these people get on the trail?

Note to self and future TMBers: Don’t save the Chamonix stretch for your last day of hiking.

I forgot that with all the cable cars from the Chamonix valley, on a beautiful, sunny Sunday, the trails would be swarming with day-hikers. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with day-hikers. I work as a guide on these very same trails and frequently bring groups of 20 slow moving people to block your way. I apologize now to all you TMBers trying to finish your grand adventure while passing large groups stopping for picture ops and taking off layers.

I felt a level of frustration today that I hadn’t anticipated, but all I had to do was look around at the all-pervasive beauty and get over it. Still, I wasn’t in my groove.

jump on the La Flégère cable car to get an awesome view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley.

You can jump on the La Flégère cable car to get an awesome view of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix valley.

I was glad to get the opportunity to hike up to Brévent which was much rockier, technical and rougher than I had imagined. Springing chamois greeted me near the top, and it felt like I was taking pictures of the mountain goats I see in print when I read my weekly horoscope. Was I seeing a representation of myself, the Capricorn — steady, independent, free? I would like to think so.

Bounding Baby Chamois.

A bounding baby chamois (mountain goat).

Maybe I really am a mountain goat?

Maybe I really am a mountain goat?

The not-so-well marked trail descending from Bel Lachat to Les Houches was absolutely brutal on my aching knees, and I was forced to take it nice and slow down the steep, slippery slopes and walk with intention. I wouldn’t be making it back up to the Col de Voza in time to catch the afternoon train down to finish the TMB. Just before les Houches, the statue of Christ-Roi greeted me with his awesome grandeur and reminded me it was ok to wake up another day on the trail.

The Christ-Roi statue was build in 1933 by Georges Serraz and looks over the Chamonix valley above Les Houches.

The Christ-Roi statue was build in 1933 by Georges Serraz and looks over the Chamonix valley above Les Houches.

After a quick pizza, I put my throbbing knees to bed around 9 pm in hopes of an early start tomorrow.

Day 7 recap:
Le Tour to Les Houches
8.5 hrs hiking
Refuge: Hotel Chris-Tal, Les Houches