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.

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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!

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.

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.

TMB: Day 3. Italy here I come. Prepare the Polenta!

Since I really wasn’t sleeping anyway, I decided to get an early 7:30 am start to conquer the first big climb of the day up to Col de la Seigne. The initial climb felt really good, but then my fatigued body began to retaliate and my pace considerably slowed on my descent into Italy and the Val Feny (Feny Valley). The relatively flat valley ground was a welcomed change of pace in the late morning, and I looked forward to a new country on the TMB and, of course, my Italian pranzo (lunch)!

Goodbye orphans, hello Italy!

Goodbye orphans, hello Italy!

From this side of the massif, Mont Blanc charmed me with her robust beauty and even seemed to be posing for photos with wispy little clouds on high.

Hey, any meteorologists out there know what those little clouds mean?

Mont Blanc with a chapeau.

Mont Blanc with a chapeau.

My heavy legs finally carried me to a hearty late lunch of polenta, wild mushrooms and homemade tomato sauce. A quick macchiato got me back on my feet, but not nearly prepared for the brutal downhill into Courmayeur. This little mountain goat loves to climb, but I can really do without the steep descents.

What would I have done with this café macchiato?

This little café macchiato gave me wings.

I arrived in Dolonne (the small hamlet before Courmayeur) feeling a bit defeated, so I decided to call it for the day and try and get myself a hotel room.

The view from my hotel room.

The view from my balcony.

Miraculously, there were no other random snoring people tucked into my personal hotel room, so I had the most lovely and quiet (!) evening and actually slept. I even had time to wash out my one slowly ripening hiking outfit and enjoy an out-of-this-world pizza experience at a welcoming little joint called Fuori Pista. If I don’t come back in my next life as a contented alpine cow, then as least let me come back as a soft Italian cheese. Really People, how is it worldly possible for warmed Stracchino to be so darn good under a bed of Arugula?!

Yum, yum, yummers.

Yum, yum, yummers.

I wrote this, and only this, in my journal that night:

I’m so happy to be back in Italy tonight, eating pizza while listening in on people’s aperitivos.

Tonight marked a turning point for me when the stresses of the outside world slowly started to slip away, and I fell gracefully into the simple rhythm of the trail.

Day 3 recap:
Chalet les Mottets to Courmayeur through Val Feny
Walking 7.5 hrs
Hotel: Stella del Nord in Dolonne.

TMB: Day 4. The Highest of Heights, Beef Jerky and Dolly Parton.

Oh Italy. I love you. Not surprisingly, I got a late start today while lingering over my cappuccino and biscotti. My clients and I frequent Courmayeur throughout the summer, so I thought today was going to be rather anti-climactic as I’ve covered this part of the TMB numerous times during day hikes.

Boy was I wrong!

After the arduous but satisfying ascent to Refugio Bertone, I decided to take an alternate high-route to Refugio Bonatti along Mont de la Saxe up to Tête Bernada and Tête de la Tronche.

The photo barely captures the beauty of this trail.

The trail snakes along the top of the ridge.

I reached a point where I got pretty exhausted and a tiny bit cranky and stopped for a snack and a quick writing session in my journal. This is what is wrote:

I’m well above the soaring heights of birds of prey experiencing what might possibly be the most gorgeous and spectacular day of crisp, sunny weather that I’ve ever witnessed in the Alps. Today, I took a variant route between Bertone and Bonatti and am totally blown away. It might just be the best bit of trail yet. I also just had a breakdown moment that was, of course, directly related to my hunger and energy level. I should know that when I start asking myself foreboding questions like: ‘Am I lost?,’ ‘Will I make it to my refuge before dark?,’ ‘Am I almost out of water?,’ that I just need to chill for a moment, soak up the scenery and snack. After a handful of Teriaki beef jerky and three squares of chocolate (a girl’s got to ration), I’m starting to feel human again. My Ipod’s stumbled upon a seemingly semi-religious and rather catchy Dolly Parton song called ‘The Seeker’ (where did this song come from?), and my feet are tapping to the beat in my makeshift church in the heights where Mont Blanc and beef jerky reign on high.

A perfectly framed post-card perfect view of the mountains.

A perfectly framed post-card view of the mountains.

Thanks beef jerky! You saved my crabby soul.

Thanks beef jerky! You saved my crabby soul.

On my way from Bonatti to Refugio Elena.

On my way from Bonatti to Refugio Elena.

The sun was setting as I reached the refuge.

The sun was setting as I reached the refuge.

I reached Rifugio Elena as the sun was disappearing in the valley. The hospitality in the Italian Refugios is really second to none, and tonight’s dinner table was made up of the most charismatic and lovely French and German families. We laughed and shared stories over big bowls of spaghetti and glasses of red wine.

I really couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day.

Day 4 recap:
Hotel in Dolonne to Refugio Elena
Walking 8 hrs
Refuge: Refugio Elena

TMB: Frequently asked questions

Since I’ve graduated to the title of mini-expert extraordinaire of the Tour de Mont Blanc, I would like to offer some insight into your most pressing, imitate TMB questions!

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Who should hike the TMB?

-Everyone with good balance, good knees and a good pair of walking sticks! Really, I saw grandparents, little kids with little backpacks, people of all sizes, shapes and shoe preferences, mountain bikers, and even a couple of donkeys! You can always take extra rest days and some of the bus transfers in the valleys if you need an extra little boost, just ask my Parisian friend. Go on, you can do it!

What essentiels should I bring?

I like the packing list on the website ‘Walking the TMB,’ although it might be a little bit too extensive.

Here are my absolute essentiels:
–Walking sticks (They save your knees and give so much support)
-One hiking outfit
-One refuge outfit
-Silk sleeping bag liner for the orphanages
-Ear plugs (Don’t forget them like me; they’re hard to find on the trail!)
-Camera
-Music (I really like listening to my IPod for a couple hours of day when I get tired)
-Journal & pen
-Thermos & good tea
-Trail running shoes (I prefer them to hiking boots)
-Small first aid kit
And all the other necessary stuff…underwear, toiletries, snacks, you know.


Should I reserve my bed at the refuge ahead of time?

-If you plan on hiking in a big group, yes, you will have to reserve ahead and stick to your itinerary. I found that I could always find a bed (even in busy August) for one person if I called the night before. That allowed greater flexibility depending on how I felt and meant I didn’t have to keep canceling reservations, which many hikers do when they realize the itinerary they planned out from their laptop in the big city didn’t pan out like they thought it would on the trail with the addition of rain, fatigue, blisters, etc.

Is it safe for a woman to hike all by her little-lonesome, womanly self?

-Yes, and it will force you to reach out and meet lots of wonderful people when you feel the need. I’ve never felt any danger on the trails or in the refuges.

Who wins the MPV award for your Tour, Lady?

-My magenta thermos, of course! Having mid-morning tea on the trail was just too good to be true. Isn’t she gorgeous?! Make sure to bring an assortment of tasty teas.

I love you, Thermos!

I love you, Thermos!



Can I mountain bike the trail?

-Hell yeah! Especially if you have sexy calves and are a ridiculously skilled biker! The mountain bikers I crossed paths with were pretty bad-ass and were able to bike everything except the stretch above the Chamonix Valley. Bells on all bikes, to warn the hikers, would be a swell addition to your VTT packing list.

What’s your favorite alpine flower on the trail?

-Well, thank you so much for asking! Check out these moisture loving Scheuchzer’s Cotton Sedges. Even the name is cool. I love how light and airy they are in the wind and sun. Simply stunning!

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When will you go next year?

-Email me, and we’ll set a date 🙂

The Most Beautiful Coffee in the World…and Darn Tasty Too!

I’m convinced that I found the most delightful and artfully crafted coffee in Italy, but I’m also afraid I might have burned some bridges by overly praising and doting on the barista.

Remember the old English nursery rhyme about Jack Sprat?

Jack Sprat could eat no fat.
His wife could eat no lean.
And so between them both, you see,
They licked the platter clean.¹

It’s one of the few childhood ditty’s etched into my memory, and the proprietors of this chic coffee shop brought it to life for me like never before.

The stout wife, who works the register, is a voluptuous, dominant woman, and her tall husband, the barista, skinny as a rail with a pencil-thin mustache, is docile, dutiful and rather submissive. Due to the cafe’s convenient location near my home, I got in the habit of going everyday (sometimes twice daily!) and quickly fell in love with the bitter macchiatos and heavenly cioccolato caldo. Maybe I was too quick to praise the barista’s outstanding work, too enthusiastic or too overtly grateful and smiley in general, but after the prerequisite congenial hello upon my arrival, the couple began to quarrel when I was in the shop. One day, on the occasion when the barista presented me with this beautiful rose in my cappuccino, an argument ensued for a couple of minutes, long enough to make my coffee cold, before it arrived at my table. What words were exchanged under whispers and hisses, I will never know, but it was clear I needed to move on and find another café to frequent.

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I’ll dream of that delicious coffee, no doubt. I fear I might never again be the recipient of such beautiful foam art! Let me know if you know of a good replacement cafe, and I will divulge the location in turn. Then we can compare notes on what art appears on your cappuccino, and if it was delivered with a smile or a hiss.

Firenze by Train

Although I could have happily spent my entire month of Italian immersion inside the boundaries of Bologna, I agreed to a day excursion to Firenze with a French friend. After 45 minutes on the high-speed train, in and out of a myriad of tunnels through the Alpi Apuane Mountains, we emerged. Firenze, unlike Bologna, is horribly touristy. Don’t get me wrong, Florence is stunning and full of amazing museums, and parks, not to mention a pretty spectacular and imposing cathedral in the center of town, but the streets are overcrowded, English is rampant, and after a half day, I was ready to return to a more authentic Bologna. Here are a couple of shots from the day, in black in white, to match my mood.

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