Category Archives: France

TMB, Days 9-10

Day 9 – Trient to Chamonix: This was our final day of hiking. Before setting off, we hit up the adjacent food mart on the last day it was open for the season and bought lunch for the day. We headed back to France, walking uphill to the Col de Balme (2201m) towards the Chamonix Valley. The lodge up top was said to be run by a really grumpy old French woman. If you spoke in English to her, she apparently wouldn’t respond. I even just googled “Col de Balme grumpy woman” and her photo popped up.

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I remember making this climb and thinking “when will this ever end??” But, the view up top was crazy amazing. Near the top, I heard a passing hiker exclaim, “God, she’s miserable!” I already knew who she was talking about. (Photo credit: Nabeel)

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We walked into the lodge with caution to order 3 hot chocolates and were equipped with a few French words.

Me & Yuko: “Bonjour! Uh, um, chocolat. Trois. S’il vous plaît?”

Guess what? She cracked a smile!!! The hot chocolate that her husband made was probably the shittiest hot chocolate I ever tasted but, her smile made it worthwhile. We brought our mugs outside to drink with the view of Mont Blanc. And, this is when I discovered the continuous shooting mode on my camera.

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These are just 3 of the 100 photos we took and I could definitely make a flip book for the 6 of us who became obsessed with this camera function. This was sooo worth the climb.

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Now, compare this photo to the very first one we took on day 2. WE ARE FAMMMMILY! I GOT ALL MY SISTERS (and brothers) WITH ME!

On the steep way downhill to Le Tour, we had 2 opportunities to catch a ski/chair lift down should our knees fail us. Several people considered it but never committed to it. I wouldn’t take a chair lift down on my own and, on top of that, I made it this far and became determined to finish it on foot. We stopped midway to quickly eat our lunch then made the rest of the way down. My knees and ankles were killing me and I was the last one to finish but, when I made it down, I felt like I could CONQUER THE WORLD! Clare was proud of me for powering it through. No one was prouder than I was.

Down at Le Tour, we had some time before the bus came to take us back to Chamonix so, we grabbed a celebratory drink at Le Passon. By the time everyone got their drink and began cheers-ing, I had almost finished mine within 4-5 gulps. Yea-uhhhhh.

Estimated Hiking Time: 6hr
Approximate Distance Hiked: 14 km
Elevation: Start 1297m; Highest 2201m; Finish 1471m

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We had some time before we met up for our final dinner and several of us were interested in going paragliding. It was EUR 110 for a 30 minute tandem flight. Upon hearing the price, everyone backed out except for me. I mean, when else could I paraglide around the glaciers of Mont Blanc? I met my tandem pilot, Sean, at the entrance to the Chamonix-Aiguille du Midi cable car, and we took the cable car up together to the top. Sean turned out to be a schoolmate or friend of a friend from Clare’s hometown and they actually hadn’t talked to/seen each other in decades. He was a ski junkie who came to Chamonix to cure himself of his ski bug, then ended up loving it so much more that he came here to live. He now lives with his French girlfriend and child, and they are now a paragliding, ski instructing duo. What a life! I need to rethink mine now… (actually, I already have been…).

Sean opened and set up his orange parachute and buckled me into the gear before buckling me into his. When the wind conditions became favorable, I was instructed to walk a few steps back when the wind gathered inside the parachute, then run off the cliff with all my might. It was fantastic.

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I believed I could fly and then was flying like an eagle. Thank you R. Kelly and Seal. The views were so amazing – the glaciers, the other paragliders, the forest and the view of Chamonix. Sean suggested that I grab hold of the steering handles and try doing some turns. With my extremely sweaty hands and beating heart, I tried. For a good minute…or maybe it was just 30 seconds. Then, I insisted that he take it back or else I might bring us to an early death. But, yay I did it! (Inhale. Exhale.) Throughout the ride (or the glide?), Sean took photos of me with his GoPro type camera which I haven’t yet received so, I’ll post when I do get them. (Update: I contacted him and he had already sent them to me a few days after the flight. Either the email address was wrong or, it resided in my spam for over 30 days. Regardless, the photos are forever lost!) In case you want to do this on a visit to Chamonix, make sure to request Sean at Fly Chamonix. Dress warmly and bring gloves. The wind chill makes it pretty cold up there.

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Ta-da! Some were jealous when I got back to the hotel (Hotel Le Chamonix) and said they were trying to look for me up in the sky. After a (none other than) glorious and slightly long but nicely hot shower, I met the others at the bar nearby before we headed to our final celebratory dinner at Le National. This was finally the end :*(

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Clare recommended this dish that involved a hot plate and you cooking your own meat – duck, chicken and beef. Yuko and I split it since it’s meant for 2 people and man, it was so fresh, juicy and delicious! I just looked up reviews for this restaurant and people complained about blandness, rudeness and slowness but, everyone was happy with their food and service speed was completely fine…at least for us. Alex then brought out bottles of sparkling wine that he bought to celebrate.

After the dinner came the after pah tee (actually, the hotel lobby for 6 of us). Clare took us pub-hopping to the expat bars and we went about our merry way. As we were talking about Wasim and how monkey-like he was in his hiking abilities…

Alex: “That man is always wearing a track suit. I mean, you can even hear him swishing in his sleep!”

Hahaha, it’s true.

Day 10 – Depart Chamonix: Yuko and I woke up early (not hungover!) to say goodbye to everyone catching a morning flight. Nabeel, Wasim, Yuko and I were the only ones leftover at noon. We walked around and savored the last moments together. I seriously almost cried after they walked me to the train station. I made it back to Paris and it wasn’t the same.

TMB, Days 7-8

Day 7 – Val Ferret to La Fouly: This was the coldest and windiest day. I put on my Under Armour cold gear, a beanie and wool gloves before we set off down to Arp Nouva and then on a steep climb up across the Grand Col Ferret (2537m). The moon was still out in the morning.

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The one thing that kept me going through the cold winds was the promise of an Italian hot chocolate at Rifugio Elena (2061m), a refuge where we would take a break to thaw out. An Italian hot chocolate is much thicker in consistency, almost like the chocolate you dip Spanish-style churros into but, a little more liquidy that it’s drinkable.

After about 1-2 hours, we finally reached the refuge. HAAAAALLELUJAH! HAAAAALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLEEEEE-LU-JAH! And, guess what? Yup, it was the best damn hot chocolate I ever tasted. My body felt frozen and my nose was a leaky faucet so, the first sip of freshly made hot chocolate felt like a revival. It was also the last chance we could drink an Italian hot chocolate before we headed down to Switzerland. Every last drop was savored to the very maximum.

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The view of the glacier was spectacular. Clare admitted that we were the fastest group of hikers she’s ever led so, even with Nabeel stopping to smell the roses, we were usually ahead of schedule. Whoop. Whoop.

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Before descending into Switzerland and into the hamlet of Ferret (1705m), we stopped for our lunch break. The refuge we stayed at the night before sold lunch so, most of us bought from there out of convenience, meaning we didn’t have much choice. We thought it sounded like a good deal when we heard we were getting 2 ham & cheese sandwiches (or 2 cheese if you were vegetarian) for I think EUR 4-5. But, when they gave us the packed lunches, we saw that it consisted of bread that was slightly larger than your palm and about one slice each of ham and cheese per sandwich.

As we sat here, the wind was at its strongest and our need to keep our frozen fingers inside our pockets trumped our need to address our hunger. We quickly ate whatever we could manage and began to make our way down. There was another group huddled here for lunch who actually opened up a bottle of wine and poured them into cups for each person. I guess that could’ve kept them a little warmer although I think some whiskey or vodka would’ve done a much better job.

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Wasim: “Hey guys! I have another group photo idea! How about 6 of us line up on one side of the path and the other 6 line up on the opposite side, the 2 lines parallel, and we all hold up our hiking poles like this…with one pole touching the pole on the opposite side, creating an arch?”

No one even turned to look at him or even commented or laughed out of sheer courtesy. No one reacted in the least bit. Everyone just kept on walking.

Wasim: “Guys?”

Silence.

We eventually made it to another refuge, La Peule, for a break and since we were now in Switzerland, Clare suggested that we try this soda called Rivella. Apparently, there’s an ingredient in it that none of us would guess but, Clare wouldn’t reveal it until we tried. So, a few of us tried it at the refuge. It tasted kind of like Red Bull..or kind of like Inca Cola in Peru. Not something I’d ever really crave. So, what was this mysterious ingredient? Milk whey. Hm.

Finally, we made it to La Fouly where we were to stay for the night at the Auberge des Glaciers. La Fouly is a very small ski village and at the time we were there, 90% was closed down/vacant. We did our usual pick a bunk, drop off our stuff and run for the shower bit. These showers were great since there was an actual knob (not a button you had to press every few minutes) and the hot water never ran out. However, the 2 showers on the main floor were in the same small bathroom, meaning 2 people had to shower at the same time with a good chance of seeing each other naked or, 1 person showered at a time but at the expense of creating a longer wait time for others. Luckily, the couples and the girls went together. We later found out that there were more showers downstairs.

After the bodily cleansing came the grocery shopping for the next day’s lunch. We hit up the small grocery shop underneath the auberge (the only food mart open in town) and picked our usual spread. Once my eyes laid upon the buckets of Haribo gummy candy, I grabbed a plastic bag, a set of tongs and went to town. Then, one by one, we all lined up at the cash register and paid for our things. All of us had some sort of bread, cheese, meat and bag of junk food.

Yuko and I walked out of the grocery store together, and our hands went into our respective bags and pulled out the gummy candy simultaneously. We looked at each other to talk about something but, as we caught each other eagerly pulling out the candy, we pointed to each other and broke out into laughter. “You, too??” Nothing can stand between us and a bag of Haribo.

With all our duties completed, all we had left to do was drink in the lounge, eat dinner and drink some more. This night, other than me, Yuko and Nabeel, Jackie and David also stayed up. In our drunken stupor we talked about our past and gossiped about the present. Jackie and David told us how they met and finally got together and, although I don’t remember the details, I remember it being one of the cutest stories. When he first pursued her, he had sent over flowers to her house and she responded with something like “Thanks but, I’m not looking for a boyfriend right now. I’m quite happy with where my life is and I’m concentrating on my sports activities.” And, so she did. And, they finally started dating maybe a year or two later. What’s meant to be will be. (Photo credit for the above 2 photos: Nabeel)

Estimated Hiking Time: 8hr
Approximate Distance Hiked: 20 km
Elevation: Start 2025m; Highest 2537m; Finish 1456m

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Day 8 – La Fouly to Trient: In the morning, we actually rode a bus through the Swiss Val Ferret, through small cute towns and the gorgeous countryside, until we reached the lakeside town of Champex. The ride was about 30 glorious minutes. We took a coffee/hot chocolate break before continuing on our hike.

Clare: “If you guys want to pick up some more food or snacks, there’s a boulangerie up the block.”

Nabeel: “Is someone doing laundry here?”
Me: “Um, what are you talking about?”
Nabeel: “Didn’t Clare just say something about laundry?”
Wasim: “I think she said ‘lingerie’?”
Me: “I have no idea what you guys are talking about.”

We walked up the block.

Clare: “So, here’s the boulangerie. Last chance to get something.”
Nabeel & Wasim: “Ohhhh, ‘boulangerie’!”

Yep.

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We took the Bovine Way, an old path that was used to access the cow pastures high above the valley, and passed the Col de la Forclaz (1526m).

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The Bovine Way living up to its name. Moo. Moo. Moo. And, moo. Moo? (Photo credit: Nabeel)

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I loved lunchtime. We stopped at another refuge which was closed for the season but, had picnic tables with an awesome view of the massif and…a cross. When we arrived, a British group of hikers laid out on the tabletops of the other picnic tables, one to each person, and took a nap in the warm sun. The sun felt so, so nice.

We set off after lunch toward Trient (1297m) where we were to stay for the night. We hiked another 2 or so hours before we reached a small town where we stopped for drinks. Some of us thought we already reached Trient and so, the panaché that some of us drank felt extra refreshing. Unfortunately, we were still another hour or two away from our final destination.

Aline and Ellen stopped at a small souvenir shop to browse around. Upon seeing the cashier, they both said “Bonjour!” out of courtesy, albeit with an American accent. The cashier was one of the grumpy kind and insulted both of them for saying the greeting incorrectly. The man did not get any business from us.

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Soon enough, Nabeel wasn’t the only one lagging behind. It was also me, Yuko and Alex. A bull had gone rogue and was running away from the herd with the farmer and his wife running after him. The 4 of us watched with the greatest amusement and I secretly was rooting for the bull. It ran down the hill, then up another, and the farmer/wife were panting with exhaustion. Eventually, the bull realized it had nowhere to go and it slowed down enough for the farmer to catch up to it. You can’t hate him for trying.

We reached Trient (above) and stayed overnight at the Auberge du Mont-Blanc.

Estimated Hiking Time: 8hr
Approximate Distance Hiked: 16 km
Elevation: Start 1466m; Highest 1987m; Finish 1297m

TMB, Day 6

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Day 6 – Courmayeur to Val Ferret: We went into town after breakfast to buy/pack lunch for the day – a bread roll from a bakery, a small block of blue cheese, sausage link, sun-dried tomatoes, a slightly pickled portobello mushroom and peaches. Although I was sad to leave our little luxury, this day of hiking was one of my favorite and no, not just because it entailed flatter paths and was a shorter day but also because it was one of the most scenic and the weather was warm and breezy. Above is a view of Courmayeur as we ascended into the mountains.

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You can see us becoming more of a family. I mean, after bunking together in the same room, hiking together for 8 hours a day and doing everything else together except bathroom activities, how could you not? We continued along below the Mont de la Saxe and the balcony path facing the ridge of the Grandes Jorasses.

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Our view at lunch was unreal. It’s an amazing feeling to sit on the grass, face the mountains and eat local foods made with almost no preservatives or unpronounceable chemicals. I quickly realized that the grass housed a lot more grasshoppers than I was comfortable with (meaning none) but, Yuko, who loved playing with bugs and nature as a little girl, picked one up and placed it on her hand for everyone to see. The grasshopper was unusually calm and probably developed a momentary trust for humankind. Upon closer inspection, it looked like a toy replica and was actually really beautiful.

Before I discovered the continuous shooting function on my camera, we took jumping photos based only on human finger clicking speed…leading to the above failure of a photo. Flo, Yuko and me.

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We stopped for a bit to pick some berries and Clare pointed up to the mountains (above) to point out a small red cabin.

Me: “Where??”
Clare: “I apologize for explaining it this way but…you see those two testicles up there [and the penis]? If you look closely at the left testicle, the small red cabin is perched up there.”

I grabbed her binoculars, found my way to the left testicle and spotted the tiny red cabin. Who makes it up there and actually stays there for a night? Crazy people, that’s who. And maybe a mountain bear.

Alex: “Where is this cabin?”
Me: “You see the two testicles?”
Alex: “Uh-huh, oh yea, I’m looking at the testicles.”

Can you spot it? It’s literally smack (haha) in the center of the photo. If not, let me know and I’ll post a close-up.

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By the end of the day, we made it to our next lodging, the Rifugio Bonatti, overlooking the Italian Val Ferret. This refuge felt the most spacious and modern and because it was very eco-friendly, it limited the amount of hot water per shower per person. Everyone was given only one token which you inserted into a box in your shower stall that generated the hot water. I think the limit was around 10 min or around 12 liters of hot water (although I don’t remember exactly), and once the limit was met, the shower became ice cold. My strategy was:

1. Rinse body, then turn off water
2. Lather up the body wash
3. Rinse off, wet hair, then turn off water
4. Lather up the shampoo
5. Rinse off, then risk conditioning the hair
6. Let the water run until the water temperature started to cool
7. Dry off

Now that you thoroughly know my eco-friendly shower strategy, you can now live in peace as your life’s purpose has just been fulfilled. During my turn-on-turn-off phase, I heard someone shivering and breathing heavily in the next stall as she continued her shower. She should’ve asked me about my shower strategy. (Photo credit: Nabeel)

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Looking back at what we left behind was so satisfying. After we showered, drank and ate dinner, the usuals went to bed early while Nabeel, Yuko, Clare, Jackie, David and I stayed up to watch the moonrise among the stars. The night was really cold and we laid out on the benches of the wooden picnic tables outside the refuge. The moon was beautiful that night and, with our faces toward the night sky, I finally got to see a hint of the Milky Way.

Me: “Ahhh! The Milky Way!!”
Yuko: “You’re such a New Yorker.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Yuko: “I see better views of this all the time in Australia.”

Yea, New York is lacking in some ways but, it’s still my hometown and the center of my heart (along with Madrid). I still am planning to move back abroad someday though.

As we continued to lay out on the benches, I saw a head torch moving in the distance. It was a mountain runner still running the Tor des Géants…in the pitch black darkness. I don’t know how these runners don’t trip over a rock and roll down the hills. We cheered him on as he stopped at our refuge (one of the checkpoints) to log his time and location and then continued on. I haven’t said this since maybe high school but, mad respect.

Luckily, after we got our clothes and gear washed in Courmayeur (I think we paid about EUR 5 each which is really cheap), new bug bites stopped appearing in random places and our existing ones started to slowly heal. Crisis averted!

Estimated Hiking Time: 5-7hr
Approximate Distance Hiked: 14 km – 20 km
Elevation: Start 1240m; Highest 2125m or 2500m (route dependent); Finish 2025m

TMB, Days 4-5

Day 4 – Les Chapieux to Courmayeur: This day was the “hardest and longest day of our trip,” according to the itinerary, and also the day we crossed over into Italy. We had the first half of the day to decide if, at the 20km marker, we wanted to go a little further and catch the bus to Courmayeur (our final destination) or hike another 8km (half going extreme uphill and half going extreme downhill) to our final destination, weather permitting. Guess which one I chose despite my shaky willpower and sore knees? Yea, there’s no feeling bad for me.

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We set off in the morning with our warm baguettes and croissants, as modeled by Alex above. The storm had passed and the sky began to clear. The croissant break came after about an hour of hiking and I really felt like I was in France. We then passed by glaciers before reaching the border of Italy at the Col de la Seigne (2516m).

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I looked one way towards France and turned my head the other way to look towards Italy. I took in a deep breath and breathed out, “Wow, Italy…

…looks just like France.”

Ha, ha.

After we crossed the border, we went from saying “Bonjour!” to “Buongiorno!” to the passing hikers.

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We ate lunch by a stream and this was probably the most memorable lunch I’ve had. The goat cheese and apricot jam was such a tasty combination that I offered it to the others and Nabeel, the only one who tried it, kept sneaking his bread into the jam jar and sneaking in bits of cheese.

Thirty minutes later, we had to get going. We were quickly reaching the break-off point where I would need to ultimately decide if I wanted to torture myself…I mean take the amazing journey over Mont Favre Spur (2430m) to the Col Checrouit for another 4 hours or, take the very last bus to Courmayeur. Lucky for us, it was the last day of the season for the bus to operate at more frequent times. That was another theme to our trip – that we’d always get lucky with getting things on the very last day that it was offered. At a later day, we hit up a small grocery shop (the only one in the general area) to buy our lunch and we realized that it was the last day it was open.

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Clare: “Whoever wants to do the extra 8km, raise your hand.”

Wasim. Yuko. Nabeel. Me.

I rose my hand without even thinking about it and I felt like I was having an outer body experience, where I was watching myself raise my hand and wondering why it felt like it was done out of my control. I guess the larger part of me reasoned that this was a once in a lifetime experience and if I had made it this far, what’s an extra 8km? Also, the sun struggled to peak here and there through the clouds and it seemed like we successfully escaped more rain.

As the 4 of us rose our hands, I was surprised that more didn’t. Ellen and Aline, the 2 girls from California, were the youngest of the group and always at the front of the line and even they didn’t want to do the extra 8km. The honeymoon couple from Canada were also fast hikers and they declined. I think that rattled me a little bit. I wondered if I could handle it after all.

We parted ways. The first of the 2 above photos was our view of the others walking towards the bus, and the second [bottom] photo was their view of us making the ascent. A few steps up, I was teetering between ambition and slight regret.

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Reaching the top was _ – FREAKIN – _ _ _ _ _ _ . Let’s play a round of hangman. Hint: I write this word in almost every sentence on this blog, it starts with an “a” and rhymes with craving. The clouds rolled in and we barely caught a glimpse of Mont Blanc’s peak but, I felt such a sense of accomplishment that it didn’t matter. We ran into a group of French coworkers who regularly go on hiking trips together. They looked like they made it up the steep inclines with no difficulty and were sitting there relaxed, snacking and passing around a flask. I, on the other hand, was fanning myself despite the large growing sweat stain on my back. We asked them to take a photo of us and after returning the favor, they insisted that we take a swig from their flask. Yuko and I were the only ones to try and while they all watched in anticipation, our faces slowly distorted as the burn went down our throats and lingered for minutes after that. It was some apple schnapps…the strongest I’ve ever tasted. They all broke out into laughter with our reactions but, I must say, I felt warm and cuddly right after it. Hug, anyone?

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On the descent, we encountered a rainbow and everything was great. It started to drizzle shortly after and I still felt great. And then, it began to rain harder. We stopped on the path and quickly put on our waterproof pants, jacket and bag covers. Wasim had put on a rain poncho that went over him and his backpack which made him look like Quasimodo or…a moving boulder. Of course, when we put on our rain gear, the rain gradually went back to a drizzle. And, as it became too hot and we started to shed some of the rain gear, it rained harder. We kept teasing Wasim that it was his fault and that he should never take off his Quasimodo poncho or else he’ll displease the rain gods but really, we just liked seeing him look like Quasimodo and being oblivious to the fact that we were getting a kick out of it.

But, as it started to pour, it stayed that way and the paths became muddy and super slippery. We stopped at a lodge on the way to fill up our water bottles and to munch on some snacks but, soon after that, we were back out in the rain. Clare had to take us down a longer path since the original path was too steep, muddy and dangerous. We ended up trekking down a slope which I soon realized was a ski slope without the snow. The out-of-service ski lifts towered above us as we hiked down in a zigzag pattern. With our hiking poles and the slippery grounds, it felt like we really were skiing down the slope. I slipped once and my knees, particularly the right one, were gradually becoming busted and sore. We gradually saw Courmayeur in the distance but it was still almost another hour to the destination.

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We made sure that Wasim (second from the left) posed sideways to show off that hump. (Hehe.)

We finally made it to the hotel in Dolonne, a small village next to Courmayeur, where we were supposed to stay. Unfortunately, there was a mixup with the bookings and we had been moved to a sister hotel that was a short drive (or another 30-40 min walk) away. Our dinner reservations were still in this hotel and we had about an hour until it was time. There was no use in checking into the other hotel and coming back so, we decided that we could just spend time at the bar in our grime and dried sweat. A drink sounded reallllllly good at the time.

But, Clare had a talk with the hotel management and they agreed to let us all shower in the basement spa. After all, they DID screw up the hotel bookings. The guys, being gentlemen, let me and Yuko go first so, we stripped off all our wet gear and left it in the foyer to dry. We went downstairs to the spa and I may have let out a slight cry at the sight of it. It was clean and tranquil, and the hotel staff laid out fresh, clean towels for us and small bottles of shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Yuko jumped into the shower and let out a confused “uhhh” noise. The shower head turned different colors throughout your shower and it felt as if you were in a rave. I didn’t know what the changing colors was supposed to achieve but, the joy of being in a shower alone made me feel like I was in a euphoric state, laser lights and all. It felt so good to put on dry clothes afterwards and we went back upstairs with looks on our faces as if we had really great sex.

As the guys went downstairs to take their showers, Yuko and I situated ourselves at the bar and ordered glasses of Prosecco. I remember proclaiming that the particular glass of Prosecco that I was drinking was the best glass of Prosecco I’ve ever had. Maybe it was the 4 hours of extra hiking in the pouring rain or the glorious shower that I just had but, I’ve never had a more refreshing drink ever in my life (this is probably a lie but, this is exactly how I remember the moment). We fell into a nice buzz and the rest of our group started to trickle in from roaming around the town or taking a break at our actual hotel. All of them asked us how the extra 4 hours went, and all I could say was “I don’t know what your experience would’ve been like but, for me, IT WAS SO WORTH IT.” I could tell that some of them felt a tinge of wonder and/or regret.

We were finally seated at our dinner table and we ordered pitchers of table red wine. Table wine in Europe is delicious. The courses came out and I fell deeper and deeper into a nice drunken stupor and all I could think was “I am soooo happy right now,” and I wished the moment would last forever. But, all good things come to an end. And, new ones begin.

Given that our actual hotel was a sister hotel, the hotel staff in Dolonne gave us a ride to the other one, La Grange in Entrèves. Before we trickled to our hotel rooms (yes! actual hotel rooms! with its own showers!), we all agreed to come back down to the hotel lobby for some more drinks. Only Yuko, Nabeel and I showed up. The people who hiked the extra 8km for 4 extra hours. We ordered another bottle of wine and my favorite night continued on as we began talking about love and failed relationships. Yuko and I had gotten out of failed serious relationships because the guy couldn’t commit. Nabeel, to our surprise, had already been married for 9 years to a Chinese girl. The root of our surprise was that he got married around 22 – 23 years of age which, in these days, is pretty young.

Yuko and I: “Why did you decide to get married so young?”
Nabeel: “Because the love was pure and we wanted to get married before we started to overanalyze about the practicalities.”

The best answer anyone could give. I think I almost teared up over his answer. Me, the once robotic, reserved Asian girl who broke out of her shell during a relationship with a Spaniard. I think both Yuko and I were in awe over the sheer simplicity of his response. And then, we began talking to our bartender, a big gray-haired teddy bear of an Italian man who was also the hotel keeper at night.

Yuko and I: “So, Gianni, what is love?”
Gianni (in his thick Italian accent): “Lov-uh…lov-uh…it’s seemple.”
Me: “But…”
Gianni: “No ‘but.’ Lov-uh is seemple.”

This is probably the first time I met guys who gave the most sincere, non-bullshit answers about love. Gianni, who is in his 50s, then went on to say that he didn’t get married (for the first time) until a few years back. It’s never too late to find love. And, once you find it, it’s never too late to find it again should you lose it. What better way to live life than to keep loving? And what better way to end the night than free shots of genepy? We also got to meet Gianni’s wife who also worked at the hotel and his family who was visiting from Sardinia one of whom was his adorable niece Clara. She was maybe in the third grade and shy at first but, once she warmed up to you, she became a motor mouth. We all felt like family.

As it became late, we all parted ways and went back to our rooms. Yuko and I were put together in the same room so, we went back and began snacking on whatever rations of food we had leftover from lunch and giggled as we gossiped like high school girls. It felt refreshing, haha.

Estimated Hiking Time: 8hr

Approximate Distance Hiked: 28 km

Elevation: Start 1789m; Highest 2516m; Finish 1240m

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Day 5 – REST DAY in Courmayeur: We were pretty much free to do whatever we wanted. After dropping off 90% of our stuff at the laundromat (especially those of us who got the mysterious bug bites from the first refuge), half of us, me included, decided to hit up the luxurious spa, the QC Terme in Pré Saint Didier, with its thermal baths and massage treatments. This was simply HEAVENLY!!! There were multiple bubbly thermal baths outdoors with a view of Mont Blanc or, rather, Monte Bianco since we were in Italy. There were small waterfalls which you stood underneath and had the falling waters massage your shoulders, saunas both indoors and outdoors, outdoor lounge chairs and many more options indoors…a quiet thermal bath where you lay on floating noodles and kept half your head (particularly your ears) underwater and heard the vibrations of classical music and were surrounded by changing colors under the water, a room where strong bursts of water just hit you from all sides (think of a 360 spray tan for Ross), ice baths, nap rooms, etc. etc. and lastly, massage rooms.

A better photo with outdoor baths…

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After we all checked in, most of us parted ways. Nabeel and Alex separated but, Aline and Ellen stuck together for half the time while Yuko and I partnered together for most of the time. It felt great to relax but, it was also a tease since we were only halfway through the hiking. Either way, I’ll take whatever spa comes my way.

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Nabeel, Alex, Yuko and I decided to book massages as well.

Alex: “Um, they made us wear these disposable thongs! I’ve never experienced that before… I actually saved it so that I can show people.”

This obviously wasn’t a big deal for me and Yuko since thongs are a natural occurrence of life. What wasn’t a natural occurrence was that the male masseuse literally had his hands at the edge of inappropriateness that it might as well have been sex. I did fall asleep at the end.

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We took a bus from the main square in Pré Saint Didier to the city center of Courmayeur (again, we caught the buses on the last day of its more frequent schedule) and ran into a crowd of people waiting at the endpoint of the Tor des Géants, an endurance race involving trail runners running through the Aosta Valley. I don’t know how these people manage to run through the rocky paths and steep descents for several days but, as they passed by, they smelled pretty bad.

Looking up at the above photo, our hair actually looked silky smooth and well-groomed and our faces super relaxed. We grabbed a quick coffee before catching the next bus to our hotel and roamed around the small city center for postcards, souvenirs and, for me, knee support at the pharmacy.

Tip: For the bus from Pré Saint Didier, there was a tourist center in that main square where you could ask for the schedule. The bus stopped right at that square and I think the direction marked on the bus said “Courmayeur” (I don’t remember exact details). The bus from the Courmayeur city center to our hotel in Entrèves (direction: La Palud, I think) was also in a main bus stop area with an office where you could purchase the bus tickets and ask about the schedule. The bus rides were only a few euros and maybe 10-15 min long each.

When we got back to our hotel, we met up with the rest of the group to grab dinner at Ristorante La Palud which was about a 10 min walking distance away. The pizza and pasta were both so delicious and I was sad to realize that it was our last night in Courmayeur and our last night “living it up.” Later that night, the others tried to stay up for late night drinks at the hotel bar but, alas, it ended with me, Yuko and Nabeel. It was only fitting since we had one last bonding session with Gianni. When everyone went to bed, Yuko, Nabeel, Clare, Gianni and I went outside to watch the moonrise. It was truly magical.

TMB, Day 3

Day 3 – Les Contamines to Les Chapieux: Everyday, we would set off around 8am after a basic breakfast. The mornings were a bit chilly but, by the time we made it up a small hill, we were taking off layers and unzipping our convertible hiking pants (no sexiness involved, only large sweat stains). We passed through old Roman roads and a bridge and I wished for that moment that I could go back in time when the roads were first built and see what was going on at that very spot.

During an early morning faffage, Julia took off her jacket and revealed several bug bites on her upper arm which she didn’t notice before. Later on, Jackie, Yuko and I also noticed bites all over our mid/upper bodies. The one common factor was the bunk that we shared on the first night. Bah.

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One of my favorite parts of the day was when we would look back and see how much distance we covered. Hooray for another life metaphor.

Before I busted my knee and had fully swollen ankles, I kept up with the first half of the group and hiked behind Yuko for a lot of that time. We both had joined the group tour on our own and were instantly friends. Call it whatever you want – Asians gravitating toward their similar kind, two lone travelers similar in age sticking together, etc. But, I’d like to think beyond those boundaries and say that we were, in the words of Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables, kindred spirits. I feel like we just understood each other and appreciated the mountains with the same breathlessness (sometimes from the hiking). There were times when I would just watch her feet in front of me and concentrate on keeping the pace and then she would suddenly slow down and point out a hole that a mouse might’ve burrowed or berries on a bush that she wondered if we could eat. It opened my eyes beyond just making it through the day. Cliché #927486 of this blog series: live life at your own pace, stop fixating on the end result, remember to enjoy the present moment and appreciate even the littlest things.

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You can’t see tell from this photo but, I’m actually sitting on the edge of a very big drop and looking cool and meditative as can be. It goes to show you that things aren’t always what they seem.

A recurring question from everyone throughout the trip became, “Where’s Nabeel?” He was always the last of the group, lagging behind without a care in the world and I admired that. He strolled on and took in every nook and cranny of the scenery with a smile plastered on his face. It got to a point where even if Nabeel was ahead of someone, everyone would still ask where he was out of habit. He would always ask me to take his photo, and I don’t mean just with scenery. He would pose at the refuge with a can of Coke and a cigarette in hand, then look out into the endless mountains as if deep in thought and I’d take a photo of this “candid” moment. Candid, meaning completely staged. The first few photos that I took was not to his liking and it became a running joke that I take bad candid photos even though he kept asking me to take them throughout the hike. Maybe he knew I was the only one who would tolerate him…heh heh (I hope you read this someday).

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So far, we had amazing weather and Flo somehow became our sun goddess. Every rock pile we passed, she needed to add one on for good luck. Superstition or not, something was working. She is also a seasoned hiker and has an uncanny ability to run downhill with small steps and one hiking pole but still with great speed. She claimed that this technique made it easier on her knees. I tried it once and almost tripped over a rock, irritating my knees. Keep in mind that I am about 20-30 years younger than her.

We reached the Col du Bonhomme, roughly translated as the ‘Pass of the Good Man,’ at 2329m altitude. The photo above makes it seem like flat land but, the incline leading up to this made my gluteus maximus burnus really baddus.

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We finally reached our lunch spot, the refuge at the Croix du Bonhomme. Clare had told us about how the refuge is run by a French man who, when she first met him, had a brown fro. It is now gray. Refuges like this one get their supplies (and trash taken out) via helicopter. It makes you think twice about wasting food…not that we needed to think twice. This particular refuge offered a small menu and by the time we got our food, we scarfed every morsel down as if we hadn’t eaten in days. They gave generous portions of spaghetti carbonara which I got to taste from other people’s leftovers (uh, yum!). But I opted for a mixte sandwich (can you tell I was a little obsessed with this sandwich?) so that I wouldn’t fall into a food coma and have to hike with a bloated stomach.

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After lunch, we sat out on the grass in the sun and watched a local shepherd lead a herd of sheep with the help of 2 dogs. One dog sat around and lounged in the sun while the other ran from here to there to here to there…to here to there, making sure that every sheep was accounted for and safe. Most of the sheep had bells around their necks and the constant ringing was somewhat soothing in the otherwise quiet mountains. Breezes, trickling water, ringing cowbells…enter meditative state.

Earlier on, someone asked Clare if we’d be seeing any wildlife other than the usual livestock. There weren’t supposed to be much this time of year. But, we were lucky to see marmots and ibex. Usually, when you get too close to a marmot, it would let out a loud noise as a warning. The ones we encountered were cool, calm and collected. Or, just oblivious to our existence.

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We were running a little ahead of schedule and Flo asked if we could take a foot bath break. Normally, dipping your feet into the water is not a courteous thing to do but, no one was really around and Clare thought ‘why the hell not?’ So, while some of us dipped our feet in the water, the rest of us laid out in the meadow among the wildflowers.

We later reached the refuge where we were to spend the night, Auberge de la “Nova,” in Les Chapieux. All 12 of us were assigned to one little hut with 12 bunks. In a truly efficient manner, we all dropped off our bags, took out clean clothes and toiletries and went straight for the showers. Afterwards, we all sat by the outdoor picnic tables, with a drink in hand and the breeze flowing through our drying hair. There’s something so amazing about drinking a panaché (a lemon shandy in France) or a glass of rosé after an arduous, long ass hike and a hot shower. You truly don’t care that you should be hydrating your body with healthy liquids. All you wanted at that moment was a nice drunken stupor and to sing songs on tops of tables in some Hobbiton pub.

We ran off to the local shop before dinner to buy the next day’s lunch – goat cheese, a small jar of apricot jam and a link of sausage – and to order fresh baguettes and croissants to be picked up the next morning. We then went to dinner and continued our merriment. The meal for the night included a hearty soup, pulled pork swimming in delicious sauce, potatoes and a berry tart at the end. As a surprise for Jackie’s birthday, her husband David ordered 2 bottles of sparkling wine to celebrate. The group felt more and more like a family with each day that passed. As some began to trickle off to bed after dinner, a few of us decided to stay up to catch the moon and stars. Instead, we ended up watching the most magnificent lightning bolts in the far distance. Really magnificent.

I woke up later that night to our hut quivering in the continuous thunder and the rain pattering on the roof. The storm had finally reached us. I fell back asleep with a smile on my face.

Estimated Hiking Time: 7hr 30min
Approximate Distance Hiked: 18 km
Elevation: Start 1450m; Highest 2483m; Finish 1554m

Tour du Mont Blanc, Days 1-2

I saw this one photo of snowcapped mountains and its reflection in the lake below and I knew I had to go someday. That was about 4 years ago. For one reason or another, the timing didn’t work out. Actually, I should rephrase that as “because of one excuse or another.” This year, on the brink of turning 30, I thought, “What am I waiting for? Seriously, what?” So, I booked it. I would be hiking a mountain for 7-8 days with 12 strangers. I realize now that the timing was always the way it should’ve been. Hello, retrospection.

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Chamonix, France

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Day 1 – Chamonix: From Paris, I took the train to Bellegarde, Bellegarde to St. Gervais and, finally, St. Gervais to Chamonix, all timed to the T and about 5-6 hours in total. If I read the itinerary thoroughly, I would’ve found out that it is faster flying into Geneva and taking a shuttle to Chamonix. You know what I say to that? (oops…but) OH WELLZ! And, besides, Paris > Geneva and train ride > airplane flight.

The train ride from Paris to the French/Swiss border went from cloudy to sunny and I successfully zoned out into la-la land while staring out the window. Right before flying out from New York, I quickly threw on some random songs onto my iPhone and after looking at the playlist:

Strength, Courage & Wisdom – India.Arie
One Step At A Time – Jordin Sparks
Forever – Haim
Lose Control – Keri Hilson
Stranded – Jennifer Paige
We Need A Resolution – Aaliyah
Superwoman – Alicia Keys
Superpower – Beyonce (feat. Frank Ocean)
Top Of The World – Brandy (feat. Mase)
Liberation – Pet Shop Boys
All You Wanted – Michelle Branch
Good Life – OneRepublic

…not only did I think, “um, what’s with all the female singers and some of the seemingly cheesy pop songs?” but also, “uh, was I subconsciously nervous about this hike and did I just map out my entire emotional journey from excitement to feelings of utter failure to ROAR I just conquered the freakin’ mountain??” Um, yea, perhaps. And yes, I do like some cheesy pop songs. Some. I find it funny that as I grow older, my willpower becomes shakier (as well as my back) and yet, I still manage to get myself into these physically challenging situations during which I curse the world and ask it to put me out of my misery…then when I reach the top and am pumped full of endorphins I start loving all the world and its inhabitants. That qualifies me as a literal walking contradiction and I suppose this is a metaphor for my life in general. Why do I always make my life harder for no reason? Maybe it’s all about the contrast. I get to enjoy the relief that much more after I stop self-inflicting misery. Putting philosophy aside…

After I arrived at Hotel Le Chamonix, 12 of us met our guide in the lobby at the scheduled time and made our introductions – a couple from Wales, 4 (including a honeymoon couple) from Canada, a Pakistani living in London, a Japanese girl living in Australia, 2 friends and another guy from California, and me…from New York. Our ages ranged from 21 to the mid-60s. I had no idea what to expect nor did I want to expect anything. The great thing about traveling with a group of strangers is that you feel that you have no judgments and everyone else feels the same. If there were to be any disagreements, all of it would stop mattering after a week and a half. If you were to develop meaningful friendships, even better. Another thing I find funny is that, I have no problems hiking a mountain with complete strangers and yet, I can’t get myself to say hi to someone I see several times a week. You put the lime in the Coke, you nut.

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Chamonix is a really cute compact town that still manages to have a Chanel and Superdry store line its streets among the sporting goods and souvenir shops. I’d love to come back one day during the winter to go for a snowboarding run although it’s mainly visited by skiers. The surreal part is seeing the snowcapped mountains towering over the 5-story buildings. Magnanimous is how I would describe it. Truly breathtaking and eyeopening to the fact that there are wonders to discover outside of NYC and the borders of the United States in general. So…Americans who are reading this right now who’ve never gone exploring, please book a flight NOW. I think the U.S. is an awesome country and I am damn proud to have been born and raised here but, I’ve encountered one too many who think that this is all we need. People need to realize that the U.S. was built by people from everywhere else, that we are great because we are comprised of every culture imaginable. So, go appreciate the roots and open your eyes to the beauty and tragedy that is history and to all the cuisines that will leave you nostalgic when you come back home from your vacation. Traveling always makes me realize that nothing and everything matters all at the same time. The hours you put into a heartless job, the competition against shmoozing men on the corporate ladder, the dinner plans you give up to complete a workpaper based on estimates…none of that matters in the grand scheme of life. What matters is what you make of it or how you create opportunities should you feel unfulfilled. What matters is that you don’t stop pursuing or having goals. What matters is that you are happy. I’m still figuring out if I’m talking to the general public or to myself. I guess that doesn’t matter.

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Day 2 – Les Houches to Les Contamines: Look at this photo. We look like we were forced to be together. It makes me laugh seeing this side by side with our group photo towards the end of the trip. From left to right is Ellen, Yuko, David, Jackie, Aline, Wasim, Alex, Flo, Julia, Warren, me, Nabeel…and, of course, the picture taker and tour leader Clare. The only bonding time we had prior to setting off on the hike was at dinner the night before at La Moraine. Other than the default “So, what do you do?” conversations, Alex filled us in on how he booked this trip then didn’t bother to book his flight until about a week or so before he needed to fly out. On top of that, as a first-time hiker, he shoved a bunch of whatevers into his backpack and hoped for the best that he had what he needed. I made that same mistake before Peru but rather than it stemming from laziness it, instead, came from sheer cheapassness. I will emphasize now that you will suffer without proper hiking gear. Don’t be stupid!

With each day that passed, I grew to really care for everyone and odd enough, they became my nth family. I also might even say that this was my favorite G Adventures group to date and that says a lot given that I met amazing people on my Peru and India (which I have yet to write about) trips. In the weeks prior to this trip, the weather forecast was dominated by rain. By the time we arrived, it was nothing but bright yellow circles.

For the majority of the trip, we needed to buy and pack the next day’s lunch the night before. On this day, we were lucky to stop at a corner boulangerie right when it opened and pick up a mixte sandwich (ham, cheese and butter in a baguette) and assorted pastries. Then, we took a short bus ride to Les Houches (pronounced like Lay Zoosh), took a cable car up to Bellevue and began our journey at the top. We would be passing the Bionnassay glacier and the Col du Tricot and ultimately reach the Valley of Les Contamines-Montjoie. “This is it,” I thought to myself. “No turning back.” Alex tied a piece of patterned cloth around his neck like a cowboy. The other girls teased that it looked like a scarf. He was adamant that it was a perfectly normal bandana.

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Alex: “Phew! Was anyone else a little nervous crossing that bridge?”
Girls: “Um…no…?”
Alex: “Oh, yea…me neither…”
Girls: “Yea, and it’s a bandana, not a scarf.”

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I’m amazed to this day that I hiked around Mont Blanc with 12 awesome people and an amazing tour leader. Sometimes, I wonder, ‘How did I get so lucky?’ Looking back at these photos two months later, I can’t help but feel an itch to get out there again. Anywhere. But, then I’d have to quit the very job that helps to finance these trips. Are there any venture capitalists out there who want to invest in my happiness? In return, you will feel happy that you made my life far better and, I say that’s more valuable than making that pasture of a bank account greener. Nobody? Oh. I’ll think of a better sales pitch later.

On one of the steep rocky climbs, we ran into a group of Americans with southern accents hiking in the opposite direction.

Southern man: “Did you just come from Less Hooches?”
Us: “Yes, we came from LAY ZOOSH.”

It’s times like this when I understand why people abroad think Americans are ignorant. If that man was talking to me back in the states prior to his trip, then I wouldn’t think anything of it. But given that you were already in France talking about destinations along the hike with local people and have heard the real pronunciations, shouldn’t you embrace the local language and at the very least try to pronounce it correctly? Yes, maybe the town had “less hooches” but dude, no.

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Wasim (the 2nd from the left) is an interesting fellow. During our first meeting with Clare back at Chamonix, he asked questions like an overly eager nerdy front row college freshman. He admitted himself that he talks too much and very loudly, then proceeded to give us permission to tell him to ‘shut up.’ He also told way too many jokes. Given that introduction…at this particular spot, he claimed that he had some really cool poses that he wanted us to do at certain photo op’s. The first one was to be one-legged. Since we all had just met the day before, we decided to go along to keep him appeased. What I came to later realize is that Wasim acts with the greatest of intentions, has an adventurous soul and has a hybrid ninja/monkey ability to climb large hills in the distance and come back to our resting spot before I even finished my first gulp of water. He even had the keenest sense of smell. He could smell a small pile of dung from a mile away and would suddenly ask if we saw any animals. In the beginning, we would say “What animals?” and sure enough we’d hear a herd of sheep coming up in the distance. He also constantly wore a long-sleeved shirt and long pants underneath a tracksuit to shield himself from the sun and bug bites. Swish. Swoosh. Swish. Swoosh. You always knew when he was nearby.

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To give you a taste of what each day was like, it usually involved about 4 hours of uphill and 4 hours of downhill. To further describe “uphill,” I mean serious thigh muscle usage over paths that were sometimes filled with medium-sized rocks that needed to be climbed over. I thanked SoulCycle multiple times in my head for preventing any leg soreness throughout the hike. The downhill, however, was a different story. By the middle of the week, I busted my right knee and had to buy some knee support at a local pharmacy during our rest day. On top of that, my hiking shoes were brand new prior to this hike, and the ankle portion of the shoes began to severely rub against my ankles. After the third day of hiking, I was slightly limping with my busted knee and swollen ankles. I also didn’t purchase a proper ergonomic hiking bag that evenly distributed the weight on your back. Instead, I used an everyday North Face that was only meant to be used for carrying school materials for short distances at a time. My shoulders were killing me by the end of the first day. And, because I usually only take medicine when absolutely necessary (aka near death), I held off on the Advil.

During the 4 hours of uphill, I may have cursed out the world enough to have to change my permanent residence to a confession booth to atone for my sins. My stamina is not what it used to be but, by the time I reached the ‘peak’ of the day, words couldn’t describe just how happy I was to be there, to see the view of the mountains. It’s like I didn’t remember a single moment of the ‘pain’ I went through to get there. This is what I hear giving birth is like – you push through unimaginable pain, then barely remember the 30+ hours of labor that you went through and start planning for the second child. Clare made sure we all paced ourselves so that we could all catch up to each other. She usually made us do a steep climb or downhill for about 15-20 minutes, gave us a meeting spot, had the fastest people wait for the rest of the group there and then repeated the cycle. There’s an English term “faff” which means to delay things or to waste time doing nothing. Being in France, Clare loosely translated this term into French as “le faffage” and that signified all those 5 minute breaks we took to zip off the bottom half of our hiking pants when it got too hot, fill up our water bottles from designated springs, take a sip of water, eat an energy bar and/or take a ‘wild wee.’ That is exactly what you think it means.

Around 1 or 2pm, we stopped at a refuge situated in a valley and ate the lunch we brought with us. The mixte sandwich, let me tell you, tasted like manna, the touch of God’s grace, the honey of the Roman gods. The bread, the butter, the ham, the cheese…all in perfect harmony.

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We passed through this small town during our hike. Clare suggested that we buy some ice cream, the one suggestion that turned all of us adults into eager children.

Wasim: “Make sure you don’t take photos of the roads here. Otherwise, your friends won’t believe you really went hiking in the mountains!”

It’s true though. There were roads, and this marked the first “out” for anyone who couldn’t take the hiking anymore…after just one day. The thought luckily never crossed any of our minds.

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Finally, we reached the refuge, Nant Borrant, where we were to stay the night. These refuges started out with local shepherds providing food and shelter to whoever was in need on the mountain and are typically run by generations within a family. With each refuge we stayed at, the routine became:

5-6pm: Arrive at the refuge. Unwind, find out which room you were assigned to, claim a bunk, then run for the shower before the line became too long. Each night, there were about 50-60 others staying at the refuge. The bunk beds were supplied with sheets, a pillow and comforter; however, these were infrequently washed so we were told to bring sleeping sheets or sleeping bag liners to shield us from whatever we needed to be shielded from (shudder). The showers were very basic but very clean. The ones here were the kind where you push a button, do your thing really quickly until the water stopped, push the button again and repeat. Electrical outlets were few and no wifi existed. (Photo credit: Nabeel)

Nabeel: “So, what’s the name of this refuge again? Nong Barrant, as in N-O-N-G?”
Me: “Um, that sounds more like Vietnamese to me.”

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7pm: Dinner. The dinner was served family style and were “basic” but, probably the best food to ever grace my tastebuds. Maybe it was the 8 hours of hiking, eating nothing but energy bars and a small lunch. Maybe it was the atmosphere. Either way, the food was amazing – a three course meal starting with vegetable soup, bread and local cheese, then sausage and potatoes and ending with a tart/pie for dessert. Oh yea, and did I mention there was wine? Even in bumblefrack Europe, you can find beer and wine. Ah, Europe, how I love you.

9pm: Sleep for most; more wine for me, Yuko, Nabeel, Clare et al. On the first night, we all went to bed early, thinking that this is something we needed to do. Six of us were bunked together in one room and the other six in another. But, I found myself lying there wide awake. The following nights, I made sure to not make this mistake again.

Clare: “I know it’s cold at night but, make sure you crack the window open before you go to sleep.”

The next morning, I left the room to use the bathroom. When I came back into the room, I walked into the thickest air filled with heat, humidity and extreme morning breath. Someone had shut the window. (Photo credit: Nabeel)

September 6 – 15, 2014: Trekking Mont Blanc
Estimated Hiking Time: 6hr 30min
Approximate Distance Hiked: 20 km
Elevation: Start 1801m; Highest 2500m; Finish 1450m

Business and pleasure

It’s 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius) here in NYC and, I literally just almost froze my eyeballs walking home from work. With the wind chill, the real feel is -12 °F (-25 °C). I’m considering wearing snowboard gear as work attire and having HR lecture me later. At least I’ll be reprimanded in warmth, with all limbs still attached and still functioning, eyeballs still able to roll readily in annoyance.

You can imagine how difficult it will be writing an entry about my end-of-summer getaway to Provence, when the sun didn’t set until late into the evening and when beads of sweat still formed despite wearing an airy sundress. I’m already falling into depression writing this preface. Please wait a moment while I cry frozen tears and slip in a Prozac with a double scotch.

Okay, I feel better now. And, warm.

Paris, France

It’s funny how certain events that you find initially devastating turn out to be necessary in improving the circumstances. After months of speculation that my old boss would quit, he finally broke the news to us after we had celebrated the completion of a major busy season. The news met very disappointed ears. But, after his departure, we cleaned out a lot of inefficiencies, became stronger technically and more outspoken, took on more leadership and grew closer as a group. My old boss is now living a happier life and everyone is in a better place, in a very fantastic nutshell.

One very specific perk was taking the place of my old boss in a business trip to Paris and Frankfurt back in September. All expenses paid business class flight and hotel room, complete with cloud-fluffy pillows and comforter. Traveling itself makes me feel alive but, something about traveling in Europe specifically makes me feel warm inside. It’s something that feels so innate to me. If only driving a car felt that way to me…baby steps, I suppose.

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(from top to bottom: in the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower (as if that wasn’t self-explanatory already), the Louvre as seen from the Jardin des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Shakespeare and Company)

I was lucky to have caught Paris on one gorgeously sunny day and three semi-sunny days. Since I’ve already been here a few times, my list of to-do’s was short and sweet:

– Walk around aimlessly
– Eat anything that involves baguettes, croissants and/or foie gras.
– And, macarons. From local bakeries, not Ladurée.
– Monet’s water lily murals at Musée de l’Orangerie
– Shakespeare and Company bookstore
– Catch up with my friend Grace who was living there at the time
– Meet my friends Liz & Hyung (who were in town for vacation) for dinner at Le Tir Bouchon and drink lots of wine. Lots. It felt like we were just casually meeting up in NYC. But, no. We were wining and dining in Paris, bitches!
– More baguettes.

Aix-en-Provence

I will skip Frankfurt for now and fast forward. At the close of the business segment of the trip, I took a few extra days for myself to unravel, meditate and just plain have fun.

Note that if you’re taking a train into Aix, there are 2 separate train stations within Aix which are not connected to each other. If you’re coming in directly from Paris, you will most likely be arriving in the Aix-en-Provence TGV station from which you can take bus line 40 into the city center (about a 15 min ride). You can find the bus stop all the way down below the main level of the train station (follow the signs with the bus icon), in a small area that seems to run off the highway. A one way ride cost about 3.80 EUR and is payable on the bus. I believe this bus also takes you to the airport. If you’re going back to the Aix-en-Provence TGV station from the city center, the bus station is where you were dropped off on the way in. You can find a link to the timetable here.

The second train station is called Aix-en Provence (without the ‘TGV’ at the end). This train goes directly into the city center but really only travels locally (short distance) within the region (e.g. Marseille, Cassis).

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Place du General de Gaulle, with a nearby tourist office that seemed modernized and newly renovated.

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Walking down Cours Mirabeau, with its many restaurants and high-end shops. Most of the restaurants along this street are tourist traps. For better choices, venture into your left (back facing the fountain at Place du General de Gaulle), towards Place Forum des Cardeurs (pictured below).

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Aix is definitely the place to walk around aimlessly and is the epitome of ‘quaint.’ Big enough to offer good shopping and good eats, and small enough to feel like you’ve escaped the overly modernized big city. You’ll find an assortment of shops selling fragrant hand soaps, sauces, jams and honey (particularly lavender honey). Don’t need any more soaps? You will make a need. Have no more space for jars of jam and honey in your pantry? You will realize that those jars are, indeed, stackable.

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The view of the church, walking towards Musée Granet from the ticket office.

I spent at least a half hour walking around in circles trying to find this museum using the map. It literally looked like it was placed in some unknown gray-shaded area, enclosed by other buildings, reachable only by believing in Willy Wonka, Santa and the tooth fairy. After a few attempts, I ended up finding a private office of the museum down rue Roux Alpheran, a parallel street, and had to make my way back to rue d’Italie to start again. Finally, I made my way down rue Cardinale towards Église Saint-Jean-de-Malte (a church) and found the museum situated adjacent to it. Thanks Mr. Wonka! I will make sure to purchase more gobstoppers in your honor.

The ticket office is in a separate office further down rue Cardinale (a 5 min walk away). I was able to catch the “From Cézanne to Matisse” exhibit which made the whole confusion of a morning worthwhile. Hooray for leg exercise?

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Hotel tip: I recommend Hôtel Artea Aix. It was close to the tourism office and, given that most hotel rooms in Europe are small, this one felt pretty spacious. I also had a little balcony where I could sit and relax.

Since the season for visiting lavender fields had passed, the only things on my agenda were to visit vineyards and a beach, emphasis on the former. I was a little worried about finding a local wine tour as a solo traveler. Then I googled “Provence wine tours,” and wham bam the first listing is http://www.provencewinetours.com/, the wording down to a T. The second listing is a link to TripAdvisor, showing 5 stars and a total of 200+ reviews. Sold! Easy peasy, pizza extra cheesy.

Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence & Luberon, France

I booked a half-day trip on a Saturday afternoon to 2 vineyards. A group of us met our tour guide, Marie-Noëlle, at the tourist office in Aix after which she took us to a large minivan and drove us through the gorgeous scenery of Provence. I know I probably mentioned a few other golden days in previous entries but, I have to say, this was one reallllly golden day. Like, really really. A leprechaun must’ve tripped and shattered his pot of golden delights, and the wind must’ve scattered said delights all about the region. Yes, that’s what most likely happened. There is no other possible explanation.

With a smile plastered on my face, I couldn’t help but just stare out the window as we coasted through verdant hillsides and endless vineyards. Throughout the tour, Marie talked about the wine regions and the different wines they produced in great detail and in her perfectly understood English. I can see why this tour company received so many 5-star reviews.

1. Château Vignelaure (in Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence)

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The owners are very much into artwork and have made sure that each room was adorned with at least one piece.

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Provence is mainly known for their production of white wines and rosés and, as a red wine person, I’ve found new respect for these wines, particularly for rosés. For some reason, I always associated rosés with cheapness and cloying sweetness. However, the rosés from Provence seem to be on the dry side and still very refreshing. If you’re more into the sweetness of, let’s say, a Riesling, then these wines are probably not for you.

2. Château La Dorgonne (in Luberon)

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I bought a bottle of truffle olive oil which I’m sure was the ketchup of the Greek gods. You can’t have any.

Cassis

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I squeezed in a day trip to Cassis, which was about an hour train ride from the Aix-en-Provence station (no ‘TGV’ at the end) with a brief layover in Marseille. From the train station in Cassis, you can take a bus into the center (about a 10-15 min ride, depending on how many stops it makes) which cost only a few euros. A bus was already waiting outside when I exited the train station (this was early September). However, I decided to walk to the center since the weather and scenery were gorgeous. I walked on a tree-lined path alongside vineyards at the pace of a stroll. It probably took me about a half hour to get to the city center, and some practice, practice, practice (music reference).

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Once I reached the harbor, I bought a ticket at a nearby booth for a 45-min boat excursion to see the coves along the coastline (les calanques) for 15 EUR. I chose the shorter ride to see 3 coves due to the interest of time. There are longer boat ride options that take you to see either 5 or 8 coves but, some reviews I’ve read were that it was too long especially since the commentary from the guide was mostly in French. On the other hand, other people have enjoyed the relaxing nature of the longer rides so, it’s all personal preference. I was the only English speaker on the boat and, the guide tried his best to squeeze at least one English sentence per cove. I found his struggle so cute because he genuinely wanted me to understand something, especially since he’d run out of brochures translated in English. He gave me one in Spanish which I still greatly appreciated.

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All in all, the coves were beautiful and the boat ride was pure relaxation for me. I love to sit and stare out into the endless sea. On this particular day, the winds were a bit strong and the boat swayed against a few large waves, spraying the salt water onto the deck and passengers. I loved it. But, maybe not for the faint in stomach. Keep in mind that I thoroughly enjoy turbulence on airplane rides.

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After the boat ride, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the small town, drinking a few glasses of rosé along the harbor and relaxing on the beach, Plage de la Grande Mer (next to the harbor). The water was a beautiful aquamarine and it lured my feet onto its edges until it shocked my system with its icy temperatures. I saw one couple count to 3 and jump in together, only to pop back out with shrieks and chattering teeth. That vicarious experience was enough for moi!

I wanted to stay in Cassis for dinner and eat the delicious seafood at La Vieille Auberge, a family-owned restaurant which was recommended on another website as a place where locals eat. However, I had to wait an extra 1-2 hours for the restaurants to open, and as a solo traveler, the thought of making sure that I don’t miss the last bus on my way back to the train station (or, I’d have to walk in mostly darkness), laying over in Marseille close to midnight for a half hour, and reaching the Aix-en-Provence station at midnight (the area around it looked pretty shady) was daunting to me. I choose safety first.

Frankfurt, Germany

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I didn’t get to spend much time in Frankfurt. Although there really isn’t much to see, I’ve eaten some really great food here – wiener schnitzel at Oscar’s and really great Italian food. I don’t remember the Italian restaurant but, from what I hear, Frankfurt has some of the best Italian cuisine in the world. Who knew? Above is the view from the office.

“Manger ma baguette!”

Paris, France

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Can you guess what this is? If not, then you are way too sheltered and need to open up an encyclopedia for the letter E. I remember the first time my friends and I saw the Eiffel Tower (I just gave you the answer), we all exclaimed “OMG! Wowww!” as we were munching on baguettes that we bought from the first bakery we laid eyes on outside Gare du Nord. I’m sure every passing Parisian rolled their eyes at us, just like how I feel about people marveling at the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building. It’s strange when something becomes a part of everyday life and all the great monuments start to fade into your background. Nowadays, I’m actually starting to re-notice everything about New York City and fall in love with it all over again…except maybe Times Square.

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I’ve been to the Louvre 3 times and I still don’t think I’ve covered everything. It’s the same way I feel about the Met. Once, I tried to cover a majority of the museum only to end up feeling low on sugar and desperate for a snack to recover from the fatigue. I didn’t really start appreciating the Louvre until maybe the third visit, though. I wasn’t big on museums back in the teens/early 20’s but, now, I definitely enjoy walking around and examining different pieces of artwork. This appreciation for the Louvre might’ve gotten a boost from reading The Da Vinci Code. Who knows.

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I’m getting Seine-timental over this photo. See what I did there??? Huh?? Huh?!?!

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The above 2 photos is actually from my Mont Blanc trip back in September when I stopped in Paris before heading to Chamonix. I’ve been meaning to visit the Centre Pompidou in previous trips but, always ran out of time. I must admit, a lot of the exhibits were too modern for me. It’s still worth a visit, though I’d say skip it if you’re only in town for a short time. The architecture of the building itself definitely screams “HELLO THERE! YEA, I’M TALKING TO YOU! I’M A MUSEUM!!” which I actually like. I’m sure there are locals who think it is an eyesore (I think I read it somewhere also) but, what do you expect from a modern art museum? The view from the Pompidou is amazing. You can see the Sacré-Cœur and Eiffel Tower in the distance at different angles. In conclusion, though, I say my favorite museum in Paris is still the Musée d’Orsay.

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I never knew the High Line in NYC was inspired by the Le Promenade Plantée in Paris. Since I’ve already seen the major sights, I googled other things to see in this city and came upon this park built on an old railway track. It had already been in existence for 10+ years and is still in pretty good condition. It’s a great place for a run or to take an aimless stroll. The High Line, in my humble opinion, is much nicer and more interesting. I’m not just saying this because I’m a New Yorker. The High Line has views of the Hudson River on one side and views of NYC’s skyline on the other. There is also a portion with an eating area and food carts, and you basically start at the Meatpacking District and go through Chelsea, 34th Street and 42nd Street. The Promenade had beautiful views of classic Parisian architecture but, that was pretty much it.

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Usually, when you see a chapel, church or cathedral on a list of things to see, you tend to let out a sigh and say “okay, fine. I’ll go see it.” After you visit your first one, the others tend to look the same. The detail in the Sainte-Chapelle, however, is so overwhelming that it is actually breathtaking. I could probably sit there for a good hour just staring, though I may start to think I was hallucinating from all the colors.

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I love the area around Sacré-Cœur where many local artists come to sell their artwork. I was tempted to buy a painting but, the prices were (and still are) crazy high for most of them. Instead, I bought an overpriced hot chocolate at a corner cafe. I still win.

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And, of course, this is Sacré-Cœur. It’s beautiful on the outside. The inside, however, is just like what you see in any other Roman Catholic church.

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I read a review in The New York Times about this bakery, Du Pain et Des Idées. I woke up around 5:30am to get here before catching my early flight home, and walked out with a paper bag full of bread and pastries cradled in my arms. I was more protective of that bag than my own purse. Even though I was still half asleep, it was worth coming here before the morning rush. All the pastries were still warm and soft, not too long out of the oven. My favorite was the escargot chocolat pistache. Actually, my favorite was the plain baguette. SCRUMPTIOUS.

To end this entry on a jolly note, the title of this entry is inspired by a condom wrapper that I saw in a gift shop (yes, a normal souvenir shop). It had a photo of a Frenchman in a beret and a shirt striped black and white, holding a baguette in a diagonal. Yea, you know what I mean.

Hotel tip: If cost isn’t an issue, then I recommend Hotel La Trémoille. I only stayed here on a business trip, meaning it was paid for by my company. Otherwise, if you’re usually budget-conscious like me, then I recommend Hôtel Albe Bastille, a hotel where I stayed because it was decently close to Gare de Lyon and I needed to catch an early morning train. Every time I have an early morning train or flight or, if I’m arriving late into Paris, I make sure to book a hotel nearby the station (Gare du Nord, Gare de Lyon, Gare de Bercy, etc.) so that I wouldn’t be stuck with a closed metro and taking an expensive cab ride.

Bizznazz trip, week two

Chantilly, France

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I ended up working until 3am on Friday night and needed to leave early that night to make it in time for the wine tour in Tours the next morning. I had to scratch that. Then, I woke up way too late on Saturday morning when I needed to leave at the asscrack of dawn to make it in time to enjoy Dijon. I had to scratch that, too. I sound like a cat…or a person with eczema with all this scratching. My final verdict was to shop around Paris and meander around Chantilly.

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Chateau de Chantilly

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Around the castle and through the painting gallery

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Bizznazz trip

Scheduler at work: Hi Christine, are you still available to go to Rotterdam for this engagement?
Me: Umm, YEAAAA!!??

And thus, began my first trip to Europe via business class. Earlier in the week, I was sulking about not being able to afford a trip to Europe this year. And here I was, booking extremely expensive flights. For awhile, I couldn’t fathom the situation. Me, poor. Business class. Executive suite at the Westin. HUH?

On top of that, I’ve always wanted to travel abroad by myself. It was just me, sitting in my sweatshirt and jeans in business class, drinking orange juice in a champagne glass, pressing my face against the window wondering when we’ll takeoff and playing with the recliner function in my chair. Recline, reverse recline. Leg rest up, leg rest down. Buzzzzz.

Then I look over to my left, and there was a mid-aged man, in semi-business casual, fiddling with his blackberry. I could’ve passed as his teenage daughter, except he wasn’t Asian. So, uh, adopted daughter.

Nevertheless, I felt something I haven’t felt in awhile. Thankful to be alive. I love New York, but you have no idea how much it has desensitized me. It felt soo good to be able to breathe.

Rotterdam, the Netherlands

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Ladies and gentleman, thank you for joining this tour where you’ll experience an overview of Rotterdam’s main sights. Over to the left here is the Erasmus Bridge stretching across Nieuwe Maas River. It was completed in 1996, and nicknamed “the swan.” And now, you’ve reached the end of our tour. Please watch your step as you exit the bus. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy your stay in Rotterdam.

Surprisingly though, I’ve had some amazing food in this city. I had THE most authentic Chinese food I’ve ever tasted (Tai Wu), really awesome Indonesian food, and drank THE most deeeelicious wine (Tignanello, Solaia, and a third one I can’t remember at Rosso).

The city isn’t the most impressive, but the E&Y office there is pretty amazing. When I walked into the lobby, I thought I was in a hotel. There were seating areas with cushioned chairs, sculptures, and a huge panda mascot for the Beijing Olympics standing next to reception. The ivory carpeting seemed to be made of some innovative material. When working late at night, I saw the janitorial staff (or, the PC term – custodial engineers) cleaning the carpet with some high tech machine that sprayed a quick-drying cleaning liquid. Back in New York, the carpeting is dark gray with, I think, some multi-colored dots sprinkled throughout. Translation – the colors cover up just how dirty it probably is, especially since the carpeting is never shampooed…only vacuumed.

Enough about the office. Snooze! We worked until about 10-11pm every night, but we got weekends off. I was only supposed to be there for a week, but it was extended another 1.5 weeks. So I went to France both weekends I was there.

Blois, France

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This city is about a 1.5 hour train ride from Paris, and located in the Loire Valley. Very small and cute of a town. For breakfast, I had a croissant, small french baguette and freshly brewed black coffee. That alone made me feel delightful. In other words, FREAKING HAPPY!

Chenonceaux

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Traveling by yourself can be so…peaceful. It felt like freedom in every sense of the word. That guy to the right was also traveling by himself (after close observation, not stalking). I felt like giving him a high five, but instead I’m posting a picture of his backside and giving him props in my blog. Go you! Ha…

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Welcome to my homely abode. I mean, to the castle I paid an entrance fee to get into.

It is the only castle in the Loire Valley region to be built over a river.

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Diane de Poitiers’ (mistress of Henri II) bedroom. You get taken care of and your own space in the castle, and you have your occasional nighttime escapades. Sounds like a nice arrangement, no?

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Estampes exhibition room – a collection of drawings and engravings of Chenonceau.

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Inside the Chateau de Chenonceau, the windows were open in every room and everywhere I looked, there were different kinds of flowers fully bloomed in bright colors and fragrances. It had rained much earlier in the day, and by the time I arrived, it was just sunshine and breezes all around me. I personified the Chateau in my mind, and visualized it breathing as I explored inside it. Sun, breeze, flowers, history. Inhale. Exhaaaale.

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The corridor with the checkered floors is the part of the Chateau that’s built over the river, La Cher. Looking out of one of the windows, you see the winding river lined with trees whose leaves glittered with light reflecting from the water.

Can you believe that this hallway was a hospital during World War I?

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The Chateau dipping its legs in the water.

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Looking over from Diane de Poitiers’ garden…

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…and then, from Catherine de Medici’s garden.

Hors d’oeuvres! Uh, I mean au revoir.