Climbing Chamonix


The Mont-Blanc Express, though tiny, proved to be just enough train to get to Chamonix. The skiing village was just one of many that dotted the valley with the same name. From the ground the valley looked like it were gently cupped by the fingers of the Aiguilles de Chamonix and the palm of the Alps. My adventure pal Mackenzie and I got in just as the sun set, but the lack of light and excess of fog made Chamonix look like a blue ghost town, a few months before skiing season. We couldn’t see just how high the mountains climbed, as 100 meters from the ground they disappeared into the fog. The next morning out of our skylight, it seemed like we had been transported somewhere new; the October sun evaporated the evening’s haze, lending blue skies and an incredible view of Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in the Alps and Europe.


Our 6€ map in hand, we set out to hike up the Aigullette des Posettes, a day hike with medium terrain–just enough to get by with careful walking, but could involve a bit of climbing. After taking the Mont-Blanc Express to the La Tour stop, we found another ghost town at midday. The train disappeared into the mountain, so we followed signs near the parking lot and began to climb.

I would consider myself to be relatively athletic, but in no way would I think to own walking sticks or a pair of crampons–those shoes that make it look like you’re walking on the bellies of porcupines. I took more breaks than I’d care to admit, but it very well could have been the increasing altitude and the deceptive cool mountain air against the bright sun and my fast-exhausting body. When we began, the tree cover kept the rocks cool and we walked on a spongy carpet of pine needles. But as we climbed (and stopped) and climbed (and stopped), the trees thinned and we could start to see the peaks around us and the valley below. We passed by more experienced hikers with walking sticks and high-altitude smiles. Their reinforced vigor in marching their way down the mountain could have been due to gravity helping them, or more likely the knowledge of our “we’re almost to the top” mentality versus their “you’re not even close.”


I thought we had reached the top several times. But after pushing my panting body, nearly moving by hand each leg up to the “peak,” I would see several more meters of trail left and another peak to surpass. A metaphor for life, perhaps. Or just the showings of a really bothersome trail.

Once our eyes could see over the top of the last trees, we took another rest on a rock clearing and couldn’t stop saying, “It’s so beautiful!” while grabbing the sides of our faces in awe.

We reached the top about five times; every promising peak revealed another feat to overcome. Some snow hidden under a twiggy bush kept us motivated for the last haul. I felt a sun burn grill onto my nose. My thighs, back, fingers ached and longed for the hot tub that bubbled in anticipation for us back at the hotel. But our heads were literally in the clouds. All around us were mountains—we’re equals. And when we finally made it to the cold, quiet top of the peak, we sat eating our trail snacks with the most beautiful view.

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We stayed on the top for about 20 minutes because the sun was setting and there were black birds swooping down and perching close to greet us. Some were tagged, which made me think that they’d learned that interacting with humans meant a reward. Our way down was more of a sprint—racing the fast-disappearing sun and succumbing to gravity like our fellow hikers had earlier in the day. I would have rolled down if I could.


The next day we decided to do a shorter, easier hike near Mer de Glace (Glacier Bossons). Like most of our assumptions so far, we were wrong. This hike was not any easier nor did the sharp and constant incline and our inability to find signs (making our own trail directly into the glacier—probably not allowed) made it longer. To get to the trailhead, we took the Mont-Blanc Express in the opposite, southwestern direction and walked up a steep, paved road for about half a mile. When we did see a trail sign pointing into the forest, we stopped and stretched—something we didn’t do the day before. This trail, however, appeared to be in the middle of a tree-chopping expedition. A construction clearing of broken twigs and shredded mulch wasn’t quite the trail views we had in mind, but we ducked into the forest cover and followed the sound of water until we found the glacier.


And what a glacier it was–or wasn’t, rather. I suppose you could thank global warming for that. I could some semblance of what a glacier looked like to me–a white and blue heap of ice–if I squinted all the way to the top of the peak. We heard shouts of encouragement from people at the glacier’s designated viewing point. We tried climbing up the loose, steep rocks right into the belly of the valley, but the glacier seemed to get no closer. It became dizzying just how steep the rocks were and my options for safe footing became less and less, so we called it a good enough effort and headed back to walk along the glacial rivers in town.


The preferred method to get to the Alps’ peaks–and the most expensive–is taking the Aiguille du Midi up to the viewing point for Mont Blanc. We were headed out to Geneva that day, so I wore a dress and leggings before our last-minute excursion to the top. Who knew taking a 10-minute gondola ride could yield such a drastic drop in temperature? I shivered in my sneakers but it was well worth the effort. There isn’t a bad view in sight.



Versailles, Frozen in Time


The massive flux of tourists through the golden gates of Versailles kept me in the 21st century. They twisted themselves at all angles around the gold-plated house with selfie sticks that protruded from themselves like go-go-gadget arms. Salesmen were exiled outside of the gates, peddling those same selfie sticks and polyester scarves and miniature Eiffel Towers. I wondered what Louis XIV would have thought of the display of commoners on his grounds.


The blunt change from the click of cobblestone to the crunch of gravel under my feet transported me to the time of Versailles’ height. Walking through the perfectly manicured and symmetrical gardens, I felt every misshapen pebble under my sole thanks to a pair of poorly made shoes. Yet I couldn’t help but smile, even with overcast skies, as the theme from Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette” played in my head.

Walking does get old after a while, since the grounds are 8 million square feet. A preferred alternative is riding bikes from the canal to the Trianons and hameau, Marie Antoinette’s commissioned farming village just a 10-minute walk from her Petit Trianon.

I again tried to imagine what it would be like to spend my days roaming the grounds without a care, or a bike. I’m sure, until the end of Versailles and the beginning of the revolution, it was a piece of cake.

La Première Fois que J’ai Vue Paris…(or The First Time I Saw Paris…)


The first time I saw Paris I was too entranced by the romance of the wrought-iron terraces to realize that the taxi was circling l’Arc de Triomphe. I was in an overwhelmed daze.

Seeing for the first time the things I had watched in movies and read in textbooks–the wrought-iron terraces and the perfectly hedged parks and the century-old ‘Metropolitan’ signs–was unreal. The magic of Paris that absolves everyone of all other thoughts and worries soon transgressed my mind and I let Paris move me.

But when descending from the clouds I was sick with fits, suddenly realizing that I would really be on my own, leaving everyone I loved for months. I’m the kind of person that yearns for adventure but relishes the comfort of sameness. Some things would stay the same, but everything else would change forever, for better or worse–it’s too soon to tell. I wouldn’t come back the same. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me sooner.


I used to tell myself that I’d dreamed of France–of Paris–for so long that I had forgot there was a whole entire world around me. I’d say it to myself when I would get dangerously fixated on something and needed to take a step back, or to remind myself of those guys who I had yet to realize weren’t worth my time. Or, of course, when in French class and I’d daydream of all the romantic qualities that I could one day surround myself with.

It would always be there, but there were so many other places to be, things to do, people to meet.

So I went to Japan, I went to Kenya, I went to Japan again. Each visit was special to me. In Japan I saw an old civilization both resistant and welcoming to fast-changing technology. In Kenya I learned where humans came from, found beauty in simplicity and begrudging dissent of the exploitation in forgotten corners. Each time the world made a little more sense and at the same time it drew a dozen more questions. Each time I touched back on American soil, I felt myself having changed.

Yet I still had to see France.

When you dream of something for so long, in that deep fixation that lingered in the back of my mind–like I had with Paris, with France, with my first real love–you can’t help but fall so hard and deeply. I’d dreamed of Paris for so long and it was finally here. At first the magic makes you ignore unsavory aspects. But slowly, the magic fades and you see it for what it is, and it might not embrace you like you wanted it to. What you thought no longer is and the come down feels like a betrayal of your dream.

Paris is for lovers in the sense that someone decided it so and couples from all corners of the earth gather. But what’s so romantic about cigarettes lining the sidewalks like a red carpet, or the metro drowning in the scent of piss?

Perhaps it’s someone else’s dream. As the subject of so many stories, so many paintings, films and fashion, there’s no way to see how it couldn’t draw someone in. But the first time I saw Paris…well, maybe after seeing it for the first time I’ll need to see it with these new, changed eyes now that I’m no longer dreaming.


5 Things I Learned from Shooting PFW Street Style

I only had 10 hours to spare on a special Wednesday in Paris, so I made the most of it figuring out how exactly Paris Fashion Week worked for photographers.

Maison Margiela was the only name I’d recognized on the schedule for Day 2. I’m not totally inept of bigger fashion names like Céline, Dior, and of course Chanel. But if anything, someone I knew had to appear outside of a show, right?

I made it my mini-mission to find Kanye West (let’s call it my Kanye Kuest) outside of the Margiela show. I mean, he did sing/rap about it on the Jay-Z collaboration album Watch the Throne (which may or may not have been the way I found out about this label) and he loves Paris and fashion, so why wouldn’t he be there?

1st Thing I Learned: Know For Certain Where You’re Going

This should be a given. The Mode à Paris website finalizes the fashion week schedule a week before the events start. I saw Palais de Tokyo listed on the site, Maison Margiela started at 11 a.m. I thought I was good to go.


I showed up to Palais de Tokyo about a half hour before the show was to start, yet no one was there. I headed to Jardin de Tuileries to bury my frustrations in the oval Monet rooms at Musée l’Orangerie when I stumbled upon hoards of photographers near the museum. By sheer luck, I caught the crowd leaving the Margiela show as well as some models still boasting John Galliano’s hair and makeup visions.


Long story short: if there’s a designer/crowd you want to see, search Google for the exact address more in-depth than I did (like my new friend Raphael told me, pictured below). Paris is huge and the shows don’t take place in one spot.

And unfortunately, my Kanye Kuest was unsuccessful.

2nd Thing I Learned: Don’t Be Shy!

This relates to two things: dressing the part and getting the shot.

If you don’t want your photo taken, take a cue from photographers around the world and wear all black (you’ll look French, too). This is more for the professionals–photojournalists shouldn’t be the news–or if you just don’t want to stand out.

But if you’re in it just for the excitement, exchanging pictures between you and (the few) dressed up photographers could be fun! And you could end up on someone’s fashion blog, not just from lurking in the background of someone’s shot like I absolutely did. Try wearing something crazy to get noticed—wearing a trendy grunge-esque outfit (like I did) just won’t cut it. Wear bright colors or bold patterns, bring heels (and pack some flats—you don’t want to be walking around Paris and destroy your feet), or add some volume to your outfit. The quirkier (but still stylish), the better!

With that being said, photographers at fashion week have their eyes peeled like vultures searching for roadkill. They’re looking for that oomph in their shot, and it’s usually people dressed to the nines or wearing something insanely extravagant for the middle of the day (or, ya know, they’re famous). Some photographers aren’t afraid to cut in front of your shot to get theirs, and if a celebrity is stepping out of a shiny black Mercedes, you will probably get pushed out of the way (don’t do these!). Be fearless and confident in getting that shot, but remember etiquette and don’t be a jerk.

Not everyone dressed up is attending the show—they’re just hoping for their chance to be featured in fashion blogs or news. If they don’t seem busy, ask them to look at your camera for that classic fashion week shot, or ask them to pose in a certain nearby area that has better lighting—even if you just have a point-and-shoot, people at fashion week love having their photo taken. Trade business cards if you can! Don’t beat around the bush, because everyone there knows that if you’re dressed up, your picture is likely to be taken.

3rd Thing I Learned: Wide Angle Lenses are your Friend—Probably

Of course, having a DSLR is your best bet for great fashion week photos. Smartphones are wonderful for easy social media uploading and point-and-shoots will do the trick, but nothing beats that depth of field.

I noticed people shooting with a variety of lenses—35 mm prime lens, 70-200mm zoom, and lenses that I probably can’t even afford to look at. I stuck with my Vivitar 35-105mm film lens because I’ve been using it for the past two weeks in Paris and it’s been good to me so far. My other choice would have been to use my 50mm because it actually has autofocus, but personally I wanted to have a wide angle in case I was stuck in one spot and my subject was close.

Bryan Gray Yambao, left, also known as fashion blogger Bryanboy, exits the Rochas show at Palais de Tokyo on Wednesday, September 30, 2015. Before entering the show and putting out his cigarette, I overheard him asking his friend “why are there so many people out here? What do they take pictures of?”

I stumbled. I made some gaffs. I took only blurry photos of fast-moving, important people. So, it depends on what you’re most comfortable shooting at fast-paced events. If you like getting super close to the action, a prime lens is probably your best bet. If your fingers are quick to focus on moving objects, go for it. Some people like to linger and have their photo taken, where others dip into the show 5 minutes before it starts and probably figure out a back exit. After a few go’s, you’ll figure it out. I’m sure I will, too.

4th Thing I Learned: If You’re Not Sure, Take a Picture Anyway!

I saw the same photographer take a picture of my friend’s purse at least twice at the same venue—better to have the shot than not at all.

If you’re just starting out and worried that you won’t know who the hell any of these people are, take their picture regardless! If photographers are going bananas over someone, you can probably look them up later or ask one of the photographers. If they’re not as well known but still look awesome, take their picture and ask who they are. It’s good to have their name and what they’re wearing, and maybe a link to their own blog or Instagram.

If Hemingway says Paris is a moveable feast, then I say fashion week a conveyor-belt buffet. There’s so many things to see and so much going on at once–if you think you have something but don’t, it’s probably too late.


5th Thing I Learned: Practice is Key

The waiting game outside of Maison Margiela.

If you’re frustrated with your photos, good thing there’s a whole week you can practice, practice, practice! There’s a lot of waiting around, too, so you’ll have time to learn what works, what doesn’t, and perhaps that popular model’s name in order to ask her/him for an mini photo session between shows.

Bonne chance!


Being near Paris doesn’t sound as dreamy as living inside the bustling city, but getting to live authentically in France for seven months teaching English (with plenty of chances to travel on school breaks) is more than I could have asked for. With Près de Paris, I’ll document my adventures with photos and prose about my time here.