There comes a moment in every long journey when you look in the mirror and face the fact that you’re overdue for a haircut. Perhaps a soupçon of gray is showing where it shouldn’t. Possibly your faux hawk is beginning to flop, your bob is becoming a blob, or your undercut is growing out over your ears. But how do you find a good hairstylist in an unknown city when you don’t speak a word of the language?
I've taken many trips abroad extensive enough to require salon visits, with mixed results. (For stories about Hemingway's barber, and Spanish friends staging an intervention about my hair, see Taking Your Hair on the Road.) My early mistakes have taught me some valuable lessons about ways you can improve your chances of achieving the look you want – or at least of avoiding total disaster.
1. Lower your standards. If you’ve spent years having your hair styled exclusively at the hottest salons in New York or London, chances are you’re going to have to settle for something a bit less über-trendy on the road. As a frequent traveler, I find it convenient to wear my hair simply, just long enough to pull back in a ponytail, with bangs that, in a pinch, I can trim myself. It’s not super swanky, but it’s easy to maintain and keeps me looking well groomed at least most of the time.
2. Use Google to find a nearby cluster of hair salons. Fashionable areas attract more and better hairstylists, making it easy for you to stroll around and check out several before making your selection. Look for cleanliness, gorgeous (or at least acceptable) hairstyles on those walking out the door, and stylists who are chic without being terrifyingly peculiar about it.
3. Make sure the hair stylist is sober before you get started. A friend in the Republic of Georgia once took me to her stylist, said to be the best around. When we arrived to find him drunk, she explained he was never sober, but that didn’t affect his ability to cut hair. True, but his judgment and ability to listen were impaired, and in the blink of an eye I had something akin to a buzz cut. I hated that cut, although I have to admit it was easy to maintain.
4. Tell them what you want, even if you have to use pantomime. Let’s face it, they already know you’re there to talk about hair, not the future of the euro or the special effects in World War Z. Simple hand gestures are usually sufficient to convey the general idea. A few months ago I walked into a salon in Krakow, Poland, and made little snipping motions indicating I wanted to remove half an inch off my bob, then pointed to my gray roots. The stylist got right to work and did a lovely job. OK, the brown was a half shade darker than ideal, and the bangs a trifle shorter, but the look was smart and stylish and we parted with mutual gratitude and appreciation.
5. Sometimes, pick a place just for fun. On a back street Genoa’s old center, my husband and I discovered a tiny barbershop filled with Art Deco glass and opera music. The barber was about to close up but kindly agreed to trim Rich’s hair. Using nothing electric or fancy, just a simple pair of scissors and a comb, he snipped away, humming along with the gorgeous exuberance of the drinking song from Verdi’s La Traviata. Another time, in Sofia, Bulgaria, Rich visited an upmarket salon where the staff, without a word of English, managed to convey the message that this was so much more than a haircut, it was a hair experience. In both cases, Rich got a great cut and a treasured memory.
6. Remember, hair does grow out. As I learned in Georgia, even a worst-ever coiffeur isn’t the end of the world. I once met a woman who told me she’d had a haircut in Boston that was so hideous that not only was there no question of her paying for it, but the stylist offered to give her free haircuts for an entire year in compensation. (She did not take the stylist up on the offer. Go figure.) Chances are you’ll never, ever get a cut that bad, no matter where you go. If you do, buy a hat. And with any luck, your hair will grow out fast enough to let you try one more stylist on the road before you head for home.
I've finally given in to the temptation to start posting some of my best photos on Pinterest. Come see my boards:
The Well-Groomed Traveler
Quirky Seville, Spain
“You’re getting a Christmas tree?” Spanish friends used to say, with such incredulity that I might as well have announced we were building an igloo in our living room. “A live tree? Really?”
“Where are you getting a tree?” expat friends would ask, eyeing us a trifle suspiciously, as if we had a direct line to Santa’s workshop and had been keeping it to ourselves.
That was a few years ago, when árboles de Navidad were a complete novelty here in Seville, known only from American movies and indulged in exclusively by a few foreigners who had enchufe (pull) with the local florist or a friend with a farm and an axe. The only ornaments available were from Chinese bazaars, made of sturdy plastic and hand painted in such a slapdash manner that the angels often had expressions ranging from quizzical to downright satanic (rendering them doubly useful as Halloween decorations). Today, holiday trees are common in larger shops and a few avant-garde households. Even homeowners tend to decorate them like the ones in movie department stores, with matching, evenly spaced ornaments of a single color. So far I’ve never seen a Spanish tree with a lopsided ornament made by a kindergartener out of dry pasta and old bottle caps, and I think the trees are the poorer for that.
While Christmas trees are slowly gaining traction here, buying a good one is still far from easy. Cheap artificial trees are readily available in discount stores, but to Rich and me, it just isn’t Christmas without a fresh fir like the ones we used to know as kids. A few local florists stock spindly three-foot trees — more like shrubs, really — that come with their roots in balls of dirt and their limbs so dry we can only assume they were dug up well ahead of time, say in June.
Even so, a couple of years ago we were thrilled to find one at the florist’s kiosk in our neighborhood and carried it home in triumph. Two nights later a windstorm swept through the city and, due to an open window, right through our apartment. In the morning we found our tree sprawled on the floor in a manner so corpselike, I looked for a chalk outline. When we stood it upright, the branches came but the needles — all of them — stayed on the floor, leaving us holding a bundle of dead sticks. We ran out and bought more garlands to wrap around the pitiful remnant, and with considerable effort and expense, we managed to create something that looked like a cockeyed, patchy artificial tree. People kept remarking, “I thought you said you bought a live tree.”
While decent árboles de Navidad may be in short supply, Seville is blessed with an abundance of Nativity scenes. Here in Catholic Spain, they’re de rigueur in government buildings, banks, stores, and private homes as well as churches. The bigger scenes nearly always include, somewhere in the background, a tiny crouched caganer who is clearly, explicitly defecating; they say it’s to add a touch of earthy realism. If you’re thinking of adding one to your seasonal decorations, you can find online vendors offering a wide selection of caganer figurines with well-known faces including Bruce Springsteen, Kate Middleton, Albert Einstein, Rodin’s the Thinker, the Queen of Spain, Bart Simpson, Darth Vader, the Three Kings, Santa, and many, many more.
Holiday traditions provide reassurance that whatever madness is currently abroad in the world, some things will roll around every year with comforting predictability. In December, Rich and I will have a holiday tree, with or without needles. American kindergarteners will bring home lopsided ornaments made from a motley collection of incongruous objects. And in countless reverently staged Nativity scenes throughout Spain, little caganer figures will be crouched in the shadows behind the stable, adding an earthy touch to the awesome moment, reminding us that we don’t have to be perfect to be part of something wonderful.
Parts of this post were drawn from my book Dancing in the Fountain: How to Enjoy Living Abroad, which tells tales of our move to Seville. (This book makes a great gift for anyone who likes to travel, laugh, celebrate holidays, or dance in fountains. Just thought I'd mention it, because I heard you might be looking for ideas.)
When I was little, my mother took some phenomenally bad photos because she never learned how to close one eye, which you had to do to see through the tiny viewfinders on pre-digital cameras. As a result, her pictures showed miles of background – often the asphalt of our driveway – while we kids would be jammed into the lower left corner, with at least one of us and half the dog outside of the frame altogether. Working in graphic design in my twenties and thirties, I learned the basics of lighting and composition from pros working with bulky, technically complex equipment. Nowadays, I feel wildly lucky to live in an era in which I can get high-quality results using a Nikon that fits in the back pocket of my jeans and a laptop that’s practically the size and weight of a magazine.
As an amateur, I’m always trying to learn from “real” photographers. Here’s what I’ve picked up so far.
1. Always have your camera handy. Ansel Adams said,
“Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.” I figure if God’s ready to go, I should be too. Once, when I was writing about people wearing pajamas in pubic, I spotted a woman in an airport dressed in a blanket. I was racing for a plane and didn’t have time to dig my camera out of my luggage – and I’ve regretted it ever since.
2. Take lots and lots and LOTS of photos. As Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism, put it, “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” I always try to get multiple shots of each subject; I've found that sometimes even a subtle shift in the angle, composition, or the subject itself can change a shot from “uh” to “ahh.”
3. Remember the background. Going out to shoot Seville’s spectacular annual processions, I’ve had countless photos spoiled because I didn’t notice the glaring Burger King logo or gaudy billboard behind the Virgin. That can make for a good irony shot, but really undercuts the mood if I'm going for somber majesty.
4. Study the light. I love slanted light, because it adds so much dimension and radiance to a shot. It can turn a simple object, face, or outdoor scene into an image as gorgeous as a classical painting.
5. Show respect when photographing humans. I try to be careful not to treat anybody, no matter how exotic or peculiarly dressed, like a zoo exhibit. I do snap candids on the street if I can do it discreetly; when it feels comfortable, I ask permission to do a more carefully arranged shot. At a café in Napoli, I was entranced by the large, slightly misspelled tattoo on our waitress’s arm. When she took a cigarette break sitting on her motorcycle, she seemed pleased to let me photograph it.
6. Edit your photos. No one, not even Ansel Adams, takes perfect shots every time. That’s why God gave us computers equipped with photo editing software. I run every shot through iPhoto, cropping, enhancing, straightening, boosting the yellow a smidge to warm up the light, sharpening the definition, bringing up detail in shadows and highlights, and so on. I often radically crop images, for instance, to create horizontal headers on Facebook and my website. That’s why I use a camera and not my iPhone; at least for now, my camera still gives me higher definition, so that even a detail can remain clear and sharp.
Why go through all that? “When people look at my pictures, I want them to feel the way they do when they want to read a line of a poem twice,” said photographer and film director Robert Frank, I’ll never be in Frank’s league, but I’m going to keep on trying to produce photos that (unlike my mom’s) include the subject, the whole subject, and nothing but the subject – and if possible, capture a glimpse of the delight I felt when I saw that subject for the first time.
To see more of my photos, please check out other pages of this website, especially the best images from my recent train trip through Central and Eastern Europe, and my Facebook page.
Three months of living out of a suitcase has taught me a lot about packing. For one thing, I’ve learned how to jettison stuff that wasn’t as essential as I’d thought. (Click here to see my original packing list.) Tired of struggling to zip an overstuffed bag, I abandoned a t-shirt and my bathrobe on a Munich street where the homeless would find them. When temperatures dropped to near freezing in the Carpathian Mountains, I bought a cap and gloves, and later a sweater. By then I’d picked up a small daypack to carry train snacks, and I tucked my new acquisitions in there. My biggest packing mistake was bringing a straw hat so adorable I refused to toss it even though it was impractical in the cooler areas, and by the time we hit hot weather again in October, straw hat season was over.
Whether you’re planning a weekend in Paris, a year on the road, or something in between, here are packing tips that will help you choose and organize the contents of your luggage in convenient and practical ways.
1. Lay out all your clothes and all your money, then take half the clothes and twice the money. If you really need something, you can buy it on the road (as we did).
2. Take only bags that you can carry up several flights of stairs. I took one rolling bag and later added a small daypack, mainly for train snacks, including Mentos to share with others in our compartment as a friendly gesture. (They would then make sure we got off at the right stop, which was worth its weight in gold, let alone Mentos.)
3. Always arrange things in the same order. It saves tons of packing and searching time. I folded all my clothes and stacked them on the left side of my suitcase; on the right side went shoes, hairdryer, and prescription pills, with undergarments tucked in the gaps and my toiletry bag on top. The suitcase’s outer pockets contained things that might be needed at a moment’s notice, such as an umbrella and tissues.
4. Carry all your toiletries in one bag. I used Rick Steves’ Large Travelin Toiletries Kit, which has a nice configuration of pockets, although I was disappointed that a seam burst due to my hairbrush being jammed into the top. (I’ll be talking more about travel health and hygiene in a future post.)
5. Dress in layers. Rather than a heavy jacket, I packed a warm fleece, a light rain jacket, and a scarf. When we hit colder weather than expected in Transylvania, I bought a thick wool cap and slim wool gloves. Later, in even nastier weather, I added a sweater I could layer with my other clothes.
6. Roll your socks and stuff them inside your spare shoes. Store your spare shoes in plastic bags, which are less cumbersome, if less attractive, than shoe bags.
7. Choose clothes that don’t wrinkle, have lots of security pockets, and launder easily. Rich and I are fans of Scottevest trousers and vests, shirts by Ex Officio and Jack Wolfskin, and the extremely fast-drying Ex Officio underwear – yes, the ones with the slogan “17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of award-winning underwear. (OK, maybe two.).” I don’t know who gives awards to underwear, but these have earned my vote.
8. Bring some entertainment. On longer trips, sometimes you need to kick back and watch a movie on your computer. Bring a few on a flash drive or DVDs, or check out the full-length movies and TV shows on YouTube; we spent many cozy nights matching wits with Miss Marple. Two sets of earphones and a splitter gave us superb sound quality. (I’ll talk more about our electronics in a future post.)
9. Lock your bags. We put padlocks on our suitcases and Rich’s daypack, which held the iPad; clips were sufficient on my daypack. At our lodgings, we put essential electronics in one suitcase and attached it to a radiator or other fixed object with a wire and padlock. For more, see 10 Best Ways to Keep Your Valuables Safe on the Road.
10. Carry a small notebook. We used ours for jotting down anything we'd need to ask about and couldn't pronounce; we'd then be able to show the conductor we wanted to get off at Nyiregyháza or ask someone where to find a street called Булеван Деспота Стефана. We also noted destination ideas, local foods we wanted to try, hotel addresses, emails of people we met, directions to speakeasies, and other essentials. It's even handy for making notes about how you packed this time, and what you might do in the future to fine-tune the contents of your luggage, so you can make your trip even more comfortable, convenient, and fun the next time you go on the road.
Unlike some of my better-organized and more practical blogger friends, I haven't obtained any free or discounted gear or supplies in return for promoting anything on this blog. I'm just letting you know what products Rich and I consider to be the most useful for our kind of travel. Watch for future posts about electronics, health and hygiene, travel photography, and more. If you have questions or travel tips to share, I'd love to hear from you; please leave a comment below.
I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
As we journey through the pandemic together, my blog provides a regular supply of survival tips, comfort food recipes, and the wry humor we all need to lighten our hearts on dark days.
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