The Dog Days of Summer at Dog Beach in San Vincenzo, Italy

As many of you know, I am a big ‘dog person‘ and my beloved Labrador, Leni, is one of the most spoiled dogs around. He has a passport, has travelled overseas and, quite possibly, has been to more countries than many adults. I am always conscious of choosing a vacation that will meet his needs and not see him left for hours at a time while we head off for fun.  So, with this in mind, imagine my absolute delight when I was organising our first trip to San Vincenzo, Italy and I came across the Dog Beach website. Could it be true? Could we really take our water-loving Lab to the beach with us in Italy? It seemed like a clear win-win for our entire family…and off we went!

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Found it!!

Dog Beach is located on the Mediterranean coastline of the western Tuscan region of Italy. Just south of the major port city of Livorno, Dog Beach lies on the pristine sandy outskirts of the town of San Vincenzo where the summer days are sunny, hot and long! A trip to the beach for you and your furry friend are practically what the doctor would order as a cure.

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Dog days of summer?!

Dog Beach is accessible off the main road, with limited free and abundant paid parking nearby. There is a small entrance fee for your dog, which helps pay for the facilities and a vet available in case of emergency. Dogs run around primarily off the leash but if your Fido isn’t very friendly, you might want to consider keeping him/her on a leash.  Sun beds, chairs and umbrellas are all available for rent.

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As if all of this wasn’t enough, we were delighted when a guy came by on a 4 wheeler selling gelato (ice cream).  It was only once I approached and asked him what flavours he had did he surprise me with “is it for you or for your dog?”  Yes, they sold all the wonderful flavours one would expect from Italian gelato, and similar dog-safe versions. Our dog consumed his pineapple and ginseng one too fast for me to get a decent photo but as you can imagine, he was thrilled.

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Dog-friendly gelato, devoured in about 30 seconds…!

If you find yourself wondering where to go this summer and don’t want to leave your four-legged friend at home, I highly recommend the San Vincenzo region, with daily trips to the Dog Beach.

Good to know:

-Shower/wash stations are available for spraying down your dog at the end of the day. On our last trip, these cost 1€
-A small snack shop is located nearby with sandwiches and cold drinks for sale. Cash only
-there is a dog gift shop where you can buy toys for the beach for your dog, kids and different souvenirs
-if your dog has never been in salt water, watch his/her consumption. It can give some dogs an upset stomach, just be aware
-there is a free fresh water station for filling up your dog’s water bowl
-Bring cash with you as you will need it for everything and hard as I tried, I failed to locate a bank machine/ATM nearby

Most importantly, have fun!! Bring an extra towel or two…!!

 

Photo credits: Jennifer Hart, Dog Beach San Vincenzo

 

 

 

Meet Millie at the Hilton: Milwaukee’s Concierge with a Bark!

It was almost 11pmCST/6amCET in Wisconsin when I arrived, jet-lagged and slightly worse for wear at the Hilton Milwaukee City Center for the WITS 2017 conference. I checked in, stumbled to my room and collapsed. When I woke up the next morning, I decided to head out for a walk to clear my head. On my way through the lobby I saw a flash of something tan or beige, maybe both, racing around in front of me. What on earth was that, I wondered. Then I saw her: cute, fluffy, energetic and ready for attention, and maybe a photo op or two, was Millie, the 4-legged canine concierge that has become a vital part of the Hilton family.

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Asleep on the job…!

She completely melted my heart as I bent down to give her some cuddles and puppy love. I’ve stayed in hundreds of hotels and not once have I ever come across a Dog Concierge. Millie was a first for me and, I could tell by the expressions on the other hotel guests, she was a first for them, too. People were stopping their normal ‘hurried’ lives to spend a moment with her. They ceased texting and conversations, all in the hopes of spending a moment with her. Alongside her trusty companion and co-worker Rusty (the actual concierge at the Hilton), Millie brought a happy and welcoming spirit to the hotel.

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Millie’s business card!

Of course, a dog concierge made my heart swoon but it also presented with a lot of questions. I was fortunate enough to conduct an interview with her colleague, dad and owner, Rusty. Keep reading to learn all about the happiest, and furriest, concierge in the world! If you find yourself lucky enough to wind up at the Hilton Milwaukee City Centre, be sure to stop by and say a big hello to Millie (and to Rusty, too!!)

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Chilling out at home on a day off!

Meet Millie (and Rusty!)

How did Millie come to be the dog concierge at the Hilton? Last fall the idea for a “hotel dog” began to circulate. When I became aware of it I was eager to become a part of the discussion. I’ve shared with others since that a great idea never happens easily. It takes a lot of determination and hard work. Although my manager was supportive there were others who were not so sure. I went forward with Millie “under the radar.” Many questions needed to be addressed including what type of dog, adult or puppy, rescue or breeder and who would take responsibility for training and general care. After much reading and speaking with breeders, I decided on a smaller breed (some are afraid of larger dogs), a dog that doesn’t shed (much better for a hotel environment) and one that would not be a challenge to those guests with particular allergies. The temperament was crucial so I spent time talking to breeders who could assist in finding a dog that would be a daily friend to our rather large, 729 room hotel. Millie was born on September 13, 2016 and we picked her up on November 12, 2016 at eight weeks of age. She began coming to the hotel at ten weeks for a few hours at a time and now spends 40 hours a week in our lobby and hotel.

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Millie and Rusty

How old is Millie?
Millie is presently 8 months old.

What breed is Millie?
Millie is a mini-golden doodle. Her mom was an AKC Golden Retriever and her dad an AKC Toy Poodle.

What has the general reaction been from hotel guests?
Millie has changed the environment in our lobby 100%. When people come to check-in to the hotel, the first thing they ask is that a real dog and then immediately head to the concierge desk to get their daily Millie fix. When she’s not here at the hotel, the bellman tire of the questions in regards to her whereabouts. Millie regularly receives emails and comments via our hotel website, great Trip Advisor reviews, as well as dog treats, sweaters, and toys from our guests. If you walk through the hotel, you’ll often have people ask, “Where’s Millie?” Our hotel operator mentioned that once a guest called to make a reservation and wasn’t sure if this was the correct Hilton property. “Is this the one with the dog?” she asked and with that knowledge booked her room immediately. She has brought smiles, laughter, and even tears to many within her short time here and we can’t wait for more of this to come as she grows older with the Hilton Milwaukee.

How has Millie changed the moral of the hotel?
I knew Millie would have an impact on the guests but I never guessed the impact she would have on the employees. As people leave and exit the building they now stop by the desk on the way to their jobs and pet and play with her and many have said it’s the best part of their day. Millie has more aunts, moms, grandmas, and uncles…but only one dad…me! When I come to work no one asks how I am anymore…it’s always “Where’s Millie?” Fellow employees that I rarely spoke with before now stop by and share phone pics of their dogs and love on Millie as if she were their own. Auntie Dawn regularly buys Millie sweaters and treats “and I wasn’t really a dog person…until Millie.”

Do you agree that Millie makes the Hilton feel like a “home away from home.”
Millie has been a learn by doing kind-of-thing. The ways in which she makes the hotel feel like home to our guests is a wonderful result of bringing her here. I’m sure that idea was a part of the plan but I was not prepared for just how well she would do her job. It’s not uncommon now to hear people step off the elevator or arriving through the parking garage hallway to hear them asking, “Where’s Millie,” even before they reach the front desk.

What is Millie’s role at the hotel?
It keeps growing as we grow along with her…of course she greets and plays with guests in our lobby, takes deliveries to the rooms, and attends group meetings that request her. I am in the process of training her to lead people to the restroom and elevators. It’s rather endless when one considers what Millie could be doing…and not to overwhelm her with too many things to do.

Have you experienced any unhappy or nervous guests?
On a few occasions we’ve been told that a guest is fearful of dogs but no one has contacted us directly. If they are we have a crate behind the desk where Millie can go for the time being. Overall the comments have been overwhelmingly positive.

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Are guests allowed to walk or give treats or toys?
Many come down offering to take Millie up to their rooms for a snuggle or for a walk around the block. As I get to know more people on a regular basis it may become an option. She is still only 8-months old so still learning how to walk of a leash…but in time I’m sure it will happen. At the moment it just a little bit weird giving your dog to someone who I’m not familiar with but as regular guests return I’m confident it will get easier!

What does Millie do when she’s not working?
I felt it important from the beginning that the dog we selected must have a home outside the hotel. Having raised Golden Retrievers all my life and having lost my last one (Abby) about 5 years ago, I eagerly accepted the job. Millie works 5 days a week and all the other time she spends with me, two-roommates, and two cats. She gets along with all of them very well as well as all the other dogs in the neighborhood dog park. Millie rides the bus to work each day, jumps on the couch with Oliver and Rose (the cats) and goes on long walks, and dog school and sleeps in my bed (with the cats) just like so many other loved and cared for canines.

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Late for work…!

Is there anything important you think guests should know about Millie/her role?
Two things come to mind…

Often I hear from guests and employees that Millie is the most spoiled dog ever because of all the attention she receives of which is very true. On the other hand she is petted hundreds of times a day, often awaken from a nap because an eager guest really wanted to see her. After a day in the hotel she unwinds for a few minutes but within the hour she is out for the rest of the night. She gives a lot to her work…and sometimes I think others fail to see that.

Also on more than one occasion guests mention how great it would be to bring your dog to work each day. Before this I would have said the same and often wished to find a job where I could work with dogs regularly and now I find myself in a position that permits me to do just that. But there are days when I realize just how much work it is to ‘hotel train’ a puppy in such a large hotel or to teach her to not jump or bite or to come when she’s called. It’s been so rewarding to see her progress and for guests to mention how well behaved she is for just eight months. Some have even thought her to be a service dog…which in the grand scheme of things is my goal.

 

To follow more adventures of Millie and Rusty, be sure to check out their Instagram page here
Photo credit: Rusty Dahler

From the Vault: Confessions of Parisian ‘Expat Dating’

What can I say sometimes other than ‘this expat life is no joke’! I know from the outside people see the glitz, the glam, the travel, the benefits, etc., but from time to time, I think it is good if we all ignore that part for a bit and turn our attention to some of the more difficult moments. Yes, I know, this sounds boring but it needn’t be. In fact, most expats you will meet have a wicked sense of humour and humility. We might not have started out that way but cultural barriers, linguistic errors, removal from what we know and who we know, and multiple social blunders have stripped us of our sense of cool. We learn to laugh at ourselves. With this spirit in mind, I’ve decided that from time to time, I will dig a story out from ‘the vault’ and share with you my sometimes bumpy ride as an expatriate.

 

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Our first apartment in Paris – that’s us on the balcony. It was our home for 4.5 years (Paris, 1er Arrondissement.

 

Back in 2006, when I was a newcomer to this whole lifestyle in Paris, I was the queen of social blunders. I made mistakes. I mouth-kissed people who were attempting to do bisous (or cheek to cheek kiss greeting as is customary in many European countries). I drank coffee with my dessert (mon Dieu!) and I stumbled daily in navigating Parisian life. I had a certain flair for making a mess of things! I would call home and be told it can’t possibly be that bad. My impression was that it was hard to conjure up feelings of sympathy for people living la vie en rose!

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La vie en Rose

But Paris was, well, Paris. It is tough city to relocate to. I was 29, newly married to an Englishman and kids were not on the agenda yet. How do you make friends at 29 years old?  When you are a kid you can walk up to someone around your age in the park and ask if they want to play. As an adult, that takes a very creepy and inappropriate twist. So, I went on, what I call, expat dates. We weren’t looking for love, we were looking for company.  I met other expatriates living in Paris and we tested each other out. Could we? Would we? Should we be friends? Do we have enough in common beyond ‘we aren’t French’ to keep us together?

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Looking out at the world below. Paris circa 2006.

Sometimes this worked and sometimes it was a big fail. I remember one that went so horribly wrong that when I ran into the woman a few months later in the street, I hid behind a smelly Parisian garbage can. Yes, I was a wildly mature adult living the glam Paris life! She had been the angriest person I had ever met and I felt, at the end of our lunch, that I should have charged her for a counselling session. She hated Paris. HATED it. Lots of people have anger towards Paris but this was something else!

Shortly after we ordered wine and lunch, it started.

“Why would you move here? It’s awful.” Uh oh!
“It smells.” OK so this can be true sometimes.
“Parisians are the worst people ever.” No, they are grumpy and angry and VERY self-important sometimes but they are not the worst people ever.
“Don’t even try to get decent tea here.” I didn’t try this and wasn’t bothered about it, either.
“The restaurants are awful.” OK this was NOT true. There were some dodgy places but that happens everywhere.
“You will never fit in here.” Hmmm…partial truth?
“You will need to diet to live here. You’re a bit big-boned.” Thanks.
“French men are pigs.” I have never dated one, I can’t speak to this claim!
“France will suck all the life out of you.” There’s plenty still kicking around in me.
“You smile too much for Paris. They’ll hate you.” Yeesh!

You get the picture, right? This went on and on and on. She spent 90+ minutes trying to convince me to get out while I could. Like it was an easy option to do so! If I tried to counter with ‘but aren’t the pastries to die for?’ she would shoot that down or remind me I’m a bit fat for Paris (this was PRE-kids, remember!!). Negative Nancy was in the house. I decided that even if I was having some real homesickness for maple-flavoured anything, strangers that greet each other on the street and an easier time getting my point across, I was going to ditch our attempt to become friends and make my way in the city on my own.

Ditch this attempt is exactly what I did. I tried to wrap up our lunch early and I thought she understood my need to leave when I said something like, I must visit the toilet and when I get back I will need to pay and head out. Clear, non?  When I returned to the table, I saw that she had ignored this and ordered another round of drinks. I panicked! How could she possibly have more to say about hating Paris? So, I did what all mature adults do. I threw 40Euros on the table and ran out of the restaurant without saying a word. I know she called my name but I was done. I didn’t want to live in Paris with her words in my head and heart and I wasn’t adult enough to say that.

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Do bad days happen in Paris? Yes. Yes they do. However, in my 10 years living in Paris, I fully admit that this never stopped being an amazing sight to behold!

I avoided a phone call and text from her over the next couple of days. I felt awful and I had done something unforgivable. I know that and learned from it. To her, I’m sorry for my own behaviour. In truth, she was my sole expat dating fail on an otherwise pretty perfect record. However, I was too embarrassed and freaked out by our lunch date gone wrong to try again for a while, so I got a dog. Not just any old French froufrou, teacup sized dog. I got a black labrador retriever. We named him Leni and he went everywhere with me. He became my best Parisian friend for a while and together, we ventured throughout the city. He dined in Michelin starred restaurants, went into Gucci, Louis Vuitton (he was about 20kg too big for that early 2000s dog bag everyone had) and had his photo taken with countless tourists. He made me get over my shyness to explore the city and for that, Leni, I thank you as you were invaluable to our lives in the French capital. I eventually made amazing friends, had kids and life in Paris became a lot more settled but Leni never left our sides. Except for the time he jumped in a prostitute’s van in the Bois de Boulogne. Perhaps that will be my next confession From the Vault…

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Leni and I walking in the Marais

Photos: Jennifer Hart

Moving Stress and Furry Kids

If you don’t yet ‘know’ us as a family, I would like to take a moment to introduce you to Leni, our 8 year old black lab that acts like he is still 6 months old. Leni is, without a doubt, one of my best friends. He has been my marathon training partner (up to my 30K runs) and my confidant when some days just don’t turn out the way you want. He sat with me in the bathroom through two pregnancies worth of morning sickness and helped the kids learn how to walk by letting them hold onto him to steady themselves. He is not just a family pet, he IS family.

Our furry kid, Leni

We had discussed how to handle the move with the dog. He gets stressed over luggage, etc., so we often keep vacation packing for after he has gone to his vacation farm. We had decided he would go there for the moving weeks then we would return and pick him up after settled in our new home and show him his new Swiss paradise!

What we didn’t expect was his stress to occur before this. Our house is up for sale and anyone who has been here before knows that means a house that is beyond hospital-level of clean with toys, dog beds, etc., all being hidden each morning when we leave the house. Let’s face it,  no one wants to see a chewed up dog bed big enough for a tiny dinosaur in the middle of a living room when looking at a new house. He doesn’t understand this and has unfortunately reacted badly to this change in his life. He has been a mix of depressed and agitated. If you know Leni, you know he is a gentle giant and agitated is not in his repertoire. I noticed last night that he has begun to obsessively lick his paws and cause open sores. Heartbreaking.

Not entirely knowing what to do, we took him to the vet this morning. He has the most amazing vet who immediately agreed Leni was not acting like his normal self. We talked about a plan of action but in the end, it really boils down to a catch-22. We are stressed. Our home is disrupted. He is stressed by these two things. This stresses us out more and thus, the cycle continues. Our ‘prescription’ is to treat his wounds, try to keep his home life as stable as possible and keep his dr informed. If needs be, his dr recommends sending him to his vacation home for a bit of stability. I hate feeling like I can’t make my dog happy when my days and nights are spent obsessively searching for a home with a garden he can play in! If only dogs could speak!!!!

I look forward to the day I can post a happy picture of my silly, happy, big-dog-trapped-in-a-small-dog’s-body, labrador and say, “we all appear to have survived the move!”

Until then…Lenster, I adore you and we’ll sort this out! ❤
Photos courtesy of Louise Francois