Sunday, December 10, 2023

Aah, the Relief of Florida Winters! August through November, 2023

The end of summer and the beginning of fall proved to be unusually hot this year. In August, we got the unexpected news that my first cousin, once removed, Jonathan Mark Horn, had died suddenly. He had just succeeded in establishing United States citizenship for his new wife, Kalina, and set up residence in Tucson, Arizona, when he was diagnosed with a rare cancer, unbeknownst to us. He was our family geneologist and shed much light on our familial connections as well as establishing a relationship with cousins in Budapest. We attended his memorial service online on August 10 (he died August 7), and our discussions about that got Ari researching every mention of our family members that appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer over a period of many years. We got to know Mark when he paid us a visit in Florida about five years ago at our invitation.

At the beginning of August, I received a new companion, based on a very high glucose number that was registered during a random blood test after a very high fructose breakfast. I am now the not-so-proud owner of a diabetic glucose monitor which, as of this writing, screams at me almost every half hour after every meal. I am waiting for my next doctor’s visit at the beginning of January to see if I need an insulin monitor.

Erica and Ava paid us a visit during August along with our family friend, Ed, and we spent a very hot day in Epcot, which Ava requested. We began with breakfast at the Ale & Compass in the Yacht Club Hotel, where Sami joined us for breakfast. Despite the Floria summer heat, we had a great time, and minimized the discomfort by traveling from air-conditioned venue to air-conditioned venue.

This was the first summer in over 20 years that we have not hosted “Camp Bubbie and Saba.” Instead, Jess and Alex, Izzy and Yona had a week’s vacation in Israel. Afterwards, as a consolation to us, Jess, Alex and Yona flew down for a few days vacation (during which we were able to preview the new Moana exhibit in Epcot thanks to Sami’s cast member benefits) before delivering Yona to her new boarding school (which she is loving) in Massachusetts. Sami, Jessica and Yona finally got to attend the “Not So Scary Halloween Party” at the Magic Kingdom after previous years’ attempts had fizzled due to bad weather. Ari and Chris finished the summer with a vacation in Athens. Saul and I were lucky to have the family here as we caught our first case of Covid right at the end of August and spent several days in our bedroom while the kids prepared meals for us and dropped them on a table in front of our bedroom door. Thus did we spend our 52nd wedding anniversary.

We are loving our new Chavurah services. We have invented some delicious new vegan salads to enjoy at our lunches there on Saturday afternoons. And we recruited Sami’s skillful talents at tying the intricate knots on tallitot to repair an unusable one for Josh, and tighten up the knots on Saul’s beautiful hand-made one.

At the end of August, our 11-year tenants of our vacation home in the Pocono mountains moved out. While they had been very agreeable and always paid the rent on time, we were surprised to find that the house had been terribly abused during their tenancy. We have an agreement with our friends, Isaac and Efrat, to buy it shortly as a fixer-upper or flip. Isaac has a business with the resources to undertake such a project.

We had a very small (but beautiful) Rosh Hashanah lunch this year as I have stopped making elaborate holiday and Shabbat dinners for the whole gang every Friday. I find that I can’t be on my feet for all the hours it takes to prepare and clean up afterwards. Neither can Saul. We are really starting to feel our age this year. I am striving to host at least once a month, but I think it has stretched to two months.

Our Chavurah services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur took place in a lovely room in the Hilton Garden Inn in Lake Buena Vista. Over 100 people attended over the course of the holy days. Louis did a masterful job as our spiritual leader. Saul and I continue to enjoy our many walks in Disney World. 

Rif and Paul left for a two-week stint in Israel to attend Paul’s cousin David’s daughter’s beautiful wedding. While there, they visited our family, too, and Paul got a much better, whole new point of view, about the country, its culture, and its food. 

We had an absolutely delightful week in the middle of October thanks to our friend, Jennifer, whose “wedding-of-the-century” we attended in Lake Como, Italy, last year. We were delighted to learn that she is pregnant and due at the end of March. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra booked a full week of programs at the gorgeous Steinmetz Hall for which she was able to get us complimentary tickets for every showing except for Diana Ross. We saw The Birmingham Royal Ballet, Beck, Broadway Royalty: Sutton Foster and Brian Stokes Mitchell, Harry Connick, Jr. and the RPO performing with the Orlando Bach Festival Choir. Jen was even able to arrange tickets for the last concert for our friend Larry. Besides the concerts and the spectacular venue, we had a blast at dinner at Jaleo in Disney Springs, Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge for breakfast, and shopping with Jen for maternity clothing and specialty items for her Halloween gender-reveal parties back home. We didn’t know then, because she guarded the secret carefully, but she is having a girl. Unfortunately, almost immediately after returning from Israel, Rif and Paul came down with Covid and we rescued them with T.V. dinners from the newly-opened Lazy Dog restaurant. We learned about this from our friend Larry, who told us about a special Lazy Dog was promoting at the time, and the restaurant has become one of our favorites in the area because of their delicious food, comfortable ambience, and veg forward selections. The timing of their Covid, and our friend Jen’s delicate condition, left them unable to join us for all the concerts we attended, but we were able to meet up on Jen’s last day here for happy hour at Lazy Dog. During October Ari traveled to Cypress on his own prior to accepting his new job.

As our first bout of cool air presaged our delightful Florida winters, we attempted to heat our pool for the first time and discovered that our pool heater, purchased in April of 2020, was not working. The parts were still under warranty. It took us until the beginning of December to finally get it repaired after weekly aggravating calls to Sunblazer/AquaCal about the defective part. Our beautiful LG washing machine flooded the laundry room at the beginning of November and had to be disassembled and reassembled a few times professionally until all the leaks were discovered and repaired.

Our Israeli cousins, Eli and Ayal, were both called up in the draft that followed the atrocities of the incursion by Hamas into Israeli territories that sparked the war in Gaza on October 7. Both celebrated their 30th and 31st birthdays at the same time the war began and were then forced to leave their beautiful young families for an unknown future. At this writing, the war continues and we can only pray for their safe return to their families and a secure peace in Israel in the future.

Our good news was that after several years of applying for British citizenship pre-Covid, and several thousand pounds, Ari became a British citizen with a triple citizenship in Great Britain, U.S.A. and Israel. Luckily, all his passports arrived in good time as he had to turn the others in while waiting for the British one, and not being able to travel at a moment’s notice makes him very nervous. In the same week, after being unemployed for several months immediately after buying his new home, he was made a full partner at RSM, the sixth largest accounting firm in the world.

In one of our walks in Animal Kingdom, enjoying the perfect weather, we got some great shots of a babirusa wild boar and the water lilies in full bloom. We had a few days visit from Marcia, the daughter of friends from up North, as she likes to run in the Disney marathons and she has a sizable collection of medals to prove it. This time, it was the “Wine & Dine” race.

We had more kids than ever this year for Halloween as the neighborhood has blossomed with more and more full-time owners and renters as opposed to short-term vacation rentals. As soon as Halloween is over, Disney immediately switches to Christmas mode, almost overnight. The lights are lovely as we take our frequent nighttime walks in the parks.

On the weekends, when our Pixie Passes are not valid, we sometimes take walks at Bok Tower Gardens where we love to enjoy our incredible winter Florida weather, feed the koi, listen to the carillon, and get ideas for our all-weather garden.

After Saul and I had a delightful vegan meal at the Grand Floridian Café, we booked a dinner there with Sami so we could all see this year’s two-story gingerbread house and view the Magic Kingdom fireworks, but unfortunately discovered how extreme is Sami’s allergy to hearts-of-palm when I gave her just a taste of my appetizer. 

A few days after that, Saul and I returned from a quick trip to pick up oat milk for breakfast, and encountered a car completely ablaze a few houses down from ours. The occupants were lucky to get out in time and were standing and dolefully watching it burn alongside one of our neighbors. Our neighborhood is built in a circle, so we were able to U-turn and go around the other way to get home as we didn’t dare to pass it.

We acquired a collection of “Loungeflys” during a special cast member sale and party to which Sami was able to invite us. Right before Thanksgiving, she came home with a special gift for us for Chanukah—a Mickey and Minnie Loungefly with a Chanukiah that lights up with individual lights for each night of Chanukah. Love it!!

Thanksgiving was such a pleasure this year! We were having such a good time that I am sorry to say we forgot to take many pictures. Jessica and Yona flew down on the Monday before and Alex joined a couple of days later. Yona’s school had sent her home early because of an outbreak of Covid and foot, hand and mouth disease. Yona had Covid at the beginning of November and so seemed immune for the time and was able to participate in good health. Izzy drove in from college in Marietta, GA, with her friend, Abigail, whom we all thought was a lovely, complimentary addition to our family. When Alex arrived, we had an incredible evening of wining and dining at Jaleo in Disney Springs. In preparation for Thanksgiving, I made two blueberry pies for Kenny to take to Thanksgiving dinner with his sister- and brother-in-law, Laurie and Jules. I was finally able to buy frozen rhubarb at Sprouts, so I was able to make Jessica’s favorite dessert, Strawberry Rhubarb Pie. For Thanksgiving dinner I made: Chestnut Soup, Vegan Stuffed “Turkey” Breast, Butternut Apple Crisp, Zucchini Casserole, Maple-Glazed Balsamic Brussels Sprouts, Lemon Crinkle Cookies, Lime Cornmeal Cookies, and the pie. Yona made a ton of delicious mashed potatoes (the leftovers of which I later turned into mini potato knishes to freeze for our next party on December 22). Alex marinated and prepared a boneless slab of salmon and an alcoholic fruit punch. His mother, Elaine, made cranberry sauce. I supplemented with a pound of Vegan Burnt Ends from 4 Rivers Smokehouse and a tray of their Jalapeno Cornbread. Susan and Ted and Larry joined us, with Susan bringing the wine, as she usually does, and Ted bringing martinis, as he usually does. Rif and Paul flew up to his cousin David’s home in Atlanta for Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving dinner was quite a feast, even if no turkey was executed.  I invited the kids for an early morning breakfast the next day as they had an afternoon flight back home so that Yona could be returned to school in time. Unfortunately, it turned into an all-day ordeal, as so often happens with airlines during the holidays. Izzy and Abigail drove back a day later through driving rain. A drive that ordinarily takes 5-6 hours took them 11, but thank God they arrived safe and sound.

Saul and I discovered a new, for us, vegan restaurant called Leguminati that serves what they call “Crunchwraps” of many different types. The two we shared left us anxious to return to try some of the others on the menu.

Ari and Chris attended a huge pro-Israel rally in London in which an enormous percentage of the Jewish population of England participated, thankfully, without serious incident. London also has a gigantic population of Palestinians and other Arab populations, much larger than the Jewish community there.

I am continuing, with Saul’s help, to prepare food for our December 22 Shabbat get-together. We should be 17 in attendance: Saul, Marilyn, Sami, Jess, Yona, Izzy, Ari, Chris, Susan, Ted, Larry, Elaine, Haley, Erik, Kenny, and Sami’s friends Alisha and Lev. I have decided it will be an hors d’oeuvres and dessert party.

The Philadelphia Eagles won an important game in the last few seconds of overtime, a great morale booster, and we discovered another great morale booster. Our blue vanilla ice cream banana tree suddenly began to bear fruit after we had begun to despair, after several years, that we would never see the promised bananas.

Now, if Florida winters stay mild as they are supposed to be and don’t freeze the bananas on the tree, if everyone arrives for the Christmas holiday safe and in good health, if some semblance of peace and goodwill returns to the Earth, I will be able to again breathe a sigh of relief and thank God for the wonderful life and good fortune Saul and I have been blessed with here in Florida and in our thus-far privileged lives.


Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Another Trip to London for Passover and the Coronation—March Through June 2023


March seemed to get off to a bad start when we noticed that a tile had caved in in the corner of our master stall shower. There had been minor cracks in the tile when we bought the house, but we had other priorities 10 years ago when we bought this house and the damage seemed to be nothing to worry about at the time. Clearly, it was time to do something about this. We determined that the tile could not be replaced so it was time for a major renovation. After inspections by several tile companies and our homeowners insurance company, we determined that the damage was not caused by a leak in the plumbing, which would have been covered by our insurance. After interviewing at least five tile companies for estimates, traveling miles to look at tiles at a warehouse, considering all the types of coverings available and receiving estimates that were mind-bogglingly high, we settled on Lujo Floor and Tile, which was just down the road, had a porcelain tile I adored, and was thousands of dollars cheaper than any other estimate. We’re so glad we took our time and interviewed so many companies. Lujo was wonderful to work with, had super-efficient craftsmen, and we were thrilled with the result.

We continued to discover new vegan products at our local Chinese markets, including a half chicken that looked very appetizing and convincing, but turned out to be a bit off-putting because of the mealy texture.

We were notified by our homeowners insurance company, AAA, by letter during this time that our insurance coverage would be cancelled unless we replaced our roof or had an inspection (at our cost) certifying that it was sound. This has become a common occurrence in Florida. Our roof hasn’t leaked, but inspection has shown that it is very damaged and needs to be replaced. To make a long story short. it is being replaced next week by the fourth company who gave us an estimate, 3MG Roofing, and it is completely covered by the insurance company, AAA, (other than our $1,000 deducible) that insisted we replace it. They speedily sent us the money to cover the cost, although our insurance (covering 3 cars and home) went up almost $2,000 a year (unfortunately, also common right now in Florida).

We became annual members of Bok Tower Gardens and spent some lovely Sundays wandering the extensive pathways there during the height of camellia season on some beautifully temperate March days.

Ari took advantage of the last few days of his extensive period of layoff with a vacation to Istanbul, which preserved his elite status with British Airways and was incredibly reasonable. He was hired back at the beginning of April by the company that laid him off, first as an independent contractor for them, and then with a limited contract as an employee until October (at a higher salary than he was making before) when they assure him another position will be available for him. I have included some of his marvelous photos in this post.

Our niece, Haley and her husband, Erik, moved to nearby Tampa in May right after her 40th birthday. We were invited to the Florida celebration of the party titled “Forty and Floridian.” The photos from their housewarming party appear at the end of the photos. They live in a three-bedroom penthouse apartment overlooking the river in Tampa that is just beautiful.

The Flower and Garden Festival began at Epcot and we have never seen Epcot look more gorgeous. Unfortunately, we have noticed a great scaling back of the food at some of our favorite restaurants in Disney and a concurrent rise in the prices. We have enjoyed many of the Garden Rocks concerts that accompany the flower show at this time of the year.

Once a month, on Thursdays, we sometimes attend a seniors get-together at SOJC. At one, I had a chance to do some ballroom dancing with an older group who came to demonstrate their skills, and at another, we all had a chance to create our own bouquets with flowers that we were provided.

At the end of March, London experienced a rare hailstorm much to the chagrin of a small, wild fox that had sought shelter on Ari’s fenced back patio. Wild fox roam the streets of London at night and are a common sight. They seldom live past adolescence as the conditions of their existence are so difficult and most starve. It left to find better shelter when the hailstorm began and never returned.

As Passover approached, Saul and I did our best to prepare our house for the arrival of Jess and Alex, Yona and Izzy, and eventually Alex’s family for the seders. We used up stored foodstuffs in the closets, refrigerators, and freezers, and cleaned them. Saul and I had made arrangements to be in London for the seders and the coronation of King Charles III, a total of six weeks from April 2 to May 10. Right before we left we were lucky to be able to visit Disney’s Easter egg display at the Grand Floridian Hotel, which was set up a bit early this year, and see a Garden Rocks Concert by the Pointer Sisters (originally from Philadelphia). We had a few days before Passover to spend with the kids during which time Izzy helped us package some of the artwork I had created for Ari  many years ago and which has been languishing in our closets ever since Ari moved to England 10 years ago. Now, he finally has his own beautiful home and furnishings. Thrillingly, they arrived with us in England with no damage whatsoever.

We flew to Heathrow via Newark and, despite taking Dramamine, Saul got sick during our rather rough landing. So did a number of other passengers, and the flight attendant admitted to me that she, herself, was rather ill during the landing. We were much luckier making our airline connection going than we were coming back as we were offered a wheelchair ride for Saul to our gate by an employee who was returning it nearby. After a brief time, Saul felt better.

Ari met us at Heathrow and we took an Uber the short distance back to his new home. Towards evening, we discovered one of the perks of his new neighborhood, an incredibly great pizzeria with a wood-fired oven, just down his short alleyway and across the street, L’Oro di Napoli. The menu had several delectable vegan choices, and afterwards, I cheated with one of the best cannolis I have ever had (one of my guilty pleasures). Before arriving, I had sent Ari a long list of the ingredients I would need to prepare a kosher Passover seder. He and Chris made a trip to shop at a store in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in London, Kosher Kingdom, and shlepped everything back in an Uber so that I could begin preparations right away to kasher and cook. Once I was satisfied that preparations were well underway, we went for a long walk on Shabbat through the beautiful park-like areas adjoining his home in Hanwell. I had never been in London for bluebell season before, and the gorgeous wildflowers grew effortlessly in wide swaths everywhere we went, even appearing in cracks in walls and sidewalks. In the few days before Passover, we ate out at various neighborhood restaurants around Hanwell and nearby Ealing, including Big Bites CaféTonkotsu Bar and Ramen, and Ichiba Food and Drinks.

Saul’s cousin Adi, the one for whose wedding we flew to Israel with his sister, Rifka, in 2019, gave birth to a beautiful girl named for her mother, who died at the beginning of Covid. She is named Libby, meaning “my heart.” Her brother’s wife also had a new baby girl in June, whom they named Shakedd Tzvia, also named for her grandmother.

Having prepared most of a week’s worth of food, Saul, Ari, Chris and I were free to enjoy the most relaxed seder we have ever had, and during chol ha moed, we were free to travel around London, and stock up on needed supplies to finish out the week. It was a joy for me to see the market where Ari had shopped, which, in a small space, managed to supply a mind-boggling array of kosher-for-passover products that rivaled any kosher warehouses where I had shopped in New York. We hosted Ari’s friend, Marian, who arrived after several train connections from the other end of London, at a Passover Shabbat dinner. It was the first time we had an opportunity to meet Marian in person, and we enjoyed the evening chatting with her immensely.

During our travels around London during chol ha moed, we shopped for furniture and accessories for Ari’s new home. We spent most of a day trudging from store to store in a large Westfield upscale mall. While there, we purchased a beautiful, decorative round mirror that Ari ordered to be delivered and additional kitchenware that he needed. Saul and I hung Ari’s art and photo collection while he was working from home and also during his few days in the office. We visited an IKEA in London and sat in some comfortable chairs that Ari eventually decided to buy a few months later.

At the end of Passover, we spent a few days together traveling into and around downtown London. We had lunch at another Wulf & Lamb vegan restaurant (a different one than where we met Julie and Jon for dinner on our last trip). It was equally great. Ari had made reservations for the Wallace Collection, which housed the largest, and most beautifully displayed collection of “old masters” it has ever been our pleasure to view. One of the paintings that really struck a chord with me was of the Biblical characters, Judah and Tamar. The story is one of my favorites dating back to the 24 years I spent studying Biblical texts once a week with our good friend, Faith Rubin. We attended a vintage car boot sale for charity located in King’s Cross in Coal Drops Yard. 

On another occasion, we took a bus to Brentford to a nearby nursery, Hillier Garden Center, where we purchased everything we needed to set up colorful, flowering, permanent gardens on the small patios in front and in back of Ari’s new house. In addition, when all the supplies were delivered about two weeks later, we planted culinary herbs as well which Ari has been sharing with friends. The nursery was near to the home where Pocahontas lived when she was in London. Ari had been telling us that he had never tried the restaurant, Ran Thai, less than a block from his home. We decided to try it that evening and were delighted with the ambience, the offerings, and the sense of humor of the owner. Accordingly, we had dinner there more than once during our six-week stay. After dinner, we went home and hung Ari’s mezuzah. 

One of the great perks of Ari’s new neighborhood is its proximity to an incredibly reasonable and well-stocked Lidl supermarket, which is about two blocks away, a small Nisa market with long hours that is literally across the street, and a halal market which stocked almost everything needed to prepare Middle Eastern delicacies. It was a great luxury for Saul and me to just be able to walk out at any time to get whatever ingredients we needed to prepare a recipe instead of getting in our car to drive to a nearby supermarket. In preparing our first non-Passover dinner at Ari’s, I modified the challah recipe I have been using for over 45 years with amazing results. England’s “strong bread and strong whole wheat bread flour” were the inspiration. As always, the local yeast adds its own flavor as well. We created a more savory challah using the “Everything Bagel” sprinkle that we brought to Ari from the U.S.

One of the new forays that we took was to visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. We waited in a short line outside as only a limited number of people are allowed in at a time. Once inside, we understood the reason as the home is a multi-floored labyrinth filled with architectural pieces from antiquity, including the empty, intricately carved tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, Seti I. The rooms and alcoves are tiny and quite claustrophobic, but filled in every conceivable spot with wonders from the past. Our walk back to the train station that day took us past the Masonic Headquarters in London, which we visited with Rif and Paul back in 2019. At the next corner, we photographed and chatted pleasantly with a motorcycle group affiliated with the Freemasons. The walk itself proved to be very interesting. Saul was nearly bonked on the head by a bus rear-view mirror while photographing a “traveling pub” which serves drinks while the patrons all contribute to pedaling around London. Above the train station, Tottenham Court, there was a brand-new 360-degree immersive video installation.

On another excursion we visited the most amazing Hindu Temple, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Photographs were not permitted inside the building, but suffice it to say that it is one of the  most incredible and intricately carved examples of architecture I have ever seen. Saul and I learned a great deal about Hinduism, which we always had thought to be a polytheistic religion. We learned that all their deities that are depicted in carvings and art stem from a central concept of the unity and order of the universe. The temple is the focus of a very tight-knit and community-oriented group of people for whom it is truly the center of their lives. We were so happy that we were able to tour this remarkable building and highly recommend the tour to anyone visiting London. It truly should not be missed.

We happily discovered another perk in Ari’s new neighborhood of Hanwell. In Britain, there long has been a tradition of “Sunday Roast,” which usually means slices of roast beef, lamb, and/or pork and Yorkshire pudding, accompanied by sides of “bubble and squeak” (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and a number of other veggie side dishes. In London, every pub has its own version of Sunday Roast. To our delight, not one, but two, neighborhood pubs in Hanwell had delicious options for vegan Sunday Roast with an absolutely delicious nut roast provided cheerfully alongside the other veggie courses in the nearest one, The Green.

After perusing hundreds of options online and in stores for months, Ari decided to go ahead and order a bar cabinet from The Cotswold Company. We were all very pleased with it when it was delivered and assembled.

We all developed a real weakness for Coronation Crisps (Thai chili-flavored potato chips) as the actual Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla drew closer. It was only a few steps away to pick up another bag every time we ran out.

We met Ari’s long-time friend, Andrew, for dinner one evening at a unique restaurant called Kasa and Kin which bills itself as the home of contemporary Filipino flavors. It had a wonderful selection of vegan and vegetarian options which were very unusual for that ethnicity. Our meal was wonderful and we regretted not having the opportunity to visit twice during our stay. We also purchased an assortment of some of the inviting-looking Filipino pastries from their in-house bakery to take home with us.

When asked what some of the highlights of this trip were, I would have to include the day we spent with Ari and Chris at Wisley Gardens. I have visited many botanical gardens in my life, including beautiful Longwood Gardens in Downingtown, PA, where we went on our honeymoon. In London, the gardens are superlative, especially around royal estates. Our experience at Wisley would have to be one of the top three. We arrived by Uber on an absolutely perfect spring day when millions of tulips of every conceivable variety were at their short-lived peak. A well-juried craft fair was taking place in neatly-spaced white tents along our route and colorful vistas spread before us in every direction. I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt just gazing on these wonders of nature with loved ones by my side. The conservatory contained flowers of the most unusual shade of aqua-blue that ordinarily bloom every 25 years under the right conditions, but the professionals had figured out a way to have them blooming more often. Greenhouses abounded with special categories of plants, such as those that grow in crevices, or carnivorous  ones, all presented in the most quaint and artistic settings. Truly a joyful day! To gild the lily (pun intended), we took an Uber to an ancient nearby village, Kingston on Thames, where we strolled the well-worn cobblestone main street soaking up the ambience and history of our surroundings and then strolled the promenade alongside the River Thames to enjoy the sunset (and people-watch) at our outdoor table at Riverside Vegetaria, an award-winning vegetarian restaurant nestled among the myriad restaurants lining the river.

As May began, we found that “the king and the queen could go back to the green*” (*Billy Joel reference) as Steve and Jen drove over to see Ari’s new house and join us at The Green for Sunday Roast. Steve and Jen were the regal bride and groom for whose “wedding of the century” we flew to Lake Como in Italy last year. We had a brilliant time together enjoying our Sunday roasts and soaking up the neighborhood atmosphere, and then walked back to Ari’s to schmooze for a few hours over drinks. Jen is a numbered violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and gave me Zoom violin lessons for over a year during the pandemic when the Orchestra could not perform.

On another of our excursions with Ari, we took the nearby Elizabeth Line train at Hanwell Station into central London where we had lunch at Market Place Vauxhall, a compendium of interesting ethnic food stalls, crossed Vauxhall Bridge in the rain, visited The Tate Museum, and walked for miles afterwards. As we approached Westminster Abbey, we walked past trucks starting to set up for the Coronation, saw the restored Big Ben and listened to its chimes from a pub across the street. We considered going straight home after that, but on the way back to the nearest train station, we caught a bus from Charring Cross to have dinner at Stem & Glory (a new, and wonderful, vegan franchise) which was in a quiet square in Farringdon, ironically across from “Butcher’s Hall.” 

Ari took us to have dinner at an obscure find of his that appears to be an informal gathering spot for singles and groups of friends looking to have an inexpensive date night or gathering. On our way back to a nearby train station from another excursion in Central London we took an escalator up to Market Hall on Oxford Street. One can walk around the warehouse-like setting and choose from many vendors an eclectic variety of food and drink. There is something to suit every taste and pocketbook and tables are set up to accommodate from small groups in wing chairs around a coffee table, to long tables for larger groups, or small tables for small groups. There are no time limitations as to how long you can “hang out” in these comfortable spaces as there would be in a restaurant.

About two weeks after we had selected the materials to assemble Ari’s gardens, they arrived by truck from the nursery and Saul and I began work to plant everything. All arrived in good shape and has continued to thrive since we planted. The difficult part is now done and Ari will be able to replenish as necessary as plants die off.

At the beginning of March, Jess, Alex and Yona sold the large home they were in for the last few years and moved into a new house a bit further away from the synagogue. Their furniture fit very nicely and Jess appears to be a master of organization at facilitating such things while holding down a full-time job at the same time. Yona will be going off to a private boarding school she selected in September, and my children will now be empty nesters (other than during the past 20 summers’ Camp Bubbie and Saba) permanently. As with us, a rainbow shone over their new digs on the first day they moved in.

We had timed our London visit to not only coincide with Passover, but also with the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. In the U.K. this was an all-day televised affair and, having learned our lesson about epic crowds during the Queen’s Jubilee last year, we opted to celebrate at home with our television, British flag augmented floral centerpiece, and homemade Coronation Quiche, Coronation crisps, and other quintessentially British delicacies.

The day after the Coronation, a Coronation Celebration! concert was held at Royal Albert Hall. In a stroke of luck, by refreshing his computer screen several times looking for good seats a few days prior, we happened upon a box on the third level containing four seats, just off-center of the hall and for a very minimal increased fee from the regular seats. We booked it immediately, figuring this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was, in every aspect, just that! Our friend Jen was playing violin there with the Royal Philharmonic and, additionally, it was the Royal Choral Society’s 150th Anniversary Gala Concert, so there was a choir of at least 150 voices backing the full orchestra. The program highlighted favorite historical musical excerpts of the last 150 years. There was also a sing-along with the entire audience at the end to music and lyrics especially written for the Coronation. Everyone could download and practice the music before the concert. To say it was a memorable afternoon would be an understatement. During the intermission, we peered over our balcony to discover that the royal box (denoted by a crown carving above it) was just below us and two boxes to the left. Our friend, Steve, Jen’s husband, was two boxes over from us on our level, and we shared a champagne toast together when Jen came up to join us during the intermission. The whole experience was particularly poignant for me because, in the course of creating my WWII blog, based on my parents’ prodigious quantity of letters and photos sent to each other during the war, I learned of my father’s affinity for concerts at Royal Albert Hall. He often wrote about the size, acoustics, and the great maestros, and wrote very perceptive reviews of his experiences. Among the artifacts I have from this time period are programs which he sent home to my mother with his letters. It was a glorious opportunity to connect with him, his love and appreciation of great classical music, and the Royal Albert Hall itself, which is every bit as majestic as he described it. 

We met Steve at the end, and caught up with Jen (who had secured us a few precious copies of the program) and proceeded to walk a short distance to a restaurant called Stein’s Berlin Restaurant. We had a delectable dinner together. After, we strolled about a mile through Kensington to Hyde Park and had libations outdoors at the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen on a glorious spring day in a magnificent park setting while the sun had begun to set. At the closing of the restaurant, we proceeded on the park’s meandering path, having transferred our remaining drinks to disposable plastic cups. In a coincidence of fate, we passed the verdant spot where Steve had proposed to Jen exactly two years earlier. Jen was almost moved to tears by the serendipity of it all. Continuing past the park to Ari’s old neighborhood, Paddington, we all said our goodbyes and caught our respective trains back home.

On our last night in London, we arranged to meet Ari’s friends, Rebecca, Eldan, and Marian at a downtown restaurant, Caravan City. Chosen for its proximity to Marian and Rebecca’s respective offices and ample selection of vegan dishes. Marian is a vegetarian. We regretted that we have so many photos of our dinner, but none of us. It turned out to be one of our last memorable and convivial dinners in London.

Our flight back from London was a nightmare. Despite downing the stronger British version of Dramamine, Saul again became ill on landing in Newark. We didn’t have much time after landing to catch our flight to Orlando, so despite his illness, we had to pick up our luggage and begin running to our next gate, which we could not find. No one in the airport seemed to know how to direct us to where we needed to be and we walked in circles trying to find our exit to a tram for taking us to another building where we needed to catch our plane. The other building was at the far end of a packed tram ride. Taking the escalator down from the tram, no buses awaited to take us the mile-long walk to the entrance to Terminal A, and being short of time, we huffed our way to the entrance. Once inside, we walked about another six blocks to the farthest check-in for our T.S.A. pre-check approval and discovered we needed to go back to the first one we passed because our tickets were not marked as T.S.A. pre-check. We went through the whole gamut of removing shoes, belt, keys, etc. and discovered in the process of heading for our gate that some element of our carry-on luggage had been left behind for special scanning, so again we back-tracked. We just made it to our gate in time and were the last ones to board the plane. Depending on how you look at it, we were lucky or unlucky because the plane’s air-conditioning was broken and we could not take off until it was repaired. We sat on a plane that had temperatures inside of about 90 degrees for over an hour. Once it was repaired, the pilot pulled out all stops to get us to Orlando speedily. We were met by Rif and Paul at the airport, and were never so happy to be back in our own beds at the end of the ordeal.

Once we had rested up from our journey and restocked the house with food, Rif suggested that we attend the AAHC Asian Cultural Festival taking place in nearby Ocoee that looked like a fun day. It was a much smaller gathering than we had anticipated and was rather like attending a ballet recital while not knowing anyone performing. We enjoyed the performances for an hour or two, roamed the grounds set up with fast food tents for a short while where Paul decided to order two drinks that looked beautiful, but were undrinkable, and then decided to have dinner together at Yellow Dog Eats.

Sami has become an avid crochet artist and among her creations is a whimsical witch’s hat adorned with all kinds of crocheted vines, flowers, small creatures, and toadstools. She also recreates stuffed animals based on Dungeons and Dragons and anime characters and creates beaded jewelry using perler beads and other types of beads. Her creative soul is undiminished almost since birth.

In the ensuing weeks, we have continued our three-mile walks through the Disney Parks. A new addition to Animal Kingdom is a pair of black-and-white swans in the pond at the entrance.

I have begun cutting down on the number of times per month that I host Shabbat dinners for “the compound.” Saul and I are finding that standing for hours while we are preparing has become very taxing on the legs. Nowadays, we take turns sitting as each task is completed. A sour cream pound cake that stuck to my fancy bundt cake pan was marvelous at one of our dinners converted to a gorgeous trifle with our beautiful fresh fruit here in Florida, some vanilla custard sauce, some jam, and some whipped cream. 

A wonderful new change has come into our lives with the formation of a chavurah (friendship group) which meets for religious services in the homes of some of the families with whom we have become friendly over our years of synagogue membership. In the last 10 weeks that we have been meeting, our services have been attended by two to three dozen people and are followed by congenial lunches where we have formed stronger bonds by getting to know each other better. Through Alex and Louis and other sources, we have acquired prayerbooks, chumashim, and a Torah, which is on loan from another synagogue. In connection with this, on the Sunday after one of our first services, we attended a book launch in the home of one of our members which describes his challenges in life with an “invisible disability.” The book is called “In the Eyes of the Statue” by Lon Michael, a poignant autobiography that should be required reading for anyone who teaches.

Through the end of June, we continued to attend the “Garden Rocks” Concerts that are part of Disney’s Flower and Garden Festival, although with the increasingly unusually hot weather, and frequent violent thunderstorms and hailstorms, we are finding it more and more difficult to take advantage of our Disney annual passes. We try to walk either very early in the morning, or around sundown.

As the month drew to a close, we attended Haley and Erik’s “Forty and Floridian” party celebrating their recent move to Tampa, Haley’s 40th birthday at the beginning of May, and their beautiful new penthouse apartment overlooking the river. On our drive to the party, our windshield was hit by a pebble which caused a small crack which in the week that followed before we could schedule a repair, grew across the entire window. Jess, Alex, Yona and Izzy took an extended vacation, first to visit Ari, then two weeks in Israel, followed by another two weeks in London. Izzy returned a bit earlier to resume her classes in Marietta, GA, at Life University.

As of today, everyone is back home from their travels, safe and sound, with wonderful, unique, life-affirming memories that are truly a blessing. What more blessings could anyone ask for?

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Seven Months of Family Vicissitudes

We had an absolutely fabulous time in England and Italy over the beginning part of the summer (see previous blog post). That left late July and August for all the medical stuff we had been putting off for a number of months leading up to this grand vacation. Accordingly, my cataracts, which had been worsening at an increasing pace were surgically repaired about two weeks apart with amazing results. I expected my eyes to feel different or irritated after the procedures, but miraculously, they felt exactly the same only with my old clear eyesight back. What an incredible relief that was when it was all over! Then, a few weeks later, I had a large and painful cystic lump removed from the bottom part of my middle finger. It had been surgically removed 20 years ago, but had gradually grown back had recently become a big annoyance any time it received the slightest bump. The surgery was quick, effective, and left practically no scar. Again, an incredible relief to have that all finished! Our other doctors appointments, eye checkups, wellness checkups, and cardiac checkup for Saul were all very positive. Only my A1C test remains a problem, but I assume that will be a problem for me for the rest of my life, unless there is some miraculous breakthrough in diabetic medication in future years.

Shortly after we returned in July, Sami, who had been faithfully wearing her mask (and was practically the only one to do so) at her job as a concierge at a Disney hotel, came down with Covid. Although she became ill in the middle of the day, they insisted that she finish her shift as there was no one to cover for her. She entered the house through the pool bathroom door that attaches to her bedroom so as not to contaminate us by walking through the house. For the next week, we blocked her doorway with a table on which we placed food, drink and medication for her, and she spent the week in bed. Luckily, only the first few days were rough and Saul and I succeeded in avoiding the dreaded virus.

In our travels restocking the house after our lengthy vacation, we happened upon a delightful, hippyish, restaurant near Costco, Hungry Pants, which provided a really interesting vegan breakfast, although the restaurant is not completely vegan. In the evenings, we were able to catch up with some really wonderful shows at Epcot’s outdoor American Theater at the end of the Food & Wine Festival—Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Christopher Cross, and Air Supply. Yona and Jessica had flown from London back to NJ following Alex home, and then spent a week touring private schools for Yona in the New England area. Before they returned to Orlando to celebrate Sami’s 22nd birthday, Yona had a few days as an only child, drawing in her sketchbook, recreating her mother’s ballet recital pose, creating interesting costumes and makeup, and as ever, baking her wonderful cupcakes and cookies. Besides, celebrating with Sami and hanging out by the pool, in our travels, we happened upon a brand new restaurant named Jacked Up Vegan, that on a Sunday, handed us three separate menus, one including brunch, from which we could choose anything we wanted, including an amazing assortment of unique mocktails. We had an incredible feast that day.

Paul had been having a problem walking, and found a marvelous doctor here in Celebration who was able to reconstruct the bones in his toe. Although he was getting around with a knee scooter for a while, after a few weeks, he was able to join us for a walk through Disney to do a “gingerbread crawl” to view all the various huge installations in many places in the parks and hotels. The Israeli branch of the family continues to grow and thrive.

Orlando is home to a month of “Magical Dining” which means that participating restaurants offer various three course menus for a fixed price of $35. Although it is difficult to find places that accommodate both vegan (for us) and meat-eating diets (for friends and family), we were able to greatly enjoy two that met those criteria—DoveCote and Vinia. The proprietor at Vinia was extremely helpful. Paul was still on his knee scooter and he met our car in front of the restaurant, told us where to park in the back driveway so that Paul could roll up the ramp and be seated comfortably. The food was absolutely wonderful, but is a bit pricey when Magic Dining is done. The same can be said for DoveCote. For our 51st wedding anniversary on September 2, we were able to snag an early morning reservation at Boma, our favorite breakfast buffet at Jambo House at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Sami and Izzy surreptitiously arrived while we were breakfasting, paid our check utilizing Sami’s cast member discount at the hostess station, and left. It was a lovely anniversary surprise.

Cousin Ellen arrived and was staying with Ken. We arranged a day at the Morse Museum of Glass in Winter Park and had a fantastic, multi-course dinner together at Sebastian’s Bistro in the Caribbean Beach Resort. Some weeks later, we repeated the same dinner with Ari and Rif and Paul. After dinner, Saul, Ari and I took a long stroll through the resort area and the Riviera Resort area, completely around the lagoon at the center. 

One of the other downsides of these last seven months was that Ari was laid off the week before the purchase of his beautiful new home in London. That certainly put a damper on our joy. The system in England does not leave one without a parachute, however. He was put on what is known in England as “garden leave” which requires his company to extend him three months salary, in addition to his month’s worth of unused vacation and sick leave pay. Unfortunately, in the present economic climate, and although he has been diligent about seeking new employment, no offerings have been forthcoming as of this writing. An upside, if you can call it that, was the death of Queen Elizabeth and her funeral a few days after he moved in. That gave the entire country a few days off and he was free to attend and photograph the various ceremonies. Little by little, he acquired the bare basics furniture that he needed to live comfortably.

We had a tremendous hurricane when Ian blew through Florida, but after Irma, we at least knew that our windows would hold and not blow in, so we could weather the storm more comfortably at home, only moving into the garage our outdoor furniture and potted plants. We had a very scaled-back Rosh Hashanah lunch this year with only Elaine attending. Jessica managed to visit Saul’s parent’s graves in Mt. Sharon cemetery up north as is our custom at this time of the year.

In between festivals, the Disney Parks are not so crowded. There was only one ride in all the parks that I had not been on, only because the lines were always so long for a pretty insignificant ride. On a slow day in Magic Kingdom, Saul and I finally got to ride the Astro Orbiter. We tried to squeeze into one spaceship, but it was too small, so we rode separately. Afterwards, we photographed a practically empty plaza that is usually crowded with people.

In ten years that we have lived in Florida, we have only had harmless geckos in the house a handful of times, therefore, we were greatly surprised to find one on the handle of Saul’s hairbrush one morning. They are very beneficial at eating harmful insects, so we generally trap them and release them back outside. At Sami’s job, there was a cupcake contest during Halloween, She made mini bundt pumpkins which were sweet potato cake with an orange-dyed brown sugar icing and won a prize for them. 

Saul and I continue taking advantage of the beautiful winter Florida weather and the nearby Disney Parks for long, interesting strolls, getting some great Animal Kingdom photos and enjoying great concerts at the American Theater at Epcot, such as Boyz II Men. The trash cans at Disney are kept so spotless that you can eat off them, literally. We happened upon a couple who had purchased a set on Etsy designed specifically for that purpose. Unfortunately, in November, Saul and I came down with Influenza A a day apart. We were given this news in the emergency room in Celebration Hospital, where I required an I.V., unfortunately, but we were relieved to find that at least it wasn’t Covid. The upside was that Saul was okay for my ordeal in the E.R. so we knew what he had and what medication he needed. We both laid in bed for a week, while Sami put a table in front of our door, and brought us tea, her homemade soup, and medication. Luckily, we were over it just in time for the family to fly in for Thanksgiving, and luckily, before we came down with the flu, I had already begun preparing for it. Izzy drove in from her college in Marietta, Georgia to join us, and it was such a pleasure to have the whole family together again.

Another upside of Ari’s situation, was that he was able to spend an extended period of time with us during December and into January. During that time, Beth visited us with her delightful friend, John. A visit from Sami’s friend, Max, overlapped with Ari’s visit, and we had an incredible day doing a “gingerbread crawl” around Disney after Saul and I had a great, early-morning breakfast at Boma together with Rif and Paul, Sami, Max, Beth, John, and Ari. As usual, the gingerbread installations were mind-boggling.

One of our favorite places to spend a gorgeous, breezy, Florida-winter afternoon is Chef Art Smith’s Homecoming Kitchen. Our favorite table is on the screened, covered deck, overlooking the lagoon. After that, we walk off our meal with a stroll around Disney Springs, sometimes skirting the golf course that is part of the Saratoga Springs Resort on the other side of the lagoon. We began our evening at Cirque du Soleil’s “Drawn to Life” at this restaurant. The tickets were a present from Sami. The show itself is so amazing that afterward, I felt that the whole world should see it sometime. When people ask me if the tickets are worth the money, I can only rhapsodize enthusiastically that “yes, yes, yes”! they should see it.

This year for Chanukah, I just made lots and lots of my vegan, oil-free latkes, as it turned out that not only did we like them better, but everyone else was happy eating them as well. We all got together for latkes, donuts from Donut King, light snacks, drinks, and lighting the Chanukah candles together. Izzy came in for an extended period of time because she was on winter break. Chanukah also coincided with Rif’s birthday, and for the Shabbat dinner celebrating her birthday, she requested a carrot cake and coconut flan for dessert among other things. Elaine invited us over for a Shabbat dinner at her house one Friday. For New Year’s Eve, Ari and Izzy went out to buy fireworks again, with each year producing a more elaborate display. We hosted a New Year’s Day breakfast of lox, whitefish salad, with the accompanying accoutrements, and leftovers from the previous evening.

After Jessica’s family left, Ari made it his mission to find interesting new restaurants and things to do here in Florida. One morning, we had breakfast at the Maple Street Biscuit Company in Celebration before heading off to Disney so Ari could ride the new “Guardians of the Galaxy” ride in Epcot. One morning we took a very long walk and explored areas in Saratoga Springs that we had not seen before, such as the “Tree Houses” section of the Resort. We wandered so far afield that some Disney cast members offered us a ride back to the main resort on one of their maintenance golf carts, for which we were very grateful. We had breakfast at the Celebration Diner on a Sunday morning, explored the Sunday Farmer’s Market there, and then took a long and scenic walk completely around the lake there—something I did not know was possible in all my ten years of visiting Celebration. 

Another unique and interesting excursion that Ari had proposed was visiting Tarpon Springs, apparently the hub of one of the largest Greek Orthodox communities in the country, for Epiphany. We invited our friend, Ed, who now lives in The Villages here in Florida, was formerly married to Beth, and lived next door to us up north for a few years. Ed is Greek Orthodox, had always wanted to see the unique ceremony performed there, and happened to be free on that particular day. Towards the end of our two hour ride, in Wesley Chapel, Ari had even scoped out a wonderful restaurant, The Brunchery, now known as Egg Town, that had delicious vegan fare as well as the usual Southern fixings, for breakfast. We found a convenient parking spot in Tarpon Springs, and after the service (during which we waited in a large crowd outside the church) which is held in the large and imposing church for members only, the community, led by their priest and church officials leads a procession of community members and competing teenagers for a few streets down to the water. There, the appropriately-dressed teenagers swim to a ring of boats as the competition is about to start. The priest, from a dock opposite the ring of boats, throws a large golden cross into the lake. The teenagers dive from the boats and the first one to retrieve the cross is blessed and guaranteed a year of good luck and prosperity. It was a very chilly day as we stood outside the church, but thankfully for those wet souls, the afternoon sun produced our usual Florida hot weather. The town holds many activities in their social halls, including food and dancing, but the venues were so crowded that after observing the Greek dancing for a while, we opted to find a nearby Greek restaurant for a late lunch. We lucked out in that we found parking and a not-too-crowded, highly-rated restaurant in which to have a congenial repast. Before heading home, we patronized the Greek bakery across the street for a supply of braided bread, baklava and other similar Greek pastries made with phyllo, walnuts, and honey.

In the course of our conversations, we realized that Ari had never gone with us to Bok Tower Gardens. We had once tried, during Covid, but the crowds were so overwhelming that we opted to go for a walk around a lake in a nearby vicinity. We went to visit Bok Tower on a beautiful temperate day and added this unique experience to Ari’s repertoire. The camellias were in full bloom, along with other beautiful flowers, and the campanile player was giving lessons in the tower to a student.

Perhaps the most unique of all our day trips was our visit to “Solomon’s Castle.” A quirky and clever artist who built his pieces from discarded industrial materials and found objects, Howard Solomon created his “castle” in Ona, Florida. Unfortunately, most of the property was built on swampland that flooded severely during Hurricane Ian. But our visit proved most worthwhile, anyway, and we were wowed by the body of work he produced, his clever use of shiny outcast offset print plates to clad his castle, his themed, stained glass windows, the ark he built to house a restaurant and gift shop, and his exemplary antique car collection. Before Ari found this place, I had never heard of it or the Florida town where it resides in “the middle of nowhere.” The day we visited, there were a surprising number of people there for the tour and to patronize the restaurant. On our drive back home, we received a most shocking phone call. Saul, David and Max had been the closest of friends in high school. Several years ago, they discovered that they were all living in Florida. Before Covid, we had all gotten together here in Orlando several times as all the wives knew each other from high school days as well. The shocking news was that Max had gone out after breakfast for his daily several-mile walk and was hit and killed by a car as he was crossing a roadway. Our shock and dismay was nothing compared to that of his wife and two daughters. It was a very sad reminder to us that no matter what petty upsetting and inconvenient traumas we were experiencing, they pale by comparison to what others are enduring, and we must make the most of each day we are given.

We revisited Animal Kingdom with Ari and were pleased to see that the Tumble Monkeys and the flying Blue Bird Ballerina have returned to the Festival of the Lion King Show. At Hollywood Studios, we also took a picture in front the the access door that serves as entrance and egress for the cosseted guests staying at the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Hotel. On the same excursion, we had lunch at a new restaurant for us—Veggie Garden Vegan Vietnamese Kitchen. The food was exotic, and very flavorful, not to mention reasonable. Saul and I went back on another occasion in February, only to find that the restaurant is closed on Wednesdays. The door was open and the two ladies who were having lunch (employees) went into the kitchen to see if they would serve us, but the kitchen staff was afraid if we were seen eating that others would demand to be served as well. In desperation, we wound up eating at a vegan place that we had passed many times, Loving Hut. It doesn’t look very inviting from the outside, but the pho we had there was probably the best vegan pho we have ever had. Ari was here for the start of Disney’s Festival of the Arts, and we all got to sample some of the delectable offerings in the kiosks around Epcot.  We also went there with Rif and Paul for an evening concert, although they were not so happy with their samplings. We also went back to Celebration for another stroll around the lake before Ari left for London.

The evening Fantasmic show at Hollywood Studios had been shut down for a few years because of Covid until the last few months. The crowds had been huge as soon as they reopened, but Saul and I ventured over there one evening, shortly after Ari left, to see the new iteration. The costumes and sets had all been refurbished (the show had gotten a bit shabby in recent years), and some of the “politically incorrect” skits, such as those involving Pocahontas had been replaced with more recent movie characters like Moana. It was nice to have the show back again in all its glory. I couldn’t resist posing with one of the 3-D chalk drawings at the Arts Festival at Epcot. I love them, but I will henceforth limit myself to ones I can stand on. I had a terrible time getting up from my sitting position on the pavement, even with the wall alongside to bolster me. Another new addition to Epcot is a little thing, but it creates lots of joy for both adults and children waiting for others at the restrooms outside the Odyssey Building. A box that looks like the back of an air conditioner blows prodigious amounts of soap bubbles filled with smoke that wafts away as you pop the bubbles. 

Many times in our excursions around the parks, we will see people taking pictures of their families and offer to take the photo for them so that they can be in the scene also. It usually affords a chance to chat a bit with far-flung visitors, who can be very interesting. One evening in Epcot, just such a situation presented itself. Usually, we take the photo with their camera, but they were having trouble with their flash. So we took the photo with our camera and shared it with them. They were, perhaps, the most interesting of all the people we have met. They are Jewish Canadians from Montreal who might be interested in moving to our area and wanted to discuss neighborhoods that we thought would be good to check out. What made them the most interesting, however, was what Eli Batalion does for a living. He and his friend, Jamie Elman create an award-winning Yiddish comedy web series on YouTube, Yid Life Crisis, which provided us with hours of hilarious, if very irreverent, entertainment. Every segment is performed in Yiddish with English subtitles and a bit of French thrown in as well. Saul only occasionally gets to hear or speak Yiddish, so this was really a joy for him, and he loved when he got to explain to me the nuances of Yiddish that are lost in the English translations.

Towards the end of January, Paul and Rif treated us to a concert by Jason Isbell at the Walt Disney Theater in the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. My cousin, Ellen, had mentioned wanting to see a show at the theater, and in all this time in Orlando, I had to Google it to learn about it. What I didn’t realize was that there are three theaters side-by-side in one absolutely architecturally-stunning modern building. Seeing these venues were almost as good as the concert itself, which was, believe me, excellent.

As the Festival of the Arts wound to a close, we enjoyed the “Disney on Broadway” concerts at Epcot, featuring the amazingly talented Broadway actors who wowed us with their superb voices and snippets of their acting and dancing roles. We watched an artist who created a painting in front of the eyes of a large crowd using his fingers and brushes. When finished he, surprisingly, flipped the canvas upside-down to reveal an artistic portrait of Minnie Mouse. A first for us, even after 10 years of exploring the Disney Parks, was discovering a small remote section of Dino Land in Animal Kingdom that we had never accessed. It may not be there much longer as I understand the area is due to be replaced shortly with a “Zootopia” theme.

Although we had just been to Bok Tower Gardens with Ari, we couldn’t resist the invitation, as members, to get a little closer to the inner sanctum beyond the fanciful, dragon-encrusted, locked iron gates of the tower. In front is the tombstone of Edward William Bok, who funded the building of the tower and gardens. Once a year, the gates are opened for members to pose in front of the elaborately decorated brass doors at the entrance to the tower. The doors depict the story of Genesis. We waited in a long line for about 45 minutes for the privilege, but it was fun chatting with those around us who had such diverse life stories.

We had a nice crowd for a Shabbat Tu B’Shevat (Sabbath New Year of the Trees) seder and dinner this year. I love the scavenger hunt of trying to find a nice assortment of fruit for the centerpiece and the four symbolic categories that represent the four seasons. Winn-Dixie, thankfully, had the four different colors of Kedem grape juice for the brachot (blessings) that accompany the four platters of tree fruits and nuts. The whole meal was designed to showcase the bounty we enjoy that the trees provide for us.

At the beginning of February, we received a photo from the Israeli cousins that the family is growing by leaps and bounds.

A downer in February was discovering one morning that some of our ensuite shower tiles had cracked and collapsed into the floor. A small hairline crack in a few tiles had apparently led to water seeping in and destroying the integrity of the wall behind. The upside of that same thing was that the old shower tile could not be repaired, and I got to choose a stunning, new, large, marbled-porcelain tile pattern that will have practically no grout lines, will go from floor to ceiling, will surround the adjacent bathtub, and, to boot, I can now redesign and have a wheelchair-accessible shower, which I hope we will never need. Not a good time for the expense, but it was one of the things we considered redoing because of the hairline crack when we bought the house ten years ago. As if this weren’t enough, during this crisis, our insurance company sent us a letter saying our policy would be cancelled unless we replace our roof.

When Sami visited London, and we needed to get her to Tampa International Airport, Rif decided to join us for the ride. Paul was involved with a Ham Radio convention at the time. After dropping Sami at the airport, we travelled on to Clearwater Beach where we snagged a really good parking spot and watched the gorgeous sunset from our table at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on the beach as we had dinner before leaving for the drive back home after rush hour.

During February, we continued our strolls in the Park as the weather continued absolutely beautiful, and planted our seeds—heirloom tomatoes, unusual basils, and flowers. When Sami returned from her fabulous London vacation, we worked together to produce the best hamantaschen we have ever made to distribute to friends and neighbors during the March holiday of Purim.

Breaking with tradition, Saul and I booked a flight to London for Passover this year. We plan to Zoom into the family seder, which Ari usually does himself, and it will probably take place here in Florida when Jess, Alex and Yona arrive to enjoy their spring vacation. 

It certainly has been several months of uncertainty and trauma, highs and lows, ups and downs, but we are trying to take each day as it comes and make the most of it. Having written all this down now, I realize that the good far outweighs the bad, especially when compared to the problems many others face. We will try to keep a positive outlook, no matter what the future holds because we know that we are uncommonly blessed.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Six Weeks of Sublime Celebration


Click here for additional photos.

I feel compelled to begin this blog post by saying that we all feel extremely blessed that all of these celebrations took place over a long period of time in which any one of us could have caught Covid, which would have certainly put a damper on the festivities at any point in time. This was the vacation of a lifetime which we could not even imagine would turn out as it did and I can write about it now knowing that we are all safe and healthy and back home.

The celebrations in May began with Izzy’s graduation from Polk State College where she received an Associate’s Degree in Health Sciences. This was followed by Sami’s graduation where she received an Associate’s Degree in Hospitality from Valencia University. Following that Izzy received an E.M.R. certification at a special ceremony. Then, we attended Izzy’s high school graduation. Technically, she received her Associates before she graduated from high school. Then, Sami graduated from New College in Sarasota with a B.A. majoring in Mandarin Chinese. Graduates from New College dress for graduation in a quirky mix of clothing that they each choose to represent what they aspire to be in the future. Sami came dressed as Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, and her outfit was, by far, one of the tamer choices. All five graduations were, in their own unique way, a triumph, and we were so glad to be able to attend them all. Due to Covid, all were Zoomed live on closed circuit television, so all members of the family who were not present could watch them receive their degrees.

Sami’s New College graduation was the last of the five on Friday, May 20. On the evening of the 21st, Saul, Jessica and I were driven to Tampa Airport by our friend, Larry, (Sami and Izzy were working) and flew up north to Cherry Hill, where we rendezvoused with Ari who had flown in from London to Newark Airport a little earlier in the day, leased a car, and driven to Cherry Hill. It was the first time Saul and I had been up north since Izzy’s bat mitzvah five years ago and the first time we saw Jess and Alex’s home in Chanticleer in person. We spent the first night there, and then Ari, Saul and I drove to Ocean City where we had rented a beautiful vacation rental from Sunday through Thursday of that week. Ari had been craving some time by the beach, and Ocean City brought back many memories of our annual family vacations there when our kids were little. Jessica and Alex had their hands full that week with arrangements for Yona’s bat mitzvah, and with photography, services, and festive meals to take place that Friday and Shabbat of May 27, and 28. 

Ari, Saul, and I had a lovely and peaceful stay at the beach, gazing at the surf, wandering the boardwalk, making footprints in the sand, and checking out all the vegan and vegetarian options available at nearby restaurants. We also had the opportunity one afternoon to reconnect with our old friends, Ruth and Giora, at their family’s summer place in nearby Ventnor, where we got to catch up on old times and together stroll the Atlantic City boardwalk. The three of us revisited the Atlantic City boardwalk further down a few days later to check out any new developments near the casinos. The weather was okay, but somewhat cold and windy, which discouraged us from taking a dip in the chilly Atlantic. We found some wonderful restaurants in Ocean City, which we had mostly to ourselves before the crowds began to arrive the Thursday ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

The first evening, we dined on a bench while gazing at the Atlantic from Ocean City’s Boardwalk. We picked up take-out meals at Crunchik’n which had some delicious vegetarian options for us. You can customize your bowl from a list of choices and we were all very pleased with our orders. In the morning, we headed out to nearby Dockside Kitchen, where we sat at rustic tables on a covered dock and gazed at the bay while we enjoyed our ample breakfasts. Ari had the Lobster Benedict, which was pricey, but exceptional. The service was great that day, but on another day when we returned, the help was brand new and finding her way. Our favorite breakfast was at Jon and Patty’s Coffee Bar & Bistro, to which we returned every chance we got. Unfortunately, the crowds felt the same way and on our last day, the lines for a table were just too long. The morning we went to Ventnor, we had breakfast at Hannah G’s, which had a nice selection of vegetarian choices, but we had been spoiled by our other experiences, and found the breakfast pretty ordinary. One evening, after our lengthy excursions walking the beach and boardwalk in Ocean City, Saul and Ari picked up an order of Chinese take-out from Ocean Garden Kitchen. The food was very reasonable, delicious, and really ample in quantity. Another place we tried when we finished walking the boardwalk in Atlantic City was Vegans Are Us. Saul and I had really yummy vegan cheesesteaks for dinner and Ari had a Buffalo Chick’n sandwich at this little gem of a restaurant. We were so impressed that we inquired about the franchise. To pass an afternoon of iffy weather, we went to the Tilton Square Movie Theater where we saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once” a very unusual movie with which we were all impressed. Just down the street was a AAA office, where we conveniently arranged an international driver’s license for Ari. We had already arranged ours before leaving Florida. The last morning at Dockside Kitchen, we videoed a flock of baby seagulls being supervised by a seagull “nanny” which made us realize that we had never seen baby seagulls before. They are brown and white until fledged. Our time in Ocean City was as relaxed and comfortable as we had hoped it would be and gave us a respite that we all needed before all the excitement of Yona’s bat mitzvah.

As Yona (her name means “dove” in Hebrew) rehearsed, under the careful tutelage of her father and Cantor Jen, and Jessica readied all the “flair” for her celebration (including take-home soup or drink mugs with her “dove” logo, family-made hand-crocheted kippot with adorable kippah clips, gorgeously decorated cookies by another relative, etc.) Ari, Saul, and I traveled from Ocean City to our Hampton Inn Hotel in nearby Mt. Laurel. We were not pleased with our rooms there as they appeared to have been flooded at one time and then hastily patched up. Meanwhile, various members of our family had arrived for the festivities, including her sisters, Sami and Izzy (who had to stay behind us for a few days because of their jobs at Disney World, Aunt Rifka and Uncle Paul, and Uncle Kenny. All flew up from Florida for the event. Uncle Aaron and Aunt Stacy and their kids drove up from Maryland. Yona’s other grandmother was still convalescing from recent successful brain surgery. Since photography is not permitted on Shabbat, the actual day of the bat mitzvah, we all met on Friday morning for a formal photo session. Afterwards, Saul, Ari and I went back to the hotel to change. When we arrived back at Jess and Alex’s home after changing into our Friday evening clothing at our hotel, we had a small lunch snack and then headed to Center City, Philadelphia, in a tremendous rain storm, to pick up the Chinese food that Jess ordered for dinner that night.  On Friday evening, after services led masterfully by our family, we continued to welcome in Shabbat with the delicious vegetarian Chinese take-out buffet, and spent the evening schmoozing.

The bat mitzvah on Saturday morning was incredibly fulfilling and meaningful for us and we were kvelling the whole time at the talent and sense of humor of our intelligent and beautiful granddaughters, daughter, and son-in-law, to competently pull off such a lovely, joyful, beautiful celebration of Yona’s progression into womanhood. Yona’s bat mitzvah d’var Torah (speech) was unique, thoughtful, and full of humor as well. She was incredibly poised. The party afterward was fun and festive, and we all had a chance to catch up with family members and friends whom we hadn’t seen in years. The food was not the usual bat mitzvah fare and was delicious. Yona had chosen grilled cheese sandwiches with home-made tomato soup as one of her courses, and because she is somewhat lactose-intolerant, the dessert table included a cookie dough bar along with the usual ice-cream selection with all kinds of toppings.

On Sunday, Ari ordered a new Apple watch, which we picked up later at the Apple store, and where I also stopped into DSW Shoe warehouse and bought a new pair of shoes to go with my outfit. We stopped at an EMS store, also, to get Alex sunglasses. We breakfasted on bagels and the renowned borekas from Chef Michael Solomonov. Ari was due to fly home to London from Newark (returning the rental car) that afternoon. Jessica, Yona, Saul and I were on a plane the following day to join him there. Alex drove us to Kennedy Airport in New York. Ari, being a frequent flyer, had much better food and accommodations on the airplane. We arrived at Gatwick Airport, which was bedecked with reminders of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, where we were met by a Carrot Car driver holding a sign with Yona’s name, to take us to his flat. Ari’s flat, (oxymoron alert!) was a “mews” home on four floors connected by a set of circular stairs. Saul and I were in a lovely room and bath on the fourth floor. We unloaded our gear, rested, and that evening walked to a nearby, inviting Indian Restaurant, Taste of India, where we shared our favorite dishes. London is known to have some of the best Indian restaurants in the world.

The next morning, Ari took Jessica and Yona for a walk around the neighborhood and returned with provisions from the nearby shops and restaurants for breakfast. Thus fortified, we set out for nearby Kensington Palace Gardens and Hyde Park, which are connected. Ari’s immediate neighborhood, a narrow cobblestone alleyway in which, once upon a time, horses were hooked up to carriages, and then trotted through a stone archway and around to the front of the grand manors to transport their wealthy owners, is now filled by neighbors with all varieties of potted flowers, trees, and flowering vines. Most of the old grand manor houses have been transformed into hotels and apartments. Ari’s flat was once a stable. We observed all this as we began our walk, eventually arriving at the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Along the way, Yona delighted in feeding the swans, ducks, squirrels and pigeons with seeds and nuts that Ari keeps for that purpose. At the fountain, although the weather was a bit chilly, Yona and eventually, Jessica, went wading along with a host of others, mostly English children accompanied by their siblings, nannies, and parents. The fountain seems to have been designed for wading. Ari joined us in the park after work, where he had a Pimm’s Cup and we had a snack at the restaurant, The Serpentine Lido Café near the fountain before walking back home.

On the following day, we decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of my favorites in London, which is completely on the other side of the parks. After a lovely, but tiring, walk through both parks, we spent several more tiring, but enlightening, hours touring this wonderful museum. Heading out into a rather warm afternoon, we began searching for a suitable place for a late lunch and to rejuvenate before the lengthy walk home. Within a very short distance, we happened upon My & Sanné which was a gem of a restaurant. Not only was the over-the-top ambience amazing (we felt as if we were in a charming French garden), but the food was delicious and presented in the most beautiful tableware imaginable. I wanted to bring home every piece I saw, from the gorgeous glass teapot to the cast-iron skillets with handles shaped like the Eiffel Tower in which our shakshuka was served, not to mention all the other plates, cups, glassware, saucers, etc. Thus refreshed, we chose a different route for the walk home and took a short cut through an archway in a wall that was preserved by the neighborhood that had been created by a bomb during the “blitz” in WWII.

Thursday, June 2, marked the beginning of the festivities for the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee. We arose very early and, thankfully, the six of us, Ari, Jess, Yona, Chris (Ari’s friend), Saul and I, were able to find seating at tiny (and popular) Les Filles, our favorite café, down the street from Ari’s flat. Fortified by a scrumptious breakfast, we began our walk through denser and denser crowds to the gate where we hoped to enter to view the parade and ceremonies. Arriving, we found throngs of people ringing the guards who were telling them that the area was now off-limits because of the huge crowds. We proceeded to travel from entrance to entrance, finding them all closed, until we reached an almost dead-end street, where we were literally up against a wall. The only exit was down a narrow flight of stairs to a lower level street. Yona and I were becoming so freaked out by the size of the crowd that we decided to skirt it around the edges and walk back home to watch everything on television. As we made our way back, we found ourselves in Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery. The museum was free, and as it turned out, a good place to cool off, get out of the crowds, and enjoy some of the work of the great masters. We really lucked out, as the uncrowded museum allowed us the pleasure of watching the nearby proceedings on our iPhones while ensconced on comfy leather sofas in front of the beautiful artwork. The next room, contained the original of Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers,” as well as Seurat’s exquisite “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette.”

As the first ceremonies and parades ended, we were getting a bit hungry, so we tried to pick up a bit of a snack at the museum’s cafeteria, Muriel’s Café. A kind and interesting American tourist, who now is retired to Portugal, allowed the six of us to share her table in the now very-crowded cafeteria. We had a lovely conversation while waiting for the Jubilee Flyover to take place. Right outside the museum steps, we inadvertently found one of the best places we could have chosen in the huge crowd, to watch the Flyover. Our vantage point allowed us to video the amazing ceremony with its grand variety of airplanes and impressive flying formations.

When that celebration ended, we began our walk through less and less dense crowds, through bunting decorated streets, to our destination, The Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair, for a traditional afternoon English tea. On the way, we passed by a store featuring formula car racing merchandise, and stopped in so that Chris, who is a big fan, and Yona could try their hands on a racing car simulator. We also photographed a colorfully-decorated shop window that impressed us with incredible origami animals and a whole forest scene. Another photo-op on our route was a park bench containing bronze sculptures of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

When we arrived at the Chesterfield, we met with Ari’s friend, Rebecca, and her two boys, Byron and Dylan, who had also been attending the Jubilee. Ari had selected and booked this particular tea months in advance, based on their reviews and the fact that they had three different menus—vegan, vegetarian, and regular. The tearoom itself was the quintessential image of a British tearoom. We were ushered into the recessed, large round table at the center of this most elegant room. Our waitstaff catered to our every need and request. The tea sandwiches, vapor-emitting pink beverages, and pastries were exquisitely presented and scrumptious, and we were quickly brought an unlimited quantity of whatever favorites we requested. Amid all this luxury, we continued to dine, reluctant for the experience to be over. We stayed as long as we could respectably get away with, and when finally, too glutted to eat or drink another bite, we were given goody bags to fill with sweets from the beautifully appointed assortment set up on a painted street cart and buffet. We emerged reticently onto the streets of the lovely, classic Mayfair neighborhood to walk off our guilty pleasures on the path home. Skirting the parks, we took pictures in front of the Marble Arch and came across a picturesque old cottage, which I hope to interpret as a gingerbread house someday. All through London, there are sculptures of Corgi dogs, the Queen’s favorites, painted in various styles, depending on the artist.

Each day of our vacation was unique. Another Jubilee experience we had booked months in advance was a visit to the “Superbloom” at the “The Tower of London.” We began this day, with breakfast at Raffles, where we had respectable vegetarian options for breakfast. We rode the newly-opened “Elizabeth Line” to the Tower, marveling at the cleanliness and sleekness of the new tunnels and cars. We had read that the Superbloom, due to weather, was not yet up to par, but we found it quite beautiful and well worth the price of admission. Our younger contingent, taking advantage of the fun sliding board, entrance, had a memorable entrance. Unfortunately, Jessica had a little too many painful memories of the hard landing she encountered at the bottom. After viewing the Superbloom, we went on to tour the Tower of London area, and view the “Crown Jewels.” Yona was particularly interested in the Tower ravens and spent a long time watching them and discussing them with their liveried caretakers.

Walking along the Thames, we headed for Borough Market, which was unusually crowded. Our group split up there, and grazed on some of the appealing street foods available. Saul and I had a delicious plate of mushroom risotto, cooked in front of us. We all, in our separate travels through the market, bought various foods from the many stands knowing we would be cooking for and attending Rebecca’s block party. Our Friday night banquet dinner at Ari’s was vegetarian Thai and came from another nearby favorite restaurant of ours, Banana Tree.

Ari had never taken a tour of the Parliament building in London, and had been wanting to see it for several years. Again, he had booked tickets for us in advance, and while that particular tour had never been on our “radar,” the experience proved to be remarkably interesting, informative, and eye-opening. After another amazing breakfast, we all piled into a traditional English black cab, which dropped us off across the street from this most impressive and ancient building where we spent several hours wandering about using our self-guided tours provided by the building tours reps. 

We had been invited to attend a street fair in Rebecca’s neighborhood and intended to make a number of American specialties to take to the “pot-luck” supper. We prepared a strawberry pie (mostly by Yona), home-made macaroni and cheese, corn bread, and capresé salad with burrata, fresh basil, heirloom tomatoes and balsamic dressing.  Rather than carrying our bounty on a train, Ari called a black cab to take us to Rebecca’s place. She had ordered a bunch of English delicacies for us all to enjoy, and prepared a Jubilee-themed, decorated cake for the block party contest. It won second prize. She had prepared thoughtfully and carefully for the occasion, and had all the necessary accoutrements to make our picnic special. It wasn’t the usual block party, as most people brought and ate their own food due to Covid concerns, but we did get to socialize and swap some food with the neighbors towards the end. We were especially happy that the weather held out to allow us all the fun we had.

The next morning, Saul, Ari and I were due to board an airplane for Lake Como, Italy, to attend the wedding of Jennifer Christie and Steve Petts. We had pleaded with Ari to accompany us to Italy, knowing his love of travel to new places, and he graciously made some wonderful arrangements for us there, including a charming vacation rental in the ancient lakeside town of Lenno. The wedding was to take place at the Villa Balbianello, which was a short walk from our place, but we discovered, early on, that it would be a steep and hour-long climb up a mountain to reach it. We flew into Milan, the closest airport to Lake Como, where Ari had rented an electric Renault to drive us back and forth. We were wowed by the fantastic scenery as he drove us through narrow and winding cobblestone streets to our destination. I think that, perhaps, I have never in all my travels, seen a locale as picturesque and stunning as the areas around Lake Como.

We really lucked out as, parking our car on a lot down the street, we hurried to meet the owner of our rental property and got into the villa just seconds before the sky opened up with a driving thunderstorm with some added hail just for good measure. Waiting out the few minutes of the storm gave us an opportunity to chat with the owner about the charming property, which he had inherited from his grandmother and fully renovated, preserving some of the hundred year old features of the house.

Jessica and Yona remained at Ari’s house while we were in Italy. Jessica, who had taken a week off from her remote job, needed to get back to work. Chris and Yona bonded during those four days with Chris showing Yona around London and her mother taking care of the remaining time in her off hours.

On our first evening in Lenno, we were invited to a “Meet and Greet” party at Ristorante Terrazze a lago in a neighboring town about a half hour away. Jen looked absolutely stunning in her bright yellow designer dress! This was our first opportunity to get to know the rest of the family and reconnect with her mother, Margaret, and friend, Seonid, who had stayed with us while Jen ran in the Princess Marathon at Disney five years ago. The party was wonderful with lots of delicious hors d’oeuvres and drinks. On returning to our parking spot, we were impressed with the beauty of the lantern-lit cemetery of Lenno, which was unlike any we had ever seen previously.

Saul and I had a quick, but wonderful, breakfast the next morning at a little lakeside café next to our villa, Il Golfo. We had caprese sandwiches and cappuccino. After dressing for the wedding, the three of us headed to The Grand Hotel Imperiale, about a half hour’s drive away, where the reception was to take place that evening and where we were to catch a yacht that would take us to the wedding venue itself at Villa Balbianello. Fortuitously, the hotel had a plug-in parking place for our electric vehicle which allowed us to recharge free because the type of charger matched the free charge card given to us by the rental agency. The journey with the other guests was a 40-minute delight as we traversed a large portion of the lake viewing quaint, ancient towns, and spectacular villas. When we docked at the Villa Balbianello, we were greeted by the strains of a very competent bagpiper from Napoli (which is a story in itself) who led us up the winding path to the summit where the wedding was to take place. Before the arrival of the wedding party itself, we were entertained musically by some of Jen’s very talented musician friends, including Seonid. The stunning wedding party arrived in separate boats and proceeded up the steep, winding path with the bagpiper leading the way. The service itself was conducted by an Italian official in Italian accompanied by an official from the Villa who translated into English. The recessional was followed by the serving of celebratory drinks a bit further down the mountain, where we had a chance to get to know some of the other guests, and observe the delightful antics of the children in the wedding party as the photographer attempted to capture the proper series of photos that are expected at such occasions. Saul, Ari and I wandered about the gardens of the Villa for some time and literally were bowled over by the spectacular vistas and painstaking and meticulous landscaping. It seemed that not a blade of grass was out of place and so manicured were the extensive trees, vines and hedges that not a leaf seemed out of place either. Reluctantly, we left the brilliant and memorable scene for the awaiting yacht to take us back to the hotel for the reception.

The early-evening reception was preceded by a cocktail party with tasty and unique hors d’oeuvres and drinks at an outdoor area alongside the lake. The three of us had a delightful time chatting with some of Jen’s old friends from school back in Glasgow and some of her family members. An obviously elated bride and groom arrived by boat a short time later to join the festivities. The venue at the hotel was an extravagantly-appointed indoor/outdoor terraced room overlooking the lake. Every meal had been carefully and individually choreographed and the waitstaff was extremely attentive to every need. The food was beautifully prepared and delicious. Jen had obviously taken a hand in choosing each detail from the party favors (small bottles of Scotch for the men and chocolates with a key charm for the women, as well as custom-made name place holders) to the lovely flower bouquet centerpieces. Heartfelt toasts were made, with Jen speaking about the “gift of time” that Covid had bestowed on her previously hectic life with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London that enabled her to meet her fiancé, Steve. After dinner, there was dancing on the terrace to the enchanting strains of a live orchestra composed of Jen’s friends. During the cutting of the towering wedding cake even Jen seemed to be surprised at its size, although she seemed to have overseen every detail of the wedding. Saul, Ari and I left just after 11:00 p.m. as the musicians and dancing were just getting warmed up. We would have liked to stay longer, but by that time, we were so exhausted and pleasantly sated with food and drink that we felt that a midnight drive through narrow cobblestone streets would be inadvisable.

Late the next morning, we were finally afforded the highly-anticipated opportunity to check out our surroundings in Lenno. We wandered along the rustic, flower-lined promenade edging the lake soaking in the beautiful weather. We stopped for a late lunch at Plinio on our way back, a restaurant that had been recommended when Ari thought to ask the bartenders at Villa Balbianello the previous afternoon. It did not disappoint us. Ari ordered the missoltini as a first course, which is a local fish specialty (shad) from the Lake Como area that involves gutting, salting, smoking, and drying the fish. (The guts part is also made into a special dish called culadur.) We knew that shad is bony, but we are adept at dealing with fish bones and found the dish to be very tasty. It was served, as is traditional, on a bed of seasoned polenta, also very delicious. We also shared a rather small, but respectable caprese salad. For our main courses we had Tagliatelle al Funghi Porcini Freschi, Gamberoni all'Americana con Riso Pilaf, and Spaghettoni di Gragagno al Pesto di Zucchini, Acciughe del Contabrico e Crumble di Pane. All were delicious and competently prepared. The tiramisu for dessert was one of the best I have ever eaten anywhere. To walk off this fabulous meal, which happened to be next to our villa, we walked in the other direction to visit the ancient Chiesa S. Stephano which also was close to our villa. Although it was very dark inside when we visited, by using our iPhone cameras, we were able to view the exquisite frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The church also houses a crypt containing a centuries-old skeleton, fully dressed in ancient church regalia, and housed in an ornate glass display case reminiscent of Snow White in the Disney movie. In our wanderings, we stopped in a few small shops to buy a souvenir for Chris.

The next morning, we showered and left ahead of schedule as Ari had seen a warning that our water was about to be turned off by the local water company, a warning of which even the owner was unaware. Heading out of Lenno in our freshly recharged and comfy electric Zoe, we found a rare parking spot in a nearby town in front of a relatively new gelato café, Ge.lab, that advertised that they served breakfast also. The sole waitress prepared us a wonderful breakfast as we waited for just a few minutes. The whole grain croissants were a revelation and the glass-fronted restaurant gave us a chance to linger by the lake a bit longer. The gelato area was not open yet, but was so extensive that I asked and was granted a photo standing behind the counter. We continued on the road back to Milan. Our electric vehicle allowed us access to the center of Milan where we found a parking garage near the Duomo, La Scala and the elegant shopping mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, on the Piazza del Duomo. Cutting through the elegant mall to the piazza, I took a lucky spin on the “bulls balls” (see the Rick Steves tour of Milan) along with thousands of other tourists. The guys declined. We purchased our tickets for viewing the inside of the Duomo. After a short wait, we joined the queue entering the cathedral, one of the grandest in Europe. After quite some time roaming about the cathedral, we headed across the piazza to tour La Scala, which is both an elegant opera house and a museum with quite a storied history. Heading back to pick up our car, we again entered the Galleria where we decided to have lunch at Galleria. While the prices were somewhat higher than surrounding places, as befits a really touristy area, we were more than wowed by the level of service and the little extra touches that were added by our most professional of waiters. These included a complimentary and delicious pre-meal amuse-bouche of a cheesy arancini, and a finale presenting an assortment of three buttery and crispy pastries. Our pizzas were very good, but the highlight of the meal was tagliatelle with shaved truffles and butter sauce, perfectly al dente tagliatelle with a generous helping of shaved truffles for €22. Thus sated, we picked up our car nearby and headed back to the airport in Milan for our flight back to London.

We only had a very short time together as a family when we returned because the next day, Ari was leaving for a planned trip to Scotland to tour castles and distilleries with Yona, Jessica and Alex, who was flying into nearby Heathrow Airport that morning. Saul and I felt we would be too exhausted after the Italian leg of our trip to tag along. We took advantage of our short time together, when the three of us returned from Milan, to walk over to a nearby classic fish and chips shop, Hobson’s Fish and Chips, so that Yona could have that quintessential British experience.

The next morning, Alex arrived from Heathrow on schedule (another travel miracle!), and the four of them set off for long trip to Scotland by train, leaving Saul and me to our own devices for the following few days. Their travels in Scotland, meticulously planned by Ari, were above all expectations and without any major mishaps. I have included their photos above, although I personally was not on that leg of the trip. The photos are so evocative of all of our fortuitous travels that I thought they should be included.

After all the non-stop excitement of the previous few weeks, Saul and I were happy to have a few days to rest and regroup for the days ahead. When we first arrived in London, Ari and I had taken a walk about the neighborhood (while Saul napped) so that I would have a feel for the surrounding area, be able to pick up some provisions, and be familiar with some of the not-so-obvious places that we could enjoy. We slept late on our first morning alone. Then, I walked with Saul over to the canal area behind nearby Paddington Station, where there was an inviting promenade lined with restaurants and restaurant barges. After checking out all the restaurant menus posted outside, we settled on a canal-side table at Zizzi. Afterwards, Ari chided us for our choice of a “chain” restaurant, but I swear we had one of the best pizzas ever there! We never did get to try the restaurant that he swears has the best pizza in London. Afterwards, we wandered a little farther about the canal area. In addition to the painted corgi dog statues all over London, there were statues of Paddington Bear in several places around the Paddington Station area as well as a shop entirely devoted to Paddington Bear inside the station itself. The relationship of Paddington Bear to the Queen’s Jubilee was portrayed in an adorable YouTube video made for the occasion.

The next morning, having rested for a day, we arose a bit earlier and ventured back to the same canal area for a delicious breakfast in a unique setting atop a colorfully-decorated, moored restaurant barge called The Darcie and May Green. The fickle London weather was kind to us that morning and allowed us to doff our jackets and enjoy the spectacle of canal-going rental barges with picnickers aboard chugging past. Our excellent breakfasts were served with a wonderful charcoal black bread. Just as we were leaving, a group of dancers congregated to rehearse their routine, so we, a number of passersby, and those who had a view from the Darcie and May had a lively bit of free entertainment. I must mention the newest tourist attraction across the street from Paddington Station, which is a computerized clock which appears to have a little man inside who performs various functions, such as erasing and redrawing the minute hand as well as adjusting some of the numbers, etc. We passed it frequently on this sojourn in London because of Ari’s proximity to the station. At dinnertime, we wandered into the nearby Notting Hill area to check out the nearly door-to-door restaurants that line several blocks of the street. After viewing and photographing the menus of literally dozens of restaurants, we chose Banana Tree, from where our food had been delivered our first Shabbat together in London. We loved Banana Tree so much that we could have eaten there every evening, except we were loath to hear Ari’s chiding that there are many other wonderful places which we had not yet experienced.

Finally well-rested, we headed out for one of our favorite haunts while in London, The British Museum. The weather again cooperated, and we had a lovely walk of about two miles, skirting the parks and down the busy Oxford Street shopping hub to the museum. Arrived, we found a table at the museum café and had some yummy sandwiches while we rested up from our walk so we were up to our forays around the museum. We revisited many of our favorites, including the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, Greek urn collections, etc. etc. We were also fortunate to be there in time for a guided tour which was focused in the library-type room containing the longest-held objects in the museum, its founder, how the objects were obtained, and how the total concept of the “museum” evolved over time. Having exhausted ourselves yet again, we caught a black cab back to the flat where we rested up for our next adventure.

Ari, Jess, Alex and Yona returned to London late the next day. In the morning, Yona took Alex for a long walk in the park. Later, we all bid Alex goodbye when he left to catch the Heathrow Express from Paddington to Heathrow for his return flight to the U.S. That evening, Ari made reservations at Bokan, a very upscale restaurant with an incredible view of London in Canary Wharf. He was very familiar with the area and its restaurants, having lived on the 39th floor of a modern apartment complex with a similar view. He also found himself “holed up” there for a considerable amount of time at the beginning of the pandemic. Bokan was an inspired choice for our last meal together in London, as we had a really memorable repast of beautifully prepared and presented delicacies, attended by very skilled and professional waitstaff, as we watched a gloriously colorful sunset all around us from the plush, comfortable, leather chairs surrounding a large round table through floor to ceiling windows. An added bonus was that they have three set menus for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike.We were able to choose from either a two or three course option, or an elaborate tasting menu. Jess and Yona flew home the day after that, but not before we had a delicious breakfast together at Mihbaj which was so crowded that we were obliged to take a table in their subterranean dining room. The room was quite pleasant, but Ari was forced to take the steep stairs a number of times to see that our food was ordered and delivered. The restaurant was Middle Eastern and very nice, but we preferred the food and ambience of our nearby favorite, Les Filles.

Ari decided to go into the office the following day and invited Saul and me along so he could show us around. We caught the appropriate train at Paddington in the late morning. After a few blocks walk from the station, Ari got us security passes in the lobby of his office building, a modern, high-rise, that houses the largest indoor live fish tank in all of the U.K. So large was it, in fact, that I hardly could believe my eyes, and thought it must be some kind of enormous video screen. Security is extremely tight and we were given badges to wear before walking to a designated bank of completely glass elevators to take us to the floor where his offices are situated. Ari and two other employees were the only others we encountered in the spacious and well-appointed space that day. Covid has seen to it that most of the staff works from home these days. After showing us around the office, the three of us headed to Spitalfields Market, which has a huge area of kiosks and stands under a sheltering roof. Half of the market is devoted to food stands, and the other half to vendors selling all manners of unique, sometimes hand-made clothing, and objects that one would expect to find at a large flea market. It was very crowded during our lunch-hour visit and quite a warm day, so Ari purchased a lunch to go and headed back to the office for a video conference scheduled that afternoon, while Saul and I happened (with the help of Trip Advisor) upon a delightful (and cool) little vegetarian restaurant just down the street from the crowded market. Surprisingly, we were able to snag the last table available in the lively place. Bubala was a delightful experience for us. We had the opportunity to chat with our knowledgeable and congenial waitress, Annu. We began with Chili Crunch Hummus accompanied by hot, deliciously seasoned laffa bread for dipping. Among the best versions of hummus we have ever had. We ordered two of the Oyster Mushroom Skewers and they were delectable. Then we ordered a second laffa so as not to waste any of the sauce. Almost always plant-based, we could not resist ordering the halloumi with black seed honey. Sometimes, when on vacation, we splurge with dairy products, and this cheese option was definitely worth splurging on. The Falafel platter was excellent and the patties were green with fresh herbs, which is the way I prefer them, and not greasy. After consuming all this, we were stuffed, but intrigued by the dessert menu. Although we had asked for the check, Annu subsequently brought us a complimentary bowl of the frozen coconut malabi, which we managed to find room for anyway because it was so light, delicious, and unique.

Thus sated, we ventured out into the hot afternoon weather to explore Eataly, an experience that Ari suggested. It is difficult to describe the scope of what foodstuffs are available in this multi-level tribute to Italian dining and all the esoterica of Italian products available for purchase, from aubergine to ziti. At the end of the working day, still wearing our security badges, we returned to Ari’s offices to wait for him to finish up and then headed for the train station to return home.

On Friday, we again headed for the canal area near Paddington Station where we had made reservations for dinner at a restaurant along the canal. Arrived there, we found it just about empty of patrons. We were seated and then studiously ignored by the sparse waitstaff for about 40 minutes until we decided to move on. About two blocks down at the end of the canal, we found ourselves a table at Brew Dog, which was packed with a convivial crowd enjoying the end of the work week. This was a most fortunate change of plans as we enjoyed some formidable brews from their extensive menu, as well as wonderful food that suited both our diets and palates. Perusing the menu, we discovered that Mondays offered a deal called 2-4-1 plant-based vegan and veggie mains. We returned the following Monday, and had an absolutely wonderful evening, sitting outdoors, canal-side, ordering multiple yummy dishes on which we gorged ourselves, and sampling multiple brews.

On Saturday, Ari’s friend Chris returned, and the four of us took the rather long walk in another direction we had not traveled before in Ari’s neighborhood, stopping along the way for half pints and a snack at the classically picturesque pub, Victoria, on our way to attend “Taste of London” Festival. Chris’ sister had bought him and Ari tickets as a Christmas present. When we decided to accompany them, Ari bought us tickets as well. Although the weather was very iffy that day, we managed to squeeze in quite a bit of fun, including a delightful roam about the spectacular gardens of Regent’s Park as well as multiple tastings of lots of interesting offerings from the outdoor food and drink stands. Saul and I became cold, wet and tired after a few hours of roaming (the boys had split off from us) as the sun began to set. We decided to hail a black cab to take us home, but Ari and Chris, used to the fickle English weather, stayed on for a few more hours.

On Sunday, we lounged and looked at real estate listings in the late morning/early afternoon and then we all went to enjoy a traditional “Sunday roast” in a very old and traditionally appointed pub called “The Mitre.” This was a great opportunity for us, as we had never had a Sunday roast on our previous visits to the U.K. and the Mitre featured a vegetarian roast. Saul and I had the “Wellington” and found it very tasty indeed. Chris left us from there to return to his home in Surrey.

After all our adventures, we needed a day or two to recover before setting out for another highlight of our vacation—a trip to the ancient city of York. One of those nights, we wandered back to Notting Hill for dinner at Jusu Brothers, a pan-Asian eatery and juice bar. It was a pleasant evening, so we dined outdoors on their healthy and flavorful dishes. During the pandemic, many London restaurants set up outdoor dining spaces protected from traffic by street barriers. As we wandered down Westbourne Grove, the street was lined with wall-to-wall dining opportunities of this nature. 

On Tuesday, Ari, who had been searching real estate in London for several years, found a new-build house that looked promising online. He knew, by that point, that the owner of his present flat was using the 18-month break clause to end his lease in October so that the home could be put on the market for sale. Having stayed with him for a few weeks, we all discouraged him from buying the 4-story mews property. On the Wednesday, before our trip to York, we set out on the newly-opened (the previous month) Elizabeth line to Hanwell to view the property. What was once a remote outpost that required several transfers of trains from central London, has now become very accessible. When we disembarked from the train at Hanwell, we found ourselves in what appeared to be a charming and leafy suburb. The property was a short walk from the station and the three of us agreed immediately on entry that this would be a perfect layout and location for him. The neighborhood was solid and filled with promising restaurants and pubs that were just around the corner from the secluded alleyway where the house was located, just off the main street. After a few days of negotiating, a price was agreed upon and Ari gave a non-refundable deposit. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been in England at a time when we had the opportunity to visit the home with him and see it for ourselves.

Our end-of-vacation brief trip to York was delightful. Other than a trip to Brighton, Saul and I have never really been far out of London in our trips to England. The train trip to York took us about 2 to 3 hours. As we traveled, I couldn’t help but think about my father’s descriptions of the idyllic English countryside that are daily with me as I prepare my other blog, “Daily Love Letters from WWII.” As  we pulled into the station, a luxury, restored vintage train was pulling out with a load of lucky, dining travelers on another track. As we approached the ancient walled city of York on foot on the way to our well-chosen rental apartment, we passed the old entrance gate to the city. Arriving at our flat, we were greeted with a welcome package of goodies and a lovely and functional apartment in the heart of the city. Just across the street, Source, a vegan restaurant, both cozy and welcoming, provided our first evening’s repast. The food was so good, and the menu so enticing, that we were recognized the next morning at breakfast by the waitstaff and owner who had served us the night before. The breakfast was one of the best and varied vegan breakfasts we have discovered on any continent thus far. Their vegan take on a “full English” breakfast was amazing. We were so pleased to have found so many vegan choices in a place we had originally thought to be steeped in the British tradition of “meat and potatoes.” We had breakfast there every morning that we were in York, trying all the different options available on the extensive menu. On our first evening, we wandered aimlessly about the ancient city (called The Shambles) until dusk, viewing architecture that has survived centuries and has been lovingly preserved. We passed candlelit ghost tours and quaint touristy shops selling everything from candles to magic wands as we wandered the extensive maze of cobblestone streets. 

Following breakfast on our first morning, we walked a few blocks to tour the fabulous York Minster Cathedral. It is even larger than Westminster Cathedral in London and so filled with remarkable objects, stained glass windows, and architecture on such a scale, that we felt we could not do it justice, even with the dozens of photos we took in the few hours we were wandering about inside. Our next stop was the York Castle Museum, where we again spent a number of hours wandering among the antiquities that were themed in a very personal and engaging way. The building is divided into two parts, separated by a café and gift shop. By the time we had finished half, we were happy for a brief repose and snack before we tackled the second half. I have always been very attracted to carousels, as you may have read in others of my blog posts, and the one in the garden outside this museum was outstanding, as were the gardens themselves. On our way back to our flat, we wandered around Clifford’s Tower, a very striking landmark in the York topography. There are many stories attached to the Tower, including the fact that it takes its name from a fellow that was hanged from its heights and left to decompose there. Another gruesome incident that is commemorated on a plaque at its base, was a Masada-type incident involving the Jews of York, who sought refuge in the tower during an anti-semitic incident. When it became apparent that their refuge was about to be breached, they all committed suicide at each others hands, rather than fall into the hands of the inflamed townspeople. That evening, we made dinner reservations for, believe it or not, an upscale vegan Chinese restaurant, The Orchid, just a short walk from our flat. Trip Advisor did not lie when it was awarded five stars. The food and ambience were a joy!

Our second day in York dawned with blue skies, so after breakfast, we lined up early for entrance into the Jorvic Viking Museum. On entry, we were greeted by a glass-covered floor, revealing artifacts of the Viking community that had been unearthed during excavations in the city. Proceeding on, we were loaded onto moving cars on a track, a-la Disney World, which wended its way through a reconstructed ancient Viking community with animatronic characters based on knowledge gleaned during excavations. Disembarking, a museum filled with excavated artifacts proved to be even more enlightening, dispelling some of the myths we had believed regarding the barbarian nature of the community. Afterwards, we headed down to the docks where we took a lovely and informative hour-long cruise along the river Ouse that skirts part of the city. Having rested a while, we decided to tackle the three mile walk around the top of the ancient walls that enclosed the city. The walk was lovely, if a bit narrow and precarious at times and revealed magnificent mansions and gardens that abut the walls. Descending and then re-climbing stairways where the walkway was disconnected and then continued, we came across a costumed parade of musicians who had just revived a York tradition that had been interrupted by Covid. At the end of our foray around the top of the walls we descended to have a snack and a beer alongside the waterfront on the terrace of Dyls Café Bar, a convivial place where the locals appear to congregate along with their dogs and children on a Sunday afternoon. It appears to be just about built into the ancient wall and adjoins a lovely park with walking and bike paths.

Because our train was not leaving York until later in the afternoon, after a hearty breakfast at Source the next morning, we vacated our wonderful rental flat and checked our bags a few blocks away at a Hilton Hotel. This left us a few more hours to wander the streets of The Shambles, decide on a place for lunch from among the many street cafés that were available, and do some shopping in the outdoor market of vendors selling hand-made items, food and art. At no cost, the Hilton stowed our bags for the day, and then summoned a cab for us as we were too tired to drag our bags the seven or eight blocks back to the train station. We rested in the hotel’s lobby for about 20 minutes before the cab appeared and then for about another hour in the train station. We had reserved seats on the train in both directions and found the seats and trains, as a whole, extremely comfortable. The English are very polite and we found ourselves in a long, but friendly, queue when we disembarked and wanted to hail a taxi. The taxis appeared quickly, one after the other, to eventually whisk us the rest of the way back to Craven Mews.

The next day, our last full day in London, our schedule happened to overlap with a visit to London by my cousin, Julie, and her significant other, Jon, who live in Washington, D.C. They were able to get last minute tickets to attend Wimbledon. We were able to rendezvous at an upscale vegan restaurant, Wulf and Lamb, a short walking distance from Ari’s flat. We had a very nice meal and spent time catching up and trading information about our far-flung family members, some of whom we had just seen for the first time in years at Yona’s bat mitzvah. After a leisurely dinner, we all walked back to Ari’s flat, pointing out where Julie and Jon could take a train from Paddington Station so that they could find their way back on foot when they were ready to return to their hotel. We were so preoccupied with each other on that rare evening we could be together, that we all now regret that all of us neglected to take any photos while we were together.

On our last day, a black cab was again summoned to take us for the long ride to Gatwick Airport. Although the train ride is much cheaper and faster, it was worth some extra pounds not to have to drag our bags through the stations hoping we had made the correct connections. We were delivered door-to-door in plenty of time to catch our plane. We were very lucky as many flights to various cities in the U.S. had been drastically delayed or cancelled altogether. We were delighted to discover delicious options for vegan food in the airport while we waited and considering the vicissitudes of modern airline travel, our flight was pretty convenient and comfortable. Of all the trips we have taken, this was the “trip of a lifetime” because, considering all that could have gone wrong in the six weeks we were all traveling, including catching Covid, nothing did. A sublime celebration from start to finish was our most fortunate experience.