Monday, December 13, 2010

Two Great December Weekends in Baltimore/DC

If you are reading this on Facebook, slideshows and videos are often attached. Click on this live link to my blog: if you would like to get the full experience.
If you are reading this at already, just ignore.

We had planned to spend the first two weekends of December in Baltimore/DC. The first weekend fell during Chanukah. Saul had a luncheon meeting at CHC on that first Friday, so we were not able to leave on Thursday afternoon as we usually do. I wrote the previous blog post at Saul’s office desk while he attended the meeting, and we left directly from school. Saul’s meeting took hours, and, as it turned out, taking the fast route over I-95, we arrived in Baltimore at sunset, at the exact same time that Ari arrived after work on Friday. We lit the Chanukah candles together on the family’s new chanukiah, which they had all participated in crafting. Sami and Izzy made some teeny tiny dolls that were to be added later, which Saul photographed before candle-lighting. My favorite is the baby with pacifier and teddy bear. We lit the Shabbat candles, and together, we helped put dinner on the table. As usual, dinner was ample and delicious. Prepared by Alex ahead of time, we had great soup, salad, warm challah, good wine, chicken, potato latkes (which I had made earlier and frozen) veggies, rice, and my leftover desserts, including the pumpkin pie we had forgotten on Thanksgiving, which we put into the warm oven, and which was so good that Ari and Jess said they would never eat pumpkin pie any other way. We left Ari’s car in Baltimore and went back to DC together.

During the weekend, we revisited China Garden for dim sum, previously the scene of a frustrating early-afternoon meal with our cousins, this time, arriving at 11:30 a.m. as our waiter suggested. The food and selection were exceptional on this particular weekend. We then stopped at Ari’s office nearby to drop off some cookie packages for his co-workers, and then had a very inconvenient time as Ari accidentally left his keys on his desk when we left. The security guard would not let him back into his office to retrieve them even though she had seen us enter and leave the building. We even needed to go through a security check with her so that she could enable our car to leave the parking garage. Luckily, we had keys to Ari’s house, and he had an extra key to his car in his briefcase at home. The panoramic views in the photos above were taken from Ari’s office window as they will be moving to a building on the other side of the river shortly.

We also had breakfast at the classic Capital City Diner that, at the cost of two years of battling with DC’s licensing red tape, came to fruition as the result of two men with a passion refusing to give up their dream. The place was so tiny, and so crowded, that we decided to sit at the counter just about two feet from the griddle where two Asian ladies were furiously at work turning out classic Southern breakfasts. The Trinidad neighborhood around the lot where the diner had finally come to rest was a bit sketchy, but we were encouraged by the class of people going in to eat. We were not disappointed, as the food was good and reasonable, and all the people working there were extremely personable and pleasant, even funny, despite the very close quarters in which they work. Afterward, Ari said that he felt that he had partaken of an authentic experience from the past that is not widely available anymore, and we were glad we had chosen to sit at the counter. I highly recommend the malted waffles and pancakes.

From there, we returned Ari’s Comcast boxes as, in desperation, he finally contracted for the same satellite dish services as Jessica. The lines to return the boxes were, surprisingly, incredibly long there—a final insult added to the injury of countless service calls which did not fix his problems. He is sorry he did not change over sooner, as he is now thrilled with the number of channels available through DirecTV and the new reliability of his wifi service from Clear. On this occasion, he was delighted to be with his old dad because there was a much shorter line available to senior citizens. On the way back home, we decided to stop and meander around DC’s aged Florida Avenue Market, a huge complex of dilapidated buildings, outdoor flea markets, hole-in-the-wall novelty and electronics stores, and loading docks akin to a combination of Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal and 9th Street Italian market areas. We didn’t buy anything, but Ari now knows where he can obtain all sorts of unusual foodstuffs, such as double-yolked eggs by the dozen, super jumbo eggs, whole fresh-caught fish of every type, and ethnic specialties of many nations. The complex is eventually due, like our Reading Terminal, to be refurbished and polished as a tourist destination. The girls had playmates over on Sunday, so we did not spend a lot of time with them on this particular weekend. After traveling back to Baltimore with Ari to pick up his car, we took the leisurely trip home on Route 1.

This past week marks the last full week of Saul’s department chairmanship at CHC. It was very full, but we managed to get in a few extra experiences, also despite the fact that the weather has turned suddenly frigid. At the beginning of the week, all I wanted to do was sleep. I guess the unexpectedly cold weather put me in hibernation mode. Saul and I went to Metropolitan Diner on Monday night for a light dinner of soup and sandwiches and were delighted with the delicious choices and price. We had been planning to get haircuts afterward, but both of us were exhausted early and went home to bed. On Tuesday, again, we only wanted to be out of the cold and under the nice warm down comforter. Wednesday was the last night of Chanukah, and I had forwarded an email that I had received to Ken about a Texas Hold’em tournament at Gimaro that evening. Randi was game, and we all decided to have dinner there on a coupon and register for the complimentary poker game afterward. Beth joined us for dinner only as well. The deal is that a group called River Chasers gives you chips with which to play at no charge whatsoever. The winner of the tournament gets $100 in cash. The top five winners, based on points, have a chance to win a trip to the Borgata where they can win up to $10,000 in cash prizes. We could tell that there were a number of regulars at our table who follow the games around to various restaurants, but since it wasn’t costing us a cent to play, we were very relaxed about it. Randi lost all her chips fairly early. Saul, Ken and I played for about two hours before I lost everything on a pair of fives in the hole, and then Saul lost everything on a pair of aces in the hole. Ken played for an additional two hours after we left, with Randi nodding off by his side. Ken came in fifth, and the nice guy, Damian, who was sitting next to him at our table, came in second. About 50 to 60 players had started. When they registered their full names with the man from River Chasers who supervises and manages the tournaments (we had only exchanged first names at the table) the guy who was sitting next to him overheard his name and was flabbergasted. It turned out that Ken, who had never met him in person, had, through his employment agency, placed him in his engineering job alongside Andy, Ken’s son-in-law. He asked Ken if he could hug him, so grateful and happy was he with his job, and Ken obliged. Needless to say, it was a very pleasant evening which left all of us feeling good on various levels, although I can’t imagine having enough time or inclination to follow the games around to various restaurants. Saul and I lit the last Chanukah candles when we returned home, always a poignant time for us as we remember his father’s tear-stained face as we lit the last Chanukah candles he knew he would ever see. He died the next afternoon after having had two sets of bypass surgeries, over time, and eventually losing both legs to diabetes. He died after a long period of decline at home in bed. On Thursday evening, we went to TBI to say kaddish for him. I attended Faith’s class on Thursday morning, where we continued to study Maimonides and, this week, discuss his 13 attributes of faith.

On Friday morning, we had a date in small claims court where we are suing the company that improperly installed and serviced our very expensive, high efficiency, Lennox HVAC system back in 2006. It wasn’t until this past fall that our new guys discovered that the cause of many of our problems over the years was that a wrong part had been installed in the thermostat from the beginning. The hearing was frustrating and upsetting because the judge informed us that he only is willing to read the top page of the evidence that we were asked to submit and seemed to expect us to have every fact, figure, and date pertaining to the case available off the top of our heads. Our new heating guy, Josh, and his wife, Sheila, who had done us a favor by taking time away from their business to testify on the technical aspects, were as unprepared as we were, and were extremely upset at the implication by the owner of our previous HVAC company, that they were not nearly as competent as he. I hope the judge was able to read between the lines (at least) and understand the huge expense, aggravation, and inconvenience we have been put through over these last four years. If not, at least we were able to return some of the aggravation, inconvenience, and grief to the owner of the incompetent heating company. After the hearing, for which we were allotted one hour, we gave Josh and Sheila a cookie package, and headed out to Baltimore.

Stopping to get Izzy’s car seat from Jess, we continued on to pick up the girls from Waldorf at the end of their school day. They each, in turn, expressed great joy at seeing us there, very gratifying to both of us. This week, Jess made Shabbat dinner, as Alex in his professional capacity was asked, at the last minute, to be present for a dinner involving future bar and bat mitzvah parents at the synagogue. We had an early dinner, as Ari had to work late and could not make it to Baltimore. We had two of Alex’s pareve soups from the freezer, pumpkin black bean, and what Jess calls “bornisht,” cabbage borscht without meat. “Nisht” means “not” in Yiddish, and borsht is a type of Russian soup, so the name is a pun meaning “not the usual borscht with meat.” She baked pre-made, store-bought, challah dough that is a fund-raiser for the synagogue school, so we had warm challah and honey for our brachot. She made shell pasta with butter and parmesan, and kosher fake crab (surimi) salad with avocado which is one of Alex’s specialties. For dessert, we had warmed pumpkin pie that I had brought her a while ago from Costco, and which she had frozen. The pie did not seem to suffer from the freezing, as I had thought it would, and was delicious topped with ice cream and whipped cream. Again, as the timing worked out, we arrived at Ari’s house in DC at exactly the time as he did. Saul and I were up bright and early the next morning and back on our way to Baltimore to hear Sami read Torah in front of her class. Ari slept in. The class was delightful and her teacher, Abby, conducts a lively, informative, and interesting service. She asked Saul to do hagba at the end of the Torah service, and it is the only time in my life that I have ever seen him struggle to lift the Torah. It was one of the heaviest ones he has ever encountered, and unbalanced to boot, because most of the parchment is rolled around the left etz hayim (wooden roller around which the parchment is rolled) at this season of the year. In addition, the table on which it reposed was a regular table and about a foot lower than the usual platform on which it rests on the bimah. I touched the left etz hayim briefly when services were over and I don’t know how he was able to even budge it. After services, we had a light luncheon at the synagogue together in honor of their December birthday people. Saul and I then headed back to DC. After I took a nap on Saturday afternoon, Saul, Ari and I had a delicious and surprisingly reasonable Thai dinner at a restaurant that is new to us in Arlington, Sawatdee, and saw the movie, Red, at the nearby movie theater. Red, which has a lot of really big stars in it, like Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss, Morgan Freeman, and John Malkovich is a far-fetched story about retired C.I.A. agents that is reminiscent of The Over-the-Hill Gang, and enjoyable in exactly the same suspend-disbelief way.

On Sunday, Saul and I were up by 6:30 a.m. to pack up and head out on a gloomy, rainy day to Baltimore once again to chaperone for Izzy’s Hebrew school class chartered bus trip to the Baltimore Science Museum. The program is designed specifically to address the lunar nature of the Jewish calendar, about which they have been learning. During the planetarium show, the calendar pages that included the Hebrew months of Cheshvan, Kislev, and Tevet were projected onto the ceiling with the various phases of the moon included and the pertinent holidays noted. Afterward, the children were ushered to a room where they constructed movable paper sundials. The adults, in a separate room, had a discussion of Rosh Chodesh, led by Sami’s teacher, Abby. Each parent was given a beautiful color certificate with their child’s name in Hebrew and their individual birth date, both on the Gregorian and on the Hebrew calendar. Sami had an after-Hebrew-school program on Sunday, so Jess, Izzy, Saul and I had lunch together at Panera, while Alex took a napping Yona home so that he could watch a football game. Eventually, we were on the road again, racking up the miles in the murky, cold rain to return home. But both weekends were delightful and definitely worth the trip. Thanks to the Prius, the trips are much less expensive than in the Pilot. I just wish we lived closer, but at least both kids are within a few hours driving distance on the East Coast.

Friday, December 3, 2010

November Cookies and Thanksgiving

If you are reading this on Facebook, slideshows and videos are often attached. Click on this live link to my blog: if you would like to get the full experience.
If you are reading this at already, just ignore.

The girls’ Waldorf school had a bunch of scheduled Friday closings in November. While I stayed at home and baked cookies… literally, Saul left from school and met Jessica halfway to Baltimore to transfer all three girls to his car so that we could enjoy them for the weekend before Thanksgiving. This weekend was going to be Yona’s first weekend away from both parents. The older girls had requested to spend time baking and decorating cookies and since Chanukah came very early this year, in fact, right after Thanksgiving, I was delighted to be able to honor their request. In addition to baking a hundred gingerbread teddy bears, I cut out and glazed with white royal icing about eight dozen Chanukah-shaped cookies the previous weekend. The icing took several days to dry and was just about ready when they came to draw on the cookies with food-color markers. I also made several dozen lemon logs which needed to be dipped at the ends in chocolate and sprinkles. They loved doing that.

Larry was ill with a stomach bug on Friday, and only Beth joined us for dinner. We went shopping on Friday at Costco and Trader Joe’s and I bought a big turkey breast and made it chicken paprikash-style on top of of the black and white rice that the girls love. On our way out of Costco, after lunching on pizza there and then shopping, we bumped into George and Roxy having lunch. On the way back from Trader Joe’s, while we were caught in a traffic jam caused by the extensive construction of the Route 202 Bypass, we waved to them going in the opposite direction home on Route 63. Trader Joe’s had Brussels sprouts on the stalk and I bought one and let the girls pluck them off to make maple-glazed sprouts with chestnuts. They liked the sprouts, but not the chestnuts. We had a salad of deep red and green baby lettuce with raspberry-walnut dressing, and homemade chicken soup and challah from the freezer. For dessert, we had fresh strawberries dipped in individual ramekins of melted chocolate. Yona absolutely adores strawberries and by the end of breakfast on Saturday morning, we had eaten a whole quart.

Yona was an angel the entire weekend. On Thursday evening, when it was time for bed, I sat with her in a big easy chair in front of Sprout’s Good Night Show. She settled in and drank water, rather than milk, without complaint, from a sippy cup because she was teething and had been somewhat congested. She yelled and complained, not really crying, when I put her finally in her crib, but this only lasted about 5 minutes. When I looked in on her 10 minutes later, she was sound asleep. We monitored her room all night, and she had two coughing jags, but each time, she went right back to sleep afterward. The girls all got up between six and seven a.m. during the weekend, but that is normal for them. On Friday evening after Shabbat dinner, I gave Yona a bath. I have never seen a child so ecstatic to be in a bathtub full of water. I had to empty the tub in order to be able to get her out without a full temper tantrum. Then Izzy took a bath and was equally as delighted. Beth had invited Sami to use her big Jacuzzi tub on Saturday.

Erica dropped off Brenna early in the morning to decorate cookies. After a few hours, Saul took Izzy with him to take roll at Team Children, while Brenna and Sami went next door to Beth to play in the Jacuzzi together and Yona took a nap. Izzy loved Team Children and Saul promised he would take her there again so that she can learn how to take apart a computer and learn about the various components inside.

The girls were so contented with their weekend that they didn’t even want to go out on Saturday night. They preferred to eat leftovers from the previous days and climb into bed to watch a movie. On Sunday, we arranged to meet Jessica to send the girls back home at Simon Pearce, a glass-blowing studio, restaurant, and gift shop. I waited with napping Yona in the car while Saul took the girls inside to watch the glassblowers. They were fascinated and had many questions as they watched. When Jess arrived she met us in the extensive gift shop upstairs, but even a glass icicle was $65.00. At the entrance, two vendors were giving out samples of local goat cheese aged in sycamore leaves and Irish Victory cake. Both were so delicious that we bought small quantities to take home.

Our work week was blessedly short—only Monday and Tuesday. On Monday, I made pareve apricot baklava to carry out the theme of Alex’s Turkish Thanksgiving dinner. Then I made a carob sheet cake for Neri’s 19th birthday on Thanksgiving day. When Ari had spent his junior high school year on Kibbutz Beit HaShita in Israel, Neri had been a three-year-old little brother to him. Each American student was assigned an Israeli family on the kibbutz and Ari has stayed in touch with his all these years, visiting every few years when he had the chance. Neri is in the United States this year for his senior year of high school on a basketball scholarship. Ari flew him in for the week to join us from North Carolina during his Thanksgiving break.

While Saul was teaching on Tuesday, I packed and then baked two pareve pistachio-praline pumpkin pies, one for us, and one for my friend Faith’s family’s Thanksgiving dinner. Believe it or not, with all the excitement, none of us remembered to serve our pumpkin pie the entire Thanksgiving holiday. When I checked my email on Monday morning, I saw one from Faith, and suddenly remembered that the pie was still in a second refrigerator at Jess and Alex’s house. :o( Saul arrived early from school and packed up the hot pies in stapled, brown paper bags. As Faith was leaving with her pie in our friend, Lyn’s car, Elaine, Alex’s mother arrived with her new Shih Tzu puppy, Shana, for the ride down to Baltimore for Thanksgiving. Shana rested nicely in her perched little basket in the back seat and we had a very pleasant trip down, introducing Elaine to the delicious fries at our favorite Royal Farms gas station on the long, but scenic Route 1. Both of them napped for a while as well. When we arrived in Baltimore, we packed up the family, except for Alex who had a great quantity of work to finish before the holiday, and went to have dinner at Sushi Ya in Owings Mills, the girls’ favorite restaurant at home. Saul and I continued on to DC after dinner. Ari had arranged special seats for himself and Neri at a basketball game in DC where, coincidentally, DC was playing Philadelphia. It turned out to be a very exciting, historic game which was settled in a second overtime by one point in the last few seconds, unfortunately in DC’s favor. But at least the hometown fans were wildly happy! Saul and I watched the last half hour of the game on television at Ari’s house and waited for them to return home.

On Wednesday, Ari took Neri with him to work so that Neri could spend the morning working out in the gym available in Ari’s building. After getting some work done at Ari’s house and having a light bite to eat, we picked Neri up after lunch. On the way back, we passed the National Zoo, and discovered that Ari had not taken him there yet and that he was anxious to see it. The weather was perfect for a zoo visit and it was not particularly crowded the day before Thanksgiving. Neri had never seen a live tiger before, and both tiger and lion obliged us in their outdoor digs by roaring so loudly that the trees shook and the walls reverberated. We especially enjoyed an exhibit of underwater animals, including luminescent tanks of jellyfish and unusual lobsters and crabs that I had missed on my earlier trips with the girls. The panda was not sleeping for a change on this visit and was stripping and eating huge branches of bamboo while reclining on his back on some rocks indoors—fascinating to watch. On the usually short way back, we encountered so much traffic leaving DC for the holiday weekend that we grew hungry while waiting to inch forward and stopped en route for shawarma and baklava at a Middle Eastern restaurant we were passing in Adams Morgan.

That evening, when Ari came home from work, we took Neri for a tour of the DC monuments at night. We visited The White House, the Roosevelt Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Korean War Veterans Memorial, and the Lincoln Memorial. It was a beautiful, somewhat chilly, moonlit evening and a really memorable way to experience the monuments. In his college days at GW, Ari used to give tours to visiting groups of students on a program called Panim el Panim (Face to Face). We finished by treating Neri to a big, classic American New York strip steak at Ray’s The Steaks in Arlington. Ari and I, with a little help from Saul, polished off a bottle of a cabernet sauvignon called Layer Cake, which marked the first time, outside of Paris, that I had a large quantity of wine without suffering from a painful sulfite reaction. I will be sure to look for this wine again.

Early on Thanksgiving morning, Neri’s birthday, we drove to a wonderful classic diner called Metro 29, so that Neri could experience a big American breakfast. We had been trying to describe a diner to him, but there really is no Israeli equivalent. We not only had a wonderful breakfast, but the staff brought out a huge slice of really rich chocolate cake with a candle and sang happy birthday to him, pronouncing his name perfectly. They didn’t charge us for the cake which the three of us could not finish, so we took it home. We hung around the house for the afternoon, watching television until it was time to leave for Baltimore. I can’t spend too many hours at Jess and Alex’s because of my allergies to the dogs. Again this year, Alex outdid himself, producing so many great dishes that we ate ourselves sick trying to sample them all both Thursday and Friday evenings. To name a few, there were three different soups, tomato and red lentil, chicken soup with matzoh balls, and turkey noodle soup. He made turkey kibbee, and turkey-stuffed fillo pastries in addition to plain old sliced turkey. There were numerous salads and relishes—stuffed grape leaves, Israeli salad, lettuce and red cabbage with avocado and mango, baked beets and pickled beets, homemade skhug; for sides: mashed Yukon Gold potatoes, baked sweet potatoes, rice, roasted vegetables with dipping sauce, lavash, and home-cured olives of which Izzy was especially proud. The table decorations were made by the girls at school, including the hand-dipped candles by Izzy and the wood-carved candle holder by Sami. Our friend Larry, who joined us on Thursday, brought an assortment of bottles of upscale and flavored beer. On Thursday, Jess adorned the pareve carob cake that I had made with candies spelling out Neri’s name in Hebrew. Once again, we lit candles and sang “Yom Hooledet Same’ach” to Neri. I suppose it was no wonder that we forgot the pumpkin pie.

On Friday morning we ate breakfast at Ari’s and I made Hawaiian taro pancakes in addition to toasted bagels and cream cheese (unlike the fresh cheeses in Israel), which Neri loved. Then Saul, Ari, Neri, Larry and I visited the amazing Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum near Dulles airport. After that, we drove directly to the Egyptian Theater in Arundel Mills where Jessica met us with Sami and Izzy to finally see Megamind in 3D together. Neri was wowed by the 3D effect as a previous 3D movie he had seen in Israel had not provided the right kind of polarized glasses for proper viewing. The movie was predictable, but fun. For Shabbat dinner after that, we were joined by Alex’s sister Naomi and her husband Matt, and Alex’s brother Aaron and his wife, Stacy and their three children. There were four dogs present that evening—Zeek and Inky, Casey, Naomi’s dog, and little Shana. I couldn’t linger long after dinner.

Larry headed for home the next morning and we took Neri for his first experience with dim sum at Hollywood East CafĂ©. He is a pretty adventurous eater and was willing to try dumplings that I am pretty sure were completely alien to his experience. He really liked the custard-filled “carrots” the best, I think, because they reminded him of American donuts for which he has developed a weakness. Learning this, we stopped in Columbia Heights that evening for an assorted box of Dunkin’ Donuts. I had not had them for years and was gravely disappointed with them compared to how they tasted years ago, but Neri seemed happy. We spent a good deal of time shopping for the right basketball sneakers for Neri. We finally found them at Modell’s. Neri had bought a basketball jersey at Modell’s at Arundel Mills and had asked Ari about the unusual tags in the store. He didn’t believe Ari when Ari told him that they are exploding ink packs that ruin the shirt if they are shop-lifted. Unfortunately, even though he paid for the shirt and had the receipt, he found out first-hand about the ink packs because the salesperson had neglected to remove it when he purchased it and he discovered the damage when we arrived home that evening. He used the credit from the shirt towards the purchase of the sneakers. We took him for Vietnamese pho in Columbia Heights that night for dinner. Ari used Google maps on his iPhone to show Neri the location of Vietnam on the world map. He didn’t have pho, but really enjoyed the noodle dish he ordered and ate every bit of it.

Saul and I were on our way to Baltimore on Sunday bright and early so that we could all have brunch together and get on the road back early enough so that Elaine would not have to make the hour-long drive back to Cranberry from our house in the dark. After a half-hour wait at a crowded, but wonderful, restaurant called First Watch, near Jess and Alex’s home, we had our delicious brunch together and got on the road a short time later. Elaine had picked up a terrible sore throat, congestion and fever over the weekend and we felt really awful that she was going to have to make her hour-long drive feeling that way and, as it turned out, in the dark because the dark fell so early that night. Thankfully, she made it home okay with Shana and was on antibiotics the next day.

I spent most of the past week baking cookies for our family cookie extravaganza, which took place last night. On Tuesday, Adele and I met Roxy at Blue Sage for lunch and we celebrated Adele’s birthday, which actually was on Monday. I was so pleased to be able to find the chocolate oranges at Trader Joe’s just recently that I used to always buy for Roxy on her birthday, and I gave a milk chocolate one to Roxy as a belated birthday gift, and a dark chocolate one to Adele for her birthday. On Wednesday and Thursday, Adele joined me, and we made some of the fancier cookies together. We had an incredibly delicious lunch at the Metropolitan Diner on Thursday before the family arrived, and Saul joined us for lunch about halfway through on his way home from school. Ken brought pizzas later that evening and the cookie wrapping went very smoothly. We were also joined by Randi, Larry, our friend, Larry, and Beth.

Saul had a long executive board meeting at school this morning, so I am writing this blog entry from his desk as we wait to leave for another weekend in Baltimore/DC.