Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Our Winter Vacation and Transition into 2011

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Uh Oh!
Somehow, along with the New Year, all the options that have allowed me to post slide shows for the last few years have changed and both my blogs have lost contact (I hope for the time being!) 
with their connected slideshows. Having torn my hair out for the last few hours trying to restore my blog and post my new photos, and having not much more time or hair to spare, 
I await answers to “WHAT HAPPENED?!!!”
on the technical forums and hope there is a knight in shining armor out there that can help me.

Saul and I strove to get a few days of adult time together at the end of this semester before the girls were due to arrive to join us for their winter vacation. While we greatly enjoy their visits, the spontaneity of meeting friends for lunch or dinner at the last minute, catching an adult movie, etc. are curtailed completely during our time together. During the week before they joined us we had lunch with Saul’s colleagues from CHC, a lunch that had to be rescheduled because of the death of an old friend. Marty’s wife, Marilyn, died suddenly, shocking all of us, back in March. For some years now, this brilliant doctor had been gradually sinking into dementia and his beloved wife had been his devoted caretaker. After her death, Marty accompanied his son, Jacob, who is a rabbi, back to Jacob’s home and family in Israel, where they all had been lovingly caring for him. Marty passed away peacefully. As the family expressed during the funeral, with Marilyn’s death, Marty had lost his anchor in this world. Marty, in his heyday, was brilliant with words. He sat across from me for many years on Thursday mornings in Faith’s Bible class and rarely did we have a class where he did not come up with a clever pun related to our conversations. Puns are purely intellectual humor and I admired his quick wit. He was a kind man and an avid reader. We will miss both of them now, immensely. His body was flown back to the U.S., accompanied by Jacob, to be interred alongside his beloved wife. The funeral was on one of the most bitterly cold days I can remember. Although we were all bundled up with scarves, gloves and hats, Saul caught a cold and was definitely a bit under the weather for the first few days of our vacation.

On one of those days, at her invitation, we met Marianne, my mother’s hospice volunteer, and her friend Cliff, for a delightful lunch together at Foulkeways, the magnificent retirement community where they live. Marianne had just moved from a two bedroom to a one bedroom condo there. Her children had helped her to downsize, and the new apartment looked much more spacious because a lot of the clutter had been organized or had disappeared. As we enter our eighties and nineties, may we all have our health and sane minds and live such a stimulating and secure lifestyle as Marianne. She and Cliff seem to be very, very happy with their situation. After our lunch together, the two of them were preparing to shop for items of food which they needed to prepare the next day at a soup kitchen where, along with others from Foulkeways, they serve the homeless once a week.

One day, while Saul was attending meetings, I picked up Adele and we met Roxy at Blue Sage to celebrate Adele’s birthday and to enjoy those exceptional fried green tomato sandwiches again. We all ordered the same lunch and I gave Adele and Roxy solid chocolate oranges for their November birthdays, a gift that I always gave Roxy for her birthday and which had disappeared in recent years. Actually, originally, it was a chocolate apple, but I was delighted to find that Trader Joe’s now has both milk and dark chocolate oranges available.

We were at home the weekend of December 18 and 19. Two of our congregants at MBIEE were being honored, Natalie and Elaine. Natalie had called to see if we would be attending and I had told her we would try. Larry and Faith came for Shabbat dinner and I pulled a meal together at the last minute with homemade challah from the freezer, quick black bean soup, also from the freezer, red and green leaf lettuce salad, tortellini with butter and parmesan, a pumpkin pie from Costco with whipped cream and leftover frozen squares of Texas sheet cake from Larry’s birthday. Beth was away that weekend. On Saturday, after attending services, and enjoying a luncheon in our friends’ honor, we hurried home to wait for Ari, Neri, and the three girls to arrive for the weekend. With Yona along, we spent the entire weekend at home, which seemed to be just fine with everyone. As before, Yona seemed very comfortable here. We did have a minor incident where Saul managed to talk Izzy into “being a big girl” and sharing her blue “blanky” with Yona, because Jess had forgotten to pack Yona’s favorite blanket. Then, unbeknown to us, she decided she wanted it back and talked Sami into getting it for her. When Ari went to bed, Yona was standing in her crib complaining that Sami and Izzy had taken her blanket. I went and got her my mother’s favorite blue afghan and Ari was able to get her back to sleep without much protest. On Sunday morning, after I made a big breakfast, Ari, Neri and Saul took a tour of the new YMCA which opened nearby and were absolutely wowed by the facilities. They were able to arrange a one-week, complimentary membership for Neri so that he could work out and practice basketball there. We dropped him off almost every morning during the week, sometimes with a sandwich so that he could spend the day. Ari took Yona back home to Jess and Alex on Sunday evening. They were supposed to have gone to a party at Naomi’s house on Sunday, but got the days mixed up. The girls were happy playing together and vegging in front of the t.v. Izzy decided to play shopkeeper and proudly set up a store in the living room where she was a very convincing saleslady.

During the week before we met in the Poconos, we took the Pilot into the dealership to be serviced and took the girls to breakfast at the Perkins across the street. We spent a whole day touring downtown Philadelphia, including the Liberty Bell. We passed on touring Independence Hall. Neri had wanted to see it because of the movie “National Treasure,” but the top was encased in scaffolding, and we were required, once we got there, to walk two blocks in the bitter cold to pick up tickets for the tour. Saul walked the two blocks to pick them up, but then we realized that they were timed, and we would have had to wait around for 45 minutes with two children and nothing to do. Instead, we decided to take advantage of our membership at the Franklin Institute, where we, the girls, and Neri had a great time. The institute was not very crowded that day and we were among the last to leave as the museum closed for the evening. Also during the week, we shopped and prepared food for our vacation in the Poconos, including snickerdoodles and jumbo oatmeal, peanut butter and raisin cookies. One day, we took the girls for a really fun lunch at Bahama Breeze and to see “Tangled” in 3D at the IMAX theater in King of Prussia. We all loved it!

On the Thursday before Christmas, we spent the morning packing and loading up the Pilot to head to the Poconos. The girls and Neri were really helpful to both of us, hauling boxes and bags so that Saul could pack the car efficiently. As always, the car was packed to the teeth and everyone was making jokes about how there was enough food to last for a month. Once the car was loaded, we stopped at Costco to buy orange juice and to have some late lunch. We made the impulsive purchase of a featured dual screen dvd player for the car when we learned that the girls’ previous one had died. When we arrived after the one-and-a-half-hour drive and unloaded, we left the girls with Neri and, as darkness fell, Saul and I went to pick up a wheelbarrow full of firewood for the evening and order a half-cord of firewood to be dropped off the next day to get through the week. When Ari arrived a short time later, we sat down to a dinner of black bean soup and soba with sautéed mushrooms. Jess and Alex arrived about 8:30 p.m. with Yona, had some dinner also, and after the girls were settled down for the night, we sat by the fire and schmoozed.

Our intention was to awake early and Alex was going to take the girls skiing, but he was exhausted, slept late, and it was bitterly cold that morning. He stayed in with Yona, who protested loudly when we tried to put on her coat to take her out with us. She, too, wanted stay home and take a nap. The rest of us met at Van Gilder’s Jubilee Restaurant for a large, leisurely breakfast. Afterward, Jess took the girls back to the house and Ari, Neri, Saul and I went to check out a few facilities that we wanted to see. We went to see the new Mt. Airy Casino Resort, but Neri was stopped for I.D. before we were able to enter. Then, we went to check out the indoor water park at Great Wolf Lodge, but discovered that you needed to be a guest at the hotel to use the facilities. The hotel and water park looked wonderful, but the vast lobby looked like a zoo with long lines of families sitting on their suitcases waiting to check in and children climbing on every available surface while they waited. Leaving there, we found ourselves passing The Crossings, a huge outlet mall, after just five minutes of driving. We decided to stop so that I could hunt for bathing suits, which Jess had remembered for the girls, but which I had forgotten for us. No luck with the bathing suits, but Saul got a great pair of waterproof leather boots at the Bass Outlet at 80% off. He got the boots, which had originally been around $150, for $35. We continued on to see the inviting indoor water park nearer to our house at the Galleria at Split Rock Lodge. The gift shop had reasonably priced bathing suits, but I decided to wait and see how the rest of the week would play out. Arriving back at the house, we began warming up the Shabbat dinner I had begun preparing and frozen, in parts, weeks ago—homemade challah, chicken soup, Israeli salad, kohlrabi coleslaw, sliced smoked turkey in giblet gravy, chestnut stuffing, butternut apple crisp, and the pareve cookies I had made with the girls. We lit our candles, opened a bottle of wine Ari had brought, and had a cozy and delightful dinner together. Then, we settled in to await the snowstorm that was expected. On Shabbat, we just hung out in the house all day, played with the girls, and ate, and ate. We had been snowed in once before for a few days up there, and I remembered it fondly, but evidently Alex did not remember it that way. He was also worried that the new person caring for their dogs might not be able to get to them in a storm. He announced that they would be leaving with Yona as soon as Shabbat was over. We were relieved when they called to say that they had arrived home safely and that the snow had just begun falling in the Baltimore area.

As it turned out, the snow did not begin falling in the Poconos until Sunday evening. We had a great breakfast that morning at a restaurant called “Piggy’s,” which was a little disconcerting to Neri and the girls as the pig is not a favored animal in their life, but the breakfast itself was completely pig-free. The restaurant and adjoining gift shop are adorned with every type of pig memorabilia one could possibly imagine, as well as a few items that were unimaginable. Our intention was to take the girls to the ski school at Jack Frost, as none of the rest of us wanted to ski. When we arrived there, none of us, including the girls, could stand even the half-block walk to the window in the bitterly cold wind. We would have had to wait two hours for the four-hour afternoon session to begin, and it would have cost $175 per girl for equipment, lessons, and lift tickets. Instead, Ari, Neri, Saul and I took the girls to see the movie “Gulliver’s Travels” in 3D in a town called Moosic. The movie was really awful, even though I usually (sort of) like Jack Black movies. The theater and the new shopping and housing complex that surrounded it were really a nice surprise in such an out-of-the-way place. As the snow began to fall, we stopped into a Wal-Mart for additional food supplies, a snow shovel, salt, and to check out the bathing suit situation. No bathing suits. I picked up a fresh vegetarian pizza which we ate for dinner that night. That evening, after dinner, we spent a few hours teaching the girls and Neri how to play poker with the new chips Ari had purchased—seven card stud, which is what the family has always played. We all really enjoyed the evening.

On Monday, we realized that the big snowstorm was not going to materialize for us. In an unlikely turn of events, the really heavy storm hit hard in areas east of us, like New York City, and caused a record-breaking accumulation there. By Monday afternoon, undecided about what to do next, how to allocate our expenses, and what effect the weather might have on our plans, we thrashed out a strategy to visit Niagara Falls. I had been wanting to take the girls there for a few years, and we thought it would be a memorable locale for Neri, who, coincidentally, is old enough to drink and visit the casinos there. Online, Ari discovered an off-season deal for the Sheraton overlooking the falls in a complex of connected buildings that boast, among other delights, a three-acre indoor water park. No further snow was expected for a few days and we decided to book it on Monday afternoon for Tuesday and Wednesday after checking to make sure that Jessica could overnight the girls’ passports to somewhere where we could retrieve them. The plan coalesced beautifully. For $23, Jess overnighted the passports Monday afternoon to the Fed Ex office in Kenmore, New York, just over the border from Canada. Ari and I immediately set out for home where we picked up Saul’s and my passports, several of our bathing suits, water shoes, and cover ups. It was serendipitous that we returned home when we did as the temperature in the house when we arrived was in the fifties and dropping. Something had gone wrong with our heater. We contacted our trusty heating guys, Renaissance, and arranged to have Beth let them in to fix it the following day, which they did. Ari and I were back in the Poconos in time to have dinner and pack. The girls were really excited as I helped them pack their suitcase for the journey. We all arose at 4:00 a.m. on Tuesday, packed the car (we really had to squeeze in the luggage as we had opened the third bank of seats) and were on the road by 5:30 a.m. The girls and Neri slept for most of the journey and we stopped at a Cracker Barrel for breakfast around 9:30 a.m., having traveled the better part of the 5 to 6-hour journey.
Tracking the passports on our iPhones, we knew that the passports had arrived at their destination by 10:00 a.m. as promised. Ari never goes anywhere without his passport, and Neri had brought his along also. We arrived at the Sheraton at 11:30 a.m. and one of our two adjoining rooms directly overlooking the falls was already awaiting our early check-in. The one package deal we had purchased gave four of us use of the water park from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Tuesday, and from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Wednesday. For an additional $20 per person, Ari and Neri were able to purchase the same admission as well. We changed into suits and the kids were on the water slides by 12:30. We settled into some lounge chairs on the quieter second level, showed the girls where to find us, warned them not to go out of the glass-enclosed space, asked them to check in with us from time-to-time, and let them go. There were many employees supervising the slides and pools for safety. Izzy climbed the three-stories-worth of stairs to the top of the water slides so many times that she complained hours later that her legs were aching. We were smugly satisfied that we had made the right decision about this vacation.

After showering and dressing, we headed off to a lavish buffet dinner, for which we had vouchers, in an elegant dining room overlooking the falls, which are lit at night with subtle, color-changing spotlights. We decided to have breakfast the next morning at the Rain Forest Café in the complex because there was a special, four-day opportunity to see Dora the Explorer and Diego. Rain Forest Café doesn’t ordinarily serve breakfast. The buffet breakfast was adequate and a bit pricey at $20, but it was a unique experience. On our way to the water park after breakfast, the girls posed with a giant Hershey’s Kiss character and decorated their own cookies at a Hershey’s-sponsored table. Our voucher’s that evening were $80 towards a very upscale, celebrity-chef-type restaurant which would not have been appropriate with two tired little girls. On the net, after an hour’s research, we located a well-liked, mid-priced, local restaurant, the Sandstone Grillhouse, only a few blocks away outside of the complex. We made reservations, bundled up, walked over, and had a lovely meal with friendly, attentive service and good local ambiance. Saul and Ari had the best, lightest gnocchi they had ever eaten, spinach gnocchi in a roasted red pepper chevre sauce, and they also shared a delicious pizza—caramelized onions, roasted garlic, goat cheese and mozzarella. I had the best fish and chips of my life—a whole, huge, flaky filet of haddock wrapped in a fluffy, crispy beer batter made with a premium Canadian beer, Alexander Keith’s, atop beautiful, crispy fries, and with a delicious, house-made tartar sauce and cole slaw. We shared a pitcher of Alexander Keith’s Pale Ale and the baked brie appetizer.

After we returned to the Fallsview complex, Ari and Neri used the vouchers we had received to take the girls to play arcade games and go on the indoor rides at the arcade, which would have been exorbitantly expensive without the vouchers, each ride costing about $7 per person. In the morning, we used vouchers for the hotel buffet breakfast in the beautiful room overlooking the falls. The breakfast was really a big hit and the girls were delighted to have omelets and waffles cooked to order for them. We loaded the car with our suitcases after breakfast, checked out with minimal delay, and headed about a mile down the road to the Horseshoe Falls for a tour. We opted to take the cheapest, shortest tour of the tunnels underneath the falls only, as we had a vague plan to tour the Corning Glass Museum on our way back if we had time. Izzy, who is usually intrepid, was a bit freaked out by the tunnels, especially the powerful roar of the cascading falls, so we did not spend a lot of time down there. Because of the frigid temperatures and ice, the lower outdoor viewing platform was not accessible, and Izzy was a bit disappointed by the fact that we did not get the raincoats about which I had told her. By noon, we were headed across the Rainbow Bridge back to the United States.

The official who had checked our passports on the way into Canada, had failed to mention that Neri would need a special paper document in his passport to return. When we handed over the passports on the way back, the official who reviewed them would not wait for Neri to retrieve the paper from his bag in the back of the car. Thus began an hour-and-a-half ordeal that was very educational, and a bit unpleasant for all of us. We were told to pull our car over to a parking spot and go up to the second floor of the immigration building. All of our passports were confiscated. We were told that we all needed to go upstairs even though only Neri’s passport was in question. Neri got the paper in question out of his bag when we got out of the car. When we got off of the elevator on the second floor, we found ourselves in a small waiting room, packed with a few dozen people of all ages and nationalities. After a brief time, we were able to find seats together on the hard metal benches. Names were being called and people were going through a door to meet with immigration officials. There was a small receptionist’s window to those offices with no receptionist. The girls, after Izzy initially showed great annoyance and asked a lot of questions, resigned themselves to the circumstances and we amused them as best we could with notepads, pens and crayons. No use of cell phones was allowed. As the time slowly passed, we started to get hungry, and I was sorry I had not thought to take our bag of drinks and snacks from the car. When our name was finally called, Ari went in with Neri and was out again in less than five minutes with our passports. The official was annoyed that he had had to take the time to check out Neri’s credentials when, clearly, we were in possession of the paper in question. He was annoyed at the other official who had pulled us out of line. The girls have added a new phrase to their vocabulary—“detained at the border.” Our encounter dashed our hopes of touring the Corning Museum, which closes at 5 p.m. We drove right past it on our way home at 4:40 p.m.

We allayed our hunger with snacks from our supplies in the car. We stopped to have dinner at a Red Lobster in Vestal, New York, but it was extremely crowded and we didn’t feel like waiting 40 minutes. A little further down the road, we happened upon a Chinese buffet that had sushi and we stopped for dinner. Saul questioned a woman going in with a child who said that they love to eat there. Unfortunately, it was a bad Chinese buffet. Luckily, none of us got sick.

Arriving back at our house in the Poconos on Thursday night, we all went to bed early in anticipation of the large amount of packing and cleaning that would be required the next morning. Originally, we had planned to stay in the Poconos for New Year’s Eve. Then, when Jess and Alex decided to stay home, we thought that we would celebrate back at home in the Philadelphia area and Ari and Neri would return the girls to Baltimore on Sunday after brunch. Then Neri heard that a group of his friends had arranged to be at a club in DC on New Year’s Eve. Ari got an invitation to watch Baltimore’s fireworks display from his friends Sam and Sarah’s home near the waterfront. Erica and Danny asked if they could use the Poconos house for New Year’s so that they could party with Danny’s nearby family. At the last minute, this is what we decided to do on New Year’s Eve: We packed our stuff in the morning, loaded the Pilot, and Saul left with Neri and the girls. Ari and I remained a little longer to finish cleaning the place, leaving shortly before Erica and Danny were due to arrive. About an hour before we reached the Baltimore area, we stopped for a late lunch/early dinner at yet another Cracker Barrel. Neri was amazed at the consistency of the chain which does not have a parallel in Israel. Saul then drove the girls home to Baltimore and waited for us. Ari, Neri, and I continued on to DC where Ari arranged tickets online for Neri to meet his friends at the club in DC. After resting for a while, around 8:30 p.m., Ari and I left for Baltimore where we all had a delicious Shabbat sushi dinner together prepared by Alex. Then, Ari left to join his friends for the fireworks and we watched t.v. waiting to ring in the new year. Izzy fell asleep shortly after dinner and was carried off to bed by Alex. Sami stayed awake, but we all were ready for bed after the ball dropped. Saul and I left immediately for DC. I was asleep by the time Ari returned, and at some point, he went out to pick up Neri, who had missed the last metro train of the evening.

In DC, we all did absolutely nothing on New Year’s day, sleeping late, eating leftovers from the Poconos and watching the movie “2012” which Ari had recorded on t.v. In the evening, we decided to meet Jessica at the Arundel Mills Egyptian Theater to see the most recent Harry Potter movie. Ari, Neri, Saul and I had a Mexican dinner at the nearby Chevy’s in the mall beforehand. I enjoyed the movie, although I had gone with trepidation after hearing about the graphic snake scene at the beginning. The description of the horror at the beginning of the book still haunts me, but, for a change, the scene itself was not as horrible to me as my own imagination. On Sunday, we went for dim sum at China Garden and, although we arrived at the right time, we were extremely disappointed with the selection. They had probably been mobbed the previous day and hadn’t had time to replenish their inventory. Back at Ari’s house, we began cleaning up, doing laundry, and packing up in preparation for our return home, the new work week for Ari, and Neri’s return flight to back to school. We didn’t feel like going out to dinner and Ari ordered in pizza from Papa John’s.

Ari left very early while we were still asleep on Monday morning to make sure that Neri had plenty of time to find his airplane at the large and confusing Dulles Airport. As it turned out, Neri called him several times from the airport for advice because his bags were five pounds overweight and he couldn’t stuff another thing into his carry on. I had forgotten about the weight restrictions two weeks earlier when I had bought him a shrink-wrapped double tower of solid white albacore tuna fish cans that he was craving at Costco. Ari advised him to lose the tuna, and reshuffle a few things into his carry on. He found an Ethiopian woman who was delighted beyond all reason to have the tower of tuna fish, and the check-in lady had pity on him and let him go through without charging him for the extra pound or two.

Saul and I had a number of things around the house that we wanted to help Ari finish before we headed for home, including installing dimmer switches in several places, breaking down large boxes and putting them out for the trash or storing them away in closets, cleaning up dead leaves on his outdoor plants, washing sheets and towels and remaking beds, finishing up the laundry, etc. etc. By the time we accomplished our to-do list and packed ourselves up to leave, it was almost time for Ari to return from work. We decided to have dinner together, stay one more night, and leave on Tuesday morning. We had dinner at Pho 14 in Columbia Heights. The next morning, Ari helped us with our suitcases before leaving for work, but was suffering from a cold which lasted several days. We had a really speedy ride home over I-95, which had very little traffic at the hours in which we were traveling. For a few days, I was overwhelmed with the amount of laundry that had piled up, including all the sheets and towels from all the beds and bathrooms at home, all the sheets and towels from all the beds and baths in the Poconos, and two weeks worth of our clothing. I finally got through it all after a few days and now we are about to embark on decision-making regarding renovations to our home. We have decided to wait at least another year before putting it on the market again, and, in the meantime, have begun discussing what and how we would like to update. Saul has decided to continue teaching until he is eligible for Medicare, which will be at least another year or two. Our grandchildren will be delighted that we have decided to stay for a while. They let us know, in no uncertain terms, how much they love our home and their summers here.

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