Monday, October 27, 2014

Vacationing in England and Italy with Ari and Sami

Saul and I left Yona’s fifth birthday party on the afternoon of Mother’s Day, May 11, and began our headlong rush back down to Florida, so as to be able to wash clothes, pick up medication, get our house ready for a two-month absence, and repack our suitcases. Our plane was due to leave from Orlando International on Wednesday, May 14. Our first stop on our way to London—Philadelphia International! How ridiculous are airline prices?! We saved about $600 by submitting ourselves to this outrageous paradox. At least the situation gave us a chance to sleep in our own bed for a night.

The flight itself was actually quite pleasant. We left on time, had good weather, and our layovers in Philly and Amsterdam gave us just enough time to get to the proper gates, use the facilities, and rest for a short time before boarding. We were secretly hoping to be bumped in either of those places. Philly would have given us time with friends, and Amsterdam would have been interesting, but we were satisfied with relatively hassle-free connections.

Ari met us on the morning of May 15, at Gatwick Airport. We had a nice lunch there in a typical British pub, caught the train for central London, arriving at London Bridge train station, where we hopped on a bus in front of “The Shard,” and proceeded on the short drive to Ari’s beautiful, new, two-bedroom-two bathroom flat across the street from the Shoreditch Police Station. His flat was so centrally located, that Saul and I were able to travel on foot, or by a short double-decker bus ride to almost every place we wanted to tour in London. We spent the next several weeks seeing most of the city, some places (like the British Museum and Borough Market) multiple times. Ari joined us in our excursions on the weekends, and frequently met us after work to eat out together. We covered so much territory together that his colleagues chided him for trying to kill us “old folks” with such a grueling schedule. In the first two weeks there, we alternated ambitious travel days with vegging out in front of British television programs. Totaled up, we probably spent a few of our days watching everything we could find on a chef we discovered there, Heston Blumenthal, who should be considered a British national treasure. Why he is practically unknown in the United States we cannot fathom! When we returned, we tried to share some of his programs with the girls, but were only able to stream two or three from the U.K.

I probably should have kept a log of what we did each day that we were there, but we were just too tired, the computer was not that happy about intercontinental travel, and we were constantly thinking up new things to try. I guess it will have to suffice if I just simply list all the places we saw with observations about the highlights of our trip and unique aspects of British culture we observed, especially since my kids always accuse me of being too long-winded in these posts. The photos, for the most part, will have to speak for themselves. Suffice it to say that we had the journey of a lifetime! It was better than anything we could have imagined.

What we saw and did in London and its environs:
Full English breakfast at The Shepherdess CafĂ©; walking tour of Piccadilly Circus followed by some traditional English dishes like Scotch eggs and banoffee tart at Mews Art Gallery; shopping with Ari at John Lewis; Hampton Court; Borough Market under London Bridge for incredible artisanal food; Museum of London; Museum of London, Docklands; Cutty Sark; Greenwich Market; dim sum in London’s Chinatown; food shopping at a London Co-op Market; Bunhill Fields Cemetery; Tower of London; Banqueting House; buskers at Covent Garden and browsing the antiques and artisans’ tables; National Portrait Gallery; Buckingham Palace; Hyde Park; The London Eye; Number 10 Downing Street; Big Ben; Horse Guards at Whitehall, Westminster; Westminster Abbey; Tate Museum of Modern Art; Millennium Bridge; Shakespeare’s Globe Theater; Harrod’s Department Store; Victoria and Albert Museum; Brighton Royal Pavilion; Canary Wharf; Regent’s Park; Kensington Palace; Spitalfield’s; Kew Gardens; Platform 9-3/4 at Kings Cross Station, Brick Lane, Olympic Park, St. Bride’s Church; home of Samuel Johnson and statue of his cat, Hodge; Temple Church; original Twining Tea shop; Fleet Street, St. Paul’s Cathedral; Paternoster Square; Temple Bar; Trafalgar Square; statue of Boudica; Turkish haircuts ending with flaming sealing of the hair.

Highlights of our trip—London:
When we arrived by train for a day in Brighton, we were met, as we hiked to the seaside, by a long parade of nude bicyclists. They were protesting something, but what it was I don’t remember. At Borough Market, the fishmongers set up the gullible passersby (like us) for a scare from a very ugly monkfish (see video above). Discovering how Guinness truly should taste at The Eagle pub. Wow! Sprawled out on huge beanbag chairs on the floor of the Banqueting House to spend an hour contemplating the ceiling painted by Raphael while listening to a Rick Steves tour about it on our iPhones. Watching the horses being led to pasture at Hampton Court. Seeing the great vine, planted in 1769, which occupies an entire greenhouse at Hampton Court. Seeing the actual Rosetta Stone! The Elgin Marbles in the British Museum. Watching an elaborate parade rehearsal at Buckingham Palace preparing for the Queen’s opening of Parliament. Real, ancient, totally intact, Grecian urns. Watching the opening of Parliament on British television. Watching the Royal Ascot on British televison and seeing people returning from it on the train in all their finery, including those funky British hats called fascinators. Cruising the Thames with Ari on a KPMG ferry. Strolling and grazing alongside the Thames with Ari and Sami. Getting lost coming back from a day at Kew Gardens and happening upon an American-themed block party where everyone was dressed in Western gear and American flags were flying, but nobody there was actually American. Eating real British fish and chips. Indian food in London.

For Sami’s bat mitzvah, which took place last November, Uncle Ari had promised to take her on a vacation anywhere in the world that she wanted to visit. After much debate and negotiation, she chose Rome. Little did we all know, at that time, that Ari would be residing in London for a few years. So, in addition to us having the vacation of a lifetime in London, Sami got to spend several days in London with us as well, and we were able to join her and Ari on the Italian leg of the trip, which he extended to include Florence and Venice. Ari, the master of planning trips for us without benefit of travel agencies (Beijing, China, for example), outdid himself this time. The boutique hotels and inns where we stayed in all three cities were awesome!

What we saw and did in Italy and its environs:

Strolling the area around Piazza Navona, just down the street from our adorable, three-story house; The Pantheon, also just down the street; Vatican City; Sistine Chapel ceiling; Michaelangelo’s Pieta; St. Peter’s Square; Apostolic Palace; Swiss Guards; the Arch of Titus; Imperial Forum; Basilica Aemilia; Castel Sant’Angelo; the entire ancient city, including quarters of the Vestal Virgins, Colosseum, and Forum; Trevi Fountain (under construction); the original Jewish Ghetto and its synagogue; Piazza Campidoglio; Capitoline Hill; National Monument of Victory; outdoor copy of Michaelangelo’s David

Highlights of Rome:
Our special trattoria (Il Fico) an arm’s length across the cobblestone alley from our house, where our lovely, wonderful waitress, Gianna, plied us with seemingly endless, complimentary, glasses of Limoncello, as we waited for our outdoor table, and where, for about $10 we had the best pasta dish ever, loaded with white truffles, mushrooms and butter. We ordered the same dish, in the same place, every night for three days, and savored it as we listened to the violins of the street musicians under moonlight. I don’t think anything will ever be that perfect again! Eating breakfast across the piazza from the Pantheon, under an awning, while waiting for a teeming rain to let up so we could see the inside; Sami posing for photos under The Arch of Titus (now that Israel is an independent State) after sidestepping the ropes put up to keep tourists out (at the prodding of her Saba). Before 1948, Jews traditionally did not walk under the Arch. She got yelled out by a tour guide, but we got the photo anyway! Shopping for groceries for breakfast in nearby shops with Ari. Hunting down the best places for gelato with Sami. Watching the street artists paint with spray cans and flames in the Piazza Navona and Ari buying Sami the one with the wolf in it. Touring the synagogue, viewing its treasures, and strolling the Jewish Ghetto.

From Rome, we took a taxi to the train station. The train ride, which took about two hours, was comfortable and pleasant, although we were not all able to sit together because of seat-specific ticketing. Saul had a pleasant journey a few aisles down with seat mates that were English-speaking from California. One of Ari’s favorite memories was of me commenting that the countryside through which we passed looked exactly like what I pictured Tuscany to look like. He laughingly explained to me that Florence is in Tuscany, a fact of which I was not aware. We were truly looking at Tuscan countryside on our journey.

C Hotel The Style Florence (directly across the street from the train station, thanks to Ari’s great thoughtfulness and good travel karma); The Duomo, also known as Santa Maria Del Fiore Cathedral; Michaelangelo’s David and his unfinished Slaves in the Hall of the Prisoners, Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabines, and Botticelli’s Madonna and Child in the Galleria dell’Accademia Museum among many other magnificent works of art; lunch at Trattoria La Madia; Uffizi Gallery; Palazzo Medici Riccardi; Piazza Della Signoria; Ponte Vecchio; Mercato Centrale; dinner at Trattoria 13 Gobbi.

Highlights of Florence:
The David! It literally took my breath away when I first saw it in person. It is the most beautiful and flawless marble I have ever seen. The view from the balcony of our hotel suite. As we hurried back from dinner, we narrowly missed getting caught in the teeming rain of a very violent thunderstorm. We watched the lightning show from our balcony as it illuminated the distinctive skyline of the partially blacked-out city due to power failures. Doing the Rick Steves walking tour of the city together with ear buds and iPhones. Choosing gorgeous, jewel-like, preserved fruits and Italian honeys for my collection at the Mercato Centrale.

While we waited to board our train from Florence to Venice, Ari and I left Saul and Sami with the suitcases and went to buy delicious sandwiches and snacks at a small restaurant/deli down the street from the station so we would not be hungry on our journey. Again, our traveling time was about two hours. Again, the ride was very pleasant, and this time Saul was able to trade seats so that we could all sit together. Nothing in my life had prepared me for the incredible beauty of Venice as I experienced my first glimpse through the huge glass doors of the train station. That first view of the canals on a beautiful, cloudless day was absolutely breathtaking, and nothing like the murky, moldy, deteriorating city I had expected to encounter.

Grand Canal; La Fenice; Saint Mark Basin; Palazzo Ducale; St. Mark’s Square (Doge’s Palace, Campanile, The Clock Tower, Bridge of Sighs); Ponte de Ghetto Vecchio, Campo Madonna, Rialto Market

Highlights of Venice:
The beautiful architecture. The lack of automobiles. Watching the gondolas. Riding the Vaporetto. Wandering the narrow streets on foot and getting lost in the maze of courtyards and small bridges. Having to retrace our path because there were no bridges in some places. Having dinner near our house alongside a small, quiet canal at sunset. Again, doing the Rick Steves walking tour of the city together with ear buds and iPhones. Shopping for groceries in the small bakeries and markets near our house. Touring the ancient Jewish quarter. Shopping for Murano glass souvenir necklaces in St. Mark’s Square with Sami.

We were all very sad to leave Italy. We all loved the culture, food, and people that we met far above anything we expected. The house where we stayed in Venice was so charming and comfortable that we vowed we would be back to enjoy a laid-back, extended vacation there. On the last day, we hopped a water taxi that took us across the lagoon to the airport for our flight back to London.

Our last few days in London were concerned with preparing Ari to move to a new flat in Greenwich. While his flat was beautiful, it was in a small building with very inefficient management and only one elevator, which was constantly breaking down and taking several days to repair. For the amount he was paying for the apartment, we felt he should not have to walk four flights of stairs, nor put up with dirty entranceways, and common areas. There was also no concierge, a problem for Ari anytime he needed to have a delivery, especially with the long hours he keeps at work.

We were only able to spend one night in the Greenwich apartment before it was time to fly back to Orlando for the beginning of “Camp Bubbie and Saba.” Saul and I traveled with Sami to Gatwick Airport by cab and placed her on her flight back as an unaccompanied minor. She had a good flight and was met without any problems by her mom, dad and two siblings who had driven down to our home the day before. Since Saul and I were leaving less than a day later, we arranged to stay at the Bloc Hotel, which is a box-type hotel within the airport itself. It was a very unusual set-up, but I would recommend it to anyone with a long layover in an airport. The clean, tiny room, with its comfy bed and bedding, was laid out very efficiently. The bathroom, with its shower was a wet room with the toilet paper in a protective cover so it would not get wet. Because we had decided to upgrade, there was a window in our room, but this type of accommodation is not for the claustrophobic. One caveat is that we were not able to check our luggage under this type of set up and had to drag our suitcases all over the airport until our room was ready, not a small inconvenience.

On our flight back, our information was misplaced when we landed in Edinborough. This had something to do with our switch from British Airways to American Airlines as part of the Oneworld alliance. They fixed the problem without too much stress and we were rewarded when we arrived in Philadelphia with a switch to first class seating for the flight from there to Orlando. The only other unpleasantness was the weather as we reached Orlando. A classic Florida thunderstorm was just getting underway and we watched bolts of lightning striking around us as we landed.

We had enjoyed the vacation of a lifetime, but we were very glad to be home, safe and sound, among our children and grandchildren. We had been missing our comfy bed and Florida weather and we were very much looking forward to the beginning of our next vacation, immediately, as Camp Bubbie and Saba was about to begin in the land of Disney World.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Time Spent Back in Pennsylvania and New Jersey

Shortly after packing all our Passover stuff back into the seven cartons in which it is stored, and after restoring the house to the condition in which it started before the arrival of all our guests, Saul and I reluctantly began the drive back north; reluctantly, because we were leaving beautiful, warm weather, and a lovely, inviting pool just outside our door, to return to the land of boots, wool socks, tights, winter coats, and sweaters.

Months earlier, we had planned the trip for a few reasons. We wanted to be present for Yona’s “Alice in Wonderland” fifth birthday party and to make her a decorated cake as we have always done for all the girls on their birthdays. In addition, we still have not selected doctors here in Florida, and it was time for our yearly checkups and colonoscopies. We love our doctors in Pennsylvania and figured we would kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes, so we scheduled everything to take place within a ten-day period shortly before our scheduled trip to London and Italy. Fortunately, our friends, Ruth and Giora, offered us the use of their home, within a few miles of Jess and Alex’s home, and Rif and Paul’s home. Ruth and Giora were, coincidentally, in Israel at the time. We can’t stay with our kids because I am allergic to Inky, their dog. Other friends and relatives offered their homes as well, but none live as close.

Before the party preparations began, Saul and I joined the girls and Jess for the season’s last pottery session where I got to make a dish that the girls said they would finish at a future time. Another bonus was being able to make challah with Yona’s preschool class on parents day. Alex’s sister, Naomi drove in also with Talia and Ava for the party. Jessica and Alex, as usual, prepared an over-the-top, incredible birthday party. The cake, which Sami, herself baked, was a three-dimensional teapot with mouse peeking out, based on art from the Disney version of the mad hatter’s tea party in the movie, Alice in Wonderland. Working together, with even Yona participating, we all produced the most amazing cake and tea party ever! Part of the fun was Yona’s guests designing and decorating their own party hats and their own cupcakes.

Our check ups, done on separate days because of a policy of the doctor’s office, produced happy results. In both our cases, all our numbers were well within the normal range. This was especially happy for me because Saul had been sticking a needle in my finger every day for the last year to check my blood sugar. He has been so good about this because I am a big coward about needles. My A1C, which was really abnormally high last year (over 10), was normal this time (6.7). This has given me the freedom to test my blood every few weeks instead of every day. The few times we have taken a reading, it has been well within normal, but I have still changed my diet to avoid as much sugar and white flour as I possibly can, a good policy even when my sugar is normal. In the last few months, I have been learning to make some of my favorite Indian dishes, which also contribute to lowering sugar levels with the use of spices like turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, and cumin. A recipe for dosas with masala aloo should appear shortly on my recipe blog. As things turned out, I had to cancel my overdue colonoscopy because the insurance company to which we have been paying large premiums this year refused to cover it, although they did agree to cover Saul’s because he is already on Medicare. Saul had a clear colon this time. Likewise, they only covered half of the expense for my mammogram, which was also clear. Woohoo! :o)

I was really incensed at the insurance company at the time, but since then, I have learned that it is one of the best policies we could have chosen once I am eligible for Medicare in six months. If I had opted out of it at the time, I would not have been able to opt back in. We learned all this in an extensive interview we had with a remarkably-informed, volunteer counselor provided free by the state of Florida for our county, which is Polk. Once Medicare kicks in for me, I will schedule a colonoscopy, which will be covered this time. Our wonderful neighbors here in Florida, Gary and Terry, gave us a list of doctors and dentists who come highly recommended by the folks at the nearby hospital where Terry works. She is the one who informed us about the existence of the health insurance counseling program.

While back up north, we were able to meet our good friends, Larry for lunch, and Roxy and George for dinner. The most difficult part of our new life is missing our friends of many years.

We accomplished much during our visit, and we were happy when it was time to hit the road south again. As the hours passed on our drive home, we began peeling away the coats, sweaters, and socks with the rising temperatures. We were due to fly to London for an extended visit with Ari (for almost two months) within a few days. The stupid thing was that, in order to get the cheapest rate for our flight to London, we had to be back in Orlando to take a flight to Philadelphia, then to Amsterdam, and then to London. We saved several hundred dollars on our flights by driving back to Orlando instead of taking the much shorter flight directly from Philadelphia.

We enjoyed friends and family up north, but we were so happy to be back in our home in Florida for a few days before our trip!