Sunday, March 1, 2015

Bragging Season in Florida

As we watch our friends and family struggling with frigid temperatures and frequent blizzards up north, we are constantly reminding ourselves how lucky we are to be able to dress in shorts, t-shirts and sandals and occasionally don bathing suits to take a dip in the pool during the months of January and February, or go to the beach whenever the mood strikes. Although the summers here are hot and humid, winter in Florida is bragging season. We have been blessed, though, with a diverting stream of visitors for the last two months, and have gone south to visit old friends as well.

A few days after Jess and the girls returned to Cherry Hill, Haley and Erik arrived along with their friends, Joe and Binky to stay with Ken and Randi for several days. Ken and Randi appear to be thriving in their new home. Saul and I met up with the four of them in the Magic Kingdom one afternoon. The following day, we met in Hollywood Studios for a delightful day at the park. We came in at the tail end of one of Disney’s marathons and watched as the exhausted runners neared the end of the race. Based on nostalgic memories, we had a passable retro dinner at the Fifties Prime Time CafĂ©, where we sat among bric-a-brac that evoked memories of childhood in our kitchens of the past. The day after that, we joined them at Epcot during an unusually long-lasting (for Florida) interval of driving rain. We had a late lunch at Le Cellier in Canada in the World Showcase, a restaurant that we had been eager to try for several years. The food was quite good and the setting was representative of the quintessential Canadian steakhouse. We sampled two different flights of Canadian wines that were very interesting. Our waitstaff was lively and efficient. As we waited, the rain subsided somewhat after lunch, and we quickly cut through the rose garden to the nearby Captain Eo attraction. While we watched the 3-D movie, the skies opened up and the crowd coming out of the building began to congregate in the sheltered exit area because the rain and strong wind was just so intimidating. When it did not let up, Saul and I decided to part ways with the others and waded in the gale through puddles up to our ankles to return to our car. The others donned ponchos and soldiered on for the rest of the day so that Joe and Binky could experience some of the attractions without the usual long lines and witness the IllumiNations fireworks, which they had never before seen. To make the damp afternoon and evening more palatable, they also decided to “drink around the world,” an Epcot experience which involves stopping into every one of the World Showcase countries for a representative alcoholic beverage. The kids were flying back north the next evening. Saul and I had eye doctor appointments for checkups that morning. After we got our good reports, we drove to Costco to order Saul’s new prescription and then joined them at the Magic Kingdom, where they had returned early that morning to make the most of their park tickets. Saul and I bid them goodbye at the park as Ken and Randi were taking them directly to the airport from there to catch their flights. We had a whirlwind of a good time!

On January 16, Ken and Randi, Saul and I spent a few hours at Hollywood Studios once again, to take advantage of our special invitations to view a sneak preview of the upcoming, new, live-action Cinderella movie that Disney has been hyping. It looks like it will be good—a little humorous and light in spite of the lavish accoutrements and settings—because it would be horrible if this fairy tale took itself very seriously. The next day, we were invited to Peter and Carly’s home (Ken and Randi’s former Aussie tenants who moved across the street) for coffee. We spent a delightful few hours getting to know them better and, in the course of our conversation, we had been talking about the delights available at The International Food Club. Taking advantage of Peter’s availability for babysitting, we took Carly there directly and we all managed to pick up exciting and unusual foreign delicacies. Unfortunately, the Food Club only had fresh clotted cream, and was out of the fresh double cream that Carly had been seeking in order to prepare real Australian pavlova, the item that had sparked our trip in the first place. During that week, Adele came to stay for a few days and we went over to the International Gate at Epcot to order her an annual pass to the parks. On January 24, following services and lunch, Saul and I drove to Tampa International Airport to pick up our friend, Larry. On the way back, we stopped at Sonny’s in Haines City so that Larry could get his fix of real Southern barbecue. Larry renewed his annual pass at the International Gate also and we went to see the featured movie in “France.” Ken and Randi invited us all for dinner one evening and we had a wonderful repast there. We took Larry to visit the outlet malls in Orlando where he was able to purchase a prescribed pair of New Balance sneakers to make walking a little easier for him. After a few easygoing days here, Larry, Saul and I made the 3-hour drive to Sanibel Island to join his sister, Susan, and her husband, Ted, and their friend, Mary, for a few days vacation at the seashore. Ted planned a delightful flurry of activities for us which included a docent-led tour of the extensive wildlife preserve there, a late afternoon cruise around the bay to watch birds and learn about their habitat, a beach walk to learn about the huge diversity of seashells and the creatures that live inside them, and a tour of a beautiful seashell museum that was largely funded by the actor, Raymond Burr, who was best known for playing the detective Perry Mason on television. Our car battery died after we finished our first stop in the preserve (the road goes in one direction only), but a good samaritan turned his car around to give us a hot shot to help us out of our dilemma. During our time on the island, Mary, Susan and Ted prepared some wonderful meals for us. Saul and I assisted by barbecuing at the condo’s grills, where we met an interesting mix of families from all over the U.S. We spent one of our evenings playing Scrabble face-to-face, the real board game, not Words with Friends. We had convivial meals at The Lazy Flamingo, and at the Keylime Bistro on Captiva Island. Our walks on the beach revealed thousands upon thousands of intricate shells for which Sanibel is known worldwide, but almost every one was inhabited by a live creature. We didn’t bring home many because of the humane and ecological prohibition there against taking live shells. Our knowledge of sea life and birds was increased tremendously in the four days we spent there. The diversity of creatures and uniqueness of their habits was astounding.

After our time on Sanibel, we headed for home with Larry, Susan and Ted in the Pilot, which was behaving well after our initial problem. Randi’s sister, Sherrie, had come to visit them while we were in Sanibel, and they all spent a few days in Boca Raton visiting their other sister, Lori. When we returned from Sanibel, we all spent a wonderful day together touring Animal Kingdom. Saul and I are still discovering areas of the parks that are new to us even after almost two years here. On this particular jaunt, we discovered the Maharajah Jungle Trek, an amazing habitat where we saw fruit bats as big as footballs hanging just beyond arm’s reach, a large kamodo dragon that had just laid an egg, a full-size Bengal tiger, and the most exotically plumed birds that flew just overhead or scurried by your feet as you walked. The weather was perfect. During the week that they stayed with us, we took the ferry boats from the Boardwalk around the lagoon and toured some of the surrounding hotels. Susan bought some great bargains at the outlet malls. We also parked at Animal Kingdom Lodge where we learned accidentally that there are two buildings, and viewed a much more interesting group of animals from the smaller lodge that is part of the Disney vacation villas. Susan and Ted conversed for a while with the African docents who were so pleased to meet people who had actually visited their country. We then went back to the main lodge to view the impressive architecture of the place. We made it a point to visit Wilderness Lodge, which is my favorite of all the Disney hotels, and is breathtakingly constructed, decorated and furnished in Craftsman style. During our week we also spent several hours at Downtown Disney which is undergoing massive reconstruction right now. We barely recognized it. Ted made an elaborate breakfast for us one morning. On another, we went to Lam’s Garden for dim sum. We also had breakfast at Nikko’s Egg City where they loved not only the breakfast, but the kitschy 1950’s decor. For Shabbat dinner, the Friday that they were here, I prepared a Tu B’Shevat seder, which Ken and Randi also attended. By then, Sherrie had returned home. We had dinner with Ken and Randi, also, at Columbia Restaurant in Celebration, and visited Crazy Buffet for dinner without them while they spent an evening with new friends from Bella Trae. Crazy Buffet was really wonderful for a weekend dinner, as we discovered, because we had never before been there for dinner. We returned Larry to Tampa Airport on Saturday, February 7. On one of our last days with Susan and Ted before we returned them to Tampa Airport on February 9, we parked at the Grand Floridian, took the small launch to the Magic Kingdom, and then took an extended ride on the monorail system from park to park.

For Saul’s birthday on February 10, we parked at Disney’s Boardwalk intending to have a light, impromptu dinner at Big River Grill, but by the time we decided, there was a 45-minute wait and we were hungry. We wandered further around the Boardwalk and decided to have a light dinner in the lounge at Blue Zoo in The Dolphin Hotel. The ability to take a table immediately without a reservation there, the ambience, selection of food, helpfulness of our waitress, and prices made us very happy that evening. We chose wisely except for the delicious Bloody Marys, which, taken with extra hot sauce so late in the evening, caused us (particularly me) some discomfort the next day. Saul had a dermatologist appointment the next day and we were relieved to learn that the blue mole above his right eyebrow was nothing to worry about and easily removed right then and there. The doctor also looked over some other moles on his torso and pronounced them all fine, much to our relief.

On February 12, Saul and I packed and left the house before dawn at 6:00 a.m. to drive down to Marco Island, about 3-1/2 hours away, to visit our friends from Cherry Hill, Ruth and Giora. We decided to take a less traveled route through the center of the state, but encountered a complete road block due to an accident and were routed by the police off the highway in basically the middle of nowhere. Our G.P.S. failed us as we found ourselves on a winding country road that was very picturesque, but which brought us, after about 5 miles, to a dead end. We had to backtrack almost to where the road was closed, and by following other traffic through a gated military supply base, we were able to return to the original road a little bit past the accident. Although we lost about an hour, we still arrived in time to have lunch with our friends in their beautiful seafront condo overlooking a spectacular view. Together, we went for a long walk along the lovely beach, and reminisced about old times. Then, we went for a drive to see the tony areas of Marco Island where gorgeous mansions, incredibly landscaped, back up to rows of manmade canals for docking boats. We parked the car and walked to one of the most beautiful Marriott Hotels in the world, where we hung out for a bit in the lobby to soak up the ambience. That evening, after we napped for a while, Ruth’s sister and her husband, who live a few floors below, joined us for dinner, which Ruth had prepared, augmented by hors d’oeuvres and dessert which I had brought. After much convivial conversation, we went downstairs to her sister’s condo to watch the movie, Hava Nagilah, which they had downloaded. The next morning, after breakfast and some schmoozing, we left for the long drive back. We had arranged for Larry to bring Adele over for a visit for a few days and we needed to be back by around 4:00 p.m. Again, although we took the fast route, we were hung up in bumper-to-bumper traffic due to an accident and had to backtrack for miles to find an alternate route home.

Adele came to stay with us for a few days on Friday, February 13. We met Larry and Adele and went for an early dinner at Sweet Tomatoes and Larry returned home to take care of their dogs. During the weekend, I invited Ken and Randi over for breakfast because Adele was not feeling up to going out as we had planned. After breakfast, however, she was feeling fine and we decided to catch The Festival of the Lion King show and see how the day progressed. We actually spent almost the whole day at Animal Kingdom and Adele was fine and had a great time. The next day, however, she was feeling bad again, and breakfast did not help to restore her. She insisted that the way she was feeling, she wanted to be in her own bed. Ken and Randi came with us and we met Larry half way so that he could pick her up to take her home. As it turned out, the doctor said she had a virus that would have to work itself out, which it did after several days.

That evening, Saul’s cousin’s daughter, Adi, came to visit with six of her friends from school. Adi is from Israel and is in the United States in Boca Raton working as a teacher’s assistant as a form of alternative service to the military in Israel. These delightful girls drove here in two borrowed cars, stopping to see some of the sights along the way. They work in different schools, but all know each other and meet as a part of their program. When they arrived, we asked if they would be up for seeing fireworks. As they were eager, we left in the Pilot with four of them about a half hour after they arrived at our house and got to Disney’s Boardwalk with only five minutes to spare to watch the IllumiNations fireworks at 9:00 p.m. over Epcot. They were absolutely wowed by the fireworks, even from a distance. Two other girls were supposed to join us, but they left the house after showering, too late, so we told them by phone to meet us at The Grand Floridian to view the Magic Kingdom fireworks at 10:00 p.m. One girl chose to stay behind. We arrived at The Grand Floridian with the four girls, including Adi, and took some photos with the antique white limo and the live orchestra in the lobby. We arrived on the viewing terrace overlooking the lagoon about 15 minutes before the fireworks, which were even more spectacular. The others lagged behind again, but were able to catch a glimpse of them from the parking lot as they arrived. We brought three girls home, and three went souvenir shopping until after midnight. The next morning, after breakfast and much negotiating about which park to visit, they decided to stick together and tour Universal Studios. Since Saul and I do not have annual passes there, we bid them goodbye and invited them to return on their next holiday.

Beginning on February 17, Saul and I began searching for and gathering materials for a special custom-made bulletin board that we had envisioned to display the girls’ collection of Disney pins. I had purchased an incredible bargain of a picture frame while we were shopping with Larry for $8. Later, we discovered that the odd size was a problem. We needed a thick layer of cork and standard sheets were an inch too short and narrow. Eventually, we found what we needed and were very pleased with the results, but it took a few days of shopping, returning, re-buying, redesigning, and construction.

During February, Ken and Randi left for an almost month-long vacation on their beloved Kauai, where they were planning to celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary with their children and grandchildren. The children, however, were making even bigger plans. Haley had ordered special, tropical-style, coordinated clothing for all of them to wear for a family anniversary photo shoot on the beach. That’s what Ken and Randi thought. In reality, Haley and Jamie had made arrangements for a surprise, Hawaiian-style renewal of wedding vows for their parents, followed by an amazing banquet specially prepared for all of them by a master chef in a beautiful private setting. The photographer prepared a montage of the occasion that looks almost dreamlike in its perfection. We are so happy that they are well and enjoying themselves immensely.

Saul and I returned to the Magic Kingdom after the brief hiatus that followed our over-saturation with park visitations and had a beautiful evening riding the train, walking around, seeing Mickey’s PhilharMagic, and viewing The Electric Parade from a bench on the terrace of the city hall on Main Street. We zipped out of the park ahead of the crowds and were able to view the Electrical Water Pageant as we hopped the launch back to the Grand Floridian where we had parked. We watched the fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle from a terrace table at the edge of the lagoon while sharing a grilled sandwich and cups of steaming hot coffee with a shot of hot chocolate from the Gasparilla Island Grill—a perfect way to experience Disney!

Having lived here for over a year now, I have decided to keep the original configuration of my kitchen. Any major wall moving would entail scraping up and replacing the tile floor and would mushroom into a huge expense from there. The kitchen works well for multiple cooks and has ample work space. I hated the pantry closet from the beginning. Any search would require constant precarious rearranging of items on the shelves to locate what was in the back. Finally deciding to keep things as they are allowed us to search for solutions to the pantry problem, and thanks to a suggestion from Jessica, we have come up with a very satisfactory, efficient, aesthetic, and relatively reasonable system of storage thanks to the Elfa system from The Container Store. We made the decision just in time as the 30% off sale is due to end tomorrow. We spent the last few days running the 24 miles back and forth from the store to make sure we had all the parts that we needed and wanted to outfit not only the pantry closet, but some of our cabinets as well. We now have drawers filling the vacant space that was wasted in our boxy kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Life is good! Now on to deciding about countertops, sinks, and a refrigerator.

We had meetings this past week with a landscape designer whom I located on the website, Houzz. I admired some of his work on display there and found that he was local enough in Orlando to work with us. After his initial visit to us to check out our property and our critiquing the preliminary drawings, we visited his home where we were able to view much of the plant material, in a live setting, that will be used in our design. His home is lovely and filled with interesting and artistic objects. He and his wife, fellow ethnic foodies, treated us to lunch after our meeting at a new, nearby restaurant, Mamak, which specializes in Asian street food. After sharing a bunch of delectable dishes, we drove to a nearby Asian market where his wife, Kristin, advised me what items to buy to make her recipe for Ma Po Tofu. We made it for dinner on Friday night and it was delicious. We also met with a solar installation company representative this week about solar heating our pool and hot water.

The weather up north continues to be truly awful and as I write this, family and friends are preparing for ice storms that are expected to cause widespread power outages. Temperatures have been in the single digits for the better part of a month. Down here, we are in shorts, tee-shirts, and sandals and are in the process of heating up our pool as the temperatures will be in the 80s for several days. We feel a little guilty about enjoying our beautiful weather and even think twice before mentioning it because we worry about those suffering with storms and ice, but the fact is, we are rejoicing in our choice to move here and wish all those that we miss up north could be here bragging with us.

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