Thursday, June 25, 2015

Springing into Summer

After our exhilarating, but exhausting weekend in Cleveland for Meredith’s wedding, we still managed to do our three-mile walk around Epcot on Sunday evening, and catch The Little River Band’s performance at the American Gardens Theater, there. The band’s performance was worth the extra push, and we had the added satisfaction of appearing on their Facebook page in three of the photos that the band took of the audience. We had so much fun, and were so happy to be in the land of magic and palm trees again that the next night we chose to walk at Hollywood Studios where we observed the changes made to the area where the Sorcerer’s Hat was removed and a Star Wars set had been constructed. We were excited to find that the Toy Story Ride was open to us without a wait a little after hours. This is one ride that we love for which we can never get Fast Passes. They are always sold out. Usually, if we really want to do it, we have to wait in line for at least an hour. The next few days, we finally spent sleeping late and chilling out by the pool. We had an afternoon visit at home from two of Saul’s former students from Chestnut Hill College, Jessica and Chris. He was very gratified to find that he was a great influence for good on some of his students and that they still care enough about him to pay us a visit while in our area. When we were feeling more ambitious, we picked up some fresh supplies at Costco, including a case of surprisingly delicious, KSA pareve, shelf-stable, organic tofu which we used to make another comforting batch of Ma Po Tofu. For Shabbat dinner the following Friday, I managed to make a macaroni and cheese casserole that was pretty tasty even though it was made with gluten-free quinoa pasta, gluten-free flour, and gluten-free matzoh crumbs for the topping. Randi was pretty happy. We also had homemade challah, deviled eggs, seared sesame-crusted tuna, caesar salad, and Israeli salad. For dessert, we are still working on finishing the frozen carob crepes and chocolate hazelnut bars from Passover. On Saturday night, Saul and I went to see the final Garden Rocks concert—Herman’s Hermits, while Ken and Randi went to pick up friends Barbara and Norman from Orlando airport.

Sunday, we sprang right back into our delightful and somewhat athletic retirement routine. As we were breakfasting on Sunday morning, we were visited by our favorite Florida avians, a family of sandhill cranes. We joined Barbara and Norman along with Ken and Randi so that we all could experience the last day of the flower and garden event at Epcot. We saw the special previews of Tomorrowland, rode Planet Earth and Soarin’, marveled at the variety of butterflies displayed at the special butterfly exhibit, got great seats at the packed last performances of Herman’s Hermits, had dinner together at Chefs de France in the World Showcase, and watched the incredible IllumiNations fireworks over the Epcot lagoon. The weather has been unusually hot, even for Florida, this spring. We had a great time, anyway!

Barbara and Norman were able to purchase very discounted 4-day passes for Disney, because of Norman’s military service, by purchasing the tickets at Shades of Green. They took a day to recharge on Monday, but after that, in order to take advantage of the passes, we spent a lot of time in the parks for the next few days. We all recharged on Monday. I had everyone over for a late brunch. We hung out in the pool for a few hours. Then, after Saul and I napped, we met them in Celebration for the Monday, free “Jazz Meets Motown” night at the Bohemian Hotel, where we lounged on the veranda, and had drinks and appetizers. Tuesday was spent at Animal Kingdom, where we saw The Festival of the Lion King (which I could do every day!), and had great seats for the bird show, “Flights of Wonder.” Saul and I left them at the entrance to “It’s Tough to be a Bug.” We took a well-needed siesta, and then later met them at Ay! Jalisco for Mexican food (which Norman loves), and pitchers of frozen margaritas.

Wednesday, we had been hoping to spend a day together in Clearwater at the beach, and the weather had been a bit iffy, but by noon, it appeared to be clearing, so we packed the Pilot with our gear and headed out. Because of the late hour, and all the construction along the public beaches, we could not find parking. Saul and I had an early breakfast, so we pulled into an ice cream shop where Saul ran in and got me a delicious black and white milkshake. We spend a few hours lounging on Bellaire Beach, on Sand Key where there is always parking. The water was warm and so calm that even Ken could enjoy it and Randi came in up to her waist. For dinner, we found parking at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill on the Beach where the staff was very accommodating and we had yummy grouper and two orders of their special fries.

The others spent time at Hollywood Studios and The Magic Kingdom, and Saul and I did not want to spend a lot of time in the hot sun, so we met them for various intervals in those parks. Towards evening, we met to attend a performance of Fantasmic, but the weather was so hot and humid, that we were all melting even after the sun went down. We also had a delightful evening at the lounge at Blue Zoo in the Dolphin Hotel, and dinner together at The Grand Floridian Hotel, where afterward, we watched the fireworks over The Magic Kingdom from the terrace there alongside the Seven Seas Lagoon.

In the intervals leading up to Shavuot, which began Saturday evening this year, May 23, Saul and I prepared a quantity of cheese blintzes together, some of which we froze for future use. We attended the tikun leyl Shavuot at SOJC, where we participated in a Torah quiz, heard an invited speaker who had as her topic, admirable female Jewish role models, and later studied and discussed the ramifications of some interesting quotations that appear in our liturgy. Saul and I spent the next two days observing Shavuot.

The following Monday evening, we met Ken and Randi at Abracadabra (which, btw, comes from the Hebrew words  אדברה קדברה which loosely translates as, “It will happen as I say”). A parking valet at The Beach Club Resort had told us about this unique nitrogen ice cream place, and it was even better than our expectations! It took us a while to get there, but it is now a must-do for anyone that comes to visit in the future. Describing it in words, just does not do the experience justice. The ice cream itself is incredible, much more dense than the usual, available in a cornucopia of customized flavors and textures, delicious, plentiful, and inexpensive. That evening, Saul and I drove straight to Epcot to walk off our calories!

During the month of May, Ari got the opportunity to go to Israel on business again and we had a blast for an hour or two experiencing the vicarious thrill of walking the labyrinthine streets of the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem with him on FaceTime. Towards the end of the month, he took a trip to Oxford and we enjoyed that as well.

On May 31 and June 1, Saul and Randi, who like that sort of thing, volunteered to help out at the huge, worldwide gathering of travel agents that takes place in Orlando every five years, called the International Pow Wow (IPW). They had spent a few hours at an orientation in preparation, earlier. Over 6,500 representatives from countries all over the world converge here to learn about travel opportunities in the U.S. The group is so influential that Disney’s Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, and Sea World each shut down to the general public early on different nights so that they can host this group exclusively. Sheerly by luck, Saul and Randi were assigned to the Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress the first day, which housed the Israeli, and U.K. contingents. After the second session, where they were assigned to the Convention Center, Ken and I met them at nearby Johnny’s Hideaway for a delicious sunset dinner on their outdoor patio. On the way there, we stopped to photograph a family of sandhill cranes meandering down the middle of the street. Finally, the weather was spring-like and temperate, although we were able to watch dark clouds gathering with flashes of lightening off in the far distance.

Tuesday, June 2, Saul and I left for Baltimore, starting our journey with a hearty breakfast at Nico’s Egg City. Jessica, who has taken over my desktop publishing business in my retirement, has expanded it to include party planning. This is not such a stretch, as preparing printed materials and graphics for an event is preliminary to her additional professional experience of planning events for organizations and seeing to all the details that allow the event to flow smoothly. Jessica had been hired professionally by good friends to plan and coordinate every detail of what turned out to be a three-day, three-location venue for several hundred guests that was the bat mitzvah for their youngest daughter. Saul and I, with our catering background, were her professional staff. We stopped in Florence, SC, on our trip north at our usual Comfort Inn Suites, and, if anything, found it even better than before with the addition of incredibly comfortable new mattresses and bed linens. We had some interesting travel experiences using Yelp to suss out exceptional restaurants on our journey. In Manning, SC, we happened upon a place (D & H Barbecue) where practically the whole town arrives for the dinner buffet on Tuesdays. Luckily, we were there early. We met Jessica on Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore after checking into the Pikesville, Hilton. We spent the entire afternoon and well into the evening on Wednesday, setting up for the Saturday night event at Har Sinai, a truly exceptional venue. After picking up some last minute items, we dined together at a popular Mexican restaurant in Pikesville, Mezcal, before crashing back at the Hilton in preparation for our long and strenuous day on Thursday.

Between Wednesday, and the beginning of the first festivities on Friday evening (at which Jess, Alex, our three granddaughters, and us were all invited guests, as well) these are some of the things we did: We moved around tables. Wired the tables underneath with blinking fairy lights. Put on tablecloths adding unique hand-made lace and bamboo center fabrics. Alphabetized two sets of place cards, and set up a unique place card frame that Jessica had designed and built. The place cards, which Jess had printed with a unique logo designed just for Danielle, were attached to the ribboned frame with mini wooden clothespins. Jess also used the logo as part of an infinity symbol printed on tee-shirts that were given out as party favors. On Saturday afternoon, the place cards were held by full-size clothespins. Folded and sealed with ribbon almost 150 cloth napkins. Assembled the centerpieces, which involved filling large, tall glass jars with gravel, anchoring large manzanita branches in them using sections of pool noodles, hanging the branches with clear, wired, glass, globe-shaped tea light holders. Arranged the napkins on the tables based on the number of chairs at each table for which Jess had a schematic. Moved a heavy door on a stand to its location at the entryway which had a giraffe painted on it. For a few generations, everyone who dined with the host family was measured for height and received a mark next to the giraffe. Jessica covered the mostly-filled-in door with a layer of clear plastic and provided sharpies so that the guests would be able to create a unique sign-in board. Also at the entry were a unique receptacle for receiving envelopes, signs that Jess made to direct adults and kids into different places for the cocktail hour, and a display that illustrated the mitzvah project Danielle had done for Ronald McDonald House. We moved large artificial trees onto the corners of the dance floor, strung them with fairy lights, and connected them at the tops with strings of star-shaped, color-changing solar lights. Saul got on the internet to figure out how to change up-lights that Jess had rented for the walls from colors to white. (Remember from science class that white light is the result of combining all the colors?) Saul and I made 34 brown paper cylinders wrapped in elaborate wire-edged ribbon to house the lush flowered plants that Jess had purchased as centerpieces for the venue at Chizuk Emuno on Friday evening, and Saturday afternoon. Created an amenity basket for the ladies room that thoughtfully included ear plugs for the loud music which were appreciated by many of the guests, including some of the teenagers. Prepared a basket to hold brightly-printed cotton socks for the kids. Created a lit path to highlight the proper entryway into the building by wrapping a bannister with fairy lights. Wrapped 13 multi-wicked, beeswax havdallah candles with foil holders so that hot wax would not injure anyone during the intimate havdallah service on Saturday. Before the party on Saturday evening, Saul and I lit and placed all the tea lights, electric tea lights, and firefly jars, and Izzy turned on all the under-tablecloth fairy lights. The DJ had lights as well that kept the ceiling over the dance floor twinkling all evening.

We were very busy, but incredibly pleased with the results of our labors. Saul and I were extremely impressed with Jessica’s creativity and preparedness for this marathon weekend. From our point of view as guests, we loved all the other arrangements that had been made. Friday evening began with services, outdoors in Chizuk Amuno’s atrium, led by a young and charming a cappella group accompanied on this occasion by guitar and keyboard. The small Shabbat dinner was intimate and all the dishes at the buffet which included fish, fowl and vegetarian entrees, prepared by the in-house caterer, were delicious. The service on Saturday morning contained many poignant moments for the family as Danielle chanted her Torah and Haftarah portions flawlessly. Saul and I also were delighted to be in the company of our family once more for this occasion. The luncheon buffet for almost 250 people, was, again, beautiful and delicious. The caterer was masterful in keeping the easily accessible buffet stations around the room looking meticulous and being supplied constantly with items that were appropriately hot or cold throughout the serving period. Even the bagels were warm on the buffet after an hour had passed. One of the desserts was hand-scooped ice-cream sandwiched between chocolate chip cookies. The potential was there for a melted mess, but with the efficiency of the caterer, this never happened. The a cappella group provided music during the luncheon, and charmingly went from table to table (a la gypsy violinists or Mariachi bands), taking requests. At the end of the luncheon, Jessica recruited us to deliver some of the floral centerpieces to the golf club where a Sunday morning brunch was scheduled for the family. By Saturday evening, after resting for a very short period, most of the work was done except for lighting everything. The food at the gala event was exceptional. Among other hors d’oeuvres, Saul and I practically gorged on mini Peking duck crepes and not-so-mini herb-crusted lamb chops. Izzy came over from the kids’ buffet to sit with us and check out what the adults were eating. Her curiosity and tastes in food are way beyond the usual teenager. Fifty teens and children were present, mostly seated at the head table that ran practically the length of the large room. The dance floor was hopping at all times. Almost all (including some of the adults) took advantage of a professionally-run photo booth activity next to the dance floor.

My girls all looked beautiful and we had a great time. We tried to linger to help Jessica break down and pack up some of the paraphernalia. Alex left right after dessert with Sami and Yona (who was already asleep). He was leaving early on Sunday morning with Sami and Yona so that he could attend a ball game while Sami babysat. Izzy came back to the hotel with us when Jess sent us off. Jess stayed until about 1:00 a.m. and, along with the staff, was able to do most of the packing. Although we had been planning to leave really early on Sunday morning to drive back to Florida, we stayed, at her request, to clean up the final packing business, until 10:30 a.m. At that point, we began our drive back to Florida, and she and Izzy went off to the brunch at the golf club.

Although we were tired, we both felt great about the weekend and physically good. We decided to drive as far as we could and stop only if we felt it would be a hardship to continue, or bad weather intervened. Because it was relatively early on a Sunday, the DC traffic was creeping instead of at a standstill, and I located a really great restaurant in Fredericksburg, as we were getting really hungry and we were past the bulk of the traffic. We thought we were going for dim sum, but Peter Chang’s turned out to be a truly different Szechuan restaurant with dishes we had never seen before. We were incredibly impressed with the dishes that we ordered and are sorry that it is so far away. We would go out of our way to eat there again, but not 850 miles! Thus fortified, we were able to drive the entire way home with just the snacks we carried in the car and a quick late night breakfast at Cracker Barrel in Pooler, Georgia, arriving home about 2:30 a.m. The thought of sleeping in our own bed after a week of motel mattresses spurred us on. Our friend Larry, had set out for our house the day before so that he could be present for the settlement on his new home nearby on Tuesday. He arrived a few hours before us and was asleep when we came in. He left his cute, little, red, two-seater convertible in our garage to await the time he will actually be moving in, probably September or October.

On Monday, we did a walk-through of the house, and attended the first of Epcot’s Tribute Band Summer Concert Series—“Sounds Like Summer.” The name of the band was DSB, and it was a tribute to “Journey.” They were actually quite good, and on a Monday evening, it was like having a live band personally performing for you. The next morning, the three of us had breakfast together at Keke’s Café in Clermont. Larry couldn’t wait to eat at this exclusively-Florida chain again. We finished about 45-minutes early, so we dropped Larry at the title company, just a minutes away, and Saul and I spent a few minutes returning some clothing I had bought to nearby BJs. By the time we got to the settlement on time, Larry and the agent had almost finished all the paperwork early. When the realtor arrived on time, there was perhaps another 5 minutes to totally finish up. The whole process went without a hitch. Ken and Randi came over to swim in the afternoon and we made a reservation to have dinner at The Grand Floridian Café and hopefully watch The Magic Kingdom fireworks from the terrace by the lagoon. Larry had never been to The Grand Floridian. Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate and we left as a giant thunderstorm seemed to be moving in our direction. Although the settlement went without a hitch, taking care of details like meeting Verizon for internet service and the alarm company to transfer service, Comcast service and postal service, and photographing the contents of the house, ate up most of Larry’s time on Wednesday. On our way back from the post office for Polk County, we stopped into a relatively new restaurant near our house, Ovations, which was highly rated on Yelp. We were lucky enough to be there on “Wine Wednesday.” A free bottle of Sycamore Lane wine in a choice of merlot, cabernet, pinot noire, chardonnay, etc. came with the purchase of two entrees. The waitress brought us four sample glasses and we chose the cab, which was quite good. Our food was wonderful as well, and beautifully presented. It was good enough that we would go back again, even without the free bottle of wine. That same Wednesday, Ari was in Copenhagen for business, just for the day! Even with his limited time, he was able to take some amazing photos around the city.

On Thursday, before Larry flew home from Orlando Airport, we all went to see some magnificent samples of homes that are being constructed nearby in a large development called Windsor at Westside. From the airport, Saul and I drove to Costco to get some provisions for Friday night and the weekend. Friday, Saul and I took the long drive to the Davenport Post Office again to check into some missing checks that we discovered had been written, but not cashed. We had no luck tracing them. We stopped at a farm stand on the way back and picked up a tremendously sweet large seedless watermelon, corn-on-the-cob, and some other produce for Shabbat dinner. We went to Hollywood Studios on Saturday night to catch some of the last of the five weekends of “Star Wars.” We were hoping to catch the presentation with Frank Oz, but it was so hot and the waiting line so overcrowded, that when we were told we would probably not get in, we gave up and went home. We came back a little later to view the show and fireworks, and were so impressed that we returned for the last performance the following evening.

Lauren, a colleague of Saul’s who had been here a few months ago, and was traveling to Disney’s Fort Wilderness to vacation with her husband, four children, and two dogs with a pop-up camper in tow, texted to say that they had had a blowout on the road, but all were safe. The experience, along with a heat stroke episode with her youngest son, delayed their arrival and put a damper on much of the rest of their trip. We did, however, manage to spend a few wonderful evenings with them. We had dinner together at Sweet Tomatoes, drove to Disney’s Boardwalk, where we watched a street performer, toured some of the Boardwalk resorts, watched the fireworks over Epcot, and in the same evening took the boat ride to Hollywood Studios where the “Frozen” fireworks had begun. We discovered a comfy bench outside the park where the view of the fireworks was spectacular. On another evening, we met them at Animal Kingdom Lodge, where they enjoyed watching the wildlife on display and seeing the two magnificent resorts there, Kidani Village and Jambo House. From there, we all crammed into our Pilot and surprised them with the nitrogen ice cream at Abracadabra. The kids loved it, even though the weather was very rainy and they were not able to bounce in the multiple amusements that reside in the back. Viewing a gorgeous sunset as the rain began to subside, we picked up their van back at Animal Kingdom Lodge and Lauren followed us to The Grand Floridian. We shared light sandwiches at Gasparilla Grill at outdoor tables on the terrace and watched the Magic Kingdom “Wishes” fireworks together. The family was able to get the necessary repairs made on their camper during the week, so their trip back home the next day, went relatively smoothly.

While we were entertaining Lauren’s family, another family was being hosted by Ken and Randi. Rich and Sandy were kind enough to lend us (and Ari) the use of their two-bedroom condo near Universal Studios, for two weeks, two years ago when we were meeting with contractors in advance of moving into our home. Originally, we met them through Ken and Randi, who, over many years, as neighbors and business associates, had developed a very close and personal relationship with them and their two daughters. Rich had made the arrangements from Kuwait for us to use their condo, as he was spending extended periods there and in other countries abroad on business. In my last conversation with him from there, he told me how excited he was to be coming home soon, as his daughter was about ready to deliver his first grandson and he planned to spend more time in the States from now on so that he could spend time getting to know him. Shockingly, right after he returned, but shortly before his daughter gave birth, he had a heart attack. At the hospital, they thought they had repaired whatever damage had occurred, but apparently they missed some bleeding in the heart behind where they had repaired it and he died suddenly. Needless to say, the family was completely devastated, as were Ken and Randi, and all the rest of us who knew them. As Father’s Day approached, Sandy’s girls, Cheryl and Karen, arranged a girls’ getaway vacation in the condo so that their mom would not be alone and they could have some fun together. This past weekend, Saul and I met them, along with Ken and Randi (who had dinner with them the previous evening at Blue Zoo) on Saturday evening, after they had spent the day at Epcot. The “U2” tribute band was performing their last set of concerts Saturday evening. We only caught a few minutes of their concert because the sporadic rain and thunderstorms had caused a delay, and we decided to have dinner nearby in the Wine Bar in “Italy.” Afterward, we watched the fireworks over Epcot from the boat at the International Gate as we chugged over to Hollywood Studios to our now favorite bench to watch the Frozen fireworks. It was, again, a delightful and spectacular evening that we all spent together.

I used the occasion to invite everyone to have Sunday brunch with us and spend the afternoon in the pool, before they were departing. Saul and I awoke early, went to the nearby Publix to pick up extra provisions, and came home to prepare everything. Ken and Randi came over a bit later to help get the brunch ready, and the timing worked out beautifully. The weather cooperated and we had a relaxing afternoon schmoozing in the pool together while sipping Champagne cocktails that Randi prepared. Eventually, Karen and Sandy drove themselves to Orlando airport for their flight home, amid promises that they would come and visit again soon. The rest of us had a hasty Father’s Day dinner with Cheryl at Johnny’s Hideaway on the way to drop her at Orlando airport for her flight back to Chicago. From there, we decided to stop at Ken and Randi’s before heading off to Epcot for the first Billy Joel tribute band concert, but we all ran out of steam by that point. Ken was unwilling to give up the idea of ice cream at Abracadabra, however, so we all headed off there for a Father’s Day treat on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice.

One week from tomorrow, our girls are due to arrive to begin our summer of Camp Bubbie and Saba. The photos we have been receiving of their end-of-school-year activities leave us feeling very far away. We can’t wait to see them in person! Jessica is flying in with them on July 1. She is leaving on July 4, after which she and Alex will be vacationing together for a week at an RCI resort in Williamsburg, VA. After that, she managed to find a reasonable flight to London. In honor of her 40th birthday, which took place at the end of March, she will join her brother for a three-week vacation in London, and together, they are hoping spend a few days visiting Paris, and perhaps Santorini. Also during the summer, Erica has plans to come for a visit with us. Brenna and Ava will be staying with us, too, at that time, and we will be sending Brenna back by plane a week after Erica leaves. In the meantime, I keep wandering into the girls rooms (which are usually closed off) in great anticipation of the coming summer!