Friday, July 8, 2022

Six Weeks of Sublime Celebration


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I feel compelled to begin this blog post by saying that we all feel extremely blessed that all of these celebrations took place over a long period of time in which any one of us could have caught Covid, which would have certainly put a damper on the festivities at any point in time. This was the vacation of a lifetime which we could not even imagine would turn out as it did and I can write about it now knowing that we are all safe and healthy and back home.

The celebrations in May began with Izzy’s graduation from Polk State College where she received an Associate’s Degree in Health Sciences. This was followed by Sami’s graduation where she received an Associate’s Degree in Hospitality from Valencia University. Following that Izzy received an E.M.R. certification at a special ceremony. Then, we attended Izzy’s high school graduation. Technically, she received her Associates before she graduated from high school. Then, Sami graduated from New College in Sarasota with a B.A. majoring in Mandarin Chinese. Graduates from New College dress for graduation in a quirky mix of clothing that they each choose to represent what they aspire to be in the future. Sami came dressed as Miss Frizzle from the Magic School Bus, and her outfit was, by far, one of the tamer choices. All five graduations were, in their own unique way, a triumph, and we were so glad to be able to attend them all. Due to Covid, all were Zoomed live on closed circuit television, so all members of the family who were not present could watch them receive their degrees.

Sami’s New College graduation was the last of the five on Friday, May 20. On the evening of the 21st, Saul, Jessica and I were driven to Tampa Airport by our friend, Larry, (Sami and Izzy were working) and flew up north to Cherry Hill, where we rendezvoused with Ari who had flown in from London to Newark Airport a little earlier in the day, leased a car, and driven to Cherry Hill. It was the first time Saul and I had been up north since Izzy’s bat mitzvah five years ago and the first time we saw Jess and Alex’s home in Chanticleer in person. We spent the first night there, and then Ari, Saul and I drove to Ocean City where we had rented a beautiful vacation rental from Sunday through Thursday of that week. Ari had been craving some time by the beach, and Ocean City brought back many memories of our annual family vacations there when our kids were little. Jessica and Alex had their hands full that week with arrangements for Yona’s bat mitzvah, and with photography, services, and festive meals to take place that Friday and Shabbat of May 27, and 28. 

Ari, Saul, and I had a lovely and peaceful stay at the beach, gazing at the surf, wandering the boardwalk, making footprints in the sand, and checking out all the vegan and vegetarian options available at nearby restaurants. We also had the opportunity one afternoon to reconnect with our old friends, Ruth and Giora, at their family’s summer place in nearby Ventnor, where we got to catch up on old times and together stroll the Atlantic City boardwalk. The three of us revisited the Atlantic City boardwalk further down a few days later to check out any new developments near the casinos. The weather was okay, but somewhat cold and windy, which discouraged us from taking a dip in the chilly Atlantic. We found some wonderful restaurants in Ocean City, which we had mostly to ourselves before the crowds began to arrive the Thursday ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

The first evening, we dined on a bench while gazing at the Atlantic from Ocean City’s Boardwalk. We picked up take-out meals at Crunchik’n which had some delicious vegetarian options for us. You can customize your bowl from a list of choices and we were all very pleased with our orders. In the morning, we headed out to nearby Dockside Kitchen, where we sat at rustic tables on a covered dock and gazed at the bay while we enjoyed our ample breakfasts. Ari had the Lobster Benedict, which was pricey, but exceptional. The service was great that day, but on another day when we returned, the help was brand new and finding her way. Our favorite breakfast was at Jon and Patty’s Coffee Bar & Bistro, to which we returned every chance we got. Unfortunately, the crowds felt the same way and on our last day, the lines for a table were just too long. The morning we went to Ventnor, we had breakfast at Hannah G’s, which had a nice selection of vegetarian choices, but we had been spoiled by our other experiences, and found the breakfast pretty ordinary. One evening, after our lengthy excursions walking the beach and boardwalk in Ocean City, Saul and Ari picked up an order of Chinese take-out from Ocean Garden Kitchen. The food was very reasonable, delicious, and really ample in quantity. Another place we tried when we finished walking the boardwalk in Atlantic City was Vegans Are Us. Saul and I had really yummy vegan cheesesteaks for dinner and Ari had a Buffalo Chick’n sandwich at this little gem of a restaurant. We were so impressed that we inquired about the franchise. To pass an afternoon of iffy weather, we went to the Tilton Square Movie Theater where we saw “Everything Everywhere All at Once” a very unusual movie with which we were all impressed. Just down the street was a AAA office, where we conveniently arranged an international driver’s license for Ari. We had already arranged ours before leaving Florida. The last morning at Dockside Kitchen, we videoed a flock of baby seagulls being supervised by a seagull “nanny” which made us realize that we had never seen baby seagulls before. They are brown and white until fledged. Our time in Ocean City was as relaxed and comfortable as we had hoped it would be and gave us a respite that we all needed before all the excitement of Yona’s bat mitzvah.

As Yona (her name means “dove” in Hebrew) rehearsed, under the careful tutelage of her father and Cantor Jen, and Jessica readied all the “flair” for her celebration (including take-home soup or drink mugs with her “dove” logo, family-made hand-crocheted kippot with adorable kippah clips, gorgeously decorated cookies by another relative, etc.) Ari, Saul, and I traveled from Ocean City to our Hampton Inn Hotel in nearby Mt. Laurel. We were not pleased with our rooms there as they appeared to have been flooded at one time and then hastily patched up. Meanwhile, various members of our family had arrived for the festivities, including her sisters, Sami and Izzy (who had to stay behind us for a few days because of their jobs at Disney World, Aunt Rifka and Uncle Paul, and Uncle Kenny. All flew up from Florida for the event. Uncle Aaron and Aunt Stacy and their kids drove up from Maryland. Yona’s other grandmother was still convalescing from recent successful brain surgery. Since photography is not permitted on Shabbat, the actual day of the bat mitzvah, we all met on Friday morning for a formal photo session. Afterwards, Saul, Ari and I went back to the hotel to change. When we arrived back at Jess and Alex’s home after changing into our Friday evening clothing at our hotel, we had a small lunch snack and then headed to Center City, Philadelphia, in a tremendous rain storm, to pick up the Chinese food that Jess ordered for dinner that night.  On Friday evening, after services led masterfully by our family, we continued to welcome in Shabbat with the delicious vegetarian Chinese take-out buffet, and spent the evening schmoozing.

The bat mitzvah on Saturday morning was incredibly fulfilling and meaningful for us and we were kvelling the whole time at the talent and sense of humor of our intelligent and beautiful granddaughters, daughter, and son-in-law, to competently pull off such a lovely, joyful, beautiful celebration of Yona’s progression into womanhood. Yona’s bat mitzvah d’var Torah (speech) was unique, thoughtful, and full of humor as well. She was incredibly poised. The party afterward was fun and festive, and we all had a chance to catch up with family members and friends whom we hadn’t seen in years. The food was not the usual bat mitzvah fare and was delicious. Yona had chosen grilled cheese sandwiches with home-made tomato soup as one of her courses, and because she is somewhat lactose-intolerant, the dessert table included a cookie dough bar along with the usual ice-cream selection with all kinds of toppings.

On Sunday, Ari ordered a new Apple watch, which we picked up later at the Apple store, and where I also stopped into DSW Shoe warehouse and bought a new pair of shoes to go with my outfit. We stopped at an EMS store, also, to get Alex sunglasses. We breakfasted on bagels and the renowned borekas from Chef Michael Solomonov. Ari was due to fly home to London from Newark (returning the rental car) that afternoon. Jessica, Yona, Saul and I were on a plane the following day to join him there. Alex drove us to Kennedy Airport in New York. Ari, being a frequent flyer, had much better food and accommodations on the airplane. We arrived at Gatwick Airport, which was bedecked with reminders of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, where we were met by a Carrot Car driver holding a sign with Yona’s name, to take us to his flat. Ari’s flat, (oxymoron alert!) was a “mews” home on four floors connected by a set of circular stairs. Saul and I were in a lovely room and bath on the fourth floor. We unloaded our gear, rested, and that evening walked to a nearby, inviting Indian Restaurant, Taste of India, where we shared our favorite dishes. London is known to have some of the best Indian restaurants in the world.

The next morning, Ari took Jessica and Yona for a walk around the neighborhood and returned with provisions from the nearby shops and restaurants for breakfast. Thus fortified, we set out for nearby Kensington Palace Gardens and Hyde Park, which are connected. Ari’s immediate neighborhood, a narrow cobblestone alleyway in which, once upon a time, horses were hooked up to carriages, and then trotted through a stone archway and around to the front of the grand manors to transport their wealthy owners, is now filled by neighbors with all varieties of potted flowers, trees, and flowering vines. Most of the old grand manor houses have been transformed into hotels and apartments. Ari’s flat was once a stable. We observed all this as we began our walk, eventually arriving at the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain. Along the way, Yona delighted in feeding the swans, ducks, squirrels and pigeons with seeds and nuts that Ari keeps for that purpose. At the fountain, although the weather was a bit chilly, Yona and eventually, Jessica, went wading along with a host of others, mostly English children accompanied by their siblings, nannies, and parents. The fountain seems to have been designed for wading. Ari joined us in the park after work, where he had a Pimm’s Cup and we had a snack at the restaurant, The Serpentine Lido Café near the fountain before walking back home.

On the following day, we decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of my favorites in London, which is completely on the other side of the parks. After a lovely, but tiring, walk through both parks, we spent several more tiring, but enlightening, hours touring this wonderful museum. Heading out into a rather warm afternoon, we began searching for a suitable place for a late lunch and to rejuvenate before the lengthy walk home. Within a very short distance, we happened upon My & Sanné which was a gem of a restaurant. Not only was the over-the-top ambience amazing (we felt as if we were in a charming French garden), but the food was delicious and presented in the most beautiful tableware imaginable. I wanted to bring home every piece I saw, from the gorgeous glass teapot to the cast-iron skillets with handles shaped like the Eiffel Tower in which our shakshuka was served, not to mention all the other plates, cups, glassware, saucers, etc. Thus refreshed, we chose a different route for the walk home and took a short cut through an archway in a wall that was preserved by the neighborhood that had been created by a bomb during the “blitz” in WWII.

Thursday, June 2, marked the beginning of the festivities for the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee. We arose very early and, thankfully, the six of us, Ari, Jess, Yona, Chris (Ari’s friend), Saul and I, were able to find seating at tiny (and popular) Les Filles, our favorite café, down the street from Ari’s flat. Fortified by a scrumptious breakfast, we began our walk through denser and denser crowds to the gate where we hoped to enter to view the parade and ceremonies. Arriving, we found throngs of people ringing the guards who were telling them that the area was now off-limits because of the huge crowds. We proceeded to travel from entrance to entrance, finding them all closed, until we reached an almost dead-end street, where we were literally up against a wall. The only exit was down a narrow flight of stairs to a lower level street. Yona and I were becoming so freaked out by the size of the crowd that we decided to skirt it around the edges and walk back home to watch everything on television. As we made our way back, we found ourselves in Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery. The museum was free, and as it turned out, a good place to cool off, get out of the crowds, and enjoy some of the work of the great masters. We really lucked out, as the uncrowded museum allowed us the pleasure of watching the nearby proceedings on our iPhones while ensconced on comfy leather sofas in front of the beautiful artwork. The next room, contained the original of Van Gogh’s famous “Sunflowers,” as well as Seurat’s exquisite “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette.”

As the first ceremonies and parades ended, we were getting a bit hungry, so we tried to pick up a bit of a snack at the museum’s cafeteria, Muriel’s Café. A kind and interesting American tourist, who now is retired to Portugal, allowed the six of us to share her table in the now very-crowded cafeteria. We had a lovely conversation while waiting for the Jubilee Flyover to take place. Right outside the museum steps, we inadvertently found one of the best places we could have chosen in the huge crowd, to watch the Flyover. Our vantage point allowed us to video the amazing ceremony with its grand variety of airplanes and impressive flying formations.

When that celebration ended, we began our walk through less and less dense crowds, through bunting decorated streets, to our destination, The Chesterfield Hotel in Mayfair, for a traditional afternoon English tea. On the way, we passed by a store featuring formula car racing merchandise, and stopped in so that Chris, who is a big fan, and Yona could try their hands on a racing car simulator. We also photographed a colorfully-decorated shop window that impressed us with incredible origami animals and a whole forest scene. Another photo-op on our route was a park bench containing bronze sculptures of Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.

When we arrived at the Chesterfield, we met with Ari’s friend, Rebecca, and her two boys, Byron and Dylan, who had also been attending the Jubilee. Ari had selected and booked this particular tea months in advance, based on their reviews and the fact that they had three different menus—vegan, vegetarian, and regular. The tearoom itself was the quintessential image of a British tearoom. We were ushered into the recessed, large round table at the center of this most elegant room. Our waitstaff catered to our every need and request. The tea sandwiches, vapor-emitting pink beverages, and pastries were exquisitely presented and scrumptious, and we were quickly brought an unlimited quantity of whatever favorites we requested. Amid all this luxury, we continued to dine, reluctant for the experience to be over. We stayed as long as we could respectably get away with, and when finally, too glutted to eat or drink another bite, we were given goody bags to fill with sweets from the beautifully appointed assortment set up on a painted street cart and buffet. We emerged reticently onto the streets of the lovely, classic Mayfair neighborhood to walk off our guilty pleasures on the path home. Skirting the parks, we took pictures in front of the Marble Arch and came across a picturesque old cottage, which I hope to interpret as a gingerbread house someday. All through London, there are sculptures of Corgi dogs, the Queen’s favorites, painted in various styles, depending on the artist.

Each day of our vacation was unique. Another Jubilee experience we had booked months in advance was a visit to the “Superbloom” at the “The Tower of London.” We began this day, with breakfast at Raffles, where we had respectable vegetarian options for breakfast. We rode the newly-opened “Elizabeth Line” to the Tower, marveling at the cleanliness and sleekness of the new tunnels and cars. We had read that the Superbloom, due to weather, was not yet up to par, but we found it quite beautiful and well worth the price of admission. Our younger contingent, taking advantage of the fun sliding board, entrance, had a memorable entrance. Unfortunately, Jessica had a little too many painful memories of the hard landing she encountered at the bottom. After viewing the Superbloom, we went on to tour the Tower of London area, and view the “Crown Jewels.” Yona was particularly interested in the Tower ravens and spent a long time watching them and discussing them with their liveried caretakers.

Walking along the Thames, we headed for Borough Market, which was unusually crowded. Our group split up there, and grazed on some of the appealing street foods available. Saul and I had a delicious plate of mushroom risotto, cooked in front of us. We all, in our separate travels through the market, bought various foods from the many stands knowing we would be cooking for and attending Rebecca’s block party. Our Friday night banquet dinner at Ari’s was vegetarian Thai and came from another nearby favorite restaurant of ours, Banana Tree.

Ari had never taken a tour of the Parliament building in London, and had been wanting to see it for several years. Again, he had booked tickets for us in advance, and while that particular tour had never been on our “radar,” the experience proved to be remarkably interesting, informative, and eye-opening. After another amazing breakfast, we all piled into a traditional English black cab, which dropped us off across the street from this most impressive and ancient building where we spent several hours wandering about using our self-guided tours provided by the building tours reps. 

We had been invited to attend a street fair in Rebecca’s neighborhood and intended to make a number of American specialties to take to the “pot-luck” supper. We prepared a strawberry pie (mostly by Yona), home-made macaroni and cheese, corn bread, and capresé salad with burrata, fresh basil, heirloom tomatoes and balsamic dressing.  Rather than carrying our bounty on a train, Ari called a black cab to take us to Rebecca’s place. She had ordered a bunch of English delicacies for us all to enjoy, and prepared a Jubilee-themed, decorated cake for the block party contest. It won second prize. She had prepared thoughtfully and carefully for the occasion, and had all the necessary accoutrements to make our picnic special. It wasn’t the usual block party, as most people brought and ate their own food due to Covid concerns, but we did get to socialize and swap some food with the neighbors towards the end. We were especially happy that the weather held out to allow us all the fun we had.

The next morning, Saul, Ari and I were due to board an airplane for Lake Como, Italy, to attend the wedding of Jennifer Christie and Steve Petts. We had pleaded with Ari to accompany us to Italy, knowing his love of travel to new places, and he graciously made some wonderful arrangements for us there, including a charming vacation rental in the ancient lakeside town of Lenno. The wedding was to take place at the Villa Balbianello, which was a short walk from our place, but we discovered, early on, that it would be a steep and hour-long climb up a mountain to reach it. We flew into Milan, the closest airport to Lake Como, where Ari had rented an electric Renault to drive us back and forth. We were wowed by the fantastic scenery as he drove us through narrow and winding cobblestone streets to our destination. I think that, perhaps, I have never in all my travels, seen a locale as picturesque and stunning as the areas around Lake Como.

We really lucked out as, parking our car on a lot down the street, we hurried to meet the owner of our rental property and got into the villa just seconds before the sky opened up with a driving thunderstorm with some added hail just for good measure. Waiting out the few minutes of the storm gave us an opportunity to chat with the owner about the charming property, which he had inherited from his grandmother and fully renovated, preserving some of the hundred year old features of the house.

Jessica and Yona remained at Ari’s house while we were in Italy. Jessica, who had taken a week off from her remote job, needed to get back to work. Chris and Yona bonded during those four days with Chris showing Yona around London and her mother taking care of the remaining time in her off hours.

On our first evening in Lenno, we were invited to a “Meet and Greet” party at Ristorante Terrazze a lago in a neighboring town about a half hour away. Jen looked absolutely stunning in her bright yellow designer dress! This was our first opportunity to get to know the rest of the family and reconnect with her mother, Margaret, and friend, Seonid, who had stayed with us while Jen ran in the Princess Marathon at Disney five years ago. The party was wonderful with lots of delicious hors d’oeuvres and drinks. On returning to our parking spot, we were impressed with the beauty of the lantern-lit cemetery of Lenno, which was unlike any we had ever seen previously.

Saul and I had a quick, but wonderful, breakfast the next morning at a little lakeside café next to our villa, Il Golfo. We had caprese sandwiches and cappuccino. After dressing for the wedding, the three of us headed to The Grand Hotel Imperiale, about a half hour’s drive away, where the reception was to take place that evening and where we were to catch a yacht that would take us to the wedding venue itself at Villa Balbianello. Fortuitously, the hotel had a plug-in parking place for our electric vehicle which allowed us to recharge free because the type of charger matched the free charge card given to us by the rental agency. The journey with the other guests was a 40-minute delight as we traversed a large portion of the lake viewing quaint, ancient towns, and spectacular villas. When we docked at the Villa Balbianello, we were greeted by the strains of a very competent bagpiper from Napoli (which is a story in itself) who led us up the winding path to the summit where the wedding was to take place. Before the arrival of the wedding party itself, we were entertained musically by some of Jen’s very talented musician friends, including Seonid. The stunning wedding party arrived in separate boats and proceeded up the steep, winding path with the bagpiper leading the way. The service itself was conducted by an Italian official in Italian accompanied by an official from the Villa who translated into English. The recessional was followed by the serving of celebratory drinks a bit further down the mountain, where we had a chance to get to know some of the other guests, and observe the delightful antics of the children in the wedding party as the photographer attempted to capture the proper series of photos that are expected at such occasions. Saul, Ari and I wandered about the gardens of the Villa for some time and literally were bowled over by the spectacular vistas and painstaking and meticulous landscaping. It seemed that not a blade of grass was out of place and so manicured were the extensive trees, vines and hedges that not a leaf seemed out of place either. Reluctantly, we left the brilliant and memorable scene for the awaiting yacht to take us back to the hotel for the reception.

The early-evening reception was preceded by a cocktail party with tasty and unique hors d’oeuvres and drinks at an outdoor area alongside the lake. The three of us had a delightful time chatting with some of Jen’s old friends from school back in Glasgow and some of her family members. An obviously elated bride and groom arrived by boat a short time later to join the festivities. The venue at the hotel was an extravagantly-appointed indoor/outdoor terraced room overlooking the lake. Every meal had been carefully and individually choreographed and the waitstaff was extremely attentive to every need. The food was beautifully prepared and delicious. Jen had obviously taken a hand in choosing each detail from the party favors (small bottles of Scotch for the men and chocolates with a key charm for the women, as well as custom-made name place holders) to the lovely flower bouquet centerpieces. Heartfelt toasts were made, with Jen speaking about the “gift of time” that Covid had bestowed on her previously hectic life with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra of London that enabled her to meet her fiancé, Steve. After dinner, there was dancing on the terrace to the enchanting strains of a live orchestra composed of Jen’s friends. During the cutting of the towering wedding cake even Jen seemed to be surprised at its size, although she seemed to have overseen every detail of the wedding. Saul, Ari and I left just after 11:00 p.m. as the musicians and dancing were just getting warmed up. We would have liked to stay longer, but by that time, we were so exhausted and pleasantly sated with food and drink that we felt that a midnight drive through narrow cobblestone streets would be inadvisable.

Late the next morning, we were finally afforded the highly-anticipated opportunity to check out our surroundings in Lenno. We wandered along the rustic, flower-lined promenade edging the lake soaking in the beautiful weather. We stopped for a late lunch at Plinio on our way back, a restaurant that had been recommended when Ari thought to ask the bartenders at Villa Balbianello the previous afternoon. It did not disappoint us. Ari ordered the missoltini as a first course, which is a local fish specialty (shad) from the Lake Como area that involves gutting, salting, smoking, and drying the fish. (The guts part is also made into a special dish called culadur.) We knew that shad is bony, but we are adept at dealing with fish bones and found the dish to be very tasty. It was served, as is traditional, on a bed of seasoned polenta, also very delicious. We also shared a rather small, but respectable caprese salad. For our main courses we had Tagliatelle al Funghi Porcini Freschi, Gamberoni all'Americana con Riso Pilaf, and Spaghettoni di Gragagno al Pesto di Zucchini, Acciughe del Contabrico e Crumble di Pane. All were delicious and competently prepared. The tiramisu for dessert was one of the best I have ever eaten anywhere. To walk off this fabulous meal, which happened to be next to our villa, we walked in the other direction to visit the ancient Chiesa S. Stephano which also was close to our villa. Although it was very dark inside when we visited, by using our iPhone cameras, we were able to view the exquisite frescoes on the walls and ceilings. The church also houses a crypt containing a centuries-old skeleton, fully dressed in ancient church regalia, and housed in an ornate glass display case reminiscent of Snow White in the Disney movie. In our wanderings, we stopped in a few small shops to buy a souvenir for Chris.

The next morning, we showered and left ahead of schedule as Ari had seen a warning that our water was about to be turned off by the local water company, a warning of which even the owner was unaware. Heading out of Lenno in our freshly recharged and comfy electric Zoe, we found a rare parking spot in a nearby town in front of a relatively new gelato café, Ge.lab, that advertised that they served breakfast also. The sole waitress prepared us a wonderful breakfast as we waited for just a few minutes. The whole grain croissants were a revelation and the glass-fronted restaurant gave us a chance to linger by the lake a bit longer. The gelato area was not open yet, but was so extensive that I asked and was granted a photo standing behind the counter. We continued on the road back to Milan. Our electric vehicle allowed us access to the center of Milan where we found a parking garage near the Duomo, La Scala and the elegant shopping mall, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, on the Piazza del Duomo. Cutting through the elegant mall to the piazza, I took a lucky spin on the “bulls balls” (see the Rick Steves tour of Milan) along with thousands of other tourists. The guys declined. We purchased our tickets for viewing the inside of the Duomo. After a short wait, we joined the queue entering the cathedral, one of the grandest in Europe. After quite some time roaming about the cathedral, we headed across the piazza to tour La Scala, which is both an elegant opera house and a museum with quite a storied history. Heading back to pick up our car, we again entered the Galleria where we decided to have lunch at Galleria. While the prices were somewhat higher than surrounding places, as befits a really touristy area, we were more than wowed by the level of service and the little extra touches that were added by our most professional of waiters. These included a complimentary and delicious pre-meal amuse-bouche of a cheesy arancini, and a finale presenting an assortment of three buttery and crispy pastries. Our pizzas were very good, but the highlight of the meal was tagliatelle with shaved truffles and butter sauce, perfectly al dente tagliatelle with a generous helping of shaved truffles for €22. Thus sated, we picked up our car nearby and headed back to the airport in Milan for our flight back to London.

We only had a very short time together as a family when we returned because the next day, Ari was leaving for a planned trip to Scotland to tour castles and distilleries with Yona, Jessica and Alex, who was flying into nearby Heathrow Airport that morning. Saul and I felt we would be too exhausted after the Italian leg of our trip to tag along. We took advantage of our short time together, when the three of us returned from Milan, to walk over to a nearby classic fish and chips shop, Hobson’s Fish and Chips, so that Yona could have that quintessential British experience.

The next morning, Alex arrived from Heathrow on schedule (another travel miracle!), and the four of them set off for long trip to Scotland by train, leaving Saul and me to our own devices for the following few days. Their travels in Scotland, meticulously planned by Ari, were above all expectations and without any major mishaps. I have included their photos above, although I personally was not on that leg of the trip. The photos are so evocative of all of our fortuitous travels that I thought they should be included.

After all the non-stop excitement of the previous few weeks, Saul and I were happy to have a few days to rest and regroup for the days ahead. When we first arrived in London, Ari and I had taken a walk about the neighborhood (while Saul napped) so that I would have a feel for the surrounding area, be able to pick up some provisions, and be familiar with some of the not-so-obvious places that we could enjoy. We slept late on our first morning alone. Then, I walked with Saul over to the canal area behind nearby Paddington Station, where there was an inviting promenade lined with restaurants and restaurant barges. After checking out all the restaurant menus posted outside, we settled on a canal-side table at Zizzi. Afterwards, Ari chided us for our choice of a “chain” restaurant, but I swear we had one of the best pizzas ever there! We never did get to try the restaurant that he swears has the best pizza in London. Afterwards, we wandered a little farther about the canal area. In addition to the painted corgi dog statues all over London, there were statues of Paddington Bear in several places around the Paddington Station area as well as a shop entirely devoted to Paddington Bear inside the station itself. The relationship of Paddington Bear to the Queen’s Jubilee was portrayed in an adorable YouTube video made for the occasion.

The next morning, having rested for a day, we arose a bit earlier and ventured back to the same canal area for a delicious breakfast in a unique setting atop a colorfully-decorated, moored restaurant barge called The Darcie and May Green. The fickle London weather was kind to us that morning and allowed us to doff our jackets and enjoy the spectacle of canal-going rental barges with picnickers aboard chugging past. Our excellent breakfasts were served with a wonderful charcoal black bread. Just as we were leaving, a group of dancers congregated to rehearse their routine, so we, a number of passersby, and those who had a view from the Darcie and May had a lively bit of free entertainment. I must mention the newest tourist attraction across the street from Paddington Station, which is a computerized clock which appears to have a little man inside who performs various functions, such as erasing and redrawing the minute hand as well as adjusting some of the numbers, etc. We passed it frequently on this sojourn in London because of Ari’s proximity to the station. At dinnertime, we wandered into the nearby Notting Hill area to check out the nearly door-to-door restaurants that line several blocks of the street. After viewing and photographing the menus of literally dozens of restaurants, we chose Banana Tree, from where our food had been delivered our first Shabbat together in London. We loved Banana Tree so much that we could have eaten there every evening, except we were loath to hear Ari’s chiding that there are many other wonderful places which we had not yet experienced.

Finally well-rested, we headed out for one of our favorite haunts while in London, The British Museum. The weather again cooperated, and we had a lovely walk of about two miles, skirting the parks and down the busy Oxford Street shopping hub to the museum. Arrived, we found a table at the museum café and had some yummy sandwiches while we rested up from our walk so we were up to our forays around the museum. We revisited many of our favorites, including the Rosetta Stone, Elgin Marbles, Greek urn collections, etc. etc. We were also fortunate to be there in time for a guided tour which was focused in the library-type room containing the longest-held objects in the museum, its founder, how the objects were obtained, and how the total concept of the “museum” evolved over time. Having exhausted ourselves yet again, we caught a black cab back to the flat where we rested up for our next adventure.

Ari, Jess, Alex and Yona returned to London late the next day. In the morning, Yona took Alex for a long walk in the park. Later, we all bid Alex goodbye when he left to catch the Heathrow Express from Paddington to Heathrow for his return flight to the U.S. That evening, Ari made reservations at Bokan, a very upscale restaurant with an incredible view of London in Canary Wharf. He was very familiar with the area and its restaurants, having lived on the 39th floor of a modern apartment complex with a similar view. He also found himself “holed up” there for a considerable amount of time at the beginning of the pandemic. Bokan was an inspired choice for our last meal together in London, as we had a really memorable repast of beautifully prepared and presented delicacies, attended by very skilled and professional waitstaff, as we watched a gloriously colorful sunset all around us from the plush, comfortable, leather chairs surrounding a large round table through floor to ceiling windows. An added bonus was that they have three set menus for vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike.We were able to choose from either a two or three course option, or an elaborate tasting menu. Jess and Yona flew home the day after that, but not before we had a delicious breakfast together at Mihbaj which was so crowded that we were obliged to take a table in their subterranean dining room. The room was quite pleasant, but Ari was forced to take the steep stairs a number of times to see that our food was ordered and delivered. The restaurant was Middle Eastern and very nice, but we preferred the food and ambience of our nearby favorite, Les Filles.

Ari decided to go into the office the following day and invited Saul and me along so he could show us around. We caught the appropriate train at Paddington in the late morning. After a few blocks walk from the station, Ari got us security passes in the lobby of his office building, a modern, high-rise, that houses the largest indoor live fish tank in all of the U.K. So large was it, in fact, that I hardly could believe my eyes, and thought it must be some kind of enormous video screen. Security is extremely tight and we were given badges to wear before walking to a designated bank of completely glass elevators to take us to the floor where his offices are situated. Ari and two other employees were the only others we encountered in the spacious and well-appointed space that day. Covid has seen to it that most of the staff works from home these days. After showing us around the office, the three of us headed to Spitalfields Market, which has a huge area of kiosks and stands under a sheltering roof. Half of the market is devoted to food stands, and the other half to vendors selling all manners of unique, sometimes hand-made clothing, and objects that one would expect to find at a large flea market. It was very crowded during our lunch-hour visit and quite a warm day, so Ari purchased a lunch to go and headed back to the office for a video conference scheduled that afternoon, while Saul and I happened (with the help of Trip Advisor) upon a delightful (and cool) little vegetarian restaurant just down the street from the crowded market. Surprisingly, we were able to snag the last table available in the lively place. Bubala was a delightful experience for us. We had the opportunity to chat with our knowledgeable and congenial waitress, Annu. We began with Chili Crunch Hummus accompanied by hot, deliciously seasoned laffa bread for dipping. Among the best versions of hummus we have ever had. We ordered two of the Oyster Mushroom Skewers and they were delectable. Then we ordered a second laffa so as not to waste any of the sauce. Almost always plant-based, we could not resist ordering the halloumi with black seed honey. Sometimes, when on vacation, we splurge with dairy products, and this cheese option was definitely worth splurging on. The Falafel platter was excellent and the patties were green with fresh herbs, which is the way I prefer them, and not greasy. After consuming all this, we were stuffed, but intrigued by the dessert menu. Although we had asked for the check, Annu subsequently brought us a complimentary bowl of the frozen coconut malabi, which we managed to find room for anyway because it was so light, delicious, and unique.

Thus sated, we ventured out into the hot afternoon weather to explore Eataly, an experience that Ari suggested. It is difficult to describe the scope of what foodstuffs are available in this multi-level tribute to Italian dining and all the esoterica of Italian products available for purchase, from aubergine to ziti. At the end of the working day, still wearing our security badges, we returned to Ari’s offices to wait for him to finish up and then headed for the train station to return home.

On Friday, we again headed for the canal area near Paddington Station where we had made reservations for dinner at a restaurant along the canal. Arrived there, we found it just about empty of patrons. We were seated and then studiously ignored by the sparse waitstaff for about 40 minutes until we decided to move on. About two blocks down at the end of the canal, we found ourselves a table at Brew Dog, which was packed with a convivial crowd enjoying the end of the work week. This was a most fortunate change of plans as we enjoyed some formidable brews from their extensive menu, as well as wonderful food that suited both our diets and palates. Perusing the menu, we discovered that Mondays offered a deal called 2-4-1 plant-based vegan and veggie mains. We returned the following Monday, and had an absolutely wonderful evening, sitting outdoors, canal-side, ordering multiple yummy dishes on which we gorged ourselves, and sampling multiple brews.

On Saturday, Ari’s friend Chris returned, and the four of us took the rather long walk in another direction we had not traveled before in Ari’s neighborhood, stopping along the way for half pints and a snack at the classically picturesque pub, Victoria, on our way to attend “Taste of London” Festival. Chris’ sister had bought him and Ari tickets as a Christmas present. When we decided to accompany them, Ari bought us tickets as well. Although the weather was very iffy that day, we managed to squeeze in quite a bit of fun, including a delightful roam about the spectacular gardens of Regent’s Park as well as multiple tastings of lots of interesting offerings from the outdoor food and drink stands. Saul and I became cold, wet and tired after a few hours of roaming (the boys had split off from us) as the sun began to set. We decided to hail a black cab to take us home, but Ari and Chris, used to the fickle English weather, stayed on for a few more hours.

On Sunday, we lounged and looked at real estate listings in the late morning/early afternoon and then we all went to enjoy a traditional “Sunday roast” in a very old and traditionally appointed pub called “The Mitre.” This was a great opportunity for us, as we had never had a Sunday roast on our previous visits to the U.K. and the Mitre featured a vegetarian roast. Saul and I had the “Wellington” and found it very tasty indeed. Chris left us from there to return to his home in Surrey.

After all our adventures, we needed a day or two to recover before setting out for another highlight of our vacation—a trip to the ancient city of York. One of those nights, we wandered back to Notting Hill for dinner at Jusu Brothers, a pan-Asian eatery and juice bar. It was a pleasant evening, so we dined outdoors on their healthy and flavorful dishes. During the pandemic, many London restaurants set up outdoor dining spaces protected from traffic by street barriers. As we wandered down Westbourne Grove, the street was lined with wall-to-wall dining opportunities of this nature. 

On Tuesday, Ari, who had been searching real estate in London for several years, found a new-build house that looked promising online. He knew, by that point, that the owner of his present flat was using the 18-month break clause to end his lease in October so that the home could be put on the market for sale. Having stayed with him for a few weeks, we all discouraged him from buying the 4-story mews property. On the Wednesday, before our trip to York, we set out on the newly-opened (the previous month) Elizabeth line to Hanwell to view the property. What was once a remote outpost that required several transfers of trains from central London, has now become very accessible. When we disembarked from the train at Hanwell, we found ourselves in what appeared to be a charming and leafy suburb. The property was a short walk from the station and the three of us agreed immediately on entry that this would be a perfect layout and location for him. The neighborhood was solid and filled with promising restaurants and pubs that were just around the corner from the secluded alleyway where the house was located, just off the main street. After a few days of negotiating, a price was agreed upon and Ari gave a non-refundable deposit. We consider ourselves extremely lucky to have been in England at a time when we had the opportunity to visit the home with him and see it for ourselves.

Our end-of-vacation brief trip to York was delightful. Other than a trip to Brighton, Saul and I have never really been far out of London in our trips to England. The train trip to York took us about 2 to 3 hours. As we traveled, I couldn’t help but think about my father’s descriptions of the idyllic English countryside that are daily with me as I prepare my other blog, “Daily Love Letters from WWII.” As  we pulled into the station, a luxury, restored vintage train was pulling out with a load of lucky, dining travelers on another track. As we approached the ancient walled city of York on foot on the way to our well-chosen rental apartment, we passed the old entrance gate to the city. Arriving at our flat, we were greeted with a welcome package of goodies and a lovely and functional apartment in the heart of the city. Just across the street, Source, a vegan restaurant, both cozy and welcoming, provided our first evening’s repast. The food was so good, and the menu so enticing, that we were recognized the next morning at breakfast by the waitstaff and owner who had served us the night before. The breakfast was one of the best and varied vegan breakfasts we have discovered on any continent thus far. Their vegan take on a “full English” breakfast was amazing. We were so pleased to have found so many vegan choices in a place we had originally thought to be steeped in the British tradition of “meat and potatoes.” We had breakfast there every morning that we were in York, trying all the different options available on the extensive menu. On our first evening, we wandered aimlessly about the ancient city (called The Shambles) until dusk, viewing architecture that has survived centuries and has been lovingly preserved. We passed candlelit ghost tours and quaint touristy shops selling everything from candles to magic wands as we wandered the extensive maze of cobblestone streets. 

Following breakfast on our first morning, we walked a few blocks to tour the fabulous York Minster Cathedral. It is even larger than Westminster Cathedral in London and so filled with remarkable objects, stained glass windows, and architecture on such a scale, that we felt we could not do it justice, even with the dozens of photos we took in the few hours we were wandering about inside. Our next stop was the York Castle Museum, where we again spent a number of hours wandering among the antiquities that were themed in a very personal and engaging way. The building is divided into two parts, separated by a café and gift shop. By the time we had finished half, we were happy for a brief repose and snack before we tackled the second half. I have always been very attracted to carousels, as you may have read in others of my blog posts, and the one in the garden outside this museum was outstanding, as were the gardens themselves. On our way back to our flat, we wandered around Clifford’s Tower, a very striking landmark in the York topography. There are many stories attached to the Tower, including the fact that it takes its name from a fellow that was hanged from its heights and left to decompose there. Another gruesome incident that is commemorated on a plaque at its base, was a Masada-type incident involving the Jews of York, who sought refuge in the tower during an anti-semitic incident. When it became apparent that their refuge was about to be breached, they all committed suicide at each others hands, rather than fall into the hands of the inflamed townspeople. That evening, we made dinner reservations for, believe it or not, an upscale vegan Chinese restaurant, The Orchid, just a short walk from our flat. Trip Advisor did not lie when it was awarded five stars. The food and ambience were a joy!

Our second day in York dawned with blue skies, so after breakfast, we lined up early for entrance into the Jorvic Viking Museum. On entry, we were greeted by a glass-covered floor, revealing artifacts of the Viking community that had been unearthed during excavations in the city. Proceeding on, we were loaded onto moving cars on a track, a-la Disney World, which wended its way through a reconstructed ancient Viking community with animatronic characters based on knowledge gleaned during excavations. Disembarking, a museum filled with excavated artifacts proved to be even more enlightening, dispelling some of the myths we had believed regarding the barbarian nature of the community. Afterwards, we headed down to the docks where we took a lovely and informative hour-long cruise along the river Ouse that skirts part of the city. Having rested a while, we decided to tackle the three mile walk around the top of the ancient walls that enclosed the city. The walk was lovely, if a bit narrow and precarious at times and revealed magnificent mansions and gardens that abut the walls. Descending and then re-climbing stairways where the walkway was disconnected and then continued, we came across a costumed parade of musicians who had just revived a York tradition that had been interrupted by Covid. At the end of our foray around the top of the walls we descended to have a snack and a beer alongside the waterfront on the terrace of Dyls Café Bar, a convivial place where the locals appear to congregate along with their dogs and children on a Sunday afternoon. It appears to be just about built into the ancient wall and adjoins a lovely park with walking and bike paths.

Because our train was not leaving York until later in the afternoon, after a hearty breakfast at Source the next morning, we vacated our wonderful rental flat and checked our bags a few blocks away at a Hilton Hotel. This left us a few more hours to wander the streets of The Shambles, decide on a place for lunch from among the many street cafés that were available, and do some shopping in the outdoor market of vendors selling hand-made items, food and art. At no cost, the Hilton stowed our bags for the day, and then summoned a cab for us as we were too tired to drag our bags the seven or eight blocks back to the train station. We rested in the hotel’s lobby for about 20 minutes before the cab appeared and then for about another hour in the train station. We had reserved seats on the train in both directions and found the seats and trains, as a whole, extremely comfortable. The English are very polite and we found ourselves in a long, but friendly, queue when we disembarked and wanted to hail a taxi. The taxis appeared quickly, one after the other, to eventually whisk us the rest of the way back to Craven Mews.

The next day, our last full day in London, our schedule happened to overlap with a visit to London by my cousin, Julie, and her significant other, Jon, who live in Washington, D.C. They were able to get last minute tickets to attend Wimbledon. We were able to rendezvous at an upscale vegan restaurant, Wulf and Lamb, a short walking distance from Ari’s flat. We had a very nice meal and spent time catching up and trading information about our far-flung family members, some of whom we had just seen for the first time in years at Yona’s bat mitzvah. After a leisurely dinner, we all walked back to Ari’s flat, pointing out where Julie and Jon could take a train from Paddington Station so that they could find their way back on foot when they were ready to return to their hotel. We were so preoccupied with each other on that rare evening we could be together, that we all now regret that all of us neglected to take any photos while we were together.

On our last day, a black cab was again summoned to take us for the long ride to Gatwick Airport. Although the train ride is much cheaper and faster, it was worth some extra pounds not to have to drag our bags through the stations hoping we had made the correct connections. We were delivered door-to-door in plenty of time to catch our plane. We were very lucky as many flights to various cities in the U.S. had been drastically delayed or cancelled altogether. We were delighted to discover delicious options for vegan food in the airport while we waited and considering the vicissitudes of modern airline travel, our flight was pretty convenient and comfortable. Of all the trips we have taken, this was the “trip of a lifetime” because, considering all that could have gone wrong in the six weeks we were all traveling, including catching Covid, nothing did. A sublime celebration from start to finish was our most fortunate experience.

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