Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Another Trip to London for Passover and the Coronation—March Through June 2023


March seemed to get off to a bad start when we noticed that a tile had caved in in the corner of our master stall shower. There had been minor cracks in the tile when we bought the house, but we had other priorities 10 years ago when we bought this house and the damage seemed to be nothing to worry about at the time. Clearly, it was time to do something about this. We determined that the tile could not be replaced so it was time for a major renovation. After inspections by several tile companies and our homeowners insurance company, we determined that the damage was not caused by a leak in the plumbing, which would have been covered by our insurance. After interviewing at least five tile companies for estimates, traveling miles to look at tiles at a warehouse, considering all the types of coverings available and receiving estimates that were mind-bogglingly high, we settled on Lujo Floor and Tile, which was just down the road, had a porcelain tile I adored, and was thousands of dollars cheaper than any other estimate. We’re so glad we took our time and interviewed so many companies. Lujo was wonderful to work with, had super-efficient craftsmen, and we were thrilled with the result.

We continued to discover new vegan products at our local Chinese markets, including a half chicken that looked very appetizing and convincing, but turned out to be a bit off-putting because of the mealy texture.

We were notified by our homeowners insurance company, AAA, by letter during this time that our insurance coverage would be cancelled unless we replaced our roof or had an inspection (at our cost) certifying that it was sound. This has become a common occurrence in Florida. Our roof hasn’t leaked, but inspection has shown that it is very damaged and needs to be replaced. To make a long story short. it is being replaced next week by the fourth company who gave us an estimate, 3MG Roofing, and it is completely covered by the insurance company, AAA, (other than our $1,000 deducible) that insisted we replace it. They speedily sent us the money to cover the cost, although our insurance (covering 3 cars and home) went up almost $2,000 a year (unfortunately, also common right now in Florida).

We became annual members of Bok Tower Gardens and spent some lovely Sundays wandering the extensive pathways there during the height of camellia season on some beautifully temperate March days.

Ari took advantage of the last few days of his extensive period of layoff with a vacation to Istanbul, which preserved his elite status with British Airways and was incredibly reasonable. He was hired back at the beginning of April by the company that laid him off, first as an independent contractor for them, and then with a limited contract as an employee until October (at a higher salary than he was making before) when they assure him another position will be available for him. I have included some of his marvelous photos in this post.

Our niece, Haley and her husband, Erik, moved to nearby Tampa in May right after her 40th birthday. We were invited to the Florida celebration of the party titled “Forty and Floridian.” The photos from their housewarming party appear at the end of the photos. They live in a three-bedroom penthouse apartment overlooking the river in Tampa that is just beautiful.

The Flower and Garden Festival began at Epcot and we have never seen Epcot look more gorgeous. Unfortunately, we have noticed a great scaling back of the food at some of our favorite restaurants in Disney and a concurrent rise in the prices. We have enjoyed many of the Garden Rocks concerts that accompany the flower show at this time of the year.

Once a month, on Thursdays, we sometimes attend a seniors get-together at SOJC. At one, I had a chance to do some ballroom dancing with an older group who came to demonstrate their skills, and at another, we all had a chance to create our own bouquets with flowers that we were provided.

At the end of March, London experienced a rare hailstorm much to the chagrin of a small, wild fox that had sought shelter on Ari’s fenced back patio. Wild fox roam the streets of London at night and are a common sight. They seldom live past adolescence as the conditions of their existence are so difficult and most starve. It left to find better shelter when the hailstorm began and never returned.

As Passover approached, Saul and I did our best to prepare our house for the arrival of Jess and Alex, Yona and Izzy, and eventually Alex’s family for the seders. We used up stored foodstuffs in the closets, refrigerators, and freezers, and cleaned them. Saul and I had made arrangements to be in London for the seders and the coronation of King Charles III, a total of six weeks from April 2 to May 10. Right before we left we were lucky to be able to visit Disney’s Easter egg display at the Grand Floridian Hotel, which was set up a bit early this year, and see a Garden Rocks Concert by the Pointer Sisters (originally from Philadelphia). We had a few days before Passover to spend with the kids during which time Izzy helped us package some of the artwork I had created for Ari  many years ago and which has been languishing in our closets ever since Ari moved to England 10 years ago. Now, he finally has his own beautiful home and furnishings. Thrillingly, they arrived with us in England with no damage whatsoever.

We flew to Heathrow via Newark and, despite taking Dramamine, Saul got sick during our rather rough landing. So did a number of other passengers, and the flight attendant admitted to me that she, herself, was rather ill during the landing. We were much luckier making our airline connection going than we were coming back as we were offered a wheelchair ride for Saul to our gate by an employee who was returning it nearby. After a brief time, Saul felt better.

Ari met us at Heathrow and we took an Uber the short distance back to his new home. Towards evening, we discovered one of the perks of his new neighborhood, an incredibly great pizzeria with a wood-fired oven, just down his short alleyway and across the street, L’Oro di Napoli. The menu had several delectable vegan choices, and afterwards, I cheated with one of the best cannolis I have ever had (one of my guilty pleasures). Before arriving, I had sent Ari a long list of the ingredients I would need to prepare a kosher Passover seder. He and Chris made a trip to shop at a store in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in London, Kosher Kingdom, and shlepped everything back in an Uber so that I could begin preparations right away to kasher and cook. Once I was satisfied that preparations were well underway, we went for a long walk on Shabbat through the beautiful park-like areas adjoining his home in Hanwell. I had never been in London for bluebell season before, and the gorgeous wildflowers grew effortlessly in wide swaths everywhere we went, even appearing in cracks in walls and sidewalks. In the few days before Passover, we ate out at various neighborhood restaurants around Hanwell and nearby Ealing, including Big Bites CafĂ©Tonkotsu Bar and Ramen, and Ichiba Food and Drinks.

Saul’s cousin Adi, the one for whose wedding we flew to Israel with his sister, Rifka, in 2019, gave birth to a beautiful girl named for her mother, who died at the beginning of Covid. She is named Libby, meaning “my heart.” Her brother’s wife also had a new baby girl in June, whom they named Shakedd Tzvia, also named for her grandmother.

Having prepared most of a week’s worth of food, Saul, Ari, Chris and I were free to enjoy the most relaxed seder we have ever had, and during chol ha moed, we were free to travel around London, and stock up on needed supplies to finish out the week. It was a joy for me to see the market where Ari had shopped, which, in a small space, managed to supply a mind-boggling array of kosher-for-passover products that rivaled any kosher warehouses where I had shopped in New York. We hosted Ari’s friend, Marian, who arrived after several train connections from the other end of London, at a Passover Shabbat dinner. It was the first time we had an opportunity to meet Marian in person, and we enjoyed the evening chatting with her immensely.

During our travels around London during chol ha moed, we shopped for furniture and accessories for Ari’s new home. We spent most of a day trudging from store to store in a large Westfield upscale mall. While there, we purchased a beautiful, decorative round mirror that Ari ordered to be delivered and additional kitchenware that he needed. Saul and I hung Ari’s art and photo collection while he was working from home and also during his few days in the office. We visited an IKEA in London and sat in some comfortable chairs that Ari eventually decided to buy a few months later.

At the end of Passover, we spent a few days together traveling into and around downtown London. We had lunch at another Wulf & Lamb vegan restaurant (a different one than where we met Julie and Jon for dinner on our last trip). It was equally great. Ari had made reservations for the Wallace Collection, which housed the largest, and most beautifully displayed collection of “old masters” it has ever been our pleasure to view. One of the paintings that really struck a chord with me was of the Biblical characters, Judah and Tamar. The story is one of my favorites dating back to the 24 years I spent studying Biblical texts once a week with our good friend, Faith Rubin. We attended a vintage car boot sale for charity located in King’s Cross in Coal Drops Yard. 

On another occasion, we took a bus to Brentford to a nearby nursery, Hillier Garden Center, where we purchased everything we needed to set up colorful, flowering, permanent gardens on the small patios in front and in back of Ari’s new house. In addition, when all the supplies were delivered about two weeks later, we planted culinary herbs as well which Ari has been sharing with friends. The nursery was near to the home where Pocahontas lived when she was in London. Ari had been telling us that he had never tried the restaurant, Ran Thai, less than a block from his home. We decided to try it that evening and were delighted with the ambience, the offerings, and the sense of humor of the owner. Accordingly, we had dinner there more than once during our six-week stay. After dinner, we went home and hung Ari’s mezuzah. 

One of the great perks of Ari’s new neighborhood is its proximity to an incredibly reasonable and well-stocked Lidl supermarket, which is about two blocks away, a small Nisa market with long hours that is literally across the street, and a halal market which stocked almost everything needed to prepare Middle Eastern delicacies. It was a great luxury for Saul and me to just be able to walk out at any time to get whatever ingredients we needed to prepare a recipe instead of getting in our car to drive to a nearby supermarket. In preparing our first non-Passover dinner at Ari’s, I modified the challah recipe I have been using for over 45 years with amazing results. England’s “strong bread and strong whole wheat bread flour” were the inspiration. As always, the local yeast adds its own flavor as well. We created a more savory challah using the “Everything Bagel” sprinkle that we brought to Ari from the U.S.

One of the new forays that we took was to visit the Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. We waited in a short line outside as only a limited number of people are allowed in at a time. Once inside, we understood the reason as the home is a multi-floored labyrinth filled with architectural pieces from antiquity, including the empty, intricately carved tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, Seti I. The rooms and alcoves are tiny and quite claustrophobic, but filled in every conceivable spot with wonders from the past. Our walk back to the train station that day took us past the Masonic Headquarters in London, which we visited with Rif and Paul back in 2019. At the next corner, we photographed and chatted pleasantly with a motorcycle group affiliated with the Freemasons. The walk itself proved to be very interesting. Saul was nearly bonked on the head by a bus rear-view mirror while photographing a “traveling pub” which serves drinks while the patrons all contribute to pedaling around London. Above the train station, Tottenham Court, there was a brand-new 360-degree immersive video installation.

On another excursion we visited the most amazing Hindu Temple, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir. Photographs were not permitted inside the building, but suffice it to say that it is one of the  most incredible and intricately carved examples of architecture I have ever seen. Saul and I learned a great deal about Hinduism, which we always had thought to be a polytheistic religion. We learned that all their deities that are depicted in carvings and art stem from a central concept of the unity and order of the universe. The temple is the focus of a very tight-knit and community-oriented group of people for whom it is truly the center of their lives. We were so happy that we were able to tour this remarkable building and highly recommend the tour to anyone visiting London. It truly should not be missed.

We happily discovered another perk in Ari’s new neighborhood of Hanwell. In Britain, there long has been a tradition of “Sunday Roast,” which usually means slices of roast beef, lamb, and/or pork and Yorkshire pudding, accompanied by sides of “bubble and squeak” (mashed potatoes and cabbage) and a number of other veggie side dishes. In London, every pub has its own version of Sunday Roast. To our delight, not one, but two, neighborhood pubs in Hanwell had delicious options for vegan Sunday Roast with an absolutely delicious nut roast provided cheerfully alongside the other veggie courses in the nearest one, The Green.

After perusing hundreds of options online and in stores for months, Ari decided to go ahead and order a bar cabinet from The Cotswold Company. We were all very pleased with it when it was delivered and assembled.

We all developed a real weakness for Coronation Crisps (Thai chili-flavored potato chips) as the actual Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla drew closer. It was only a few steps away to pick up another bag every time we ran out.

We met Ari’s long-time friend, Andrew, for dinner one evening at a unique restaurant called Kasa and Kin which bills itself as the home of contemporary Filipino flavors. It had a wonderful selection of vegan and vegetarian options which were very unusual for that ethnicity. Our meal was wonderful and we regretted not having the opportunity to visit twice during our stay. We also purchased an assortment of some of the inviting-looking Filipino pastries from their in-house bakery to take home with us.

When asked what some of the highlights of this trip were, I would have to include the day we spent with Ari and Chris at Wisley Gardens. I have visited many botanical gardens in my life, including beautiful Longwood Gardens in Downingtown, PA, where we went on our honeymoon. In London, the gardens are superlative, especially around royal estates. Our experience at Wisley would have to be one of the top three. We arrived by Uber on an absolutely perfect spring day when millions of tulips of every conceivable variety were at their short-lived peak. A well-juried craft fair was taking place in neatly-spaced white tents along our route and colorful vistas spread before us in every direction. I can’t begin to describe the joy I felt just gazing on these wonders of nature with loved ones by my side. The conservatory contained flowers of the most unusual shade of aqua-blue that ordinarily bloom every 25 years under the right conditions, but the professionals had figured out a way to have them blooming more often. Greenhouses abounded with special categories of plants, such as those that grow in crevices, or carnivorous  ones, all presented in the most quaint and artistic settings. Truly a joyful day! To gild the lily (pun intended), we took an Uber to an ancient nearby village, Kingston on Thames, where we strolled the well-worn cobblestone main street soaking up the ambience and history of our surroundings and then strolled the promenade alongside the River Thames to enjoy the sunset (and people-watch) at our outdoor table at Riverside Vegetaria, an award-winning vegetarian restaurant nestled among the myriad restaurants lining the river.

As May began, we found that “the king and the queen could go back to the green*” (*Billy Joel reference) as Steve and Jen drove over to see Ari’s new house and join us at The Green for Sunday Roast. Steve and Jen were the regal bride and groom for whose “wedding of the century” we flew to Lake Como in Italy last year. We had a brilliant time together enjoying our Sunday roasts and soaking up the neighborhood atmosphere, and then walked back to Ari’s to schmooze for a few hours over drinks. Jen is a numbered violinist in the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and gave me Zoom violin lessons for over a year during the pandemic when the Orchestra could not perform.

On another of our excursions with Ari, we took the nearby Elizabeth Line train at Hanwell Station into central London where we had lunch at Market Place Vauxhall, a compendium of interesting ethnic food stalls, crossed Vauxhall Bridge in the rain, visited The Tate Museum, and walked for miles afterwards. As we approached Westminster Abbey, we walked past trucks starting to set up for the Coronation, saw the restored Big Ben and listened to its chimes from a pub across the street. We considered going straight home after that, but on the way back to the nearest train station, we caught a bus from Charring Cross to have dinner at Stem & Glory (a new, and wonderful, vegan franchise) which was in a quiet square in Farringdon, ironically across from “Butcher’s Hall.” 

Ari took us to have dinner at an obscure find of his that appears to be an informal gathering spot for singles and groups of friends looking to have an inexpensive date night or gathering. On our way back to a nearby train station from another excursion in Central London we took an escalator up to Market Hall on Oxford Street. One can walk around the warehouse-like setting and choose from many vendors an eclectic variety of food and drink. There is something to suit every taste and pocketbook and tables are set up to accommodate from small groups in wing chairs around a coffee table, to long tables for larger groups, or small tables for small groups. There are no time limitations as to how long you can “hang out” in these comfortable spaces as there would be in a restaurant.

About two weeks after we had selected the materials to assemble Ari’s gardens, they arrived by truck from the nursery and Saul and I began work to plant everything. All arrived in good shape and has continued to thrive since we planted. The difficult part is now done and Ari will be able to replenish as necessary as plants die off.

At the beginning of March, Jess, Alex and Yona sold the large home they were in for the last few years and moved into a new house a bit further away from the synagogue. Their furniture fit very nicely and Jess appears to be a master of organization at facilitating such things while holding down a full-time job at the same time. Yona will be going off to a private boarding school she selected in September, and my children will now be empty nesters (other than during the past 20 summers’ Camp Bubbie and Saba) permanently. As with us, a rainbow shone over their new digs on the first day they moved in.

We had timed our London visit to not only coincide with Passover, but also with the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. In the U.K. this was an all-day televised affair and, having learned our lesson about epic crowds during the Queen’s Jubilee last year, we opted to celebrate at home with our television, British flag augmented floral centerpiece, and homemade Coronation Quiche, Coronation crisps, and other quintessentially British delicacies.

The day after the Coronation, a Coronation Celebration! concert was held at Royal Albert Hall. In a stroke of luck, by refreshing his computer screen several times looking for good seats a few days prior, we happened upon a box on the third level containing four seats, just off-center of the hall and for a very minimal increased fee from the regular seats. We booked it immediately, figuring this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was, in every aspect, just that! Our friend Jen was playing violin there with the Royal Philharmonic and, additionally, it was the Royal Choral Society’s 150th Anniversary Gala Concert, so there was a choir of at least 150 voices backing the full orchestra. The program highlighted favorite historical musical excerpts of the last 150 years. There was also a sing-along with the entire audience at the end to music and lyrics especially written for the Coronation. Everyone could download and practice the music before the concert. To say it was a memorable afternoon would be an understatement. During the intermission, we peered over our balcony to discover that the royal box (denoted by a crown carving above it) was just below us and two boxes to the left. Our friend, Steve, Jen’s husband, was two boxes over from us on our level, and we shared a champagne toast together when Jen came up to join us during the intermission. The whole experience was particularly poignant for me because, in the course of creating my WWII blog, based on my parents’ prodigious quantity of letters and photos sent to each other during the war, I learned of my father’s affinity for concerts at Royal Albert Hall. He often wrote about the size, acoustics, and the great maestros, and wrote very perceptive reviews of his experiences. Among the artifacts I have from this time period are programs which he sent home to my mother with his letters. It was a glorious opportunity to connect with him, his love and appreciation of great classical music, and the Royal Albert Hall itself, which is every bit as majestic as he described it. 

We met Steve at the end, and caught up with Jen (who had secured us a few precious copies of the program) and proceeded to walk a short distance to a restaurant called Stein’s Berlin Restaurant. We had a delectable dinner together. After, we strolled about a mile through Kensington to Hyde Park and had libations outdoors at the Serpentine Bar and Kitchen on a glorious spring day in a magnificent park setting while the sun had begun to set. At the closing of the restaurant, we proceeded on the park’s meandering path, having transferred our remaining drinks to disposable plastic cups. In a coincidence of fate, we passed the verdant spot where Steve had proposed to Jen exactly two years earlier. Jen was almost moved to tears by the serendipity of it all. Continuing past the park to Ari’s old neighborhood, Paddington, we all said our goodbyes and caught our respective trains back home.

On our last night in London, we arranged to meet Ari’s friends, Rebecca, Eldan, and Marian at a downtown restaurant, Caravan City. Chosen for its proximity to Marian and Rebecca’s respective offices and ample selection of vegan dishes. Marian is a vegetarian. We regretted that we have so many photos of our dinner, but none of us. It turned out to be one of our last memorable and convivial dinners in London.

Our flight back from London was a nightmare. Despite downing the stronger British version of Dramamine, Saul again became ill on landing in Newark. We didn’t have much time after landing to catch our flight to Orlando, so despite his illness, we had to pick up our luggage and begin running to our next gate, which we could not find. No one in the airport seemed to know how to direct us to where we needed to be and we walked in circles trying to find our exit to a tram for taking us to another building where we needed to catch our plane. The other building was at the far end of a packed tram ride. Taking the escalator down from the tram, no buses awaited to take us the mile-long walk to the entrance to Terminal A, and being short of time, we huffed our way to the entrance. Once inside, we walked about another six blocks to the farthest check-in for our T.S.A. pre-check approval and discovered we needed to go back to the first one we passed because our tickets were not marked as T.S.A. pre-check. We went through the whole gamut of removing shoes, belt, keys, etc. and discovered in the process of heading for our gate that some element of our carry-on luggage had been left behind for special scanning, so again we back-tracked. We just made it to our gate in time and were the last ones to board the plane. Depending on how you look at it, we were lucky or unlucky because the plane’s air-conditioning was broken and we could not take off until it was repaired. We sat on a plane that had temperatures inside of about 90 degrees for over an hour. Once it was repaired, the pilot pulled out all stops to get us to Orlando speedily. We were met by Rif and Paul at the airport, and were never so happy to be back in our own beds at the end of the ordeal.

Once we had rested up from our journey and restocked the house with food, Rif suggested that we attend the AAHC Asian Cultural Festival taking place in nearby Ocoee that looked like a fun day. It was a much smaller gathering than we had anticipated and was rather like attending a ballet recital while not knowing anyone performing. We enjoyed the performances for an hour or two, roamed the grounds set up with fast food tents for a short while where Paul decided to order two drinks that looked beautiful, but were undrinkable, and then decided to have dinner together at Yellow Dog Eats.

Sami has become an avid crochet artist and among her creations is a whimsical witch’s hat adorned with all kinds of crocheted vines, flowers, small creatures, and toadstools. She also recreates stuffed animals based on Dungeons and Dragons and anime characters and creates beaded jewelry using perler beads and other types of beads. Her creative soul is undiminished almost since birth.

In the ensuing weeks, we have continued our three-mile walks through the Disney Parks. A new addition to Animal Kingdom is a pair of black-and-white swans in the pond at the entrance.

I have begun cutting down on the number of times per month that I host Shabbat dinners for “the compound.” Saul and I are finding that standing for hours while we are preparing has become very taxing on the legs. Nowadays, we take turns sitting as each task is completed. A sour cream pound cake that stuck to my fancy bundt cake pan was marvelous at one of our dinners converted to a gorgeous trifle with our beautiful fresh fruit here in Florida, some vanilla custard sauce, some jam, and some whipped cream. 

A wonderful new change has come into our lives with the formation of a chavurah (friendship group) which meets for religious services in the homes of some of the families with whom we have become friendly over our years of synagogue membership. In the last 10 weeks that we have been meeting, our services have been attended by two to three dozen people and are followed by congenial lunches where we have formed stronger bonds by getting to know each other better. Through Alex and Louis and other sources, we have acquired prayerbooks, chumashim, and a Torah, which is on loan from another synagogue. In connection with this, on the Sunday after one of our first services, we attended a book launch in the home of one of our members which describes his challenges in life with an “invisible disability.” The book is called “In the Eyes of the Statue” by Lon Michael, a poignant autobiography that should be required reading for anyone who teaches.

Through the end of June, we continued to attend the “Garden Rocks” Concerts that are part of Disney’s Flower and Garden Festival, although with the increasingly unusually hot weather, and frequent violent thunderstorms and hailstorms, we are finding it more and more difficult to take advantage of our Disney annual passes. We try to walk either very early in the morning, or around sundown.

As the month drew to a close, we attended Haley and Erik’s “Forty and Floridian” party celebrating their recent move to Tampa, Haley’s 40th birthday at the beginning of May, and their beautiful new penthouse apartment overlooking the river. On our drive to the party, our windshield was hit by a pebble which caused a small crack which in the week that followed before we could schedule a repair, grew across the entire window. Jess, Alex, Yona and Izzy took an extended vacation, first to visit Ari, then two weeks in Israel, followed by another two weeks in London. Izzy returned a bit earlier to resume her classes in Marietta, GA, at Life University.

As of today, everyone is back home from their travels, safe and sound, with wonderful, unique, life-affirming memories that are truly a blessing. What more blessings could anyone ask for?