Monday, March 30, 2015

Sarah and Erik Visit Florida

Sarah and Erik show up on a Thursday evening. It's fun to have guests to cook with, try out new restaurants, explore this little town. 

On Friday we decide to go back to the Dunedin Farmer's Market and then head to Clearwater beach. It is a beautiful hot sunny day. On a Friday afternoon at the beginning of spring break it is inevitable that we would run into traffic. We stay mostly calm and patient and score a great parking spot right off the beach. First we have lunch at Pearly's where great tacos and beer are can be eaten at a table made out of a surf board.

Then it's off to the beautiful white sand beach. It's windy and hot. We sit, soak up rays, cool off in the water, go for walks along the shore. Eventually we head home in more terrible traffic. We want to return, but will aim for earlier in the day, preferably midweek to avoid some of the craziness. 

When Sunday rolls around, it's time for Spring Training, a classic spring-in-Florida activity. Sarah and Erik discover that the Cardinals are playing the Twins in Fort Myers, so this is a perfect game for us to attend, except that it entails another 2 hour drive. The drive itself is uneventful except for the very cool skyway bridge just south of St Pete, rising out of the Gulf like some sunny spaceship. Lee and I might go back and fish on the amazing piers beside the bridge later in the month.

 Hammond stadium where the Twins play is just plain cute, not huge and imposing like a major league stadium. It's much smaller and intimate. The only tickets we were able to get were standing room only. It turns out this means that we can stand almost anywhere on the partially shaded walkway that encircles the entire stadium. This is a good deal, because it is very sunny, and HOT, and many of the seats are almost uninhabitable. We all move around, go for walks, try to stay out of the sun. We can watch the game from different angles, sometimes watching the young players warming up and practicing, sometimes people watching.

I even pay somewhat close attention  to the game at times. I have brats, beer, and later some frozen lemonade that is way too sweet. They are trying out all sorts of players in different positions, and I haven't been paying much attention to baseball recently so don't know any of the player's names. At the very end of the 9th inning the Cardinals tie it up. Oh we think, extra innings! No they leave it tied and that's the end of the game. After all it doesn't count, it's just spring training!

We get home around 6:30. The dogs spent the day with Simone the wonderful dog sitter that took them on 4 walks, and to the dog park too. The dogs are tired and don't mind too much when we leave them again to go out to eat at Green Springs Bistro. There is a lot of good sounding stuff on menu, but I eventually decide to have the chopped bison. I'm not disappointed - it's yummy!

The next day we relax, mostly. Sarah and I take a spin class at the spa that I find hard and she says is too easy. Well boo. I usually don't feel my age, but all of a sudden I do.

Sarah and Erik make us dinner. We have lamb kabobs, pita with different dips, a great salad with roasted peaches. I make profiteroles for dessert, from a New York Times recipe. Profiteroles are basically French cream puffs. We have them with salted caramel ice cream and chocolate sauce. They are a raving success and I'm very proud of the results. 

All too soon it's time for them to return to the frozen north. Now it's just me and Lee and the doggies in Florida for the next three weeks. I think we can handle it! It was fun having guests, however. I hope more people decide to visit us here next year.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Aunt Mimi's Bat Mitzvah

On Saturday we wake up early and get ready quickly. We have a two hour drive to make it to The Villages by 9:30 AM for my Aunt Mimi's Bat Mitzvah. The sunrise over Tampa is a beautiful surprise, rising across the bay, silhouetting downtown Tampa. Its an easy drive across central Florida with an awful lot of traffic for so early on a Saturday morning. Maybe it's spring break and everyone is going to Disney World? We don't know.

Lee is impressed by the thought of my 77 year old aunt doing what both of our children did when they turned thirteen. Becoming a Bat Mitzvah is no small task. You have to learn to read and pronounce Hebrew. You have to learn to chant the Torah. You have to write and deliver a short sermon. It took both of our children about a year to prepare, and that was after several years of Hebrew lessons. But I reassure him. Oh, I say, don't worry, she won't be doing this all by herself. When older women decide to become a Bat Mitzvah they do this with a group. There will probably be four or five other women that will do the ceremony together. She won't be all alone up there.

When we arrive at the temple the place is jam packed. People are parking on the lawn and the sanctuary is full to the brim. There are not five women becoming Bat Mitzvah today, there are FOURTEEN women going through the ceremony. With all their family and friends in attendance there are easily 500 people there to cheer them on.

A Jewish Saturday morning service tends toward being fairly long, and a bar or bat mitzvah always makes them longer. When people share a date they split up the Torah portion, but each each lady still gets to do their own mini-sermon.

The little sermons are so interesting.....the ladies come from such varied backgrounds, and their reasons for becoming a bat mitzvah now are as varied as their stories. There is the woman whose parents ran from the gestapo to Quito Ecuador and didn't even find out that she was Jewish until they moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. There were many women that were raised in Orthodox or Conservative homes and were never given the opportunity to become bat mitzvah when they were 13. Several of the women were raised in non-religious homes. My aunt hated Hebrew school as a kid and adamantly told her father she was not going to do it. As an Orthodox girl she wouldn't have been allowed to do a Bat Mitzvah anyway, so what did it matter? 

Each woman chants the Torah a bit differently. Some chant faster, some are slower. Some have nice voices (my aunt's voice is lovely) others not so much. Some can only read and not manage the chanting, but they all get through their portion. Then it is time to do the haftorah, which is a commentary on the Torah portion they have just read. They all chant the haftorah together, thank God, because by the time the service is over 4 hours have passed.

We visit with my cousins in the sunshine outside the temple while the sanctuary is set up for lunch.  Most of my aunt's children and grandchildren are there, plus several of her nieces and nephews. We have a conversation with some friends of theirs. They explain to us about the different categories of Floridians. A snowbird is someone who spends most of the winter in Florida, or some warmer climate. A snowflake is someone that spends a month of the winter down south. A frog is someone that lives in the Villages until they croak! I guess this means we are snowflakes.

It's almost 2 pm by the time lunch is ready. Starving Jews decend upon the buffet like a group of Chinese shoppers at a Le Sport Sac sale. Bagels, cream cheese, lox, kugel, salad, challah, hummus, tabouli. The food is delicious and there is plenty, so no one leaves hungry. There is time for family pictures and lots of hugs before it is time for us to drive back to Safety Harbor in more Florida traffic. It was so wonderful to see my Aunt Mimi beaming with pride and happiness. I'm so glad we could be there for her on this very special day.

The people living in The Villages really love it. It's not for us however, at least not yet. I like the small town walkable atmosphere of Safety Harbor. There are plenty of oldish people like us around and plenty of things to do. Lee jokes to Sarah and Erik upon our return that if someone ever asks you to go to an older woman's bat mitzvah, run! But really except for the length it was great. 

We take lots of dog walks when we get back to Safety Harbor; we're just not used to so much sitting, first in the car and then at the ceremony. The dogs are happy to see us and I think Sarah and Erik are too. Its been quite a day!

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Florida Days

On March 1st we arrive at our home for the next month in Safety Harbor, Florida. Safety Harbor is an old Florida town on Tampa Bay near Clearwater. It is a sleepy little town,   quiet and peaceful, at least most of the time. There is a mineral springs with a resort and spa attached to it, great running trails, and a very nice park with an Indian Mound to explore at some point.

Our house this year is fabulous, clean and filled with light! The owners built it about a year ago, on a quiet residential street right off Main Street.  The floors are all hard surfaces, very dog friendly and so easy to keep clean. There are two bedrooms,  two bathrooms, an open living / kitchen space, and a screened lanai in the back. There is a little fenced yard with a patio. 

Safety Harbor is filled with Live Oaks. They are beautiful huge trees, dripping with Spanish moss, which they are shedding, along with leaves, pollen, flowers and seeds all over the place. The sound of leaf blowers is a daily occurrence as homeowners keep up a mostly futile battle to try to stay ahead of the mess. It reminds me of Austin and the messy trees that surrounded our house there. Mick, the owner of our house, says that March is the worst, but I think Live Oaks are always shedding something, no matter what time of year it is.

Tuesday morning I need to do my long run, that I put off because we were traveling. I run 12 miles along the Bay Shore hike and bike trail and then take the Wilson Reems trail up up to the Philadelphia Philly's spring training camp and back. It's hot and humid and I need to get acclimated to the weather, but it's nice not dealing with the cold and snow or ice for a change.

I walk down to the spa and find out I can buy a 10 day pass that I can use to take fitness classes or just go swimming or enjoy the springs and the hot tub. I take a  boxing conditioning class one day and a spinning class the next. The classes are good, I think, a good cardio and strength workout using muscles I don't ordinarily use while running.

We get on the bikes too, riding north one day along the same path I followed on my run. But this time we have the dogs in their trailer and they get a lot more friendly attention than an old lady runner! I hear a lot of people say "did you see? There are THREE in there!" Another day we go south into Philippe Park. This is a beautiful park overlooking the Bay with lots of live oaks and Spanish Moss, and that Indian Mound I mentioned earlier.

One day we go visit our friend Diane in redneck land, aka New Port Richey, about 45 minutes north of Safety Harbor. Diane is the breeder in New Hampshire where we got all of our dogs. She and her husband have bought a house in Florida because like many  true New Englanders Diane hates winter and can't wait to escape the snow for a couple of months every year. She has a lot of Westies; one male named Boink, and about 12 females, both breeders and retired mamas that have become her pets. One of her dogs had a litter of puppies right after they got to Florida, so right now she has a litter of puppies too. One of the puppies was doing poorly so she started bottle feeding it. Little Mira was touch and go for several days, but now she is doing much better and trying to catch up with her bigger brothers and sisters. There is also darling Woodie, a male puppy that will be Boink's replacement when he retires, and two German Shepherds. 

Our dogs are delighted to see their Westie friends and have a fun afternoon exploring Diane's yard, chasing balls, and barking at the occasional passerby. We carry a table out under the trees and eat the Cuban sandwiches we have brought. Diane provides the drinks and dessert.

Often on our walks with the dogs we end up at the Safety Harbor dog park. Safety Harbor has a nice dog park in the city park, nestled under the trees between the Little League fields. If we are willing to get in the car and drive a little bit there is a really amazing larger dog park not very far away. Enterprise Dog Park has an area with agility equipment, and it actually has a trail winding through the woods so you can go on an off leash walk! It's the best dog park I've ever seen. The only problem is a large mud puddle in one corner of the park that Cosmo and Harper lost no time in finding. Oh well, there is a rinse off station at the entrance to the park, and next time we will remember to bring a towel. 

We have, of course, spent a fair amount of time exploring the many restaurants in this little town. We've eaten oysters at Sea Dog Saltwater Grill, burgers, beer  and sangria at The Whistle Stop, gone to Marker 39 for Floridian food, sampled the sandwiches at The Sandwich Shop. So far the only place we won't go back to is the 8th Street Pub where we ate mediocre pizza and endured poor service our first night in town.

There is a lot to do in this area of Florida. Some days we are active and busy, other days not so much. We are equally happy exploring the area and staying home with our dogs. The days slip by, one by one, warm and sunny and bright.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why Do Such Weird Things Happen to Us When We Travel?

Its finally time for our getaway to Florida. This has been such a long, cold snowy winter. I’m very tired of it all and can’t wait to be somewhere warmer without snow and ice.

Lee has to do some serious planning/packing of the car because this time we will be down there for a month, and instead of two dogs we have three. We have two bikes, the dog trailer, and we decide to bring a crate, because we don’t know how Heather will behave in a hotel room. I’m a little worried about her. She has been on a long car ride before, but when Diane goes to Florida she drives straight through, and we like to stop and take our time. There are a lot of new experiences in store for Heather!

We leave New Hampshire on Wednesday, February 25th. Our plan is to take three days to drive to Charleston, spend a couple of days there, and then drive the rest of the way to Safety Harbor. The car is packed, the dogs are in their halters and secured in the back seat. Lee starts car, nothing happens. He turns the key again and this time it starts, sluggishly. It acts like the battery has been drained. It needs a few minutes to get going, and there is a faint electrical smell. Now the check engine light is on. Shoot, what is going on? But we drive over to our wonderful BMW mechanic at Cars, Inc. in Salem. He is really nice, plugs the computer diagnostic machine into the car right away. It doesn’t show any faults. He resets it, turns car off and back on and everything is fine. He thinks its from it sitting around a couple of days while Lee was packing in very very cold weather. 

Relieved, we get on the highway and resume our journey. Lee’s elaborate saran wrap protection for the bikes comes unraveled almost immediately and starts flapping madly behind the car. So  we stop a couple of times, first for him to try to get it to stay better, and finally to give up and cut it off.

Finally we’re on our way. We stop once to give dogs a break, eat lunch in the car, and make it to Philly by 4 pm. We stay at the Monaco Hotel again. Kimptons are so nice, and very dog friendly. We walk the dogs in the park by Independence Hall, and then tuck them into our room before we go to dinner at Kannella’s again. So far Heather is doing great. She is interested in all the people and has no problem with the traffic, not even the city buses, which Harper still dislikes. 

The next day its on to Rocky Mount, North Carolina. It is still very cold, in the 20’s, and there is still snow on the ground, just not three feet of the stuff. We stay at a Residence Inn, the same place we stayed last year. The people are really nice but the hotel is pretty worn out. But who cares, we just need a dog-friendly place to stay. 

After a quick run in the morning its on to Charleston. There is still snow on the ground at least 50 miles into South Carolina, and then suddenly it seems, the ground is bare. When we stop for lunch I put my keys on top of the car while getting the dogs back into the car. As we are driving off I hear a clunk. “What’s that?” I say. Lee says “I don’t know.” Then we hear a rattle and another clunk. Lee says “did you leave anything on top of the car?” and I remember. 

Damn! We circle around to see if we can find the key. We know approximately where it was lost since we heard it fall off the car. Lee is upset and so am I. We park and walk along the rest area exit ramp. Lee finds my keyring but the key is gone. Rats. He thinks it probably got picked up in the tire of an 18 wheeler and flung God knows where. Nothing to be done, and BMW keys are expensive. Unfortunately my Hong Kong keyring is trashed. 

Its still cold, 30’s and low 40’s. We’re looking forward to the b&b where we will be spending the night, Cabell House.  We stayed here last year and it was fun, dog friendly, with free wine. We arrive, park the car, walk up to the front door and ring the bell. No answer. I ring it again. No answer. I call their phone. No answer. I walk around back. There is some kind of construction going on. I look at the house more closely. The place is EMPTY! Cabell House is closed, gone. We stand there for a few minutes in shock, unsure what we should do. A nice man walks by and we talk to him. Yep they sold it, took our deposit money and fled the coop. So strange! Now its 4 pm on a Friday night in Charleston, South Carolina and where are we going to stay with 3 dogs??? 

The neighboring b&b lets us come in, and tries to help. They don’t have any vacancies, but they try to make some suggestions. We call places but either they don’t have a room, or they don’t take dogs, or both. We finally give up and end up at a La Quinta across the river from downtown. Its old and worn; not the experience we were looking for but at least we’re not sleeping in the car.

Unfortunately the La Quinta is not walkable to downtown so we have to either take a taxi or Uber every time we go into Charleston. For dinner at Magnolia’s that night, we take a taxi recommended by the hotel. He’s a nice guy that seems to have a fleet of drivers at his beck and call. Sometimes calling him works great and sometimes he doesn't have anyone available. Sometimes Uber is a good option, and sometimes their surge pricing kicks in and they are suddenly twice as much as a taxi. We still end up saving a lot of money over what the b&b would have cost even with all the taxi/Uber rides. I call my credit card company to dispute the charge for the deposit on the b&b and eventually we’ll even get that back.

A Very Good Manhattan at Magnolia's

The next day I’ve signed us up for a walking tour of Charleston. There are many many options, but I end up choosing The History of Charleston Walking Tour with Anne Middleton, Anne is a lot of fun. She really knows the city. She comes from 13 generations of Charlestonians and can tell all kinds of stories about growing up in Charleston and playing along their streets when she was a little girl. The tour is great, but unfortunately it is FREEZING, barely in the 40’s with a howling wind. We learn about the founding of the city, the original walls, the alleys where she played as a little girl. We learn about how the city was bombarded during the civil war. and see the beautiful antebellum houses along the coast. She walks us past the slave trade center. She says that up until about 10 years ago tour guides would go out of their way to avoid talking about slavery. She said that the change in attitudes has been helpful for both the descendants of slaves and descendants of slaveowners. Facing the truth is always better than silence and shame. It made me think of Germany and how the Germans have confronted their collective guilt and moved beyond it.

Charleston Alleyways

It takes a large hot chocolate to warm us up afterward. Dinner is at Slightly North of Broad that night, otherwise known as SNOB. I think the food is better than Magnolias, and the room itself is beautiful, but the service isn’t as good. Or maybe its just that I'm hungry, who knows.....

The next day we pack up the car and head south one last time. We agree that we are glad we’ve seen Charleston, but have kind of gotten it out of our system. Its time to get to Florida and some real warm weather!


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