Monday, August 31, 2009

Twenty hours and counting

In approximately 20 hours all my children will be officially back at school. I am so excited that I can barely contain myself. Except, of course, for the fact that I am so completely and entirely exhausted from spending the past two months with them, that I don't think I could muster the energy to demonstrate my excitement.

For the past two months I have done little else other than wash the dishes that seem to reappear mere moments after the last round of dishes were neatly put away. I have done more laundry than the entire group of inmates in Cellblock Anything Anywhere. I have dropped off and picked up more children from more locations than I care to think about. I have run to the corner store for milk, cereal and fruit on a daily basis. And I have agreed to more stupid social plans that I can remember.

Now I have had it. As of today, everyone in my house under the age of 50 is in my way. My computer and kitchen sharing days are over. If you want something either go get it yourself or live without it. Yes, that includes food during the non-meal hours of the day.

If you want to play games on my computer because yours doesn't have a new enough graphics card -- too bad. If you need to get to the Country Club immediately -- start pedaling. If you even try to put something not really dirty into the dirty wash, I will find you and force you to wear it "dirty" for even more days. I will not pick you up and I will not drop you off. You have allowance -- take a cab. And if you don't take your key -- I hope you like living on the streets because I am not getting out of my chair to open the door for you yet again. (And do not knock on Lynn's door because she is also tired and she doesn't want to let you in either.)

I apologize if this all sounds cruel, but after 60 days of people yelling "Ema (mom, in hebrew) for every little thing, I just can't hack the sound of that word anymore. From now on, I will only be responding to: "Your Highness", "M'Lady" and such other such respectful terms -- and only from people who approach me slightly hunched over and looking conspicuously at the ground.

And do not try to use the Cellphone Loophole. I have all your phone numbers (and those of your firends) listed in my phone and I will consciously ignore you. That said, if you are at risk of losing a limb or an organ, call your father. He is much more sympathetic and no one bothers him all day so he isn't as mentally exhausted by all of you as I am.

Oh, a quick look at my watch tells me that I am down to 19 hours and 55 minutes.

In the meantime, until I have to get out of bed tomorrow morning to make sure you really do leave the house and go to school, I will be in my bedroom with the doors locked. And when you all leave tomorrow morning, I am going to party like its 1999 (which was the last time I had the energy to do so).

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Foraging for kosher food

The worst moment of every day when traveling outside of Israel in areas not exactly overrun with Jews, is that moment when you realize that it's time to feed your kids. It's sort of like a modern day foraging experience. You can always eat fruits and vegetables, but let's be honest here. How many times in the course of a day do your children beg for cucumbers or bananas? Exactly.

And after the 20th bag of cut carrots, even they start to lose their je ne sais quoi.

When traveling in the UK there is the comfort of knowing that you can eat Cadbury products until you puke. But as delicious as all those variations on chocolate are, you can't honestly create a serious diet on Cadbury alone. Two days of nothing but Cadbury and you will start to feel like a bag of sugar dirt. (I know that there is no such thing as sugar dirt, but you know what I mean.)

Eventually the average person needs some protein. And that's where smoked salmon comes into the picture. I love smoked salmon. The problem is that after eating it pretty much daily for two weeks, it starts to grow off you. Add to that the fact that you have to eat it with really crappy mass produced bread -- the only brand of bread that is kosher in England -- and the smoke salmon starts to lose its taste. And add to that that you might have to eat it on a cheap plastic plate with cheap plastic cutlery, at a picnic table in the middle of nowhere, and the whole culinary experience has gone down the drain.

When I was a kid, smoked salmon was a treat. I grew up on the edge of the ocean (no, not literally) where someone was always smoking a salmon. I never expected to eat it 24/7 and now I know why. A treat is no longer a treat if it becomes part of your daily routine.

Paris was only slightly better because it's hard to beat a fresh bagette or butter croissant. But man cannot live on bagettes and buttered croissants alone unless man wants to gain a ton of weight and clog his arteries.

Which brings me to my grocery store in Ra'anana. Living in Israel for the past seven years, I have long since forgotten what is involved in being kosher outside of Israel. I have 20 aisles of kosher food at my finger tips in my small grocery store alone. I don't have to check the labels; I don't have to look for the kosher symbols; I don't need a degree in food chemistry just to buy a food item. In fact, I would actually have to go out of my way to find non-kosher food.

I once wandered into what I thought was a regular grocery store, only to pick up a can of lobster bisque near the entrance. My stupid first reaction was: "wow, how did they find a way to make a kosher lobster bisque?" It took me a good 30 seconds to figure out that I was in the only non-kosher grocery store in Ra'anana. So much for my temporary lobster thrill.

But the reality is not bad at all. When there is no unkosher food around, you don't even think about it. And after seven years of having more than enough choice, I have lost my creative foraging skills and I have learned to expect to eat at a real table.

Friday, August 28, 2009

It's the little moments that make the day

Before I complete my review of my Anglo-Franco vacation, I do want to mention a few highlights that made the trip what it was.

First, there was our unexpected rendezvous with our Israeli neighbours in the Scottish border town of Gretna Green. We really just stopped there to go to the washroom and have a quick peak at the town that Brits used to run away to if they wanted to get married at 16 rather than waiting to the English-approved age limit of 18. Frankly I can't imagine why anyone would want to do that, but that might be my narrow-mindedness rearing its head once again.

As we pulled up into the parking lot of the beautiful little village commercial center, Yael and I were just focused on finding the nearest toilet. The others lagged behind, which was fine because we were in a bladder-induced hurry. A few minutes later, after my boys had caught up with us, we were headed back to the car to continue on our way, when I heard someone with a very familiar voice calling out my name.

It didn't register at first because she was out of place in Gretna Green, but when I looked around, there was my friend and neighbour Caroline and her traveling crew. Now I like Caroline a lot at the most-normal of times, but I have to say that stumbling across her and her family on the border of Scotland and England was really exciting (and free fun at that!). It was difficult to leave them after our tea together.

The next thing that made the trip special for me was the unexpected raw beauty of the Scottish highlands and the English Lake District. I could have driven those crazy narrow, harrowing roads for days and just looked out the window.

The third event that sticks in my mind as most memorable was our evening at the theatre in London. Going to the theatre was a late decision recommended by other British friends living in Israel and I can't even imagine what a shame it would have been not to attend a show. We saw "Oliver" which is one of my favorite childhood movies, and it was better than I could have ever hoped for. We all left the theatre on a real high.

And the final -- and unexpected -- event that really left its mark on the trip was our last minute visit to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park. We went there as a lark a few hours before we had to leave for the airport. I thought the kids might enjoy it -- for about five minutes. However, I am happy to report that the ad-hoc speakers did not disappoint.

There are a lot of nuts out there who just want to share their views with the world. They don't care if they insult their audiences. And they surely don't care if they don't have any facts to back up their arguments. They just want to let it all out and as long as you don't take them too seriously, they are highly entertaining. Perhaps because it was Sunday all the speakers that we stopped to listen to were talking about God. Poor God. He gets a lot of undesirable and probably unwanted attention.

Heaven knows I am no authority on the word of God, but after spending 25 minutes listening to two yahoos from Texas interpret the importance of Israel as the home of Jesus Christ, you are left wondering where these people get their information. And best of all, they believe it with such furor that you have to think twice before taking them on. And if they don't have a reasonable answer to an audience question, they surely don't let that get in the way. They just insult you until you forget what you were asking in the first place.

And then there was the Reasonable Iman. He spoke calmly and had such a palatable view of the potential for peaceful co-existence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, that I thought of abducting him and bringing him to Israel and then trying to have him overturn the "government" of Gaza. The problem of course, is that he had no idea what he was talking about in a real-politik sense. His ideas were lovely in theory -- it's just the nagging practice in reality that would have screwed him up.

So there you have it. Three weeks away. And at the end of the day, weather excluded, there is no place I would rather be than at home in Israel.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Paris, not the way I remember it

This was my third trip Paris. I have been there as a back-packer. I have been there on someone else's very generous tab. And now I have been there as a traveling parent. Let me add that three times is enough and I have no intentions of going there again.

Every time I mention that to people since we returned to Israel, they all say the same thing: "Oh, you obviously didn't do Paris properly. You definitely have to go back again." What didn't I do properly? We walked the Champs Elysees to the Arc d'Triomphe. We admired the stained glass windows in Notre Dame Cathedral. We watched street performers from the steps of the Basillica. We strolled along the Seine. Some of us (not me) went to the top of the Eiffel Tower. We ate fresh bagettes and croissants. So tell me, what precisely did I not do properly?

You know what I think? I think that all the Paris admirers should continue going to Paris and I think that I should choose other vacation locations.

Now before I explain why I didn't like Paris, let me first acknowledge that the city is home to the best collection of museums and architecture of any city I have ever visited. It is also home to some of the most tastefully dressed regular people I have ever seen on the streets and in the subways. And it is definitely home to the best fresh-baked bagettes and croissants I have ever tasted. And for me, it pretty much ends there.

Paris feels dirty -- omnipresently so -- and pandemonium-like. The entire time I was there I felt like I was caught up in an uncontrollable wave of people and activity and that all I could do was just hold on and go for the ride. This may be fun for some people, but I am not built for that sort of whimsy.

Everywhere I looked there were groups of police officers either heading towards a crime scene or leaving a crime scene. I kept looking around for creeps and criminals. I don't mean the big types of criminals, I mean the little petty thieves who exist invisibly among us. I was watching my bag, but I also had to keep my eyes on the streets and on my kids.

And at the risk of sounding like a narrow-minded fool, I rarely saw any white people. Whatever happened to all those native Parisians of European descent? Where did they go? You know the ones ... the descendants of the proletariat we first met in Les Miserables!!! What happened to Collette's people? I am not so small-minded that I expect large cities to be homogeneous, but the streets of London (and on a smaller scale, the streets of Toronto) still suggest that there might have once been a caucasian majority in the city. I doubt that Napoleon would even recognize the city today.

I also wasn't keen about the fact that, at least in one of the Jewish quarters, the price of the food if you chose to eat inside the restaurant was double what it cost if you settled for sitting on a street curb or window ledge and eating your food there.

Talk about personal conflict: my cheap gene challenging my orderly gene. The conflict verged on unbearable. Most of the time my cheap gene won out -- and for those of you who know me well that won't surprise you. However, now and then my need for order outweighed it and I am still reeling from the trauma of the resulting restaurant tabs!

Nope, sorry, Paris is not the way I remember it and as a result, I am handing over the Paris baton to the people who still view it as a wonderful place to go. I, on the other hand, will be elsewhere eating inside a restaurant at a price I can live with and finding other museums that wil just have to be good enough.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Aren't there any clothes in art?

It was a harbinger of things to come although I didn't realize it at the time. And in retrospect I think I handled it as well as could be expected -- or unexpected, as it was.

On the Saturday afternoon we spent in Edinburgh during the Edinburgh Festival (and Fringe Festival) Yael and I walked along the Royal Mile which was the main center for activity for the festival. There were street performers everywhere surrounded by crowds of varying sizes. Since it was Shabbat we weren't carrying any money to pay for the performers, so we just wandered sporadically from performance to performance.

And that's when we stumbled across the Oriental guy who was tucked into an architectural niche of the Church of Scotland. A very small crowd had gathered to watch whatever he was eventually going to do. In the very immediate short term he seemed to be walking around in a kimono, organizing his painting props. Okay, so we waited.

Finally, he was ready to go. He turned on his music player which issued forth what I can only describe as Japanese elevator musak. No, I have not been to Japan but this is what I think their elevator music must sound like. Next thing we knew, the guy takes off his kimono and tosses it aside -- leaving himself on the streets of Edinburgh in 18 degree Celcius overcast weather in something resembling a mini G-string.

Yael turns to me with a questioning look on her face and I just look back at her as casually as I can under the circumstances. Trust me when I say that there was very little left to the imagination -- even if you are a nine-year-old girl. And it wasn't only Yael and I who were wondering where to look .... the entire mini-crowd almost keeled over in shock in a collective motion.

Of course, everyone was trying to act nonplussed and open minded, so in the spirit of the stiff-upper lipped Brits we just pulled ourselves together to await the "artist's" next move.

Next thing you know, he starts to paint his entire body white and considering his "costume" it wasn't a difficult task if you know what I mean.

I am not really sure how his performance ended up because at that point Yael and I decided to move on. We had had enough naked Oriental men who were painted white for one day thank you.

The naked art thing didn't rear its head again for about another week until we arrived in Paris. Paris is a city of art and apparently most art requires the subject to be naked. My children have seen more marble and oil-painted naked men, women and children in the past few weeks to probably last them a life time. True, it is better than Playboy and its even tackier offspring, but during a 20th century women's art retrospective in Le Centre d'George Pompidou, Zeve finally said: why is everybody naked in this place?

A damn good question. At least he didn't ask, why is it art to be a heavy-set naked woman standing on her tiptoes being videotaped? And fortunately he didn't ask why it is art to photograph one's privates up close and then enlarge that photograph to 10 feet by 10 feet (if I am exaggerating, it is only slightly)?

Those would have also been good questions although I am thankful I didn't have to answer them. In the meantime we are back in a relatively covered-up neighbourhood (no not burka-covered-up, just the regular shorts and t-shirt covered-up) and no one seems scarred for life. Of course, I'll have to enroll Zeve in an art class to know for sure.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Whiskey and Nessie

Two of the biggest tourist attractions in Scotland are whiskey and the Loch Ness monster. It may not sound like fun to you, but we are talking about Scotland here -- there isn't exactly a ton of big city excitement to be had. If you wanted Cirque du Soliel or Broadway then you should go to where those shows are offered.

But if you want slightly off-beat local experiences unique to Scotland, whiskey and Loch Ness would definitely fit your bill. (Please note that there is also sheep shearing as well as driving for hours on long windy, one-lane roads to go look at very old castle remnants. Hey, don't knock it until you try it!)

Take the Dalwhinney Whiskey Production Tour for example. Let me start by saying that I have never acquired a taste for whiskey. Not even a little bit. But Scotland is the birthplace of whiskey and the Scots have had the good monetary sense to bilk it for every tourist pound they could. Therefore, there are several distilleries and distillery tours around the country. Macallum, Oben, Glenfiddich to name a few. These distilleries are all located in the middle of nowhere (except for the Crown Royal which seems to be more like the Disneyland destination of the small town in which it is located).

Dalwhinney is situated in the Scottish highlands in a valley between some pretty big mountains. There is nothing close by for miles as far as I could tell. So, if you go on the tour, drink too much and are abandoned by whomever you arrived with -- too bad for you. You can't call a cab to come take you home and you will probably have to hitch hike for days before you get a lift.

As soon as you arrive in the parking lot of the distillery and get out of your car, you can smell whiskey everywhere in the air. If I liked whiskey I probably could have just hung around the parking lot all day sniffing the air, but I don't so we went on the tour which was actually quite interesting even for an abstainer like me. And since I don't like whiskey I gave my son my end-of-the-tour whiskey sample. When it comes to whiskey drinking there don't seem to be any government-imposed age limits.

Now, on a different note, the next day we headed off to Loch Ness in search of its monster. I must say that the Loch Ness people have created a very impressive museum and presentation -- particularly since it is a one-horse show so to speak and not the world's most broadly focused subject matter.

That said, I loved the museum.

I am not going to spill the beans on whether or not Nessie exists but I have to say that the museum's presentation left anyone willing to consider the evidence with something interesting to think about.

And in case that's not enough fun for you, we spent a few hours driving around looking for a 3500 year old stone circle that ended up being in the middle of a sheep-grazing field and so small that it didn't even have a real signpost leading to it! (We found it anyway -- although my kids thought that I was really nuts when we finally realized it must have been a stone circle for midgets.) And, in the meantime, we stumbled across Europe's oldest tree -- a 5000 year old Yew tree located across the road from the the mini stone circle.

I am sure that both of these finds will have their own museums soon enough.

My latent Scottish genes

When I was growing up in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, almost all of my friends were of Scottish descent -- with a few Irish, Lebanese and Eastern Europeans thrown in for good measure. I grew up in a world of Highland Fling lessons, scones, bannick, gaelic slang and Scottish kilts and brogues. Although we lived a very Jewish life at home, out on the streets I just wanted to be Scottish like pretty much everyone else.

In the years since I went away to university, I had long since forgotten that I had a wannabe Scottish gene. That is of course, until we arrived in Scotland three weeks ago. And then, in just a matter of minutes, I had wiped 35 years off my slate and I was a Scottish wannabe once again.

I just loved being in Scotland. I like the damp, perpetually misty air and I like the emptiness of it. You can drive for miles and see nothing but mountains, streams and sheep. The people are friendly and life is pretty simple. It is not unlike Cape Breton.

I am not really sure what most of those people who live in two- or three-house villages miles away from the next village actually do to put food on their tables, but everyone gets up in the summer mornings and puts on cozy corduroy pants and wellies to do it -- and that suits me just fine.

I am not really a person destined to own a bathing suit or a closet full of flip flops. I was born to wear sweaters and shorts in the summer, like the people I saw in the Scottish highlands.

Apparently, I am also wired to sing old gaelic and Scottish songs which was immediately self-evident when we attended the Edinburgh Tattoo. All those military marching bands of kilted bagpipers playing old Scottish favorites and next thing I knew, I was singing along. My kids were a little perplexed that I actually knew the words. So was I; I haven't sung those songs in more than 30 years. No wonder I can't remember anything anymore -- my head must be full of old Scottish miscellany from decades past!

It was very funny when people spoke to us and my family would all start looking around in confusion and ask: "What did he (or she) just say?" The Scottish brogue can be quite thick, but I understood every last word. I had childhood friends whose parents actually spoke the same way.

And finally, there were those bagpipes and the kilt-wearing men. My kids thought the sound of the bagpipes was awful. Naturally, I loved it. I could listen to that sound for ages without growing bored of it. And men in kilts ... you know, some men actually do look good that way.

Of course, everyone ate crow once we got to the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. I tried to get tickets on the internet since March -- and without any success. And then, thanks to all the nice people we met in Scotland (most of whom were senior citizens) we ended up with opening night tickets, center stage, row six! And my entire family enjoyed the bag piping kilted performers while sitting among our new seniors friends from Scotland.

Back in the saddle again

I'm back. After three weeks of planes, rented cars, trains, subway stations, fighting children, creative kosher eating and the likes, we are back on home turf and damn glad to be here.

I have several things that I want to write about over the next few days but for today, I am only going to offer my observations on three weeks spread between Scotland, England and France.

1) If I ever run away from life, I am going to Scotland. If you are looking for me, you can find me there -- notice, I am not mentioning specifically where I will be. Previously, I had planned to drop-out somewhere in Vermont or New Hampshire, but now I have had a change of heart. I will be somewhere in Scotland.

2) Fashion and style never made it as far north as Scotland. The people couldn't be any nicer, but it might be a worthwhile venture for someone to import Vogue, In Style and a few other fashion how-to magazines. I saw some of the biggest fashion crimes of our trip in Edinburgh and worst of all, I don't think any of the Scottish people noticed.

3) The Lake District of England is unbelievably beautiful however, since I am far from the first person to have figured that out, there were zillions of other people in my way while I was looking around. If all those people would have just gone home, I might have considered dropping out there.

4) I always thought that Walmart was the everyman's shopping Mecca. I was wrong. I stumbled into Tesco in Perth, Scotland and it changed my life forever.

5) Cadbury World outside Birmingham is the biggest scam I have ever seen perpetrated on an innocent chocolate-loving public. To quote my husband: "We should have just spent the 40 pounds the museum cost us, on chocolate."

6) Warwick Castle, also outside of Birmingham is the second biggest scam ever. I know I am going to get a lot of flack for saying this, but I am sorry, I cannot be moved from this position. We had so many recommendations to visit Warwick Castle that I had big expectations -- and entry had a big price tag -- and as far as I am concerned, I should have spent the day at Tescos!!!!!

7) Paris is the most over-priced place I have ever visited. Absolutely everything costs a ridiculous amount of money. One example: one scoop of Haagen Dazs ice cream costs three to four euros from a street vendor.

8) While Paris has what are probably the best collection of museums and monuments -- in one city -- in the Western world, I simply don't like it there. I love the museums -- the Louvre, D'Orsay, The Centre de Georges Pompidou, the Picasso Museum, to name but a few, but frankly I do not plan to ever step foot in Paris again.

9) Three kosher pizzas in Paris cost 300 nis. If we had eaten them in the street they would have cost less but we wanted to actually sit on chairs at a table to eat for a change, so there went that possible bargain.

10) There do not seem to be any caucasians living in Paris. Assuming that at some point in the past, there were lots of them, I wonder where they went?

11) However, Parisians will actually stop their cars and let you cross the street, while Londoners would run you over without blinking an eye.

12) London is a much more orderly place and that suits my personality much better than Paris. That said, the museums aren't nearly as good.

13) That said, Londoners may smile at you but they would walk right over you without giving it a second thought. And of all the Londoners we came across the least friendly ones were the ones we met in synagogue.

14) London had the best buskers of anywhere we went. If you want to see the best array of buskers I have ever found -- Covent Gardens is the place to go.

15) Travelling without children is much cheaper and much quieter, however, there are less people to put in your vacation photos. Of course, there are also less people TO LEAVE YOUR CAMERA WITH ALL YOUR VACATION PHOTOS ON THE BUS -- NEVER TO BE SEEN AGAIN.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Homemade Ice Cream in Your Own Kitchen

What could possibly be better than ice cream everyday? Not much. Well, until you have eaten your 20th batch in a few weeks.

I'm exaggerating a bit but not much. My daughter Yael learned to make ice cream at summer camp and now she is ready to whip up a batch at the first sign of encouragement. And a sign of encouragement for her is what most people who call basic acknowledgment. "I like ice cream," or "ice cream is great on hot days," are two examples of what she considers the go-ahead and whip up a new batch of ice cream.

So far we have had oreo cookie ice cream, chocolate coconut, chocolate mint (twice), plain chocolate and chocolate peanut butter. And considering how easy this ice cream recipe is, it tastes pretty good. It isn't Haagen Dazs or Ben and Jerry's but hey, they all have big factories and major capital expenditures. We just have a handblender, ingredients and freezer containers.

The one thing that did scare me the other day is that Yael is now apparently feeling a little cramped sharing the kitchen with me -- the kitchen proprietress. So, while she was busy the other day whipping up a batch of ice cream, she said to me: "It would be much better if I could have my own kitchen and you could have yours."

That said, I hope she puts a suitable mark-up on her new product when she goes to market. She is going to need it for her new kitchen digs.

Oh, and if you need the recipe, let me know!!!!