Monday, January 30, 2012

New York City: Food City, USA

There are many good reasons to celebrate New York City, and it has many well-earned identities. The financial capital, the entertainment capital and so forth. But to me, more than anything, it is the food capital.

All I have to do is spend any amount of time in another part of the country to realize how good I have it in New York. Because in most other parts of the country, you have to search, you have to work pretty hard, to find the kind of good food that is readily available all over New York City.

Now granted, things cost more here. I discovered that when I was a kid growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In 1970, we got our first McDonalds fastfood joint in Perth Amboy. We were thrilled to be able to scrape together some loose change and get those yummy McDs hamburgers and french fries, or for a little more, maybe the mindblowing Big Mac.

So believe me, as an 8 year old with a quarter a week allowance, I kept track of how much each item on the menu cost, including tax. But then, the next time I came with my family into New York City, and we stopped in at a McDonalds for a meal before heading back to New Jersey on the train, I was shocked to see that my normal computations of how much the food was going to cost didn't work. It made no sense to me. McDonalds was McDonalds was McDonalds. How could it be so much more expensive to buy in New York City the same thing I ate all the time?

Of course, we know that with supply and demand and whatnot, it is very easy to see why things cost more here. I've lived here so long, and lived on a New York City inflated income for most of that time, so I've almost forgotten the feeling of realizing that it is expensive to eat here. But it is possible to find bargains for eating here. I haven't looked lately, but at one time when I was poor and cared about such things, I used to know which neighborhoods were cheaper to eat in.

To eat cheaper, one good strategy is that the farther from midtown Manhattan you get, the cheaper things may be. This doesn't always work - there are other neighborhoods in Manhattan, and some in Brooklyn and Queens that can also get pretty pricey. But in general, it works. I remember at one time knowing the difference in the price of bagels, for example, in supermarkets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan versus those in supermarkets in the East Village. At that time, there was a correlation between the rents you paid to live in an area and the food prices in supermarkets.

Now, who knows? Living in Manhattan, yep, it's just crazy expensive. Things have gotten out of control. How much does a square foot of real estate cost anywhere nowadays? And you know, anybody who is selling food, whether restaurant, deli or supermarket, has to plunk down serious rent money, and those exorbitant rents trickle down into the cost of each can of Coke and jar of mayonnaise and bowl of gazpacho.

But in spite of high costs, I still say this is the place to be for food. I know that Tony Bourdain recently on his Layover show said that San Francisco is the place for reasonably-priced food, while New York is mainly good for high-end food. But personally, I think you can find all kinds of eats here. Again, you may have to travel to certain less-tony parts of the City to find food that isn't priced more for the place you're eating it than for the quality of what it is you are actually eating. Some might say it is not possible to find such food. But again, I beg to differ.

Of course, I have my favorites. For example, diners. I've had some pretty bad meals in diners, and I've also had some very memorable meals in diners. Some have unexpected things, like menu items you wouldn't expect to find in a diner. Some are from the land that time forgot, or at least pretend to be.

One of my favorite diners, for example, is the prophetically-named Good Food Diner on 14th street. I mean, come on, if you call your place "Good Food" you have to deliver, right? They have kitschy decor, good basic things like turkey burgers and mushroom omelets, and they are open all the time. And the people who work there seem like they were genetically-engineered to work in diners. Can't you see some mad scientist: "this one will be perfect at mopping floors and whistling tunelessly!"

Some industries in New York City have been killed either by jobs moving oversees or one behemoth coming in and killing the others, or just from the onset of mallification (why have one Fifth avenue when we could make every shopping area look like Fifth Avenue! I'd like to imprint my bootmark on the rear-end of the idiot who is responsible for that). But we still have neighborhoody eateries. We still have those delis that make killer roastbeef sandwiches and have tuna fish salad that looks like it might've been made around the time that hair grease and shoes polish were invented. And there are restaurants that cater especially to the folks who live in any particular part of the city. Yes, some of these places also cater to tourists - see Chinatown - but blame the people who write the guidebooks.

In my neighborhood, the Upper Westside, for example, we have some great Asian and fusion restaurants. One of my favorites is actually called "Fusha" and has all kinds of great curries and sushi rolls and the like. They make an appetizer which is a combo of guacamole and Asian spicy tuna which you put on deep-fried seaweed tempura batter chips - wow, I could eat that stuff every day of the week for every meal, even for breakfast.

In the East Village, which is still one of my favorite parts of the city even though it has undergone massive gentrification in the last 20 years and does not at all resemble the neighborhood it used to be, there are all kinds of unique, quirky, reasonably-priced places to eat. For example, on Avenue A there is Bennies Burritos, which has undergone some changes (it was bought out by Harry's Burritos, but that is another story) but still manages to have some of the yummiest Cal-Mex lowcost food in the City.

Then there is Polonia. The East Village is an area of Manhattan that was occupied by all kinds of immigrant populations until the last couple of generations (and of course the gentrification got rid of the last of them). One of the groups that inhabited that area was the Polish. They are mostly gone, but on First Avenue there are still a couple of Polish restaurants. Polonia was always my favorite place to go for Pierogis and egg noodles with mushroom gravy and potato pancakes. However, the last time I went there, it seemed like the menu had completely changed. Not sure if they got bought out by someone who decided to upgrade to fit the new tony clientele or what, but it was not the food I've been eating for the last 25 years. I'll have to get back to you on what is up with that one.

Now I must confess that since I've been dating my girlfriend Therese, my tastes have moved to more pricey venues. But I feel like we enjoy a variety of places. We make a lot of use of, the site of sites for getting the sense of what people have to say about restaurants all over New York. And we try to economize when it makes sense. But once we sit down at a table, all bets are off. Life is too short, eating good food is one of the best reasons for living, and why do we work so hard making these high New York City salaries if we can't relax and enjoy ourselves now and then?

Friday, January 27, 2012

In anticipation of a romantic weekend in Washington, DC

So for Valentine's Day weekend this year, Therese and I decided we would go to Washington, DC, a city we both enjoy and where I have not been in a couple years I suppose. So this got me thinking about my other trips to Washington. Before I start talking about that, I want to let you know that I am not going to be revealing what Therese and I will be doing in a couple weekends, so don't anyone get any ideas...

So as I have probably remarked before, I came late to traveling. During all my years of being a poor student and then living the bohemian life in the East Village and Flushing, Queens, I just didn't go anywhere. I felt like it wasn't even an option.

As a result, my first official trip to Washington wasn't until October of 2003. Now, I HAD been there for a weekend in the late 1970s. I was invited by a friend to join the YMCA's Model United Nations team, which would be representing the Solomon Islands and traveling to Washington to take part in the National Model U.N. with people coming from YMCA's all over the country. But we spent most of that weekend in the hotel. We did go out for dinner one night at a Chinese restaurant, and I got sweet-and-sour chicken on my shit jacket, but that was about as adventurous as we got. I couldn't even tell you what hotel we stayed in. All I know is it was freaking huge, since there were probably 500 Model U.N.ers staying there.

So back to October of 2003. My friend Craig Eder invited me to come to Washington, his hometown, for the weekend, to stay with him and his wife Edie, help plan a conference and explore the city a bit. After spending a morning planning the conference, we had lots of time leftover to explore. Craig thought I would like to see the National Cathedral - he was a retired Episcopal priest, and had been Chaplain of the St. Albans School, which is affiliated with the Cathedral. And Craig had been an important presence at the Cathedral during much of its building, going back to the 1940s when he first became a priest. He was so important to the Cathedral, that in one of the downstairs chapels, there is a mosaic of him on the wall. So we drove from Craig's Cleveland Park Victorian home to the cathedral and spent a couple hours there, exploring the entire building.

The next day we decided we would drive downtown and see some of the monuments. We saw the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans memorial, the Korean War memorial. Then to top it all off we saw the (at that time) new World War II/FDR memorial. It was great spending time with Craig. He managed to somehow be one of my best buddies even though he was about twice my age - I was 41 and he was I think 83. And at 83, he was still of an imposing stature - he towered over me and must have been at least 6 foot 6. His wife Edie was the exact opposite: small and reserved. The most intimate thing she did was shake my hand!

The second time I came to Washington was in April of 2004, for a friend's wedding. I stayed overnight at what was then the Capital Hilton, a grand hotel on New Jersey Street, a few blocks from Union Station (this hotel is now called the Washington Court Hotel I believe...). Other than attending the wedding, I didn't do much of anything. The reception was at a French restaurant on Connecticut Avenue NW, and I remember walking from the reception back to my hotel, a long walk on a warm spring evening.

I next returned to Washington for Memorial Day weekend of 2007. By now, Craig and his wife had left their Victorian house and moved into an assisted living Methodist home north of the city due to health issues (Edie's heart and Craig's legs and back). I had planned with a bunch of friends to all meet up in Washington and visit Craig and Edie in their new home. I also planned to visit with my other friends, and do some sightseeing on my own. I stayed in a middle-of-the-road small hotel called Jurys Normandy in the Dupont Circle area - I picked it on the suggestion of my friends Margaret and Rich Diemer, who had stayed there previously (they were staying with their son and daughter-in-law, who lived in the Adams-Morgan section of Washington).

Saturday I was on my own, and went to the National Gallery of Art for the first time. I love large art museums, and the National Gallery has some things that make it one of my favorite. First of all, they have a great gift shop. I bought a jigsaw puzzle of Vermeer's famour Girl with a Pearl Earring that took me months to complete. Second, they have a great collection of Renaissance and early Baroque art. I felt like I was there all afternoon, and I still didn't see all the Rubens paintings. Third, and most importantly, the National Gallery is the most comfortable major art museum I've ever been to. Nearly every gallery has somewhere to sit down, and not hard wood benches with no backs like in NYC's Metropolitan Museum - here, they have couches with soft cushions, and of course with backs for you to lean against.

Also, they have an entire area filled with comfortable chairs for you to lean back in - I believe it is the East Garden Court on the main floor. By the time I got there, I was absolutely beat: I had already walked that day from Union Station to my hotel, then from the Metro stop to the National Gallery, and then all around the art museum. So I sat down in one of their comfy chairs, and promptly fell asleep.

I woke up a while later, feeling very guilty, and wondering if a guard wasn't going to come along and throw me out for sleeping in the museum. I mean, if I fell asleep in the Metropolitan Museum, that's what I would expect to happen! But I looked around, and nearly every one of the other chairs in the Garden Court was also filled with a snoozing person! How civilized, I thought, to set aside an area for people to have a nap!

Sunday was a day with my friends. I met Margaret and Richard at St. Columba's Church, which is where Craig was assistant rector when he retired in the 1990s (the church had dedicated their library in Craig's honor a few years previous to that). Afterward we met two other friends, Betty and Barbara, at Yenching Palace for lunch. Yenching Palace (which is sadly now closed) is the restaurant where JFK's representative met Krushchev's rep to negotiate an end to the Cuban Missle Crisis. After enjoying a scrumptious lunch there, we all went over to the Methodist home to visit Craig and Edith. Then, after a late afternoon nap, I met Margaret and Rich and went out to dinner with them and their son and daughter-in-law.

I spent Monday on my own once again, visiting the Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian. A bonus for the Air and Space Museum was that at the time they were housing an exhibit from the Museum of Natural History (while the latter was closed for renovations), which included all the highlights from their collection, included the ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz and Carrie Bradshaw's laptop from Sex in the City.

More recent visits to Washington have been to see Craig and Edith, and also to hang out with friends at Bailey's Bar in Arlington and smoke cigars and watch sporting events. I have been back to the National Gallery once or twice, and have explored some new restaurants like Gordon Biersch Brewery (near the Spy Museum on F Street).

I am looking forward to visiting our nation's capital again in a couple of weeks. I am sure we will eat at some new restaurants, and visit some museums I haven't seen before. I will be sure to report on my experiences!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Take me off to somewhere I've never been! Take me to Marrakech!

Our trip in March of 2011 began with 5 days in Marrakech, Morocco. Therese had been there for a day or two when she was a young lady. We both had the sense that Marrakech would be a little different than the usual trip to a European or American city. And it certainly delivered on its promise.

Our first impressions were of delight. Seeing the pink walls of the medina as our taxi circled the city, heading to the gate that would be closest to our dropping off point. Leaving our taxi in the dusty crowded streets and dragging our luggage the last few blocks to the secretive side-street entrance to our hotel, the Riad Miski. Walking into the courtyard of Riad Miski, meeting our hosts, and taking in the beauty of the building: the whitewashed walls, the stone floor, the wood and wrought iron and our beautifully appointed room. There were smiles on our faces when Therese and I finally looked at each other to see if we were both taking in this delightful place.

And then we were ushered to the roof terrace to have some late breakfast. Nothing fancy: just bread with jam and the ubiquitous mint tea. The sun was already hot, but we had a canopy over us to shade us. We sat to talk with our hostess Christine and get a sense of what we might do during our time. We were prepared to be amazed, and we were already delighted. Good start.

Not that there wasn't some adjusting that we had to go through. Once we ventured out onto the dusty crowded streets again to walk around and take in the Ben Saleh neighborhood in which our hotel lay, we immediately were verbally assaulted by people, men mostly, telling us where to go and hassling us. Or at least that's how it felt at first. Therese handled it better than I did. She's got a thicker skin than I do, and has an easier way of telling people "no" but being polite about it. It took me a day or two, but once I got used to it, I began to enjoy the give and take between myself and all the shop owners and every one else trying to sell. At points it seemed like everything was for sale. But I came to agree with Therese's way of looking at it: we think of it as aggressive, but it is a way of being friendly and polite, to engage people in a positive way, knowing that if you do that well, your chances of making a sale at some point or other increase greatly.

And we did do a lot of shopping. We also ate very well, including a couple of wonderful meals in the Riad Miski. We also explored the attractions the city has to offer: the Musee de Marrakech, Jardin Majorelle and other places, knowing all the time that the city itself is an attraction. And we spent each day feeling very deeply that we were somewhere that was profoundly different than the places we are used to traveling to. It was vibrant, dynamic, ever-evolving. Many of the buildings looked like they could crumble any second, but if anything did crumble, there would be something new in its place by the next day. We literally saw a team of workers dismantle a building practically by hand (with help from some hammers and a donkey or two) in about a day.

Let me revisit this question about being hassled for another moment if I may. I certainly would not advise a woman to travel by herself in Marrakech, or ever two or three women, without having a guy close by to keep the Moroccan men honest. And when it came to the souks, we discovered, as our hosts at Riad Miski had warned us, that the further you get from Jemma el Fna, the main square which is part city hub and part circus, the more genial and flexible the shopkeepers are. As you get closer to the square, they tend to get a little more mercenary and bent on getting your money, and they don't really want to go through a song and a dance to get it. Perhaps the stalls closer to the square, since they are seen by a greater number of tourists, charge higher rents, and therefore the poor fellows making their rents don't have time to be nice.

Of course, there are always exceptions. We went into a lamp store right on Jemma el Fna, and found the proprietor there very hospitable, so much so that we bought a beautiful lamp shade from him.

Perhaps it is also a matter of how Marrakech is changing as a whole. I have seen people writing about how Marrakech is getting spoiled by all the tourism, that it used to be a much more wonderful and precious place. And I have heard that for some Marrakech residents, the great amount of tourists is not to their liking. So on the one hand it may be that people are stuck in a hard place between needing the tourist's money to keep going in a way that they are growing accustomed to and resenting that they are not able to enjoy their city as they did at one time, before all the tourists came.

I don't know. I was not there when Marrakech was a quiet place. Frankly, it is hard to believe that it was ever a completely quiet place. It is poised at the foot of the Atlas Mountains in the southwest of the country, in a perfect spot to exchange the crafts and other creations of the Berber peoples living in the mountains and desert for the goods of the coast - produce and the like. It grew up around the marketplace, the Souks, and that marketplace may now cater mostly to outsiders, but the marketplace keeps the city buzzing.

We were sorry to leave Marrakech after being there for less than a week. We hope we have the chance to go back. We did a lot, and came away with a strong taste of what the city has to offer, but we know there is more. We were infected by its uniqueness, and from now on, when we travel, we will be looking for more tastes of cultures that take us out of our comfort zone and fire our imaginations.

For me, visiting Marrakech was a turning point. I had traveled to some places, and enjoyed getting to know places like Southern Spain and Belgium. But with Marrakech, it's like I came of age as a traveler. I truly left behind my normal surroundings, and found my feet in a place that was new to me. I will be looking for that from now on, everywhere I go. Partly that will be a matter of where we travel, trying to find more exotic and "otherly" places to visit. But partly, that is just a matter of bringing to life that thing in me that says, "my world just got a little bigger, and I am the richer person for it."

Monday, January 23, 2012

An afternoon in Jerez de la Frontera: thanks for the sherry!

Oenophiles know that the best sherry in the world is made in and around the southern Spain hamlet of Jerez de la Frontera. So, being budding sherry lovers, my girlfriend Therese and I made it a point to set aside a day during our visit to Spain back in March of 2011 to visit Jerez and tour a sherry "bodega" or winery.

The train ride southward from Cordoba on Renfe's Alta Velocidad line was extraordinary. It is often so smooth you can hardly tell that you are moving. The view of the countryside flying by with hills and plains and large puffy clouds punctuated by the occasional cows and horses medieval farm ruins is delightful.

So I had a general sense of how to get to the Gonzalez-Byass bodega, where world-famous Tio Pepe sherry is made. But I wanted to be sure, so I thought our first stop should be at the town's tourist office. The trouble was, the office had moved, and different people pointed us in different directions to get there. We wasted an hour or more finding it, and then when we arrived at the tourist office, we discovered the way to the sherry bodega was back the way we had come. Plus, the tourist office didn't even have a bathroom! I was in a bad mood.

But after I used a public bathroom in Jerez's indoor shopping mall nearby, and we finally were heading in the right direction (the tourist office did provide us with a definitive map, which was nice), my mood started to brighten. And when we stood just a short 20 minutes later in front of the concession stand at the Gonzalez-Byass bodega, deciding which ticket to buy for our bodega tour, I was getting excited about the trip again.

We opted for the tour plus sherry tasting plus tapas. Not long after, our guide showed up, and we headed with our group toward the train that would ferry us around the grounds of the bodega (it is a massive complex of buildings!).

Well, to be brief, the sherry tour was a revelation. From the antique stills in which the brandy is cooked to the rows of massive oak barrels in which the sherry is aged, my jaw was on my knees. Our guide was so sweet and good-natured, no question, no matter how wrongheaded or perverse, was beyond her capabilities to answer.

As the tour ended, we were led to a huge tasting shed with a cathedral ceiling in which a number of large circus-like tents lay in rows next to each other. We were led to one of these tents, in which were set up two rows of small round tables with chairs. Sherry glasses were brought and bottles were uncorked. Therese and I each had 6 glasses with a couple of ounces of sherry poured into them, from the intensely dry Tio Pepe to the dark sweet raisiny oloroso. These were not tastes, like a sip of each: this was enough to have a serious drink of each variety. Wow!

Our tapas came, olives and and other things with bread. We decided to make an actual lunch of it, so we ordered a few more tapas. As we sat there drinking and eating, we felt quite happy. Vivaldi played over the loud speaker. I was compelled to get up and conduct the music. I am sure my efforts improved the playing of the first violins, but I'm afraid the cellos were a bit sluggish. No doubt the cellists had been tasting oloroso sherry all afternoon just like us!

Of course before we left we had to visit the bodega shop, and against our better judgment, we bought a trio of 3 small bottles of rare "muy viejo" (very old) sherries to bring back with us (yes, they did make it all the way back to New York - in fact, one of them is still resting in our refrigerator). Then after stopping for a visit at Jerez's Alcazar (medieval fortress), where the highlight for me was taking photos from the ramparts of a wind farm several miles away, we turned ourselves in the direction of the train station.

We loaded up with a rasher of jamon iberico freshly sliced at a local restaurant, arriving at the station just a few minutes before the train was to leave (phew!). Once again, the train ride was wonderful. But this time it was improved by our remaining sherry buzz, and later our snack of iberian ham and crackers washed down with pineapple and peach juice.

Jerez was definitely interesting, but mostly the sherry made it worthwhile. But then of course, sherry always makes things worthwhile. Let's be honest!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Food, glorious food!

OK, anyone who knows me knows that traveling and eating go hand in hand. And while this is supposed to be a travel blog, traveling leads to eating for me in an interesting way. I go somewhere, like Marrakech or Cordoba, and eat something that is amazing. When I come home, I try to recreate the amazing things I ate, to recapture my travel experiences. Food, in short, can transport me to the place I was when I was in those places.

For example, back in March while in Cordoba, Spain, we ate at El Churrasco ( Therese had a white gazpacho with pine nuts that absolutely floored her. She talked about it the whole rest of our trip. She told me she wanted me to make it for her for her birthday in October. Well, I went on the internet, and whaddayaknow! I found the exact recipe used at El Churrasco: I made it, it came out really good, Therese was in heaven. Now any time I want to take us back to Cordoba, if I just make that gazpacho, we are better than halfway there!

Earlier on that same March trip, we spent a week in Marrakech and fell in love with tagines, those dishes that take the name of the earthenware vessel in which they are slow-cooked. We talked about buying a tagine (every kitchenware store worth anything sells them in New York City), but something held us back a bit. Then for Christmas, Therese gave me Paula Wolfert's book "Food of Morroco" ( I looked through it, and I was inspired. Now I wanted more than anything to make tagines in, well, a tagine.

Luckily, I work at the new Hell's Kitchen/Hearst Building Sur la Table, the best kitchenware store in NYC, and we had just lowered the price on our large tagines. Plus one of my co-workers, Dorit, is from Tunisia, and she was going to buy a tagine. So we both bought tagines, and I got a heat diffuser as well since Ms. Wolfert recommends using them on the stovetop with an earthenware tagine. My tagine, by the way, is a lovely deep orange color, made from terra cotta I believe, and has all the imperfections in it of things that are made by hand. I love it!

So now for the important question: out of the dozens and dozens of mouthwatering recipes from Ms. Wolfert's book, which one should I make for my first tagine? My first choice was chicken with prunes and almonds, but Therese said she didn't like prunes, how about raisins? I countered with how about apricots and pine nuts, but she said, well, I've been eating lots of carbs and sweets this week (she's on the road, poor thing), could you make something more savory? Hmmm. My next idea was to do chicken with onions, fennel, preserved lemons and olives, but hey! that recipe doesn't use the tagine... Then I thought, wait, one of Therese's favorite meals was a seven vegetable tagine, maybe I could do one of those. Sure enough, Wolfert has a seven vegetable that uses boneless lamb, so I thought, I should be able to do that with boneless chicken thighs instead, right?

Sure enough, it came out great. One of the best things I've ever cooked in my life. Rich, complex, with a little heat provided by cayenne and white peppers. Technically, it was only a six vegetable since I couldn't find long thin turnips, but the flavor of the cabbage, onions, zucchini, sweet potato, carrots and parsley was heavenly. Even the leftovers, heated up with the couscous a few days later in the microwave, tasted magnificent.

So my friends, all I can say is, if you love Moroccan food, get yourself a tagine. And if you don't know anything about Moroccan food, look for your local Moroccan and/or Mediterranean restaurant, and give it a try. It'll take you halfway to Marrakech, Casablanca and Fez. If you're lucky, better than halfway.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Holidays, and things to come

Well, here I am faced with the task of making New Year's Resolutions, and a natural one is that I write in this blog more frequently. So with any luck this entry will be the first of this renewed effort.

The holidays for Therese and I included two adventures, one with family away from home, and one by ourselves (as it were) at home in New York City.

On December 23rd we boarded an afternoon Continental flight from Newark airport to Ft. Meyers, FL to spend the Christmas weekend with Therese's family in Naples.

It was the first time I had been in Newark airport in several years, so it was a chance for me to see it with new eyes. Specifically, I had recently spoken with someone about the New York-area airports, saying that my feeling is that they are all dirty, dingy and generally suck. This person said, no, Newark is actually pretty nice. So I was curious to see what my experience at Newark would be like.

Well, we luckily got there at the time of a lull: we were told by an agent that the morning had been incredibly busy, and that the evening was also expected to be crazy. But we got there having checked in on line with nothing to check, and found the security line non-existent, thus arriving at our gate nearly two hours before our flight was to leave.

Time to look around for somewhere or something to eat. There was a Sam Adams bar that had some sandwiches that looked halfway decent. Therese got her Cuban sandwich heated up and got a large Cherry Wheat beer to go with it: the Cuban was fairly tasteless and her beer tasted like artificial cherry syrup had been drizzled into it, rather than any real cherries being infused into the beer taste. My sandwich was ok. My winter special (don't remember the actual name) beer was pretty hearty, with a little hoppy edge to it.

The plane left a little late but made up the time in the air. We were unable to get an exit row so we felt kind of crammed in (especially me). Some young stand-in guy got the seat next to us at the window and let out stinky farts the whole way down.

So overall, not bad, but to me, Newark was not a significant improvement from any recent experiences I have had at JFK or La Guardia airports.

We arrived in Ft. Meyers to discover that the weather was a balmy low 80s, a great upgrade from the 40s weather in New York City. Therese's brother Sam picked us up in the family sedan and we had a very comfortable leisurely ride to Therese's mom's house in Naples. Along the way Therese and Sam caught up and I got to know Sam a bit, it being my first time meeting him in the flesh (we had previously spoken on the phone a couple of times and exchanged messages on Facebook).

It was also my first time meeting Sam's wife Cyndi and their two children, Hope (20 yrs. old) and Dan (almost 18). The four of them are currently keeping Therese's mom company in a townhouse which is part of a golfing community. The house is a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom, with a large kitchen, livingroom, dining room, den and garage. Pretty typical, I guess.

So there we were, to spend the weekend. Sam had planned out menus and made numerous trips to area supermarkets and beverage stores. Eileen, Therese's mom, had spent hours upon hours constructing baskets for a Yankee swap and other packages, so that we could do basically 3 rounds of gift-giving: one on the 23rd, one on Xmas eve, and one on Xmas day. So we ate and opened presents and drank, and the next day we did it all over again. We were on our own for breakfasts, but Sam took care of lunch and dinner each day. The kids cleaned up after every meal.

My one contribution was making a chocolate cake from a Barefoot Contessa mix that I had brought with me, which I did on Xmas day. That became part of dessert that evening (although Therese and I got to sample it before then). Sam got plenty of good bottles of wine. We went to the store and got extra margarine and almond milk to make sure we'd be able to make almost everything non-dairy for my benefit (I am allergic to dairy).

One of the gifts I got Friday night (the 23rd) was a big bottle of Kahlua, so we had glasses of Kahlua over ice with milk (almond milk for me) to finish about every day. In 3 days, we drank the entire bottle, and that was fine with me (it was really tasty).

Meals included Filet Mignon for Xmas dinner, crab chowder, chicken prepared I forget how, and of course lots of side dishes like cole slaw. Nobody went hungry.

Somewhere toward the end of the weekend, I realized that it had been 80 degrees for a high every day and I had never experienced it, staying inside in the air conditioning all weekend. Therese and I had talked about going out to a movie at some point over the weekend, but there were dvds available to watch: the old 1950s Harvey with Jimmy Stewart and Bernardo Bertolucci's "Besieged" with Thandie Newton and David Thewlis (the latter was wonderful). So we didn't feel like we needed to go anywhere.

Nevertheless, if we do this next year for Xmas weekend, I am going to plan an excursion into the weekend...

So there it was, a very nice relaxing Xmas weekend, with plenty of chances to get to know Cyndi, Sam, Hope and Dan, lots of good camraderie, very nice.

The following weekend was of course New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. Therese and I had made reservations to have dinner at Trattoria dell' Arte, a nice restaurant across the street from Carnegie Hall. From 7 to 10p they were offering a 7-course dinner for $150 per person, which was much more reasonable than the other deals we explored. And we've been to Trattoria dell' Arte a few times and know we like the food and wine there.

We got all dressed up - me in my tuxedo, Therese in her evening dress and jacket - and arrived shortly before 10p. The restaurant was inside the zone blocked off for viewing the ball drop in Times Square, so we had to take a bus and then walk, showing our pass to get through the barricades. The food was all quite good, the prosecco and red wine I had just perfect, and the champagne and chocolate covered strawberries a nice send-off. I had a veal chop for my main course, while Therese had a lobster dish with seafood risotto on the side. The tiramisu dessert Therese had was apparently splendid while my mix of chocolate and raspberry sorbets was exquisite. Every course was nice.

We elected to stay inside rather than fight our way outside to see the ball drop at midnight. We felt sufficiently festive, and the service was really great. Some fellow went from table to table after midnight trying to get people to promise they would come back next New Year's Eve. Oh, he was nice about it, but still, it was a little odd.

So coming up we are thinking about doing a weekend in DC at some point, perhaps a long weekend in California's Napa wine country and San Francisco (or Seattle), and maybe even a week (with two weekends) in Paris and environs. And then next September if all goes well we are spending 10 days in Belgium - Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.

In the meantime, I will start to catch you up on the traveling I did during 2011. I've reviewed a lot of attractions and restaurants from that traveling on TripAdvisor, so I will be sure and include links as appropriate in case that might be helpful!