A BREAK IN THE ACTION

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It’s been a long time since I’ve posted, and I sincerely apologize. I fell behind at the beginning of the year, as I began touring Southeast Asia. That blog post is up next! And then, soon to follow: Intriguing Tokyo, Fantastic Australia, Wet Fiji, The Wines of New Zealand and more.

I’ve come up against several obstacles to getting these blogs posted. Now that I’m home, there’s the usual “real-life” intrusions, as well as the re-entry responsibilities, and catching up with things after having been gone for a year!

Also, unfortunately, there have been serious “technical difficulties”. My overloaded MacBook crashed. At the same time, I am battling with “the cloud” to download over 18,000 photos. The Mac doesn’t have enough space and the cloud doesn’t seem to like my new 1-terrabyte PC. I am still dealing with these technical challenges, even stumping some of the experts at Apple!

But I will persist! And the blogs will be written.
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Hope to be back here soon!

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Extra-Special Thailand

I am so far behind in blogging about this incredible adventure. Sometimes the process of the journey itself is so all-encompassing, its impossible to find the time to write notes, never mind post a meaningful blog. Other times, it is just so special, it is hard to write about. THIS was one of those times, as I got to share Thailand with my precious niece, Amanda!

I got into Bangkok two days earlier and enjoyed reacquainting myself with this dynamic city. This would be one of 3 stays I would have in Bangkok as I get underway with the Asian portion of my trip and pass through here a few times.

I stayed at Le Meridien, which turned out to be directly across the street from the night market, which is trimmed by the red-light district along the sides. I walked through the market: handbags, phone batteries, and gadgets all for sale. A transsexual woman beckoned me to have dinner at her restaurant, as strippers danced along the sidewalk trying to lure men inside. Innocent, decadent and normal, all at the same time. I think that well sums up Bangkok.

Buddhist temples, known as wats are the other strong defining feature of Bangkok and all of Thailand. Just behind my hotel, I visited the first of many many wats, on my way to the sprawling Chatuchak Weekend Market. Accessed by the metro or the SkyTrain, this is by far the biggest and best of all of the markets I explored throughout Southeast Asia.

My niece Amanda joined me on New Years’ Eve day in Bangkok and we headed directly to Phuket. We were blessed with an invitation to the magnificent home of Ralph’s cousin Tina and her husband James for the holiday and it was a total blast. We were feted and spoiled with their gracious hospitality in this asian paradise and had a New Years’ celebration for the ages!

We continued on to Chiang Mai. On our first day in town, jumped into a tuktuk and visited a couple of wats on our own (Wat Chiang Mun and Wat Pra Sing). Of course we also indulged in some thai massage, which is always a bit strange, and still wonderful.

The next day we had a guide to lead us through the 3 primary wats of Chiang Mai (Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Prathat Doi Suthep and Wat Phan Tao). He explained Buddhist traditions and the various buddhas and their different symbolisms. It was so interesting to watch the buddhist rituals being performed by the many reverent visitors. These ornate temples run completely on the proceeds of entry fees and donations from worshippers who put money into pots positioned in front of various buddhas throughout the temples and shrines. We definitely got a few giggles over the concept of “Monk Chat” and wish we had had time to join in a discussion with them.

Our next day of touring took us to an orchid and butterfly farm. The flowers were so colorful, plentiful and exquisite. It was so wild to see swarms of butterflies flitting about, landing comfortably on our hands for just a second, and then quickly moving on. Hard to get a good photo!

From there we went to the Mae Sa Elephant Conservatory, which was a highlight for us both. I had been here before when I went to Thailand in 2009. I was so happy to return and share it with Amanda. These playful elephants are so well cared for by “mahoots”, individual trainers that pair up with a single elephant for its lifetime. These elephants performed for us with the most human and charming senses of humor: playing soccer, playing harmonicas, painting pictures (I bought one!), and interacting with us after the show, downing entire bunches of bananas in one mouthful. They even reached out and hugged us with their huge trunks. Such incredible gentle giants! We got to take a ride around the compound, which was a real treat. There are many people who say this is cruel, but these animals are very well cared for, very loved, and these conservatories are critical to the survival of the species.

We headed back to Bangkok and the lovely Shangri-La Hotel. We spent a hot afternoon at the Chatuchak market buying fun gifts and souvenirs. This market is tremendous and has anything and everything you could want from clothing to art, housewares to cosmetics, food, restaurants, and everything in between. The next day, again in blazing heat, we headed out for site seeing on the crowded public long-tail river boats. That alone was a remarkable experience! We toured the primary wats of Bangkok: The Grand Palace, home of the emerald Buddha (he’s actually jade); the (huge) Reclining Buddha; and the oldest Wat Arun with the grand pyramid “chedi”, which is a landmark in the city. After all the grueling touring, we enjoyed some well-deserved and much-needed pool time.

We had some great asian food throughout Thailand and even spent one fun evening having cocktails at the Lebua Building Dome Bar that is featured in “The Hangover”. It was such a joyful privilege to be able to share this experience with dear Amanda and I’m so grateful that she was willing to take time away from her grad school holiday break to be with me; and also very grateful to our hosts in Phuket for kicking off a spectacular new year together.

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TRANSITIONING HEMISPHERES: Athens, Germany, Singapore

As winter was creeping in, it would soon be time to head south, to where summer was now in full swing. Heck, it was even cool at the beach in Eilat! I had to make my way back to Frankfurt to continue the flight itinerary I had with my Star Alliance “Around the World” plane ticket. All of the flights I’ve taken all over Scandinavia, Europe, Morocco and Israel were all in addition to the primary ticket that was taking me around the globe!

ATHENS

On my way back from Israel, I made a short stop in Athens. I found it inexpensive to fly between these two countries, and I hadn’t been in Greece in nearly 20 years. There was virtually no sign of the difficult financial times the country has been enduring. There was very little litter and very few homeless people in the streets. The city center was decorated for Christmas with a grand tree and the shopping districts were lively. But when you talk to the locals, they will tell you, outside of the city, you can see the financial struggle. They say the government puts extra resources towards Athens because this is what tourists see; it is their face to the world. I can say they are putting on a beautiful, brave face!

I greatly enjoyed my stay in Athens. The people are warm, kind and accommodating. Even tour bus drivers, when all of a sudden they can’t complete their route…because there is a protest…of SENIOR CITIZENS!…because their government has bankrupt their social security program. I met a 68-year-old woman at the Acropolis, smoking a cigarette near the bottom of the big climb up, who offered to give me an officially guided tour. She told me that she will be doing this job until her “last dying breath” because she has no other money. I felt so badly for her…and yet, she seemed to take it in stride.

As always, the Acropolis is a highlight. I actually met up with a lovely family from Toronto, and we made the climb up together. They were so interesting and cool, I barely noticed the climb! They had taken their 14-year-old daughter out of 8th grade for the year, and were traveling around the world! They were the first folks I met who were doing what I am doing and we compared notes as we approached the beginnings of civilization together. It was interesting to see how different our itineraries are. Their daughter was wise beyond her years, and was glowing as she approached the Parthenon for her first time. What a wonderful (and educational!) opportunity for this family. We’ve been in touch here and there, but our paths do not cross again on our respective journeys.

The Acopolis itself is still glorious. They are doing reinforcement work on several parts of the site. It seems that archeological sites are perpetually undergoing research, maintenance, and digging for more. In fact, while digging in town for a metro station for the recent Olympics, they uncovered even more ruins. Apart from that and the other beautiful and historic points of interest just about everywhere you look, including the original Olympic track, I also enjoyed doing some shopping in the Plaka and at the markets.

I also had 2 random and lovely dining encounters. One night I decided to stop into a local vegetarian restaurant in the neighborhood. There were no tables, so I was seated at a group table with a couple of nice lady yogis…one of whom was the wife of the restaurant owner. That was a very nice dinner…and great food. And on my big touring day, I stopped for an afternoon meal and struck up conversation with a neighboring solo diner: a bright and charming young lady from Texas who it turns out was also traveling around the world for an extended trip. We chatted for hours beyond our meals, exchanged facebooks, and parted ways. Traveling solo provides for these type of encounters that prove to be enlightening, enriching and often very surprising. It is interesting to me that we don’t do this a lot in our everyday lives. There is something about the liberation of traveling that encourages us to seek out others. Why? We can leave that for a psycho-social analysis at another time. But I can tell you that the two of us meet again on this trip, and it is quite a story!

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GERMANY: Munich & Heidelberg

I figured I’d spend a few days before Christmas sharing the holiday spirit with those who are said to really do it up right. Germany is well known for their Christmas markets, so I set out to experience that. First in Munich, I found an outdoor market in Marianplatz, a busy retail shopping area and pedestrian mall. It had more charm when I returned at night, but there were plenty of holiday trinkets for sale, and no shortage of beer or bratwurst.

Ralph’s cousin Nils lives in Munich and was nice enough to take me to dinner with his girlfriend, Veronica to a classic Bavarian beer hall! More schnitzel for me! She referred me to another market, which I checked out the next night. It was much larger and more grand, more like a carnival, with many different tents, booths and attractions.

While in Munich, I also went out to the Olympic park. The Olympics have always been very meaningful to me, and the 1972 games were by far the most. These were the games where terrorists attacked the Israeli athletes’ residence and kidnapped and murdered 11, plus a German policeman. It all played out on live TV and had a huge impact on me, at the impressionable age of 15. They have constructed a beautiful monument naming each of the 12 victims, and there is a powerful multi-media structure that loops through the events as it transpired, all with the actual housing area still in clear view to the left.

To lighten the mood afterward, I went to BMW Welt where they have many cool vehicles on display, including their specialty models, and Minis and Rolls Royce. If you buy a BMW anywhere in Munich, you pick it up here…and they hand over about 110 new vehicles each day. Sadly, not to me, not today.

After flying up to Frankfurt, I made another day-trip by train out to Heidelberg to see their market, said to be one of the best, held in the center of town, in the shadow of the castle. It was the beginning of Christmas weekend, so I missed the official market, now over. But there were still a few vendors out, and ice skaters, and plenty of brats and beer. And the imposing Heidelberg Castle is a prominent feature over this very quaint Tyrolian village.

And that was it! Time to leave wintrethe cold of the northern hemisphere and head to warmer climes. My monster flight from Frankfurt to Singapore was up next. Making my way to some touring in Asia.

 

SINGAPORE

I arrived on Christmas day, and upon arrival, you can’t help but notice how spotlessly clean it is. Beyond that, it is also really beautiful. The people are also very attractive: petite, fair, and perfectly groomed. Singaporian people mostly originated from China and Malaysia, Great Britain, and @25% from India, pretty much the only people of color there. I dubbed it “China Lite” for the fact that it is a free country, filled with smiling (mostly) Chinese people, speaking English.

And the architecture is exceptional. That is the view from my balcony on Christmas night. Modern, futuristic and creative, the buildings give a feeling of an advanced society of great opulence. The fact is, I did not see one person begging or living on the street. This small island nation is highly populated and most people live in one of the many modern high-rise apartment buildings throughout the main city. Though Mandarin Chinese is widely spoken, English is the primary language, a result of having been a part of the British empire for much of its recent history. Their influence is still evident – they still drive on the opposite side (from the US) and people walk to the left, line up on escalators to the left and generally orient left in all ways that we Americans instinctively go to the right.

Apart from that, I didn’t find too much of interest in Singapore. The whole city feels like a giant shopping mall…and not particularly discounted either. I found no bargains. Every building you enter is a multi-level shopping center, including the hotels. The Orchard Road area is simply endless shopping. Designer brand shops dot the street in between one shopping center after another. Retail is alive and well in Singapore…although I hear that Amazon has just broken into this market. Should be interesting to see if they have the same impact there as they have had in the US.

I took advantage of my time here indulging in grooming services that they are known for. I enjoyed some down time to catch up on some writing. And, after trying in 4 countries, I finally had an appointment at Apple to address my lousy iphone battery, that doesn’t hold a charge for more than 4 hours. After killing an afternoon there assessing the battery (they say it’s fine), they emptied and reloaded my phone, which was somehow meant to help determine what might be running and sucking so much battery power. No luck. Battery is still dying. Oh well. Apparently Apple has successfully borrowed GM’s 60’s business model: design a product to peak and fail within 3 years. I guess I will continue to rely on the external battery packs.

Enjoyed some mighty thunderstorms while here, which dropped tons of water, creating a lot of local flooding. It was fun to watch them from the safety of my lovely hotel room. Between the rains, the holidays, and the shopping, I found Singapore to be a great stop to take care of the practical matters of life that don’t disappear when you’re traveling.

 

ERETZ YISRAEL

Having just recently enjoyed a full “Holy Land” tour a few years ago, I returned to Israel this time to simply experience “life” there. I had grown quite fond of Tel Aviv after my last visit…it’s become such a cosmopolitan, secular city. So after months of heavy touring and site-seeing, I took an apartment for a week, across the street from the Mediterranean Sea, and settled in to do some writing, relaxing, laundry, and just “being”. I was lucky to catch some unusually warm December weather, and was able to enjoy a couple of afternoons at the beach, and watch some exciting kite boarding from my balcony. I also lucked into a nostalgic evening at a Bryan Adams concert while I was in town.

Another reason I returned to Israel was because I wanted to visit friends who are living there. One family, my best friend’s nephew, his wife and 6 children, are living in an Orthodox community, Beit Shemesh. This is a surprisingly large and picturesque area, with a variety of Orthodox sects, many of them ex-pats, mostly Americans. Their eldest (16-year-old) son was away at pre-military training school, so I didn’t get to meet him; but I was so charmed by their 5 other children. I always thought that children in a large family would just blend together and maybe even get a little lost. Not the case with this bright, fun, beautiful bunch of kids, ranging from age 2 to 14. Each of them has their own unique personality and character, and they individually captured my heart over the span of a single evening shared together.

It was a lovely visit, after which I drove on to Jerusalem for the night. At my friend’s behest, I made a stop at the Western Wall before checking into my hotel. It was 11pm. The Wall is always brightly lit, so time of day has no meaning. But it was noticeably more peaceful and calm there, and I enjoyed a short session of prayer at this most holy place.

The next morning –Friday morning – I visited the Mehane Yehuda Jerusalem Market. This place is always bustling in anticipation of Shabbat with people buying their food, fruit and various other necessities for the weekend. I picked up some “pitzuchim” (assorted dried fruit and nuts) to bring with me to my friend’s home, where I was going to spend an observant Shabbat.

My bat mitzvah partner, Chaia has been living an Orthodox lifestyle in Shiloh, in the West Bank. Shiloh is an ancient city in Samaria, and the religious capital of Israel, according to the Old Testament. It is now one of those “settlements” you hear about, that has been occupied for years, and is an active archeological and tourist site, where Chaia’s husband works. Nevertheless, it is in the West Bank, and following the controversial announcement about recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, I thought better of driving myself up there alone. Instead I took a regularly scheduled ARMORED bus from downtown Jerusalem, and was there safely in less than an hour.

Chaia’s family is huge, and loving and welcoming. She has 7 children: the youngest is her 18-year-old daughter, and then one older daughter and 5 sons. There are already 8 grandchildren. My challenge was to know everyone’s (unique, Hebrew) name by the end of the weekend. The house was teeming with kids playing, laughter, lots of food, and great conversation, along with beautiful traditions that welcomed Shabbat at sunset on Friday night, and through the day on Saturday. Saturday night some friends stopped by and the conversations were politically interesting and very enlightening. It was a great honor and very special to share this warm slice-of-life experience with an old childhood friend. (There are no photos because all phones, electronics, etc. are turned off through Shabbat.)

On Sunday morning, I got back on the armored bus and headed to Jerusalem, got into my car and then embarked on a scenic 4-hour drive through the Negev Desert down to Eilat, on the southern tip of Israel, on the Red Sea. I love Eilat. Just the geography alone is staggering. To the right is Egypt. To the left is Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And I could see them all in one eye-full from my hotel room balcony. It wasn’t exactly beach weather while I was there, but I did catch a few hours of beach and pool time, and some more RnR before heading back to the cold of continental Europe in December.

 

EDITORIAL:  ISRAEL…Why They Support Trump

It is no secret that I am not a fan of the current US President. I have had a hard time understanding how Israel and Israelis can stand by him, when he has repeatedly shown himself to be racist…and most pointedly, when he failed to condemn Neo-Nazis marching and chanting “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”

They hate Obama for abstaining from the UN vote that sanctioned Israel for West Bank occupation. They hate Obama for his perceived lack of support, although under his presidency, there were several arms sales that didn’t make the news. They hate Obama for the Iran deal, even though the fact remains that since that deal, Iran has not directly attacked anyone, and all of our European allies concur that it has been successful. Making the argument about giving them money, they neglect to remember that it was Iran’s own frozen assets; and they were about to begin what would have been embarrassing proceedings against the US at The Hague to get their funds released. Making the argument of Iran’s state-sponsored terrorism…one can hardly make an argument that our allies, Saudi Arabia don’t do the same.

On December 6, while I was in Tel Aviv, in an apartment across the street from the US Embassy, Trump controversially declared that the US was recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would be moving our embassy there. Against the advice of many world leaders, and over the objection of leaders of Muslim countries, this US President did something that many of his predecessors had promised, and never fulfilled. The fact is that Israel’s capital has always been Jerusalem. The Knesset is there. All government officials and offices are there. Trump’s pronouncement didn’t suddenly make it so. But it managed to stir up controversy.

In making this announcement, the media told us that we would see violence. Palestinian leaders called for 3 Days Of Rage, some warned of a renewed intifada, most said that it was the death-nell for the peace process…and at minimum, the US could no longer be seen as the impartial mediator of peace talks.

My American-born Orthodox friends in Israel were thrilled by this announcement from Trump, and were completely unfazed by the Palestinian threats of rage and retribution. They live with it on a regular basis. One friend presented to me a point of view that there is no real “rage”, but wherever there are TV cameras, the protestors will happily provide footage…arguing the point that if there were no cameras there would be little-to-no violence.

But there were no cameras at all of the other non-Arab Muslim leaders’ offices when they condemned Trump’s actions. And there was plenty of rage. The announcement did inflame the region, and there were riots in the West Bank, Gaza, and even in Jordan. Missiles were launched from Gaza, which allowed for Israel to retaliate enough to destroy weapons depots and the tunnel in Gaza. The cynic in me wondered if my Zionist friends relish these outbursts as opportunities for Israel to flex its muscles. Palestinians revolt, and Israel shows its might with surgical strikes that depletes Palestinian munitions. I think Israel feels cocky with their superior weaponry, especially with the US putting the wind at their back. I can’t help wondering and worrying if they would be that brash if they were facing the collective military power of the Muslim world. Perhaps they feel confident that the “Muslim world” is itself in such turmoil and disarray that they wouldn’t be able to form an effective military coalition against Israel.

Further supporting that thought, Netanyahu seized this moment to declare “Jerusalem has always been our capital and the sooner you Palestinians accept that, the sooner we will have peace”. So, the final determination of Jerusalem, long believed to be an item for the negotiation table, has summarily been negated. He is now taking that chip off the table, and with a show of power as his exclamation point.

Perhaps Israel has in fact ceded enough and will cede no more. After wars where they were attacked (and defeated the enemy), in an effort for peace, they’ve returned the Sinai to Egypt. They’ve left Gaza for the Palestinians. They have also given them the West Bank, although the Israeli settlements are still controversial…but people were living there (having been encouraged to set up residence there after the war that annexed that land) at the time the agreement was made. Since there’s been no advancement of the peace agreement; and there has been further escalation of strife, including Gaza’s “election” of Hamas* to run their government (*Hamas is sworn to the destruction of Israel), the Israelis have not left the West Bank, and have, in fact, grown their settlements. And because there are Israelis living there, there is still an Israeli military presence in the West Bank. But, there is also infrastructure, services, roads, power, and water, provided by Israel. And although the people all live in their own gated communities, the Israeli and Palestinian residents of the West Bank have lived together and peacefully coexisted for many years.

So now, some time has passed. Tensions have eased. The Arab leadership seems to have tacitly accepted that this is how it is going to be, also recognizing their own instability and internal issues. So it would seem that playing it tough might have been effective after all. This is how Netanyahu has been running things in recent years. And his people love him for it.

And now I feel I better understand the thinking of my Orthodox Israeli friends. These Israeli ex-pats are ZIONIST JEWS. They see the entire political world, first and foremost, as to how it effects Israel and Jews. To the exclusion of anything and everything else. “People vote their own interests”, I was told. And their interests are Israel and Jews. Given the long history of Israel’s battle for recognition and a peaceful homeland, Israelis and American ex-pats there, are pledged to the safety, security and advancement of Jews and Israel. And that’s it. Apart from that, the rest of it (i.e. Trump) is America’s problem.

And I think I mostly get that…except the last sentence. I think Trump is extremely dangerous and that’s everyone in the world’s problem. But I, too have been a single-issue voter over the years. My candidates had to be pro-choice to get my vote. However, I never had to put a moral test to the rest of my candidates’ issues…they were also mostly in alignment with mine…and generally weren’t despicable. In the case of Trump, I fear that in favor of their one big issue (Israel), they conveniently remain blind to the rest of the package that comes with him which is doing damage to many other things that matter…like the Christianization of education, or the bankrupting of the middle class, or nuclear war in Korea, or sexual misconduct, or the destruction of our planet. I know God created it once, but I don’t believe he will deem us worthy of a do-over if we don’t pay attention. Just my small take on one piece of the most complex issues in the world.

 

“We Are Morocco!”

“We are not an Islamic country. We are not an Arab country. We are not an African country. WE ARE MOROCCO.” This was what we were told upon arrival to this unique country…that they fancy themselves just that…unique. And indeed, Morocco was an entirely unique experience.

The people are very gracious, kind, proud, and peaceful. They pride themselves on their hospitality. That said, it is also a very chauvinistic, patriarchal society, although not necessarily misogynistic. They do treat a lady like a lady…so a strong, independent feminist will have to adjust a bit to be comfortable in this culture. And, along with Arabic, they also speak French, which certainly adds to their charm.

The majority are Muslim, mixed with Berbers (indigenous), Jews, and Christians. They make a point of repeating that although Morocco is predominantly Muslim, they welcome and peacefully coexist with everyone. At one time there were @270,000 Jews in Morocco. Today, that number is near 2,500 most of them doing business in Casablanca. There are now @150,000 Moroccan Jews in Israel. And yet there are still many symbols of Jewish history throughout Morocco.

Casablanca– We started in Casablanca, a large, sprawling city with big Beverly-Hills-style homes near the beach. It’s most significant landmarks are the tremendous Hassan II mosque, and Rick’s Café, famous from the Bogart/Bergman movie “Casablanca”. It was my first time ever staying at a Four Seasons, a very luxurious, oceanfront hotel and spa; but the beach wasn’t overly inviting. Surprisingly, they had no liquor license, which evidently are hard to come by in Muslim countries, as (supposedly) they don’t drink.

Rabat- As we made our way out of town, we headed to the capital city, on the water, with an old medina. We made a stop at the king’s palace. They adore their king, Mohammed VI.

Meknes- And our next stop featured the King Mohammed V’s tomb.

Fes– We arrived late to our 6-room Ryad Layla, inside the medina. This medina is sprawling with many turns and tunnels and narrow passageways leading from one section of the souk to the next. And there’s lots of shopping. Our local guide, Mohammed, was very knowledgeable and well known in the area. We learned that traditional Muslim families always name their first-born son Mohammed, which explains the abundance of men with that name.

He brought us around the medina to certain shops (where he gets a cut) and “helped” us play the “barter” game. We went to a rug shop and watched the women hand-knot a wool rug on a loom. After the full presentation, I bought a rug, made of camel hair, by Berber Jewish women, with a design that represents the desert and mountains, all of which seemed meaningful and appropriate. It will be beautiful in my Baja home. We went to a metalwork shop and watched the artist engrave the platters by hand, with a mallet and something like a nail-head. We also went to a shop to buy native clothing. I bought myself a caftan, and I bought a jalaba for a friend…a traditional long and hooded men’s robe which all of the men were wearing every day. In the medina, everything stops five times a day for prayer.

The next day, Mohammed also took us to the hillside ruins of the king’s tomb, destroyed in the Lisbon earthquake in the 1700s. There are great views of the whole Fes medina from up there. Next stop, the King’s grand palace with amazing gold doors. We went to a ceramic shop and watched the workers carving the small pieces of ceramics that they puzzle together into beautiful designs for vases, urns, table-tops, fountains and more. I made another special purchase there as well, a beautiful ceramic urn with camel bone and metal and stone embellishments. We also went to a tannery where they dye the leather and can custom make a garment in just 5 hours! (We didn’t buy!)

On the night we arrived, 2 young boys (@15 years old) met us at the edge of the medina with a cart to carry in our bags, since there are no cars inside the medina. One of the boys, Asseade, was exceptionally bright and charming. On our 3rd/last afternoon, we set out to shop solo in the medina, when out of nowhere Asseade appeared, on his way home from school. He ended up accompanying us into the medina, after taking us to meet his family for tea. Using his young Moroccan “machismo”, he guided us through the souk for a couple of hours of shopping. And then we went back to his family’s Ryad for dinner. It was a lovely experience.

That morning, I had experienced a Hammam. In a small, dark, candlelit “wet room”, a young woman bathed me, exfoliated, scrubbed and washed me, after which I enjoyed an hour massage. It was a bit odd to be “bathed”, but Moroccan women have hammam baths weekly.

Merzouga- We spent the whole day on a 10-hour drive through Morocco, making our way to the Sahara Desert. We made a couple of scenic stops along the way, including a park filled with wild monkeys.

We arrived just before sunset to this luxury camp, and immediately embarked on a sunset camel ride up the dunes, which was simply spectacular. We sat around a roaring fire drinking wine with the other guests as the temps began to drop, and then enjoyed a lovely dinner in the main tent. After dinner, we took in the magnificent sky, dense with stars, the Milky Way and no moon, before heading to the tent to lay in bed and read, under the warm duvet, with a hot water bottle alongside. It was surprisingly cold (@42 degrees!) there…I always thought deserts were HOT! I awoke early to see the sunrise…one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences…a desert sunrise.

Oarzazate- This is a movie town…famous for “Lawrence Of Arabia” and many other films. It was pretty much a “pit stop” for us as we made our way from the desert toward Marakkech. The hotel, Le Temple des Arts, was amazing. All of the rooms are in tribute to the movies made there.

From here we visited a traditional “ksar” (village) from the 1700s, Ksar Ait Ben Haddou. In it’s time, it was a critical stop on the trade route between the Imperial Cities of Morocco. People still live there in some of the original mud hut homes.

Marakkech–  This is a big city with many faces. We didn’t have enough time to explore it to the fullest…with just one full day here. We had a guide take us on an exhausting walking tour of the city and Medina. We saw the The Grand Mosque and Royal Palace.

We also went to a major Madrasa. And we went to the old Jewish quarter, where I stopped into the still active synagogue and museum. Then we shopped the Medina, making our way back to our beautiful ryad to relax and recharge.

We went out for dinner to a magnificent 5* hotel, the Mamunia. And then we went back to the main square of the Marakkech medina to see how different it is by night. There were groups of people gathered together drinking, listening to music or performing, along with many people still selling their wares. It was quite a scene there…and we managed to miss the snake charmers!

The next day we went to a beautiful botanical garden. On these same grounds is the newly opened Yves Saint Laurent museum. His former lover and agent created this tribute to YSL, who loved Marakkech and used it as his muse for his fashion designs.

Kasbah Tamadot, Asni- From here we made our way @40 minutes up into the High Atlas Mountains to Sir Richard Branson’s deluxe luxury resort. After 2 weeks of rigorous touring, it was nice to relax and be pampered. I even smoked “shisha” from a hooka pipe for the first time. The views and grounds were beautiful, filled with flowers and animals they care for on premises. There were many lounges and private nooks to relax and waste the days, which we happily did.

Morocco definitely deserves a lot of credit for their gracious hospitality and welcoming attitudes to people of all backgrounds. It is a warm, colorful country with friendly, accommodating, colorful people.

Next Up: Israel, an editorial

Many Faces of France (deux)

PART 2 of 2: PROVENCE AND FRENCH RIVIERA

We enjoyed the luxury of travel by TGV fast train through France, to the Provence region. It’s always nice to travel by train in Europe…the seats are comfy and spacious, the scenery along the way is lovely, and it is relatively quick…BUT…it is an interesting hassle when traveling with a lot of heavy luggage. The space for luggage is always limited, and if everyone boarding has some sort of bag, it fills up quickly. And as I’m loading multiple bags, people are trying to board the train at that same door. Unloading is equally challenging, as the stops are brief. I always have to “gear up” for busting that move when traveling by train. But the rest of it is so pleasant and civilized.

We started in Avignon at a charming Bed & Breakfast, Les Limas. Our host, Maggie was cute and interesting and very gracious. She offered a fantastic breakfast as well as great recommendations for local sites and restaurants. We ventured out on foot on a windy Sunday and saw the famous “Pont d’Avignon”, and the huge Palace of the Pope, which was featuring an African Art exhibit inside. Of course, in the heart of impressionist art, we began with art overload!

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The next day was even more windy, and we rented a luxurious Audi wagon and went out to explore for the day. First stop was the little town, St. Remy, with cute shops, a great bakery and it’s very own 99cent store! We continued on to Les Baux de Provence, which is located inside of a beautiful national park. We were in the mountains, and the winds were even more intense…we got very blown around in that charming village on the hill! So, to beat the wind, we went into the caves for an amazing, unique art show. At Carrieres Lumieres, they have caves that remain from the extraction of stone to build the neighboring towns. They have installed a multi-media visual presentation of artists, some of it animated, projected on all of the walls, ceiling and floor inside this cave, accompanied by music. We were treated to Bosch, but they do many other artists; and I totally plan to return. It was completely incredible! We continued on and through Arles. The Van Gogh museum was closed, and the rest of the town didn’t grab us, so we continued on to Nimes. We drove around the town, took in the Roman ruins and a quick burger in a local bar before driving back to Avignon.

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We left sweet Maggie’s B&B and made a 2-hour drive to Aix de Provence. This is a bustling town in the heart of the region. We fell upon a Tuesday Farmers/Craft Market and enjoyed the fun things on offer. We went to the Hotel Caumont, which is essentially a tea room, restaurant/museum/tribute to artist Paul Cezanne, who made his base here. Rima even managed to find his studio and took a tour.

We continued on to Antibes for the next 2 nights. This area is the summer playground for wealthy Europeans. We took a drive over to neighboring Cannes, toured the old city (“Le Suquet”), and enjoyed some great views. Next day, we made our way to Monte Carlo via Nice…in the rain…which didn’t stop us! We took in the Chagall Museum and the Matisse Museum, each artist with deep ties to the city. We explored the waterfront Promenade des Anglais and grabbed lunch. Nice is a big, diverse city and the central hub connecting Provence and the Cote d’Azur, and I can see spending more time here on another visit!

We continued on along the coast into Monaco. I think we even drove beyond it, into Italy, on a search for gas. We arrived at our glitzy hotel on the water (Le Meridien) and grabbed some bar food for dinner and a relaxing night. We toured Monaco on foot, around the port area and up at the palace (closed to tours inside), and we caught the changing of the guard. The views of the harbor and all of the incredible yachts is quite a site to behold.

We had a very special night out, dinner at the legendary Café de Paris, right next to the famous hotel of the same name…all on the same square with the Casino de Monte Carlo. Featured in the Bond movies, it surely was the hub of opulence for the rich and famous back in the day. It is an exquisite building, very elegant, formal, and brightly lit. The gambling action is very staid and high stakes…just roulette and cards. No craps (too crass for the French). There were private salons along the perimeter, but I parked myself at a roulette table for the evening and managed to win 200Euros, so I left a happy winner, and crossed a big one off my bucket list. Always dreamt of gambling in Monte Carlo!

Provence and the French Riviera are storied places. Provence represents a time of great artistic growth and experimentation, which brought forth masterpieces from the likes of Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Matisse, Cezanne, Chagall, and so many many more. And all the glitz and glamour of the Riviera continues to shine with Hollywood and the international world of celebrity. Such a wonderful place to get your art on!

Rima and I parted here, and I continued on to visit Kay in London for a few days.

Having been to London several times before, it wasn’t necessary to do the touristy stuff, and instead, I just enjoyed hanging out at the flat with Kay, her friends, her son, and his lady. Relaxing fun. We did go a great dinner at Rules, the oldest restaurant in London, with my favorite cocktail, the “Kate Middleton”. And on a walkabout in her hip neighborhood, Islington…we walked right past Tracey Ullman, out walking her weird little dog (we did not interact). We had a great night out at theatre…”Oslo”, the story of the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of several Norwegian diplomats to create the groundwork for what ended up being the 1993 “Oslo Peace Agreement” (between Israel and the Palestinians). It was also a fine warm up for my time ahead in Israel. But first, two weeks of touring in Morocco!

Next up: Morocco

On deck: Israel, An Editorial

Many Faces Of France

PART 1 of 2

I have been to Paris four times before, and once in Chamonix in the Alps, years ago. And I’ve loved every minute of those visits. But I have never been anywhere else in France, and this part of my journey gave me the opportunity to see some unique and special regions of this wonderful country.

Joigny– I met up with Marty, the Hechts and the Printzes at Orly and we made our way to Le Cote Sainte Jacques. This chateau and it’s 2-star Michelin restaurant, were a bucket list item for Pedro. Unfortunately for me, I got super sick with a stomach virus on the night of our dinner there, and it hung with me for 5 days or more. So I didn’t see much of the area…and our stay was brief. We were also joined there by The Rubins, The Blanks and the Zanes. This part of the trip was hosted by Marty for an early celebration of his 65th birthday in December.

Barge Trip through the Canals of Burgundy– We traveled to the Dijon area to board our chartered barge, “The Adrienne”. For six gastronomical days and nights we floated down through the canals in Burgundy, loch after loch. We’d walk or bike ride along the canal path, faster than the barge moved. The barge had 6 guest cabins, and a common living room, dining room, and deck.

We had a tour leader, Matthew, an Englishman who was very well versed in all things French: the language, the food, the history and the wine. He was a wonderful guide through this region of France. The team included the young captain and his first mate, who happened also to be his uncle, and a captain himself. We had two lovely young ladies cleaning, serving, and presenting the wines and cheeses at each meal. And our fantastic chef prepared magnificent customized meals each day for breakfast, lunch and dinner that were truly award worthy.

Each afternoon we did an excursion, either into a town, or to a chateau, winery or castle in this winemakers’ region of France. We tasted fabulous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines endemic to Burgundy.

It was a fun, convivial week with great, long-time friends, celebrating Marty and eating, drinking and laughing a lot! I think we all shed a tear when we had to leave The Adrienne and her great staff.

But Paris awaits…and onward we went, altogether for the first couple of days. We even had one final special night, dining at The Jules Verne restaurant high inside the Eiffel Tower. Then everyone returned home, and Marty and I stayed on in Paris together.

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Paris- Our apartment exchange didn’t work out as we’d hoped, so we moved over to the Hotel Pont Royal, on the left bank, just behind the Orsay Museum. I had stayed in this neighborhood 3 years ago, and loved its central location.

As I said, I have been lucky to be in Paris many times before, but it is one of my most favorite cities in the world, and I never get tired of it. Marty had only been here once, briefly, so I was happy to tour the city with him. We took the Hop On Hop Off bus by day and again by night and covered the city, and then we took a Siene River boat trip, which I’d never done before. It was great to see the sites from these differing vantage points.

It’s never boring to repeat the Musee d’Orsay and indulge in their preeminent collection of impressionist art. We went up to Montmartre and into Sacre C’oeur, which I hadn’t done in some time. We walked around the Luxumberg Gardens neighborhood and through St. Sulpice Church, which was new to me. And back to Notre Dame and the Marais. And Angelina’s, of course. We even had lunch with cousins of Marty who live outside of Paris. Spent a lovely afternoon at legendary La Coupole catching up on family stories.

The following week, I was on my own in a 3-story-walk-up apartment in the Marais neighborhood, I’d arranged through Home Exchange. It was very well located in the hippest, hottest neighborhood in Paris, which was not long ago an old Jewish neighborhood. There are still signs of the presence, with multiple kosher and falafel restaurants, Judaica shops, a Holocaust memorial, and Chabad in the streets.

My goal for this week was to just “BE” in Paris. I spent some time doing some writing, looking out the window at the millennials, and younger, hanging out in the cafes. No matter the weather, they are all at outdoor sidewalk cafes (so they can smoke). I enjoyed doing walkabouts in the neighborhood, and along the Siene, examining the wares for sale from those green boxes along the riverside. I lucked into a great Irving Penn photography exhibit at Le Gran Palais, where I had never been before. “I wandered down the Champs Elysee”, singing Joni Mitchell, and popping in and out of shops. I strolled through the designer fashion area and up to Bon Marche and Galleries Lafayette. The boutiques all boasted waiting lines of mostly Asian tourists, interested in buying the latest design from all the big names, at full retail price. Amazing!

In stark juxtaposition to this opulence and wealth was the scene in the streets. There are homeless people everywhere. And it’s different. They are clearly refugees. Families. Mom, Dad and young children, huddled together on a mattress on the sidewalk in front of a well-lit department store window. I wondered to myself how these people will fare once it gets really cold. I hope the French government or NGO’s have something in mind to help these people and get them off the streets.

Later in the week, Rima arrived. We explored the Marais and enjoyed excellent falafel. We went to The Picasso Museum, also in the neighborhood. We walked along the Rue de Rivoli, the Place de la Concorde (where Marie Antoinette was beheaded), and enjoyed the Christian Dior exhibit at the Musee de Artes Decorativs. Albeit too hot and crowded for a ticketed event, it was great to see some of the couture gowns and fashions by the many designers who have worked under that label. And then another visit to Angelina’s…thick  African hot cocoa. We enjoyed exploring together the green box vendors along the riverside. We did a tour of the magnificent Sainte Chappelle cathedral…the oldest stained glass windows in the world. And we strolled around the neighboring St. Paul neighborhood.

We covered a lot of ground in a short time. Soon it was time to bid Paris adieu, and head south to Provence.

END OF PART 1. 

Coming soon: Discovering the artistic heart of France: Provence.