On The Strip and Fried Pickles

This past weekend was a whirlwind trip to Las Vegas to celebrate our daughter’s wedding reception. We’d been at the actual chapel wedding back last summer (no, not done by Elvis), but this was the Covid-free mix and mingle of the families.

The Strip is a unique place, and it really is fun to visit. It’s not a place the locals go unless they have visitors in town. I’ve been in Vegas a lot over the years, often trapped in a single hotel for days on end during a conference and never stepping foot outside the MGM Grand. This trip, my husband and I took advantage of our position on the far end of the strip at Excalibur to take an early morning walk while it was still relatively cool — 80 degrees at 8am, but it’s a dry heat. Bonus points for those who get that movie reference (answer below*).

We started on the sunny side of the street first. Everything on the strip is further away and takes longer to walk to than you’d think it would, and involves a lot of up and down as pedestrians are routed over the streets on walkways. Most of the time, the escalators work, but if you want a serious workout, take the stairs. My quads were screaming by the end of our walk, but it was worth it. I also washed my hands multiple times, as I did have to grab the handrails. If Covid has done nothing else, it has made me a prompt hand-washer.

I was very impressed with the Aria and its adjacent high-end shopping mall. It’s exactly as if Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills was transported indoors. The air conditioning was welcome, even after only fifteen minutes of walking.

We saw men working on the fountains at the Bellagio. There’s an odd job—fountain maintenance. It was fun to watch them don their scuba gear and hop off their boat, presumably to clear trash away from the fountains so they could do their thing unimpeded later in the day.

The inside of the Bellagio is lovely. Nice bathrooms too.

Caesars Palace is iconic and less tacky than you’d think. I can never see the outside of it without thinking about the cataclysmic end of Stephen King’s “The Stand.” I remember a long time ago when it first opened, you could get into the place, but it was hard finding your way out. Now they have convenient signs helping you with arrows to point the way. I love the shops at the Forum. The ceilings here (and in the Venetian) are all painted in trompe l’oeil style, to fool you into not knowing what time it is. You could swear the clouds were moving.

We crossed the street to the shady side. It was 10am, and the strip was starting to bustle with tourists and the street pros had their hustle on. Girls in bikinis and big feathered headdresses coaxing to take a picture for a fee, men with placards proclaiming the end was near, costumed characters, and a crazy shell game guy that rooked someone out of $600 while we watched. We popped into the Venetian for some more coolness. It has marble floors for miles and a canal running through it, with gondoliers who can belt out an opera tune or two as they paddle. It also boasts a full replica of St. Mark’s square, and you can have a gelato there. We didn’t indulge, but you could.

Our son and his wife were meeting us at our hotel, so we had to dash back past the venerable Flamingo without going in, but I noted from the billboards that Wayne Newton was still headlining a show there. He is 80 years old, bless his heart. Bet he can still make ‘em swoon.

We ended up having lunch at an Irish pub in New York, New York. Maybe it was the 20,000 steps we’d walked, but the fried pickles there were the best we’ve eaten. Here’s a recipe to make your own at home: Fried Pickles – Sugar Spun Run

Afterwards, we checked out the Hershey’s store. I did not buy this item, but it caught my eye.

I’ve been curious for years about the Luxor, the Egyptian-themed hotel that has a light on the top of it that can be seen from space. It’s literally the brightest light in the world. (Side note: as you can see from this picture, our hotel window faced this light but thankfully the Excalibur had excellent black-out curtains.) It is accessible via moving walkway and tram from our hotel, so I dashed out on our last morning to take a gander

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The interior is pretty fun. It reminded me of those old Holiday Inns where all the rooms faced into an interior courtyard. This hotel, along with the Excalibur, is dated… but if you’re of the mindset that you just want a place to sleep at night, but still be on the strip they are good, economical choices. One thing though—even though these hotels have been renovated, the smell of old cigarette smoke lingers. And since pot is legal… prepare for contact high as you walk along. Good times!

*Aliens. Bill Paxton says this quite ironically in the movie and it’s become one of those quotes our family uses often. It’s always funny to us.

On Stargazer and Making Pots

Meet Stargazer.

She’s at best estimate around 5,000 years old, and from the area we currently know as Turkey. Thirty of them have been found over the years, artifacts from the Chalcolithic period, or Copper Age.

I saw her at the Cleveland Museum of Art several years ago and fell in love. It’s the way she’s looking upwards, see? Up at the stars, up at the gods. Just looking up. It’s hope and wonder all swirled together in a hand-sized figurine carved into translucent marble by someone 5,000 years ago. That I feel connected to this figure, to that artist ignites wonder and hope in me, too.

Like, maybe everything will turn out okay.

Now meet my Stargazer.

My wonderful husband knows how much this figurine resonates with me and commissioned this Stargazer from our friend Ruth, who is a potter. Ruth and I met several years ago open-water swimming across one of the most beautiful lakes in the USA. Lake Watauga is situated in the upper reaches of the Blue Ridge Mountains, part of the TVA plan to prevent flooding downriver. It’s a deep, clean lake with very large fish in it. And the old town of Butler at the bottom of it.

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She and I and some other intrepid women would swim a few miles across the lake and back once or twice a month when the water was warm enough to get in without a wetsuit. It’s a wild, untrammeled area. One time we had to tread water for fifteen minutes at the end of our swim waiting for the bear that was sitting on the little jetty where we’d left our towels to amble away. While there’s not much talking while swimming, you do chat before and after. At the time we met, Ruth was working in a health food store, and had set up a tiny potting area in her apartment.

That was what she wanted to do, you see. Shape clay into beautiful and useful things. Be an artist full-time. It seemed out of reach, but she opted to trust me, joined me doing Arbonne for a while and got enough financial flexibility to move to an artist colony up in Burnsville, NC. She met her husband, also a potter. Now she does what she loves. She’s happy, and those who are the beneficiaries of her work are also happy.

I love that story. It fills me with wonder and hope, all swirled together.

You can find Ruth’s beautiful pottery at: https://www.thevillagepotters.com or at https://www.RutkowskyPottery.com

On War

This was not the blog I expected to write for this week. As many of you are doing, I am watching the news, and praying and donating to the Ukrainian Red Cross* Making a #bookstacksforcause on my IG to help others donate to the charities they feel will help the most. Yet I feel impotent and torn. Part of me is in disbelief that this is happening now, in 2022. As if our era was too advanced for such thuggery.

Evidently not.

Germany bombed my mother in WWII. She was living just outside of London, in Wembley. Mom doesn’t speak of it often, but she still has night terrors about it, some 80 years later. My mother used to wake us all up with her screaming when I was younger. Dad says it still happens. Now more people will have that terrible scar.

My generation learned how to “duck and cover” under our desks when the air raid signals went off when we were in grade school. If we have another cold war, will another generation of children need to learn to do this? Oh wait, I forgot, they’ve already learned how to run/hide/fight active shooters while at school. What a terrible curve to be ahead on.

The Ukraine is a beautiful place. I visited it a long time ago when it was still part of the Soviet Union. For those of you who are forty and above, this is the map of the USSR you’ll remember:

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I went on a trip called “Camping and Driving in the USSR” while I was still in college at Northwestern. I learned how to speak Russian in a vague, get yourself fed, find the toilet sort of way before I went. Ukrainian is a different language. If you were baffled why we’re suddenly spelling the capital city Kyiv now, it’s because that is how they spell it in Ukrainian, as opposed to the Russian variant.

I remember three things about the trip I took forty years ago. The sunflowers. Miles and miles and miles of them. It’s gorgeous. Their little heads follow the sun, and when the sun isn’t out, the beautiful things turn their faces to each other.

Just like the people there are doing now, as they stand up to Putin and his mad invasion.

The second thing I remember is the churches. Back then in the USSR, church had been outlawed as the State was all, and religion ‘nothing but a sham.’ In Moscow they’d let the enormous church with the onion domes stand because it was an iconic building, but many of the churches were burnt out husks when I was there, never rebuilt after the 1917 Revolution. However, there were still functioning churches in the Ukraine. I stood in the back of an ancient, gilded, frescoed church and listened to a service, basking in the incense and the peace inside its walls. I didn’t understand a word, but I felt their faith. It brought me to tears.

The third thing I remember is the people. I’d come down with dysentery, and was very, very, disgustingly sick while I was there. As in, I lost over ten pounds in less than a week. Not the diet one aspires to.

The public restrooms were far flung at that time, and the lines to get into them were long. And when you’ve got dysentery, you don’t have a whole lot of say about when you “go” and when you don’t. I was in terrible distress in the middle of Kyiv, sure I was going to be horribly sick in the middle of the town square, waiting in one of those lines.

A woman who could have been anywhere from 40 to 60 years old noticed. She bustled up to me, put a cool hand on my forehead, and tutted. I didn’t speak Ukrainian, but she spoke Russian. Ascertaining my problem, she barked at the twenty or more people standing in line, moved them aside, and got me into a stall just in the nick of time.

It was a “squatter” which meant you put your feet on either side of a hole in the cement and squatted. The toilet paper was a book—you just tore pages out of it to wipe with. This was standard back then for toilets in the USSR. The woman waited for me. She took me outside, bought me a small bottle of warm Pepsi, and wiped my face and arms and hands with a cool cloth while we sat in the shade. Two other women came over and offered me bread. The three of them sat with me, a perfect stranger in the middle of the square in Kyiv that day, and tended me until I could walk on my own. They insisted on walking me back to the VW Van that we were driving through the length of the USSR to be sure I was safe.

That’s who is getting bombed. And I’m furious.

*/https://redcross.org.ua/en/

On Spanakopita and Booking a Flight to Greece

I must be one of those zany optimists. I’ve forged ahead with plans to travel overseas this year. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, but I can’t bring myself to lie low and not give it a go. I have hope!

Whenever I hear someone say, “Well, I don’t want to get my hopes up…” I want to ask them, why not? Why not get your hopes up, and move in the general direction of happiness? My friend Sally challenged me years ago when I said that very phrase. She asked me, “Would you rather keep your hopes in the gutter? Where they belong?” I’ve thought differently about not keeping my hopes up ever since. That Sally, she’s good at asking the tough questions. I love having her as a friend.

And… I found a really great deal on a Finnair flight. Round trip to Crete for about $600. Yes, I’ll have a killer layover in Helsinki for twelve hours coming back, but I can manage. I’ve had a SwimTrek trip on the books to Crete for a couple of years now, and I’m marching on with the hope and expectation that it is happening in 2022. A week of swims in the Mediterranean Sea with some of my wonderful swim friends and a room with a view.

If I squint really hard, I’ll be able to see Africa from the tiny coastal village of Loutro, where we are staying. Not really, but it’s out there. And another almost-week of exploring Chania and Heraklion and the ruins of the Palace of Knossos and a swim or two in the Sea of Crete. Here is their website, they do swims all over the world, and I’ve found them easy to work with. https://www.swimtrek.com

After a bit of a break during Christmas, I’m back to learning Greek using Duolingo. It’s challenging, but fun, and I gotta figure it’s just as good as sudoku for keeping my aging brain making new synapses with the added benefit of not having to do math. My aim is to be able to read signs and menus, and perhaps have a bit of a chat with a stranger or two over coffee or gyros. I do love a chat.

In celebration of finding a great flight and taking one step closer to making my since-fourth-grade dream of treading the stones of Knossos where Ariadne spun her web and the Minotaur roared, I made Spanakopita this weekend. We’ve found a great middle eastern grocery here in Dallas, and it makes for a fun road trip getting the supplies. There are two groceries, actually, if you want to check them out. Sara’s Bakery and the brand-new Jasmine next door. https://http://sarasmarketbakery.com/

This recipe is from www.themediterraneandish.com She has great additional instructions, especially for properly thawing your frozen phyllo dough. You’ll want to buy your dough frozen, trust me. No one in their right mind would try to make phyllo from scratch. Most of us simply do not have the counter space or patience for it. I’d looked at several recipes, and my addition to this one is to use a bunch of freshly chopped dill weed rather than 2T of dried dill.

You do you on that one. This was easy, made enough to feed six hungry people, and was tasty. Or gnostimo, as we say in Greek!

Spanakopita Filling:

16 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed and squeezed

2 bunches Italian parsley, chopped

1 bunch of fresh dill, chopped

1 large yellow onion, chopped fine

2 garlic cloves, minced

2 T olive oil

4 eggs

10.5 oz good feta, crumbled

Freshly ground pepper.

Mix all of that together, and set to the side. Then open up your phyllo, and have slightly damp dish towels to keep it from drying out as you do this next step. It helps if you are in a Zen frame of mind, or listening to a good book on tape for this next bit.

You need about a cup of olive oil and a pastry brush. Brush bottom and sides of a 9×13 baking dish with olive oil.

Put down two of the phyllo sheets, letting them overlap and go up the sides of the dish a bit. Yes, they might tear. No big. Brush them with the olive oil (remain Zen, you’ll get the hang of it). Then lay down two more, brush with olive oil.

Do that with 2/3 of your phyllo sheets. This took me about fifteen minutes. Preheat your oven to 325, rack in the middle. Spread your mix onto the sheets.

Put down two phyllo sheets, brush with olive oil, and do that until you run out of sheets.

Fold over the edges and brush top with olive oil. Splash a few drops of water on the top. Score squares through just the few top layers. It makes cutting much easier later, and cooks better.

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Bake for an hour, until it’s all brown and crispy and melty cheesy. We had ours with delicious creamy tzatziki on the side. Opah!