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 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!

On George Mason and Traveling Mercies

In my last entry I made a grave error. In talking about visiting the monument to the “forgotten patriot” George Mason I forgot what his name was mangled his name, and called him James Madison. Madison was of course the 4th President of the USA. Yes, I had to look that up.

In penance for my transgression, here is a brief overview: Mason was a Virginia landowner of vast estates who had a hot temper and loved wine. He was the father of nine living children, and one of the oldest politicians at the Continental Congress. The main reason he was “forgotten” is because he’s one of three men at the Continental Congress to refuse to sign the Constitution. He felt it didn’t go far enough, and wanted an end to slavery right away. His work on amending the constitution eventually became the basis of our current Bill of Rights. He completely pissed off his once good friend and neighbor George Washington because of his refusal to sign, and both men were pig-headed enough to never reconcile. His writing on individual human rights also greatly influenced Lafayette’s “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen,” early in the French Revolution – in fact, the resemblance is so close, you could call plagiarism and not be off the mark. There’s a bas-relief of Mason in the chamber of the US House of Representatives. It’s located above and to the right of the speaker’s chair; he and Jefferson are the only Americans recognized there, in company with great lawmakers across the ages.

So, mea culpa, Mr. George Mason. You do have one of those names though… just saying.

Now as promised in my last blog, on to our misadventures with VRBO and Airbnb. Disclaimer: Prior to this trip, I’ve never had issues with either.

Here’s what happened:

Our first DC rental through VRBO was a gorgeous brownstone off Logan Circle. Great location, three stories, built in 1879, renovated with style. Plenty of room for the six of us, and a claw-foot bathtub. I’d booked it as soon as we found out the cancelled 2020 GWU graduation might happen in May of 2021. So I reserved it 10 months ahead of time. Paid the deposit. All good.

Then came May of 2021, 15 days out from our arrival. We paid the balance due. All good. I communicated with the host via email to check and see if there was a blender on the property. Got a nice reply of “well if there isn’t one, we’ll get you one.” Wonderful!

Then.

SIX DAYS before we were to arrive, (and all six of us had our plane tickets of course), BING my phone indicates an email has arrived. I look at it, look at it again, and burst into hysterics. Why? Because the HOST HAD PULLED THE UNIT FROM THE RENTAL PROGRAM.

Yep. I didn’t know they could do that either if all your money was paid. I checked. Oh, yes they can. VRBO returned our money, and even suggested (bad suggestions) two places we could squeeze the six of us into. But we were in trouble. Even though at this point GWU had postponed their in-person graduation again, lots of other colleges with thousands of kids graduating in the DC area hadn’t. And the Smithsonian museums picked that weekend to start reopening. There weren’t a lot of places for six people to stay on such short notice.

Our son found one, however, which leads me to my next horror story, this one about Airbnb, specifically a company who uses the platform, called Namastay.  I recommend you Namastay away. They own lots of apartments. Don’t use them.

Here’s why: They don’t care about you.

Granted, we had to book quickly, or we would’ve seen the 1-star reviews buried in the comments.

This particular Airbnb was in an apartment building in a changing area, quite close to Union Station in DC. It had a handy Walmart at the base of the building. I know that sounds like the beginning of a joke, but it actually was handy having the Walmart downstairs.

This recently renovated apartment building had a fob to get in the door and make the elevator work. Room keys were electronic. We’d noticed in the comments that Namastay only provided one key and one fob to their unit, no matter that it accommodated six people, who might presumably have different schedules. We were kind of hoping this might’ve changed. No. Oh no. It was worse.

My husband and I arrived in the lobby at 4pm. We said hello to the very lovely front desk receptionist, and let her know we were checking into room 102.

“Oh, that’s Namastay,” she said. “We have so much trouble with them.” If our lives had a handy soundtrack, the music would have gotten scary and dark at this point.

She goes and checks the key/fob situation, as Namastay told us those would be located at the front desk. The receptionist comes back and tells us, “There’s no keys here for that unit.”

Two hours later, pacing the lobby, on the phone with Namastay, who first claim ‘there are a keys, the receptionist hasn’t looked hard enough.’ Then the story changes to ‘the cleaners must have taken it with them,’ and no, they can’t get a hold of them, it’s after 5pm now, and they’re shutting their office. Then the story changes that ‘maybe the cleaners left them in the apartment.’ So the receptionist has to go upstairs and look. No keys.

At this point I’ve pulled up “hotels near me” to see if we can squeeze in somewhere. Not having a lot of luck, as it’s graduation weekend in DC, which of course I KNOW, and why I’d booked our original lodging TEN MONTHS AHEAD OF TIME.

Namastay stops communicating altogether, since you know, they don’t care if we can get into the unit or not. Namastay’s offices are in Memphis, and its drinks time there. The receptionist is about to go off duty. Now there are four of us loitering in the lobby with our suitcases, unsure of what we will do next.

Here’s the good part of this story. The receptionist says, “You know what, DC is my town, and we don’t treat people like this. Hold on.”

She goes in back, has a conversation with the owner of the apartment building, who agrees with her that it’s just rotten that Namastay is doing nothing to help. She comes back with two brown-paper wrapped key cards. “These are what our maintenance men use. We’re going to trust you with them until the Airbnb people can straighten this out.”

So there it is. We ended up having a great time in DC on this trip. We experienced travelling mercies in the form of a kind, thoughtful, vacation-saving receptionist. But now you know why we will be hard pressed to ever chance VRBO or Airbnb again. I bet if George Mason had been around, he would’ve given them each a sound tongue-thrashing and a thump of his cane.

On Eating and Walking in Washington, DC

This past week my family and I flew into DC for our son’s graduation from his Master’s Program at GWU. Just like last year for his undergrad degree, there was no actual ceremony, but we gathered all the same, getting an Airbnb that was problematic but in a good location. More on the dangers of renting on VRBO or Airbnb in another post. Suffice it to say that NEVER AGAIN will we rent from either one, and that had it not been for the kind intervention of a lobby receptionist, we would have been scrambling for a place to stay.

After our rocky start, it was a wonderful odyssey of being together while eating and walking, with the occasional Metro ride or Lyft thrown in the mix. We’ve all been to DC multiple times and its one of our favorite cities; the monuments and museums, the diversity of neighborhoods, and of course the great restaurants.

A highlight of the trip was being some of the first to step back into the National Portrait Gallery and the American Museum of Art. They have huge collections thoughtfully curated. I always appreciate plenty of cushy places to sit down and contemplate art, and these museums (they are attached and flow into one another) have plenty. In the center of the two is a huge rectangular atrium with flowing water and lots of orchids. Do try and make your way up to the third floor where the conservationists work behind glass, like a zoo exhibit.

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This trip we walked from the Mall around the tidal basin, and saw the Jefferson, FDR, and MLK memorials, along with the “forgotten” patriot, James Madison. They were right, I didn’t know who he was – without really saying so, the memorial lets you know that Mr. Jefferson cribbed a lot of his material from Mr. Madison. I found the Jefferson to be disappointing. As one of our party said, it seems to be last on the list to get repaired. There’s a small museum underneath the giant rotunda. You take a very slow, creepy elevator down. It takes so long that you start to wonder if you will end up trapped and entombed there yourself. The museum (when the elevator door finally opens) is dingy, sparse, with a sad little gift shop. The poor clerk in there was so happy to see people. We bought magnets out of pity.

The FDR monument is fantastic. It is completely outdoors, and is built with giant blocks of stone. Water was planned to move through the whole thing, but that seemed to be a repair that has been indefinitely on hold as well. Bronze statues and carved paragraphs highlight the events and words (All we have to fear is fear itself) of his four terms in office. I was struck by something Eleanor said about him – that it was his disease that gave him both the compassion and the resilience to become the President we needed.

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MLKs monument makes it look like he is striding out of a mountain and it has his wonderful words and thoughts carved into the walls surrounding it. The whole walk around the basin was pleasant and not too strenuous. That said, we were walking an average of 20,000+ steps a day (roughly 10 miles a day) so you might want to take that last sentence with a grain of salt.

Another jaunt was to Georgetown and the oodles of cute townhouses all snugged up against one another, painted in various colors. The waterfront was enjoyable, if a bit stinky, and I finally got to cross off a bucket list item – climbing up the 75 steep “Exorcist Stairs.”

Taken by my son Steven, who had run up ahead of me. Show off.

We had our share of coffees and snacks as we did our walks, and ate at local faves such as the Old Ebbitt Grill by the White House. It’s a stuffy dark wood place where I had a great Caesar Salad. We also popped up to Union Market where you can get your choice of street food. My kids opted for Miso soup and a tasty breakfast, while my husband and I shared a really good eggplant parm sandwich.

Other tasty places were Poets and Busboys (hint: get the Vegan Nachos and share – they are pictured at up top) and the fun Fisher’s Farmers Bakers by the waterfront where I had the most delicious sandwich of Brie, Avocado, and Roasted Veggies on a fantastic apple walnut raisin bread. I did not share. Don’t forget to grab some chocolate there too – they sell it by the half pound. However, highlights of the eating portion of this trip were all found by our graduate. He picked several winners. The first was chef Jose Andres’ Zaytinya, which featured Mediterranean mezze plates and fortified sangria. We shared plates, ate, and talked for three hours as the staff whisked away empty plates and replaced them with more tasty bites and an endless supply of flatbread. I’ll dream of the lemon sorbet for a long time.

The second was located just off of the DuPont Metro stop, Mission, which had a fun bar scene vibe, and lots of outdoor seating if you wished it. The food was tasty tacos (the vegan mushroom ones were outstanding) as well as some good sizzling fajita platters. You are not going there for the service, or the comfortable seating, so just enjoy your tangy margaritas and the company.

The topper for me was our final fancy meal, at Rasika. It’s Indian food to the nth degree. Stunningly delicious food and impeccable service made this my favorite meal. I even hopped off my vegetarian diet to have the Halibut Malai in creamy yellow curry as my main dish. I love a good curry, and this was by far the best I’ve ever eaten. It came with its own side of fluffy basmati rice. The kids all had super spicy dishes that made my nostrils quiver, such as Lamb Mirchi Korma, and Chicken Tikka Masala. Sides included delicious truffle Naan and a variety of chutneys. If you go you MUST get the side dish of the crispy spinach called Palak Chaat.* Palak, I learned from our quirky waiter, is a type of spinach you can find at Asian markets. I’d fly back to DC just for that dish. We went all out on the desserts here, sampling a black rice pudding with an edible silver garnish (ooo lala) and a spectacular apple/cardamom sorbet.

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Needless to say, with all that eating, it was a good thing we clocked about 60 miles of walking on our 6-day trip. Side note: folks seem ready to travel, the planes and airports were packed. And even though we had our shot cards laminated and ready to show if asked, nobody did.

*Here is a version of the Chaat from THE CURRY GUY: just click the link to get to it.

 Spinach Chaat | Crispy Spinach Snack THE CURRY GUY (greatcurryrecipes.net)