Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cafe Ponte

Café Ponte is inconspicuously nestled in a Business Park location, but once you are in, it transforms into an upscale feeling of bistro extraordinaire. We found Pontes by chance one night while perusing the St. Pete Times sometime back in 2003, realized it was in our backyard so to speak, and couldn’t wait to try it out.

From the moment you arrive, you are escorted to your finely decorated table and introduced to your wait staff. Believe it when I say you are in good hands from there. If you have a passion for wines, ask for Dominic. If you are interested in trying a new wine paired to your entree, ask for Dominic. Their wine vault is well stocked, and there is something for everyone’s taste and price. There is nothing better than a special night, close companions, and an extraordinary bottle of wine. Some of our best memories are made of these.

Whether for business dinners or “anytime” occasions, Cafe Ponte has an eclectic and ever changing menu selection. I love the latter as we are loyal patrons, and nothing keeps me happier than new dishes such as their seasonal Stone Crab special. Known as American fusion (with French, Asian, and Italian influences), chef Christopher Ponte will delight even the most discerning palates. The sauces and locally grown micro vegetables are displayed with pride, making each entree its own artistic landscape of colors and tastes.

My absolute favorite, whether by the bowl or demitasse cup, is the creamy wild mushrooms soup, sprinkled with black trumpet dust, chunks of shiitake, and that unique flavor of Italian truffles. The seared ahi tuna appetizer was so good; I’ve ordered the entree version as well. We’ve been back for their steaks, Chilean sea bass, diver scallops (to die for), and even other holiday specials. Do you know Pontes has a mother’s day brunch? Try the blood orange mimosas!

Desserts could almost be another blog, but just know they are worth pacing your evening for. Ed loves the Upside down Chocolate Soufflé and Tahitian Vanilla Bean ice cream or the Ice-cream Plate - Burnt Carmel, Tahitian Vanilla Bean, and Peanut Butter Chip, served with cookies while I go for the Chef’s Crisp of the Day - Seasonal fruit with crispy topping (no ice-cream for me). Finish with a great cup of Cappuccino…need I say more?

In fact, the wine tastings at the end of each month should be on your calendars. The international cheeses, fruits, and assorted breads makes a great start to any Friday night, then add a few freshly cooked buffet combinations (pastas, pizza, plus…), and enough tickets to taste a serious selection of reds and whites. I missed out on last month’s Wine Tasting where one of the bottles introduced was a sparkling Shiraz…not to worry; we bought out Dominic’s last three bottles for our Chocolate Party in November! Next on my calendar will be the Taste of the NFL; check out Café Ponte’s scheduled events on their website: and add them to your Facebook for updates as well.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

World Wide Tipping Guide

Here is a link to tipping restaurants, porters, and taxis.

Monday, October 19, 2009

London - Footloose and Fancy Free

Last summer, Ed and I decided to go to England/Scotland/France with our teenage son, our best friend and his teenage daughter. The challenge was to show our kids some of the best of Europe’s offerings. We wanted them to understand that if you work hard, you can play hard. Since I was born in England (an East end girl), I thought we’d enjoy a centrally located bed and breakfast in London for the first few nights. That would give us four days to adjust to the time difference before joining Globus for our nine day Britain Sampler bus tour. Arriving a few nights early turned out to be a fantastic idea, and we found a great B&B.

Running free in England is liberating, but it all starts with good planning. My travel mate is the best there is when it comes to connecting the dots; he covers all the locations of interest, explores all forms of transportation, and then checks for the best deals. We discuss all options and procure the dates. Everyone had their new electronic passports, and thanks to Magellan, we purchased an RFID Blocking Passport Holder which acts as a protective shield for passports, IDs, and credit cards, so your RF data can only be accessed when you remove them from the holder.
The anticipation and planning is almost as much fun as the actual trip.

First on our “to do” list, was checking airfare and finding lodging. We utilized books (Fodor’s) and the internet to explore possibilities. Ed found the best airfare rates with British Airways with an internet special upgrade to Club World travel, and we scarfed them up on that offer. British Airways had a nice club at the airport in Tampa where we could relax, get a snack and drink, and wait for the boarding process in comfort. We would now be going essentially first class, complete with fully reclining seats that stretch out into six foot beds! We each had our own space with TV monitor, and of course, a delicious array of meals to choose from complete with silverware and china. Not what we normally encounter on our domestic flights. Our flight was smoother than I expected, and the luxury of sleeping for a few hours made it seem pretty short. It didn’t hurt, either, that we had a direct flight to Gatwick on a new 777.

We found our B&B online as well. We warned the kids about the small bathrooms you might encounter in European B&Bs, that the bathrooms may even be down the hall, and things can be much smaller over there…rooms, beds (often singles or doubles), but we were ready to accept the differences from an American vacation.

The Arran Hotel, ,a 200-year-old Georgian Town House within walking distance of the British Museum, Piccadilly Circus, and Oxford Street shopping area, cinemas, restaurants and Theatre Land. This is a small family run hotel situated in the heart of literary Bloomsbury. The owner’s warmth and hospitality will bring us back again, especially for the hearty breakfast buffet! We feasted on bangers (sausage), eggs, stewed tomatoes, grilled mushrooms, awesome toast (there’s something about breads in Europe!), and beverages. We enjoyed their quaint garden, often relaxing out there chatting up a storm. The weather was cool, sweater weather, and only sprinkles of rain here and there. The proprietor, Mr. Richards, willingly helped us find eateries, call for taxis, etc, and made us feel like family.

As was an initial concern, the bathrooms were tiny. We could literally soap up the curtain and rotate to get washed up. Getting soapy and rinsing off was a daily challenge, but we worked it all out. Don’t forget to step up into the “lou”…a warning for sleepyheads like me! But, at least we had one in each of our rooms.

The first thing we did was buy a three day London Pass for all of us at the rail station. We had unlimited access on all London Underground, Buses, Trams, Docklands Light Rail and Over-ground Trains within zones 1 – 6.
I truly hope we get high speed rail and light rail in the Tampa Bay area because it was liberating to come and go as we pleased. Our son enjoyed it so much; he wants to go live there for a summer after college!

As timing would have it, we were there for the Queen’s birthday. The last time I saw that parade, I was seven years old and got lost when I followed the Queen on her horse… obviously a long time ago. We had taken the tube from our hotel, and walked around St. James Park, the mall, and to the Palace. The Colour Guards, Royal Bands, and the
Queen were just several feet from us, so the pictures we got were incredible. We managed to get a great shot of Camilla Parker-Bowles and the two Princes, William and Harry. The pond, was as remembered, filled with ducks, swan, and other fowl. The rose gardens were fragrant and colorful. It was a fantastic sunny day; one the Queen would surely have ordered.
Before getting back on the tube, we ate lunch at The Old Star Pub and made friends with some lovely local ladies and their gent who were out for the day to celebrate the birthday affair.

Of course, our daily adventures also included a Double Decker bus and trains to The Wax Museum, Harrods for some shopping, London Tower, and the Trafalgar Square area. It was kind of sad they had managed to get rid of the pigeons which I loved to feed as a kid, but it made it much cleaner for people in general. The local pubs were a blast to visit, each with their own specials of the day. With much dismay, I could not find steak and kidney pie, but any pub food was homey and delicious.

One evening, we fit in an extravagant High Tea at the London Ritz. As we got fancied up, our hotel called for the famous black cab (and yes, they fit all five of us, unlike in Paris, but that’s another blog). For this event, we enjoyed a choice of several varieties of tea, finely cut sandwiches, freshly baked scones, jam and clotted cream, and an assortment of delicate pastries all served in the spectacular Palm Court in the Ritz. The gentlemen had ordered the Ritz’s magnificent three foot white rose complete with an attractive box, so we were quite surprised! It was a night to remember, that’s for sure.

Our last excursion before joining the Globus Tour, was taking the tube, bus, and taxi to Abbey Road.
Ed was particularly interested in this place because he just loves anything Beatles. We tried several times for the perfect picture, but with concern about stopping the traffic or being out of sink, we managed to get only a few good ones. We signed the gate entry of the Abby Road Studio as all who come there must do. People from around the world sign their messages as a memorial or tribute to the Beatles. It was magical.

We loved the Arran House, and all London had to offer. It was a great start to the rest of our trip; we were rested and excited about the adventures yet to come.

Some notes from our travels:

We struggled a bit trying to get all our luggage onto the Gatwick Express we inadvertently popped into the nearest train car, but with three helpful males, we dragged the cases into the business class and stayed there too pooped to move up one train car more. (Trains can be crowded in regular fare, but first class is much roomier even with suitcases in tow. Plus, the bathrooms are nicer.)

The Gatwick Express goes directly into London proper, and cabbies from there are easy to beckon; they are friendly and pride themselves on getting you to your destination hotel quickly and safely.

How to Get the Most out of Your Travel Wardrobe:

  • Plan for and pack clothes that meet the needs of your itinerary, are appropriate for the culture and climate of your destination, and allow the most outfits from the least number of pieces.

  • Here are some easy ways to lighten your load. Plan around a basic color. Choose a neutral solid color like black, navy, gray, brown or khaki for your main wardrobe pieces. Matching striped or print shirts, a scarf or a pin can add a little color without sacrificing valuable space.
  • Plan to wear each item several times during the trip. Choose clothing that is easy to care for -- wrinkle resistant, hand washable, and quick drying. Take a compact laundry kit along to wash as you go.
  • Take more tops than bottoms. Every top should go with every bottom. Tops are lighter and take less room than bottoms, and are easier to launder.
  • Choose lightweight knits, microfibers, cotton and silk over bulky sweaters, heavy denim and corduroy. For colder climates, pack silk long underwear that keeps you warm, packs small, and doubles as pajamas.

  • Wear your jacket or coat and heavier shoes to the airport (worn clothing is never weighed). While you are at it, stuff the coat pockets, too. Many travelers choose multi-pocket jackets or travel vests, in effect wearing an extra carry-on.
  • Pack for comfort. Chances are good that you will be sleeping in your clothing on the plane. Choose clothing made of stretchy fabrics, expandable waistbands, and non-binding collars and cuffs. Make sure these fabrics resist stains and wrinkles to avoid the slept-in look.
  • We love TravelSmith’s clothing and Magellan’s packing organizers.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Victoria & Albert's Chef's Table

Victoria Albert’s Chef’s Table was the culinary experience extraordinaire! Having traveled around our nation and to many countries enjoying restaurants and eateries, nothing and nowhere has trumped the experience of this exceptional night out.

After seeing a wonderful piece done on Victoria and Albert’s on the morning show, I grabbed the opportunity to call for a reservation. It became the ultimate challenge just to procure such a date. I found out that renowned chefs from all over the world also try to get reservations there! The ordeal to get a reservation began at 7:00 am and often ended by 7:02 with a, “I’m sorry, the reservation has been filled.” So, for months this continued to be the case. Special occasions had come and gone…passing birthdays and anniversaries and into August. We decided to tag teamed them on the phone at precisely 6:58 am. We both had the phone line ringing: I was put on hold while Ed’s was answered. He got the reservation for four in March, seven months after our initial try!

Now, we wait…only six months away.

Our friends, one a well known chef herself (, were as excited as we were to be upon our special night out; we all decided to dress up for the occasion and even made reservations at a hotel on the premises. We knew the dinner would last three to four hours. You’ll have the single Chef’s Table and the pampering for the entire evening.

It begins with your arrival, and as you quietly walk past the dining tables, you are escorted through the meticulously organized kitchen to a splendidly set table in the back. Although you are “in the kitchen”, you have your own nicely decorated alcove from which you can enjoy the seemingly choreographed movements of chefs preparing their specialties. I don’t know about you, but I truly enjoy being at home cooking and having everyone hang around the kitchen helping and talking while we prepare our feast. This spot was the penultimate! We could sit and relax, chat, and enjoy the buzz of the kitchen activity.

Immediately after being seated and toasting with Champagne, Chef de Cuisine Scott Hunnel, explains how the evening will unfold. While asking if there are any special concerns regarding preferences, he begins to customize the night’s epicurean delights. We were delighted to leave the planning in his capable hands. We all decided to participate in the wine pairing which turned out to be a great education on wines we may never have considered trying before! Mr. Israel Perez, Maître d’Hotel, (wine master) explained the wine choices for each course as they were served.

The wait staff was also exceptional and catered to our every need. In fact, our plates were brought in with much ado…with our own individual waiter setting it down in front of us… four people with four servers swooping in to place the artistically prepared appetizers and main courses (which were both visually appealing and heavenly tasting) was more than I expected. The evening was a huge success; we were heady from the wine and food, so the timing between courses was measured perfectly. Coffee and dessert was welcomed, and of course, was another visually delicious experience. We saved the corks to all the wonderful wines and received our own customized menus to commemorate our very special celebration.

The Chef’s Table can accommodate up to ten people. Sharing this experience with friends will certainly last a life time, so I’d highly recommend it. Look to make it a leisurely affair; we were there for four and a half hours. The price is $165.00 per person and the wine pairing is another $70.00. At this time, reservations are being booked just 90 days ahead, but by October 27th, the reservations will go to 180 days ahead. Jackets are required for men.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort: A gem in St. Petersburg, FL - Is it really haunted?

As we arrived at the Vinoy, the staff rushed to get our bags, and we all proceeded to the check-in desk. I did have some concern when I saw that we were on the fifth floor! It’s not that I really believe in ghosts, but knowing that athletes from visiting teams report noises, lights that turn off or on, and closets that open in the middle of the night. Well, I did feel a little anxious. I had even heard that people have reported seeing the image of a young lady, dressed in white, floating around in the grand ball room looking for her lost love. Escorted to our bay view room, the bell hop assured us the “hauntings” were not in the new tower where we were staying. (A sigh of relief!)

Even the Ghost Hunters did a segment on the Vinoy; check it out!

The Vinoy in St. Petersburg boasts quite a history and is listed as one of the 200 Historic Hotels of America ( Since its massive restoration and expansion in 1992, at 93 million dollars, it has become renowned for story book weddings, High Tea, Spa and Golf getaways, and of course, business conventions.

I read, An Architectural Thesis by Marilee Lloyd ‘83/84, and she stated that the Vinoy Hotel was built by Aymer Vinoy Laughner during the boom years of the 1920’s. The grand opening in 1925 was a great success and brought clientele from the North and Europe. During World War II, Mr. Laughner donated the building to the war effort for use as a barracks. Being refitted for such purposes, proved to be its demise. Efforts to re-establish The Vinoy’s former significance and splendor limped along until it was sold to a chain-hotel in 1972, and eventually in 1975, it closed its doors for twenty years.

Lloyd describes the conditions: the ballroom was a complete loss…most of the interior murals had been exposed to the elements, and the hotel roof had given way in two locations. Water broke through, into the second floor, causing much damage.

The stories of birds, squirrels, and even an alligator taking up residence in the basement of the dilapidated Vinoy have been circulating for years. There were protest to “tear it down”, and there were those who wanted it fixed back up. Finally in 1992, the fabled Vinoy opened once again. The guided tours offered by the Vinoy and its History Gallery are an ideal way to take in resort’s heritage and architectural delights like the archways and the original stenciled pecky cypress beamed ceiling.

There are some exceptional deals during the summer months; you can get Florida resident rates and enjoy all the amenities of this Four Diamond Award resort. Although we were staying there for a wedding, we lounged by the pool after brunch at Alfresco (which also serves a mean seafood platter!); enjoyed the tropical drink of the day, and even made an appointment at the salon for my hair and make-up. The staff at this resort was very accommodating making our stay a real mini-vacation.

The wedding took place in The Palm Room where a center stage was beautifully decorated for the bride and groom. A reception area on The Mezzanine Level was set up for entertaining with a grand piano, bars, and a few appetizer stations. The best part of the night was the bride’s grand entrance to the ballroom. Beautifully lit and decorated, the ballroom was set to perfection with tables on both sides of the center stage where the bride and groom met for their first dance. It didn’t hurt that the Temptations were there to play.

Dinner was served to about two hundred people with formality and ease. The waiters poured water, wine, and coffee, and served hot meals and scrumptious desserts. The Vinoy makes weddings an unforgettable affair.

To end our stay, we splurged ($50. pp) on a Mediterranean Market Sunday Brunch voted “Best in the Bay”. With seating around the dining stations, choosing what to start with first will be the question of the day! A seafood station offered fresh shucked oysters on the half shell, crab legs, seafood salads, paella, and shrimp to die for. Across the way was a table of hand-carved meats: pork, dry spice-rubbed roast beef, prime rib, and more. A large salad selection and assorted cheeses, freshly baked breads and crackers were displayed proudly. The fresh fruit table had a nice assortment not usually found at other brunches, but some were not as ripe as I’d like. We both enjoyed the primo raspberries and blueberries with a little yogurt.

What stood out, though, was the additional menu for the champagne brunch. The waiter offered his recommendation of Tapas, eggs Benedict, and/or Beluga Caviar. The caviar was an extra ten dollars and well worth the upgrade. Be brave, and you will see that Beluga Caviar, (most highly prized for their large grain and fine skin) adorned with shaved egg and purple onion and then rolled into tender little crepes the size of your palm, will be a real taste extravaganza! It was buttery, not fishy as many may think. Sample only the tiniest of the American Caviar and you will see why Beluga Caviar is sought after. I don’t eat that other kind, but it provides a unique education for newbies.

Tapas were also a highlight and a new treat for me. With encouragement from the waiter, I tried three tiny portions of duck, shrimp, and steak each on separate saucers and paired perfectly with vegetables or sweet/peppery candied mango chunks. They were all delicious.

The grand finale? - A chocolate fountain with an eclectic choice of fruits, cakes, pretzels, marshmallows, etc. It will bring the kid out in you! Speaking of kids, though there were not many, there is a counter for them to decorate their cookies and cake with icing and sprinkles. I’d also recommend the fresh baked pastries, and to top it off with tea or coffee; I loved the Cappuccino.

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club is a special place to stay whether for R&R or business. Being in the heart of downtown St. Pete doesn’t hurt either. Shopping boutiques, stores and other fine dining establishments round out the total experience…and the water, well, boaters love to come here, too. (The rumor that it’s haunted makes The Vinoy all the more intriguing. )
See the Vinoy's website:

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bascom’s Chop House (click for their cool website)

Talk about dinners done to perfection; this place should be at the top of your list for great steaks and chops. Right in the heart of Tampa Bay, Bascom’s menu has something for everyone especially with the current dinner specials. Booth or table, the dining experience is quite enjoyable. It has a warm ambiance and a unique history. The original Bascom came with Henry Flagler to help build the railroads. Steak, and eventually seafood (never frozen by the way!), became their forte.

We were pleasantly greeted and whisked off to our booth with their advertized specials in mind. The tender aged Petite Filet Mignon was heavenly and cooked to a perfect medium rare, and paired with our waiter’s suggestion of a Row Eleven Pinot Noir …well, it just couldn’t get much better. We also tried their Prime Rib and found it to be another great choice. Both came with a salad, large baked potato, and finely cut curly onion crisps. Dessert was worth waiting for. An outstanding original Floridian Key Lime Pie was Ed’s choice, and if you love cake batter, get their Berries and Cream! It’s really a Crème Brulee type of cream, but I taste cake batter with slices of ripe strawberries and tender blue berries. I’ll come back just for that!

On a second visit, we upped the ante choosing (Australian) Lamb Chops and the chef’s special of the night, an aged (48 days) bone-in Rib Eye steak. I ordered my favorite appetizer: a dozen chilled raw oysters. They were large premium selects and delicious, but I’d recommend getting a half dozen because they are filling. Again, both entrees were done to perfection, and the pacing from appetizer to dessert and coffee was superbly timed. The wine list is pretty extensive, but they did not have the 2006 Rombauer Zinfandel I was hoping for. Todd, the Cellar Master and General Manager, promises to have Rombauer Vineyards selections on the list soon.

Although the sides for our dinners this time were a la carte, they were large enough to share. We enjoyed splitting a Caesar salad, garlic mashed potatoes (not too heavy as far as garlic goes, yeah!), and even my favorite dessert: Berries and Cream. Yes, even dessert is large enough to share! In fact, there was enough steak to have it for our breakfast the next day as well.

We like Bascom’s Chop House; I can’t wait for October when they have their Stone Crab specials!

Specials for Friday/Saturday evenings: Petite Filet Mignon or 12 Oz. Prime Rib – also served with baked potato and garden salad. $ 19.99
Raw Oysters (12) $8.95
Chef’s Special: 25 oz. Aged Bone-in Rib Eye $ 31.95
Three grilled double-cut Australian Lamb Chops $ 27.95
Sides: $ 2.95 - $ 5.95
Desserts – made fresh on the premises: $ 5.95

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Going to Russia with Love

Zelenogorsk, Russia (Siberia) - Why would anyone go there? Well, as I sit and sip a cup of hot tea, I remembered the day we got the lucky news; we were cleared to go!

In 1997, my son and several other middle school students built a space station to simulate living on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. The kids actually made a record (30 hours) space simulation where no one could leave the “station” (a huge geodesic dome complete with air-conditioning, computers, bunks, and kitchenette). They were in touch via the internet with NASA, parents, friends, and even the Russian Space Center who caught wind of their simulation. In short, they were invited by Russia to attend the Space Consortium in Zelenogorsk with other like-minded students from Russia and Poland. (Click for article)
Now, here is where divine intervention comes in…a wonderful man in Haines City (who remained anonymous) decided that students could bridge the gap between our two countries and bring a little more peace to the world. He would pay for the entire trip! Can you believe that? And so, I was invited to attend the conference as well and join my son and the others as ambassadors of the US and Haines City. We were really going!

The trip to Zelenogorsk took months of planning: attaining Visas and passports, vaccinations, and learning about the country and the long trip we were about to embark upon. We solicited donations of pens, pencils, and jeans (we heard they were hard to get over their). Local banks and companies were glad to “represent”.

The flight over was typical, but the flights between St. Petersburg and Zelenogorsk were…scary! Russian airlines allowed dogs and animals in the cabin area. You try going to the bathroom when there is a German shepherd lying on the floor like he was on guard! Then when the plane landed, several of the unoccupied seats fell forward showing the straw and horsehair padding. We were definitely learning the differences in the travel standards between our two countries. That became even more apparent when, in route, we drove past nuclear power plants just a stones throw away from the road!

St. Petersburg was a beautiful, bright colored city: light blues and white, gilded gold, etc. It’s certainly a spot worth seeing in this world. The great Peterhoff on the Gulf of Finland was a memorable visit, and unlike its counterpart, the more formidable (militaristic) Moscow with its darker reds, greens, and black. We were lucky enough to tour both amazing cities before flying to Zelenogorsk. Traveling through so many time zones (four more, I believe) was definitely fatiguing.

Another flight and another day of sleep deprivation had us giddy. A tour bus picked us up and drove to one of Russia’s gated or “closed cities”. It was here that “the mother” in me kicked in. A guard (gate keeper) came aboard with a machine gun of some sort and requested we shut off all the cameras and enter the guard house one by one to show the proper documentation. I could not believe my eyes! What kind of city were we about to enter?

I came from the cold war era – a bit of a closed mind and maybe a closed heart – because my former husband was a Nuclear Naval Officer and played Russian roulette or “tag, your it” kind of games with Russian submarines. Luckily though, the kids thought it was very cool and hurried to oblige the guard. I just prayed we would not do something stupid and be put in the gulag. After all, we were traveling with tweens, and kids will be kids. As it turned out, after producing all the documentation for each and every one of us, we were in! Inside this gated city (by gated I mean an eight foot wall that runs the city’s circumference with bob wire on top of that), was a very peaceful feeling. After all, who would commit a crime here? There’s no way to get out without armed guards to stop you.

Zelenogorsk is a small city with lots of surrounding farm land and mountains. We learned that people who work in the city generally work for the government and are given family plots to grow their own food and own a dairy cow or two. The more prestigious the family patriarch, the more plots they could obtain. The apartments in the city are their home away from home so to speak. So, families stay in the city during the week, and they go country for the weekend.

Our first official duty was to exchange flags with the “mayors” of Zelenogorsk and Poland’s equivalent. We were presented with beautifully bound books of Zelenogorsk and treated to lunch for some pomp and ceremony. The kids were delighted when dancers greeted us with the Bread Ceremony. Who ever takes the biggest bite, gets to sit at the head of the table. That person may call the shots so to speak, and with that, we started to dine and be entertained with splendid song and dance.

While the kids attended the space consortium secluded in the White Birch forests just a few miles from the town’s center, the adult chaperones had an opportunity to visit the local school. To greet us, the students there had a chorus band awaiting our arrival even though they were officially off for summer. They sang a song in English, and then we took a tour of the different subject classes, grades one through twelve. All the children walk to school in Zelenogorsk. They had a beautiful gym and ballet room, a computer lab, cafeteria, and even display cases with their arts and crafts. I brought home a hand painted Russian egg from one the students. I was impressed by the acceptance of our cultural differences. They spoke English pretty well; we spoke only a word or two of Russian. Most European students learn more than one language!

On one occasion, I got to pick up my son form camp to have dinner at an English teacher’s country home. I’m also a teacher, so we had a lot in common and had made fast friends. Galena and her family own two plots. Their home was small but comfortable, and they had a real toilet! A toilet like ours back home is a luxury over here. Before dinner, we actually picked our own potatoes, lettuces, strawberries, carrots, cabbage, and even helped milk their cow. What an extraordinary meal they made us! My son, to this day, loves growing his own garden.

Our hotel, back in the city, was not like those in the USA. The buildings we saw as we traveled were of muted tones and unappealing really. Surprisingly, the interiors were often picturesque
with huge atriums and bird houses. Most of our room’s bathrooms were rough to say the least and many toilets did not have seats or lids. I was lucky! The water was rusty (old cast iron boilers), so we were warned to use only bottled water. The problem with that was that it was fizzy water, and by now, I had small ulcers from drinking it so often. We even brushed our teeth with carbonated water! That was a real joy. I literally dreamt of having cool, clean, “flat” water.

We persevered through these adversities like troopers. We learned that the people of Zelenogorsk were friendly, accepting, and gracious. We had an African-American student and his mom with our group, and they were actually delighted that color was not an issue. In fact, everyone wanted to touch his hair and hold his hand. He told me later that he felt like a rock n’ roll star. It was stated that it had been thirty years since an African- American had been in town, but then… it was Siberia. This is one of few cities that do not have to pay taxes to Moscow, and they were originally one of the most technologically rich cities due to the Uranium sources in the mountains. I should have made lead underwear for my son!

The city encourages entrepreneurial forms of commerce like the factory using “smart” machines to make a chemical fiber (equal in its quality to cotton) or “Siberian” cotton like we see as a down alternative in comforters, siblon fabrics for dress making, and smaller businesses like the famed folk-master crafter, Valentina Baranova. Her toy animals made of clay go far beyond the closed city and are exhibited in many museums and galleries around the world. I have a few of her characters, which all have holes to create a kind of whistle.

Almost two week into our trip and we were ready to go home with the exception of one last stop…the Space Center Moscow. The local airport was a nightmare; it was not built for tourism! The toilet situation there really threw us off balance; how do those women do it? Tired as we were from yet another long flight, we were amazed by the similarity to NASA-Kennedy Space Center except everything was

in Cyrillic letters! We got to talk to the Russian astronauts as they
buzzed by in outer space; they pass by every 90 minutes! The kids were delighted. The Russian government made sure we were treated well! It was such a privilege, and one that is given to few people!

Life lessons were learned, and a new found respect for our own country emerged. That is why one would go to such a far out place in the middle of no where! The kids went with open minds and open hearts, and as for me, I let go of a Cold War’s worth of ambivalence. I recommend two stops: St. Petersburg with its Peterhoff and Hermitage Museum ( a Baroque Winter Palace with paintings of Renoir, Monet, and Van Gogh), and Moscow (see the Church of the Resurrection of Christ as it seemingly pops up out of nowhere) just to see the differences between these two historical cities.

Time for another cup of tea!

P.S. With profound thanks to that very special “sponsor”.