Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Emma's Graduation Video

Here's the video that was shown at Emma's high school graduation from Lighthouse on June 10, 2011. It is set to music so be sure to have your volume on. I hope to get pictures up from the special night very soon!

P.S. Thanks Drew for putting this all together... you're a pro.

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Monday, June 20, 2011

Our European trip part 5 - London

After an interrogative time (unbelievable but typical) at the Tel Aviv airport, we were relieved to get to London late Thursday evening. We checked into a darling bed and breakfast inn called the Cartref House just in time for the Royal Wedding of William and Catherine the next morning! After a good night’s sleep, we enjoyed a fresh cooked proper English breakfast (fluffy scrambled eggs, ham, toast and jam, grilled tomato and pineapple) by our host Allison (British pronounciation: “Allie-son”).


On the steps of our B & B


We had originally planned to avoid the wedding site and the crowds like the plague, but in the morning, as we ventured out, we couldn’t resist the fanfare and excitement in the air. We soon found ourselves amongst the masses hoping to get a glimpse of the Royal Couple. We actually made our way quite close to Westminster Abbey, but our view was obstructed and we could only hear the cheers that must have been the bride and groom’s arrival.




This was our view of the Abbey. We weren't really all that far away!


Later in the day, we got a more close up view.


Britain was so festively decorated for the occasion.


As our B & B host Allison said, "Britain loves their dysfunctional Royal Family!"

We departed the scene after the ceremony got underway, and after a fabulous lunch at Pret a Manger (a chain that puts Starbucks to shame, more on that later), we arrived at the Tower of London for a tour. It was interesting and we got to see the crown jewels – amazing! One of the crowns (“the crown of the Queen Mother”) has a 105 karat diamond! And some are over 600 years old. Naturally, they don’t let you take any pictures, and you must ride on a moving sidewalk thing as you view the crowns (as if you would try to break into one of the glass cabinets and take one with all the security hanging around - nevertheless, they still prefer to keep you moving). Anyways, we then rode a Catalina-type boat down the river Thames, which was really nice and picturesque. We walked around quite a bit, enjoying London, seeing Buckingham Palace, London Bridge, Big Ben and more. We also took a few cab rides and they were awesome! All the cabs there are the same; they are specially made cars for cab service. They are very nice, seat 5, and are practically materialize out of nowhere when you need one. And the cab drivers are so gentlemanly; it is a good and coveted job to be a cabbie in London, so you don’t see scary drivers like New York!


Ahh... Pret a Manger... please come to America.



Enjoying a cab ride!



Buckingham Palace. Crowds were hoping to see Will & Kate escape to their honeymoon, but a security guard we talked to laughed and said that they were "long gone."

Later that afternoon, we went for tea at Fortnum and Mason, a delightful and fancy store with a tea room on the 4th floor. It was really over the top… we sat at couches and overstuffed chairs and we each had our own personal tea pot. We filled up big-time on scones, tea sandwiches, and other amazing little desserts. Then, after tea we headed over to see the show Love Never Dies, the new sequel to The Phantom of the Opera, a fave show of ours. Love Never Dies was sensational! If you are a Phantom fan, I don’t want to ruin it for you (the show is most likely heading to NYC next and maybe someday to LA), so suffice it to say you will be surprised by the way that Andrew Lloyd Weber wrote the play to fit in perfectly between the time that the Opera Populaire burns and when the Phantom is visiting Christine’s grave at the end. In my opinion, no music can top Phantom, but the music in this show was surprising good and was quite harmonious with Phantom as well. We really enjoyed it and of course, a visit to the stage door is always a must with young ladies in tow. They happily received autographs and photos with the stars of the show.



One floor seemed to be all candy, displayed exquisitely.


Our tea delicacies. Yum!

The next day, we headed out for a double-decker bus ride around the city. What fun! It was a “hop-on, hop-off” type tour, so we rode most of the day, hopping off to see sights along the way. The tour guides were funny and informative and we really enjoyed it. A tour bus is actually a great way to see a new city in a small amount of time. At one stop we had lunch at Wagamama, a place a friend recommended to us. Weird name, but great food – all noodle based dishes and super gourmet. We loved it.


Wagamama lunch.



Can you guess where this is? It's actually McDonald's. They are quite nice in London, and I noticed that the female workers wear dresses for uniforms.


My kinda place - in the train station there were many shops and eateries.


Riding the tour bus.


London's street performers are commissioned by the city. This lady (right side- in gray dress) was singing opera and had her baby in a stroller next to her.

That night, after some authentic fish and chips for dinner, we headed to yet another show… the day before we had passed the theater where Wicked was showing and the girls gave Rich puppy dog eyes… so we decided to get some tickets for our last night, Saturday. We got cheap, nosebleed seats, but it was still fun to go and experience the show there in London. The girls were so excited!


Tickets!! Yay... thanks Daddy!


Dressed up London style for the show. We all bought hats for London, but Stephanie was the only one who could find hers that day...


Love this shot of Emma.

After our whirlwind trip, it was now time to hop a plane back to America. We flew on an 11 hour non-stop flight back early Sunday morning. The Tubbs picked us up at LAX and took us over to In-n-Out… it somehow felt good to be on American soil.

Now that I’ve taken hours of your valuable time to read through these Europe blog posts… I’ll wrap it up with some of my observations and what we learned about international travel. Feel free to leave now, if you've had enough!

First of all, I’d like to say that it was awesome to see a paper toilet seat cover upon returning home to LAX. You’d be glad just to see toilet paper in Europe and be able to go to the bathroom free of charge. We had to pay a few coins on occasion in France to use the bathroom, but in Florence, we actually paid $1.50 USD per person to use a restroom! Someone joked that your beverages are cheaper going in than out! Ha! At some bathrooms in Israel (particularly in the Old City), the girls and I took one look, and decided that we really didn’t have to go that bad after all! And some were just a hole in the ground; uh, we passed on those ones, too. So, American bathrooms were a welcome sight.

Secondly, you realize how many rules Americans have when you travel abroad. For example, in Paris, they have a bike rental system that enables you to rent a bike right on the street – you just slide your credit card and the bike is yours for the day for one euro. This would never work in California because you have to wear a helmet- it’s the law. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not against wearing helmets, but does it have to be a law? I think it should be up to each person whether or not they want to get brain damage if they fall while riding a bike. You can also park your car pretty much any way you want in Europe, within guidelines of course. Sometimes cars would be parked nose to nose (parallel parked) and a Smart Car would be parked perpendicular to them in between. It was totally acceptable as they were within proper boundaries, but you know in California your car would be towed lickety split if you dare try anything like that. And it would be like $350 to get your car back, as well.

Starbucks – You really can no longer enjoy Starbucks after going to Europe and London. In London, they have a local chain called Pret a Manger (“ready to eat”). Imagine the concept of Starbucks, except pretend that the coffee is actually good and hot, and imagine there are amazing pastries and ready to take out food from a refrigerated area. I’m not talking about Starbucks’ meager offerings of made 8 hours ago, mayo-laden chicken salad sandwiches or soggy granola on yogurt, but REAL food. Twenty or so different sandwiches on lovely breads, fresh fruit cups with things like pomegranite seeds inside, amazing homemade granola bars - these are all made fresh on the premises of Pret a Manger. What a concept! Oh, and I could eat their breakfast porridge and a croissant every day of my life. So good. I grabbed one last croissant and a couple of their granola bars before we departed London, just for good measure. We could do so much better in America – I wonder why we don’t.

Tip - Benadryl is a great friend to international travelers. I first discovered that Benadryl made me drowsy when I took some on a trip to Washington to combat new allergies from unfamiliar trees. I could barely drive after I took some. A friend told me that Benadryl is a very helpful friend when your system gets whacked out from time zone changes or when you need to get some sleep and you’re not tired. First of all, I took it on the way from L.A. to London – I waited until we had about 4 hours left in the flight and popped two. I slept about 3 ½ of those hours and had the sun not come up I might have snoozed a little more. Since Benadryl is only good for 4 hours, you don’t wake up drugged and groggy. I also found it helpful to take a couple Benadryl if I woke up in the middle of the night – that happened to me for the first 3 nights of our trip as my body thought I was in California, not Paris. Very helpful tip.

Your mantra should be: Pack light! Pack light! Pack light! The Harasicks have a hard time with this. Most of our airlines allowed you one 50 lb. bag for free (we only ran into trouble once - from Paris to Pisa - and got smacked with some unpleasant fees as their standards for weight were lower). If you even think you might want to bring home any souvenirs, be under 45 lb. on your luggage at the get-go. We initially all came in around 48-49 lb. which meant all souvenirs had to go in carry ons or risk being too heavy at check in. So, yes, I carried 4 hunks of my cheese in my carry on from Florence on. I’m not kidding. Next time, I will definitely allow for a little leeway in my suitcase.

Cell phones. This took us awhile to figure out. It seemed so complicated at first but was actually extremely simple. If you have an iPhone, all you need to do is turn off your cellular data and roaming, and disable your 3G. You are then left with just a phone. International minutes are about $1.25, so you use your phone only if you need it. We did not text. No need to add special plans or anything. And you just wait until you get on wifi to use your internet. That way, you come home to no surprises on your bill. Using your data in a foreign country can be very dangerous so we didn’t mess with it. We communicated to people back home via email or facebook.

Money. One of the smartest things we did was to get a special Capital One credit card for the trip. Capital One is the only credit card company I could find that offered no “foreign transaction fees.” All other credit cards charge 3-5% on every purchase you make. That can really add up. We also bought some foreign money (euros and pounds) before we left (your bank can order it, but we went to an exchange place downtown). We knew we could get some sheckels in Israel by writing a check at a money changer place that Drew used, so we waited. We used our credit card for most everything, and got cash out of ATM’s when we needed it. I think we only got cash a few times. With the exception of our little incident in Israel (scary restaurant), we never used U.S. dollars at all.

Safety. We were repeatedly warned about safety, and have friends who have been pickpocketed in Europe. We realized that you need to travel in such a way that you alleviate the worry of getting robbed, so you can enjoy yourself. So, for one, none of us used our pockets for anything valuable, i.e money or phones, because we rode frequently on the subways, and walked everywhere. Rich carried a small messenger bag that included all our passports, a couple phones, and money. It was a nice security type one with special two-step zippers that he found at Sport Chalet. No one could walk up and unzip it and take anything. Each of us had a small amount of money (5 euro) on our person in case of emergency (like getting separated and needing to make a phone call or get transportation). Stephanie and I carried no purses, though Emma carried a purse-like camera bag (bless her heart).

How did we plan this trip? I have to say, it took a LOT of time and research. We talked to many people who had gone to the same places, getting their opinions and recommendations. We also perused quite a bit and poured over travel books. Booking our 7 plane flights was especially stressful as I didn’t want to make any mistakes. The foreign sites can be tricky to navigate. We also got as many advance tickets as we could, i.e. train tickets, Eiffel Tower time, Bike tour, London bus, shows, tea time, as well as our airport transfers. This ensured that we had the time slot for things we wanted to do, yet didn’t make us feel like we were on a strict schedule. We made copies of all our tickets, as well as all our passports, and kept them in a separate bag. Also, before we left, Rich typed out our daily itinerary, inserting anything we had at a certain time, just so we had a framework for each day. We brought our travel books along as well, just in case we wanted to browse through for reference, and Rich actually carried one around most of the time. We liked the Rick Steves series as well as the Unoffical guide to ______ (insert place). Rich was amazing at leading us around everywhere. He had the trip planned well enough to be able to do all we wanted to, yet left it flexible enough to let the day dictate what we did. He always led us to the best places to get gelato, too! Thank you, hon, we all appreciate your leadership - our trip wouldn't have been as successful without all you did for us.

Food. Last but not least, you didn’t think I’d end this post without talking a little bit about the food, did you? I have to say, some of my favorite things were just the simple cappuccino and croissant or antipasti bars at certain places. We had good croissants in every country (even Israel) that far exceeded my favorite bakery (Berolina) here at home. In Italy, we did have pasta, and to be honest, it was good but not great. It’s served al dente there and it’s a bit more chewy. And I’ve actually had better risotto at Off Vine (one of my fave L.A. spots). We did have some righteous pizza in Rome though! And the gelato was AMAZING if you hit a good place (others could be so-so). Drew warned us that we might not like the food in Israel, but we loved it! We mostly had schwerma and falafel, which was great. I was really into their tahine sauce- so good! Thankfully you can get good middle eastern food here in the states (we like Zankou). London was great as well. We didn’t have much “English” food per se, but we hit a great place that was recommended to us called Wagamama, which was an upscale noodle restaurant. It was awesome. And, as I mentioned earlier, we frequented Pret a Manger and also had some good fish and chips at a pub. All in all, we all came home actually having lost a few pounds, as we walked so much, climbed to the top of a lot of towers and such, and even biked. We were always moving.

This truly was the trip of a lifetime for our family. Rich and I had never traveled abroad in our lives, and this was a great time to do it with our kids, before they head off to lives of their own in a few short years. We were also extremely blessed to be able to take Stephanie with us. She somehow tolerates us all quite well (!), and it truly wouldn’t have been the same without our sweet "extra" daughter along. My heart is filled with gratitude as I think about the sweet time God allowed us all to have as a family, seeing such amazing places.

I would like to conclude by thanking my sweet Emma for all the amazing photos. All the photos you see on my blog were taken by her. She served our family greatly by lugging her 92 lb. camera around (okay, slight exaggeration, but it is heavy). What you see here is just a smidgeon of the 4000+ images she took of our wonderful adventure. The many photos provide us with fond memories to last a lifetime. Thank you so much, Emms!!

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Friday, June 17, 2011

Our European trip part 4 - Israel

Arriving in Tel Aviv to a very empty airport (it was the Sabbath and also Passover week), we made our way to the Hertz counter to pick up our car. Yes, it’s a little unnerving to rent a car in Israel, but, we got a nice 6 passenger something-that-they-don’t-make-in-the-U.S. vehicle, with an obnoxiously large HERTZ sticker on the side (I guess they like to be able to identify tourist drivers easily). After a quick stop at a (kosher) McDonald’s for fries and ice cream cones (which I learned are NOT dairy, kind of weird), we made our way to the Moshav, near Jerusalem. The Moshav was where Drew had lived since the end of January for IBEX. It’s kind of like a summer camp type of place, rustic and hilly with dormitory areas as well as motel-type rooms for rent. They had a small store/gift shop, as well as a dining room where we had our breakfast each day. Our room at the Moshav was, in Emma’s words, “like a convalescent home room.” She was pretty much spot on, but it was fine and we didn’t spend much time there. In contrast to the mediocre room, was the breakfast spread they put out every morning - totally extravagant. It was a HUGE (kosher) buffet of probably a dozen different salads, hot dishes, fruit, yogurt, all kinds of cheeses, breads and a giant bowl of nutella (did they know I was coming?). Anyways, it really was beautiful. The only problem with it was that Americans aren’t generally conditioned to eating cucumber, tomato and feta salads and the like for breakfast. If you checked with me about noon, I’d be all over it, but not at 7:00 a.m. So, some bread, nutella, and Israeli coffee and I was good to go.


The Moshav. I wasn't expecting it to be so pretty.


Drew was so excited that Stephanie came to see his digs.

It was great to see where Drew lived and went to school, and he was eager to tour us around. Throughout our entire time in Israel, we never felt threatened, but that first night, we had a rather scary experience at an Arabic restaurant in nearby Abu Ghosh. Doesn’t Abu Ghosh just SOUND scary? Anyways, we went to get dinner at a place that was in our tour book and noted as “inexpensive,” but when we arrived we were given the “no prices listed” menu. Hmm. Well, being that the place was rated in our tour guide, coupled with the fact that it wasn’t a nice place by any stretch, we figured it must be reasonable and Drew said he wasn’t concerned. What we didn’t factor in was the fact that the staff was quite savvy in recognizing tourists and trying to gauge them. When we got our bill, it said 120 x 5 = 600 sheckels. Now, that is about 200 U.S. dollars or about $40/person! Outrageous! We only had about 200 sheckels on us and weren’t sure what to do. Drew was accustomed to how much things cost, and he was shocked. He went over to another party of diners to inquire with them if they thought we were being taken advantage of. They said yes, as they had asked about the price of the full dinner and the server told them 60 sheckels, half as much as they charged us. So, Drew went to speak with our server. The server went and got someone else, and more men appeared and were all discussing the situation in Arabic. It seems that they were realizing that we knew we were being ripped off, and it seemed to make them all very nervous and uncomfortable. To make a long story short, I don’t know what my son did, but he whittled our bill down to about $20 a person. We threw in all the sheckels we had and a U.S. $50 bill and fled as fast as we could. I won’t say it ruined our dinner, because it was REALLY good food (best falafel ever), but it sure made all of our stomachs turn with nervousness at the way our evening ended.

Sunday morning, Easter, we headed over to the Old City (Jerusalem). This was a fascinating experience. We parked the car, and first walked through an area with upscale modern shops (mostly American brands – I bought a shirt at GAP there), then right into the Old City entrance where people are selling bread on carts and probably nothing has changed since bible times.


The Gap - no different from the U.S., except that you have to go through metal detectors to go in.


And this, the old city, just yards away from the Gap. Crazy.

The Old City is divided into four quarters: Armenian, “Christian,” Jewish, and Muslim. We took a 2+ mile walk along the City Wall (it’s an attraction- you pay to do it), and were able to observe all the quarters from on high, as well as splendid views of the area including the Mount of Olives and Golgatha. While standing above the Muslim quarter, we were shocked to witness a funeral procession come right through the marketplace. We were immediately struck with the thought that we were not “in Kansas anymore.” We heard a commotion, thought there was a scuttle or a fight going on nearby, but then saw many men rushing through a gate carrying an open casket with a person inside wrapped in a fuzzy blanket. We were all stunned; but then came another, and another- three in all. The men were all shouting and rushing toward a cemetery nearby. We continued to watch and actually saw them slide one of the bodies into an open tomb! That was pretty much it – then they left. We were standing near some American Jews who lived in Israel and they explained that Muslims are required to bury their dead by sundown on the day that they die. So different from America. We don’t really deal with our dead personally – we have mortuaries. In Israel, and if you are Muslim, you don’t mess with mortuaries. You do it yourself. Really, really shocking to see this funeral – just right there amongst people selling goods in the marketplace. In America, you can't even bring a purse-dog into Starbucks, and here a dead body just mosies on by in the middle of the market. We were all speechless and stunned.


Funeral procession through the marketplace.

Walking through the Old City provided more “culture shock.” We seemed to be the only Americans around, and the girls and I were keenly aware that our jeans and t-shirts stood out as the ladies around us were pretty much covered head to toe. They were generally either Muslim or Orthodox, depending on what quarter we were in, and we felt very odd. Drew toured us all around, and we browsed at all the goods. He took us for wonderful schwerma at a place he visited on most Saturdays (yum).


Incense for sale.


When the vendors get bored, apparently they play backgammon.


These cute little boys offered to give us directions (and wanted money for it). Rich gave them a few coins and they escorted us to where we wanted to go!


The Mount of Olives - with the Garden of Gethsemane on the lower right. This view is from the City Wall.


Also on the city wall.


The amazing schwerma from Drew's favorite little food stand.

We also visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is the site believed that Jesus was crucified and placed in his tomb. Drew said his professors all concur that this was very likely the locale. Nowadays, it is a gaudy, gold-filled church full of ornate shrines and lit by candlelight, bustling with people wishing to identify with Jesus in a very misguided way. They place their faces and objects on the ground, hoping to come away holier. It was an interesting, but sad experience. Another sad experience was our visit to the Wailing Wall. You even have to go through a security checkpoint to get in. Note to self: don’t buy knives for your nephews in the old city and then go visit the wailing wall. The security guards were not pleased.


The church of the Holy Sepulchre.


This is the creepy shrine inside. The person bending over underneath the altar is touching the ground that Jesus was supposedly crucifed on. When they built the church, they left a little dirt patch there, and people stand in line to touch it.


This is thought to be Jesus' tomb.


The Western (Wailing) Wall. The futility of this made me incredibly sad.


An orthodox man at the Wall.

On Monday, Drew needed to return to classes, and we had arranged for a 3- day tour with Chris McKinny. Chris was recommended to us by a friend of a friend, and what a recommendation! He had been a professor at IBEX for some of the two years he was working on his Master’s degree in History and Geography of Israel at Hebrew University. Who better to take you around? He basically knew Israel like the back of his hand (he used no notes and had no markers in his bible) and beyond that, had an amazing grasp on ancient history and archaeology. He planned an itinerary for us that began Monday morning, included an overnight in Galilee Monday night, and concluded Wednesday evening. So on Monday, the five of us embarked in our aforementioned HERTZ branded rental vehicle, and off we went to see the beautiful country where our Lord walked. Monday we saw many sights and locations, ending up at a hotel in Tiberius (not the nicest place I've ever stayed). However, we went out to eat at a Chinese restaurant that Chris knew of on the Sea of Galilee, which was amazing! And so funny! The place was run by Chinese, the menu was in Hebrew, and the music they played was American (Am I really hearing "Dancing Queen" in Israel at a Chinese restaurant?). Love it!

I could go into great detail about all we saw and learned about as Chris filled our minds to the brim with interesting historical facts, but suffice it to say, we were blown away! I cannot describe to you what it felt like to stand on the place where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, and read His very words from Scripture. How about visiting Caesarea and standing where Paul made his defense to Herod, or going to En Gedi and reading from 2 Samuel of how David hid in a cave there when Saul was pursuing him. Or seeing the cave that the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in? That is just a small sampling. It was just all so surreal and truly life changing, and as Chris said, “you see the bible in color.” We absolutely loved our time with Chris – he was a huge blessing and far exceeded any expectations we had for a personal tour guide. In addition, we got to spend an evening tagging along with Drew's IBEX class to the Israel museum which was amazing!

Here are a few pictures from our incredible time in Israel. First up are some shots from Caesarea, the city Herod the Great founded and where he created a harbor where there was none (a great feat). Pontius Pilate resided there, and the apostle Paul passed through many times in his missionary work. After his arrest in Jerusalem he was imprisoned here for 2 years. I didn't envision Paul having his prison cell right on the Mediterranean, he must have had a pretty rockin' view out his cell window.


Ruins from Herod the Great's palace. See the cool tile? In the back you can see the remains of his freshwater swimming pool. Caesarea was a fascinating place.


This is all that remains of the once great harbor from long ago. Kind of reminds me of Gilligan's Island now.


The Mediterranean Sea was pristine and deep blue.


This is one of the most interesting ancient sites we visited, Bet She'an.
Several excavations starting in the 1920s and forward revealed this ancient town. This is one of the most impressive Roman and Byzantine sites in all of Israel. What a thrill it must have been to unearth this city, once completely below the surface.


We also visited the small town of Capernaum. In Matthew 4 this is reported to be where Jesus lived.


He preached on this site at Capernaum, but what is there now is the ruins of a later synagogue.


Beautiful Emma on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.


And lovely Stephanie, too.


We took a fascinating trip up to Masada. You can hike or take an aerial tram. We opted for the tram! It was such a hot day. Masada was a city built on a 1300 ft. high cliff, by Herod the Great. It was extensively excavated in the 1960's.


The view from the top. Masada housed another of Herod's palaces. Much later, after Herod died some Jewish rebels took refuge here and later committed mass suicide on top of the cliff, when being sought by the Romans. The Romans built an embankment ramp over the period of about a year, and when they finally entered the fortress they found the 960 inhabitants dead. This is the story relayed by this historian Josephus.


Floating in the dead sea! You can only stay in for a few minutes as your skin starts to sting! I had a rash on my skin for about a month after going in.


The mud that is found in the Dead Sea is supposed to be very good for your skin (the company Ahava uses the minerals in their products). We rubbed some on and then rinsed off in the showers. See the person with a mud mask on the right?! People literally covered themselves from head to toe in the stuff - they looked like walking zombies.


One of my favorite Israel meals. Chris took us to this place, that served falafel, and once you received your sandwich, you were directed to a nearby room full of about 40 platters full of beautiful salads. You could take as much as you wanted! It was so pretty to look at, and delicious too.


The Israeli coffee chain, Aroma, puts Starbucks to shame. Just look at these beautiful beverages that we got on our morning in Galilee. I felt like I was in Italy with the croissants they served. And, each drink comes with a piece of dark chocolate...hello! How perfect is that? We also hit Aroma for lunch the next day - we had the best sandwiches on their homemade bread.

Well, that was really just a small snapshot of Israel, as we visited so many places. And after our 5 wonderful days in Israel, it was time to bid Drew farewell, but only for a short while as he was returning home one week after us. The four of us, Rich, myself, Emma & Stephanie boarded yet another plane and headed back to England, where we began our trip.

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