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Friday, December 23, 2011

My Gift to You: Christmas Travels N Thoughts

It's Christmastime, a time for cheer, celebration and reflection. This piece is my gift to you and I hope you will find it entertaining. It is a brief journal of my recent travels to the great cities of Philadelphia and New York during Christmastime. All delivered to you in time for Christmas Eve.

I consider myself a Philadelphian and always will as I was born and raised there. However, when I lived there I enjoyed very little of what this great city had to offer and I venture to say probably many of the people who live and work there also do not fully take advantage of all of it's culture and charm.

My fiance Randy and I went there to visit this great city as we do every year. Our favorite place to visit is without question Olde City which is famed for the signing of the signing Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. How many of you know that Philadelphia was the first capital of the United States?

 We toured Independence Hall, Congress Hall, the Christ Church, Fireman's Hall, the Betsy Ross House, the Edgar Allan Poe home, Elfreth's Alley, Todd House, Bishop White House and all on foot! If you can stand the weather you can literally walk the entire city, provided that you take occasional breaks.  There are bus tours that take you through Olde City and then up the Benjamin Parkway past the museums and through to Fairmont Park. There's also the Ride the Duck amphibious bus tour that travels on the street and then on the Delaware River.  And then there are horse and buggy tours that stay strictly in the Olde City.

This year we went on a National Park Service Tour of the homes lived in by Dollie Todd on 4th and Walnut which showed the life of a typical middle class family. Dollie Todd, after her husband John died, later married again and became First Lady Dolly Madison. We then toured the Bishop White House right down the street which is an upper class home and was contrasted by the tour guide with the Todd home. Both homes were decorated with a little touch of Christmas, a little holly here and there and Christmas trees fitting for the respective home.

We went on a Christmas House tour of the Fairmont Park Houses. Here there are a group of seven preserved eigthteenth- and early nineteenth-century historic houses which were established as summer retreats for prominent families of the city. The tour included a guided tour of three of the homes. They were decorated for Christmas and at the end of the tour a recipe card was provided for a dessert of the time. Tonight we're going to have the kids make sugarplums! They aren't on the diet but we'll manage even so.

Some fellow Philadelphians might remember the old department store John Wanamaker's at Broad and City Hall and the famous Christmas holiday tradition. Macy's took over the facility years ago and has continued this long-standing Philadelphian tradition.

At 16th and JFK there is the Christmas Village which is opened until Christmas Day. The Village contains small store huts filled with many treasures imported from Germany. Last year I bought the most adorable ornamental birds that can be clipped on the tree. Even though I told myself that my Christmas shopping was done, it evidently wasn't because I kept buying more gifts. I just can't stop myself. There was free entertainment and they had German foods for purchase such as German Sausages and potato pancakes with sour cream and apple sauce available. And the most delicious wassail or 'mulled wine' I ever tasted! For $7 you get a a nice ceramic mug with the Christmas Village in Philadelphia logo and you can use the mug for refills for $5. I got 3 mugs this year and 3 last year so I have a set of six now. Only this year's mugs were different in size. They were made larger to hold two more ounces of wine!

For you wine lovers interested in mulled wine it's easy to make and will scent your house with Christmas cheer. Simply empty a bottle of red wine in a pot, add Cinnamon stick, cloves and a few orange peels. Warm until boil but do not bring the pot to a complete boil. It's recommended that you use wine from inferior grapes such as Pinot Noir as opposed a more expensive grape like Cabernet. Try it you might like it!
Now for the South Philadelphia in you (as is most definitely in me) the trip wouldn't be complete without a walk down the Italian Market on 9th Street. You know it, Rocky ran down the street when he was training for the big fight. Our experience was made unique when my body building fiance was approached by a local. Randy was told by the local that he was someone who he'd like on "his team" which from the looks of him and his reference to "enforcer" we might assume what he meant by "team".

We later ate at local South Philly Italian restaurants and were impressed with the fact that the old Nick's Roast Beef was holding it's own and still strong on 20th and Jackson.
 'Somebody' certainly enjoyed their roast beef combo and gravy fries! The combo is a delicious moist roast beef sandwich with provolone cheese on a kaiser roll. This paired with some Italian beer and french fries smothering with the roast beer gravy drippings made the meal complete. Delish!!

The next day it was time to get our rental car, take our stuffed up stomachs and make our way out to New York, New York, my very favorite city in the whole wide world. I will always consider myself a Philadelphian, however, I will always be a wannabe New Yorker. Although I can't claim to be a native New Yorker I did have the honor of working there for three years and subsequently shopped for my work suits and Christmas gifts numerous times throughout the years that followed. I can assuredly state that New York is without any possible challenge the best city in the world, at least to me!

We stayed with a lifelong friend and her family in Staten Island overnight. On our first day into the city we took a train and then the Staton Island ferry. We enjoyed seeing the views of the Statue of Liberty and the city's scapes from the boat but did not enjoy being in the crush of people getting on and off the boat. The ferry dropped us off in downtown Manhattan which I'm most familiar with. We walked through the financial district and although it was too early (9 am) to stop in we peeked through the windows of my favorite restaurant Delmonico's.
We walked up Wall Street
and then we got visitors passes to finally see, after ten years of waiting ....

the 9/11 Memorial. I can't take up enough space to fully express my feelings about this memorial. But I will say that I spent more than a few minutes deeply reflecting upon the lives that were lost, the rescue workers, the victims who worked in the WTC area that day and who worked near the other attack sites and who were passengers on the planes on that fateful day. As I felt the water mist from the pools against my face, I felt a grave sense of gratitude for those first responders who minimized the impact of those attacks. The tears fell hot on my cheeks as I looked up at some 88 floors which were completed on the Freedom Tower. I felt incredibly lucky to be part of the human spirit that can pick up after a disaster like that and re-build again... this Christmas I pray for the victims and rescue workers' families that were left behind and hope that the memorial brings them some closure and some peace. I think New York rebounded and couldn't have done a better job with the site. I look forward to seeing the future progress and going in the museum that is being built on the grounds.

On Day 2 we took a bus into Manhattan from Staton Island. It took quite a while (1.5 hrs in and 2.5 hrs back) but it was a comfortable ride and quite scenic going into the city. You heard of those iconic spots like Times Square, Rockerfeller Center, 5th Avenue and the like. So many people thronging the streets. It was exciting! We first got off at 41st and 6th Ave. and visited Bryant Park. They have their own tree and a free skating rink!

Can you see me?

We enjoyed a couple of beverages and walked through the small glass shops which sold jewelry, arts and crafts and once again I found myself buying more Christmas gifts.
We then walked up 5th avenue and were in search of a lunch spot. We stopped at Kallari Taverna on West 44th street which was a Greek restaurant. We ate at the bar and there the bartender took great care of us. Before we could even order a drink he offered a huge bowl of olives and then a plate of hummus, radishes and hot pita bread fresh from the oven.  We ordered drinks and Greek chicken lemon soup and small salads. The bartender graciously offered a free glass of dessert wine when we were through eating.  Then we continued our journey on 5th Ave. stopping off to gaze at the at amazing  store windows.

Can you see me above?

Sorry that's not me, I wish it were. We saw the beautiful store windows of Cartier, Saks Fifth Ave,  Harry Winston, Berdoff Goodman and Tiffany's. Many of the display windows this year had elaborate moving gift boxes that would open and reveal the merchants selected treasured. Some windows had moving manequins helping to display the treasures for sale.

Finally we arrived at our destination: The Plaza Hotel for our afternoon tea which was still being served at the original Palm Court. As requested we were seated near the piano player and as we sipped our tea and ate finger sandwiches we watching the people go by in the hallway next to us. The original Plaza Hotel was bought out by investors who converted it into partial condominiums and retained a part of the facility as a five star hotel.  Enough of the original architecture and fixtures were maintained to make it still feel like 'The Plaza'. However the Oak Room was still closed for renovations. We wanted to have a drink at the Champagne Bar or the Rose Club but there was an event going on. People were arriving in limos dressed in gowns and furs. We were finished with our trip by then and made our 6:30 pm bus back to Staton Island so we could continue our journey back to Philly.

I hope you liked my little Christmas Journey. Soon the holidays will be over and we may begin to implement the New Years goals we set. My goal last year was to get my novel  Having Fun with Mr Wrong published. Little did I know that unless I wanted to invest some bucks to self-publish it I had quite a bumpy road ahead of me. The book is currently on it's forth re-write as is the way of a novelist. On a positive note I have completed my first year retired from the corporate world and have officially embarked on a writing journey that I've dreamed of taking every since I was six years old.

In conclusion, I would like to wish each and everyone of you, my fellow writer friends, tweeters and facebook family and friends to have a blessed holiday and a New Year in which you pursue your dreams! I now know the many struggles of an emerging writer and while writing and critiques groups are helpful and necessary for any serious writer, it can lead one to shy away from the pen all together. That won't be me and I hope it won't discourage you!  I hope each of you will pursue each of your dreams. Keep it alive in 2012!

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