(Almost) Meeting Mary Tyler Moore

I’d like to say I met Mary Tyler Moore at one of her weddings.

I jumped at the chance to try. Like Mary Richards, the star of Moore’s groundbreaking TV comedy about being a single girl working in TV news in the big city, I was doing the same. I was a baby of 30 living for career at the NBC affiliate at 30 Rock in New York. (This was long before Tina Fey, but not SNL. A big perk of working weekends was to sneak in and watch Eddie Murphy doing genius stuff like “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub Party.”

My producer, not exactly her boss Lou Grant, instructed me and a camera crew to head to Moore’s wedding, which was happening that night, and to “get something” for the 11pm newscast, which was fast approaching.

Moore’s third marriage to a younger man, a cardiologist, was supposed to take place shortly at the very exclusive Pierre hotel. We cleverly staked out a spot at a side door along with all the other camera crews. Since nothing was happening yet, I traipsed around a tiny vestibule, making like Audrey Hepburn, wide-eyed at a Bulgari jewelry display. (My first and only encounter with the brand).

My deadline started creeping up, and with it, my anxiety level. Obviously, something was going on somewhere. Just not where we were. Security saw to that.

I couldn’t even fathom returning to the newsroom empty-handed.

Finally, an arrival. Cousins of the groom, as I recall. They must have misunderstood the directions because they stumbled into the media circus. I remember pleading with them to say something, anything, that I could rush back and put on the news.

“We’re sure Mary and Robert (that was his name) will be very happy,” they said in singsong accents that were more Rhoda Morgenstern than Mary Richards.

Then the god of celebrity news smiled on me again in the form of  the late Ted Knight, who played Mary’s bumbling anchorman, Ted Baxter. Headed our way, all smiles, stumbling through a door.

“Wrong door, Ted,” someone said, and the crowd laughed. Wow! Just like the show!

It was enough to work with, which was good because I was out of time.

I never saw the bride but at least I kept my TV news job. I’d like to think Mary Richards would have smiled that smile and said, “Good going.”

(Little did I know that I would eventually write for one of the anchors that Ted Baxter was supposedly modeled after —late L.A. legend Jerry Dunphy.)

Good times.

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One of My Favorite Farmers’ Markets

IMG_5007Savoring summer when just about everything’s in season at Central Market in Lancaster, PA, billed as the oldest farmers’ market in the U.S.

One of my favorite spots. The only place where you can have a lunch of African stew, a side of stuffed grape leaves (the best outside of the Middle East), and an Amish whoopie pie for dessert. Show up hungry, with lots of cash.

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The Lost — and Found — Jews of Crete

My latest in Tablet magazine: A synagogue on the Greek isle of Crete, struggling to survive with no Jewish community. The Jews were wiped out in the Holocaust.


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Who pays when a flight delay is an ‘Act of God’?

Things were going too well. Except for a tight flight connection in London that got the old heart racing, a recent trip to Italy and Greece was perfect. (More on that later.)

It ended with a great couple of days in Chania, on the Greek island of Crete. Pretty, if touristy, town; nice people; divine food; and appropriately mild Mediterranean weather to usher in spring.

I noticed it was overcast and a bit windy when I left for the airport to make my way home to the U.S. The only thing that crossed my mind was how lucky I was to have had such great weather up until then.

But the wind actually had airport folks worried. Especially the pilots with Aegean Airlines, the carrier I’d booked for the morning flight from Crete to Athens and then homeward.

The wind picked up and the flight to Athens went from being delayed for a couple of minutes to a couple of hours. Then, the Aegean pilot refused to fly and it was postponed to that night. (Word was, the locals were floored by the wind’s ferocity, which I found hard to believe. Certainly this wasn’t Crete’s first ill wind.)

That meant my entire return trip home, which had several twists because it was a frequent flyer ticket (they’re never a straight line unless you book years in advance), had just been blown up. And it was up to me, not Aegean, to fix it.

Two Aegean staffers were attempting to wrangle dozens of crazed passengers just like me. Complicated cases like mine landed in the office of the nice but flustered Aegean boss, who was having a surprisingly hard time dealing, given his title. What if he’d had a real disaster on his hands?

One young woman on her way back to China, her mom and baby in tow, was in his face, which he kept covering with his hands, demanding he fix things. It was an Act of God, he pointed out. Technically true.

I should add that the other airline that covers the same route, cut-rate carrier Ryan Air, was flying. By the time I realized this with a gasp, those seats were long gone.

Why was Ryan Air flying and not Aegean, I asked Mr. Flustered. We care about human life and really, really care about liability if something happens, was the gist of what he was saying. Human life. So overrated when you really need to stick to a schedule.

(Ryan Air’s alternate approach didn’t really surprise. I once flew out of Hong Kong with an approaching cyclone. My flight was the only one that left. Since I was young and thought I was invincible, I didn’t give it a second thought.)

Anyway, while I dictated, Mr. Flustered typed a To Whom It May Concern letter explaining that weather conditions in Crete would force me to miss my other connections back to the U.S. The equivalent of a doctor’s note back in grade school.

He also let me take over his desk while I tied up his landline for a good hour (saving me some dough on my international cellphone plan), re-arranging my itinerary and becoming 500 bucks poorer in the process (had to buy another flight). I was also charged more to change my frequent flyer ticket. I’ll be fighting that with my trusty note.

I also got a meal voucher from Aegean, which was good for exactly one Greek version of a potato knish from the Crete airport concession stand. Gummy, greasy, and oddly as big as my foot. I nibbled mostly out of boredom.

I was on my last bite when, finally, my Aegean flight from Crete to Athens got off the ground.

I was entitled to a free hotel room in Athens because I got there so late. But there wouldn’t be much sleep because I now had to catch a predawn flight to Frankfurt, Germany, for the flight home. (No, there won’t be a quiz.) So I hung out at Athens airport the rest of the night — a funhouse of dozing travelers, cleaning crews, duty-free dreck and cable news.

Turns out, the wind grounded dozens of flights in Greece that day. But writing this from home now, it still puzzles me that Ryan Air planes took off. They, too, have a rep to maintain, and I can’t imagine them being that reckless.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, security at Frankfurt airport — a big European hub — was a little more stringent than usual a day after the Brussels attack. Interestingly, unlike the U.S., shoes never have to be removed.

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Eats: Philly, home of one of world’s best desserts

You’ve just gotta trust me on this. Because I know dessert. Especially the frozen kind. I’ve been taste-testing ice cream and sorbet ever since I was old enough to buy something from the Good Humor man.

I’ve had encounters with Ben and Jerry and Edy and Rita. Have had every incarnation of ice cream and sorbet all over the world (i.e., cowed in Ireland), and been disappointed time and again.

I found my nirvana in a specialty store in my Pennsylvania back yard. A pint of chocolate sorbet because I was in the mood for something light, sans creme. Yeah, right.


The label says it all. It really is like frozen fudge. And who doesn’t like fudge?

It’s made by Zsa’s, a Philadelphia outfit. They make some luscious-looking ice cream, too. The sorbet’s so decadent, I haven’t felt a need to move on to the harder stuff.

They’re all over the Philly area, including the city’s famed Reading Market. So check ’em out next time you’re there. Sow worth it.



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The Best Explanation for Why I Travel

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It’s a very simple picture that paints a picture of why I travel.

This was the view from the shower in my space at Nuits Saint-Pierre, a trés élégant hotel straight out of Paris. It’s in St. Pierre and Miquelon, a genuine piece of France off Canada’s Atlantic coast.

It was a Sunday in November. It was my last day there, and with the help of some very gracious locals, I’d seen much of what there was to see of an unusual part of the world that was literally a cross between Europe and North America.

I took a last morning walk. On this Sunday, the sun took the day off. Almost everything was closed; my only companion was a steady drizzle in a world of black and gray. Winter’s chill was starting to creep in.

Inside, the shower moisture was soft and beckoning. It invited me to do whatever I liked. To let in as much of the world as I wanted. I felt pampered and peaceful.

I was home. At least at that moment. The kind of moment that’s just about perfect.

You know the one. It doesn’t happen very often and that’s why you know it when it does. I’ve always called that moment a delicious feeling of satisfaction.

Travel has always been my passport to more of those moments.

I plan to do a lot more in 2016. And I hope you do, too.

Happy New Year and Safe Travels.

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Schlepping 3,000 miles for a banana leaf and burned rice

Who would fly 3,000 miles for dinner?  With a drink that tastes like burned rice? And a dressed-up banana leaf for dessert?

I would. And did a while back.

It’s what they eat in Madagascar, that island nation off Africa, better known as the locale for those animated movies with Ben Stiller and Chris Rock. But I didn’t need a passport because the meal was in Portland, Oregon.

It was something I’d heard about on NPR. A couple is in the process of hosting 194 dinner parties, one for every member of the United Nations, in alphabetical order. They call it United Noshes. They do this mostly at home in Portland and sometimes take it on the road. Anyone can show up, so long as they make a donation to help fight world hunger.

I like the catchy title. And that whole United Nations thing. I’ve always been a geography geek. And because I can’t cook, I’m in awe of anyone who can. Let alone anyone confident enough to experiment with fare from far-flung places. Plus, I’m an NPR junkie. I love that I might be able to experience something I heard about from Scott Simon.

I sign up. When the Madagascar dinner opens up on a Saturday night, I book my flight from Philadelphia. I’ll be in Portland for less than 48 hours. But I’ve been there before and don’t mind revisiting. And I’m really curious to meet my hosts and see who shows up.

I stay at an airport hotel to be able to get in and out quickly, and use public transportation.

I start that Saturday shopping, and and score some sweet plastic rose earrings (Portland’s known for its roses).

Matzo ball soup and onion-potato knish, Portland-style.

Matzo ball soup and onion-potato knish, Portland-style.

Lunch is at a reliable Jewish deli I’d tried before that’s so Portland: Outdoorsy Pacific Northwest types especially appreciate a hearty bowl of matzo ball soup on a raw day.


Then Powell’s, the Taj Mahal of bookstores. An entire city block of people actually buying actual books. It’s a beautiful thing.

I find the perfect dinner contribution: Local chocolate, made with Madagascar cocoa beans. It comes highly recommended.

My hosts, Jesse Friedman and wife Laura Hadden, share a pretty house with their border collie mix, Emmylou, in a well-tended neighborhood.

Friedman’s a marketing guy for Google. He and Hadden, a multimedia artist, have been hosting United Noshes for several years. With more than 100 meals under their belts, they’re past the halfway mark on the UN list. And they’ve raised more than $30,000 for charity so far.


It’s about an hour to dinner for 16 and ingredients are still being thawed. There’s a banana leaf simmering in a pot, and I’ve volunteered to cut up some tilapia. If this were my party, I’d be crying cause I want to, and frantically ordering takeout. How and why do they do it?

Jesse Friedman, left, gets meal pointers from Mimy Manavihare, a Malagasy.

Friedman, left, gets kitchen pointers from Mimy Manavihare, a Malagasy.

Friedman, who’s honchoing the entire meal, likes it that way. He enjoys cooking for crowds, and finds these trials by fire relaxing, and the whole experience fun.

“At the end of pretty much every meal, we come away having learned a bit about the world, met some fascinating new people, and (usually) eaten something tasty, which is motivation enough to do it again,” he says.

Hadden and Emmylou take care of all the other details.

Hadden and Emmylou take care of the other details.

Hadden, who does everything else, explains it started when they moved to Brooklyn. “We grew tired of meeting up with friends in bars and restaurants instead of in living rooms and backyards,” she says. They longed to entertain, and saw the hunt for ingredients as an opportunity to really learn about The Apple.

They tried out their first dinners on friends in their 500-square-foot apartment. Then, an epiphany. “We decided to make it a fundraiser to fight hunger because we felt we had to acknowledge the fact that many people couldn’t even enjoy the sorts of foods that we were celebrating from their own country,” Friedman says.

United Noshes continued after they relocated to Portland.

Friedman does tons of research in his quest to cook authentically. If he can hook up with someone familiar with the cuisine, even better. He’s had his share of flops, most notably the Bhutan dinner, where he was forced to use yak-dairy substitutes, which didn’t cut it.

The project has been an insight into the workings of the UN, if you’re into that sort of thing. For instance, he says, “Macedonia we’re not going to do until ‘T’ because it’s listed as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’

I just love that sort of geopolitical minutia.

Friedman’s getting an assist with the meal from Mimy, a Madagascar native who lives in Portland. So I get to meet a real Malagasy. Along with, as it turns out, the reporter who did the NPR piece. And the grandson of a former missionary in Madagascar. He and Mimy wonder if their people ever crossed paths.

Dinner is served. Madagascar cuisine, I learn. is a stew of African, Asian and French flavors. Our meal is typically served on Sundays and special occasions.

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What makes this different from Sunday dinners at my grandparents are a side of something called cassava leaves, the beverage of water spiked with burned rice and the banana leaves with rice and peanuts for dessert. Certainly exotic, but that was about it.

I fill up on decent rice and fish; my chocolate, which was fabulous; and later, at the hotel, that good old American staple, Oreos.

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But there were endless helpings of laughter and chatter. And that’s all I’d really hoped for.

If you’d like to get in on a United Noshes dinner, there’s no charge, but charity donations of up to $20 are suggested, and they’re matched by Google. For more information, click here.


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Let’s Paws: Happy to be a Blind Dog’s Seeing-Eye Dog

My latest trip was to take what might be my last journey with one of my favorite beings — my blind nephew Chaos, a 12-year-old Labrador Retriever.

I volunteered to dog-sit, which meant flying down to my sister’s in Charlotte, NC. I hadn’t seen him in years, certainly not since being told he was blind from diabetes and that he had shrunk to about half his size.

Chaos and mom, my sister.

Chaos and mom, my sister.

That was hard to grasp because this is how I remember him, a lightning bolt when it came to playing catch, which he would do endlessly. We used to call him the outlaw Jesse James because he always found a way to crawl under the backyard fence to freedom. Luckily he was always found before he wandered into trouble.

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I was pleasantly surprised to see he was still the same pup.  Still loved to revel in belly rubs and give gooey kisses.

And cuddling. We had a few heart to hearts. Chaos was a last tie to my late brother-in-law who’d actually named him more than a decade ago because he had a thing for chowing down on eyeglasses, TV remotes and Benadryl. (Marley had nothing on him.)

Chaos firmly in lap of late brother-in-law.

My late brother-in-law with Chaos, top, and late brother, Skipper.

He’d seen us all, humans and other dogs that had once been in the picture, through a lot.

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I held his head in my hands and reminded him of this. That he was Oscar and Daisy’s boy (the labs who were his parents), even though he looked like their grandparent at this point, his eyes clouded over. He nuzzled me and I’m sure he knew what I was talking about when I told him how much we all loved him.

No more playing catch. But he still loved to go out and sniff. His nose and ears became a super-sensitive GPS. And wouldn’t you know it, I’m told, he still managed to suss out gaps in the fence.

It was amazing to watch that GPS in action. But he still needed a bit of guidance. I was happy to accommodate him. That’s him and his shadow — me.


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Brussels: Sad to See Dark Cloud Hanging Over Brilliant City

I really hate to see Brussels, Belgiumon lockdown, with the city bracing for a possible terror attack like the one that decimated Paris.

When I went there last Easter in search of extraordinary chocolate, I also got a good taste of the place. It was so cosmopolitan, I couldn’t understand why it had a rep as a European wallflower as opposed to glamorous Paris. Its French and Dutch roots were just as interesting. Here are a few snapshots.

brussels museum

First off, it’s no secret that Brussels has seen its fair share of violence. I did stumble upon the Jewish museum that had been a terrorist target last year, which I wasn’t actively looking for nor avoiding. But there it was. A frightening and upsetting sight.

But I found the city and its people lovely.

brussels airbnb1

The Airbnb I stayed at was dreamy; one of the nicest I’d ever been in. Like a palace. It was in Ixtelles, centrally located, which means it was within walking distance of some of the best and worst neighborhoods. I walked everywhere or took public transportation, kept a low profile, and never had a problem.

brussels flea market

My host was on his way to a nearby flea market, and he was nice enough to walk me there. It was like wandering through a gigantic attic with, I have to say, a lot of junk. Here’s more about it.

brussels dogs

I came away with some earrings that I was told were from an estate, though I would have preferred these darling dogs. No fleas on them, as far as I could tell.

brussels mussels

Locals attempted to teach me the fine art of eating Brussels mussels. With frites — fries — on the side.

brussels friterie

There were frites joints everywhere, including this one in the neighborhood. The advertised fare seemed heavy. I was more content just to gaze at the beautiful building.

brussels baked potato

Another place for potatoes was more my speed. Baked and mashed potatoes in all manner of combinations. The place’s grand opening was that night.

brussels potato couple

The owners served me up a preview, and it was lovely getting to know them. Just checked in with them; nice to know they’re still in business.

Brussels sky2

Brussels has a couple good museums, including one showcasing the work of late Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte. Neat stuff; sorry I couldn’t stay longer.

brussels train station

It’s also the gateway to two medieval towns on canals, Bruges and Ghent, easily reachable by train.

Though the former was made famous by that movie starring Colin Farrell, I was attracted by the latter because it sounded less touristy.

brussels castle on canal

Not quite. Ghent was pretty enough, but still crowded in early spring. I hid out in a castle in the middle of town.

brussels me in castle

brussels looking down from castle

I could hide out no longer; I emerged to eat awful, overpriced Belgian waffles. Everything in the tourist section looked awful and overpriced; the local alternative in another part of town looked to be mostly burgers. So there wasn’t much to choose from.brussels wafflesAs it turns out, these were the best waffles I had in Belgium: from a truck near that Brussels flea market. They still weren’t that hot.

But the city is, and it’s well-worth a visit.

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Let’s Paws: TSA Dogs Looking for a Few Good Homes

So the TSA is looking for a few good homes for a few good dogs who flunked basic training. Would that we could. Honestly, we’re far from being over the loss of our beloved Ginger.

Even if we were ready, our condo association has rules against big guys. The weight thing.


We know when it’s time, there will be millions more looking for a good home. There always are.

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