Visit the Three Broomsticks™ and the Hog’s Head pub™, ride Dragon Challenge™, enjoy Flight of the Hippogriff™, shop in magical stores like Zonko’s™, Honeydukes™ and Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods™, and, of course, experience Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey™!
So says Universal Orlando, who’s just released this as one of their Islands of Adventure (beside a Dr. Seuss world, comic book world, toon world, etc.)
Now the inside scoop: I’ve just returned from Infinitus, the annual Harry Potter convention, held this year at the new theme park. The conference was held July 15-28 2010 at the Universal Orlando resort—nice, since this came with express passes for the rides and water taxis from conference to theme parks (Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure) plus waterfront shopping. Many of us saw the parks before during or after the con since the Wizarding World was a huge draw. We had more kids and teens than usual (and thousands more people!) despite the Florida weather. Some from across the world and many from Florida.
The conference featured wizard rock, papers and talks, art, costumes, and thousands of teenage fans. We had a formal ball with Coventry dancing, and welcome and leaving feasts. All were truly gigantic. There was a lot going on—some stuff like a scavenger hunt skipped me completely, and some like the wizarding fashion show happened in the same room where I happened to be signing. Hosted by two of the Wizarding World’s snappiest dressers, Lucius and Draco Malfoy, this event was clever and amusing. The Dealers’ Room was charming—we had WHimsic Alley who arrives each year with hats and robes and bumper stickers. Booksamillion. And lots of independent crafters with jewelry and accessories. There were keynotes with children’s authors and tons of podcasts. John Granger, author of many bopoks analyzing Harry Potter, spoke, as did many managers of the big websites and fan communities. Two Harry Potter parodies: one a musical, the other a movie debuted. And of course, my new Henry Potty arrived. I sold Henry Potty and the Pet Rock at the Craft Faire and finally managed to get it into the dealers room. I did a few signings after my talk on Harry and Buffy the Vampire Slayer—the room was pleasantly mobbed and everyone came up to buy my book after (My Try Wizarding tournament features Harry, Buffy, and Bella competing for the Cauldron of Hormones). Always flattering. So, yeah, a good con. But mobbed!
As for the theme park, I visited both Universal parks the day before the con and returned to the budsy Harry Potter section the next morning before the mobs arrived. The place is the Hogwarts castle (shown in all the advertisements) towering over the magical town of Hogsmede. There are three rides and a lot of shops with special foods and souvenirs created just for it. The staff (of course) wear cute wizard hats and are knowledgeable about the story and characters. The theme song plays as you walk through the gate, adding an enchantment to the air.
One ride is a pair of twining roller coasters called the Dragon Challenge. They twist and spin and look like they’ll collide as they hurtle you through Harry’s scariest Triwiazrd challenge. There’s a second, more family-friendly rollercoaster that simulates riding a hippogriff over the park. You even learn to bow to one properly (a reference to Prisoner of Azkaban). The third ride is the neat one: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This ride is inside the castle itself and touring the castle is a big lead-in. (There’s also a line up to the castle and express passes won’t help you, but moving past that…) You enter through the greenhouse, and up ramps into the castle, where you see many neat statues. The moving pictures were very well done and clever. You walk past wonderful story references like the four jars of jewels that mark the house points. Past this is Dumbledore’s office, with a hologram of him in it, and the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom, where our favorite trio look down from a balcony and have a short conversation. The fat lady’s animated portrait guards the Gryffindor common room, with wonderful wall hangings and paintings, and Quiddich gear on the walls. There the Sorting Hat warns you to stow loose articles. (If you don’t want to go on the ride, you can still walk this far and see everything.) Then you hop on the ride itself. You’re strapped onto something like a bicycle seat that twists and dips, but it’s far fewer ups and downs than a roller coaster, so it’s not scary that way.
As castle walls and holograms surround you, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliff recorded these sequences specially) asks for your help—he flies off on his broom and you fly behind him. And yeah, as you twist, and ram into the castle and chase a dragon, it sure feels that way. You’re attacked by giant spiders, a whomping willow, and dementors all inside the creepy Forbidden Forest. Then you emerge onto the Quiddich field and swoop some more. Hooray! You’ve saved the school! As an immersive ride, it was pretty darn cool.
Then you emerge into the gift shop—impressive array but massively crowded. Many moments from the movies are captured there. There are Harry Potter books, robes, brooms, ties, and so on. All is Universal branded official movie/park gear, rather than the small press commentaries or anything more off the beaten path. But along with stuff labeled with the four house colors, I saw some new concepts—I got a Ministry of Magic messenger bag, myself. There are new quaffle balls, sneakoscopes, goblet of fire statues, and clever goodies along with the usual hats, shirts, stuffed animals, and mugs.
Honeydukes and Zonko’s are fun: The stores are joined together, and at the moment quite crowded. Zonko’s has some Weasley gear like pigmy puffs and punching telescopes. And Honeydukes had stringmints and whizbees and new, gorgeously packaged chocolate frogs and every-flavor beans. They also had fresh-made fudge, in flavors from American peanut butter to exotic treacle. I bought a cauldron cake—under its pretty shape it was chocolate cake with a lovely mousse filling.
The similarly-joined Hog’s Head/Three Broomsticks offers everything from pear cider, pumpkin juice, and butterbeer to a variety of beers. There was a crowd but not much of a line, even to order dinner. Their specialty is a huge platter with $50 of ribs, chicken, sides, desserts, and more for four people. I ordered up Cornish pasties, served as they all were, with salad. They tasted like they had sloppy joe sauce inside—not bad but not especially authentic. I heard similar comments on the shepherd’s pie. My pumpkin juice tasted heavily of apricots (that and apple juice are main ingredients.) On the other hand, kids probably wouldn’t want it straight up. And it wasn’t bad either, though certainly different.
Outside the pub, stands through the Wizarding World sell the pumpkin juice in adorable pumpkin bottles (good luck with the planes!) and other beverages like juice and iced tea. Everyone selling soda refills or hotdogs seemed to be banished from the section. You can also mail postcards from Hogsmede post office and have a wand choose you at Ollivander’s (more on Ollivander’s below). The toad choir and triwizard champions stand around for pictures, as does the Hogwarts Express conductor, but they’re hardly the big draw.
The buildings may not be rides, but they’re enchanting (and enchanted!). Quills write and dresses dance in their shop windows, while tiny nooks reveal anything from a silly sign to a magical picture. The place is vast too, as I wandered all around the dragon challenge into the forests around Hagrid’s hut, and up and down hills. Fake snow on the rooftops feels a little cooling, and looks lovely in the frequent downpours. However, the long lines to enter crowded shops make those very downpours nastier than they should be.
The star event at my conference was Night of a Thousand Wizards: we planned on wearing costumes to the theme park and having it to ourselves after hours. This, as the description explained, would begin at ten p.m. with “a special, one-night-only presentation by some of the brilliant and creative minds behind The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.” Then, from about 11 p.m. until 1:30 a.m., Infinitus attendees would have The Wizarding World of Harry Potter™ all to themselves! Many resolved this would be their first time at the park (I’d gone twice in the days beforehand, once at eight in the morning when it was much emptier—as I left it at ten, the line was going all around the park.) All were excited, and some unlucky few were offering up to $400 for a ticket to the sold-out event.
As advertised? Well, somewhat. First of all, it was still insanely hot. And muggy. A few goers dressed gorgeously, determined to be photographed throughout Hogsmede and Hogwarts wearing their full Snape or Umbridge costume (Ms. Umbridge had three layers of wool and a wig.) We admired their dedication. Others wore their “school uniform” ties and white shirts—a comfortable compromise. I did something similar, wearing a lightweight Indian black dress and silver gauze cape. I also wore a wide-brimmed witch hat and pink LED’s, since I love putting on a lightshow. But many of us didn’t costume, which made it look roughly the same as any other day at the park.
And then there was the presentation. The above one sounds neat, right? As it happened, the park’s PR lady shared a few photos and gossip about the Potter actors and JKR visiting the park, and then showed a VIDEO ADVERTISING the theme park, one which had ALREADY BEEN RELEASED ON POTTER FANSITES. We all felt they were wasting our time. The lights came up and the creator of the park started a Q and A. Everyone walked out in small groups because they were fed up with the movie. However, they only got as far as the courtyard with its drink sellers, as the Wizarding World was still being cleared out. The Q and A was short and unsatisfying—
Q Why don’t these rides have accommodations for larger or smaller guests?
A They fit the largest population segment, so we decided they’re all right.
Q You should add hotel rooms.
A Maybe we will.
Q What are your future plans for the wizarding world?
A We can’t tell you.
Q Why are all the drinks full of sugar?
A JKR made us make the fatty butterbeer healthier, so we think we’re doing well. Don’t you like the sugary fruit juice? It has fruit.
Far cuter was our own pre-show entertainment. Voldemort entered in procession with Lucius Malfoy and others, and they danced and joked. So did Snape. At last, Cedric Diggory attacked Voldemort and was felled. But Harry Potter in Quiddich robes ran to Voldy, “killed” him, and stole his snake to the roar of the crowd.
After the interminable presentation, we were released at last. As I entered Hogsmede, I found a buffet of desserts—nice but I didn’t come just to eat apple pie. So I kept walking, but the way to both Olivander’s and The Forbidden Journey was plugged with people. Impassibly. So I hopped in the food line and got treacle tarts and pumpkin cake and so forth. Many people who hadn’t eaten were disappointed by the lack of “real food,” but I was okay. At the end of the line, they were scooping chocolate ice cream, as they’d run out of strawberry-peanut butter. I didn’t bother. Nibbling, I made my way to forbidden journey. I was required to ditch my bag and hat in the provided locker, but kept my camera around my neck. Inside, everyone was snapping pictures, and I took quite a few with a “Harry Potter” who’d forgotten her camera. This time I took my camera on the ride, though the photos didn’t come out. I guess it really was magic. J Returning, I found the locker holding my purse had jammed, and the only locker attendant was off at the dragon ride. After probably 10-15 annoying minutes, my stuff was liberated and I and the other annoyed patrons were set free. Ignoring the shop, I determined to hurry through the rest of the park, as they were closing the line on forbidden journey and likewise everywhere else. (I must say the staff were quite friendly and tried to help. Though my green necklace made them all assume I was a Slytherin. Hmph.)
I got in the Olivander’s line, since that and butterbeer were left on my list of things I hadn’t tried yet. I should’ve started with butterbeer. The line was sweltering to levels of near-agony, not moving at all most of the time. Perhaps half an hour passed. Boiling alive, I removed my lights, hat, and cloak. At last, they let in a small crowd of us. One girl was chosen and handed wands to try. They produced silly effects in the store, until she and the quirky wand maker “settled” on the “perfect” wand. Right out of the movie. However, I was standing in the back of the crowd, and didn’t see so much.
Then we the watchers of the wand ceremony were freed to shop. “Can I just get out of here?” I asked, and was told to struggle through the crowd to one of several exits. I did, and got into the butterbeer line. There was a dance party going on, with popular music that, while nice, felt a little jarring to me. For our event, the butterbeer was free (normally it’s $3 a glass), and I ordered both the “regular” and “frozen” varieties. I prefer the regular, which (though on the warmish side) is fizzy like cream soda. Both have a lovely butterscotch foam on top. When it melts into the soda, the effect is very like melted ice cream—with a lovely soft and creamy feel. The frozen was perfectly all right, but not as interesting. Then just as I was sitting down to drink both glasses, it was time to leave (note: I’d done two activities, a little food, and no shopping during our event). I made it onto one of the hotel boats before many of the others and got to bed at 2:30 am. So was this event better than just visiting the park? Presentation: no. costumes: kind of. Time with fans: I guess. Rides: lines no better than going early in the morning, Time: not enough. Refreshments: acceptable but not worth the exorbitant ticket. Event: needed work.
So the place certainly was beautiful and clever, catered toward the fans and picture-perfect for the movie (the movie set designers constructed the place!) Everywhere was something cute, from the Gringotts sign over the ATM to Moaning Myrtle in the bathroom. The mobs will die down eventually (although Forbidden Journey you could easily go on over and over and over) and the butterbeer is lovely (and better for you than a latte, the park designer assured us). As a magical kingdom set in a theme park, it’s definite competition for Disney. Just try to go in winter.
Israel Trip: (Written blog style with day 1 on the bottom)
Saturday morning, the optional 1 ½ hour walk to the Kotel was canceled on account of boiling hot weather. We hung around the hotel, swimming and packing. Rachel K and I swam before a predictable buffet lunch, with more cholent and parve desserts.
After lunch, a lot of us swam and hung out by the pool. It was surprisingly pleasant out, especially in the shade. After, we gathered for our mass B’Nai Mitzvah. I didn’t want one, since an aliah and five minute speech seemed to cheapen the previous one, but some people wanted to repeat theirs in Israel, while others had never had one and welcomed the experience.Lots of us made really beautiful, personal speeches, and everyone had a sort of mushy farewell to offer out on the balcony.
Time racing ahead, we parted, only to find we’d missed dinner!We headed to the courtyard for a group Havdalah, then bid goodbye to the people staying on.
We made it to the airport okay (with our bus driver insisting on taking us, and several Israeli group members joining us for the ride, which was sweet). We travailed endless security checkpoints (answer questions, scan our checked luggage, search our checked luggage, check backpacks separately, check in, go through security), blew our sheckels on duty free, and watched Avner desperately assist all of us onto the plane as we kept wandering off. (I was impressed) An even longer flight, with lots of food, but this time I managed to sleep (We left around 12:30 at night).We arrived at LAX at . After customs and luggage we had, yes, even more mushy goodbyes. Armando and I had the same flight to San Jose, but we stood so long in line to check in, we missed the flight.(Ah, LAX and Southwest). We got on a later flight, and finally made it after numerous security checks and a battle with the overpriced food industry. Our one hour Southwest flight, regrettably, did not feed us 3 giant Kosher meals.
Friday, we vistedMt. Hertzel and its military cemetery.The Israelis were the most moved, but by the end, I think all of us had cried, listening to all the stories of heroism and death. We ended by singing Hatikvah near Hertzel’s grave.
In the afternoon, we shopped on Ben Yehuda Street and had a very late lunch (more falafel and shwarma on our own). There we picked up lots of clichéd souvenirs, in my case those round Jerusalem candlesticks I’d been eying.We finished with a tour of the LGBT center, which had handled the World Pride Celebration of 2006. Israel is the only accepting place in all the Middle East, though Jerusalem is still rather intolerant. After a movie and mini discussion (plus Birthright evaluation forms) we headed back to the hotel to clean up. (We were spending two days in a simple Jerusalem hotel, with a pool and with internet in the lobby. When we first checked in, I indulged myself on the latter).
Shabbat services were available in four flavors—the conservative leader (I believe a Birthright leader) did a nice job with a great voice. Then came a rather late (and rather substandard) buffet dinner with rather nasty parve desserts. I’d never had the clichéd parve chocolate mousse before,
and don’t look forward to it again—it was basically flavored cool whip.
We awoke at 3:30, mostly having slept in our clothes and not bothering to shower. WE scaled massada, and reached the top just in time to watch the sun rise. About the climb, all I can say was that it was quite steep. My legs and stamina were suffering more than my knee. Though I was at the end of the group, I finally made it up (It wasn’t that long a hike—just steep). From there, we toured the top in 122 degree heat, cowering in the shade and hearing the heroic story of Massada. At last, most people hiked down the snake path, though I took the cable car (with a few other people). I hated being singled out, but the long, nasty downhill path was not a good option.
At the bottom, we bought overpriced Dead Sea mud and facial scrubs, then headed off to another Israeli buffet breakfast.From there, we were told it was hot enough we’d skip En Gedi (a ten minute hike to an oasis spring). We protested so much it got back on the menu.The En Gedi hike was unexpectedly nasty—all rocks and dust with far too much uphill.The spring, however, was definitely worth it. The water was wonderfully clear and cool. We swam (though the pool was on the small side) and splashed each other. After a short time, a fully-dressed flock of kids cascaded into the water and got things really rowdy. After not enough time, we left the pool and took the dry hike back to the bus.
After the Dead Sea, we drove to Jerusalem, where we caught a quick dinner (mine was kind of pseudo Mexican) and watched an Israeli movie, screened just for us and a few other Birthright Groups. It was interesting, but I felt it was too much about teen issues for adults, and too much nudity for teens. Ah well. After, we shopped for an hour, but all the souvenir shops were closed, and not much was available besides snacks and ice cream (which was yummy). I also headed to a grocery store and stocked up on cough drops, since I felt as if I was making the entire bus shake.
We met a few other groups to say a quick Kiddush and sheheheyanu for arriving in Jerusalem, while overlooking the panorama of King David’s city. More sing alongs and some Israeli dancing, plus a group photo as we squinted into the sun.
At Ya V’Shem we listened to a survivor speak about her journey from Greece to Palestine, thanks to her Spanish nationality. We ran through the memorial in a 1.5 hour guided tour. (Many were disappointed we missed many exhibits and the gift shop, but I felt we got the basics. I regretted missing the children’s memorial, which is amazing. On the bus, we discussed personal and family experience with the Holocaust and how we felt about what we’d seen. After, many napped, since it was a long ride through flattish desert. More to the point, Massada and our early wakeup call were coming.
The Bedouin tent was amazing. IT was a touristville type campground/ camel ranch. We (the entire 35 person group) moved into one enormous tent, with woven maps on the floor and lightbulbs strung along the top.Once we dropped our stuff and explored the far-too-tiny bathrooms, we went camel riding.The camels were very high (once they stood up) and very very bumpy. Rather than riding in a circle, we walked out into the desert a short way, though some people had to walk one direction or the other.Quite a cool experience.After, we listened the the Bedouins talk about their culture (in Hebrew but Maor translated). We heard local instruments and sampled bitter coffee and very sweet tea (everyone adored the tea, which I suspect of having about 4 sugars in it.)
We had a Bedouin style dinner with pitas and bowls of assorted salads and fillings for every four people. After, we hiked into the desert a bit and tried meditating and discussing God (fresh from Yad V’shem). There were piles and piles of stars out there, far more than I usually see. It was quiet too, with nothing but the night…and the pile of stickers I sat on.
We got to bed around 10:30, or at least, that’s when the whispering and giggles started. We were told to prepare for a wakeup call…
We packed and ate (pancakes and eggs day 2—less exciting) Then, with a coffee break on the road, we reached the tank museum. After a quick peruse of the tanks and soldiers’ memorial, 5 Israeli soldiers joined our bus for the rest of the trip.They’re officers (so more like 22 than 18) and quite friendly, especially after our rather rude interviews. All together, we reached Jerusalem and walked through the old city (where I was shocked to find our gate scarred with 1947 bullet holes) ending at the Western Wall. We had only 15 minutes there, and the women’s side was crowded with people praying. I spent a few minutes by the wall, then we all rushed to our hotel and speedily groomed.
We hurried to the Mega Event with thousands of Jews 18-26 from Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Canada, etc. Most were from the US. We got food and drinks tickets then met the biggest sponsors/founders on the concert stage. There were singers and dancers with great songs like Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu, Kol HaOlam Kulo, and Yachad that I used to sing in college.I really miss those times at the co-op and Davis Hillel. Anyway, after dance performers and more songs, there was a loud Israeli rock group. Blasted by strobes, I finally went out to chat. After the concert, there were three real choices: snack, talk, or dance. When our group met up (ostensibly to leave) we all started dancing (eek, knee problem!) then moved to the dance floor with its noisy toxic fog machines.I mostly guarded coats for a while, then we all returned to the hotel.
Breakfast at this new kibbutz was pancakes and scrambled eggs. Many of us were enthusiastic, though others noticed the absence of all fruit (except cucumbers and tomatoes, of course). We climbed (mostly by bus) the Golan Heights and explored an Israeli lookout post on the Syrian border. WE toured a local bunker (dark and bare). Outside, a few Polish UN soldiers were patrolling.(They told us their mission was posted on the public UN website). There was also a cherry seller there with giant, yummy cherries. On the hill, we heard about the 6 day war. At a nearby touristy stop, we loaded up on ice cream, sodas, and souvenirs, then watched a documentary about the Yom Kippur War andbattle in the Valley of Tears. Incredible risk against incredible odds.
From there, we rafted and kyacked down the Jordan. It was hilarious watching Guy “hitchhike” from boat to boat as we splashed each other and got totally soaked. My straw hat lost all shape, but it was tons of fun. After, there was rope climbing, rock climbing, archery, and pizza as we chilled with another Taglit group. On the hour ride home, Justin made fun of everyone on the bus in a barrage of total silliness.
In the morning, we left for a new kibbutz. We began with an hour and a half hike downhill, near the Golan Heights. I camped out on the bus till it was over, since I didn’t think I could manage it. It was quite hot out. After, some of us were dropped of at a soup kitchen (where they pulled weeds for tzedakah), while the rest of us sorted clothes and painted at the equivalent of Goodwill.We explored Sefat, visiting two historic synagogues and watching how the orthodox live. We interviewed one of them, asking all those personal questions like “aren’t you hot?” and “Are you married yet?”Then we visited two synagogues, where we draped ourselves with scarves and disposable kippot (well, really, someone could’ve told us to dress formally). After, we bought lots of goodies at the artist fair, like jewelry and word art. There were lovely tallit (including girl ones!) but not the one I wanted.
After, we heard the bad news that Syria had fired two missiles at a nearby town. In the end, the missiles were deemed a nonthreatening political statement. To be safe, we canceled our LakeKinneret party cruise and reached our kibbutz (on the lake and quite pretty) for a very very quick clean up and head out.We headed, in fact, to a similar kibbutz a few minutes away. There we ate a fish dinner (the server recommended whole and with the head. I, having learned from my German experience, requested a fillet. Others ordered pizza.) We and two other buses partied and danced, plus we learned Avner’s favorite dance, Jessica.The music was too loud for many of us, but the party was otherwise cool.
Shabbat we had no real wakeup call. Othodox services or a “conversation” didn’t sound that appealing. I enticed my roomies to play a card game with me instead, then we had Shabbat lunch. Similar to dinner, but I felt much better now. After lunch came a lecture by a British History prof who teaches in Israel. He covered the formation of Israel and overall political situation. Then most people headed for the beach, but I found it too sunny and bright, so I headed in.Rachel and Rachel and I finished our game when they got back. After dinner we all (3 busses) did havdallah on the beach. Dark and mobbed, but with the usual pretty singing. After, we headed for another very old town—the first Jewish settlement outside the four holy cities (Jerusalem, Tiberious, Hebron, and Tzfat). After a short history about local WWII spies, we were set loose. I found an internet café or more to the point, a café with a free internet station on the bar. I checked my mail while the others got coffee or dessert. Westercon hadn’t emailedyet, but several students had. With ten minutes to go, I ran into part of our group, and found some of them were desperate to send father’s day messages (oops…) so they hurried off to grab a minute or two each.The hill of cafes was steep enough to bang up my knee, but I was thrilled to have checked my email at last.
We began our Tel Aviv day with a walking tour of Jaffa, the second oldest city in the world, and still lived in. The buildings are amazing. Unfortunately, I was horribly sick to my stomach and every pill I had didn’t improve matters.Guy had no stomach medicines, but insisted I take a bandage for my knee, which was thoughtful. We visited the Sook for a ½ hour speed shop, but I saw nothing so exciting. From there, we visited Independence Hall. Tel Aviv was a big modern Israeli city, though it started as a suburb of crowded Jaffa by European settlers. Since there was fighting in Jerusal;em in 1948, there was a rushed ceremony in the art museum of Tel Aviv, signing the Dec of Indep. It was mounted on the wall with signatures and a ribbon border., After a video, the curator led us to the hall and played the audio recording of ben Gurion’s instating Israel, followed by the rabbi saying sheheheyanu and then everyone singing Hatikvah. Singing along with them was very cool and momentous. Then an artist fair in Tel Aviv. everyone experimented with shwarma and I hunted for an internet café, but there wasn’t one around. Then we toured the art fair. A toy store had great butterfly mobiles and one man was handpainting similar ones. I also bought a miniature of a room filled with bookshelves plus a scarf and necklace. We returned to the kibbutz and prepared for Shabbat.
Wearing nice clothes, we joined Birthright groups from Philly and Seattle who had joined our kibbutz. I attended the reform service performed in a circle on the beach. It was really wonderful just seeing sky and sea forever in all directions as we prayed. There were complaints about the orthodox service, since the women were stuck behind a curtain and couldn’t see. (I had expected such things, and have always been disappointed not to wear a tallit, count for a minyan, and other coed conservative duties, so my choice was decided.) “Alternative services” didn’t really entice me.
After came dinner with tablecloths and treats but I was quite lightheaded from skipping lunch so I just had soup and rice, which helped. We all spent time speculating what kind of broth it was, but came to no ready conclusions.Our bus was leading Kiddush, and I said I’d say grace. I was asked to explain it so I skimmed Shir Hamalot. Since it was about Bablyonian exiles returning to Israel and making aliyah from the diaspora for the first time, I spoke, to all three buses, about its significance for us since we were arriving at Israel for the first time from the diaspora and making aliyah. And at last we could connect with our exiled land. I got lots of compliments. After a frustratingly long grace for everyone (Avner and I led) we were set loose and I went to sleep.
Thursday, I woke early. At the kibbutz, we had a breakfast buffet with very fresh yogurt and bread, plus salads and more exotic dishes. Lots of us had to guess and some of the fruits and mixed dishes. We left for Caesaria, as I wrote and elevated my knee.When we arrived, we walked, which felt great.Caesaria had an interactive museum, where we could ask holograms of Akiva, Herod, and Julia Helena preprogrammed questions.I thought it disturbing that they turned 1000 year old ruins into this amusement park and only cared about the 2000 year old ones, but I guess that’s Israel for you. Everything’s built on top of something else.The harbor would’ve been very impressive when it was built, and the amphitheater’s still in use today.Wonderfully intact. We headed off for a traditional Druze lunch and talk on the Druze religion. It’s a closed religion established 1000 years ago—welcoming people for ten years, then closing it off.Lunch was bowls of stuff like incredibly fresh tasting tabouli, kebabs, and rice with chicken, but everyone quickly ran out of flatbread.After, we visited the BaHai gardens, but they were closed, so our formal attire was for nothing. From there, we visited a beach—loads of shells and soft sand but not much to do besides swim (which most people did). A buffet dinner with plenty of choices back at the kibbutz, then a group “conversation” on the dimming beach at sunset, sitting on chairs watching the ocean.
It’s easy to get lost at this kibbutz where we’re staying, even with arrows marking the way. There’s a minimart and various playground equipment, but things are far apart. At least it’s convenient to the beach. My smattering of Hebrew is quite helpful, even with just numbers and letters.
The fourteen hour flight was beyond awful. if I had known it would be that bad (after my knee had hurt for days after the five hour flight from New York a week before) I probably have skipped it. I came in on the flight to LAX which was fine but an hour late. I finally got to gargantuan LAX and found my group.We got name tags on pink cords and checked in, et cetera. Everyone was very impressed about my book. We boarded and I sat among the group on El Al. After a few hours, my knee ached, and then got steadily worse. At first I couldn’t sleep because it was early afternoon, and then because it just hurt too much. They fed us about three full meals, with separate hot bread. They also brought us several rounds of crackers and drinks. They were also pleasantly tolerant about people strolling around. I read as we flew over neat places like Greenland and Istanbul. And my wistful observance of those countries turned to a desperate need to climb out the window as the flight went on and on and on.
When we landed, we got to the bus and met our Israeli tour guide and our security guard/medic…with a rifle!We ate sandwiches on the bus, since it was past CA time, and early afternoon local time. As we drove, changing billboards read “Welcome Taglit Birthright,” which was incredibly cool. We arrived at our Kibbutz hotel, near Tel Aviv and right on the beach, and ate a buffet dinner (with the Israeli cliché of schnitzel, but also plenty of other dishes). We gathered in a group (24 hours without sleep) and played a silly bonding game of crowding on very few chairs, then a name game. Plus lectures on not being ugly Americans. I was so desperate to get out of there, or at least stop sitting. Finally (11pm) we were released. I crashed with the 2 roomies I’d hooked up with and didn’t move till morning.
Some meals on our own (basically falafel/shwarma in touristy areas. In addition, everyone seemed to carry granola bars or buy Israeli candy, snacks which appeared around if lunch was delayed until 2. Buffet breakfast every morning, with bread, cereal, yogurt, and salad makings including cucumbers and tomatoes. Occasional fruit, but many of us had hoped for more. Occasional halvah J. Lunches and dinners were similar, usually with schnitzel and chicken, salad makings, and often cholent or beef. Plenty of overcooked veggies as well.
Our tour guides made an effort to get us Israeli chocolate, chips, and baggies of chocolate milk so we could taste local treats.It really felt like we were eating gigantic meals every two hours. While some meals were late, and a few were rushed, we all got to eat tons and tons.
We had siblings and cousins, people who’d had traditional Bar Mitzvahs, people who could’ve given the lectures, and people who didn’t know anything about Israel or Judaism. Almost everyone was from the Bay Area (more or less) and we had lots of Stanford grad students.Some people knew others, and some just made friends quickly. The Israeli soldiers were really a part of our group (after we interviewed them all—I mean really, is “boxers or briefs” really the greatest level we mature travelers can reach?) On the last day, they even offered to take those staying behind to see their base. Everyone was incredibly thoughtful (especially in my case—people were asking me three times a day if I was okay, and acting very enthusiastic when I came on the hikes).At the end, we had a series of very long, tearful, overly mushy (I spose) goodbyes as we flew home. A number of the soldiers even came along to the airport, as did many group members staying on. When we returned, we all shared our photos in a massive database, and started chains of emails, Facebook and google groups, and promises to meet.
Avner and Maor were Israeli Americans living in the Bay Area who led our group, starting from LAX, all the way (in Avner’s case) back to LAX again. In Israel, we met Saar (or Israeli tour guide and history/culture lecturer) and Guy, our security guard and medic. All four of them were incredibly cool, answering all the questions, and doing their best to accommodate all the requests, and inform us about Israel. They also got to translate for 36 of us when we bought sandwiches. We saw Saar’s house and visited Avner’s great uncle’s grave (and learned Avner’s favorite dance). Guy and Maor partied a lot.They were all great, as was Nagib the bus driver, who drove through unbelievably tight spaces in Israeli traffic.
On the first night, we were told to pick roommates. Rachel Kurtz had sat near me on the plane, and instantly read my entire Henry Potty book, which was quite flattering. Rachel Bloom and I had chatted a bit on the bus. The three of us grouped up and got on well together. We stayed in “3 person accommodations” (2 beds pushed very close and a cot) at every location,. Except for the one time the staff, er, gave us a different Rachel (she was cool, but RB and I kinda wanted the first one back).
What leisure?Seriously, I brought some card games, which I got my roomies to play with me a bit. I brought several fantasy books, including my own one (which I loaned out). Uncharacteristically, I was reading the same 600 pager on the flight out as I was flying it—not much reading time. On the bus I mostly watched scenery.Rachel Bloom wanted us to be journal buddies, but I wrote sporadically, and I think we just wrote together once. I completed most of my journal in Israel.
6/4 After 3 overwhelming days of conference, I wrapped up with the special exhibits at Natural History (they have ones on dragons and unicorns!) and then Rent (which was fantastic--well sung, and much more interesting/complex than the movie.) It was pouring in the early afternoon, but cleared up eventually. The next morning I grabbed my stuff, and after a late plane and long flight, I arrived with my highly overstuffed bags. In a week, off to Israel!
5/31 THough grades hadn't gotten to me yet, I decided to see the Bronx Zoo and Les Mis, then do grades when I returned (since essay grades would arrive then anyway). It was boiling hot that day, and my knee was unhappy, but the zoo was pleasant enough. Their monorail through Asian animal area was very cool indeed. Worst chicken strips ever, possibly excluding the ones I had in New Orleans. Les Mis was amazing, with a really lovely voice on Eponine, and great acting all around. Probably my favorite show I saw there. That night I got grades done and submitted with a minimum of fuss. Was up quite late, with BEA in the morning, but that's life.
5/30 WEdnesday I had a bit of a panic/crunch when I tried to find out whether student exam grades were ready, The office manager informaed me that it was too late to do grades at all and my students would have to suffer through late grade change forms and getting their grades in fall. Since I knew this wasn't exactly true, I made arrangements to get the exams and do much better grading but it was all quite messy. I was stressed enough I decided to forgo Les Mis and read trashy fiction that night.
The 29th was Kevin's birthday. Not much accomplished in the morning, since we had reservations at another fancy restaurant. Still I saw the cute little Central Park zoo (overpriced for its tininess, but c'mon, I'd always wanted to.) Their walk in rainforest exhibit was great, with the world's largest relative of a pigeon (chicken-sized, with lovely blue feathers and crest) and monkeys and mynas walking right up to people. And a rather creepy looking bat exhibit. I saw the polar bears and penguins, and headed off to Kev's choice of elegant restaurant. Kevin advised me to skip Ellis Island, so I just went to the Jewish experience museum. Well done, but I didn't make it through all the travelling exhibits. (I arrived at 330 or so). Tried checking out a clothing place Kev recommended, but there was nothing that exciting. That evening I saw the Pirate Queen (only okay dancing, the story was cute but a bit forced) and returned in time to go bar-hopping with Kev for a bit, along with his Bayyit buddies.
WEll, the comedy show was great-- like comedy sports but with Broadway pros. It;s called DOn't Quit your Night Job. They had the lady who plays Lilith on Frasier sing a mad-libbed "All that Jazz" (hysterically funny), made one actor perform his special skills (singing Oklahoma in German, Italian, and Japanese), and made up musicals and improvs. Very clever.
Well, New York has been intersting and lots of fun. Today I went to a fancy lunch with Kev, then visited Grant's tomb. Kev's right-- it is rather like Napoleon's. Tonight, there's a boradway show at the comedy club. Yesterday I tackled a bunch of museums: the rather swirly Googenheim, this year's paintings at the National Academy, the Jewish museum (nice permanent exhibit, depressing sculptures in the travelling one) and Belvedere Castle in Central Park. Plus Turtle Pond and a bit of the Natural History museum (specifically the dinosaurs).
On the 26th, I took the Staten Island ferry out to the statue of liberty, where I was so horrified by the Ellis Island line around the block, I didn't bother. Went on to Trinity Church, then China Town and Little Italy. Both were so cute! I tried lots of treats and bought silly souvenirs.
Friday I caught MOMA (I was rather worn out from THursday, so one museum seemed about right.) Oly the fifth floor had anythingn worth seeing, though it had stuff by MOnet, Picasso, O'Keefe, Polluck, etc. The other floors were mostly architecture, furniture, etc.
Thursday: I walked all over, including far too long in the park. I'm completely wiped out. Saw the Frick, which was nice (and in a very fancy old house) and the Whitney, which wasn't so much my style)
Wednesday I watched Beauty and the BEast, my favorit Disney, on Broadway. Beauty hd an unusual voice, but Gaston was great! All in all, it was rather sugary, so I'm not in a rush to see Lion King, which I hear is wonderful. Before that I went book promoting, and got to Forbidden Planet, the Strand, Bank Street Books (near Kev's place) and several NY public libraries. The kiddie library had the real WInnie the Pooh. Now that was cool!
Tuesday I saw Spamalot. I'm reminded of a quote from The moon is a Harsh Mistress-- this was "funny once" rather than "funny over and over." Still, I'm glad I saw it. I still need to see Les Mis again, dunno if I'll see Phantom (which I love but it has no student rush.) Meanwhile, I enjoyed the Natural Hisotry museum, though I didn't allow eough time. It's immense. Still, I got the geology and cultures sections down, plus I saw the whale.
4/23/07 I'm getting on with little things: speaking at conferences, advertising on a small scale to libraries and stores. Harry Potter and summer are both approaching. Added to my Facebook and other profiles and created a big Yahoo page complete with Avatar. Wow, it's just like paperdolls!
4/16/07 Okay, taxes are long done. Hp stuff is getting caught up with. I need to check on my fall classes and so so many back projects. Still, with the HJ stuff done, I really feel like I'm on vacation.
4/11/07 The Heroine's Journey book proposal is finally finally finally done! At 60 pages. Now that I've mailed it, I feel I have such a weight off my shoulders. Now I can get back to the little stuff I've been postponing like arranging conferences and cleaning my very messy room. Not to mention all my students' essays.
3/30/07 Even more amazing authors have agreed to blurb my book. Now this is really cool.
3/29/07 Ah, Heroine's Journey stuff. I emailed about 40 authors and scholars seeking quotes. A lot of no's and few yes's. One of the maybe's came from none other than Jane Yolen, one of the top people in the genre. Now THAT's cool!
3/27/07 I've been neglecting Henry Potty lately since someone's interested in The Heroine with a Thousand Hearts. Still trying to get it cleaned, polished and shipped. Lots of schoolwork happening too, though my big New York trip is definitely coming. I may be off to Israel this summer, and I'm definitely doing lots of reading and speaking at the upcoming cons.
3/05/07 It sounds like my book will soon be stocked at Borders. I'm so glad: people may actually be able to find it now.
2/10/07 Knee surgery wasn't that big a deal, after all. Crutches gone, some swelling, but walking pretty normally. Now back to all the neglected book stuff. I'm just hurling myself back into it.
1/8/07 I've sent the ebook to about 40 or 50 places, especially Fictionwise, CyberRead, Mobilipocket, and others. Plus I spent lots of time formatting it for Palm, Microsoft Reader, and even Voice-to-Speech. In other news, my Italian Interview's up at Fantasy Magazine. Now I just have to get through knee surgery...
1/2/07 The holiday season has finally ended. Let's see: I went to about 3 Hannukah parties, one Christmas party, one Kwanza party, one birthday party, one Jewish Christmas eve party, two new year's parties (eve and day), and a baby shower. I planned the last one. And I'm not even much of a party person! Most of my high school friends were in town, though, plus a few relatives. I also invented a new form of dreidel.
12/31/06 It's been a working vacation for me, or at least I'm trying. I just applied to about 200 webrings (yes, really!). I'm also busy submitting Henry Potty to ebook stores. It should be available in a lot of places like fictionwise very soon. The ebook has the pig cursor, and one of these days, I'd like too add links and sound effects. That's what makes the web so much fun after all. I've got it in literally half a dozen formats and am planning for more. Go ebooks!
12/26 Grades are all done and recorded; my students did pretty well overall. I sold a bunch of books on ebay this holiday season. The Harry Potter Title's been announced and I've been discussing it on a number of HP chatrooms. They're all abuzz. Another Italian rights agent wants a look, and I have big plans for the summer conferences. Busy busy busy. On a more personal note, I've picked up Munchkin Impossible. As a board game, it's better than many of the Munchkins out there. Very cool!
12/5 Classes are over at SJSU! I get quite a while off with knee surgery and visiting people but a break from teaching. I can try to get back to the writing side of the world at last.
11/28 I'm donating some books to MIssion College's program that collects donated new books to give kids for holiday presents. I'm also selling them at half price if anyone would like to buy one to donate. I've sold a few that way, especially to my mother's coworkers (she teaches at Mission).
11/25 An Italian Magazine has written an article about me and wants an interview! Very cool. I've reprinted it on the foreign reviews page. I've been doing Toys for Tots stuff all weekend rather than checking email. I also sold my first book on eBay. Well, busy busy. Happy Thanksgiving!
11/14 Lately I've been trying to connect with local bookstores, and I've also done some online visits. Various chatrooms and announcements boards, plus webring, of course. Goodness, I have a pile of those now.
11/05 SJSU's newspaper, the Spartan Daily wrote a cute little article about me. Suddenly, it made its way into every foreign Harry Potter website imaginable. Hey, any publicity is cool publicity, even if it's forHenry Potty e o Mascote de Pedra.
10/24 Today was the San Jose State University Reading. It went smoothly, though most attendees were my own students. Still, I got some new people, and got interviewed by Spartan Daily. All fun. In addition, I have some readings set up at Borders, and a radio interview in the works!
10/13 I did my school visit at Hillbrook Elementary. It was so much fun! All those cute little kids laughing like crazy and asking such thoughtful, intelligent questions! Believe me, I couldn't stop grinning.
9/30 Well, the Amazon sale site is up and happy. I'm starting to get reviews, tags, and other comments up there. Reviews are likewise pouring in.
9/10 There's interest in my speaking at a school. I hadn't even started asking yet, but all I can say is, cool!
9/9 I now can be found on livejournal. I'm posting a lot on Harry Potter discussion sites. Stop by and leave a comment if you like.
9/3 More reviews are in. Wow, so far they're all positive! Very cool.
9/1 Well, the book is off to Italy. Not sure how anyone heard about it this soon, but a foreign rights agent is interested, so I just sent off a copy.
8/28 My little baby book is heading for Germany. Plus three regional trade shows. Thank you, PMA. I'm hoping for lots of sales.
We had a nice dinner at Chili’s. (Place and time Anuja’s choice). It took a while to get a table, but when Anuja and Kapil walked in, a bunch of us were standing in the waiting area with a cardboard baby shower sign and teddy bear with a “beary hungry” bib and baby shower balloon. Though Kapil and Anuja were both surprised and pleased, there was no screaming, fainting, or premature birthing. They knew we were all going to dinner, just not the baby shower part. Kapil almost ducked out and I was afraid I’d have to pressure him. Luckily, he showed up when I said I had a big surprise announcement. (That being the baby shower—nothing that exciting is really going on). We took a couple photos and finally got seats. I passed out defective rubber duckies that didn’t squeak (oops) and put out a pink baby carriage candle for Anuja and blue baby bottle candle for Kapil. Then we all (me, them, Maureen, Helen, Ben, Marina, her husband Avi) had dinner and chatted. And we tried to guess how many chocolates I’d stuffed in the plastic pig. (45- Helen guessed 46)!
Afterwards, whoever wasn’t splitting headed to Ben’s house for baby games. We spent quite some time looking through baby name books, finding the worst ones. Udolf Smedley won. And then Jessica dropped in, which was cool. We played baby scattergories, baby attribute, and baby animal matching. Did you know a baby platypus is called a puggle? Come to think of it, I also have a baby animal memory game. Ah well. We also ate chocolate. Then we got sleepy and went home around midnight.
In later news, it seems Kapil has adopted the bear J Oh, and they’ve officially moved to a nearby apartment with washer and dryer.
Daniel and Mary had their own exciting news, and with them and a few others I helped invent a very kooky form of dreidel. For details see http://www.frankelassociates.com/valerie/vf/Dreidel.htm. Well, happy return to school and work, everyone. I don’t start up till the 24th or so J
Web page of Valerie Frankel, author of the Calithwain series and other fantasy fiction. Journey to the magical world of Calithwain, with amazingly detailed interactive maps for all ages. Original children’s novels, short stories, book recommendations, reviews, fairy tale resources, fantasy & writing links and so much more. Free Harry Potter Parody!