Showing posts with label Toronto. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Toronto. Show all posts

Monday, December 21, 2020

Post-Chanuka, Vaccinations Starting, 2020 On the Way Out

 

It has been a crazy year - not only in Israel, of course, but around the world.  But perhaps there is a sign of light at the end of the tunnel.  On Saturday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu took one for the team - and presented himself to be the first person vaccinated in Israel with the Pfizer vaccine.  The vaccination was shown live on prime TV at 8 p.m.  

After a lengthy broadcast of all of the preparations for the big event, various medical personnel and security personnel were shown preparing the area for the big event.  The podium was polished and the microphone was carefully cleaned.  At 8 p.m. exactly, the Prime Minister showed up, gave a short speech (as did Likud Minister Yuli Edelstein) and then Netanyahu sat down for his vaccination.  Interestingly, his personal doctor administered the vaccine rather than the nurse who mixed it (which is apparently a breach of the hospital's rules).  In fact, three different medical personnel were seen on live tv handling the vaccine - two of whom weren't wearing gloves - before passing it to the gloveless doctor - seen in the photo.  Not sure if they will also broadcast  Netanyahu's return to the hospital in 21 days for his second dose but perhaps they will pay a bit more attention to hospital protocol for the second dose.

Admittedly, this is all a digression.  The good news, as reported by the  Israeli government and in various news outlets, is that Israel has begun vaccinating its citizens actively as of yesterday.  Medical stations, equipped with appropriate freezers, have been set up across the country and estimates are that Israel will be able to administer 60,000 vaccinations per day.  Israel has apparently purchased 8 million doses from Pfizer and several million more from Moderna.  At this rate, close to 2 million Israelis may be able to receive their first dose by the end of January.  If things continue at this pace and there are no snafus, it is quite conceivable that Israel will have vaccinated the majority of its residents by mid 2021.  I suppose it remains to be seen whether the vaccine actually works and whether that will effectively end the problem, at least in this country.

In the meantime, some commentators have characterized the atmosphere in Israel, in some sectors as "end of course" or "end of semester."  The idea is that often at the end of a school year (or some other type of course, perhaps an army training course) once all the hard work has been done - people become very lackadaisical about doing anything more (like, in this case, wearing masks, refraining from having parties etc.,).  But this is quite dangerous.  The vaccine is only being rolled out now and it will take months until it is administered fully.

At the same time, the current infection rate in Israel is very high with more than 2,000 new infections being reported daily.  The government has been debating various responses to the growing spread including shutting down the airport completely, shutting down all commerce other than "essential services" and sealing "red zones."  Yesterday, two flights arrived in Israel from Great Britain.   The passengers were all sent to government-arranged quarantine hotel accommodations.  At least 25 passengers refused and were sent back to Great Britain.  The concern apparently related to the latest mutation of Covid-19 which has been spreading in Great Britain.

Several weeks ago, Israel had designated the UAE a "green" country and decided to allow travel without quarantine back and forth between Israel and UAE.  Cynics among us might say that  this was partially intended to bolster the  nascent peace deal between the  UAE and Israel.  In any event, this resulted in thousands of Israelis flocking to Dubai - to attend parties, weddings and other gatherings all without wearing masks or taking other precautions.  Some groups of Israelis flew whole wedding parties to Dubai where they could hold "normal" weddings without any restrictions.  Others, like Israeli singer Eyal Golan, flew to Dubai just for some fun and partying.  Golan actually came back and was diagnosed as having Covid-19, though he is apparently doing fine now.  Still others, according to media reports, have been travelling to UAE for another well known purpose - sex tourism.  I suppose Covid-19 might be the least of the problems for some of these travellers.

In any event, Israel has now determined that there are no "green countries" and that all travellers will now be required to quarantine on return to Israel, even those coming from the UAE, despite any political ramifications, real or imagined.  It will apparently take effect three days from now - so I suppose there is still time for a quick whirlwind UAE simcha or some other type of equally rapturous event.  I think we will stay home, thanks.

In other news, and maybe I sound like a broken record here, if you have read my past columns, the current Israeli government is on the brink of collapse.   A vote on a non-confidence motion is expected either tonight or tomorrow.  If the government falls, there is talk of a March 23, 2021 election date, though that remains to be finalized.  Under Israeli law,  the 2020 budget  must  be passed by December 23, 2020, a date that was already moved back with previous legislation.  Since there is still no budget in place, either for 2020 or 2021, the government is set to collapse even without a non-confidence motion.  

There has been significant negotiation between Netanyahu's Likud party and Gantz's Blue and White party to reach a compromise, delay the date once again and keep this government alive with some urgent political CPR.   Over the weekend, there were reports that a deal was reached to resolve the crisis.  However, the concessions made by Gantz to Netanyahu to avoid an election were apparently too much to stomach for some of Gantz's Blue and White party members and it does not look like Gantz will be  able to get the full support of his party to keep the coalition together.

On the other side of the aisle, a long serving, high ranking Likud member, Gideon Saar, recently announced that he was leaving the Likud party and setting up his own party called "New Hope."  Does this sound familiar?  It is a very recurrent theme in Israeli politics.  In any case, Saar has been able to take a bunch  of Likud members with him and is running at 15-20  potential seats in the Knesset according to some polls.  Saar describes himself as a right wing politician, fully committed to most, if not all of Netanyahu's policies, other than, perhaps, those  dealing with the rule of law, on which Saar states that he is committed fully to the fight against corruption and the rule of law.  Saar has stated that he is not prepared to join a government led by Netanyahu following the next election.  I think I remember Gantz saying very similar things....

In any event, polls suggest that Netanyahu may now have a difficult time forming a government after the next election, but I wouldn't rule him out.  The Covid-19 vaccine is being rolled out, the economy may start to improve - and Netanyahu will figure out what kind of campaign is likely to work best against his latest foe.  Netanyahu  is a seasoned politician who  knows how to tackle difficult challenges.  His nickname is "the magician" so we will see if he can pull yet  another election win out of his hatful of tricks.

Netanyahu has refused to agree to pass state budgets for 2020 or 2021 because the coalition deal that he signed with Gantz stated that if the government were to fall for any reason, Gantz would become interim Prime Minister.  The one exception was if the government were to fall because of a budget disagreement, in which case Netanyahu would continue to be the Prime Minister until the next government was formed.  So once Netanyahu decided that this government wasn't working to his satisfaction the only choice he had for bringing down the government was one related to the budget - so that he will remain on as the interim Prime Minister throughout the next election campaign. 

Netanyahu's criminal proceedings are scheduled to continue now  in early February, having been delayed several times.  He is facing charges of breach of trust, corruption and bribery.  If convicted, he could face a lengthy prison term.   Given the past  pattern, it is likely that  Netanyahu will seek  a further adjournment, perhaps until after the pending election, though it is not clear that it will be granted  by the court this time.  He is still hoping for the "big win" in the election that would get him a coalition government with a retroactive immunity bill to end all of his legal troubles.  That does not look like a probable outcome at this juncture, even if Netanyahu wins the election and is able to piece together another government.

Chanuka has come and gone.  In Israel, the big culinary emphasis around  Chanuka time is donuts rather than latkes.  

Bakeries try to come up with all sorts of eye-catching designs.  Many of the donuts are jelly filled but I saw a really wide variety of options  - pistachio-crème, chocolate mousse, lemon, strawberry and even tehina (sesame paste) filled calorie bombs.  Fortunately, I don't really have a weakness for donuts.   We picked up a few for the first night of Chanuka but they looked better than they tasted.  

On the other hand - I do have a weakness for homemade potato latkes, especially the way both of my grandmothers and my mom used to make them.  Just good old fashioned ingredients, potato, onion, eggs,  salt, pepper and maybe a bit of baking powder and flour (too hard to find matzah meal in Israel when it is not Passover time).  I tried to learn a bit from all three teachers.  I also made some homemade applesauce to accompany the  latkes with our Friday night dinner.  And one night we ate a dairy meal and had a few with sour cream.  The latkes probably did more damage than the donuts - but it has not turned  out to be a lasting problem, thankfully.  

It was nice to be here for the full Chanuka holiday this year, even though there were few of the normal festivities due to the pandemic. But the weather has been fairly moderate, low 20s C (high 60sF) with some rain here  and there.  One of the nice things about being in Israel, for someone who is Jewish, is the almost complete absence of Christmas this  time of year.  I don't say that in a way that is intended to offend anyone - but December is always the time that I felt the least Canadian and most like an outsider.  

From early November (if not sooner), in Canada, the radio stations play non-stop Christmas music, malls and stores are filled with it everywhere - and everything revolves around Christmas until it ends.  Many other Canadian immigrant and minority groups have just  accepted all of this as the trappings of being "Canadian" and assimilated into the Christmas culture.   Many Jewish Canadians, however, have not and have remained among the few groups of Canadians who do not celebrate Christmas.  Sure, many Jewish Canadians go out for Chinese food on Christmas Eve or go to a movie - or even a "Matzah Ball" - or other social event.  Others have left the country by Christmas for a vacation in Florida or some other warm destination, maybe even Israel.  And most who have remained enjoy the day off.   But for the most part, many Jewish Canadians are simply reminded at this  one time of year - of what differentiates them from other Canadians.

Here in Israel, there are certainly people  who celebrate  Christmas.  You can see Christmas lights and  trees in Jaffa, Haifa, Bethlehem, Nazareth and other places - and there are Christian Israelis who celebrate the holiday fully.  But since it is a majoritarian Jewish country, everything is open on Christmas, there are no decorations in the malls and there is no Christmas music on the radio or in the schools.

I have nothing against people celebrating the holiday - whether here, in Canada or anywhere else.  Quite the opposite - I wish everyone all the best in celebrating all of the holidays that they might observe, whether that is Christmas, Diwali, Eid Al Fitr or other holidays.  In fact, I have been honoured to attend a few Christmas dinners with some of my best friends in Canada as well as celebrations of other holidays.

But here in Israel, it is a very special time of year  -  where we can celebrate Chanuka - a holiday that is uniquely ours - and enjoy one of those benefits of being in a majority Jewish culture.  

Chanuka, as you might know, is a "minor" holiday on the Jewish calendar.  Businesses are open and there are no real restrictions on day to day activity.  It is not nearly as important a holiday  as our fall holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot nor is it as significant as Pesach (Passover).  At the same time, it is widely observed, which in Israel means lighting the Chanukiah and eating a bunch of donuts - and maybe some latkes.  

In any event, Chanuka has ended and I think it is fair to say that the main thing people in Israel are now thinking about is when they will be able to get vaccinated - and when things will return to normal.  Whether inspired by Chanuka, Christmas or Diwali, all of which have a  significant theme of light, I think are all hoping to see some bright light at the end of this long period of darkness.

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy holiday season and all the best for 2021!

  

 

  



 


  

Monday, November 14, 2016

Turkish Airlines: Toronto to Tel-Aviv Review

I am writing this post on a plane on the way back from Israel.  I'm on Turkish Airlines, which is one of the few international carriers to offer trans-continental wi-fi for the whole flight.  It's not free - it's 9.99 Euros for two hours or 14.99 for 24 hours.  But it's great to have - especially if you are on a day flight and people are awake.
Over my 7 years of going back and forth between Toronto, Canada and Ra'anana, Israel, this was my first time flying Turkish Airlines  I had avoided it partially due to security reasons and partially for political reasons.  The relationship between Israel and Turkey has been strained over the past few years to say the least.

But I have to say that Turkish compares very favourably to almost anything else I have flown on this route.  I would put Air Canada at the top, since it is direct. Swiss and Lufthansa are also quite nice, despite the changeovers.  But I think I would prefer Turkish over Lot, Austrian, KLM or any of the different U.S. airlines.

Part of the reason I took the flight was timing.  It left at 10:30 pm from Toronto, which meant I was able to work all day in Toronto before leaving.  I will also say that price was a consideration as Turkish was much cheaper than other options for the days I was flying.

The aircraft from Toronto to Istanbul was decent -a 3-3-3 configuration.  The seats felt wide enough.  Each person has a large personal screen and an electrical outlet (that handles all types of plugs).  There are also USB ports for charging USB devices.  The entertainment system includes a range of movies, games, music and other items.

The flight attendants were very attentive.  They came around often and were friendly and helpful.

I ordered an Asian (Hindu) vegetarian meal, which was great.  There were also a few wine choices and lots of other drinks.  Like Air Canada and all of the European airlines, there is wine and bar service at no charge throughout the flight.

On arrival in Turkey, we had to take a shuttle bus from the plane to the terminal.  We then had to pass through personal security.  This was similar to other airports and nothing particularly eventful or problematic.

The airport terminal itself is huge and very nice.  Lots of shops - many very fancy, recognizable name brands. I only bought one item - a bottle of whiskey - and I was able to do so at a reasonable price.  There was a fairly wide selection.  On the way to Israel I also picked up some "Turkish Delight" at the request of a friend of mine.  There was quite a selection of different types all over the airport.

Inside the Turkish Lounge
A highlight of my stopover in Istanbul and a highlight of this flight was the Turkish Airlines lounge, which I was able to access as a Star Alliance member.  That's some lounge!  Spanning two stories, it features a range of different types of seating in a variety of areas, most of which are very comfortable.  Overstuffed couches, leather sectionals, dining table type seating to name just a few.

Turkish Lounge
There are food stations all over the lounge - like a buffet restaurant.  A coffee/espresso station, salad bar, fruit bar, crepe station, grill area, pizza bar and many others.  No shortage of food here....(though I'm not sure if they have many kosher options).


There is a golf swing area with a range of practice clubs....an area with Sony PlayStations, showers, available Macs for use, a massage area, and a sleeping area with reclining chairs.  In case you are wondering, I did not wind up getting the Turkish massage...maybe next time.

I could probably go on and on but it is fair to say that I don't remember anything comparable from any of my other lounge visits in different airports.  As nice as the lounges are in Frankfurt and Toronto - or Zurich - this is a whole different league.

In case you are curious, I did see many Orthodox Jews on the flight and they did not seem to have any kind of problem flying with Turkish.  Certainly the Turkish planes did not seem to be as filled with Israelis or North American Jews as one might find on an El Al or Air Canada flight.  But the security seemed reasonably sophisticated and I felt safe.

My flight to Israel had a connection time of about 2 hours which worked out fine.  On the way back I wound up with an 8 hour layover because I was late in booking the flight, but I think that is generally avoidable.  There are several flights a day between Tel-Aviv and Istanbul.

All in all - thumbs up and I might do this more often....

A final note is that you must carefully look at the class code if collecting Aeroplan points is important.  Some classes of economy travel on Turkish Airlines do not allow for accumulation of any points.  For example, "U" class, as of June 2016, is in that category. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Toronto to Tel-Aviv: Air Canada - Business Class Dreamliner

Business Class Seat View 1
I have previously written about the various changes that Air Canada has made to its "Altitude" program - which have made it harder and harder to earn a high level status.  Up until two years ago, I was earning one mile for each flight, regardless of the cost of the air fare.  This also applied for flights on United Airlines and a number of other Star Alliance partners.  Now, Air Canada is only providing half the air miles for most of the lower end fares.  Some fares don't earn any points.  As a result, to qualify for "altitude 100k" (formerly "super-elite") status, you would need to fly 8 1/2 times between Israel and Toronto, at the much higher priced "flex" fares.  These fares can cost anywhere from $200 to $800 more on a round trip flight than a discounted "Tango" fare.  Same seats, same food, same plane.  Just a lower air miles reward (only about 2,850 each way instead of 5700).  So it is probably quite unlikely that I will qualify for "Super 100k" status again.  But I still have the status until February 28, 2015. So I decided to try and use it before it expires.

I booked a flight from Toronto to Tel-Aviv on an Air Canada flex fare.  This meant that I would be eligible for a free upgrade to business class, if the space was available.  If not, I could be upgraded to premium economy.  Since I had the upgrade points and I still had the status, I decided that it would be worthwhile (especially during low season) to take my chances.

I arrived at the airport and inquired about the likelihood of an upgrade.  I was told that there were three other people ahead of me and only two spots.  Oh well, I figured, at least I can probably fly "premium economy" which would get me a bit more leg room.

About an hour before the flight, I checked with very helpful lounge staff.  They told me that I had been upgraded and was seated in 5D....so I was all set.

Air Canada is now using 787 "Dreamliners" on its flights between Tel-Aviv and Toronto.  These are very new planes.  Apparently, they fly at a cruising speed of about 60 km/h faster, so the flight time is reduced by about half hour to forty-five minutes.  I have to say that the planes are also quite smooth and much less noisy than many other planes.  Beyond that, the seats in the economy class seem to be as crowded, if not more so, than other planes.

But for this flight, I was quite fortunate.


Business Class Seat View 2
I was seated in an aisle seat in business class.  Unlike the previous planes that Air Canada used for flights to Israel, this plane has a separate entrance into the business class section.  Economy class passengers cannot pass through and gawk at the personal cabin-type seats.

Business class seats include a fully reclining, extra-wide seat and a large sized personal screen.  They also include a side table, a storage compartment and a handy electronic remote control that controls the seat, the TV, the entertainment and can even call for flight attendants.  The seat was very comfortable though I did  not use the down comforter that was also provided.

At the start of the flight, the attendants come around and offered a choice of orange juice (freshly squeezed) or sparkling wine.  Since I had already been in the lounge for a couple of hours, I declined these drinks.

Air Canada Vegetable Platter
I found it interesting that in such a fancy new plane, there were no overhead compartments for the aisle seats in the middle in rows 4, 5 and 6.  There was plenty of overhead storage room elsewhere, but it seems bizarre that they built the plane without overhead compartments for some of the business class rows.

Our flight left on time and the attendants came around with the menu.  I had pre-ordered an Asian vegetarian meal but was still given the choice of one of the business class options.  I went with a cod dish, which was served with wild rice and vegetables.

Fruit Platter
The appetizer was a plate of grilled vegetables, including asparagus, zucchini, artichoke and red pepper.  It was quite tasty and the plate was quite attractive.  Shortly afterwards, the attendants delivered a fresh fruit plate including pineapple, watermelon, kiwi, strawberries and grapes.  Sublime.

The main course was reasonably tasty - cod served with wild rice, fennel and carrots.  Not particularly memorable but edible and served with a reasonably artistic flair.

Main Course

Meanwhile, I managed to sample some of the different wines that were being offered.  A California Meritage, a Spanish wine and a French wine.  None of the wines were particularly enticing but I preferred the California selection.  The flight attendants were quite eager to help me find a wine that was most suitable to my palate.  They insisted that I try each of the wines until I find one that I really liked....

Cheese Platter


After the meal, a cheese platter was delivered.  I was getting a bit worried about the caloric size of this meal, so I passed on the chocolate mousse which was also offered.  Instead I opted for some Courvoisier VSOP Cognac to accompany the cheese platter.

During the meal, I watched the movie Transcendence, which started off as an interesting concept but fizzled.  I also watched a few episodes of The Big Bang Theory.

By the time the movie ended and the dishes were cleared, I enjoyed one last drink - a decaf coffee.  I then reclined the seat-bed fully - and tried to go to sleep.  Next thing I knew, I was hearing an announcement that we were less than two hours away from Tel-Aviv and that a hot breakfast would soon be served.  I really wasn't that hungry at this point.  The flight attendants came around with a choice of pancakes or quiche, both served with chicken sausages.  I would not have eaten either dish and would have had my Asian vegetarian breakfast.  But instead, I had a yogurt and a coffee and I was fine.

Overall, this was certainly one of the more enjoyable flights that I have had between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  I really don't think I would spend the $5,000 to buy a regular priced business class ticket - and I am not even sure I would pay the $500 cost to upgrade from "flex" class to business class that Air Canada is now charging its passengers (other than Altitude 100K passengers).  But I took advantage of this rare opportunity and enjoyed the free upgrade knowing that it is probably unlikely that I will have too many similar chances in the near future.

On hearing about my flight, a number of people, here in Israel, told me that I probably didn't want to get off the plane...

Well, as nice as the flight was, I can't really go that far.  After all, I arrived to a sunny 22C day, having left the -3C temperature of Toronto.  Winter? In Israel?  Maybe for a few days - but even the roughest winter days here would be like early fall in Canada, unless you happen to live in Jerusalem or way up north, in which case you might get a few odd days of snow.  Of course, it might feel like winter inside the homes since most homes are built without insulation.  But you can always step outside and enjoy the sun.

And now that January has almost come to an end, there are likely to be very few "wintry"days left in Israel - and even fewer when measured by Canadian standards.  Of course, that all makes sense, since the holiday of Tu B'Shevat, the "New Year of the Trees" is quickly approaching and the weather should be nice enough to allow us to plant some new trees.

Hopefully, on my return to Toronto I will hear that the groundhog has delivered some good news about the Toronto forecast.




Monday, November 10, 2014

Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Amsterdam on KLM - Part 2 With Whisky Tasting Notes

For the sake of completeness, I thought I'd add a note about my flight on KLM from Tel-Aviv to Toronto via Amsterdam.  The blog for the route the other way is here.

Like most other European flights, KLM leaves Tel-Aviv for Amsterdam at about 5:20 a.m.  This means getting to the airport at about 2:30 a.m.  It's a nasty start to any trip.  I suppose it works well for Israelis with short term business in Europe who would like to arrive in the morning.  But for travellers back to North America, it is quite painful and tiring.

The lines can be long at Ben Gurion Airport (particularly for these early morning flights to Europe) but they move along reasonably quickly.  Although the line-up looked quite daunting when I arrived at the airport at about 2:45 a.m., I moved through it in less than 15 minutes. 
  
The flight from Tel-Aviv to Amsterdam is between 4 1/2 and 5 hours, depending on tail winds.  The KLM planes are quite cramped with no video or other entertainment.  A breakfast of sorts was served.  I opted for the vegetarian meal and received something that vaguely resembled an omelet.  The seats were very tight.  However, I was extremely lucky and wound up with a vacant seat beside me.  This was pretty incredible given that the flight was otherwise completely packed.  Even with the extra room, the seat was still cramped but it was much more endurable.  The flight attendants were quite friendly, helpful and accommodating.  They came around often offering drinks, both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.  They were cheerful and polite.  They spoke English well though I don't think I heard any of them speaking Hebrew (even Air Canada has some Hebrew speaking flight attendants for flights to Israel).  I wound up assisting with some translation services for some Haredim whose language skills were limited to Hebrew, Yiddish and perhaps Aramaic.

We arrived in Amsterdam ahead of schedule, just before 9:30 a.m.  I then had a four hour wait until the flight to Toronto.  That scheduling is not nearly as convenient for flying to Toronto as some other European cities, but, then again, Schipol airport is huge and has lots to do.  There are some great places to eat, many different shops and lots of places to relax.  

I wandered around for a while in the different duty free shops including a chocolate shop, a cheese shop and a book store.  Then I found the perfect place - "The Exquisite Whisky Shop" located near lounge 2.   It features a huge tasting menu and many whiskies for sale.  I had a few hours, so I figured I might as well do some sampling.  

I sat down and thumbed through the menu booklet which included various whisky "flights" - groups of three that had been put together as suggested combinations - as well as single options.  The prices ranged wildly.  You could sample something fairly common for as little as 5 Euros.  Or you could try the Louis XIII Cognac for 100 Euros a shot. 

I settled on a "flight tasting" of three peated whiskies that looked interesting.  The cost was 15 Euros (about $21 Cdn). These are the single malts that I sampled:

1.  Bruichladdich Port Charlotte 11 - I was told that it was not widely available but that it was very popular and sells out quickly.  Only 12000 bottles were released.  It was about 120 Euros a bottle.  It was smoky - yet it had a very interesting range of tastes to it.  Overall, I quite liked it even though I generally tend to prefer smoother whiskies.  It was a cask strength Scotch - 59.5% alcohol.  I enjoyed it straight up as well as with a bit of water. 

2.  Talisker "Dark Storm" - This was somewhat more smoky - supposedly aged in "charred barrels" - yet still with a fairly interesting taste to it.  It is apparently the smokiest whisky that Talisker has every sold. I enjoyed it but not as much as the first glass that I had tasted.

3.  Bruichladdich Octomore - This was super smoky, described as "super heavily peated."  It was too much smoke for me - a peat rating of 167, which is apparently off the charts....

All of that was 15 Euros - (for a "flight) but my server was generous with the servings. I guess she liked me (or hoped I would spend a lot of money) so she offered me some Cragganmore 19 (on the house) - a special edition carried exclusively by duty free shops.  It was okay but nothing too exciting.  It was not very smoky but had some interesting fruity tastes.

The generous attendant suggested that I try the Old Pulteney 21 for another 7 Euros.  Apparently this one was rated as the best whisky in Jim Murray's 2012 Whisky Bible.  I had a look at my watch.  Lots of time until the next flight.  I looked around a bit at the other offerings.  Ultimately, I said "what the heck" and plunked down another 7.5 Euros.  Since I was wavering, she provided me with a very generous serving.  This offering was fruity and interesting - not smoky at all.  It was apparently aged in both a bourbon cask and an oloroso cask.  So it had a very sweet finish.

At this point, I thought I was pretty much done (in more ways than one).  But the very helpful Scotch pro decided to really spoil me.  She brought out a glass of Laphroaig 25 year - that she explained costs 400 Euros a bottle.  She quietly told me "not to tell the manager" - and hid the bottle quickly....(though I am quite sure this is all part of the promotion and sales in the place). I have to say that this one was quite nice, even sublime.  It was not nearly as smoky as some of the less expensive Laphroaigs that I have had.  It had a range of interesting tastes and only a relatively mild peaty taste.  It is a cask strength whisky with an alcohol content of 59.5%. 

So I guess that adds up to about 6 healthy shots...Finishing the tasting with that last dram was somewhat like the encore at a good concert.  It brought everything to a nice conclusion and left me with lots of time to make my way over to the gate for the next flight.  Overall, I can't say that the prices at this shop were amazing - but the selection was nice - and the people at the tasting shop were quite friendly, helpful and generous....For whisky lovers, it is a great way to spend some time at the Amsterdam airport without necessarily spending a huge amount of money.

I made my way over to the gate and I still had about two hours to go.  So I found a comfortable chair and rested for a while.  There is free internet at the airport with a sign-in, for 1/2 an hour.  

Each gate has its own security machines, including full body X-ray machines.  I didn't pay too much attention to the gate lineup until about an hour and twenty minutes before the flight.  At that point, I went to wait in line - and it was painful.  It was an incredibly long and slow moving line-up.  They were processing one or two people at a time.  With a line-up of more than 200 people, all winding around through the gate, this meant standing in line for close to an hour and moving along at a creeping speed.  Ouch.  It was probably about the worst security line up I have been in, other than the line-up at JFK (or maybe the Boston airport).  

Nothing new to report on the seating once I was in the plane.  It was still extremely cramped and the video system was still ancient, low resolution and poor sound.  That being said, I managed to watch a few enjoyable movies.  I didn't sleep much between Amsterdam and Toronto since it was a daytime flight.  Miracle of miracles, I wound up with an empty seat next to me for the second straight flight.  That was very fortunate given the width of the seats. 

But once again, the flight attendants were cheerful, helpful and constantly available.  The Asian vegetarian meal that I had ordered was fine (some curried chic peas and tofu).  The house wine was decent.  It was a South African Cabernet-Shiraz.  The cabin crew were also offering VSOP Cognac.  I grudgingly accepted, several times.   

Overall, it is a brutally uncomfortable way to fly but the flight attendants do their best to take your mind off the physical discomfort. The flight itself was uneventful and we arrived about 15 minutes early, despite a 1/2 hour delay in leaving.

When I arrived in Toronto I couldn't resist taking this picture of two planes, side by side...

One of the airlines is El Al.  And right next to it....I believe that is Pakistan Airlines.  I wonder if the respective crews had the chance to mingle and get to know each other a bit.  Since Israel and Pakistan do not have diplomatic relations, there are probably few opportunities for this type of exchange.

In any event, that side bit has nothing to do with flying KLM between Toronto and Tel-Aviv.  Once again, as I have said before, it is worth considering if the price is right.  You can spend a day in Amsterdam from Toronto to Tel-Aviv and spend a few hours in the whisky shop from Tel-Aviv to Toronto.  If you have no interest in whisky or Amsterdam, well, you might need to consider another airline or bring along several books.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Aroma Here, Aroma There....

Aroma Espresso Bar - Israel
The Aroma Espresso Bar chain is Israel's largest chain of cafes.  With more than 125 locations in Israel, it sometimes feels like there is an Aroma everywhere.  These cafes are in shopping malls, hospitals, street corners and gas stations.  The coffee is quite good.  In my view, it probably tastes better than the offerings of most Canadian chains, other than Second Cup.  Of course, that is also probably true of most other Israeli coffee chains, some of which I mentioned in my blog post about coffee culture in Israel in January 2012. 

The difference between Aroma and many North American coffee chains is the emphasis on fresh food to go with the coffee.  Aroma features a variety of salads and sandwiches which are made on freshly baked bread.  In Israel, some of the Aroma locations are Kosher but most are not.  The non-Kosher locations add chicken, roast beef and other meats to the menu.  The Kosher locations are generally all dairy.

The main location in Ra'anana, on Ahuza Street, was a Kosher location.  However, it burnt down in a fire last year.  It has still not reopened.  The place is still boarded up, creating quite the eyesore on a very main Ra'anana thoroughfare.  So Ra'anana residents looking for an Aroma coffee need to drive over to the nearby mall or enjoy coffee from one of the many other fine cafes in the city.

Aroma - Fairview Mall, Toronto
The fascinating thing about Aroma has been its worldwide expansion.  In 2007, Aroma landed in Toronto.  It now has 18 locations in Toronto and seems to be faring quite well.  The menu is somewhat different from Israel.  None of the Toronto locations are Kosher.  But the emphasis on fresh salads and sandwiches is what gives Aroma a huge edge over its Canadian counterparts and U.S. chains.  None of the Canadian competitors in the espresso bar field (chain locations) offer fresh food and salads.  The food in Starbucks is generally pre-made and unappetizing.  Second Cup offers a very minimal selection.  Timothys is even worse.  This gap has probably contributed greatly to Aroma's Canadian success.

In Canada, Tim Hortons, a coffee chain, has locations across the country.  While Tim Hortons is known for a wide variety of food offerings at very reasonable prices, its coffee is not of the high end variety.  Tim Hortons appeals to an entirely different clientele than the various espresso cafes.  Interestingly, a chain like Tim Hortons might stand a chance in Israel.  There are few places, if any, in Israel where you can get a bagel and a coffee for $3 (10 Shekels) like you can in Tim Hortons.  Then again, although Israelis might like the cheap bagels, they would probably not enjoy drinking Tim Hortons coffee..

Starbucks made an effort to open in Israel.  But it was very pricey and Israelis did not enjoy the coffee.  As well, it did not serve quality food.  Its stay in Israel was short lived.

Aroma has been opening other locations around the world.  There are apparently four now in New York and a few in different countries in Europe.  Looking at the current situation in North America, Aroma should be poised to continue its growth and success.   The combination of high end coffee and fresh food still occupies a unique market segment.  In Canada, Second Cup, Timothys and Starbucks would all need to reinvent themselves to compete for that type of business.  Or they could simply try to continue counting on their own marketplace niche.

The success of Aroma may well provide other Israeli cafes with the impetus to try their luck in North America.   Arcaffe, Ilan's, and others also serve quality coffee and fresh food.  But they will probably need to hurry.  I can't imagine that it will take too long before existing North American coffee chains begin to catch on and realize something that Jews seem to have known for a very long time - quality food is important at any get together... 






Thursday, August 22, 2013

Air Canada "E-Upgrades"...More Costs For Non-Super Elite Travellers

Well the "free ride" is just about over...or at least the free upgrade ride.  In a warm and fuzzy email earlier this week - Air Canada announced that starting on March 1, 2014, it will charge "e-upgrade add-ons" for passengers looking to upgrade into the executive cabin from economy class on all flights other than those within North America.  For this year, at least, Super Elite members (now called "Altitude 100k") will be exempt from these charges.  But for all other travellers, it will cost $500 plus a pile of e-upgrade points to move up into the executive cabin.

The deterioration of benefits for non-super elite passengers over the past couple of years has been significant.  Last year, Air Canada introduced its "Altitude" program and effectively reduced the status of benefits for most Aeroplan members, other than previously named "Super Elite."  These changes made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for non-super elite passengers to be upgraded into executive first.

Now with the latest change, passengers hoping to upgrade from a cheap fare into executive first will have to pay $500 unless they are Superelite 100K.  That's $500 in addition to the exorbitant number of e-upgrade points that they will need- which have become harder and harder to collect.

There is now a greater and greater discrepancy between the value of Air Canada's highest level status, Altitude 100K and all other levels.

For those travelling back and forth between Israel and Canada, this will reduce the benefit of flying Air Canada for anyone travelling less than 8 1/2 times a year. Air Canada still offers a direct flight, with AC power outlets, personal entertainment screens and complementary alcohol (to name a few of the benefits).  But the loss of the ability to get a free upgrade, even once in a while, is a major change and it is certainly not a positive one.

The flip side is that anyone who is close to Altitude 100K status by the end of December will need to consider the value of taking an extra flight just to meet the required threshold.  The value of having 100K status will now include free upgrades (with e-upgrade points), double Aeroplan miles on Air Canada and United flights, and the ability to use Aeroplan points for priority bookings, even when most reward seats are no longer available.

For passengers on the Tel-Aviv-Toronto route, this will affect, most significantly, those passengers who might be flying 4 to 7 times a year.  Only two or three years ago, passengers in that category would have enjoyed regular upgrades to executive first at no additional charge.  Now they will be lucky to be eligible and when they are, it may cost more than half of the price of the ticket (during low season).

So if you are an Altitude member, but not 100K, the time to enjoy the free upgrades is now - or between now and March 1, 2014.  After that, well, luxury will have its price...

Here is the link to the Air Canada announcement:  Air Canada Add Ons

Monday, September 3, 2012

Yemen Blues - Toronto - September 2, 2012

Israeli musical group Yemen Blues performed at the Harbourfront Westjet concert stage in Toronto on Sunday September 2, 2012 to a standing room only crowd of more than 2,000.  The concert was presented as part of the Ashkenaz festival in Toronto, though there is very little that is "ashkenaz" about this group.

Yemen Blues is a unique musical experience that combines Yemenite/African and eastern musical styles with contemporary jazz, funk and blues.  The band is made up of musicians playing a variety of different instruments including a cello, violin, trombone, trumpet, flute, guitar, percussion/lute, and standard drum kit. Lead singer Ravid Khalani fronts the band and also plays an eastern version of a bass. 

Khalani sings most of the group's songs in Yemenite (a dialect of Arabic).  Influenced by the Yemenite chants that he learned as a child in his local Synagogue in Israel, Khalani has taken this Yemenite-traditional musical base and mixed it up with a range of other African and eastern influences.

For the uninitiated, Khalani's voice can be rough at times.  For part of the performance, he can alternate between trance-like Yemenite chants in a gravelly voice, mixed with shrieks, and various exuberant calls.  At other times, he veers to falsetto and other vocal styles.  With a little bit of Hebrew thrown in and perhaps some other languages, the singing is mainly Yemenite.  For Yemen Blues, this can mean wide ranging appeal in many places where traditional Israeli groups would be quite unwelcome.  Apparently, Yemen Blues, has a following among many Arab and Muslim listeners.

Of course, this would best suit the spirit and objective of Khalani's music.  Near the end of the concert, he explained to the audience that the music is intended to cross religious, ethnic and cultural boundaries.  "It doesn't matter whether you are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or from some other religious or cultural background - our goal is to bring everyone together through music," he explained.

The audience responded, particularly towards the end of the 75 minute show, as Khalani took off his jacket and implored everyone to get up, clap and dance along.  Khalani himself is quite a spectacle on stage.  He works himself into a frenzied dance, moving along the stage with an obvious passion and infectious enthusiasm.

Overall, the band was fascinating.  The high calibre musicians were well rehearsed and moved into extended jazz interludes that could have fit into any world class blues/jazz festival.  Then they veered back into Yemenite/eastern music that were reminiscent of the sounds of an Israeli/Yemenite Hina (a pre-wedding celebration).

It is exciting and remarkable that such an eclectic sounding ethnic musical group from Israel would develop such a large following in so many places.  Yemen Blues have been peforming around the world and have attracted audiences in Scandanavia, Eastern Europe, the U.S. and of course their home country.  In Toronto, the audience size and welcoming reaction made a case for a larger venue for Yemen Blues' next Canadian peformance.