Call us traditionalists. On Passover, you stay home…er…until this year.
With an irresistible offer, we took the plunge and decided to make our premier foray into the Passover hotel club.
We knew that our experience in the Hilton in St. Petersburg, Florida would probably border on the luxurious and even the epicurean. We had heard the reports of culinary opulence and had fielded the jealous ribbing about the inches we would certainly tack on.
"Get ready for the non-stop food orgy."
"You won't be hungry for a month!"
And boy, were they right.
We arrived on Thursday night, exhausted and spent from the packing and the trip. The bellman cheerfully loaded our 267 suitcases (we're a big family) onto a dolly and led us into the graceful lobby. There we were met by "The Greeter."
"Just let Andre deliver the bags upstairs. Come out to the pool area for the Mexican-style BB-Q. You must be starving."
Maybe ‘starving' was stretching it a bit, but we did follow our noses and moseyed on out to the pool for a bite or two.
Well, put it this way: I had never seen so many rib steaks in my life. I'm talking hundreds… many hundreds. The grills were spitting them out faster than I could say, "Medium rare, please." And don't forget the burgers and the hot dogs and the salads and the fries and just about anything else you could possibly imagine. We had it all.
What a strange feeling it was. Even in today's age of pampering and overindulgence, we were still strangers to this degree of excess. Not that we were complaining, mind you. I just sat back and watched my family -- from oldest to toddler -- heap on the food to their hearts' content. It was fun. And little did we know -- that was just the beginning.
But it wasn't just the volume, variety, and savor of the food; it was also the delivery system that we relished. Our delivery system was named Yuri. He came from Moldavia.
To say that he was a waiter would be unfair. Not after he waited on us -- our ENTIRE HUMONGOUS family -- for every single meal over Passover for 11 days in a row! No, he was much more than that because he attended to our every beck and call -- and, believe me, there were many becks and many calls.
I suppose that the chief credit goes to the caterer and his staff of chefs and bakers, who spared no expense or effort in making sure we were wined and dined. But like the stand up comic who grabs the limelight delivering his writers' peels of humor, Yuri gained our adulation and adoration with his constant attention to our every need.
"More soup, Rabbi?"
"Something for the children?"
"Is the wine sufficiently chilled?"
I guess that's what it's like to have a butler -- a taste of true freedom for Passover. Amazing.
But all good things come to an end. It was time to pack our 267 suitcases for tomorrow's journey home.
But all good things come to an end. Sunday night arrived, the Passover experience was over, and it was time to pack our 267 suitcases for tomorrow's journey home. Later that night, I took a final walk through the hotel that we called home for the holiday. I walked by the kitchen, the same kitchen that had created and delivered 11 days of food to nearly 700 guests. I looked on as the exhausted staff diligently bundled up the crates of leftover paper goods, jammed the hundreds of over-sized pots and pans into over-sized containers, and tossed the remaining usable foodstuffs into cans and boxes. Enormous trucks awaited them in the parking lot. Everything had gone exactly according to plan.
Our flight on AirTran was scheduled to leave Tampa at 6:10 PM on Monday. Most of the other guests had earlier flights that same day. Playing the role of diligent, organized traveler, I checked the website at about noon and learned that the flight would be delayed, due to New York weather, and would leave at 8 PM. No surprise there. Nowadays when a flight is on time, you get suspicious.
The clan spent some final hours soaking up the Florida rays and re-assembled in the lobby for our uneventful trip to the airport. I planned to arrive 90 minutes before the flight -- at 6:30 -- and checked one last time with the AirTran automated flight departure recording. Nothing had changed… no further delay… 8 PM departure.
At 6:28 the van pulled up at the terminal. Presenting my documents to the agent, I breathed a sigh of relief that all had gone smoothly. And then it happened.
"Sorry…I can't let you on this flight," he said.
"Well, you're extremely late."
"Late? The plane is leaving at 8 PM. That's 90 minutes from now!"
"Not exactly. The plane is leaving right now."
"That's impossible," I pleaded in vain. "I just called. Your recording said 8 PM!"
"Maybe so," he countered, "but we just got a ‘window' so we're taking off now!"
I stared in shock for a moment, tried some useless arguments and realized it was futile.
"Now what?" I ventured.
The agent typed some codes and stuff into his console and unceremoniously rendered the news. "Next available flight for your family would be Wednesday at 5 PM."
"You must be kidding," I chided. "That's two days from now!"
"Sorry, that's the best I can do for you."
A few minutes of strategic negotiations and a lot of begging yielded a re-booking for Tuesday evening, but that still meant re-loading our 267 suitcases back on the van, returning to the Hilton, and checking in to new rooms for the night. Silently we rode back to the hotel.
Andre was still there, but "The Greeter" was gone. So were the steaks… and the fries… and the soda… and everything and everyone else. The scintillating aroma of barbeque smoke had been replaced by the pungent smell of rug shampoo. The trash containers were either empty or re-assigned. The hotel staff, vast and over-friendly just hours ago, was suddenly sparse and bleak.
Minutes later, the hunger struck. What would we eat? A kosher restaurant in St. Petersburg was nowhere to be found. And no one among us had thought of hoarding any provisions for the short flight home. You know how it is. Hours ago we swore we "could never again put another morsel of food in our over-stuffed bellies." Now we were famished and panicked.
"Is there a supermarket near here," I frantically questioned the bellman?
"Sure. Five minute walk there's a Publix. But I think it closes in 20 minutes."
Five of us screeched out the door and made a bee line for the Promised Land of Publix.
Like a pack of eighth grade kids exiting the building when the final bell sounds, five of us screeched out the door and made a bee line for the Promised Land of Publix. Three minutes later I was sweating and standing in front of a shelf of four jars of Manischewitz Gefilte Balls in heavy fish broth. To me they looked like red snapper almandine slices in chardonnay sauce. I grabbed them.
I careened around the bend to the cracker and cookie aisle and uttered a silent, fervent prayer that one package would bear a kosher symbol on the wrapper. God was merciful -- vanilla biscuits. My mind said, "Seven layer cake."
Next came the fruit -- apples, oranges, bananas, and about eight pounds of grapes more than we could consume. Then the granola bars, some old looking burger buns, very large boxes of cereals, some plastic plates and cutlery, and loads of drinks. We were set.
Very slowly and laden with our sustenance we trudged back to the hotel. The return trip took a lot more than five minutes. We all sat down to eat.
We looked but Yuri could not be found.
No, the Salomon family did not starve that day or the day after. And yes, we did actually board a plane and arrived home safe and sound. But we did learn a very poignant and very obvious lesson.
God giveth and God taketh away. Never forget that. Every crumb of sustenance comes from Above.
Enjoy and appreciate every single thing you have. Every bowl of soup, every smiling face, every day of sunshine, every sock you wear, and every Yuri in your life.
You never know when it will be gone.