Thursday, July 6, 2017

My first child-free trip in three years

"Did you write anything on your blog about China?" my husband asked me yesterday. "I didn't plan to, why?" I asked him back. "Well, because it's very interesting, I think it makes a good story".

Then a friend texted me, one day after my arrival back to Zagreb (read: I was heavily jet-lagged and exhausted) to, literally, ask me to let my husband come to his place to drink, alone, and leave the kids with me, because, and I quote, I already enjoyed myself for five days. At this point I decided to write how my first child-free trip truly went.

To have fun? Sure I'd like to. To enjoy myself for five days? Who wouldn't want that? Honestly, what I wanted to do in China was just sleep. To finally sleep.

You read the reason why I was leaving for China for a week. So I left a toddler and a baby with my husband at home. Long story short, I was on the plane heading to Vienna from Zagreb. It was a 45-minute flight so it was fine. I had a short layover. First thing I had to do was going to the bathroom to express my milk. My five-month-old normally breastfeeds every three to four hours, so my milk production was high. I video-called them from the airport and they're all fine. It was a relief. My mother-in-law stayed at our apartment during my trip. I knew they're going to be fine. The baby still refused bottles, but my husband fed her with the sippy cup. I left them a freezer full of breast-milk.

She's going to be okay. They're going to be okay.

My flight from Vienna to Beijing though, was a disaster. I was seated at the window, in an extremely narrow seat of Austrian Air (the narrowest seat I've experienced in my life), with two other passengers sitting between the aisle and myself. It was a 9-hour-flight, and it was overnight, meaning they'd probably be asleep the entire flight and there's no way I get to the bathroom often to express my milk. Then I realized that my pump (it's technically not mine, I borrowed it from my sister-in-law) is in the checked luggage, it's not with me. Both of the passengers next to me went to the bathroom right after dinner was served so I used the chance to go as well and expressed my milk. We came back to the seats and I watched Emma Watson's "Beauty and the Beast". The girl next to me watched "Finding Dory" and it made me miss my toddler so much (it's her favorite movie). I fell asleep when my movie was over.

Pumping at the bathroom of the Academy where we had our workshop

I woke up halfway the flight feeling my breasts were about to explode. I needed to pump but both next to me were asleep. I did nothing. I stared at a monitor in front of me. It's like the universe heard me or something, the girl next to me started waking up. She woke up the guy next to her because she needed the bathroom. I used this chance and took off. I apologized to the guy, he wasn't too happy about it, but he moved (later I found out that the gentleman was actually going to the same symposium I'm going to, and we were together for the entire week. He's an ex-Ambassador of one of European countries to China, and is one of the friendliest people I know).

When we landed in Beijing, I immediately went pumping in the first bathroom, then went to border control and to the luggage conveyor. I went out to the arrival zone and a guy was holding my name so I came to him, where I met the whole group of people that the driver's picking up. The ex-Ambassador guy was also there. He drove us to the hotel and we arrived around 11am, Sunday. After check-in, a girl from the group (I'll call her Kate throughout the story, she's a professor in one of the universities in Slovakia) asked if I'd like to go to the Silk Market later, now that we have free time today. I accepted the offer and we agreed to meet in an hour.

Working desk in our hotel room. They're making sure we're not here on vacation ;)
I went to my room and start pumping. Then I took a shower, got dressed, and went down to the lobby as agreed. I didn't call my husband as it was too early in the morning back home, but I sent him a message that I arrived in Beijing. I met Kate and another lady, a senior journalist from Macedonia, and we took off to the Silk Market. My first impression of Beijing was good. It was really good. Big clean pedestrian zones, cycling paths, modern subway system.

We had lunch together and went off shopping. It was the third time already for Kate to be in Beijing, so she knows how it's done in here. She did the bargaining for me. I got a nice silk scarf for my sister-in-law because her birthday is coming. We got her scarves from Vienna and Athens for her last two birthdays so it had become some kind of tradition. There's no better place to get her a new scarf than Beijing. I got my husband a silk tie, got some souvenirs for friends, and we headed back to the hotel to leave the stuff before going to the center. Kate bought a lot of stuff so she needed to leave them at the hotel. And I needed to pump.

Entrance to Forbidden City at the end of Tienanmen Square

We headed to the city center at around 4pm, directly to the infamous main square, Tienanmen. We wanted to enter the Forbidden City but it only opens for public until 3pm, so we headed to the famous Wangfujin street for dinner. None of us speak Chinese, and none of the waiters at the street food market speak English. Kate pointed at plates on other people's table to show the guy what we wanted to eat, and no one was bothered. We got back to the hotel around 8pm.

The lively Wangfujin snack street where we had dinner

I was so tired I thought I'd fall asleep immediately. I took another shower (it was hot and extremely humid) and called home. I saw both kids, happy and well fed. I tried to sleep afterward and it was like as if my body was fighting it. Oh right, jet-lag! Sh*t! I was wide awake until 2am (8pm Zagreb time). My alarm woke me up at 7am. I snoozed it. 7:05. I snoozed it. 7:10. I snoozed it. 7:15. Until it was half-to-eight. I barely got up. I was dead. I pumped my milk and already felt it was better, the supply wasn't as much as the day before. I got dressed, put on my dress pants, blouse and heels, and went to the lobby to have breakfast. I didn't find Kate, but I found the ex-Ambassador whom I was flying with. We had breakfast together, and I listened to his fun stories about life in Beijing.

That day, Monday, we had a workshop in the Academy for Social Sciences which was 5-minute walk from the hotel. During the whole day, I had to pump twice, but I felt that I didn't need to do it as urgently as I did the days before. We're done with work at around 5pm and went back to the hotel, took the luggage and a bus drove us to another resort at the outskirt of Beijing.

The next two days, Tuesday and Wednesday, our workshop was to be held in this resort. That means we can't really see Beijing because it's too far from the city. After dinner and two rounds of drinks, I headed to the room to rest. I video-called with the kids, and took a shower. Again, my body was fighting sleep. I was wide awake up to 2am. We were supposed to start the workshop at 8am and agreed to meet at half-to-eight in the lobby to walk together to the hall where the workshop will be held, as it's a little far from the main building. I don't know what happened, but my iPhone failed me. Either the alarm didn't go off or I was too deaf to hear, but the harsh ring of fixed hotel room woke me up. I reluctantly answered and the program coordinator was on the other line "come now, we're all waiting for you in the lobby", "what time is it?" I asked her. "7:45". Fu*k!

I brushed my teeth, put the first thing I saw on, and ran off to the lobby without coffee, let alone breakfast. Everyone had left and the coordinator was there waiting for me. I apologized and said I'm ready. She said "we're waiting for another lady", "who?", "Kate". Great! Thank God! I giggled in my heart. My friend came and we rushed to the hall, couldn't stop laughing to ourselves. By the end of this day, Kate and I agreed to go to the Summer Palace the next morning. We'll only have our agenda starts at 9am, so we agreed to take a cab at 6am to the Summer Palace and be back at the resort by 9am. Yeah, right! Wish us luck here.

I was awake until 1am again that night. I even watched Angelina Jolie's "By the Sea" in my room. To my amazement, I woke up at half-to-six. I was at the lobby by 6am and Kate' was there. The cab was waiting for us and off we went. The drive took us half-an-hour so we were in the Summer Palace before 7am. It was Kate's third time there so she guided me through it quickly (in a normal circumstances I recommend you to be here the whole day). By half-to-nine we're back at the main entrance where our cab was waiting for us. By 9h we're at the resort and we had quick breakfast before heading to the workshop hall, a little late. By now we're probably already known as the "girls who're always late".

One of my favorite spots during our walk around the lake at the Summer Palace

Wednesday ended up by us heading back to Beijing to take a train to Hebei province, where our next conference was held. I was fascinated by their train. 305km (Beijing-Shijiazhuang) in an hour. Wow. In Croatia, you get only 50km in an hour by train. We had dinner at the hotel and went to bed. By now, my breasts had completely adapted to my rhythm. I practically needed to pump just twice a day. No more hassles. My sleeping also slowly normalized, that night I fell asleep around 11pm.

The average speed of our train

It was already Thursday and after breakfast we headed to Hebei University of Economy and Business, where we had our conference. When we're done in the afternoon, a bus drove us to the train station and we took the train back to Beijing. We came back to the hotel where we stayed the first time around because Friday was scheduled for us to be at the Academy. We got to Beijing quite early (bless the fast train!), so Kate and I decided to have dinner outside together and go to some shopping mall to get gifts for our children. My toddler wants a living panda. You can't beat that.

I worked a little when I came back to the hotel, write important points on my notebook, sketch in my head how I'm going to present my ideas to the public the next day. I was one of the speakers on Friday.

When I was dressing up in the morning, I realized that my lucky dress pants were missing. I was planning to wear them. Most probably I've left them in one of the hotels since we'd been moving so much. No time for regret, I put on my best skirt.

Long story short, Friday went very well. Sure scholars were already tired, but we had nice discussion through the day in the panels. We were not back to the hotel until 6pm, but it was our last night in Beijing, so my other new friend, a Croat called Ben (of course not a real name, no one is called Ben in Croatia) who lives in Croatia but works for a Chinese research institute and speaks fluent Chinese, offered me and Kate to show Beijing around, the parts we didn't see before. We agreed to meet around 7pm.

I video-called my husband and my children, talked to my mother-in-law (it was also her birthday), pump a little and got ready for the evening. Ben took us to the old part of the town, to the neighborhood he used to live in (he lived in Beijing for three years), and we had two rounds of beers in a small non-touristy alley where locals hang out. At this point, both Kate and I had spent all of our Chinese money. It was stupid to exchange more since we're leaving the next day at 6am, so our lives depended on Ben, who, despite having to pay everything for us, insisted that we go to have another drink in a brewery where another colleague was at, so we took a cab to go there. A little note here: getting a cab in Beijing is extremely hard. Most of them won't stop to take us.

Wangfujing at night

When we got to the brewery, Paul, a Serb, was there with his wife and friends (no one is called Paul in Serbia, I just liked the sound of it). Paul is a professor in one of Chinese universities and has been living in China for over a decade. We had a nice round of drinks and decided to get back to the hotel at 2am. We had to be ready for the airport shuttle at 6:30, and we didn't even pack.

Kate and I had history of not being able to wake up on-time, so I told Ben to call me at 6am to make sure I'm ready to go. I packed and got everything ready, took a shower, texted my husband and went to sleep immediately. I woke up to my own alarm at 6am. When I looked at my iPhone, I saw Ben had called me twice, which, of course I didn't hear. I told him that I'm ready. We met at the lobby and had quick breakfast. This is now the part I regret the most. Kate was going with a later flight, so she wasn't going to the airport at half-to-seven like us. Ben and I shared the same flight, together with three more colleagues, so we drove together at the shuttle.

I knew Kate was going at 7am, so I was still hoping to see her at the airport. We didn't even say goodbye, and little did I know, the brewery was our last time to see each other. At the airport I picked up some more gifts for home, then went to the departure area. Beijing airport is massive, and full of people. Ben and I was already separated right after check-in, and after a few messages we gave up the idea to see each other before the departure gate. I spent an hour only lining at the border control. Then probably another hour to line at the security check. At this point I saw Kate and the ex-Ambassador in the line far behind me. She saw me and we waved at each other, she signed me that we'll meet inside at the departure area. I nodded.

A security officer randomly picked me (I have no idea for what reason) to leave the long line and go to the empty VIP/special need security check line. So I passed the check immediately. I went to find my gate and walk in the shops. I texted Kate to find me in the duty free area. Later I found out that she didn't read this text until my plane had take-off. Ben waited for me at the gate and soon we were boarding. My flight this time around was pleasant. I needed no pumping, the seats were more comfortable (we're flying Lufthansa now) and I actually sit next to someone I know. I watched "Steve Jobs" and "Letters to Juliet" (they had extremely poor choices of movies) and fell deeply to sleep, probably all the way to Frankfurt.

Ben and I separated in Frankfurt because I was flying to Zagreb and he was flying to some other Croatian city. I called home to check if they're coming to get me in the airport in Zagreb, and I waited for my connecting flight. I landed in Zagreb around 10pm, immediately found my husband and my toddler in the arrival zone. I hugged them like I was gone for two years. They left the baby with grandma at home. My baby was asleep when we got home. I put my breast on her and she instinctively breastfed like this week never happened. We all slept well that night.

The next days? The next three days I'd literally fall asleep at 5pm (11pm in Beijing) and wide awake at 3am. Jet-lag, people, is a bit*h.

So, did I enjoy my first child-free trip in three years? Probably not as much as I'd expected to, but hey, I went to work anyway. I wasn't on vacation! I'll finally sleep well in, probably, fifteen years or something. Or when the kids move out. I'm glad I experienced a little bit of Beijing, I'm most glad to make new friends, maybe for life. I'm glad I made contact with important professionals from the region. I'm not happy that I didn't see the great wall of China, that I didn't see any pandas. But my toddler is happy with stuffed panda I brought her home, so life's good. She asked me to take her to China next time I go, and I said "of course!" For now, I'll get back to the final manuscript of the paper that the Chinese are waiting for me to send them :)

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