Thursday, December 14, 2017

Business trips are my vacation

It's pretty often when I see memes on my facebook timeline with similar phrases to "vacations with kids are basically business trip". And in my personal opinion, it's also the other way around: when you have kids, business trips are basically vacations. Well don't get me wrong, I enjoy traveling and vacationing with kids. As you might have noticed from my previous posts, we travel and vacation a lot with kids. However though, like most moms with babies, once in a while I wish I could just have a night away from the kids to just sleep for eight (or even six!) hours straight. And business trips, for me, are the answer to this.

Of course I could easily have a night out with the girls, or with my husband, and leave the kids for a night to the grandma (or a sitter). And I do that, now and then. However, my needs sometimes extend beyond the need to sleep alone. I also miss being just by myself sometimes. Not being someone's mother, or someone's wife. I used to travel alone when I was much younger. This nature changed when I met my better half who's also a travel addict, so we started to travel as a couple. Now with two kids, we travel as a family with young children. Business trips, are basically my excuse to not only get more sleep, but also experience solo traveling again, now and then.

In June I went to Beijing, China, for a conference; leaving my then five-month-old and three-year-old at home. I wrote about the dilemma here. After the post, I received mixed responses. Half of it judged me for having left such a small (and exclusively breastfed) baby for work reason, and the other half saw it as an empowering decision. Honestly, I was glad I chose to go.

Last month, in November, I was invited to hold two lectures for two days in Baku, Azerbaijan. I immediately said yes for three reasons: I needed a little break for myself, I have never been in Baku, and we needed the money. My mother-in-law agreed to stay at our place to watch the kids while I'm gone, because my husband wasn't able to take day-offs.

I left Zagreb on Saturday morning, although my lectures were only on Monday and Tuesday. The organizer wasn't able to get me flights on Sunday so I had to fly earlier. Which was a good thing for me, of course. My husband and the toddler drove me to the airport, and I left the baby with grandma at home. Like when I was leaving for Beijing, this time I also left expressed breast milk in the freezer. Although, now that she's 10-month-old, she preferred mostly real foods to breast milk.

Above Istanbul, landing for a stopover

With three hours of layover in Istanbul and three hours of time difference, I only arrived in Baku at around 9pm. It was cold and raining when I went out to the bus stop after exchanging some money. Five or six taxi drivers approached me to get me hire one of them, for 50 Manat (around €25) to my hotel. I was a little stunned (and honestly afraid) so I turned on my phone and search for Uber. There was an Uber 3-minute away so I ordered one. It offered me a drive for 10 Manat (€5), a fifth of the price the guys wanted me to pay. 5 minutes passed and I didn't see any car coming. On the GPS I saw the car was right there. An official for the airport parking asked if I needed assistance, so I told him I'm looking for my Uber. He went around the lot to find the car by the license plate, and finally found my Uber, empty, with no driver. Using his own cell phone, he called the phone number provided by my Uber guy, but  he wasn't answering. I had no other choice but cancelling my order, which cost me a penalty of around €2.While still figuring out options, an elder guy took my suitcase from my hand and put it into the trunk of his car, while saying "I'll drive you for 15 Manat (€7.5)". The price sounded okay, he knew where my hotel was. The problem? He wasn't a taxi driver. The car is not a cab. He was just there. I know I should've ran and just find a cab, but a little adventurous part of me told me to just go into his car. And I did.

We didn't talk much. In fact, not at all. He knew no English, and I don't know a word of Azeri. We drove for 20 minutes and I didn't have any bad feeling about it. Then I saw my hotel and he dropped me off in front of it. I thanked him and handed him 15 Manat, and safely got to the hotel.

I had the whole Sunday to myself. It was a beautiful sunny day in Baku, although a bit windy. After breakfast at the hotel, I headed to the city center with the free shuttle bus provided by the hotel. The shuttle bus left me in front of Park Bulvar, a shopping center nearby the Port, at the beginning of the Promenade along the Caspian Sea. I walked along the promenade, saw several interesting architectures and saw the famous Fire Towers from afar (three towers shaped like a flame together). I headed to the Old Town and started my journey at the Maiden Tower, that was built to worship the fire by the Shirvanshahs, who ruled in this area between the 9th and 16th centuries.

The view of Baku with its Fire Towers from the top of the Maiden Tower
I climbed the Maiden Tower after paying for 10 Manat for the entrance. I would've paid half price if I had my student card with me, but of course I left it at home. Don't judge, I'm legally a student ;) Each floor of the tower is part of the museum with historical collections and stories, and from the top I had a 360 degree view of Baku.

After enjoying the view from the top, I took off and decided to get lost in the old town with no map. The old town is the part of Baku inside the old wall, with a palace complex, mosques, and several museums. I walked alone in the small quite alleys and realized that this, was exactly what I needed. I needed to be alone, somewhere new, somewhere I've never been at, just to get myself recharged.

Souvenir stands along the small alleys of the old town
I bought a ticket for the Shirvanshah's palace (would've paid half price too if I had my student card with me), and started exploring the palace. Too be honest, I wasn't too impressed. The palace complex was quite small and empty. I sat down a little bit looking at the ruins of hamam (the bath house of the royals) and went out. I walked along the city wall and stopped to buy passion fruit fresh juice from the street seller. I remember it was a traditional thing in Istanbul, so I assumed here it's a thing too. I decided to walk toward the Fountain Square to find a restaurant.

Inside the Shirvanshah's Palace complex

I found a small restaurant with authentic interior and glass wall with full view to the square. I had to order lamb pilaf since it reminded me so much of my life in Istanbul. Pilaf is rice cooked in seasoned broth, served with stew, mine was with lamb stew caramelized onion, dried apricots, raisins and chestnuts, it was traditional Azeri and recommended by the staff. It was delicious! Most importantly, I was enjoying my meal ALONE! I know most people hate eating alone, but eating alone is one of the things I enjoy the most. I had been missing this!

My pilaf and a glass of draught local Xirdalan
I went back to the bay area and decided to walk back to the shuttle stop to get back to the hotel. I went back to the city that day in the evening to grab dinner, but back to the hotel quite early to enjoy my spa bath. I didn't want to tell you this, but I had a personal spa massage bath tub in my hotel room. Yup, no kids, big bed, and a spa bath. It was heavenly break.

On Monday I had to work, so I spent the whole day in the conference hall of the hotel. I met two new colleagues with whom I was working, so we went out the evening to buy some souvenirs and eat dinner at a restaurant nearby the Maiden Tower. Tuesday was similar, except one of my two colleagues had already flew home. I took the other colleague to have dinner at the restaurant I had lunch the first day, then we decided to visit the Aliyev center. Heydar Aliyev center is a gallery and a conference center with a museum inside. But that wasn't the reason we wanted to visit it. The main reason was because this building was built by the famous architect Zaha Hadid, who also built the spectacular train station in Naples and the port terminal in Antwerp. She almost built Zagreb airport, too, but she didn't win the tender.

Heydar Aliyev center was, ladies and gentlemen, spectacular! It was breathtaking to see. We wanted to go to the museum but it worked only until 4pm, so we were just standing there in front of it, and made two rounds around it. The curves and the flows, the building was magical seen from every angle. The roof flows all the way to the floors around it where we were all standing. See it yourself:

That night for the last time I had my private spa bath. I slept very tight in my king-sized bed. On Wednesday morning I had late and slow breakfast, then headed to the airport. I watched a movie during my first leg of the flights (The Circle with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson), had a good coffee in Istanbul airport during my short layover, and finished a book in the second leg of the flights (Veronica Henry's A Night on the Orient Express). By the time I arrived in Zagreb at 10pm, my toddler and my husband were waiting for me on the arrival gate with the biggest smiles. I kissed them both and handed her a red Lego suitcase with Lego Junior horse farm in it. She happily said "I want you to go to a business trip again soon so I get more gifts!" And just like that, I was rested, had a vacation, they got their well deserved break from (annoying) mommy, we're happier reunited, and soon we were driving toward home where my baby and mother-in-law waiting for us.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Cruising on budget

On my previous post about our story of cruising with little kids, I promised to write a separate post for tips and tricks for cruising on budget. I mentioned how we took the cheapest cabin available in the ship. The price also covers all meals and access to most facilities like pools, gym, theater, library, etc. Of course, you'd have to pay extra for spa and its services like massage. The good news is, kids don't pay until their 18th birthday, and they get their own beds in the parents' cabin.

So if you're not crazy about private balcony or windows with sea-view, take the cheapest inside cabin for your family and spend most of your time on the outdoor deck. You'd literally just sleep and shower in the cabin. Apart from the main price of the cruise, these are our tips to keep your experience low budget:

Research well to avoid taking their official shuttle

Most cruise ports are located a little far from the city center or the old historic port of the town. Because of that, most ships offer their official shuttle to get you to the city. Their prices are usually pretty high, so research well whether you can find another way before deciding to take their shuttle. In Marseilles we took Costa's official shuttle for €11 per person round-trip, only to find out later that Marseilles cruise port has a free shuttle for cruise passengers. In Ibiza we took public bus for €4 per person round-trip, much cheaper than Costa's shuttle for €12.

Avoid falling for the water scam package

Before the departure, if you have an online booking or account, the cruise company will send you e-mails, to remind you to pre-book beverage packages. One of the packages was the water package, which was offered at around €30 for 13 liters of still bottled water. I had to dig into lots of forums to make a decision whether it's necessary to take the package. The answer is NO, it's a scam! During meal times, cold drinkable water and ice cubes are available from the dispensers, and you can drink unlimited. In case you're really thirsty in the cabin, the minibar isn't that expensive. We took a one-liter bottle for €3 from the minibar. If you like, you might take the alcohol packages though. Although my husband prefers paying by a glass in the bar (€5 a pint), or buying in the shops in the city and take 'em back to the ship. Contrary to most beliefs, they're not strict at all about taking beverages from outside to the ship.

Unless you want to be extra convenient, don't take their excursions offers

Plan your own excursions. Find itineraries online, research what you want to see, buy a map and take public transport. Don't let the cruise company rob you by organizing a city tour at €50 per person. Or if you're like us, just walk with no plan and let destiny brings you to places.

Read the daily journal thoroughly

To maximize your experience of living in the ship, read the journal delivered to your cabin every night. The journal lists all of the events and activities for the next day, so you can plan your day well. It also lets you know the breakfast, lunch and dinner options, so you can plan what kind of meal you want. There are free seminars, dance classes, music programs and shows in which you can participate. Don't miss the competitions and quizzes which win you prizes like free spa treatments!

Pack for different outfits

They don't give guidance for clothes to pack prior to sailing, but we needed different kinds of outfits throughout the journey. Make sure you have formal/gala outfit if you plan to choose the formal sitting dinners. Formal outfit is also necessary for the cocktail party with the Captain (usually held on the last night of the cruise). Other than that, you can be casual in the ship, but they organize different events like "La Notte Bianca" in which all of us was expected to wear white for one night and there was an open show of ice carving on the deck. Don't forget warm clothes, even if you're sailing during summer like we did, it gets quite windy and chilly in the evening on the open deck.

Bring basic medicines, and mind sea-sickness

On-board doctor visits are expensive. You can check the detailed prices on the daily journal, but I'll tell you here one single visit would cost €136 and that doesn't include the medicines. Unless it's an emergency, avoid it. Bring your regular medicines for the whole family. Our toddler got a fever during our trip but I had her rectal paracetamol with me. I also packed probiotics, rehydration salt, painkillers, rash cream, sun screen and insect repellent. None of us had problem with sea-sickness, but if your kids (or yourself) had had car-sickness before, anticipate that they might also have sea-sickness, so bring their usual medicines.

Last but not least, basic safety

One thing: do not miss the emergency drill. Some might think it's just a waste of time, but no. Big no. You need to participate on the emergency drill. Usually it's organized on the departure day, but it was also organized on the second day for those who missed the first drill. You need to know where your meeting point is in the event of emergency (the ship is huge, there'd be several of meeting points, know yours!). You need to know where your life vest is, and how to properly put it on. You need to know where your emergency stairways and where your lifeboat would be. For those cruising with kids, don't repeat our mistake, put on their bracelet with their names and cabin number on it, in case you lose them on board.

Have en enjoyable cruise, safe winds and following seas!

Monday, September 25, 2017

Cruising with little kids: Our story

Two years ago we planned to go on a cruise. After a couple of years of saving and planning, we booked to sail in late summer of 2016. But then I got pregnant with our youngest and we had to delay sailing until I give birth. We re-booked for late summer 2017 and we finally sailed last week with Costa Pacifica, with two little kids instead of one.

The ship departs from Savona, Italy, 800km from Zagreb, where we live. With the toddler and the baby, we knew it would probably be the drive from hell, so we decided to drive during the night, when both of them are asleep. We left home at 3am on Wednesday, and got to the port of Savona only at 1pm with five breaks from driving. Someone was hungry, someone needed the restroom, someone was crying, and all that.

The deck where we spend most of our time
At the port we were welcomed with valet parking, handed them the car key and our suitcases. We walked toward the terminal and were given priority boarding (yay!) and walked directly into the ship. Tons of crew welcomed us warmly, and they're all obsessed with small children. Each of us (including the baby and the toddler) was given the Costa card which served as a key to the cabin, an ID card to embark and disembark the ship, and the mean for payment while on board. We were directed to our cabin on deck 2, and our suitcases were waiting for us in front of the door. Mind you, we paid for the cheapest cabin available in the ship, and that means that our cabin was at the inside of the ship with no sea-view (my husband said we're like rats). We didn't mind that we have no window because we'd just sleep in the cabin, most of the time we'd be actually somewhere outside the cabin, mostly on the outdoor deck. At only €300 per person all inclusive (kids don't pay!), we basically had the exact same access and facilities with the ones paying over €1,000 to get windows with sea-view or private balcony. So we said, screw the window. (I'll write a different post on tips and trick for cruising on low budget).

We went straight to the restaurant for lunch (the cruise price covers all the meals -no additional cost) and started to explore the ship. Deck 11 was our favorite, with the Jacuzzi, a pool and water slide. A thematic kids pool is located nearby, so we spent the afternoon on this deck.

Our favorite deck 11
Our toddler at the Peppa Pig kids pool
An emergency drill was obligatory before departure so we participated in it, to learn the procedures we'd need to take on the events of emergency. The ship was set to sail and leave the port at 5pm, with Andrea Bocelli's "Con Te Partiro" played out loud (the song is played every time we leave a port). We soon went to dinner to the same restaurant we went for lunch. All passengers could choose between a formal three-courses sitting dinner or informal self-service dinner, and because of the kids, we opted for informal dinner for the entire cruise.

The baby was extra sleepy the entire dinner and I knew she wasn't herself. I had a feeling she was getting ill, so I chose to get back to the cabin with her after dinner, while the toddler and my husband went to see the show at the theater. During the whole night the baby's temperature's rising, and we had to managed it with paracetamol, which, thank goodness I had with me.

We woke up to the sound and feeling of shaking of the ship being moored at the port of Marseilles at around 8am. I've got to tell you that as much as some people hate the swaying of the ship, and get sea-sickness of it, I kind of loved the feeling my bed being rocked all night long :D

We didn't want to spend too much money on excursion packages offered by the cruise, so we decided to only take their shuttle, which cost €11 per person round-trip per person. We got off the ship after breakfast to take their shuttle, only to find out that the cruise port of Marseilles actually provided a free shuttle (yup, we just lost €33 to three tickets) for cruise passengers to get to the city! Putting that aside, we had fun in Marseilles. We walked from the main cathedral along the narrow alleys of the historic part of the city and ended up at the old port. Both my husband and I love Alexandre Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo so the old port of Marseille is quite special for us.

View to the old port of Marseille
I knew the baby was ill because she was sleeping a lot. I had her in the ring sling so she was sleeping on me the entire time we were walking around. We decided to take the bus to the ship at around 3pm, so we had lunch on board. We went back to the cabin to rest and we found an invitation in our mailbox for the toddler. Peppa Pig invited her to hang out at the indoor pool on deck 9 at 8pm. The baby was hot again so we had to give her medicine. We were thinking to take her to the on-board doctor but I was pretty sure it was common cold so we waited for another day.

With the invitation, I also received a notice for myself. It said that I didn't have the visa and/or resident permit in the European Union (EU) so I need to come to the reception at deck 3 as soon as possible. I knew it was a confusion because I'm a citizen of the EU, why would I need a visa? After waiting in line for half-an-hour, I got to the counter and showed my Croatian passport (which I also used for checking into the ship). The officer apologized for the mistake and let me go with my passport. Someone must have overheard when I said to a crew that I'm from Indonesia and they confused my heritage with my citizenship. 

After dinner we went to see Peppa. It was a little early so we decided to check the play room on deck 10. Then the baby needed a diaper change so I took her back to our cabin. She nursed afterwards and fell asleep, so I transferred her to the ring sling and went back to deck 10. When I arrived there, Peppa was already there and lots of kids were around her. I found my husband and he was pale "Oh my gosh I lost her. I mean, I found her now, but I freaking lost her" he told me. So when I left, they were in the play room on deck 10. My husband then realized that it was time and they needed to go to deck 9 for Peppa. They both started walking when my husband realized that he left his cellphone in the playroom, so he told the toddler to wait right there while he take the cellphone. When he was back, of course, the toddler was gone. She was nowhere to be found. He started to look for her on the whole deck and scream her name. He panicked and started to ask random people if they see a little girl by herself. Having asked more than five people, he decided (probably sweating like a pig) to get down to deck 9. There was Peppa there, and, you guessed it, our toddler dancing to the music. He ran to her and asked here (probably screamed) "where have you been???" to which she calmly (and still dancing) answered "well, here. Why?". So, yes, she actually went down from deck 10 to deck 9, by stairs, by herself, got to the other side of the pool because she saw freaking huge Peppa there. So the thing is, each child got a bracelet when we embarked, which has to be worn by every child, on which her name and her cabin room are written, and it's the festival-kind-of bracelet that a child can't get rid of. And what happened? We actually lost her bracelet. Yes. We're probably the worst parents on earth.

The toddler is the little girl with the hand holding Peppa's hand
The night went better than the previous one. We needed to give one paracetamol to the baby, but she woke up like new in the morning. No more fever, and she was back to her ultra-active self. We were due to arrive in Ibiza only at 2pm, so we spent the morning in the library, at the pool and at the gift shop. We played it smarter this time so we didn't buy the shuttle to Ibiza from the cruise. We disembarked the ship after lunch with no plan, and immediately found a public bus that took us from the cruise port to the city for only €4 round-trip (compared to €12 that the ship offered).

We had a summer holiday this year, so we didn't plan to go to the beach. We headed to the heart of the city and learned that Ibiza (or Elvissa) was the center of European hippie community long before it was now famous for the party people. We had rounds of drinks, walked around and enjoyed the view of the iconic white houses of Ibiza, and took the bus to get back to the ship at around 6pm.

Strolling around in Ibiza
At the cabin we found out that the toddler got another invitation from Peppa for treasure hunting at the discotheque at 8pm, so we headed for dinner, to the deck for the sunset while we were sailing away from Ibiza to Barcelona, then to the discotheque. All kids were dressed and face-painted as little pirates and they played treasure hunt.

The toddler on the open deck while the ship leaving Ibiza during sunset
Peppa-Pirates disco night, it was super fun!
The toddler and my husband went to the theater again after Peppa, and I got back to sleep with the baby to the cabin. We were scheduled to be moored in Barcelona the next day at 9am. The sea was quite rough (they notified us about that) so I was rocked to sleep like a baby.

The next day we woke up in Barcelona port. We headed out after breakfast, not buying the official shuttle of course. We found a public bus that took us to the city and back for €5, and left us at the end of the famous Las Ramblas by the port. We didn't have much time because the ship should sail by 2pm already, so we strolled on Las Ramblas and took a metro to Sagrada Familia. There was a nice children playground right in front of the basilica, which reminds me of the children playground right in front of the Parisian Sacred Heart basilica in which the toddler also played last year. We let the kids spend some time playing and walked to the back of the church and rested in Gaudi square.

The toddler and my husband at the Rambla de Santa Monica, one part of the Las Ramblas
Due to the limited time we didn't get into it, but we enjoyed the view while the kids resting
Once we were back on the ship, we went to the late Spanish lunch that the cruise offered, we had paella, and churros for dessert. At 5pm we were invited to the cocktail party with the Captain in the theater so we dressed up and headed there. They took a family picture of us and later gave it to us for a free souvenir. We toasted with the captain and and headed to the open deck to the pool. By this time we're already sailing back to Savona. We spent the evening in the play room (no more Peppa Pig today!) then the toddler and her dad headed to the theater.

We had to pack and leave our suitcases with special tags in front of our cabin door by midnight, because they will be delivered to us together with our car in Savona. In the morning we had to leave the cabin by 8am, although we can stay in the ship longer if we want. We disembarked after breakfast, at 10am, directly to the valet service that handed us the key of the car and the suitcases that were waiting for us there.

Some people made comments on their way out how the cruise was too short, and we couldn't agree more. It was such a different, special experience to be cruising in the ship. The toddler enjoyed it very much. Of course the baby is too small to even understand anything, but she had a good time despite her being ill the first two days. We all did. If we save up enough, we might sail again in a few years! I'll be posting soon about tips and tricks on cruising on low budget!


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Our best family summer vacation: a camp!

Growing up, my husband's and my family were not camping families. We never stayed in a camp for a summer holiday. We had always stayed in a hotel, a hostel, or a private rented apartment. But both of us had always, always wanted to try camping for summer vacation. Now with two kids, for some (stupid) reason, we had been always delaying this plan. This summer finally we decided to at least try to be at the camp. To reduce the shock for the kids (and for ourselves), we took a mobile home. We thought, once we're used to the life in a camp, we'd do tent next summer. Although technically we did sleep in a tent already during one festival we attended recently.

Mobile homes are relatively expensive, so we chose a short four-day beach break. We'd always loved the Istrian peninsula, so I booked us one mobile-home in Medulin Camp, at the most southern part of the peninsula.

The mobile homes within the camp
When we got our little house on Saturday, the toddler was ecstatic. She checked every corner of the house, picked a room where she'd sleep with grandma and helped me arrange our stuff. The mobile-home is designed for six people, with two bedrooms, one bath, a kitchen, a dining table with a sofa bed, and our favorite area, the porch looking out to the sea.

Our little house with our favorite porch
The other area of the camp is the are for the parcels for the tents and RV campers. The camp is located on two little attached islands so the beach is nearby wherever you're located at the camp. Common toilets and showers, and a common kitchen are available for the campers and they're extremely clean and well maintained. Common barbecue area is very close from our house, and so is a car wash facility. Many coffee shops, restaurants, pizzerias and a shop are all over the camp, and most importantly, playgrounds and an organized kids' activity club.

The camping area for the tents and RV campers

The toddler in the pink float, at the beach steps away from our house
Our days went like this: the baby wakes up first in the morning. Then my husband takes her in a carrier to take a morning walk around the camp to give me some extra sleep. When they come back to the house, the rest of us (meaning the toddler, my mother-in-law and I) wake up. I fix breakfast for everyone and we have breakfast and coffee on the porch. Then we put on our bathing suit and off we go to the beach. We'd spend time at the beach until noon, when we come back to the house. I fix lunch so we all eat lunch at the porch, then the kids and my mother-in-law have their nap. When they wake up we'll be off to the beach again until near sunset around 7pm. We come back to the house, take turn for shower while grandma fix us dinner. Once we have dinner, we take the kids to the playground to play with other kids campers, take a long walk along the sea, and finally, take them to the amphitheater where the evening kids' entertainment goes on: games, mini disco, shows, workshops. The toddler enjoyed them so much.

The toddler (the little girl handing a ball to the boy) playing the group game at the activity center

Having spent four days at the camp, we've decided to try camping in a real tent next year, with the real gears and for a longer period. Here's the reason why we think a camp is the most perfect summer holiday for families, better than rented apartment or hotel:
  1. We were constantly outdoor, in the woods, in the nature. I can only imagine, had we been camping with a tent, we'd been 24/7 in the nature, which, is the best way to do it with the kids. Salt water, pine trees, bright sun, what else do you need?
  2. We, especially the kids, were socializing with other campers and their kids, non stop. Different languages didn't even matter. They played together, around the houses, parents were carefree. Adults share grilling area (mostly ended up eating together, which is beyond nice), car wash facility, and common kitchen, toilets and showers.
  3. We didn't need to go anywhere with the car. Everything we needed was in the camp. No traffic, no stress, no city hassle. The beach was a few steps away from where we slept, and we were literally in bathing suit the whole day.
  4. Something interesting was constantly going on. Kids' activities were organized every evening, and sport activities for adults were held every morning.
  5. In the end, we felt much more rested, relaxed, and disconnected from the outside world. No one cared about time, we did stuff as we wanted to, and after many summer vacations in the past, this one finally did feel like a vacation.
Afternoon walk on our last day at the camp. See you next time!

Monday, July 17, 2017

The kids' first festival: We survived it!

The whole idea of going to the festival was, of course, my husband's. He accidentally found out that one of his favorite bands during his adolescence, Ugly Kid Joe, was part of the three-day long "Beer and Flowers Festival" organized annually in Laško, a small town in Slovenia.

Taking a toddler and a baby to a rock concert, although not mainstream, sounded acceptable to me. But taking them to a three-day festival and sleeping in the tent? I wasn't sure. Up to that point, they never spent a whole night sleeping in a tent outdoor. But my husband assured me that it would be cool. We just need to try to sleep in the camp for one night, and our main goal was just Ugly Kid Joe. I accepted his proposal and I got us a one-day entrance ticket for the day when his band is performing, and camping ticket valid for all three days.

The toddler (in pink t-shirt) looking for a spot to build our tents
The day we came to Laško, Thursday, was a warm day. We exchanged our tickets with wristbands and went checking out the camping ground. It was nicely situated by the Savinja river, right across the well-known Termana spa and wellness resort. I was skeptical of the public toilet (as I always am), but they were quite okay; plus there were trailers for showers in many points. The grass of the ground was well trimmed to the level where it was nice and soft to lay on, the parking lot is exactly at the entrance, and there was food and drink stalls.

We chose a spot and built our tents, one regular tent for our bedroom and one beach tent for our living room. The baby was okay, she never really cares where she is; but the toddler was ecstatic. The idea of sleeping in a tent has occupied her for days. Once the tents were up, we decided to eat burgers at a food stall on-site, while charging our phones in the charging point (we've got no electricity in the tents, what do you expect?). We sat down for one minute when my leg got stung by a bee. I swear god it was more painful than my two unmedicated births! It was burning for at least three hours and it was itchy for three days. However, I was glad it was me, and not the kids, that the bee chose (gee I suck at this outdoor thing).

Our "bedroom" and "living room"
We took of to the city to see the rest of the festival since the stages are on only after 6pm. The festival itself was going on in the entire city, we walked on the promenade of Savinja river to see the flowers exhibition. There was a small amusement park for children where we bought a box of popcorn, then we met the drum band with majorette groups performing so we stopped because the toddler was dancing with them. We crossed the bridge to get to the other side of the river to check out the stage where Ugly Kid Joe will perform, and finally wander around the old city and had some snacks and Laško beers at the food street.

Beautiful Savinja river with a fountain in it

My husband and the toddler checking out Zlatorog stage, where Ugly Kid Joe would perform later that night

It was dark already when we're back at the camp. Ugly Kid Joe was performing half an hour after midnight, so we decided to get back to the camp and see whether the kids will be asleep by then. We brushed our teeth at the bathroom-trailer and all of us fell asleep immediately. I woke up ten minutes to midnight and found everyone fast asleep. I woke my husband up so he wouldn't be late to the concert. We decided that I stayed at the tent since both kids are asleep, so he was off to the stage. As much as I wanted to watch and listen to them, I fell back to sleep almost immediately.

Yup, you guessed it right, I brought LED Xmas lamp for our tent ;)
We all woke up around 8am (my husband was back at the tent somewhere around 3am I guess) and it was extremely cold. It started to rain immediately after we all cleaned ourselves up. We left the tent to have coffee and breakfast at the town and it was raining the whole time. We planned to visit the Termana spa that day but gave up on the idea because of the weather -we won't be able to enjoy the outdoor pools and water park, so we decided to get back to the camp, pack the tents and head home. Had the weather been warmer and nicer, we would've absolutely stayed for another night. The kids enjoyed the stay, we slept for a night in the tent, my husband went to Ugly Kid Joe concert, met Whit Crane personally, took a picture with him and got their autographs, so, mission accomplished!

He said he'd frame this piece of paper :)
Despite the bad weather on the second day, we're very happy with the festival. My husband suggested that it becomes our tradition to attend the festival annually, of course hoping that they have great line up every year. The idea doesn't seem too crazy now, does it? :)

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 :)