On the morning before we are to fly out to Beijing, the bags are packed, ready, and waiting in our living room like a motley crew of assorted shapes and sizes of creatures. I bought a few new bags that have fancy wheels that turn 360 degrees while upright. I figured, if Soren’s back is out, it will be up to the kids and me to get the luggage in and out of the van, through the airport, and onto the baggage check conveyor. (This turns out to be very true.) We packed a few old ratty bags too. The last bag we zipped up was a very sad rectangular bag from the 1990’s that has rickety one-way wheels and a skinny strap on the side to pull the bag with, like a puppy. We filled it with all of Soren’s books for work. (And the peanut butter.) It was very heavy, and, as we would soon find out, tips over easily when full.
Mel, is an OCD packer. This is good and bad. Good = We were able to fit much more than we thought into our bags due to her methodical rolling of clothing rather than folding. Bad = Each bag now weighed a ton. We had a feeling, which would be proven correct later at the airport, that some of the bags would be way overweight.
Before we said goodbye to our house, I called a team meeting at the kitchen table. The Taelors, Michael, Mel, Soren, the little kids, and I rallied around my file folder that held important information. We made sure that everyone had each other’s contact info and that they knew how to fix, work, and manage the majority of household appliances. I showed where all of the documents would live and we all agreed, we are good to go. Soren took Michael out in the morning to show him how to mow the yard and work the lawn mower. (I have a video I have been trying to upload, but getting my blog working has been a chore. I will post it later in the blog series, once I have figured out better service.)
We needed to leave around noon to get to JFK airport in Queens in time to check in for our flight. We checked our list twice, loaded the van, gave our cat, Bennie, a big hug, and said emotional good-byes to the Taelors and Mel in the driveway. They were all leaving too – going back to their homes and lives far away. Michael was going with us in our Honda minivan so he could drop us off and drive the vehicle back to New Paltz. He was a little uncomfortable with this idea, but it was the best we could do. We told him that the way back from the airport would be fairly simple, other than the area around the airport. He cheerily agreed, but we could see his nervousness. (See copy of an email update on his trip at the end of this blog entry.)
I had hoped to do some last minute Face-timing with my 19-year-old daughter Hanna, living in Maryland and my mom in Indiana. Because Soren’s back was still really bad, I needed to drive us to the airport and couldn’t contact them. We stopped on our way for our last McDonalds lunch. I have been to China before and know that even though there are McDonalds sprinkled around there, it does not taste the same. I ordered a double-quarter pounder.
Michael had a new app on his phone that gave him GPS directions in Chinese. He had switched out his Sim (sp) card from his Chinese phone and had a new service provider in the States. He turned it on while we drove to New York City to test it out. He said it seemed to be very functional and he felt better about making his way back using his GPS. We told him he would driving back past Flushing, Queens. While we were driving, he called a Chinese colleague who was in NY and tried to coordinate a meeting with her. He was excited about shopping for groceries and meeting up with his friend. This is his fourth day in the States and we are making him drive in New York City. How cruel. (Again, see the email update at the end to see how he managed.)
We hit some pretty bad traffic and ended up getting to the airport with only about an hour and half before our flight. Soren is a bit nervous because lines could be long at security. At the departing terminal area, we park at the curb and Michael and I unload the bags. Lars, Nona, Soren, and I each packed an overly-loaded backpack to take on the plane. Soren had an extremely heavy backpack he wanted to take. It held his gaming laptop and all its gear. Before we left the house, I switched his. I refused to let him put any backpack on his back. Remember, he needs to go to work about 10 hours after we arrive there. (We leave on Saturday night NY time and arrive Sunday evening Beijing time. We will gain time flying to China – 12 hours to be exact.) I had exchanged his backpack for a carryon bag with wheels so I wouldn’t end up carrying his backpack and mine too. The last thing we need is for both of us to have our backs out. Now we have 9 bags with wheels and 4 backpacks.
The fiasco of getting our bags to check-in should have been filmed. Soren had a very light backpack with all our passports and ticket information and he steered two of the new luggage pieces since they were easy to maneuver. He was off like a shot in front of us, and, as anyone who has ever walked/traveled with him knows, he does not look back. The rest of the bags were left for Lars (10 yr-old), Nona (9 yr-old), and me (almost 50.) Lars’s backpack was too heavy for him to carry. What? I did not check his before we left. Like his father, he packed a ton of books. Had I known, I would have made him put the books in one of the bags we are checking. At this point, it is too late. It is hot, we don’t have much time, I can’t even see Soren, and the kids and I are trying to manage our backpacks and the seven remaining bags with wheels when we only have six hands between us. I end up giving the kids what I think are the easiest bags and took Lars’s backpack along with mine. We started off with Lars tugging the bag with books and a leash that I thought would be easy. He made it about 5 steps before it tipped over. He could not pick it up. We are still on the curb.
It took us about 15 minutes to make the 100-yard trek to check-in line. We were in good spirits though. Nona, Lars, and I were laughing at how hard it was to get all the bags moving. I knew that we needed to see this as an adventure because this was only the first leg of our trip. I have learned, with age, to find humor in the absurd and to stop trying to control everything for a perfect outcome.
People were looking at us. They must have been thinking that we were only going on a vacation and that we have really over-packed. Our bags were in fact overweight. We repacked one of them and made a little dent in approval. We paid extra for the rest.
Without all the bags we headed to the line for inspection and security. It snaked through turn-styles for about 15 minutes. We wondered why there seemed to be a lack of air conditioning. We also had to drink all the water in our water bottles, which I had filled in anticipation of being dehydrated on the flight. However, we could not take liquid beyond security. Drink up kids!
The folks in the line were very international. This reminded us that we were going to be traveling overseas and would be meeting people from all over the world. We all looked forward to what was to come and all the new people we would meet.
We made it to the Air China gate with about 15 minutes to spare before boarding. If you know us at all, we were not even stressed. Just a day in the life for the Bergeson’s. As the flight attendants began to allow passenger to board, they did not call seats or plane areas in order. It was a free for all. As I remember, this is also a precursor to much of our experiences waiting in line in China. The social rules are different for waiting on queue. We were last in line.
The plane was huge and very clean. We passed a wide staircase located right inside the door. I think there were three levels. We were assigned four seats together in the economy middles section. There was plenty of room for our legs and bags. I was very excited about this. Each time I have flown to China, the plane seats made a big difference. We settled in. The kids took out their iPods and headphones, I put on my neck pillow, and Soren shut his eyes and within 10 minutes of sitting down was asleep. Must have been the pain killers. We were off.
We flew directly over the North Pole. It took about 14 hours in the air. The windows had to remain closed the entire way since it was bright sunlight the entire flight. Strange to gain time like that. There were movie screens on the backs of the seats in front of us so we all were able to entertain ourselves independently. I watched four movies. One was a comedy about vampires sharing a flat in England. I highly recommend.
Food was served twice during the flight. Nothing special to note other than it was western food for the fist serving and Chinese for the second. Both were bad airplane food. By the time we landed, we had been traveling for about 20 hours total. We arrived groggy, not too rumpled, but very excited to see our new home and start our journey in China.
We disembarked the plane in a flurry of people not respecting lines again, a sort of shove-your-way-and-claim-your-space-in-the-aisle. Before we landed, all the people from the back of the plane tried to come up to the empty seats in the front, where we were sitting. They wanted to increase their ability to get off the plane faster I guess. It was a little chaotic, but funny to me. I made sure to not let anyone separate the kids from us while we got off the plane and headed toward baggage.
We were being picked up by a van from Soren’s work. We claimed all our bags and used some of those silver carts to load all the luggage. I was not in the mood to navigate all those bags again. We made a stop at a money exchange near baggage claim. We handed in all our American money for the Chinese money, or RMB (Ren Min Bi.) Their dollar is called Yuan, pronounced “Ywen”. The exchange rate was even more in our favor given the recent devaluing of the Yuan. One US dollar is worth close to six Yuan. So if you see 120RMB as a price, that means about $20.
I kept a US $20 in my wallet for some reason. I told Soren I felt more secure having a twenty in my wallet. Makes no sense, but, I know enough about psychology to call it a security blanket. I think each of us have a few things we will rely on as we navigate a new home.
As we rounded a long marble hallway toward the exit, we saw a group of people holding signs signaling travelers for their pick-up rides. There was a lovely British administrator who came to the airport with the van to greet us. Remember, this was a Sunday night by this point, so he came out on a weekend to help us acclimate.
It was already dark outside. We arrived around 7pm, but by the time we got our baggage, exchanged $, and drove to our new home, it was already almost 9pm. We drove into the campus of the school via the back gate. We could not really make out the shape or configuration of the campus but the back entrance was very secure and we pulled up to a big dorm that looked like a new hotel. On the right side of the driveway, across from the entrance to the dorm, were about 20-30 scooters, bicycles, and motor bikes. This looked like China to me. You wouldn’t see this many, or the variety, of alternative transportation to cars anywhere in the US.
We unloaded the van and maneuvered all the luggage inside. We followed our guide up to the 7th floor. He showed us to our apartment, gave us our ID/Keys. Our first impression of the apartment was, “Wow! Nice!” Having just lived in NYC for over 21 years, our version of apartment size is skewed toward the tiny. This apartment in Beijing, is the opposite – a lot like Beijing itself – bigger, wider, more abundant in space than Manhattan. We toured the three bedrooms, each with king-size beds and lovely, pure-white silk sheets and duvets. There are two master bathrooms, a washing machine, living room, and kitchen large enough for a table that sits six. The apartment is fully furnished with cherry colored furniture. Hardwood-like cherry flooring throughout. The bathrooms have huge walk-in glass showers with marble along the floors and all the walls. The only “small” thing I can see is the counter space in the kitchen. It is non-existent. Also – no dishwasher. But, we will be eating in the school cafeteria provided for the boarding school students and staff use, so I assume, we won’t need to do a large amount of dishes too often.
Our guide (I am leaving off his name for now until I see if he minds if I use it in this blog) asked us how we were feeling. Soren said he wanted to get right to work in the morning. They agreed on a meeting time.
While there were beautiful white sheets, pillows, and duvets already on the beds – like a hotel, there were no towels, TP, or anything else in the cupboards. I had packed our beach towels in anticipation of this outcome. I figured we could use them for swimming after we got bath towels. Turns out to be good thinking. We asked where we could grab some dinner and, more importantly, toilet paper.
We learned that the cafeteria on campus was closed and that the closest local shops would be closing around 9:15pm. That gave us about 15 minutes. We asked for directions, dropped our bags, and headed out to the supermarket to look for toilet paper, paper towels, milk, and cereal. The Dean of Faculty, who also lives in the dorm/apartment building, dropped by to check on us to see if we needed anything. All in all, we were feeling like the people, facilities, and our first impressions were all positive.
The school’s campus seems large, like a small liberal arts college. It reminds me a little of how Columbia University is set up, on a smaller scale, like a castle with an inner quad. There are only two gates in and out. A main gate where school children are dropped off and a back gate where only faculty, residents, and employees use – where all the scooters and bikes live. It was dark out, but well-lit on the campus. It was hard to take it all in. The kids were being troopers. We walked across the grassy quad to the front of the campus to the main gate, about 500 yards form our apartment building. Absolutely no one was around. We headed out and, as instructed, across the street toward a very small strip-mall about 50 yards away. Apparently, there would be a grocery store there called Wu-Mart. Yes, we will find that there are several play-on-English-words with Chinese shops and brands.
The weird thing about jet-lag and traveling this far is that it was actually morning/breakfast for us by our internal clocks. I went back and forth on whether I needed to get a coffee. As we approached the Wu-Mart we passed the cutest coffee shop called Rain. It had about 5-10 customers sitting around, many smoking at the outside tables. Wu-mart was a blurry experience for me. Everything was completely in Chinese and I was thankful, not the fist time, that Soren is fluent in Mandarin. We bought what I hoped was milk, TP, and a brand of cereal that mimicked Cheerios. I will now call the store Rude-mart. The checkout clerks were testy and surly. In China, they do not give you grocery bags. You have to pay for them. It is an effort to make people use reusable bags. I had read about this before leaving. I had a grocery bag in my backpack from Fairway. I couldn’t get it out of the backpack fast enough for the clerk. She was gesturing with my items as she rang them up, grunting at me and frowning. It reminded me of shopping for groceries on 110th street and Broadway at D’agostino’s – they always had the rudest check-out experiences for me in NYC.
I made the kids and Soren wait on the sidewalk while I popped into Rain for a coffee. Figured I would drink some tonight and save the rest in the fridge for the morning – which would be technically, still our night.
We were starting to fade. We made it back to the apartment. Soren went straight to bed. I was going to get up and go to the kid’s school when Soren went to work. They will attend The British School of Beijing. Tomorrow would be the first day of school for the academic year. I had communicated with the admissions director and their classroom teachers over the weekend. We all decided that I would bring in the kids, take a tour of the school, meet the teachers, and see how the kids were feeling. We assumed that they wouldn’t make it for a full day.
I unpacked the kid’s luggage, found their PJs, and got them settled. It was around 10:30pm Beijing but 10:30am New York for me. I was a bit restless so I decided to unpack everything. I was able to put all our clothes away in the built-in closets and dressers. I felt that if the kids woke up to an organized room and apartment, we might get off to a better start. I even hung up all of Soren’s clothes in the closet.
Around 11:30pm I laid down to go to sleep. My feet were killing me by then. It had been 36 hours since we left our home in New York before I fell asleep in my new bed. Tomorrow Soren would start his new job and the kids would go to their new school for a 10am appointment. (I was unsure how to get there – but I figured I would work that out in the morning.) As I drifted off, I wondered how long we would sleep since it would feel more like a nap for us. I was hoping the kids would sleep until at least 4am.
Email from Soren’s Father, who lives in Beijing, updating us on Michael
Soren and Angie,
I’ve been tracking your flight and see that you made up some time. Also, you were on a brand new 747-8. Boeing’s latest plane. Hope the flight was bearable. Michael said that your back was bad, Soren. Better now?
Michael made it safely back to New Paltz after lots of driving around Astoria. He missed the exit for Flushing, Queens, and never found it. However, he made it back to New Paltz, did some shopping at Lowe’s and Stop&Shop and had dinner, fried rice noodles, at the Great Wall restaurant.
Quite a change from the very worried, timid man I said good-bye to just last Tuesday.
Call me whenever convenient:
See you later this week.
Hope the move in and start of schools goes smoothly!
Coming Up – First Day, First Friends, First Experiences