School ended in June 2021 with my colleague, travelling guru, quiz master and all round good egg, declaring it had been a remarkable year as we had done all year face to face – no online learning at all. What an achievement.
Late July, 2021 Eleanor had just done a week of sailing on Taihu and we were due to go to Shanghai for Eleanor to do a drama and dance programme. No sooner had we got in the car having collected Eleanor, I got a phonecall from our Director. We couldn’t go to Shanghai. Suddenly travel restrictions were upon us, schools were told that we couldn’t open in mid August. Induction went online. My 40th birthday celebrations were in doubt. The start of the academic year was not going to plan.
Boarding couldn’t open. Boarding staff couldn’t meet as a group of colleagues, we couldn’t have visitors but we could go out and meet people. Online classes began. I had roomed people, then I had to re room them using on our on-site boarding for anyone with an address outside of Suzhou as no one could travel home for the weekend. Finally in mid September we opened the school and boarding.
We planned a trip to Beijing for National Holiday in October. The trip wasn’t cancelled. This was the first time we had left Suzhou since mid July.
The Golden Oldies group went to Beijing. Our time was going to be limited with these people as by now it was public knowledge that they wouldn’t be returning to Suzhou for the academic year 2022-2023. So we made Beijing count. We went to Black Sesame Kitchen. Buried deep in a Hutong (a Beijing alleyway), through a courtyard and into a kitchen/dining area. We were cooked for, though the kids made dumplings, we shared the table with a teaching couple at an international junior school, the teaching and expat world is small in China so we guessed their school in an instant, and also joining us was a man and his friend. The man had done to uni with the owner and then had gone to America. He had recently come back and was bringing his friend for a mini reunion.
The main event though in Beijing was Universal Studios. It had been open for 3 weeks, some thought we were made even going to Beijing for National Holiday but we went at the back of the week when everyone is back at work. We stayed at the Universal Resort hotel and when checking in were told that the park opened at 7 for us and that queuing for the park began at 6am…
The only part of the park that was actually open at 7am are the Harry Potter rides. And so on the first day we had knocked this on the head. We returned for the night show and I also returned for a shopping spree it was busy busy busy, but it also meant the rest of the park wasn’t as busy… in the grand scheme of new theme parks opening.
On the second day we got up early again, and again headed for Harry Potter again – it was in the rain so we queued and queued. Then an announcement occurred that the ride was delayed… so we waited some more. And after 40 minutes we gave up and went to queue for the Jurassic Park.
Highlights of this trip were the Decepticoaster. A ride which shot you out and then turned you upside down repeatedly. I did this twice in a row – the second time with the youngest member travelling. I thought that he was going to be very very ill on the ride but amazingly he wasn’t and we got off intact but a little green. A few weeks later and that ride hit the media by breaking down leaving people hanging upside down.
Between October and December school carried on, school trips happened but still within our city. Our delayed sports day took place in October rather than September, we had our annual Halloween dress up day and our performing arts department put on Shrek the Musical.
For Halloween, Martin and I did not have to think about costumes as we had bought these in October 2020 but they hadn’t arrived in time for Halloween 2020. The students really enjoy it when staff make the effort to join in and we enjoy finding our joint outfit.
There was also a push in our city for those of us able to, to have a 3rd injection of the vaccine. Under 18s won’t get a booster.
All of this was going on while thinking about Christmas. Shanghai was still off the table which was frustrating especially since my 40th birthday treat was in Shanghai, but we had managed to change the booking from November into March. A booking which had cost Martin his sleep. The exclusive, secret location immersive restaurant, Ultra Violet only has 10 spaces a night and each night at midnight bookings are released for 90 days time. After 4-5 weeks had Martin been successful- and only then because he had complained! He had booked 4 seats but as he was entering the credit card details they sold them from under his nose! The customer service though was excellent and when we weren’t allowed to travel to Shanghai, they understood and allowed us to book for 18 March.
At the beginning of the holidays we officially had a teen in the house. Her friends threw her a surprise party and her reaction to that was fabulous. Her cake – I didn’t make – was a tribute to her part in the Wizard of Oz.
None of us knew if we could travel at Christmas. None of us wanted to get stuck in quarantine. I had dealt with students going home of the weekend, only for that area to be declared a hotspot and then we would have to isolate the student and get them tested. More students started staying at weekends because they also didn’t want to risk going home and some just couldn’t because their homes were in areas where there had been outbreaks of covid. Martin had even travelled for a conference in December, had returned the day before Eleanor’s surprise party and had booked us into a hotel since it was also the first day of the Christmas holidays. However, Wuxi, our nearest airport, had had a case. Martin received a phone call from the hotel asking him if any of us had been to Wuxi. Martin answered in the affirmative. Martin went to Kowloon to get a covid test and then I had to tell him he couldn’t come back on campus. He stayed the night at a friend’s. He got there just before the compound started checking mobile phone tracking codes.
It was an eventful start to the Christmas holidays. It was a salient reminder that things could change in an instant.
Christmas was spent on Xishan island, in a marvellous AirBnB named Seven. Run by a woman who was very accommodating with our requests of a second oven and a Christmas Tree. Questions I didn’t ask – but should have included – do you have an ice machine, coffee machine and how many saucepans do you have? We took all of these with us, only to find she had everything! In total there were 15 of us for Christmas and we spent 4 days there. Just drinking, cooking, eating, playing games, and chilling. Our turkey came from W hotel which Martin went to get – a 2 hour round trip.
Our trips as groups have, on most occasions, included us getting a minibus for 9 people and all our belongings (most of it food). However 15 people plus stuff in a minibus (for 17 people) was never going to happen so we decided to hire a van to make 5 stops (at each of the party’s properties) before going to the final destination. I was the designated one to go with the van. Having done the final stop and filled up with cooking equipment, games, ice machines a coffee machine, food and wine and with everyone else on their way via private cars, my transport guy decided to tell me via translation app that the vehicle was electric and he needed to find a charging station before making the journey.
After 45 minutes we were good to go and we were reunited with everyone else. Incidentally it also happened on the way back too, but I was prepared for it and the view was a pretty Marina and a lake rather than an underground car park in Suzhou.
This was our second enforced stay with no travel back home to see our families at Christmas but every one of us made Christmas special for each other. We opened our gifts together, we spoke to our own family members from around the world and waved and said hi to other’s families through FaceTime. The 5 children occupied themselves, appearing for food and adult company when needed and we all recharged our batteries.
Just as the Christmas/New Year holiday was coming to an end, we got word that we could travel to Shanghai. I am sure that there are many things we could have done in Shanghai but there was one place calling us.
It is hard to believe Disney has been going for 5 years in Shanghai. We have been every year, and it is still a great place to escape to. It really is a magical place no matter how old you are. a trip to Disney is always fitted it round Eleanor’s birthday and this one was special because we didn’t think we would manage it. Our evening meal was at The Cheesecake Factory, we had bumped into friends at the hotel and agreed to have dinner with them, our children were similar ages. While stuffing ourselves at dinner, we bumped into another family who had been in Suzhou for years but had moved to Shanghai 6 years ago. Their youngest daughter had been in Eleanor’s class in DUCKS. We found out they were leaving for London/Nigeria in the summer. Little did we know we saw them that it would be the last time we saw them in China.
Our trip away to Disney meant that we had left Suzhou. And campus wouldn’t let us back in unless we had had a covid test and results were negative. So we had an impromptu stay at a hotel in Suzhou while we waited for the results. Eleanor and I had gone 21 months without a covid test.
On New Year’s Eve we got back home and spent the day preparing for our Murder Mystery Evening. 2022 was entered in good spirits without a care in the world and with a bit of karaoke.