Friday 23 December 2022

Annual report 2022


It’s time for the annual report, and I don’t know where to start or how to start. Last year, as the world was slowly emerging from the horrors of covid, we thought that things would get better because they couldn’t possibly get worse. It turned out, they could. I won’t dwell on it too long because there are really no words to describe the pain and the sorrow. My heart is with Ukraine, as well as with my friends in Russia who have lost their jobs and are branded as foreign agents with a real risk of getting arrested any day. My best friend says I will never understand because I am too far away. I am trying. What is inconceivable for me is that so many people who I believed shared my values have chosen the other side. I guess this is how Americans feel about Trump or the British about Brexit. Families are divided, and you lose friends.

I have done my humble share in supporting Ukrainian refugees in Sweden, but of course I could have done more.

The big question when the war broke out was whether to cancel every plan for indefinite future: everything felt pointless, almost sacrilegious. Yet most of us eventually decided that refraining from fun wasn’t the best coping strategy. After all, to be cynical, cancelling a party will not stop the war, and maybe we all needed some fun in the middle of general misery. So my oldest son’s girlfriend celebrated her 50th, and to her – and everybody’s - surprise he proposed to her in front of all the guests. (They married in a quiet ceremony a few months later). My daughter celebrated her 40th with a fancy-dress party. And I celebrated my three-score and ten with a luxury weekend at a countryside manor for family and closest friends. During this memorable event I was introduced to disc golf, which hasn’t become my new favourite pastime, but was a joy to try as an extra entertainment.

Similarly, I saw no reason to cancel travel. It so happened that I made two trips to Denmark, the first to a miniature fair, the second to a miniature summer school. The fair was disappointing, and I am not going there again, but I went with my daughter so we had a nice mother-daughter bonding trip. The summer school was amazing, and I am definitely going again. Excellent instructors, friendly atmosphere and good food. I was very pleased with the two miniatures I made: a 17th-century map book and a Louis XVII desk. I realised how much there is for me to learn.

Obviously, I continued making miniatures and participated in several shows, although I could not attend the main autumn show because I got ill – not covid. 

My probably best experience in miniature-making was a commission to make a set of Ukrainian food for a lovely bilingual picturebook. It was quite a challenge. 

Another related achievement was an article published in a dollhouse magazine. It wasn’t the first time, but I felt more proud of it than of my academic publications.

Going back to travel, I fulfilled my grand dream of returning to Camino de Santiago de Compostela, completing the final stretch of 120 km and receiving a pilgrim certificate. Read a full account here. I got to know my fellow pilgrims well, and we are already planning another pilgrimage in the coming year.


I also made a short trip to Gdansk which is a truly amazing city.

I continued leading nature walks during spring, but had to temporarily quit in the autumn because of a foot injury. 

I also continued with my urban walks, based on children’s books, and guess what? I was awarded a very prestigious prize for them! I had thought I was beyond all awards, and it was particularly gratifying to receive acknowledgement for something I was doing right now. The activity is growing, and more and more funding bodies are deciding it’s worth supporting so I am suddenly more involved than I had imagined, for better and for worse. It’s something I strongly believe in.

I also received my second diploma in ikebana, now working on the third and participating in some events apart from my formal lessons.

As I was unable to walk any long distance in summer, I compensated by going wild swimming every morning. 

I also did some climbing, not as much as I would have liked to, but my instructor, who happens to be my grandson, is impressed.

I continued cook-alongs with my Cambridge friend, and in summer we went on a virtual trip with Orient Express, stopping in Paris, Venice, Sofia and Istanbul. We read books, watched movies, listened to music and of course cooked food. Believe me, it’s a great way to stay in touch when you cannot visit in real life. We planned to go to Paris for real, but again I got very ill so sadly it didn’t happen. Maybe next year.

There wasn’t much to do in terms of home improvement, but my wonderful grandsons helped me remove the horrible carpet on the balcony and replace it with a lovely wooden deck. The balcony was once again a source of much joy.

I made substantial progress with Welsh, and I am now halfway through the course. In summer, however, I took a break and learned some Spanish in preparation for my trip to Spain. I actually could say quite a few phrases when I was there.

Like last year, I set a goal of reading thirty books, but I didn’t have any theme so it was a mix of contemporary Swedish and contemporary British, of the latter Ian McEwan’s new novel, Lessons, was probably the strongest impression, alongside French Murial Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

I have been an ardent moviegoer, thanks to my grandson who works in a cinema, but I have also watched numerous films and tv series at home, thanks to all great streaming platforms. The same grandson made sure I didn’t miss any important theatre, opera and ballet performances. Two highlights: Strindberg’s Miss Julie and Brecht’s Life of Galileo. Not to mention all concerts, both my subscription concerts and several on top of those. Occasionally I attended 2-3 events in a week. Quite recently I made a big musical discovery: Ethel Smyth. A good example of the benefits of subscription: I would probably never chosen this concert on my own.

I could go on, but I think I have made my point. It has been a very dark year, and no light any time near. And yet life goes on, and it’s a wonderful life that I wish everyone could enjoy in their retirement, although I am well aware of how privileged I am. Not least thanks to these lovely friends: 

Let's not lose hope! Happy 2023!

Sunday 23 October 2022

On The Way, Part 3: How it Felt

Read the first and second part of this story. 

As already mentioned, I kept asking myself what I was expecting, what I was seeking. In the film, The Way, as the four pilgrims receive their Compostela, they are asked why they did the pilgrimage, and they all have various reasons. The main character does it for his son who died in an accident on Camino. Sarah has pledged to give up smoking. Joost wants to lose weight because his wife won’t sleep with him. And Jack is struggling with writer’s block. Both before and during the walk I was considering what my answer would be. I did it because I like walking – no, not strong enough; I can walk around Stockholm or anyway in Sweden. Because this walk has a special status, whether you have a faith or not; because thousands upon thousands of people have done it for a thousand years, and I wanted to sense their spirit lingering in the stones. Because I am a pathetically goal-oriented person and want another certificate of achievement to frame and put up on my wall. Or actually because I had just gone through a traumatic period in my life, losing my partner of forty years; because I needed to figure out, far away from everything, what was important in the remaining years, months or weeks, what mattered, what made life worth living. In short, I was seeking some kind of epiphany, not a religious awakening, not a voice from above, but some clarity of thought.

I don’t know what my companions were seeking. I saw Annika in deep prayer a few times, which made me a bit envious, and I happen to know Christina had a mission, but we didn’t discuss our purpose or our expectations. We met many people on the road, and although I am always shy to strike up a conversation, occasionally I said: Do you mind my asking, please don’t feel obliged to reply: why are you doing this? Some people simply said it was a fantastic experience, which is a good reason. We met an Irish Catholic priest, and there seemed no need to ask what he was doing there. We met a Frenchman who had done it many times, along different trails. We met some Swedes. We met Canadians. Quite a few people we kept meeting day after day. Most people who have walked Camino say meeting other pilgrims was half the pleasure.

At one point when a couple passed by us I heard them speak Russian so I said Счастливого пути! and of course they stopped, and we walked together for a while. The woman confided in me; she didn't want her partner to hear. They were very fast walkers, doing 30-40 km a day, so they left us quickly after.

My companions and I had agreed from start, all the way back when were arranging the trip, that we would each walk at our pace, that we didn’t have to stay together, and that we didn’t want to chat. As it happened, we did stay together most of the time, and we had brief chats when any two of us walked side by side, and of course we chatted during our coffee and lunch breaks, but otherwise we walked silently, each immersed in our own thoughts.

Actually, at least for me, on a long-distance walk there is little room for thoughts. Partly because you need to watch where you are going, and particularly by the end of an arduous day you are simply preoccupied with putting one foot in front of the other. Partly because walking is the most perfect way to clean your mind, to get rid of everything that bothers you, until your only thought, like a mantra, is: I am here. Being in nature, walking slowly and paying attention is the attraction for me. We stopped often to take pictures, and while we stood in the same spot our pictures were probably quite different. We would point out some interesting feature for each other, but otherwise let the others make their own discoveries.

As I walked there, hour after hour of uninterrupted silence, except for bird song and wind in the eucalyptus trees, I continued asking myself what I was doing there and whether it was enough to say I was doing it for great experience, but it didn’t feel enough. Every now and then I recited Joseph Brodsky’s poem ”Pilgrims” for myself, as a kind of secular prayer, trying to invoke something both hazy and powerful, something that all those thousands upon thousands of people who had walked and were walking felt, something that I was guessing my companions felt. In the evenings we agreed that the day was wonderful, but didn’t go into detail.

While the awaited epiphany didn’t arrive, I clearly felt a change in my perception of the world and of my life. Somehow everything beyond Camino, everything back home felt petty, insignificant. It is quite common that as you travel your ordinary life fades away, and conversely, after you get home your travel experience, no matter how overwhelming, is eventually stored away in your emotional memory. I knew it would happen when I got home, and it did. Yet when I was there, nothing was more important than being there, and after a couple of days I stopped asking myself what I was doing. As we started walking at the crack of dawn on the final morning I stated calmly that it was my last chance to get the Answer.

There we were, on the square in front of the cathedral, together with hundreds of other pilgrims, and I felt absolutely nothing, apart from being exhausted and hungry. I could sense similar vibes from my companions. We went to our hotel which turned out to be an old monastery or seminary, with cloisters and long stone-clad corridors, and we got our rooms that looked like premium monk cells with iron beds. 

After a short rest we went out to celebrate. On the way back we stayed a while on the square, admiring the cathedral bathing in light, under a full moon (there is always a full moon in movies to emphasise dramatic moments; I swear there was a full moon).

In the morning we had breakfast in the refectory with valved ceiling, among dozens of other pilgrims, and you could just about imagine that there was a monk in the pulpet in the middle, reading suitable texts to keep us focused. It was a good start of our final day. 

Our first mission was to get our Compostelas, and we went to the pilgrim office, which was a disappointment. We were not asked why we had done the walk. We filled an online questionnaire, submitted our pilgrim passes full of stamps, paid three euros and received a beautiful document with our name on it. The moment lacked solemnity. I guess it’s inevitable given the scale. We learned that on that weekend 8,000 pilgrims arrived in Santiago. Issuing Compostelas was computerised and efficient. Of course we were still happy and proud and took pictures. (The second document, by the way, is the certificate of distance, stating that I have walked 120 km from Vilalba to Santiago. Unlike the Compostela, it is written in Spanish).

Our second task was to get tickets for the Holy Door. Again, in the movie the pilgrims arrive and approach the cathedral door – you are encouraged to do it on your knees, but that’s not mandatory – walk in, put their palm into the palm imprint on the pillar and supposedly feel something tremendous. The door was closed, and we were told we needed tickets for particular slots, but we couldn’t get any sensible information about where to buy those tickets. We were going to midday pilgrims’ Mass, and before that we had to check out, and Christina was the only one who persisted – and succeeded! We split, and I went early, but at half past eleven the cathedral was already full – what had I expected? I managed to find a narrow stone step by a pillar and texted my companions where I was; they found me and sat on the floor.

I am well familiar with Catholic mass so it was easy to follow, but the sermon was in Spanish, far too long and tied to some local event, and I was getting bored and disappointed. Then came a very efficient eucharist, given the huge crowds in the cathedral, and that immediately felt better as a confirmation of togetherness (well, that’s what communion means. Note that I don’t believe in transubstantiation). And then! Then I realised that the best part was still coming, the part I had been waiting for and thought wasn’t coming at all, the part I saw in the movie and wasn’t sure really existed. There were eight men in purple cloaks.

 The botafumeiro, the gigantic incense vessel, started swaying, pulled by the eight men, and where we were sitting it rose just over our heads, higher and higher, up to the ceiling, and that was the moment when I felt I was in the right place, that was what I had come for. No epiphany, no religious awakening, but a deep spiritual experience that I shared with three people who had become close friends, as well as all the people I didn’t know at all but who were there for whatever purpose; and thousands upon thousands of pilgrims in the past thousand years. It was truly sublime. Many people took pictures and videos, but I just wanted to be in the middle of it. As we rose to go, I got us four together in a big hug.

After that, going to see the Portico was an anticlimax, and when we finally found the palm imprint we were not allowed to touch it.

Following late lunch we decided to separate and stroll around on our own. I think we all needed some private time after the experience. I didn’t have any particular wishes, and unfortunately I discovered too late that there was a guided cathedral roof tour: all slots were booked. I went around inside the cathedral looking and taking pictures of less prominent features. Some side chapels were even more beautiful than the main altar. I went to the cathedral museum which wasn’t very interesting. I bought a bar of local chocolate. I sat on the square watching people.

Then it was time to get back to the hotel from where a limo would take us to the airport hotel we were staying at for the night. Brief exchange of experience, nothing profound.

The trip home was uneventful for some of us and dramatic for others. But that’s another story.

I know it will take me a long time to fully understand what I have lived through and what the consequences might be. Just as home felt remote from Camino so does Camino feel far, far away in both space and time. While there, I was in an emotional bubble, cozy and protected, free of responsibilities other than walking on. Right now my feelings oscillate between: I want to do it again and walk the whole way, and: I have done it, I don’t have to do it ever again.

Would I recommend it to a friend? (A TripAdvisor kind of question). It’s certainly not for everyone. The movie is based on poetic licence: no one can walk Camino without proper training. The protagonist would have got bleeding blisters on the first day and would have been unable to walk at all for the next week or two. That is, unless he had a heart attack at the first steep ascent and dropped dead. So if you intend to do the walk, make sure you are physically fit. Travel agents offer excellent free self-taught training programmes. But even if you are well trained and walk 15-20 km a week, as I do, it doesn’t mean Camino is for you. It is a very special kind of pursuit. I have in my account mentioned some reasons people do it, and I have shared my own thoughts. One thing I can definitely advise. Don’t say: ”I have always dreamed of doing it, one day maybe…” If you want to do it, do it now!

The End

Thursday 20 October 2022

On The Way, Part 2: How it Worked

Read the first part of this story.  

We did our pilgrimage with comfort. It had been tempting to do it properly, carrying all belongings and sleeping in pilgrim lodges, but eventually I decided I was too old, and my companions never questioned the decision. The walk was sufficiently strenuous as it was, and comfortable pilgrimages are apparently legitimate. After the first day we were collected at the specified time in a bar in Baamonde and taken to a wonderful place where we were to stay for three nights. I must admit that I hadn’t bothered to look up our accommodation and had no idea what to expect. The very brief instructions we had received said something to the effect of: “Due to lack of accommodation in Baamonde/Miraz/Sobrado you will stay in a rural hotel”. We would be taken back to where we ended the previous day. I don’t know what the unavailable accommodation would have been like, but we won a golden ticket with Bi Terra

A charming farm far away from everything in the deep Galician countryside; lovely rooms with
high ceiling and huge dark roof beams; inviting lounge with a fireplace we were allowed to light; and then dinner! I had persuaded my companions that after a long walk we wouldn’t want to think about where to obtain nutrition, and the travel agent offered ”traditional pilgrim dinner made with local produce”. None of us expected a four-course gourmet meal. Yes, it was local produce, and it was exquisite, and it was served with grace.

 Obviously, we had three dinners on the three nights, all different and all delicious. We only had light lunches during the day, so a hearty evening meal, even though it was, according to Spanish ways, very late, was welcome. Between our arrival, after we were picked up at destination, and dinner, we showered, rested with our feet up the wall, checked email, shared our photos on facebook, then met in the lounge over a glass of wine. Breakfasts were excellent too, and after breakfast, around 9 am, we were taken back on trail. We cheated twice. Actually, the first time we didn’t cheat, just took a shortcut, suggested by our hosts, which turned out not much of a shortcut, rather an alternative route. On the final morning at Bi Terra, however, we were supposed to do 25 km and asked our hosts to drop us off 5 km down the road, which they were hugely understanding about. We were really sorry to take leave of Bi Terra and our wonderful hosts, but we had to move on. The two subsequent accommodations were quite ordinary, but nice, although the second didn’t have a restaurant so we got vouchers to a nearby pizzeria which was all-time low in terms of treats for the palate. But hunger was stilled. 

The ultimate accommodation was magnificent, but more on that anon. 

The first four days we were walking the final stages of Camino del Norte before it joins the main Camino at Arzúa. Camino del Norte, that follows the northern coast of Spain (part of which I had walked last year), is less popular and therefore less populated, and we probably met ten-fifteen other pilgrims a day at the most. The last two days, Camino was crowded, but fortunately there were more services, such as bars and restaurants, so we never ran into a problem getting a cup of coffee or a glass of freshly pressed orange juice. 

On Camino del Norte, bars and cafes were fewer and sometimes far between so we had to do with whatever we had brought from breakfast. But at destination, there was always a nice place to have a beer and some local nibbles. Dinner was, as mentioned, late so we had time to get hungry again.

Most of the trail went through lovely forests. Typically, people, including myself, don’t associate Spain with forests, but Galicia is special, in the north of the country, close to the Atlantic and high elevation. The trail went through green corridors between tall eucalyptus (they are invasive species and destroy the natural habitat, but they look and smell nice), and there were small rivers and streams, and at one point we came by what was described as the largest lake in Galicia. 

Otherwise there wasn’t much to see. There were some churches and chapels, invariably locked. 

The many villages we passed were idyllic, but not in any way remarkable, or as our guidebook says: ”small hamlets of little note”. The only important sight was Sobrado with its magnificent monastery built in 952. I was particularly struck by a chapel with amazing stone carvings, but no other ornaments, not even an altarpiece.

The weather was perfect for hiking. The first couple of days it drizzled on and off, so we put on our raincoats and waterproof trousers, then took them off, then put them on again. But it didn’t pour, and it was much better than unbearable heat. On the very last day it was promised 28 degrees, but never went over 24 which was hot enough. Our daypacks were crammed with clothes for all kinds of weather, and everything proved useful.

There was one day none of us enjoyed. It was the fourth day when we probably started geting tired, but in the first place we decided it was because most of the trail was on paved roads which is not friendly to your feet and knees. It wasn’t the longest stage, but it felt the least pleasurable. Just a few kilometres before the destination, as we were longing for showers and bed, we saw a sign promising a bar

We looked at each other. Extra 270 metres and then back again? But the temptation was too strong, and we succumbed. The bar was lovely, and the break well-deserved. This was just another moment when we felt we got on well together. Interestingly, the morning after we were all fresh and fit for fight. I remembered it from previous hikes. In the evening you wonder whether you would be able to walk another step next day, and in the morning you are absolutely fine.

Once we reached Arzúa you could tell the difference: there were pilgrim shops selling souvenirs, and even along the trail there were makeshift stalls with all kinds of merchandise and of course stamps!

Now, stamps are a prominent and indispensable feature of Camino walking. In order to receive your certificate of completed pilgrimage, the Compostela, you need to provide proof that you have actually been there, and for that you have a pilgrim passport, Credential del peregrino, where you collect your stamps. You need at least two stamps a day. When I read about it I thought the stamps would be mainly available in churches and pilgrim lodges, but it turned out you got them almost anywhere, in hotels and bars, and collecting them became an exciting game. Sometimes we would have lunch in one bar and coffee in another next door, just to get another sello

One day, our host at Bi Terra, giving us daily instructions, strongly recommended a particular place we shouldn’t miss, which we of course had totally forgotten until I saw St James’ cross on a stone wall and a wrought-iron gate leading to a small front garden. It was empty, and the door of the house was closed, but there was a doorbell that we pulled, without much hope. We had almost turned to go when the door opened, and a old man came out, saying something encouraging in broad Galician, went over the garden to what looked like a shed, and was a shed, where he used a gas torch to melt wax and give us most beautiful sellos. He was a retired sculptor, and although we had interruped his siesta he was obviously pleased to have visitors. He even treated us to grapes direct from the vine.

On the main Camino there were so many people that stamps were obtained by self-service on the counter. Whatever you think, your pilgrim passport was a great souvenir from your walk.

On the last day we were supposed to walk 19 km, and although my feet hurt terribly (somehow I managed to get blisters, despite my wonderfully comfortable boots) I felt I wanted to walk this final stage, while Annika gave up and took a taxi halfway. We started early, while it was still dark, and had the pleasure of the mist and the sunrise on the go. The first 15 km were highly enjoyable – again, lush forests and lovely views, and finally we came to the hilltop from which olden-day pilgrims first saw cathedral spires, but today you cannot see them because of vegetation and high-rise buildings in the city. From there, it was downhill in more than one sense. You would imagine the approach to the goal of your in some cases weeks-long walk to be grand, but instead it was a torture: paved sidewalks among heavy noisy traffic, and it just went on forever. The last kilometres of the day are always the longest, but these were excruciating.

Yet finally we were there, on the square featured in all guidebooks and videos, among crowds of people exhausted like us or already fresh after showers and beers. We had made it. We were there.

To be continued.