Sunday, 11 November 2018

Exploring the neighbourhood

There are scores of practical things to deal with when you move, even when you move from one end of the town to another. I am incredibly lucky to rent all-inclusive so that I don't need to open new utility accounts (I remember it was a nightmare when we moved from Water Street to Milton) or find an internet provider. But I still need to new GP, a new pharmacy, a new bank branch, a new post office (well, how often do I need a post office…), a new grocery store. I have worked in this area for ten years, but of course I never noticed pharmacies or even grocery stores. I know a couple of local restaurants of various quality and price range. It won't make any difference because I am not the kind of person who goes out on my own. Going out is a social event, not a meal.

I used to shop at the large Tesco supermarket. The last few years we had home delivery, and I only went to the store for special things like fresh fish and exotic fruit. I am used to driving to the supermarket, taking a trolley, loading the car, unloading it at home. I am not used to carrying heavy bags for more than ten steps.

The closest supermarket here is Waitrose. I have nothing against Waitrose, but so far I haven't been there once. I am perfectly happy with the humble Tesco Express. Maybe it doesn't have the full range of stuff that the supermarket has, but if so I haven't lacked anything. My few observations are revealing. There are small packages of, for instance, fresh vegetables, just enough for a side dish for one person. Yoghurt and cottage cheese are only available in small jars. More fat free items. Much, much more “crunchies and munchies” - or maybe they are just more visible in a little store. There are dozens of aisles in the supermarket where I never go.

I have also been to the local Co-op, and the person there talked me into becoming a member. As a recruitment bonus, I got a bottle of barbecue sauce that I never use, so I gave it away. I am not a loyal member – I still go to Tesco, even though it is a hundred steps further away. For of course I now walk to the store. Which means that I cannot shop more than I can reasonably carry. I have considered buying a shopping bag on wheels, but so far I have just taken my large backpack and perhaps one bag to carry eggs in. I would think twice before carrying eggs in a backpack.

I must confess that occasionally I cheat. Whenever I have to go to Milton, I go past Tesco. Yet I still cannot buy more than I can reasonably carry from the college parking lot to Gatehouse.

Every now and then when I have to go to Milton I get fuel. I have not yet discovered the closest fuel station here. Sooner or later I will have to. Or maybe not, because I more or less only drive to Milton. Everywhere else I walk or take a bus. A student who also lives in the college has enlightened me about buses. I had previously only used one that I know for sure goes past the college. But there are others that turn at the crossroads within easy walking distance.

It takes twenty minutes to walk to the medical practice, and it is a nice walk, although nothing interesting on the way. I order my repeated prescriptions online and then have to collect them at the local pharmacy, which is Boots. When I went there, my phone helpfully suggested a shortcut I would not have discovered on my own. It's a tiny pharmacy, and it doesn't have my preferred shampoo. I will have to buy shampoo when I go to my dentist next time, because there is a large Boots close by. When I walk to the pharmacy, I notice other businesses around. It turns out that the pharmacy is almost across the road from hotel Sorrento where I stayed when I came to Cambridge for my job interview. Of course at that time I didn't pay attention to pharmacies and local businesses. The local businesses are mostly takeaways and fast food that I don't eat. There is a locksmith and a dry cleaner. Nothing useful. My bank branch is halfway between Boots and Tesco Express.

In the square where Tesco Express is located there are more restaurants and a leisure centre with a cinema and a gym. Not the kind of gym I would go to. There is a gym in college, but I won't go to it either. I still need to investigate the gym that my old trainer has recommended – it's a bit further away. I have only been to the cinema once, and only because my students invited me. I should perhaps learn to go to the cinema on my own. I go to concerts on my own, and I have even been to theatre in London on my own a few times, so why not cinema?

There is a beauty parlour and a bicycle shop, neither of interest to me.

It takes half an hour to walk to the city centre. It's a nice walk across the fields with cows grazing. The footpath brings me almost to the market place. It's a paradise. I buy good rye bread, interesting cheeses, exotic coffee, olives and dried tomatoes. I have discovered a stall with Russian pies, driven by a friendly Russian lady who used to be a teacher of English, but found that selling piroger on a market in Cambridge suits her better. We chat in Russian.

In the opposite direction, a fifteen-minute walk, is Addenbrooks Hospital where I have my eye clinic (and where I have recently spent hours and hours in A&E). It is a whole city in itself and has shops, eateries, ATMs, a beauty parlour and everything else you may need.

The best walk is along the river to Grantchester where you can have tea in The Orchard. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

New habits

When I moved to Gatehouse I was worried about noise. I have never lived so close to traffic. My bay windows look straight into the pavement, and people walk by. People: mostly students, noisy, shouting, laughing. Cars and buses. There is a traffic light right in front of me; it squeals when it changes to green. But after just a couple of days I don't notice it any more. It's just part of my environment.

I was worried that I could not open windows. I like sleeping with windows open, and obviously I cannot now. I hate curtains; I like to see light when I wake up. I am used to waking up to see a green lawn, roses, conifers. There isn't much of a view from my windows. I am used to seeing the moon and Jupiter through my bedroom window. Now I have to draw a curtain because there is a street lamp right in front of the window.

I hate closed doors. Particularly when you have cats, you can never close doors because cats need to be able to come and go as they please. But even otherwise I don't like to be in a room with doors closed. It feels like being in a hotel. In Gatehouse, I need to close doors to keep heat. My front door is a very British front door – excuse me for being prejudiced. The gaps are almost large enough to put a hand through. If it gets really cold outside I may need to hang a blanket over the door. The British have never learned how to insulate their homes. So I have to close all doors and conserve energy, and it makes me feel claustrophobic. But you know what? I am used to it now.

Back in Sweden, we had a tumble dryer. It is essential in Sweden, particularly in winter. When we moved to Woodside ten years ago, there was a washing machine, but no tumble dryer. The first thing to do, we said to each other, is to buy a tumble dryer. But somehow we never did, and it turned out that in the mild Cambridgeshire climate you could have an outdoor clothesline. Now I am back to tumble-drying which feels odd.

I have few clothes that need ironing. Gatehouse came with an iron, but no ironing board. I haven't brought my ironing board. On a rare occasion when I might need to iron something, I will probably miss my ironing board. That said, I lived the first twenty-nine years of my life without an ironing board so I believe I can cope.

In the past thirty-seven years, we made coffee one cup at a time with a funnel and paper filter. It took a lot of persuasion to switch from boiling water in a pot on the hob to an electric kettle. During a very short time we had a fancy coffee machine that I loved, but my significant other hated, so we gave it away when we moved to the UK. Now I got myself a cafetiere. I have been skeptical toward them, for no reason, but I have read instructions and learned how to use it, and it's perfect. I should have learned it long ago.

My new best friend

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Things you can do without

In one of my all-time favourite books, Three Men in a Boat, there is a wonderful passage about packing. When the three friends realise that they impossibly can bring everything they have piled on the floor, they decide to select not what they could do with, but only what they couldn't do without. It's remarkable how many things in your household you can do with that aren't things you can't do without.

Take an avocado slicer. I bought it at a time in my life when I was buying all kinds of kitchen utensils, after I had rebuilt my kitchen in Stockholm and had plenty of drawers and hooks. We like avocado, and unlike many other “good-to-have” items, I have used it a lot. You can live without an avocado slicer, but since I had one I brought it with me, and I am using it frequently.

I have always been against one-purpose gadgets, but once you have them, some come handy. I once bought a very clever measuring spoon for coffee that was also a clip to seal the bag. It was never used other than as a measuring spoon, but now I finally use it the way it was conceived. 

I haven't brought the oyster knife because I don't anticipate eating oysters on my own. I haven't brought lobster forks, nor herring forks – none of the numerous objects that I use maybe once a year because they are there, but that are not essential. I haven't brought a can opener because I don't eat canned food.

I did bring my cheeseboard and cheese knives, more for sentimental reasons than anything else. Even if I have guests, I can serve cheese on a plain wooden board with an ordinary knife. 


I brought one of the many fruit bowls and two mixing/salad bowls, one large and one small. Since I don't have an oven, I didn't bring any baking trays or pans.

I brought my spiraliser because I use it all the time. You can live without a spiraliser, but vegetables taste so much better when spiralised.

I didn't bring the asparagus pot. We only got it recently, after many, many years of me thinking, as I do: Why would anyone need a pot just to cook asparagus? But it turned out very practical. However, I don't think I will cook asparagus in the nearest future. Or if I will, I can cook in an ordinary pot.

On my first list of things to buy were: orange juicer, kitchen drawer organiser, kitchen towel holder, laundry basket and rubbish bin. Of these, I have only purchased a juicer because I really, really need my freshly pressed juice in the morning. It turned out that you can live with your kitchen drawers disorganised, put your kitchen towel on the counter, keep laundry in a canvas bag and use a large flower pot to hold bin liners. Maybe if I had been planning to stay here for longer, I would have invested in a bin. But buying stuff when I am massively getting rid of stuff feels silly. 


There is no place in my kitchen for a garbage bin. It doesn't fit under the sink. I have it in a corner between the washing machine and the fridge. When I use either, I have to move the bin to the middle of the kitchen. My mind goes to Marina Tzvetayeva, who famously kept her garbage bin the middle of her living room cum study in Paris. She was not disturbed. I am.

So far, I have only entertained two guests, one at a time, and we had tea for which we needed two teacups, two small plates, two teaspoons and two knives. Every day, I contemplate the plates in my cupboard asking myself: Why do I need a set of six of everything? Well, because it is a set, and I haven't even brought the teapot, the numerous bowls, platters and sauce boats. How often do you use a sauce boat? The one day a year you may need a sauce boat, can you use something else?

I brought a spare duvet, pillows, bedsheets and towels. Just in case. I do have a sofa bed after all. But otherwise, how many bedsheets and towels do you need?

Clothes: I gave away several bags of clothes to charity. Going through my wardrobe, I kept asking myself: will I wear this in the coming year? How many outfits do I really need? My new walk-in wardrobe is small. Just one rack and bare wooden shelves. Some years ago I started wearing scarves and now have a dozen and a half. They marked a new phase of my life, so I kept them. They fill a whole large “Really Useful Box”. Ironically, I have recently bought several pairs of shoes, also as a new phase of my life. Why would anyone need so many shoes? Two pairs is quite enough. And so on.

I like the idea of minimalism, but I also like to have a few trinkets of sentimental value. I certainly can do without candle holders, or a cut-out wooden cat that sits on the door frame, or an Aalto vase, or a miniature Japanese stone garden. But I brought all these items to mark my territory. I smile when I see them.

Thing theory – yes, there is one! - distinguishes between things and objects. Objects only become things when they acquire an additional symbolic meaning. Some objects I brought are just objects, while others are things.

When I move on, ten months from now, I will probably leave still more objects behind, but I will bring my things wherever my life takes me next.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Gatehouse rules

I have limited experience of living on my own. The closest I ever came to it was when I had a guest professorship in Finland and commuted, spending half of the week there. I had a minimal household, but made sure I had proper meals and tidied up the flat.

From the very first day in the Gatehouse, I set up Gatehouse rules. (You may have read Ciderhouse Rules; that what I am alluding to). Here they are:

  • make the bed
  • cook meals
  • don't eat takeaway
  • eat meals sitting down
  • wash up
  • don't go around in clothes you don't want to be seen in
  • keep private and professional apart

All sounds elementary, but these rules are necessary to keep me sane. I believe it's easy to slide down if you don't keep them. And there isn't much in my habits I need to change.

For instance, making the bed has always been imperative to me. I have always told my children that if I stop making the bed they will know that something is profoundly wrong. I believe this comes from my childhood when nobody had proper bedrooms but were sleeping in sofa beds in multi-purpose rooms. I was twenty-nine before I had a bedroom.

When I got my super-special super-expensive bed – thanks to my sons who persuaded me that, given I spend a third of my life in bed, it isn't a luxury but a necessity – I thought it deserved a pretty bedspread, and I even bought a pair of matching pillowcases that are just for show. For show, when it's just me? All the more so, believe me. I feel glad every time I enter my bedroom.

I have always eaten cooked meals, and I don't see why I should change now. When the children were small we used to get meals from McDonald’s or a Chinese takeaway every now and then as a treat, and of course we bought ready meals because it was easy, but since the children grew up, freshly cooked meals were the norm. I like cooking, but the past ten years here in Cambridge I have been away at work more than previously, and it was nice to come home to a warm meal and a set table. This is important to me: set the table properly, with a placemat, cutlery, napkin; serve the meal on a nice, warm plate; light candles; no reading, no surfing; enjoy your meal even if you are on your own. No eating at the kitchen counter, no eating sandwiches and absolutely no eating ready meals or takeaways. I love food, and I don't see why I should enjoy it less just because it is just me.

Washing up is essential. This is one of the things my evil mother taught me: when you are cooking, wash up everything as you go, don't make a mess. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a dishwasher until I came to Sweden. And in some places where I lived there wasn't any warm water.

(Some time I will write about how I worked in a communal kitchen during so called “student volunteer agricultural assistance”, read forced labour).

I was once invited to a friend's for dinner, and their kitchen was piled with filthy dishes – not just in the sink, but everywhere. I didn't enjoy the dinner very much.

Here in Gatehouse, just one morning I was in a hurry and left my breakfast crockery unwashed, and I was utterly disgusted when I came home. Then of course there is much less washing up after one person. Not just half, but significantly less. I cannot explain it. It's also significantly less garbage after one person.

I have never allowed myself to wear torn or dirty clothes at home. I don't wear my best, and I like soft trousers and loose sweatshirts. I eat breakfast in my nice, fluffy dressing gown, but then I put on decent clothes even if I am not going anywhere. I believe I buy more clothes to wear at home than formal or festive clothes.

So really, the only new rule is keeping personal and professional apart. It is tempting to play an old-fashioned professor residing in college and to invite students for supervisions, but I won't. I will invite them – have already invited them – for tea, but as friends, not as students. I have previously invited them for Lucia and Midsummer parties. (Now that I think of it, this year's Midsummer party was the last one ever, but I didn't know it then).

A dinner for one

To be continued.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

How I live now

The hedgehog has been displaced again. This time abruptly, unexpectedly and involuntarily. I am not going to explain the reasons because it doesn't matter for what I want to share. I want to share the experience of a sudden major change in life when almost everything you once took for granted needs to be reconsidered. But it is not a disaster, it is a slow and painful process that hopefully leads to healing. I believe many people out there have gone through something similar and will recognise themselves, and those who haven't yet maybe will at some point. If any of my survival strategies are helpful for anyone, I am not wasting my time.

How I Live Now is the title of a novel by Meg Rosoff. I often think about it as a piece of wisdom. I haven't been through the horrors that Meg's character went through, but the difference is in degree, not in nature. This is how I live now, and there is nothing I can do other than make the most of it.

If you have followed my blog for a while (and if not, you probably need to go back and read some random posts), the last few posts were about my imminent retirement and all my grand plans for post-retirement life. Now my retirement is just ten months and twenty-five days away (yes, I do cross them out, like a prisoner waiting for release), but a few plans will have to be modified.

Again, if you have followed my blog you know that I live in Cambridge, in a nice, large house with a beautiful garden. This past summer, prolonged drought notwithstanding, my garden finally started looking the way I wanted. I paid a fortune to have my ditch cleared. I was going to engage a garden architect to plan for autumn planting so that after retirement I could start gardening on a more systematic basis. 

What I haven't shared here is that our dear Miranda left us last February, and soon after we were adopted by celestial twins, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, a source of endless joy. It's terribly unfair toward Miranda, but two kittens playing are so much fun to watch. 

Mid-August, I went to Sweden for the annual family crayfish party, because why not. The why not bit felt liberating. I thought: “I must do this more often. Soon I will also have time to do this more often”. 

Back to how I live now. I live in a tiny flat in my college. Well, it's not that tiny. When I told my children, they thought it was a bedsitter with a pantry, but it has a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. When I was young I would consider this flat a luxury beyond imagination. Yet moving from a very large house with a large garden to a small flat, even though it has a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen, makes a huge difference. Your brain and your body need to adjust to scale. 

The flat is on the ground floor of a two-storey Victorian servant quarter, which used to belong to a pretty mansion, now hidden behind the Faculty of Education main building. I have often walked past it, always thinking: "I wonder who lives in this tiny house". Now I know. I do. These bay windows are my bedroom and my living room.

The house does not have a garden, just a very small walled yard, but then I have college gardens ten steps away. I have put some potted plants in the corner of the yard. I have weeded evil vegetation between stone tiles. 

I rent this place from the college, and they had horrendous student-flat furniture in it. They wouldn't remove it so I put it into storage and brought some of my own stuff, measuring carefully what could be squeezed in. I am glad I took a broad margin because it got quite crammed, and my much-loved dressing table would not have fit in. I brought my very special, expensive ergonomic bed. I brought a chest of drawers and two nightstands, a chair and an antique bench that I don't really need, but like very much. For the living room, I brought a sofa and two armchairs, the latter hardly necessary; a coffee table and two small side tables. I kept the desk that was in the flat. I brought two standard lamps and a desk lamp and a small Tiffany lamp. I brought some pictures, after counting very carefully how many hooks there were on the walls. One hook fell off on my first attempt to hang a picture. I am not going a drill a better hole. I brought two rugs to cover the horrible, worn-out red carpet. I brought curtains to replace the horrible, worn-out red curtains, but they didn't fit, so I just got used to these lovely, cosy red curtains.

With some cushions and throws and ornaments and orchids, the flat immediately felt like home. And believe me or not, this is the first time in all my long life that I have a place of my own. 

To be continued.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Too late to change identity

This is a very, very personal story. It took me several days to decide that I want to share it. Stop reading now if you find skeletons in closets disgusting.

Many years ago, my great aunt Margarita, my paternal grandmother's younger sister, came to visit me in Stockholm. It was the first and only time she traveled outside the Soviet Union. I have told her story in a novel and partially in a blog post, so I won't repeat it, and it is only marginally relevant to what I want to tell now.

We were walking in a wood just outside our house, and suddenly, out of the blue, she said: “There is something I need to tell you. You may have heard rumours… They are not true”.

My family has a long tradition of rumours, lies and omissions, secret adoptions and illegitimate children; so I wasn't surprised, but I had no idea what she was talking about. She went on: “I have your granny's and granddad's conversation books from when they were evacuated during the war, and the truth is there”. I still had no idea what she was talking about. My granny lost hearing, ostensibly after childbirth (although with all the lies I am now not sure). During the war they were evacuated from Moscow to a small city on the Volga river, probably sharing a room with several other evacuees. My father was ten years old. Clearly if my grandparents had things to talk about, using notebooks was an appropriate solution. So what did they talk about, I didn't ask. “People said that your granddad could not be your father's father”, Aunt Margarita went on, “because nine months before his birth you granddad was away”. Now, after learning that you are adopted or that one of your parents is not your parent, learning that your granddad whom you loved dearly wasn't your granddad is a huge shock. I wasn't prepared for it. Twenty years earlier I learned that the very same granddad had a second family and a daughter ten years younger than me. It was a shock because it changed my view of him, but as I said things like that weren't unusual in my extended family. I had always wondered about my grandparents' relationship. They never shared a room (but neither did my parents so it was not until I was in my late teens that I learned, from novels, that it was habitual for spouses to share a bed), and granddad always spent summer holidays elsewhere. He also went somewhere every evening – ostensibly to teach evening classes. Somehow, I have always been slow in interpreting obvious facts.

“People said that your granddad could not be your father's father”, continued Aunt Margarita, ”but your granny explains it in the notebooks. She went overdue. She was pregnant for eleven months”.

Now, not even I, naive as I am, could believe this. If Aunt Margarita had never mentioned it, I would have never considered the possibility. My father didn't look much like my granddad, but this didn't justify any doubts. The natural question to follow was: If not granddad, then who…? Did anyone except granny know? Did she know?

It turned out eventually that everybody knew except me. A cousin on my mother's side knew, and that was really none of her business.

Next time I was in Moscow, I asked Aunt Margarita to see the notebooks, and she said she had burned them. This didn't sound credible to me. Why did she have them in the first place? When my grandparents were in evacuation, she was in deportation in Kazakhstan and didn't return to Moscow until 1956. If granny for whatever reason had kept the wartime notebooks, why did she suddenly give them to her sister? And why did Aunt Margarita keep them for more than thirty years only to burn them right after she had tried to persuade me that granny had been pregnant with my father for eleven months? Did those notebooks ever exist at all?

Dismissing the eleven-months-long-pregnancy theory, every piece fell into place. I remember Uncle Andrei well. He was practically part of the family, always with us on holidays, frequently in for tea and dinner. He gave me wonderful presents: toys, clothes, picturebooks, which I didn't of course contemplate then, but that weren't easily available in Russia in the early 1950s. He could get these lovely gifts because he had the privilege of travelling abroad, and he had the privilege because he was accompanist to a very famous violinist. One thing I remember particularly vividly: my teddy's shirt became shabby, and Uncle Andrei made him a new one. I still have the teddy. Every other link has disappeared, the last probably the picturebooks that I had brought to Sweden and that my children eventually tore to pieces. This was before I learned the truth, otherwise I probably would have saved them. Or probably not at all. I am not sentimentally attached to material objects.

I have very few photographs from my childhood, but I do have a picture of myself, aged one, my parents, my grandparents and Uncle Andrei. I had seen this picture scores of time before I learned the truth, but I had no reason to pose any questions. Now of course there is not doubt which of the two older men was the young man's father.

When you are very young, you don't contemplate why some people disappear from your life. I was an extremely shy (or maybe extremely intimidated) child who never asked any questions about anything, not even most innocent questions, so I would have never asked why Uncle Andrei no longer came to visit nor spent summers with us. I do remember, however, meeting him on the landing outside our apartment which was next to the violinist's apartment. He smiled at me, but didn't say anything. He must have been coming to the violinist regularly, but I only met him once.

I have no idea why he suddenly wasn't welcome any more. He had been by granny's side for almost thirty years, her secret, or not so secret lover and her son's father, and my granddad had tolerated it. Something must have happened, and I had no one to ask. Least of all could I ask my father, but he must have known all along and lived with it his whole life. Did he ever meet his biological father after the quarrel? They moved in the same musical circles so it is almost inconceivable that they didn't meet, but did they talk? Were they close at all? Why didn't I ask my father while I still could? Simply because in my family, we didn't talk about such things. All was lies, secrets and pretence.

Now, you may think, does it really matter? Despite his other family, my granddad whose last name I still bear, loved me. He was a fabulous storyteller, and every evening I would come to his room – he was the only family member who had a room of his own – and ask him to tell me a story or draw a picture, which he also was good at. I would sit on his lap. Sometimes he would show me family treasures otherwise locked in his desk drawer: his mother's diamond earrings, war medals, miniature Fabergé eggs, all in lovely boxes with velvet lining. He would tell me about these objects again and again, and I was never tired of them.

He died shortly before I moved to Sweden. I was with him when he died. (Death is very ugly, by the way). He was my granddad.

And yet…

There are interesting family legends on that side. For instance, that our very Russian-sounding last name was adopted by our distant Greek ancestor, Nikolai Stamati. We have traced granddad's ancestry four generations back to a Stepan Nikolajev, so Nikolai Stamati must have been at least a generation above, which takes us to the dark eighteenth century where no records have been preserved in Russia. It seems that granddad's relatives who managed to escape from Russia after 1917 took back the old name, but I haven't been able to find them. Stamati is a common name.

Another legend says that some generations back we were related to the famous Swedish aristocratic family of Oxenstierna, and I still have a brass seal with the Oxenstierna coat of arms, so there must have been some connection. Granddad's mother's maiden name was Reutersköld, which is another Swedish noble family, and while Oxenstierna could be a myth, Reutersköld is a fact. Her mother, my granddad's grandmother, was Victoria Reutersköld, and of all the retained family possessions I value most a silver sugarbowl with the monogram VR.

Neither Stamati nor Reutersköld are part of my ancestry anymore. Nor are the four generations of the Nikolajevs. My name is no longer mine.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Miriam Mitnick. I am Jewish.

I have no Jewish identity whatsoever. My maternal grandmother was Jewish, but she didn't keep any Jewish rituals. I would probably qualify for Israeli citizenship. The overwhelming majority of my parents' and grandparents' friends were Jewish, because they were musicians, artists, scientists, and all were secularised Jews. At least half of my classmates were Jewish, but I didn't learn anything about Jewish culture until my husband started writing a book about Jewish history. (He is not Jewish).

For the past thirty years I have lived with the unconfirmed knowledge of my Jewish grandfather. It didn't make any difference. And it did.

To make a long story short, some time ago my daughter finally persuaded me to do a DNA test. She gave me a DNA test for my birthday. I had been reluctant for a whole number of reasons, but then I thought, what can I lose? (A fourth of my identity, my seal, my sugarbowl, my name, my second cousin twice removed who is the only relative I still keep contact with).

The results have come. I am 45% Ashkenasi Jewish. (I am all sorts of other things, and as I have always known, not a drop of Russian, but that's another story). I have over a thousand DNA relatives in the database, most of them in the USA, and their last names are Cohen, Levine, Shapiro, Friedman and Goldberg. Happy belated Passover, cousins!

It is of course much less of a shock than when I first heard Aunt Margarita's disclaimer. I was prepared for it, and now I know for sure. What shall I do with this certainty? It's too late to change identity and become an observing Jew, not least because I have never been an observing Christian either, and while I have kept family traditions for Christmas and Easter, they have always been precisely that: family traditions. I have been to Israel several times, and I like it, but I don't feel any affinity with the country. I have zillions of Jewish friends, but the reason is that they are my friends, not that they are Jewish.

Maybe the main problem is not embracing Jewishness, but letting go of the other part. Somehow, all these years I have fooled myself into believing that I can keep both. But then, my strongest identity has always come from my German granny's side: traditions, songs, family anecdotes, food recipes. They are still with me. So maybe I am not Miriam Mitnick after all. Maybe I am Maria Tietz.

Wednesday, 28 March 2018

A tribute to my mentor

My old professor, Vivi Edström, has passed away.

She was 95, and she had lived a long and happy life. Yet it definitely feels that an important part of my life has gone with her.

Vivi was the first Chair of children's literature in Scandinavia, which was a big thing back in early '80s. And she was at the Comparative Literature department in Stockholm, not Education, not Library and Information, not Childhood Studies, and not even Sociology of Literature in Uppsala where the first PhDs in children's literature were awarded. For Vivi, children's literature was literature, fullstop.

I remember coming to her office for the first time. I had been in Sweden for three weeks, but I had an oral recommendation from the Director of the Swedish Children's Books Institute whom I had meet the previous year in Moscow. I wanted to study children's literature because it hadn't been possible in Russia. I had read Vivi's book Form in Children's Books: A Study in the Art of Narration – I am not sure how I got hold of it in Russia. There I was, scared to death, as I always am with new people and in new situations. Although I had studied Swedish for thirteen years, I had never been to Sweden before, and I hadn't had many opportunities to speak it. Many years later Vivi mentioned that her first impression of me was “scared girl with big eyes”.

I enrolled in two courses, Children's literature and Young Adult Literature and wrote a final undergraduate dissertation on the topic that eventually became my PhD. Vivi gave me special privileges to attend her graduate seminar where I met my future fellow students. She was generous and supportive. I was accepted into the doctoral programme next term, and after a while Vivi managed to get me a four-year studentship, which was unusual at that time. She was like that, always finding way to promote her students and sharing her favours fairly among us. She got us various awards for our theses. She would pass on to us tasks that she didn't want or had no time to do: leading book circles and teaching professional development courses, writing reviews and even more prestigious stuff; for instance, I contributed, on her recommendation, a chapter on children's literature for a History of Swedish Literature with University of Nebraska Press. She also edited several volumes in Swedish, on picturebooks and on children's poetry, and we all contributed to these.

Vivi and I didn't always agree, and she could be quite harsh. Several times after supervisions I came home in tears and told my husband that I would never again set my foot in the department. Vivi strongly opposed my wish to write my thesis in English; my argument was that all my primary and most of my secondary sources were English. It was habitual then, and perhaps still is, in Comparative Literature departments in Sweden to study one particular writer, preferably dead, and even “XX's early writing”, so my Proppian structuralist approach felt alien. I learned later that the night before my defence she called several colleagues asking whether they thought I would pass.

A typical glimpse of our conversations:

Vivi: I think you should let chapters 2 and 3 change places.
Me: But I have just changed them as you told me last time.
Vivi: Good, now we see that it didn't work.

One term I was Vivi's TA for the dissertation seminar on children's literature, and at the first session I introduced myself and said that the professor would join us any minute. Only she didn't, and I had to spend two hours talking to students without preparation or any qualifications apart having done the course myself. Next term, I was entrusted with teaching this course on my own. I had to use Vivi's syllabus, and one session I found particularly challenging. When I told Vivi, she said: “Next time, let them work in groups”.

Toward the end of my PhD as I was considering my future career, Vivi said: “Don't bother about publishing articles, they don't count. Write books”. (Ironically, these days I have to tell my students the opposite).

Vivi was President of the Selma Lagerlöf Society, Lagerlöf her other passion and academic interest apart from children's literature. She invited me to join the board of the Society and pushed me toward Lagerlöf research, which became decisive for me subsequent career. You couldn't get a permanent position in Comparative Literature with children's literature research only, you needed to show that you could do ”real” literature as well. Lagerlöf became my real literature area, and I wrote a book for the Society's series and several other things. Vivi and I spent many nice hours together as I was driving us from Stockholm to Värmland, Lagerlöf's home province where Society's annual meetings were held. I used to drive Vivi home from the University after seminars or guest lectures – it was in the opposite direction from my place, but not too much out of my way. I thought it was quite natural since I had a car and she didn't, but she mentioned this as one of my special virtues at my defence banquet.

We co-edited a volume on Lagerlöf, and I contributed a chapter. Vivi didn't like my interpretation of earthly and heavenly love.

Vivi: You are wrong.
Me: There is no right or wrong in literary analysis; this is the way I see it.
Vivi: You cannot make this claim.
Me: You are not my supervisor any more, you cannot tell me what I can or cannot claim.
Vivi: You are wrong.

This is Vivi in her essence.

After retirement she withdrew from public academic life. She published more books, including one on Jane Austen, but otherwise she took up painting and had small exhibitions and enjoyed life. Every now and then she invited me for tea.

When I got the chair in Cambridge, Staffan called her to brag on my behalf. Well, she said, that's what Masha had always wanted, hadn't she?

In her study Form in Children's Book, Vivi was the first in Sweden and probably among the very first in the world to claim that formal features of children's literature were just as important, or even more important than content, what she referred to ”children's literature here and there, representations of this and that”. She wrote about the significance of narrative perspective and temporality long before these concepts became commonplace in international children's literature scholarship. She was a pathfinder and a flagship. Swedish children's literature research would not have flourished as it has without Vivi. We all owe her. And I certainly would not have been where I am if I hadn't had the privilege of being her disciple.