Saturday, 7 May 2022

That Was Then

The other day I was invited to a concert at Berwald Concert Hall. I don’t know why I had ignored it in favour of Stockholm Concert Hall in the past three years; I guess it just so happened. Yet being there brought back an avalanche of memories.

Once upon a time, five lives ago, I used to work as an interpreter at Swedish Army Tattoo. It was a huge biennial event, with urban parades, performances at big arenas and concerts that were usually held in Berwald Hall. Many international bands attended, and the foremost guests of honour were the US and the Soviet/Russian bands. From the USA, it was most often US Army Band “Pershing’s Own”, and from Russia one of the two top bands, Army or Navy. All were musicians of highest class. As an interpreter for the Russian band, I had all kinds of tasks, from small talk at table (when they take away your plate before you had a chance to eat) to guiding the Russian bus driver through Stockholm to rendering instructions for marching performances. One year, and I am not sure exactly which year, possibly 1990 when the fall of Soviet communism was imminent, I was sitting on the stage in Berwald Hall, with US Army Band “Pershing’s Own” on my right and the Exemplary Band of Soviet Navy on the left: for the first time in history they were to perform together. For me, it was a sublime moment, and I could not help saying so as we finished the rehearsal. Friends, I said, I grew up in the Soviet Union, and I could never imagine I would live to see a Russian and an American band performing together, in a deeply significant symbolic act of friendship and solidarity. I broke into tears, and the musicians gave me an applaud. The concert was a tremendous success. At that time, we were sure that things were going in the right direction, and that the only way the two armies should ever meet was in a concert hall.

The story had an amusing ending. Colonel Shelburn, the boss of Pershing’s Own, asked for my business card, and a few weeks later there was a letter in my pigeonhole at work, in a fancy envelope emblazoned with “US Department of Defence Pentagon”. I wonder what my colleagues thought.

Photo credit:

Saturday, 1 January 2022

A lonely woman’s New Year Eve

 Forty two years ago I went to the Library of Foreign Literature in Moscow to read Swedish newspapers. In those dark and evil days, foreign newspapers, unless published by approved Communist parties, were only accessible in special reading rooms that required a permit. Permits were issued if for whatever reason you needed this dangerous reading matter for work. I had a permit, renewable every year, because I had to read Swedish film reviews for work. In the largest Swedish morning daily, film reviews appeared on the page facing columns, so when I opened the paper on that January day I saw a column titled “A lonely man’s New Year Eve”. I had just had a brief and stormy affair with a married Swedish journalist, and I was really sad to read his column describing his lonely celebration. Why on Earth was he alone on New Year Eve? Where was his family? Didn’t he have friends? I was used to wild New Year parties or at least quiet New Year parties in the company of close friends, and I felt so profoundly sorry for the lonely man that I had no mental energy to read any film reviews that day. 

Eventually the brief and stormy affair developed into a long and stormy marriage, and during those years I would occasionally go back to Moscow for New Year and leave my husband to spend it on his own, but more often we had wild parties and quiet family evenings, and every year we would listen to New Year Eve bells from Sweden’s thirteen cathedrals on the radio, followed by La Jouissance.

The last two years, I spent the New Year Eve on my own. I considered feeling sorry for myself. I considered ignoring it altogether and going to bed as usual (a bit difficult with loud firework displays outside). Then I decided that dignity demanded I celebrate no matter what. This year in particular I had learned that several of my close friends were also spending New Year Eve on their own. There was nothing extraordinary about it. (I guess during years with wild parties and quiet family evenings I never gave a thought to people mentioned by the radio host: “If you are lonely this night…”).

I prepared an elegant four-course dinner for myself. I bought a piccolo bottle of sparkling (I don’t drink alcohol otherwise, but I can make an exception for New Year Eve). I set the table nicely. I lit candles. I dressed up. I gave the cats some extra delicious food I had saved for the occasion. During my meal, I listened to Baroque Tafelmusik on Spotify. Between the meal and midnight, I watched a movie and did a jigsaw puzzle. I sent good vibes and WhatsApp messages to my lonely friends. At midnight, I opened the bottle and listened to cathedral bells, ignoring the loud fireworks outside. I cried floods, remembering all those previous New Years and realising how much I valued them, although sometimes I got irritated: “Can’t we listen to something else for a change?” It turns out, I cannot. And the radio host’s words resonated deeply: “If you are lonely this night...”

Monday, 27 December 2021

Annual report 2021

At this time of year I habitually write an annual report. I have just discovered, to my amazement, that I didn’t last year, and when I contemplate the reason it’s probably exactly why I am hesitant about doing it now. While most people I know, and millions that I don’t know, are experiencing the worst time imaginable, my year has been exciting and enjoyable.

True, there were two losses in the family, one profoundly tragic, the other perhaps less so, while it hit me more than I had expected. When I walked off three years ago I thought the hurt was so huge that I would never care whether my partner of almost forty years was dead or alive. Yet when he passed away this past autumn, it was as if the three years apart had been erased, and grief was acute. In a weird way it felt good since it was a closure much needed, as it turns out. To my surprise, I miss him terribly and only remember the good things from our years together. So, paradoxically, even a loss can add depth and meaning to your life.

Apart from that, and apart from some worrying health issues in the family, my life has not been affected by the global disasters. I eventually got covid last month, but thanks to three vaccine jabs, I had it mildly and was fully recovered after a week. Sweden has never had a full lockdown, and even during the tightest restrictions I was able to meet my grandchildren outdoors. This autumn we went to concerts, theatre and movies, met for coffee and meals – almost as normal. (There will never be the former normal again of course). I am blessed with grandchildren who want to spend some time with their old granny. I don’t think they do it out of duty. Maybe they find me interesting in some way. And not to forget – a granddaughter got married last September!

This year saw some great accomplishments, some planned, others unexpected. I took a three-day training to become a certified walking guide, and since then I have been leading walks both in my own neighbourhood and further away. I enjoy it a lot – hopefully my co-walkers do too. I made some new friends that way.

I have also continued my urban walks based on children’s books. I know these have been appreciated.

From my post-retirement wish list, I started learning Welsh. I had a choice between Welsh, Japanese and Hebrew, and I was perhaps a bit reluctant to choose a language with totally unfamiliar script, but Welsh proved challenging enough. I am learning for fun, as a brain exercise so I have no aspiration of ever getting fluent (“Bydda i erioed yn rhugl”). I do half an hour every day, sometimes more. I have learned just over a thousand words since I started last January. I don’t know (it has been such a long time since I learned a foreign language) how it compares to an average pace of learning, but I can construct simple phrases and even write brief journal entries. I speak Welsh to myself whenever there is an opportunity, like “Dw i’n mynd i gwneud coffi nawr”. I have joined a Facebook group of Welsh learners, for support and for fun.

An unexpected new activity has been ikebana, Japanese flower arrangement. I have always been fascinated, but never considered pursuing it; a friend invited me to a digital meeting of their Ikebana International chapter, I contacted my local chapter, they offered me a free trial class, and I was hooked. I had claimed repeatedly that I hate cut flowers because I feel upset when they wither, but ikebana is by definition an ephemeral art form where flowers are supposed to die so it turned out I could accept it. I have now received the first certificate and am halfway through the second one. A certificate is like a completed term in college, with a certain number of assignments to submit, and there are ten levels so I have yet far to go. I like clear goals, but the important thing is the joy of creation, as well as the sense of getting better. When I look at pictures of my first arrangements, they are pathetic, and I was so proud of them back then.

My miniature-making has also moved on to new heights. My business is going well with its premises. Since I am not dependent on it for a living, I feel satisfaction from the simple fact that people like my stuff and even make special orders. I now feel confident to make things I never dreamed of making a few years ago so when asked whether I can make this or that, I say: I have never made it before, but I can try. I don’t like mass-producing things (although I have occasionally made fifty tiny pumpkins on request), but rather inventing new things. I am a recycler and like using rubbish for my projects. I have the privilege of belonging to a hugely selective miniature club where I am learning a lot. I have participated in my first miniature show. I am building up a reputation. Luckily, so much networking can be done online, even though there is nothing like live events.

Book-binding hasn’t been as prominent this year, but I have tried some new techniques there as well.

I continue with balcony gardening (although not right now when it’s minus fifteen), enjoying the colours of my flowers and the taste of my veggies. I haven’t done as much as I could have, but I have made several improvements. 

In my communal garden, I enjoyed tulips and daffodils I had planted the year before; I harvested blackcurrants that I had planted the year before, and our maintenance team have, on my request, planted lilacs, magnolias and rhododendron we will enjoy next year.

I haven’t achieved my walking goal of 1,500 km, being short by 300. Maybe I set the goal too high, or maybe I was lazy. But how could I have been lazy when I walked almost 80 km on Camino de Santiago? A dream come true, after three postponements due to well-known reasons. 

Moreover, I went on two more walking holidays within Sweden, one of which my first mountain hike. Sweden is great for walking, and there is so much to explore!

With other exercise, my Pilates gym was closed for a while, but this autumn classes resumed, which was great. Since the gym is in town I frequently combined it with meeting a friend for lunch. I have also tried climbing and loved it. I will certainly do it again.

In spring, I took two online classes at Seniors’ University (aka University of Third Age), one in astronomy, the other on deserts. The latter proved more interesting. I realised I had been to half of world’s famous deserts, but I had no idea why they were where they were. Now I know. Always fun to learn something new.

My reading goal this year was 30 books, and my challenge was reading recent Swedish novels that I had neglected over the last ten years. I have read 35. Some were great reading experience, and many critically acclaimed and award-winning books were awful. At least I am now better informed about what is going on in Swedish literature.

I have enjoyed a lot of music this year. While concert halls were still closed I listened to free streamed and recorded concerts, but this autumn I went to a live concert almost every week. I have also been to opera, ballet and musical. Every morning and every evening I listen to Spotify. I like its feature Weekly Discovery. The algorithm alternates my favourites with its own suggestions which are indeed discoveries I probably wouldn’t have made myself. (By the way, “concerts” for me is exclusively classic music). Spotify tells me that my most listened-to artist this year was Alison Balsom, which was unexpected. My top piece, for second year running, is “Farewell to Stromness” since it is my bedtime music.

I have become quite fond of TV series – a genre I used to despise, which is of course a snobbish prejudice. My favourite this year was “The Good Place”. Occasionally I binge-watch, but mostly I watch one episode a day, looking forward to the pleasure the day after.

I still enjoy cooking for myself and trying new recipes. A Cambridge friend and I have had several cook-along days when we choose a cuisine and exchange our experience, in words and pictures, through WhatsApp. We have done Greek, Basque, Swedish, Sicilian, and more. When you cannot meet live, digital sessions are almost as good. 

I never thought I would bake so much, or bake at all, but here I am, baking buns, cakes and biscuits and even bread, just for myself.

Last but not least, my feline masters are getting more and more benevolent. One day they will sit on my lap.

Unlike most previous years, I have no publications nor any other academic accomplishments. There may have been some, but I have totally ignored them. I am still getting tons of invitations to give a conference paper, to contribute to a volume, to examine a thesis or review a book proposal, to which I reply: “You have received my auto-response, and I can confirm that…” The only thing that reminds me of my academic past is regular royalties.

I have been consistent in my anti-consumerism, and apart from craft supplies and a couple of essential kitchen utensils I honestly haven’t bought anything this year. I haven’t bought a single item of clothing, except a black skirt I needed for a funeral, and I got it from a second-hand shop. The only book I bought was a guidebook for the mountain area where I went hiking. My first-generation iPad from 2011 still serves me well.

This year marked forty years since I left Russia. My son and I celebrated appropriately, agreeing that it was the right thing to do. I have never regretted it.

As I have stated before, perception of time is different when you get old. I feel no stress, no pressing goals; every day is long and full of meaning. The pace is slow, and if at the end of the day I state that I haven't done anything useful, there is no need to be upset. I don't believe in happiness, but this is peace that you could not possibly imagine when you were young. 

At this point we typically make plans for the coming year. I can hardly imagine it being better still, but I do have things to look forward to. To begin with, I will be three-score and ten, and I intend to celebrate in style. I hope to walk another bit of the Camino. There may be another interesting travel experience. I have signed up for more craft shows. There are concert and theatre tickets waiting. Of course none of this may happen at all, but I have learned to take one day at a time and be grateful for every day I am alive and able to enjoy it. I am profoundly grateful for the joys of 2021.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Me and my brain


I haven’t been an active blogger this year, and writing does not come naturally any more. This is quite remarkable given that I earned my living throughout my whole career, over fifty years, by writing. Yet now, anything longer that a photo caption on facebook feels strenuous, or rather totally unappealing. I was recently asked to contribute a piece to a Festschrift for a retiring colleague, which is a pleasurable task as it can be light in tone and devoid of heavy referencing. Yet as I considered possible topics and browsed through my files for something to recycle, I realised that there was no way I could do it. It is as if my brain has simply shut down its areas of academic thinking.

Reflecting upon this weird phenomenon, with my patchy knowledge of neuroscience, I realise that it is not just “as if”. My brain has indeed shut down the storage of scholarly approaches. When I decided, some time before my actual retirement, that I didn’t want to continue any academic pursuits, my brain made a mental note of it – sorry, unintended pun, but probably suitable. The brain is a very economic machine. When it knows that some portions of accumulated knowledge will not be used ever again, it seals off those storage rooms. Anyone who has tried knows how hard it is to come back to academic studies after a long break. The brain needs to re-learn to receive, process and store information. I not only find it next to impossible to write, but also extremely hard to read anything work-related. Former-work related. I have no problems reading instructions for assembling a miniature four-poster bed or for arranging a Basic Slanting-Style Moribana in Reverse.

Being a good housekeeper, the brain knows that there is new and radically different information coming in these days. Information more connected to the right hemisphere, to hand-eye coordination for crafts, to concrete orientation in space when I lead walks. This information needs new neuronal paths to be created, which in turn needs energy. The brain is energy-hungry; it uses 20% of all energy we receive from nutrition, more than any organ in our body. There is no point maintaining paths between sealed storage rooms. It’s a waste of energy. The brain hates waste. It is now busy making new connections, supporting new paths, making room for visual and haptic skills I didn’t need before.

When friends and colleagues tell me that I will one day want to write another scholarly book, I know for sure it won’t happen because I would then need to persuade the brain to reopen the sealed rooms and rebuild the dismantled pathways. It would take years. I don’t have these years, and it’s not worth while. Once again, to allow the brain to shut down significant bits of the left hemisphere was a deliberate and well thought-through decision that I don’t regret. Moreover, if I had known fifty years ago, when I was choosing my career, what I know now I probably wouldn’t have chosen to become an academic. I would have trained to become a garden architect or a cabinet-maker or a desert explorer. I have no time to pursue any of these careers other than on a small, even a miniature scale. But that’s enough for me, and my brain supports my new endeavours.

There is one area that the brain has kept open, and it belongs to both left and right hemisphere. I am still able to learn a new language.

Friday, 30 July 2021

Looking back

It is two years since I left Cambridge. At the time, it wasn't meant to be a definitive farewell. I planned to return to Cambridge in December for Guest Night at college and for my swearing-in as an Emeritus Fellow, and when that didn't happen for a number of reasons, I planned to go to Cambridge in March (2020) for the Charter Dinner, and we know why that didn't happen. Here I am, two years later, and no prospect of going to Cambridge in a foreseeable future. 

Do I miss Cambridge? Yes and no. I miss the community, my friends and colleagues, my students, seminars, college lunches and dinners... and I have to remind myself that none of this has happened in the past year and a half. So what I miss is in the past, not what I am missing now by not being in Cambridge. I know it sounds awful, but, to put it cynically, I haven't missed much. What I valued most in Cambridge has been severely reduced. To put it even more cynically, I am glad I left Cambridge when I did. 

In the first year, I still had some ties with Cambridge, supervising a few PhDs for a miserable remuneration. Online supervisions that were extraordinary in the beginning soon became routine for everyone so I didn't even feel I was particularly isolated. I stayed in touch with some colleagues, but eventually what is going on in my precious baby, my Research Centre, is no longer my concern. I don't know the new cohorts of graduate students, and they don't know me. They are likely to know of me and are probably assigned some of my work, but I am not a person anymore, just a name. And my former students have moved on, have jobs and families, and I see them occasionally on Facebook. Every now and then, Facebook sends me a "memory" of a doctoral defence or a graduation ceremony.

I have been allowed to keep my university email address, and I am still getting messages from various committees that have forgotten to take me off records, and I am getting lovely messages from my college supporting its members in these difficult times. I have participated in a couple of zoominars, but that, too, feels less and less relevant. 

The main reason Cambridge has become a ghost is my firm decision to withdraw from academic life altogether. If I had been still active as a researcher I would have participated in more events, made myself available for supervisions and assessments and at the very least kept track of what is going on in my field in general and in my former research environment in particular. As it is, I have moved on so far away that sometimes I am not even sure that Cambridge has really happened to me, because the person I have become in these two years wouldn't find academic life attractive. I do remember of course that the person I used to be valued her academic career and enjoyed academic life with all its horrors and rewards. But that person is no more. 

Therefore I don't miss Cambridge. 

A Russian emigree was once asked whether they were planning to visit Moscow. The answer was: "I have already been to Moscow". I have already been to Cambridge.  

Homerton college on a rare occasion of snow

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Reflections on learning a language

 If you have followed my blog you know that one of my post-retirement projects was to learn a new language. Believe me or not, I have been so busy in my first eighteen months of retirement that I never got round to language learning and hadn’t even decided which language to learn. I wanted a language that was different from all languages I know so it would be a real challenge, but still manageable. I didn’t want to learn a language to be able to travel and speak it – I just wanted brain gymnastics. The languages I considered were Hebrew, Japanese and Welsh, each with a challenge of its own and each with a special significance and attraction.

I won’t claim that embarking on language studies was a new year resolution, but it felt a good starting point. After further deliberations I chose Welsh, which was perhaps too convenient a choice since at least it uses Latin alphabet (although with several weird digraphs to convey weird sounds). I had previously looked at various learning platforms, assessing their suitability for my purposes. I don’t want live online sessions in a group, and I want to practice when and where I please. I want to keep my own pace. I don’t want to compete with fellow learners, and I don’t want tests and assessments. Somehow, Duolingo popped up in my searches, and I decided to give it a go. After four weeks I am still happy with it. I have read reviews describing Duolingo as a gaming platform, and it is true that you get jewels, crowns and other rewards, and that after each completed lesson a green owl gives you praise for your progress. I ignore these aspects, and they don’t bother me. I have even got used to comments such as “Awesome!” and “Amazing!” after every correct answer.

On the other hand, I have read complaints that the neverending practice of “I don’t want to buy the seven goats and the five ducks” wasn’t useful for an everyday conversation, which is only partially true, because through such practice you will eventually be able to say whatever you want or don’t want to buy, in whatever quantities, at your travel destination. I guess it all depends on your expectations. I don’t intend to become a fluent speaker; as I said, all I want it keep my brain in trim. For this objective, counting goats and ducks is perfect.

What does bother me about my fellow learners, on the rare occasions I visit the discussion forum, is their casual attitude. You can see from forum participants’ profiles what languages they are learning and how far they have proceeded, and I am puzzled to see that lots of people are learning fifteen languages. I know there are linguistic geniuses, but is it indeed just a game: they sign up for a language, do ten lessons and claim that they have mastered another language? Well, it’s their problem.

My problem is not to be tempted by Duolingo’s rewards and stay on the same lesson and practice, practice, practice, until I feel confident and the exercise begins to feel repetitive. Of course as my vocabulary grows and grammar becomes more complicated, I need more and more practice. The algorithm works fine, making me go back and repeat and revise. It keeps track of my previous mistakes and makes me practice correct answers. I am loving it.

So what have I learned in four weeks?

I think the course design is great. It has been a long time since I learned a language from scratch, but I don’t think I had to memorise so many words in each lesson. Yet memorising words isn’t enough, you need to practice using them in grammatically and syntactically correct phrases, and Welsh grammar and syntax is mind-boggling. And the words are mostly unrecognisable, except for obvious borrowings. Eliffant or dolffin or even teigr are easy, but what about buwch, blaidd, cwningen, hwyaden and llygoden? None of the languages I know are of any help. Similarly, while you probably are safe with Ionawr, Ebrill and even Awst, you get lost with Gorffennaf or Rhagfyr.

Pronunciation is deceptive because many letters are pronounced in unpredictable ways, and yes, those digraphs! Although I have realised that the sound learners find the most difficult is similar to my native Russian’s щ, which English and Swedish speakers find completely impossible. And I have no problems rolling my rs.

And yet I probably could make a simple conversation now, introducing myself by saying that I am not a farmer or an electrician, but a female (!) teacher; that I don’t wear winter clothes in summer; that I don’t like ironing, but enjoy walking; that I want carrot/potato/leek/pea soup for lunch, but I don’t eat meat, and I don’t eat sausage either (those small words!); that I like cats and I like dogs too; that I like learning Welsh; that I am tired, good night.

Duolingo uses a computer-generated voice which is wise, but I also listen to other recorded voices to get used to the sounds. I have found a site with children’s audio-books to which I listen, and every now and then I recognise a word. I have learned to sing Old Macdonald had a farm in Welsh. Very good when you are practising animals. I have bought a book titled Teach Your Cat Welsh. How could I resist it? It offers a slightly different vocabulary from Duolingo. I don’t think I would have reached “Don’t scratch” in the near future. I have tried to read a real picturebook, but it felt a bit too advanced so far. But I understand sentence structure and basic grammar even when I don’t know the words. Sometimes it is hard to find a word in a dictionary because consonants mutate in certain positions: un ci, dau gi, tri chi.

Again, I have no memory of when a language I was learning started making sense. One strategy that my Swedish teacher insisted on is starting writing from start. Even if it is just a very short text, like: “Good morning, I am making breakfast, I want bread and cheese and honey, orange juice, coffee and milk. I enjoy walking, and I am wearing a coat, a hat, a scarf and gloves”. I write such silly journal entries every day, trying to use as many words and phrases as possible. I write with ink in a pretty notebook, creating links between brain, eye and hand. Likewise, I talk to myself in Welsh, name objects around me, make small reflections. “I like chocolate, I am eating chocolate”. 

I have learned 230 words most of which I actually remember and can use. I spend about an hour a day practising, including weekends, although I only signed up for 15 minutes. I have no idea how far it will take me. When I one day get to the end of Duolingo’s course I will consider what I want next. Maybe I can sign up for an advanced course. Or maybe I can switch to learning Hebrew.

Sunday, 13 December 2020

Re-reading Lord of the Flies


This will be the last book in my 2020 re-reading challenge, and I believe it was the greatest positive surprise. I first read it when I was 20-ish and had never re-read it. A fellow student lent me her paperback that someone else had probably lent her. Remember that in Russia of my youth all foreign books that crossed the Iron Curtain were random. We didn’t know anything about the book or its author. By that time I had heard of, if not read The Lord of the Rings and was struck by the similarity of titles.

For inexplicable reasons this novel has been on school syllabi in many countries for years and years. Inexplicable because although the existential message is transparent, it is, I would claim, of little relevance for young readers, now as much as then. The adventurous plot is slow, and a significant portion of the book is exquisite nature descriptions that, as research shows, young readers skip. I am sure I did, even if at that time I regarded myself a sophisticated reader. If the novel had been subjected to the same kind of adaptation as Robinson Crusoe there wouldn’t be much left. (What most people remember or know by hearsay in Robinson is his encounter with Friday which is a minor episode toward the very end of the book).

I remembered most of the plot, although misremembered some details. For instance in my memory (spoiler!) Piggy was brutally murdered, while it was in fact Simon. I had forgotten the paratrooper. Knowing the plot, what I enjoyed most was the language, these beautiful, poetic, vivid descriptions of the island, the sea, the sky. For their sake, I will probably re-read the book again. And if you decide to re-read it (or read it for the first time – it’s one of those so called classics that people have heard of but never actually read unless they were forced to in school), take your time. You know what happens, but make sure you notice how it happens, how the tiny change in tone is rendered, and of course the elaborate setting that brings you right in the middle of this terrifying paradise.