Sunday, 9 November 2014

A quarter of a century

I seldom cry when I watch TV-news. Frankly, I selsom watch TV-news at all. But at that time, twenty-five years ago, we all sat glued to our TVs, watching history unfold.

Much as we hated the regime when I was young, we knew it was for ever. Communism was invincible, and the only thing you could do was learn how to cope. Some people tried to escape. Some brave people did it literally: crawling under barbed wire, swimming out to sea. Some, privileged to travel abroad, defected, knowing that their relatives remaining inside the Soviet Union, would be prosecuted. Dissidents who weren't sent to camps were sent abroad, which we honestly didn't see as punishment. Some got married to foreigners, for real or for convenience. In the '70, Jewish families were allowed to emigrate. But these were handfuls, sunshine stories in a bog of misery, and there would always be the hundred millions in Russia, the occupied countries and Eastern European satellites, deprived of material wealth and human rights.

Being one of the lucky handful, I always felt guilty. But what could I do? Communism was invincible, and the West didn't care. As the party bosses promised us, our children and grandchildren would live under communism.

And then one evening twenty-five years ago it all changed. I sat crying in front of the TV, repeating like a prayer that I had never, ever hoped to live long enough to see it.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Reflections on gifted children and pushy parents

Yesterday I went to a talk by my young colleague Clémentine Beauvais whose current research is about gifted children. The talk was about gifted children and pushy parents, and it provoked two strands of reflections. Was I a gifted child and were my parents pushy? Are my children gifted and are we pushy parents?

Since my parents are dead I can share my views without reservations. I probably wasn't a gifted child by the standards defined in Clémentine's research, but I was clearly above the average. I was bilingual, I could read at five and started writing stories before I could read (I scribbled something down that I then read aloud). I was forced to practice the piano when I was six – here comes the pushy parents bit. I believe it was rather pushy grandparents, but everybody in the family were musicians, so I never questioned it, simply hated it. Wasn't it obvious for my parents that I was a word person, not a music person? I love music and cannot imagine my life without music, but practising scales wasn't my thing. When I stopped I was told that I would one day regret it, but I never did.

In school I was expected to be a high achiever, full stop. Straight As. I wouldn't be punished for a occasional A-, like some of my classmates, but I knew I was a disappointment. When I in Year 5 had one A- in my annual report and didn't, as usual, win a book and a diploma for “academic excellence and good behaviour”, I was absolutely devastated.

Not to mention the tragedy when I had one A- in my final exams and didn't win a gold medal “like everybody in the family”.

I have already told the story of my parents' disappointment in my choice of education, but they kept telling me that I could still amend it by graduate studies. “Everybody in the family” had a PhD before 30. My mother was late, 36, but she was excused because she had to ditch an almost complete thesis for political reasons. I also got my PhD late, just as late as my mother, but I had to ditch an almost complete PhD because I moved countries. My parents were unimpressed. “Everybody in the family” in three generations was a professor, so I'd better apply myself.

I don't know whether they were pushy parents by Clémentine's standards, but they certainly pushed me toward the edge more than once, for better and for worse.

When it comes to my children and my own parenting, it becomes more sensitive, so I'll proceed with caution. With my first-born, I was so young that pushes still came more from my parents than myself. They didn't help me, a single mother, in the everyday, but they would borrow my son to show off to their friends, making him learn and recite long, grownup poems. They – or we, since I silently agreed – forced him to play the piano, which he hated. I took him out of the nursery school twice a week to ride the underground to the other end of the city for skating classes, which we both hated, but I was being an exemplary mother.

My mother had wild ideas that she pushed onto me. At one point she decided that Sergej should learn slalom skiing. The closest, very primitive resort for this exclusive sport was three or four hours by train from Moscow. My mother suggested that I take him there on Saturdays, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, eat picnic dinner, breakfast and lunch, let him ski in the morning and come back in the afternoon. She was really disappointed when I rejected this brilliant idea. (Many years later Sergej spent two winters as a ski instructor in Chamounix, so he didn't miss on skiing).

With our Swedish children we were pushy or supportive, depending how you look at it. We took them to piano, cello, trumpet and ballet classes, football and basket training; children's activities at the Museum of Modern Art; we encouraged stamp collecting, sailing, summer drama camps, photography (with a lab in the cellar). I believe that we became less pushy with the youngest, simply having no energy left, but when he wanted to play American football in school in California, which required a special medical check-up, not to mention equipment, we obliged. I don't remember why it didn't happen after all.

Academic achievements were a problem. Julia could read at three and was a voracious reader. She was bored to death in school and was bullied. Unfortunately, the Swedish school system provides excellent support for children with special needs, but has no room for gifted children. When Julia was nine I went to see her class teacher and school councillor and told them that my daughter was exxtra gifted. They said all parents said that. I suggested that the councillor had professional skills to test my daughter's abilities. He did. She scored, as he reluctantly admitted, well above him. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He told me there was nothing he could do because the Swedish school system had no provision for gifted children. I said I would home-school her. He told me it was illegal. I reminded him that my husband was a journalist. He shut up.

I allowed Julia to stay at home and take care of her education as she pleased. At that moment I knew that I was going to the USA for six months and would take her along. In her school in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was top of her class in English after a month. She became competitive and happy. When we came back to Sweden, we reluctantly, against our beliefs, put her in a private school where she was allowed to study at her own capacity. We also moved Anton to the same school.

When we enrolled them in high school in California, the person who constructed their schedules suggested pottery and home economics. I said no, my children would take Advanced English, Advanced History, Advanced Foreign Languages, Advanced everything, and if there was something still more advanced they would take that as well. They told me that AP would incur costs for the exam. I said I was quite happy to make the investment. I guess this makes me a pushy parent.

Of course, I have no idea what they really thought, but I believe they enjoyed school that was a challenge. Julia won every possible and impossible award at graduation; regrettably, since we were not residents she could not get the monetary part of the awards, otherwise any American University would be open for her.

Instead, she had to take a test in Swedish to qualify for Swedish higher education and failed because she didn't remember which effing bird Miss Julie had in effing Strindberg's effing drama. Someone suggested that she she had gone to a school abroad she could take a test in Swedish as a second language. There, it was enough to be able to read a newspaper ad.

Gifted children and pushy parents is a social construct, says Dr Beauvais, and I agree. Yet behind every social construct there are thousands of real people, and no fate is like another fate.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Close encounters with children's writers, part 7

I haven't seen anything in the papers, but Alan Garner turns eighty today.

I read some of his books two lives back, in Moscow when every book in English was a treasure and every children's book in English was worth its weight in gold. I was writing my first academic paper on children's literature, and Garner's books were central in it. And it so happened that the Soviet Writers' Union was holding an international children's literature event at which I was engaged as an interpreter for a Swedish visitor, and among the many distinguished guests was the great Alan Garner. I was just an errand girl, not a participant, so approaching a famous writer to introduce myself was embarrassing. I was among the very few interpreters who were actually interested in children's literature – they could have been engaged for a conference on chemistry or economics. But because I showed interest in and at least some knowledge of British children's literature, including Garner's novels, the conversation shaped nicely, and I even did something I had never done before: gave him my address and phone number. I could have lost my job for this.

Sadly, the promised postcards with pretty views of Cheshire never came, and I did another unheard-of thing: wrote a letter care of Garner's publisher and asked my father who was going abroad to post it for me. When he came back, he returned the letter saying that he hadn't dared to take it with him. He could have lost his job.

Some months later, I was once again engaged for an international event at the Writers' Union and met Alan's interpreter who gave me his regards. I asked her to send him mine and explain that his pretty postcards had never reached me so I wasn't being rude. Alan started sending postcards in envelopes, and although I had no idea how many were sent and not delivered, some did come through. One of them contained an unusual proposal. An obscure journal was doing a special issue on Alan Garner – would I consider contributing to it? At this point of my life I knew that I was moving to Sweden in the near future, otherwise I would have burned this letter and stopped the correspondence altogether. As it was, I wrote an article - from my today's vantage point, it was horrendous – and Staffan smuggled it out of Russia and got it safely to the editor who seemed to be satisfied, as was the subject of the study himself. The editor wrote me a polite letter saying that he had been told it was pointless to send me an honorarium, but he was sending me a box of chocolates. Interestingly, it came through, although I had to pay substantial import tax.

During the first summer after I had moved to Sweden, Staffan and I went to the UK by car. The reason was a bicycle fair in Harrogate, but we took a detour via Edinburgh and Inverness, and while Staffan was at the fair, I went to Cheshire. Alan had given me minute instructions, with exact timetable for the three trains I was supposed to change. I was scared to death, travelling on my own in this strange foreign country. I have pictures from this visit: me heavily pregnant, and Alan showing me some of the Important Artefacts featured in his books.

I visited several times; more or less every time I happened to be in the UK. Once Sergej and I had the privilege of staying for almost a week and being taken to all Important Places: the underground tunnels, the Edge, the Wizhard's well, Mow Cop, the Hall of the Green Knight. At one time, Alan asked me to collect and send to him initial and final formulas of Russian folktales: “Beyond thrice three mountains, in the thrice third kingdom...” As far as I know, this collection was never completed.

Once we concurred in Moscow, at yet another international event hosted by the Writers' Union, but this time I was an eminent international guest.

Another time, I was going to a conference of the Children's Literature Association, and changing planes at Heathrow saw piles of the newly published Strandloper which I bought and read on the place. I was presumably the only one at the conference who had read the novel. The author was there to receive the Phoenix Award.

I moved around the world, to California, back to Sweden and eventually to Cambridge. The correspondence became limited to birthday and Christmas greetings and finally stopped. It is just the way it is.

Happy birthday, Alan!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Thirty years ago

We dropped off two-year-old Julia in day care telling her teacher that we were in a hurry. The teacher didn't ask any questions. We called a friend asking her to pick up Julia from day care in the afternoon. Staffan speeded and didn't stop at red.

Two hours later, we called the same friend again, who assured us that she would pick up Julia and we didn't have to worry. We were calling to tell her it wouldn't be necessary.

Staffan picked up Julia and all siblings to come and see their baby brother. I must admit I don't remember it, but according to Lisa, Julia had a look, stepped aside and threw up.

What I remember is the look I received from the young new mother next to me. Seeing four children around the baby, and having just gone through it herself, she certainly wondered why on earth anyone would want to do it again.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


The first rule I learned when I started teaching in San Diego was: “We don't fraternise with students”.

It made me upset because I was used to fraternising – although I didn't know that was the name for what I was used to. I used to go out for a beer with a group of undergraduates in Sweden after a seminar. In Finland, my students would be surprised and offended if I didn't go out for a beer with them.

When I moved to Cambridge I was expecting a very formal atmosphere, definitely no fraternising. Instead, fraternising is the very spirit of Cambridge.

This is the Big Fraternising Week, the first week of term. Yesterday, I fraternised with the new masters students. True, we had to do some course introduction first, but afterwards it was wine and snacks and high decibels of fraternising. In these austerity times, the Faculty apparently believes that drinks and mingle for a hundred students and professors is a good investment

Today, I fraternised with the new PhD students. Wine, snacks and laughter.

Tomorrow, I will fraternise with new masters and PhD students in my College. It is called matriculation. Not just wine and snacks, but a three-course dinner, and afterwards a ceremony with a drinking horn.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Topographic idiot

This year's Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded for identifying the spot in the brain that enables us to know where we are.

I must have been born without this spot, or it was somehow damaged early in my life.

My father used to call me “topographic idiot”. In those days it was acceptable to say something like this to a child without considering life-long trauma. But I was an obedient child and believed what I was told.

I have been lost in places I had known for ages. I have been lost driving, biking and walking. I have been lost in Moscow and in Stockholm, my two hometowns; and I have been lost in unfamiliar places more times than I like to remember. I have been lost while picking up people from airports – it's totally embarrassing. I once had to call my best friend from a payphone – it was long before mobiles – and ask her to come and find me because I was lost, two blocks from her house where I has been hundreds of times. I can still get lost in Milton Country Park where I walk at least twice a week. I constantly get lost in central Cambridge. 

Obviously, this important part of the brain that helps other people to know where they are is missing.

But there is hope for people like me. (I am sure I am not the only one in the world; it is just too embarrassing to admit). Last Sunday I went to Ely to see a friend. I have been to Ely scores of times, and I know how to get to the Cathedral parking, and if it is full, I know how to get to another parking. Anything beyond that is too challenging for a topographic idiot. In such situations I gratefully remember one of my wonderful granddaughters who insisted, two years ago, that “Granny wants a smartphone for her birthday”. There are many things I use my phone for (least of all for phone calls), but is was the first time I used voice navigation. Wow, how much I loved this nice lady who told me, softly and patiently, like you should speak to a topographic idiot: “In a quarter of a mile, in the roundabout, drive straight through and stay on the road”.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 8 and final: Mora-mora and other wisdom

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three, four, five, six and seven.

“Mora-mora” (or something like that) means “slowly but surely”. Don't rush. It will take the time it takes. Sooner or later.

My old Russian self is comfortable with the attitude. Mora-mora your luggage will arrive. Or maybe not. Mora-mora your flight will maybe depart or maybe not, but mora-mora it will.

Our flight from Toliara back to Tana was scheduled 12.25, but Mami told us already the day before that it would probably leave at 4.40 or probably delayed indefinitely. Apparently, Madagascar Air has one Boeing that jumps up and down between the capital and smaller cities at random intervals. Because of the delay we had time to visit Arboretum. When we were finally taken to the airport, the plane was there, but not going to Tana yet; first to some other place, then back to Toliara, then to Tana. Mora-mora.

In the morning, I went to get some money from the ATM. You never knew how much you might need, and I didn't want to take out too much. The highest amount the machine allowed to withdraw was 200,000 ariary, but when I tried, the display said it was unavailable. I tried 100,000; I tried another card; Anton tried his card. The long line behind us got impatient. We moved aside, and the next person tried. The machine had run out of cash! Mora-mora. I was truly amused.

The plane eventually came, and the next day in Tana we went to the Lemur Park, and the day after we flew home with seven hours stop in Nairobi that almost killed me.

And it took me mora-mora to come to terms with Madagascar. In my journal, I sometimes wrote that I hated it, that the culture was alien to me, that apart from short walks I didn't get anything out of the trip. I was wrong. I wrote in my first Madagascar post that the experience was life-changing, and it was. It just took mora-mora to admit it to myself.

First, I had to tell something to my friends and colleagues, who eagerly inquired whether the trip had met my expectations. I was obliged to say that it hadn't, but only because I had had wrong expectations. When people asked me: “Was it fabulous?” I said cautiously: “It was interesting”. The more I had to account for, the more vivid the memories went, and the more they shifted. When people asked: “Did you really see lemurs?” I said: “Yes. But we also saw people”. And mora-mora I realised that it was significant.

Mora-mora I looked up charities that work in Madagascar. I realised that I am paying more in pet insurance that it would cost to send a Malagasy child to school. Does it mean that I should stop paying pet insurance, stop making miniatures (although I make most of them from rubbish, like the man in the miniature-bike shop), stop gardening, stop going out for dinner or have my hair cut? No, not at all. But it sets everything in perspective. The money we spent on our trip would be enough to build a school. But then, if we hadn't gone on the trip, we wouldn't have known. 

Every morning when I shower, I remember discarded plastic bottles that Mami filled with tap water and gave to people along the road. I have always been ecologically aware, so nothing was a revelation. But even with my Russian background, I take too much for granted.

The good thing is that I don't feel guilty. (I used to feel guilty about Russia, but it is another story). I feel, in a strange way, peaceful, because there are more important things in the world than my small everyday problems.

This is what some charity sites say:

£5 will provide tools...
£10 will provide seeds...
£15 will provide a stove...
£25 will provide a school desk...

Mora-mora, Madagascar, I may come back.

Aloe in Isalo National park

All photos in my Madagascar diaries have been taken by Anton Skott