Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Celebrating New Year with pomp and circumstance

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery and mushrooming.

Remember: I grew up in the communist Soviet Union where Christmas was forbidden, and those who celebrated it, like my family, could only do it secretly. All celebration was therefore shifted onto New Year: tree, presents, gastronomic excesses, street decorations, hangovers. Preparations would go on for weeks: hunting for delicacies, arranging who would bring what, who would make the salads, who would slice the sturgeon, who would cook the duck, who would come earlier and help set the table. When all food was ready on the New Year Eve, we would take our beauty nap before dressing up in the very best. A good omen was to wear something new, if only a pair of underwear.

Guests would arrive around ten. There was no tradition of preprandials, and there was typically no space for mingling so people would fill the table as they arrived, and then the meal began. Before midnight, we would say farewell to the old year with cold dishes: herring, smoked salmon, sturgeon, caviar, cold meats, jellies, pickles, salads, pies. People would share what the year had been like. We would put wishes inside pies, copycating fortune cookies, and these would be read outloud, for everyone's amusement.

By midnight, the first round of plates would be cleared away, and, depending on the tradition, either mulled wine or champagne poured out. A good omen was to hold a nut in your fist during the chimes. Then everybody would hug and wish each other a happy new year.

Duck or turkey would be served for the main dish, stuffed with apples. Then came the time for presents, usually small, funny gifts accompanied by funny verses. There may be dance, or party games or just happy chat. Some people might go home before two, when the underground closed on this occasion, but most would stay until it opened again at five. Sometimes we would move to somebody else's party.

Everybody was very tired in the morning, but there would be some kind souls to stay on and help with washing up. There was also plenty of food left, and it would be consumed during the day which could develop into another, quieter party.

For a while, after I had moved to Sweden, I would spend Christmas with Staffan and then pack the kids and go to Moscow for the New Year. Then it wore off.

Now I cook lobster thermidor for dinner, and we go to bed half past midnight. Swedish time. 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Mushrooming

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing and archery.

For most people I know in the West (except Finland), mushrooms mean cultivated champignons. You can do all kinds of nice things with them, but they are not even near the culinary sensation of wild mushrooms, and mushrooming was something everyone in Russia did – perhaps still does, both for pleasure and for food. Wherever you went for holiday, there would be mushrooms aplenty, you just needed to know where to look. And of course you also needed to know which were edible.

The king of mushrooms is the bolete, particularly oak bolete or penny bun bolete. They are superb in any form: fried, sauteed, pickled (when they are very, very small), and you can dry them for the winter. Then you can make mushroom soup, which isn't the boring cream-of-mushroom, but the Russian-style soup, with onion, carrot and potato. Mushroom pies are a delicacy. The best gift you could bring to someone who preferred beaches was a string of dried boletes. 


Bay bolete, red and brown birch bolete (or birch roughstalk) and slippery jacks are good fried, but not so good to dry. Small birch bolete caps are excellent to be pickled in marinade.

Chanterelles are best fried or sauteed. Milkcaps are best pickled in salt.

In a good mushroom season, nobody would even look at burners and brittlegills, but when other mushrooms are scarce, sauteed brittlegills are good too. Sometimes, inkcaps were the only mushrooms available. They are delicious. Scaleheads come late in autumn so we seldom found them during summer vacations. 

Most of us were obsessed by mushrooms. Finding a family of boletes was like finding gold. And did we compete! Twenty! Forty! Fifty-three! We all had our secret places, and with luck you could let your mushrooms grow a couple of days, without anyone discovering them. But more often, the urge to pick them was too strong. Our hands were shaking as we went down on our knees to pick a perfect one. 

As with fish, it was often my job to clean and cook mushrooms or prepare them for drying. It had to be done quickly before they turned bad. In good season, my father would bring a basketful before breakfast, and it would take me all morning to take care of them, by which time there was a new basketful waiting for me. When I said I couldn't do any more, my father would get furious and throw the whole basket into the garbage pit. The cottage smelled drying mushrooms. We had more mushroom sautee than we could eat, but everybody had just as much so there was no point in iniviting guests. We would send dried mushrooms by post back to Moscow.

I stopped mushrooming for a very simple reason, and you can read about it here. Warning: it isn't a joyful read.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Archery

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating and fishing.

You probably wouldn't think of archery as a likely hobby for a nine-year-old girl, but it so happened that a friend of my parents' introduced us to it, and for several years it was what we did regularly. Thinking back now, I wonder whether it was legal to own a bow privately, it was after all a weapon that could kill or at least injure. But the old Soviet Union was a country where everything was prohibited and anything was possible, and at that time I never contemplated where the bows came from. We started shooting at home, in the corridor of our flat that was perhaps fifteen meters long, fixing the target, painted on a large cardboard box, on the front door, which wasn't very wise, because at one point my granny came home just as we were practicing, and it could have been a bad accident. I was strictly told never to point an arrow at a person.

I was always allowed to participate in the grownups' games, and although I had difficulties straining the bow – it was as tall as I – I eventually became quite good. On weekends we would go to the country and practice in the fields; in summers, when we stayed in the country, the target was always there for me to shoot. The shooting gloves were too large for me, but I didn't mind.

This time coincided with my passionate interest in American Indians, kindled by one of my favourite children's books, Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages, about two Canadian boys who played Indians and learned about living in nature. In school, we all read adventure novels and watched movies, and the boys made bows and allows of sapling trees, but I was the only one who had access to real bows. I never heard of anyone else having a bow.

Then it stopped, and the bows disappeared. It was sometimes like that with my parents: they got enthusiastic about something, bought equipment, made grand plans, and nothing came out of it. They once bought a sailing boat kit, with an intention to go sailing in summer, but it never happened, and the boat stayed for many years in a cupboard before it was sold or given away. We also used to have a crossbow, mostly for decoration. 

I never tried archery again, because it isn't something you just do; I suppose in Sweden or in the UK you need to join a club (there is, I have just looked up, an archery field very close to Cambridge). It isn't something I would pursue seriously even if I had a chance. It's just another example of things in your life that come and go. 


Sunday, 28 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Fishing

Read previous posts in this series: kite-flying, skiing and skating.

I spent all my summers between eleven and nineteen at the Composers' Union resort in Karelia, near the once Finnish town of Sortavala, by the Ladoga lake. The territory was annexed by the Soviet Union after WWII, but all places, villages, rivers, bays, lakes had Finnish names, and in the '60s there were still ruins after burnt-out Finnish houses. The area was so close to the border that you needed a permit; therefore the nature was as pristine as it was under the Finnish government.

The resort had a central building, which was claimed to have been Marshal Mannerheim's hunting lodge. Whether true or not, it was indeed a magnificent manor, with a huge front staircase, elegant sittings rooms and a dining hall with dark roof beams. I have no pictures from my childhood because we didn't have a camera then, and I only found a few pictures on the web. It doesn't match my memory, but it's over forty years ago. 


There were some guest rooms in the building, but most families lived in small cottages within easy walking distance, some with direct access to the waterfront. People would rent a rowing boat for the whole season; some people, including my father, had light motors that allowed us to go further away into the archipelago where we had our very own island. We would bring a picnic and stay for the whole day, cooking over open fire, and very frequently cooking our own catch.

The most common catch was pike, but occasionally you got pike perch and, with luck, salmon. The gear was either casting rod or reel, and my job was rowing. If you have never rowed a boat while someone is casting you have no idea how hard it is, especially in windy weather, and what a risk you are taking by sharing the boat with a loved one. I had no choice, because my father simply gave me orders, but he once set off my mother on a tiny cliff in the middle of a vast water span, to untangle a line. With casting, you have to row smoothly and absolutely silently because the b-y fish hear the slightest splash. You need to watch the direction of the wind and the incoming waves. You need to balance the boat so that the caster doesn't fall overboard. You have to watch out for underwater cliffs and floating logs; you need to steer the boat close enough to the reeds where the fish is, but not too close so that you lose the lure. And when there is fish on the hook, you manipulate the net, and the kind of language you hear if you are clumsy and the fish escapes... yes, it would make a sailor blush.

Every day we would also set up a longline, with live bait, for eel and burbot. It had to be checked and re-baited twice a day, early in the morning before breakfast, and late in the evening. Summer evenings are long and light in Karelia; water surface would be like a mirror, and every sound was carried around for miles.

I miss those days with my father in a boat.

On rare occasions, I was allowed to cast a couple of times, just to practice, and I did catch fish when I had a chance. My father kept a log, giving all fish funny names. 


It was my job to gut and cook the fish. There were several cooking methods which I learned very early, all over open fire, since we didn't have a kitchen. For clear triple fish soup, you first cooked small fry with spices, then strained, added pieces of larger fish, cooked until it fell apart, strained again, and for the last round you only added burbot, particularly the liver, a delicacy to share around (and all the foul language I heard from my father when I wasn't careful enough with the liver and spilled the gall). The soup was thick as glue, and a small cup was enough to make you full. But the best way was to smoke the fish, particularly eel, and as soon as I could be trusted with an axe, I would cleave young alder to line the smoking box, fill it with fish, close the box tight, make an even fire under it, knowing the exact time for every kind and size of fish. Serve it steaming hot, without plates.

I miss those evenings by the fire.

The irony is that Staffan also used to be passionate about fishing, but we never pursued this passion together, although Stockholm archipelago was no worse than Sortavala and very similar. I have asked Staffan repeatedly, and he cannot give a proper answer. It just didn't happen.

We once went shark fishing in Morocco, and we went deep-sea fishing in San Diego when I got terribly seasick; and I had the thrill of fishing piranhas in Brazil, but all that was tourist fishing.

Why do you stop doing something that used to be the gist of life?

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Skating

Read the first and second part in this series,

Skating was another popular pastime at winter resorts where I spent my vacations (and frequently, I was taken out of school to join my parents – my school principal closed his eyes on this practice, even encouraged it). My first pair of skates was second-hand and of an old-fashioned make that I couldn't master, so I would nag my parents to get me a new pair, and they finally did (which was unusual; typically, the most certain way not to get something was to ask for it. It was deemed good for the child's character building). During my truant weeks, I had the skating rink all to myself. When it had snowed during the night, I would use a huge, heavy shovel to first make paths, then connect them, finally clearing the whole rink. I would hold world championships in figure skating, winning all medals under different names. In the evening, some grownups would join. On weekends, the rink was full of kids. There would be hockey matches in which I wasn't invited to participate.

In my early teens, I attended a sports club together with some school friends, where skating was the major sports during winter season. But later on, skating became a substitute for dancing. We would go to a fancy rink, saving for entrance fee. There was a clear romantic element in this: boys would help girls to lace boots, and we would skate in pairs, boys dragging girls “faster, faster!”, music playing, coloured lights flickering. This was the closest I have ever been to a date: going skating in a big company, choosing or being chosen by a boy, with no strings attached. Or so I thought, in my innocence. Already engaged to be married, I went skiing with a boy who noticed my engagement ring when lacing my boot and was noticeably disappointed.

My first husband wasn't sporty, but he generously allowed me to go skating with his best friend, which I continued to do long after divorce and until I moved to Sweden. I brought my skates, and during the first couple of winters we went skating: me, Sergej, Lisa and Jakob, and I have a picture of me skating behind a push-chair with baby Julia in it. Why did we stop? I don't know. Life caught up with me, I guess. I know Julia had skates, but I don't remember ever skating with her; maybe she did with her school. 

 PS When I searched the web for an image, the first three hundred images were of roller skates. That's what I call cultural difference. So, in case you wonder, this post was about ice skating.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Skiing

Read the previous post on this theme.

Once upon a time in a far away galaxy cross-country skiing was just something everybody did. Small children do not know fear, and as a four-yesr-old I would stand behind my father on a pair of skis, holding onto his trousers, and go down slopes I would never dream of venturing on once I had my own skis. My father had access to the Composers' Union recreation resorts, and we would often spend three or four weeks there every winter. We would go skiing in the morning, in large groups of mostly grownups, and then father would work in the afternoon. There were no considerations of my tender age: three hours of skiing every day, sometimes in heavy snowfall. When I started school I would join my parents on weekends and during vacations. My attitude was ambivalent. Skiing was something you did, no questions. I enjoyed skiing on a frozen river on a sunny day. I loved going down reasonable slopes. But deep inside me I hated it because I had to keep pace with the grownups; I got tired; I remember I would lie down in the snow crying, and refuse to go on, but of course that would be in the middle of a three-hour circuit, and the grownups would have no nonsense.

Yet interestingly enough, when I grow older and could make up my mind, skiing remained an indispensable part of my life. We would go to each other's country cottages in winter to ski, we would go to resorts; skiing was social. Maybe it was because there were so few other things young people of my circles could do: no bars, clubs, discos; and no space in our homes for getting together: few of us had the privilege of a room of our own. Instead, we would go skiing, then have tea or hot wine, sit and chat.

When I moved to Sweden, I bought a pair of skis for myself and my son among the very first purchases, and I know for sure that I used them once, and Sergej probably never. Cross-country skiing wasn't as popular in Sweden as in Russia (at least not as an active rather than spectator sport); most people who liked winter sports preferred slalom. And more important, I had no company, and there was no tradition of going to the country on the weekends for skiing. Maybe I had bad luck or didn't look around properly. Within a couple of years, I learned slalom skiing, which I enjoyed much more than cross-country (the best experiences of childhood skiing were the slopes).

My pair of skis and boots stayed unused until we moved to the UK. They were too old-fashioned even to give away to charity.

I can add that during many years we went slalom skiing at least for the winter vacation week, but it is now at least ten years since. Yet somehow I believe that I might do it again. 

This is a random picture from the web, but it captures the best moments of cross-country skiing

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: kite flying

I have been thinking about some interesting themed blog marathon for the twelve days of Christmas, and I remembered something I had been contemplating for a while: things I don't do any more. Not something I tried once and never again, like scuba diving or paragliding, but things I used to do a lot and then stopped, for whatever reason. Inevitably, there will be some nostalgia in these posts. 

The first story will be about kite flying. My maternal grandfather was an engineer, and he had some interesting hobbies. He made model boats (maybe this is where my miniature-makaing comes from?), he did exquisite book-binding, and he made kites. It was just one summer I spent with him and my maternal grandmother. They were the children-should-be-allowed-to-do whatever-they-want kind of grandparents, while my other set of grandparents, with whom I and my parents lived, were very much for discipline. Grandma Sonya allowed me and my cousin to play pillow war when I stayed overnight; she made poppyseed buns and allowed me to eat as many as I could. With grandpa Sergej there was a ritual of combing his beard.

The summer I stayed with them in a village on the river Oka, when I was four, grandpa was making and flying kites. His own kite was a large, very elaborate box kite, but for me he made a simpler and smaller variant. Every evening we would fly our kites on the river bank, paying out the line slowly as the kite caught the wind and lifted, then starting to tug so hard that I would lose the handle, and the kite would fall down, far, far away. My cousin, four year older and in my eyes almost a grownup, would run and pick it up, folding the line carefully as he returned. Kite up again, lose the handle, Sasha runs to retrieve the kite. Eternal joy.

I don't remember much of that summer, other than our dog Paul was attacked by another dog and died. This was probably the first death I encountered, and a very violent and bloody one. Paul had been my friend, staying faithfully by my side when I was punished and sent to stand in a corner until I apologised. I would never apologise so the corner standing went for ever. This never happened when I was with grandma Sonya and grandpa Sergej. After that kite-flying summer I never stayed with them again, I don't know why. My parents went boating with them, and they always said that I was too young to join. I wasn't allowed to take my kite, which was just as well because there would be no one to retrieve it for me. 

I never tried to make a kite myself. Possibly, I bought toy kites for the children at some point, but it never became a passion. But there he is, grandpa Sergej, at the other end of the kite line. 

This is what a box kite looks like. They are less common than flat rectangular kites.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Highlights of the year

This has been a very good year. Thinking back, I cannot recall anything that wasn't good, although in my age you can always complain of poor health, and that's boring. Also, I have, like so many others, been worried about politics. But for me personally, the year has been good.

In terms of academic achievements, I have published a book. It was the most difficult book I had ever written, and I am very pleased with it. It's too early to say whether it has shifted the paradigm, but the students are referring to it. I have also published several articles and book chapters, most of them written so long ago that I had forgotten about them. Still always nice to see a book with your contribution. Whatever research councils say, books are more important in our branch.

Teaching has been good. Two PhD students have successfully completed their theses. Both have good jobs. Of course my colleague, friend and benefactor, Morag, retired this year, and I miss her, but we have managed to get her replaced, and I am very pleased with my new colleague, even if at the moment I have to do far too much before she is settled. With a newly appointed lecturer in children's literature, chances are good that our course will not be closed down.We also have a new Head of Faculty who so far is promising.

I have attended two conferences, which feels reasonable. One was fun because of good company, but a waste of time professionally. The other went well beyond my expectations. I am going to far too many conferences next year, which you may say is in the future, but it means I haven't been as good as I should have been in saying no this year.

Travel highlight was doubtless Madagascar, but I won't repeat what I have already written.

Closer to home, I spent some lovely days in Kent. An unexpected bonus there was E. Nesbit'sgrave.

I have only been to theatre a couple of times. Emil and the Detectives was great. Blithe Spirit was fun too. I haven't been to a movie, and I haven't watched as many movies at home this year. I think the one that made strongest impression on me was The Pianist, mostly because I had not read the blurb and didn't know that it was a true story and that the protagonist survives. The exhibition Silent Partners at Firzwilliam Museum was fascinating. Otherwise, I am not very good at museums. I don't think I've visited my favourite V&A a single time this year.

I have already written about books of the year.

Our children and grandchildren visited in various constellations, but otherwise it has been quiet on the visitors' front. There have been many parties, but nothing extraordinary. Sadly, I missed Anton's thirtieth birthday party. However, I've had the most extravagant gastronomic experience: The Fat Duck. Once in a lifetime. Not just the best meal of the year, but the best meal I have eaten in my whole life. Not just a meal, an experience for all senses. No words to describe it.

I have been reminded of my mortality by getting a senior bus pass. Unlike senior rail card, you don't get it at 60, but there is a very complicated calculation: I had to be sixty-two years, three months and eight days. I never use a bus, but if I am entitled to it, I got my bus pass.

I bought some new summer clothes that people noticed, and I bought a handbag which I haven't used yet.

I have exercised regularly, but haven't been very good at power walking. This will have to be my new year resulution.

I haven't done a lot of gardening this year because of a bad shoulder. I started another small flower border, and I planted a couple of shrubs. My roses were even better this year, and two are still in bloom. There has been a good harvest of raspberries and blackcurrants, but almost no vegetables.

I have bought my dream dollhouse and have been working on it with great joy. 

I have grown older, wiser and calmer. 

Warm thanks to family, friends and students who have made this year so pleasant.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Books of the year

Shelfari tells me that I read 26 books this year and that I am behind my pace, because last year I read 52 books. The year before I read 84 books. I am not sure whether this is reliable statistics to show a trend, but I feel that I am reading less and that I am reading slower. There is a correlation. I think I read more books for pleasure this year than in many, many previous years. I read considerably less children's books than usual. I read very little criticism because I am still recuperatring from a four-year research project. Contrary to my habits, I read several very recent books. It seems I didn't re-read any books this year. So this is not a typical year – unless this is how it is going to be in the future.


Best novel: Children Act, by Ian McEwan
Another best novel: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Best historical novel (with some magical realism): The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Best thriller: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Best fantasy (if it is fantasy): The Name of the Wind, and sequel, by Patrick Rotfuss
Best humour (of the dark kind): A Man called Ove, by Fredrick Backman
Best children's book: Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
Best historical children's novel: Eleven Eleven, by Paul Dawswell
Best sequel: Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs
Best literary criticism: Entranced by Story, by Hugh Crago
Simply the best: Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rotfuss

Monday, 1 December 2014

Lost allusions

Thinking further about my yesterday's experience I realise that another reason for my emotional disturbance is an acute sense of lost allusions, the lack of common cultural ground, the paucity of mother-tongue immersion. I have in all these years deliberately avoided Russian diaspora, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Russian emigrants of all generations have been suspicious of each other; I have heard slander about most of my former compatriots, and I can just imagine what has been said – perhaps is being said – about me behind my back. In every Russian diaspora there are factions and groups; in Stockholm there are several Russian Orthodox parishes that don't recognise each other; there are mutually exclusive societies and associations. I never wanted to be part of it so I preferred not to join. Then, as any diaspora, it is highly heterogeneous, and I see no point in socialising with anyone merely because we happen to come from the same country, but with whom I wouldn't socialise back in Russia. Also I made a point of becoming personally and professionally integrated in Sweden, in all things Swedish. It never occurred to me to get involved with the Slavic department, because I had never been a Slavic scholar and had neither interest nor competence to become one. I did attend Slavic conferences and other events, but only when topics interested me for my own professional goals. I also tried to become involved in various communities, from the parish to charity work to Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange, and abandoned those for various reasons.

The gains are obvious: I would have never been where I am now if I hadn't invested in my professional career. But the losses only became clear to me obliquely. I would go back to Russia to speak Russian and to immerse into what had been my element since I was a child: intellectual talk with common denominators, where allusions didn't have to be spelled out. As years went by I started to notice that I wasn't any longer atuned to my friends' framework of mind. I didn't understand their references; sometimes, their language felt alien. I wasn't able to keep up with new literature, new thinking, new worldview, new gossip. I wasn't one of the gang anymore. Some of my Slavic scholar friends caught up and passed me in their knowledge of contemporary Russia. For them, it was their study object. I could never make my country of origin a study object. And I had to keep up with my own study objects.

The allusions got irretrievably lost. There is no point throwing out literary quotations if your conversation partners have no idea what you are talking about. You cannot explain every joke. Finally, you give up. I have read about emigrants who forgot their mother tongue, or perhaps suppressed it. I hope I haven't quite forgotten Russian although I have fewer and fewer occasions to speak it, and sometimes I ask myself whether I should persist at all. I even speak to myself in my two other languages. I read Russian literature, classic and modern, but I cannot write professionally. So much of my grown-up vocabulary has developed in the other languages.

What happened yesterday was a rare occasion of shared allusions. Everybody laughed together, everybody recognised and remembered (I am sure there were people who didn't, but we can ignore them). I was brutally and painfully reminded of my voluntary isolation, of severed ties, of my cultural luggage that will die with me, unclaimed.