Sunday, 9 December 2018


I have been away a few days for work, and while away I realised that it would be the first time ever I return to an empty home. (So many things are “first time ever” these days). I travel a lot, even though considerably less than I once used to. When I recently told someone that I didn't travel as much as before, I then remembered that this year I have been in Italy twice, in Belgium, in Austria skiing, in Sweden, not to mention a week at Hadrian's Wall. Each time I returned home to moderate human and enthusiastic feline welcome. There was light outside the garage and light in the windows. Sometimes there was dinner. There was food for breakfast next morning.

This time, nobody was waiting. The windows were dark. There was food in the fridge, and I had made sure that I had eggs and oranges for breakfast next morning.

It was warm, because I have a smart thermostat that switches on heating toward evening.

The dishes were washed up, the kitchen was tidy, the bed was neatly made. “Leave it as you want to find it”.

I usually start feeling homesick on the third day of travel, whether I travel alone or in company. Lying on my king-size bed in the luxury hotel that my conference hosts had provided, I was violently homesick and suddenly felt confused. Did I long for the quiet of my little flat? Or did I, deeply subconsciously, long for the home I no longer have? The home I had previously returned to? I dismissed the thought as irrelevant.

Lonely night in a hotel far away from home

Monday, 3 December 2018

Advent in Gatehouse

It seems that expats become more passionate about their traditions. In San Diego we were invited to a Swedish friend (married to an American) for her annual Swedish Lucia party, and she even had some young girls, maybe nieces or neighbours, who wore Lucia dresses and candle crowns in their hair.

Here in Cambridge, American students celebrate Thanksgiving and share secrets of getting the right sort of pumpkin.

When we moved to Cambridge, I decided to maintain my Swedishness by inviting my new colleagues to glögg on the first Sunday in December – too early for Lucia (which is December 13), but since the term ends in the beginning of December, everyone would have been away. The first glögg was still in Water Street, rather crowded, but I believe everybody enjoyed it because it is so exotic. After that we had the benefit of our spacious living room and dining room in Milton, and at times we would entertain up to forty people. I have a sense that my glögg parties became sort of a legend because first-year doctoral students would hear about it from others, eager to attend, and once and only once when I couldn't do it at all I got cautious emails from people who wondered whether they had slipped off the books.

Glögg is different from mulled wine, even if the general idea of hot, spicy wine is similar, and I use my family recipe that is also slightly different from the Swedish glögg. The two musts to go with glögg are gingerbread and saffron buns, or Lucia buns. I would bake both, although recently I would sometimes cheat and order gingerbread from a Swedish shop in London. They also sell glögg spices.

I usually encourage my guests to bring something they associate with the season, which mostly works well. Occasionally people bring something that needs cooking or oven-heating, which isn't convenient when you simultaniously pour out glögg for a couple dozen guests, making sure that those who prefer non-alcoholic version take the right cups.

This year I had no intention of having a glögg party. It just felt impossible in this tiny space. Then I remembered both Water Street and my glögg party in Finland, where my flat was even smaller, but around thirty people squeezed into it.

I also thought that it was now more or less clear that it was my last year in Cambridge, my very last chance to give a glögg party for my Cambridge friends. To h-ll with it; as the Swedish saying goes: Where there is room for hearts, there is room for bums.

I explained to friends that it would be crowded, and nobody seemed to mind. I explained that I had no oven to bake saffron buns, and a student invited me to do it at her place. I found Swedish gingerbread in an Italian delicatessen. I learned from experience that some people don't drink alcohol, so I make a non-alcoholic alternative with black-currant juice. I brought frozen black currants with me for this purpose.

I was a bit anxious, but you know what? Twenty-five people seemed quite happy to share the limited space. 

Saturday, 1 December 2018

The Ceremony of the Keys

To mark the first two months in Gatehouse I performed the Ceremony of the Keys.

In the past forty years, I have had two key rings: one with a single car key, the other with a set of house keys and an office key. All other sorts of keys that some people have on their key rings: garage, storeroom, bank vault, gas meter, mother-in-law's flat – I have always kept separate, in a key cabinet in the entrance hall. What's the point of carrying a bunch of keys that you maybe use once a year? I am puzzled by people who carry a dozen or more keys around. I once asked a colleague what all her keys were for, and she couldn't remember half of them. That's unhealthy, mentally as well as physically. You may think that a bunch of keys doesn't weigh much, but it does.

With Gatehouse came a set of keys that open the front door, the yard door, the gate, the shed and the mailbox. There is a plastic marker with the college name on it, like in a hotel. Until recently, I carried this set in my left pocket, while I carried the key ring with my office key and the two keys to my former home in my right pocket. There must be something deeply symbolic in this left-right separation, but for me it simply worked as a mnemonic device, since I otherwise always carry keys in my right pocket – don't ask me why. So left pocket for Gatehouse, right pocket for everything else. Doesn't make sense, does it, since I use the office key daily, while I only go back to the old house when necessary.

I use the shed key occasionally, and I check my mailbox every now and then because how often do we get paper mail these days? (Although my oldest grandson sends me wonderful letters sealed with red wax).

The time has come to move the keys I use together, to carry in my right pocket. Ironically, in my recent decluttering endeavours I threw away all key rings I had accumulated in my desk drawers. But I had some in my dollhouse supplies.

This was a solemn moment. 

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Cooking for one

When our children started moving from home, it took us a long time to adjust the amount of consumed food. I remember huge pots of pasta, family packs of meatballs and fish fingers, enormous pans of mince-meat sauce, fruit bowls emptied within an hour. With just the two of us, we obviously did less shopping, cooked smaller meals and also used more fresh ingredients rather than ready-made. Still, it's remarkable how difficult it is to calculate a meal for one. Even when I buy what looks to me like small packages, it always turns out to be too much. I can never cook the right portion of pasta. If I cook beans or lentils I always end up with twice as much as I need. I know exactly what you are thinking now: save the leftovers and freeze. That's what I am learning to do. It's hard for someone not used to it. Moreover, I am learning to cook various things over the weekend, to use later. I like vegetable cream soups, so I steam two courgettes, a butternut squash, five carrots, a celeriac, and freeze them in separate bags. Then I take as much as I need from each bag for just one bowl of soup.

Some of you are laughing now: what's the big deal, that's what normal people do. But I am not normal. I have never had a 9-5 job, and the past ten years I would come home with hot dinner waiting on the table. Planning a week of meals for one feels alien to me. Yet it would be below my dignity to eat the same pasta with mushroom sauce seven days a week. OK, go on laughing. Changing habits at my age is challenging.

By serendipity, soon after I moved to Gatehouse I read an article about cooking for one. The point is exactly the same I am making: your food doesn't have to be boring just because you are cooking for yourself. And there are some useful tips. I particularly like the one about keeping onion fresh by using the outer skin layers.

That's a strike of genius! I am doing it now, because I only need a quarter of an onion at a time. I do the same with cabbage.

If I by mistake cook more than I can consume, I freeze it, even if it is just half a cup: I can always have it as a starter.

I eat very little meat, mostly when I have lunch in college, and then I still try to choose fish. Since I moved to Gatehouse I haven't had any meat and only cooked chicken once. Chicken fillets usually come in twos, so again I had to freeze half of it. But it is convenient to have a nice meal in the freezer. (More laughter from you, dear reader).

I have no oven, so some dishes that I used to cook are now out of bounds, such as baked fish.

I am also spoiled by fifteen years with induction hobs, so I have not quite grasped how an ordinary hob works. Takes some time to heat and some time to cool. No built-in timer. I know, very first-world problems.

This is what I had for lunch today: beetroot soup. If you think having a bagel with soup is weird, that's not my concern. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018


Some twenty years ago an English-speaking friend tried to explain to me the difference between loneliness and solitude. This is a good example of how language affects perception: neither Swedish nor Russian has two separate words. I could not understand that the state of being alone could be anything than negative, and at that time I was still terrified by the very idea of loneliness.

Maybe the reason is my childhood fears of being abandoned. I am the only child, and in those carefree days children would be left unattended without further thoughts. I particularly remember two episodes. When I was five, my father and I were staying in an artists' village outside Moscow. He was composing his music, and I assume my mother was back in town working. After breakfast, my father would go skiing for a couple of hours, leaving me alone in the cottage. A couple of hours for a very young child is eternity. Perhaps it only happened once, but someone found me outside the cottage, in the snow, crying. (I don't recall my father soothing me afterwards). Several years later, in another artists' village in summer, I was sent to bed and woke in the middle of the night to realise I was alone in the cottage. My parents had gone out rowing with friends. Again, a neighbour heard my sobbing and came to comfort me.

In my teens and early twenties, I was scared of going to sleep because I thought I might never wake up. (It's the best way to die, but you don't think so when you are young). Of course eventually I would fall asleep, but it was my constant horror. In my brief first marriage, my husband, an archaeologist, was away for months. I felt profoundly lonely.

I also decided early in my life that I didn't enjoy doing things on my own. I had few friends, and particularly in summers my parents would take me with them (or send me) to places where there were no other children. Often they would take me out of school as well. I felt incredibly lonely and found consolation in intense correspondence (often with grownups), diary writing and fiction writing. When I was old enough to go to theatre, cinema or museums on my own, I discovered how much I lacked the after-show chat, the simple: “Wasn't it awesome?” or “Wasn't it awful?” It was out of the question for a young girl to travel alone, but a couple of times when I was granted the privilege to travel abroad, to Poland and Bulgaria, I felt miserable when I should have been happy and inquisitive.

After I moved to Sweden, I travelled a lot professionally, both within Sweden and all over the world. I preferred to stay with friends whenever possible. The loneliness of hotel nights was haunting. Otherwise with three children and hoards of visiting relatives, there wasn't much time to feel lonely. It came later, when I realised that if I wanted to do things I enjoyed doing I had to do them on my own, and eventually, with things that used to be shared, I had to choose between doing them on my own or not doing them at all.

That was my long and winding road to solitude – the enjoyment, even though forced, of being on my own, walking, gardening, star gazing (unfortunately, I haven't been able to do that for a long time now because of glaucoma). Miniature-making became an excellent pursuit, as did book-binding. I still prefer to do all this in company, but I am not terrified of being alone. I have converted the misery of loneliness into the peacefulness of solitude, thanks to the richness of the English language. Maybe it is simply the wisdom of age. 

If I needed more persuasion, I was totally in after reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

So what do I do in my Gatehouse solitude? Actually, pretty much the same I did before. It is tempting, when nobody waits for you at home, to just go on working in the office, but I am quite strict with myself on this matter. I don't work in the evenings and on weekends, unless there is really something urgent. I come home after work earlier than before, since it takes three minutes to walk from the office. I make myself a cup of tea. I drink a lot more tea than I used to, which is odd: you would imagine that tea-drinking is social. But it is a perfect way of crossing the border from work to rest. I read my non-work-related email and social media. I cook my meal. I wash up. Then I read, listen to music or watch a movie. I haven't got a television, but it works perfectly well to watch movies on my computer. I have recently succumbed to Netflix and watched all the big series such as Handmaid's Tale and Black Mirror. Here in Gatehouse, I have watched Alias Grace and Anne with “e” and some movies I have had on my watchlist for ages.

I have also very recently discovered Spotify. I had used it a couple of times before, but never got hooked because for me listening to music is definitely social, and once upon a time we played classical CDs a lot, but not for a very long time now. I have become increasingly sensitive to noise, and some time ago I got myself noise-cancelling headphones. Interestingly, I only used them for noise-cancelling purpose once, on a flight, which was bliss. But the side effect was that I tentatively tried to listen to meditation music in bed, after or instead of reading, and then I moved on to Bach and Chopin, and I was so irritated by advertising that I bought myself out of it, and now I am completely addicted. I think I have decided that I could hypothetically live without books, but I cannot live without music. Spotify has everything I need and more; it is, however, important to choose wisely, finding performances by best artists and of full works, not just popular snippets.

I have also found a way to continue with miniature-making, but this is a separate story. 

Something for solitary evenings  


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