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.
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.
was warm, because I have a smart thermostat that switches on heating
dishes were washed up, the kitchen was tidy, the bed was neatly made.
“Leave it as you want to find it”.
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.
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.
in Cambridge, American students celebrate Thanksgiving and share
secrets of getting the right sort of pumpkin.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
To mark the first two months in Gatehouse I performed the Ceremony of
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
have no oven, so some dishes that I used to cook are now out of
bounds, such as baked fish.
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.
is what I had for lunch today: beetroot soup. If you think having a
bagel with soup is weird, that's not my concern.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
have also found a way to continue with miniature-making, but this is
a separate story.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
is a beauty parlour and a bicycle shop, neither of interest to me.
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.
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
best walk is along the river to Grantchester where you can have tea
in The Orchard.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.