Monday, 30 June 2008

Home staging

Yes, we are selling. The decision matured slowly, but when we felt ready, it happened instantly. Now we are beyond the point of no return. Tomorrow we will have a show. According to all the rules of the game, with coffee and cakes for the grownups, coke and balloons for the kids. But no home staging, since the house is full of moving boxes. Frankly, I don’t think that anyone who wants to buy our house cares about home staging. I have myself never understood the point. Everybody knows that it is staged! It looks like a picture from a glossy magazine, and nobody lives in a picture. Our house looks lived in. But perhaps there are people who fall for white sofas, tiger skins, ikebana and Buddha statues on window sills. Ours is a house with potential, as I have read in an advertisement. It is full of charm, which is why we bought it twenty-six years ago. It is a Narnia-house, with many hidden wardrobes, crooked corridors, nooks and crannies, and secret doors behind bookcases. You cannot make it better with home staging, it will merely ruin the appeal.
Instead, I am doing things that I’ve meant to do but never got round to. I feel like a conscript ordered to clean bathroom floors with a toothbrush. When did I last clean the windows in the basement? Never in twenty-six years. The shelves in the wine cellar haven’t been as shiny since before the First World War, which is about when the house was built. You can even see what colour they are. Once I stored apples in the wine cellar; then we used to have out archive there, and imagine, we have even kept wine there!
In my old country, a plumber or electrician who wanted to advertise his work would say: “I will do this as if I were doing it for myself”. I am fixing the house as I if were doing it for myself.

Sunday, 29 June 2008


I have two recurrent dreams that I know many people have also experienced in some form. The first is that I discover an extra room in my house that I haven’t seen before. Sometimes it is empty, sometimes it is full to the brim with someone else’s bric-a-brac that I am mortally scared to break. In my dream, I tell Staffan: “Here is a room that we have forgotten, why don’t we use it?” If the room is full I know I need to get rid of everything and redecorate the room to my own taste. The interpretation of the dream is discovering new possibilities within yourself, not entering the dark sides of your mind.

The other dream is about being on a train or occasionally a boat. I have my children with me and tons of luggage, I know that we must get off at the next station, but all the kids’ clothes and toys and all my wn stuff are scattered all over the train, and I must collect them before the train stops. I know that whatever I don’t find will be lost forever. When I do find something I wonder why I have kept it.

Last night I dreamed a hybrid of these two. I discovered a new room in my house, full of things that I had forgotten to pack.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

Cherry orchard

Since it has become clear that we are moving I’ve lost interest in my garden. I only became passionate about gardening a few years ago. Once upon a time I grew vegetables, as we had always done when I was a child; this is what land was for, even a tiny patch that landlords would allow us to have in summer houses was used for agriculture. Herbs, carrots, cucumbers, pumpkins, to add to the meagre diet available in local stores. Here in my garden, I have even tried potatoes, but gave up after a year. I took care of the red and black currants that came with the house, made apple sauce and plum jam, started strawberry beds and gathered platefuls of raspberries for desert. I planted two cherry trees when the youngest children were born. All this was purposeful. Some roses came with the garden too, but they eventually died of neglect. I trimmed lilac bushes every now and then. I welcomed snowdrops and small crocuses appearing always in the same places in March. It reminded me of the cycle of life.

But some years ago I realized that I had to slow down. Instead of going to five conferences, writing ten articles and a dozen reviews, I tended my garden all summer. I was ready to plant purposeless flowers and decorative bushes. I planned my flower beds according to all rules: mixing and matching colours, seeing that a new flower would bloom when the previous withered. I planted tulip bulbs in autumn, knowing that they would come up next spring and make me glad. I knew I had to be patient since some bushes would not bloom until a few years later. And that the pear and plum trees I planted for my grandchildren would probably not bear fruit for many years. I also bought a few tons of gravel, laid large pebbles around flower beds, weeded under the lilac bushes and the hedge to let new stems come up. I had several projects that would take years.

Now I weed the beds half-heartedly, since I won’t even see the autumn flowers. I trim the hedge so that it looks decent. But I can’t make myself pretend and plant more bushes and annuals; top dress the lawn, lay out more stones, cut grass with nail scissors (that’s what Staffan says I usually do). I can’t look at the fruit trees. Somebody has told me, presumably to cheer me up, that new house owners cut down fruit trees to build car ports and swimming pools. It is even possible, this somebody says, that the new owner pulls down the house and divides the garden into small lots.

I feel I am living in The Cherry Orchard.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Banking business

Among the most tangible cultural differences I have experienced is banking. I am not talking about my old country where the issue was irrelevant, but when I spent my Fulbright time in Amherst, Massachusetts, opening a bank account felt insurmountable, although I believe I am reasonably intelligent. Fortunately, my fellow professor’s wife helped me, but I never got used to paying bills with checks. When we came to live in California, I thought I was well informed, but the problem is that different states – or perhaps different banks – have completely different routines. To open an account in San Diego, you had to produce, apart from an ID, two utility bills with your name on them. Apparently, to prove that you exist. ID is not enough, but if you pay for electricity, then you must be real. Union Bank of California was so advanced that you could actually pay you utility bills by direct transfer.

Now we must open an account in the UK. I know that neither Swedish, nor American routines would be helpful, so I am prepared for anything. We consult my Cambridge friends and decide for Barclays. A nice lady at the customer service explains that we cannot open an account right now, we need an appointment. Tomorrow’s fine. And by the way, do we have any utility bills? No? That’s a shame. Can I bring a letter from the University to prove that I exist?

At the University they are most helpful and give me a certificate of my existence, so next day we meet the nice young man at Barclays who is most obliging, but no, they cannot send the papers and the plastic card to an overseas address, and no, they don’t cash foreign checks, but he hopes we will be happy with the available services. After a careful calculation of my income and living costs he says encouragingly: “With you salary, you will soon be able to save!”

Thursday, 26 June 2008

House hunting

University of Cambridge offers accommodation service which provides you with addresses of places to rent. It feels quite safe and secure as compared to using an anonymous agency. I typed in our requirements (suitable for a couple, minimum six months, pets accepted) and the highest rent we were prepared to rent, and see, there were at least ten options. Some of these we dismissed at once for various reasons, to the rest I sent email enquiries. Everybody responded, and I made appointments for the week when Staffan and I planned to visit Cambridge. Looking back, I am enormously glad, firstly, that we went at all, and secondly, that we went so quickly, not waiting for July, as we had initially considered, and which would have been more convenient in many respects. A house does not look the same in a picture and in real life. It’s just like hotel advertisement: rooms always look larger and nicer in pictures. I guess a good photographer can work miracles.

On the first day in Cambridge, we drove around looking at the chosen houses on the outside. That proved decisive for some of the places, as we stated that we didn’t want to live in a street with heavy traffic or with a view over garbage bins. A couple of houses were rented out before we got a chance to have a look. We decided we didn’t want them anyway.

Then we went around. The first impression was devastating. The houses were diminutive, the rooms small, the ceilings low, the so called gardens tiny patches of grass. In one house, a couple that had been renting it told us that their double bed would not fit into the master bedroom. That day I cried. Deep inside, not to show Staffan how depressed I was. I thought about our house back home, that I had never imagined as large – now it seemed a palace. My 2,000 square meters of garden, my apple trees, my strawberry beds, my flowers, my huge lawn. Was I to leave it all to live in a claustrophobic shack where I could not even bring my own bed. A compromise was inevitable, and we told each other that it was just for six months, and then we would find something better. I fancied a little cottage in a village, with green fields around, cows and sheep grazing, and a nice pub nearby.

There was one house left, and we almost decided to skip it, because from the description it seemed just the same as all the others. We told the landlady in the previous house that we were taking it and would get back in a couple of hours. Then we went to Water Street, where we had been the previous day and didn’t think much of it. As soon as we stepped inside we looked at each other and nodded: this was our dream house. It may be smaller than the others, it doesn’t have a guest room, but then it’s us who will live there, why should we think about guests? It feels spacey and light, the view from the bedroom is astounding (river Cam and a common on the opposite side), and the garden – well, it is reasonably small.

And most important: cats ok.

Ours is the left half of the house.

Wednesday, 25 June 2008


This is the view from my window in Moscow, painted by my grandfather, Alexander Nikolajev

The reason I feel, or felt initially, that moving was so dramatic – traumatic – is that I have done it before, under totally different circumstances. It was in the Soviet Union in 1981, when marrying a foreigner meant you were a traitor, and leaving your country meant most likely that you would never be able to return. The departure was definite. Books were considered state property, and I had to get permission from the National Library and pay export tax for every singe book I wanted to take with me. I gave away most of my books, selecting carefully the ones I valued highest. As to other possessions, I was going to the capitalist paradise where I would never lack anything. When Staffan came to visit me in Moscow before we were married, he wallowed in money, by Soviet standards, so I knew for sure I would soon be rich. The thought was not altogether comfortable, because I was, even in Moscow, a modern woman used to earn enough for myself and my child. Yet I didn’t think I needed to bring along all my clothes as I would buy everything new in Sweden. I had to persuade my eight-year-old son that he didn’t need all his toys, he would get plenty when we were in Stockholm. This was cruel, as I understand now. I gave away my record player that Staffan despised for its poor quality, I gave away my book shelves and writing desk, but I didn’t have much else to give away, since I lived with my grandmother, and most of the things belonged to her. And anyway, silver spoons were state property as well and strictly forbidden to take out of the country. My jewellery in a mahogany jewel box was eventually smuggled out by a good friend.

When I now roam through my devastated home, I cannot help looking back on my first move. With all the differences, the feeling was the same. Friends came in an endless stream, to say goodbye and to collect whatever items they fancied. Book shelves were ripped down from walls leaving big ugly marks that I tried to paint over. Candlesticks, pictures, tea cups, small souvenirs from Sweden that I didn’t need anymore, going to Sweden as I was – everything was gradually disappearing, and I hoped that my friends would remember me by those tokens. I was going toward a new life, travelling with two suitcases and a child. I had no idea what was waiting for me.

Of course, I have no idea today either what life has in store. But at least I know that I can come back as often as I wish, that my extended family can come and visit me, that I don’t have to show my wedding ring to the customs or make lists of all the books I am bringing.

Yet the sorrow of breaking up is the same.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Inspector's call

We are using the same moving agency that we used nine years ago when we moved to California. Even the inspector is the same, the one who came to survey the house and take notes of everything that had to be moved. But last time we were only going away for a year, and we were coming back. We didn’t take plates, pots and pans, bed linen, curtains and carpets. We just took clothes, books – too many books – and some dear things to make it feel like home.

Now we are moving for ever. Everything that we leave behind will be gone, we cannot save it until later, we cannot change our minds. My initial idea was to travel light. Shake off the old life, begin anew. There is nothing that cannot be replaced. But the inspector – bless him – made me think it over. Every piece of furniture I pointed at saying that it was not going with us he would examine carefully explaining to me that my possessions were unique and had probably been in the family for centuries (which is true), and that his company could easily handle grandfather clocks and mirrored cupboards. He made me realize how much I loved the awkward dining table and how much I would miss it. He made me realize that it actually cost less to move a sofa than to buy a new one. He assured me that crystal glasses and ancient plates would be delivered safely.

Suddenly I felt that the situation was not as dramatic as I had thought. We didn’t have to leave everything behind and flee like refugees with our clothes tied in a bundle. We were simply changing residence.

Monday, 23 June 2008

More decisions

There is of course more than books to grieve over. For many years I have collected coffee grinders, copper kettles and other unnecessary objects. Some copper kettles can be used as flower pots, but otherwise they are quite useless and take a lot of space. Some years ago we inherited loads of things after two deceased relatives. Our house filled with vases, dishes, silver cutlery, embroidered linen and other possessions that our great-grandmothers treasured as signs of wealth. But who needs forty sets of cutlery today? If you give a party for forty guests you’d most likely use catering. Who needs stacks of kitchen towels? I have so many that my grandchildren could still use them when they are retired. And how many tea services can you wear out in a lifetime? I am not the kind of person who takes out special plates and cups for Christmas or Easter. Can openers, souvenir mugs, table mats, wooden figurines – all those tokens of passing interest, brought from trips abroad, received as meaningless gifts, bought on an impulse and never used. But there are object of sentimental value, like a mortar I brought with me from my previous life, a gift from a woman who had meant a lot to me. There are a few things that you just can’t part with.

First of all, I turned to the children with a list of things available. The answer was a prompt no. No even no, thank you. All homes are nowadays crammed with redundant items, and our daughters have competed in the noble art of getting rid of worldly burden. I have tried myself, but I have problems throwing away fully functional things that someone might find useful. Charity is a good solution, so we took carloads to the nearest Salvation Army. I tried selling some of the more valuable things on eBay, but it was more trouble than it was worth. I finally sold three full boxes to an antique shop for a symbolic price, just because they said they would come and collect them. A friend agreed to take a fifty-piece china set that I had used twice in twenty-five years. I drove her home with it. Another friend was getting married and starting a household, so she was grateful for anything she could get, including bookcases, an old futong, and a palm tree. Each guest we entertained during this time went home with a little gift.

Eventually the kids reconsidered their position and picked up this and that, mumbling that they only did it to be nice. By this time, I had got over separation anxiety. If they asked for something that I had intended to take along, I would say: “Take it now and don’t let me see it again”. There are still boxes and paper bags all over the house labelled with names. It’s like dividing inheritance in advance.

Staffan says he hopes I won’t throw away him.

Sunday, 22 June 2008


When you have lived in the same place for twenty-six years you have accumulated mountains of worthy possessions. Especially when you have lots of storage spaces such as large attic and basement, garage and tool shed, and several wardrobes of various size. You just put in things that you don’t want right now “just in case”. Over the years, all these places get overloaded with things you don’t want, have never wanted and will never want, but don’t have the heart to throw away. Or are just plain lazy.

When we went to California for what we thought would be a year but extended into two, we gave away sixty large paper bags of books to a library, taken fifty huge garbage bags to the recycling station and threw away everything that was broken or half-broken that we had kept “just in case”. When we came back we did the same all over again. Books are the biggest problem as we don’t only buy books in unreasonable quantities but get them signed from diligently writing friends and from publishers who hope for reviews.

Now we must be sensible. The motto comes from the evergreen Three men in a boat: “not what we can do with, but only what we cannot do without”. It takes time to look at each one of hundreds upon hundreds of books and decide whether you can do without it. Some are dear friends with sentimental memories; some are indispensable for work – these are easy. Or are they? What was once indispensable may not remain so, a subject is exhausted, the focus of interest has shifted. You thought once that you would probably need the book again, but in fifteen years you haven’t touched it. “When in doubt throw it out”. I assume that English fiction will be easy to get hold of in England. I assume that the university library will have professional literature I may need. I know that has all the books you may ever need and a million more. Still it is hard to part with books. Maybe now that I will have more spare time (ha-ha!) I will finally get to read Remembrance of things past.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

What next?

Back to then. After the first steps for Miso’s well-being had been taken we could start thinking about ourselves. We would rent a house in Cambridge – yes, a house, since after twenty-six years in a house I cannot imagine living in a flat. I need to feel the earth beneath my feet as soon as I open the front door; I like watching birds through the kitchen window; I want a garden. Thus a house, needn’t be as large as ours; in fact, since the kids have moved out we have lived much too spaciously, with such excesses as a library, a dining room and a winter garden, apart from having a study each. But two people do not really need 180 square meters, as long as there is enough space around, grass, trees and flowers.

We asked the children, just to be on the safe side, whether anyone of them would like to live in their childhood home, but the three oldest have families and homes of their own, and the two youngest live downtown, right in the middle of everything, like young people should. Rent out, then. We had bad experience of renting out privately when we spent two years in California, so we decided to use an agency that rents out to people coming to work in Sweden. We don’t live in a posh neighbourhood, but for a family with children our house is perfect. Then Staffan went away for a couple of days, and I took the opportunity to oil the working areas in the kitchen, which I do about once a month. Finally, after many years we had invested in a really extravagant kitchen some years ago, and I love it dearly. Suddenly, the idea of a tenant ruining my oak panels and my splendid induction stove (which needs cleaning carefully every day) was unbearable.

A horrible thought entered my mind: we must sell! We had decided to buy a house in Cambridge after the first year, which most probably meant we’d have to sell our house in a year’s time. Why wait and let a tenant ruin the house so that we’d need still more repairs before selling? I remembered the famous story about the man who felt sorry for his puppy and cut its tail a little slice at a time. No slices! If it has to be done, do it now. The thought made me sick. But it felt the only right thing to do. I knew that I would have to plant the idea carefully when Staffan came back.

Friday, 20 June 2008

Will I miss it?

I allow myself a deviation from my otherwise strict chronology and move forward to here and now, Midsummer Eve. It is perhaps one of the most Swedish annual festivities, which like Christmas Eve and Easter are preferably spent with the family, although young people continue with their friends afterwards. My husband and I were invited to some friends on the West coast of Sweden where we had been before and would be glad to go to again, when we suddenly realized that this may be the last time ever in our house, the house where our children grew up, where we have lived twenty seven happy years. I am usually not too sentimental; in fact we frequently flee from Christmas to some warm and sunny country, but this time I felt I must stay at home. We have managed to gather 60% of the children and four out of nine grandchildren – the rest had already made other plans. We had luck with weather, as it started raining just as were about to break up. We sat outside, ate pickled herring with new potatoes, sour cream and chives, as is the Swedish habit for this occasion, followed by barbeque, strawberries and rhubarb pie. It was as usual noisy and chaotic, people talking all at once, plates and glasses in and out of the kitchen, mosquito bites, scratches, until half of the company fell asleep here and there about the house.

Now the house is empty and silent. I am exhausted. Silence rings in my ears.

Will I miss it next year? Will I come back to celebrate Midsummer with the family? Will I long for pickled herring? Or will it just be bygone time, something to look back at, but not regret?

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Feline trouble

When I came home victoriously, my primary concern was our cat. I knew that it was difficult to take cats into the UK, but since I am superstitious, I didn’t start investigating before I actually got the job. I thought poor Miso would have to go to quarantine for a month, which would be a disaster. We took her from a cat home, and after she has adopted us she doesn’t like even one of us being away, while if we both are away, she wouldn’t eat. The mere thought of her locked away among strangers made me sick. As it turned out, things were much worse. In any country within the European Union you can take your pets around as you wish, as long as they have a passport. I read regulation from DEFRA (UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), and I read instructions from airlines, and I read the British Embassy’s homepage, which pointed me back to DEFRA. One thing was clear: Miso had to be microchipped and get a rabies vaccination. I made an appointment with our vet and tried to find out more from them, but they suggested British Embassy and the Swedish Ministry of Agriculture. The latter said they only knew the rules for Sweden and suggested DEFRA and the British Embassy (the game known as “push the baby”). After the first vaccination we had to wait for a month and get a boost. After that, as I first understood, we had to wait six months before we could bring Miso to the misty Albion. I counted on my fingers and made it mid-November. Well, at least she wouldn’t have to spend a month away from people she knows. Out youngest son, who usually takes care of her when we are away, agreed to have her.

But it would have been too simple. The DEFRA rules specified which airlines you could use for bringing pets (forget low budget!), and the airlines specified the size and exact construction of the travel basket, including food, drink and toilet facilities; but worst of all, they took me back to DEFRA, and I realized that I had got it all wrong. The six-months rule did not apply from the date of the boost, but from the date of the positive result of the blood test which, according to the vet, must be taken four months after the boost, but which DEFRA states can be taken directly afterwards. There was a list of approved labs for the blood test. New calculations ended up with mid-December. At least Miso would be with us for Christmas. More phone calls and emails, making appointment with the vet, just in case, and a tiny hope from yet another webpage saying that the rules may change after July 3.

Several people have suggested that we leave the cat behind. To this, I can only say: “Would you leave a child behind?”

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Got it!

It so happened – it had to happen so – that my mobile phone went dead, and the internet at the hotel was down, and for a moment I thought I was completely isolated, until I realized that there still existed such antediluvian things as stationary telephones, so I called home and told my husband I was alive. In the morning I decided that the only reasonable thing to do was to go to London (not to look at the queen, but maybe visit the V&A or some other favourite place). My flight was in the evening, and there seemed no point staying in Cambridge. I checked out and went back to my room to get the luggage when the phone – stationary – rang. I was so sure it was my husband that I am afraid I answered in a rather intimate tone, but it was Morag who wondered whether I had any news. I explained that the committee was to meet later that day and asked if she had time to meet me for a cup of coffee. Instead, we arranged to have lunch at noon, and I said I was going out for a walk. “No, you are not!” said my wonderful friend resolutely. “You are going to sit right by the phone and wait”. I said that no one had enquired where I was staying. I didn’t tell her, but I was not going to sit and wait by the phone, I’d go crazy. Instead, I left my luggage at the reception, and as I was going through the front door the lady at the reception called after me. Someone was on the phone. Head of Faculty.

Well, if you have applied for a job and gone through purgatory, and someone is calling you a quarter to nine in the morning it is unlikely he is calling to tell you that you have not got the job. So it was enough to hear the voice. For a second I wondered how the h-l did he know where I was staying, which was of course elementary, my dear Watson. While he was leisurely wishing me good morning and asking about how I was, I kept mumbling: “Come on, say it, say it!” And he did. Thunder and lightning! “I am calling to offer you a chair”. What do you reply? An offer you cannot refuse. I assume I said that I was happy to accept it, but I don’t quite remember. I was grinning like a Cheshire cheese. I wanted to hug the receptionist. I had to tell someone, and my mobile was dead. Once again I remembered the stone-age communication means and called my husband from a phone in the lobby. “Got it”. I have no memory of his answer. I ran over to the faculty, still grinning and not quite believing that it had happened, therefore not yet panicking about all the consequences. I realized that when Morag called me she knew already. Bless the country where committees meet at eight in the morning.

Monday, 16 June 2008

Stuck in a traffic jam

During the three weeks between the interviews I had Russian friends staying with me, which was just what I needed. We did some sightseeing, talked a lot, and avoided the C-word. Then I found myself once again at Heathrow, managed to fill up my Oyster card (a marvellous invention for a London visitor) in a ticket machine, took the dear old Piccadilly line to King’s Cross, the dear old Cambridge Express, bought a salad at the dear old Marks & Spenser at Cambridge railway station and walked to the dear old hotel. Déjà vu all the way. I enquired about a taxi at the reception, and they assured me they would get me one as soon as I needed it. I needed it a quarter past five, I had figured out, as my interview time was a quarter to six. Don’t ever trust hotel receptionists. When I was down ten past five they called a taxi and told me at would take five to ten minutes. I didn’t panic yet, with my at that point erroneous idea about the size of the city, but in the first place I hadn’t taken into consideration rush hours. Rush hours in Cambridge! When I anxiously asked the taxi driver if we were there soon, he wondered calmly whether I had any particular time to keep. I said my life depended on it.

No wonder I don’t remember much of that interview either. There was a long table with twelve angry men on the one side (well, to be fair some were women, but they “performed” masculine, as a queer theorist would say) and the little me on the other. I had a bad cold too and sounded like a broke-down tractor. I got exactly five minutes to explicate my visions of the prosperity that the University of Cambridge would achieve through my assistance, and The Judge timed it by his wrist-watch. If he had had an hourglass it could not have made me more nervous. But I know it didn’t show. I am best in the world when it comes to pretending I am not nervous. Many years of training. I learned later that I was the only one of the interviewees who didn’t read from a paper.

The last question was whether I had any questions. I had one: when would I know about my fate. “Pretty soon”, was all I got. I knew that according to the rules they were not allowed the make the decision the same day.

There was no traffic on the way back to the hotel.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Job interview

Some days after the application deadline I received an email inviting me to an interview. I have only had two permanent jobs, and I can't remember being interviewed for those, but for two other jobs I didn't get. Great start! The invitation listed a long row of events during the interview day - yes, a whole day long interview, meeting lots of people in different constellations. The message contained words like "briefing" which I have never understood. Audio-visual equipment was offered for my self-presentation. My, this was serious!

I flew to London the day before, reasonably early in the morning, and went to the Museum of Childhood. I had been there, but this was before I developed a passionate interest for doll houses (see my doll house on the web). I spent three hours at the museum, taking notes and drawing sketches, which was very relaxing and kept my mind from all thoughts - this is incidentally why I started building a doll house. Then I took the familiar train to Cambridge and taxi to the hotel I had found on the web. Remember, if you don't want to pay fortunes for a hotel in Cambridge, it's worth while spending an hour on the web. Then you can treat yourself to a nice meal instead. Which I didn't. Instead, I paced the room rehearsing my self-presentation. "You must give me the job because I am the best" is not a good argument. I had decided against AV since it felt silly.

How did it go? Frankly, I don't remember. I remember a row of faces to which I tried frantically to attach names from the Faculty webpage; I remember that I was asked questions, but have no idea what those were, yet obviously I answered them to everybody's satisfaction. I remember getting in too late after lunch, escorted by someone, to whom I was too shy to remark that we were late. I know I was pleased with myself; I had prepared good answers for every tricky question, and there were no questions I had not expected. The day was over quickly, and Morag and I celebrated in an excellent local pub that I can warmly recommend.

Next day I flew home and pretended it had never happened. But I had already been summoned to the next interview.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

Formal Hall

Most of us have a vague idea of the British academic traditions: gowns, processions etc. It is all, however, very abstract until you participate in it. I had no idea that some colleges in Cambridge still have formal dinners once a week or more. I like it! I am very much for traditions, and there are almost none in Sweden. We do not even have gowns. I am for traditions because there are too few occasions for celebration in our hectic life, so every occasion should be happily grabbed at. I have learned this wisdom from the Moomin characters in the wondeful books by Tove Jansson. They never missed a chance for a feast.

I was invited to Formal Hall at Homerton College as Morag's personal guest, which is a great honour. I was worried about dress code, but Morag told me that any decent clothes would do. You don't want to be overdressed either. Formal Hall begins with people gathering at Combination Room. Now that I will soon be part of this community I must pay attention to the right names for everything. Not Common Room, not Congregation Room. Combination Room. I didn't pay attention then. In Combination Room you get your preprandials. "Preprandial" is a word you use when you want to impress native speakers. It is not exactly one of the thousand most common words in the English language. Ever since I learned it I never miss a chance to show off. There is, however, a risk that your native conversation partner won't know it. For preprandial you get sherry, which, my journalist husband claims, is the most academic beverage in the world.

After half an hour a gong announces that dinner is served. A train of academics, at least half in gowns, moves toward the Hall. I was awed. Yes, I have seen it in movies, but this was IRL. Together with other teachers I was placed on a podium while students sat at long tables below. Harry Potter again. Grace was said in Latin. I was now more thrilled than awed. This alone was worth the painful procedure of applying for the job. (Yes, I know that I have a tendency to become soppy).

When we got back to Combination Room for coffee, fire alarm sounded. We were not in the Middle Ages after all.

Friday, 13 June 2008

How it developed

When I got home I sent Morag my CV and forgot all about it. Well, not really: deep inside I hoped that is hadn't been a joke over a glass of wine and that Cambridge had really appeared vaguely at the end of the tunnel. My life went on as usual, and the C-word was banned at home until in mid-December there came an email from Morag confirming that the position would be announced soon and that I should make sure I applied.

From today's perspective, I certainly didn't know what I was doing. Burning your ships and all other pretty metaphors didn't stop me. Cambridge was so attractive that it was worth any sacrifice. I didn't think about the dimensions of the sacrifice. Beside, there was a good chance that I wouldn't get it, and I am not a person who worries in advance.

It so happened - it had to happen so, as one of my favourite writers, Kurt Vonnegut, says - that I was taking one of my grandsons to London as a birthday present. He is ten years old and his image of London was limited to Madame Tussaud and London Eye, but he is curious and enthusiastic and we had a wonderful trip. But before that I contacted Morag and asked whether it made sense for me to make a detour to Cambridge. It did, and the following day a lecture by the famous Stockholm professor etc etc was announced. It was more than I had bargained for, and I was also invited to Formal Hall, an event as grand as meals at Hogwart - I'll come back to it. Anyway, I had a chance to look around before applying for a job. I still didn't know what I was doing.

The position was announced in the end of January, the application date was February 15, and it was specified that the final decision would be made on April10. Now, in Sweden, a professorial appointment takes three years (just a slight hyperbole), what with approaching prospective committee members who take weeks to respond, the sending out of applicants' collected works that take months for the poor committee members to read and write reports on, meetings, interviews and the usual academic procrastinations. Three cheers for Cambridge! When I submited the application, I knew that within less than two months I would know the outcome, whatever that might be.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

How it started

When I tell this incredible story to my friends and colleagues they almost cannot believe that such serenditipies can govern our fates. But I have seen this before, so, while I am overwhelmed myself, I know that such things do not only happen in bad movies.

I was at a professional conference in Barcelona last September (a wonderful city by the way). Now, in Spain they have perverse, from my Scandinavian point of view, eating habits, so they have dinner at ten pm which can extend far beyond midnight. That day I had a bad cold and was tired after the sessions, so I decided to skip the conference dinner, to which we had to travel half an hour by underground, and get a sandwich in a shop around the corner. Three more colleagues had arrived at the same decision, and we ended up in a nice restaurant nearby which turned out to have excellent kitchen. Over a glass of wine we talked about this and that, and I happened to mention that I wasn't quite content with my present situation at Stockholm University (the Understatement of the Year). Whereupon my dear colleague Morag Styles uttered a statement that I have quoted zillions of times ever since: "You wouldn't by any chance consider Cambridge?"

Well, an academic with any position given a chance to consider Cambridge does not need much time for consideration. In fact, after we returned from a two-year sejour in California (which was extremely enjoyable) I told my husband that the only places I would ever consider again were Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale. It was a joke. Yet any joke has a drop of truth behind it. Every academic with self-respect has a secret dream of being invited to Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Yale, the most prestigeous universities in the world. Most academics are never given a chance to consider it.

I said: "Yes indeed, I would", and we forgot it all when our food arrived.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

First thoughts

I am starting this blog because I am moving to a new country - again. I've done it before, but this is another story which I will tell later.

Many friends who know that we are moving wonder how it feels. Rather than telling them each separately (which I am doing anyway) I want to share some thoughts and feelings, also with anyone else who has been through it, considers doing the same or is just curious about what it is like. I am writing in English, so that all my friends in different countries can read it. English is the universal language, whether we like it or not.

Some background: I am a professor of literature at Stockholm university, Sweden. If you want to know more about me and my career please visit my homepage. Two months ago I was elected Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge, which is about as high as an academic can get. These two months have been full of turmoil, inside and outside. A move implies lots of practical things, like dealing with a moving agent, sorting things into bring along, give away, sell or throw out and so on. But it is also a time of self-reflection: What am I doing? Am I doing the right thing? Is it the right time to do it? Will I regret it? This is what I am going to write about.

By the way: "we" are myself, my husband and our cat. We have grownup children and grandchildren whom we are leaving behind.