Sunday, 31 August 2008

First biking tour

Let me be honest: I have never used a bike for anything other than pleasurable exercise. Now I will use it as a means of transportation. I have never biked on my own, and I feel insecure biking amidst traffic. Today we took a maiden tour from Water Street to Homerton, by a route investigated by Staffan, avoiding traffic altogether. It starts along the river and goes on through residential areas on small streets. If there is no more traffic than that on weekdays I am happy. We didn’t take time, but it could not have taken more than twenty minutes. It will be fun. I will not at this point worry about rainy weather.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Afternoon tea

Afternoon tea is a notion anyone who has read English literature is familiar with. The most amazing combination I’ve met in a book is “We had milk for tea”. But the afternoon tea we were invited to today was a real traditional event – although not high tea, I was told when I tried to show off with my knowledge of local habits. For high tea, there would be cold meats. As it was there were the famous cucumber sandwiches, cupcakes, chocolate cake and, naturally, scones with bream and jam. A colleague next to me, who comes from Australia, explained that one of the largest cultural controversies in various regions of England is whether to put on cream first and jam on top or the other way round. This was new to me. I thought it was just whether to pour tea or milk first. Since I don’t take milk with my tea I have no problem with this.

I spread on cream first and jam on top.

Friday, 29 August 2008

Essential numbers

In the old country, the most important number to remember is your personal identification number. It is easy to memorize because it contains your birth date and the magical “four digits”, the unique combination that newborn babies are allocated automatically and resident aliens on application. To receieve your four digits is, for an immigrant, to be accepted as a rightful community member. Many people complain that personal number is an intervention into their integrity, a sign of the Big Brother, but it proves very convenient. You are asked the number in all contacts with authorities, from car insurance to blood test.

Here in England you are instead asked for your postcode. Since many people obviously share a postcode I cannot really imagine how it works but it does. And apparently your identity changes every time you move.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Signed in

I have now signed The Book. It is a formal pledge of allegiance toward the University, and every person holding a university office since 1209 has signed it. I am in good company with John Milton, William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Sylvia Plath, Stephen Hawking, and hundreds of other eminent people. Takes less to get you awed.

I don’t know what I had expected, but it was quite undramatic. I went to The Old Schools, the magnificent building where University administration lies – I’ve been there once already meeting the Academic Secretary. I reported in the reception to a young boy, obviously a student, who had heard vaguely about the expression “sign The Book” but was far from sure exactly what it implied and who was responsible. After a number of phone calls he finally got the right person, who came out to the reception actually carrying The Book. It was formidable and leather-bound, with thick parchment-like paper. In this intimidating volume, I was asked to sign with a cheap ball-point pen.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Greetings from the old country

One advantage of living in Cambridge is that friends and colleagues are likely to come here for conferences. We haven’t yet lived here for a month before we have the first guest from Stockholm. I am trying to decide whether it feels weird or natural. He is not visiting us, just happens to be in Cambridge and comes by. Back home, he will surely report to everyone.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008


Yesterday’s The Times has an article about poor spelling. As an EFL speaker, I often make similar mistakes, and I always mix up words spelled with “-cede”, “-sede” and “-seed”. To make it worth, the British and the Americans persist in expressing their national character by different spelling. I am not just thinking of “-or” and “-our”, which is easy, but I have made a mental notice of spelling “enquiry” rather than the “inquiry” I am used to.

My Californian students had really bad spelling skills, and at one time I collected their funniest mistakes, such as “take it for granit” and “gender rolls”.

Yet I was troubled when I saw a huge poster in one of the teaching buildings:



Monday, 25 August 2008

Feline friends and foes

The Swedish daily Svenska dagbladet has an article about cats in literature today. A subject many scholars and amateurs have happily embraced, including yours truly. There is nothing radically new in the article, but it was still interesting to read, and the author points out that although many famous writers were cat-lovers there have also been cat-haters. He refers to Roberts Darnton’s seminal essay “The Great Cat Massacre” and goes on to discuss some Swedish writers, notably August Strindberg, who really disliked felines. But then, the article concludes, he was a misanthropist too.

The best book on the cultural history of cats is, however, The Tiger in the House by Carl van Vechten, first published in 1920. He has a whole chapter on ailurophobes – which means, yes, cat-haters.

Cultural chock

During my numerous visits to England, I had a recurrent problem: I could never come to terms with English baths and showers. Staying with friends, I was either forced to wash myself in ice-cold water or climb out, sweep myself in a towel and beg the host for assistance. In some English homes and even hotels there are no showers at all (and I have noticed in housing ads the clause “Shower over the tub”), and bathtubs are extremely shallow, so I have always wondered how people manage to wash their hair. I guess it’s a matter of habit.

In the old country, we got rid of the bathtub when we renovated the bathroom, as we practically never used it.

In our new home, we have both a tub (with a shower over it) and a shower cubicle. After two weeks I still cannot get the water as warm as I want. You need a higher degree in engineering to master it. In the shower, there are taps and levers, and whichever way you turn them they won’t listen. I ventured a bath the other day, and there are two taps for cold and hot, which I cannot adjust. For the washbasin, there are two separate outlets for cold and hot, so you cannot wash your hands in temperate water.

I am sure I will get used to it eventually, but right now it feels like a devastating clash between two cultures.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Cliffs and curlews

We have decided to slow down in our hectic pace of life now that we have moved. My solemn oath is not to take work home. Instead, I intend to read non-work-related books, listen to music, pursue my hobbies and generally relax. (I know my children are having a good laugh when they read this).

We started the good intentions yesterday by taking a day off and going on an excursion. We both prefer nature to culture, so of the local attractions we chose the Hunstanton Cliffs in Norfolk, the northern coast of East Anglia. We discovered the place in a little folder that we picked up at the Cambridge tourist office. It was stunning! One may think that someone who has seen Grand Canyon or Uluru would not be impressed, but I am always awed by nature’s variety and inventiveness.

Then we went to the nearby Titchwell Bird Reserve and took a quiet stroll watching marsh harriers and the very special and rare avocets. We never saw bearded tits, that seem be the main attraction of the place. But curlews, martins, herons, egrets, oyster-eaters and sandpipers are quite enough for us.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Back to Cambridge

This edition, illustrated by the famous Swedish artist Robert Högfeldt, was published in Stockholm in 1949. The illustrations were first made for the Swedish translation from 1945.

Eight years ago when I came to Cambridge for the first time we had a couple of free hours between conference sessions, and where do conference people go if not the bookshops. There are plenty of these in Cambridge, but one is especially charming, The Haunted Bookstore, a second-hand bookshop for children’s books. And what do I see there if not a whole shelf of various editions of Alice in Wonderland. I had at that time several Russian translations with different illustrations, but I had never done any serious research. This was too great a temptation. I couldn’t carry all the books on a transatlantic flight (we lived in California then), but the bookshop shipped them to me by surface mail.

This was the beginning of my Alice collection. Today I have 250 volumes in twenty or thirty languages, beautiful and ugly, small and large, thick and thin, pop-up books and jigsaw-puzzle books, several movies, a computer game, a pack of cards, and a few mugs. Now the initial collection has returned to Cambridge.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Fit for fight

I have never been sporty, except that my parents were keen cross-country skiers and I started skiing at four. I did really poorly in PE in school and was only given high grades because I had top grades in everything else. In my teens, I used to go skating in winter and played badminton in summer, but I had never cared about being good. I must admit I don’t like spectator sports.

Until recently, I despised exercise. I like biking and walking and generally being outdoors, so the whole idea of sweating and torturing yourself in a gym was alien to me. I once tried aerobics for a few months and got inferiority complex beside young, slim well-trained girls. But one day, Julia, who is my guru in many things where I should be hers, talked me into trying a fitness club. Since then I cannot imagine my life without regular training. I was amazed how quickly I improved. I felt it immediately when I could climb stairs without getting out of breath. I set goals and competed with myself.

For my fiftieth birthday, I asked for no other presents than contributions to club membership. Most people were perplexed.

This is why finding a gym was high priority. I have found one now. I am perfectly happy.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The second camel

There was this man who had a very small hut and a very large family, so he went to a wise man and told him about his misery. The wise man listened carefully and said: “Take one of your camels and let it live inside your house”. The man did so and came back the next day. “Oh poor me, he lamented, the camel smells, it takes half of the house, my mother-in-law complains, my children weep all the time, my wife is desperate. What shall I do?” The wise man said: “Take another camel and let it live inside your house”. The man did as he was told and came back the next day, totally desolate. “The camels bite and spit, the children are filthy, and my wife threatens to leave me”. The wise man said: “Take yet another camel and let it live inside you house”. The man didn’t dare to protest and did as he was told, but when he came back again he was on the verge of insanity. The wise man said: “Take out the camels and let them live outside”. The man came back the next day and said: “Oh the Wise One, thank you! We have plenty of room now, everyone is pleased, and even my mother-in-law loves me dearly”.

Today we have taken away our second camel. I recon the first one disappeared when we put the furniture more or less where it is supposed to be. Today we stored all excessive items with a storage firm. It only took three trips across the town, but now we have enough space and don’t have to climb over stools and shelves. Tomorrow we’ll get rid of the third and last camel: we’ll take my books to the office.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Three cheers for children's literature

Not unexpectedly, three children's writers top the list of 50 favourites in a recent survey. Among the 50 there are no less than ten children's writers, depending on how you judge J R R Tolkien and Mark Twain. And the only non-English-language author, Leo Tolstoy, also wrote for children.

Maybe I am in the right field after all.

Down to business

I don’t actually start working until September, but I thought I’d go to the Faculty and do some paperwork and ask a few questions. It would be a great relief if we could move all my books to the office. Too bad: the office I am getting is still occupied, although my predecessor has packed all his books and stuff, but the room that he is moving to is not vacated yet, and the room I am getting must be cleaned and redecorated, and… But between ourselves, we have agreed that I would bring the books and put them on the shelves and pretend they have always been there. I am not upset that the office is not ready, I prefer working from home. I just need to figure out which books I might need in the meantime.

The university card is not ready, although they took the picture for it when I was here in May. I need the card to get into the buildings, to register for the library, to get into the parking lot. Well, formally, I am not on the staff yet.

I sign a number of forms and get more instructions. I find my temporary pigeonhole full of mail. I try to remember the way to the Buttery, where I am to meet Morag for lunch. I pick up a few leaflets at Porters’ Lodge. I go home with more paperwork than I have brought.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Delete home

Today I took a great step toward civilization by buying a new sim-card for my cellphone. So far I’ve used my Swedish phone, but it isn’t so practical in the long run. I went to an O2 shop because O2 is the operator my phone had picked up, so I let it lead me in this decisive choice. I explained my concern to a nice young lady who immediately said: “I have something just for you”. She didn’t say it in the way beach vendors in Morocco call after you: “Just forrr you mee frrrend, not verrry ’spensive”; or I would have turned and gone. She really understood what I wanted and gave me what I think was a good deal. When I apologized for asking silly questions she said: “That’s all right, you are just like my Mum, she doesn’t understand anything either”.

Later, I sat down to feed new numbers into my phonebook and delete old ones. The phone seemed rather upset, asking anxiously: “Delete home?”

Sunday, 17 August 2008


I thought I had foreseen everything. Here are some of the things we have been obliged to buy:

  • Dustbins
  • Cutlery trays
  • Printer paper
  • Rubber gloves
  • Toothbrush mugs
English salespeople are not very helpful. We looked up cutlery trays on the Homebase web page and found one that would fit our kitchen drawers, which are of different size. The tray in the web catalogue was expandable, just perfect. In the store, which is intimidating, I go around browsing, while Staffan asks an assistant. First, she doesn’t know what we are talking about, then she goes to check and is away for five minutes, only to come back and say that the trays are out of stock, and anyway, they don’t have the size we need. Staffan is in rage and refers to the web page. The assistant says she can order one; it will only take four to five weeks. I tug at Staffan’s sleeve. Two rows from the help desk I find the trays. I beg Staffan not to ask anyone for rubber gloves.

Next we go to a large electrical supplies store. I have given up on my Swedish telephone. Something needs to be adjusted, and although our nice neighbour has kindly given me the correct kind of cable and the phone is apparently alive, it still doesn’t work. So we decide to invest in a new phone. There is everything imaginable in the store, and Staffan asks the closest assistant: “Do you have telephones?” “No, I am afraid we don’t”. In the next row, we find phones.

I wonder whether this is a male and female way of dealing with shopping. According to Staffan, men don’t shop, they make purchases.

Saturday, 16 August 2008

A taste of England

During our many travels we have repeatedly discovered that the most everyday food tastes slightly differently in different countries. Milk, butter, mineral water, coffee, ham, eggs. Speaking of eggs, in the local Tesco we found duck eggs. I had never eaten duck eggs before. Definitely a different taste. There are lots of things in the shops we don’t know – or don’t know we know. Even if you can look up the name of a fish in a dictionary you can’t be sure what it is. I had tuna for lunch, that’s simple, while Staffan had fish the name of which he didn’t remember. We should write down such things, just to learn. The local cheeses are superb, and some names are familiar, while others aren’t. We find this exciting. New journeys for the palate.

Anyway, we have got the most important thing – a Tesco card. Now we are residents.

The first visitor

This morning, the movers came to collect the boxes. It made all the difference. More space and less like we've just moved in. Some parts of the house simply look a bit untidy. There are still books piled on the floor, but then I know lots of people who live for years with their books piled on the floor. They call themselves bohemian rather than messy.

We have had the first visitor: my dear friend Morag came by for a coffee (it turned out that she didn't drink coffee, so she got tea) and a delicious teramisu cake. We sat in the garden, and it felt like it has always been like this.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Being authentic

This evening we went to a local pub. “The Green Dragon” (claiming to be the oldest pub in Cambridge). Staffan had already explored it before I came, so he felt quite at home. I don’t like beer too much, but every now and then I enjoy a glass. I ordered a Guinness because I know it’s safe (there are so many sorts that I get confused). Staffan is braver and takes whatever catches his eye. We had a nice conversation with a gentleman next to us. “Are you on holiday or staying?” “Staying”. “Forever?” “Yes”. “What are you doing?” Staffan explained that he wrote for a newspaper. The man didn’t ask me what I was doing. I was obviously a housewife.

Tending your garden

Today I mowed the lawn. Back in the old country, it was always Staffan’s chore, because powered lawn mowers are toys for boys, and anyway, we had 1.500 square meters of lawn. I see the benefits of a small garden: you can really make it perfect.

There was this priest who saw a magnificent garden and told the man working in it: “See, my son, what a lovely garden you and the Almighty have created”. “You should have seen,” the gardener replied, “what it looked like when the Almighty cared for it all by himself”.

Our landlady told me that she wasn’t interested in gardening and that I could do whatever I wanted. Yet since it is not really my garden, I won’t do everything I’d want. The stepping stones have sunk a few centimetres into the earth, as they usually do. In my own garden, I would dig them up and lay anew. And who wants stepping stones right under the shrubs? Perhaps they were there before the shrubs.

And then there is moss. Anyone who has tried to exterminate moss in the lawn knows it’s a lost battle. The best advice I’ve read on this issue was: “Pretend it’s a Japanese garden”. This is what I’ll have to do. But I have discovered lilies among the weeds, pebble edges under grass and a dead bird in the corner. I don't know into which garbage bin dead birds are supposed to go. I have trimmed the shrubs, cutting off all withered twigs. And God saw that it was good.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Getting there

One may think that putting up paintings is not the highest priority when you have moved. In the middle of the mess, with still a couple of boxes to unpack, with books piled on the floor (those that will go into my office eventually) and an array of items in wrong places, paintings instead of empty hooks actually create a sense of order. Marking the territory: this is my space. We haven’t got enough walls to put up all the paintings and pictures we have brought, but every now and then I grab a picture and put it up where it seems just right. As if it has always been there. The shelves are filled with books and CDs, all in the wrong order. It will take Staffan weeks to sort out the CDs in the perfect order he has always had – mysterious order for me, but he can immediately find whatever he is looking for. I have tried to sort books as I unpacked them, carrying up Staffan’s stuff to his study, but I am sure there will be many books shifting from place to place. All the kitchen gear is stored away, and the silver and china are nicely displayed in the glass cupboard. I don’t need to climb over mountains of boxes to get to my writing desk. In other words, everything is going fine.

By the way, I haven’t been out of the house yet.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Simple mathematics

I have forty moving boxes full of books to unpack. So far, I have done four. At this pace, I will soon be able to have a house-warming party

A room of one's own

During my childhood and youth I only had a room of my own in short periods. We lived four generations in a four-room flat. I shared a room with my great-grandmother, my granny had a tiny one of her own, adjacent to ours; grandpa had a bedroom-cum-study, with a grand piano in the middle; my parents slept in a sofa in the room that when needed became a sitting or dining room. The maid-of-all-trades, including nanny, slept in a folding bed in the kitchen.

When great-granny died, I had the room for myself for a while, until my parents realized that they could move into the two small adjacent rooms and exile granny and me to the sitting room. I had a desk and a sofa as my private area, and the room still served as the family’s sitting room. Besides, granny, who was a piano teacher, gave private lessons at home, in our room. If I had guests, kitchen was the only place to be. When I got married the first time, my husband and I shared a tiny room with his mother. When I got divorced…

To make a long story short, the notion of a bedroom was alien to me until I came to Sweden. But I soon realized that, more than a study, a bedroom was a woman’s sanctuary. I believe that Virginia Woolf could not in her wildest dream imagine not having a bedroom.

All this to explain why the bedroom is the first topos of my new life that I must get in order. As long as I have a bedroom, everything else is just a temporary mess that I will deal with by and by. So after breakfast I pick up a set of tools and attack the bits and pieces that only a week ago were my bed. The same procedure, but in reverse. And see, all the bits fit together, all screws are there, and after a few hours of panting I have my bedroom, smaller than the one back home – I mean, back in the old country - but essentially the same: the bed, bedside tables, the wardrobe, my dressing table, the favourite picture on the wall. A room of my own, resurrected.

In the meantime, Staffan has been changing plugs on electrical appliances. Tonight I will even be able to read in bed.

English plug

Tuesday, 12 August 2008


Just this morning, we had a large and empty house here. Now it looks like a huge pawnshop.

The movers called early in the morning saying that they’d be here by one. We spent the morning in apprehension, and at a quarter to one Staffan experienced an urgent need for The Times, so he walked away to the nearest convenient store. I am glad he walked because he would have never got the car back into the parking. The van came at five to one, reared skilfully up to the entrance, and Pandora’s box opened. Honestly, I had no idea we had that many possessions. It didn't feel that much at the other end. And I had thought I had planned everything nicely. Bu my confusion was total. To the movers’ prompt questions about where to put this or that I answered I wasn’t sure, just put it anywhere. This obviously wouldn’t have worked, so I had to pull myself together and give orders.

There is one peculiar thing about British houses: the stairs are very narrow. But the movers seemd to be familiar with this local feature. I don’t know how they managed to take things upstairs – and I don’t want to think about how we will one day take them down again. I knew I had measured everything, but I was worried about the cupboard. It fit in elegantly. While the men carried in more and more stuff I started unpacking the boxes with glass and china, trying to put everything in the right place from start. Staffan did come back with the newspaper, but preferred to withdraw from the activity, presenting a good reason after a glass broke. It was a plain IKEA glass, and anyway, a broken glass means luck. And Staffan did put together the kitchen table. I have a tendency to become maniac, so I just went on and on – but there were more and more things brought into the house until the ground floor was completely packed. I am sure there wouldn’t be room for another shoebox when the avalanche suddenly stopped. I signed the papers, and the van was gone.

In the middle of the chaos, we took a bottle of champagne from the fridge – real, expensive champagne that someone had given us at the farewell party – and sat down in our wonderful new garden. We had our own champagne glasses that I took from our own dear cupboard. We had my favourite little bowl for the nuts. We were at home.

Then we went to the pub across the road for dinner. The pub has exquisite Indian food. There were swans and rowing boats on the river.

Staffan has gone to bed – still a temporary bed, but more comfortable than the previous nights. I have managed to navigate between coffee tables and loudspeakers to the corner where my computer has been hiding all day, horrified by the invasion. I cannot upload any photos because I've mislaid the cable. It will turn up in a few days.

Picture added a few days later. The cable was of course where it was supposed to be, where I had put it in order to be able to find it

Monday, 11 August 2008


There is a knock on the door. I am cleaning the shower in my underwear, and Staffan is taking an afternoon nap. I pull on my jeans and run down. There is a van at the curb. But not the big van. When they collected our things last Thursday, they had miscalculated. There were some things left, and these were picked up by another van. Apparently the other van came over before the first van. So here we get three bikes, a little coffee table and five boxes. It’s so exciting to unpack a box when you have no idea what is inside. Could be anything. In fact, two boxes contain my plants, and they have survived. Otherwise we are now in possession of a very peculiar array of objects. We have crystal glasses, a garlic press, a wicker wastepaper basket, an antique china egg cup, three wooden spoons, a salad bowl, cocktail sticks, two oven thermometers and other indispensable utensils. We also have the clockwork from the grandfather clock and two marble tabletops. But best of all – four garden chairs. At least we can sit down for our meals.

The enigma of arrival

I left the house just as the agent was putting up the “For sale” sign. Julia decided I was much too agitated to drive, so she pushed me over to the passenger seat. I shed a tear of two. Well, to be honest, I cried floods. It was much too early to go to the airport so we went to a shopping centre and had late lunch or early dinner, depending on how you look at it, and then went around looking at clothes and shoes. Since it was Sunday, the shops closed early, and finally we had to leave. We arrived at the airport three hours before departure, had a cup of tea, and then I burst into tears again. Right then Staffan called on Julia’s cell phone – he had of course received the message about the disconnected number, but hadn’t thought about calling on my cell phone. I concealed my tears as careful as I could and told him everything was just fine. Then I gave Julia a quick hug and went through security.

I decided I would not cry any more and opened a book. Actually it worked, although every now and then I found myself reading the same line over and over again, my mind wandering off. The flight went smoothly, and I just about finished the book when we landed. As I only had hand luggage, I was hugging Staffan ten minutes later. It was a weird feeling, being met by him at a different place than Arlanda. We chatted about matters of no consequence on the way – home.

It was past midnight and very dark, so I didn’t recognize the place until we were there. The house was as empty as the one I had just left, and it was different from what I had remembered. Not larger, not smaller, just different.

Then we faced a dilemma that I had suppressed. We had only one folding bed that Staffan had brought and had slept in. He had also brought my Pilates mat, which is fine for Pilates, but not really for sleeping. We had also just one blanket and one pillow although I was pretty sure I had packed two of each. I declined Staffan’s chivalrous offer to sleep on the bare floor, so I slept on the bed with the blanket as mattress, while he slept on the mattress spread on the floor. We both slept exceptionally well.

The morning was gorgeous, and yes, there were swans on the river, and I went out to the garden and knew at once how I could keep myself busy until the van arrived. After breakfast, which we enjoyed standing up at the kitchen counter, I suggested going to a garden store. Since Staffan knows me well he wasn’t surprised or else disguised his astonishment well. “B&Q”, he said, showing off his superior acquaintance with the place.



PS The Enigma of Arrival is a novel by the Nobel Prize winner V S Naipaul, which is about his life in the UK.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

No further information

This morning, the phone is dead. I call myself from the cellphone and hear: "This number has been disconnected. No further information available".

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Swans and garbage

Staffan is at Water Street. When he woke up yesterday morning, there were three white swans and one black on the river.

We sit in an empty house each, in a limbo. All we have is a pot, two plates, two cups and two forks. Maybe he has a frying pan too. I don’t. I am a bit envious since he will be exploring the new place on his own. On the other hand, he will know where to shop for groceries.

So far, his main problem has been garbage. Yesterday was garbage collecting day at Water Street. There are four different garbage bins in the yard. He has received a five-page instruction on what goes into which bin and when it is collected. He has consulted his electronic dictionary about the difference between cardboard and carton. The dictionary says it is the same, but according to the instructions, they must go into different bins.

When we lived in California, Staffan wrote several columns for his newspaper about garbage collecting. The subscribers loved them! Regular foreign correspondents never write about garbage.

As to myself, I have just been to the dump with five huge garbage sacks. I hoped it was the last time, but I see there will be more. Unlike Staffan, I know what goes into which container.

PS for the really interested: read this.

Friday, 8 August 2008


As I went out to collect the mail, there was a huge snake right in front of the entrance. I have quite a prominent serpentophobia, so I retreated into the house. It seems I am evicted from the paradise.

Don't cry over me

Yesterday, after the van was one, I accepted the invitation to dinner from my wonderful friend Dalia, who suspected, quite correctly, that I wouldn’t feel too well all alone in an empty house. On the way in the car, I listened to a CD with Tom Waits, that Anton had given me. He is a great fan of Tom Waits, and recently went to Prague just to listen to him during his Europe tour.

Anton often gives me his favourite music, and although I do not always like everything, there are quite a few modern groups and singers I have enjoyed and would have never discovered on my own. Tom Waits is one of them.

I don’t know whether Anton had made a deliberate choice, but one of the tracks was: “Don’t cry over me, I am going away, and I will come back on some lucky day”.

Thursday, 7 August 2008


Instructions for defrosting the freezer suggest that you pile up the boxes with your frozen items to keep them cold. Covering them with a blanket for insulation is also recommended. Using the hairdryer is apparently not a good idea.

There are no instructions for permanent defrosting.

I have no caption for this picture.

Becoming a dissident

With all the mess here I have completely neglected to contemplate something everybody in our circles is talking about: the death of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Yet he has been decisive for what I am. He opened my eyes when I was fourteen and made me a thinking individual. My parents were not directly dissidents, but as every intellectual in the former Soviet Union they were opposed to the regime. You had to be a conformist to some degree to survive, but whatever people say, there was no thought police, and somehow everybody knew when and to whom it was ok to talk. We had forbidden literature at home as long as I can remember, but it was not only from literature I knew the truth about labour camps. Half of my extended family had gone through them, and dozens of my parents’ friends. In every family I knew, someone had been murdered in prison, on absurd charges or no charges at all; someone died of famine and inhuman slave labour. So when I read Ivan Denisovich, First Circle and Cancer Ward, there were no new facts for me, but the power of literature made the facts tenfold stronger. Solzhenitsyn was for all of us a touchstone of courage and conscience, and a very great writer. When he got the Nobel Prize and the Soviet press accused him of treason, we celebrated as if it were our own triumph.

I translated a spiteful article from a Swedish Communist newspaper and typed it with five carbon copies to circulate among friends. Reading, keeping and circulating anti-Soviet literature could be punished by five years in camps. I was proud of being eligible for incarceration for political activity.

During the year when Solzhenitsyn lived outside Moscow at the world-famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich’s villa, we often met him on the train, because my parents rented a house nearby. We didn’t know him personally, but felt a part of his fate. Then he was sent to exile. We followed his adventures and misadventures through BBC and Voice of America. Those who had faith mentioned him in their prayers.

Then he returned to Russia, greeted by millions of admirers. He had then lived in exile for many years and didn’t know anything about Russia of today. But he started preaching and making prophecies. For me, he was by that time no longer an icon and perhaps not even a great writer.

But it does not matter. These days, when every newspaper and news agency carries obituaries and comments, I cannot help recalling the fourteen-year-old who sat as if enchanted, reading a ragged carbon copy of First Circle. It started me thinking. It has finally brought be to Cambridge.

The time has come

The countdown is over. I am sitting in my disrupted home waiting for the van. I had nightmares this night. One of those secret rooms that I suddenly discover full of forgotten things to pack. I roam the house looking for stray clothes and ashtrays. I make a point of using old chipped plate and mug that will not have the pleasure of experiencing the fresh air of Albion. I discover that I must leave a couple of teaspoons for the remaining days.

I had genuinely hoped that I’d wake up this morning and find it was all just a practical joke.

Staffan has a column in the newspaper today on the same topic. He wrote it before he left.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Yet another farewell

Today I went to my hairdresser.

When I was new in Sweden and needed a haircut, I asked one of Staffan’s female colleagues where to go and got a prompt reply that nice Swedish girls didn’t go to hairdresser’s, they cut their hair themselves. It was no more true than other statements I heard about nice Swedish girls, such as they didn’t wear bras or paint their nails or shave their legs. I just happened to ask a wrong person. But when in Rome… Yet I didn’t fancy cutting my own hair and went to the first beauty parlour I saw which was a disaster. For a long time I let my hair grow, and it finally became quite unkempt. When we moved into our house I definitely needed a haircut and went to a parlour in the neighbourhood shopping centre. That’s how I met Anita who eventually became much more than a hairdresser. When you go to the same person for a haircut twenty-six years running, you get to know each other well. She saw me with a big pregnant belly, she saw me pushing prams, she followed my ups and downs. I have watched photos of her grandchildren change from babies to teenagers. A couple of times she heard me on the radio and told me she was proud to know me. She did my hair for my professorial inauguration and for my fiftieth birthday party. We know everything about each other’s maladies, joys and sorrows.

On the way home I went into our local grocery store to buy milk and eggs for my last meals.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

I was happy here

I Was Happy Here is a title of a movie of which I don’t remember much more than the title. But it fits in well. Although, to continue movie associations, right now it feels more like Home Alone, left behind and preparing for an attack. Every room is barricaded, and there is a serious risk of breaking a leg or getting something heavy on your head. I seal off room after room as I am done with them, moving remaining bits and pieces toward the centre of the house, in smaller and smaller concentric circles. Soon I will bite my own tail, like the famous snake.

My clever husband has escaped to France. Well, his version is that he is driving over the car to Cambridge.

This afternoon, I dissembled the bed. Anyone who has ever assembled a piece of IKEA furniture knows how easy it is. But try to dissemble it! IKEA furniture comes with instructions and tools, so you don’t have to be high tech engineer to put together a bed, even though I remember it was some work. I am the one in the family who assembles IKEA furniture (perhaps because I am the one who purchases it in the first place), and when I got this bed some years ago I did not count on deconstructing it within observable future. No instruction, and no idea what tools I’ll need. All tools are neatly packed, except my true friend the screwdriver, but it doesn’t help much when you need a wrench. But I have won the battle. I will have to reassemble the bed next week, but I will worry about it then. And now I know what tool to use.

Monday, 4 August 2008

No Mahler today

Gustav Mahler - one of the best composers in the world

The keys have arrived, and Staffan has decided to leave tomorrow to have a wider margin. There can be long queues this time of year on the ferry between Calais and Dover. So we have taken down the loudspeakers. Staffan didn’t want to do this so far because he likes to listen to Mahler in the evenings.

Last minute troubles

The rent payment has returned because there was something wrong with the receiving bank account number. The keys to Water Street that were supposed to be delivered by DHL today have not arrived. My car key broke down, and my computer has frozen. An electric plug got ripped off the wall. Some people interested in the house who cannot come to the regular show are coming today. A couple of friends have just collected a kitchen sofa, and another friend is coming with three garden baskets she wants me to take with me. To crown it all, the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn has dies, and my husband has been asked urgently to write an obituary for his newspaper.

A minor earthquake would make a welcome change.

Sunday, 3 August 2008


Yesterday we had our farewell party. We had invited about forty people thinking that half of them were surely away on vacation, but incredibly enough, almost everyone came. We had also counted on fine weather for a garden party, since it has been hot and sunny for eight weeks. Incredibly enough, it rained all day yesterday (needless to say, it’s sunny today again). I guess heaven was crying. Don’t cry over me, Sweden

It is sometimes said that the hostess should not enjoy her own party, but I did. The guests were crammed into the rooms where we had squeezed in two sets of garden furniture, a spare kitchen table and an array of chairs and stools. I think there were seats for everyone, but there was continuous shuttling into the kitchen to fill the plates. Our two youngest were wonderful and saw to it that everyone got food and drink so that I could rotate and have a word with everyone. We had never had a party this size before. We have enough food left to last until we go, but the cakes were wiped off in two minutes. And Staffan had said we didn’t need any cakes! I know our friends better than he does.

This morning we discovered that one of the two old plum trees had been blown down. They were there when we bought the house and gave us the most tasty plums year after year. The children used them as a soccer goal. At one time, the grass between them was totally worn out. But we always allowed the kids to play on the lawn, that’s what lawns are for.

Now one of the trees is gone. Staffan and I cut it into small pieces and threw into the wood across the street.