Monday, 29 September 2008

Decisions, decisions

In the morning, I have two options. I can take the car, which is convenient, and as Staffan is away, he won’t need it. I can bike, which is ecologically correct, good exercise and in every respect laudable. I make myself ready for biking and start toward the shed when I happen to look at the thermometer. It is nine degrees. It also starts drizzling. I go inside, take off the biking gear and open the front door. Now, unlike our cat, I don’t believe that the weather is radically different at the back and front door, but for some reason it feels warm and nice. I turn back and take the bike. It does drizzle a bit, but by the time I get to work the sun is out. The distance seems to shrink each time, and I even tackle the uphill bridge.

Next week is Travel to Work week. We are asked to record how we go to work and back. There is a prize of a bottle of champagne. I am determined to win.

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Men make purchases

Staffan is the best husband in the world. Ever since I got a full-time job while he works from home, he has been doing most of the chores, waiting for me with a nice meal when I got home. He usually does the grocery shopping and laundry; and we share clearing the table somewhat equally. Hence, in almost two months, I haven’t yet been in a supermarket on my own. This morning, when Staffan called me from the old country, I told him I must go to Tesco, and he advised me that the local store was fully sufficient for the daily needs. What he doesn’t understand is that I want to explore the supermarket, just to learn my way around.

When I was a newcomer in Sweden, Staffan laughed at me because I couldn’t see the difference between COOP and more fancy shops. As compared to Russia, they were all the Land of Cocayne.

So I am definitely going to the large supermarket. I get a little suspicious when there are almost no cars in the parking lot, but there is a reason: it does not open until eleven on Sundays. Very stupid of them, they have just lost a customer. I go to another supermarket.

Staffan’s favourite saying is that men don’t shop, they make purchases. He likes getting groceries every day and never plans for more than one meal. Which means he walks promptly into the store, gets what he thinks he needs and gets out as soon as possible. If he discovers he has forgotten something he goes back. If I ask him to buy chicken peas or double cream he first refuses saying that he would get something wrong (I have never reproached him if he occasionally does). He has recently learned to recognize eggplant.

I browse through rows of cereals and preserves that we never eat; I find things I didn’t know I wanted and therefore wouldn’t be looking for; I state that skimmed milk is red and full milk blue, which is the opposite from Sweden. I plan for five breakfasts, five dinners and five lunch boxes (well at home I realize that I have three business lunches this coming week). In the first place, I get oriented. One day we will need pet food.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Home alone

Staffan is gone, and Anton is gone, and I am all on my own to do as I please. I am not as desperate about being on my own as I once used to be. Some years ago, when Staffan was away all winter escaping from the nasty Swedish climate to the south of France, I learned from a good friend to distinguish between loneliness and solitude. So rather than feeling abandoned and unhappy I try to enjoy the calmness and silence. I know it is an illusion, but what would we be without our illusions?

I keep to a few rules when I am on my own, such as making the bed, wearing decent clothes and having cooked meals. I allow myself to stay in bed until eight and prepare my breakfast in an aesthetically satisfactory manner. I clean the house, which I will from now on do on Saturdays, like everybody else, rather than sporadically to get away from the computer. I pay the current bills – this does not count as work, so I am not breaking any promises. Then I make some cream of chanterelle soup, from the dried chanterelles that Dalia gave me in Stockholm; she had picked and dried them herself. I sit outside in the sun with my bowl of soup. I should probably go to the gym or take a walk, and I should definitely go and get some groceries. A less initiated person would perhaps suggest reading a book, but for me reading is work. I simply want to sit down quietly doing nothing at all.

Cultural clash

A colleague wants to meet me to discuss future research projects. He is free for coffee on Monday or Wednesday and for tea on Monday or Tuesday. I guess, but I am not quite sure, that coffee means morning and tea means afternoon and that you can actually have tea for coffee and coffee for tea.

Friday, 26 September 2008

Catching up

I am now so hopelessly behind the events that I don’t know where to start. Obviously, I came home to Water Street, accompanied by my youngest son, which made waiting for the delayed flight a pleasurable experience. Prior to that, I had time to have lunch with my dear friend Dalia, which was just as I had told her before we left. She was so upset we were moving, but I told her: “You’ll see, we’ll meet more often than we do now”. And yes, just six week later, here we wander in the Old Town of Stockholm, browse through antique shops, have a meal in one place and coffee in another, and take the underground in the same direction.

Staffan picked Anton and me up at Stansted, and there we were at Water Street, as if I had never left it. We put in the famous folding bed in Staffan’s study – a bit crammed, but it worked. In the morning, I went to work and Staffan took Anton sightseeing. Then we got together for a late lunch, and for dinner we went to The Green Dragon, even though it wasn’t Friday.

On Wednesday, we had a business meeting with our research group, and I was officially declared Chair. So far, I feel a bit ambivalent about it. But I guess I will get used to it one day. After all, I have agreed to play the game.

Anton insisted on taking me to the cinema to see “Wall-e”. He always knows what kind of film I will enjoy, and it is always fascinating to discuss it afterwards. We walked back home along the river.

On Thursday, Staffan went to the old country. I took him to the railway station and went to work, where he called me fifteen minutes later to say that all trains to Stansted were cancelled. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about. He took a taxi. What I was worried about was my agreement with Anton to meet in town. Driving to the centre, finding a parking space (I get claustrophobic in multi-storey parking), finding Anton, deciding where to take him for lunch, finding my way back home. Well, I did it all, and we had a wonderful time together, nice and relaxed, and the weather was gorgeous.

And today Anton went home, and I went to listen to Morag’s lecture to get a sense of what it is all about – I will give my lecture for the same audience next week. And I have worked hard all day and will now enjoy the weekend like I have never done before, or so it feels. No, I have not taken the car through the narrow passage, and yes I have remembered to put out the garbage bins.

And by the way, I have received my first salary and my National Insurance Number.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Granny´s comeback

All of a sudden I find myself in yet another strange place. A place where the eight-year-old sits at table with inlines on and the two-year-old with rubber boots; where the four-year-old is convinced that it is allowed to have ice-cream for pudding because daddy says so, where you have to navigate between zillions of Lego pieces on the floor, and nobody ever wants to go to bed. The cat sleeps on my belly all night, and I wake up under a ceiling as tall as a cathedral. Everybody wants different sort of cereal for breakfast. Everybody is all over the place at once. The noise level is incredible. It is no more than six weeks since last, but it feels like ages.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

Back in the old country

Just as I feel more or less settled I must go to a conference in the old country. The conference is in Southern Sweden, and it makes more sense to fly to Gothenburg. Which is weird: I am back, but not really back home. Taking the airport shuttle I note that the traffic goes on the wrong side of the road. Then, as I wait for my train at the station, and on the train, everybody for some reason speaks a foreign language. Fortunately, the conference is in English. But the subject is as Swedish as can be, the national icon, Astrid Lindgren.

The venue is a magnificent folly castle that looks quite genuine. The leaves are turning. At conference lunches and dinners typical Swedish food is served. At the banquet the entertainment is Swedish medieval ballads. Do my eyes really fill with tears? My Swedish colleagues address me in English because my badge says "University of Cambridge".

I am alone in a strange, exotic country with exotic food, cars driving on the wrong side and billboards in a foreign language. I am in a limbo. Water Street is something I have made up. But if so where do I belong? Gossip from my old working place does not concern me. Emails from my new working place do not feel relevant. It is Friday evening and I should be at The Green Dragon with my Guinness. Instead I am going out for another authentic Swedish meal.

I feel homesick. But what is home?

Tuesday, 16 September 2008


...we have just got a new grandchild.

Spelling bee

Each time I get a new computer I must teach it new words. The spelling program does not like the words I use, such as heterotopia, crossvocalisation or aetonormativity. It does not like the names of the authors I write about: Sendak, Nesbit, Ungerer. It definitely does not like Dumbledore and Malfoy. Fortunately, computers are fast learners.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Cows and Capriols

I am keeping the promise I gave to myself about not working on weekends. On Saturday, we bike first to my gym, by a road that Staffan has investigated. It goes through a common and at times right by some grazing cows. We pass a little 12th-century church, and there is a medieval fair going on, a miniature of a huge fair held here for centuries – we have read about it on guidebooks. Some ladies and one gentleman dance in medieval costumes. Suddenly I realize that this is just what I have been wishing my whole life: medieval dancing. There is a folder about the group, they are called Capriol Dancers, and yes, they have courses. Maybe next term, when things have settled a bit.

After gym we bike back and past our bridge, further down on the other side of the river. Curiously enough, there is a pub quite close by. We think we have deserved a beer.

Saturday, 13 September 2008

Pursuing hobbies

For restoration of my doll house I need, among other things, lolly sticks. They are very practical for many purposes. I brought an ample supply from a hobby shop the old country, but I ran out of them when I decided to build herringbone floors for the living room. Someone on my electronic discussion group had made a wooden-strip floor (not herringbone parquet though), and I could not resist the challenge. It’s a minuscule job of course, like building a jigsaw puzzle of ten thousand pieces, but it is highly relaxing. And I am not in a hurry. I don’t have to meet a deadline for a fair; on the contrary, the point is to prolong the process as much as possible. A doll house can never be perfect and finished. A character in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books who has managed to collect all the stamps in the world is frustrated because he has become an owner rather than a collector, and it is not the same pleasure.

The yellow pages for Cambridge carry some arts and crafts shops, but nowhere did they have lolly sticks. I have tried online doll-house and craft-supplies stores too. I am positively sure that English miniature devotees use lolly sticks just as much as the Swedish; apparently I have turned to wrong shops. At long last I found a place called Hobby Stores in a nearby village. This was promising, and we went there. The window display was an immediate disappointment: plane and train model kits. They didn’t have lolly sticks, but they did have thin long strips in much softer wood, that turned out to be significantly easier to cut. I have now been to this shop three times and hope to get discounts soon.

The herringbone floor is ready. I must think of another long-term project. Decorate the house outward with handmade bricks perhaps.

The herringbone floor is not fitted in yet since it needs a coat of varnish.

Friday, 12 September 2008


In the old country, when I first got keys to my office I had to go to Security, fill out forms, the key number was registered and what not. Here I receive the key from the Porter (Cantabrigean for janitor) who scribbles something in a little notebook and asks me to sign.

Now I have my room, but no computer yet. Getting there step by step.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Join the club

The Guardian had a column yesterday with advice to new students. I like this passage best: “You need to join something – a society, seminar, bus queue…” I have just joined SWEA, Swedish Women’s Educational Association. I was a member when we lived in California, and it was very nice. For several years I was also a jury member of the SWEA Literary Award, for contribution to international research in Swedish literature and culture. There is a SWEA chapter in London, and to my great joy there is a SWEA group in Cambridge. I emailed the contact person the day before yesterday, and guess what? The group meets at a pub tonight. So I am joining if not a bus queue than at least a society.

Bike boxes and other useful things

Today I was really, really brave and biked on my own for the first time. I only took one wrong turn and realized it at once; and there was no problem carrying a side bag, which I had never done before. And I found bike boxes – little squares in front of cars at street crossings – very sensible. I had never before understood the point. I was very proud of myself and received compliments in the social space for being ecologically minded. It took about haft an hour of very leisurely biking, so I am looking forward to an hour extra exercise every day (unless it rains too heavily).

By the way, our new bed was delivered today. From IKEA, same make, wrong colour (I don’t care any longer) and significantly modified and improved, so all my profound experience in assembling this particular piece of furniture proved of no use. There was a little tool enclosed, that I guess I had thrown away the first time I assembled our old bed. It made all the difference. I have saved it carefully. I have also saved the instruction booklet.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Independence day

Today I ventured to drive on my own for the first time. Yes, it has been over four weeks now, and I hadn’t been out with the car other than with Staffan by my side. There is a synergy of factors that makes me anxious. Driving on the wrong side. The right side is the wrong side and the left side is the right side. The steering wheel on the wrong side for the right (left) side. The roundabouts are worst. Fortunately, some have traffic lights. Which in itself is confusing. Being uncertain about the right way. I mean, right way, not left way. Correct way. But I guess it is all a matter of habit.

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Along the river

I have promised myself that in my new life I will not work on weekends. Today we went biking on the old towing path along the river. In five minutes we are in the countryside. There is a dragon boat race going on. An ancient boat – at least it looks ancient – is passing a tiny lock. A variety of waterfowl shows great interest in us, and we also surprise a heron. Here and there persistent anglers sit entangled in their lines. Hikers and cyclists greet each other heartily. The wind brings a smell of nettles.

After six miles we come to a pub and eat a light lunch. The pub is lively and truly genuine. Any minute Jerome K. Jerome might walk in.

Then we go back. The race goes on. Another boat is in the lock. More swans. A very ordinary Saturday in Cambridge.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Social space

At my old work place in the old country we had a coffee room. Here at Homerton we have social space. It is a large mezzanine with inviting soft armchairs and round tables, where you can get a cup of coffee, putting a modest sum in the honesty jar; there are newspapers; somebody has just donated a full crate of apples from his garden. When I get eventually get my office, it will be in another building. But everybody seems to enjoy the short walk across the lawn.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Hobson's choice

This would have been funny if it hadn’t been a nuisance. Our bed frame has broken down. Yes, the very bed that I dissembled three weeks ago in the old country and reassembled a few days later here at Water Street. And I was so proud of myself! But apparently IKEA beds are not supposed to be dissembled and reassembled. I have tried to save it in many ingenious ways, but after a several attempts it finally breathed its last. However, we have two fully functional adjustable spat bottoms and two excellent mattresses, individually selected for our particular sleeping habits. So all we need is a new frame.

I find the British IKEA web store and I find our bed frame which is temporarily out of stock. The closest IKEA store is sixty miles away, which is not extremely far away, even though you must the costs of petrol to the price of the bed. But our frame is out of stock there too. The frame comes in dark brown, light brown, oak and white. I want white. Everything else is available.

Naïve as we are, we set out to buy a bed frame at the furniture store at the nearest shopping centre. Here comes the surprise: a standard British double bed is ten centimetres shorter than what we learn is “European size”. And they don’t come at all at the width that our mattresses would fit into.

Back home, I investigate Cambridge shopping web page for specialist bed stores. The World of Beds and Cambridge Bed Centre look promising. At the former, an elderly man who looks like a Lord explains about imperial and metric sizes. He explains that British bedrooms tend to be small. He makes a few phone calls to different suppliers. Yes, he could order a frame, but it would be one inch ("That's three centimetres, you know") wider, and anyway he cannot guarantee that it would actually fit. He recommends a little store in a village some miles away where they make furniture to measure.

I am frustrated, but Staffan is amused. In the village, he goes into a pub and has an ale and enquires the local pub patrons about a furniture shop. They look puzzled. Maybe in the next village. Staffan is still amused, but I am not. We go all the way back to town and halfway to the other side to Cambridge Bed Centre. Yes, they can order a European-size bed. It will only take two weeks. The price is outrageous. The choice of style is limited. In fact, limited to one.

Fotnote: Hobson's choice

Monday, 1 September 2008

First day at school

I have only had two jobs before now. The previous, at Stockholm University, was a quiet transition after many years as a PhD student, postdoc researcher and part-timer. I didn’t even notice the difference. My first job in Moscow was at the Film Research Institute, newly established and therefore crammed in a few small rooms in a cellar with just two desks for a whole research group of twenty. We had to work in shifts, half a day every week, which nobody minded as we were all happy to work from home. When we eventually got a fancy old mansion, our working hours were extended to a whole day per week plus weekly meetings plus film screenings – which most of my friends wondered whether they could really count as work. I do remember the first day I came to that cellar and was briefly introduced to routines. It was long before computers, passwords, electronic keycards and all these things we take for granted. On arrival, we signed in a large cloth-bound notebook, and we signed out as we left. Our working places were in the library, and most books were reference and not for loan. There was one telephone.

Today I feel like a new girl in school. Everybody knows everyone else. Everybody has a card that gives access to everything. Mine is not valid yet because the computer system is down. I cannot register for the library because I need my card. I don’t have an office, but get a cubicle with a minimal desk. One of my thirty thousand passwords doesn’t work – because the computer system is down. At least my new email address works. I feel I exist, albeit partially. I am taken on a round tour of the building, including toilets, stairs, coffee machines and outgoing mailboxes. I meet new people whose names I will never manage to remember. I have lunch with colleagues and coffee at the magnificent Combination Room. I keep telling myself that I am not a guest anymore, I have rights to be here.

Then I feel I have exhausted the possibilities and go home.