Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Old friends

Many, many years ago when I was a teenager my parents had a friend whom we mostly met during summer holidays in Karelia. He was a scientist and a true Russian intellectual. My mother first met him during a rainy walk when they discovered that they had lots of common friends, and they decided to meet again next day and introduce their spouses. As they were about to part, this man said: "To be honest, I must warn you: I am a Party member". They became close friends, and one of the favourite pastimes was fishing. I spent hours upon hours in a boat with him, rowing and listening to his stories about theories of universe. Pulsars had just been discovered. Big Bang wasn't common knowledge. It was very exciting. I had always been fascinated by astronomy (I wanted to become an astronomer, but that's another story). But in the first place I was fascinated by this man's genius. It's easy to have a crush when you are a teenager, but it's easiest when you meet a brilliant mind. At least for me.

He was already then internationally famous, member of dozens of academies and learned societies, honorary doctor everywhere, award-winner, but he was bitter about the Nobel prize, because there wasn't any in astronomy.

Many years later he and his wife called me in Stockholm where he was giving a lecture. We invited them for dinner. Staffan, who was as good then as he is now at cooking, made oven-backed fish with spinach. The great scientist looked at the green mess on his plate and asked: "Do I have to eat this?" Staffan was a bit upset.

One day I was sitting in front of the TV and suddenly saw my childhood love and fishing companion. He had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. Astronomy or not.

If you want to know more, read this.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Twenty years ago

Twenty years ago I was sitting in front of the TV in my living room in Stockholm, crying floods. I am almost crying now when I think about it. I grew up knowing that the Communist regime was invincible. At sixteen, I as prepared to die for freedom, to burn myself on Red Square, to do anything to overthrow the hateful dictatorship. My mother told me not to be a fool. Nothing would change if I sacrificed my life. The dictatorship was there for ever. Not even my grandchildren would live to see it fall.

And there I was, twenty years ago today, watching, together with the rest of the world, the Wall being pulled down. I had never imagined I would live to see it. But there it was, happening right in front of my eyes. I had never before known what it meant to cry of joy. Those who remember, just look back and contemplate. Those who were too young, try to grasp.

For my grandchildren it is all ancient history.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Really useful

I have eventually set up another bookshelf in my room (aka guest room). Too long to explain why it took so long. But now it's there, and I went to Staples to get some boxes to store my doll house materials. I planned initially to arrange working space in the garage. I have realised it might get a bit chilly in winter; the light is not very good, too many other things - it's nice to feel comfy when you play with miniatures. True, there is some dirty work, but it's not what you do often, so garage will be ok for occasional staining or mitre sawing.

Anyway, I went to Staples. I have always loved office supplies stores, even when I was a child in Moscow and there wasn't much to buy. The smell of new notebooks, the feel of new pencils, the softness of new erasers. But not until I discovered Staples in San Diego did I realise how much you can indulge in binders, pencil holders and thumbnails. I can spend hours in Staples, and I could spend fortunes there if I didn't already have too much of everything. But now I really need boxes for my hobby things. What a marvelous excuse! Staples has a line called Really Useful Boxes. They come in all shapes and sizes and colours, and I see already that I will need twice as many as I have bought. Three ot four with small compartments, for all my tiny, tiny things. One large and shallow for paper. Some large and deep, for fabric and wood. Some medium, for plastic, metal, leather, paint... Yes, I know I am crazy. But once you start getting all your stuff neat and sorted, all ugly shoe boxes and plastic cans become conspicuous. The Really Useful Boxes look so nice in the new bookshelf, and it's easy to see what's inside and to find exactly what I might need, like a champagne cork or a metal button or a broken chess piece. Sometimes it's easy to make oneself happy.

When I was packing my stuff in Staples, a very young man at the till announced in the loudspeaker: "Ladies and gentlemen, we will now join the rest of the country in two silent minutes". It's Armistice Day.

Saturday, 7 November 2009

No sun, no moon

No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds - November!

I learned this poem in school and have always recited it to myself this time of year. I forgot who wrote it, but - praise Google! - I searched for it now. It's Thomas Hood, English (1799-1845).

British climate must have been different then. Today has been a warm, sunny day, and the moon is just rising, after a beautiful dusk hour, and dawn this morning was stunning. There are still some pears in the pear tree, the marigolds are in full bloom, and three roses have decided to bloom again. Birds are louder than ever. Yes-vember.

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Full cycle

So it's Halloween again. Or is it my daughter's birthday? When I went into labour twenty-seven years ago I didn't think about bringing a Halloween baby into this world. Firstly, I had other things to think about. But secondly, Halloween wasn't at all that big, not in Sweden anyway. We only really encountered it when we lived in California, but when we came back to Sweden it had become huge. Now Julia's birthday parties are inevitably Halloween parties.

Last year I had bad experience with Halloween. My proudly carved pumpkin was stolen, and no one came to trick or treat. Today I've carved the pumpkin and will place it by the gate, hoping that the long dark driveway will not scare away trick-or-treaters. Later tonight, we are going to a party. The invitation says: "Costumes not required". I am disappointed.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Page proofs of my life

I am reading page proofs. So what else is new?

I am reading page proofs of my memoirs. You would think that I knew my own text by heart, and I have already read the copy-edited version. But it is only when it comes to page proofs that a book becomes real. I am now releasing - have actually already released part of myself, for anyone to read about. It's not like publishing a scholarly book. It's not even like publishing a novel, which was very exciting in its own way. It is definitely not like publishing a cook book.

There are things in the memoirs that I have never told anyone before. There are parts that I have told many times to various audiences. There are parts that still hurt. There are parts that make me cry. Especially when reading page proofs. Because from now one, it is real.

Some previews have called the book an autobiography. It is not. It's memoirs. The difference is decisive.

Saturday, 10 October 2009


Now I am a proper Cantabrigian, a college Fellow. I have repeatedly tried to explain to outsiders why this is important, and failed. So just trust me. It is important, essential, fundamental, imperative. Yesterday, I was sworn in and officially accepted.

I haven't done anything similar since I joined the Soviet scouts ("pioneers"), which was mandatory and therefore nothing to contemplate. "I hereby promise..." I suppose all oaths have been copied from some early model.

There were five of us, we were asked to wear gowns, all other Fellows were encouraged to wear gowns, and most of them did. I had learned the oath by heart and practiced, which as it turned out wasn't necessary, since we were given a card to read from. When it said "YOUR NAME" you weren't supposed to read "YOUR NAME" but your name. Then the Principal shook your hand and welcomed you to the Fellowship. You had to write your name (not "YOUR NAME") in a book. Then the Principal said: "Back to business", but someone pointed out that there was champagne served to toast to the new Fellows.

The business was a half-awayday, which was called something else, to distinguish from the Faculty. With my double loyalties I must now be careful to keep to the right vocabulary. In fact, when I had a query at the Porter's Lodge the other day, they asked prompty: "Are you College or Faculty?" Now I am Faculty and College.

As a pure coincidence, later in the evening there was a matriculation dinner for new HD students. (No, not high density, but higher degrees). Matriculation means that they sign a pledge, with quite a long list of rules. They don't have to read from a card, it would take too long. And to say it in chorus, as we did in my scout past, would perhaps feel wrong. The teachers were invited as cheerleaders. As usual, there were first drinks at the Combination Room, but not sherry, just wine. (Sherry is a professorial drink, Staffan says). Very festive dinner at the Hall, finished by a ceremony I haven't yet experienced. Homerton College has a drinking horn, prettily set in silver. The ceremony is to hold the horn, bow to you nieghbour and say something in Anglo-Saxon. As opposed to Latin in other Colleges. The neighbour replies in the same, drinks from the horn and passes it on.

Unfortunately, the ceremony this year was purely virtual because of swine flu.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Tales, narratives, pictures

On my bookshelf of 25 indispensible sources on children's literature I have Narratives of Love and Loss by Margaret and Michael Rustin. It is an excellent example of what psychoanalytical approach to literature can do. I have this book on all my course lists, and I have also used it in my own work. So I was especially excited to meet the Rustins yesterday, at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. It is a great honour to be invited to speak in my favourite museum, and event was in conjunction with the exhibition Telling Tales. Anton saw the exhibition when he was in London and told me that I must absolutely see it. I told him I was going to give a lecture in connection. I think he was impressed.

I was a bit uneasy about my lecture precisely because the Rustins were there. I normally talk a lot about psychoanalytical approaches to fairy tales because I like to provoke, and people get so upset when they hear what fairy tales really are about. So I played down the psychoanalytical bit and focused on the anthropological, which can be quite shocking as well. Cannibalism and such things. It turned out our talks fit perfect together.

Yet another speaker was Catherine Hyde, the artist who has illustrated Carol Anne Duffy's fairy tale The Princess's Blankets and is working on The Firebird. Her favourite fairy tale is Baba Yaga. Somehow it all felt just right.

Sunday, 27 September 2009


My dear friend Dalia has been visiting and brought me tons of tulip bulbs. Guess what she took with her back to Sweden? Tulip bulbs. Dalia is a real tulipmaniac, she knows all the names and which are rare and which are especially pretty and which are cheaper here than in Sweden. I am a tulip amateur, I just look at pictures. Today I eventually had time to plant the bulbs, and the weather was wonderful, I can't believe it the end of September. (Yes, I can believe it, we live in England now). For someone not familiar with gardening: it takes a looooooong time to plant 120 tulip bulbs. Especially if you try to plan and match the colours and combine tulips with whatever else there is around. But it will be worth while, and I will think of Dalia when the tulips come. (And I will find out what they use here to protect tulips from deer).

Incidentally, when Dalia and I went to Anglesea Abbey, which was our top priority, they had Dahlia festival.

The last of the mohicans

The reason I had to go to Åbo is a doctoral defence. When I tell my British colleagues that in Scandinavia the PhD degree requires a public defence they are full of awe. (Or is it despise?) I have been through it in all capacities: defendent, opponent, examination board, audience. This time I am the moderator, aka kustos. It isn't a great burden, mainly declare the defence open, give the defendent and opponent signals to stand up or sit down in accondance with protocol, and see to it that they don't go on too long. Yet behind this minor role hides a major one: I have been the supervisor. And this time it may be my last supervisee in Finland.

My affiliation with Åbo Akademi University started way back in early '90s when I was repeatedly invited as a guest lecturer. Then I was made Adjunct Professor and supervised both Masters and Phds. For a year, I was a Distinguished Visiting Professor.

In Finland, PhD students have no guaranteed funding; they have to apply a bit here and there, and it can take years. Some of my students gave up and got a job, and I can't blame them. But a couple of years ago, the remaining few started getting finished. So this is the last defence in a batch of wonderful people, whom I shall miss. But it is a joy to see my supervisees grow up and become peers.


I have already stated that from England all destinations have suddenly come closer. All except eastward. It takes 35 minutes to fly from Stockholm to Åbo, the university city in Finland where I still have an academic affiliation. It took me almost a whole day to get there from Cambridge. True, I had three hours overlay in Helsinki, which felt ludicrous waiting for a 25-minute flight. But any other option, via Stockholm or Copenhagen, would have been the same. At least I don't know the Helsinki airport inside out. It is, however, more or less like any airport. After I have explored the shops and eateries, there is not much to do. Then it's just a matter of finding a place to sit and enjoy the thickest book I could find in DWSmith at Heathrow.

I was tempted to buy a Moomin calendar, resisted the temptation and now regret it. Fortunately, I have two hours overlay on the way back.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

International travel

Morag and I are going to a conference in Glasgow. A colleague kindly drives us to Stansted. EasyJet does not allow you to check in online if you have luggage, so we stand in line. Morag takes out her passport. "Morag, don't tell me you need a passport to fly to Scotland". "Of course you do!" "But it's a domestic flight! Wouldn't a driver's licence be enough?" "Oh no, never! It says 'passport' on the booking receipt".

I can travel all over Europe with my ID. but not to Scotland, which as far as I know is still a part of the United Kingdom. I try not to panic. If I call Staffan he can perhaps bring my passport just in time. I can take a later flight. But it just doesn't make sense. In such situations the rule is: don't ask. As we check in, Morag produces her passport, I produce my driver's licence. No protests. Morag inspects my licence with great interest. "It has your picture!" "Of course it has. Hasn't yours?" Obviously not. And I remember that in the UK it is a matter of dispute whether it is legal to make people have picture IDs.

I must never take anything for granted.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Where have all those days gone?

When I haven't blogged for a while it's either because nothing has happened or because too much has happened. I can't believe it has been two weeks! Where are they? What have I been doing? Get out my calendar. Anton came to visit and we had a wonderful time together, at least I had a wonderful time, he may think something else. When we went to Ely to climb the Octagon tower, we were the only ones, so we got a very special treatment and were shown some secret passages not normally included in the tour. It rained torrents when we were inside the tower and just cleared up for a moment when we got out on the roof. Then it started raining again as we left the Cathedral, so Anton was forcibly introduced to the noble art of genuine English afternoon tea, with scones and jam and cream and all. Even though he had coffee rathen than tea. We also went to London and saw "War Horse" which was stunning. We never had time to discuss it properly though, because Anton stayed on in London to meet his American friends, and then they came to Cambridge and stayed with us, which was wonderful too. I am so happy to see my children staying in touch with their old classmates and other old friends.

Then Anton left for Paris, and Staffan came home, and suddenly summer is over and the new term has started - not quite really, but there are meetings, meetings, meetings, zillions of emails, course readers, sample exams, last-minute changes. Two weeks ago I was telling myself and the world: back in the old country, classes have started, and I still have six weeks to go. Not any more. I am right in the middle of it and as busy as a year ago, but fortunately not as confused. I am looking forward to the new academic year. It speaks volumes.

Friday, 28 August 2009


This time of year, as long back as I can remember, we've had a family crayfish party. It is almost as sacred as Christmas in Sweden. I have pictures of my father, younger than I am now, holding two huge crayfish, and baby Julia beside him. Photos of our crayfish parties have followed the expansion of our family; high chairs disappeared and reappeared when the grandchildren came; more tables had to be added; the amount of crayfish grew every year as did the number of beer bottles after our sons reached the drinking age. Not everybody could come every year, and we missed two years altogether when we lived in California. But this is the first time there will be a crayfish party, and I am not there. It feels as if I am absent from my own birthday party. (Honestly, I did consider flying over for just one day). I hear reports from the old country about preparations - this year Anton is hosting it. It seems that everybody is coming...

On the other hand, I have always wanted to give my children solid family traditions to take further whenI am no longer around.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

A collector's joys

I have never been a real collector. I collected poststamps when I was a child. I collected something as trivial as animals and plants, but I didn't like it when adults gave me pretty sets of stamps from a bookstore. The whole point of collecting was to seek, find, get hold of. Not own. (Tove Jansson has a wonderful passage on this). What I really regret is that I didn't listen to my mother who, when I was seven or so, suggested that I should collect musicians' autographs. Given the musical circles I grew up in, it would have been a formidable collection. Probably worth a fortune by now.

I collect Alice in Wonderland in different translations and with different illustrations (donations welcome). But I don't collect sytematically, and I would never pay fancy prices for a rare edition.

Maybe I am just not a natural collector.

For a while, I collected coffee grinders. I had perhaps two dozen. But there aren't that many varieties of coffee grinders, so I was soon satisfied - but also dissatisfied by owning, not collecting. Besides, you cannot do much with coffee grinders except put them on a shelf to gather dust. So when I gave away all coffee grinders I decided to collect something one could actually use.

I collect a very special Swedish china from the famous Rörstrand china factory. The set called Gröna Anna, Green Anna, was first produced in 1898, and some of the old pieces are still in circulation. You can tell by the stamps. The set was also produced between 1966 and 2002, but in a slightly different design.

I started by buying a set of plates in a thrift shop, but all the rest I get from eBay. For quite a long time I studied the market, to see what was available and what the reasonable prices were. Sometimes you get incredible bargains in eBay. And it's amazing how much you learn just by discovering the names and uses of various china pieces. Do you know what a cabaret is? Don't look it up on the web, it's not there. But a good old dictionary will tell you.

By now I have a full set of everyday pieces: plates, soup plates, side plates, tea cups, coffee cups, mugs, egg cups, a milk jug, a cream jug, a sugar bowl, dishes, bowls. But I also have quite a few of the older things, and here the collector's instinct comes in. For some reason, certain pieces are very rare. Like the said cabaret - I've only seen it once in two years, and there is a limit to how much I am prepared to pay. But how exciting! Another piece that I've only seen twice is an extremely sweet hexagonal jug. Now, after two years, I finally got one. I paid slightly more than I had intended, because I knew they were so rare. The problem is, Swedish eBay normally doesn't ship overseas, so I use Julia's address, much to her irritation. This time the seller called to say she'd discovered some cracks in the jug and would ship it free if I still wanted it. Then she called again to say that she'd discovered more defects and would give it away if I just paid the postage. So now I have this very old, very rare, very cracked and pretty jug for almost nothing. That's the true collectors delight. My next coveted object is a saladier.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Alone and lonely

Some years ago a friend explained to me the difference between loneliness and solitude. It occurred to me then that the two other languages I use for mental activity, Russian and Swedish, do not make the distinction. Talk about how language affects mentality.

I have never enjoyed being alone, but I have eventually learned to appreciate solitude. Staffan has gone to the old country, and I am going to make the most of it. Small things I just never get around to, not because he is against them, but simply because there are so many other things.

But first of all I must mow the lawn. This was Staffan's farewell message to me. And here is the first benefit of solitude: I can mow the lawn exactly as I wish. So I do it in neat boustophedon. (If you don't know what boustrophedon is, look it up, so that you at least will have learned something totally useless from my blog. I learned it at school, and it has obviously stuck, but it isn't a word that gives you scores at a cocktail party).

Then I tidy up the greenhouse. I probably won't have time for the greenhouse until spring, but this is the luxury of solitude: do something completely unnecessary. Then I realise that I have missed lunch by three hours. I am not sure whether it is a benefit or a disadvantage of solitude.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Kitchen concerns

When we bought the house in the Old Country - goodness, twenty-seven years ago! - there was one thing we were definitely dissatisfied with and determined to improve: kitchen. It was shabby, which you can improve by painting the fronts, but it was also small, which we intended to improve by building on. Well, in order not to sound as if I were complaining, we had other priorities. But at one point, six years ago, I just could not stand it any more. The improvement included pulling down walls, closets and a whole staircase well. While this was being done, I found a kitchen designer who did not laugh at the sketch of my bizarre kitchen, with all those angles and a pillar to hold up the roof. She did a marvelous job, using every single little nook, filling my kitchen with details I didn't know I wanted and persuading me to get an induction hob that Staffan soon fell in love with.

Incidentally, Staffan went away to southern France for the whole duration of reconstruction.

I am not looking back to this lost kitchen. I did enjoy it for five years. But I am not waiting another twenty years. Not even ten or five years. I will be one of those crazy people who get a new kitchen twice within six years.

I've had a session with a kitchen designer who was impressed by my profound knowledge of modern kitchens. I won his deep respect when he realised that I knew how to take care of solid wood worktops. I won his infinite admiration when I chose the appliances.

When we were finished and he printed out the draft, I realised that I was recreating the kitchen from the old country. I am not sure it's wise, but so it will be.

Today, a surveyor came to check whether my measurements were correct. The Swedish designer never doubted it. But I glad they did. Shame to have missed a few inches to discover that a cabinet doesn't fit in. They also checked the electricity and plumbing. There were many new words I didn't even try to understand. The man was incredibly patient.

So, with some luck, I will have a new kitchen by Christmas. I am sure Staffan will enjoy a lengthy holiday in France.

Old dream to be restored

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Digging for treasure

I guess eerybody knows this parable about the father who leaves his son a garden saying that somewhere in the garden there is a hidden treasure. The son digs up the garden, finds no treasure, but tends the garden, gets wealthy on the products and finally realises what his father had in mind.

I think a lot about this story as I exterminate a useless, quite unaesthetic shrubbery to give room for raspberry plants.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

What did you learn in school today?

I have realised that I have missed a very important date. On the 10th of August it was exactly a year since I came to Cambridge. Time for some reflections. How has it been? What have I learned?

Now I think I can admit - to myself and to everybody: it hasn't been easy. The understatement of the year. The first months were agony. I knew there was no way back, and it was all my own fault, and some days I was so desperate that... that what? Just desperate. And while Staffan was happily exploring the pubs and the supermarkets, I was learning a new language, the new language of this new place, the ways and habits, the dos and donts, walking on the edge all the time. Many thanks to all the wonderful people who supported me, perhaps even unknowingly. Many thanks to Staffan, without whom... what? Many thanks to people back in the old country who, I think, believed in me. I couldn't let them down, could I?

Things got better soon. I started feeling more confident at work, learned the jargon and the abbreviations, made more friends, found my way to the dining hall. I think that moving into this house was a turning point. Maybe it just coincided with everything else that started getting better.

Looking back, I wonder why I was so unhappy. Or maybe I wasn't unhappy, just anxious and apprehensive. Maybe it was normal. Some people kept telling me it was normal. It doesn't feel better because you know it is normal.

Today I can without reservation say that I am absolutely happy. Is it normal?

"Rena känslosås" - sorry, I cannot find an adequate translation into English.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Nostalgic trip

In 1981, the International Research Society for Children's Literature (IRSCL) had its biennial conference in Moscow. I was employed as an interpreter, and I was the only one among the interpreters that was interested in children's literature. The others saw no difference between literature, finance or chemistry. At that conference, I met all the big stars in world child lit research, but they were all - like stars - distant and inaccessible. Yet two years later, in 1983, I participated in the next conference, in Bordeaux, as a full-fledged member. Another ten years, and I was the President.

I have just returned from the IRSCL conference in Frankfurt. For various reasons, I hadn't been to these conferences for ten years, and it was 40 years since the organisation was founded, so everybody was there. People from the many, many periods of my professional life. People I met in Moscow when I was jack-of-all-trades. People I met in Bordeaux when I was a little intimidated student who gave her worthless paper at the very last session of the very last day. People with whom I served on the Board and shared many a cherished memory. People whom I'd encouraged to join the organisation and attend the conferences. People I have visited as a guest lecturer, and people who came to visit me. People whom I had met regularly for the past twenty-five years. People I hadn't met for twenty-five years.

They have all become slightly older. I guess I have also become slightly older.

The conference organisers had, among many other instructions, told us not to kiss or hug because of swine flu. Nobody cared. It was one big hug all over. Introducing people to each other. Being introduced. My usual fear that people don't remember me. At one point I saw the Scholar, the Keynote Speaker, in the crowd. There were so many people and so many parallel sessions that you could easily miss people you really wanted to meet. I was sure the Scholar didn't remember me, so I decided to approach her when the current speech was over, saying: "You may not remember me but we met at..." As soon as the speech was over, she threw herself in my arms: "I am SO GLAD to see you".

Friday, 24 July 2009


The ironing board that I brought from the old country broke down. The cover started oozing some fishy liquid that damaged the clothes, and the board itself crumbed into tiny particles that spread all over the utility room and beyond. Reluctant as I am to throw things away, especially the faithful things from the old country, I planned to get a new cover, but never got round to it. Staffan took the initiative and bought a new ironing board at Tesco. I don't think he ruined the family's economy.

I don't normally iron a lot, apart from an occasional skirt or blouse, but I do iron table cloths. I love the crispy touch of a newly ironed table cloth. The thing is, when I have washed one after a fancy dinner, I never have time to iron it and so store it away after a few days or weeks, and when I want it again for another fancy dinner I always discover that it needs ironing. This is how I inaugurated the new ironing board today.

I couldn't help feeling sad about the old one, waiting in the garage to be transported to the dump - sorry, recycling station. Sooner or later, things from the old country will be replaced. When we no longer have any appliances with European plugs I will feel truly naturalised.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


The Faculty secretary has asked us to indicate exactly which days in July-September ("research period", not vacations) we are available to be contacted at home and which days we are definitely out of touch. I have long ago stopped being amazed at the local customs, so I ticked the appropriate boxes and sent in the form thinking this was for statistical or whatever other purposes. Not so. I am a member of the Senior Management Team. I have been allocated a week to be second in turn to lead the Faculty in case of emergency.

Monday, 20 July 2009

In the English Garden

Last Saturday we went to the University Garden Party, celebrating the 800th anniversary. There had been much ado about the tickets, since there were "only" ten thousand of these, and it wasn't on first-come-first-served basis, neither professors first, but completely random choice on application, no more than four tickets per employee, and only immediate family. (I did hear later that there were merely 8,000 tickets applied for). The venue was Botanic Garden. You were supposed to inform the organisers about your transportation - clever, just imagine ten thousand people trying to park by the Botanic Garden. You were also supposed to bring you id. The instructions further included prohibition to climb trees, but encouragement to bring alcoholic beverages "in reasonable amounts".

This sounds absurd, but I wouldn't miss a party that is only given every 800 years!

On arrival - after id control - we were given a blue picnic backpack with university logo, containing, as promised, sandwiches, fruit, cake, crisps and some fishy power drinks. We had our own alcohol in reasonable amounts. We managed to find a picnic table and chewed our crisps for a while, surrounded by people of all ages and nationalities, with whom Staffan tried to make conversations in their languages, to their dismay. On consulting the program, we stated that there would be a choir perfomance and a brass band performance, but we could do without face painting or plant pressing. During the brass concert, small flags were distributed, featuring all college crests. The audience, sitting in small groups on the lawn around their picnics, waved the flags frantically. Some people were genuinely worried that there wouldn't be enough flags for them.

We never used our free coffee vouchers. (Frankly, we never ate the sandwiches nor drank the drinks. We brought them home for the kids).

In the bus queue on the way home, there were many blue backpacks. I bet we'll be seeing them everywhere for a while.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Never a book again!

There are recurrent moments in my professional life when I wish I did something else instead. Every now and then I publish a book, and each time I have to compile an index. There is software available for indexing, and every publisher warns against using it. Quite right. An indexing software doesn't know that "princess" can sometimes be a literary term, but not all princesses should otherwise be in the index. It cannot figure out that when I am discussing reading and writing, the leading word should be literacy, nor that "masculine" and "feminine" are aspects of "gender", while mothers and fathers are parents in the context. It cannot conceive of metamorphosis being a title as well as a notion. And it surely cannot distinguish between C S Lewis and Lewis Carroll. Anyway, publishers require that authors compile indices manually. They don't do it themselves because it is incredibly time-consuming and would cost them a fortune. Once I was so totally busy at the time when indexing was requested (and as anyone who has published a book knows, proofs and indices always arrive when you least want them, for instance when grandchildren are visiting, and I have a pile of theses to mark) that I asked the publisher to do it and deduce the costs from my royalties. This was the most useless index I've seen.

Therefore, every time this happens I swear solemnly to never, never ever write another book.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Cambridge entertainment

Two of the grandchildren are visiting. On Saturday, I went to Heathrow to pick them up. Remembering my experience of being stuck in a train for an hour, I have a wide margin, but this time half of the underground lines are closed. Not Picadilly line to Heathrow though, yet it does mean more crowds. The flight from Sockholm is half an hour early, so I barely have time to grab a cup of coffee.

Filip is an experienced traveller and has seen the major London sights with me. Viktor has never been to London and has some vague ideas of what is available. I decide to take a sightseeing bus to cover everything there is to see at one go. The guide comes with a lot of sophisticated jokes that are wasted on my companions. Eventually it gets boring, but by this time it is too late in the afternoon to go to any of the attractions (Tower or Madame Tussaud), so we take a boat trip under light drizzle, admire Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross and make our way to Cambridge.

I have not prepared too well for the visit, but I know there is a fair on Sunday. We got a glimpse of it on the way from the railway station. Now, the boys are spoilt by the huge grounds in Stockholm and Gothenburg, and I warn them so that they aren't disappointed. But actually the fair is not bad. There are rides and games for all tastes (some are of the kind that make me sick by the very look of them), food market, flea market, ice cream, candy floss and a stage with very loud music. People have picnics sitting on the grass. The boys can do what they want - this is what grandmothers are for. I just remember to keep some change so that we can take a bus home. They get hamburgers and soft drinks for lunch. They win soft toys. As the very last treat, we buy a flea-market croquet set. This is a strike of genius. The rest of the day back home in Milton is saved.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Wholly British?

This is my new car.

No, this is my old car with new licence plates.

Now nobody can see that I am an alien.

On the other hand, I still have the wheel on the wrong side.

Monday, 6 July 2009

I spent this weekend in Bristol, at a conference devoted to Diana Wynne Jones. It is not common to have a whole scholarly conference on one single writer, at least not a living writer (there are surely tons of conferences on Shakespeare). The huge advantage is that everybody knows what everybody is talking about. You don't have to give a plot summary or explain who is who and how the story is constructed. You are not concerned about spoilers. The disadvantage is the same. Everybody knows what everybody is talking about. Everybody has read every single book - or almost. Everybody has an opinion on every book. Mostly, opinions are the same. Occasionally slightly different. In some rare cases, a new angle is taken. But everybody loves the author. Most people refer to her as "Diana" as if she were their best friend (in some cases it is true). Half of the conversations go along the lines of: "And which is your favourite? Which was your first?" It is inconceivable to confess that you actually don't like this or that book. You could be lynched.

I give my paper toward the end of the conference. I have chosen to talk about one of the most recent books, TheGame, that hasn't yet been discussed extensively. There is only one more paper on the same book. The other presenter and I have been in contact to make sure we don't overlap. We do. I speak after her and have to add every now and then: "As you have just heard..." Generally, I feel very much like walking out, because every aspect of my paper has in some way already been touched upon. On the other hand, the audience is engaged and asks clever questions. No awkward silence when the moderator says: "Any questions?"

Otherwise, Howl's Moving Castle is the most popular book at the conference. I wonder why. Can it be the movie? It is not my favourite book by Jones, and I don't find it particularly gratifying to discuss, as compared to many others. A lot is published on it already. And nobody even talks about the film adaptation as such. But apparently the movie effect is there.

Speaking of movies: in the evenings, we watch a BBC series of Archer's Goon. With Korean subtitles.

If I have learned something at this conference it is the fault of my usual neglect of writers' biographies. I have missed a very important dimension of my favourite author. Diana Wynne Jones spent her childhood in Thaxted.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

On the other side of the table

A little more than a year ago I sat at a table facing a row of people on the other side. I was being interviewed for a job. Now the role is reversed. I am sitting on one side of the table with a colleague, and we are interviewing. I wonder if people who interviewed me felt as frustrated as I feel now. Candidates that look so promising on paper turn out worthless. The least appealing candidate is the best. As we listen, we both know that we will reject this particular candidate, who is certainly doing her best, but we need to go through the interview (unlike those talent quests on tv where the judges push a button and say "Out!"). We score them according to the many criteria we have set up ourselves. The equations don't quite work. We are not supposed to read recommendation letters before the interviews. I don't see why this would matter. I've written recommendation letters myself.

At least when I was interviewed I only had to wait overnight. Since we are interviewing more people next week, the pour souls will not know the results until then. What a ruthless world we live in.

In a week's time, a phone will ring, and the lucky one will hear: "You've got the job".

Saturday, 27 June 2009

Home to Sweden

Everybody keeps asking us when we are going home to Sweden for summer. (Nobody asks if we are going to Sweden). A legitimate question. The Swedes I know here all go home for summer.

We don't have a home in Sweden. We have a home in Cambridge. Going to Sweden is going away from home.

This reminds me of my previous move, and I try to remember at what point I stopped speaking of Moscow as "home". Being torn between two places is hard. Yet I remember answering the question: "Don't you long back to Russia" by saying: "I have my beloved in Sweden, I have my children in Sweden, I have my job in Sweden, I have planted trees in Sweden. Sweden is home". I have written a short story about it (published and performed as a summer play in Lund Cathedral).

I won't be torn between two places again. The children are grownups now and have a life of their own. They come and visit us. I have my beloved in Cambridge, I have my job in Cambridge, and I have planted trees in Cambridge. Well, a rose bush.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Can it be still more complicated?

I have praised myself for finally understanding the assessment system in Cambridge. Could I be more wrong? I haven't even started, judging from my respected colleague's blog.

Working from home

In my youth, the worst curse was to have to go to work. My father was a composer, my mother an art critic. She was employed at the Academy of Art research center that met for an hour every week or so; there were no offices, and everybody worked where and when they pleased, as long as academic achievements could be displayed. My granny was a music teacher and gave private lessons at home, and my grandfather was a professor of music and spend at least half of his working time at home, practicing and preparing for lectures. Most of my parents' friends were free artists too. I was brought up with the idea that whatever job you get, make sure it doesn't involve going to work.

My first job was at a research center, and we also had a meeting every week and no offices, not even a desk for each of us.

When I came to Sweden and started on my PhD, it was long before a working place and a computer was an undisputable right for a research student. I had small children and was only happy to be at home and dispose of my own time as it suited me best.

Even when I had a three-year postdoc grant from a research council, my department head signed the form containing the item "Working space will be provided" with a sarcastic comment: "You know you can't count on that".

When I started teaching, I shared an office with three other people, and only at the Associate Professor's level (that's Reader in the UK) did I advance to a room of my own. I only used it for supervisions and to store the superfluous books. All creative work was done at home.

Or from home, as I now have learned to say.

The disadvantage of working from home is that you lose the sense of time. Everybody used to say I had a fantastic self-discipline, not wasting time on domestic chores or just hanging around. My problem was the opposite: I worked so much that I neglected home, apparently even neglecting the children and my own health. Hanging around has never been my priority.

As I moved to Cambridge, I started a new life, working in the office and never taking any work home. It has been a very pleasant experience. I almost understand my old PhD students who said they didn't submit chapters in time because their offices were being painted. Are you used to working in the office, it must be hard to work from home.

But I have not completely forgotten the art. I have now worked from home in a couple of days. I don't feel the same guilt if I don't check my email, so I can work on my own stuff uninterrupted. I can do some weeding or cooking when I need a break. I can even take a whole day off and catch up on a Saturday.

I am still my old self.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

T-shirt privilege

Tomorrow, I can wear a T-shirt to work if I want to. It will cost me £2 which go to charity. Last autumn, we had a jeans day. Jeans privilege was more extravagant, £10.

I am not quite sure where the border goes between a T-shirt and a top. I have been wearing tops all the time, for free.

Since I am not going to the office tomorrow, I don' t have to make a decision.

Sunday, 21 June 2009


I have until recently only encountered the word "herbaceous" in "Spotted and Herbaceous Backson" in Winnie-the-Pooh. I guess I have never even thought it was a real word, more like Woozle and Wizzle. Now that I have seen a herbaceous border at Anglesea Abbey I not only know what it is, but also that I have never really understood how to plant flowers. I have always mixed sorts and colours. But both at Anglesea and all the wonderful college gardens, flowers are planted in groups to produce bright patches of colours constrasting against each other.

I took my friend Alyona to a garden centre to buy some border flowers. She suggested buying seasonal, because, she said, "you can plant a new pattern every year". I didn't tell her she knew nothing about gardening, but she realised it afterwards. She thought the humongous amount of plants I bought would last three times over the garden. As it was, it was just about enough for two inside lengths of house and a tiny Herbaceous Border by the pond. She hadn't thought seasonal flowers had to be purchased anew every year. She hadn't thought it takes a lot of time and effort to plant them.

Today I took another trip to the garden centre and bought just a much as last time. Both seasonal and perennial.

There is a very good reason for planting seasonal. What you see is what you get.

Friday, 19 June 2009

Out of sync

It is a holiday in Sweden today. Midsummer. All our friends are in the country or in the archipelago. Here, it has been an ordinary, quite busy working day. I remember this from San Diego. It is amazing how quckly you forget the old calendar.

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Hard decisions

I have frequently served as a referee for promotions and appointments all over the world. Promotions are easy: you warmly recommend a colleague, and someone else makes a decision. With appointments, you have to rank the applicants, and at least in Sweden you have to read all their scholarly production, and it takes literally months!

But so far I have never been in a position to actually hire someone. We are hiring a research assistant or associate for a project. We have received an internal research grant which, like so many grants, cannot be used for anything sensible. I once had a grant for "preparatory research activitites" which in practice could only be used to pay for people's lunches. I've had several proper grants which meant that I did my research full-time for three years with generous travel and expenses allowance. In this case, we cannot do that. We have some money for lunches and travel, but the bulk is to hire a research assistant who will do all the work while we go on with our teaching and routine tasks. Such is academic life. Imagine, to have someone you can tell to search for sources or describe the methods or do footnotes and all the boring bits. (No, there are no boring bits in research. I would never trust anyone to search for sources).

Anyway, we have advertised for a position and received 29 applications. It's horrible to have all these people's lives in my hands. For them, it's a bifurcation point. A lifetime opportunity. For me, just someone to do my footnotes.

I have looked through the applications, and I have a favourite. But we will have to go through the whole procedure: shortlist, request references, interview. See Mary Beard again. (She has become an academic beacon for me).

Monday, 15 June 2009

Catch 22

To register a car, you need to have paid car tax. To pay car tax, you need to have registered the car.

To open a bank account, you need a bank account statement with your name and address.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

On almost everything

I wish I could say that I haven't written my blog all this time because nothing of interest has happened. That's what they say in fictitious diaries to make them sound authentic: "June 13: Nothing happened today". In my case, too much has happened. I simply have been too busy, and I don't even know where to start. Like Mary Beard, I have been drowned in exams, wondering whether the system is truly fair or plain crazy. Whatever it is, I must accept it. I have attended a workshop on how to apply for research grants. I've been to yet another Formal Hall. I have interviewed prospective students. Mostly, I have been exploring Cambridge anew with my childhood friend Alyona who came to visit from Moscow, so I pretended I was working from home, and we went to Ely and Saffron Walden and Thaxsted, and, can you imagine, discovered many things that Staffan and I didn't notice the first time. In Ely we climbed the Octagon tower and learned everything about how it was built, and in Thaxsted we got a glimpse of Morris dance and went inside the mill, and in Saffron Walden we went into every antique shop, which Staffan otherwise effectively prevents me from doing. In Anglesea Abbey we noted how the herbacious border was made, to reproduce it on a modest scale. We walked around in Cambridge, visited colleges, went punting, listened to Evensong in King's Chapel, did all the tourist things and a lot more. We even did some very successful shopping. We also fought ivy and brambles in my garden. Somehow, it goes twice as quickly and is tenfold more fun four-handed.

In the middle of all this, we had our second housewarming party, which we chose to celebrate on the Swedish national holiday, June 6. We served a wide variety of herring which everyone finds exotic, and some other things I pretended were genuinely Swedish. We didn't mean to play the national anthem, but the guests more or less demanded it. I think everyone had fun. I had fun. They say the hostess is not supposed to enjoy her own party, but I don't care.

We've had visits from the gas man and the plumber and a delivery from IKEA and many other exciting events. We have seen a Fierce Animal in our garden. Today, Luke the gardener scarified our lawn. Not sacrificed (although it feels so), not scarred (it definitely looks so), and if he scared someone it was me, not the lawn.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Bank holiday

Bank holidays is a euphemism for anything that might be offensive. It is obviously offensive - for radically different reasons - to call them May Day and Ascension, as they are still called in The Old Country, but there have always been holidays in May, so therefore there are two Bank holidays in May. I don't mind. What we call a rose...

My dear friend Jean celebrated her 60th birthday on Sunday, so we went to her cottage in Herefordshire. The weather was gorgeous, and everybody had fun, as it should be at a birthday party. We stayed at The Green Man Inn in Fownhope, which boasts of being 15th century, and there are perhaps bits of it that old. It was nice anyway, and the man in the reception spoke a very genuine dialect.

In the morning we went to the International Birds of Prey Centre, just a half-hour drive from where we were. Staffan had been there before, about fifteen years ago(when it still was National), and had been talking about it ever since. I have seen other raptor demonstrations, both in Sweden and in San Diego, and it is always amazing. Even so I felt ambivalent. It's fantastic to watch falcons, owls and eagles in flight. But it is horrible to see them roped to their pegs. The broschure describes how happy they are, and how they are exercised every day and get food. But when I saw an eagle trying to fly from his perch, with a three-foot rope holding him back, I almost cried.

The Centre offers "experience days": you can get to know some birds, train them, maybe even fly them. You can choose between falcons, hawks and owls. I know what I want for my 60th birthday.

Friday, 22 May 2009


In the old country, life was simple. I had a group of third-year students ("Part II" in Cantabrigian) whom I supervised; they wrote their papers ("essays"), I approved them; the paper was put on the web for everyone's perusal; the students presented their work in peer-reviewed public defence; I gave them a grade and reported it to the course administrator who typed them into the computer system. In the near future, we would type them in ourselves.

I remember hearing my Anglo-Saxon colleagues complaining about the massive amount of marking and wondering what the problem was.

Now I know.

Our Part II (year three) students submitted their essays (papers), neatly printed out and bound, in a single copy, to the course administrator. We are five markers from the course team. The course administrator sorted the essays randomly in five piles. I went to collect mine, and Morag asked me to collect hers while I was there. I had to sign out our piles, and the administrator was a bit suspicious. Three days later we are all supposed to pass on our marked essays to the next marker. In person. It is absolutely forbidden to use pigeonholes! On a cover sheet, with the student's code instead of name (who are we fooling?), we have to write some comments to justify the mark, which is both a rather enigmatic number and a per cent (that is, each number has a range of ten per cent). I have received my bundle for second marking and managed to resist the temptation of reading the first marker's comments before coming up with my own judgement. I must admit that having the first mark gives you more confidence.

After we are done we are to return the papers - sorry, I mean essays, to the course coordinator, in this case Morag. She will compare the marks and, I guess, calculate the average. If there is a huge disagreement, there will be a third marker.

Meanwhile, the students will also sit an exam which we will mark in the same procedure. Then Morag will calculate the final mark, of which the paper - I mean, essay - weights 30% and the exam the rest. I hope there is software for these intricate compputations. Papers and exams are returned to the course administator together with the report. Then the whole lot goes to the examination board.

The system is foolproof, just and time-consuming. I wonder whether the results would be radically differfent if we all marked our own supervisees' work.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Garden of Eden

There are many things I can do myself about the house, and that I enjoy doing (I am still going around drilling holes and filling other holes that I don't want). There are other things that I cannot do such as plumbing. I tried and failed, so now we are waiting for a plumber to come and fix it. I cannot do electricity, and although Staffan has performed miracles with English plugs neither of us dares putting up ceiling lamps, so we are waiting for an electrician to come and do that. We are also waiting for a gas man to inspect our oven. (I know it sounds like a song by Flanders & Swann).

I have been forced to admit that I cannot trim hedges. They are too big and too many and you need special tools, and I have always told myself that I do gardening for fun and not as a heavy duty. So now we also have a gardener. I stayed home today to meet him because, apart from trimming hedges, I wanted his advice on many enigmas of my garden. Because the climate is different, I am not familiar with half of the plants and trees and shrubs, and those I am familiar with are also different. I don't know whether something coming out of the earth is a weed or a very precious exotic flower. I don't know what must be pruned and when.

The gardener is very young. His name is Luke. He listens patiently to my silly questions. We go around the garden, and more or less everything has to be pruned, trimmed or exterminated. Especially the ivy. The ivy that is so pretty. "Yes, says Luke, you keep something because it looks pretty, and then it smothers everything else".

Suddenly I realise that what's to be done in the garden, the minimum of what's to be done, will demand my full attention seven days a week for months and months. And the temptation to let Luke do the job comes creeping over me, just like it happened with the floors.

We agree that he will come for a whole day, do the hedges and whatever else must be done urgently. He even promises to get rid of the dandelions for me. Unfortunately, he won't have time until two-three weeks from now.

I should really go to work after that, or at least sit down and write the review I have been trying to write for the past few day. Instead, I put on my gardening gloves and attack the ivy. Now I know: dandelions are child's play. Even brambles are easy as compared to ivy. As I cut myself into a large conifere completely overgrown by ivy, Staffan comes out with a phone. It's Luke. He is coming on Saturday. I think he has reconsidered his priorities.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Unnecessary things

Today we bought a coat stand. You may say that a coat stand is not the most important thing when there are so many other things in a new house to fix, but it is important. It is something the guests see first, and it is also something you use every day. In the old country, we had inherited clothes racks with the house and never changed them. I tried when we had major repairs, but Staffan said they were perfectly fine, and I guess I had other battles to fight then. So we lived over twenty five years with exceedingly ugly clothes racks that we got used to and took no notice of. I wonder what our guests thought.

At Water Street we had no hallway, so I put up hooks for our winter clothes by the front door, but I didn't have my power tool then, so the hooks soon fell down, and I didn't bother to put them up again. We had our coats thrown over a stool.

Any piece of furniture is subject to negotiations, and sometimes we end up with a compromise, that is, something neither of us particularly likes. But I don't want any temporary solutions this time. There is nothing more permanent than a temporary solution.

We go to a store that we have passed by many times, and lo! there is a coat stand in the window, exactly the kind I want, like we had when I was a child, with curved athlers for hats. And apparently Staffan also had one in his childhood home. We look at each other, then at the price tag and back to each other, and nod.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

A trip to Ely

Many years ago, in my previous-previous life, there was a book exhibition in Moscow organized by the British Council, an exhibition of children's books. Since English books at large and especially children's books were hard to find, I spent day after day there, not just browsing through books but actually reading them. That's how I first read Tom's Midnight Garden - crouched by the exhibit case, with my winter coat on, oblivious of the noise around. Tom's Midnight Garden is one of the best books in the world. One of the central scenes takes place in Ely (when I read the book in Moscow, I had no idea where Ely was and still less that I would one day see it). The two characters come to Ely skating on the river, the year of the Big Frost. And that's how it goes:

"From the river... Ely's tower plays a game with the traveller. Hatty and Tom skated and skated, and for a long time the tower seemed to let them come no nearer, but performed a mysterious movement instead, now to one side, now to the other, now ahead, according to the windings of the river."

We do not come to Ely by the river, but the road winds too, and the tower plays its game just as Philippa Pearce describes it.

We come to Ely to write poetry and draw. It's part of the collaboration between our children's literature masters and the students at Anglia Ruskin University doing children's books illustration. I can neither draw nor write poetry, but I think it is a marvelous idea. Just let myself be engulfed by the colossal building, take time to look at details, read the inscriptions, touch, listen, smell... Yes, smell the strong smell of lilies, the only flower I am violently allergic to. Brought abruptly back to earth by the smell. My poem is inspired by the flower arrangement instead of the 900-year-old walls.

The art students say thay cannot write, and the literature students say they cannot draw. In the end, everyone has done both, and after a genuine English tea with scones we share our work. I can't remember when I had an inspirational day like this.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

In front of the gate

Yesterday I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. I was invited to the annual dinner at St John's, an event called Ante portam latinam, St John's Day. Invitation card specification: "Black tie, academic dress, doctors wear scarlet". I only own one evening dress, and I am not allowed to wear scarlet, because I don't have a degree from Cambridge. But a combination of evening dress and academic gown was enough for me. That is, untill I saw all those other people in scarlet. I guess I have seen pictures, but to see it in real life... The preprandials were served in Master's Garden, one of those esoteric spaces that common mortals have no access to (a simple tour of St John's is impressive enough). The male dominance was tangible, and the average age high. And the splendour beyond anything imaginable. Not least in the dining hall, and there was a proper grace, not the short version, and there was a choir. Table conversation was radiant, the six course meal exquisite, the wine selection refined. Coffee was served in Combination Room, with a separate table placement. To say I was awed would be the understatement of the century. Now I feel I've had a real taste of Cambridge. Or is it just a game?

Monday, 4 May 2009

A whole new world

For nine months we have lived without television. When we came to Water Street we found a letter addressed to "The new occupant" with a polite, but firm request to pay the tv licence. When we didn't, a phone call followed, Staffan explaining that we didn't have a tv. They threatened to send controllers, whereupon Staffan wondered whether these would like coffee or tea. After that, we were left in peace.

I am not a tv watcher and have never been. News, sport, serials - none of this is of any interest for me. I admit it's a serious mental defficiency. A movie every now and then, nature programs, but if there aren't any I don't miss them. We had tv in California, and I don't remember ever watching it.

Recently, in the old country, Anton seduced me into Lovefilm and set up a list of movies he insisted I must see. From his selection I disliked perhaps one or two. He knows me well. But he is a filmmaker, and the quality of our old tv didn't satisfy him. We bought that set just before flat tv came, so it was outdated almost from start. It had a large screen, which meant it was also huge in itself. When Staffan had bought it and taken it home, we lifted it to put it on the stand and dropped it. In such cases you are glad you've taken insurance.

Anyroad, when Anton was here he investigated the market and told me exactly what I wanted. HD and BR and all those fancy things that are indispensible if you want to watch Planet Earth the way it is supposed to be watched. Since today is bank holiday all shops open earlier, and we went as early as possible to avoid crowds (ha-ha!). My strategy when buying things I don't understand is pretending to be still more stupid than I am, so I told the charming young sales assistant that somebody had chosen a package for me. In fact, I was still more stupid than I pretended to be because I hadn't even written down the make. I just said: "You have this offer for so and so much". She had incredible patience. Apparently had dealt with dumb customers before. She explained the difference between this and that. She answered my repeated imbecile questions. Staffan told her I was a professor. I am afraid she now has a very low opinion of professors. But two hours later and a substantial sum of money poorer we came home with our purchases. I had asked whether a stupid person like me would be able to connect the tv, and she ensured me that I would. So I did.

I am proud of myself. Anyone can hold inaugural lectures, but I have never ever in my life connected a tv or connected a player to a tv. The kids once showed me which button to push to play a movie, and every now and then I had to phone them because I had forgotten. But after a few attempts, where I had to make choices the meaning of which was all Greek to me, I managed to get all the 89 channels (why 89?), and I managed to identify the HDMI sockets (no idea what that means either, but both Anton and the salesgirl told me it was what I wanted) and make the tv and the player communicate.

Tonight I will watch a movie.

Sunday, 3 May 2009


I worked in the back garden today, pruning the shrubs and generally trying to make it look like a garden rather than a jungle. When I wanted to show Staffan the view from what is now slowly becoming my study, I saw an intruder lying just at the spot that I had cleared. Staffan fetched Miso who produced some miserable tones and went away, pretending that she wasn't at all interested. The black cat stayed where he was, even when I went out through one of our many secret back doors. Obviously this is his territory.

Catching up

I feel I cannot just let it go, so here is the account. Last Wednesday, I had my inaugural lecture. A peak toward which my life had developed the past weeks, although I was pretending to be focused on the move and the new house. The inaugural lecture was my first big public appearance in Cambridge. Showing the colours. I cannot say I was nervous, but apprehensive. I had invited colleagues from all over the UK, knowing well that most of them wouldn't be able to come, but some did, and some that really mattered a lot to me.

Not least, Julia and Anton came. Staffan picked them up at Stansted last Tuesday, while I was at work, and by the time I came home they have been sufficiently impressed by the house. Yet instead of a quiet family evening I had to talk to the press. The university PR person had sent out a press release, and suddenly I was a Very Interesting Person. My topic is something that most people can relate to (which is why I had chosen it). Something most people understand - or think they do. BBC Today wanted me in the studio at 7 am the next day, but luckily called later to say that they had to cover swine flu instead. At that point, I was glad I didn't have to get up at dawn.

I didn't go to work until afternoon hoping people would understand. The day was excruciatingly long, but as usual, when it started it was over quickly. The auditorium was full, the questions sensible and everybody seemed happy. Some colleagues were impressed when they realised that the Swedish embassy was duly repesented. Most were impressed by the press coverage. Anyway, if anybody had regreted that they'd hired me, they have a good reason to be pleased now.

After the official reception at the Faculty we invited some friends home (apologizing for the mess, which by that time was almost negligible), blending people from different parts of my life, and again it seemed that everybody was enjoying themselves.

Next day Anton had to leave and Staffan took him to the airport, while Julia and I went to London on a mother/daughter bonding trip. First we went to some very special makeup store of which I had never heard, where Julia met a young shop assistant whom she had seen on YouTube (I was impressed). Then we turned cultural and went to Victoria and Albert, where we wanted to see an exhibition about hats, but missed it and instead studied carefully British 16th century furniture. I was especially pleased to have seen the Great Bed of Ware (because I am writing a little piece on beds in children's literature and have done some research). Then we saw the musical Wicked that was magnificent. We weren't back home until half past midnight.

On Friday we went to Anglesea Abbey, one of our local attractions. We had decided to be even more cultural and go to Evensong at King's Chapel, but Julia fell asleep, which perhaps was just as well. And yesterday we strolled around in the city, just the way we did she was here last, only it was a wonderful summer day, everything was open and full of people. And life just felt great.

Now the feast is over. Back to work! (But it stil feels great).

Friday, 1 May 2009

Words, words...

I lack words to describe it, so will just let someone else to do so.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

More friends

Rachel's son Nathaniel knows everything about Milton (and I am sure about many other things). He tells us that Old School Lane is an intersection with frogs' migration path. Every year, they cross the street, where the old ditch has been put under the tarmac, and are run over by hundreds. He inspects our pond and states that there are at least eight frogs there.

Cultural and social

My friend Rachel from Worcester has a son who just happens to live in Milton. Rachel and her husband Terry are visiting their son and daughter-in-law. Rachel tells me that there is a harpsichord concert at Milton All Saints church and wonders if Staffan and I would like to come. Now, you never know with Staffan (that's what makes it so exciting to live with him): he can say "Nonsense" or he can say "Wonderful". This time he says "Wonderful" so we walk to the church seeing other couples on their way, talk to a friendly man at the gate and enjoy two hours of marvelous music performed by a Cambridge professor. It is obvious that he does not expect the audience to be well informed about the French 17th century harpsichord music and therefore explains a lot, but I don't mind. He plays some of my great favourites. He plays well. In the break, coffee and tea is served, and we meet some of our new neighbours. They say the church is at least 1000 years old.

Afterwards Rachel and Terry come over for a cup of tea. They are our very first guests at Old School Lane.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Female power

There are lots of holes in our new house. Useful holes, with screws in them, on which you can hang pictures and shelves. The problem is that the existing holes do not match the places where I want my pictures and shelves. I can take away the screws and plaster over the holes. But I also need to make new holes, and my faithful little drill that I brought from the old country can't cope with masonry, as I discovered at Water Street. It feels a bit silly to buy a large drill just to make a few holes, but there is no other way. I don't know anyone here who owns a drill and will be willing to lend it out. (Maybe I underestimate my colleagues at the Faculty).

An electric chargeable drill is a Power Tool, says the manual. I am sure it is a normal way of saying it, but to my foreign ear it sounds - powerful. The manual explains how to take care of your Power Tool. How to care for your Power Tool. I feel powerful when I drill my first hole. I feel powerful when I drill my second hole. The drill is my magic wand, my magic sword. After this, I can do anything.

And yes, I know the psychoanalytical term for it.

Friday, 24 April 2009


Last Thursday I was once again invited to a Formal Hall, this time at the Lucy Cavendish College. "Gowns are worn". It has really been worth while investing in a gown!

Lucy Cavendish is a women-only college which is an interesting phenomenon that needs further contemplation.

The President of the College (sometimes it is called President, sometimes Principal, sometimes Master) is also a newcomer to Cambridge and has apparently wondered over the same things I have. Yet when it comes to The Bumps, in which the LC students are participating, I feel superior. No, the boats don't bump into each other, it's just a metaphor, as so much in Cambridge. I have actually seen how it is done, from my window at Water Street.

Back online

At long last we have telephone and internet here at Old School Lane. I was cleverly at work when this happened. There was no cable in the house, so they actually came and burried the cable along our driveway. We are back to civilisation. Maybe we will even get a television set.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Embraced by health

Among many other things, moving implies changing our doctor. We have just become friendly with our GP whom Morag recommended when we first came to Cambridge. Staffan has got really chummy with him, admiring his bike gear and discussing all kinds of unrelated subjects. I am intimitated by doctors, so I never say anything beyond the absolutely necessary. The necessary is in this case my repeated prescriptions, because I am otherwise remarkably healthy for my age.

British NHS is a fantastic institution. I have always been impressed by the Swedish health service (with my Soviet reference frames) and said that I am happy to pay taxes as long as I know what I get in exchange. But I seem to get more here. Health service is indeed free. Even my regular medication is free. (In Sweden, you need to reach a certain level of costs before it gets free). And it is efficient. I don't need to see a doctor if I have repeated prescription, I just order my drugs online and collect from my preferred pharmacy. Very civilized.

But now we must change GP because we are outside the catchment area (see what interesting new words I am learning!). We wondered if it really mattered and were told that it would be too far away for the doctor to do home visits. During my twenty five years in Sweden, I never had a home visit from a GP. I don't think it is ever done.

So we have registered with Milton Surgery, just around the corner from Old School Lane. The routine here is different. Afternoon hours are for advance bookings. In the morning there are drop in appointments. First come first served. The reception nurse has warned me that first come early. They open the door at 7.30 and start boookings at 7.45. So I arrive at 7.15 and there are just four people before me, but a dozen more appear very quickly. The line is well disciplined, also when the door opens and we don't have a freeze outside and can sit down in the waiting room. No one tries to jump the line.

I get an appointment at 8.20 and go back home for another cup of coffee.

Saturday, 18 April 2009

Been there

We are at Water Street for the final cleaning. We still have two weeks of tenancy, but now we live firmly at Old School Lane, so this nice little house where we have spent nine happy months is suddenly strange and foreign. When empty, it seems, paradoxically, smaller than when it was overcrowded with furniture. I cannot imagine how Staffan's desk could be squeezed into the tiny room.

The cleaning process feels vaguely familiar. Not only from the old country, but also from San Diego where we left the house in much better condition than we found it. Here I have finally got round to cleaning some corners I intended to clean from start but never got to it. I don't want whoever will live here in the fuure to curse me.

Yet we are not cutting the bands yet. Our phone and internet account will not be moved until next week.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Dandelion war, secret gardens and a new friend

As any lawn owner knows, dandelions are your worst enemies. They are like baobab trees in The Little Prince - if you don't weed them they will swallow you up. The only way to get rid of them is manually, plant by plant, with a special tool to get at the root. In the old country I managed to eliminate them after many years of battle. When the kids were small I paid them a penny for each dandelion. They very soon realized that it wasn't worth the trouble. Now I have to start the war all over again.

The garden itself has proved larger than it seemed. Half of it is covered with thorns, like the Sleeping Beauty's castle. I attacked them with shears, cutting through branches at least an inch thick; I felt I was cutting my way through a jungle. My reward was a large vegetable garden behing the tangle.

I also tried to clean the pond. Suddenly there was a splash. We have a toad in the pond!

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Into the wild

We wanted to sit outside yesterday, and it meant that Miso would be allowed to go out - first time after three months. We didn't want to let her out at Water Street because of traffic. She had been quite wild recently, with new spring smells and sounds, trying to escape. But now, "the time has come". So - we opened the screen door and waited. Within seconds she was out, and I could almost feel her happiness. She walked slowly and cautiously, pausing to smell grass and shrubs. I imagined myself having been locked up for three months and finally being let loose. I followed her as if she were a toddler; she strolled round the house, returning to the patio; I picked her up thinking that was enough for the first time. She scratched me and went off before I could even see in which direction.

The following hour I felt exactly like I did when I many, many years ago sent my then seven-year-old son to the bakery and sat stiff until he came back. Staffan kept telling me that Miso was no fool, that she knew where her bowl was, that cats always find their way home. I just saw in my mind the ad: "Cat missing".

She came back, walking slowly and casually toward us, and went inside without giving us a look.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Vi have moved!

Yesterday we spent the whole day at Woodside (did I mention that our new house has a NAME?). I cleaned the freezer, the cupboards, the floor strips - there are miles of floor strips in a large house! Staffan made some more shuttle trips. Then we sat down with a glass of wine in our new pretty living room looking out through the screen door at the greenery. Suddenly I had an epiphany. We had a place to sleep. We had some pots and pans and cups and spoons. Our old home was in ruins. Our new home was all shiny and cosy. What prevented us from moving at once?

We went back to Water Street to fetch the cat, had a nice dinner in our new dining room and listened to "Seven Last Words of Jesus", as appropriate on Good Friday, before we fell asleep.

The cat made a thorough inspection of the house, scratched her favourite carpet and chose the new white armchair to sleep in.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Dead season

For a certain reason I was obliged to go to the office today. Otherwise I "work from home" during the break. I like the euphemism. More honest colleagues say they are on vacation. (In fact, I do work from home, or at home; I have marked essays, read students' drafts, written a couple of reviews and been remarkably conscientious for someone in the middle of moving). I have never seen the building as empty and quiet. There are some stray people in the main building, but in Mary Allen I am almost alone. A colleague next door hurries to say: "This is my last day, and I am taking the next week off". As if we need excuses.

An infamous dean at my old Alma Mater in Moscow used to say: "Vacations are for students, not for teachers". I am glad she is not my boss.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

A taste of Sweden

After our problems with beds last autumn, we opt for the easy solution and go to IKEA to get some furniture. This time I cannot order it online because we need to try out the armchairs. We are both very choosy when it comes to sitting comfortably. The closest IKEA store is in Milton Keynes, 80 km from Cambridge if you don't get lost. I manage map-reading nicely all the way, but when it comes to IKEA's own driving instructions through a hundred and fifty seven roundabouts, they are not too precise. But we only have to turn round two or three times.

It feels really weird to enter a bit of Sweden in the middle of England. Exactly the same displays, the same product names, familiar and safe. The store itself is a bit different, but the concept the same: you must walk through all departments and pick up loads of things you don't really need. After we have agreed on the armchairs, I let Staffan sit in the cafeteria while I gather a cartful. (How many divorces haven't started at IKEA!). For lunch, we eat meatballs with lingonberry sauce, something we never ever eat otherwise. Then we collect our large stuff, and a young man recommens us to get an IKEA discount card. I used to have one many years ago. We check out and order home delivery. The young lady at the counter asks: "Are you aware of the costs?" Nice consideration. There is hardly another way of taking home a sofa bed, a desk and two armchairs. Well, people do own trucks. I don't think Staffan and I look like truck-owners.

Outside the check-out there is a food store. Irresistable, yet Staffan and I have different temptations to resist: mine is cloudberry jam.

Happy and exhausted, we drive back to Cambridge and Old School Lane, where brand new floors meet us in the living room and the dining room. I put a Swedish-designed toilet paper holder in the bathroom and feel at home.

Monday, 6 April 2009


It is inevitable when moving to discover that you need something that you have just packed or already dispatched to the new place. But I could never imagine that during the few days in limbo I would, of all things, need lobster forks.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

Back to chaos

The Second Law of thermodynamics says basically that every event in the universe goes from order toward chaos. There can be occasional movements in the opposite direction, but in the end everything will be evened out. In any case, I am for the second time within a year moving rapidly toward chaos. We started by bringing over everything we had in storage, all the superfluous chairs, mirrors and shelves that we didn't have room for and that we actually have managed without. This didn't create any chaos at Water Street, but disrupted the pristine emptiness of Old School Lane. At Water Street, we have started packing things we can live without for a couple of weeks. I thought we had got rid of all unnecessary posessions last year! Where do all these vases and extra t-shirts come from? All the objects I have once again forgotten I had. Shall I get rid of them now? At least, we have a larger house to move to. Staffan has taken all books and CDs from the shelves. They are now in the room we are temporarily calling extra bedroom. It does not make sense to create chaos at Old School Lane, but I guess it is inevitable. I try to unpack as much a possible and put away where it belongs, but it is a bit difficult before all the furniture is in place.

Back at Water Street the chaos is expanding over the little space we have. Drawers are emptied, the content, packed in moving boxes, blocking passages. Pyramids of boxes. For some reason, things multiply as soon as you take them out of their usual places. I pack and Staffan shuttles back and forth. As soon as I have sent away a load I realize that I will need this pair of shoes to wear next week or this particular pan to cook eggs benedict for our Sunday breakfast. With the last shuttle, I follow to unpack. While I unpack and wipe the dust from shelves and cupboards, Staffan sits in a garden chair in the huge living room playing Bach at the highest volume. At long last he doesn't have to take the neighbours into consideration.

Then we sit together in the garden and enjoy life over a glass of beer.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

All those square meters

I must admit it: there is one major flaw with our new house, at least in our eyes. It has fitted carpets. Even if we liked fitted carpets, they are the colour of weak tea with milk and completely worn out. But we don't like fitted carpets, and the very first time we saw the house we told each other that the carpets would have to go out. We would move in and get rid of the carpets successively. I did flooring in the old country, both vinyl and EasyLock, so I would do one room at a time, at least the bedrooms. We could hire someone to do the living room and the dining room later. Staffan pointed out, however, that we have the huge cupboard from his childhood home. I remember when we moved it, together with other family treasures, from Gävle, a hundred miles north of Stockholm. We rented a small truck which Julia volunteered to drive because she had done it before; Anton, a friend of his and Julia's boyfriend were to carry. It was January, cold, snowy and very slippery. Madness, in other words. And that huge, heavy cupboard with glass doors. I can't imagine how the three young men managed to bring it into the house. When it was loaded into the moving van in the old country, I looked away.

Staffan's implication was that once the cupboard was placed in our new dining room, we would not want to move it again. Which means that the floor must go in before the cupboard. We had been to a store called Floors to Go and looked at floors and got a card of a man who did the job. So we decided to let him do the dining room. He came for inspection, and in the meantime we decided that we could just as well take the living room. It's too large and too irregular for me.

John made a great impression on me because he had a little electronic gadget to measure the rooms. I had measured them all with an ordinary ruler. We both came up with more or less the same results. While he was calculating the costs, Staffan looked at me and said (in Swedish): "Shall we ask him to do the corridor?" I had planned to do the corrdor myself, but suddenly it felt such a relief to pay someone to do it. I remembered the measuring, the sawing, the d-d radiators where small round holes have to be cut out, the thresholds, the borders. John said he would do all our endless square meters in two days. I know it would take me two weeks. I would enjoy it and be proud of myself, but right now there are so many other things I will enjoy.

By the time we came home to Water Street we had decided to let John do the whole house.

Thursday, 2 April 2009


You would think that once we had made up our minds things would be easy: pay the money and ask them to gift-wrap it. But that would be too easy. We must not take coal to Newcastle, but do everything the way things are done here. And things concerning property are done slowly and seriously. The day after we had put the bid, a man phoned us, introduced himself as Mick and told us that he would be our mortgage advisor. He came to visit us, looked like a gangster in an American movie from 1950s, talked much too fast, showed us long rows of numbers on his laptop and tried to explain all those elementary things that we, dumb foreigners, didn't get. We did get the most important thing: we would not pay anything for his services, someone else would. The agent, the solicitor, the surveyor... Wait a minute, Mick, what solicitor? Why would we need a solicitor? Because this is how things are done here. But he, Mick, can provide us with a solicitor. And concerning mortgage (more numbers)... and if this doesn't work, we'll take the next.

Being completely ignorant, we didn't have much choice. So the merry-go-round started, with new incomprehensible papers arriving every day. I must do Mick justice: he answered patiently all our queries. He calculated our living costs, much to our surprise. When one bank didn't approve our application, he found another one, with even better conditions. After trying to sell us incredibly expensive life insuranсe (more papers), he admitted that it was not mandatory for mortgage. We had to trust Mick, we had no one else to trust.

(Incidentally, the procedure made me realize that I am getting old. The bank that rejected us pointed out that the mortgage would extend beyond my retirement).

The female solicitor did a marvelous job. We received a substantial report about our future property, including a detailed demographic profile of the neighbourhood (majority of population retired couples - I felt immediately young again). Even though Mick had been much too optimistic promising that we would move in by March 1, there came a day when we were invited to the solicitor's office in Haverhill, some twenty miles south of Cambridge, to sign the papers. Apparently, the solicitor was amazed that we wanted to come in person. Everything else had been handled by post and email.

When it actually came to paying, first a deposit and then the rest, it felt really weird. When we sold the house in the old country, I met the buyers in a bank office, and since we used the same bank, the transaction went painlessly: some abstract sums were moved from one account to another. Now I had to go to my bank and ask them to transfer a breath-taking amount of money to our solicitor's account, who would then transer it to the sellers' solicitor's account, who would then transfer it to the sellers' account. Are you still with me?

It felt like playing Monopoly: bying property in Old School Lane, plus tax plus more tax plus still more tax and don't pass Go. Even the young lady in the bank was a bit overwhelmed. Perhaps she doesn't see so much private money change hands too often, not these days.

And then, almost three months after we first went to see the house, we could collect the keys. It just happened that I was going away to The Other Place that very day, so I haven't experienced the thrill. It's only fair: Staffan hasn't experienced the thrill of selling.