Tuesday, 31 March 2009

House hunting

In our explorations we went all over Cambridgeshire and even a bit beyond. Remember, I am not allowed to live further away than 12 miles from St Mary's Church. (After having looked at the postcode map, I know many of my colleagues don't abide by the rule).

Staffan and I had slightly different ideas of what we were looking for. For instance, the vicinity of a pub is a high prority with Staffan. On the other hand, he doesn't care much about the size of the garden. After the house at Water Street, I have realized that storage is essential for a happy existence. After visits from children and grandchildren, even Staffan agrees that a spare bedroom is indispensible.

As we progress, our list of musts and would-be-nice-tos grows. Staffan points out that a good bike path is quite an important feature. I definitely want off-street parking (and no narrow driveways). On and on we go in our search, real and virtual.

In December last year, I went to Sweden and Finland, and when I came back, Staffan had found a house. He had been biking around, looking casually at "For sale" signs. He saw a house with a thatched roof. He looked through the window and saw a very steep staircase. He realized he never wanted to climb another staircase. Three blocks further away, there was another "For sale" sign.

To be continued.

Postcodes and spring cleaning

At the staff meeting yesterday a map was displayed showing with green dots where people lived according to their postcodes. This was part of "Travel to work" campaign; if someone lives within your postcode you may consider sharing a car. There were two green dots just around the corner from our new house. I am not particularly interested in sharing cars, but it is nice to have neighbours you know from work. However, data protection law does not allow to reveal names behind the green dots. Maybe we'll meet at one of the local pubs.

This morning I came to the office early, and the cleaner was there. I fancy myself a relatively tidy person. I don't leave chicken bones in desk drawers (my father used to share the office with someone who did). Yet the cleaner looked at me and at my desk piled with books and papers and commented: "You professors need a good spring cleaning. When students go away for the break they clean their desks. You professors never do".

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Big news

Staffan has written a column about it, so on Thursday the news will be out, and there is no point of keeping it a secret any more.

We have bought a house.

I don't know why we have kept it a secret; I guess because of superstition. But last Friday, when I was at The Other Place, Staffan collected the keys. We now own a property in the United Kingdom. But, as the Russian fairy tale formula goes: "It doesn't take long to tell a story, but it takes long to get things done". So I must go all the way back to when we started, and it will certainly take a few installments. It is a very long procedure to buy property in the United Kingdom.

But to everything there is a season. I must go at least six months back. We started looking for a house to buy almost a soon as we moved to Cambridge. All our friends here came with different advice. Every week, we picked up a free property brochure at Tesco. We looked up property sites. We even actually went to see a house, right across the street from here. Yet we couldn't really start looking before we had sold our old house. Instead we drove around and looked at places. I had this idea that I wanted to live in a village. My dear friend Jean Webb lives in a lovely cottage in a village far away from everything. I had a vague dream of living in a genuine English cottage, maybe even with a thatched roof. There are plenty of thatched roof houses around Cambridge, and some are for sale, so it is not a completely impossible dream. But to begin with, we just drove around to get a sense of the various places.

To be continued...

Dream house?

The other place

The bus trip takes me to The Other Place (for the uninitiated: that's what people in Cambridge call Oxford, and the other way round). When I was invited to this conference, I told the convenor, who had known me in Sweden: "Are you aware that I am now at The Other Place? Is it a problem?" No, it's not a problem, it's a joke. But if anyone asks me which I like best, I am a passionate Cantabrigian. And people do ask. This is a large conference, not as large as the one in Orlando, but large enough. When I was invited I thought it would be one of those small cosy ones. It is still a reasonable size to find your old friends in the crowd. There are quite a few old friends. And as usual some people I only know by name and am pleased to meet.

The theme of the conference is, quite appropriately, place and space. The Other Place is a famous literary place, I must reluctantly admit. You could have a whole conference on The Other Place in literature. As it is, only a couple of papers make a point of it. I manage to smuggle just one quote into mine.

The venue is Keble College. It's gorgeous, but since it is not one of the famous ones, few people know about it. The Hall where we have our meals is magnificent. They say it is a yard larger than the any other hall in The Other Place.

The first event of the conference is a lecture by the Writer. Afterwards, there is a wine reception. The Writer is surrounded by crowds. I approach slowly, wording the opening sentence carefully: "You may not remember me, but..." (In fact, it would be a shame if he didn't remember me, I have been on the jury that awarded him a major prize. But you never know with Famous Writers). He spots me and says amiably: "There you are! I thought I saw you in the audience". I feel I have been touched by the Holy Spirit. Or perhaps covered with Dust.

Cross country

In the old country, I would have taken the car. Here, I still feel insecure. By train, I'll have to take the train to London first, then the underground, than another train. I did this last week to go to Gatwick and back. London underground in the morning with a suitcase isn't the most pleasant way to travel. So I decide to try the bus, proudly called Stagecoach. It's also less than half the price of the train, and travel time more or less the same. Three hours on a bus that goes into every small village on the way - at least it feels so. Small cosy towns with pubs and churches and fancy school buildings; a city that looks like one huge shopping mall. People get on and get off. Pretty landscape outside. Everything is in bloom: fruit trees, almond trees, daffodils and all the other vegetation the names of which I still have to learn. First time in my life I regret I don't own an ipod or whatever it's called, to listen to music on the way. I listen to my own thoughts instead.

There is one drawback. When the bus negotiates the endless roundabouts, it sways so that one almost gets seasick.

A real stagecoach looks like this

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Casual conversation

You never know what may happen at a conference. I have arranged to have a meal with some people after their Tolkien marathon (reading from The Two Towers uninterrupted for several hours). After I have waited for 45 minutes I realise that the reading might go on forever and I'd better look for another company. I walk around a bit, go out to the pool bar, hoping to spot someone I vaguely know. As I re-enter the restaurant, two gentlemen wave at me (this is the advantage of being a guest of honour - they know who I am) and invite me to join them, which I happily do. Both are veterans, have attended every conference from start and share memories. Then one of them must leave, and I assume we are breaking up, but the other gentleman seems to be willing to stay. We continue the conversation. It turns out we both enjoy teaching online and exchange ideas and experiences. In fact, he teaches children's literature, which is the least I would expect (typical prejudice). I mention San Diego where I taught my first online course. He has lived in San Diego for twelve years. We delve deeper into memories. He is a bird-watcher. We start an initiated discussion of a particular bird reserve south of Imperial Beach and the seasonal changes in bird population.

Next day, in my email box, I find a gorgeous photo of a blue heron.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Nomadic subject

It has become less cumbersome to explain to people about my origin. When we lived in California nobody cared about my name, because everybody had strange names and came from somewhere else. It was liberating. Sweden isn't that generous. Now I say, when asked: "I was born in Russia, lived thirty years in Sweden, two years in the US, one year in Finland, and now I live in the UK".

I have finally arrived at a satisfactory self-definition. I am a Nomadic Subject.


Somebody has said that nostalgia is a wrong notion, we don't long back to a place, but to a time. Chronalgia.

The post-conference trip goes to Kennedy Space Center. I am not sure I want to go, but I have a whole day to kill before my flight, and there is nothing else to do on the Magic Mountain. How wrong I was to think I wasn't interested! It is a nostalgic trip - or rather chronalgic, a trip back in time, to the past that once was a future. I am so old that I remember the sputnik, and the first man in space. (I guess for my children it feels as if I remembered the French Revolution). I remember it from my childhood perspective: we were the first in space! Here at the Kennedy Center it's "They were the first". But "We were the first on the moon". I remember it too. By that time I was grownup enough to think "We are on the moon". I wept of joy.

When I was a child I knew I would be an astronaut. Space exploration expanded so quickly that it seemed absolutely plausible that within my lifespan humankind would fly to the moon, to Mars and beyond. I told everyone who would listen that I particularly planned to visit Saturn because of its gorgeous rings. In the Kennedy Center, they show a video of "the last man on the moon". It all stopped so unexpectedly. I feel sad.

The strongest impression is the International Space Station building. That's where they assemble units to go up. It is not a museum, it's a working place like any other. There are some capsules that have been up and down a few times; others are yet to go. The exhibit of "Early Space Exploration" is a graveyard of hopes. Mummies and pyramids.

The area is huge, and they take us from spot to spot in buses. It feels like a Tarkovsky movie. On the way, we see alligators, herons and eagles. The visitors seem to be more fascinated by these than by rockets and space shuttles.

Rediscovering the New World

It is remarkable how unreliable our memory is. I have lived two years in the US, and I have visited it several times since then, but not for a couple of years. And see, I have forgotten it all. I have forgotten the endless lines at passport control (but perhaps they have become worse). I have forgotten - or suppressed - the megalomania of American hotels. I have forgotten how the waiters pour you the infamous bottomless cup of coffee even before they utter the likewise infamous "And how are you today?" I have forgotten the boredom of restaurant chains. It is as if I were here for the first time, and everything is "curiouser and curiouser".

I am in the US, more precisely in Orlando, Florida, for a conference. No, I am not even in Orlando, FL, but at the Orlando Airport Marriott, a part of completely self-contained world with hotels, restaurants and shopping malls, where you are locked up for the duration of the conference and cannot escape.

John Clute, whom I have met at the conference, describes it in terms of The Magic Mountain. It celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Most of the founders are still alive and coming back every year. You go there, you meet the same people and some new people, and learn that some people have died; you spend some time in a peculiar bubble of space and time that has nothing to do with your everyday life. You know every tiny detail of the routine. You are enchanted, you simply must come back again and again.

It is my first time though. I have known about this conference and this association for years and always wanted to attend, but somehow it has never happened. Now I am here as a guest of honour. It gives me advantage over other newcomers. It is horrible to attend a conference where everybody knows everybody else. This time, I do not have to eat my meals alone, there is always someone who asks me to join. I don't have to sit alone in a corner, someone always wants to talk to me. Still, the conference is huge, just as the hotel is huge, and I never get a sense of belonging. There are ten parallel sessions going on. One discusses vampires, another video games, yet another a particular author I have never heard of. The paper presenters and the audience are passionate about their subjects. They know their Tolkien by heart. They are a magnificent blend of academics, authors and fans.

The conference claims to be international. It sounds familiar from some other conferences in the New World. It means that there are a few stray Canadians present.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Joy of recognition

I am not a blog reader. I read my children's blogs, and occasionally I read some blog that their blogs refer to. As usual, Staffan has drawn my attention to something I should read, and I have, and I am going to read it regularly in the future. A Cambridge colleague contemplates the student report system. Having just done this, I can really relate to it. I feel almost like this generic child who writes to a famous author asking the most imbecile question: "How could you know exactly how I feel?"

Friday, 13 March 2009

Entre les murs

I went to see a movie yesterday. I would have probably not chosen it myself, so I am glad my movie companion suggested it - The Class. For me, it is strongly reminiscent of a favourite of my adolescence, and actually the novel and not the movie, Up the Down Staircase. Nothing has changed much since then, it seems. Same caricatures of teachers; same misunderstandings, same tensions, same hopelessness. Piercing, poignant. Trained by my filmmaking son to appreciate the art of visual storytelling, I notice every little detail. Yet the story itself takes over. Some things are pathetically familiar, such as the staff meeting where the most important issue is the coffee machine. But I cannot help thinking - and say it to my friend: "Thank goodness I am not a schoolteacher!"

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Separation anxiety

It is always painful to submit a book manuscript. It's like a baby: you have had it inside you for a long, long time, and then it comes out of the printer and starts living a life of its own. (Yes, I do mean printer. Some people don't want their computers invaded by other people's manuscripts and request a hard copy; I cannot blaim them). I have been pregnant with this particular book for an exceptionally long time, for a number of reasons, and frankly, I am quite bored by it. But a stillborn book is worse, and then there are all kinds of academic pressure (bibliometric assessment is the fancy lable for it), and friends and colleagues have been wondering when a new book is coming and what it is about. It's part of academic games.

It is a solemn moment when you realize that a book is finished. Of course, a book, or even an article, can ever be finished and you can go on and on, but at some point it is imperative to stop. I arrived at this point today just before lunch. I deleted a good portion of a chapter to fit the word count; I added a missing reference; I changed the subheadings to bold and back. Then I could not put it off any longer. I assembled the separate chapters into a file. The book was finished.

I returned from lunch, printed out the text, squeezed it into an envelope and took a walk to the other building to put the envelope in the mail. No way back.

From previous experience I know that page proofs always come when you least expect them.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Isn't it obvious?

Today I met a colleague for lunch at the Great Hall. I have been eating there for a while now; it is a nice opportunity to talk to people. We sit at the high table, filling it up right to left as we come, and you never know who may happen to sit next or opposite to you. But occasionally you want to meet and talk to somebody in particular. This colleague and I met at the counter, took our trays and went on to the Hall. Although is was 12.30 we were the first. We sat to the left and started our meal and our conversation. In a couple of minutes another colleague appeared with his tray and, seeing us at the far end of the table, wondered: "Are you having a meeting?" We admitted that we were, whereupon he took a seat at the other end. More people came. One after another came over to us asking: "Are you having a meeting?" No, we are just two totally asocial types who like sitting far away from everybody else... Eventually the table was full, by which time we had finished our meal and left in a most asocial manner to have a cup of coffee in the Combination Room.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

By the way...

...it is spring

Hidden treasures

Today's excursion took us to Thaxted. The reason we knew at all that such a place existed is Staffan's extensive newspaper reading. There was this book about this man who liked Thaxted and went there every Sunday from Cambridge. Staffan looked it up on the web. I am glad he did.

An average visitor to Sweden does not necessarily go to Härkeberga which for me is more remarkable than the Royal Castle. An average visitor to the UK will not go to Thaxted unless it is someone with particular interest in architecture or history or, like Staffan, all kinds of curious things and places. Average visitors aparently miss the most extraordinary sights, simply because these are a bit off the main road.

Thaxted church is stunning. It should be listed in all guidebooks as a major attraction. Or perhaps it shouldn't. It was wonderfully empty and peaceful. I have seen quite a few old churches in various parts of the world, so I am not easily impressed.

As we were standing there, faces up, totally overwhelmed, a woman approached resolutely. I thought she was going to tell us to leave the church for some reason. Instead, she said warmly: "Isn't it Maria?" She was from the Faculty. She sings in the church choir.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

More disasters

I wondered the other day what we could expect next after snowstorms and floods. We certainly did not expect a fire. Staffan woke me about midnight to show a car burning right in front of the house. Since I was still half asleep I didn't see at once it was a car and thought that some students were celebrating their Bumps victory with a bonfire (we watched the Bumps yesterday with a mixture of awe and humour) . We had a brief discussion about the emergency number. By the time Staffan got through, a neighbour was banging at the door to say that she had already called the firemen. In fact, they were almost there. It was the first time in my life I saw firemen in action, at least so close. It wasn't a scene to enjoy.

Our car happened to be in the yard last night.