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.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

The perfect house

Staffan took me to see the house on the outside, and we studied the description and pictures on the web. Since we have just sold our house, we are skeptical about both. Our old house never looked as pretty as in the agent's pictures. But the real house looked fine. It was - HUGE! A bungalow (no stairs), and it went on and on. And the garden was just as I didn't even know I wanted. I have seen so many gardens in gardening magazines, gardens that look like a picture that can never be real. But here was my dream garden, right in front of me! After that, I didn't care much about the house. No, that's not true, of course I did. But this house seemed to have all our musts, all might-be-nice-to-haves, and a lot more. It is in a secluded area - as we eventually discovered, on the edge of a little nature reserve; but it is reasonably close to the city. Excellent bike path that leads alongside the river directly to our favourite Green Dragon pub. But there are at least three pubs close by. Large rooms. Fireplace. Plenty of storage. Two-car garage. A private brook (although Staffan says it's a ditch). And at some point I discovered that the weedy patch in the middle of the lawn was in fact a pond!

On January 2, we went to see the house. Inside, it was still larger than on the outside. You could get lost (I still get lost after two months). The sitting room is like nothing I have seen, all angles and irregularities, with this huge fireplace in the middle. The pictures on the web didn't do the house justice. A very un-English house. A completely non-thatched-roof house. Exactly the right house for crazy people like us.

As we were leaving, another couple came. The thought that someone else would buy our house was more than we could bear. We went back and put a bid.

Bulbs in the mail box

I know I have promised to tell everything in chronological order, but the narratology of real life is much more complex. I am so full of joy and energy. It is the first of April, and I am out in the garden in my shorts and hat, planting summer bulbs. Today I have actually remembered to use sunscreen to protect myself from this truly tropical sun. Two days ago I got burned.

It may seem that planting bulbs should not be my highest priority, but it is. Normally, I would also wait a few months to see what the garden already held. But some weeks ago, I saw an ad in The Guardian, offering 115 bulbs and 12 strawberry plants free, for just postage costs. I thought there was some Catch-22, such as you make a commitment to buy fifty cherry trees and fifty yew trees, but actually it was all fair trade. My plants and bulbs arrived the other day in neat little boxes labelled "Open immediately" which I did. And it takes some time to plant 115 bulbs. I am glad I brought my bulb planter from the old country. And I am so happy to be planting bulbs in my very own garden.

But I am now well ahead of time.

This is a bulb planter, for those who don't know. Before I discovered it, planting bulbs was a h-l of a job