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.