Thursday, 26 August 2010

Conference contrasts

I am at a huge conference with two thousand participants. The forty-odd parallel sessions are going on in four different buildings. Even if you want to meet someone on the participant list there is no chance. People stay at dozens of different hotels. I have only met the people I've come here with. You don't make new acquaintances at lunchtime since there are no arranged lunches. I didn't go to the reception yesterday because I am scared of crowds. The collegue who did go said the food was excellent, and plenty of wine. At least he got something for the incredible conference fee.

I have only been to a conference this size once, which was the American Comparative Literature Association. We were a group of twelve who met for two hours each day for three days running. I never went to any other sessions. It was one of the best conferences I've been to.

Nest week I am running a conference at Homerton. There will be seventy participants. Everybody will be staying in the same place and have meals together. Some people will find it boring and want to go and have dinners on their own. I haven't been able to avoid parallel sessions, since I need to accomodate all papers. People will want to be at two places at the same time.

I have been to conferences of this size often, and one thing is that you feel you have met everyone. Or at least have a chance of meeting everyone (you still have the option of staying in your room for the whole conference). There is plenty of time for informal talk. You meet people you have not met before.

Some of these conferences were good and some weren't.

I guess size doesn't matter.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Finland in my heart

I am in Finland. I am not sure what I am doing here, and I am a square peg in a round hole. It's a huge conference with 25 strands, and I haven't discovered anything of interest. I am here to give a paper and support my research team. The paper I am giving tomorrow was supposed to have been written by our research assistant (a very strange practice for me), only it hasn't, so I spent this morning drafting some hasty notes. But this is another story.

I am in Finland. I have a very special relationship with Finland. My mother's maiden name is Tiain, which we learned was a shortened Tiainen which means bluetit in Finnish. It must have come somewhere, but I haven't figured out how and when, even with my vast genealogical investigations. So it has just been: we are diluted Finnish on my mother's side.

I spent most of my summers when I was young - up to the very last when I was expecting a child - in Karelia, once part of Finland. That's why I love midsummer sun, conifer forests, small cold lakes, the vast Ladoga lake, endless islands, fishing, picking mushrooms and blueberries. I feel at home in Finland.

For many years, Finland, in particular Helsinki where I am now, was my transit on the way to and from Russia. Ferry from Stockholm came at nine in the morning, and the train to Moscow departed at five, and I had to spend the day at the railway station with two, later three children. I hate this railway station. (It's otherwise interesting architecturally, looks like an old-fashioned radio). On the way back it was slightly better: the train arrived at one, and the ferry left at six. I cannot imagine now why this seemed the best travel arrangement.

Then I started going to Åbo (Turku) for professional reasons: guest lectures, conferences, intensive courses and finally a guest professhorship. I can confidently say that I know Åbo well. But not Helsinki. A couple of times, when I did't have the kids with me, I walked around between train and ferry. A couple of times we went to Helsinki for a birthday party and had some time during the day. I know the department store, the bookstore, and the Market Square. 

My love affair with the Finnish language is unhappy. When I lived in Finland I honestly tried to learn some Finnish; I attended a course for visiting scholars, but gave up. For those of you who don't know: Finnish is not related to Swedish. Or to any other language except Estonian and possibly Hungarian. So knowing Swedish only helps a little. Swedish is supposed to be an official language in Finland, and at least some signs are in Swedish, but more and more people don't speak it at all, so I don't even try. I do try to say kiitos (please) as often as I can, and I take every opportunity to say anteksi (excuse me) and huomenta (good morning). I once tried to ask for water in a restaurant, which caused LOL from my table companions as well as the waiter. Apparently I put the word in one of the wrong - of the fifteen possible - cases.

I know some people who learned Finnish as a second language. I admire them.

Anyway, here I am, in Finland, in Helsingfors (to show my Swedish identity), with nothing to do for three days except give a paper; every now and then it's torrential rain, so going for a walk doesn't feel an attractive option.  Maybe I should go to a museum. I've never had time to do that.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Domestic joys

This afternoon I felt a sudden and inexplicable urge to bake some bread. All the more sudden and inexplicable since I haven't done it for ages. At least for twenty years.

In my childhood in Russia, baking your own bread wasn't common. Bread was good and cheap. In our family we baked pies, cakes, buns, cookies, but never bread. When I came to Sweden many of my - or Staffan's - friends made their own bread which I first thought was weird, but eventually started doing myself. It was a good way of doing something with the kids, and it had wide room for imagination, with spices, fruit, various sorts of flour. I used to bake a different kind of bread every week, freeze and thus have a variety. Then I guess I got too busy. You get out of habit if you don't do it regularly. When I took up a lot of hobbies some five-six years ago - gardening, pottery, paper-making - baking wasn't among them. I don't know why. I used to knit a lot, and I haven't done it for years, except for a jumper that I started to knit for a granddaughter and didn't finish intil it was too small for her, so it went to her little suster. As I say: you get out of habit.

Anyway, I cannot explain what possessed me this afternoon. Not that I haven't enough to keep me busy. It's sunny and warm and there is plenty to do in the garden. But I couldn't help it. Fortunately, I had flour and yeast left from when I made saffron buns for Christmas. Ahhh, the feeling of dough in your hands!

The irony of it is that Staffan and I don't eat bread.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010


My uncle died yesterday. There were many male relatives I used to call "uncle" but he was a real uncle, my mother's brother. He was the kindest, warmest man imaginable. I bet my cousins would not agree, but that is how I remember him. I used to be dumped at their place for weekends, and apart from playing war with my four year younger cousin (which I never did otherwise) the pleasure was an amusement park in the vicinity. It was part of the visit. I wonder whether my cousin was ever taken there on his own. Once when I came there, the cousin had a cold. What a disappointment! No amusement park? I feel ashamed when I think about it now, but my uncle took me to the park and stood patiently watching me ride the merry-go-rounds and swing on the swings. It was winter and cold, and the park was almost empty. Maybe he even bought a ballon for me.

May he rest in peace. 

Two years of my life

Today is two years since I came to Cambridge. (I say "I" because Staffan came two days before me). A good moment to reflect on the two years. Honestly, I didn't know what I was doing. Looking back I am horrified at how easily I left everything behind and stepped into the unknown. I would probably not do it today. Or I probably would. I was stupid or I was desperate. But I definitely didn't know what I was doing.

I can say now, long afterwards: the first time was awful. I hope nobody noticed, because I am very good at pretending. It felt like being thrown into an ongoing game where you don't know the rules. Moreover, having to lead the game. How did I do it? Human beings are amazingly resilient. I survived because the alternative was less attractive. We had very efficiently burned the bridges. No backsies.

It would be easy to say that it got better when we bought the house and the cat came over, but I think it was that I got over the first shock. If I am in this game, I'd better learn the rules quickly and look around to see who else is playing. I was lucky. I am lucky. My co-players are all wonderful people. (That includes Staffan).

Yet looking back I am still horrified - because with all the difficulties it has been too easy, too painless. What's wrong with me? No regrets, no anxiety. If I close down my reason, the senses tell me I have always been here. As I have just read in a thesis I am marking: for Anne of Green Gables, the house becomes a home. Home is part of identity, and all that stuff. Chronotope and bundle of trajectories. I am at home. I have found my place. I am at peace with myself. I want to stay here. Not only here at Old School Lane, but here in Cambridge, here at Homerton. I want to learn more about this place. There are many things I haven't explored. I am looking forward to the new academic year because teaching is fun.

I'd better stop before I get too sentimental. 

Friday, 6 August 2010

As I Like It

I took the visiting daughter and granddaughter to see As You Like It at Trinity. A secret college garden is just the right place to perform this play. You don't need any special scenery. 

As You Like It is the play I know best. Or so I thought. There were lots of details I had forgotten. My favourite quote is when Jacques dances with Amiens in a circle and sings: "Ducdame, ducdame, ducdame". Amiens sings along and then suddenly asks: "What's that 'ducdame'?" Jacques: "'Tis a Greek invocation, to call fools into a circle". 

The reason I know the play so well is that my father once wrote a musical of it. It wasn't called a musical because musical was a bourgeois art form, alien to the progressive Soviet culture. But it was a musical, with lots of specially written, but very authentic song numbers, and it was performed by one of the most prestigeous theatres in Moscow. Or rather, was supposed to be performed. It was banned by the offical theatrical censorship. You may wonder why a Shakespeare play would be banned in the Soviet Union: nobody could accuse William of being an expressed anti-communist. But the play is about power; about a ruler usurping another's throne; about banishment and persecution. You could read a lot of ideology into it. And the audience did (as it did in Shakespeare's time actually). And so did the censors. 

But it went all the way to the dress rehearsal before it was closed down. And I sat at many rehearsals. And I knew all the songs - can sing them all today. I heard them being born. I heard them grow and mature and transform. I helped my father try out the duets. I sang and recorded Rosalind's epilogue. Then I heard them performed by real actors. And what actors! It was so exciting. 

Not that Shakespeare in the Gardens was not exciting. It's just that it brought back the memories.

Table of rank

It is not easy to impress American friends by being a professor. Everyone is a professor over there. When a student says she wants to be a professor she simply means she wants to teach in a college (my first reaction is a bit as if she told me she wanted to be a Nobel Prize winner. Who wouldn't?). If a student asks me how I like being a professor, it takes me a couple of seconds to realise that she is not wondering about my Very Special and Highly Exclusive position, but just how I feel about being an academic.

Many years ago in San Diego a colleague asked Staffan behind my back whether I was in fact a Full Professor. He was at least a bit impressed.