Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Celebrating New Year with pomp and circumstance

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing, archery and mushrooming.

Remember: I grew up in the communist Soviet Union where Christmas was forbidden, and those who celebrated it, like my family, could only do it secretly. All celebration was therefore shifted onto New Year: tree, presents, gastronomic excesses, street decorations, hangovers. Preparations would go on for weeks: hunting for delicacies, arranging who would bring what, who would make the salads, who would slice the sturgeon, who would cook the duck, who would come earlier and help set the table. When all food was ready on the New Year Eve, we would take our beauty nap before dressing up in the very best. A good omen was to wear something new, if only a pair of underwear.

Guests would arrive around ten. There was no tradition of preprandials, and there was typically no space for mingling so people would fill the table as they arrived, and then the meal began. Before midnight, we would say farewell to the old year with cold dishes: herring, smoked salmon, sturgeon, caviar, cold meats, jellies, pickles, salads, pies. People would share what the year had been like. We would put wishes inside pies, copycating fortune cookies, and these would be read outloud, for everyone's amusement.

By midnight, the first round of plates would be cleared away, and, depending on the tradition, either mulled wine or champagne poured out. A good omen was to hold a nut in your fist during the chimes. Then everybody would hug and wish each other a happy new year.

Duck or turkey would be served for the main dish, stuffed with apples. Then came the time for presents, usually small, funny gifts accompanied by funny verses. There may be dance, or party games or just happy chat. Some people might go home before two, when the underground closed on this occasion, but most would stay until it opened again at five. Sometimes we would move to somebody else's party.

Everybody was very tired in the morning, but there would be some kind souls to stay on and help with washing up. There was also plenty of food left, and it would be consumed during the day which could develop into another, quieter party.

For a while, after I had moved to Sweden, I would spend Christmas with Staffan and then pack the kids and go to Moscow for the New Year. Then it wore off.

Now I cook lobster thermidor for dinner, and we go to bed half past midnight. Swedish time. 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Mushrooming

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating, fishing and archery.

For most people I know in the West (except Finland), mushrooms mean cultivated champignons. You can do all kinds of nice things with them, but they are not even near the culinary sensation of wild mushrooms, and mushrooming was something everyone in Russia did – perhaps still does, both for pleasure and for food. Wherever you went for holiday, there would be mushrooms aplenty, you just needed to know where to look. And of course you also needed to know which were edible.

The king of mushrooms is the bolete, particularly oak bolete or penny bun bolete. They are superb in any form: fried, sauteed, pickled (when they are very, very small), and you can dry them for the winter. Then you can make mushroom soup, which isn't the boring cream-of-mushroom, but the Russian-style soup, with onion, carrot and potato. Mushroom pies are a delicacy. The best gift you could bring to someone who preferred beaches was a string of dried boletes. 


Bay bolete, red and brown birch bolete (or birch roughstalk) and slippery jacks are good fried, but not so good to dry. Small birch bolete caps are excellent to be pickled in marinade.

Chanterelles are best fried or sauteed. Milkcaps are best pickled in salt.

In a good mushroom season, nobody would even look at burners and brittlegills, but when other mushrooms are scarce, sauteed brittlegills are good too. Sometimes, inkcaps were the only mushrooms available. They are delicious. Scaleheads come late in autumn so we seldom found them during summer vacations. 

Most of us were obsessed by mushrooms. Finding a family of boletes was like finding gold. And did we compete! Twenty! Forty! Fifty-three! We all had our secret places, and with luck you could let your mushrooms grow a couple of days, without anyone discovering them. But more often, the urge to pick them was too strong. Our hands were shaking as we went down on our knees to pick a perfect one. 

As with fish, it was often my job to clean and cook mushrooms or prepare them for drying. It had to be done quickly before they turned bad. In good season, my father would bring a basketful before breakfast, and it would take me all morning to take care of them, by which time there was a new basketful waiting for me. When I said I couldn't do any more, my father would get furious and throw the whole basket into the garbage pit. The cottage smelled drying mushrooms. We had more mushroom sautee than we could eat, but everybody had just as much so there was no point in iniviting guests. We would send dried mushrooms by post back to Moscow.

I stopped mushrooming for a very simple reason, and you can read about it here. Warning: it isn't a joyful read.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Archery

The earlier posts in this series are: kite-flying, skiing, skating and fishing.

You probably wouldn't think of archery as a likely hobby for a nine-year-old girl, but it so happened that a friend of my parents' introduced us to it, and for several years it was what we did regularly. Thinking back now, I wonder whether it was legal to own a bow privately, it was after all a weapon that could kill or at least injure. But the old Soviet Union was a country where everything was prohibited and anything was possible, and at that time I never contemplated where the bows came from. We started shooting at home, in the corridor of our flat that was perhaps fifteen meters long, fixing the target, painted on a large cardboard box, on the front door, which wasn't very wise, because at one point my granny came home just as we were practicing, and it could have been a bad accident. I was strictly told never to point an arrow at a person.

I was always allowed to participate in the grownups' games, and although I had difficulties straining the bow – it was as tall as I – I eventually became quite good. On weekends we would go to the country and practice in the fields; in summers, when we stayed in the country, the target was always there for me to shoot. The shooting gloves were too large for me, but I didn't mind.

This time coincided with my passionate interest in American Indians, kindled by one of my favourite children's books, Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages, about two Canadian boys who played Indians and learned about living in nature. In school, we all read adventure novels and watched movies, and the boys made bows and allows of sapling trees, but I was the only one who had access to real bows. I never heard of anyone else having a bow.

Then it stopped, and the bows disappeared. It was sometimes like that with my parents: they got enthusiastic about something, bought equipment, made grand plans, and nothing came out of it. They once bought a sailing boat kit, with an intention to go sailing in summer, but it never happened, and the boat stayed for many years in a cupboard before it was sold or given away. We also used to have a crossbow, mostly for decoration. 

I never tried archery again, because it isn't something you just do; I suppose in Sweden or in the UK you need to join a club (there is, I have just looked up, an archery field very close to Cambridge). It isn't something I would pursue seriously even if I had a chance. It's just another example of things in your life that come and go. 


Sunday, 28 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Fishing

Read previous posts in this series: kite-flying, skiing and skating.

I spent all my summers between eleven and nineteen at the Composers' Union resort in Karelia, near the once Finnish town of Sortavala, by the Ladoga lake. The territory was annexed by the Soviet Union after WWII, but all places, villages, rivers, bays, lakes had Finnish names, and in the '60s there were still ruins after burnt-out Finnish houses. The area was so close to the border that you needed a permit; therefore the nature was as pristine as it was under the Finnish government.

The resort had a central building, which was claimed to have been Marshal Mannerheim's hunting lodge. Whether true or not, it was indeed a magnificent manor, with a huge front staircase, elegant sittings rooms and a dining hall with dark roof beams. I have no pictures from my childhood because we didn't have a camera then, and I only found a few pictures on the web. It doesn't match my memory, but it's over forty years ago. 


There were some guest rooms in the building, but most families lived in small cottages within easy walking distance, some with direct access to the waterfront. People would rent a rowing boat for the whole season; some people, including my father, had light motors that allowed us to go further away into the archipelago where we had our very own island. We would bring a picnic and stay for the whole day, cooking over open fire, and very frequently cooking our own catch.

The most common catch was pike, but occasionally you got pike perch and, with luck, salmon. The gear was either casting rod or reel, and my job was rowing. If you have never rowed a boat while someone is casting you have no idea how hard it is, especially in windy weather, and what a risk you are taking by sharing the boat with a loved one. I had no choice, because my father simply gave me orders, but he once set off my mother on a tiny cliff in the middle of a vast water span, to untangle a line. With casting, you have to row smoothly and absolutely silently because the b-y fish hear the slightest splash. You need to watch the direction of the wind and the incoming waves. You need to balance the boat so that the caster doesn't fall overboard. You have to watch out for underwater cliffs and floating logs; you need to steer the boat close enough to the reeds where the fish is, but not too close so that you lose the lure. And when there is fish on the hook, you manipulate the net, and the kind of language you hear if you are clumsy and the fish escapes... yes, it would make a sailor blush.

Every day we would also set up a longline, with live bait, for eel and burbot. It had to be checked and re-baited twice a day, early in the morning before breakfast, and late in the evening. Summer evenings are long and light in Karelia; water surface would be like a mirror, and every sound was carried around for miles.

I miss those days with my father in a boat.

On rare occasions, I was allowed to cast a couple of times, just to practice, and I did catch fish when I had a chance. My father kept a log, giving all fish funny names. 


It was my job to gut and cook the fish. There were several cooking methods which I learned very early, all over open fire, since we didn't have a kitchen. For clear triple fish soup, you first cooked small fry with spices, then strained, added pieces of larger fish, cooked until it fell apart, strained again, and for the last round you only added burbot, particularly the liver, a delicacy to share around (and all the foul language I heard from my father when I wasn't careful enough with the liver and spilled the gall). The soup was thick as glue, and a small cup was enough to make you full. But the best way was to smoke the fish, particularly eel, and as soon as I could be trusted with an axe, I would cleave young alder to line the smoking box, fill it with fish, close the box tight, make an even fire under it, knowing the exact time for every kind and size of fish. Serve it steaming hot, without plates.

I miss those evenings by the fire.

The irony is that Staffan also used to be passionate about fishing, but we never pursued this passion together, although Stockholm archipelago was no worse than Sortavala and very similar. I have asked Staffan repeatedly, and he cannot give a proper answer. It just didn't happen.

We once went shark fishing in Morocco, and we went deep-sea fishing in San Diego when I got terribly seasick; and I had the thrill of fishing piranhas in Brazil, but all that was tourist fishing.

Why do you stop doing something that used to be the gist of life?

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Skating

Read the first and second part in this series,

Skating was another popular pastime at winter resorts where I spent my vacations (and frequently, I was taken out of school to join my parents – my school principal closed his eyes on this practice, even encouraged it). My first pair of skates was second-hand and of an old-fashioned make that I couldn't master, so I would nag my parents to get me a new pair, and they finally did (which was unusual; typically, the most certain way not to get something was to ask for it. It was deemed good for the child's character building). During my truant weeks, I had the skating rink all to myself. When it had snowed during the night, I would use a huge, heavy shovel to first make paths, then connect them, finally clearing the whole rink. I would hold world championships in figure skating, winning all medals under different names. In the evening, some grownups would join. On weekends, the rink was full of kids. There would be hockey matches in which I wasn't invited to participate.

In my early teens, I attended a sports club together with some school friends, where skating was the major sports during winter season. But later on, skating became a substitute for dancing. We would go to a fancy rink, saving for entrance fee. There was a clear romantic element in this: boys would help girls to lace boots, and we would skate in pairs, boys dragging girls “faster, faster!”, music playing, coloured lights flickering. This was the closest I have ever been to a date: going skating in a big company, choosing or being chosen by a boy, with no strings attached. Or so I thought, in my innocence. Already engaged to be married, I went skiing with a boy who noticed my engagement ring when lacing my boot and was noticeably disappointed.

My first husband wasn't sporty, but he generously allowed me to go skating with his best friend, which I continued to do long after divorce and until I moved to Sweden. I brought my skates, and during the first couple of winters we went skating: me, Sergej, Lisa and Jakob, and I have a picture of me skating behind a push-chair with baby Julia in it. Why did we stop? I don't know. Life caught up with me, I guess. I know Julia had skates, but I don't remember ever skating with her; maybe she did with her school. 

 PS When I searched the web for an image, the first three hundred images were of roller skates. That's what I call cultural difference. So, in case you wonder, this post was about ice skating.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: Skiing

Read the previous post on this theme.

Once upon a time in a far away galaxy cross-country skiing was just something everybody did. Small children do not know fear, and as a four-yesr-old I would stand behind my father on a pair of skis, holding onto his trousers, and go down slopes I would never dream of venturing on once I had my own skis. My father had access to the Composers' Union recreation resorts, and we would often spend three or four weeks there every winter. We would go skiing in the morning, in large groups of mostly grownups, and then father would work in the afternoon. There were no considerations of my tender age: three hours of skiing every day, sometimes in heavy snowfall. When I started school I would join my parents on weekends and during vacations. My attitude was ambivalent. Skiing was something you did, no questions. I enjoyed skiing on a frozen river on a sunny day. I loved going down reasonable slopes. But deep inside me I hated it because I had to keep pace with the grownups; I got tired; I remember I would lie down in the snow crying, and refuse to go on, but of course that would be in the middle of a three-hour circuit, and the grownups would have no nonsense.

Yet interestingly enough, when I grow older and could make up my mind, skiing remained an indispensable part of my life. We would go to each other's country cottages in winter to ski, we would go to resorts; skiing was social. Maybe it was because there were so few other things young people of my circles could do: no bars, clubs, discos; and no space in our homes for getting together: few of us had the privilege of a room of our own. Instead, we would go skiing, then have tea or hot wine, sit and chat.

When I moved to Sweden, I bought a pair of skis for myself and my son among the very first purchases, and I know for sure that I used them once, and Sergej probably never. Cross-country skiing wasn't as popular in Sweden as in Russia (at least not as an active rather than spectator sport); most people who liked winter sports preferred slalom. And more important, I had no company, and there was no tradition of going to the country on the weekends for skiing. Maybe I had bad luck or didn't look around properly. Within a couple of years, I learned slalom skiing, which I enjoyed much more than cross-country (the best experiences of childhood skiing were the slopes).

My pair of skis and boots stayed unused until we moved to the UK. They were too old-fashioned even to give away to charity.

I can add that during many years we went slalom skiing at least for the winter vacation week, but it is now at least ten years since. Yet somehow I believe that I might do it again. 

This is a random picture from the web, but it captures the best moments of cross-country skiing

Thursday, 25 December 2014

Things I don't do anymore: kite flying

I have been thinking about some interesting themed blog marathon for the twelve days of Christmas, and I remembered something I had been contemplating for a while: things I don't do any more. Not something I tried once and never again, like scuba diving or paragliding, but things I used to do a lot and then stopped, for whatever reason. Inevitably, there will be some nostalgia in these posts. 

The first story will be about kite flying. My maternal grandfather was an engineer, and he had some interesting hobbies. He made model boats (maybe this is where my miniature-makaing comes from?), he did exquisite book-binding, and he made kites. It was just one summer I spent with him and my maternal grandmother. They were the children-should-be-allowed-to-do whatever-they-want kind of grandparents, while my other set of grandparents, with whom I and my parents lived, were very much for discipline. Grandma Sonya allowed me and my cousin to play pillow war when I stayed overnight; she made poppyseed buns and allowed me to eat as many as I could. With grandpa Sergej there was a ritual of combing his beard.

The summer I stayed with them in a village on the river Oka, when I was four, grandpa was making and flying kites. His own kite was a large, very elaborate box kite, but for me he made a simpler and smaller variant. Every evening we would fly our kites on the river bank, paying out the line slowly as the kite caught the wind and lifted, then starting to tug so hard that I would lose the handle, and the kite would fall down, far, far away. My cousin, four year older and in my eyes almost a grownup, would run and pick it up, folding the line carefully as he returned. Kite up again, lose the handle, Sasha runs to retrieve the kite. Eternal joy.

I don't remember much of that summer, other than our dog Paul was attacked by another dog and died. This was probably the first death I encountered, and a very violent and bloody one. Paul had been my friend, staying faithfully by my side when I was punished and sent to stand in a corner until I apologised. I would never apologise so the corner standing went for ever. This never happened when I was with grandma Sonya and grandpa Sergej. After that kite-flying summer I never stayed with them again, I don't know why. My parents went boating with them, and they always said that I was too young to join. I wasn't allowed to take my kite, which was just as well because there would be no one to retrieve it for me. 

I never tried to make a kite myself. Possibly, I bought toy kites for the children at some point, but it never became a passion. But there he is, grandpa Sergej, at the other end of the kite line. 

This is what a box kite looks like. They are less common than flat rectangular kites.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Highlights of the year

This has been a very good year. Thinking back, I cannot recall anything that wasn't good, although in my age you can always complain of poor health, and that's boring. Also, I have, like so many others, been worried about politics. But for me personally, the year has been good.

In terms of academic achievements, I have published a book. It was the most difficult book I had ever written, and I am very pleased with it. It's too early to say whether it has shifted the paradigm, but the students are referring to it. I have also published several articles and book chapters, most of them written so long ago that I had forgotten about them. Still always nice to see a book with your contribution. Whatever research councils say, books are more important in our branch.

Teaching has been good. Two PhD students have successfully completed their theses. Both have good jobs. Of course my colleague, friend and benefactor, Morag, retired this year, and I miss her, but we have managed to get her replaced, and I am very pleased with my new colleague, even if at the moment I have to do far too much before she is settled. With a newly appointed lecturer in children's literature, chances are good that our course will not be closed down.We also have a new Head of Faculty who so far is promising.

I have attended two conferences, which feels reasonable. One was fun because of good company, but a waste of time professionally. The other went well beyond my expectations. I am going to far too many conferences next year, which you may say is in the future, but it means I haven't been as good as I should have been in saying no this year.

Travel highlight was doubtless Madagascar, but I won't repeat what I have already written.

Closer to home, I spent some lovely days in Kent. An unexpected bonus there was E. Nesbit'sgrave.

I have only been to theatre a couple of times. Emil and the Detectives was great. Blithe Spirit was fun too. I haven't been to a movie, and I haven't watched as many movies at home this year. I think the one that made strongest impression on me was The Pianist, mostly because I had not read the blurb and didn't know that it was a true story and that the protagonist survives. The exhibition Silent Partners at Firzwilliam Museum was fascinating. Otherwise, I am not very good at museums. I don't think I've visited my favourite V&A a single time this year.

I have already written about books of the year.

Our children and grandchildren visited in various constellations, but otherwise it has been quiet on the visitors' front. There have been many parties, but nothing extraordinary. Sadly, I missed Anton's thirtieth birthday party. However, I've had the most extravagant gastronomic experience: The Fat Duck. Once in a lifetime. Not just the best meal of the year, but the best meal I have eaten in my whole life. Not just a meal, an experience for all senses. No words to describe it.

I have been reminded of my mortality by getting a senior bus pass. Unlike senior rail card, you don't get it at 60, but there is a very complicated calculation: I had to be sixty-two years, three months and eight days. I never use a bus, but if I am entitled to it, I got my bus pass.

I bought some new summer clothes that people noticed, and I bought a handbag which I haven't used yet.

I have exercised regularly, but haven't been very good at power walking. This will have to be my new year resulution.

I haven't done a lot of gardening this year because of a bad shoulder. I started another small flower border, and I planted a couple of shrubs. My roses were even better this year, and two are still in bloom. There has been a good harvest of raspberries and blackcurrants, but almost no vegetables.

I have bought my dream dollhouse and have been working on it with great joy. 

I have grown older, wiser and calmer. 

Warm thanks to family, friends and students who have made this year so pleasant.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Books of the year

Shelfari tells me that I read 26 books this year and that I am behind my pace, because last year I read 52 books. The year before I read 84 books. I am not sure whether this is reliable statistics to show a trend, but I feel that I am reading less and that I am reading slower. There is a correlation. I think I read more books for pleasure this year than in many, many previous years. I read considerably less children's books than usual. I read very little criticism because I am still recuperatring from a four-year research project. Contrary to my habits, I read several very recent books. It seems I didn't re-read any books this year. So this is not a typical year – unless this is how it is going to be in the future.


Best novel: Children Act, by Ian McEwan
Another best novel: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Best historical novel (with some magical realism): The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton
Best thriller: The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton
Best fantasy (if it is fantasy): The Name of the Wind, and sequel, by Patrick Rotfuss
Best humour (of the dark kind): A Man called Ove, by Fredrick Backman
Best children's book: Flora and Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo
Best historical children's novel: Eleven Eleven, by Paul Dawswell
Best sequel: Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs
Best literary criticism: Entranced by Story, by Hugh Crago
Simply the best: Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rotfuss

Monday, 1 December 2014

Lost allusions

Thinking further about my yesterday's experience I realise that another reason for my emotional disturbance is an acute sense of lost allusions, the lack of common cultural ground, the paucity of mother-tongue immersion. I have in all these years deliberately avoided Russian diaspora, for a number of reasons. Firstly, Russian emigrants of all generations have been suspicious of each other; I have heard slander about most of my former compatriots, and I can just imagine what has been said – perhaps is being said – about me behind my back. In every Russian diaspora there are factions and groups; in Stockholm there are several Russian Orthodox parishes that don't recognise each other; there are mutually exclusive societies and associations. I never wanted to be part of it so I preferred not to join. Then, as any diaspora, it is highly heterogeneous, and I see no point in socialising with anyone merely because we happen to come from the same country, but with whom I wouldn't socialise back in Russia. Also I made a point of becoming personally and professionally integrated in Sweden, in all things Swedish. It never occurred to me to get involved with the Slavic department, because I had never been a Slavic scholar and had neither interest nor competence to become one. I did attend Slavic conferences and other events, but only when topics interested me for my own professional goals. I also tried to become involved in various communities, from the parish to charity work to Swedish Institute for Cultural Exchange, and abandoned those for various reasons.

The gains are obvious: I would have never been where I am now if I hadn't invested in my professional career. But the losses only became clear to me obliquely. I would go back to Russia to speak Russian and to immerse into what had been my element since I was a child: intellectual talk with common denominators, where allusions didn't have to be spelled out. As years went by I started to notice that I wasn't any longer atuned to my friends' framework of mind. I didn't understand their references; sometimes, their language felt alien. I wasn't able to keep up with new literature, new thinking, new worldview, new gossip. I wasn't one of the gang anymore. Some of my Slavic scholar friends caught up and passed me in their knowledge of contemporary Russia. For them, it was their study object. I could never make my country of origin a study object. And I had to keep up with my own study objects.

The allusions got irretrievably lost. There is no point throwing out literary quotations if your conversation partners have no idea what you are talking about. You cannot explain every joke. Finally, you give up. I have read about emigrants who forgot their mother tongue, or perhaps suppressed it. I hope I haven't quite forgotten Russian although I have fewer and fewer occasions to speak it, and sometimes I ask myself whether I should persist at all. I even speak to myself in my two other languages. I read Russian literature, classic and modern, but I cannot write professionally. So much of my grown-up vocabulary has developed in the other languages.

What happened yesterday was a rare occasion of shared allusions. Everybody laughed together, everybody recognised and remembered (I am sure there were people who didn't, but we can ignore them). I was brutally and painfully reminded of my voluntary isolation, of severed ties, of my cultural luggage that will die with me, unclaimed.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

A voice from the past

I am not sure what I had expected.

But I know I had been apprehensive ever since Staffan told me about it, a couple of months ago. I had been pretending it wasn't happening. I was afraid to be disappointed.

Many, many years ago in a far away galaxy my father told me to go and see a documentary. Documentaries are typically not on teenagers' priority lists, but he insisted because it was a documentary about music, called Seven tones in a silence. It was seven short documentary snippets about various musical phenomena. One of them was a young man of Asian origin who sang pirate songs on board of a fishing boat off Kamchatka. This man was the reason my father wanted me to watch the film.

It was our first encounter with Yuli Kim. At that time, we all loved Bulat Okudzjava, and some of us loved other underground bards, and Kim soon became famous. He had returned from Kamchatka where he served his mandatory three years of teaching after his teacher certificate, and he taught in a school just around the corner from my school. He wrote songs for movies, and that's how my father got to know him.

The time was bad, and he got caught in a dissident movement. He lost his job, but continued writing for films under pseudonym. Then, in 1968, he and my father collaborated on a musical version of As You Like It. I was sixteen and a political idealist. I hated the regime. The performance of As You Like It alluded to the regime. Kim's songs emphasised the satire. My father brought news from rehearsals every day. Yesterday this song was cut. Today, this authentic Shakespeare monologue was considered by the censors too subversive. I went to the dress researsal. Half of Kim's songs had been forbidden. Partly because they were potentially subversive, partly because he was a non-person, pseudonym or not. But we had them all recorded on our antedeluvial tape recorder. I knew them all by heart. I still know them all by heart. The play opened and was quickly closed down. For me, it will always remain a symbol of Art against Tyranny.

My father and Kim did some more musicals together. He would come and sing, and my father would record, then orchestrate. There were more banned songs. They were wonderful songs, witty, clever, beautifully crafted, filled to the brim with literary and musical allusions. I shared them with friends. A new song by Kim was an event. You could be sentenced to five years in a labour camp for singing, listening, sharing or just keeping a tape.

I moved to Sweden, but when I went back to visit there would be theatre performances with Kim's songs. And he would come and sing at my parents'. Once, I remember, he met my daughter, two years old. He asked her what her name was. She said, in Russian, “Yulya”. He laughted: “My name is also Yulya” (that's Russian gender-neutral endearments for you). In the tape recorded that everning, you can hear Julia's eager two-year-old voice in pauses: “Sing more!”

One of the last times I was in Moscow, Kim knew I was in the audience at his concert – by that time, he was a famous performer, finally acknowledged by the authorities. He dedicated the performance of a song to me, a song called “Poor Masha” (actually a political song about Andrei Sakharov).

Because I know so many of Kim's songs by heart I often sing them to myself. I always sing them when I am rowing at the gym – very powerful.

Anyway, here I am, in Cambridge, twice removed from my home town and a million years away from my sixteen-year-old self. I am in a church in Victoria Street. I am shaking. I see him alone in a corner. I approach him and say: “Hello, Yulya, I am Masha”. He looks at me. We embrace. I don't want to disturb him before the performance, but he comes and sits by me and Staffan, and we talk theatre, music, politics and grandchildren.

Then he sings all those songs, and there is no church in Victoria Street, no Cambridge, no forty-five years in between. Has someone from my past miraculoulsy reached me in my present? Have I miralulously moved back to my past?

I don't know how to describe it. It is not just hearing your teenage idol, forty-five years later, live. It is someone who used to come to dinner. And after the concert, and before he is attacked by people asking for autographs, he comes to me to say goodbye.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

A quarter of a century

I seldom cry when I watch TV-news. Frankly, I selsom watch TV-news at all. But at that time, twenty-five years ago, we all sat glued to our TVs, watching history unfold.

Much as we hated the regime when I was young, we knew it was for ever. Communism was invincible, and the only thing you could do was learn how to cope. Some people tried to escape. Some brave people did it literally: crawling under barbed wire, swimming out to sea. Some, privileged to travel abroad, defected, knowing that their relatives remaining inside the Soviet Union, would be prosecuted. Dissidents who weren't sent to camps were sent abroad, which we honestly didn't see as punishment. Some got married to foreigners, for real or for convenience. In the '70, Jewish families were allowed to emigrate. But these were handfuls, sunshine stories in a bog of misery, and there would always be the hundred millions in Russia, the occupied countries and Eastern European satellites, deprived of material wealth and human rights.

Being one of the lucky handful, I always felt guilty. But what could I do? Communism was invincible, and the West didn't care. As the party bosses promised us, our children and grandchildren would live under communism.

And then one evening twenty-five years ago it all changed. I sat crying in front of the TV, repeating like a prayer that I had never, ever hoped to live long enough to see it.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Reflections on gifted children and pushy parents

Yesterday I went to a talk by my young colleague Clémentine Beauvais whose current research is about gifted children. The talk was about gifted children and pushy parents, and it provoked two strands of reflections. Was I a gifted child and were my parents pushy? Are my children gifted and are we pushy parents?

Since my parents are dead I can share my views without reservations. I probably wasn't a gifted child by the standards defined in Clémentine's research, but I was clearly above the average. I was bilingual, I could read at five and started writing stories before I could read (I scribbled something down that I then read aloud). I was forced to practice the piano when I was six – here comes the pushy parents bit. I believe it was rather pushy grandparents, but everybody in the family were musicians, so I never questioned it, simply hated it. Wasn't it obvious for my parents that I was a word person, not a music person? I love music and cannot imagine my life without music, but practising scales wasn't my thing. When I stopped I was told that I would one day regret it, but I never did.

In school I was expected to be a high achiever, full stop. Straight As. I wouldn't be punished for a occasional A-, like some of my classmates, but I knew I was a disappointment. When I in Year 5 had one A- in my annual report and didn't, as usual, win a book and a diploma for “academic excellence and good behaviour”, I was absolutely devastated.

Not to mention the tragedy when I had one A- in my final exams and didn't win a gold medal “like everybody in the family”.

I have already told the story of my parents' disappointment in my choice of education, but they kept telling me that I could still amend it by graduate studies. “Everybody in the family” had a PhD before 30. My mother was late, 36, but she was excused because she had to ditch an almost complete thesis for political reasons. I also got my PhD late, just as late as my mother, but I had to ditch an almost complete PhD because I moved countries. My parents were unimpressed. “Everybody in the family” in three generations was a professor, so I'd better apply myself.

I don't know whether they were pushy parents by Clémentine's standards, but they certainly pushed me toward the edge more than once, for better and for worse.

When it comes to my children and my own parenting, it becomes more sensitive, so I'll proceed with caution. With my first-born, I was so young that pushes still came more from my parents than myself. They didn't help me, a single mother, in the everyday, but they would borrow my son to show off to their friends, making him learn and recite long, grownup poems. They – or we, since I silently agreed – forced him to play the piano, which he hated. I took him out of the nursery school twice a week to ride the underground to the other end of the city for skating classes, which we both hated, but I was being an exemplary mother.

My mother had wild ideas that she pushed onto me. At one point she decided that Sergej should learn slalom skiing. The closest, very primitive resort for this exclusive sport was three or four hours by train from Moscow. My mother suggested that I take him there on Saturdays, sleep on the floor in a sleeping bag, eat picnic dinner, breakfast and lunch, let him ski in the morning and come back in the afternoon. She was really disappointed when I rejected this brilliant idea. (Many years later Sergej spent two winters as a ski instructor in Chamounix, so he didn't miss on skiing).

With our Swedish children we were pushy or supportive, depending how you look at it. We took them to piano, cello, trumpet and ballet classes, football and basket training; children's activities at the Museum of Modern Art; we encouraged stamp collecting, sailing, summer drama camps, photography (with a lab in the cellar). I believe that we became less pushy with the youngest, simply having no energy left, but when he wanted to play American football in school in California, which required a special medical check-up, not to mention equipment, we obliged. I don't remember why it didn't happen after all.

Academic achievements were a problem. Julia could read at three and was a voracious reader. She was bored to death in school and was bullied. Unfortunately, the Swedish school system provides excellent support for children with special needs, but has no room for gifted children. When Julia was nine I went to see her class teacher and school councillor and told them that my daughter was exxtra gifted. They said all parents said that. I suggested that the councillor had professional skills to test my daughter's abilities. He did. She scored, as he reluctantly admitted, well above him. I asked him what he was going to do about it. He told me there was nothing he could do because the Swedish school system had no provision for gifted children. I said I would home-school her. He told me it was illegal. I reminded him that my husband was a journalist. He shut up.

I allowed Julia to stay at home and take care of her education as she pleased. At that moment I knew that I was going to the USA for six months and would take her along. In her school in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was top of her class in English after a month. She became competitive and happy. When we came back to Sweden, we reluctantly, against our beliefs, put her in a private school where she was allowed to study at her own capacity. We also moved Anton to the same school.

When we enrolled them in high school in California, the person who constructed their schedules suggested pottery and home economics. I said no, my children would take Advanced English, Advanced History, Advanced Foreign Languages, Advanced everything, and if there was something still more advanced they would take that as well. They told me that AP would incur costs for the exam. I said I was quite happy to make the investment. I guess this makes me a pushy parent.

Of course, I have no idea what they really thought, but I believe they enjoyed school that was a challenge. Julia won every possible and impossible award at graduation; regrettably, since we were not residents she could not get the monetary part of the awards, otherwise any American University would be open for her.

Instead, she had to take a test in Swedish to qualify for Swedish higher education and failed because she didn't remember which effing bird Miss Julie had in effing Strindberg's effing drama. Someone suggested that she she had gone to a school abroad she could take a test in Swedish as a second language. There, it was enough to be able to read a newspaper ad.

Gifted children and pushy parents is a social construct, says Dr Beauvais, and I agree. Yet behind every social construct there are thousands of real people, and no fate is like another fate.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Close encounters with children's writers, part 7

I haven't seen anything in the papers, but Alan Garner turns eighty today.

I read some of his books two lives back, in Moscow when every book in English was a treasure and every children's book in English was worth its weight in gold. I was writing my first academic paper on children's literature, and Garner's books were central in it. And it so happened that the Soviet Writers' Union was holding an international children's literature event at which I was engaged as an interpreter for a Swedish visitor, and among the many distinguished guests was the great Alan Garner. I was just an errand girl, not a participant, so approaching a famous writer to introduce myself was embarrassing. I was among the very few interpreters who were actually interested in children's literature – they could have been engaged for a conference on chemistry or economics. But because I showed interest in and at least some knowledge of British children's literature, including Garner's novels, the conversation shaped nicely, and I even did something I had never done before: gave him my address and phone number. I could have lost my job for this.

Sadly, the promised postcards with pretty views of Cheshire never came, and I did another unheard-of thing: wrote a letter care of Garner's publisher and asked my father who was going abroad to post it for me. When he came back, he returned the letter saying that he hadn't dared to take it with him. He could have lost his job.

Some months later, I was once again engaged for an international event at the Writers' Union and met Alan's interpreter who gave me his regards. I asked her to send him mine and explain that his pretty postcards had never reached me so I wasn't being rude. Alan started sending postcards in envelopes, and although I had no idea how many were sent and not delivered, some did come through. One of them contained an unusual proposal. An obscure journal was doing a special issue on Alan Garner – would I consider contributing to it? At this point of my life I knew that I was moving to Sweden in the near future, otherwise I would have burned this letter and stopped the correspondence altogether. As it was, I wrote an article - from my today's vantage point, it was horrendous – and Staffan smuggled it out of Russia and got it safely to the editor who seemed to be satisfied, as was the subject of the study himself. The editor wrote me a polite letter saying that he had been told it was pointless to send me an honorarium, but he was sending me a box of chocolates. Interestingly, it came through, although I had to pay substantial import tax.

During the first summer after I had moved to Sweden, Staffan and I went to the UK by car. The reason was a bicycle fair in Harrogate, but we took a detour via Edinburgh and Inverness, and while Staffan was at the fair, I went to Cheshire. Alan had given me minute instructions, with exact timetable for the three trains I was supposed to change. I was scared to death, travelling on my own in this strange foreign country. I have pictures from this visit: me heavily pregnant, and Alan showing me some of the Important Artefacts featured in his books.

I visited several times; more or less every time I happened to be in the UK. Once Sergej and I had the privilege of staying for almost a week and being taken to all Important Places: the underground tunnels, the Edge, the Wizhard's well, Mow Cop, the Hall of the Green Knight. At one time, Alan asked me to collect and send to him initial and final formulas of Russian folktales: “Beyond thrice three mountains, in the thrice third kingdom...” As far as I know, this collection was never completed.

Once we concurred in Moscow, at yet another international event hosted by the Writers' Union, but this time I was an eminent international guest.

Another time, I was going to a conference of the Children's Literature Association, and changing planes at Heathrow saw piles of the newly published Strandloper which I bought and read on the place. I was presumably the only one at the conference who had read the novel. The author was there to receive the Phoenix Award.

I moved around the world, to California, back to Sweden and eventually to Cambridge. The correspondence became limited to birthday and Christmas greetings and finally stopped. It is just the way it is.

Happy birthday, Alan!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Thirty years ago

We dropped off two-year-old Julia in day care telling her teacher that we were in a hurry. The teacher didn't ask any questions. We called a friend asking her to pick up Julia from day care in the afternoon. Staffan speeded and didn't stop at red.

Two hours later, we called the same friend again, who assured us that she would pick up Julia and we didn't have to worry. We were calling to tell her it wouldn't be necessary.

Staffan picked up Julia and all siblings to come and see their baby brother. I must admit I don't remember it, but according to Lisa, Julia had a look, stepped aside and threw up.

What I remember is the look I received from the young new mother next to me. Seeing four children around the baby, and having just gone through it herself, she certainly wondered why on earth anyone would want to do it again.

Thursday, 9 October 2014


The first rule I learned when I started teaching in San Diego was: “We don't fraternise with students”.

It made me upset because I was used to fraternising – although I didn't know that was the name for what I was used to. I used to go out for a beer with a group of undergraduates in Sweden after a seminar. In Finland, my students would be surprised and offended if I didn't go out for a beer with them.

When I moved to Cambridge I was expecting a very formal atmosphere, definitely no fraternising. Instead, fraternising is the very spirit of Cambridge.

This is the Big Fraternising Week, the first week of term. Yesterday, I fraternised with the new masters students. True, we had to do some course introduction first, but afterwards it was wine and snacks and high decibels of fraternising. In these austerity times, the Faculty apparently believes that drinks and mingle for a hundred students and professors is a good investment

Today, I fraternised with the new PhD students. Wine, snacks and laughter.

Tomorrow, I will fraternise with new masters and PhD students in my College. It is called matriculation. Not just wine and snacks, but a three-course dinner, and afterwards a ceremony with a drinking horn.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Topographic idiot

This year's Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded for identifying the spot in the brain that enables us to know where we are.

I must have been born without this spot, or it was somehow damaged early in my life.

My father used to call me “topographic idiot”. In those days it was acceptable to say something like this to a child without considering life-long trauma. But I was an obedient child and believed what I was told.

I have been lost in places I had known for ages. I have been lost driving, biking and walking. I have been lost in Moscow and in Stockholm, my two hometowns; and I have been lost in unfamiliar places more times than I like to remember. I have been lost while picking up people from airports – it's totally embarrassing. I once had to call my best friend from a payphone – it was long before mobiles – and ask her to come and find me because I was lost, two blocks from her house where I has been hundreds of times. I can still get lost in Milton Country Park where I walk at least twice a week. I constantly get lost in central Cambridge. 

Obviously, this important part of the brain that helps other people to know where they are is missing.

But there is hope for people like me. (I am sure I am not the only one in the world; it is just too embarrassing to admit). Last Sunday I went to Ely to see a friend. I have been to Ely scores of times, and I know how to get to the Cathedral parking, and if it is full, I know how to get to another parking. Anything beyond that is too challenging for a topographic idiot. In such situations I gratefully remember one of my wonderful granddaughters who insisted, two years ago, that “Granny wants a smartphone for her birthday”. There are many things I use my phone for (least of all for phone calls), but is was the first time I used voice navigation. Wow, how much I loved this nice lady who told me, softly and patiently, like you should speak to a topographic idiot: “In a quarter of a mile, in the roundabout, drive straight through and stay on the road”.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Madagascar diaries, part 8 and final: Mora-mora and other wisdom

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three, four, five, six and seven.

“Mora-mora” (or something like that) means “slowly but surely”. Don't rush. It will take the time it takes. Sooner or later.

My old Russian self is comfortable with the attitude. Mora-mora your luggage will arrive. Or maybe not. Mora-mora your flight will maybe depart or maybe not, but mora-mora it will.

Our flight from Toliara back to Tana was scheduled 12.25, but Mami told us already the day before that it would probably leave at 4.40 or probably delayed indefinitely. Apparently, Madagascar Air has one Boeing that jumps up and down between the capital and smaller cities at random intervals. Because of the delay we had time to visit Arboretum. When we were finally taken to the airport, the plane was there, but not going to Tana yet; first to some other place, then back to Toliara, then to Tana. Mora-mora.

In the morning, I went to get some money from the ATM. You never knew how much you might need, and I didn't want to take out too much. The highest amount the machine allowed to withdraw was 200,000 ariary, but when I tried, the display said it was unavailable. I tried 100,000; I tried another card; Anton tried his card. The long line behind us got impatient. We moved aside, and the next person tried. The machine had run out of cash! Mora-mora. I was truly amused.

The plane eventually came, and the next day in Tana we went to the Lemur Park, and the day after we flew home with seven hours stop in Nairobi that almost killed me.

And it took me mora-mora to come to terms with Madagascar. In my journal, I sometimes wrote that I hated it, that the culture was alien to me, that apart from short walks I didn't get anything out of the trip. I was wrong. I wrote in my first Madagascar post that the experience was life-changing, and it was. It just took mora-mora to admit it to myself.

First, I had to tell something to my friends and colleagues, who eagerly inquired whether the trip had met my expectations. I was obliged to say that it hadn't, but only because I had had wrong expectations. When people asked me: “Was it fabulous?” I said cautiously: “It was interesting”. The more I had to account for, the more vivid the memories went, and the more they shifted. When people asked: “Did you really see lemurs?” I said: “Yes. But we also saw people”. And mora-mora I realised that it was significant.

Mora-mora I looked up charities that work in Madagascar. I realised that I am paying more in pet insurance that it would cost to send a Malagasy child to school. Does it mean that I should stop paying pet insurance, stop making miniatures (although I make most of them from rubbish, like the man in the miniature-bike shop), stop gardening, stop going out for dinner or have my hair cut? No, not at all. But it sets everything in perspective. The money we spent on our trip would be enough to build a school. But then, if we hadn't gone on the trip, we wouldn't have known. 

Every morning when I shower, I remember discarded plastic bottles that Mami filled with tap water and gave to people along the road. I have always been ecologically aware, so nothing was a revelation. But even with my Russian background, I take too much for granted.

The good thing is that I don't feel guilty. (I used to feel guilty about Russia, but it is another story). I feel, in a strange way, peaceful, because there are more important things in the world than my small everyday problems.

This is what some charity sites say:

£5 will provide tools...
£10 will provide seeds...
£15 will provide a stove...
£25 will provide a school desk...

Mora-mora, Madagascar, I may come back.

Aloe in Isalo National park

All photos in my Madagascar diaries have been taken by Anton Skott

Friday, 3 October 2014

Masagascar diaries, part 7: Looking for lemurs

Read the previous posts: part one, two, three, four, five and six.

But what about wildlife? you may be wondering by now. Where is this wonderful unique flora and fauna, biodiversity, endemic species, the famous lemurs?

Well, we saw as much as you can expect to see on a trip of this scope, if you read the trip description carefully. We visited three national parks, Ranomafana, Andringitra and Isalo. Only in Andringitra we stayed sort of inside the park, but we did not sleep in tents, which I don't regret. There were ringtails all over the camp, half-tame. In Ranomafana we stayed in a lodge close enough to the park to have a sense of being in a rainforest, and it was the only night when we saw the magnificent Southern sky. In Isalo we stayed in a fancy-ish hotel in a village far away from the park and only went into the park for a couple of hours. In total we have not been in the nature for more than perhaps twenty hours out of ten days. But they were mostly good hours, and the walks made me happy.

The road from Antsirabe to Ranomafana National Park was winding up and down mountains (I was glad I sat in the front seat that day), and by the afternoon the views began to be magnificent. The road itself got worse, but our driver Guy was imaginative, carefully avoiding potholes. All in all, we covered 240 km that day. As we entered the park and started the descent into a gorge, all of a sudden the familiar green walls of the rainforest appeared on both sides, a river along the road developing into cascades. It was as if we had gone through a portal into an alternative world. 

That night, we soaked ourselves in insect repellent, and it was the first time ever I slept in a mosquito tent. 

Outside, the rainforest was full of those wonderful rainforest noises I remembered from Brazil: crickets, frogs, birds. The smells, the touch of humid fog. We were promised a full-day walk with a picnic lunch the next day. I was full of anticipation since we had finally come to where I had longed to be. The previous two long and strenuous days were merely travel days, and from now on it would be nature all the way.

In the morning we met our local guide, Nono, and then we went into the park, with our backpacks, bottles of water, binoculars and cameras.

I had been worrying that I wouldn't be fit enough for the walk, but I was, and I was glad I had done all those endless step-ups at the gym, because we climbed up and down, bumping into other groups looking for lemurs. Nono stopped every now and then to tell us something, but perhaps mostly to let us catch breath. There was also a young boy who was an “animal spotter”, a scout sent in advance. Presumably, the guides had mobile phones to communicate, because all groups conflated in the same spots. I was still naïve and thought we were in genuine wilderness, even though it was a park, but it eventually became clear that everywhere the park rangers and guides fed lemurs at certain locations for tourists' benefit. But, who cares, we did see the locally famous Golden bamboo lemur, two black-and-white Milne-Edwards sifakas high in a tree, two awahi who are nocturnal and therefore obediently slept, and several Greater Bamboo lemurs who came down to the ground so I could almost touch them. 

 I could have stayed there forever, but we were rushed further, walking up and down for a while without seeing anything else. Then we were led back to the entrance, and the picnic lunch was a ham sandwich we ate standing by the van. We were then taken to another park where we were promised an abundance of birds, and right by the entrance we saw a group of Red-Bellied lemurs.

The rest of the walk was an anticlimax, and our birdwatcher Lynn was particularly disappointed because we didn't see one single bird! We saw some insects and a tiny frog, but there was nothing of Attenborough-photoshopped diversity of hundreds of species per square meter. The walk was almost flat. I did feel tired a bit – after all, we had been out for six hours – and proud of myself. Mami had mentioned hot springs, which sounded enticing, but it turned out to be a regular swimming pool full of local kids, so I skipped it.

The next day we drove to Andringitra National Park, on a road that I could not in my worst dreams imagine was possible to drive on, and I have seen enough of poor roads.

It took us two hours to drive perhaps thirty kilometres. I wasn't scared, but I wondered whether we would get there at all. The scenery was fabulous: high granite mountains raising all around us.

When we arrived in Camp Catta, the first thing we saw was a group of ringtailed lemurs, which cheered us all up. 

We agreed in the evening that we would go on a medium-difficult walk the next day, 5-6 hours with picnic lunch, which I was looking forward to, although with some anxiety. I don't know whether it was a miscommunication or whether Mami had decided that some of us were not fit for medium-difficult, but the walk was a total disappointment. The local guide didn't speak much English, so he didn't tell us anything of interest. We saw more ringtails basking in the sun, Attenborough-wise; the dry forest was beautiful; and after half an hour we came to a natural pool. We had been told to bring swimsuits, but I was the only one to jump in, much to the amusement of local children who tried – not aggressively – to sell us beadwork. When I was changing back into my clothes, the kids came closer, and I had to ask the guide to tell them to go away, which they dutifully did. 

After that, the walk was dull, eventually leading to a half-finished hotel where we had our sandwiches and were entertained by a young woman playing drums and singing. It was one o'clock when we got back to the camp, and Anton was really angry because he had aimed at climbing the rock, which apparently was part of the medium-difficult walk. He and Mark and Cathy decided to do it on their own, which, remarkably, was allowed, and I asked Mami whether there was another walk. There was one (extra charge to the guide), to a waterfall, 5 km one way, on the horrible road we had come, in the heat of the day. It turned out, I hadn't missed much by not going on that walk, because we saw the so called waterfall next day and it was dried up.

This left me the option of climbing the rock, but I knew I couldn't keep pace with the young people. Mami said it was safe for me to go, and I started with Anton and the rest, but after two hundred metres I took it very, very slowly, stopping and sitting down every fifty steps. The view was stunning, and the light was changing all the time. It was cloudy and not too hot. There were fantastic flowers and plants on the way, but I hadn't brought my phone/camera because Anton was our designated photographer, and I hadn't thought about it. But I have vivid memories of this climb, and looking back, it was one of the few highlights of the whole trip. Anton said afterwards that he was impressed by how high I had climbed, and I would have climbed higher still and possibly even caught up with them drinking beer by the rock face. What happened next was my own fault.

I was taking a pause, sitting on a rock and enjoying the view, when a young man, almost a boy, came hurrying up the path. With my traumatic memories of Armenia forty years ago, I was sure he would either rape or rob me, and the climb immediately lost its attraction. He walked past me with an indifferent “Bonjour”, but I knew I had to get down as soon as possible. Anton and the rest were nowhere in sight. The boy went up a bit and stopped, then followed me down which made my blood freeze. I didn't believe he would kill me so close to the camp, but the other options were bad enough. Thinking back, it was my sick imagination. Maybe Mami had sent him to check on me, or he went up on his own, to offer help in case I needed it. I am sure he was the nicest young man. But the situation brought back the traumatic memories, and I didn't enjoy it any more. Luckily, my memory is selective, and I will remember the joy and not the terror. I am just irritated at myself, that such a trifle made me stop halfway. 

The final nature experience was in Isalo (pronounced EE-sha-loo), which took us another day to travel to. I had reconciled with the idea of Madagascar being a huge country with poor roads and inevitable long journeys from place to place. In the morning we climbed a mountain, enjoying fantastic views, but I couldn't help thinking that I had seen incredible mountainscapes in Australia and Arizona, and wasn't I really spoiled by having travelled so much. 

Closer up, we saw stick insects and a couple of birds.

Then we went down the gorge to another natural pool, and this time everybody went swimming, and there were many other groups and too much noise. Anton was furious that we hadn't taken a more challenging circuit. Indeed, we didn't have to go back to our hotel for lunch but could have walked on. On the afternoon walk we saw two chameleons and a group of red-froned brown lemurs, apparently also half-tame. Dancing sifakas had been promised, but, as Mami said, “they had gone”. They should have glued them to the trees.

The highlight was a gorgeous waterfall, a tough climb where half of our group gave up, but I climbed on slowly, and it was worth it. I think it was my favourite walk.

After that, noisy crowds by the Fenetre, pushing to get the best snapshot of the sunset through the famous rock formation, felt pointless. The moment the sun was down they immediately dispersed. I was the last to leave and could have stayed longer. But the whole day was somewhat of a rush, and it was our last active day. 

On the way to Toliara we were supposed to see spiny forest, but for some reason we missed it. We saw some baobabs. They weren't impressive.

Ironically, most of the nature we saw was in two small parks, Arboretum outside Toliara and Lemur Park 20 km outside Tana. Neither was part of our tour. The Arboretum guide was excellent, and we finally had a chance to touch, smell, look carefully, stay as much as we wished. We saw more birds, insects, lizards than during our whole trip. They had 900 species there. (Homerton College gardens have 800). The most interesting was an octopus plant, which is not a cactus. Lemurs somehow manage to jump on them. 

To the Lemur Park we went on our extra day in Tana. There was a reason we stayed an extra day, although I don't remember; possibly, the airfare was more reasonable. We hired a car and driver for the whole day for a ridiculous price (the driver had a BA in English, but driving tourists was more lucrative). The park is private and has nine species of lemur, including the wonderful dancing sifakas. We saw them dance, and we heard them scream.

Common brown lemur

Crowned sifaka                   Coquerel's Sifaka

 The park was done with tact and taste; the lemurs were fed and taken care of, but could move around as they wished, and animals don't go away from their feeding spots.

This sums up our wildlife experience in Madagascar. Maybe I had chosen a wrong trip after all. Maybe we should have gone to just one place and stayed there and seen what there was to see. But this is what we have seen, and I will cherish it.

This is my favourite, White and black ruffed lemur. I like this individual in particular; I feel he is my soulmate.

To be concluded.