Sunday, 18 November 2018

Cooking for one

When our children started moving from home, it took us a long time to adjust the amount of consumed food. I remember huge pots of pasta, family packs of meatballs and fish fingers, enormous pans of mince-meat sauce, fruit bowls emptied within an hour. With just the two of us, we obviously did less shopping, cooked smaller meals and also used more fresh ingredients rather than ready-made. Still, it's remarkable how difficult it is to calculate a meal for one. Even when I buy what looks to me like small packages, it always turns out to be too much. I can never cook the right portion of pasta. If I cook beans or lentils I always end up with twice as much as I need. I know exactly what you are thinking now: save the leftovers and freeze. That's what I am learning to do. It's hard for someone not used to it. Moreover, I am learning to cook various things over the weekend, to use later. I like vegetable cream soups, so I steam two courgettes, a butternut squash, five carrots, a celeriac, and freeze them in separate bags. Then I take as much as I need from each bag for just one bowl of soup.

Some of you are laughing now: what's the big deal, that's what normal people do. But I am not normal. I have never had a 9-5 job, and the past ten years I would come home with hot dinner waiting on the table. Planning a week of meals for one feels alien to me. Yet it would be below my dignity to eat the same pasta with mushroom sauce seven days a week. OK, go on laughing. Changing habits at my age is challenging.

By serendipity, soon after I moved to Gatehouse I read an article about cooking for one. The point is exactly the same I am making: your food doesn't have to be boring just because you are cooking for yourself. And there are some useful tips. I particularly like the one about keeping onion fresh by using the outer skin layers.

That's a strike of genius! I am doing it now, because I only need a quarter of an onion at a time. I do the same with cabbage.

If I by mistake cook more than I can consume, I freeze it, even if it is just half a cup: I can always have it as a starter.

I eat very little meat, mostly when I have lunch in college, and then I still try to choose fish. Since I moved to Gatehouse I haven't had any meat and only cooked chicken once. Chicken fillets usually come in twos, so again I had to freeze half of it. But it is convenient to have a nice meal in the freezer. (More laughter from you, dear reader).

I have no oven, so some dishes that I used to cook are now out of bounds, such as baked fish.

I am also spoiled by fifteen years with induction hobs, so I have not quite grasped how an ordinary hob works. Takes some time to heat and some time to cool. No built-in timer. I know, very first-world problems.

This is what I had for lunch today: beetroot soup. If you think having a bagel with soup is weird, that's not my concern. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018


Some twenty years ago an English-speaking friend tried to explain to me the difference between loneliness and solitude. This is a good example of how language affects perception: neither Swedish nor Russian has two separate words. I could not understand that the state of being alone could be anything than negative, and at that time I was still terrified by the very idea of loneliness.

Maybe the reason is my childhood fears of being abandoned. I am the only child, and in those carefree days children would be left unattended without further thoughts. I particularly remember two episodes. When I was five, my father and I were staying in an artists' village outside Moscow. He was composing his music, and I assume my mother was back in town working. After breakfast, my father would go skiing for a couple of hours, leaving me alone in the cottage. A couple of hours for a very young child is eternity. Perhaps it only happened once, but someone found me outside the cottage, in the snow, crying. (I don't recall my father soothing me afterwards). Several years later, in another artists' village in summer, I was sent to bed and woke in the middle of the night to realise I was alone in the cottage. My parents had gone out rowing with friends. Again, a neighbour heard my sobbing and came to comfort me.

In my teens and early twenties, I was scared of going to sleep because I thought I might never wake up. (It's the best way to die, but you don't think so when you are young). Of course eventually I would fall asleep, but it was my constant horror. In my brief first marriage, my husband, an archaeologist, was away for months. I felt profoundly lonely.

I also decided early in my life that I didn't enjoy doing things on my own. I had few friends, and particularly in summers my parents would take me with them (or send me) to places where there were no other children. Often they would take me out of school as well. I felt incredibly lonely and found consolation in intense correspondence (often with grownups), diary writing and fiction writing. When I was old enough to go to theatre, cinema or museums on my own, I discovered how much I lacked the after-show chat, the simple: “Wasn't it awesome?” or “Wasn't it awful?” It was out of the question for a young girl to travel alone, but a couple of times when I was granted the privilege to travel abroad, to Poland and Bulgaria, I felt miserable when I should have been happy and inquisitive.

After I moved to Sweden, I travelled a lot professionally, both within Sweden and all over the world. I preferred to stay with friends whenever possible. The loneliness of hotel nights was haunting. Otherwise with three children and hoards of visiting relatives, there wasn't much time to feel lonely. It came later, when I realised that if I wanted to do things I enjoyed doing I had to do them on my own, and eventually, with things that used to be shared, I had to choose between doing them on my own or not doing them at all.

That was my long and winding road to solitude – the enjoyment, even though forced, of being on my own, walking, gardening, star gazing (unfortunately, I haven't been able to do that for a long time now because of glaucoma). Miniature-making became an excellent pursuit, as did book-binding. I still prefer to do all this in company, but I am not terrified of being alone. I have converted the misery of loneliness into the peacefulness of solitude, thanks to the richness of the English language. Maybe it is simply the wisdom of age. 

If I needed more persuasion, I was totally in after reading The Slow Regard of Silent Things.

So what do I do in my Gatehouse solitude? Actually, pretty much the same I did before. It is tempting, when nobody waits for you at home, to just go on working in the office, but I am quite strict with myself on this matter. I don't work in the evenings and on weekends, unless there is really something urgent. I come home after work earlier than before, since it takes three minutes to walk from the office. I make myself a cup of tea. I drink a lot more tea than I used to, which is odd: you would imagine that tea-drinking is social. But it is a perfect way of crossing the border from work to rest. I read my non-work-related email and social media. I cook my meal. I wash up. Then I read, listen to music or watch a movie. I haven't got a television, but it works perfectly well to watch movies on my computer. I have recently succumbed to Netflix and watched all the big series such as Handmaid's Tale and Black Mirror. Here in Gatehouse, I have watched Alias Grace and Anne with “e” and some movies I have had on my watchlist for ages.

I have also very recently discovered Spotify. I had used it a couple of times before, but never got hooked because for me listening to music is definitely social, and once upon a time we played classical CDs a lot, but not for a very long time now. I have become increasingly sensitive to noise, and some time ago I got myself noise-cancelling headphones. Interestingly, I only used them for noise-cancelling purpose once, on a flight, which was bliss. But the side effect was that I tentatively tried to listen to meditation music in bed, after or instead of reading, and then I moved on to Bach and Chopin, and I was so irritated by advertising that I bought myself out of it, and now I am completely addicted. I think I have decided that I could hypothetically live without books, but I cannot live without music. Spotify has everything I need and more; it is, however, important to choose wisely, finding performances by best artists and of full works, not just popular snippets.

I have also found a way to continue with miniature-making, but this is a separate story. 

Something for solitary evenings  


Sunday, 11 November 2018

Exploring the neighbourhood

There are scores of practical things to deal with when you move, even when you move from one end of the town to another. I am incredibly lucky to rent all-inclusive so that I don't need to open new utility accounts (I remember it was a nightmare when we moved from Water Street to Milton) or find an internet provider. But I still need to new GP, a new pharmacy, a new bank branch, a new post office (well, how often do I need a post office…), a new grocery store. I have worked in this area for ten years, but of course I never noticed pharmacies or even grocery stores. I know a couple of local restaurants of various quality and price range. It won't make any difference because I am not the kind of person who goes out on my own. Going out is a social event, not a meal.

I used to shop at the large Tesco supermarket. The last few years we had home delivery, and I only went to the store for special things like fresh fish and exotic fruit. I am used to driving to the supermarket, taking a trolley, loading the car, unloading it at home. I am not used to carrying heavy bags for more than ten steps.

The closest supermarket here is Waitrose. I have nothing against Waitrose, but so far I haven't been there once. I am perfectly happy with the humble Tesco Express. Maybe it doesn't have the full range of stuff that the supermarket has, but if so I haven't lacked anything. My few observations are revealing. There are small packages of, for instance, fresh vegetables, just enough for a side dish for one person. Yoghurt and cottage cheese are only available in small jars. More fat free items. Much, much more “crunchies and munchies” - or maybe they are just more visible in a little store. There are dozens of aisles in the supermarket where I never go.

I have also been to the local Co-op, and the person there talked me into becoming a member. As a recruitment bonus, I got a bottle of barbecue sauce that I never use, so I gave it away. I am not a loyal member – I still go to Tesco, even though it is a hundred steps further away. For of course I now walk to the store. Which means that I cannot shop more than I can reasonably carry. I have considered buying a shopping bag on wheels, but so far I have just taken my large backpack and perhaps one bag to carry eggs in. I would think twice before carrying eggs in a backpack.

I must confess that occasionally I cheat. Whenever I have to go to Milton, I go past Tesco. Yet I still cannot buy more than I can reasonably carry from the college parking lot to Gatehouse.

Every now and then when I have to go to Milton I get fuel. I have not yet discovered the closest fuel station here. Sooner or later I will have to. Or maybe not, because I more or less only drive to Milton. Everywhere else I walk or take a bus. A student who also lives in the college has enlightened me about buses. I had previously only used one that I know for sure goes past the college. But there are others that turn at the crossroads within easy walking distance.

It takes twenty minutes to walk to the medical practice, and it is a nice walk, although nothing interesting on the way. I order my repeated prescriptions online and then have to collect them at the local pharmacy, which is Boots. When I went there, my phone helpfully suggested a shortcut I would not have discovered on my own. It's a tiny pharmacy, and it doesn't have my preferred shampoo. I will have to buy shampoo when I go to my dentist next time, because there is a large Boots close by. When I walk to the pharmacy, I notice other businesses around. It turns out that the pharmacy is almost across the road from hotel Sorrento where I stayed when I came to Cambridge for my job interview. Of course at that time I didn't pay attention to pharmacies and local businesses. The local businesses are mostly takeaways and fast food that I don't eat. There is a locksmith and a dry cleaner. Nothing useful. My bank branch is halfway between Boots and Tesco Express.

In the square where Tesco Express is located there are more restaurants and a leisure centre with a cinema and a gym. Not the kind of gym I would go to. There is a gym in college, but I won't go to it either. I still need to investigate the gym that my old trainer has recommended – it's a bit further away. I have only been to the cinema once, and only because my students invited me. I should perhaps learn to go to the cinema on my own. I go to concerts on my own, and I have even been to theatre in London on my own a few times, so why not cinema?

There is a beauty parlour and a bicycle shop, neither of interest to me.

It takes half an hour to walk to the city centre. It's a nice walk across the fields with cows grazing. The footpath brings me almost to the market place. It's a paradise. I buy good rye bread, interesting cheeses, exotic coffee, olives and dried tomatoes. I have discovered a stall with Russian pies, driven by a friendly Russian lady who used to be a teacher of English, but found that selling piroger on a market in Cambridge suits her better. We chat in Russian.

In the opposite direction, a fifteen-minute walk, is Addenbrooks Hospital where I have my eye clinic (and where I have recently spent hours and hours in A&E). It is a whole city in itself and has shops, eateries, ATMs, a beauty parlour and everything else you may need.

The best walk is along the river to Grantchester where you can have tea in The Orchard. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

New habits

When I moved to Gatehouse I was worried about noise. I have never lived so close to traffic. My bay windows look straight into the pavement, and people walk by. People: mostly students, noisy, shouting, laughing. Cars and buses. There is a traffic light right in front of me; it squeals when it changes to green. But after just a couple of days I don't notice it any more. It's just part of my environment.

I was worried that I could not open windows. I like sleeping with windows open, and obviously I cannot now. I hate curtains; I like to see light when I wake up. I am used to waking up to see a green lawn, roses, conifers. There isn't much of a view from my windows. I am used to seeing the moon and Jupiter through my bedroom window. Now I have to draw a curtain because there is a street lamp right in front of the window.

I hate closed doors. Particularly when you have cats, you can never close doors because cats need to be able to come and go as they please. But even otherwise I don't like to be in a room with doors closed. It feels like being in a hotel. In Gatehouse, I need to close doors to keep heat. My front door is a very British front door – excuse me for being prejudiced. The gaps are almost large enough to put a hand through. If it gets really cold outside I may need to hang a blanket over the door. The British have never learned how to insulate their homes. So I have to close all doors and conserve energy, and it makes me feel claustrophobic. But you know what? I am used to it now.

Back in Sweden, we had a tumble dryer. It is essential in Sweden, particularly in winter. When we moved to Woodside ten years ago, there was a washing machine, but no tumble dryer. The first thing to do, we said to each other, is to buy a tumble dryer. But somehow we never did, and it turned out that in the mild Cambridgeshire climate you could have an outdoor clothesline. Now I am back to tumble-drying which feels odd.

I have few clothes that need ironing. Gatehouse came with an iron, but no ironing board. I haven't brought my ironing board. On a rare occasion when I might need to iron something, I will probably miss my ironing board. That said, I lived the first twenty-nine years of my life without an ironing board so I believe I can cope.

In the past thirty-seven years, we made coffee one cup at a time with a funnel and paper filter. It took a lot of persuasion to switch from boiling water in a pot on the hob to an electric kettle. During a very short time we had a fancy coffee machine that I loved, but my significant other hated, so we gave it away when we moved to the UK. Now I got myself a cafetiere. I have been skeptical toward them, for no reason, but I have read instructions and learned how to use it, and it's perfect. I should have learned it long ago.

My new best friend

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Things you can do without

In one of my all-time favourite books, Three Men in a Boat, there is a wonderful passage about packing. When the three friends realise that they impossibly can bring everything they have piled on the floor, they decide to select not what they could do with, but only what they couldn't do without. It's remarkable how many things in your household you can do with that aren't things you can't do without.

Take an avocado slicer. I bought it at a time in my life when I was buying all kinds of kitchen utensils, after I had rebuilt my kitchen in Stockholm and had plenty of drawers and hooks. We like avocado, and unlike many other “good-to-have” items, I have used it a lot. You can live without an avocado slicer, but since I had one I brought it with me, and I am using it frequently.

I have always been against one-purpose gadgets, but once you have them, some come handy. I once bought a very clever measuring spoon for coffee that was also a clip to seal the bag. It was never used other than as a measuring spoon, but now I finally use it the way it was conceived. 

I haven't brought the oyster knife because I don't anticipate eating oysters on my own. I haven't brought lobster forks, nor herring forks – none of the numerous objects that I use maybe once a year because they are there, but that are not essential. I haven't brought a can opener because I don't eat canned food.

I did bring my cheeseboard and cheese knives, more for sentimental reasons than anything else. Even if I have guests, I can serve cheese on a plain wooden board with an ordinary knife. 


I brought one of the many fruit bowls and two mixing/salad bowls, one large and one small. Since I don't have an oven, I didn't bring any baking trays or pans.

I brought my spiraliser because I use it all the time. You can live without a spiraliser, but vegetables taste so much better when spiralised.

I didn't bring the asparagus pot. We only got it recently, after many, many years of me thinking, as I do: Why would anyone need a pot just to cook asparagus? But it turned out very practical. However, I don't think I will cook asparagus in the nearest future. Or if I will, I can cook in an ordinary pot.

On my first list of things to buy were: orange juicer, kitchen drawer organiser, kitchen towel holder, laundry basket and rubbish bin. Of these, I have only purchased a juicer because I really, really need my freshly pressed juice in the morning. It turned out that you can live with your kitchen drawers disorganised, put your kitchen towel on the counter, keep laundry in a canvas bag and use a large flower pot to hold bin liners. Maybe if I had been planning to stay here for longer, I would have invested in a bin. But buying stuff when I am massively getting rid of stuff feels silly. 


There is no place in my kitchen for a garbage bin. It doesn't fit under the sink. I have it in a corner between the washing machine and the fridge. When I use either, I have to move the bin to the middle of the kitchen. My mind goes to Marina Tzvetayeva, who famously kept her garbage bin the middle of her living room cum study in Paris. She was not disturbed. I am.

So far, I have only entertained two guests, one at a time, and we had tea for which we needed two teacups, two small plates, two teaspoons and two knives. Every day, I contemplate the plates in my cupboard asking myself: Why do I need a set of six of everything? Well, because it is a set, and I haven't even brought the teapot, the numerous bowls, platters and sauce boats. How often do you use a sauce boat? The one day a year you may need a sauce boat, can you use something else?

I brought a spare duvet, pillows, bedsheets and towels. Just in case. I do have a sofa bed after all. But otherwise, how many bedsheets and towels do you need?

Clothes: I gave away several bags of clothes to charity. Going through my wardrobe, I kept asking myself: will I wear this in the coming year? How many outfits do I really need? My new walk-in wardrobe is small. Just one rack and bare wooden shelves. Some years ago I started wearing scarves and now have a dozen and a half. They marked a new phase of my life, so I kept them. They fill a whole large “Really Useful Box”. Ironically, I have recently bought several pairs of shoes, also as a new phase of my life. Why would anyone need so many shoes? Two pairs is quite enough. And so on.

I like the idea of minimalism, but I also like to have a few trinkets of sentimental value. I certainly can do without candle holders, or a cut-out wooden cat that sits on the door frame, or an Aalto vase, or a miniature Japanese stone garden. But I brought all these items to mark my territory. I smile when I see them.

Thing theory – yes, there is one! - distinguishes between things and objects. Objects only become things when they acquire an additional symbolic meaning. Some objects I brought are just objects, while others are things.

When I move on, ten months from now, I will probably leave still more objects behind, but I will bring my things wherever my life takes me next.

Monday, 5 November 2018

Gatehouse rules

I have limited experience of living on my own. The closest I ever came to it was when I had a guest professorship in Finland and commuted, spending half of the week there. I had a minimal household, but made sure I had proper meals and tidied up the flat.

From the very first day in the Gatehouse, I set up Gatehouse rules. (You may have read Ciderhouse Rules; that what I am alluding to). Here they are:

  • make the bed
  • cook meals
  • don't eat takeaway
  • eat meals sitting down
  • wash up
  • don't go around in clothes you don't want to be seen in
  • keep private and professional apart

All sounds elementary, but these rules are necessary to keep me sane. I believe it's easy to slide down if you don't keep them. And there isn't much in my habits I need to change.

For instance, making the bed has always been imperative to me. I have always told my children that if I stop making the bed they will know that something is profoundly wrong. I believe this comes from my childhood when nobody had proper bedrooms but were sleeping in sofa beds in multi-purpose rooms. I was twenty-nine before I had a bedroom.

When I got my super-special super-expensive bed – thanks to my sons who persuaded me that, given I spend a third of my life in bed, it isn't a luxury but a necessity – I thought it deserved a pretty bedspread, and I even bought a pair of matching pillowcases that are just for show. For show, when it's just me? All the more so, believe me. I feel glad every time I enter my bedroom.

I have always eaten cooked meals, and I don't see why I should change now. When the children were small we used to get meals from McDonald’s or a Chinese takeaway every now and then as a treat, and of course we bought ready meals because it was easy, but since the children grew up, freshly cooked meals were the norm. I like cooking, but the past ten years here in Cambridge I have been away at work more than previously, and it was nice to come home to a warm meal and a set table. This is important to me: set the table properly, with a placemat, cutlery, napkin; serve the meal on a nice, warm plate; light candles; no reading, no surfing; enjoy your meal even if you are on your own. No eating at the kitchen counter, no eating sandwiches and absolutely no eating ready meals or takeaways. I love food, and I don't see why I should enjoy it less just because it is just me.

Washing up is essential. This is one of the things my evil mother taught me: when you are cooking, wash up everything as you go, don't make a mess. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a dishwasher until I came to Sweden. And in some places where I lived there wasn't any warm water.

(Some time I will write about how I worked in a communal kitchen during so called “student volunteer agricultural assistance”, read forced labour).

I was once invited to a friend's for dinner, and their kitchen was piled with filthy dishes – not just in the sink, but everywhere. I didn't enjoy the dinner very much.

Here in Gatehouse, just one morning I was in a hurry and left my breakfast crockery unwashed, and I was utterly disgusted when I came home. Then of course there is much less washing up after one person. Not just half, but significantly less. I cannot explain it. It's also significantly less garbage after one person.

I have never allowed myself to wear torn or dirty clothes at home. I don't wear my best, and I like soft trousers and loose sweatshirts. I eat breakfast in my nice, fluffy dressing gown, but then I put on decent clothes even if I am not going anywhere. I believe I buy more clothes to wear at home than formal or festive clothes.

So really, the only new rule is keeping personal and professional apart. It is tempting to play an old-fashioned professor residing in college and to invite students for supervisions, but I won't. I will invite them – have already invited them – for tea, but as friends, not as students. I have previously invited them for Lucia and Midsummer parties. (Now that I think of it, this year's Midsummer party was the last one ever, but I didn't know it then).

A dinner for one

To be continued.

Sunday, 4 November 2018

How I live now

The hedgehog has been displaced again. This time abruptly, unexpectedly and involuntarily. I am not going to explain the reasons because it doesn't matter for what I want to share. I want to share the experience of a sudden major change in life when almost everything you once took for granted needs to be reconsidered. But it is not a disaster, it is a slow and painful process that hopefully leads to healing. I believe many people out there have gone through something similar and will recognise themselves, and those who haven't yet maybe will at some point. If any of my survival strategies are helpful for anyone, I am not wasting my time.

How I Live Now is the title of a novel by Meg Rosoff. I often think about it as a piece of wisdom. I haven't been through the horrors that Meg's character went through, but the difference is in degree, not in nature. This is how I live now, and there is nothing I can do other than make the most of it.

If you have followed my blog for a while (and if not, you probably need to go back and read some random posts), the last few posts were about my imminent retirement and all my grand plans for post-retirement life. Now my retirement is just ten months and twenty-five days away (yes, I do cross them out, like a prisoner waiting for release), but a few plans will have to be modified.

Again, if you have followed my blog you know that I live in Cambridge, in a nice, large house with a beautiful garden. This past summer, prolonged drought notwithstanding, my garden finally started looking the way I wanted. I paid a fortune to have my ditch cleared. I was going to engage a garden architect to plan for autumn planting so that after retirement I could start gardening on a more systematic basis. 

What I haven't shared here is that our dear Miranda left us last February, and soon after we were adopted by celestial twins, the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, a source of endless joy. It's terribly unfair toward Miranda, but two kittens playing are so much fun to watch. 

Mid-August, I went to Sweden for the annual family crayfish party, because why not. The why not bit felt liberating. I thought: “I must do this more often. Soon I will also have time to do this more often”. 

Back to how I live now. I live in a tiny flat in my college. Well, it's not that tiny. When I told my children, they thought it was a bedsitter with a pantry, but it has a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen. When I was young I would consider this flat a luxury beyond imagination. Yet moving from a very large house with a large garden to a small flat, even though it has a bedroom, a living room and a kitchen, makes a huge difference. Your brain and your body need to adjust to scale. 

The flat is on the ground floor of a two-storey Victorian servant quarter, which used to belong to a pretty mansion, now hidden behind the Faculty of Education main building. I have often walked past it, always thinking: "I wonder who lives in this tiny house". Now I know. I do. These bay windows are my bedroom and my living room.

The house does not have a garden, just a very small walled yard, but then I have college gardens ten steps away. I have put some potted plants in the corner of the yard. I have weeded evil vegetation between stone tiles. 

I rent this place from the college, and they had horrendous student-flat furniture in it. They wouldn't remove it so I put it into storage and brought some of my own stuff, measuring carefully what could be squeezed in. I am glad I took a broad margin because it got quite crammed, and my much-loved dressing table would not have fit in. I brought my very special, expensive ergonomic bed. I brought a chest of drawers and two nightstands, a chair and an antique bench that I don't really need, but like very much. For the living room, I brought a sofa and two armchairs, the latter hardly necessary; a coffee table and two small side tables. I kept the desk that was in the flat. I brought two standard lamps and a desk lamp and a small Tiffany lamp. I brought some pictures, after counting very carefully how many hooks there were on the walls. One hook fell off on my first attempt to hang a picture. I am not going a drill a better hole. I brought two rugs to cover the horrible, worn-out red carpet. I brought curtains to replace the horrible, worn-out red curtains, but they didn't fit, so I just got used to these lovely, cosy red curtains.

With some cushions and throws and ornaments and orchids, the flat immediately felt like home. And believe me or not, this is the first time in all my long life that I have a place of my own. 

To be continued.