Tuesday, 23 July 2019

One-way ticket

Many years ago, so many years ago that it is impossible to imagine, I left Russia on a one-way ticket. At that time, I did not know whether I would ever be able to go back. As it turned out, I went back often, perhaps more often than I should have, but it was hard to sever ties, and with all the novelty and excitement of my new life, I did feel lonely and unhappy every now and then.

After many years in Sweden, with two shorter stays in the USA, I left on a one-way ticket to Stansted. I am re-reading my posts from eleven years ago, and while I do not recognise the feelings, I can relate to facts. We had a big farewell party. Here, I am meeting people one at a time or in small groups. I won't be able to meet everyone I'd like to meet. 

I don't have a landline phone, so there will be no dead line. I don't have to defrost the fridge. I have packed everything, leaving a few chipped cups and plates that I will throw away before I leave. Tom Waits will not cry over me.

Sometimes I do, as I did then, wish I would wake up and discover it was a bad dream. But unlike then, I do not dream of packing and finding more and more things I need to pack. On consideration, I haven't had this particular nightmare for a long time, probably not since I moved to Gatehouse. Apparently it signified something completely different than the fear of moving.

There are substantially fewer moving boxes and almost no furniture. I still think I have far too many possessions. I believe I will need another big declutter on arrival.

Like then, I am not moving into a permanent home. I don't know how long it will take before I have a place of my own. Now, as then, the old house hasn't been sold yet. But on the other hand, as then, I will have time to look around and find what I want. I will find something that is just Goldilocks.

It feels different because this is an ending rather than a beginning. Yes, it will be a beginning of a new phase in my life, but I have no idea what it might be like. I have never been retired before. I have never had all the time to myself. I think I will manage because I have many plans, and there will be urgent things to do right away.

Anyway, life has gone full circle, almost on the day. “I am sitting at the railway station, got a ticket for my destination… Homeward bound – I wish I was...”


Sunday, 21 July 2019

Me and my motor vehicles

I will never again drive a car. Well, I may if I absolutely need to, but I'd prefer not to, because recently I haven't felt confident driving. My vision is deteriorating, even though my optician says I can still drive legally. I sometimes panic when I drive to unfamiliar places. I remember clearly that driving was once relaxing and a pleasure. Now it is a source of anxiety.

In any case, I will never again own a car. I wish I could say that I am doing it for ecological reasons, but I must be honest: it just so happens. I am in the process of further displacement, and it is a good moment to get rid of the car.

Owning a car was unimaginable when I was young. I remember dreaming that I was driving, like other people dream that they are flying. Cars were beyond reach for most people when and where I grew up, but when I was in my early twenties, they became more affordable so my parents decided it was time to buy one and therefore get a driver licence. They suggested I should take driving lessons together with them. I asked my father: “Will you let me borrow your car every now and then?” and he said, without hesitation: “Of course not”, and that decided it. What's the point of having a licence if you can never hope to own a car?

My mother crashed the very first time she went driving in her own and never sat in a driver seat afterwards. My father was a nervous driver; he would talk to himself all the time, planning to take over or change lanes.

In Sweden, I didn't start taking driving lessons at once because there were so many things I had to master first. When I did start, I was hopeless. My instructor would say: “You think too much. Stop thinking, just do it”. I failed my driving test four times because I had panic attacks and did really stupid things. The fifth time, my instructor's wife… no, I probably shouldn't say what she did. The day after we went to the USA, I drove an automatic car and knew I would never want a manual stick. I can do it, but why torture yourself when life can be much easier? All my cars since then have been automatic.

By the way, it was unusual for a family in Sweden to have two cars, but my husband was much for equality. Two offices, two computers, two cars.

All my cars were used, but in good shape. I drove a lot at one time, teaching and lecturing in far away places. I drove to work because it was convenient. We were not too ecologically minded then. I had lots of visitors whom I liked to show Sweden. Every winter we drove to the mountains for skiing.

When I had my Fulbright in Amherst, Massachusetts, I first thought I wouldn't need a car – I lived two blocks from the campus. But it being the USA, you needed a car to get your groceries, and you needed a car to get anywhere you had to, and there were so many places and people around Amherst I wanted to visit. So it took me whole four days to get a car, a little Ford. It gave me the freedom I needed. I drove it to Boston and New York and Philadelphia and all the way up to New Brunswick in Canada. I drove it to Bradley airport every time I flew to a conference. I sold it when my time in Amherst was over – it had served me well.

Then I had a series of SAABs in Sweden; we kept to the principle of trading cars as soon as they started costing too much in repairs. I had cars of fancy colours – I think one was eucalyptus. The car had names, usually based on the licence plates. DVK was Dvořák, MPS was Mopsa, UNB was Unbegaun. Obviously, some were male and some female.

One car was stolen under very strange circumstances. Our oldest son borrowed it when they were expecting a baby, and when it happened, they parked the car in the hospital parking lot. I was in Finland with another car, and when I came back, it turned out that the car at the hospital had been stolen by an elegantly clothed woman in her forties who crashed it and walked away. I was called to a police station for interrogation. The female police officer tried to make me confess to the following scenario: I returned from Finland on a ferry having been drinking all night, drove the car home, took myself to hospital at the opposite side of the city in some manner, did not go up to see my newborn grandson, took the parked car, smashed it, walked away and taught a class within the next hour. The mystery was never solved.

In California I had a Lumina, but for our cross-continent road trip we drove an Oldsmobile that got smashed in Yellowstone, and we had to sell it very cheap somewhere close to JFK where we were taking a flight back to Sweden.

More SAABs. One perished in a bad accident with my daughter involved. She called us thinking we would be angry. I was of course anxious about whether she was ok. A car is just a thing.

My current car, my very last one, my faithful friend, is fifteen years old – it's the longest I've owned a car. My husband drove it over from Sweden, and we had to change the panel and the head lights for driving on the wrong side. There are only two disadvantageous situations when driving a continental car in the UK: getting into a parking lot and merging into a motorway. Everything else you get used to quickly. Although sometimes you get funny looks from people who see that the driver seat is empty.

I haven't driven a lot here, mostly to work, but also on some longer excursions to Norfolk and Kent. After annual service I ask the garage people whether the car is still doing fine, and it is.

But the time had come. The question is: who wants a continental car in the UK? Answer: someone used to driving a continental car, particularly an automatic one.

I must admit: I should have done all this earlier, but there have been many other things I had to do. I thought I had full control over annual service, tax and insurance, but I missed the tax by two weeks because the reminder went to my old address. Since I am selling the car, the easiest option was not to renew the tax, which is as complicated as everything else in the UK because it goes back to some obscure 13th-century law. So my four-wheeled friend is now SORNed which means taken off the road. It also turned out that an important paper was missing, necessary to transfer the car to the new owner. I don't think I have ever seen this paper. But because of that 13th-century law I cannot simply go online, fill the form and print it out. I had to call and order it, and it will be sent by post. The nice lady on the phone told me that my car was untaxed. I assured her I was aware of it. She warned me I shouldn't drive an untaxed car. I promised her I wouldn't.

So when I move away from Cambridge in just a few days I will be leaving behind a faithful servant that came with me from Sweden and has been such a good companion. It is a minor loss among all my other disasters, but still I cannot help feeling a bit sad.


Monday, 8 July 2019

Growing up Jewish in Antwerp

This past week I taught children's literature summer school. It is in itself an exciting experience that deserves a separate blog post, but I want to write about a particular part of it that I enjoyed very much.

After my last year's experiment with a walking seminar, the summer school convenor asked whether they could borrow the idea and organise some for their participants. I agreed to lead one of the walks, and because I was to teach fairy tales and fantasy, I expected my walk to have something to do with one or both of these topics. However, I was assigned a walk titled “Growing up Jewish in Antwerp”. I am always open to learning something new, and it was totally new to me that Antwerp has the fourth largest Jewish community in the world outside Israel, after New York, London and Paris.

I did my homework, reading two chapters provided from an autobiography depicting life in a contemporary Jewish family – far away from my lived experience, as far away as a fairy-tale world. I also read some stuff on Jewish history in Antwerp specifically – otherwise I am relatively well familiar with the history of Jews in Europe. I was not asked to design the itinerary, and I had a local student as a guide. But based on my Hadrian's wall experience, I prepared some questions and activities.

I knew nothing about my walking companions, nor about their previous knowledge or interests. But they were obviously curious enough to choose this walk rather than “Chocolate” or “Children as consumers”. They were very young; I felt ancient in their company. They didn't know much, so I felt that with my patchy knowledge I was an expert. I quickly decided to play it by ear. I told them that, contrary to the instructions given to other walkers, we would start walking in silence, just using all our senses: looking, listening, smelling, touching (eventually even tasting as you will see). I don't know what I myself had expected, but turning from a busy central street full of shoppers into a quiet, almost empty street of diamond shops was like going through a portal into a different world (a bit of fantasy after all). As the first exercise, I asked my walkers to share what they had noticed, and it was, not surprisingly, clothes – and we discussed how clothes are used to signal identity, which can both protect, emphasise belonging and expose. We read a plaque on the Portuguese synagogue, bizarrely squeezed between high-rises of steel and glass, in memory of victims of terrorism in 1981. We reflected on the fact that persecution of Jews is not an issue of the distant past. I asked whether they had noticed that the entrance to the street had a barrier and security cameras.

We walked on, meeting women wearing wigs and boys wearing sidelocks. One boy hopping off a school bus quickly replaced his kippah with a baseball cap, changing, or at least shifting identity.

We reached Kleinblatt, the famous Jewish bakery, and bought some blueberry buns. Now was the time to taste! But it was also time for a written exercise. My companions had not expected it at all. We could not find a bench so we sat on the grass in the middle of a heavily trafficked boulevard. I told them to switch off their senses – except the taste of the bun – and write a short text: a journal entry, a postcard home, a tourist ad, a police report, a poem; from an outsider perspective reflecting their first impression of the space and place we had just traversed.

I also wrote a piece:

        This is where I could have been.
        This is where I am…
        in another universe.

I was quite emotional. I told them they could share if they wanted, but didn't have to. They were happy to share. We moved on, and I asked them to try to perceive the environment as if they were insiders, young people growing up Jewish in Antwerp. We passed the Romi-Goldmuntz synagogue. We stopped by the Holocaust monument. I asked them to imagine how, as young Jewish people today, they would constantly hear stories of ancestors who perished during Shoah.

We did another writing exercise, from an insider perspective, and they admitted that they found it difficult. My piece was:

I wish when my daughter grows up she will go far, far away. I wish I could have, but I followed my parents' wishes. I don't want her to follow my wishes. I want her to make wishes of her own.

By then it was almost dinner time, and I suggested having a meal in a place that was on our itinerary, Beni Falafel. Another multisensory experience. We summarised our walk briefly. They said again that the written assignments were unexpected and enjoyable. It made me happy.

My own summary was, once again, that embodied learning is beneficial, that students are surprised when encountering it, but find it fruitful. Of course I also reflected on what I had seen – and I don't think I had seen anything really like this, apart from Jerusalem, not even in New York. What does it actually mean, growing up Jewish in Antwerp? 

Blueberry buns at Kleinblatt bakery. Photo: Krzysztof Maciej Rybak