Saturday, 31 August 2019

Literary Stockholm, part 1: Tomas Tranströmer

Read about the background for this blog series.

It was my intention to start with two young adult novels, Johnny My Friend and Winter Bay, but it so happens that the nearest library that has copies is closed on Fridays (and weekends), and they aren't available as e-books, which is sad, because they were once very important books; at least Johnny My Friend was probably on every children's literature course syllabus in Sweden. Not any more.

While exploring e-books, I found out that the author next on my list, Nobel Prize winner Tomas Tranströmer, had his collected works as an e-book so I downloaded it (first downloading a Swedish-compatible e-reader software), and it will thus be the first of my blog posts on literary signs in Stockholm.

I have always claimed that is it a token of hubris to try reading and understanding poetry in a foreign language. Famous Russian semiotician and literary scholar Yuri Lotman defined poetry as “extremely compressed meaning”, and while this may be partially true of prose, in poetry much of the meaning is beyond words, in a huge semiosphere. Unless you are a native speaker, layers upon layers of auditory associations will be lost, and you need a subtle understanding of the structure of the foreign language to capture the nuances. A good example is instrumental case in Russian, often used instead of similes, that may sound odd to a foreign ear. In Swedish, you can easily fuse words in most bizarre ways.

All this to say that I have always been cautious with poetry in non-native languages. I would never do research on English or Swedish poetry, and I have been reluctant to teach it. In an undergraduate course in Stockholm I was required to teach one epic, two sets of poetry, one classic and one contemporary, likewise two dramas and two novels. Contemporary poetry was a particular challenge, because with my Russian training in poetry, a pile of short, non-rhyming, non-rhythmical incoherent lines wasn't poetry. (I am now taking great risks of causing my Swedish colleagues' wrath, but I can afford it). I consulted my husband who fully shared my opinion, but said there was one exception: Tomas Tranströmer. I started reading and immediately saw the profound difference between piles of short lines and Tranströmer's Poetry, with capital P. It was “extremely compressed meaning” in which aurality was key. You could memorise it. You cannot memorise piles of short lines. You could recite it, and it was pleasurable.

Of the poetry in a collected volume in our bookshelf, one poem specifically attracted my attention, maybe because of the title: “Gogol”. For copyright reasons, I cannot quote it here, but if you are interested, there are plenty of good English translations of other poems on the web, and many printed collections. 

I put Tranströmer on my syllabus, and I chose “Gogol” to discuss in class. As a semiotician, I ignored the so-called interpretation (“what did the author want to say”) and focused on the form. I enjoyed it. I believe my students did as well. It's a luxury to spend a two-hour session on a single poem.

As we were moving to Cambridge and massively decluttering our bookshelves, we donated the first edition of Tranströmer's debut collection, 17 Poems from 1954, to someone who could appreciate it. I hope they have kept it.

How do I feel now, re-reading Tranströmer, particularly the poem “From winter 1947”, quoted on his literary sign? I have no memory of this poem; it is like reading it for the first time, but I recognise the Tranströmean flow of language, still pleasurable for the ear, or maybe more pleasurable now that I have been away from the Swedish language for such a long time. I want to read it outloud. I read it outloud to my teddy-bear. I roll the words around in my mouth, savouring every sound. Imagery flashes in my mind. I want to read the poem more than once, like you listen to your favourite piece of music. I don't care what the author wanted to say.

Of course I know much more now about what poetry does to our brain. How unusual word combinations make our right hemisphere hop, skip and jump with joy, and the left hemisphere struggle to make sense.

I read through the first hundred pages, or the three first collections, slowly and deeply. I realise that I need to borrow the printed book. Poetry on screen doesn't really work.

The next day I go to the library and borrow the printed book. Then I make myself a cup of coffee and sit on the balcony, in my lush vertical garden, reading poetry. Is there a better way of spending a Saturday morning?

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Literary Stockholm: setting a goal

This is what happens when you have all the time in the world: you stumble over a new hobby. (Or shall I call it obsession?) In my previous post, I mentioned that during my flâneurie the other day I happened to see one of those numerous literary signs here and there in Stockholm, commemorating writers and poets who have described this beautiful city in their works. It so happened that the next day I met a friend who had read my post, and she showed me another sign, also children's literature related. This made me curious, and I did some research, finding an incomplete list of these signs, some obvious and of very famous authors, and some of authors I have never read and some, I must admit, I have never heard of, which is totally unacceptable for someone with a doctorate in comparative literature from a Swedish university. But some I have not only read, but actually met, and a couple I would even dare call friends.

On a walk to the centre yesterday, I discovered seven signs, without deviating from my by now usual route. All in all, I have collected eleven, which is quite good in just a few days.

However, walking or traveling around and taking pictures of street signs is not much of a challenge. Contemplating the signs I have visited, I realise that it has been years and years since I read those books, and as I have just confessed, some I haven't read at all. 

The real challenge will be to read or re-read all these books. If I read one book per week, it will take me almost two years. Brushing up my Swedish literature, meeting old favourites, making new acquaintances. This hasn't been on my list of retirement projects, but I feel hugely enthusiastic.

Part of the challenge is getting hold of books. I am sure they are all available in second-hand bookstores, brick-and-mortar or virtual, but I have decided that I will use libraries. I don't remember when I last took a book out of a public library. Maybe when I wrote my article about Stockholm in children's literature.

I have already found out that the two young adult novels I want to start with, Johnny my Friend, by Peter Pohl, and Winter Bay, by Mats Wahl, are not available in my closest library. They were so tremendously popular once upon a time... back in the stone age. But I have located them and will walk there, possibly discovering more literary signs on the way.

Before I re-read them, I will make some notes on what I remember about them. They are not my childhood books, but it was a very, very long time ago. Then I will read them and go back to the signs and walk around to get the sense of place.

Then I will write a blog post. Not a book review, but a personal reflection. Watch out!

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Becoming a flâneuse

Flâneurie is a luxury that in olden days only rich urban men in good health could allow themselves, and few people today would probably even consider. Life in big cities is busy and quick-paced, and even if you are on holiday you are in a hurry to see all those places your guidebook tells you is a must. I have occasionally walked purposelessly in London or Paris, but even then you know that there is something waiting for you when you come back. 

But now I have all the time in the world, and I have a wonderful city to explore without any obligations imposed, or self-imposed, on visitors. Here is a story, in words and pictures, of my Saturday flâneurie. 

To be honest, I only recognised this activity as flâneurie two blocks from home. Initially, I had a destination. If you have a destination, it's not flâneurie, but I decided that if I take a long detour and stop often enough for contemplation, it would count.

(If you are curious about my destination, it was Birkenstock shop in central Stockholm, because I needed a pair of new sandals. They are incredibly expensive, but this will probably be the last pair I ever need). 

My first contemplation stop was, as I mentioned, two blocks from where I live, and I don't think I had ever seen this place in real life, but it rang a bell. This is the setting of a key episode in one of the best Swedish young adult novels, Janne min vän (Johnny My Friend in English), by Peter Pohl. I have written extensively about this novel, and I have taught it numerous times. In this scene, the enigmatic androgynous Janne bikes down the steps for a bet. And see, this fact has not escaped the city council.   


During today's flâneurie, I noticed several of these plaques, and I couldn't help thinking that I am so ancient that I actually met several of the authors immortalised in these inconspicuous boards. One day, I will try to find them all, or at least as many as I can. 

I don't know this area very well, and it is a bit off the main streets, but it is a charming part of the city. See for yourself:


Not places you discover as a visitor, and maybe not even as a resident if you are rushing to the underground station, looking at your screen. This is where I acknowledged my flâneur status.

I cannot avoid walking through the Old Town, since it lies between Södermalm, where I live, and the city centre. I avoid the most touristy street and then deviate from the most obvious route I have been taking so far, walking instead over the bridge to Riddarholmen. When did I last go to Riddarholmen? Why would I ever go to Riddarholmen, other than for annual receptions at Norstedts publishing house? In all those years I missed this magnificent view: 

This sculpture is called "Sun Boat", and I now know all about it. And next to it is of course the great troubadour Evert Taube, and I start singing one of his famous songs to myself. 

This Saturday morning, Evert Taube Terrace is almost empty. Not a tourist spot, a flâneur spot. I love it. 

Two more pictures from Riddarholmen:

It seems that steps are prominent on my flâneurie, and this is of course what Stockholm is like. 

I cross another body of water, buy my Birkenstocks - I am the only customer; tourists don't buy expensive indoor sandals, and locals are probably still asleep. Then I turn to go back and see Riddarhuset, the House of Nobility, where I once attended a birthday party. 


So many memories evoked by places. I wonder what our nobleman friend is doing now.

Suddenly I realise it is Saturday which means that my favourite and very dangerous shop in Old Town is open, the toy and miniature shop where I used to spend a fortune on my visits to Stockholm. This implies taking a more crowded street, but it gives me a chance for another reminiscence: 

Stampen, literally Pawnshop, a famous jazz club where we used to go, sometimes even dance, a long time ago in a pre-previous life. 

Some more random pictures from Old Town: 


No, this last one is not random at all; it is Tyska Brinken, German Brink, leading to German Church, where I took my Granny to the first ever Lutheran service since she was a child. 

My favourite shop is closed. 


I wait the promised 15 minutes, then realise that I am not in Stockholm for a brief visit, I can come back next Saturday, and it's probably just as well it is closed or I would as usual spend far too much. 

Once over the bridge, I take a slightly different route and see more steps and some weird sculptures. 

And discover a museum I definitely must visit. It is not mentioned in the city guide.

More steps, leading from my street to Medborgarplatsen, a busier part of Södermalm. 

And small parks everywhere.

This is not a movie backdrop: 


I am rewarded by an old-fashioned yard sale, where I buy a dollhouse kitchen, not because I need it, but just because, and the nice lady asks the equivalent of £1, obviously thinking she has made a great deal.

Then I am finally back home, having cleverly resisted the temptation of having coffee in town for a price that in Cambridge would buy a two-course meal. I put on my new super-comfortable Birkenstocks, make myself a cup of coffee and a light lunch and sit on the balcony admiring my lush vertical garden.

I think this is the way I want to spend the rest of my life.

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

Fond memories

I am looking forward to IRSCL congress that starts tomorrow. It is a coincidence - or maybe it is not - that what is likely to be my last conference is hosted in my home city by the organisation which has played such a central role in my professional life.

Four years ago, I wrote two nostalgic blog posts after IRSCL conference in Worcester. I won't repeat it: read here and here.

But I have found some pictures from previous conferences.


This is Moscow 1981. I wasn't a member, I was interpreter and guide for the Swedish delegates. At that time, I couldn't even dream of becoming a member, still less the president.

Yet, here I am, two years later, in Bordeaux, giving a paper.

And here I am, in 1985, in Montreal, with Petra Wrede from Finland.

Somewhere in storage I have more pictures, from conferences, Board meetings and crayfish parties. This last one gives you a very good idea of how much fun you can have at a Board meeting: in San Diego, with Carole Scott, John Stephens and Thomas van der Walt.

Monday, 12 August 2019

The noble art of laundry

I have never before lived with a communal laundry room. When I mentioned this to my youngest son, he wondered: But didn't you have communal laundry rooms in Russia when you were young? Well, no. I had never seen a washing machine before I came to Sweden, aged 30.

According to the family legend, when my grandfather was a young man, he washed his only shirt in a soup plate.

When I was a child, there was a washing woman coming to do the family's laundry. She was old, with wrinkled face and one tooth. She looked like a witch, and I was mortally scared of her. I cannot say how often she came because the sense of time is different when you are a child, but I would guess maybe twice a month, and it took her a whole day. She washed our linen in the bathtub and hung it to dry in the kitchen, with gas stove at full capacity. Then she spread an old blanket on the kitchen table and ironed the sheets with huge black irons heated on the gas stove.

Later on, laundry would be taken to a state laundry place, or actually, there would be someone to collect and deliver. The sheets were heavily starched and smelled cheap soap. Smaller laundry, like women's underwear, would be done discretely by the owner in the bathtub. Those lucky to have a balcony would hang their things there to dry. You may have seen this in old movies. Washing powder was in short supply, so it was soap, and your hands would get coarse. (Hard cream was in short supply too). If you happened to be in a shop at the right moment when washing powder was in stock, you'd alert your friends, and they would be there within half an hour. The sense of community was strong in those days.

I think the first washing machines came in mid-70s, but they were expensive, and, more importantly, there was no room for them in our crammed housing. No one I knew had a washing machine back then.

During my first year in Sweden we rented a house, at a nominal price, from a friend; more or less house-sat while the house was on the market. Thinking back, I realise that there was a laundry room in the basement, used by two more families. Maybe my husband did the laundry during the time, because I don't remember ever doing it.

The house we eventually bought had a huge basement with plenty of space for both washing machine and tumble dryer. Ever since, I have taken it for granted. When we bought the house in Milton, it didn't have a tumble dryer, but we quickly discovered that in Cambridge climate a clothline worked just as well, and it did for ten happy years. The past year, in Gatehouse, I had a tumble dryer again, and I could wash and dry as I pleased.

Now suddenly I understand why my youngest son would sometimes say, as we skyped: ”I cannot talk to you now, I must do the laundry”. In my new home, there is a communal laundry in the basement. You have to book your laundry time through an app. I find it exciting, like a new game. Although I must admit that I was a bit apprehensive first time. What if I did something wrong? Well, I didn't. I booked a morning slot, and I went down with my laundry, chose an appropriate programme and went up to the flat again, set an alarm and tried to focus on something else. Went down, moved my stuff to the tumble dryer, went up, set the alarm. Two hours later, all done, and all my things folded neatly, Marie Kondo-style, and I reward myself with coffee and biscuit on the balcony.

But this is just the beginning. I have never contemplated the frequency of doing your laundry because I could always do it whenever I felt like it. Should I decide on a particular day of the week? I am privileged in that I can choose the least attractive slots on weekdays in the middle of the day. Or shall I just see when I need it? If you are laughing now, consider that I am in my late sixties and have never had this dilemma. Everything is new. Isn't life just wonderful?

Looking back at my childhood, or remembering women I saw during my African holidays, washing by the river, beating their washing with stones and hanging it on trees to dry, I remind myself to be humble and grateful. Also, being ecologically minded, I want to plan my laundry so that I don't do it more often than absolutely necessary.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Home is where your device picks up internet

Tonight I will sleep in my new place for the first time. My stuff delivery was delayed first until tomorrow, then until Wednesday, but it doesn't make sense to wait. I can sleep on the sofa, and there are plates and cups and knives, and I will start settling in. I had my first coffee and then my first lunch on the balcony.

I went to get groceries which took me a long time. I remember this when we first moved to the UK, and everything was new. You think that milk is milk and cheese is cheese and so on, but everything is different, and some things I remember and some I need to inspect closely. Some things cause nostalgia, and I buy a jar of shrimp cheese spread, just because. I try to figure out the prices and give up: just as well to accept that everything is at least twice the price as compared to the UK.

I buy an electric kettle, the only utensil my landlady said she didn't have, kindly offering to buy one for me. Since I would need it later anyway, I assured her I could invest in a kettle. At least there is something I own. I mark my territory with my new kettle. It feels good.

I have received my first snail mail (written confirmation of my residency). There was a scribbled question mark beside my name on the envelope. I have now put up a piece of paper with my name on it by the letterbox.

Tomorrow I will inspect the laundry room and the garbage station. (I have never lived with a communal laundry before. You need an app to book a slot). In Cambridge, we had three garbage bins. Here there are at least eight. So much to learn.

I now find my way to the underground station without getting lost. There is also a bus stop right in front of my door so I need to investigate where those three buses can take me. (Remember, I have an app for public transportation!)

I have stated briefly that there are various coffee shops and restaurants in the neighbourhood. I have registered a bakery. It will be fun to discover more.

I water the plants. Some of them aren't doing well. I will try to be nice to them. The plants on the balcony also require some attention, and there is room for more. I must go to a garden centre to add some autumn colours to my vertical garden.

I think I will be happy here.


Sunday, 4 August 2019


My home town has changed a lot in eleven years, but I have changed too, and the life style I will now adopt is radically different from eleven years ago.

The first thing I do on the first day of the rest of my life is get a public transportation app. I feel slightly resentful because in Cambridge I had my free bus pass, but there isn't much I can do about it. The app, tied to my bank account, allows me to buy a (senior discounted) ticket valid for 75 minutes on buses, underground and commuter trains. It also provides timetables for all transport from my location. I am sure it can do many other wonderful things I will discover soon. It feels like a game. I don't play games on my phone, or otherwise, but as I said, this is going to be a new life style.

Equipped with my app, I take the underground to Skatteverket, the authority the closest equivalent to which in the UK is HM Revenue & Customs, but it also takes care of residency and other things that in the UK are considered interference with your personal freedom and integrity. I need to register as repatriated before I can do anything else (in the UK, nobody cared, as long as you had a postcode). The website says I just need to show my passport and, where relevant, documentation confirming any changes in my civil status. In reality, I am shown to a computer terminal where I fill out an endless form that includes details of my first marriage almost fifty years ago (“Can you provide your marriage certificate? If not, please describe your wedding”; “Can you provide your divorce certificate? If not, please provide the particulars of your divorce”), my second marriage and my children's social security numbers, which I don't have at hand. I am about to start texting the kids when a nice employee borrows my passport and within ten seconds prints out all the details – why the h-ll are they asking when they already have it all in their system, including my recent divorce? Never mind. Very soon I get a stamped receipt and am officially a resident in Sweden. From now on, every other database recognises me at my temporary address. I know many people outside Sweden view this as worryingly Big-Brotherly, but if you think systems in your countries do not know everything about you, you have illusions. And it least it make things easier. I log in and sign every form with my mobile bank ID, which is very civilised.

My next step is registering with health care, and I fill out another form at a terminal – the system recognises me happily as a Swedish resident of 30 minutes ago, which later enables me to register with a medical practice and get my first appointment. My third step is to apply for my state pension. There are some hurdles because I also have pension from the UK, that luckily is still part of EU, so this can be dealt with. My two work pensions are administered by different authorities, and I hope I have filled out the relevant forms correctly. The whole process only took three hours – I am a straightforward case. Still, it feels more than enough for one day. At least, I already have a Swedish bank account. Opening a bank account in the UK was an almost unsurmountable problem. You need a utility bill to open a bank account, and you need a bank account to create a utility account. I am glad it's all in the past. I haven't tested my new Swedish credit card yet, but I don't anticipate any issues.

I need to reconcile myself with the thought that I am not in the safe hands of NHS any more and will have to pay for visits to doctors as well as for my medication. Token fees, but still. But I am happy to discover that since I lived here last, repeated prescriptions can be ordered electronically. That's called progress.

I join a walking club. The system recognises me as a Swedish resident, but does not like my UK phone number. I will need to get a Swedish number soon. After Brexit, my UK tariff may not be valid in Sweden.

I identify a Pilates studio around the corner and email them my indication of interest. They respond within five minutes. Yes, there is a space in the Monday class, and yes, I am welcome to come and have a look. The classes start in late August. This will give me a welcome fixed point in my weekly routine.

I feel I have achieved a lot in just a few days.