Thursday, 31 July 2008

Granny nanny

I am not a good grandmother. Anyway, not like some grannies among my friends who babysit twice a week or invite their grandchildren over every weekend and take care of them the whole summer. To be such a granny you need at the least to be retired or else a homemaker, and how many grannies today are retired or homemakers? Our oldest grandchild is twelve, so she is likely to have her own kids before I retire. And I am not going to babysit them. (That’s their granny’s responsibility).

Yes, I love my grandchildren. It is a joy to see them at our family gatherings. I remember well the thrill of holding a newborn, just a few hours old, knowing that my genes are now carried further. In a way, is was a greater miracle than holding a baby of my own. In my old country, in the bad old times, grandparents – and even fathers – were not allowed to meet the baby until the mother was at home, which most often took a week. So grannies in my parents’ generation never experienced this incredible sensation of just having become immortal.

When our youngest grandchild had announced her imminent arrival, our son woke me up by phone at 3 am, since I had promised to be available “any time”. I hadn’t counted on any time being 3 am. It normally takes forty-five minutes to drive to their place, but I made it in half an hour. Just as well, the baby was in a hurry to see the world. Meanwhile, the other children slept nicely except the oldest, who was a bit scared, crept up to me, as I collapsed, drowsy and shaky, into the parents’ bed. “Can I sleep beside you, granny?” “Sure, but I must warn you that I snore”. “Doesn’t matter, Mum snores too”. I was too sleepy to appreciate the dialogue then.

The reason for this flow of reminiscences is that yesterday I babysat the two youngest, two irresistible young ladies, three and one. For about eight hours, with short breaks for meals and naps, they jumped on a trampoline. I felt dizzy by merely looking.

Who knows when I get the next chance to babysit.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Your booking is complete...

...says the airline booking system. It means that in less than two weeks I will sit on a plane taking me to my final destination. Maybe then I will realize that it is really happening.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The secret door

Our house is a bit gothic, in the sense that it has many strange closets and wardrobes that surely lead to Narnia if you try hard; it has bizarre angles and stairs and different ceiling height in every room. A couple of years ago I ripped off plywood from all doors, and underneath were the most wonderful old-fashioned carved panels.

When we moved in twenty-six years ago, there was a door between what became Staffan’s study and Sergej’s, our oldest son’s, bedroom upstairs. Staffan sealed the door and put up wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on his side. There they have stood all these years. Until yesterday. Yesterday I attacked them brutally, and there suddenly was the sealed door. Of course I knew it was there, it is in the same door opening on the opposite side that I used to have my doll house. Still the sight after all these years was eerie. Unpainted plywood, fixed with oversized screws. Luckily, I haven’t packed all screwdrivers yet. Really, I wouldn’t be surprised if the door opened into some other dimension.

Now from where I sit at my desk I can see into Staffan’s room. Light is pouring though the opening. Why haven’t we done this before, or at least when I moved into the adjacent room? I like open spaces. Staffan says he won’t be able to work with an open door between us, but for the remaining twelve days he will have to endure.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Strawberry fields forever

Although it is pointless, I have weeded the strawberry patch. I have a very special relationship to this particular strawberry patch. When we came home from California, my strawberries had died. I had not expected the tenant to take care of them, but I was upset. You normally get twelve strawberry plants, and next year you have plenty, and there is a continuity that feels satisfactory. The following summer my parents were visiting, and I asked my father to help me start a new strawberry patch. He had always been fond of gardening; I have a picture of him in my garden planting potatoes. We two went to a garden store and chose the strawberries. We didn’t know anything about the many varieties available, we just liked the names. He dug up the patch and helped me put a net over the plants.

Two years later my father died. The strawberries have flourished and multiplied. At least if they perish this time, it won’t be my fault.

Thursday, 24 July 2008


Yes, I know I have said that this will be the last thing I do. But yesterday I took down the doll house. There is no end to websites telling you how to move your doll house. A useful piece of advice is not to let the movers pack it but do it yourself. I will see movers who have the patience to pack hundreds upon hundreds of tiny fragile items. Another suggestion is to let the moving agent build a crate around the house. Since mine is inside a fixed bookshelf I have no use for this method. You are supposed to make a list of everything you have in our doll house. My, I don’t even have a list of everything I have in my 1:1 scale. But I can tell you that shoe boxes are very practical. I have been saving shoe boxes for the purpose ever since I knew we were moving, but they still proved too few. Good luck that I have been saving other cardboard boxes, just in case. Bubble wrap, paper towels, smaller boxes inside bigger boxes. Pack up everything like in a real house, a website recommends. In a real house, I don’t have such frail things. My delicate staircase, my exquisite door, my glass cupboard. Not to mention peeling off wallpaper, tiles and floors. And tearing off electricity.

A seven-story fully equipped doll house fits inside two moving boxes. It took me seven months to build it. It took me three hours to pull it down. I think it is called entropy.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Just a reflection

Australian aborigines never allow pictures of them to be taken. They believe that a picture captures part of their souls.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

More home staging

Tomorrow a photographer is coming to take pictures of our house for a professional full-colour folder. She knows that the house is still lived in, but I have received instructions. Some are fairly reasonable, such as to throw away old newspapers, to hang up clean towels, and remove laundry from the washing-machine area or dish-cloth from the sink. Make the bed is something I do anyway. But for a few suggestions, I am endlessly grateful, since I would have never thought of them myself. Such as:

- Take off fridge magnets

- Hide away the pet’s bowls and baskets

- Hide away “less attractive” appliances, such as radio, toaster and mobile adapter

- Change all burnt-out bulbs (don’t people normally do it?)

- Cut away withered leaves on potted plants or throw them away and buy new (what a thought! The few remaining plants I have!)

- Clean the hall and leave two light-coloured jackets and a pair of smart shoes or boots; perhaps also a pretty shawl or handbag (I am afraid my old backpack must get out)

- Take away toothbrushes, shampoo and lotions from the bathroom, as well as nappy-changing table (at least we haven’t got that!)

- Take away brooms, bikes and sacks of fertilizer from the entrance (actually, I do have a sack of fertilizer lying around since spring)

- Put a potted plant in front of the entrance (I hope my flowerbed will be enough)

- Fix the balcony to see appealing, for instance with a flower, lantern, blanket, cushion…

I wander around ticking off item after item as I handle them.

Unfortunately, I have already packed or given away all appealing objects, including vases, lanterns and cushions. But as I get groceries for dinner, I buy a load of exotic fruit to put in an elegant bowl on the kitchen counter.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Not a dream

I realize that it is the last time I fill the detergent container in the kitchen sink. I realize that it is the last time I change a burnt-out bulb. I realize that it is the last time we order fuel for heating. I realize that it is the last time Staffan will mow the lawn next week. I realize that we have already bought the last bottle of shampoo.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Minus 20

With my travel to Brazil, I have missed a very important date. The countdown. But I can start now. Today is M-Day minus 20.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

A taste of childhood

Raspberries are plentiful this summer. For dessert, we go out in the garden and pick them direct from the bush. I have tended my raspberries carefully for many years and defended them literally with my own body from Staffan’s attacks with the lawnmower. Staffan does not want raspberries in the lawn. I think that raspberries are worth sacrificing a bit of lawn. I have won inch by inch every year, weeding minutely around every tiny plant.

Staffan says that raspberries remind him of his childhood. His granny had a large raspberry patch where he was allowed to indulge. Nowadays, there is a police station where his granny’s raspberry patch used to be.

Cambridge resident

Today I have received Statutes and Ordinances from the University of Cambridge. As an employee I am required to live within twenty miles from Great St. Mary's Church.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Imaginary lines

Sao Paolo lies exactly at the Tropic of Capricorn. I am fascinated by such phantom borders. I have crossed the Tropic of Capricorn several times, in Australia and South Africa. I have stood with one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, or with one foot in the Eastern and the other in the Western Hemisphere. I have crossed the date meridian and lost a whole day of my life. When you cross the Polar Cirlce they give you a certificate. But nobody had given me a certificate for crossing the equator. Is it a greater deed to cross the Polar Circle?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008


Alice: Please, which way shall I go? Cheshire Cat: It depends on where you want to go to. Alice: It doesn't matter... Cat: Then it makes no difference which way you go. Alice: long as I get somewhere. Cat: You always get somewhere if you walk far enough.

I recite the dialogue for myself as I start walking from my hotel in Sao Paolo. It is far from my first visit to the Southern Hemisphere, but I always forget that the sun is in the wrong place. And I always misjudge the distance when using a map. As I walk, all the streets seem to go uphill, and all those hours on the treadmill are to no good. My clever husband always says that when you only have a few days in a big city, take a taxi between attractions. But I always persist in walking.

When I get somethere, having walked far enough, I get my reward: a market of the kind where you never buy anything but can browse for hours.

I taka a taxi back to the hotel.

Dendral delights

Sunday, 13 July 2008


My trip to Brazil is strictly speaking not a part of my transformation into a Cantabridgian, but it is my Awayweek from packing, so it counts. Due to an extensive missunderstanding with the travel agent I was booked on a flight from Heathrow to Lisbon at 6am which was obviously absurd. I searched for hotels at Heathrow that started from 200 pounds, but managed to find one for 40. The room was not much more than a prison cell, in size and decoration, but it was just for the night. I had to get up at 3.30 which proved unnecessary since the Portugal Airlines check-in didn't open until 5, and by the time the gate was suppoed to close half of the passengers hadn't checked in yet. At Lisbon airport I hade six hours to kill and contemplated seriously to take an hour treatment at the airport spa. The flight went smoothly - well, as smoothly as a transatlantic flight can go, and I was looking forward to a good night's sleep at yet another reasonably priced aiport hotel - three cheers for the Internet! As I came out to the arrival hall, there was a man holding a board with my name on. Since my name isn't pecisely John Smith I was pretty sure it was my name, and after a transatlantic flight your brain doesn't always work properly, so I didn't think about who would send a car for me, just appreciated the service. Yet after a ten-minute drive a got worried. The driver didn't speak English, and all attempts to communicate were futile. I didn't feel too comfortable being driven in a car by a stranger at midnight in a large Brazilian city. Forty-five minutes later we came to a hotel downtown that didn't have any reservation for me, but atl least somebody spoke English at the reception and finelly disentagled me from the mistake, and the driver took me all the way back to the airport. It is still a mystery.

In the morning I flew to Rio and was delighted to fall into the arms of my friend André. For the next three days. someone else would take care of me.

Friday, 11 July 2008

I hate group discussions

Well, Awayday obviously means a day away from the office, instead getting together in some stimulating and distracting envoronment such as a colleague's garden, bringing a favourite dish for lunch. When my old department had better economy we went away for a couple of days to Florence or Amsterdam or Dublin. Now we only go away to a museum with a nice lunchroom. The agenda for awaydays is always the same: someone starts with a lamentation about current issues, then we are divided into groups and assigned a topic to discuss. I have a friend who has published a book titled I Hate Group Discussions. For me, however, the deliberations in John's garden are useful as I become involved in the problems and issues. I try to identify possible tensions and undercurrents. As as newcomer I am cautious. I imbibe the sense of community. I need to learn the jargon and the numerous acronyms, witout revealing my total ignorance. I make a mental note about the pronunciation of Michaelmas and tripos. I show off by volunteering to give an inaugural during Lent. Away from home on an awayday, I am becoming part of the gang.

Incidentally, for favourite dish I was bringing three cans of Swedish pickled herring. but the airpott securinty didn't let it pass. Fortunately, I could find substitutes at the Waitrose supermarket.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Déjà vu

Many years ago, when I first came to Cambridge for a conference, the organizer, Morag Styles, put me up for a night with some friends. I flew from California into Gatwick, endured a three-hour bus journey to Cambridge and was dead meat. My hostess met me at the bus station and drove me to the most charming country house I had seen, with a magnificent garden. I made a mental note of it being an all-time dream house. I was horrendously jet-lagged, but dragged myself to the dinner table with the hosts and and some friends of theirs. The conversation was extremely stimulating, so I was sorry I had to withdraw quite soon. In the morning, when I woke at five, as you di with jetlag,I took a walk by the river. In the little house at the bottom of the garden where I slept there was a remarkable collection of egg cups. I made a mental note to send the hostess an egg cup if I happened to find an unusual one. Then the hostess drove me to Homerton College where I stayed at the dorms for the rest of the conference. I exchanged a couple of Christmas cards with my hosts, and then we lost touch.

During my recent visits to Cambridge I had been trying to find out who these wonderful people were. Morag had no memory of them (I don't blame her, she was busy with the conference). My only clue was "by the river". She wondered whether it was a B&B, but I told her the people had treated me as a friend and colleague. She wondered whether they were old or young, and I couldn't remember.

Yesterday we went to a business meeting, called enigmatically Awayday (away from what?), at the house of a colleague, John Gray, one of those many who had interviewed me earlier this spring. I had heard that he lived in an nearby village, the famous Grantchester, with The Rupert Brooks pub I have mentioned.

The moment I entered the garden, I recognized it immegiately: the lush garden, the gravel path, the sun deck, the sliding glass doors, and the little house at the bottom of the garden.

During lunch, I told John that I had stayed with him many years ago. "No, you didn't", he said confidently. "You had a collection of egg cups", I ventured. He gave me a weird look. "You couldn't possibly know about the egg cups unless you have indeed stayed in this house", he admitted.

And yes, the river Granta, which is River Cam's proper name, was just around the corner

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Last visit

There was this man who met two other men who told him: "You have neen chosen for an experiment. You can visit heaven and hell and advance and choose which you prefer". They took him to heaven, and it was all angels in white robes playing harp and singing. Hell was full of wine, food and women. "I hope you understand, the man said. " choose hell". He lived a long life, and when he died he was carried off to hell, which was all flames and bad smell and devils with hot iron rods. "Oh no, the man shouted. This is a mistake, this is not what I have chosen'. "No mistake, one of teh devils replied. Last time you were a visitor, now you are going to live here".

Thiis is the last time I am a visitor in Cambridge.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Cambridge revisited

As I take a taxi from the train station in Cambridge to the friend with whom I am staying I feel that I've come home. I know what streets we are going on, I recongize the street crossings and the roundabouts. I am overjoyed by the sight of the parks. I am even looking forward to the meeting this afternoon.

Sunday, 6 July 2008


In my youth in Moscow, people who emigrated would give a farewell party. Jewish emigration started in the beginning of the’70s, and was a painful process. As soon as a family applied for emigration permission, they would lose their jobs, and the children were expelled from school. In some early cases, the émigrés were required to pay back the money that the state had invested in their higher education. The sums were beyond imagination, but all friends gladly opened their purses to help. Many families were denied permission, which foreign human rights organisations and newspapers took on; some people I knew protested with hunger strikes.

Yet when all the barriers were surmounted, most of the belongings sold or given away, the rest packed, the family would throw a farewell party. The farewell was definite, as the borders closed firmly after them. The party would be held on the last evening before departure, when the flat was empty of furniture and everyone sat on the floor. Plenty of food and drink and joy. Yes, joy blended into sorrow, since after the long wait our friends were going to their desired destination, whatever that was. The partying went on until dawn, whereupon a few people stayed on to sleep on mattresses on the floor. In the morning they would clean the flat and leave the keys with the landlord. The rest of the company went to the airport for the very final farewell, seeing the friends disappear beyond passport control. On the way home, nobody spoke.

Our departure is not that dramatic, and I am almost sure we’ll in the future see some of the friends more often than now. Initially, I wanted a farewell party. Then I felt that it was much better to see all friends individually. We have been having guests or visiting friends more intensively than any other time. We have practically said farewell to everyone we hold dear.

The other day we decided we’ll give a proper party after all. We’ve made a list and are up to fifty people, immediate family not counted. It is vacation time, and many will be away, but hopefully some are coming. May the weather be on our side!

Saturday, 5 July 2008


I have now cleaned everything I can clean in advance and packed everything we don’t wear, cook with or write on. I wander restlessly about the house. It feels silly to sit down and start an article with deadline September 30. Fortunately, one of my doctoral students has decided this the best time to submit her thesis. What a relief! Nothing is more relaxing in the middle of packing than reading a thesis.

Friday, 4 July 2008


When Staffan finds he cannot stand another minute of sorting his past, he goes shopping for groceries or washing the car or something else extremely urgent. The other day he went to collect an order of clothes and offered to drive Julia, who had had lunch with us, to the train station. She called a bit later saying that her father was an angel and offered driving her all the way to her work, which is in Uppsala, 60 kilometres from Stockholm. An hour later, Staffan called to say that he was going to test the new motorway from Uppsala to Gävle, where he had grown up – 110 km more. He pointed out that he had wanted to make this trip for a long time. He would probably be back for dinner.

I for that matter am going to Cambridge on Sunday and from there to Brazil. I can hardly go farther away from packing and sorting.

Thursday, 3 July 2008


When we were going to California for a year, most friends said: “What a nuisance! So many things to do! Why bother?” We thought it was going to be fun. And it was. Staffan says we ran around in the same apprehension as today before leaving, but I have apparently suppressed it. I don’t even remember any moving agent.

Nowadays friends say: “How exciting!” Is it because Cambridge is more attractive than San Diego? Sorry, nothing wrong with San Diego, it has the best climate in the world. Yet this is what friends say. Especially when they hear that we are moving permanently. Is it because doing something as radical in our age is admirable?

When they hear that we are selling the house, they nod or sigh. But when they hear that we have rented a wonderful house on Water Street, they get enthusiastic. They want details. They want to see pictures. It is as if they were living their own dreams through us. A friend has told us that she has applied for a new job inspired by my example.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008


When our children grew up they moved from home and got their own homes. We thought it natural. Maybe Staffan and I have now grown up, and it’s time to move on.

Home staging, cont'd

Believe me or not, but I actually enjoy cleaning. I don’t like everyday cleaning because it is not particularly creative, but a huge cleaning, preferably in the basement, when you throw away tons of garbage accumulated for years and years, when the floor suddenly emerges from under layers of dirt, when cobwebs disappear, and when you can look at your deed afterwards with great satisfaction. I like making ugly things pretty. For the same reason I enjoy ironing, which most people dislike, because you see how crumpled textile becomes smooth and nice. And if you concentrate on cleaning or ironing and not on the essay that needs urgent revision it is really relaxing.

Still when the time comes there are loose objects lying around, and like you always do when you expect guests and panic-clean, I pour those in drawers and close them quickly, even though I know that this time I will still have to take care of them. Later, is the usual tune. There will be no later.

During the show we sit in the drawing room and look like wax figures at Madame Tussauds.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Fixed point

In the chaos of packing and throwing away, my doll house is the only fixed point. It is a new hobby, I only started last Christmas. But I have always wanted a doll house. My best friend had one when we were children, and I was envious. I bought one for my daughter when she was little and enjoyed making furniture of matchboxes, while she was rather indifferent. I guess this passion comes from my not having had a real home for a long time; I just wanted to satisfy my needs of decorating a house, albeit in miniature.
I have taken up a few hobbies recently, to counterbalance my mad pace at work: gardening, papermaking, and pottery. Julia’s old doll house was still in the attic, and I took it out on Boxing Day last year, to see if I could do something with it. I didn’t know at that time that I could actually make real dollhouse furniture. You don’t know before you have tried. Instead, I looked at eBay, to see what could be got cheap. Then, by mere chance, that was certainly Fate, I made a discovery. Real dollhouse makers didn’t work in the Swedish Lundby scale. Professionals used 1:12 scale. I went on searching the web, and a new world opened for me. Museums, miniature societies, journals, fairs, shops. I was trapped.
I will not dwell on how I have been building the house; please visit my dollhouse page where I describe it all step by step. But right now the doll house is the only sacred place in my 1:1 world where everything is going to pieces. The doll house is static, apart from some minor additions and modifications. When I am on the verge of tears after having packed another batch of CDs, I sit in front of it and stare. It is so peaceful. The ladies are having their neverending tea. The maids are baking and dusting. The cat is trying to jump onto the table.
The doll house will be the last thing I pack before we leave.