Sunday, 30 November 2008

Christmas shopping

As I have already said: women shop, men make purchases. Though you can hardly make purchases at Christmas time. With ten grandchildren you need the very last drop of your imagination. Every Christmas we say that only kids are getting presents this year, but of course I want to give something to their parents as well. And the parents are not cooperative when it comes to their kids' wish lists (or their own for that matter). This year I only got two wishes. One was easy, a very specific book, which is a pleasure to purchase, marching right toward the relevant shelf. The other was a toy mobile, preferably not a very noisy one, and that needed some shopping and even assistance. "Boy or girl?" the shop assistant asked. I said it didn't matter which I guess made him offended. The label on the box indicates "Parent-friendly features" which I hope means that you can switch off the sound.

That done, I look desperately around for some great gift ideas (that's what the shops advertize: "Great gift ideas"). Apart from Christmas gifts, I need two birthday gifts. Naturally, everybody expects something very original and English. But how am I to know what is original and English and isn't available in any department store in Stockholm? Tea mugs saying "Greetings from Cambridge"? That's always the last solution. There are lots of books and games, but they are wasted on small kids who cannot read English. The older kids can. Oh that boring Granny, always coming with her silly books... Another shop assistant gives me a compassionate look. "Haven't they written their wish lists?" and "You may try Cambridge Toy Shop". Another doll? Another teddy bear? By the way, Borders gave a large teddy bear for every £25 spent in the shop. I only came home with two. I bought some books for myself and a CD with carols sung by King's Choir (not a chance to hear them live!).

Baby and children's clothes are fun to buy, but they are also appreciated by parents more than kids. Oh that boring Granny with her silly sweaters. At least a piece of clothing always come useful. "Boys or girls? For boys, our most popular colours are..." I feel like a real shopper. Bother, how old are those kids? What size are they?

Well at home, I look at the pile and realize that I will need to leave most of my own clothes behind if I don't want to pay a fortune for excess luggage.

Mulled wine?

They say that a hostess must not enjoy her own party. Sorry to admit, but I almost always do. I enjoyed our glögg party yesterday. My saffron buns were apparently a success, since people even took some home for their absent partners and kids - I hope they didn't just pretend to be polite. I had to make another batch of glögg - someone said it was very much like mulled wine, but "we didn't hear that". Everybody brought something to share too, which was very nice. I had managed to fix a Swedish seven-armed candlestick in a window, a hard task since there are no window sills. We had our fake fire on, and many candles, and it was just as it should be on the first Advent weekend. At the very end a charming puppy was allowed to come in (he had been waiting in a car, poor thing) and showed a great interest in gingerbread.

I hope I have set up a tradition.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Lost Christmases

As I baked the gingerbread listening to Swedish Christmas songs I could not help crying. I always cry when I hear "Silent Night", but I felt especially lonely, because normally I bake gingerbread together with my children (or grandchildren as might be). This is quality time together. My daughter Julia is extremely artistic, so she would decorate the ginderbread with icing, and she always made a gingerbread house swearing in a most un-Christmasy manner when the walls wouldn't stick.

When I started the gingerbread this morning I realized that I had given Julia the gingerbread forms. Stars and hearts and piglets and moons and moose. I thought I would ever need them again. How silly! I hope Julia makes use of them.

But there was another thought that made me still more melancholy. I had already lost my Christmases once. Despite my name, I come from a Lutheran family, and in the Communist Russia we had a family secret: we celebrated Christmas. It was not an religious occasion, but an extended family gathering, with carols and the smell of candles and the taste of honey cakes and nuts. It was such a wonderful night - that no one of my classmates had - and I had always thought that I must keep the tradition for my children's sake. I did, with my oldest son.

Then we moved to Sweden and a different tradition, different songs (though "Silent Night" was still there, therefore I can never near it without tears, it brings back the memory of relatives long gone), different food, different wrapping paper (there wasn't any in Russia, it was just plain paper), different candles, different decorations, different meal times. Christmas was also official and commercial, and "Silent Night" was played in supermarkets. I was upset because we never had a large family gathering. No cousins, no hords of aunts. Occasionally, Staffan's mother would come to spend Christmas with us, but never his beloved uncle. He did not celebrate Christmas.

I kept some of my childhood customs, incorporating them into my new life. I wanted my children to feel the way I did when I was a child. Saffron buns and gingerbread and hyacinths (there were no hyacinths in Russia, not in winter). It was hard to make the kids sing, not until they were old enough to pamper me. They had enough of singing in school.

For many years, we used to flee from Christmas stress to a warmer climate. We moved Chrismas Eve two weeks ahead to gather all the children. It it so difficult to manage Christmas with several sets of stepparents and grandparents and eventually in-laws.

The two Christmases in California were funny. We sat on our sundeck in shorts and T-shirts.

By the time we came back, the first batch of kids had kids of their own, and their own Christmas traditions. Every now and then one of them would decide to grant us either Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. I tried to preserve my childhood traditions and give them to my grandchildren, so that many years from now they would say: "Do you remember Christmas at Granny's?" The two younger kids moved away from home, but faithfully came on Christmas Eve. At least for a while, on their way to another party.

"Old folks' Christmas" is a short story, I think there is an old silent movie too.

Now I have lost my Swedish Christmas as well. New traditions. They don't even celebrate Christmas Eve here! I have brought my candlesticks, my tree decorations and some other trifles. It feels weird to decorate the house just for ourselves.

I am happy to think that Julia is coming over soon.

Further experiment

It is not only saffron buns you must have for your glögg party, but gingerbread. I hoped to find gingerbread in a supermarket, but apparently English gingerbread is different from Swedish. As a poor translation of Pippi Longstocking says: "Pippi was baking pepparkakor - a kind of Swedish cookie". So I had to bake those too. Fortunately, I had brought spices from Sweden, but again: syrup, baking soda, flour... No baking pan, and unfriendly oven. But I only burned one set, and I fed it to the ducks in the river.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Incidentally... is snowing.

Risky experiment

Next weekend we have invited friends for a genuine Swedish glögg. Glögg is, as I wrote in the invitation, hot spicy wine with raisins and almonds, imbibed at this time of year accompanied by gingerbread and saffron buns.

It is always hazardous to bake in a new country. You are not familiar with flour or yeast or their relationship with each other and with other ingredients. You are not familiar with the oven. But I took the challenge.

The first thing I discovered was that saffron came in shreds. Luckily, I do have a mortar. The dough didn't really behave the way it should, but there was nothing I could do about it. The culmination of my despair came when it turned out that there were no baking pans in the oven. Apparently, baking pans do not come automatically with ovens in England. Since I had the dough ready I had to think of something really clever and I did. I put baking paper direct on the grill. It worked fine. The buns taste slightly different, but at least I know now that I can do it.

My next deed will be to bake gingerbread.

Friday, 21 November 2008


We have now lived here so long that I've had another haircut.

Thursday, 20 November 2008


I have betrayed an old faithful friend. I feel horrible. But sometimes you just cannot avoid it. It wasn't even love at first sight, but a practical arrangement. The old friend was love at first sight, the best friend I've ever had. Now and then I will return to the old friend, who will wait patiently for me, and I know I will always be welcome and forgiven. But from now on I will spend more time with the new friend. Who I am not even sure is a friend. Who may eventually become a friend. Or merely a commodity. I am even so mean that I will take away tokens of my love from the old friend and give to the new friend. I feel awful. This is not a way to treat friends. But I have no choice.

I have bought a new bike for everyday use.

(Tokens of love are the lights and the bell).

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Never say never

I remember hearing about people selling their houses when the children had grown up. Selling their houses and moving to an apartment in the centre, close to - what? I have always wondered. How can you do it to your children, selling their childhood home. I would never, never do anything so horrible.

I just did.

Corn Exchange

Yesterday we went to a concert. It has been a very long time since I listened to live music. When I was young we used to go to concerts several times a week, symphony orchestras, chamber, vocal, piano. It was just as natural as reading books. There were certains musicians we always went to listen to, and certain composers, and periods, and instuments, and whenever there was a first performance of a new work we would go. When it was something impossible to get tickets for, my grandfather, who was Vice-Rector of Moscow Conservatoire, would give me a pass on condition that I wouldn't even come near the Rector's box. Instead, I would go up to the balcony and sit on the stairs, together with music students.

In Sweden, I missed live music but had no company to go with. I like to do things with someone, so that you can afterwards say: "Wasn't it gorgeous!" I went on my own for a while, but it was no fun, so I stopped. Somehow, I never managed to make a habit of taking the children to classic concerts, like my parents did with me.

But yesterday we went to Corn Exchange to listen to Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, playing three goodies: Weber's Oberon Ouverture, Beethoven's Triple Concert and Elgar's Enigma Variations. Balm for the soul. The building is fantastic. And I must admit, being a music snob, that Cambridge music-goers have my approval. I feel it in the air.

But Triple concert brough back memories. On December 30, 1970, I heard it in the Great Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, with three brilliant performers, Sviatoslav Richter, David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich.

Friday, 14 November 2008

Plain English

There is a society struggling for people's rights to understand their own language. Although I love long and unusual words, I am all for it. When we get letters from the City Council or the gas company, I must always read them twice or more, and I still never understand whether I owe them or they owe me. I wish all these people took mandatory courses in plain English.

Worse still are some colleagues who believe that if you can understand a scholarly text it isn't scholarly. Oftentimes I wonder whether those who write these convoluted texts understand them themselves. It is easy to use ready-made blocks of phrases and put them together, while if you ask the authors exactly what they mean they get confused. All scholarly work must at least be translatable into plain English.

My favourite dialogue from Winnie-the-Pooh:

“The atmospheric conditions have been very unfavourable lately,” said Owl.

“The what?”

“It has been raining,” explained Owl.

“Yes,” said Christopher Robin. “It has.”

“The flood-level has reached an unprecedented height.”

“The who?”

“There is a lot of water around,” explained Owl.


Tonight was the first time we managed to get a seat by the fire in our favourite pub, The Green Dragon. We have many times watched it, but all tables are usually occupied. Maybe we came half an hour earlier today. It is a real fire, with huge logs in it. Over the fireplace there is a framed notice: "No hogging the fire". I can understand this. All people are pyromaniacs. We just cannot see a fire without picking at it. It always seems that if you just move a little twig the fire will get much better. And it's fascinating to see the logs fall down.

At home, with our little fake gas fire, I must constantly remind myself not to throw paper and nutshells into the flames.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Comparing notes

Yesterday I had lunch with a professor who was appointed at the same time as I. After some smalltalk we agreed that Cambridge bikers were a dangerous species, especially the subspecies that do not use lights. Otherwise we were both satisfied with the biking arrangements.

We could also state that we felt privileged to have so little teaching and so much time for our own research: we had not been spoilt with such conditions at our previous working places. We liked the campus and found eating places pleasurable. Neither of us had been invited to join a college yet, and apparently it would take time. Neither of us had a date set for our inaugural lectures. We were still learning the rules and the jargon.

It feels good not to be the only one.

Monday, 10 November 2008

More feline issues

Soon our dear cat can join us here. High time to think about practical arrangements. I thought that I would fly over and bring her. It turns out that even if I am on the same plane I can neither take her as cabin luggage nor as checked-in luggage. She must go as cargo! So it makes no sense. Our noble son has agreed to take her to the airport. I investigate booking and discover that there are companies that collect pets in your home and deliver to your new home - door-to-door service. Sounds good to me. A long form to fill, much longer than my own health questionaire. The reply comes promptly. "Since you already have all documents you will not need our service". That's what I call service.

Friday, 7 November 2008

It's all Latin to me

An unusual decision has caused a heated discussion. Apart from being a sesquipedalian, I also love Latin phrases, but for everything there is a time and a season. And it is especially irritating when some people use Latin without knowing the exact meaning.

Friday again

People usually say that time goes too fast. Days and weeks and months and years just pass by and disappear. For me it has always been the other way round. Time is stretched; it is still only Wednesday, it is still only February. I think it has to do with what you do with your time. If you fill hours and days and months with interesting and important things time goes slowly. Yet it is Friday again, and we have been to the Green Dragon. On the other hand, so many things have happened since Monday, I've done so much, I've been to London, I've seen fireworks, I've run a successful (I hope) seminar, I've met my students, I've answered zillions of emails of which at least a dozen were exciting. So yes, Friday again, looking forward to a quiet weekend but looking back at a long and gratifying week.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

The Gunpowder plot

It is the fifth of November. I know all about it from a children's book by Edith Nesbit, The House of Arden. All essential knowedge comes from children's books.

Everybody is talking to me about fireworks and bonfires. Local newspapers are full of information about fireworks and bonfires. (Among other things, there is information about protecting your pets). So we must go and see fireworks and bonfires. It is just a short walk along the river. Crowds of people. It reminds me of my childhood with mass celebrations on Red Square. But Red Square is a bit larger than Midsummer Common in Cambridge. It gets really scary when all these people, including bikers and prams, try to leave through a narrow gate. I get panic, and we sit down on a bench, waiting for the crowd to pass. There is a fun fair on the premises which takes away a bit of the magic of the fireworks. Now we have been part of the community once again. On the way home, we look into our favourite pub and state that we are not the only ones to have got this marvelous idea. Even Staffan admits that we'd better go home.

Infernal pleasures

Imagine Dante's Inferno retold for children. This is what I heard yesterday, performed brilliantly by the author, John Agard. It was a book launch at a pub in London, with fifty people crammed in a little room, with wine and food and many old friends and many new friends. I am usually sceptical about retellings of classics for children, but this is an exception. And the evening was clearly worth an hour's travel. It is quite remarkable to have London so close.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The phantom cyclist

There is a children's book called The Phantom Cyclist, although I don't remember anything about it. The cyclists who go around like mad in the dark here look exactly like that. Phantoms, with pale-blue flashing lights. Uncanny. Today I was one myself. It wasn't half as bad as I had expected. Actually, it was ok, but for the rain. Anyone who wears glasses knows how helpless you are in the rain, whether you bike or walk.

Sunday, 2 November 2008


Believe it or not, but we've had frost. This is not what I have left Sweden for, I said to myself scraping frost from the windshield. I could not find the scraper first, thought I had left it behind hoping that I would never need it again. The saddest thing is that my outside plants have almost all died. I am especially upset about those that had survived a week in a moving van, just to be killed by frost.


In our favourite local pub, The Green Dragon, one of the two huge fireplaces is full of books (the other has recently started having fire in it).The books are for sale for 50p. It is not specified which charity the profit goes to. There is also a shelf full of dictionaries. Really big, thick dictionaries, at least ten different ones. Above them, there is a neat framed sign: "These books are not for sale or to take away. They are for our crossword academics".

Saturday, 1 November 2008

Saturday excursion

Today we went to Norfolk, to the village of Blakeney. It is not in any way a famous sight (although mentioned briefly in Lonely Planet), but today there happened to be a display of a unique dollhouse, never displayed in public before. I was spellbound by it, although not as impressed as most of the viewers, since I could recognize quite a few items or say to myself: I have exactly one like this in my doll house, and I have made it myself. Very good for your self-assurance. Staffan was not as fascinated by the house as by the visitors, average age 95, and come alive from an old movie. The hog roast was excellent and the garden magnificent with a sea view and a little sad pony.