Saturday, 25 February 2012

An early memory

Last Tuesday there was an award ceremony for a student poetry competition at Homerton. I am on the jury and thus participated also in agreeing on the theme, which this year was “An early memory”. If you are around twenty, which the students are, their early memories are still quite fresh, and we deliberately made it “An early memory” rather than “The earliest memory”. The earliest memory may not be the one you'd like to extract form the dark cellars of your mind.

My earliest memory is very easy to identify in time and space: summer when I was two, in a vast Kazakhstan steppe where we went to visit our deported relatives. I have a photo of me, running around naked except for a little cap to protect my head from the sun (I guess nobody had heard about skin cancer at that time). I don't remember it, but I was told afterwards how I tried to escape and run as fast as I could right toward the faraway horizon, accompanied by the dog of unidentifiable race, Kutka. To catch me was hopeless, so Granny would call Kutka instead, and he would turn and run back, and I followed. That's what they told me later, I have no memory of it.

What I do remember is me and another little girl playing in a shallow rivulet beside a large river, while the grownups chatted nearby or perhaps prepared a picnic. “Now let's run into the big river”, my companion challenged me. We held hands and ran. She let my hand go. I kept on running.

This is a typical out-of-the-body memory, because I remember running and then I saw the scene from outside and above, Granny jumping into the river with her clothes on, a light silk dress with small flowers, groping frantically in the water below the floating white cap.

I don't remember any spanking for being a bad girl.

As I am writing now, I suddenly realise why I have never learned to swim and have always been terrified by deep water.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Imminent invasion

It has been a long time since I had a large family. I remember only too well when we suddenly were out of milk, when I cooked a huge pan of pasta, when a fruit bowl was empty in seconds. It took Staffan and myself years to downshift when getting groceries, we were so used to massive shopping. Today I had a weird feeling when I went to Tesco in preparation for four grandchildren arriving tomorrow. I tried to remember what children like of elementary things that we never have at home, such as ketchup and strawberry jam. I had some nostalgic moments getting The Laughing Cow. I could not decide what youghurt they might prefer and bought several different flavours. I got both orange juice and apple juice, just in case. I got three sorts of cereal. I got all the dangeous carbos that we don't normally eat: potato, rice, couscous, bread. I even got some doughnuts with pink icing. I realised that I was beginning to be price conscious and look for value packs and family sizes and "Any 3 for £10".

At the till, contemplating the mountain of food in front of me, I happened to glance behind me and saw a woman with three four-liter bottles of milk. I realised that my two-liter bottle would perhaps last a morning.

On the way home I couldn't help thinking of all the things I had forgotten: toilet paper, kitchen towels, sugar, plain cheese, ice cream. I'll have to take another trip to Tesco tomorrow before they come.

Right now I am busy unpacking duvets, pillows and endless duvet covers and sheets that I bought yesterday. They must have thought I was starting a Bed & Breakfast. I think I have enough towels, but I'd better go and have another look.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Musical memories

“I am very fond of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto”, she said. “And from now on, this piece will for me always be connected with you, and for you with me, yes?” And so it is. Every time I hear Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto, which apparently is number one favourite at Classic FM that I listen to in my car; every time I hear it, I remember her.

I was eleven, and she was fifty, and we were at the composers' holiday home in Karelia. I ran wild with other kids. We made model boats and sailed them in the huge, dangerous Ladoga Lake. Maria Pavlovna, a fifty-year-old librarian from Leningrad, watched us. She told me about the book by Alexander Grin, Scarlet Sails, which became a great favourite for many years to follow. Her association was merely that we played with boats.

For the next year, we corresponded. Looking back, I wonder why MP bothered to write and receive letters from an eleven-year-old. She wasn't married and had no relatives. I wrote to her because I was a passionate letter-writer. I told her about what happened at school, who my friends were and what we did, what books I read, what concerts I went to and what art exhibitions I saw. I sent her my poetry which I normally didn't share with anyone. She wrote about her work and her friends, and about her childhood. She called me Little Grasshopper after a nursery song.

Next summer we met again, and I was adopted by four ladies who hiked, rowed, played party games and treated me as an equal. One evening we listened to Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto on an old record player in the music room. Then another year of correspondence, and another summer. She only came for four weeks of her summer leave, I stayed for the whole summer. I cried when she left. My father scolded me. “When a stranger leaves, you cry. When you mother comes, you don't care”. It speaks volumes about my complicated relationship with my mother. You needn't be a Freud.

Once I went to Leningrad with my father, and we were invited to MP's tiny room in the huge communal apartment. I felt awkward. Once she came to Moscow and was suddenly sitting in my bed sofa. I wanted to hug her, but didn't dare. My father's opera was performed in Leningrad, and I insisted on MP being invited. I was showing off and felt bad about it.

When I was fourteen I had, as I realise now, a very bad depression. There is nothing unusual about a fourteen-year-old having a depression, but looking back I wonder why nobody paid attention. In my letters to MP I was suicidal. She must have been torn between loyalty to me and her duty to alarm my parents. I don't know whether she actually contacted them, but if she did, it had no effect.

Then she told me a story that sounded like a Hollywood movie. When she was young, she had a suitor, but nothing came out of it. Not that she wasn't interested, but sometimes things just don't happen. He had moved to Siberia, she had lost track of him, but then somehow she found out where he was and sent him a card for his 60th birthday. Like herself, he was all alone in the world. They started a correspondence. I was allowed to follow the development of this incredible plot, and finally MP told me that they were going on a holiday together, meeting for the first time in twenty years. I was fascinated. I was perplexed that these old people, ancient people had feelings. I was fifteen, bursting with feelings and confiding in MP just as she confided in me. Why did she confide in a fifteen-year-old? No one else to share her belated happiness with? So sad.

For winter holiday I was allowed to go to Leningrad on my own. Accommodation was arranged with family friends, and I called MP to tell her I was coming. An indifferent voice informed me that she had died. I only had had a letter from her a couple of weeks before. At that time I didn't find it strange that an old, ancient person died, but she was merely fifty-four, far too young to die. I didn't bother to find out whether she had been hit by a car or had had a stroke. It didn't matter. And I knew no one who had known her, she had been all alone in the world apart from me and her friend somewhere in Siberia of whom I only knew his first name. I would have liked to write to him, but there was no way.

I had a bundle of letters left, which I eventually burned together with many other relics of my childhood. I have a photo. And I have Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A voice from our mutual past, Part 2

Here is the rest of the story I started yesterday.

Marina found her love at a New Year party in my home. It was a portentous party where many a union was made, and also for me it became indirectly decisive. Marina was married, the first of my close friends, and they went to live in a tiny room in a communal apartment with twenty other people, one bathroom and one kitchen. A neighbour would bring her dog to the kitchen to pee in other people's pans. If you think communal living is cute and that people in the Soviet Union chose overcrowded living, you are wrong. But Marina and her husband were lucky to have at least a room of their own which a relative rented out to them. The alternative was to share a room with either set of parents.

Once Marina gave a birthday party in this room, and I helped her to make a cabbage pie. One of the neighbours – not the one with the dog – praised my sliced cabbage and instructed Marina to learn from me. Ah, we were young and carefree then!

I also got married and got a baby, and Marina got a baby a year later. My husband and I were also at the relatives' mercy with housing. We four decided to buy an apartment together. It was possible to buy a three-bedroom apartment in distant suburbs, and putting our meagre resources together we could just about afford it. We would have a bedroom each, a nursery and a common living room. We would babysit for each other and cook every other day. But the authorities wouldn't let us. They said they were trying hard to provide every family with an apartment, while we wanted to create a new communal dwelling. We tries to explain that we would do it voluntarily and wouldn't bring dogs to pee in each other's pans, but to no avail. Finally, Marina and her husband managed to borrow enough to buy a two-bedroom flat in a new development so far away that you had to change buses twice to get there. There were no shops nor any other services, so they had to buy food in town and carry home on those buses. They were promised a phone line in five years, with luck. When we went to visit, you could never be sure whether they'd be at home. I know it sounds weird, but it was about thirty years before cell phones.

I was by then divorced and a single mother, but because Marina lived so far away we couldn't, as we would have liked to, babysit for each other. But we would meet every now and then and let our children play together. By the time I left for Sweden, she had had another baby, which was almost a heroic deed then. Two children was well beyond what anyone could afford. Stories Marina told me about how she managed are too horrible to repeat, but I recognised them. There was a short period in my life when I had nothing but dark bread and cabbage in my home, and when I could afford milk I gave it to my baby. Mind, my parents were well-off by Soviet standards. Marina's weren't. They would have helped her if they could.

I would meet Marina when I came to visit from Sweden, but one day she wasn't there anymore. She had divorced her husband, married a Canadian and moved to Canada taking her two sons with her. Our mutual friends made no secrets of it being a marriage of convenience. Vague information came about her unimaginable hardships. She never contacted with me, and I knew why, because I had encountered this type of behaviour before with emigrees. Unless you are a success story, you don't want to share it with your friends. Eventually I learned that Marina's younger son had returned to Russia and his father. Then I lost touch altogether. I've been to Canada quite a few times, and each time I told myself I should try to find Marina. It wouldn't have been difficult once internet was available. But something stopped me. If she didn't get in touch maybe she didn't want to.

And then, a couple of days ago, an email. And yesterday, a long Skype chat, and all memories, and it feels as if it was just a little while ago I carried soap dishes she always used to forget by those horrible wash basins by the cold barracks, and it was only yesterday we took our boys to each other's birthday parties, and it was only yesterday we dreamed of the future, and here we are, right in the middle is it. She teaches at the University of British Columbia and has four grandchildren.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A voice from our mutual past

I got an email with this subject line a few days ago and then saw the sender's name with a mixture of joy and awe. My old fellow student and friend whom I hadn't met in twenty-five years. 

We met in our first university year, starting a casual conversation at a freshmen welcome party, and very soon we became good friends. At that time, my childhood friend Alyona and I went apart, with new acquaintances and networks, and I was in urgent need of a new best friend. Why Marina needed someone I don't know, but we obviously needed each other. It so happened that in a year of 114 girls and 6 boys, three of the boys were in our group, and we had fun together, without any romantic interests. There were not many opportunities for students in the early '70s in Russia to have fun, but there was one cafe, and a skating rink, and we had a student theatre. Marina and I shared many interests, books, music. But our friendship went through a real trial in the beginning of our second year when we were sent to a collective to help the progressive Soviet agriculture to fights its four enemies: winter, spring, summer and autumn. Actually, I don't know how winder, spring and summer were managed, but every autumn, students from all universities and colleges were sent to assist with harvest. If anyone calls it anything else than forced labour, you don't know anything about the Soviet Union. If you observe that we lost a month of our study time, it is an absolutely correct observation. 

The students didn't have much to say about it: if you refused to go you'd be immediately expelled, with a note in your files that would close any path to education for ever. You could try to get a medical certificate about having some horrible disease, but the other students would view it as betrayal. So we packed our bags with warm clothes and arrived at the departure point. Warm clothes in this case implies coarse padded black jackets that you may have seen in war movies. Educated families wouldn't normally possess this kind of clothes, but in those days you could anything somehow, with some extra effort.

The collective farm we were sent to was about sixty miles from Moscow and it took two hours by a local train. From the station we had to walk for half an hour, with our bags. We were led to two barracks where we were to live, fifty girls in each, iron beds in rows without any space between. Marina and I fought with the others for two beds in a corner; we would have to crawl over other beds to reach ours, but in the corner we had a teeny tiny bit of privacy. We could put a comb and a book on a beam and mark our territory. The disadvantage was that one of the beds was right by the radiator where the whole barrack tried to dry their wet working clothes that smelled rotten cabbage. It wasn't much of a drying since it was plus four centigrade indoors, even with fifty hot bodies. We slept with our clothes on, including the padded jackets and rubber boots. It didn't matter since there wasn't any bed linen. In the next barrack, it was twenty-eight degrees, and I am not sure it was better. 

The work we did was rather inefficient. The first week we harvested beetroot. A stout female overseer showed us how to pull them from the soil and pile in rows. After some metres we would retreat, chop off the leaves with a knife (which we had been ordered to bring from home) and pour into huge sacks. When the sack was full, you tied it up and left by the side of the field. At the end of the day the woman came back and counted the sacks. This first week we never earned our keep. 

Meals we served in another barrack. For breakfast we had brown bread, porridge and weak tea, for lunch cabbage soup and pasta – with some luck, there was a hint of gravy in the pasta. Dinner was porridge and tea. We tried to complement the diet by going to the local grocery to get whatever was available there, which was bread and jam, huge tin cans of jam that we managed to open with our knives and ate direct from the can with soup spoons. We brought bread with us to the fields for snack. It got slightly better when we were finished with beet and were moved over to carrots. We feasted on carrots as if they were the sweetest of sweets. 

We worked from nine to six with a lunch break, and you would think that we collapsed afterwards, but we didn't. We washed as well as we could – there was no running water, just a couple of wash basins outside the barracks for the hundred of us – and got together with our bread and jam cans; made camp fires, danced in our padded jackets and rubber boots, fell in love. It was essential to have a friend like Marina by your side. 

We had free Sundays, and if you had been diligent and filled your sacks and hadn't defied curfews, you were allowed to go home. Walk to the station, two hours on the train, then a reward of a warm bath and decent food, then back by train and a walk in darkness and cold. We also went home for an night without permission, to meet our lovers in Moscow, and Marina and I would cover each other at curfews. 

Then the rains came, the fields became pools of mud, and all the carrots we hadn't picked were there, rotting. We were transferred to a cabbage cellar. There were mountains of cabbage by the entrance, harvested by some other students. We were told to build human chains into the cellar and throw cabbages to each other, like heavy bowling balls. We trampled cabbage mountains with our muddy boots. We knew that it would rot away long before it would be transported to grocery stores. 

The cellar was farther away from the barracks than the field, and we had to walk in pouring rain. With some female charm you could persuade a male truck driver to give you a lift. To avoid going back and forth for lunch we negotiated with the commander to skip lunch. Instead, we had our bread with cabbage leaves on top. 

My fellow students began to catch colds, went home and some never returned, including the Head Girl. I was told to take over. One of my tasks was to wake up the barracks in the morning, do head count and report. I was exhausted and almost wished I could get sick. But I didn't, and I could not pretend I was sick because it would mean betraying my fellow students. Marina and I were the only ones who endured the whole month, and only because we were smart. Every day two girls were selected for kitchen duty. It implied getting up an hour earlier, set tables for a hundred and clean the tables afterwards and wash up. Same for lunch and dinner. Washing up was done in huge basins of hot water with mustard powder instead of detergent, which was non-existent even in normal life. Rubber gloves had not been invented either in the Soviet Union, and after washing up our hands were red and coarse. We stole fat from the kitchen to use on our hands. No wonder everybody hated kitchen duty. But Marina and I realised that between meals you were free. After washing up you could run back to the empty, silent barrack and sleep or read. While everybody else walked in pouring rain to the cabbage cellar, Marina and I worked in the warm kitchen with dry clothes on. We knew that people had survived in this manner in Stalin's labour camps. 

To be continued.

Sunday, 12 February 2012


Far away in another galaxy, it would have been my 40th anniversary today. Such games are absolutely pointless, and yet we cannot help it. What would my life have been? Whatever it might have been, it would have been very, very different.

I am fascinated by the idea of a new universe being born every second someone makes a choice, but it would be quite hard to trace all yout might-have-beens. Not even if you just trace you own choices. Perhaps just major choices. I very nearly wasn't born to begin with, but I didn't have much choice there. I believe my very first, and fatal, choice was when I applied for wrong education, but it turned out ok after all. If I had chosen the education my mother had chosen for me, I wouldn't have learned Swedish, so it would have been an early dead end toward my present life. I chose to have a child when everybody was telling me I had to think about my career. Had I chosen otherwise, I'd have some sort of career today, I guess, but no son?? No, thank you. Keep that parallel world. A choice I regret was that I retunred to live with my grandmother instead of getting a place of my own. In that universe, I simply cannot imagine what might have happened. Would I have jumped out of the window one night?

I have played a lot of counterfactual games about my move to Sweden, but there are too many factors after this bifurcation. I think I would have been an eminent translator now, maybe even a writer. I would not have been in academia.

At one point of my Swedish life I was seriously deciding to quit all academic work and become a full-time writer.(Obviously the academic/creative bifurcation has always haunted me). I don't even want to imagine what such a decision might have led to. I am convinced that I am a better academic than I might have been a writer.

If we hadn't chosen to go to California for a year (that turned out to be two years) we wouldn't have been here today: it was a dress rehearsal. For our youngest children, it was arguably the most important choice of their lives, and they weren't even asked.

It has now been a week since we were adopted by a cat who has now revealed to us that her next-secret name is Miranda. I don't want to think of a parallel world in which we hadn't.

Sunday, 5 February 2012


For millions upon millions of Scrabble players all over the world there is nothing exceptional about this popular game. I mean, every game is exceptional and unique, but it is nothing you need to create as DIY and share secretly with your friends. You buy it in a toy shop or supermarket, and today you can play it on your computer or tablet, and you can play it with someone thousands of miles away.

I was first introduced to Scrabble when I was thirteen. The board was pasted on the reverse of a folding cardboard chess board, with colour squares filled in crayons. The tiles were grey school erasers cut into four, with letters written in purple ink. They got faded quickly and had to be refreshed regularly. The number and value of letters for the Russian language had been calculated by mathematicians from the Soviet Academy of Sciences.

We embraced Scrabble at once. The choice of board games was meagre, apart from chess, checkers and a variety of Snakes and Ladders, and there were few games that involved verbal exercise. During long summer evenings there were public Scrabble tournaments at the artists' colony where my holidays were spent. We would play in teams so that as many as possible could participate with the only available set. Then we all went home and bought cheap chess boards and a load of erasers. Long winter evenings were spent around Scrabble tables. Russian rules were strict: nouns only, singular, no cases, no diminutives.

Later people started bringing Russian Scrabble from abroad, and finally there appeared a home-produced commercial version with an incredibly ugly brown plastic board and a russified title. We preferred our own chess-board-eraser-tile sets.

We played the Swedish version of Scrabble a lot when the children were small. My vocabulary was superior to the kids' even though Swedish was not my mother tongue, but they beat me because I kept forgetting that verbs and adjectives and plurals and gerunds were allowed.

A couple of weeks ago I was complaining to Staffan that we seldom did anything together. We never watch television , and we have very different hobbies, and reading aloud doesn't always work. I guess I said something like: ”If we could at least play Scrabble or something”, and to my great amazement he agreed and immediately went and ordered a Scrabble set from Amazon. We decided to play English to have equal disadvantage. During our first game, we had Longman's Dictionary by our side, and a computer opened at OED in case of dispute. We did have a dispute over my alternative spelling of “pixy” (triple word), and we did cheat a bit looking up a tentative word to confirm that it existed. The whole point of Scrabble is to learn new words.

New vistas have opened. It remains to see whether our marriage will stand the trial.

Saturday, 4 February 2012


If you have read my previous post you may want to see our new family member

Approved for adoption

Yes, I know there is something called a decent period of grief. On the other hand, it is said that if a survivor marries again soon, it is a good mark to marriage.

Anyway, suddenly I couldn't stand the emptiness of the house any longer. We went online searching for a cat who would adopt us. All cat shelter sites, however, have a button that says “Adopt me”, which makes me suspicious of the humans who have constructed the site. We didn't push buttons, we went to the shelter. We did have a particular feline in mind who might adopt us, but things never go the way you expect.

Shelters are, cleverly, cautious about potential adoptive families. They ask you a lot of really good questions. Such as: Are all family members in agreement about a cat? (Yes!) If you have had a cat before, how long ago and what happened to it? (prolonged weeping) Where do you want your cat to be at night? (“Sleeping in my bed”). Have you got a cat flap? Do you believe in pet insurance? Are you planning to travel around the world in the next few weeks? Have you got nasty children who will pull the cat's tail? With our impecable track record, we were approved within minutes. But it's not for humans to approve us.

While I was filling out the form, Staffan browsed through the folder with available furry friends. Suddenly he stopped and pointed: This one. No-no, I said, we were going to look at... This one, he repeated. When we were taken to be introduced to the cats and asked whether we had any special cat we were interested in, Staffan replied before I had a chance.

In one of my old lives, I used to visit children's homes. It was one of the most horrible experiences in my life. You enter a room, and fifteen kids rush to you, screaming: “Mum!” You want to pack them all in your suitcase. Several of the caged cats screamed: “I'll take you!” We went to the one Staffan had noticed, as he said afterwards, because of the way her personality was described. The carer opened the cage. I went down on my knees, very carefully. I was talking rubbish in three languages. The cat took me in, sniffed, allowed me to touch her, jumped on my knees, began to purr. After a while, as we were leaving, she announced very loudly that we were approved.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Book of the Week: The Magicians

Julia recommended this book. In nine cases out if ten, her recommendations are just right for me. I hadn't heard about this book, although I should have.

If you are an avid fantasy reader and have read hundreds of classical and contemporary fantasy novels, this book is for you. It will make you smile with the joy of recognition. You'll also wonder how many allusions you have missed.

If you think you have read all fantasy and nothing can surprise you - read it. 

If you like fast-paced books with lots of things going on, you'll be bored after fifty pages because nothing much happens. Go on reading. Nothing much happends for the next 400 pages either. (The book is 496 pages long).

If you are very, very sensitive to obscene language and explicit sex, don't read it. (And by the way, it's not for children). If you are nauseated by graphic violence, don't read it or skim it and go on.

If you want an exceptionally strong reading experience - read it.