Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Object of sentimental value

I am normally not attached to material objects. I have lost so many in the numerous moves that it's just as well to adopt a Moominish attitude: worldly possessions are merely a nuisance. Every now and then I wonder where this or that thing has gone, whether it was just thrown away as garbage, sold for a fortune at Sotheby's or is hidden away in somebody's cupboard. Yet there are some few objects from my childhood that I have very special feelings for. This sugar bowl has been in the family as long as I remember and far beyond. In fact, I have just noticed that there is a stamp on it that says 1883.The bowl was always filled with lump sugar, and there was a pair of tongs in case someone wanted half a lump. The bowl symbolises the stability of home for me, the centrepiece of the tea table around which family and friends would gather. (A Freudian would of course come with any number of interpretations, and a Jungian would add the albedo phase to it. Be my guest). 

When my granny died almost twenty years ago, my mother asked me whether I wanted anything in her memory. Sugar bowl, I said. Fine, said my mother, it's yours, but you will not be able to take it our of the country so let it stay here for a while. For many years I went back to Moscow, to what without granny wasn't my home anymore, and watched the sugar bowl in the centre of the tea table that wasn't any longer the centre of the world. Every time I'd say that I wanted to take the bowl with me, and every time my mother said, not yet. Then I stopped going to Moscow, and the sugar bowl became just one of those many lost objects that are of no value to anyone. Actually, I have no idea, it can be awfully valuable. 

After my mother died two months ago, my son, who is her sole heir, asked me whether I wanted anything from the house. Sugar bowl, I said. My sugar bowl. Yes, I know it's yours, he said, but you won't be able to take it out of the country. It will buzz in security. It sounded familiar so I dropped any further argument, but lo and behold! someone smuggled my sugar bowl from Russia to Sweden, and my dear daugher brought it from Sweden to me. Twenty years later, it is turly mine. 

The funny thing is that you'd think that with such a cherished object I would remember it well. Yet when I unwrapped it, I was shocked to see how much smaller it was than I had remembered. I can imagine that it might look large to me when I was a child, but I did see it repeatedly when I was grown-up, and yet the memory saved the image from childhood. I could also swear that the monogram was Russian BH, for Vera Nikolajeva, my grandfather's aunt. This was the mark on all our family silver. But it is actually Latin VR, which must be Victoria Reutersköld, who was my grandfather's grandmother. From her, the sugar bowl apparently went to her daughter Ernestina, my great-grandmother, who somehow managed to keep it through the wars and revolutions. 

The balance of the world is finally restored. The sugar bowl is once again in the middle of the tea table.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Report from the celebration marathon, Day 5

Somehow, I've run out of steam, and last week feels like plusquamperfectum, but I guess I owe you, My Dear Reader, the conclusion of the story.

The journey home was uneventful, the always-on-time airline was on time, and we were safely in bed long before midnight. The cat didn't seem to have noticed our absence. I was still feeling horrible the morning after, and if it hadn't been a dinner for me that night, I would have sent an apology. But you can't flake from your own birthday dinner. I considered asking Staffan to drive me and taking a taxi home, but decided against it. However, I realised my mistake when I parked in the large parking structure and walked through the weirdly empty mall with all shops closed. A bad movie played in my head: I never turn up at the dinner, and my cold corpse is found next morning in some dark corner... It was too late to get out and park elsewhere. I decided not to let the prospect of going back into the parking spoil my evening.

I was the first to arrive, which I always find awkward – yet another example of my “victim behaviour”. But the table was ready, and very soon another colleague arrived, and I had to relate the events of the week once, and twice and all over again as the table filled. I had never been to this place before, although I drive past it every day. It is very discretely hidden behind a kitchy Eastern European delicatessen that has advertised its imminent inauguration for the past year. But next time I want to invite someone to a fancy dinner in Cambridge, this will be my choice. Even with all the previous nice meals of the week, that one was by far the most exquisite (sorry, Clas på hörnet).

What's more, I had thought that I had heard so many nice words during the week that I wouldn't be overwhelmed again, but I was. And these were not big words in front of a gathering of people, but words spoken by a very intimate group of colleagues whole opinion I value. I won't say they were surprising, but rather unexpected, because they weren't the kind of words people are obliged to say, but the kind they say because they want to. If you know what I mean. I was moved more than I perhaps showed since, honestly, I didn't know what to say except repeated thank-yous which isn't a very nuanced response. I will have to find a way of saying thank you properly because these people have made the past four years of my life possibly the most happy years and definitely the most satisfactory years professionally.

When we were leaving, I asked the only male in the group to accompany me to the parking structure. 


Sunday, 20 May 2012

Report from the celebration marathon, Day 4

See Introduction, Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3

Since I was a good girl and went to bed early I woke up as usual, and Staffan and I and cousin Birgitta had breakfast together. Then Staffan took Birgitta to the railway station and went to do more shopping (that is, making purchases), while I had another cup of coffee with Sergej with the two little girls efficiently preventing us from talking. They were very excited because they were going to a circus that day. I tried to pay for the coffee and soft drinks, but the waiter said it was on the house. Given the bill we had paid, a cup of coffee here or there didn't make much difference, but it was nice of him.

Then we went over to Julia's. They had moved last autumn, and we had not been in their new apartment. It was light and decorated with great taste – not that I had expected anything else. I could tell that there had been some negotiations, but I could also feel that they both love the space they have created together. Some of their common and individual hobbies were tangibly present. I made myself stop being envious. Not envious as I am now, but envious for me thirty years ago. I am in fact happy that my daughter has a room of her own.

Then the guests started coming, and there were hugs and presents and flowers “for the hostess”. Julia had made some canapés and cupcakes, and there was sparkling which I carefully avoided having in mind flying in just a few hours. Most of the friends hadn't seen each other for years, possibly since our farewell party almost four years ago. They obviously enjoyed talking to each other. I kept looking at the clock and trying to figure out how much of the presents I would be able to pack in our already full suitcases. I had to leave behind a huge painting that my sister-in-law had sent, one from Staffan's childhood home. I like it, and it would go well with other art we have, but it will have to be another time.

I had to hint to some friends that we actually had a plane to catch, which they found weird (one friend had sent apologies because she was travelling the day after), but then they know we are weird. We left three bottles of expensive wine to Julia and Pontus since there was no way we could take it with us.

The drive to the airport was painless, and we arrived an hour before check-in even started so we had a light and quite decent dinner. The departure hall brought the memories of four years ago when Julia had taken me to the airport, and all bridges had been burned. I made the memory go away. This time we were returning home.

To be continued. 

My wonderful in-laws Elise and Christian took pictures. 

Report from the celebration marathon, Day 3, part 2

Just before I went upstairs after the fabulous lunch I remembered to check the set-up for dinner, and I am glad I did. I had spent a lot of time on the seating plan. Ten years ago I learned from the lady who was doing my dinner that the object of celebration should by no means sit at the top of the table – which anyone would say was the most appropriate – but in the middle, because then you were just half as far away from both ends than if you were sitting at the top. So I had started there, and I wanted the cousins of matching age to sit together, because they don't meet as often as I would like them to; and I had to place a familiar adult beside the youngest children, and then the usual: alternate gender, don't place spouses together, pay attention to seniority. I had put a lot of thought into it, and it turned out there were two tables. Hence I spent most of the time between lunch and dinner working on a new seating plan. I am sure there is some clever software for this, but I didn't have time to explore. The little time left, I admired my festschrift and checked Facebook for birthday greetings. I know that Facebook prompts friends about birthdays, but you still need to make an effort of clicking on the link and writing “Happy birthday”, and most friends wrote more substantial messages and appended pictures and music. Small tokens of attention, but oh so much joy.

Then I finally put on the outfit I had bought for the occasion.

There was another party in the bar where welcome drinks were served, and I wonder what they thought when all my children and grandchildren started arriving, and there were noisy discussions about who wanted what kind of soft drink and who was old enough to have a taste of the real stuff. Once again, I had said “No presents”, but the kids had warned me that they wouldn't listen to this nonsense. So there were some presents, and there was another big surprise, of which I must tell in detail.

One bunch of grandchildren was discussing what to give granny for her birthday. The five-year-old suggested jewellery, blouse, skirt, scarf, shoes, handbag. The seven-year-old said firmly: “No, Granny wants a smartphone”. They looked at her with doubt, but she was adamant. “Have you forgotten? When we went to visit Granny in England, and she kept looking at the boys' phones and asking what they could do, and she said she wanted maps and star charts and bus timetables”. Isn't she a clever kid? The father consulted his little brother (who had been nagging me for years about a smartphone), and that was decided. Technical support was promised when Julia and Pontus came to visit us the next week. Don't misunderstand me. All the other presents were lovely, each in its own way, but this is such a sweet story.

The rest was more or less predictable, but still wonderful. Even the youngest grandchildren behaved well and enjoyed the special children's meal, and the older ones realised that they could talk to each other live rather than through their phones. The family chorus sang the song that Staffan had written for me, and the two sisters sang “When I am sixty-four” reading the lyrics from their phones. Between main and dessert we asked the waitress to take a family photo. Then we retreated to the bar for postprandials, and the youngest kids started dosing off which the parents completely ignored. And I thought how clever we were to stay at the same place where the dinner was. Because when everybody left we merely had to go upstairs.

To be continued.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Report from the celebration marathon: day 2 and 3

Click for Introduction and Day 1

Day 2 was uneventful. I woke up as poorly as I went to bed. I had a supervision at ten and a meeting at eleven, neither of which I could cancel because they were among the ones I had to cancel the week before. The meeting took longer than I had anticipated, and finally I had to say: Sorry, gentlemen, I have a plane to catch. Which was almost true, because I just about had time to get home, pack the last things, have a quick lunch, and off we went. I had been living completely in the now and hadn't registered that our flight actually left at five, not at eight. The queuing at Stansted was as tedious as ever, and at security check I realised that I had my throat spray in my backpack and was too lazy to return and get a plastic bag. I was to regret it bitterly during the days to come.

We decided that we could just as well eat something on the plane. It wasn't a gourmet meal, but we were looking forward to a number of those, and at that point we just needed something in our stomachs. Getting our rental car was quick, and it didn't take us more than an hour to get to Stockholm (airport bus usually takes an hour and a half). I had to remind Staffan to drive on the right, and we kept telling each other what a pretty landscape we were driving through. Eventually we came to Clas på hörnet, and I had a cup of tea and went to bed.

I had not expected champagne breakfast in bed and fortunately didn't get it. The breakfast was nice, and after that Staffan went shopping (although he would characterise his action as “making purchases”), and I don't remember what I did. Probably was nervous. From an email that Staffan had sent to me by mistake I knew that the mystical lunch guests had multiplied and were now ten rather than two. It could only mean one thing, and I was right, but it didn't take away the joy. Promptly at noon I went down to the dining room, and there they were, my wonderful former students from Finland and a couple of former colleagues, and did they sing for me? And what did they give me?

Yes, I had anticipated a festschrift, but it was a wonderful surprise nevertheless, just to see who had contributed and who was on Tabula Gratulatoria, and how much thought and love there was behind this volume.

A festschrift is a very special kind of book. It is academic and occasionally contains truly ground-breaking scholarship. But it also allows light stuff. I once contributed to a festschrift for someone I knew collected hippos. I wrote a piece on the semiotics of hippos in children's literature. I had fun writing it. I hope the object of celebration had fun reading it.

There is no festschrift tradition in the UK (I actually had to explain to my Cambridge colleagues what it was), but in Germany and Scandinavia is it common to produce one for people's sixtieth, and it is a great honour, a recognition of your academic career. As I say, I half anticipated it, but actually didn't believe I would get one because I no longer had a Scandinavian academic affiliation. In fact, I remember saying to a Swedish colleague at a conference that I didn't expect a festschrift. And she was part of the conspiracy! But it was two former students, nowadays younger colleagues, who edited it, behind my back, tracking down people with whom I had lost touch, but who remembered me well enough to be willing to give me their precious time and energy for my birthday. There are four poems, and all articles are somehow connected to my academic work; one of them is a very rigorous critique of my PhD, and I haven't yet figured out whether it is a joke.

To be continued.

Here are my mystical guests: from the left (not counting Staffan) Janina Orlov, Elina Druker, (me), Ulf Stark, Mia Franck, Kin Hallberg, Mia Österlund, and sitting, Maria Lassen-Seger.

Report from the celebration marathon day 1

You can plan as much as you want, but fate will always decide otherwise. To begin with, I got a most nasty flu the week before. So nasty that I had to cancel all meetings and supervisions and spent most of the week in bed. The cancellations included the born-on-May-16 drink, and I already had a vision of the Homerton reception going on without me (so that they could say what they really think of me), and non-refundable air ticket, and all the mysteries and surprises wasted. I did go to work on Friday, but felt profoundly rotten. At lunch, Morag asked me whether I liked surprises. By that time, I didn't care. Just as I was about to leave, one of the born-on-May-16 ladies came into my office with a lovely tea-tree, hurrying to say: “I know you said no presents, it's not for you, it's for your garden”. It was very sweet of her, but the idea of having to plant a tree almost made me sick. I went home and spent two more days in bed, contemplating the Universal Injustice.

On Monday morning I dragged myself out of bed and went to a long, albeit productive meeting. Then I went back home and drank gallons of tea with honey. It was cold and rainy, and putting on the new outfit purchased for the occasion was out of the question. I was unreasonably anxious. When I was in therapy many years ago, my counsellor explained to me that my attitude to life was called “victim behaviour” meaning that whatever happened I thought it was my fault. She helped me deal with it, but sometimes it breaks through. I kept thinking it was the wrong day, and I had ordered too little or too much food, and the invitations had been sent long ago so people would have forgotten and nobody would turn up; and although I was unquestionably a Fellow people would think or even say: Who is she anyway; and I would stumble and fall because of my high heels; and what if I just take my car and drive as far away as a full tank would take me.

I was brought back to earth when I went to the ladies' and saw a sign outside Combination Room

Then of course it was all around me, the food and bottles arrived (just a bit late, and I had to remind them that I had ordered sparkling rather than regular wine), and the students gave me an olive tree, repeating the reason: “It's not for you, it's for you garden”. And when I started on my well-rehearsed speech, I suddenly forgot all I wanted to say and certainly sounded daft, but hopefully, being the object of celebration, was forgiven. 

Then came the surprise. Morag had warned me, and I was pretty sure the students would bring a cake, since they are famous for their cakes, but I wasn't prepared for what was to come. I had thought maybe a gift card for a garden centre or a dollhouse shop. Or a visit to some famous garden or a garden show or a dollhouse fair. Somehow my thinking didn't go beyond gardens and dollhouses, since I knew that all my friends knew about my major passions. But Morag knew me better than I knew myself, and she had taken a completely different direction. So what did they get me? A day with a personal shopper! It took me a couple of moments to take it in: Are they saying that my taste in clothes is so poor that I need guidance? But no, of course not, they know I love nice clothes, but hate shopping, so this was exactly what I didn't know I wanted, and it wasn't a present, but an experience, and it was the very best thing they could think of. They gave me a card which everyone, really everyone had signed, and Morag said afterwards that she hadn't anticipated such wide and generous response. She had started with just a few people, but apparently more people had heard and wanted to contribute, which felt so good I didn't even know what to say. To add to my confusion, the students brought out a cake so pretty I didn't dare to cut it, but I had to blow the candles, which I am sure I hadn't done for the past forty years. 

I think everyone enjoyed it. Two things nearly killed me though. Every five minutes I had to run to Staffan, who was sitting quietly in the corner, and borrow a tissue to blow my nose. I hope people thought I was moved to tears, but in fact my cold was getting worse. And by the end of the second hour my heels felt like torture tools, so when we finally left, I took them off and walked in my stockings, but I don't think anyone noticed or cared, because I was already carrying an olive tree, some wine bottles and boxes of chocolate (“No presents!”), a huge bouquet (“No flowers!”) and a pile of cards.

Needless to say, I went straight to bed.

To be continued.
Photos by Faye Yung. 

Report from the celebration marathon

Dear Reader, it cannot have escaped your attention that yours truly has just passed the magical threshold. The various stages of celebration went on for almost a week, reminiscent of the famous story of a royal relative sending a belated cable to the Czar of Russia: “For three days running we have been toasting your health”, to which His Majesty replied: “High time you stopped”.

About a year ago when I first started planning my sixtieth, there were many options I considered. One was to bring the whole family over to Cambridge and have a big party including local friends. It probably wouldn't be unreasonably expensive, but the logistics was too complicated. Therefore I asked the family to keep the date open and await further instructions. Ten years ago, for my fiftieth, I had a huge fancy dinner for friends, colleagues and grown-up family members. I couldn't possibly repeat the grandeur of that one, and I also felt that I wanted all the grandchildren to be present. Eventually we decided on a family-only dinner. We considered a stately home outside Stockholm, but again the logistics would be hard, so we found a very special place in town where we had been and knew the food was superb. It turned out they also had rooms.

That done, I started looking around for some form of celebration here in Cambridge. My first thought was that I only had been here for a short time, I didn't have many friends... and then I started counting, and when I got over forty it was pretty clear – apart from the happy realisation that I did have plenty of good friends – that some event was unavoidable. Moreover, it definitely felt a pleasure rather than a duty.

However, I didn't want to have a garden party at home. I've had those, and the house is big enough, but somehow it felt wrong for the occasion. I made some investigations and decided that the Combination Room at Homerton had the necessary ambience and that their catering would be good value. I decided that a Monday afternoon would be suitable, since people might not want to come in on the weekend. My first attempt was discouraging since the catering people demanded room hire double the costs of the reception itself, although I suggested that as a Fellow I might be allowed to use college facilities for free. I emailed a polite “Thank you, I'll look for another option”. Half an hour later they got back saying that the college Bursar had waived room hire.

As I was relating it all to Morag she wondered whether I would accept, as a birthday present from the teaching team, a fancy dinner. That sounded nice. More or less at the same time, Staffan announced that apart from the family dinner on the day, there would be a surprise lunch with two overseas guests who just happened to be in Stockholm. The serendipity wasn't very convincing, but he refused even to hint who the guests might be. I had my guesses, but he wouldn't confirm or deny. I was almost hundred percent sure the mysterious visitors would be from Finland because it was the only reasonable guess, and I thought that perhaps they would offer me an honorary doctorate. Another option might be a festschrift, but I didn't quite believe it.

As I sent out invitations for the reception at Homerton, two people replied with a comment that their birthdays were two days later, on May 16. I had never, ever met anyone with the same birthday as mine so I wrote back pointing this out and suggested that we three born-on-May-16 ladies should go out for a drink together. Which both thought was a brilliant idea, and we even managed to find a date, after a Faculty meeting the week before.

Meanwhile, my thoughtful daughter Julia wondered whether I seriously considered ignoring all friends in Stockholm and volunteered to do a reception for me which was a very noble action. She immediately created a Facebook event, and the two Facebook-passive friends also received invitations by email. Most of them responded at once and were delighted.

Thus the celebration was to continue over a week: drink with born-on-May-16 ladies on Thursday, Homerton reception on Monday, flight to Sweden on Tuesday, surprise lunch and family dinner on Wednesday, reception on Thursday, back to Cambridge on Thursday evening, and a dinner with close friends on Friday. For each occasion, I very strictly specified: no presents, no flowers, although I was sure at least some people would go against my wish or simply fail to read the instructions. As the date approached, I was torn between happy apprehension and horror. Some days I wished I had decided to disappear to an undisclosed destination.

To be continued.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Interesting facts from individual Russian history, part 3

The final part of the story of my Grossmama Maria (part 1 and part 2)

For the rest of the world, the second World War started in 1939. In the Soviet Union, it started on June 22, 1941 and was called the Great Patriotic War. Within a couple of weeks, all Germans in every city, town and villages in Russia were told that they would be deported. They were told it was for their own protection and that they would be able to come back once the war was over. Jonathan and Maria lived in a German village in the Caucasus, together with a huge group of relatives, nephews and their families. They were herded together and taken by a freight boat across the Caspian Sea, and from there they were to go by railway. They knew that they were going into death. But they did not despair. The family chronicle says that they sat on deck in rain and storm, like cattle, and suddenly one of the nephews said: "Uncle Jonathan, can you please sing something?" And Jonathan stood up and sand Mephistopheles' aria, which was his special hit.

Then they were put in the infamous cattle car to be transported further eastward. But Jonathan got very sick and had to be carried into the car. Three days later he died and was buried in a mass grave at a little railway station, together with others who had died on the way. Many, many years later we put a memorial plaque on our family grave in the German Cemetery in Moscow.

The family was forced to go on. They were dumped off in a tiny village in Northern Kazakhstan and put up to live in local people's homes. Soon first all men and then all able women and young girls were taken away to forced labour. It was called, in true Orwellian spirit, called "Labour Army". 
Maria was the only one left of the family, but there were some other old Germans with her. Some of those were artisans and made it somehow. Maria was sixty, but healthy and strong. She went to the boss of the collective farm and asked for work. Her first job was to pile dried cow dung. They heated houses with cow dung because there was no wood in the steppe. In that way she made some wages and got a little flour. The boss liked Maria and invited her to work in a nursery school. It was good, the kids liked her, the mothers liked her because she never stole bread from the kids and shared equally between them all. Most nurses stole food from the kids since the nursery was relatively well-supplied.

Some years later Maria's youngest daughter, who had also been deported and survived the horrors of “Labour Army”, found her way to her mother. All in all, they stayed fifteen years in Kazakhstan. At the end of the war all Germans expected to be allowed to go home, as they had been promised. But there came an official to the village and read a paper for the Germans. It said that all persons of German nationality who had been deported in 1941 according to the special decree of the Supreme Soviet were to live at their places of deportation "for ever" - this was the first time they heard the words: "For ever". Every attempt at escape was to be punished by twenty five years of labour camp. This was also a new word. Anyone who helped Germans to escape was to be punished by five years of prison.

Then in 1953 Stalin died. Three years later all Germans were summoned to the police and received their ID-cards. Clean cards too, no stamps, no indication of deportation. The deported Germans had shown in practice that they were good Soviet citizens, was the verdict. And they had indeed. They worked as hard an anyone just to show that they were Soviet citizens. No matter good or bad, Soviet was it. There were even Germans who wanted to join the Communist party to show how they liked the authorities. The same authorities who had driven them away from their home and let them die in the steppe.

Anyway, the Germans were allowed to live where they wished, but not where they had lived before the deportation. In that way the authorities tried to avoid that the Germans would claim back their houses, schools and churches. They had no property rights. Still some of them moved back to Caucasus. They were not allowed to live where they had lived before, bit they still wanted to live near the places their forefathers had lived. They came one after another, bought houses in old German villages, got jobs. During the '60s, we would often go and visit granny's cousins in Pyatigorsk.

But the majority stayed in Kazakhstan. They had nowhere to go. Some moved to towns, others stayed in the country and went on as peasants. They were diligent and hard-working, they had saved money, built solid stone houses, worked their land, become well-off. They did not want to leave all that once again. Instead, they started schools, libraries, theatres and choirs. This is what our recent visitors fromKazakhstan referred to.

Since my Grossmama Maria was deported from Caucasus she was allowed to come and live with her daughter, my granny, in Moscow. I remember her well. In 1958 we celebrated her eightieth birthday with a huge family gathering. She spoke, read and sang to me in German. Sometimes I was horrendously nasty and rude to her, and I am still ashamed to think about it. She was the nicest, kindest person in the world.

She was the last of her generation, and everybody came to us, to her, on the forbidden Christmas Eve, but I have already told this story.

She died on May 11, 1962, when I was ten and didn't understand death. Perhaps because of that I cannot say that I miss her, in the same way I miss my granny. But I have warm memories of her. 


Interesting facts from individual Russian history, part 2

Here continues the story of my Grossmama Maria

Jonathan and Maria were rich and happy and generous. Jonathan gave money to schools, libraries, hospitals and a prison. He was just about to buy a whole street in Moscow and turn it into an artists' colony.

Then came the Great War, and it wasn't popular to be a German in Russia during the war. He was treated with suspicion. But they didn't take away his property. That came later. According to the family chronicle, when they confiscated all his millions, he said: "What a relief, they were such a nuisance!" For obvious reasons he had not read the Moomin stories, but this was a very Moominish comment.

The one who wasn't happy was Elly who had dreamed of going to Paris to study music at the Conservatory. But there was nothing she could do about it. So when she was old enough she went to Moscow, but that is another story.

Back to Jonathan and Maria. The post-war time in Northern Caucasus was long and confusing. The rulers changed all the time. One day the white army came and forced all high school boys and all other young boys to join them. Next day the red army came and hung and shot people without asking questions. Eventually the Soviet power was established, and Jonathan and his family were evicted from their house. (The house was later turned into an old people's home. When I visited it in 1991 it was being renovated).

The family left the town for a nearby village where they lived with a distant relative. First they lived by selling their belongings. Then Jonathan got some jobs. From time to time there came orders from the new government in Moscow to shoot the ten topmost citizens in the town. This was part of the Great Terror, and the purpose was to hold people in constant fear. There were orders that ten richest and most prominent citizens should get shot, and Jonathan had been one of the richest and most prominent. But someone would come late at night and say: "Uncle Jonathan, tonight we must come and arrest you and shoot you. If we don't do it, they'll shoot us. Get away and hide for a while". So he did. He became a school inspector, then he worked at a wool factory buying wool. Then someone squealed on him. Without any reason Jonathan was accused of being a "saboteur" and "an enemy of the Soviet state", they said that he had stolen state money. He was tried and sentenced to a year in prison, which was a very mild punishment at that time. So he went to the very same prison which he himself once had built.

When Jonathan was released he moved to a little village where he was offered a job as an organist in a little German church. He was the only educated person in the village, and he started a choir, an orchestra and an amateur theatre there. Then he became a school teacher. The children had already left their home and moved to Moscow to study. The first grandchild (that is, my father) was born in 1931. Maria and Jonathan loved their little grandson who would stay with them during summers. There was nothing like the wealth and luxury they one had, but they were happy, far away from the turbulent events in the big cities.

To be continued.

Interesting facts from individual Russian history

In a Facebook post yesterday I mentioned that it was fifty years since my great-grandmother died. I got several comments on this post, including: “why not give us more info about her life as there's always interesting facts coming from individual Russians history?”

For people who read Swedish, I provided a link to my memoir that gives an account for interesting facts from my family history. But this book is unlikely to be translated into English, so for my English-language friends I can tell the story again.

It is, however, impossible to tell any family history out of context so I need to start a long time ago, as long as the family chronicle goes, which is 1788 when a forefather, Paul Tietz, twenty years old and poor as a church mouse, came to Russia from Germany. At that time, Catherine the Great of Russia invited skilful Germans to come and contribute to Russia's well-being, which they doubtless did. But my ancestor was not part of that diaspora, who are better known as Volga-Germans. He belonged to a religious sect who were wandering to Palestine by way of Russia, but often got stuck somewhere in the steppes of Northern Caucasus where they could rent or buy land from local dukes and start wine production. Actually, I have already told part of this story.

Within two generations, the Tietz family got rich beyond imagination on wine and grain. My great-grandfather Jonathan Tietz was the youngest son of a miller, but he didn't have to rely on a trickster cat to make his fortune. His older brothers did try to cheat on him, but he was clever enough to resist. He wasn't particularly interested in the family business but preferred to use his share of income to support young artists and musicians. He was a good musician himself and even sang for a while in an opera house in Moscow.

At that time it was usual for a young man to marry whoever their parents chose for them. Jonathan's father told him to travel to a particular little town where one of his business partners lived. He had two daughters. Jonathan was to choose one of them as his bride. Before he left, his mother told him: “When you have chosen, give her a box of chocolates, but tie it very hard with a ribbon and watch closely. If she cuts the ribbon with scissors, don't marry her, but if she ties up the ribbon no matter how hard the knot, she will be a good housewife”. Jonathan chose the older sister, Maria, and she untied the knot carefully and put the ribbon away in her sewing box. This does sound like a fairy tale, but no one in our family has ever cut a knot with scissors.

They were married and lived in the mill before Jonathan build a house of his own in the town of Pyatigorsk in Northern Caucasus. They had six children, but only three survived infancy. The oldest was my grandmother Elizabeth, or Elly.

To be continued.


Tenth birthday: my party was cancelled because my great-grandmother died. Nobody told me that she had died, but suddenly one day her bed was empty. They didn't take me to the funeral. I had my party the following weekend. Don't remember anything special about it. My mother used to have nice birthday parties for me, with dressing up and party games. I invited classmates and some neighbour children. 

 This is not a birthday photo, but as close to the age as I have. There are very few photos from my childhood.

Twentieth birthday: newly married and moved from a luxury apartment two block from the Kremlin to my husband's tiny room with shared kitchen and bathroom with another family, in an industrial zone outside Moscow. Nevertheless huge party with friends and my father and aunt (don't remember why my mother couldn't come). I had baked a huge cabbage pie and bought a cake. My father said it was sacrilege to put birthday candles on a cake from a shop so they had to go on the cabbage pie. I was pregnant, but didn't know it yet. 

Thirtieth birthday: my first birthday in Sweden. Staffan not particularly responsive to the idea of celebrating such an insignificant birthday. I was pregnant and it had started showing. The year before, which was my last birthday before I left Sweden, I had a huge party with all friends, effectively a farewell party. Funny posters, poems and songs, flowers, presents. Joyful and sad.


 A 17th-century mansion where I spent my first year in Sweden.

Fortieth birthday: after the previous ten failed attempts, I decide to celebrate in Moscow. Sixteen very carefully selected friends invited to a sit-down dinner in a friend's apartment. I was going to say: Don't remember why I could not do it in my parents' apartment, but I remember now. The apartment was being renovated. I went to a bank to change a hundred dollars into roubles. My friend told be to bring a big plastic bag. I didn't get it. The bank gave me two million roubles in ten-rouble notes. I bought a huge piece of meat at the farmer's market and made a roast in my friend's tiny kitchen. I had a sitting plan. I set the table Western style, with individual, very pretty starter platters. Afterwards, my friend told me that the other guests were shocked that I had become so Westernised and stingy. At a Russian party, you put dozens of starters on the table, and people help themselves until they are full and cannot eat the main. No pictures from that one.

Fiftieth birthday was grand. Castle environment, guests from all parts of the world, including Down Under; elegant three course dinner, speeches, poems, songs, and afterwards dance to the band of the Royal Guards in traditional uniforms. I cannot beat that. Sadly, many of the guests from that party are no longer among us.

The imminent sixtieth, at least as far as I know (although it has been hinted that some surprises are to be anticipated): a reception at Homerton, a family dinner in a fancy restaurant in Stockholm and a small reception for friends in Julia's apartment. Reports to follow.

Friday, 11 May 2012

What the professor should have done

At some point when I was terribly stressed out and anxious about not having time to do this or that, my clever daughter came up with the words of wisdom that I have cherished ever since. Imagine, she said, that you have been kidnapped for one day by extraterrestials. Will the world stop without you? If the answer is no, take a day's break.

During my four years here in Cambridge I haven't taken a day of sickness leave. I did swap a class when I had eye surgery, but I didn't have to cancel anything. I usually get nasty colds on long weekends and get over them by the first working day. Not this time. Last Sunday, just after I had a nice tea and chat with a friend who dropped in on the way to Norwich, I suddenly felt rotten and, recognising the symptoms, drank three gallons of tea with honey and went to bed, putting a roll of kitchen towel on my nightstand. I spent all Monday (bank holiday) in bed, half sleeping. I emailed a student and cancelled a supervision on Tuesday morning. I succumbed one bit at a time. I emailed the people with whom I was supposed to dine on Tuesday evening. I decided to skip the book club, although we were to discuss a book I really wanted to discuss. On Tuesday morning I emailed the admin person for a meeting I was to attend to justify a very important change to our doctoral programme. I told her the meeting would have to consider my written paper. I emailed my secretary to find someone to chair my academic group business meeting. I emailed another secretary to find someone to chair another meeting I was supposed to chair in the afternoon. Everybody got back to me with wishes of soon recovery and assurance that everything would go on smoothly without me. I would have been disappointed if I hadn't been so ill.

I emailed two students with whom I had scheduled supervisions on Wednesday. I also send my apologies to the whole masters group who were reading their creative writing pieces in Wednesday afternoon. I had really been looking forward to it. Some of them send me their work by email.

While I was at it, I cancelled my massage on Wednesday morning. (It turned out that my masseuse was quitting, and I had missed my last session with her). I also cancelled a meeting on Thursday morning and send my apologies to College Council meeting and Academic Staff Meeting. Everyone got back saying not to worry and wishing me to get well soon. Regrettably, I had to cancel a drink with two colleagues after the ASM. I was so much into it that I felt I could cancel everything.

I went to work this morning, even though I still felt like dead meat. Everyone I met in offices, corridors and the dining hall inquired about my precious health. Every meeting had happened without me, and the world is still there.

It is hard to admit that you not irreplaceable.

"Save the life of my child, cried the desperate mother"

All right, one thing at a time. Long, long time ago in another galaxy I was a young, silly single mother of a boy of four. It was summer, and I was imprisoned in the country because it was the duty of a good parent to give their children three months of summer holiday in the country. I let him play in the daytime while I tried to work (I was a free-lance translator at the time). I would take him for swims, but not let him make mud pies at the beach because he had a very bad eczema. I read bedtime stories for him. I cooked his meals over a little petrol stove, again very carefully because he was allergic to more or less everything. There was no grocery store in the village, and I had to take him on long walks to another village. There were no pushchairs so I had to be patient or carry him. I had enough to carry from the store. This is just to paint a pale background.

One Saturday morning he had fever, and half of his face was swollen. There were several options of getting to Moscow where the closest children's clinic was, but most were not operating on Saturdays. We had to walk for about forty minutes to the nearest bus stop, take an hour ride by bus, then another bus to the surgery. I didn't have enough money for a taxi. We had to wait for quite a long time, and when it was our turn, they said we were in the wrong place, we had to go to A&E. Another bus, another wait, and then they took him away, saying: “You are lucky you brought him now, two hours more, and it would have been too late... Good bye, we have phone inquiries on Thursdays between two and three, you can ask about his temperature”. “Wait!”, I cried, “He is just four years old, he has never been away from his family! He is allergic to everything! He has eczema and must have treatment every night!”

Well, Russia is a country where everything is prohibited and everything is possible. Within a couple of hours I found a friend of a friend of a friend who knew the nurse who knew the doctor, and at least I had first-hand information, although I still wasn't allowed to see my child, and the fruit I sent him, bought for my very last money, was most probably stolen by the nurses. Since he could not read it was pointless sending letters. Just as pointless sending toys. When I got him back after a week he wasn't much worse for it and told me with awe that the boys in the ward used bad words.

I couldn't help recalling this episode when my youngest son had to be operated for hernia at the age of two, in a Swedish hospital. I had to hold him while they fixed the tubes; I was allowed to follow in the ante-surgery room. They warned me that he would go to sleep much quicker than I expected, and I am glad they did, because he just went limp in my arms. Then they took him in and told me to go and get a cup of coffee. When they brought him out, still asleep, they said: “You must not leave him for a second, because when he wakes up, the first thing he sees must be your face”.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

So many things...

I haven't blogged for a while, and I don't know where to start. I should blog about wonderful days with Norton Juster when I was a bit jealous because he and Staffan got up very early and talked and talked. I should blog about the death of Maurice Sendak, trying to say something that hasn't been said by everybody else. Just two days before, Norton was telling us about Sendak - they were so close friends. Before that, I was planning to blog about another, much less famous children's writer who had passed away, Leila Berg, whose book The Adventures of Chunky, I loved passionately when I was a child. I should also blog about the anxiety and despair of a young mother whose four-year-old child is taken away from her into a hospital, with the words: "It was good you came now, two hours from now would be too late... You can call the day after tomorrow".  The memory comes as we read reports about a grandchild in a hospital in Sweden, luckily surrounded by the loving family. I should blog about Julia's little cat who, sadly, is no more, which brings memories of just a couple of months ago. I should blog about yesterday being the Victory Day in Russia and what it once meant to me. In the first place, I should blog about the imminence of three-score.