The shipwreck that occurred a few weeks after my graduation was to alter my more or less good life forever. Of course Mother’s precarious mental health had been haunting us for a couple of years, ever since Arne decided he had to leave the theater. Mother was a woman of extremes – extreme energy, extreme talent, extreme joyousness and extreme vitality and charm. It had now become extreme listlessness and abandon of herself and of us. She gave up on living.
I had to try to put the pieces of my broken life back together.
Mother spent the fall in Italy – her stay with the host family in Turino being paid for by my grandparents, since we were broke. I wrote her a distressed letter that summer, when she was still at my grandparents’ house. She replied by quoting my grandfather as having said “at the age of 19, she should be able to stand on her own two feet”. That one letter I received from Mother the summer after my graduation broke me completely. Mother had two parents to support her. I didn’t.
It was my father who helped me get my bearings back. I had not lived with my dad since my parents’ divorce during the war, but now I moved in with his family, his wife, Elsa, and a sister, Lisbet, who was 14 years younger than I. I realized I was not left all alone in the world. My dad helped me reorganize my life. To begin with, we found an ad in the paper for a ‘Mother’s helper’ job in eastern France, which fitted in perfectly with my plans to become a social worker. That meant studying at Socialinstitutet in Lund where you had to be at least 20 to be admitted, and I was only 19. You also had to have some work experience, preferably from working in a family, and I had none. I had not applied for a study loan right away, as my friends did, since I really wanted to become a social worker, socialkurator. And I had never had a paid job in my life. I needed to do what the French call un stage.
Then came my seven months in Luxeuil-les-Bains which was a mixed time of hard work, but also some fun. But what I remember now was the nice family and the parties we had, I and my friend Gaëtane, the oldest daughter, with a group of her friends from lycée, la bande as we called it.
Ulla, the Swedish wife, did treat me pretty much like a slave, but I really loved the rest of the family and thanks to Gaëtane, we had a lot of fun with the new group of teenagers I now became part of. I was older than the rest of them, but I have always looked younger than my age and I didn’t really feel any age gap.
I was used to helping out in the kitchen, even though I couldn’t really cook, but I was young and I adapted fast. With Gaëtane’s help I even sewed my green taffeta cocktail dress on Grandma’s treadle sewing machine and it served me for quite a few years. Also, my French was improving greatly by the day. I still remember situations where Gaëtane explained new words to me and I loved to learn new vocabulary. “Muguet”, she said ”You know the flower your mother likes so much.”
After Luxeuil I just wanted to study French, so instead of Socialinstitutet, it got to be Lund University. I see myself as having been a pretty average student in Lund. The second term of my first year I was living on my own in a studio sublet to me by a friend of my sister’s. That was after Arne and I had spent a wonderful few months playing house, with me in the role of the hostess, which I loved. Mother was in a psychiatric clinic.
Most of my years at Lund University were a lackluster series of days and weeks and months, interspersed with occasional exams and, of course, parties. My exams usually went well (except for my first final written French exam where I left out the second accent aigu in ‘énormément’, plus two other possibly more important mistakes. Three mistakes were one too many at the time, but no professor would get away with such strict rules for students of today.
I want to mention my exam in phonetics at the end of my first term in Lund, as one of my very good memories of testing. All language students had to read a book on phonetics by Professor Bertil Malmberg, a world renowned Swedish phonetician and linguist. My exam with Bertil Malmberg in his phonetics apparatus room was actually the one I remember the best at Lund University. He looked at my exam book and saw that I was in Smålands Nation. “So where were you born?” he asked me. I said “in Jönköping”. “Aha, and how do you pronounce ängel (spelling the word) then?” was his next question. I said it and he replied “Then you’re not a genuine Jönköpingsbo.” I said “No, I actually grew up in Malmö.” It so happens that in Swedish we have two kinds of the metric foot called trochée (pocket is a trochée, for instance, the kind of metric term you learn when you study Latin poetry in Gymnasium), and the kind you use depends on where you come from. The difference is tiny and maybe only noticeable to a trained ear. I had an argument with an Austrian friend about the pronunciation of the word ängel in Swedish and Engel in German. My friend claimed that the pronunciation was exactly the same, but it really isn’t. There is that case of a different kind of trochée.
Bertil Malmberg also showed me his machine for registering speech frequencies and I was fascinated. I actually didn’t know before this how that kind of thing, for music and for speech was recorded. ‘I’ in Swedish (that is ‘ee’ in English), [i:] in the international phonetical alphabet, he told me, is the highest frequency vowel, going up to 3,000 Hz, he said. It’s a thing that has always stayed with me, throughout my studies of languages and linguistics.
Professor Malmberg, ‘a phonetician, general linguist and romanist and the leading linguist in Sweden’ 1, was actually such a widely competent scholar that when he applied for the chair in phonetics, he had a choice between a chair in phonetics or in Romance languages, as it was called in Lund in those days. He was offered a new chair in General Linguistics in 1969, based on his pioneering work and great competence in that field too. Romance languages, which was my first major, was mainly French, but also a little bit of a second Romance language, which got to be Spanish in my case.
In fact, when I started studying linguistics at l’Université 3, Jean Moulin, de Lyon in 1986, we were asked on the very first day by one of our professors about former linguistics studies. I mentioned ‘Growth and Structure of the English Language’ by Otto Jesperson, which was a kind of linguistic analysis of a language that had quite fascinated me in Lund, and I then mentioned that I had studied phonetics with Professor Bertil Malmberg. Jesperson was pooh-poohed as being ‘old school’, but when I mentioned Bertil Malmberg there was a gleam of recognition and admiration in the eyes and the tone of the professor.
Our Spanish teacher in Lund was a Peruvian who didn’t know a word of Swedish. A foreign teacher had the title of lektor, and we had these native speakers in all the languages taught at the university. The problem was that to be able to use the standard textbook, we had to first translate the Swedish into French for him. It was very old-fashioned teaching and pretty soon, after one term of half-hearted attendance in his classes, which was a minimum, I dropped the classes and decided I could learn Spanish just as well myself by reading three of the optional books and studying the grammar. I passed that test very easily for the Romance languages Professor Lombard, who was said not to know Spanish too well anyway. His French though was definitely excellent and I suppose that with a name like that, he was most likely half French. His seminars were boring though, but attention was more or less compulsory and we did learn from them anyway.
In the oral exam in the 50s you were tested on everything you had learned during your three or four semesters of studying French. The system has changed entirely and there are now multiple partial tests, which makes a whole lot better sense.
One of the last days before my oral exam I was told by a co-student that I must not forget Lombard’s own dissertation which was a dry book called ‘The languages of Europe and the White race’. Wow, what a racist title. So I hurried to the University Library and spent a day there reading his book. It was a very dry collection of facts about Indo-European languages, and, as far as I could see, it really contained no real research, the way I see it at least, just facts, well known to anybody who is seriously interested in languages. But, as I had been told, I was asked about several things contained in his book. There must not have been many candidates for the position the year Professor Lombard got the chair.
And of course there were the parties, some soirées with evening gowns in the big hall at the Academic Union. As I remember, the young men just wore dark suits though, no dinner jackets there. I remember one such ball, a masked ball. I wrote to Arne and asked him if he could lend me one of the beautiful dresses the Royal Dramatic Theater had given him, costumes they didn’t use any more. Arne sent me a dress that the great Inga Tidblad had worn as Kate in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. I have never before or later been dressed in such an elegant outfit. I had a wonderful evening, and I remember somewhat turning the head of the kurator, Lars, the head of our Nation. He was married so enough said about that.
One evening though he came down to my room. He and his wife had an apartment on the floor above mine. They had an exchange guest from Tübingen University in Germany, and Lars asked me if I would like to join the little party. My German was very poor at that time since we were never made to speak in our German classes. I managed so-so however, but what I remember the best was the young man (Dr. Eiselt – who isn’t a doctor in Germany? – and they even use the title!) putting his hand on mine and saying “Wann gehen wir tanzen?” Oh well, that got to be a little romance and it later became a friendship since Albrecht already had a girlfriend, an young Italian woman, Angela, from Milano. They got married soon after that.
Many years later I did get to know the entire family, in Wilhemshaven in northern Germany where they lived, two gorgeous children, Michele and Simonetta and a very nice wife. I stopped by on my way from Paris to Sweden in my little Renault in 1970, and I spent a couple of days with them. It was easy to see that Angela was by far the smarter one of the couple. They got a divorce soon after that.
In fact, I had already gotten to know Angela in 1966 when I chaperoned thirteen American girls on a tour of Europe. I met with Albrecht and Angela in Köln where we arrived from Paris by bus, which in a meandering way took us all the way through Switzerland and Lago di Como to Rome, Naples and the Isle of Capri and then back to Rome, for further delivery to Madrid and Lisbon. As I got off the bus, I remember Albrecht and his beautiful wife Angela waiting for me. (Die kleine Angela to whom we all wrote a postcard from Lund in 1957 or so) We had a nice dinner together. I guess I somehow managed to get out of dining with the girls for once. About ten years later, Albrecht and his son, Michele, even came to see us when John and I lived in Paris. Albrecht was a bit of a bore and his English was much less good than Michele’s, but he had once charmed me and I guess I was in a minor way faithful to that first impression.
The one event that stands out from those drab years when I mostly remember my constant feeling of just almost being alive, was the May 1954 Carnival in Lund, a huge event. The brother of a close friend of mine came down from Göteborg to participate in the student frenzy that spread all through Lund for about a week.
If that carnival stands out in my mind as a wonderfully rosy time, it was certainly because of Ulf. It was the first and only real love saga of my youth. My soul was in paradise and who knows what would have become of my life if there hadn’t been a horrible misunderstanding the summer that followed. Would I have settled down as Ulf’s wife, become the wife of a successful chemist who worked for a major Swedish pharmaceutical company and made a fine career?
Be that as it may, the week of Carnival dizziness and my new love saga got to be tied in with the nice little sublet I had that spring. I never had such a comfortable living quarters again in Lund, even though later on I managed to get a room in the Smålands Nation building. It was one of the first-generation student dormitories and there were only toilets and a shower at the end of each corridor, but the room I had overlooked the gorgeous botanical gardens and all the rooms had balconies. Also there was a kitchen for each floor, extremely handy when you live on a short budget the way I did. To me it was luxury and that was the end of drab rented rooms. Even though I always had a separate entrance, the rooms I could afford were indeed pretty drab. In newer student dormitories every room has its own toilet. Now, that’s real luxury!
I had to get busy in the preparation of parties in order to get a room in the Nation’s dormitory since there was a long waiting list. I was told to start by helping out by ‘moving chairs and such’, was the wording. Well, I did help out and the next year I got to be the vice sex-mistress and the year after that I was the sex mistress. This is not a joke. We were really called that, the committee for the preparation of parties was the sex committee. There is the sex master and the vice, and the sex mistress and the vice. It’s a joke of course to begin with, but my new office got me a room in the Nation’s building.
I don’t remember much of what we did during the week that Ulf was there, except that, like thousands of other students and public, we watched the long and hilariously funny Carnival parade with no end of floats, one totally different from the next one and walking majorettes and bands. 2 We also of course went to see that year’s new Carnival ‘spex’,
Djingis Khan, which has since become one of the standard repertory for the Lund ‘spexare’, along with the immortal Uarda, the Egyptian princess. It comes back every five years, which was also the case with the hilarious Uarda spex, or at least it used to be. These ‘plays’ were parodies on ancient Greek theater and so all the actors were males, which was one thing that made them so funny.
‘We’ were a group of five or sometimes six, Ulf and his brother, Lennart, whom I had known since I was 16. He was the boyfriend of one of my closest friends, Ragnhild, whom I had shared classes with since grade school. There was a very good friend of Ulf’s from Göteborg, Åke, who was a physics student, and who remained a close friend of mine during the years in Lund. And sometimes there was Bo, another friend from Göteborg, the son of the Göteborg ‘kex’ factory, as we used to say. He had a small car, which was very nice once in a while for a ride in the countryside, but apart from that he was a bit lackluster, really just a friend of Åke’s, who more or less took care of him.
My love saga with Ulf ended with a bang, however. Also, I honestly doubt if the role as a soft-spoken wife and mother of several children would have suited me. I do think it was already clear to me at the time that I was never going to settle down and be a mother the way nearly all my friends did, mothers and professional women at the same time. My own scarred childhood and youth made me feel totally unsuited for the conventional role of wife and mother.
Ulf worked in Holland that summer (and learned to speak Dutch, not really difficult, he said, if you already know Swedish, German and English, which we all did). He had formed plans for our hitchhiking together through Europe at the end of the summer and of my stay in the pension de famille north of Vichy. I had said yes. It sounded like fun and I was all for it, with Ulf as my company and male protector. Besides, I believe I would have said yes to anything Ulf suggested. I was in love.
But one day a small Fiat stopped in front of the château at Mademoiselle des Chaux’ pension de famille at Varennes-sur-Tèche. What had happened was that I had gotten to know an air force officer as a Swedish WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), which I had joined after taking a summer course. I had just mindlessly followed in the footsteps of most of my close friends in my conservative girls’ school. Gustav had a serious crush on me and he had insisted on coming to pick me up in France at the end of my stay. I had told him NO, I was going to wait for Ulf’s time to finish his job in Holland and hitchhike back to Sweden with him.
But there he was, Gustav and his little Fiat. The rest is more or less melodrama, but Ulf would never forgive me. He just would not believe in my having had no part in Gustav’s schemes. His pride was hurt and he had the most extraordinary fit of rage that I had ever witnessed when we met again in Lund. I told him it was none of my doing, in fact I’d done everything in my power to keep Gustav from coming, and was I going to let him go back to Sweden alone, Mlle des Chaux watching me sending him away? It would have been far too embarrassing.
Gustav and I didn’t speak during the whole trip back to Malmö, but the harm was done and I’d lost my lover who was Ulf, not Gustav. Ulf didn’t forgive me until about ten years ago when he sent me a little love poem. It was a wonderful little poem that I still treasure and it came inside a book he had written and published with his own money. It was quite a good book and fortunately it was not about me.
Continued: Chapter 7 – England, Cambridge