My Grandma Blanca
I remember a lot.
My paternal grandma Blanca always spoke to me in Spanish. I know, though, that when she was young, she would regard herself a modern young woman and deliberately held her conversations
Home life at my Grandma’s was run in Ladino and, for me, this was the most natural thing in the world. I understood every single utterance and even laughed at the funny crossovers with Bulgarian. Many years passed like this – without even noticing I would switch from Bulgarian into Ladino and back again. These days I am much slower.in Bulgarian only. In those times, they apparently believed that speaking Ladino was something that only the lower classes did, or just elderly women anyway. Competence in correctly spoken literary Bulgarian was highly valued. Later on, she went through some kind of linguistic metamorphosis and would increasingly use Ladino in her day-to-day communications. As she was getting older, she felt the need to roll Ladino around in her mouth.
I rarely spoke Spanish with my parents. We would sometimes say a proverb or a joke in Spanish. My mother knows a lot of proverbs. For example, Ken non tiene la hermosa, besa la mucosa – he who cannot get the pretty one, gets the snotty one. Another one is, Cover yourself with good fame and you can then piss yourself in bed.
In the course of my life, I have seen people change their attitudes to Ladino and start speaking it after a long non-Ladino break. Take my mother again – she started saying things to me in Spanish fairly late in her life. She never did that before.
My Dad, too, knew a lot of funny stories from his grandfather. He loved telling them and was in the habit of saying their introductory sentences in Spanish, thus giving them an especially vivid flavor, and continue with the story in Bulgarian. The Spanish part of the story would become its leading idea and leitmotif. For example, he would start like Unos campos longar … distant roads, I could hear neither a dog barking nor a cock singing/ crowing. I have always connected this saying with what I think is a very Jewish sense of being lost in the physical space of this world. There is a particular family meaning for me in all this.
Stories about the ancestral origin of my family differ. Some of them claim we are Spanish Jews, some say we came from what is now Portugal. The truth is that we do not know where exactly our beginnings were. Our family name sounds definitely French to me. It is a biblical name and means ‘the one who reports to God only’.
I have had a sense of my Jewish identity since I was small, as early as the time we lived in Bourgas.
Children would ask, “What’s your name?” and I would say, “Andrey Leon Daniel”. And then, “What are you?” I would say, “I am Jewish”. They did not know what this meant but they went home, to their parents, and asked. On the next day, they would come back and say, “You are a chifut (Yid, a dirty Jew)”. By and by, the situation would become so aggravated that we would start a fight.
One day I was badly beaten up. It was in 1961, shortly after we moved to Sofia. Again, somebody said something referring to me being a Jew. They called me ‘chifut again. All in tears, I went back home. My father said to me, “Yes, you are a Jew. We are Jews. The word ‘chifutin’ is an insult to us. You shouldn’t be crying and what you should do is reclaim your dignity”. By and by, I developed this desire to be strong, to be able to fight and stand my own ground. I felt I had to assert myself. Gradually, I turned into a person who nobody would ever think of hurting or insulting.
When I was a teenager
When I was in my teens and my friends were around, my Grandma would still talk to me in Ladino. All my friends were Bulgarian and she knew perfectly well that they could not understand a word of Spanish. Invariably, my reaction was to respond to her in Bulgarian – curt and surly responses – demonstrating my disapproval. This kind of behaviour destroyed the intimacy between us. We would often argue about this. I realise I had behaved badly and I really regret my rudeness. At the time, however, I was trying to integrate and I was doing it headlong, in the most direct and forceful way possible.
Later on, my fluency in Spanish helped me make friends with Fidel R from Columbia. His father, a lawyer, was consistently leftist in his ideology. He was convinced his three sons should receive their education in Eastern Europe, and all three of them studied in three different capital cities of Eastern Europe at the time. I was good friends with Fidel. For a long period period of time, he was solely reliant on me, and on his Bulgarian wife, to make and keep contact with the outside world. I felt I was somehow unique for possessing this capacity to communicate with him in Spanish.
I can hardly understand modern Spanish but I have a sense for it. We are heirs to one specific dialect – Castellano and I can understand it better than any other dialect. I can also communicate when I am in Cuba or Argentina. I think that these countries have preserved an older version of Spanish which, to me, sounds beautifully solemn, festive, and ceremonial somehow.
I am very careful about what I say to people about my abilities in Ladino. I am alert to the contexts I function in. I am cautious of talking Jewishness to Bulgarians. I do not charge my relationship with this kind of meanings. But I sometimes wonder about my accent or my intonation – perhaps they bear some Jewish traces and give me away.
On the other hand, my sense of being an heir to this language is special. It enthuses and empowers me with a kind of primary and fundamental force. I think that the significance of being different changes, i.e, from originally being a disadvantage it has now become a huge advantage. We seek our sense of uniqueness and find it in this language. It is a symbol, a token of our otherness.