Gredi Assa

My grandparents

When I was a child, there was the sound of this language all around me. We lived with my maternal grandparents, Grandad Gershon and Grandma Rachel, and they spoke Spanyol to me. The moment the door of our house shut the street off behind me, Spanyol was on. My grandfather spoke it beautifully. He also had a big collection of books in Spanyol and had read them all. Or take my paternal grandma Lisa – she had brought back books from her trips to Plovdiv and Istanbul. These were small books, beautifully bound. Grandma herself was very small but intellectually very sharp.


I did not understand much at first. Sometimes it so happened that the elders did not want us, the children, to understand what they were talking about. And they would say it in Spanyol. I know that you, as a child, were also frustrated when you were left out of this language hide-and-seek. I remember experiencing the same feelings but I would say to my sister, “You should learn Spanish!” She was older than me and I kept saying to her that she had the responsibility, being the elder sister, to learn Spanish, so that we could understand what our grandparents were hiding from us. Sometimes they wanted to go out for the evening and would put me to bed early. I really hated that. Other times, my Grandma wanted to go and see friends, and she did not want me with her. All of this was communicated in Spanyol, so that I could not catch the details and prepare to resist the injustice.

By and by, the situation changed. Although I could not speak it, I started to understand Spanyol. Speaking was not something I would readily do anyway, in whatever language. I wasn’t passionate about speaking. Unlike my sister – she learned Spanish and she learned it well.

Spanyol and modern Spanish – making ourselves understood

My mother and my father also spoke Spanyol. I remember my mother telling me about one of her business trips to Germany. This particular time she attended a textile and fashion fair. As she wandered around, she came across the Spanish exhibition area and stopped by. She introduced herself and the conversation continued in Spanish. Her way of speaking the language took the people there by surprise. To them, she sounded like somebody who lived back centuries ago. Indeed, we speak a kind of Spanish which is sealed back into the 15th century.

When I was in Spain recently, they thought I was speaking Portuguese. No avlas para Espanyol. They were amazed at how I managed to make myself understood. I expressed myself by capturing the root of a word and then attaching different things to it. The result was a mongrel-like language, a mixture of everything. Interestingly, I didn’t feel any constraints when I was in Mexico. Mine is the language of a 10-12 year old. It is not the rich language of literature – I don’t’ use complex concepts and I am rather primitive. But I manage to get around through this approximation of the Spanish language. And it all started with the Spanyol I learned in our kitchen. However, it is not a language I use now. Latent and passive, it pops up in certain situations and these make me realise that there’s this language lurking there deep inside me.

Border shock
I am going to tell you about something that happened, something which turned me upside down. I was nearly swept off my feet.

My mother had saved up a small sum of money for me to go to Dresden and see its galleries and exhibitions. I travelled by train and had booked a sleeping berth. I remember taking off my jacket, putting my wallet in one of its pockets, taking off my watch, and … dozing off happily. And then, when we reached the Czech-German border I found myself facing angry border guards who pulled me down and out of the train and demanded an explanation. As it turned out, somebody had taken all my possessions – my passport, my money, everything!  It all dawned on me – I had been robbed. Naïve like a child, I had been stripped off of everything I was carrying with me. I was in a shock and what I did was, I started blurting out words in Spanish. I am not quite sure how it happened, but I uttered words which I never thought I knew. I had never voiced such words before. I wanted to say I was from Bulgaria but all I was doing was speaking in Spanish.

I am different

Time ago, Spanyol was the language of my family. For me, it was the secret language of adults. They used it among themselves to share their secrets. But equally, it was the language of endearment. There is more – Spanish gives me a sense of belonging to something larger. Every so often, it gives me the freedom of choice – I can choose the culture I want to belong to. Otherwise, this language makes me feel different. In art, being different, is a great advantage. In life – it is not exactly like that.