I don’t really think of Ladino in terms of episodes or any distinct experiences. It is all connected for me and this is what I see in my mind – the flow of a big and complex picture.
I had two grandmothers. My maternal Grandma Bucca lived with us, on and off, for extended periods of time. She was from Dupnitsa originally and had a lot of grown-up children. She would stay with one daughter, and then with another. When she lived with us she spoke with my parents in Spanyol.
My father, however, thought I should learn to speak what he used to call ‘good’ Bulgarian and for that reason my parents brought up my sister and myself in Bulgarian. Spanyol, though, was all around us and everybody spoke it. My Mum and Dad would sometimes deliberately say things in Spanyol when they did not us to understand what their private conversations were about.
With my other Grandma they also spoke in Spanyol. I remember something really odd – they used the untypical 3rd p.sg when they addressed her. They would say, “Does she want to come and visit us?” or “Does she want us to go and visit her?” This is how it was with her but she never lived with us. She lived with my father’s younger brother, an uncle who remained single for quite a while.
In our family, we always addressed each other in Spanyol, for example, ‘grandmama’ Bucca, ‘papa’ for my Dad, ‘tante’ for my aunts, ‘tio’ Mois … My mother was always ‘mama’ though.
In my younger years (and now too) the majority of my friends were Bulgarian. I didn’t have many Jewish friends. I remember my father warning us not to go the Bet Am. For him that was a gathering place for Zionists and he did not want us to be part of that. I now realise he was what you would call a pantheist. He respected universal values and had no time for nationalism. I did not give it much thought then, but I am now beginning to understand better. He was a man of arts and the theatre and he wanted us to read books and to love the stage. He bought my sister an accordion at first, and after that a piano. For me he got a violin. He hired music teachers for us and we had our music lessons at home. Most of our teachers were Jewish but we also had one Hungarian one.
The world of proverbs and sayings
There always was this torrential flow of proverbs at home. Here is one that I remember well: Kita bueno di la boca – Don’t mention the evil, just talk about the good. It was feared that if you talked about the evil, it might come true and happen in real. The proverbs helped me learn many words and phrases in Ladino, as well as in Turkish.
When my mother wanted to say something rude or not really decent, she liked to say it in Ladino. For example, someone would be ‘es krivator di kulo’, meaning they never put in a hard day’s work. Today, we would say “He works with his bottom’. But she would also sing Spanish songs. My sister too – she is an opera singer and has recorded two CDs with Sephardic songs. She found the music in some French source and managed to restore and have the songs arranged for her voice.
I went to a Bulgarian school and my education was all in Bulgarian. Unlike the children in the Jewish school I did not learn Hebrew. In fact, I did study Hebrew at one point but this happened only when we were exiled to Razgrad in 1943. Jewish children were banned from Bulgarian schools then and they had to set up a Jewish school in Razgrad to accommodate us and our learning needs. I thought Hebrew was a weird language.
At the same time I was learning French too. I started it up because my mother knew French and was able to help me with it. I remember that she illustrated some of the French grammar and vocabulary structures with structures in Spanyol. Even now, when I speak with Spaniards, they find it amazing that I can manage the past tenses. These are complex, two word constructions but I can get them right.
Ladino comes back
As I grow older I note that something really interesting happens – more and more Ladino words surface up and I start using them. This happens spontaneously and I liken it to some kind of physiological process. Every now and then, as I walk in the streets of Sofia, I would meet somebody Jewish who I happen to know. It gives me enormous pleasure to awaken my memories and discover that I am capable of having normal, everyday conversations with these people. Related to that is my experience in the Ladino Club where I have already managed to tell a few of my stories in Ladino to the members there.
I have a growing sense of Spain being a motherland to me. Interestingly, I do not have any such feelings for Israel. I remember something which happened in the 90ies of the previous century. The day was the 24th May. I was invited to the president’s residence for the reception he was hosting to celebrate the Bulgarian alphabet and overall literacy achievements. Juan Carlos, the king of Spain was guest of honour. I asked to be introduced to him and, indeed, I was. I spoke to him in Spanyol. Nothing very special by way of verbal exchange occurred, but I was amused. I had the cheek to ask him whether he had read a book I knew – the Garden of the Finzi-Contini which is about a large Jewish family in Italy. He had not read it and it looked as if I had compromised him a little with the courtiers around him
I went to Argentina once. The Spanish language of the Argentines is much easier to understand. In Spain they speak much faster and I find it hard to understand the Spaniards. So, I was greatly encouraged by the way I managed to get along with my Spanyol in Argentina. I spoke it with everybody and everywhere – in the streets, in the shops, and with my relatives, some of whom, like my cousin’s daughter, were born there.
I bought myself a Spanish textbook and am very serious about developing my Spanish. When I write email messages or letters to my relatives I try to write them in Spanish. My vocabulary of contemporary Spanish has increased and I make efforts to use it correctly.
Here, in Sofia, I became friends with a musician from Cuba and learned a lot of Spanish words from him. I even visited him in Cuba.
Lost or alive?
When I talk with Spanish people in Spanyol, they say, “But yours is the language of Cervantes. It is a very old version of our language”. This is what makes me think about and understand how previous generations have handed this language down, from father to son, mother to daughter, and succeeded in keeping it alive. That’s how the language has survived for so many hundreds of years – thanks to them. And what did we do? We lost it. Because that’s true – we lost it, while they kept it alive