My name is Reina Bucco Lidgi and I am 81 now. I was named after my paternal grandmother. When I was five, my Grandma moved in with us. She was the only grandmother I knew. She could not speak Bulgarian and she took it upon herself to teach me Ladino. She must have been a good ‘teacher’ because in less than three months, I was able to communicate with her in Ladino. I don’t think I could fully understand everything she was saying but we somehow managed to talk with each other.
Ladino for squabbles
Before Grandma came to live us, we had a Russian lady at home looking after me. At one point she asked my mother whether she and my Dad ever fought with each other. She wondered because she had never seen or heard them quarrel. My mother then told her that, indeed, they sometimes squabbled but, as tradition in Jewish families would have it, they would do that in Spanyol. When adults wanted to remain discreet or say something private, they would do that in Ladino.
Ladino loses importance
My father did not want me to go to the Jewish school and I was enrolled in a Bulgarian school instead. Ladino had absolutely no place there. This was one kind of border which I came across as I was growing up. Father died early, and then Grandma died. My mother and I would still talk in Ladino – but only from time to time, not at all regularly. The truth is that at that time, I didn’t have great respect for this language because we could neither read nor write in Ladino. But now, I regret not having given it its due and not really paying attention to the wisdom of my mother’s sayings. She knew lots of proverbs and would readily use them. I still remember some of them and appreciate their importance.
A bridge for understanding
Many years passed and in the summer of 1961 I met, quite by chance, R.B., a political emigrant from Spain. When we first met, I spoke to her in Ladino. I was amazed that she could understand what I was saying and importantly, I could understand her too. I had studied French and Italian and the knowledge of these two languages might have also helped. By and by, we became very close friends and would meet on a daily basis. I respected her and shared the values she held. I cannot really put in words the warmth I felt for her. She would often come and meet my mother too. They understood each other perfectly well although my mother spoke with her only in Ladino.
Before the Civil, war Reyes was a teacher of Spanish and language matters intrigued her. Sometimes she would catch a word which didn’t look as if it were of Spanish origin. On hearing such a word she started looking for its root. For example, in Ladino, we use the word meldar for read. All her efforts to find out where this word came from were in vain because this is a Hebrew word and she couldn’t have known it from before. We both loved engaging with that – tracing the roots of various words – and for me, a Russian philology graduate, this was an intellectually stimulating thing to do.
My developing relationship with Reyes and the exaltation that resulted from mutually understanding each other (mind you, my Ladino was far from perfect), inspired me to register on a course to learn Spanish. At the time I thought I could understand almost anything that was said in Spanish and decided to go straight for 2nd year classes. But I didn’t take my limited knowledge of Spanish grammar into account. It turned out to be a mistake because there was no solid foundation I could step on. In the end, it all turned out well and I managed to make up for skipping the first year. Soon after I completed the course, I was able to speak contemporary Spanish. Ladino helped a lot but surprisingly, it also got in the way to some extent.
„Lo aprendi de mi abuaela, que avlava de Ladino”
Opportunities to practice my Spanish soon opened up for me. I worked at the Musical Academy in Sofia as a lecturer in Russian but I would often be asked to accompany Spanish speaking musicians from Latin America or Spain. When I opened my mouth to speak to them in Spanish, their first question would be, “Where does your Spanish come from?” or “How come you know this language?” I always responded by first saying „Lo aprendi de mi abuaela, que avlava de Ladino”, meaning that I could speak Spanish thanks to the Ladino language which I had learned from my Grandma. A long conversation about Ladino would then follow. When they heard me speak Ladino, they would say one of two things – either that my Ladino sounded like the language of Cervantes, or that I spoke the Castilian dialect which is considered to be the basis of the modern Spanish language. I was often complimented on my el puro castellano. We, the Sephardic Jews, have actually preserved that ancient language when we were expelled from Spain in 1492.
Ladino could be funny
Another fine Ladino episode of my life is related to my friendship with a Cuban singer. His name was Jorge Frances. In 1963-64 he studied singing in professor Brumbarov’s class but I first met him in the opera canteen, where my mother and I usually went for lunch. One day, I overheard somebody asking for a glass of water in Spanish but the canteen ladies could not quite catch what this man was saying. I went closer and helped him get want he wanted. By and by, we became good friends. Jorge wanted to learn Bulgarian and asked me to teach him. I tried but he wasn’t the most hard-working of students. The good side of it was that I improved my Spanish considerably
Jorge spoke Ladino with my mother and, from time to time, comic situations arose. We laughed a lot together. One day Jorge came to visit. At that time my mother and I lived together and shared the sitting room. In one part of the room my mother was talking with a friend of hers, in Ladino, and in the other part of the room I was talking with Jorge. All of a sudden, we heard my mother say to her friend, “Mi sta comiendo las tripas!” Jorgeburst out laughing – this wasn’t a phrase they would ever use in Spanish. Its literal meaning is ‘let him eat my guts’, and figuratively, it meant “He is getting on my nerves”.
Ladino earns respect
It was in the summer of 1988 when I asked to meet a special guest of the Musical Academy – guitarist Valentin Bielsa from Madrid. At the airport I spotted a man with a guitar, went to him and greeted him with a Buenvenido. My Spanish greeting took him by surprise because, he told me later, he had prepared himself to communicate in English. He was enormously pleased we could converse in Spanish, and on hearing that my mother spoke Ladino,he asked whether he could be introduced to her. He was keen to hear the language which he had never heard anybody speak before. The time we spent together made me aware of the special attitude the Spanish have for us, Sephardic Jews: they find it truly amazing that not only have we preserved Ladino for five centuries but we also cherish the warmest sentiments for Spain itself.
Ladino supports a friendship
My most moving experience with Ladino was in the summer of 1973 when I participated in the international Russian teachers’ congress in Varna. My mother also attended. At one point we were introduced to Tomas Alvares from Chile. My mother spoke to him in Latino and they could understand each other perfectly well. He addressed her as tia Elvira, as was the custom for us. While he was still here, the coup d’état in Chile happened and this forced him to stay in Bulgaria. He had nowhere to go. Before long he brought his whole family over and we grew very close. We felt it was important for them to know that, in what was a foreign country for them, there were people who they could rely on. What I also find amazing is that to this day, after so many years have passed, Tomas still calls me and we talk long hours. Following the most recent earthquake in Chile, he managed to get through and let me know that he was alive.
Time passed and my mother died. In 1993 researcher David Cohen published a small book of Ladino proverbs entitled The River Flows Away and the Sand Remains. During the first stage of writing, I helped David Cohen gather, arrange and translate the proverbs. When the book came out, I continued working on my own. I tried to remember and put down in writing the proverbs that my mother used to say. One such proverb, for example, is ‘Una madre i un vantal, tapan muncho mal’, meaning ‘A mother and an apron can cover / hide a lot of weaknesses.’ One other one is ‘Ken no kere konsuegrar, demanda muncho ašugar’, meaning ‘He, who does not want to get married, demands a huge dowry.’