Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Jodhpur, the blue city, a fortress, meeting people, learning Hindi and happy new year from India

Buying bangles at the market in Jodhpur
Hi again,

And so our tour continues as we get deeper into Rajasthan and so our knowledge of India grows as we learn a little more each day of its culture and history. But what we like best is talking to the people. It seems they like to talk to us too as there is a great interest in everything foreign. They ask us where we come from and when we say “Spain” they go “ah” and nod but when we ask them if they know where that is, they are often not sure. We tried the language of football which usually works everywhere, especially when you mention Real Madrid but India is not a football country. Here the great sport is that famous strange British game, called cricket.
Me with Indian men at the Fort in Jodhpur
Yesterday after resting in our lovely room overlooking the hotel pool which is splendid, we decided to go the famous Taj Mahal hotel for dinner. The Taj Mahal chain of hotels is one of the finest in the world and became even more famous recently because of the unfortunate Bombay gun attacks. I knew the name from when I was a young secretary working for Defex as my boss used to stay at one in Delhi. We would have loved to stay at this chain throughout our visit but at approximately 500 euros a night, that would have ruined our budget. So we settled for dinner instead which turned out to cost 6000 rupees which is a fortune for India. Was it good our driver asked? Well actually nothing special, that is the truth, but the palace is amazing. It was built by a British architect in 1930 for the Marajah and is actually called the Umaid Bhawan Palace. It is a hotel, a museum and the home of the current Marajah. The building is spectacular and we were told that Liz Hurley had just celebrated her wedding there. Bit too late for us, I’m afraid, but not too late to have a 25th wedding anniversary dinner which we did last night.
The Taj Mahal hotel in Jodhpur
This morning our driver took us to visit the Mehrangarh Fort which was built in 1459 by Rao Jodha. India is all about forts and temples; they are all over the place. But this fort was our first and we found it magnificent. It overlooks the old part of Jodhur whose houses are painted light blue. The views of the blue city and of the new part of the town are fantastic and a walk round the fort breathtaking.
Jodhpur, the blue city
The fort which was once the home of marajahs and their princesses who followed the purdah custom of women living apart, fiercely guarded by loyal servants, often eunuchs, is a museum in its own with all sorts of pieces of art such as the wonderful miniature paintings so typical of India, weapons of the past, fabulous silver elephant carriages and of course the palace itself is a marvel with its gold painted ceilings and colourful stained glass.
The Fort in Jodhpur
And here at the Mehrangarth Fort is where we had our first lesson in Hindi. We met 4 young boys of ages between 17 and 20 who were interested to know where we came from. They were from Jodhpur and were actually visiting the fort for the first time. Today was a national holiday in India. They told us it was the first time they had met westerners and were terribly interested to know about our customs, especially how men in Europe could go out with other women before they got married! They even taped Eladio talking!! They asked us how to say basic words in Spanish and we learned from them that Hello is Namaste, Thank you is Dhanyawad, that Good bye is Alvida, that how are you is Tum Kaisa Ho and that I love you is Me tumse pyar kartahu. They laughed a lot when they told us this last sentence. When we said goodbye, the youngest one asked me for a kiss!!! I felt so flattered. But I ask myself, was he desperate or am I more beautiful than I thought? Probably the former is the right answer, of course
Our Hindi teachers
After the fort we visited the memorial to the Maharaja Jaswant Singhji and then made our way to the famous market in town as well as one of the main landmarks, the Clock Tower. Our driver took us to one place which turned out to be a rip off. A one Mohammed wanted to charge us 1800 for 4 packets of curry and 3 of tea!! We went on to buy cheap bangles and a colourful pashmina but passed on the curry as we just didn’t know who to trust.

And now we are back in our hotel room ready to join the other guests for what will surely be a splendid dinner. It will be strange to spend New Year’s Eve away from our family but the occasion makes it worthwhile. The hotel Ajit Bhawan has been at work all day to get everything ready and it all looks wonderful. The dinner is in the garden with lighting in the trees, the music is set and each table looks enticing with a little fire next to it. The waiters are wearing their finest outfits. It is now 21.30 and we are ready to go down to spend New Year’s Eve in India.
All ready for the New Year's Eve gala dinner at the delightful Ajit Bhawan Hotel in Jodhpur
The Gala Dinner

Happy New to all who read my blog from India, with love


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From Mandawa to Pushkar and Pushkar to Jodhpur and roads where human and animal life coexist. The Hindu religion and learning to make chapatis

Colourful India, women in their beautiful sarees.
Hi again,

Here I am in Jodhpur writing a post on days 3 and 4 of our trip to India. I meant to write everyday but last night in Pushkar I was sick and so had to put off the travelogue until today.

Yesterday morning, 29th December we left dusty and sleepy Mandawa for our second long drive in Rajasthan, this time to Pushkar, a holy city, famous for its Brahma temple to which Hindus and hippies come from all over the world.

It is important to know when you come here that in the Hindu religion there is a trinity of Gods, Brahma, Visnu and Shiva. Brahma is the most important as the creator of the world, Vishnu conserves that world and Shiva destroys it. We are also learning that the famous Indian castes come from Brahma; the Brahman (the most important) who come from his mouth, Kshatria, who come from his arms, Vaisia who come from his legs and Sudra who come from his feet. The famous Parias, more commonly known as untouchables, are the lowest caste and it is not known where they come from. Also women, apparently, do not belong to any castes. Here maybe my Hindu friends can clarify how true this is.

Pushkar is also famous for its lake and ghats where religious people bathe. According to legend the lake was formed when Brahma killed a demon by throwing a lotus petal at it. The lake is a beautiful sight at sun set, but from afar only as it is literally filthy and there is filth all around.

To go inside the temple, you not only have to take off your shoes but you also have to leave any other belongings outside. Thus Eladio and I had to go in one by one. I stayed outside and began chatting to some young boys who ran the “shop” where people paid to leave their shoes and bought flowers and sweets as offerings to the Gods in the temple. We became firm friends and took many photos; the boys gave me some “free” flowers and a tacky souvenir key ring which I shall actually cherish for a long time. I then got told off by our driver who had previously warned us not to accept flowers offered to take to the lake because they were a dupe to get money from tourists. And I apparently, had fallen for it. But not so, because when we got to the lakes, there was no one asking me for money for the flowers.
Me and the 2 boy shoe keepers outside the temple in Pushkar
It is so difficult to know who is genuine and who is there just to take your money. Eladio and I are far more interested in the people than in the monuments and on our way to Pushkar yesterday asked Rajendra to let us get out at one of the towns and walk in the streets. He was a little surprised but let us. We have now done this several times and think the feeling must be similar to being famous and being chased by the paparazzi. You feel everyone looking at you. They are very friendly though and it is only really the children who harass you and then it is mainly the gypsies, except that we cannot tell the difference. You feel like taking the children home and washing them but know that is not possible.
Eladio surrounded by children in a town somewhere on the road between Mandawa and Pushkar.

All the places you see along the roadside are similar, linear villages of different sizes with tiny shops along the streets and endless street vendors. There are mobile phone shops everywhere but absolutely no supermarkets. They don’t seem to exist.

Animal life and human life seem to interact. So far we have seen camels – mostly carrying cartloads, many many cows generally in the middle of the road with vehicles driving around them to continue and buffalos – we saw more than one dead in the road, you see buffalos are not sacred. There are also goats all over the place, and pigs – Eladio even saw a sow which had just given birth and yesterday in Pushkar we even saw monkeys. I have yet to see that majestic symbol of India, the elephant.

Last night in Pushkar I had my strongest Indian experience in that I got sick, very sick and vomited over and over again from a completely empty stomach. I also had a migraine so spent a terrible night. I have a feeling the sickness came from something I ate at lunch in the hotel; possibly the ice cream. We stayed at the Jagat Palace which, as most of the hotels so far, looked better on internet than in reality. They are all a bit decayed and tired looking. Usually the outside, as with most hotels in the world, is much better than the rooms themselves. Knowing which are the good rooms in a hotel is the privilege of those working at the reception desks and this information is never available unless you have been to the hotel before. But it was good enough.

Luckily we had a late start this morning and I had recovered at least enough to get through another journey, for today we were heading for Jodhpur, the second most important city in Rajasthan.

It was to be another long, dusty and bumpy drive with similar experiences from the day before. The highlight of the day was when we stopped off to take a walk in one of the towns on the way and it turned out to have a wonderful temple which we visited and it coincided with prayer (or chant) time. We were crushed into a silver lined room with a frightening looking God at the altar. We were surrounded by colourful looking and smiling ladies praying and chanting. It made us feel so good and perhaps has been our best experience so far. The town was called Meera.
The Meera temple
We decided to skip lunch on the road after last night’s experience but we could not skip a loo stop. Yesterday’s was priceless but today’s was even funnier. We stopped at a decent sized road side café with the usual sights at hand, goats and cows and dogs, men lying on sort of beds outside, unrecognisable food cooking, etc. We then went through the back to the outside loo which I was dreading and found a man sitting down and making flat Indian bread (chapatis). He was very friendly and offered to show me how to make it which I immediately accepted. To do so I had to sit on my heels and roll the pastry into round shapes and put them on the fire; quite simple actually.
Learning to make chapatis on the road to Jodhpur
We arrived in Jodhpur mid afternoon and needed to draw out some cash at an ATM before checking into our hotel. That was another experience. It turned out you could only withdraw 4000 rupees at a time (about 80 euros) so we had to use both our cards and then go to another ATM.

We checked into our hotel, the Ajit Bhawan and got given a nice old room (a bit tired looking again) overlooking the swimming pool.
The delightful Ajit Bhawan oasis hotel in Jodhpur
And that’s the story so far. So am I liking India? My daughter Susana asked me that as did a friend, Blanca. Do I? It’s early days. Certainly my most positive adjectives would be: incredible, colourful, different, surprising and yes warm, both the country and its people are warm, hospitable and welcoming.

Cheers until my next post


Sunday, December 28, 2008

From Delhi to Mandawa, not quite the silk route. Our second day in India.

The main street in Mandawa
Hi again

And here I am writing in Castle Mandawa, the former home of an Indian Maharaja. Mandawa is in the Shekawati region near the desert and belongs to Rajasthan. It was once a crossroads in the old silk route and the caravans on that route would stay at the old havalis (frescoed mansions) and do business there.

We left this morning at 9 am in the deserted Sunday streets of Delhi. The view from our room in the very heart of Delhi was desolate and here I have to include a photo. If you look hard you can see people on the roof in the open air showering and having breakfast.
The incredible view from our room in Delhi

Our trip took 6 hours for only 180 km as you cannot go faster than 50km a hour because of the state of the roads and the traffic. Traffic is mostly packed motorbikes with whole families seated on one bike, coloured lorries with enormous loads and people on top, as well as a lot of camel carts; yes camels carrying carts full of all sorts of produce. It is quite a spectacle.
A camel cart and colourful lorry on the road to Mandawa.
All along the roads you go through linear villages crowded with street vendors, cows, goats, donkeys and even pigs, although pork is never on the menu and outside barbers (there are a lot of them) as well as many women carrying loads on their heads. The further you go into the country the more the women are covered. In fact you see quite a lot who are completely covered without even a hole for one eye!!

Throughout the journey you are accompanied by dust and fog or probably smog. You cannot get away from it.

We arrived in Mandawa which is a bustling little town now full of tourists, although we heard there were fewer than usual because of the Bombay attacks. We settled into our hotel, which didn’t quite live up to our expectations as it was a bit run down, as most places we had seen so far.

We were left in the excellent hands of the guide Yusuf, a young Muslim who showed us the local sights. We heard from him that the population was about 20.000 of whom 80% were Hindus and 20% Muslim. He showed us the local Hindu temple and seemed to know all about the different Gods and who they had reincarnated into.

We were a bit disappointed with the havelis as they are in such a ruinous state and enjoyed the main street with the usual street vendors more as well as watching how the locals live. Yusuf told us we could take photos of anyone and that no one would be offended. So I stopped worrying and started snapping at everyone I saw, do diverse are the people.

After the tour Yusuf took us to his friends’ handicraft shops. It appears Mandawa is famous for miniature paintings and textiles. We bought some and Eladio put his excellent bargaining skills to practise for the first time.

After shopping, we returned to our hotel and went for a massage we had been recommended by our friends Julian and Merche. Eladio got an Indian man and I got an Indian woman, neither of whom spoke English. The massage was applied with lovely smelling Indian oil and did us a power of good although we needed a bar of soap each afterwards to get it off.

We had dinner at the hotel; tika masala for about the 4th time so far. The dining room was wonderful as was the food.

And tomorrow we will be up early to go to Pushkar, about 180km away, that holy city famous for its temple and gats. That will be another 6 hour car journey which ends up being quite exhausting but is the best way to see India.

But more about Incredible India tomorrow.


Saturday, December 27, 2008

Arriving in India and impressions from our first day in Delhi. Mahatma Gandhi and “time is not a problem Mam”.

The omnipresent "toto" vehicle in Delhi

We arrived yesterday late at night and went through the very exhausting custom’s controls. The baggage was finally found, on the floor, rather than on the carousel and we got through to the airport lounge to find a smiling Kuldeep from the travel agency, Incredible Real Indian Tours. Outside complete chaos reigned. It looked like fog but turned out to be constant smog because of the absolute pollution of Delhi. The airport looked worse than what I would imagine one to be in somewhere like Ethiopia if that is possible. Our hearts sank as we took in the smells of human urine, the fumes from the vehicles; if some of them could be called that, the infernal traffic jams around the airport, as well as the dirt and awful surroundings. Kuldeep introduced us to Rajendra Sharma who was to be our chauffeur for most of our trip and in we got into his car which turned out to be quite a common Indian model, Indigo. It was nice and clean and the seats covered in white towels!
Eladio and our driver Rajendra
We made our way to Delhi, some 18km away and everywhere there were road works for the new Delhi metro. I think our driver got a bit lost as he is from Jaipur and not Delhi. We must have arrived at our hotel, The Hotel Palace Heights at past 2 in the morning. It is in Connaught Place, the heart of Delhi and is nothing like a Palace nor is it high up. However it is clean and modern and the room, although small, is very comfortable and has everything we need.

This morning we were picked up by Rajendra and he took us on a tour of Delhi. We were in a bit of a shock as to the state of Delhi. It is the dirtiest and most dilapidated and rundown city I have ever been in. You expect the poverty but perhaps not the total dilapidation. For instance we are staying in one of India’s landmarks, Connaught Place and it is in a disastrous state. It is obvious the buildings were once palatial and beautiful but haven’t been renovated for more than a hundred years. I kept feeling all buildings should be completely demolished and the whole town built from scratch but that is not possible. Everything is covered in dust, including the trees.

The bustle and mixture of people and vehicles is more what I expected. First we went to see the old town of Delhi. I was very conscious of my white skin and blonde hair and probably stuck out like a sore thumb. We felt safe in our car driving through the hectic and dirty streets of downtown Delhi where human and animal life mixes on the streets and there are stalls of goats’ heads next to second hand spare parts for vehicles. The most frequent vehicle you see is the “Toto”, a sort of roofed motorbike, most of which are taxis. They are everywhere in Delhi.

At traffic lights, children appear from nowhere, knocking on the car window and offering all sorts of goods, from geography magazines, piles of novels in English, local newspapers, fruit, toffee, blankets to red heart shaped balloons!

Our driver took us on a standard tour and funnily enough for a Hindu capital, we saw at least 3 Muslim mosques in just one day. There were not many foreign tourists, owing, according to Rajendra, to the recent gun attacks in Bombay. Every monument we visited had 2 prices; 10 rupees (0,20 euro cents) for Indian nationals and 250 rupees (5 euros) for foreigners. The difference was blatantly published on all entrance signs.
Indian and non Indian prices!
The tour started with the Jama Masjid mosque in old Delhi and is apparently India’s biggest mosque. This was our first experience in removing our shoes, putting on socks and walking on carpets and squares frequently covered in bird excrement! After a while we got used to it.
Eladio taking off his shoes
At one of the stops on our tour I asked Rajendra when we had to be back or how much time we had. His answer was a tonic for me: “time is not a problem Mam”. What a difference from my time conscious life back home where every hour of the day is measured to fit in all the things I have to do. Perhaps, in India, for the first time in a long while I will truly be able to stop worrying about time!

We skipped the Red Fort as our driver told us the one in Agra was more worthwhile and were then dropped off outside the Raj Ghat which is a park in memorial of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of India. In a way, it is thanks to Gandhi that Eladio and I are in India now. We have always been impressed by this little man who was responsible for the eventual fall of the British Empire once he met his objective of achieving Indian independence through his policy of non violence in 1949. He was quite a remarkable man and here I quote Albert Einstein who said: “Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh blood walked upon this earth”.

It is here that Gandhi was cremated and it is here in this park that Indians and non Indians never cease to come and venerate him, as we did today.
The Mathama Gandhi memorial at Raj Ghat
Then we were driven to India Gate which is a landmark of Delhi and commemorates the Indian soldiers who have lost their lives in battles and wars for their country.

I was more fascinated with the people selling their wares on the pavements around India Gate rather than with the monument itself. In fact this feeling was with me everywhere we went and I took more photos, trying to capture Delhi and how the people live and work, than of the monuments themselves.
Street vendors at India Gate
From India Gate we went to Humayun’s tomb, now a World Heritage Site. Here there is a building that inspired the Taj Mahal.
India Gate
We were then driven to lunch. A table had been booked at the Essex restaurant and here was where we found a lot of other foreigners, as well as some Indians. The cuisine was ok but I think I am more used to curry in London or Madrid and this was not the same.

After lunch we were just able to take in one more mosque, or rather the QUTB group of monuments, another World Heritage sight. This was crowded with local tourists and as it was a Saturday afternoon, if was quite obvious people had dressed for the occasion and the array of colourful sarees was a sight.

The driver dropped us off at our hotel and before returning to our hotel for a well earned rest, we decided to take a walk around Connaught Place which is actually a huge circle with many roads leading off it. The circular structure held up by many columns is full of global branded shops on one side and by street vendors on the other and the contrast of poor and rich is in full evidence.
Eladio with the incense vendors at Connaught Place
Here we were duped into buying incense as it smelt so lovely. But soon we were so tired we went back to our hotel. In fact we are skipping dinner so’s to sleep and be up early tomorrow for our 6 hour drive to Mandawa which is our next call of port. But more about that in my next post.

Cheers till then


Friday, December 26, 2008

A concentrated but beautiful Christmas; childhood stockings and Christmas carols. And so the journey to India began, Namaste my friends.

The family around the table for Christmas lunch
Hello again

Here I am writing on the KLM flight from Amsterdam to Delhi on Boxing Day and we are half way through the 7.15h journey. Eladio has got up to walk around this enormous Boeing 747 that fits nearly 400 people and I am using the time to record our Christmas this year.

As was expected Christmas this year was short but sweet. I had to fit in arrangements both for the festivities and for the trip and there didn’t seem to be enough hours in the days running up to “D day” this morning.

On Christmas Eve, the girls and I sent our 2 men food shopping to keep the household in stock whilst we are away. And the girls and I went out to do our own special food shopping for lovely Christmas fare so’s not to have to cook too much for the Christmas Eve dinner. We went to Mallorca, that exquisite cooked food store and loaded the car with delicious produce such as a white chocolate and raspberry mousse cake or miniature quiches. From there we went to the Corte Inglés (Spain’s best (or only) department store) to get things like cold roast beef or little scallop and prawn pastries, uummm.
Suzy and Oli outside Mallorca with the food parcels for Christmas Eve
I realised the girls were especially aware that we were going away just as Christmas had begun and that they were really going to miss us. Normally they would have been out with their friends and coming and going but on Christmas Eve and Christmas day they stayed close to us all day. I felt really appreciated and very close to them. We enjoyed preparing the meals together and singing carols. I always have the King’s College Choir carols on at Christmas and this year Suzy put them on constantly as if to concentrate Christmas in the 2 days they had of us. I actually got a bit tired of them and Eladio asked if we could change them for the new Enya cd he had bought me!!

The Christmas Eve dinner was as magical as ever. There were improvements in the aesthetics this year as we had bought a new red tablecloth and red under plates. Then of course there was the beautiful new candelabra we had bought from the Christmas market in Stockholm. The table looked breathtaking as you will surely agree.
The Christmas Eve table with the new tablecloth and candelabra
After dinner we played bingo on the new bingo game Julio and Fátima had bought me (yes I like bingo and there’s nothing “common” about it, ha, ha, ha). We played at 2 euros a card and Oli won the first one and Suzy the second. We went to bed early so’s to get up early the next day and enjoy a long Christmas day as well as the last family day together before leaving for India.

Just before we switched off the light, Eladio and I filled the girls’ stockings from “Father Christmas” for them to find outside their rooms the next day. This tradition is now into its 24th year, the age of Susana, my older daughter. The stockings (or long giant socks) were knitted by my Mother when the girls were small. The content is made up of lots of little inexpensive objects designed to add more magic to Christmas as the proper presents are given out after breakfast on Christmas day.
The girls' childhood Christmas stockings
On Christmas day we all get up early and have a special breakfast together with the finest crockery. Then we rush to clear up and make our way as soon as possible to the lounge and all sit round the tree for the present giving ceremony. This year the “crisis” also reached our household. There was a similar amount of presents but there was no “splashing out” like other years but the pleasure was just as great. Present giving was accompanied by carols and a good box of chocolates as tradition in this house dictates.
The family round the tree about to open the presents on Christmas day
As soon as the present “ceremony” was over, we had to get on with preparing the lunch and lunch on Christmas day is always English style, as I experienced as a child in England. That of course is turkey or some sort of “bird”, all the trimmings, Christmas pudding which I managed to burn this year and crackers. I’m afraid the Santa Pola English shop crackers were rather “cheapo” and the gifts a bit pathetic. The best joke this year was: What does one reindeer say to the other? It looks like rain dear!

Meanwhile preparations for India continued. I had to check in online amongst other things and also get a last minute vaccination for tetanus and diphtheria. Eladio ended up giving me the jab, like my own personal doctor. I’ve always said Eladio is multifunctional. He’s my husband, friend, advisor, doctor, plumber, teacher, electrician, gardener, lover and life time companion.
Doctor Eladio
And so after the wonderful lunch, the 4 of us went for the final Christmas walk and then my life time companion and I came home to pack, according to my well prepared list.

We finished just in time for a short and frugal farewell dinner in our lovely dining room where we were joined by Suzy’s boyfriend Gaby. And all too soon we were saying goodbye to the girls, or rather hugging and kissing as if we were parting for a year. The girls were right though, this was to be our longest time away from home; 18 days.

We went to bed for just 3 hours but I hardly slept for the “reiser” fever. This was my Mother’s term for butterflies in your tummy before a journey and is a German phrase she always used.

So the alarm went off at 03.30 on Boxing day as the long awaited day arrived; the day of our trip of a lifetime to India to celebrate our 25 years of happy married life.

The taxi picked us up at 04.15 and drove us swiftly to Barajas where we checked in for our 2 flights, one to Amsterdam and one from the latter to Delhi, the starting point of our Indian adventure.

We had breakfast as the sun was rising at the enormous Schipol airport looking out on one of the runways and all too soon it was time to board the 11.05 KLM flight to Delhi. The flight is packed and we are squashed in tourist class, Eladio’s seat being invaded by a big fat Indian lady. I had to insist she put the armrest down between them! I tried a trick which surely would have worked with a Spanish hostess from Iberia but did not work with the KLM hostess. I let her know this was our 25th wedding anniversary hoping we would be upgraded to business class but all I got was a languid and unemotional “congratulations”. I am looking forward to the Indians being warmer and more enthusiastic.
Eladio about to board the plane for Delhi in Amsterdam.
And so the Indian trip has begun. We have been fed our first curry which was a disappointment but then what can you expect from economy class catering for 400 people?

We look forward tomorrow to the real thing and to “Incredible India” as the Government boasts in its tourist advertising.

Namaste my friends, until my next post.


Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Happy Christmas 2008 and a wonderful 2009

Eladio and I getting into the Christmas spirit

Just a few words to send some Christmas greetings and spread the seasonal cheer here on my blog.

It's amazing how one year has nearly passed and it is Christmas again and how, at least for us, it never loses its magic.

Yesterday we went to Julio's annual dinner which has become a tradition for us all now. We have a great meal, exchange gifts, pull crackers (courtesy of yours truly + thank you English shop in Santa Pola), and voice our objectives for the next year. However there was a change for the better in the programme this year as each of us was to contribute with some sort of performance or activity.

Fátima came up with the funny crisis video from You Tube (bit easy eh!), Julio got off lightly telling us a horror story he had had with noise, neighbours and central heating and the girls and I surprised everyone by singing Christmas carols with 3 voice harmony which we only had time to practise in the bathrooma a few minutes before. The piece de resistance, however, was Eladio's repertoire of jokes. He had been scouring the internet for the past 3 weeks to find the best ones and oh were they funny, specially the ones about hospitals and medicines in Japanese!!!

And here are the photos of the night. You can see them here on Facebook

Best wishes to my friends, family and readers


Sunday, December 21, 2008

Final preparations for India, more Christmas parties and shopping, news from André, Bush in trouble, Russian cuisine and what's cooking next week

The girls with Father Christmas at the employee children's Christmas party
Hi again

This will be one of my last posts before our trip to India next Friday. I can hardly imagine that this time next week we will be somewhere between Delhi and Mandawa in Rajasthan. I have a bit of a cold and was worried it might turn into flu as there is an epidemic on and the last thing I want is to be ill when we embark on our journey.

Nearly everything is ready for the trip. We got our Indian visa on Friday and on Tuesday we shall be going to get the visa for Nepal. We have taken the oral vaccination for typhoid and are working on the first aid kit. I have made a list of everything to take and a lot of thought went into it to make sure we have everything we need for 18 days, including the pc and camera with all their accessories, socks for entering the temples, an overnight bag just in case our luggage gets lost somewhere, a universal plug, my feather pillow (goes with me everywhere) and believe it or not tea. Who would take tea to India? Just me, because it’s decaf and I’m not sure it will be in abundance. Finally I will be checking in on-line and printing our boarding passes 30 hours before "take off".

But before Friday there is Christmas to celebrate. This last week I had my last 2 work parties to get through. One was for Bloggers on Tuesday and the other was for the employees’ children’s on Thursday. A lot of effort went into organising them and I’m rather glad they are behind me now so that I can get on with the family Christmas. They went well and were quite fun to judge by comments and feedback I received as well as smiling faces on the photos. The girls helped me at both events as did Juan my nephew. Juan was in charge of measuring the alcohol intake of the guests for which there was a competition!
The Yoigo Blogger Christmas Party
In between the parties, the girls from my events agency, Quinta Esencia (Cris, Bea, Gloria and Nuria) invited my boss and me for lunch to celebrate Christmas. They took us to Enriich a great little place in La Moraleja. The lunch was good, although a little long and here we exchanged gifts. We bought them all a huge set of their favourite perfumes and we, in turn, got given a Wii by Nintendo. Can you imagine me playing that? The atmosphere or the alcohol or the mix of that and the fact that we are all quite creative, gave birth, somehow, to a great idea for a huge public party to take place in the second week of February. I thought work had finished for this year, but not so, because I already have a project for the early New Year.

The week was also spent doing more Christmas shopping. I went with Oli on Thursday morning to a local shopping centre called Tres Aguas and with my two men (Eladio and my Father) to the proverbial El Corté Inglés on Friday. I’m almost done for this year except for a few small gifts for the stocking. In our house we have all the traditions but how we do the presents comes from my experience as a child at my Grandmother’s house in Ickenham on the outskirts of London.

In the morning my brother George and I would find a stocking next to our bed full of little gifts and sweets. We could hardly sleep with the anticipation. And I have carried on with this tradition with my children too, even now when they are 23 and 24. They wouldn’t hear of my giving it up either. Then after a lovely family breakfast with the best crockery, we would gather round the tree where the main presents were piled. And this too is how we give out our presents at home today. Each one is given out individually and we all wait whilst the recipient opens it and oohs and aahs. Only then do we give out the next present. All this is accompanied by Kings College choir Christmas carols and a box of chocolates. This is the one day of the year when you can eat as many as you want in our house! Oh how we all love Christmas day.

The week brought with it news too, of course, the most eventful being the Iraki journalist who threw a slipper at George Bush during his farewell speech in that country.

The news at home, at least at the beginning of the week, was about the huge snow falls all over Spain. Eladio’s family live in León and that was where the biggest snowfalls were seen. In fact on Monday morning Isidro, Eladio’s youngest brother, and his wife Yoli and daughters Laura and Alicia, were trapped in their home and could not get out as the automatic gate had frozen. Oli was covering the news for and used the family as witnesses.

Talking about news, Oli, Suzy and my nephew, Miguel, were actually on the “telly” on Monday. They had taken part in street research on text messaging at Christmas and here is the result.

But the biggest piece of news for me came from André my long lost cousin from Canada. You will remember from my last post that I had found him on the internet. Well this last Tuesday I got a long newsy email from him. I now know that he is married, to Debby who is from Florida, that they live in Ottawa, that he is still crazy about Science Fiction and that his Mother, my Aunt Lena, is still alive although she has Alzhiemer’s, that dreaded disease for old people. I was so pleased to receive the email I must have read it at least 3 times. You see, I have so little family left that finding one cousin means so much to me now.
André, my long lost cousin and his wife Debby on their wedding day in 2006
The weekend proved just as busy and full of social events as the week itself. On Friday we went out for dinner with Roberto and Mari Carmen to La Leyenda for our own private Christmas dinner. The place was packed as I’ve never seen it before, full of company dinners. Roberto bought us a superb magnum bottle of Rioja (Cune Reserva) which was much appreciated.

And on Saturday, despite the cold coming on, we went out with José Antonio and Dolores to Al Mounia. The idea was to see each other now as we would not be together for the annual family New Year’s Eve get together in León. In fact we will be in Jodhpur that night! We hardly had a Christmas dinner at Al Mounia, as the restaurant is Moroccan and boasts to be the best one in town. The decoration was certainly excellent as was the food, although we were fed far too much. The price though was over the top and I think both brothers were not too happy with me for that although not a word was said. If you ever go there, the very best dish to ask for is the Farci Pastella, a sort of semi sweet minced meat pie.
Al Mounia restaurant
Farci Pastella
Today, Sunday, is a quiet day before Christmas. I made Russian stuffed cabbage (golubtzi) with Smetana (sour cream) and was very popular with the family. I shall be doing more cooking later and plan to make our famous “perushki”, or Russian little meat pies and freeze them for our Christmas Eve family dinner. Both recipes are my Mother’s.

My Mother was never an ordinary housewife and frankly when I was a kid you never knew where the next meal was coming from. My Father used to make our “tea” (name for the evening meal in England) which was usually burnt sausages with cabbage followed by some awful sweet called “Angel Delight” which came out of a packet and to which you added milk. However when my Mother did cook, she did so superbly. Unfortunately she only ever cooked when she felt like it or when she was preparing for guests.

The things she used to make were: kasha (“buckwheat” in English) which I actually hated but George adored, borsch (beetroot, vegetable and meat soup), pelmeni (sort of ravioli but better), and her own rice recipe (a sort of Chinese fried rice) which Amanda adored and which she often used to make for my friends at the end of my parties. Also in her repertoire was perushki and golubtzi and her Father’s recipe for potato salad which I still make. She also made “blini”, the famous Russian pancakes which were served with fish (often caviar) and the most common Russian Easter dishes such as a heavy fruit filled cheese based sweet called Paskha, coloured (dyed) boiled eggs and Russian Easter bread, called Koolitch which is also sweet.

Well next week food will be a big topic too as it will be Christmas. But Monday brings with it different activities. Tomorrow morning I will be doing the last tests of the series the doctor prescribed and that is a barium meal and a scan of my vital organs. I shall also be picking up the results of the colonoscopy. I’m not looking forward to that. But I am looking forward to lunch tomorrow with an old friend, Cristina, from the agency Moliner with whom I worked when I was at Motorola.

I’m also looking forward to Julio’s annual dinner on Tuesday. The four of us will be there, plus Fátima and Julio. Apart from the dinner, the crackers and the exchanging of gifts, this year we all have to prepare some sort of activity. Eladio is looking for new jokes on the web and I am googling “party games”. No doubt there will be a report on this dinner in my next post.

Cheers till then

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Christmas preparations and getting ready for India

Getting ready to go to India - getting the visa at the Embassy in Madrid.
Hi again,

The year is ending fast. In 10 days it will be Christmas and on Boxing Day Eladio and I will be off to India for our trip of a lifetime (we hope). The week has been mostly about both as well as other things.

The other things to note were a trip to El Mundo, one of Spain’s national dailies, to do a live session on their website where readers sent in questions in for my boss to answer. This was challenging but fun. And here is the outcome. I always enjoy going to newsrooms and this was no exception. There is a sort of excitement about them that makes me wish I had been a journalist.

This week I also had lunch with my best friends, Julio and Fátima, from my Nokia days. We went to Aspen in La Moraleja; one of my favourites. Our lunches together are always really relaxed as, to quote Fátima, we can say anything to each other, the sure sign of friendship. We will be seeing each other again at the annual dinner at Julio’s on 23rd December. He has made it a little more difficult for us all this year as we each have to plan an activity for the dinner. This dinner has become an absolute must at Christmas, one we all look forward to.

This week was the office Christmas bash, organised by Yours Truly. I had 5 times less budget than last year and even more people (180) but still had to come up with a great party. Most of the ideas were born by me on the plane trip to Stockholm; the most successful of which turned out to be the Yoigo Awards where we all had to vote for Miss Yoigo, Mr. Yoigo, Miss Fashion, Mr. Fashion, Miss Yoigo values, Mr. Yoigo values, the best listener, the person who spends the longest time in the office (not me, of course), the person who sends the longest e-mails (I won that one of course) and similar fun categories. I had to skimp on the compere and MC so Yours Truly did her bit here and, as it turned out, I actually rather enjoyed the role.
Getting into the Christmas spirit with the wig from the office seasonal bash
Yes it’s Christmas but Eladio and I had a couple of very important errands to carry out related to our trip to India and Nepal, namely getting visas and getting information on possible vaccinations. So on Friday I took the morning off and we both made our way to the Indian Embassy, forms filled out and photos taken for the event. It felt a bit like the first step of our trip and to record it, here is a photo of me outside the Embassy with the visa slip in my hands.

From there we made our way to the International Vaccination centre which actually happens to be a few doors down the road from José Antonio and Dolores’ house in Francisco Silvela. So we decided to drop in to pay our condolences to Dolores on the passing away of her Mother the week before. It was also a good excuse to see each other. So over a nice cup of coffee we had a nice family chat before moving on the Vaccination Centre.

The Vaccination Centre surprised us positively. They were extremely helpful and friendly as well as efficient and we were seen immediately. Apart from advice on the vaccinations, we also got advice on the contents of the first aid kit to take with us.

This day was all about India, of course. So to get even further into the spirit of our holiday, we decided to have lunch at an Indian restaurant. So we went to the one we know and like best, Annapurna, where we went recently with Pedro Delgado and friends.

More Christmas preparations took place this cold and wet weekend. On Saturday we all went to Xanadu, a frighteningly big shopping centre on the outskirts of Madrid which even has a snow slope for indoor skiers and which Eladio threatened never to return to. It was nice to go shopping with Oli and Suzy and Gaby but rather tiring and we actually only got through a small part of the list. Oh dear, we shall have to continue now next weekend.

And last night, a generous turn came over me and I invited the family and Gaby to dinner at what’s becoming our favourite place in the area, De María in Majadahonda. It was supposed to be a pre Christmas family dinner as this year we will only be here for the very beginning of the festivities. It was a lovely meal but we all ate too much, as usual.

We had totally forgotten that it coincided with the Barcelona Madrid match. We managed to see the end of it at home later but it wasn’t a pretty sight to see the 2-0 score to Barcelona. Real Madrid is not performing well recently.

And today has been a quiet family one, except that Suzy was away. She went to Toledo to have lunch with her school friends. Oli, Eladio and I went for our walk this morning and after a lovely Sunday roast (lamb, my speciality), we watched Vera Drake which is a film right up my street. It’s about a middle aged woman in the UK in the 50’s who practises abortions illegally, supposedly in order to help young women who “have got themselves in trouble” and are “in the family way”.

What I have forgotten to mention is that I did the dreaded colonoscopy on Tuesday of this week. I’ve probably forgotten because the whole episode was absolutely vile. Well, actually, the preparations turned out to be much worse than the intervention itself. That I hardly recall as I was put to sleep thank God. Dear Oli came with me and that was lovely. I get the results on the 22nd November but I’m very optimistic.

And on an optimistic note I look forward to the week coming up. I have 2 more events to get through; one for bloggers and the other is the employee children’s party. And, then, and only then will I be able to concentrate on the family Christmas which, this year, will be shorter than ever. The girls have asked us never to go away at this time of year. I think this will be our first and last exception but let’s make that decision after the experience.

Cheers till next week


Monday, December 08, 2008

The week I found my cousin in Canada, some long lost friends in the USA, the week that Christmas came and many other things.

Preparations for Christmas were early this year.
Hi again

This week, the week after Aunty Masha’s funeral, has had me thinking more about my family, my Mother’s family and just how few of us are left. Of the 6 brothers and sisters, there were only 4 off springs, possibly because only 4 had children as 2 of the sisters, Olga and Dorothea (Dara) were nuns. These were, Andre, son of Alexander (Sasha), Sophie (Zuka) daughter of Nicolas, Alexander (Sasha), son of Maria (Masha) and George and I, son and daughter of Helene (Lena) – my brother George died in 2001.

I have always been in contact with Sasha who now lives in Spain and also with Zuka who has lived most of her adult life in Yorkshire. However I only ever met Andre once when my Mother and I went to Montreal in 1978 (when I was 21) to meet her brother Alexander (Sasha) for the first time since they parted in Germany in 1945. That was some meeting. When my Uncle Sasha died in 1987, we lost touch with the family. I had googled Andre occasionally but got nowhere until this last week. I wrote and got an immediate reply about which I am very excited. Andre is the only child of the Lieven children to carry on that name. I wonder if he realises that.

This year has been about finding people from my past and so again, thanks to Internet, more concretely LinkedIn, I found Rosa and Angel, our friends from when we first lived in Madrid. Rosa worked with me at Defex, my first place of work and hers too. We were employed as bilingual secretaries and went through a very long process before being taken on. We were going through all the interviews but not once were we told what the company did. When Rosa and I arrived at the offices in the post Madrid business district to sign our contract we wondered what the line of business could be. Rosa wondered whether it was pornography! Amazingly enough it turned out to be the export of weapons, or “defence material” as it was described to us. I will never forget a Señor Ibañez telling us that it was just like selling cars. He asked us whether we had a problem with that. Our morals at the time were less important than finding a full time job, so we just meekly said “no”.

Rosa, of Cuban American origin, and I worked side by side for a few years and were also neighbours. Her husband Angel taught Maths at a Madrid University and got on well with Eladio. But Rosa missed her family in the United States and very soon they decided to return to New York. I only ever saw her once since they left but have never forgotten her. She organised the ceremony of our wedding and was an essential part of my life. We did see Angel again occasionally when he would visit his cousin in Madrid but the last time was over 15 years ago. As with Andre, I wrote to Angel and got an immediate reply with which I am thrilled. It is wonderful to find old friends.

This week has brought bad news again too. On Thursday my niece Marta (on Eladio’s side) rang to say her husband, Fernando, more commonly known as Ministro had lost his Father early that morning. It was not unexpected as that wretched illness cancer had slowly been consuming him for some time. I’m so sorry Minis. I know how you are feeling and my thoughts are with you and your family.

Then the following day, Friday, we got the dreaded phone call we were expecting from José Antonio to announce that Dolores’ Mother, Merche, had passed away that afternoon. She has been suffering for a long time and this was now to be the end of her suffering. However she leaves behind, 4 orphans, Mercedes, Dolores, Esther and Cristina. They already lost their Father some years ago and will be feeling very lost. My heart goes out to them.

The girls have been ill this week with pharyngitis and a nasty cold which actually means they have been a lot at home. Also as this is a bank holiday weekend, for the Spanish Constitution and the Immaculate Conception it has been very much a family weekend.
My ill girlies, Oli and Suzy (in pink)
As we have had a lot of time on our hands this bank holiday weekend, we decided that Christmas should come early this year. Also because Eladio and I will be off to India on Boxing Day, we wanted a bit more time to enjoy the decorations. So up went the tree, last years Ikea lights and lots of mobile musical trees and Father Christmases I couldn’t resist buying at the Christmas market in the Plaza Mayor. Of course, to this we added the lovely decorations we had bought in Stockholm recently.
The Christmas tree.
Talking about India, we are now a little wary or worried about our upcoming trip of a lifetime. So, should we go or shouldn’t we? Well, from a materialistic point of view, maybe we should as we have already forked out quite a bit. On the other hand, there is an awful lot of tension between Pakistan and India, so it’s anyone’s guess. I vote we go, but be cautious right up to the last minute.
I would hate to have to cancel as that would be a bit like the straw that broke the camel’s back in our spate of bad luck. I think we will go in the end but am conscious we are risking it a bit.

Christmas is also creeping up on me at work where I have 3 events left to go out of 4. Last week I organised a press lunch for the key journalists on the occasion of Yoigo’s 2nd anniversary but as it was already December, there was a Christmas touch to the occasion too. We organised a proper “birthday” with gas filled balloons decorating the ceiling and we gave the journalists a bag of sweets as a good bye present. Next week will be the employee’s party and the following week the bloggers and then the children’s party. I also have to do all the gifts and the online Christmas card. So I am very busy on the work front.
The balloons at the company's 2nd birthday
The bag of "birthday" sweeties
Meanwhile I have to do a horrible test at the Montepríncipe Hospital on Tuesday afternoon called a colonoscopy. I won’t go into what it’s about as I’m sure most readers will know what it is. The worst part is the preparations, 3 days of protein only diet and then some awful liquid to be taken.

On the subject of hospitals, Eladio and I went to visit Zena, our Ukranian cleaning lady who has just been operated at the Hospital Clínico San Carlos. She has a tumour in her cheek and will now have to have chemotherapy treatment. That was a depressing thing to do this weekend. We hope she gets better soon.

Finally this has been the week when I have begun to think about writing a book. What book you might say? Well it has to be about my Mother and her family. I have had encouragement from my best friend Amanda who offers to be my editor. Thanks darling. So here you have me thinking the whole time how it should be. It will probably be the story of 4 generations in history, about my maternal Grandmother, my Mother, me and finally my girls, Suzy and Oli. The how and when is now the subject of my thoughts. Suzy made the obvious question by asking me who would buy it. She’s right of course, probably very few people, but then the object is not to write a bestseller, but to record the whole story for my children and for the generations to come.

And on that note of self questioning, I leave these pages again until next week,


Sunday, December 07, 2008

Aunty Masha laid to rest, a Russian funeral and the story of how Spain became a part of our lives and how I came to live here.

Bolulla, the village where Aunty Masha bought a house in 1973 and where it all started.
Hi again

I last left you with the news of Aunty Masha’s death. The funeral, as dictated in Spain has to take place almost immediately and it was to be on the Sunday. Luckily Sasha arranged it for 3 pm so we could drive up on time. It was to be held at the funeral parlour (Tanatorio) in Villajoyosa, a lovely little town in between Alicante and Benidorm.

The Spanish coast is usually a happy place in good weather and of course that area of Spain saw my beginnings in this country, of which I have happy memories. But it was the end of November and it drizzled all day and was dark and gloomy.

I reflected all through the day on how Aunty Masha brought us all here and how it was both fitting but sad that she should die here, so far from her family, all of whom are buried in different places; her Father in Sofia, her Mother in Ruskington (the small town in Lincolnshire where I lived as a child and near Cranwell, the famous Royal Air Force College where my Father taught Russian in the Cold War), her brother Alexander (Sasha) in Montreal, her sister Olga in Sofia, her sister Dorothea (Dara) in New York and her sister and my Mother (Helene or Elena) Lena in Bradford. As Sasha reflected at the funeral, this is what the Bolshevik Revolution did to the Lieven family.

Many times in my blog I have mentioned the fact that it is thanks to Aunty Masha that I came to live in Spain. So now I think is the time to tell that story.

In the early 70’s and towards of the end of the Franco dictatorship (he died in 1975), my Aunty, inspired by Tony, the boyfriend of a student of hers at the University of East Anglia came to Spain, with my Mother, Lena, and the two of them bought a house. Aunty Masha’s was in a delightful but very backward tiny village called Bolulla . It cost under 500 pounds which was an absolute song at the time. It was nearly a ruin and there was even a donkey living in the front room!! My Mother bought one for just a bit more in nearby Callosa de Ensarria , a slighty larger town. The idea being to be separate and independent from her sister and also on a bus route as my parents didn’t drive! I often used to hitchhike the 17km to Benidorm with my brother George and friends. Of course, you couldn’t do that today. This area was very rural and agricultural (oranges mostly) and in sharp contrast to the increasing tourism on the nearby coast. Yes, the Swedish and English tourists had come and wore bikinis and even tangas and package tourism was taking off but rural and sleepy Callosa and Bolulla remained untouched by this “contamination” as they still do today. They have not changed much in these 30 odd years. We of course, an odd Anglo Russian family were very much the subject of their conversations and the object of their eyes whenever they saw us around the village.

We spent summer after summer there from 1973 through to just after I got married in 1983. We enjoyed the Spanish culture, the climate and the gastronomy. We would make lovely meals of local tomatoes, local wine and ham and fresh bread. My parents began to learn the language. It was to be their 6th. My Father’s languages were English, Norwegian, German, French and Russian. My Mother’s languages were Russian, Bulgarian, German, French and English. Spanish was not entirely new to my Mother. As a teenager she had tried to learn what she thought was Spanish from a grammar book she picked up at home. When she recited a few sentences proudly to her Father, he laughed and said it was Italian. Apparently the front cover was missing!

It was not easy to learn Spanish in Callosa. My parents didn’t really realise at the beginning that the language of the village and area was not Castillian Spanish but Valenciano, a dialect of Catalán, totally different. My Mother found out the hard way when on the French border, returning with my Aunt to England by car (we always travelled by car to Spain and back because it was cheaper) that first summer they entered a bar for a coffee and a break in their journey. She asked the barman for an aspirin and explained that she had a headache and used the expression “mal de cap” which is in fact Valenciano. He looked at her and said “¿Quiere decir dolor de cabeza Señora?” / Do you mean you have a headache? That was when my Mother realised the difference and hurried to relearn. They both learned the language pretty well. So did my Aunt but with very bad grammar, right up until she died.

I took some time to learn the language. I had no need to as I was always accompanied by my student friends from England; Issy, Janet, Amanda, Andy, Sophie, Jan, Diana, …. But in 1975 I suddenly had a need too. I met a young Spaniard I soon fell in love with. He was a medical student and an only son from an even more backward village, Tárbena, some miles further up the road from Bolulla. At the beginning we spoke French which neither of us was very good at. I returned to England at the end of that summer determined to learn Spanish. By December I was completely fluent. The relationship grew and I became enamoured with Spain, so much so that when I started university, after the very first term I changed subjects; from Theology to Hispanic Studies. That was the beginning.

The relationship did not last. I was not popular with the very influential and bossy mother, whose wish it was for her son to be the doctor of their village. She went all out to break the union, intercepting our letters from the local post man and even locking up her son for a whole summer in his room.

I came out of the relationship scathed but I had learned a whole new language, Spanish, that marvellous language of Cervantes. Part of my degree at Nottingham University was a year in Madrid as a teacher at a Secondary School in Moratalaz, Instituto Rey Pastor. There I met Dolores who is now my sister-in-law. She was a young English teacher at the time who had quite recently married José Antonio (Eladio’s beloved brother). Dolores took me under her wing and mothered me during my year in Spain. Thanks to her I went to live with Pili Gálvez and Gerardo González where I was supposed to give English lessons to their children in return for my keep. As you will read in this entry, we went on to be friends for life.
The González Galvez family in Galapagar, summer 1979
After my year in Spain I returned to do my finals. My plans for the future were vague. I knew I didn’t want to go straight to London to find an office job as most graduates would do. I wanted to explore the world. Portuguese was part of my studies in the last year and I took it really seriously. Finally I decided I wanted to go to Brasil. There I would teach English to make a living. Río, of course was my destination.

However, I never went to Brasil. The summer after finals, 1981, I met Eladio who is now my husband and to whom I have been married now for 25 years. Eladio was Dolores’ oldest brother-in-law. He was a priest and at the time 35 whilst I was 23. We actually met in their flat in Madrid very briefly. He then returned to his home in León and I went on to spend the holiday in Callosa, yes Callosa, with Dolores, José Antonio and their 2 small children, Miguel and Sara. We had asked Eladio to join us but more out of politeness than anything else.
Dolores, José Antonio with Miguel and Sara, July 1980, just before Eladio appeared on the scene.
So when Eladio turned up in Callosa a few days later, the wind was taken out of our sails. The children fell ill and so we took to going to the beach alone and would spend hours and hours talking about education, the differences between Spain and England and many other topics I can’t remember now. That was at the Vimi bar on the Playa de Poniente in Benidorm where Aunty Masha eventually bought a flat and where she has lived in recent years right up until her death last week. We went back there in 2006 with Aunty Masha as you can read here
The first photo of Eladio and I ever taken - Guadalest in July 1980, the summer we fell in love
I think it took a week to fall in love. All thoughts of going to Brasil went out of my head. After an amazing summer together where we visited Portugal, the south of Spain and Morocco in his little white Renault 5, we parted in September for our last year of singledome. The following summer, after almost daily correspondence, I went to Spain to live. We went to live “in sin”, as it was known in those days, to a little pad in Saconia, once again found by my sister-in-law Dolores. This would have been a complete scandal in Spain in those days so we kept the fact a secret. Eladio left the Church, took state exams to become a state teacher and in 1983 we were married. Susana was born one year later to the day of conception and Olivia the following year in 1985.

So, yes, it is thanks to Aunty Masha that I came to Spain and also thanks to her that I met Eladio. It’s funny too that we fell in love in Callosa, the town where my Mother bought her house in 1973.

During the funeral in nearby Villajoyosa, I reflected on how we first came to Spain and how my life had developed since then. Aunty Masha used to take us to the fiestas in Villajoyosa. I never imagined her funeral being there.

The funeral took place in the non denominational chapel of the funeral parlour. Eladio, my Father and I arrived just a few moments before it began. Here we greeted Sasha, my cousin and Aunty Masha’s only son, his wife, Svetlana, Pepe the banker from Callosa and his wife Reme, Zhana, Aunty Masha’s Bulgarian nurse who looked after her for 10 months until she died, Edmund, a young Kosovar neighbour who looked after them both and then a sprinkling of Russian and Ukrainian people Aunty Masha had befriended when they started coming to the Costa Blanca in search of a better life. These included the 95 year old Baroness Irina of Baltic origin, quite a character.

The shock came when we walked into the chapel, candle in hand as Russian tradition dictates. The coffin was open, as it was, of course, to be a Russian Orthodox funeral, as befitted the daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest. There lay my dear thin and wrinkled Aunt, white and covered in a special sheet and head band with Church Slavonic lettering on it. All I could do was cry. My Father was next to me as was Eladio. But at that moment the person I needed most was Sasha. We stood together next to her coffin hugging tightly and crying openly. We were saying goodbye to his Mother, to my favourite Aunt and to the last of the 6 brothers and sisters and felt like orphans. It was the end of an era and we were the only family witnesses.

After the funeral officiated by a bearded priest, as the religion dictates, we headed off in a cavalcade of cars to the cemetery in Alfaz del Pi, a pretty little town just off the road from Benidorm to Callosa. There we laid my Aunt to rest. The niche is number 11.I can’t forget it.

From Alfaz del Pi we all drove to a bar in Calpe, funnily enough called “The German Bar”. This was where the send off was to take place in true Russian tradition. Here we found a table groaning with zakuski (Russian hors d’oeuvres which my Father said were probably more German than Russian). At a funeral send off, it is supposed that the deceased is with us and in fact there was a big photo of my Aunty throughout. We sat round a huge table and I counted the nationalities; Russian, Ukrainian, German, Baltic, Spanish, English, Kosovar and Bulgarian. Sasha made a wonderful speech about his Mother’s life, including her escape from Bulgaria in the late 50’s. As we ate we found out that at a funeral send off there can be no meat and no dessert. Zhana whispered to me that my Aunt hated fish and loved cakes so would not have exactly enjoyed the meal. The funeral had been sad and the send off was a sort of relief. I felt humbled sitting next to Zhana, my Aunt’s nurse, for all she had done for my Aunt and for what I had not done.
The "send off" in Calpe, the table full of Russian zakuski.
Zhana, Aunty Masha's Bulgarian friend and nurse who cared for her up until her death.
It was too late to return to Madrid, so my Father, Eladio and I drove to our flat in Santa Pola to spend the night where it was bitterly cold. The next day we could not get away faster and left for Madrid as soon as we woke up.

So, yes, this trip, was one trip down memory lane.

Goodbye again Aunty Masha and thank you for buying that house in Bolulla the Summer of 1973.