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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.