blog, by cristina lanz azcarate
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Who am I (my grandparents)

Two weeks ago, the last of my grandparents past away. She was rather elderly and very tired so it was natural that her frail self faded away…

Despite all of this,  as I move from the third generation swiftly on to the second one and officially become an “adult”, her death has made me evaluate who  I am . And so I have decided to use the blog to reflect and whilst doing so, I am looking to make a little celebratory gesture as a send off of both my last granny and those who had already left.

My name, as you probably know by now, is Cristina. I am from the Basque Country, a wonderful part of the Iberian peninsula where my family comes from. I am a Basque-language-speaker; one of the few (apparently only up to 2 million speak this language world wide). I even have a Basque Language Proficiency Certificate that formally confirms my competence. (Believe it or not this is a USP when looking for a job back home)

(San Sebastian)

The Basque Country is an area split in half  between Spain and France by the Pyrenees. An area full of magic and beauty that stands out when the visitor first arrives. Politics have been complex, but this is hardly a surprise when people speaking the same language, sharing the same culture have been divided by a technicality: as a border between two countries.

When I was a child I felt that home was a sort of bench mark for the world but growing up I soon begun to notice that it was actually, a rather nicer than average little world.

Having lived between two countries by the sea without even paying much attention to the fact that, for example, going to the beach to Hendaye meant crossing an actual border, I have been lucky enough to develop an extremely open mind. But , you may ask, was this due to the “in between” positioning of the land where I grew up, or the family I was born into. (I too wonder the same as, let’s face it, my family is not your average “Spanish family”)


My father was born in Moscow. His parents,  my grandparents, were taken like many others to the Soviet Union in a ship that left Bilbao in June 1937 in order to save them from the horrors of the Spanish Civil war. (Other children were sent to France, Belgium, Denmark and Uk )

Looking at images from a war that managed to split families in two ,  I do understand why my great-grandparents and thousands of others would have made such a tough choice and send their children as refugees to those “safe” countries very far away.

 (Spanish civil war image from “El Pais”)

In The Soviet Union, my grandparents were brought up in children’s houses and given a good education and a sense of estate “protection” that made them become integral part of the communist regime and their host country´s day to day life.

It was not surprising, therefore, that both ended up in the front line in Leningrad as the German troupes attempted to advance, they were expected to be like the rest of the Soviet population.

(Here the “children of the war”, growing up without a family, granpa on the right)

I cannot help but thinking that as humans, we can postpone events but events have a knack to catch up with us. This was not an exception. With the benefit of hindsight, my great-grandparents might have consider their choice differently but that luxury was not available.

As the children who stayed behind, in Spain, living through and surviving the civil war, were brought up under very different values, many joined the Germans in their attempt to invade The Soviet Union, and eventually, the image of those children playing war (from “El pais” website) materialised. In the process, my grandfather´s feet froze leaving him disable. This experience shaped greatly what was to become of them… and all of us who followed. (My grandparents and brother)

My grandmother was quite a tough cookie, and extremely gutsy woman.

A railway engineer by trade, she could not have been the softie white hair grandma  that one can see in a dictionary when looking up its meaning. Education and strong work ethic were always her priorities.

In the Soviet Union she had what, in the Spain of that time would have been considered a “man´s job”, but she also had four children, and a sick husband.

The way she told me the story, when the Red cross begun to organise the return of the families to Spain , she realised that she had to give up her career and return to a less developed country for the benefit of her family. My grandfather’s legs worsened rapidly and she decided they all needed to take that chance. When the day arrived, despite the lack of space, she patiently waited to see if another family failed to show up and be evacuated in their place.  Eventually, and unluckily for others, the day arrived.

My grandfather, a drafts-man by trade, was the funniest man ever. My father he and I used to always share the same side of the table as we had most in common in all family gatherings as we all seemed to share the same weird sense of humour as well as a very similar character. All three of us played chess and spent quite a lot of hours playing together which I guess made us bond.

The return to Spain was tough and disappointing. My grandma became a nurse and my grandfather got a variety of jobs inspire of his disability. Whilst they were still in Moscow, their Spanish family promised a support that run out with their savings, but in order to avoid the anger and frustration to take over, one must always remember that they arrived to the post war of a country where people were in fact still hungry.

I am not excusing what is clearly unacceptable behaviour, but human nature is fragile and corruptible. That is a reality. I do feel though that my father´s naturally shy and reserved personality must have rooted , party at least, in what it must have come as a cultural shock for a child used to the communist way.

My mother´s parents, on the other hand, were ten years older than my father´s and not being children but youths at the time that the civil war begun, their life could not have been more different. They had no choice but staying and living through it.

My grandmother was born in Abalos, a tinny village on the Rioja area of Spain (South of the Basque Country). She left her village when she moved to San Sebastian to work. She was the youngest of three, each one of them born from different mothers.Except for her own, the others died on child birth.

She never spoke a lot about work, she never spoke a lot full stop; but I know that she made cloths, hats and worked for the wealthier families in the city. Even years after she retired, she was still enjoying a nice friendly relationship with some of them so I guess that she must have been good at her job. She was definitely inspiring.

She was brought up a catholic and she was a strong believer until the day she died. However, as much as my other grandmother tried to impose her believes on us, this one never attempted to do such a thing and as a result I never felt that I had to be a I religious person. I do however have a very strong sense of my responsibilities as a human being who is part of a larger society, and this ,I think, has been a contribution that she has made to my life.

When compared with her contemporaries, she was generally very open minded .We shared an interest in crafts , and as we lived together, this was our excuse to spend hundreds of hours together.

(Basque harbour of Getaria, Balenciaga´s village)

My grandfather, her husband, was a “red” who had no religious interest. I can imagine the gossip when they got together ; but I have always felt that both ideologies shared a lot of their principles.

He was a fisherman, from a rather numerous family, and because of this my mother and her family were never short of food through out the time that followed the  civil war.

His mother, another strong woman, always taught her children to be generous by example. Despite having many children of her own, she adopted others who had no family … With such a role model he needed no religion.

I did not get to know him very much. He died of cancer before I was two, but he was very much involved in my first years of existence and I have always felt a strong bond with him.

His side of the family is a happy go lucky one, but he always fought hard for his believes and I can only respect him for that. A dictatorship is never a good context to express your opinion, and for a little person to be confident enough to do so, he surely was special.  He was fearless, during the civil war, he helped people with similar political believes escape to France in his boat, and in his own way contributed to make a better more free world. I ow him my respect for this.

I also respect the fact that he never loss sight of what was important… For instance, years after he died, talking to his brother, I was told that although when they were young many fishermen carried knives, they chose not to because they understood that if they did it would be more likely for them to be drawn into a fight than if they did not. He had a simple up-bringing but a wise one too.

I know that my mom learnt a lot from him. He had his moments, I know, but she is strong because of him. She is outspoken because he was. She is brave because he showed her, so I know that I am those things also because of him.

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