Our children are all Spanish. They were born in Spain – and profess an undying love for it. They are Spanish in a way that I can never be – even as I have Mediterranean blood and spent sixteen years of my life living and working there.
For the first twelve years we lived in the northern city of Burgos. Burgos has a beautiful river running down its centre. The green banks are mechanically sprinkled. Wild grasses are kept at bay through municipal care. The burgaleses were always proud of how much money they spent on picking up rubbish in the streets. You can’t change the Spanish you see – and, at least then, they didn’t try.
I had many good friends in that part of the world for many years. One was a man called Emilio – he was both an English student of mine as well as our paediatrician. He oversaw easy times and he oversaw difficult times. He was a wise man – realistic, thoughtful, intelligent and analytical. The kind of steady hand all new parents need.
I remember the battle we had to go through to name our firstborn. We wanted to give him a Spanish first name and a Croatian second name. The authorities at the Registry Office in Burgos – then still pretty starchy and conservative (Burgos has only – in the last decade – removed the names of Franco’s generals from their streets and squares) – tried to insist it would only make life more confusing for our son to have two forenames. This, despite the Spanish tradition of often having three forenames.
Anyhow, we did as instructed: we obtained written confirmation from the then Yugoslav embassy that the name we had chosen existed; lied that there was no translation of the name into Spanish; and with great persistence managed to give our child the names we wished for.
I forget now, as time has gone by, the absurdity of all this to-ing and fro-ing – the bureaucratic insistence on telling us what he should be called; the foolish and small-minded attitudes it all inscribed. But one thing I have never quite forgotten – and which my previous post today has savagely brought back to mind – is the unnatural fear I had at the time that our babies would be taken away from us.
Or if not taken away from us – then swapped.
We did have the comfort that having a good friend like Emilio provides. And we really had no evidence to presuppose that anything of the sort might happen. You do have to remember that only three years prior to the birth of our eldest, I came across – for the first time – those military-looking civil guards who would be stationed outside the main post office, machine-guns clutched in clearly bored hands.
It all seemed a little over the top for a young man recently escaped from what I might at the time have described as “Dixon of Dock Green”-land. Even where this land had spent a decade under the rule of someone like Margaret Thatcher.
In most things, therefore, Spain was a release from a previous existence. But in terms of security; having to be fingerprinted for the first time in my life; carrying an ID card; having a police officer tell me he had means of finding out how much money I had in my account … all these things, you can understand, as a foreigner abroad, kind of spooked me just a little.
So there were enough culture shocks to knock oneself a little off beam – to make oneself a little sensitive to different ways of doing.
Enough curious matters which – in essence – surely were not curiosities at all.
What really spooked me, though, was the Spanish health service. Mixed up in amongst the state hospitals, and working alongside proper nurses, there were these silent and untrained nuns – a generally unpaid workforce (or so I believe – though correct me if I am wrong) who would pad around the establishments, often supplanting the work of the overworked staff. Often working entirely alone and unsupervised too. It somehow seemed (though at the time unreasonably, because without them nothing would have worked) a very very strange set of dynamics.
Strange no longer. Not in the light of Spain’s stolen babies.
And I am just glad we escaped unscathed.
For the current Spanish government is investigating cases of stolen babies as recent as 1990.
And our firstborn was born in 1991.