A History of the Chipulina Family
Eric and Maruja -  Biggin in the Floor

1938 In March, Hitler invaded and annexed a willing Austria. The Chipulina children, blissfully unaware of the snowballing catastrophe taking place almost everywhere in Europe, continued playing their innocent games. A favourite pass-time was to have some fun from the parlour window of 256. It overlooked Main Street and was just one storey high. In the evenings while the shops were still open and the streets were crowded, they would tie a bit of black fluff to a length of black thread and dangle it out of the window at the level of the faces of the passers-by. When the people ran into it they would react as if it was an insect, taking wild swipes at it. At that stage they would withdraw from the window, giggling hysterically, as they pulled the thread up out of sight.

Another one was to make a neat little parcel about the size of a match box, and drop it on the pavement. Inside was a note which read. 'Ever been had? What really amused them were the people's reactions. Some opened the box curiously and then threw it away either in disgust or indifference. Others, however, hastily put it in their pockets or bags and hurried away.

Both Eric and Maruja were probably smoking surreptitiously by now, pilfering discreetly and keeping their fingers crossed that Pepe would fail to notice the odd missing cigarette. Pepe was in fact an inveterate smoker, alternating between cigarettes and pipe. His collection of the latter included a huge Sherlock Holmes affair. He kept his supply of cigarettes in a sliding top bureau. Lina did not smoke. But then, very few Gibraltarian women of her generation smoked in those days.

My sister Maruja as a thirteen year old.

That summer it was still Eastern Beach as usual for the family. Very often they went by gharry, a horse-drawn carriage, which was hired on a seasonal arrangement with the driver. The gharry fascinated Eric. One day while waiting for the rest of the family to arrive he stepped up onto the pescante, as the driver's seat was called, and set off all by himself before the driver, who was waiting to help with the beach equipment, realised what was happening. Luckily the horse was a patient and understanding animal.

Among the numerous gharry drivers on the Rock at the time, many of which were of Maltese origin, there was one character that was apparently responsible for a phrase which eventually became part of Gibraltar's heritage of linguistic cock-ups. One day, or so the story goes, the good man was taking an English couple for a ride when he suddenly drew up. There was a large wooden beam lying on the road blocking his path. The passengers asked him why he had stopped. Along came the reply. 'Is the biggin in the floor and the horse can't pass!'

The 'biggin in the floor'.

By now, of course, the majority of Gibraltarians were bi-lingual in Spanish and English. Their everyday speech, however, had evolved under the influence of their Andalusian neighbours and their Italian and Jewish ancestors. Add to that a few odd phrases picked up over the years from the sundry other nationalities who had emigrated to the Rock and the result was a unique patois which could almost be classified as a dialect. The locals called it Yanito and particularly gross or mispronounced sentences, usually containing words of more than one language, were referred to as Yanitadas.

Colloquial idiom was never simply a matter of pronunciation. Nor was it just simply an intermingling of English and Spanish words or phrases in a single sentence. It had more to do with the way in which words were put together and the use of a unique grammar. To give a simple example, during card games a King was referred to as 'un King' and a queen as 'un quing'. Two Kings, however were 'dos Kines' 'and two Queens became 'dos Queenes'. In both cases the final 'e' was pronounced but not the 's'. Local etiquette also evolved its own idiosincratic standards. If someone was complaining to friends about some injustice or other he would usually begin with:
'¿Con el perdon de la palabra eh?
This polite preamble would immediately be followed by a generalised diatribe on the lines of:
'Porque ese tio é un hijo la gran puta, y yo me voy a cagá en tó su muerto . . . '

The most striking thing about this sequence was the sudden change in tone, from deeply respectful to downright vitriolic. If, on the other hand, a Gibraltarian wanted to express admiration for somebody he would usually precede his eulogy with an obsequious:
'¿Mejorando los presente eh?
A fisherman who wished to boast about his fishing exploits to his friends would invariably stretch out his arm and indicate on it the length of his catch with his forefinger. To ensure that this rather dubious gesture was not misunderstood he would also add :
'¿Y perdonando el modo de señalá, eh?
When he was trying to be polite, a Gibraltarian tended to fall back on his English: but only up to a point. Where a simple 'thank you' would normally have been sufficient for an Englishman, a local would be more inclined to express his gratitude with:
'Y tenkeu eh?
For an apology he would be more than likely to yoke Shakespeare and Cervantes and come up with:
'Sorry eh pisha?
As one may gather from the above examples, the 'eh' followed by a retorical question mark which required no answer was practically a sine qua non of yanito chit-chat.
On certain occasions the family went to the beach by taxi, usually via the now long gone Victoria gardens. As a special treat the driver would often allowed Eric to take the wheel for a while and sound the horn. On arrival they were sometimes made to wait impatiently for the firing to stop on the military range behind the public beach. When it did, a red flag was lowered and they were allowed to pass through to pitch their tents and settle down for the afternoon. On such occasions, the children would dash off as quickly as possible to the range to look for spent bullets. It was an activity that many a generation of youngsters born long before and after would later look back on with pleasure. Finding the odd unused bullet was the ultimate thrill.

Eastern Beach. My mother on the right relaxes with some friends. The couple nearest Lina (1.2) are the Montegriffos of which Maria Luisa Montegriffo lived to be 100. The ones on the left are the Canessa family. The group of girls just behind seem to have been aware that a photograph was being taken. I think the second girl from the left is Maruja. Perhaps Eric is one of the boys playing cricket. The poles in the background with the numbers were part of an army shooting range. Incidentally as this photograph is dated July 1938 at the back my mother must have been seven months pregnant. With me!

Eastern Beach. Photograph taken on the same day as the previous one but with my father Pepe Chipulina (1.1) on the top left. My mother is on the right.

The annual fair continued to be held as usual at Grand Parade and the Chipulina children were sometimes taken as a treat to the terrace of the Assembly Rooms which looked out across the fairground and where Simmonds beer was served. Vendors in white aprons moved among the tables selling fresh prawns. As the children walked to and from the place, they may have heard the unmistakable sound of the barrel organ, a regular feature of Gibraltar life at the time. El pianillo, as the barrel organ was called, was drawn by an elderly donkey, hence a local saying which persisted long after barrel-organs had become a thing of the past:'Tiene mas años que la burra del pianillo.'

In summer Pepe (1.1) often dressed in a white shirt and flannels with an old tie for a belt. By now he was too old to do any serious rowing and had taken up sailing instead. Neither he nor his sailing friends were members of the Royal Gibraltar Yacht Club, probably because of its well-founded reputation for snobbery. They were based at the MRC and their boats, which they moored offshore, were occasionally brought up the club's slipway for painting and repairs. He owned a boat jointly with a friend. It was a Sharpie with a dark blue hull which was called Flatfish.

My father and an unknown friend sailing his Sharpie Flatfish
Note the distinctive registration number on the sail.

Mediterranean Rowing Club. My father, back row second from right, with some of his sailing friends. The Indian looking gentleman on the far right of the middle row is Pepe Garbarino, one of my father’s best friends.

One of the 'ferries' used to carry people to their sailing boats was an awkward little dingy known as La Cajita, an appropriate name as it resembled a small box. It was quite a spectacle to see half a dozen hefty men stepping gingerly into it, holding their towels and thermos flasks aloft, until the gunwale was barely a couple of inches above sea level. Curiously there is no record of it ever having capsized.

Over the years the firm of Bland had retained strong links with Morocco and maintained a shipping service linking Gibraltar to Tangier and other Moroccan towns. Invariably the names of the ships began with the arabic word Gibel. Among them were the Gibel Dersa, Gibel Musa, Gibel Serhon and the inevitable Gibel Tarik. During this period the Gibel Dersa, was normally the ship used as the Tangier ferry. Both the Dersa and the Spanish paddle steamer which ferried passengers to Algeciras, were part of the scenery to anyone who spent any time at the MRC.

The Spanish paddle steamer which ferried passengers to and from Algeciras.

Another of Bland's vessels was the Zweena. She had been used as a tender for taking passengers to and from the many liners calling on Gibraltar. but had been out of service for some time. She was anchored in the commercial harbour not far from the MRC. Through one of the sailing fraternity who worked for Bland's, members were allowed to make use of it as a base. After a mornings sailing, the boats were tied to the Zweena, and everyone went into the water for a dip. Then followed a sumptuous lunch aboard ship and a siesta in the sun.

The children and their friends often stayed behind in preference to the afternoon's sailing to play with the ship's wheel and the pipes communicating the bridge with the engine room. There was even a mini Captain's cabin. She may have been out of service, but the Zweena was in ship-shape condition. As they played on the decks of the Zweena, the boys wore naval type caps as protection against sun-stroke, a welcome relief from the cumbersome pith helmets which most middle-class parents considered de riguer for their sons during summer.

Meanwhile Maria Luisa's (2.4) cooking skills continued unabated, civil war or no civil war. Many of her more formidable dishes involved chickens which, at the time, were often purchased live. The execution of the fowl, followed by plucking and disembowelment, was often accompanied by a running commentary on the general features of the bird's internal anatomy.

Maruja and Eric soon learned the importance of the removal of the gall bladder, with its attendant bile, and the position of the heart, liver and gut. There were also lectures on the method to be used to clean the gizzard, and on the soup enhancing qualities of the giblets in general. And then came the exquisite process of burning off the stubs of the plucked feathers or cañones. This was done by holding the bird over some flaming newspapers. The result was the release of a wonderful, unmistakable aroma of scorched chicken flesh. Or so it seemed at the time. Despite the fact that she had probably never seriously looked at a cookery book in her life, the final result was invariably a gourmet's dream.