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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Don't do as I do, do as I say

“Three rashers, three sausages, two eggs, black pudding twice, fried bread twice and no tomatoes,” boomed the voice in front of me in the queue. “Oh, and two rounds of toast and a large mug of coffee.”

“Beans?” responded the unsmiling automaton in the white overall, a woman with no facial expression whatsoever.

“Goodness no, I’ll have wind all day if I do,” came the reply.

Wind is the least of your worries, I thought, as I watched the layers of cholesterol being piled onto a very large plate. I like a cooked breakfast as much as the next person (albeit the vegetarian variety) when I am on holiday, but I know enough about healthy eating to ensure that for most of the year, fresh fruit and muesli is the healthiest way to start my day at home.

“Yes?” snapped the automaton, looking vaguely in my direction.

“Do you have any fresh fruit, apples or bananas maybe?” I enquired hopefully.

“Bananas, no, but you may find some apples in the basket by the till. They may be a bit old though, there’s not a lot of call for them in here. I may have got some tinned fruit in the back.”

I turned and looked at the two forlorn apples in the basket by the till and decided to give them a miss.

“No, I’ll leave that. Just two slices of toast please.”

“Do you want them spreading?”

After having seen the thick layer of butter spread upon the previous customer’s toast, I declined.

“Do you have some vegetable margarine?”

“Over by the till, but that costs extra.”

“Just the toast then, please. No butter.”

Whilst I was waiting for the toast, I attempted some conversation. I was curious to know the reasoning behind the massively unhealthy diet being served in the hospital’s canteen for visitors. As with so many hospital facilities in the UK nowadays, the hospital restaurant had been privatised, and I was amused to see it being run by the same company that is involved in school inspections, as well as refuse collections in the UK.

The hospital restaurant was in one of the UK’s large city hospitals and I had been visiting an elderly relative in its care. As is often the case with sick, elderly patients, they can only cope with short visits and so I decided to take a short coffee break before returning to the ward.

“Don't you think it is a little strange that you are serving such unhealthy food in a hospital restaurant?”

“I just does what I’m told. They decides what’s to be served,” was the snapped response, although now, at least, the face showed some expression and feeling, which was an encouraging development.

“Yes, I can see that, and I’m not blaming you,” I protested, “but you are killing your customers. Maybe your previous customer could have been offered a healthier alternative? Surely it’s a good opportunity to encourage visitors to consider healthy eating when they visit patients. Maybe some fruit? With a diet like that he’ll soon be in here as a patient.”

The woman snorted. “He’s no visitor,” she laughed. “He has that for breakfast most days, and he’s a doctor here!”

I ate my toast slowly, with a mixture of disbelief, anger and amusement, but wondering if my elderly relative was receiving the most enlightened care in that hospital after all.

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

Live and Let Live

One of the many things that I love about our island in the sun is the ‘live and let live’ attitude of most of its people. No, I don’t mean the thousands of tourists, but the true Canarian people, those who were born here and have stayed in this little corner of Paradise. As long as it is broadly legal and does not interfere with anyone else, in the main, anything goes. For many of its present day expat population, with its heady mix of faith, culture, colour and sexuality, it takes time to get used to not being judged. Maybe this stems from the time, it is said, when Spain’s General Franco, intolerant of gay men in the military, would ship them off to Gran Canaria, which became a kind of penal colony for homosexuals. Whether there is real historical substance to this claim or whether it is an urban myth, I do not know for sure, but it sounds reasonable enough to me, although I am quite sure that the Yumbo Centre wasn’t there then!

For me, one of the real unsung heroes of the Second World War was the code-breaker, Alan Turing. 23 June 2012 saw the centenary of his birth and it was thanks to this mathematical genius that the war against Nazi Germany ended two years earlier than it otherwise would have done. He managed to intercept and crack ingenious coded messages that gave detailed information to the Allies about the activities of German U-boats. However, there was only one problem with Alan Turing - he was gay.

Alan’s reward for his pivotal role in cracking intercepted messages was quickly forgotten when, in 1952, he was prosecuted for ‘indecency’ after admitting a sexual relationship with a man. As an ‘alternative’ to imprisonment, this unsung war hero was given ‘chemical castration’ - a newly devised treatment for such ‘disorders’ at the time. In 1954, at the age of 41, he killed himself by eating a poisoned apple, which was apparently inspired by the story of Snow White. Needless to say, as with much of history, this version of events is currently being challenged and massaged for the financial gains for another film, documentary or book. However, I rather like the original version of the tragedy, agreed by the coroner at the time; it is just so dramatic!

Or was this the end of Alan Turing? This amazing man is also credited with creating the beginnings of computer technology and artificial intelligence, which led to the development of one of the first recognisable modern computers. Alan Turing's brilliance and personal life came to the attention of present day computer programmer, Dr. John Graham-Cumming, who began a petition asking for a posthumous apology from the government. Many thousands of people signed it and a previous UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, finally apologised for how Alan Turing was treated in the 1950s. Whether it was through political motivation or genuine compassion for this brilliant man, and I like to think it is the latter, he said that "on behalf of the British government, and all those who live freely thanks to Alan's work, I am very proud to say: we're sorry, you deserved so much better.”

My thoughts also go out to the many thousands of gay men and woman who have been persecuted over the years - just for being themselves.

All this serious stuff brings me back home to Gran Canaria. Spain’s General Franco certainly had his faults, but I cannot help thinking that being shipped off to a life in the sun in the penal colony of Gran Canaria, just for being gay, was a far preferable alternative to ‘chemical castration’!

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

It’s an island thing

I have always loved islands. Maybe it was reading just too much Robinson Crusoe, Enid Blyton’s ‘Five on a Treasure Island’ and other stories about islands that inspired me, but I always knew that one day I would live on an island.

Maybe it was that first glimpse of the magical and mysterious Brownsea Island pointed out to me by my elderly great aunt. We could only view it through binoculars from Poole Harbour in Dorset, because, in those days, as my great aunt explained, it was inhabited by an old witch and her elderly manservant, and they cooked and ate all newcomers to the island. Animals, birds and insects that lived there were special and unique to that special place. Indeed, the giant ants could eat people alive. As I discovered many years later whilst accompanying classes of schoolchildren to the island, she was partly right about the giant ants! Great Aunt Gertie did have a vivid imagination, but it was the stuff of inspiration.

For many years I thought that my eventual island destination would be the Isle of Wight. Career opportunities often seemed to lead me there, and on one occasion it was the dreadful realisation that I was about to be offered a job that I didn't really want, that made me flee the island at 5.00am one morning and well before the final interview, and I didn't return for many years.

We visited the Scilly Islands - a delightful destination, but I soon realised that the rusting bath tub, which the islanders call a ferry, was a nightmare, and after one terrible voyage with myself and other passengers vomiting for most of the journey, I flew back to the mainland by helicopter realising that I could never attempt that journey by boat ever again, let alone live there.

We spent many glorious summers exploring islands around the UK and beyond. We tasted delicious malt whiskies on the Isles of Skye and Islay, exploring the Outer Hebrides, avoiding tweed jackets in Harris and Lewis, as well as tasting the relative decadence of Orkney and Shetland.

Islands as diverse as Majorca, Cyprus, Ibiza and Madeira were also visited, but although wonderful in their own unique ways, none seemed to inspire me as a possible home for the future. That is until we visited the Canary Islands in general, and Gran Canaria in particular. I knew then that this would be home and found myself gripping the handrail and forcing myself up the steps of the plane going home at the end of our first visit. I was determined to return again one day.

So what is so special about islands? It is a difficult one to answer, because people are inspired in many different ways. Maybe it is the feeling of being part of a small community, never being far from the sea, or the reminder of a primitive form of survival instinct. Maybe it is just that feeling of “Getting away from it all”, although critics of this view will quickly point out that this can be difficult to achieve on islands such as Tenerife, and parts of Gran Canaria and Lanzarote! If you really do want to get away from it all, I suggest heading to El Hierro, La Gomera or La Palma instead!

An elderly friend visited a few days ago. “I could never live on an island,” she declared loudly after critically peering out to sea. What do you do for shopping? You have only got one small shop,” she asked.

“We have many good local shops nearby, and you can get anything in Las Palmas, the seventh largest city in Spain,” I replied.

“It must be so difficult to get off the island in an emergency?” she frowned.

“Not really, after all Las Palmas airport is the third largest in Spain. Flights are always available, but the fares vary depending upon demand.”

“I would need still need to be in Europe, because of the health service”.

“The Canary Islands are part of Europe and offer some of the best medical treatment available anyway. Indeed, patients are often flown to Las Palmas from the Peninsular for specialist treatment.”

“Hmm, well, I still wouldn't like to live in an island...” she mumbled.

Great, I thought. I am so pleased you are not going to move here. Intending islanders need to be committed to island life and be aware of the disadvantages, as well as the advantages. Islands are rather like Marmite, Blackpool or Benidorm. You either love them or hate them.

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

Roundabouts, Girls and Prickly Cactus

Roundabouts are interesting phenomena in Spain and the Canary Islands. They are a relatively new idea for the country, and it takes time, patience and understanding for most expats to understand the local customs of how to deal with a roundabout. Most of the locals living near me approach a roundabout as fast as they possibly can, and if anything is likely to hit or obstruct them, they slam on their brakes as hard as possible. Great fun!

I approach a roundabout in the boring, studied way that I was taught, and according to the rules of the British Highway Code, i.e. slowing down, approaching the roundabout with caution etc. Needless to say, the result is that I am usually hooted at in a very aggressive way from the vehicle behind. Initially, I thought it was because they were admiring my driving skills, but sadly no. Why is it I that too have not learned that roundabouts in Spain are meant to be an exciting daredevil experience of who dares survives the experience?

Have I mentioned the Brits? Well, although some Spanish and Canary Islanders really do take some beating for shear foolhardiness when behind a wheel, British expat drivers really do win the gold medal. Firstly, they will not accept that it is not normal to drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. By that I mean on the left hand side, when most of the world drives on the right. Despite living in Spain, it is amazing how many British drivers suddenly forget that they are living in Spain, and insist upon driving on the left hand side of the road. Needless to say, this does tend to cause a few problems for other drivers, and I have witnessed a number of occasions when a car approaches a roundabout at speed, and then proceeds to drive the wrong way around it. It can be a very troubling experience to witness.

When I lived in the Costa Blanca, we had roundabouts adorned with pretty, scantily dressed young women, usually of Eastern European origin, clearly looking for someone to take care of them, offer them warmth and shelter and a cup of soup (this is a family publication, after all!). After each mayoral election, the roundabout girls would disappear, only to reappear again a few weeks later. A new mayor always meant a temporary slowdown in business, and time for a much-needed break, that’s all.

By contrast, roundabouts in the Canary Islands are adorned with spectacular creative masterpieces, real works of art created by local artists and, in the poorer municipalities, many giant prickly, vicious looking cactus. Yes, you can easily judge the status and wealth of a municipality just by looking at the quality of its roundabouts. It has simply nothing to do with art, but the size of the balance sheet and the influence of the mayor.

A few years ago, our local roundabout was suddenly adorned with a huge and very attractive Christmas tree, appropriately decorated and lit for the Christmas season. It looked wonderful and, no doubt, added considerable festive pleasure for anyone approaching it. A few evenings before Christmas, a driver headed towards our roundabout and instead of driving around it, decided to head straight for the Christmas tree. I suspect that he was trying to take his place at the top of the tree. Needless to say, he didn't quite manage it, and the car, driver and Christmas tree were badly injured.

That was the end of Christmas for our roundabout and, since that time, no Christmas tree has appeared during the festive season. Mind you, we do have a wonderful display of prickly cactus, so any drivers considering driving over the roundabout to save time - just beware. Prickly cactus hurt!

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Expat Survival : ISBN 978-0992767167

Click here to find out more

Embalming Anyone?

The unexpected phone call from the mortuary in Las Palmas immediately took my attention. Was I in a position to pay the outstanding account at the mortuary? This really was not the kind of call that anyone would wish to receive first thing in the morning, and particularly when one is struggling to make sense of the world before coffee.

I assured the very pleasant lady at the other end of the line that I had no previous knowledge of their service and that, no, I did not have any kind of account with them, nor did I have one that was due for payment. However, I assured her, that I would keep her number on file - just in case I needed a spot of embalming in the future. One just never knows when such services might be required. The very nice lady even offered to send me a brochure about their range of services...

The early morning telephone call reminded me of a series of articles that I wrote as a newspaper reporter several years ago about ‘Death in Spain’. The series of articles were intended to be a helpful guide in managing one of most traumatic times of our lives, and to assist expats in making the right choices in a country with different customs and traditions in dealing with death. The articles were not exactly a bundle of laughs and not ones that would, at first sight, encourage advertisers to promote their new restaurant or estate agency on that particularly page; however, the series was very popular with readers. I recall one elderly gentleman who shuffled into the newspaper office to ask for back copies of the newspaper. He was asked why he wanted them. “It’s those Death pages”, he muttered, “my wife reckons she’ll be needing them soon.”

Although it is not really a subject that is often discussed over dinner, or over a gin and tonic on the balcony, thoughts about our passing and those of our loved ones should be considered seriously, particularly when living as an expat in another country. Do we have a will in the country that we are residing in, for instance? I know of many expats who are relying solely on wills made in the UK many years ago. However, lawyers assure me that this arrangement is potentially fraught with difficulties and that all expats should also have a Spanish will, as well as their UK one.

What about bodies? It is traditional, and good sense because of the heat, that bodies are cremated or buried very quickly in Spain, and often within two or three days. This is in contrast to the UK where bodies can be waiting for two or three weeks before funerals can be arranged. Over here, the final departure is quick, which adds more pressure to be clear about the wishes of the deceased.

In the event of your demise would you prefer to be flown back to the UK at considerable expense, cremated in your newly adopted country and then sent back in a pot, or popped into one of those filing cabinet tomb arrangements that seem to be popular in Spain? What about costs? Has provision been made to cover the cost of repatriation, for instance? Do you have a funeral expenses insurance policy? These are all very serious issues, I know, but ones that need to be considered carefully and wishes made clear to dependents.

Now, back to that early morning telephone call. I am still wondering why that very nice lady at the mortuary called me...

© Barrie Mahoney

From the 'Letters from the Atlantic' series by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands : ISBN 978-0995602724

Click here to find out more

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