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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Until death do us part (or until someone better comes along)

Divorce statistics from Spain’s National Statistics Office are, at first glance, alarming. The figures show that in the Canary Islands the rate of 3 divorces per thousand of the population is the highest in Spain, where the divorce rate has fallen by 10 per cent since the time of the last survey.

Given that, for many, these islands appear to be an island paradise that draws many Northern Europeans to the islands, begs the question “What has gone wrong for these couples?” I can only guess that most of these breakdowns will be in the younger age group and are linked to the stresses caused by a lack of jobs, homes and a bleak future.

It is traditional for Canarians to marry when they are young. Many are still not out of their teenage years when the pressure of many overbearing families and the Church forces them to take their wedding vows. It is not unusual to see, what appears at first, to be a brother and sister taking a baby out in the pram or playing with a toddler on the beach. It is only when chatting to these ‘brothers and sisters’ that we discover that they are in fact husband and wife and that the child is their own.

Canarians are struggling with nearly 30 per cent unemployment, and this has hit the youth particularly hard. One in every three unemployed are under 30 years old leading them to be dubbed "the lost generation". Statistics indicate that more than half of those in their thirties are still not financially independent and rely on their parents for support.

Needless to say, many of these young couples do not have the financial resources to rent a flat or to start a mortgage and, as a consequence, they are forced to live with their in-laws. This brings its own pressures on any couple. In the past, this has meant that grandmother has taken on the burden of raising the child and later providing after-school care, whilst the young parents are able to finish their education or start a career, but times have changed. The pressures of living within an extended family for far longer than in the past, and the inability of obtaining a home of their own, places unbearable pressures upon many families.

The problems have become more acute in recent years with the influx of expats moving to these islands. The best and most affordable properties have been snapped up by expats, forcing house prices, goods and services to increase as a consequence. It is an anomaly that despite the popularity of these islands as a holiday destination, they remain the bastions of unemployment, low pay, long hours and a reliance on ‘black money’ rather than secure contracts offering a living wage to local people.

The islands’ government has attempted in recent years to provide affordable housing for young families, but the supply and availability of such properties has been slow and requires a steady income, which many young couples do not have. As many of us will remember from the UK, affordable housing, starter homes and other such well-meaning schemes do not remain affordable housing for very long.

We are often told that Spain is a very family-orientated society, and so it is - far more than many would consider realistic or desirable in the UK. In Spain, it is customary for all members of the family to take responsibility for, and to look after, the young, elderly and sick members of their family. In the Costas and the Canary Islands, residential homes for the elderly are few, with the exception of several run by nuns for the elderly with no families.

Island living, although idyllic in many ways, also brings other pressures that are often not realised. Island living often creates, by definition, an insular view of life. Despite attempts by schools to widen their pupils’ experiences, many have never left these islands. Whereas school leavers in Peninsular Spain and other parts of Europe attend universities far from home, gaining rich experiences and meeting a wide variety of other people, as they complete their formal education, many Canarians study locally and have never left the islands. I recall putting the question of travel to Peninsular Spain and further afield to one young Canarian in his thirties. His reply was, “Why should we? We have everything that we need here.” However, it is this insularity of knowing maybe only the people that we went to school with, or those from the same town or village that creates its own problems.

Hopefully, these recent statistics will provide opportunities for some soul-searching amongst clerics, local and national politicians. The statistics will also provide useful fodder for university researchers and the like. Hopefully, society too will look seriously at the pressures that young Canarian families currently face and take action. However, in these days of Covid, recession and financial cutbacks, I somehow doubt that anything positive will happen to address an obvious problem.

© Barrie Mahoney

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

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

A Pair of Shorts and a Toothbrush

As much as I love visiting friends and family in the UK and Ireland, the necessary air flight fills me with dread, which is why I avoid this tortuous ordeal as much as possible. No, it is not the actual flying part, nor the possibility of catching pig flu from all that recycled air, nor being crammed into airport buses and queues and not even the major airports’ policy of processing passengers like sardines. No, my horrors begin when packing my suitcase, or several in my case, a week or so before the trip. Recent luggage restrictions are ridiculous, after all, my wash-bag alone is almost the entire weight allowance. Add to that, two shirts a day for 14 days, all the necessary vests and thermal underwear, gloves, scarves and hot water bottles - all so essential for a trip away from home, as well as a more than generous inclusion of essential gadgets and their necessary chargers and adapters and you will understand the pain, suffering and soul searching that I have to endure. Yes, I know, I am not alone in my whinging and I do fully understand all about global warming - as if an extra shirt or two would make any difference...!

A very good friend of mine recently took me in hand after I had explained the distress of my forthcoming situation. I listened carefully as he, in whispered tones, revealed some of his travel tips. He laughed, rather cruelly I thought, when he heard of the number of shirts and socks that I had planned to take. “You will be wearing vests, so take just three shirts. Make each one last for two days and then go to the launderette,” he laughed. He passed on other gems too - all equally drastic measures.

Hmm, and a good dose of deodorant, I thought to myself, but not wishing to appear ungrateful I continued to listen to his pearls of wisdom. After all, my friend was an ex-marine who had travelled throughout Laos, Thailand and Vietnam for several months with little more than a pair of shorts and a toothbrush. He taught me how to roll and not to fold my clothes. Did I really need to take an electric shaver, electric toothbrush, hairdryer and iron? He thought not and I, after several stiff brandies, eventually agreed, albeit reluctantly.

The big day arrived and I tentatively balanced my suitcase in my partner’s hands as he balanced on the scales. After the deduction of his weight and a few adjustments I smugly realised that the overall weight of the proposed luggage was now just 16 kilograms! That was indeed a record for me and I set off to the airport with a new air of confidence, knowing that I had four kilograms available for newly purchased goodies!

Two weeks later I was standing at the dreaded Gatwick airport, queuing to have my bags checked. I had suffered two weeks of just three shirts, visited the launderette twice, had plenty of showers and used lots of deodorant. No one had commented about my wearing the same items of clothing for two weeks and I stood with confidence in the queue awaiting my turn. Certainly, I had bought a few things, collected the usual batch of Christmas presents from generous relatives. I had bought two large bottles of Vitamin C tablets as well - have you noticed the acute shortage on the islands?

“Had a good trip, sir,” came a friendly voice from a spotty youth wearing a smart uniform. This chirpiness took me back a little as both age and experience has taught me that such chirpiness from anyone official in airports throughout the world usually means trouble.

“You’re a little overweight, sir,” continued The Spotty Charmer, grinning broadly. I thought he could have chosen his phrasing a little better. After all I have been wasting away on a diet for three months or so.

“How much overweight?” I snapped coldly, not about to indulge in pleasantries.

“Ten kilograms, sir. You must have bought a lot of stuff in the UK. I hope it’s worth it because that little lot will cost you £100.” The Spotty Charmer had suddenly become officious and demanding in his voice, but he continued to smile broadly, although the breadth of the smile was thankfully restricted by the brace on his teeth.

“That’s impossible,” I replied. “Anyway, ten kilograms at £5 per kilogram is only £50. You are trying to overcharge me, young man.”

“Not so, sir. If you pre-book your excess luggage before your flight then you can have it for £5 per kilo. If not, it is £10, sir.” I no longer liked the way he referred to me as “sir”. It had an evil resonance about it.

“What rubbish,” I spluttered. “How can I possibly foresee what the overall weight of my luggage will be until I have completed my trip. How can I judge that beforehand?”

“Well, that is your problem, sir. Will sir be taking anything out of his case or will sir be paying by credit card?”

“This is preposterous,” I exploded. “Sir will certainly not be taking anything out of his case,” I retorted proffering my well used credit card.

“That’ll do nicely,” beamed The Spotty Charmer, whisking the card out of my hand and into his evil machine.

I sighed, knowing when I was beaten. How my friend had travelled the length and breadth of Asia with a pair of shorts and a toothbrush I shall never know.

© Barrie Mahoney

First published in 2010

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

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

World War Heroes and the Canary Islands

One of the many things that I love about our island in the sun is the ‘live and let live’ approach of its people. No, I don’t mean the thousands of tourists, but the true Canarian people, those who were born 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 ex-pat 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!

For me, one of the real unsung heroes of the Second World War was the code-breaker, Alan Turing. It was thanks to this mathematical genius that the war against Nazi Germany ended when it did. 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. I rather like this part of the tragedy - the ending 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 the 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’!

© Barrie Mahoney

First published in 2010

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

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

A Drag Queen at the Correos

Like so many ex-pats living in the Canary Islands and Spain, I love receiving post from home. Be it a letter or postcard from friends or family, or maybe the occasional magazine; it is good to know that we have not been forgotten. Although there is no shortage of quality shopping opportunities in the Canary Islands, I am a strong supporter of the delights of Amazon and the QVC Shopping Channel and I am often tempted to order the occasional book, DVD or latest gadget on-line.

The world’s marketplace really opened up when I discovered the wonders of Ebay some years ago. Now, I can find almost anything on the pages of this wonderful creation. Items ranging from long obsolete batteries for my minidisc (yes, I adore iPods but somehow they never seem to meet the genius of minidisc), replacement parts for an ancient, but much loved Russell Hobbs coffee percolator to very cheap yet effective mosquito netting all find themselves winging their way to one of these tiny islands in the Atlantic.

I have to say that, in the main, the Correos postal service has been very good and I am pleased to report that everything that I have ordered has safely arrived either at our home in the Costa Blanca or the Canary Islands - eventually. However, there was very nearly one rather nasty exception.

Several weeks ago, I ordered a rather splendid electronic item from Amazon - I won’t bore you with all the details now, but enough to say that it was sufficiently exciting to have me waiting expectantly for the postman each day for nearly five weeks! Amazon told me confidently that delivery would take somewhere between three and seven days. Yes, that did seem a little optimistic, but we often receive post from home that has taken only three days to get to Gran Canaria. Anyway, this item was travelling by courtesy of Deutsche Post and if I know anything about our German friends, it is that an efficient postal service is one of the major assets of their country. I waited with hope and expectation...

Three weeks later the parcel had still not arrived and by the end of the fourth week I was becoming anxious and contacted Amazon. Their advice was to give it “another week” and so, once again, the anguish of waiting for the postman each morning was to be repeated.

Just as we were entering the fifth week and I had all but given up any hope of receiving it, there was a buzz on the doorbell and a new, very cheery, postman was holding out a box for me! Yes, it was the long-expected parcel from Amazon.

“Are you new to the job?” I asked the young postman, accusingly.

Yes, it turned out that our new postman had just been appointed. I asked what had happened to our previous postman - a very nice man who was also a part-time drag queen by night. Maybe he had deserted his postal deliveries permanently in favour of the bright lights and a wardrobe of new frocks, wigs and feather boas?

The young postman shook his head. No, it turned out that some three weeks earlier our normally reliable postman, and part time drag queen, had chopped off his middle finger during a rather nasty incident with a set of ancient curling tongues, a jar of cocktail cherries and a machete - no, please don’t ask me for the gory details! As a result, he could no longer continue with his postal round and it had subsequently taken Correos three weeks to appoint his replacement. Ah, so that was the reason why my parcel from Amazon was delayed. How very inconsiderate!

© Barrie Mahoney

First published in 2010

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

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

Living the Dream

When I moved to the Costa Blanca, I recall being told by one consular official that, “The Brits come here to die”. I quickly discovered that nothing could be further from the truth. In my newly appointed role as a newspaper reporter, I quickly realised that far from going to the Costa Blanca to die, the Brits and other expats had moved to the Costa Blanca to live - and a very good job they were making of it too!

Many people that I met had finally been released from the crippling pain of arthritis and other conditions linked to cold, damp Northern European climates and had quickly realised that a whole new world of mobility was waiting for them. Others had realised their dream of a home in the sun, inspired by the many “You can do it too” TV programmes, earlier in life - thanks to rising house prices and the newly found equity that they had discovered in their homes. All had one thing in common, fulfilling the dream of a new life and adventure in the sun.

I quickly discovered tap dancing groups, where it was not unusual to discover ninety-year-olds treading the boards, orchestral groups and brass bands, salsa classes, walking groups and drama groups. The area was buzzing with activity and it always amazed and delighted me to see so many British, Scandinavian, German, Irish and Spanish, as well as many other nationalities, enjoying being together. One thing that united many expats was the desire to see a rapid improvement in animal welfare, and I am convinced that the present level of animal welfare in the Costas, although still not ideal, is due to the efforts of the many expat groups, working alongside their Spanish counterparts.

Now that I am living in the Canary Islands there is, of course, a much small expat population. The climate is such that much of the expat social life revolves around the bar culture. There are few activities that expats are involved in, although there are plenty of Canarian music, drama and cultural groups to be found, but the enthusiasm for joining these is less obvious than in the Costas. There is also a much younger expat population living on the islands, whose main focus is earning a living and paying the rent or the mortgage. This does not leave a great deal of time for other activities in an area where wages are low and unemployment is high.

Sadly, some expats do not succeed in their attempts to create a new life in the sun. Sadly for many, ‘living the dream’ becomes ‘living the nightmare’. Illness, bereavement or unemployment drives many to return ‘home’ disillusioned, but wiser. In time, I hope that these would-be expats realise that no experience in life is ever wasted, and that the broader experiences that they will have gained, will stand them in good stead for the future, whatever they choose to do.

Some time ago, I met someone who was well versed in spiritual matters, and commented that ancient ley lines intersect these islands. As a result, the islands would draw in a certain kind of person and let go of those it does not want. I remember him commenting that these islands have a force that cannot be avoided. I was sceptical at first, but I have noticed over the years that I have lived here, that of the many would-be expats who have arrived and returned disillusioned, a significant number of these have returned to the islands again a few years later and settled successfully. Many will say that this is due to a positive change in personal circumstances, and a desire to seek the sun and warmth once again. However, maybe, just maybe, the islands have drawn them back again?

First published in 2010

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

Living the Dream: ISBN 978-0992767198

Click here to find out more

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