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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​The Great Spain Pension Robbery

The Great Spain Pension Robbery

I recently came across many pensioners protesting in the capital city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This protest was just one taking place in a hundred Spanish cities to raise the plight of pensioners in society. In the Canary Islands, hundreds of people took to the streets in La Laguna in Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to ask for support in their ongoing struggle to preserve the public pension system. Pensioners are protesting against the actions of the previous government, and complaining that it had raided the country’s pension funds in order to bail out the Spanish banks during the financial crisis.

Most Spanish pensioners complain that their pensions do not give them enough to live on. Average pensions in Spain are around 1100 euros each month, with the general pension at around 950 euros, which seems generous when compared to UK pensions. Crude comparisons between the two countries are unreliable, since the level of unemployment in Spain continues to be very high, whereas it is very low in the UK. As a result, many Spanish pensioners are responsible for supporting their families, as many of whom continue to live with their parents during troubled financial times. It is within this context that Spanish pensions are seen as necessary to support the wider family and not just a single person or a couple.

Incidents such as this often trigger memories from my childhood, and this encounter was no exception. My memory went back to returning home from primary school one day, and complaining bitterly to my mother about my pocket money. When compared to the amount that my friends told me they received, the amount I was given was miserly and I made my feelings very clear.

Overhearing the fuss that was going on, my elderly grandfather, who was staying with us at the time, quietly took me to one side and asked why I thought I deserved any pocket money at all. I remember giving him a list of reasons, which he carefully listened to, before telling me that he never received any pocket money. His father had died when he was very young and my grandfather had to work from a very young age in order to keep the family together. He remembered the sheer joy and appreciation when he received his very first “Old Age Pension”, as it was called at that time. The pension was five shillings each week, which for many pensioners meant the difference between basic survival or being forced to live in the workhouse. Lecture over, my grandfather patted me on the head, put his hand in his pocket and handed me some coins with his usual comment of “Don’t tell your mother”.

The first non-contributory British pension began in January 1909. The weekly pension was five shillings each week (25 pence) paid to all people over the age of 70, and 7 shillings and sixpence paid to married couples. Five shillings (25p) is about £20 in today's value, but measured by the increase in average earnings it is more like £112, which is less than the current basic state pension of around £130.00 weekly. UK Pensions were kept deliberately low in order to encourage people to make their own provision for old age. In order to be eligible, the applicant had to be of “good character”, earn less than 31 pounds ten shillings a year and have been a UK resident for at least 20 years. There were other conditions too, such as not being convicted of drunkenness, not held in prison or a ‘lunatic asylum’ or habitually out of work; they were harsh times.

Back to the protests in Spain, which were intended to remind everyone that the pensioners’ demands are everyone’s business. These protestors are highlighting the problems faced by pensioners in Spain, such as loss of purchasing power that leaves them feeling helpless. They were also asking for the repeal of reforms in the labour market, which they claim has led to unstable employment opportunities for young people. Government proposals to promote private pension funds are described as privatisation of the public pension system ‘by the back door’.

Looking after the well-being of older people is one of the elements that constitutes a civilised society. Although these issues are within different cultural contexts, the struggles by pensioners in both Spain and the UK have a similar resonance, which is fairness and a desire to be heard.


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An Appointment for an Appointment

An Appointment for an Appointment

I really don’t like August! It is not the excessive heat and accompanying high electricity bills for air conditioning that upset me, but the fact that nearly everyone seems to be on holiday. No, I do not begrudge hard working Spanish and Canarians some precious time off with their families, but the concept of holiday cover has never been invented in Spain. Post is rarely delivered during August, since our postman is climbing a mountain somewhere; we have learned never to order anything that needs delivering in August. Similarly, we try to avoid anything involving the bank, social security office, Town Hall or health centre that requires anything needing filling in, bonking with a rubber stamp or using the computer.

Over the years, we have learned the hard way, but sometimes things just crop up and have to be dealt with. The lack of holiday cover means that if someone is away at the bank or Town Hall, then that is just tough luck; you will have to wait until they return in September. Even the computers are on holiday in August and refuse to work until the temperature cools down …

It all came to a head this morning when I tried to replace a health card with one of the newly issued ones, for reasons that seem neither logical or sensible. I don’t usually fret too much about such changes, since when there is a change of government, health and other cards are often suddenly cancelled without due notice, but with Brexit approaching, one has to be prepared. I came across a newly invented phenomenon this week, which is the necessity to make an appointment in order to get an appointment at the health centre. This is the latest ploy to put off actually seeing anyone in August and (temporarily) does away with the need to employ additional staff. Mind you, the system falls to pieces a few weeks later, but I guess the hope is that patients will either have died, recovered or left the country, so I guess there is a form of logic in operation, which brings me nicely to the case of the woman with a leg attached to a broom handle.

Did you know that computers also suffer from the August holiday syndrome, and try to take some time off? I overheard a woman being told that she would have to return later in the week because the computers had slowed down due to the excessive heat in the office. Now this was no ordinary case, since the poor soul had one leg strapped to what looked like a broom handle; clearly, she was in some discomfort. The woman took it all in good part, nodded, and limped away. She had made the effort get to the health centre to make an appointment in order to get an appointment to book an appointment with a specialist… Now back to my replacement health card.

Since the wait for a real, plastic health card could well exceed the lifetime of many patients, the health centre has come up with a jolly good wheeze, which is to issue a temporary one on a sheet of paper; that is if both the computer and printer are working. In my case, both were having an August holiday and I was asked to return another day. Oh well, it is no more than I would expect.

Over the years as an expat living in Spain, I have got used to what I see as the quirkiness and sheer inefficiencies of many of the bureaucratic processes that this country copes with. If something isn’t working, the response is usually to invent something that will make it even worse and to employ more civil servants in the process. I have learned, as have many expats, to balance these minor irritations with the joys and advantages of other aspects of my life in Spain, so I usually grit my teeth and try to avoid thinking too much like a Brit.

I often try to explain and defend Spanish systems and lengthy bureaucratic processes to other expats on the basis that maybe they didn’t fully understand the language during their latest bureaucratic encounters, or maybe it is down to cultural differences and misunderstandings about the way that things are done. I am sure that if you ask a German or Polish expat trying to navigate the paperwork processes in the UK they would tell of similar experiences.

Did I get my new temporary health card? Well, yes and no. During a return visit to the health centre, by means of an appointment to get an appointment, I finally arrived once again to face the offending computer and printer. This time, both were having a good day and eventually spewed out the required document. The lady at the desk was also looking less flustered than when she had dealt with the leg woman, and kindly suggested that it would be a good idea to have the document laminated, since it may be many years before my real card arrived in the post. I took her advice, thanked her and headed to my local print shop.

At the print shop, the laminating machine was also having an August day. It greedily gobbled up my card, but refused to release it from the other end of the machine. There was a smell of burning and flames appeared from the centre of the laminating machine. After the fire was put out, the now worried looking operator got a screwdriver and gingerly opened the blackened machine. Inside were the charred remains of my new temporary health card. Ah well, such is life in August; I will return to the office to make an appointment for an appointment tomorrow and then we will start the game all over again.

In the end, I did manage to collect my new, shiny health card from a very helpful lady operating from a small, airless room marked ‘Resuscitation’. I now know why!

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​A Traitor in Paradise

A Traitor in Paradise

I visited a memorial sculpture to ten sincere and brave men this week. These were ten Canarian men who were tortured and put to death for their beliefs during the Spanish Civil War. These ten men defied Franco’s fascist government and were put to death by being tied in sacks filled with heavy rocks and tossed alive into the Atlantic Ocean. Almost 80 years have passed since those dark days, but now, at the point where they were deliberately drowned, a sculpture has been placed, so that the memory of these ten men and the atrocities that took place during the Spanish Civil War are not lost. Their crime was treason against the state.

In Gran Canaria’s capital city, Las Palmas, excavations are currently taking place to exhume the bodies from mass graves of those killed by the Franco regime during the Spanish Civil War. The repression of civilian opponents by the Franco Regime was cruel for any person or institution thought to challenge the Republic, with any workers’ movement or any political party described as being on the left of politics committing a treasonable offence.

Eighty years on, it is hoped that exhumation of bodies from a mass grave will begin to repair the nightmares suffered by families and friends of those buried, and paid with their lives for the repression imposed by the Franco regime. Memories of the Civil War continue to be powerful reminders of the evils of a fascist dictator that ignored the rules of basic humanity.

I was suddenly reminded of Spain’s horrific and bloodthirsty past perpetrated on these beautiful islands this week when I read a proposal from a Conservative councillor in the UK stating that opposing Brexit should be made an act of treason, and publishable by life in prison. To further strengthen the argument for ‘treason’, a statement from a UK Brexiteer, David Bannerman, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament, suggested that the revision of the 1351 Treason Act should also apply to EU loyalists; those who undermine the UK through “extreme EU loyalty”.

As far as I am aware, in law, treason is a crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one’s country or monarch. History gives us many examples of treason, including Judas Iscariot who betrayed Jesus, and Henry VIII who had two of his six wives executed for alleged adultery on the grounds that such infidelity was ‘treason’. The current US President, Donald Trump, is accused of ‘treason’ because of his alleged links with Russia. Other examples of so-called ‘treason’ are often little more than action by dissidents, which may happen to upset or offend others who are, or wish to be, in power.

One thing is clear, the definition of ‘traitor’ needs extreme care in its application. To describe those who disagree or are opposed to the foolishness of Brexit as ‘treacherous’ is inaccurate and does no credit to those who imply treason. There are many British citizens living and working in Europe, as well as many Europeans living and working in the UK, who are passionate about wanting the UK to remain in the European Union; they are vocal about it and support and donate to causes that are attempting to promote an alternative point of view. This does not make them traitors; indeed, one could make an argument to the contrary.

History is supposed to help us to avoid the mistakes of the past. If we look at the history of Spain’s Civil War, and how it divided and ruined a prosperous country, together with the hurt that continues to this day, we all need to be more careful about the language that is used to challenge opponents.

Needless to say, many were surprised to hear Bannerman’s proposals, with some asking what he would suggest as an appropriate punishment to be applied to “extreme” EU loyalists, currently known as ‘Remainers’. It should be remembered that 63 per cent of the UK population did not vote for the nonsense that is Brexit; we are still allowed to hold alternative views to those expressed by Bannerman, Rees-Mogg, Gove, Johnson and others. We are still allowed to protest, demonstrate and articulate views that may be contrary to the views of the Brexiteers; it is not treachery. Fortunately, the new proposals do not call for the death penalty to be applied, but encourages prison sentences for those found guilty. Well, that’s all right then; I rather like the idea of a few months free accommodation in the Tower of London.


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​Bed and Breakfast, but no Roof

Bed and Breakfast, but no Roof

It is holiday time again, and the ‘big getaway’ is about to begin in most countries. Those of us who live in Spain and the Canary Islands will hardly be surprised to read that Spain and the USA are jointly the second most popular countries for tourists to visit in the world with 75.6 million visitors each. Figures show Spain and the USA just behind France, which had 82.6 million visitors.

With all this holiday travel, and particularly during the peak holiday season, finding sufficient accommodation for all manner of guests with different budgets can be a problem. In the Canary Islands, for instance, it used to be a simple matter of recommending a tried and trusted hotel for visiting friends, yet this is currently becoming more of a problem with most hotels at full capacity for much of the year. Whilst innovative ideas, such as AirbnB have helped to ease the load, this form of accommodation is increasingly being eyed with suspicion, especially by tourism officials who are concerned about wide variations in the quality of such accommodation, as well as tax and local authority officials who are concerned that taxes are not being paid.

I was intrigued to hear about one innovative offering from Airbnb on the deliciously unconventional Spanish island of Ibiza. Since accommodation on the island is in short supply, and prices have increased to unrealistic levels, some locals are offering a bunk bed on their balconies for just 50 euros a night. One such ‘hostel’ offers up to nine bunk beds on a small balcony. Guests have use of the bathroom and living room, although understandably, this area is heavily monitored with a security camera.

If this isn’t quite up to usual standards, guests can opt to stay in a wooden shack and delivery vans converted into ‘caravanettes’, although these alternatives are more expensive at 90 euros per night, but they do have the added advantage of a roof. It is probably worth paying extra for protection during a sudden storm or a mosquito attack. Intending guests might find it useful to know that Ibiza is an all-day party island where quality sound proofing could be quite useful, particularly at night.

One enterprising businessman in Spain recently bought an old plane from a bankrupt airline with a view to converting it into premium accommodation for tourists. I am often told how comfortable planes are to sleep in during long haul flights, so logic tells me that they could make comfortable night time accommodation on the ground too. This form of holiday accommodation could well appeal to aviation fanatics and those seeking something different. Personally, once I have arrived at my destination and left the plane, the last thing that I would want to do is to spend my holiday in one; still, it takes all sorts.

This businessman may well be on to something big, since there are a number of converted planes around the world that have been successfully converted into hotels, bars, restaurants, homes and even a McDonalds! There is one plane in Georgia that has been converted into a kindergarten, which will no doubt appeal to aspiring pilots of the younger generation. In New Zealand, one 1950s Bristol Freighter twin engine aircraft that was used in the Vietnam War has been converted into a motel, although guests have to pay extra to sleep in the cockpit. Another airplane in the Netherlands has been converted into a romantic getaway with all those holiday essentials, including a spa, jacuzzi, infrared sauna, mini bar and three flat screen televisions. I am curious to know what happens in an infrared sauna…

Personally, I think I will give these alternatives a miss, since I am desperate to stay in one of the new ‘virtual reality’ hotels with accommodation that adjusts to the specific needs of individual guests, such as the prototype recently demonstrated at Madrid’s tourism fair, but that is a story for another time. Finally, if you find yourself sleeping in unusual holiday accommodation, such as a garage, kennel or disused swimming pool, do please let me know.

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​For the Love of Paper

For the Love of Paper

“The UK’s National Health Service still relies on archaic fax machines” screamed the headlines this week. Oh well, I guess it makes a change from Brexit and Trump’s controversial visit to the UK. Even so, I couldn’t really see the problem, although I was supposed to be shocked when the article declared that a recent survey revealed that around 9000 fax machines are in use across England, with the Newcastle Upon Tyne Health Authority being the worst culprit with around 600 machines in daily use. Such horror!

I guess the reader was supposed to read between the lines that patients are at risk because of the use of this ‘outdated technology’, and of course the opportunity was used, as usual, to blame the funding crisis for ‘the problem’. “This is ludicrous,” screamed one senior surgeon, “The NHS cannot rely on technology that most other organisations scrapped in the early 2000s”. Clearly, this esteemed surgeon has little knowledge of life in Spain, where the humble fax machine is still used and revered by most hospitals, surgeries, banks, local authorities and businesses.

When we moved to Spain, we were given several pieces of helpful advice from other expats. One of these pieces of advice was to “buy a fax machine” or at least to make sure that we had ready access to one. This piece of advice was invaluable and is still highly relevant. Over the last few months, I recall several occasions when I have been asked to fax a document to a bank, the customs office or local authority department. Indeed, my new mobile phone operator asked for a copy of my residency document to be faxed to them only the other day. Fax machines in Spain are still heavily used, valued and trusted. This is not to say that emailing documents is not possible, in most cases it is, but the Spanish have an ongoing love affair with paper and the fax machine fits the bill nicely.

The Spanish love affair with paper is to blame, of course. Despite the wonders of modern technology, the country still relies heavily upon paper records. I was recently persuaded to change my credit card, which I thought would be a simple process, since it was to be issued by the same bank branch that I have used for many years. The process was indeed simple, and all I had to do was to provide an electronic signature. I made a comment to the bank clerk that this was so much easier than on previous occasions when I had left the bank with a handful of paper. He smiled knowingly and wandered over to his combined fax/printer, which was busily churning out continuous streams of paper. He gathered a handful and asked me to initial the fifteen pages before stamping each sheet with a momentary glint of pleasure and passing them to me. Hmm, so much for the use of technology I thought, as I left the bank clutching yet another handful of paper. Some things never change over here.

In Spain, the fax machine fits seamlessly into the love of paper that nothing else can replace. What can be more pleasurable that stuffing an important document into one machine and pressing a button, for it to appear out of another fax machine some distance away as if by magic. I have to admit that I also still enjoy the process and find it more reliable than battling with emails that may or may not be sent, or sorting out a computer virus, or whatever else should infect my laptop. A fax machine works, just as long as you load it up with paper and remember to top it up with ink and speak to it kindly. Yes, I know, it may jam occasionally, but we are not after perfection, are we?

Do I still use a fax machine? Well, yes and no. Our old fax machine died long ago and I now use an app on my smartphone that does the job nicely. However, I must admit that I do miss the physical process of sending and receiving a fax, knowing that it had been sent and receiving an automatic confirmation of receipt. What’s not to like?

So, to those who bore us senseless about the ‘digital revolution’ and criticise the NHS for not scrapping their fax machines, I suggest the old adage that ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ may be relevant here. Many hospitals and GP surgeries may be quite content with this “outdated technology”. Maybe it offers the security and reliability that emails, WhatsApp and Snapchat cannot provide. Oh, by the way, did I mention that the NHS is also being criticised for using that most antiquated of all technologies known as ‘pagers’!

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