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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 Virtual Spanish Hotel

The Virtual Spanish Hotel

Our first holiday in Spain some years ago was not a great success. We had booked into a major tour company’s “flagship hotel”, as it was described, only to find a bed containing the residue of its previous occupant, a couple of cockroaches and the distressing remains of a previous night’s curry in the toilet. Needless to say, we complained and were moved to another room. It was not the best introduction to our first holiday in Spain.

What do you look for in hotel or self-catering accommodation? I have always maintained that if I am going to spend hard-earned cash on holiday, I require the standard to be at least the same, if not better than our accommodation at home. Like many visitors, I dislike those narrow, uncomfortable, wooden beds and thin mattresses that are so popular in most Spanish and Canary Islands’ budget hotels and bungalow complexes. Insufficient hot water, no kettle, and ineffective air conditioning are all areas that are likely to generate a negative review on Trip Advisor. Nowadays, my demands also include free Wi-Fi, and not just a pathetic signal in reception, but one that I can actually use in the hotel bedroom, without an additional charge. I have this at home, so why not on holiday? Sadly, even some of the four- and five-star hotels on these islands rarely offer this facility and is a source of constant complaints from guests. According to a recent tourism fair in Spain, much of this is about to change.

How about a hotel room that automatically adjusts to the needs, language and nationality of its guests, virtual reality headsets instead of brochures, as well as facial recognition instead of a key card to enter your room? Once guests’ personal details and preferences are logged into the system, the room will automatically change the digital pictures in the room from Picasso to Monet, monitor the room temperature and adjust the lighting to personal requirements.

Hotels will be able to provide a facility whereby guests can order a pizza in 40 languages; why one would want to do this is open for discussion, but I guess it is a nice gesture to while away an hour or two. Room locks will also be ‘intelligent’ and will open and close according to the WhatsApp settings on a guest’s smartphone. What about those ghastly wooden beds and thin mattresses? Well, new ones will have sensors built into the mattress, which will monitor movements and sense when the occupant awakes, and will notify staff to bring a cup of coffee and croissant to get the morning off to a good start. However, I am not sure that guests will approve of bed sensors monitoring the time, quantity and speed of their lovemaking.

Needless to say, the main benefit of these new systems is not always for the guests’ benefit, but to improve “productivity”. If, for instance, a large number of British guests are due to check in, additional quantities of bacon, black pudding and eggs will be ordered automatically to cope with the copious demand for those much loved ‘English breakfasts’. Virtual Reality headsets are currently being used, both in Spain and Morocco, to present hotels to tour companies instead of brochures. Travel agents can take a virtual tour of the bedrooms, pool area, restaurant and other facilities, which will give a much more realistic indication of likely customer satisfaction.

In some hotels, there will be beacons and sensors fitted in rooms that will make use of guests’ smartphones to monitor at what time they visit the pool, how long they stay in their rooms and how vigorously they brush their teeth. Maybe it will also monitor how much toilet paper is used on ‘curry and lager’ nights and order additional quantities according to need? Complicated algorithms will be able to monitor their guests’ habits in order to sell additional products and services, as well as special offers to encourage them to return to the hotel. The system will also be able to determine whether guests arrive with their usual partner and children or with someone else - in which case, if the guest does not eat in the dining room, a special meal will be sent to the hotel room, complete with a bottle of champagne.

Is all this going a little too far, do you think? Few of these new services will be able to operate without considerable intrusion into the personal data of guests, which I suspect many will be unhappy about. As much as I love gadgets and applaud some of the new technology, and particularly improved beds, I suspect that most visitors will be content with a clean room, a comfortable bed, a kettle and good quality Wi-Fi. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​Brexit and the Faint Hearted Expat

Brexit and the Faint Hearted Expat

Of course, the tabloids never miss an opportunity to try and raise the blood pressure, so it was with some amusement that I read the headline in one tabloid this week that “Brit Expats flock from Spain because of Brexit”. Seriously? I have yet to meet an established expat living in Spain, either in person or online, who is planning to return to the UK simply because of Brexit. However, I do know many who have been widowed, have significant health issues or whose businesses or relationships have collapsed and are reluctantly being forced to return to the UK, but not simply because of Brexit.

Conversely, I know of several Brits who are so upset with Brexit, high cost of living, as well as the appalling weather, that they are ready to move to Spain and other European countries at the earliest opportunity. Let’s have a look at the assertion that Brits are leaving Spain by the plane load and put these headlines into some form of context.

It is true that the fall in the pound against the euro has been substantial and has had a significant impact upon the lifestyle of many British expats who are surviving on a state pension. Compared with the heady days some years ago when one pound could buy somewhere between 1.40 and 1.50 euros, there has been a considerable change in the fortunes of many expats. It was clear to many that the pound was grossly overvalued at that time and would not last. There is also an assertion that Spain has become “incredibly expensive”. Again, just have a chat with a newly arrived expat, who will leave you in no doubt as to which is the most expensive country to live in - just start off with heating bills and the price of a decent cup of coffee…

There is an assertion that the number of expats leaving Spain outnumber those now arriving in the country. I suggest that this is a highly questionable statistic and should be challenged; as with all statistics, they can be manipulated in any direction to make a good story. My own, admittedly limited contacts with removals companies, lawyers and other professionals, particularly in the Costa Blanca and Costa del Sol, tell me that the balance between those expats arriving as well as leaving broadly evens out, and that there is no expat panic. The flood of expats returning to the UK appears to be merely a convenient tabloid illusion.

There is also a huge disparity in official numbers of those living in Spain, and there could be two main factors at play here. There has been a change in municipal enrolment rules with tens of thousands of Brits previously registered, but who have returned to the UK or died, and inconsiderately forgetting to notify the town hall. Town halls benefit from having more residents, which means greater levels of funding and so there was previously no incentive for town halls to encourage people to deregister when they left the country. A change in the law in 2010 has since meant that municipalities must now confirm if a person is still in the area every two years, or every five years if the person is listed in the Central Registry of Foreigners, which has led to many being removed from the official registers. This disparity in official numbers might also be explained by the number of foreign residents who live in Spain, but have not applied for residency.

It is uncertain issues, such as health and social care, that currently concern most British expats living in Spain, despite vague assurances from both Spanish and British Governments that all will be well. Many expats consider it unwise to move from a country where the health service is generally accepted to be under less pressure than the UK’s health service at a time in their lives when they may need it. There is also the cost of renting or purchasing a home in the UK to consider, with many expats simply no longer having significant financial resources to draw upon. It is also worth remembering that many Brits moved to Spain when they were over 65 at the beginning of 2000. Many are now left widowed, resulting in an increasing desire to return to their families in the UK. Once again, this has very little to do with Brexit. Now, let’s have a look at the next tabloid scare story… Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​Learn a Language with Beer and Insomnia

Learn a Language with Beer and Insomnia

Those expats who enjoy a tipple will no doubt be delighted to read the news that I am reporting this week. According to researchers, German students studying the Dutch language found that their pronunciation improved remarkably after drinking just one pint of beer each. So, I guess many readers are now wondering if a glass or two of Spanish Rioja before attempting to speak Spanish might be of help? Sadly, I have no more information about this, but if you too find that your Spanish language skills soar following a few drinks, do please let me know and I will pass this information on to the researchers.

As far as more traditional approaches are concerned, I remember a brief period as an awkward teenager when I suddenly decided to learn Russian during the Cold War period, which I now confess was designed mainly to annoy my parents. I invested in a small pillow speaker linked to a tape recorder that was supposed to help me to learn the new vocabulary whilst I slept. Sadly, during one restless night I became so entangled in the cables that it destroyed the connection and damaged the tape recorder; my confidence in this new approach to learning was badly shaken. It was an experiment without a satisfactory conclusion.

A more serious study has recently found that millions of insomniacs could do something useful with their time and instead of counting sheep, could practice learning a language instead. It seems that if you practice the language that you are learning at night, just before you go to sleep, you are more likely to remember it.

In this latest study, twenty participants learned in the morning and their learning was tested later the same day. An additional twenty participants learned in the evening, had a good sleep, and were then tested the following morning. Researchers discovered that sleeping between lessons led to greater long-term retention. It is also important to mention here that a number of studies indicate that learning a language can help to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s and other health conditions.

As well as practicing a language before you sleep, it is important to make language learning a daily habit. A focussed time to learn, and just before going to bed seems to be a good idea, because you are less likely to be interrupted. Learning and practicing a new language can take many forms, such as the use of subtitles in another language when watching television or listening to podcasts in Spanish.

I have always thought that in order to foster cooperation, communication and harmony, it would be a good idea if the world’s three major languages: English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese were taught in all schools, allowing effective communication across the globe and making misunderstanding and conflict less likely. Personally, I am always keen to use technology when possible, and maybe one day I will make an effort to learn Mandarin Chinese whilst I sleep. However, this time I will be investing in a new type of pillow speaker that is connected by Bluetooth, and certainly with no more cables. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

Don’t Shoot the Messenger!

It has been amusing to read comments about the islands’ weather in the press and social media over the last few days. Apparently, the Canary Islands have only just survived storm and tempest and all manner of tragedy. Flights have been cancelled, airports destroyed, cars and roads have been washed away and, basically all hell has broken loose on these ‘Paradise Islands’. According to the Mail, Sun and Express, life as we know it on these islands is about to come to an end. Hmm, really?

Fear not, the sun is out again today, and apart from a few more potholes in the roads, and some vigorous mopping of patios, life is more or less back to normal. It has been a bit wet, of course; some flights have been delayed for a few hours, but life continues in much the same way as it did before the rain. These islands do get quite a lot of rain each February, which is why flights and accommodation are usually cheaper than at other times of the year, and some years are worse than others. In short, there is nothing to get too alarmed about, but the tabloid press is having a field day about “Tourism Disaster in the Canary Islands”. Maybe they are talking about life in an alternative universe, or did they simply exaggerate a minor inconvenience to sell a few more copies?

Brits love to talk, and preferably complain, about the weather. Conversely, most Canarians that I speak to have welcomed the refreshing rain that has cleansed our streets from the dust and sandstorms (and dog poo) that have lingered from the summer months. The reservoirs, which were almost empty and were the subject of alternative ‘doomsday’ scenarios in the popular press, have been replenished and the islands’ forests and green spaces are actually rapidly changing from a dusty brown to a lovely fresh green once again. Everything smells so fresh and new again; what’s not to like?

Those reporting sensationalist stories and posting heavily doctored videos about the islands’ weather forget that few homes in the Canary Islands have the benefit of gutters, roadside drains, and even a damp proof course within the basic infrastructure to deal with an excessive fall of rain; we don’t usually need it. As a result, we do get a few problems from time to time, but it is hardly the stuff to get too stressed about. In true Canarian tradition, all is well after two or three days and any inconveniences are quickly forgotten.

For many holidaymakers, of course, the Canary Islands are the subject of dreams and heightened anticipation for a forthcoming holiday in the sun. It also costs a lot of money to get away for a few days, and who wants their dreams to be shattered? How dare anyone publish anything that detracts from this view of ‘Paradise Islands’. Indeed, I have read a number of comments from both residents and holidaymakers complaining that the local press should not be writing anything negative about the weather, because it is bound to have a negative impact upon the tourist industry. Fine, let’s just publish fake news, and forget all about reporting reality. Is that what tourists really want?

The truth that is often ignored is that these islands are not always the ‘Paradise’ that is usually portrayed by the tourist industry. We have our fair share of crime with murders, theft, stabbings, drownings, drug and alcohol abuse, prostitution, and partner, child and animal abuse are all reported in our weekly news. We boast of more drownings on these islands than any other region of Spain. The islands suffer from poverty, homelessness, require food banks, and face huge unemployment, as well as being the most unpopular region in all of Spain for the quality of employment opportunities. There, we have it; these islands are not always ‘Paradise’ that many like to claim they are, but are merely a romantic illusion of an idealistic world, which may help to fulfil fantasies during a couple of weeks’ holiday in the sun. If you think about it, they cannot be anything else; after all, flawed human beings live and work on these islands, therefore nothing can be perfect.

For much of the year, the sun shines, and tourists come and go. Many arrive pale and sick; some with colds, flu, depression and anxiety in a bid to forget their troubles, albeit briefly. For most holidaymakers, these islands help to refresh and replenish the soul, give inspiration, relaxation and much needed rest to troubled minds. For most of the year, they do a pretty good job, but let us also remember that these islands have their ‘off days’ too. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​Up the Amazon

Up the Amazon

Have you noticed how social media and the UK press love to take a swipe at Amazon whenever they can? Of course, this is just one of the least attractive parts of the human psyche; pure delight in building up and praising a sportsman, singer, film star or company, and then taking considerable pleasure in destroying them.

Personally, I have few quarrels with Amazon, since as a Brit living in Spain and the Canary Islands, I have benefited greatly from some of their services. As an author, many people buy my books from Amazon and it would be foolish to bite the hand that feeds me. In my opinion, their Kindle service is second to none, and I doubt I would enjoy life quite so much without it. I can enjoy newly published books at a fair price whenever I wish without the delays and costs involved in ordering a physical book from the UK. No, I do not crave or wax lyrical over “the smell and feel” of a physical book; just give me my Kindle.

I am also well aware of the supposed poor working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but I suspect that conditions there are little worse than conditions faced by most unskilled workers involved in warehouse activities each day of their working lives. Indeed, I have the benefit of knowing several people who work in an Amazon warehouse who tell me a very different story to that portrayed in the press, TV and social media, so I am prepared to keep an open mind on these issues, whilst also recognising that working conditions in warehouses generally need to be improved.

I have received a few messages recently from expats complaining about some aspects of service received from Amazon in Spain. Readers may or may not know that expats living in Spain and the Canary Islands can use Amazon in a number of countries for their purchases, including Amazon UK, Amazon Germany and, one would think logically, Amazon Spain. Unlike the operations in the UK and Germany, Amazon Spain appears to be in a state of perpetual confusion and suffering from particularly poor management when it comes to customer service in the Canary Islands, and the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, where services and choices offered by companies such as Amazon are of great help.

For myself, living in the Canary Islands, Amazon Spain is often a huge problem. Although I buy into Amazon Prime in Spain, which in theory, means no postage costs for most items, I invariably find that most items that I wish to order cannot be delivered to the Canary Islands anyway and, if they are, they are subject to a ‘handling charge’ from Correos, UPS and others acting for the Aduana (the tax authority). I rarely have any problems with Amazon UK or Amazon Germany.

Of course, it is the tax differentials between Spain and the Canary Islands that are the basis of this problem, but I am a firm believer in ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’. Some time ago, anything ordered from the Spanish Peninsular would attract IGIC (the equivalent of VAT/IVA in the Canary Islands). Even though this tax is 7 per cent, there would invariably be a ‘service charge’ added by the courier - UPS, DHL or Correos, which would often exceed the value of the goods being delivered. The Canarian Government rightly intervened some time ago and it was then deemed that tax would only apply to items over the value of 150 euros imported into the Canary Islands.

Problem solved? Not a bit of it. Now residents of the islands find that whilst low value items do not attract tax, they still attract a ‘handling charge’ (DUA), which often exceeds the value of the item ordered. Whist this may be worthwhile for higher value items under 150 euros, it still means that residents of the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla are not regarded as part of Spain and discriminated against. I understand that this contravenes various articles agreed by the European Union, so it rightly remains a matter of concern for many islanders.

If you do order from Amazon Spain, and find that the tax or handling charge imposed is unreasonable, my advice is that you simply refuse delivery and ask for it to be returned to the sender and purchase costs refunded. In addition, do send a complaint to Amazon so that they are fully aware of a continuing problem, although I suspect that the usual bland, ‘comment bank’ response will be generated. I now do this as a matter of course. Indeed, the postman arrived a few minutes ago with a delivery of washing pods, which Amazon Spain keep urging me to try at a very special price. I paid 9,94 euros for these, but the postman has just requested 14,96 euros before he would hand them over. I refused delivery and will now buy locally. I am hoping that, in time, someone at Amazon will finally get the message and begin to treat the Canary Islands, Ceuta and Melilla as intrinsic parts of Spain.

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