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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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​Ashes to Ashes

Ashes to Ashes

I received a very moving email from a regular ‘Letters from the Atlantic’ reader and correspondent this week. Janice lives in the UK and has been a regular visitor to the Canary Islands over the last 47 years with her husband, Bob. Sadly, Bob died a few weeks ago, shortly after their 47th wedding anniversary, which they celebrated on their favourite Canary Island. Janice and Bob had visited the same island each year since their honeymoon, and in the same fishing village, which they both loved. The couple were true Canary Island lovers and there was only one year that they did not manage a visit, which was shortly after the birth of their son.

Janice told me that Bob had cancer, and it was during their last visit to the island that he had commented in his favourite restaurant that he would like to have his ashes scattered in the sea from the Canarian village that they had visited and enjoyed so much. Bob had remarked that it would be rather like “coming home”. In her email to me, Janice asked if scattering ashes was allowed, since she had read that it was forbidden to scatter human remains in the Canary Islands.

Janice is correct, since it is illegal to scatter ashes on land or sea without obtaining a special licence, yet getting a licence remains a mystery. My enquiries on behalf of Janice at several town halls on the larger islands have led nowhere, so if anyone has further information about the procedure, do please let me know. There is a potential fine of around 2000 euros if caught scattering human ashes in public places. Despite this restriction, I do know that one of the islands, Tenerife, has a ‘Garden of Ashes’ in La Laguna where ashes can be scattered without a fee, but this facility does not exist on all the islands.

My best advice to Janice is for her to make enquiries with local funeral directors on the island. The other, slightly riskier, alternative is to ask a local fisherman in the village to sail well out of the harbour area and to discretely scatter the ashes whilst out at sea. Surely this can be no worse than some of the pollution that regularly finds its way into the sea?

I know from personal experience that scattering ashes is not always an easy thing to do on these islands, since by their very nature these islands can be very windy and ‘ash blowback’ from a traditional urn can be a highly distressing experience. The best approach is to ask the funeral director to provide a plastic tube that is designed both for plane transportation, as well as for scattering the remains of a loved one, which Janice and her son are planning shortly.

Readers may like to know that human ashes can be carried on an aircraft, although a plastic container should be requested from the funeral director to allow for the container to be easily scanned by airport security. Although the ashes can be checked in as cargo inside suitcases, it is probably better to include them as part of hand luggage. Do ensure that airport check-in staff know that human remains are being carried. The death certificate of the deceased should also be available, together with any other information given by the funeral director.

Losing a loved one is always a distressing affair, but it can be made easier in the knowledge that we have done our best to meet their wishes. Let us hope that Janice and her son take some comfort by revisiting a place that she and Bob loved so much by “Coming home”.

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© Barrie Mahoney

Chickpeas or Coco Pops for Breakfast?

Chick Peas or Coco Pops for Breakfast?

I have rarely given chickpeas much thought. I know that I like them and, as vegetarians, we have regularly used them in our meals for many years. They are versatile, absorb flavours in the most delicious way and the bottled variety can usually be found at a very good price in local supermarkets.

I was interested to see that the thorny issue of chickpeas has featured quite heavily in the press recently. A Tweet by a Spanish food blogger featured a picture of her son, alongside the claim that her son doesn’t know what a biscuit is, which led to an interesting spat. Apparently, the boy starts his day with a bowl of chickpeas rather than coco pops for breakfast, which brought forth a flurry of debate, and some abuse from fans of coco pops, who consider that all children should start the day with this sugary feast, washed down with chocolate milk, rather than a highly nutritious bowl of chickpeas. Although, nutritionally, I tend to be on the side of chickpea fans, I am not sure that they are particularly good for breakfast, but then again, I have never eaten them for breakfast and intend to stick to my morning bowl of Alpen (without added sugar, of course).

The blogger raises some good points about nutrition, since it appears that breakfast for many Spanish children, as well as for children in the UK, has turned into a morning frenzy with many children being stuffed with sugar before being sent to school. Of course, in worst case scenarios, children are being sent to school without any breakfast at all, which has led an increasing demand for breakfast clubs to be established in schools in an attempt that children start the day with at least a reasonable breakfast.

What’s the name for a battered chick pea? Hummus, of course, which is apparently in serious trouble due to a worldwide shortage of chickpeas. Maybe Spanish children are eating them all for breakfast? No, the real reason is that the crop has been very poor in the last few years and this has led to an inability to meet demand, which in turn has led to a price increase. The increasing demand for hummus, which is made from chickpeas, is also to blame since supermarket hummus is in high demand in the UK. The price of chickpeas is the main reason for the rapid increase in the price of hummus.

The major UK supermarkets completely ran out of the product for several weeks last year, and the ready availability of hummus is still looking doubtful, which has led to serious talk of a ‘National Hummus Crisis’. After all, what exactly are people supposed to put on their pita bread? Chickpeas and hummus used to be known as ‘the food for poor people’. Not any more, since hummus is now seen as a trendy addition to any sandwich, wrap, pita bread, or whatever the ‘in word' for a lunchtime snack is at the moment.

The humble chickpea is grown in parts of Spain and the Canary Islands, where it is a popular addition to traditional stews and soups. Known as ‘garbanzo’, the chickpea has been grown in the Mediterranean, Middle East and parts of Africa for more than 7000 years. The ancient Greeks tucked into them as snacks, and they are a popular addition to Spain’s national dish, ‘cocido’, which is a stew that consists of chickpeas and pork. In the Canary Islands, there is a similar dish, but made with beef and chickpeas. The ingredients of these stews are not an exact one, since I guess much depends upon what the restaurant has available at the time, but I can almost guarantee that chickpeas will be lurking in there somewhere. Just don’t get me started on the potential shortage of falafel! Protection Status

© Barrie Mahoney

​Sunbeds R Us

Sunbeds R Us

I am often told that Brits on holiday like nothing better than to get out of bed long before their all-inclusive breakfast has even hit the frying pan, and to chase outside to the swimming pool in their boxer shorts or bras (or possibly both) in order to place a vivid Union flag towel on the sunbed of their choice. It is even more exciting if there is a mad competitive dash with the Germans, with Brits gaining immense satisfaction if they reach their prized position first.

Why, oh why is one of the tour companies determined to ruin such jingoistic pleasures with the introduction of a ‘book and pay before you arrive’ sunbed option when booking a holiday in the Canary Islands. For the princely sum of 22 euros per person per week, potential holidaymakers can view a virtual image of their choice of sunbed, together with its ideal position close to the swimming pool, bar or most importantly, the toilets, from their home in Mansfield before even stepping on the plane. Gone are those heady days of the mad dash before breakfast. One thing to be thankful for, I guess, is that Ryanair will not be in charge of the seating allocations. Just imagine it, the entire family split up and lost in various dark corners of the pool area. Oh yes, I nearly forget to mention, the only reason for this change of sunbed policy is to raise additional cash for the tour operators. After all, their senior executives are anticipating a hefty pay increase on the back of it, and an additional charge of £176 for a family of four staying for two weeks is not to be sneezed at. Maybe now they can also employ someone to give the sunbeds a good scrub down from time to time?

Spoilsports or what? Personally, I have little time for sunbeds mainly because of the dubious sticky residue that is often lingering after the visit of the previous guest. I also get bored very easily, and lying on a sunbed for more than 30 minutes is not my idea of a good time. Would I select a sunbed close to a swimming pool anyway? Certainly not. As someone who has spent a good part of an earlier career looking after a primary school swimming pool, I know only too well what goes into them, and it has very little to do with pre-packaged chemicals. I shall never forget that heady perfume of a mixture of chlorine and urine and, as a result, I now do my utmost to avoid swimming pools of any kind.

I also have a problem with Madge and her family. Remember that television series, Benidorm? Whenever I see a sunbed, I have a vision of that foul speaking creature, Madge, and her apology of a family, all desperately trying to achieve the impossible by gaining both the skin of an elephant and an untreatable form of skin cancer in just one week’s holiday in the sun. Just add a mobility scooter and we could create our own series right here in the Canary Islands.

I guess that I should now mention Brexit, but only in very hushed tones, of course, since people can be very sensitive about such comments. I hear that the Germans have had this option of pre-booking a sunbed for many years. You really must hand it to them - first class organisers, as well as VWs and sausage. Now for the bad news; rumour has it that the new ‘book a sunbed before you fly’ option will only be available until Britain leaves the European Union. After that, it will be a point of serious negotiation and strategic compromise, but my sources in Brussels tell me that the likelihood of maintaining this advantage will be dependent upon a satisfactory trade deal, so Mrs May may well have a problem with this one, and I expect she will be looking for a lengthy transition period. Reliable sources close to the centre of UK decision making also tell me that the Honourable Member of Parliament for the 18th Century, Joseph Septimus Smog, is determined that this newly acquired right of expat sunbed reservation will never be taken away, and certainly never given up to the Germans. Indeed, he has staked his future and that of his unborn child, Octavius Smog, on this one. Let’s wait and see.

So, to British holidaymakers everywhere, do make the most of the new sense of freedom that this new sunbed strategy will give you, even if only for a short time. That dash outside in the early hours of the morning, to casually throw a Union flag towel over your choice of sunbed with gay abandon could shortly be a thing of the past. Brits can now awake at a sensible time and enjoy their all-inclusive breakfast in peace. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​The Cost of Expats Dying

The Cost of Expats Dying

With the exception of articles about receiving British television in Spain, the most popular article on my ‘Living in Spain and the Canary Islands’ website continues to be ‘Death in Spain’, which is why I repeat the publication of this article from time to time. Death is a subject that no one really wants to talk about, but most wise expats know that they should give it some thought, if only to spare their loved ones’ unnecessary problems during a distressing time.

I came face to face with this issue several years ago following the death of a good friend living in Spain. Peter had no living relatives either in Spain or in the UK, and it was left to local friends to ensure that his wishes were carried out. Peter had willed his body for medical research, but because he died of cancer, the body was rejected by the research institute. Peter had expressed no other wishes, and his friends therefore decided that cremation would be the next best alternative.

Meanwhile, Peter’s body was resting in a makeshift mortuary in a private hospital, which sadly also doubled up as a laundry and storage room, with open doors to the car park outside the building. It was imperative that the body be moved as a matter of urgency, because of the heat of the summer. It is not due to lack of sensitivity, but for good reason, that most bodies are either cremated or buried within two or three days of death in most parts of Spain and the Canary Islands.

Calls to the funeral directors revealed that they would require a deposit of around 4000 euros before they would even remove the body from the hospital. By that time, Peter’s bank accounts had already been frozen, and it was unlikely that there were sufficient funds available in the account anyway. It was up to Peter’s friends to collect the funds necessary to pay the undertakers before the body could be moved. Eventually, the deposit was paid, and the funeral company removed the body from the hospital; the funeral and cremation could then go ahead.

As a friend witnessing these events during a distressing period, it made me realise that everyone, and certainly all expats, should make provision for their passing to avoid unnecessary distress and burdens placed upon those that are left. Although it was always something that I had intended to do, this experience made me visit a Spanish insurance company that had been highly recommended a few days after the funeral. For a very modest monthly premium, both my partner and myself are now fully covered - nothing too fancy, just a dignified, and hopefully efficient, end of a story.

Although I am not going to make any recommendations as to the best companies to insure with, I would urge all expats to take out some kind of cover, unless wealthy enough to have a substantial reserve of cash that is readily available to the next of kin. Readily available is the key phrase here, since bank accounts in Spain are rapidly frozen upon death, which can make access to funds difficult at a time when it is most needed.

There are currently many insurance companies advertising funeral plans to expats, with some requiring substantial payments up front. Realising that there is a ready market in expat death, headlines such as “Funeral Costs Rising at a Shocking Rate”, and depressing graphs showing “The Cost of Dying” are currently appearing in many online publications (my apologies if one appears next to this article, but I have no control over it). Of course, these advertisements are meant to frighten as well as to inform, but they do have a useful function in alerting expats to potential problems that they may face.

Experience tells me that whilst some may prefer to pay the full cost of their funeral up front, it is not necessary, and good, basic cover is available for a reasonable monthly or annual premium. For me, a Spanish insurance company with a good track record, together with recommendations from friends was the best choice. As with most of the larger purchases in life, carefully shop around for the best prices and ask questions before you commit yourself. Protection Status

© Barrie Mahoney

​Just Nuts About Almonds

Just Nuts About Almonds

We know that Spring has arrived in the Canary Islands when we see the first flush of flowers on the many magnificent almond trees that embrace the islands. These beautiful flowers, which begin to open after Christmas, create a magnificent and rich landscape of colour. At the end of January and the beginning of February, almond trees demonstrate their full glory, encouraging celebrations in many towns and villages. Canarians never need much of an excuse to have a party, so this spectacle of natural beauty to celebrate the beginning of a New Year, doesn’t need much encouragement.

The Canary Islands were the crossroads between Europe and the Americas for many years. As a result, the islands can boast a rich and varied cuisine, offering a unique blend of flavours that is influenced by Africa, Europe and America. Without going into too much detail here, there is accumulating genetic evidence which suggests that much of the material used for horticulture in the Americas came directly from the Canary Islands. These islands had centuries of trade with Berbers, Phoenicians, and other ethnicities in Morocco, but were only under Spanish control for about 50 years before Columbus. Many believe that the booming almond trade in the United States originates from the Canary Islands.

Many people do not give much thought to almonds, but they have always been a most important part of the cuisine of the Canary Islands. Almond products are many and varied, and used in biscuits and cakes. Almonds can also be mashed into a paste that can be spread on bread - a bit like peanut butter, but without the butter. Almond milk, almond drinks, almond wine and marzipan, as well as almond cakes can easily be found in shops and markets on the islands for most of the year.

Almond trees are found on the greener parts of the Canary Islands. In Puntagorda, on the island of La Palma, a beautiful festival is held at the end of January or beginning of February each year. Parts of Gran Canaria and Tenerife become spectacular gardens of pink and white blossom, particularly around Santiago del Teide and the slopes of Vilaflor in Tenerife.

In Gran Canaria, a visit to the Almond Flower Festival in the village of Tejeda is always a must-visit destination at this time of the year. The festival has been celebrated in this beautiful village since 1972, which acts as a reminder of the importance of almonds to the baking industry of the islands. Dancing and songs against the spectacular and colourful backdrop of the almond trees can be an unforgettable experience.

Crowds of people make their way singing and dancing to native guitar music on the narrow road leading to the church. Many dress in national costume for the event and there are opportunities to sample the local wine and almond based products. There are also opportunities to watch the almonds being cracked and maybe hear almond pickers speaking about their trade.

Spain is the world’s second largest almond producer after the United States, and with a large proportion produced in the Canary Islands. It is no wonder that these nuts are so highly prized, and well worth having a party to celebrate. It is also worth remembering where the nuts come from. Protection Status

© Barrie Mahoney

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