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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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​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I guess the reader was supposed to read between the lines that patients are at risk because of the use of this ‘outdated technology’, and of course the opportunity was used, as usual, to blame the funding crisis for ‘the problem’.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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​There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

I winced when I read an account of a recent Garden Party hosted by the British Ambassador to Spain at his residence in Madrid in honour of the Queen’s birthday. The party was sponsored by a health insurer, an oil company, several banks, an accountancy firm and a communications company to name just a few. Products consumed at the party were supplied by a maker of pink gin, an ice cream manufacturer, a health insurer, an oil company, a restaurant chain, a producer of tonic water, fish from a Northern Ireland cooperative, a meat processor and a brewery. It made me wonder if the British Government (the taxpayer) had actually paid for anything; some will say that this is the point.

We are told that times are hard and the effects of the recession are still with us, but have you noticed that there always seems to be enough money around for those prestige projects? Then, of course, there is that “Brexit dividend” that we all keep hearing about; surely that would have easily have paid for a glass of cava and a cucumber sandwich without going ‘cap in hand’ to a range of British and Spanish businesses? Yes, I am fully aware of the argument that such events “showcase British drive and ingenuity” at a time when the UK needs to demonstrate to the world that, despite Brexit, it is still open for business, but is this really the way to do it?

I am concerned about the growing sponsorship deals by commercial companies intruding into what should be the business of the state. Surely, we all know that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Everything comes with a price tag and purpose, albeit often hidden. By accepting sponsorship of such events there is an assumption that the products and services provided by a company are endorsed and recommended by government and its agencies at the expense of others, which should not be the case.

Many years ago, I worked briefly as a civil servant, and it was always made very clear that any interaction between the government and the commercial sector should be at arm’s length to avoid being seen as bias in favour of one company at the expense of another. Over the years, we have seen considerable erosion of such lofty principles, with blurring and, indeed, merging of commercial and government business.

A few days ago, the British Consulate asked if I could help to publicise an event for expats on the island. Ostensibly, it was to be about Brexit, which I am sure would be very helpful for those expats who have not yet left the island in a bid to escape the summer heat. It was only when I checked on Facebook, that I noticed that it was to be sponsored by a currency exchange company, albeit with a free drink and tapas. I realised that, once again, such sponsorship is potentially more about promoting the commercial activities of a business, rather than unbiased information for expats. I am aware of similar events for expats sponsored by a group of financial advisors; there is probably a chain of fish and chip restaurants and an online bookies already lined up to sponsor future events.

By allowing a private company to advertise and promote an event under the auspices of the British Consul, there is an implication that the UK Government endorses their services. The currency exchange company is probably staffed by perfectly splendid and honourable people with lofty company ideals, although I note that their exchange rates are nowhere near as advantageous as those that I currently get from two rival companies, who I guess were not asked to sponsor this event. As they say, there is no such thing as free tapas, which is probably the reason why their exchange rate is not as good as it could be.

No doubt my cynicism will be rewarded with a sharp exchange of views justifying commercial sponsorship of the event on the grounds of the shrinking size of Foreign Office coffers. Despite this, I know that I am not alone in being concerned about the blurring of commercial interests and the public good. I can only imagine what my superiors in the civil service department that I worked for would have to say about that.

I have considerable admiration for the work of the Foreign Office, its embassies and consulates in its protection, advice and support for UK travellers, businesses and expats around the world. Much of its professionalism has been based upon impartiality, and an insistence upon being seen to do the right thing. Might I suggest a move away from freebies provided by commercial companies and instead to continue to focus with integrity upon providing unbiased advice and support to UK citizens and businesses during this disturbing period of Brexit fudge. The implied endorsement of a particular commercial activity is not the business of government and is certainly not the business of the Foreign Office and its consular services.


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​Calima - Gone With the Wind

Calima - Gone With the Wind

Expats in Spain and the Canary Islands will often hear the words “Oh, it’s just a calima” trotted out whenever it is a little cloudy or there is annoying dust in the air. In reality, it is not quite as simple as that, and the true calima is something to be celebrated, as well as to curse, particularly if you suffer from breathing conditions and respiratory allergies.

In the Canary Islands, the calima is often referred to as “Bruma Seca”, which is “Dry Fog”. It appears for up to ten times each year for a day or two, but in the worst cases, can be present for a week, or even longer. People with respiratory problems and allergies often suffer considerably during these periods. It is a time when sensible people try to stay indoors or wear a face mask when going outside for any length of time if they suffer from breathing conditions.

Calimas are usually, but not always, accompanied by very hot winds, and humidity levels increase. Residents are plagued with reddish dust on their patios and cars, which also invades every crevice of their homes. A calima occurs when dust from the Sahara Desert is dragged across landmass by strong winds. Dust can remain suspended for hours and even days; visibility is reduced and the air becomes cloudy as a result of the dust.

The Canary Islands are often regarded as having the “best climate in the world”, but we are not immune from the devastating effects of calimas. The intensity of heat on the islands increases respiratory problems and allergies, as well as general oral health. The tiny particles of dust generated irritates the mucous membranes, which can have serious implications for oral health. Often, as a result of taking antihistamines to control allergies, the immune system fills the hollows of our head with mucus. The cavities that are located above the mouth cause pain and greater sensitivity to cold and heat when filled with mucus, because of increased pressure upon the upper teeth.

Calimas are not all bad, since the Central Sahara was a lake in prehistoric times. The dry sand contains fertile remains of its once rich, organic particles. These nitrogen-rich components within a calima help to fertilise the Atlantic Ocean by promoting the growth of phytoplankton, which forms the basis of the food chain that allows all sea creatures to survive and thrive. Climate change scientists believe that the greenhouse effect is minimised, because the sea’s micro-organisms absorb harmful carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. In other words, the more phytoplankton in the sea, the less carbon dioxide in the air. However, it is a delicate balance and too much dust in the Atlantic could create too much plankton and areas of low oxygen, which is not so good.

According to researchers, calima dust from the Sahara also helps to feed plants in the Amazon, since it acts as a fertiliser, which helps the rain forest to grow and thrive. There are also other complex interactions linking calimas to events that we do not yet fully understand. Some studies claim that the damage of hurricanes is reduced due to the effect of calimas cooling the water temperature that is needed for hurricanes to build. Around one third of the natural soils that make up the Canary Islands are based upon Saharan dust that has dropped on the islands over millennia. The rich, fertile soils on these islands have been enriched through the effects of the calima.

Many suffer from the health effects of the calima, or complain about the dust that has landed on their patios and cars. Maybe we should instead be grateful that it is feeding the luscious plants in the Amazon rain forest, fertilising the Atlantic Ocean for sea creatures to survive, as well as reducing the greenhouse effect that has such serious implications for us all.


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​La Boda (The Wedding)

La Boda (The Wedding)

I gate-crashed a wedding last week. In my defence, it was a genuine accident, but I am rather pleased that I did. Like many people, I enjoy a good wedding; it is one of those events where the power of love forcibly overpowers the cynicism and doubt that can inhabit some of our lives. It takes the most hardened cynic not to feel just a twinge of emotion and ‘something of the beyond’ when watching a couple committing themselves to a life with each other.

I was enjoying a drink and people-watching in one of my favourite bars in a nearby village when a large crowd of chattering and laughing Canarians burst through the door. At first I thought that it was a local fiesta, but all wore smart clothes and some were carrying small bouquets of flowers. I soon realised from the conversation that they were attending a wedding that was taking place in the small church next door to the bar. It always amuses me when I see bars situated very closely to the local church, but Catholic services to tend to go on for rather a long time, so I guess it is very sensible planning.

This particular group of wedding guests had arrived for the wedding service a little later than planned, and the small village church was already full. Undaunted, the group wisely decided to relocate to the bar next door and to begin their wedding celebrations early. I was told that both the bride and groom were very popular local teachers, which explained the large number of young people in the group.

Spanish and Canarians don’t really do small intimate weddings; it is very much a case of ‘the bigger the better’, and it is not unusual to see the uninvited chatting and gossiping outside a church when the ceremony is in progress in the hope of catching a glimpse of the happy couple after the official event, and taking part in the celebrations afterwards. Spanish weddings are best regarded as marathons, and guests are well advised to allocate a whole day to the celebrations; they are best described as a test of endurance.

After throwing rice over the happy couple (confetti is just not done over here), the couple will be involved in endless photo shoots, which is a good time for guests to head to the local bar, often accompanied by the officiating priest. By the time that the real partying begins, guests are already very happy and ready to tuck into cocktails and canapes, followed by a multi-course banquet (sitting down, of course). Later, coffee and cake are served before guests head to the generous open bar and to enjoy the dancing and raunchy ‘follow my leader’ games that will eventually bring the celebrations to a close.

At this point, you may well be asking how all this partying is paid for. Traditionally, much of it is paid for by the guests, which is very much part of Spanish tradition going back to the days when this was the only way that a wedding could be paid for. If you are invited to a Spanish wedding, please don't think that presenting the happy couple with an electric toaster will get you off the hook. It will not, but a generous amount of cash or a cheque will do very nicely. A basket is usually handed around during the reception to collect the generous monetary gifts, although the more discrete will have paid the money into the couple’s bank account before the event. In order not to appear a cheapskate, a wedding gift should at least cover the cost of your food and drink at the reception, plus a bit more. My partying friends told me that 100 euros per person is currently regarded as the acceptable starting point.

My wedding party, and I say ‘mine’ because I was invited to join in, quickly entered into the celebratory spirit. Later, huge doors were opened to the rear of what appeared to be a small cafe bar to reveal a huge banqueting hall all beautifully set out for the lengthy banquet to come. We were soon joined by the main guests, looking very relieved as they escaped from the church and headed to the bar. Later, much later, the bride and groom would join the party and the real fun could begin.

I had unexpectedly witnessed and briefly taken part in yet another side of Canarian life. Sadly, I had another engagement to go to, and reluctantly left before the bride and groom returned from their photo shoot. I left wondering what condition the guests would be in the following morning, but felt quite sure that they would have given the happy couple a day that they would never forget.

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​Let’s Thresh a Lentil

Let's Thresh a Lentil

An interesting photographic exhibition in Lanzarote caught my eye this week. The exhibition, which was presented by local students, brought together 300 photographs from the family albums of their grandparents and great grandparents, which reflected life on the island in the last century.

In one photograph, the great grandparents of one student are shown threshing lentils, which were grown on the island. Lentils are usually regarded as one of the world’s healthiest foods and it was interesting to see that they were grown and harvested in Lanzarote, as well as the other Canary Islands.

The island of Lanzarote is just sixty miles off the coast of the Sahara. It is a dry and volcanic island, with six to eight inches of rain in a good year and much less during a drought; both this and its volcanic geology became this island’s destiny. Serious problems for islanders were caused by volcanic disasters. As with all the Canary Islands, such conditions determined the crops that could be grown to ensure survival in sometimes wretched economic and climatic conditions. One of the answers was to be lentils.

Long before the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, people used the rich, fertile earth to grow a range of subsistence crops, which included lentils. The lentil is one of the oldest and hardiest foods in the world, and there is no legume more resistant to arid land than the lentil. It needs very little water to grow and can survive the hottest or coldest of climates.

Lentils originated in central Asia and have been eaten since prehistoric times and are one of the first foods known to be cultivated, since seeds dating back 8000 years have been found in archaeological sites in the Middle East. Archaeologists even discovered traces of lentils buried with the dead in Egyptian pyramids. The humble lentil had reached mythical status and was praised for its ability to enlighten the mind, even in the afterlife. In Catholic countries, such as Spain and the Canary Islands, lentils have long been used as a staple food during Lent.

Lentil stew is a popular dish in the Canary Islands, and often served with potatoes, chorizo and vegetables. I am also told that the addition of garlic croutons and red Canary wine together with crusty bread makes a comforting and wholesome dish, and best found in many of the small, traditional family-run restaurants on the islands. Lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking, have multiple uses in the kitchen, and their flavour enhances any vegetable or meat ingredient. It is no wonder that they have been a treasured foodstuff since early times.

As a vegetarian for many years, I have long been aware of the high nutritional properties of the humble lentil. They are an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering fibre, as well as having an ability to manage blood sugar levels following a meal. Lentils contain seven of the most important minerals, including B-vitamins and protein, and with virtually no fat. Indeed, just a cupful of cooked lentils will set you back around 200 calories, so they are great for anyone on a diet. The fibre content helps to overcome digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and prevents constipation. There are also huge benefits to the heart; according to food intake studies, lentils were associated with an 82 per cent reduction in risk from heart attacks due to their fibre, as well as from the significant amounts of folate and magnesium. Lentils are rich in iron and, unlike red meat, are not rich in calories or fat, which makes them ideal for those who require increased levels of iron, including growing children and adolescents.

I am very fond of pasta dishes, but try to avoid eating them too often, because they can be very fattening. I have recently discovered pasta made entirely from lentils, which can now be easily purchased from some of the major supermarkets. At last, I can enjoy pasta without worrying about the calories.

This one old photograph of a couple threshing lentils on this beautiful island reminded me of the immense value of the humble lentil, which can be rightly called “an ancient crop for modern times”. If you haven’t yet eaten a lentil dish, or used them within a meal, I recommend that you do. As for me, I’m off to enjoy a lentil bake and a glass of red Lanzarote wine for lunch.


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