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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

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​The Perpetual Knife Sharpener

The Perpetual Knife Sharpener

I always admire people who get off their backsides and do something worthwhile with their lives. People, who have an idea, recognise a niche in the market and attempt to fill it with their own hard work, imagination and effort. Maybe their initiative will lead to something larger than they initially imagined, or maybe it will remain as a useful, but small business. The important thing is that they had a dream, and they succeeded in realising their dream.

It had been haunting me for several years. The sound of panpipes when I was least expecting it finding its tuneful way through open windows or when I was quietly tending the garden. The problem was that I could not link the sound to anyone or anything. At first, I thought that maybe a neighbour’s child was practicing the flute, or a piccolo. Possibly, it was the early onset of insanity, or one too many, since I could not find anyone else who had actually heard it. Some considerable time later, I heard a similar sound in our neighbouring town, but that turned out to be a delivery of bottled gas. Anyway, it was not exactly the same sound, which I would recognise anywhere.

A few days ago, I finally discovered the source of the sound. It comes from a travelling knife sharpener who uses the sound to warn and attract potential customers of his arrival. I caught him in the act one afternoon when I was pruning a tree. Our boisterous dog, Bella, suddenly heard the noise in the distance and was determined to rescue me from the creator of this strange sound. I stood in the road expectantly watching as the sound became louder and louder. Eventually, an ancient moped came into sight carrying quite a large elderly man. Sadly, he was not actually playing the panpipes that I had imagined, but the same sound was coming from somewhere at the back of his moped.

I waved the man down, and he eventually came to wobbly stop. I asked him what he was doing and where he had come from. It transpired that he was a knife sharpener who had travelled from Las Palmas to sharpen knives, scissors and all manner of cutting instruments that require his services from time to time. Do you play the panpipes, I asked? Sadly, he did not. He grinned and pointed to a button on his handlebars. He pressed a greasy, green button and the blissful angelic sounds of panpipes sounded from somewhere near the exhaust of his ancient moped.

Alberto, the knife sharpener, travels all over the island, visiting towns and villages where he thinks people are in need of his services. As I had a pair of secateurs, as well as an ancient yet effective long armed trimmer that were both as blunt as a butter knives, I retrieved them and handed them to him. I wondered if they were too far gone to be rescued, but he smiled, nodded and started the small generator that was attached to his moped. The generator whirred as he ground, smoothed and manicured the rusty metal on the long-neglected secateurs, whilst I stood back and admired how well the moped had been converted. As well as a small generator, the moped had a grinding wheel and other gadgets added, all powered by the generator, to assist in the process of sharpening and grinding.

Several minutes later the secateurs were completed. They looked shiny and felt as sharp as the day that I had bought them. Alberto then moved on to the long arm trimmer, which I had thought about replacing for some time. This was a much bigger job, and he skilfully ground, smoothed and sanded before he was satisfied with his work. He asked me for some oil, commenting sadly that a teenager had stolen his can of oil earlier that morning. I handed him a can of ‘Three-in-One’. Alberto nodded, as if approving of my choice, and lathered both tools generously with oil before handing them to me. He grinned a toothy smile as he collected the cash.

I asked for his business card or mobile number just in case I wanted to contact him again, as I have several ancient tools in need of some care and restoration. Alberto had neither, but told me that he would be around again in a month or so. He covers most of the island on his moped with generator at the ready, so I guess it will be some time before we see him again.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Letters from the Atlantic

​The Mysterious Electrical Power Surge

Letters from the Atlantic

Over the years that I have been writing ‘Letters from the Atlantic’, it has become something of a two-way exchange of views, and I am always grateful to those expats who are happy to share their experiences. ‘Letters’ is often based on questions and comments that I receive from expats in several countries who, like myself, are faced with challenging issues from time to time. There are times when I think that I have slipped into an Alternative Universe, since no reasonable explanation or answer appears to be forthcoming. I suspect that many expats will know exactly what I mean as they deal with new laws, regulations, processes and bureaucracy in their newly adopted countries. I know from correspondence from readers that, on occasions, we all seem to battle against an issue that no one else seems to be aware of, or care about.

For me, one example is the mysterious electrical power surge. Often, whilst cooking a meal, working on the computer or watching television, the power will switch off for no apparent reason. At first I used to think that these were power cuts, but I have since learned that it is a power surge, since all the other homes around me still have electricity. At other times, our neighbour will find that his power switches off, whilst ours is still working. I can understand why this may happen during a lightning storm, and even at times of heavy demand, such as meal times and excessive demand for air conditioning. However, when this occurs during quiet times and at night, I find this puzzling.

Anyone who knows anything about power surges will know that such surges can be very destructive. Unless appropriate gadgetry is provided to protect the circuit, appliances can be destroyed. This is the main purpose of the switch turning off when there is a power surge, but it can be so annoying. It is particularly frustrating when using a computer, for instance, which is why I now protect these items with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) box, which gives me just enough time to reset the power switch, or to correctly close down the computer and other delicate appliances. Sometimes, this performance can go on for some time, in which case we sit in darkness (if at night) for a while, before attempting to switch the power on once again, in the hope that all has settled down. We then may go for several weeks before the problems begin again.

I have forgotten the number of times that I have left the house, boarded a flight somewhere, only to receive a text from the alarm company to report that the power in our house has failed. This then means that I have to call a very helpful friend, who has to go into our home to switch the power on again. I cannot leave it switched off because of food in the fridge and freezer. Often my friend will have to return to our house several times to restore the power, before it eventually settles down.

Over the years, I have mentioned the problem to neighbours, who nod ambiguously, and tell me that it happens to them too, but they don't seem at all concerned about it. I have reported it to the electricity company on several occasions, only for them either to deny that there is a problem, to suggest that it is my fault and that the electric circuits in our home should be checked, or that if they have to come out to check there will be a hefty inspection charge.

Some time ago, I asked an electrician to check that our circuitry was performing correctly, and I have also had the switch boxes replaced twice. On each occasion, I am told that all is working normally and that there is no problem inside or outside our property. One electrician told me that properties receive power in groups of three installations and that the power fluctuation happens to all three properties at the same time, but not necessarily to all the properties in the same street. I am no expert on matters electrical, and this explanation mystifies me.

I am sure that by now, some readers will be identifying our home as the cause of the problem, but exactly the same thing happened in our previous home, an apartment just a few kilometres from our present home. Over the years that I have been on the island, no one so far has been able to satisfactorily explain why this happens and what can be done about it. The response of most people is merely to switch the power back on again, which is not easy when you are travelling away from home. Surely, in these high-tech times, there is a simple way of levelling out power to prevent surges from reaching customers?

So, there we have it. If there are any electricians out there who can give me a reasonable and non-technical explanation of why this is happening, I would be most grateful. Similarly, I would also be interested to hear from other readers who may have the same problem and what they have done to correct it.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Footprints in the Sand



Controversy at the Carnival

Letters from the Atlantic

In the Canary Islands, as well as in many predominantly Catholic countries around the world, we are currently enjoying a period of collective madness, commonly known as Carnival. Until a few years ago when cheap overseas travel and holidays became readily available, few British people had ever experienced or understood what Carnival was really about; it is certainly not just about amazingly gorgeous dresses, high heels and skimpily dressed girls and guys.

Carnival is part of the Christian, and mostly Catholic, festival season that takes place just before the period known as Lent. It is a period of excess and celebration involving parades, parties, as well as elements of the circus added for good measure. Masks and costumes are worn, together with an excessive consumption of alcohol and food. Food fights, mockery of authority, satire and exaggeration are the order of the day. Abusive language, exaggerated features, such as mouths, bellies, noses and penises are all part of the fun, with gleeful depictions of death and disease being part of a time when the world is viewed through a different lens with the reversal of what passes for everyday normality.

It is in this context that various Carnival parades are currently taking place in towns and cities all across Spain and the Canary Islands. In Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, for instance, this three-week binge that culminates in a parade that is billed as ‘Second only to Rio’, vulgarity and tackiness are at their peak. In Germany too, there were raised eyebrows with one impressive float sporting a huge and colourful effigy of the UK's Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May, with a loaded pistol marked 'Brexit' pointing into her mouth, no doubt ready to blow her brains out. Another popular float featured the ever-controversial US President Trump sexually violating the robed and tearful figure 'Libertas’, a Roman goddess (of Statue of Liberty fame), which is not a sight for the easily offended or faint hearted, I might add, although it is surprisingly poignant in its message. Carnival is not always comfortable, since it challenges authority and established views, as well as mocking the status quo; this was one of the reasons why the dictator, General Franco, wanted to ban it in the Canary Islands during Spain’s Civil War.

Closer to home, the winner of the Las Palmas de Gran Canaria Carnival Drag Queen competition was won by an artist with an imaginative interpretation of the Virgin Mary that cleverly morphed into Christ's crucifixion; in so many ways, it was a well-deserved win for a talented artist. I found myself feeling both very impressed, as well as uncomfortable by the performance, which for me was a step too far. The Bishop of the Canary Islands waded into the controversy, reportedly describing the performance as "frivolous blasphemy", and then unwisely commented that it was the saddest day of his time on the Canary Islands, and even more disturbing than the plane crash at Barajas airport of the flight destined for Gran Canaria that claimed the lives of 154 residents and tourists several years ago. Such comments are not only cruel coming from a man of the cloth, but also upsetting to many people, not least the relatives and friends of the victims. I sincerely hope that the interpretation of the Bishop's words were down to linguistic errors and not an expression of his true feelings. If so, many would suggest a period of retreat and reflection for the good Bishop to reconcile his views with the feelings of so many who were hurt and offended by his careless comments, whatever his views about blasphemy, of which he has a point.

So, as Carnival comes to an end for another year, with the burial of that blessed sardine once again, we can only reflect and wonder upon the artistry, energy and imagination that so many performers have displayed during these weeks of excess. On a more serious note, I hope that we are all wise enough to recognise the anger, criticism and defiance of authority that have entered the Carnival parades this year. After all, over the years, Carnival has always reflected the times that we are in; it is also a time when many true and honest feelings are genuinely expressed.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Footprints in the Sand


What's Not to Like?

Letters from the Atlantic

Although the current ‘party line’ in the UK appears to demand that the European Union be viewed with acute suspicion and blamed for everything that has got wrong in Europe and, in particular, the United Kingdom, there are still many of us that actually appreciate the EU and all that it has achieved over the years. So, before any determined Brexiters reading this article choke on their cornflakes, I should add a rider that I am viewing its achievements through the eyes of an expat living in Spain and the Canary Islands. The UK has made its own decision and it is time to move on.

The EU’s anniversary summit and celebrations are due to take place on 25 March 2017, and although the British Prime Minister has been invited, at the time of writing it is anticipated that she will not attend on the basis that it is not regarded as appropriate for the UK to take part in an act of unity and forward planning when the country is about to leave. On this day, EU leaders will gather in Rome to look back over 60 years when just six countries embarked on a project aimed at uniting Europe. The Treaty of Rome was signed on 25 March 1957 by the then leaders of France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. As well as a time for celebration, it will be a time for reflection, as well as looking forward to a challenging new decade that will see the UK leave the EU, as well as a new and unpredictable US President to deal with.

In Spain and the Canary Islands, the post Franco period could have been one of acute turmoil and political unrest, but the EU nurtured this troubled country into the successful and peaceful democracy that we see today. I am not saying that Spain could not have done this on its own, but it would have been much harder and a more painful process to achieve in so short a space of time. Much of the island where I live, half of which was mostly a barren desert wilderness sixty years ago, has been transformed into an island holiday paradise where many holidaymakers come to escape to the sun. Major infrastructure projects, such as roads, bridges, and tunnels cut though mountain regions have been funded by the European Union enabling all of the island to be developed, which benefits residents and tourists alike. Again, without this level of funding, I doubt that this development would have happened.

As far as benefiting my own life, and for many others like me, the freedom to live and work in any of the member states has been one of the most significant benefits, accompanied by the freedom to purchase property, open a business and enjoy life in a country of my own choosing, rather than being trapped in the country of my birth. For me, this has been a blessing that will be denied to others through rigid immigration policies and other restrictions that have become the narrative of many in the UK.

Citizens’ confidence in the EU has been badly shaken in recent times due to the World Economic crisis, the clumsy handling of debt for countries, such as Greece, and the migrants’ crisis. During this period of doom and gloom, it is easy to forget the EU’s many achievements, which include 57 per cent of all UK trade, clean rivers and beaches, structural support for areas of decline such as Wales, Cornwall and Lincolnshire, cleaner air, recycling, cheaper mobile phone charges, cheaper air travel, no paperwork or customs between member countries, access to European health services, EU funded research, labour protection, maternity rights, counter terrorism…I could go on for a few more pages, but you get the general idea? Above all, after centuries of war between European neighbours, the EU has finally brought peace.

I, for one, will be celebrating the European Union and the influence for good that it has upon Spain and the Canary Islands, as well as for the people of Europe on 25 March. As with so many things in our fast-moving lives, we often do not know the value of something until we have lost it.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Footprints in the Sand



A Poisonous Debate

Letters from the Atlantic

I read a story this week about a woman who left her husband of twenty-two years, reportedly because he voted for Donald Trump and she felt a sense of acute betrayal that affected all areas of their relationship. This story also raises some poignant issues in relation to Brexit and other current issues where the original intention of a well-considered, thoughtful and civilised debate has turned into a poisonous one affecting many areas of national, as well as everyday life and relationships. Burning passions on both sides of the debate concerning the Trump and Brexit debates have taken their toll upon many families and friendships, and continue to do so.

During the run up to the EU referendum, I received several very unpleasant emails from some expats criticising my views on remaining in the European Union that I expressed in 'Letters from the Atlantic'. Yes, I am a committed Remainer, and an unashamedly committed European for as long as I can remember. What surprised me at the time was not only the strength of feeling expressed, but that the criticisms were coming from expats who were themselves living in EU countries. I wondered then, as I do now, how it is possible to be an expat living in Europe, and enjoying its many advantages, yet wanting to deny these advantages to others. It is an example of what seems logical to some is completely illogical to others.

As a democrat, I reluctantly accepted the result of the referendum, but I do reserve the right alongside the 48%, who lost the argument, to object, to complain, to challenge and to criticise where appropriate as the UK staggers towards an eventual agreement with the European Union. The Leave campaign had a 52% win, and it is important to respect the views of the majority, which in most cases will have been carefully considered; however, the views of the minority should not be ignored.

A further reminder of the American woman who has left her husband because he had voted for Trump arrived in my email inbox this morning. I was sad to receive a message from one of my regular correspondents telling me that he and his partner have decided to separate after several years of living together, mainly because of their differences over the EU referendum. Apparently, their views were not reconcilable and since on one occasion, it turned to violence, the couple decided to call it a day. I suspect, and hope, that the referendum was not the only reason for the break up of this relationship, but it does help to explain the differences and strength of feelings involved. One thing that struck me most in this email was the comment, which was similar to the experiences of the American woman, that my correspondent felt betrayed by his partner, whom he had trusted implicitly for many years.

I have read about and am aware of a number of families and friends that are having problems coming to some kind of reconciliation over this controversial issue, which I initially found difficult to understand. If I am honest, my own attitudes to some people that have forcibly expressed a very different view to my own has changed my perceptions of them, and which I am sure, has changed their perceptions of me. In most cases, it is not sufficient to end a friendship, but does make me more cautious in what I say about a number of issues; in other words, the openness and mutual trust has gone, at least for the time being.

Well, the genie is now well and truly out of the bottle and it is true that many people now feel liberated to say exactly what they feel about immigration, inequality, foreigners, governments, as well as a host of many other grievances that appear to have been suppressed for many years. If these views are expressed clearly, calmly and without malice, it can be a good thing, yet from what we have seen in the mainstream media, as well as in social media, in recent weeks, I somehow doubt it.

If you enjoyed this article, take a look at Barrie’s websites: http://barriemahoney.com and http://thecanaryislander.com or read his latest book, ‘Footprints in the Sand’ (ISBN: 9780995602717). Available in paperback, as well as Kindle editions.

© Barrie Mahoney

Footprints in the Sand

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