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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

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​No Smiling Please, We’re British!

Letters from the Atlantic

I’m sure that we have all heard of the British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, but until recent experiences when attempting to renew my passport I was always unclear as to what this expression really meant. Have you tried practicing one in front of the mirror recently? It really is very difficult.

Over the years, I have received emails from expats telling me of some of their experiences and problems when renewing British passports. It all used to be relatively easy for expats. Usually, popping into the local Consulate office, handing over the usual batch of forms, a couple of photos and the fee, and the passports were either processed internally, sent to the British Embassy or to the UK for processing. It usually didn't take too long and there was often very little fuss and bother. The system worked, although it sometimes creaked a little during seasonal peaks of heavy demand.

Then there was terrorism, requirements for additional security, biometric passports…and then there was Belfast. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am sure that the staff in the Belfast passport office are a splendid bunch of people, and I am sure that they don't mind a spot of good natured criticism from time to time. Frankly, it seems there are a few staff tucked away in the bowels of the Belfast office who could be best described as ‘Jobsworths’. According to several of my correspondents, passport applications and renewals have been delayed, returned or refused simply because “your photo did not meet requirements”.

We all know that getting a passport photo can be a life or death situation - we just have to get it right, don't we? What do I wear? Is the hair ok? What about the smile? Am I slouching on the kiosk stool? Which is my best side? After all, the passport photo will live with us for around ten years and will determine whether or not we will be treated decently as one of Her Majesty's esteemed subjects or thrown into a grubby jail in a foreign country. The passport and accompanying photo are essential and valuable, and make us real people if we wish to travel.

Last week, it was my turn. Instead of popping my passport renewal application into the local Consulate office for it to be processed and returned from Madrid, I am now told that in the interests of customer service and increased security it will now be quicker and simpler for me to apply online, and then send the application to Belfast for it to be returned by courier four weeks later, if I am fortunate. All this for the princely sum of £102 with an incredible range of valuable consular services thrown in as well. What’s not to like? Bargain at half the price.

Several correspondents have told me that passport applicants should be very careful not to use the passport photo kiosks that are readily available in most of Spain, because they do not provide photos of the size specified by the UK’s passport office. It was with this warning in mind that I called into a photographic shop to ask if they could provide me with a set of passport photos. The very helpful lady in the shop immediately asked if it was for a British passport. If so, I would have to be very careful as smiling is strictly forbidden. Apparently, applicants from France, Spain, Germany and Ireland are free to smile like Cheshire cats if they wish, but British applicants must look stony-faced into the camera.

It took the photographer four attempts before she was satisfied that my photo would be acceptable. Apparently, I looked far too cheerful, and so for the final attempt I used my best ‘cross face’, which I usually reserved for naughty children behaving badly in the playground. Eventually, the photographer was content that my photos would pass the UK test and I was sent on my way.

I have now completed my application form and it is ready to post. Whether or not the Passport Office in Belfast will let me have a new passport after reading this article remains to be seen. I also have a hideous passport photo that will only ever be shown to the poor souls checking me in at airport security. My best advice for fellow passport applicants? Just aim for the British ‘Stiff Upper Lip’, and you will be fine.

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

​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


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