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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

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Inflationary Gin

Letters from the Atlantic

It is strange how fashion works, with what is ‘in’ and what is ‘out’ endlessly changing on what often seems like a whim. However, one piece of news took my attention this week; news that many expats will not be surprised to read.

I have quite a lot of time for Mark Carney, that earnest, Canadian banker who currently presides over the Bank of England as its governor. It is true that before, during and following the Brexit referendum, Mr Carney had a turbulent time. Accused of being too pessimistic in his forecasts by some during the EU referendum, with the more outspoken of his critics calling for his resignation. Still, he has remained calm under fire and even managed to oversee the release of that rather lovely new one pound coin. With a bit of luck, he should remain happily in his post for the next few years.

I like the Governor’s grounded, and clearly spoken approach. I have previously felt that his predecessors would either drop off to sleep mid interview, or send me into a comatose state when listening, but the present Governor does seem to have his eye on the ball. However, I do feel that he would do well to take a little advice from the hordes of gin drinkers, both at home and abroad. Yes, gin is most certainly ‘in’.

We hear quite a lot about inflation and discussions about whether interest rates will rise or fall, which can be very boring. I am very concerned that Mr Carney currently fails to mention the price of gin when debating these very serious inflation forecasts. According to experts on the subject, the price of gin can seriously affect inflation statistics, so much so that the Office of National Statistics will shortly include the nation’s favourite tipple in the ‘typical shopping basket’ that is used to calculate inflation. Gin has been added because sales of it have boomed in recent times, which I am told is because of the 40 or so new distilleries that have opened since 2016, as well as effective, persuasive marketing.

Reportedly, gin has been HM Queen Elizabeth’s favourite tipple for many years. The British public has followed her lead, and drunk more gin than ever in recent years, notching up a 16 per cent increase in sales that has now reached an impressive £1 billion. Some experts claim that gin is needed to smooth the way, as well as easing the pain, as the country heads towards Brexit. Although gin has been a popular member of the British drinks cabinet for many years, it was nowhere near as popular as other spirits, such as vodka that used to be particularly popular in nightclubs. It seems that vodka has now fallen out of fashion, and gin has taken its place. Of course, this is not news to the thousands of expats who have cherished their G&Ts on their sun terraces for many years, and has become a staple part of their liquid diet.

As far as that eternal ‘shopping basket’ is concerned, I was saddened to read that brake pads, along with menthol cigarettes and non-smartphone handsets have now been removed. I would have thought that decent brakes were essential in light of all of that gin flowing around the country.

I should stress that the UK’s newly revised ‘shopping basket’ will not only consist of gin, but that children’s scooters, cycle helmets, cough syrup and half-chocolate-coated biscuits will now also be added. The logic of the ‘shopping basket’ escapes me, but I am sure that that nice Mr Carney will find it all very helpful. As for gin, personally I cannot stand the stuff, but I am always happy to defend the virtues of a nice bottle of malt.

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 - Barrie Mahoney

The Belted Bus

Letters from the Atlantic

I wonder what readers think about those magic words ‘health and safety’? For me, it is usually an excuse for some ‘jobsworth’ in a government or local authority office trying to stop me from doing something that I really want to do, with nothing more to offer than a feeble, illogical excuse. Of course, ‘health and safety' is important and is intended to be a good thing, but only when it benefits workers, individuals and the wider community, and not as a pointless control mechanism designed to irritate.

In the UK, Germany and much of Scandinavia, ‘health and safety’ is taken very seriously and there is usually some consistency to the approach. For instance, if you trip on a paving slab, a complaint to the local authority is usually taken seriously and the issue corrected. It can also provide a convenient opportunity for litigation lawyers to pounce and sue the Town Hall on your behalf.

In Mediterranean countries, such as Spain, France and Italy, the issue is generally taken much less seriously. One could kindly say that maybe a more pragmatic and flexible approach is taken to such matters. I know from several correspondents who have slipped or tripped on tiled pavements or broken concrete stairs in public places, that the response from the Town Hall is often little more than “You should have been more careful”. Maybe they have a point.

It was with this in mind that I was surprised to find seat belts fitted to all the seats on a new bus on the island when I caught the bus to Las Palmas this week. There was an incident on the island a few weeks ago when an ancient bus caught fire; fortunately, no one was hurt, but I think it did lead to questions to be asked of the bus company and several new buses were ordered and added to its ageing fleet. Fitting seat belts in buses is a sensible idea; after all, these valuable safety additions have been compulsory in cars for many years. When we boarded the bus, a warning light shone at the front of the bus to remind passengers to belt up. I noticed an Italian couple with two young children, and an elderly German couple using the belts, but only a few other passengers complied. Still, the thought was there.

This sudden attention to health and safety contrasts starkly with the bus company’s policy of allowing up to thirty people to stand in the aisle of the bus during the fifty-minute motorway journey to Las Palmas. Whilst I fully understand the necessity for occasional standing on crowded, but short bus journeys in the city, asking passengers to stand for the entire journey on a busy motorway, renowned for regular accidents, is nothing short of highly dangerous, as well as uncomfortable. Personally, I no longer cooperate with this, since I would rather get off the bus and wait for the next one.

So, there we have it, a brand-new bus fitted with seat belts, which few people use, whilst the bus company continues to allow passengers to stand in the aisle of a bus filled to capacity on a fast-moving motorway well known for traffic accidents. Logical? No, but then again, few things are… As for health and safety, I guess it is a step in the right direction.

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

​Tricked by the Insurance Company

Letters from the Atlantic

I occasionally receive emails from expats who have fallen foul of insurance companies in their adopted countries. The problem is usually a lack of understanding of the cultural differences in terms and conditions, as well as language issues. Two readers, Debbie and John, raised an issue with me this week about property insurance.

The couple bought an apartment in the Costa Blanca about ten years ago, with the help of a mortgage from a Spanish bank. At the time of the purchase, the bank also insisted that they take out the bank’s property and contents insurance, which the couple did not think unreasonable at the time. Over the years, the couple paid their annual premium, but were irritated that the premium was always drawn from their bank account before they received their renewal notice. Again, this issue seems to be a regular pattern with insurance and utility companies in Spain, and is a blatant attempt to prevent customers from switching to another company at the time of renewal.

On two occasions over the years, the couple had to make small claims for damage to their home, and had become annoyed and disillusioned with the insurance company for their lack of courtesy and efficiency in dealing with their problems. Their many phone calls to the company were usually neither answered nor returned, which led the couple to wonder what would happen if they had a really serious problem that required their assistance.

The final straw came in November 2016, when Debbie called the company to ask what their likely premiums would be from January 2017, since the premiums had increased substantially the previous year. The poor response from the company was enough to convince Debbie that they should change insurance companies at the end of the year. The couple decided to insure their property with the same company that insured their car; not only would they receive a substantial discount on premiums, but they trusted the company having had a claim several years earlier, which had been well handled. As a bonus, the company had English speaking staff and the insurance policies were provided both in English and Spanish.

John went to the bank and cancelled the direct debit to the insurance company. He also wrote a letter to the company, explaining that they were dissatisfied and would not be renewing their policy in January. In addition, he sent a copy of the letter by fax to the head office of the company, knowing how much Spanish companies still value the humble fax machine.

Content in the knowledge that their home was now insured with a company that they could trust, Debbie and John went back to the UK for a few weeks. On their return, they were surprised to see a letter from the previous company confirming renewal of the old policy. John telephoned the company and after several attempts managed to speak to someone who told them that they couldn't cancel the policy, as they had not received a cancellation letter within the one month period prior to expiry; they were expected to pay the premium for another full year.

Over the next few weeks, there was a heated exchange of letters and phone calls between the couple and the insurance company demanding the premium. Despite having sent both a letter and fax, John had no receipts to prove that these had been sent. The situation turned into one of blame with the company denying receipt of the letter of cancellation, whilst John and Debbie argued that they had complied fully with the company’s terms and conditions.

Speaking to several banking and insurance contacts on Debbie and John’s behalf, it seems that their experience is not unusual and appears to be usual practice in Spain, with expats being particularly vulnerable to coercion. Once a policy is cancelled, many insurance companies will continue to demand unpaid premiums, make threats by telephone and letter as well as threatening court action for a period of time. In some cases, they take the premium from the bank without the customer’s permission. The advice is clear:

  • Ensure that you give at least 30 days’ notice of cancellation to the insurance company, in Spanish.
  • Send the letter ‘certificado’, ensuring that you retain the Correos receipt and track safe receipt of the letter, if possible.
  • Send a copy of the letter by fax, and retain the ‘send and receipt’ slip provided by the machine.
  • If the company denies receiving correct cancellation of the policy, send them copies of the receipts (again, send signed for), and ignore further communications from them. In most cases, the threats will cease after a few weeks, and in only rare cases is it worth the insurance company’s trouble and expense in taking legal action against the policyholder.
  • If the insurance company takes the money from a bank account without permission, insist upon a refund of the premium from the bank within 45 days of the transaction taking place.

Sadly, the ombudsman and complaints systems for banking and insurance are not as well advanced as in the UK, which is also a problem for those expats who have little understanding of the language. The insurance companies know this and many are only too willing to take advantage to boost profits.

Expat property owners with mortgages from Spanish banks should be aware that they are not obliged to accept a policy suggested by the bank, who also provides the mortgage. Customers are at liberty to shop around and find the best deal with a company with a proven track record of good claims support and customer service. The bank may insist upon a copy of the new policy, together with an entry in the policy document confirming that the bank has an interest in the property, together with the mortgage account number, which is a reasonable request.

Despite this issue, there are some good insurance companies in Spain, who provide a high-level of customer service and support when it is most needed. Some companies also offer excellent support in English too, which is helpful at times of crisis. It is a question of shopping around, but not only for price. It is also important to speak to other expats who have had experience of claiming from a company; after all it is help when you need it urgently that is most important.

I intend to include a list of insurance companies that readers have found helpful on the Expat Survival website, as well as those that have failed to meet expectations. If you have had a particularly good or poor experience of an insurance company in Spain, please let me know.

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



Even More Ashamed to be British

Letters from the Atlantic

April Fool’s week has been an interesting one for dedicated expats living in Europe. Firstly, we had all the fun, games and drama surrounding THAT letter written by the Prime Minister, delivered by a grinning, bearded Cheshire Cat of a diplomat clutching a smart, new briefcase, to poor Mr Tusk representing the European Commission. Am I the only one wondering why Teresa May didn't simply send an email, or that all time Spanish favourite, the Blessed Fax instead? No, we had to have quill and ink and probably a seal, possibly written on vellum. I know the Brits are into tradition in a big way, but this was all really rather silly, wasn't it? All these festivities were accompanied by the banshee calls of Brexiters shrilly proclaiming their usual cries of jubilation, “We won, get over it!” No, I think not.

We then had all that Gibraltar nonsense and the threat made by an elderly ex-leader of the Tory Party, suggesting the possibility of war with Spain. Really? Now that makes huge sense considering that both the UK and Spain are joint, loyal members of NATO, and usually the best of friends. Still, the fact that he was rather quickly demoted to ‘ex-leader of the Tory Party' should tell us all rather a lot about his dubious diplomatic skills, as well as his mental stability. May I kindly suggest that he would be far better off sucking wine gums in a home for the elderly rather than trotting around TV studios spreading his message of hate about our friends and neighbours? Maybe the House of Lords, which is the UK's most expensive retirement home, is the more appropriate place for him after all?

I mustn't forget the mind-blowing revelation of the British plan to blow up the Channel Tunnel with a nuclear bomb, if the neighbours don't play nicely, which also popped up in the UK press this week. Nice one guys, but maybe it could cause a bit of a problem for the good people living in Dover who, I suspect, would not be too keen on the idea, since it could blow a significant part of the south coast to pieces. After all, nuclear bombs do tend to create a bit of a mess, which could be awkward since the UK relies on the French for quite a lot of electricity nowadays. The fact that it was ever even considered as a disruption tactic many years ago should tell us a great deal about the British anti-European psyche. Fortunately, both the Spanish and French have a good sense of humour and none of this abuse appears to have been taken too seriously. “Calm down, dears”, was the predictable response from the Spanish - sensible people.

The crowning glory in the British press this week was that brain numbing headline in the Sun proudly proclaiming "Up Yours Senors!" (which should really be Señors, but maybe I am being a tad pedantic) that encapsulated the Sun's thoughtful message to Spain and the European Union, together with the less well-considered sub heading of "Our Message to the Meddling Leaders of Spain and the EU". Unfortunately, the message was rather lost alongside advertisements for holidays in the sun, (let’s all have holidays in Blackpool and not Benidorm nowadays, folks) but the thought was there, however inarticulately expressed.

On a more serious note, I am more or less old enough to remember the protestation of France's then President Charles de Gaulle who was horrified about the possibility of the United Kingdom joining the European project. "Non, non, non" was his entirely reasonable response to Britain's applications to join. Of course, he was right; he knew only too well then, which many thinking expats have known for many years, that Britain was never suited to joining the EU in the first place. The British island mentality, with its mistaken nostalgia for a past, and not particularly glorious, Empire still haunts the British psyche today. "Be careful what you wish for" is an expression that I have been continually reminded of since the referendum, and which seemed even more relevant this week.

I don't think I have ever been quite so ashamed to be British as I have been this week, and I look longingly at those who are blessed to have Irish, Spanish, German or Swedish passports. Looking back, many of the issues that are currently surfacing have been simmering for many years. On a more positive note, despite the dire warnings of fervent Brexiters who are willing the EU to collapse, I firmly believe that the EU will become even more united and stronger without the UK in the years ahead; I certainly hope so.

Meanwhile, I have been tempted to join a number of organisations on Facebook this week. Although I agree with one called 'Campaign for a Fair Deal', I am forced to admit that this view remains beyond my understanding, or my willingness to submit to. Personally, I am still grieving and not yet ready for any kind of deal outside Europe, let alone a fair one. Still, I'll keep taking the pills and maybe one day I'll get over it. Meanwhile, if there any good Europeans out there, who would like to adopt quite a few disillusioned Brits, please let me know.

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