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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

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Sugar is So Taxing

Sugar is So Taxing

I was shocked to read this week that the most obese children in the world are in the United States of America, Mexico and the Canary Islands, which is seen as a micro culture representing the highest obesity levels in Europe. The Canary Islands are the first region in Spain to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organisation that a 20 per cent increase in the price of ‘guilty products’ will help to save lives by raising awareness.

These statistics are frightening and I recall writing about this issue when we first moved to the Canary Islands. I could not understand why, in the village where we lived, there were so many grossly overweight people and, in particular, children. As well as enormously overweight adults, it was also clear that many adults were suffering from mobility and joint problems, leg ulcers, diabetes and many other ailments associated with obesity. There were at that time, and still are, many children who demonstrate acute obesity levels from a very young age.

The Government of the Canary Islands have announced a new tax that is designed to save lives. The new sugar tax will be applied to food and drink that contain sugar, in an effort to persuade residents to reduce their consumption of sugary drinks and food. Of course, there are always pros and cons in arguments related to taxation, with one side claiming that the tax will assist in improving health outcomes, whilst the other side talk about taxing those who can least afford it.

In a wet and cold climate, I can understand why many children and teenagers will prefer to stay indoors to play computer games, but in the Canarian climate there can be no such excuses. There are plenty of outdoor activities easily and freely available to encourage children to participate in an outdoor and physically active life. There are indoor and outdoor swimming pools, football pitches and a well-equipped sports centre in the village, and as it is close to the sea, there are always beach activities available. Many Canarian families have the use of small fishing boats, which can also be a strenuous physical activity.

Of course, in these days of political correctness, very few people face the real issues of being overweight, which is that we eat too much of the wrong kind of food and drink, or simply devour too much of everything. Instead, many ‘experts’ trot out platitudes that the issue may be due to “genetic reasons”, but I doubt that the early settlers of the islands and the ancestors of many local people, the Guanches, were as grossly overweight as current generations. Being “big boned” is another excuse that I often hear, as well as thyroid problems, which can be a problem for some older people, but is quite rare in children. It seems that excuses are always freely available when it comes to obesity, because many of us are simply addicted to sugar.

On occasions when I am passing the local school at the end of the school day, I see parents waiting for their young offspring to appear from the classrooms. The first thing that most parents do after greeting their child, is to hand over a large bag of crisps, sweets or a giant bottle of cola. Teenagers in our local shop can be seen after school focussed upon buying super large bottles of fizzy drinks, chocolate, biscuits and cakes. In the supermarket, trolleys are laden with bottles of fizzy drinks, biscuits, cakes and sweets, but I rarely see equally generous helpings of fruit and vegetables being loaded into trolleys.

Current statistics tell us that 1.5 million Canarian residents are overweight, which includes 760,000 who are classified as obese. This, in turn, contributes to the highest death rate from heart attack in all of Spain. The new sugar tax is being criticised by many, yet Canary Islands’ residents are leading the world for all the wrong dietary reasons.

Education is also important here too, since many Canarian residents need help to encourage them to eat and drink more healthy options. Many local people simply do not know that processed foods include hidden added sugars, such as glucose or fructose, which are found in soups, yogurts and soft drinks. It is hoped that, given time, this new sugar tax will help to change attitudes and that these appalling statistics will be reduced.

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

​Taking the ‘Brit’ Out of Britain

Taking the ‘Brit’ Out of Britain

Like many expats, I completed and posted my voting form for the UK General Election yesterday. In some ways, it was a significant moment, and I should have taken a photo of the event, since this may be the last time that my partner and I will be allowed to vote as expats living in Spain. We will soon hit the 15-year rule that applies to expats, after which we are no longer eligible to vote under current UK rules. There has been pressure, including court action, over many years to force the UK Government to change the 15-year rule for expats to one where expats may vote for life, but this has always been thwarted, delayed and convenient reasons given for not proceeding. I guess much depends upon the way that the governing party views expat votes; are we likely to support the current Government or not?

Despite the shortcomings of the current electoral system, which fails to represent the views of a wider constituency through proportional representation, we should always take the opportunity to use our vote. There are some expats who claim that expat voting is a pointless exercise and even morally wrong, since we no longer live in the country, do not claim benefits, and do not use the health service. Many expats rarely visit the UK after they have left, and only return for the occasional family wedding or funeral, so they question whether they have the right to express an opinion that can seriously affect the conditions of the population remaining in the UK.

Expats do have a right to express an opinion as to who should form the next UK Government. Many expats have children and elderly relatives living in the UK, and feel the need to have even a minor involvement in the future direction of the country. The old saying that “You can take the Brit out of Britain, but you cannot take Britain out of the Brit’ is so true in these circumstances. Many UK expats receive a pension of some kind from the UK. The level and conditions linked to receipt of the UK state pension or company pension, and the amount received, is determined by government policies. Exchange rates and currency fluctuations are also the direct result of government policies that form the economic health of the nation. The levels of state benefits, even winter fuel payments to British expats residing in some of the colder European countries, and reciprocal health services are all determined by the UK government of the day.

Many expats continue to pay taxes to the UK government, based on UK earnings and pensions even though they left the UK many years ago. It is therefore right that expats should continue to express a view as to who should spend their taxes and on what priorities.

The electoral system in the UK is by no means perfect, since it fails to represent the wider range of views of a complicated and increasingly vocal population. We are told that the current ‘first past the post system’ continues to have many advocates, but in recent years it has not served us well, and many voters feel disillusioned and disenfranchised by most politicians. The opportunity to change the voting system was put to a referendum vote several years ago, and rejected by voters, and so we have to make the best of what we have.

Expat votes are now even more important since the UK is about to leave the European Union, where relationships, deals and agreements with our host countries will become even more important in the years ahead. We may feel that a simple cross against the name of a person that we do not know, and support for a political party that will eventually let us down is a pointless exercise, but it is all that we have and it is right to use it.

I hope that whichever political party eventually forms a government, they will recognise the need to ensure that British expats can continue to exercise this simple democratic right to be involved. The 15-year rule should be abolished and expats should be allowed to vote for life.


​Going Electric

Going Electric

I was interested to read a recent report stating that electric cars are finally becoming popular in Europe. This is despite their slow adoption in the UK where motorists have been reluctant to buy battery-electric vehicles. For many years, buyers of new cars have been encouraged by governments to purchase diesel vehicles, blissfully unaware of some of their environmental dangers. Many motorists became convinced that they were the ideal alternative to petrol models; it seems that they were wrong. At last, Europe's collective mind-set is beginning to change with sales of battery-powered cars growing by 38 per cent in the first quarter of 2017. 32,627 cars were registered in European Union countries, Norway and Switzerland, when compared to 23,703 in the first quarter of 2016.

I get quite attached to cars. Over time, many have become like old friends; after all, the better ones have provided convenience, safety and reliability over many years. Personally, I see little need to change a car simply because of its age or to keep up with the neighbours. One of our cars is a Hyundai Getz, which was one of our first purchases when we moved to Spain's Costa Blanca 15 years ago. It has been a remarkable little car, requiring only the minimum basic attention, together with occasional re-spraying of parts of its bodywork as a result of sun damage. We tend to rather cherish it nowadays, as it became our home and reassurance during one traumatic week when we moved from the Costa Blanca to the Canary Islands. It safely transported us during the three-day ferry crossing from Cadiz, with two dogs, essential personal belongings and the precious laptop computer with which we would launch the first edition of a new English language newspaper on the island. During those first few days on the island, our little car became a refuge from the outside world of chaos, confusion and builders.

Fifteen years on, although having been around the clock at least once, our little Getz is still going strong. Living on an island, travelling huge distances is simply not possible. Since most of my work is completed at home, I don't have long distances to travel to work either. I guess if I am faced with a major expense, the time will come when I have to reluctantly say goodbye to the Getz, so what will my choice be? Petrol, diesel or electric?

Personally, I am all in favour of an electric car. Despite a number of discussions and arguments that I have had with the 'petrol is best’ brigade, for me, an electric car will win hands down. It’s amazing how many motorists become very angry when discussing this issue, with many determined to rubbish electric vehicles at all costs, and often with arguments that bear very little relationship to facts. Yes, I know all about the very expensive and poor life of battery issues, restricted mileage and all the rest. The only one that slightly bothers me is the lack of sound when the vehicle is moving. I see this as a major safety issue, and I really would want a vehicle that made a noise when moving. I don't really mind what the sound is; maybe an Abba song is a possibility? A distinctive sound of some kind is essential to warn pedestrians that a car is likely to hit them unless they move out of the way. I guess that is an easy problem to fix.

The Canary Islands, and the Spanish Costas, benefit from boundless energy from the sun, and in the Canary Islands, in particular, we have sufficient wind and wave energy to meet the needs of most consumption of electricity on the islands. The missing factor is a lack investment and insight into the potential of these renewable resources. Of course, as usual, the oil companies and politics get into the way of such common-sense developments, and most of us are left with no alternative, but to use a petrol, or even worse, a diesel vehicle.

Of course, there is another snag, and that is the issue of charging points. We are told that high speed charging points are popping up all over Europe and that a huge amount of money is being spent on building such networks. I spotted one charging point for the Mayor's electric vehicle outside the Town Hall of a municipality in Lanzarote recently. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come throughout the islands. In my excitement, I downloaded an app on my smartphone, which is designed to tell me of the whereabouts of all charging points on the islands, as well as the one closest to my home. Sadly, the nearest one is on the Island of Madeira, which would involve a lengthy ferry trip. I guess I’ll stick with the Getz for now.

If any readers have more information about electric cars and charging points, do please let me know.

Life is Too Short to Stuff a Mushroom

Life is Too Short to Stuff a Mushroom

I often think of that throwaway and impatient comment by the author, Shirley Conran, that “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”. It is a quote that often occurs to me when I am confused, bewildered or reach a dead end in an argument that I am having with myself. I had one of these “mushroom moments” a few days ago.

I’ve been uneasy about using the term ‘expat’ for many years. This confusion and conflict came to a head during the height of the migrant crisis when I began to see more clearly than ever before that there is no real difference between an ‘expat’ and an ‘immigrant’. As I have been writing a series of articles for ‘expats’ for some years, and published a book called ‘Expat Survival’, as well as running a popular website of the same name, it did seem an unnecessary complication and expense to change the title to ‘Immigrant Survival’, and so I left the issue on the ‘back burner’ to stew.

I am well aware that the subject of whether British ‘expats’ living in Spain, France, Italy etc. are expats or ‘immigrants’. Personally, I am very happy to be known as a ‘European Immigrant’, for that is what I guess I am. For me, the term ‘expat’ sounds colonial and temporary, whereas being an ‘immigrant’ sounds as if it is a long-term commitment, or even permanent. However, if we think about it, we are no different to the three million or so European immigrants currently living in the UK, yet we never refer to them as European, Spanish or French expats, do we?

I am aware that a debate over the subject can cause heated arguments over dinner, or drinks in the local ‘expat’ bar. If in doubt as to the true meaning, it is always a good idea to check the Oxford dictionary, which in this case defines an expat “as a person who lives outside their native country”. It stems from the Latin “ex” meaning “out” and “patria” meaning native country. So am I, and others like me, an ‘expat’ or an ‘immigrant’. Personally, I am still confused…

Let us now consider the good people living in Boston, Lincolnshire, which has become a pinnacle of welcome for Polish and Romanian people living in the UK. Do the locals refer to them as ‘expats’ or ‘immigrants’? Personally, I don't think I have ever heard the community being referred to as anything but ‘immigrants’, so why is it any different for myself and Brits living in the Canary Islands or the Costa Blanca?

By now, readers will probably think that I am being unnecessarily over pedantic about two simple words. No doubt I will also be accused of being ‘politically correct’, but words and definitions do matter, because they link to meaning, understanding and our subsequent attitudes to others. If I use the word ‘expat’, am I referring to well off, and fortunate foreigners who have made a temporary move to a hot and sunny country, only to enjoy sipping gin and tonics on their terraces all day? I am certainly not referring to refugees from Syria or Africa fleeing for their lives, travelling across stormy seas with little more than the clothes that they are wearing. However, are we not the same? Does it not really all boil down to a question of luck of where we happen to have been born and the opportunities that we have been given in life?

If we accept that immigrants are expats too, maybe it is a question of degree? Expats, in the traditional sense, usually have a choice of whether to return to the country of their birth or to stay in their adopted country, whilst many immigrants simply have no choice over their future. Instead, maybe the term ‘lucky immigrant’ is a better term to describe those that have a choice in the matter, of moving for the sake of a better job, more money or a better lifestyle. This is in contrast to those immigrants who have no choice, but to attempt to escape poverty and persecution at whatever personal cost.

All this thinking really is hard work on a sunny afternoon, and in the end I am not sure that it matters that much, as the two terms are not mutually exclusive. So, I have decided to continue to use the term ‘expat’, at least for the time being, mainly to avoid having my books reprinted. After all, sometimes life really is just too short to stuff a mushroom.


​The Cello Epiphany

Letters from the Atlantic - Barrie Mahoney

I often hear from expats who have trouble integrating into their local communities. For some, life may simply revolve around a bar culture, because it is there that they will meet expats like themselves. Other expats often slip happily into fully taking part in local activities and social events for expats, with many also joining in with local community activities, particularly when confidence with their language skills develops. This was my experience of expat life in the Costa Blanca, where the range and variety of available activities, as well as the willingness of expats to take part always surprised me. Whoever said that the British are reserved?

Of course, there are expats who live in parts of rural Spain and the Canary Islands, where it is not quite so easy to take part in social activities, and particularly when it is necessary to travel at night, with events often beginning at 9.00 pm, and with very little or no public transport available. This is often where hobbies and interests become important if craving for expat television is to be avoided.

A few weeks ago, I was drawn to a sound from a musical instrument that I have not heard for many years. I recognised the instrument immediately and followed the deep, rich, flowing melody to its source. It was a cello, and lovingly played by a young man in the main street of our small town. I had never seen the cellist before, but he was clearly a highly proficient musician. I sat on the wall nearby and listened as he skilfully made the cello ‘speak’ to anyone who would listen. I stayed for some time listening and remembering a time when I played the violin in the school orchestra as a teenager. I remembered that I too had wanted to play one of the school's two cellos, but as I was not particularly skilful, my request was denied and so I was destined to play second violin during my time at the school. Last year, I resumed playing the violin once again after a gap of many years. As is the case with riding a bicycle, early learned skills are not easily forgotten, but it is just more painful with the passage of time!

Over the subsequent weeks, I thought a lot about the cellist and my experience on that sunny morning in town. I found myself searching for and listening to cello music, and particularly performances by soloists. Eventually, I made up my mind to learn the cello. It was, after all, another stringed instrument, which I am used to. Admittedly, I would not be tucking this instrument under my chin, but a new challenge is good for all of us, isn't it?

Last week, my new cello arrived from Germany. It is a beautiful and amazing instrument that arrived in an enormous box. I had assumed that it would arrive by courier, and was amazed to find our postman struggling to deliver it in his car. The car seats were folded down, as there was hardly enough room for the postman, let alone the rest of his post. It took two of us to lift the instrument from his car and into our house. He admitted that he was delighted to be rid of it! Amazingly, my order took less than a week to travel from Germany, which also included a short spell in customs, which again is unusual over here.

So there we have it; a chance encounter with an unemployed cellist during a shopping trip to my local town has led to what appears to be a life changing experience. I am busily ploughing through the tutor book and enjoying every minute of it. I should also add that most municipalities in Spain offer instrumental music tuition, usually in groups, and at a reasonable cost. So, if you have ever felt the urge to learn the Spanish guitar, now maybe is the time.

Expats be warned. If anyone sends me an email complaining that they are bored with their new lives as expats, I shall now be recommending very firmly that they take up a musical instrument. It is both mentally and physically challenging and may lead to all sorts of social, as well as musical experiences. As for me, I may well consider taking up the Spanish lute (laúd español) next year.

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

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