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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

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​The TV Sports Package

The TV Sports Package

It has been a strange week, as far as the Internet goes anyway. For many expats living in Spain and the Canary Islands, the vagaries, confusion and general unreliability of the established telephone company, Movistar (or Telefonica as it used to be called) tend to both mystify and amuse on some days, but generally add to life’s anger and frustration on others.

Some years ago, as a newly arrived expat and newspaper reporter in the Costa Blanca, it was one of my jobs to follow the latest ‘Telefonica Story’. It was both an eye catching and eye watering responsibility, since I witnessed the distress of many expats at first hand. This was a time when mobile phone and data coverage was poor, if non-existent, and many newly arrived expats were desperate to be able to call the folks back home, as well as carry out banking and other business activities.

I covered news stories ranging from the sick and elderly who desperately needed a telephone connection to be able to communicate with the hospital or doctor, with one case of an elderly woman who was refused a connection to ‘the pole’ simply, because it was just one metre outside the specified distance. I stood in queues with other angry expats outside the Telefonica offices for many hours, clutching the precious ‘bread ticket’ waiting for the latest allocation of phone numbers, before the door was firmly closed at 13.00 hours for siesta. Would it be my turn to be seen or would I have to return again tomorrow?

I have witnessed grown men cry with anger, disgust and despair. It was not uncommon for newly arrived expats to wait for two years or longer before they could get a telephone connection. The Telefonica office itself was a den of misery, with queues of expats stretching to well outside the building, with desperate people begging for a telephone contract at any price. I witnessed the offhand and often cruel dismissal by Telefonica ‘jobsworths’, a speciality that they were very good at.

In fairness, the successor organisation with its friendlier name of Movistar has improved over the last ten years or so, but I sometimes wonder if this is only surface deep, since there still appears to be a huge way to go to drag this stumbling dinosaur into something close to the 21st Century. Generally, I am not a believer in the privatisation of essential services, such as electricity, water and telephones, but Telefonica/Movistar offers a clear case for radical reform. Certainly, it makes the UK’s BT look like almost angelic.

Fifteen years on, I still regularly receive complaints from expats about Movistar’s standards of customer service, which often continue to be off-hand and self-serving. The ‘Customer Care’ staff seem much more interested in selling Internet television sports packages than they are in dealing with a problem. Of course, customer support staff are paid on commission, and who can blame their attempts to collect a few more euros in their pay packets, but at what price to the consumer? Surely, someone should have pointed out to them long ago the difference between offering customers a service to rectify a problem instead of trying to sell them a product that they don't want or is simply inappropriate? It is really frustrating to be asked if I would like a Sports TV package when I cannot even get an Internet signal.

For the last two years or so, we have been tempted with the offer of a fast, fibre optic Internet connection in our village. The suits have been out, held impressive, lengthy promotional meetings for the press, accompanied by those dreaded PowerPoint presentations. Two years on, we are still waiting. We have seen roads dug up, channels made, and pipes and cables installed. We have even seen a cable laid to our gate and into the Movistar box that sits patiently outside. Are we connected? No.

A few days ago, we received an automated telephone call from Movistar, cheerfully explaining that the work was complete and that if we would care to telephone the Movistar Customer Care line, we could order our new fibre optic connection. We were excited, telephoned the Customer Care line (which, is not true, because they really couldn't care less unless you buy a sports TV package). The woman I spoke to, took my details, bank account information and confidently assured me that the fibre optic connection would be made available to us during the afternoon that same day! This was amazing and, sensing my doubts, even checked again with the engineer that this would happen. It was confirmed, and on this occasion, I was even tempted to buy the sports TV package, just to please her, but I stopped myself just in time.

Two days later, we are still waiting for super-fast fibre optic broadband to be connected. I telephoned to check, but after trying to get through to a busy line for most of the day, was eventually told that it was not available and that I would be informed when this is possible, maybe in a month or two. I was clearly the victim of agreeing to a contract just to generate a few more euros commission for the member of the customer service team, and with no possibility of the order being fulfilled as promised.

To add a further insult, we no longer have an Internet connection of any description. When I call Customer Care once again to complain, you can imagine my response to the offer for a sports TV package!

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.

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© Barrie Mahoney

​Avoid Currency Exchange ‘Rip Offs’

Avoid Currency Exchange Rip Offs!

I know that many British expats living in Europe are feeling very anxious about the pound-euro exchange rate at the present time. Although not unexpected, Brexit has started a period of considerable financial uncertainty for expats, which will take some time to resolve. Many expats rely upon an income from the UK, be it a salary or a company or state pension, and even a small difference in the exchange rate will make a considerable difference to their standard of living. Gone are those heady days when one pound would buy 1.50 euro; even at that time many of us realised that the pound was grossly overvalued, and that a day of reckoning would happen in the future. Even so, it was nice whilst it lasted.

At the time of writing, commenting about exchange rates is always difficult, since this article may be read many weeks or months after it is written, and the pound appears to be heading for parity with the euro. Some financial ‘experts’ are already claiming that the pound will shortly be worth less than the euro, whilst others are claiming that the pound will revert to its usual ‘high’ after a year or two, or when Brexit is finally settled. Frankly, it is all guess work and we may as well ask, “How long is a piece of string?” In reality, no one knows, so let us deal with issues that expats and holidaymakers are facing here and now, and let us make the most of the pounds that we have.

Holidaymakers and expats are already complaining that they are receiving only one euro for one pound at airport currency exchange desks. Frankly, my view is that if they are foolish enough to exchange their pounds at the airport just before they leave for their holiday, they deserve a poor exchange rate. Airport currency exchange rates have to include charges for their fancy booths and shops, trained staff and smart uniforms; one is paying for convenience and this is the penalty for leaving it so late. The more astute travellers arrange their overseas currency long before they leave the UK, maybe through an online currency exchange dealer, their local bank or the Post Office. I suggest that travellers use none of these services, and that many more competitive services are now available that will leave more currency in their pockets.

Today, at the time of writing and after speaking to some holidaymakers who were complaining to me that they received less than parity at a currency booth in Gatwick Airport, I managed to get 1.12 euros for one pound by using an app on my mobile phone when I went shopping today, as well as drawing cash out of a local ATM. For transactions in Europe, I usually use a debit card provided by a ‘fintech’ company called Revolut for many of my currency transactions, or a debit card provided through a superb UK banking operation called Starling Bank. There are several others to consider, such as Monzo and Monese that offer similar services that should be considered. All of these companies provide a mobile phone app and a prepaid debit card that you can use to pay for goods and services whilst on holiday or to draw cash out of overseas ATMs. Instead of paying a fancy commission to one of the airport currency exchange booths, holidaymakers and expats can obtain currency at wholesale rates through the use of these services.

If living in Europe, I recommend that British expats seriously consider opening an account with Revolut or Monese. If maintaining an address in the UK, go for Starling Bank or Monzo for the best currency exchange rates. Another app based bank, N62, which I also use, is based in Germany and offers full banking protection. Although currently only offering a euro-based account, it is planning to offer a sterling account, as well as a euro account in the near future, and is certainly well worth keeping an eye on. All of these accounts can be opened through your iPhone or Android device. They have certainly made my financial life overseas easier to manage, and I am no longer ripped off by the large currency exchange services. For further information about these services, please see below:

Avoid Currency Exchange Rip Offs! Part 2

Revolut – “For a free bank account in Europe”. When using the RevolutCard, you will get the real exchange rate and spending is always free: https://revolut.com

Starling Bank – Described as a “Digital only challenger bank”. Offers full current account banking. Provides a globally accepted Mastercard with zero charges: https://www.starlingbank.com

Monzo – Referring to itself as “The Bank of the Future”, Monzo is another UK based challenger bank that currently provides a prepaid Mastercard with highly advantageous exchange rates. A full current account will be available at the end of the year: https://monzo.com

Monese – “Pan-European Mobile Banking”. Monese was designed to be the most complete alternative to a regular bank account in Europe. Cardholders gain access to the real rate of exchange and are charged 0.5% of the transaction value, which is one of the lowest cost options when accessing your money in another currency. There is a monthly service charge: https://www.monese.com

N26 - Offers a bank account for your phone, offering everything that you can do with a traditional bank. Based in Germany, but English speaking. Euros only at the moment, but with sterling accounts promised. One to watch: https://next.n26.com/en-es/

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

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​The Story of Nelson, a Lost Arm and the Smelly Cheese

The Story of Nelson, a Lost Arm and the Smelly Cheese

Many will have read stories and been taught about one of the UK’s national heroes, Horatio Nelson; that brave son of Norfolk who taught the Spanish a thing or two during his famous battles, his “mesmerising personality”, complicated love scandal and heroic death. The stories surrounding Nelson are, of course, based upon the British point of view. Are they true? How about looking at Nelson from the Spanish and Canarian perspective?

About 220 years ago, Admiral Nelson of the British Royal Navy decided to attack Santa Cruz in Tenerife to help himself to some gold and silver collected by Spanish galleons from the Americas, but was humiliatingly and satisfyingly defeated by the local residents. I guess this part wasn't stressed too strongly during school history lessons, was it?

The residents of Santa Cruz de Tenerife have long memories of their history and proudly re-enact an historical event each year on 25 July that reminds everyone of the Battle of Santa Cruz in 1797. This re-enactment of this battle has taken place for many years in a variety of formats. Why was this battle so important to the people of Tenerife?

In 1797 the British Royal Navy decided to attack the port of Cadiz in Southern Spain, but Spanish warships drove the British away. By chance, the British Navy heard that Spanish treasure convoys from America arrived regularly at Santa Cruz in Tenerife, and sent a flotilla of ships under the command of the recently promoted Admiral Nelson. This attack force had 4000 men, nine ships and 400 guns, but the military on Tenerife led by Lieutenant General Gutierrez only had 91 guns and a mixture of 1700 militia and sailors. This looked to be an overwhelming attack force with insufficient military to defend the port of Santa Cruz.

Things did not work out as planned for Nelson, as the Tenerife commander was more experienced and particularly clever in managing his soldiers. Several British ships were sunk and many sailors were killed in this failed attack. This was also the battle when Admiral Nelson was shot in his right arm, and he had to be taken back to his ship where the ship surgeon amputated most of this arm with the help of some opium to lessen the pain in the middle of the battle. Many British militias became trapped on the shores of Tenerife with no escape possible. Although 30 Tenerife residents were killed and 40 were injured; 250 British militia were killed and 128 were wounded.

The British asked for a truce and agreed to withdraw with an undertaking to do no further damage to the town or to make any more attacks on Tenerife or the Canary Islands. This was agreed by Lieutenant General Gutierrez, who also allowed the British to leave with their arms, but perhaps not Nelson. However, Admiral Nelson had lost so many ships that he did not have capacity to take all his militia back home, so the Tenerife General lent Nelson two Spanish schooners. This was a huge embarrassment for the British Navy and a resounding success for the militia of Tenerife in protecting their island. I doubt that much of this story has found its way into the National Curriculum syllabus, as it really does not show the British in a particularly good light.

There are also some interesting facts that are linked to the Battle of Santa Cruz, such as what happened to Nelson’s right arm after it was amputated? It was thought that the arm was thrown overboard after the on-board operation, as was usual during this period, but it seems that some keen-eyed Tenerife resident found this floating in the sea or washed ashore, and eventually Nelson’s arm ended up interred within the altar of the Cathedral of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This story has been challenged, but it has not been denied either! Also, the honourable withdrawal and truce led to a courteous exchange of letters between Nelson and Gutierrez. Later, Nelson sent a large cheese to Gutierrez as a token of his gratitude, which was never eaten and is still on display at the Spanish Army Museum in Toledo in Peninsular Spain. Maybe the good General did not trust the British to send a cheese that wasn't poisoned?

No doubt the British will hope that people will forget the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797 and the humiliating defeat that the brave people of Tenerife achieved over the British Navy. However, the residents of Santa Cruz in Tenerife are determined never to forget this momentous day in their history. Many wear faithful reproductions of uniforms and weapons of this historical period in all its detail of the battle in July.

Many might think that Tenerife residents would hate Admiral Nelson as he had planned to rob them and destroy their homes, but actually he became admired as he stuck to his word and the British Navy never returned to attack the Canary Islands. Indeed, there is one street in Santa Cruz that is named ‘Avenida Horacio Nelson’, which says a great deal about the island’s capacity for forgiveness, or is it amusement? Anyway, the Canary Islands still have Nelson’s arm in their possession, or maybe not, but it definitely has a smelly cheese as a result of this battle from long ago.

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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.

When is a Pirate Not a Pirate?

When is a Pirate Not a Pirate?

Many commentators will agree that since the vote for the UK to leave the European Union, the views of the general population have become increasingly fractious and divided in attitudes towards ‘foreigners’. Nothing is new, and the British have always been suspicious of their European neighbours. The Daily Mail, Express, Sun and, indeed, Facebook and Twitter are all currently having a field day in distorting ‘the truth’, whatever that may be. By now, we should all have begun to realise that there is no such thing as ‘the truth’, which, at best, is merely a perception of how we interpret an event, based upon our base opinions and prejudices. ‘The truth’ is always open to manipulation and distortion by others, however well meaning.

Do you remember any of your school history lessons? I certainly remember exciting historical events that I was taught as a pupil at school, as well as the content of lessons that I taught as a teacher. Was Cromwell a revolutionary hero, or was he a genocidal war criminal? I guess much of the answer will depend upon whether or not you hold an Irish passport. What about Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, whilst not forgetting Admiral Nelson’s attack on Tenerife? Were they simply well meaning explorers and adventurers seeking to enhance the common good, or profiteers, warmongers and unpleasant pirates? We often like to label people from the past as saints or sinners, but much depends upon what you have been taught to believe, as well as which country you have been taught in. For me, the definition of a pirate has certainly changed since I moved to Spain and the Canary Islands.

A report from the University of Las Palmas in Gran Canaria, which is undertaking an archaeological study in Fuerteventura to locate the remains of an estimated 90 English pirates, took my eye this week. These English pirates died during a battle in the Eighteenth Century with the residents of the Canary island of Fuerteventura. It is an interesting story, so let us turn the clock back 277 years to the year 1740…

The ‘War of Jenkins’ was a conflict that lasted from 1739 to 1748 between Spain and England, which refers to the ear of an English pirate captain that was cut off. In 1740, English pirates launched two major attacks on Fuerteventura, with a month between them. The Fuerteventura militia were successful in both of these pirate attacks, which also demonstrates the lack of harmony between England and Spain at this time.

The first attack involved 50 English pirates looting a village, whilst failing to realise that the island militia had already been placed in defensive positions. Towers at strategic locations had been built to watch out for English pirates who often attacked this island. Thirty English pirates were killed and 20 were taken prisoner. Islanders attacked the English invaders with clubs and stones, and hid behind a wall of camels when they fired muskets at them. These English prisoners were shipped off to the island of Tenerife to be dealt with.

A second English pirate attack took place one month later, but the number of pirates is disputed, as some reports claim that between 200 and 300 pirates were involved, whilst another suggests that fifty English pirates were killed. The second attack was put down with much greater brutality; no prisoners were taken alive and all the English pirates were killed. The Fuerteventura islanders showed no mercy after this second audacious attack. This new research will last for several years, and whilst focussing on the conflict, will also search for the remains of the English pirates who were killed in Fuerteventura.

We often refer to Viking pirates raping and pillaging the British Isles, but sometimes I guess we should look closer to home for unreasonable behaviour. When we next visit a museum to admire Spanish gold, trinkets, doubloons and other treasures, let us remember that these were often stolen by English pirates from our European neighbours. Let’s face it, we have always had suspicions about anyone living across the water.

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

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The Work-Life Balance

The Work-Life Balance

Getting the work-life balance right is not easy for many people, and for many juggling with earning enough to pay the rent or mortgage, food and other bills, there is often very little choice in the amount of free time available. Time to spend with families and friends is important, and I often admire the Spanish tradition of putting family life first whenever possible.

The Spanish Minister for Tourism and Technology was recently musing about the impact of technological changes upon society, and suggested that a three-day weekend was almost inevitable. The Minister spoke about fast moving technological developments in communication, public administration and education, and the 51.2 million mobile phones that are in use throughout Spain. With 40 million people having ready access to a mobile Internet connection, more people could work from home or ‘on-the-go’. He went on to say that this approach to work would have positive effects on health, productivity and public spending.

The Minister raises some good points, and his ideas are not new, since many claim that the traditional employment structure is bad for health. Time spent with family and friends is the most important part of life, and with work being the means with which we pay for it. In many ways, this ‘flexible’ and more relaxed style of living and working in the Canary Islands has been operating for many years.

Very few shops, and certainly no offices or banks, are open on a Saturday afternoon. The few shops that do open (unless they are situated in commercial centres or tourist areas) close their doors at lunch time on Saturday, and may or may not reopen on Monday morning. Many Canarians take Monday off work, which is why shopping, banking and visiting Town Halls is never a good idea on Mondays.

Fiestas and family life are very important in the Canary Islands. Most weeks are punctuated by a different fiesta in towns and villages across the islands. Often those living in neighbouring municipalities feel the urge to join in too, and close their doors early on the day before the big event to allow time to prepare food, shop and to dress up for the big day.

Schools close at the end of June for the traditional long, summer holiday and reopen again in mid-September. In many ways, this is necessary, because of the excessive heat in Spain and the Canary Islands at this time of the year; few classrooms enjoy the luxury of air conditioning. It is a time when children and their families can enjoy a long summer break together, and it is taken very seriously. For some children, sports, language and summer camps are an option, which some busy parents take full advantage of. However, these facilities do not come cheap and for many families the only option is for grandparents to share the load and for parents take time off work to be with their offspring. As a result, legal, financial, postal and most other services grind to a halt, since no one ever seems to consider staggering holiday entitlement or to appoint reserve and back up staff to cover the shortfall of workers.

Then there is the dreaded August 15th. This is the day when almost everything closes down (except in the tourist areas) for at least two weeks, and possibly more. Many of us are longing to get back to normal, which will happen sometime in mid-September, but definitely by October!

Despite such inconveniences, Spanish and Canarian workers do work very hard and for long hours. Most shops and offices open from about 08.00am, and closure at 10.00pm is not unusual, particularly in commercial centres. Most small shops close at around 1.30pm for the traditional siesta, and open their doors again at around 4.00pm. This is the time when Spanish workers traditionally eat their main meal of the day, followed by a siesta. However, in more recent times and with increasingly long distances to travel to work, few workers make it home for a family meal at this time of the day. The midday break is important, because of the heat, and it is time to cool down and relax away from the heat of the day.

Many Spanish and Canarian workers have two jobs, which again is why the mid-afternoon break is useful for workers to get from one job to another. I know a number of shop workers who start work at 08.00am, work until the siesta and then hastily drive to the tourist areas where they begin their evening shifts as waiters and bar staff, and usually finish their shift at 11.00pm or much later if it is bar work.

A revised working structure for the working week has been trialled in parts of the United States and Sweden, but it is unclear whether it will ever become a reality for Spain. However, the Spanish Government is giving serious consideration to removing the siesta, starting work later and finishing the day earlier.

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

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