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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Atlantic by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​The Cost of Expats Dying

The Cost of Expats Dying

With the exception of articles about receiving British television in Spain, the most popular article on my ‘Living in Spain and the Canary Islands’ website continues to be ‘Death in Spain’, which is why I repeat the publication of this article from time to time. Death is a subject that no one really wants to talk about, but most wise expats know that they should give it some thought, if only to spare their loved ones’ unnecessary problems during a distressing time.

I came face to face with this issue several years ago following the death of a good friend living in Spain. Peter had no living relatives either in Spain or in the UK, and it was left to local friends to ensure that his wishes were carried out. Peter had willed his body for medical research, but because he died of cancer, the body was rejected by the research institute. Peter had expressed no other wishes, and his friends therefore decided that cremation would be the next best alternative.

Meanwhile, Peter’s body was resting in a makeshift mortuary in a private hospital, which sadly also doubled up as a laundry and storage room, with open doors to the car park outside the building. It was imperative that the body be moved as a matter of urgency, because of the heat of the summer. It is not due to lack of sensitivity, but for good reason, that most bodies are either cremated or buried within two or three days of death in most parts of Spain and the Canary Islands.

Calls to the funeral directors revealed that they would require a deposit of around 4000 euros before they would even remove the body from the hospital. By that time, Peter’s bank accounts had already been frozen, and it was unlikely that there were sufficient funds available in the account anyway. It was up to Peter’s friends to collect the funds necessary to pay the undertakers before the body could be moved. Eventually, the deposit was paid, and the funeral company removed the body from the hospital; the funeral and cremation could then go ahead.

As a friend witnessing these events during a distressing period, it made me realise that everyone, and certainly all expats, should make provision for their passing to avoid unnecessary distress and burdens placed upon those that are left. Although it was always something that I had intended to do, this experience made me visit a Spanish insurance company that had been highly recommended a few days after the funeral. For a very modest monthly premium, both my partner and myself are now fully covered - nothing too fancy, just a dignified, and hopefully efficient, end of a story.

Although I am not going to make any recommendations as to the best companies to insure with, I would urge all expats to take out some kind of cover, unless wealthy enough to have a substantial reserve of cash that is readily available to the next of kin. Readily available is the key phrase here, since bank accounts in Spain are rapidly frozen upon death, which can make access to funds difficult at a time when it is most needed.

There are currently many insurance companies advertising funeral plans to expats, with some requiring substantial payments up front. Realising that there is a ready market in expat death, headlines such as “Funeral Costs Rising at a Shocking Rate”, and depressing graphs showing “The Cost of Dying” are currently appearing in many online publications (my apologies if one appears next to this article, but I have no control over it). Of course, these advertisements are meant to frighten as well as to inform, but they do have a useful function in alerting expats to potential problems that they may face.

Experience tells me that whilst some may prefer to pay the full cost of their funeral up front, it is not necessary, and good, basic cover is available for a reasonable monthly or annual premium. For me, a Spanish insurance company with a good track record, together with recommendations from friends was the best choice. As with most of the larger purchases in life, carefully shop around for the best prices and ask questions before you commit yourself.

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© Barrie Mahoney

​Just Nuts About Almonds

Just Nuts About Almonds

We know that Spring has arrived in the Canary Islands when we see the first flush of flowers on the many magnificent almond trees that embrace the islands. These beautiful flowers, which begin to open after Christmas, create a magnificent and rich landscape of colour. At the end of January and the beginning of February, almond trees demonstrate their full glory, encouraging celebrations in many towns and villages. Canarians never need much of an excuse to have a party, so this spectacle of natural beauty to celebrate the beginning of a New Year, doesn’t need much encouragement.

The Canary Islands were the crossroads between Europe and the Americas for many years. As a result, the islands can boast a rich and varied cuisine, offering a unique blend of flavours that is influenced by Africa, Europe and America. Without going into too much detail here, there is accumulating genetic evidence which suggests that much of the material used for horticulture in the Americas came directly from the Canary Islands. These islands had centuries of trade with Berbers, Phoenicians, and other ethnicities in Morocco, but were only under Spanish control for about 50 years before Columbus. Many believe that the booming almond trade in the United States originates from the Canary Islands.

Many people do not give much thought to almonds, but they have always been a most important part of the cuisine of the Canary Islands. Almond products are many and varied, and used in biscuits and cakes. Almonds can also be mashed into a paste that can be spread on bread - a bit like peanut butter, but without the butter. Almond milk, almond drinks, almond wine and marzipan, as well as almond cakes can easily be found in shops and markets on the islands for most of the year.

Almond trees are found on the greener parts of the Canary Islands. In Puntagorda, on the island of La Palma, a beautiful festival is held at the end of January or beginning of February each year. Parts of Gran Canaria and Tenerife become spectacular gardens of pink and white blossom, particularly around Santiago del Teide and the slopes of Vilaflor in Tenerife.

In Gran Canaria, a visit to the Almond Flower Festival in the village of Tejeda is always a must-visit destination at this time of the year. The festival has been celebrated in this beautiful village since 1972, which acts as a reminder of the importance of almonds to the baking industry of the islands. Dancing and songs against the spectacular and colourful backdrop of the almond trees can be an unforgettable experience.

Crowds of people make their way singing and dancing to native guitar music on the narrow road leading to the church. Many dress in national costume for the event and there are opportunities to sample the local wine and almond based products. There are also opportunities to watch the almonds being cracked and maybe hear almond pickers speaking about their trade.

Spain is the world’s second largest almond producer after the United States, and with a large proportion produced in the Canary Islands. It is no wonder that these nuts are so highly prized, and well worth having a party to celebrate. It is also worth remembering where the nuts come from.

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© Barrie Mahoney

Do You Speak English?


Do You Speak English?

I wonder if anyone has made a New Year’s resolution to learn a new language? I admire any expats who make a determined effort to learn the language of their host country and are willing to try to avoid asking that embarrassing question “Do you speak English?” at every opportunity. After all, without a basic knowledge of the language, culture and customs, much of the new life that was hoped for will never be achieved. No, I am not talking about not seeking translation support when dealing with medical, legal and financial matters, where it is often important to seek professional assistance. I won’t pretend that learning a language is easy as one gets older; it is not, since learning a new language takes perseverance and effort.

I was pleased to read in the papers this week that both Prince George and his sister, Princess Charlotte, are learning Spanish at their young age. They do have one major advantage, of course, in that their nanny is Spanish. As well as an acceptance of the need to reach out to a wider world, the appreciation, skill and some proficiency in communicating in another language will help these young people to recognise that they do not live in a solely English speaking world and will help to give them a wider perspective of countries and cultures outside the United Kingdom.

During my time as a school inspector working in Wales, as well as England, I was always pleased to meet many young children who were confident in speaking both Welsh and English. The very act of learning a second language at such a young age makes the brain more receptive to the learning of other languages later in their school life. I recall detailed research reports that indicated that children learning both Welsh and English achieved far higher success rates when it came to learning other languages than their English counterparts. The message is clear; to be a successful linguist, it is important that youngsters start learning a second language, any language, early in life.

I often hear from would-be expats who wisely make a determined effort to learn the language for some years before they even attempt to move to Spain. Others arrive in Spain and suddenly realise, and panic after a few brusque encounters at the Town Hall, that some grasp of the language would be useful. It is at this stage that those long forgotten Linguaphone tapes suddenly see daylight after many years. Sometimes, newly arrived expats find themselves attending over-crowded language classes provided by the Town Hall, whilst others seek private lessons or attend a ‘crash course’. Whatever the approach, a recognition that not everyone in the world speaks English is a good start.

Many teachers of Spanish will confidently assure expats arriving in Spain that anyone over the age of 50 can successfully learn the language. I question this assertion as basically a ploy to gain more generous fee paying students, although I am sure that many will contradict me. Let’s be honest, most older people find that learning a new language later in life to be challenging, but certainly not impossible. Whatever the result, the effort is always appreciated by the locals, and the ability to speak a few sentences, and to understand what is going on is invaluable when starting a new life in Spain, or any other country for that matter.

Many experts maintain that a grasp of English, Spanish and Chinese is all that is needed to conquer the linguistic world. I believe this to be true, since Spanish is the second most used language in the world after English. It always pleases me when I hear that Spanish is being taught in British schools, since I have always believed that this is the natural second language, and considerably more useful than French in today’s world. No, I am not a great enthusiast for the teaching of French in British schools, but it is certainly better than nothing at all.

I was once told that the best way for expats to learn a new language is to have an affair with a new partner from the country of your choice. Now, I am not suggesting that expats go in for partner swapping, but the point is that for learning to be successful, it requires a thorough immersion in the culture and traditions of the country, and not only learning the language as a dry academic exercise.

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​Overweight ‘Bridegrooms of Death’

Overweight ‘Bridegrooms of Death’

I guess that many of us may have over indulged during the Christmas and New Year festivities, and I assume that many are now in the period where reluctant gym memberships are booming, as well as desperate subscriptions to Weight Watchers. Sadly, all those temptations do have a price to pay when we see that we can no longer squeeze into our favourite clothes.

One of the many fat inducing temptations readily available in Spain and the Canary Islands are ‘Churros con Chocolate’, which is basically deep fried pastry strips, rolled in sugar and dipped into hot chocolate as they are eaten. This ‘snack’ is hugely popular in Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands, as well as the United States, France and Mexico. Depending upon the time of day, and the state of your appetite, they can be both delicious and disgusting at the same time. Indeed, it is not unusual to see locals polishing off a huge quantity of churros in cafe bars for their breakfast. Needless to say, it is an excellent way to pile on the pounds, as well as keeping the health service busy with the coronaries that are the result of this over indulgence. My advice is to avoid them at all costs.

Speaking of being overweight and diets, you really should take a look at Spain’s ‘Bridegrooms of Death’, which is the cheerful nickname given to Spain’s elite infantry regiment, ‘La Legión’. The regiment is loosely based upon the French Foreign Legion, as a prestige combat unit with its best known member being General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Usually admired for their handsome physical appearance, these fine men are usually well known for their tasselled caps, to keep the flies off, and open necked shirts, to keep the ladies interested. Their uniform traditionally does not have a top button, which aids their reputation as “the top totty killers of Europe”. Sadly, this much-coveted reputation is rapidly disappearing, since it was found that a significant percentage of the 3000 troops were found to be obese, based upon their body mass index (BMI) of over 30.

This elite force is now having a few problems in the obesity department and the troops are now being given dietary advice, nutrition tips, as well as additional exercise to overcome their rapidly expanding waistlines with a target loss of between 500g and 1kg a week. Although ‘La Legión makes the valid point that significant weight gain may be as a result of cultural, pathological and psychological factors, I firmly believe that churros and hot chocolate are to blame.

So, there we have it. As we humbly trot off to the gym at the beginning of this New Year, and preferably to one that does not include a bar and restaurant, let us think long and hard about these fine Spanish men who are undertaking one of the biggest battles of their lives - that of losing weight without the comfort of a plateful of churros and hot chocolate to fall back on. Sadly, for many, I suspect that it will soon not just be the top button of their shirt that is missing.

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