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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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​Celebrating Canaries Day

Celebrating Canaries Day

Fiestas can be a confusing experience for expats living in Spain and the Canary Islands. They tend to creep up on you and there have been many times that I have found shops and offices to be closed when least expected. Municipalities tend to celebrate fiestas on different days, which can also be confusing for workers living in one municipality, but working in another. Fiestas are a way of life in Spain and I often admire the ingenuity with which a fiesta can be linked with a weekend via a ‘puente day’ (bridging day) to create a very long weekend or even a week off work if the calendar works out correctly!

My favourite fiesta is ‘Día de Canarias (Canaries Day), which is celebrated throughout the Canary Islands. The actual day of celebration is 30 May, but celebrated on 29 May, which allows sufficient time to recover from excessive partying during the night before the actual day of celebration. We can happily visit any shop or office in the full knowledge that it will be closed (unless in the tourist areas). At least we all know where we are with this fiesta, and there is little confusion about the date of this big event.

The Canary Islands consist of Gran Canaria, Tenerife, Lanzarote, Fuerteventura, La Gomera, La Palma, El Hierro and the Chinijo Archipelago, which include the islands of La Graciosa, Alegranza, Montaña Clara, Roque del Este and Roque del Oeste. Spain began the conquest of the islands in 1402, which were finally incorporated into the Kingdom of Castile in 1495. On 10 August 1982, the islands were granted autonomous community status within Spain. Canaries Day is special, since it represents the culmination of long held desires for greater representation and autonomy of the islands within Spain. 30th May 1983 represents the first session of the Canarian Parliament, and was the beginning of a louder voice for the islands.

In the build-up to Canaries Day, Canarian flags are proudly displayed, balconies decorated with flowers and children dressed in their finest traditional Canarian costumes. It is a good time to taste and experience some of the unique Canarian dishes, as well as admiring local crafts. Schools encourage and remind children and local people of Canarian culture and traditions, with many schools holding special classes to remind residents of their place within the islands’ history and customs.

In many towns and villages there are special church services, sporting events, food tastings, animal shows, concerts of traditional music, and exhibitions of arts and crafts made by local people. Parties are often held at home or in restaurants on the evening of May 29th, and celebrations continue on the big day itself.

The flying of flags across the islands is also an important part of the celebrations. For British visitors, this can seem unusual, since the British public rarely fly the Union flag, and normally it only appears for formal state and ceremonial occasions, such as Royal weddings. In the Canary Islands, it is common to see the Canarian flag, the Spanish flag and, dare I say, the European Union flag, flying together to represent unity and harmony.

The first flag for the Canary Islands was created in 1961 by a political movement called ‘The Free Canary Islands’. The flag is a tricolour of equal vertical bands in white, blue and yellow, with the coat of arms of the Canary Islands on the blue band at the centre of the state flag. Since arguments between the two largest islands, Tenerife and Gran Canaria, have been vociferous in the past, the flag sensibly combines the maritime flags of Tenerife and Gran Canaria, which are the blue and white colours of the Province of Santa Cruz de Tenerife with the blue and yellow colours of the Province of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. The placement of the colours is said to correspond with the physical location of the two major islands, with white for Tenerife on the left, representing the island’s western location. Yellow, for Gran Canaria, is on the right representing the island’s eastern location. The colour blue in the centre of the flag is the common colour for both islands and their provinces.

The coat of arms included on the state flag consists of a blue shield supported by two dogs. The two dogs are a reference to the Latin name ‘Insula Canaria’, which means ‘Island of Dogs’, which disappointingly has nothing at all to do with canary birds. There is a red crown at the top of the shield, demonstrating allegiance to Spain’s monarchy, and a banner with the word ‘Oceano’ above the crown. Interestingly, although the islands are not an independent country, the flag can be found as an emoji on some of the more popular smartphone apps, which has created amusement and interest on the islands.

All of Spain’s autonomous communities celebrate their special days in ways that are appropriate to their unique culture and traditions. Wherever you are living or staying in Spain, do make an effort to participate and enjoy these special fiestas, since they are intrinsic parts of this amazing, vibrant and colourful country.

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​A Little More than Amnesia

A Little More than Amnesia

I guess most people have heard of Indonesia and maybe Polynesia, but what about Macaronesia and, indeed, Micronesia? How about visiting Macaronesia one day? No, this is not a new name for France invented by the current ambitious President Macron, but a cluster of four archipelagos in the North Atlantic Ocean, just off the continents of Africa and Europe, which are formed by raised and exposed peaks of the ocean floor that peer out above the ocean’s surface.

The Canary Islands are part of Macaronesia, which also includes Cape Verde, Madeira and the Azores. Interestingly, the islands belong to three different countries: Spain, Portugal and Cape Verde, which are all part of the continent of Africa. The Azores are an exception, since they are part of the European continent.

Although I vaguely remember the term ‘Macaronesia’ being used during geography lessons when I was a pupil, I have rarely heard the term used in recent years. It came to light once again this week after Cape Verde announced that it was aiming for a free trade zone with other Atlantic islands to allow for the free movement of people, as well as goods and services.Despite the term ‘free trade area’ now being seen as ‘dirty words’ in the UK during the current UK-EU Brexit negotiations, it is good to hear that the establishment of free trade areas by others is regarded as a very sensible way forward for nations to trade and work together in a coherent and civilised manner.

Cape Verde is a group of ten windswept islands off the coast of West Africa. It is a volcanic archipelago that was a Portuguese colony until 1975, and with which it still has close links. The islands have stronger economic growth that most of the sub-Saharan countries in Africa. The International Monetary Fund recorded Cape Verde’s growth in 2017 at 4 per cent, which is forecast to improve even further to around 7 per cent. The islands are hoping to enhance tourism and economic growth with such a deal and re-engaging with other islands in what is known as Macaronesia. Cape Verde is hoping to create a legal framework for its people and goods to travel freely for the benefit of all.

The Cape Verde islands, which have a population of around 500,000, and with a large expat population, have already passed legislation to remove visa requirements for Europeans and hope that the European Union will reciprocate. Laws have been changed to make it easier for foreign investors to invest, and recent legislation allows foreign exchange accounts to fund transfers without restrictions. Cape Verde’s currency is linked to the euro, which also facilities business activities.Cape Verde has aspirations to develop the islands as a hub for air travel, since it is ideally located between the Americas, Europe and Africa. It also sees itself as offering great potential as a digital hub for Africa.

Since I mentioned Micronesia at the beginning of this article, I should explain that this group of small islands is in the Pacific Ocean, but that is a story for another time. I think I am going to add Macaronesia to my postal address in future, after several incidents of my post being sent to the Cayman Islands, instead of the Canary Islands. It might help Correos to deliver my post rather more accurately in future.

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The Journey of Life

The Journey of Life

It has often been said that travel broadens the mind, which is one of the many reasons why young people particularly are encouraged to travel. I still remember, in vivid detail, the journey that I took to Germany as an insecure and impressionable thirteen-year-old. This is one incident from my childhood that I value greatly, and I will always be grateful to my parents for having the wisdom to encourage and to allow me to participate in what was at that time a new and experimental project designed to encourage post-war unity and understanding.

The journey that I experienced was part of a school twinning project, with myself and others from my school living individually with a German family, which we had no prior contact, for two weeks. One year later, the visit was reciprocated in the UK with our newly acquired German friends staying with us. For myself and many others, the visit was a huge success, and the friendship that I developed with the German boy, whose home I shared during those two weeks, was one that I greatly valued and continue to this day through emails and occasional visits.

I still recall an unpleasant night-time ferry journey from Harwich, a train journey through the Netherlands, fierce Dutch and German security police checking passports and tickets, and a combination of languages, before we finally embarked in a new and strange country that was to be my home for the next two weeks.

Nowadays, this kind of journey seems mild and quite ordinary, but at that time, the entry into post-war Europe was akin to entering an alien and potentially dangerous world. This early experience fed and nurtured my interest in countries, people and languages outside the United Kingdom, and eventually encouraged me to make a new life in another European country. It taught me much about people from outside the narrow confines of my daily life and routines in a Lincolnshire village, and nurtured my understanding of what it is to be truly European, and not simply British or English.

How times have changed, with children visiting Spain, France and Italy, and often whilst babes in arms. Overseas travel has become both easily available and affordable for many people. However, not all are able to benefit from this new freedom. Although many young people have plenty of time on their hands during the long summer holidays, they often lack the financial resources to do anything particularly worthwhile, and most do not have the funds to undertake travel that could enrich and broaden their minds.

Despite the low cost and ease of accessing other countries by using one of the cheap airlines, often the best way to see Europe is to travel by train. This is the reasoning behind an important European Union scheme for young people that is frequently ignored in the UK, which is a free Inter-Rail Pass to allow teenagers a full month of free travel around Europe.

The European Commission has set aside 12 million euros for between 20,000 to 30,000 teenagers from all over Europe to collect a free rail pass for use during the long summer holidays. The pass will allow students from the present 28 member states to ride on trains, buses, trams and ferries to visit any corner of Europe that they wish, and all free of charge.

The idea behind the initiative is to encourage young people from all backgrounds to connect with other Europeans to develop a European identity. What better way to see the sights whilst travelling relatively slowly, and absorbing the cultural idiosyncrasies of a variety of nations. Chatting to other people and sharing experiences whilst they travel will often create friendships and memories that could last for a lifetime.

I suspect that this early induction will lead to a lifelong addiction to rail travel, which is something that I doubt low cost air travel will ever achieve. Travel is a rite of passage into the world and I sincerely hope that, despite Brexit, government-funded European travel projects will continue in some shape or form. This is life education at its finest.

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The Motor of the Atlantic Ocean

The Motor of the Atlantic Ocean

I like visiting churches, and particularly the old ones. Not only are they an ideal place to rest for a few minutes, but they charge my spiritual batteries, allow me to cool down from the heat of the sun and teach me quite a lot about the people that live and worship within the local community. Until recently, I have rarely considered the physical positioning of church buildings, and always assumed that much was subject to the availability of suitable land, as well as the positioning of other buildings and natural features. In other words, I have assumed that most churches were built more by accident rather than focussed design. A recent study in the Canary Islands has made me realise that there is much more to the subject and, once again, reminded me that the trade winds had, and continue to have, an important part to play in the history and development of these islands.

The trade winds have both a positive and negative impact upon everything in the Canary Islands. The shape of the volcanoes, climate, the guiding of sailing boats and the natural cycles that enrich the Atlantic Ocean are all affected by the trade winds, which many refer to as “the Motor of the Atlantic Ocean”. Mariners have used and relied upon them for centuries for reliable and swift sailing. Surprisingly, the trade winds may also have determined how churches were originally built in the Canary Islands.

Three researchers from the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics of Buenos Aires, the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands and the Institute of Heritage Sciences of Santiago de Compostela have carried out a very interesting study of 32 churches across the Canary Islands and have recently reported their findings.

Most Christian churches in Europe were for centuries built with an orientation that would allow the priest to look to the east when officiating at the Mass. This instruction came from the first Council of Nicea in 325 AD. In most churches, the altar is aligned to the point where the sun rises, which followed the advice given by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria in the Fourth Century, which was designed to allow worshippers to hear the Mass whilst facing the sun.

Later, Church law stated that church buildings must observe the principles and norms of the Bible and sacred art, so that many churches have their nave facing east or towards the point where the sun rose on the day of the year when its foundations were laid. This practice was followed in almost all Christian churches in the world, with the exception of those in North Africa, where churches tend to face west.

Current researchers wanted to discover if this North African custom could be seen in the first Christian churches of the Canary Islands, because of the influence of the aborigines of the islands, who descended from the Berber villages of North Africa. They examined the orientation of churches in Lanzarote, the island where the European presence is older and goes back almost a century before the conquest of Gran Canaria or Tenerife was completed.

The research findings were surprising, since the orientation of the oldest churches of Lanzarote does not show a clear influence of the aboriginal culture that can be attributed to ancient cults of these people, or their knowledge of astronomy. This was particularly interesting, because several pre-Hispanic sites across the Canary Islands mark the sunrise in the solstices and equinoxes, which allowed aboriginal societies to have a calendar for rituals, sowing and harvesting.

Of the thirty-two churches analysed, all were built between the Sixteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. Seventeen are positioned to face east at sunrise, one is almost exactly aligned with the equinoxes (Nuestra Señora de las Mercedes in Mala) and two more were built in reverse, looking west. However, twelve were aligned to face in a north-north easterly direction.

These researchers conclude that this peculiarity of Lanzarote churches is unique in all of Europe. They suggest that it is a compromise response to a cultural combination of beliefs of the aborigines and the faith of their conquerors. Some churches in the Canary Islands show a marked difference to the orientation of nearly all Christian churches across the world and could have been influenced by the direction of trade winds that were so important to the aboriginal people living in these islands. So, next time that you visit a church in the Canary Islands, do take a compass with you.

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