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Letters from the Atlantic Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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​It’s a Crazy, Crazy Expat August

It’s a Crazy, Crazy Expat August

The usual August madness has swept across Spain with a vengeance. First of all, it was ‘refreshing’ to see that the reliable Swedish emporium of all things good and wholesome, namely Ikea, haven’t lost their sense of humour in marketing a lavatory brush given the appealing name of ‘Farage’. Sadly, Ikea has since disassociated itself from the toilet brush story and claims it is ‘fake news’, but all is not lost since they are selling a doormat under the name of ‘Borris’, which is the name of a small town in Denmark. It is a great pity about the loo brush though, since I rather like the idea of turning the name ‘Farage’ into a verb and would quite enjoy “faraging” the loo. Forgive me, but I am having an August moment, and I promise that I won’t mention the table (strong and stable) sold under the name of Theresa… Whilst we are on the subject of Ikea, I just wish one could get a decent cup of coffee there and not a mug of luke-warm sludge that appears to have been left over from the weekend. Yes, I know it is cheap, but I really shouldn’t have to strain it through my teeth...

There was the amazing and heart-warming story of the British expat living in Spain (now given the name, ‘Eileen Dover’) who ‘fell off’ a cruise ship during a spin across the Adriatic and spent ten hours in the sea. I will dare to ask the obvious question that BBC reporters carefully omitted from their interview, but everyone really wanted to ask. Was the poor woman so tanked up with gin and tonics that she just slipped off the edge of the ship, or was she pushed? Sorry, it may seem an indelicate question, but I just need to know. In any case, despite thinking that after ten hours bobbing around in the Adriatic she would look rather like a prune, she looked in remarkably good condition and seemed to be very perky when chatting to the press. Maybe I shouldn’t suggest that she looked as if she had returned home after a really good night out with the girls, but I will. Anyway, I am delighted that she was rescued and appears to be making a good recovery from her ordeal. Clearly, she kept well away from sharks.

Some Spanish resorts are so fed up with British holidaymakers that they are posting advertisements and Twitter posts urging tourists to jump off balconies. “Balconing is Fun” the posters declare. Balconing involves jumping into a swimming pool from a hotel or apartment balcony, or climbing from one balcony to another. These sick posters and tweets mock the deaths of tourists engaging in a sport that is apparently growing in popularity amongst some mainly young and impressionable British holidaymakers. This activity often results in an unpleasant death or very serious injury, so is a very unkind way to get the message across.

One tragic incident took place this month when a 20-year-old British holidaymaker tried to “take a poo” over the edge of his balcony before plunging six floors and landing on his head. At the time of writing, the young man remains in a critical condition.

A different approach to unthinking and inebriated holidaymakers is currently being considered by the regional government of the Balearic Islands. The good people of Mallorca, Ibiza and Minorca are so fed up with the chaos that many British tourists bring to their beautiful islands, that they are proposing to ban ‘all inclusive’ drinks, which is a thoughtful alternative to suggesting that holidaymakers jump off their balconies. Maybe this will help to curb Brits from being over enthusiastic drinkers during their holiday? Somehow, I have my doubts that this will work, but it is a kinder alternative.

The story of the elderly British holidaymaker staying in a Benidorm hotel also hit the headlines this month. This holidaymaker did not enjoy her sea, sun and sangria, and reportedly complained that the hotel had too many Spanish holidaymakers staying there and why couldn’t they holiday somewhere else? “I’m not a racist”, she firmly declared. Surprisingly, the tour operator gave her a refund; personally, I would give her a map and point out that Benidorm is in Spain and not the UK. Maybe she had lost her glasses and had planned to holiday in Blackpool instead?

Ryanair also deserves a mention, since an Irish holidaymaker, frustrated following a four-and-a-half-hour delay from Spain, refused to pay for a small tub of Pringles and a bottle of water for his stressed and over tired five-year-old daughter, and was threatened with arrest when they landed. The passenger was entitled to a compensation voucher that would easily have covered the cost of the water and Pringles if he had remembered to collect it from the departure lounge, but he was more concerned about his young daughter. An announcement was made to the entire cabin that police would deal with him upon arrival. The airline rightly commented that they “do not tolerate unruly, disruptive or unlawful behaviour”. Ryanair, please remember to apply this edict on my next Ryanair flight when I am surrounded by abusive and inebriated passengers.

At least EasyJet had the good sense to cancel a flight to Spain at the last minute when they decided that their Belfast crew was too tired to fly to Mallorca. Right, let us all remember that in August, if we are too tired, it is OK not to turn up for work. That goes for doctors, nurses, supermarket staff and hotel receptionists. Clearly, they are sensible people at EasyJet.

There is never a dull moment when watching the Brits at play in Spain during the month of August. Spain is the number one choice for holidays for many Brits and it is easy to see why. The carefree lifestyle, relatively cheap flights and accommodation, easy and cheap access to alcohol and drugs (if you must), beautiful beaches, endless sunshine and friendly locals all add up to a winning combination. The behaviour of Brits on holiday is often hilarious, sometimes embarrassing and occasionally very sad. Soon, August will be over and we can all get back to normal.

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© Barrie Mahoney

​Use It or Lose It

Use It Or Lose It

It was really good to read in the news this week that the Canary Island of Fuerteventura will once again provide a Beach Library at the beach of Los Pozos. It is a simple concept, users can read books and magazines, as well as participating in a range of activities, such as sports and workshops connected to reading. This library will include books in various languages, and readers can even take their book home with them to finish reading. Exciting stuff, isn’t it?

Wait a minute, isn’t this what we used to have in the UK, but admittedly without a view of the beach? Sadly, the last time I visited the UK, my local library had closed and is now a tyre depot. Similarly, many other local libraries are under threat of either closure or have been handed over to well-meaning groups of volunteers who are responsible for maintaining and funding its continued existence.

I have spent most of my working life encouraging children and adults to read, and hopefully nurturing a love of books, as well as teaching how to access relevant information, which has become increasingly important at this time of ‘fake news’. No, I don’t always mean stuffy old print books, but all manner of electronic media, Kindles, e-readers, iPads and the like. When a gift is required, my first inclination and preference is always to give a good book, rather than a stuffed toy or a computer game. Does it really matter? Have I really wasted my time (and money)? Does anyone value books and read for pleasure anymore?

What is happening to all those wonderful (and not so wonderful) buildings that used to be a storehouse of magic and information in the UK? Figures from 2017 show that around 500 libraries have closed in England, Scotland and Wales. Whatever happened to the idea of libraries as information points, which include access to computers, as well as books? Not everyone has access to, or can afford a smartphone or a computer. Knowledgeable and supportive staff are needed to help the elderly, the homeless, and the disadvantaged to access information. One quarter of all library jobs in the UK, which is around 8000 staff, have disappeared over the last few years. I recall the mother of David Cameron, the UK’s previous Prime Minister, campaigning vigorously to keep her local library open; so maybe it does matter.

“Ah yes”, we are told “this is the result of the recession…” During the same period that libraries closed, around 15,000 volunteers were recruited. As well-meaning as volunteers are, they are no longer appointed to assist full-time, professional staff, but to replace them. As well as exploiting the good nature and willingness of volunteers, it devalues the professionalism and dedication of well-trained, professional and experienced library staff. Presumably, the next step will be to replace full time teachers and nurses with well-meaning volunteers?

When a branch of House of Fraser or Marks and Spencer closes, there is a huge outcry and protests at this “hideous distortion of the High Street”, but is there the same outcry and defence of a local library when it is handed over to local volunteers or, worse still, closed? “Oh, we can get it all on line” is the predictable response, but is this true?

A well-run and well-managed library is of tremendous benefit to the whole community. As well as a providing a source of richness and magic, libraries provide easy and ready access to a confusing world of information. I wonder if any reader has applied for the new Universal Credit? I don’t know that much about it, but I do know that there are many who cannot access the information simply because they do not have ready access to a smartphone or a computer. A library with trained and knowledgeable staff on hand to provide help and advice is essential in assisting claimants to negotiate the minefield of this benefit.

Libraries also provide solid defence against the modern scourge of loneliness faced by many elderly, as well as younger people. It is a safe space that offers shared experiences and a chance to be with people, as well as keeping warm during those cold winter days, and without having to spend any money.

If libraries didn’t already exist, we would be busy inventing them. Thankfully, my experiences in Spain’s libraries tell me that they are mostly valued, well used and comparatively well-funded to their UK counterparts. As for that wonderful Beach Library in Fuerteventura; I cannot wait to visit it.

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​The Great Spain Pension Robbery

The Great Spain Pension Robbery

I recently came across many pensioners protesting in the capital city of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This protest was just one taking place in a hundred Spanish cities to raise the plight of pensioners in society. In the Canary Islands, hundreds of people took to the streets in La Laguna in Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria to ask for support in their ongoing struggle to preserve the public pension system. Pensioners are protesting against the actions of the previous government, and complaining that it had raided the country’s pension funds in order to bail out the Spanish banks during the financial crisis.

Most Spanish pensioners complain that their pensions do not give them enough to live on. Average pensions in Spain are around 1100 euros each month, with the general pension at around 950 euros, which seems generous when compared to UK pensions. Crude comparisons between the two countries are unreliable, since the level of unemployment in Spain continues to be very high, whereas it is very low in the UK. As a result, many Spanish pensioners are responsible for supporting their families, as many of whom continue to live with their parents during troubled financial times. It is within this context that Spanish pensions are seen as necessary to support the wider family and not just a single person or a couple.

Incidents such as this often trigger memories from my childhood, and this encounter was no exception. My memory went back to returning home from primary school one day, and complaining bitterly to my mother about my pocket money. When compared to the amount that my friends told me they received, the amount I was given was miserly and I made my feelings very clear.

Overhearing the fuss that was going on, my elderly grandfather, who was staying with us at the time, quietly took me to one side and asked why I thought I deserved any pocket money at all. I remember giving him a list of reasons, which he carefully listened to, before telling me that he never received any pocket money. His father had died when he was very young and my grandfather had to work from a very young age in order to keep the family together. He remembered the sheer joy and appreciation when he received his very first “Old Age Pension”, as it was called at that time. The pension was five shillings each week, which for many pensioners meant the difference between basic survival or being forced to live in the workhouse. Lecture over, my grandfather patted me on the head, put his hand in his pocket and handed me some coins with his usual comment of “Don’t tell your mother”.

The first non-contributory British pension began in January 1909. The weekly pension was five shillings each week (25 pence) paid to all people over the age of 70, and 7 shillings and sixpence paid to married couples. Five shillings (25p) is about £20 in today's value, but measured by the increase in average earnings it is more like £112, which is less than the current basic state pension of around £130.00 weekly. UK Pensions were kept deliberately low in order to encourage people to make their own provision for old age. In order to be eligible, the applicant had to be of “good character”, earn less than 31 pounds ten shillings a year and have been a UK resident for at least 20 years. There were other conditions too, such as not being convicted of drunkenness, not held in prison or a ‘lunatic asylum’ or habitually out of work; they were harsh times.

Back to the protests in Spain, which were intended to remind everyone that the pensioners’ demands are everyone’s business. These protestors are highlighting the problems faced by pensioners in Spain, such as loss of purchasing power that leaves them feeling helpless. They were also asking for the repeal of reforms in the labour market, which they claim has led to unstable employment opportunities for young people. Government proposals to promote private pension funds are described as privatisation of the public pension system ‘by the back door’.

Looking after the well-being of older people is one of the elements that constitutes a civilised society. Although these issues are within different cultural contexts, the struggles by pensioners in both Spain and the UK have a similar resonance, which is fairness and a desire to be heard.


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An Appointment for an Appointment

An Appointment for an Appointment

I really don’t like August! It is not the excessive heat and accompanying high electricity bills for air conditioning that upset me, but the fact that nearly everyone seems to be on holiday. No, I do not begrudge hard working Spanish and Canarians some precious time off with their families, but the concept of holiday cover has never been invented in Spain. Post is rarely delivered during August, since our postman is climbing a mountain somewhere; we have learned never to order anything that needs delivering in August. Similarly, we try to avoid anything involving the bank, social security office, Town Hall or health centre that requires anything needing filling in, bonking with a rubber stamp or using the computer.

Over the years, we have learned the hard way, but sometimes things just crop up and have to be dealt with. The lack of holiday cover means that if someone is away at the bank or Town Hall, then that is just tough luck; you will have to wait until they return in September. Even the computers are on holiday in August and refuse to work until the temperature cools down …

It all came to a head this morning when I tried to replace a health card with one of the newly issued ones, for reasons that seem neither logical or sensible. I don’t usually fret too much about such changes, since when there is a change of government, health and other cards are often suddenly cancelled without due notice, but with Brexit approaching, one has to be prepared. I came across a newly invented phenomenon this week, which is the necessity to make an appointment in order to get an appointment at the health centre. This is the latest ploy to put off actually seeing anyone in August and (temporarily) does away with the need to employ additional staff. Mind you, the system falls to pieces a few weeks later, but I guess the hope is that patients will either have died, recovered or left the country, so I guess there is a form of logic in operation, which brings me nicely to the case of the woman with a leg attached to a broom handle.

Did you know that computers also suffer from the August holiday syndrome, and try to take some time off? I overheard a woman being told that she would have to return later in the week because the computers had slowed down due to the excessive heat in the office. Now this was no ordinary case, since the poor soul had one leg strapped to what looked like a broom handle; clearly, she was in some discomfort. The woman took it all in good part, nodded, and limped away. She had made the effort get to the health centre to make an appointment in order to get an appointment to book an appointment with a specialist… Now back to my replacement health card.

Since the wait for a real, plastic health card could well exceed the lifetime of many patients, the health centre has come up with a jolly good wheeze, which is to issue a temporary one on a sheet of paper; that is if both the computer and printer are working. In my case, both were having an August holiday and I was asked to return another day. Oh well, it is no more than I would expect.

Over the years as an expat living in Spain, I have got used to what I see as the quirkiness and sheer inefficiencies of many of the bureaucratic processes that this country copes with. If something isn’t working, the response is usually to invent something that will make it even worse and to employ more civil servants in the process. I have learned, as have many expats, to balance these minor irritations with the joys and advantages of other aspects of my life in Spain, so I usually grit my teeth and try to avoid thinking too much like a Brit.

I often try to explain and defend Spanish systems and lengthy bureaucratic processes to other expats on the basis that maybe they didn’t fully understand the language during their latest bureaucratic encounters, or maybe it is down to cultural differences and misunderstandings about the way that things are done. I am sure that if you ask a German or Polish expat trying to navigate the paperwork processes in the UK they would tell of similar experiences.

Did I get my new temporary health card? Well, yes and no. During a return visit to the health centre, by means of an appointment to get an appointment, I finally arrived once again to face the offending computer and printer. This time, both were having a good day and eventually spewed out the required document. The lady at the desk was also looking less flustered than when she had dealt with the leg woman, and kindly suggested that it would be a good idea to have the document laminated, since it may be many years before my real card arrived in the post. I took her advice, thanked her and headed to my local print shop.

At the print shop, the laminating machine was also having an August day. It greedily gobbled up my card, but refused to release it from the other end of the machine. There was a smell of burning and flames appeared from the centre of the laminating machine. After the fire was put out, the now worried looking operator got a screwdriver and gingerly opened the blackened machine. Inside were the charred remains of my new temporary health card. Ah well, such is life in August; I will return to the office to make an appointment for an appointment tomorrow and then we will start the game all over again.

In the end, I did manage to collect my new, shiny health card from a very helpful lady operating from a small, airless room marked ‘Resuscitation’. I now know why!

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