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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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​Living in a Hayloft or a Pod

Living in a Hayloft or a Pod

The severe social and economic consequences of failing to provide sufficient housing for increasing populations is at last beginning to dawn upon national and local politicians in many countries. For far too long, governments of all political shades have ignored the issue of providing sufficient numbers of high quality, low cost housing for sale, as well as for rent. It is disturbing, inhumane and unacceptable to see people living on the streets in some of the most prosperous countries in the world. The Canary Islands and Spain are not immune from this issue, since increasing demand for both permanent, as well as holiday accommodation is a growing problem. A few interesting, as well as challenging ideas, are beginning to emerge that may help.

A company in the city of Barcelona has recently announced a plan to build an apartment that will house 15 people in tiny capsules that will cover an area of just 100 square metres. The idea for the project comes from a Japanese company called Haibu, where clients sleep in a pod that contains little more than a bed and a TV attached to the ceiling. The word ‘haibu’ means beehive in Japanese, with the company commenting that people are social creatures who were meant to live in communities that help each other out, rather like bees in a hive.

These pods are intended for permanent residents of the city and not for tourists. Each pod is 120cm wide, 120cm high and 200cm long. There is a bed and a headboard that can also be used for storage, shelves, a folding table, a wall socket and a USB charger. There are also communal areas, such as a shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. With rapidly increasing rents in the city, the company believes that its charge of 200 euros per month for each ‘room’ is an attractive proposition. The company believes that its pods are a better option than a hostel or sleeping on the streets, and will allow clients some privacy until their financial situation improves.

City authorities are not happy with the idea, commenting that there is no room for such a project in Barcelona, and warn that any housing unit must have a surface area of at least 40 square metres, which means that this company will never obtain the necessary operating licenses. Some commentators have already made the point that there is already a range of similar accommodation available in Spain’s cemeteries, called coffins.

There are other options to consider. For instance, the Municipality of La Orotava in Tenerife has recently developed an imaginative idea that will help to ease the shortage of homes for local residents. The plan involves the renovation of over 300 barns and haylofts across the municipality that are currently abandoned. It is thought that each hayloft could provide a home for a family of up to 10 people.

Haylofts were traditional buildings that were mostly built in the higher areas of the island. They could help to solve the problems of lack of housing, and local councillors assure residents that those who used them many years ago were kept warm in winter and cool in summer. Canary Islanders know a thing or two about unusual housing, since many residents have lived and continue to live in traditional housing, such as caves, across several of the islands.

Over many years of disuse and neglect, many of these haylofts will require careful rebuilding and renovation, but will be a much a cheaper and faster alternative to building new, traditional homes. This imaginative idea of converting 300 barns will not only provide homes for local people, but will ensure that these attractive traditional buildings can be preserved for historical interest in the future.

The difficulties of earning a large enough salary to be able to purchase a property in Spain has led to another dimension within the Spanish housing market, and that is through the concept of ‘bare ownership’, which some say is macabre, yet is perfectly legal. Elderly property owners are selling their homes for half the market value to willing buyers on condition that they can live out their final days in their home. When the elderly person dies, the new owner is then free to move in or sell the property at market value. Despite conditions attached to such a deal there appears to be no shortage of buyers tempted by the longer-term benefits of the seller’s death.

In the future, we will see many new initiatives designed to ease the shortage of housing across Europe. Some ideas will make better use of existing space through good planning and thoughtful design. Other schemes will no doubt focus mainly upon the profit motive, with little thought and compassion for those who will spend their lives there. Having a home is a basic human right and failing to provide sufficient homes demonstrates a breakdown in the traditional, embedded values of society.

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​It’s Very Easy to be Conned

It’s Very Easy to be Conned

The lurid red leaflets advertising his range of 24-hour plumbing services in both English and Spanish have been blocking up our letter box for the last twelve years. Proudly declaring that he has been in the plumbing business for over thirty years, Juan, as I will call him, was clearly a reliable professional, or so we thought. When our toilet suddenly decided it needed some technical assistance, we decided to call him. How wrong we were!

From the moment that Juan and his equally burly henchman walked into our home, I felt uneasy about the two men. My usual well-honed character radar was already flashing warning signs due to their over excitable levels of ‘easy talk', which always makes me suspicious. Recovering from a heavy cold at the time, clutching a handful of 'Kleenex' tissues and after downing the Spanish equivalent of 'Lemsip', I showed Juan to the offending toilet. I was impressed, as well as disgusted, when Juan plunged his hand inside the toilet and appeared to grope erotically around the inside of the bowl with intense satisfaction. I guess it takes all sorts in life, but I was relieved that we had poured substantial quantities of strong disinfectant into the bowl before his arrival. He could at least have worn rubber gloves, I thought.

Juan confirmed my initial diagnosis that the plunger mechanism needed replacing. He nodded wisely, but then went on to explain that the sewage outlet pipe appeared to be blocked. Nothing too serious that would need machinery to unblock the pipe, but suggested that a dose of strong acid would do the trick. I asked how much this would cost and he explained that it would be about 25 euros. I agreed, and Juan and his colleague went off into town to get a new plunger mechanism, as well as the acid.

A short time later, the pair returned, carrying a new plunger, as well as a battered plastic container, which I guess was holding about five litres of liquid. I was presented with a receipt for twelve euros for the plunger, but there was no mention of the cost of the acid. Juan proceeded to fit the new plunger and to pour the liquid down the toilet. Both he and the toilet made impressive gurgling sounds; he was after all, a very large man who I suspect had a very large, late breakfast just before his visit. I was asked to examine the outflow from the inspection chamber in the road. It all seemed to be flowing well. Juan nodded with satisfaction and I asked for the bill.

At this point Juan became very vague and started to jot down a number of incoherent figures. He finally declared that the cost of 25 litres of "very special acid" at a cost of 15 euros per litre, together with 12 euros for the new plunger and his labour charges amounted to the grand total of 550 euros. I laughed, and told him that he had made a mistake. He shook his head seriously and attempted to explain that the "special acid" was one available only to certain plumbers who had authorisation to use the stuff. The alternative would be to employ a commercial rodding service that would cost much more. I asked him to show me the receipt for the acid that he had purchased, but he declined, telling me that it was his own mix (of water, I began to suspect).

As we disputed and argued, the atmosphere grew to a level where we were getting nowhere. I resolutely refused to pay up, whilst Juan and his henchman became more threatening and intimidating. The price came down to 500 euros, 450 euros, 400 euros and eventually to 300 euros. I refused to pay until I had been given a detailed invoice and could check the prices for myself after obtaining a second opinion from a specialist. In any case, I did not have that kind of money readily available, and so the plumbing pair insisted that they drive me to the nearest cash machine to relieve me of the cash. I refused to comply and asked the pair to leave our home, which they refused.

At this point, I called the police to ask for their assistance. When overhearing my conversation with the police, Juan immediately changed his attitude and asked how much I would be prepared to pay for the job. I offered one hundred euros, which I considered to be generous, and suspect it was double the price that the job was worth. Juan accepted, declaring that he was "very angry", and the troublesome duo finally left.

A short time later, two gun-toting Policia Nacional officers arrived at our house. They were polite, friendly and very helpful. I told them the story, which they carefully listened to. They advised me that I could make a formal complaint against the plumber at the police station, as they were undoubtedly committing a crime by advertising their services without an individual or company identification number, giving no business address or full name. However, as I had invited Juan into our home, and did not ask for a quotation of price or see their identification, they had not committed a crime. Indeed, it could be argued that I had committed a crime by paying them 'black money' for the job, which would not be declared to the tax authorities. I accepted their point, and realised that I had created a series of traps for myself by not being sufficiently vigilant in checking their credentials. Usually, I would ask a trusted neighbour or friend for recommendations, but sometimes circumstances force us to stray away from our normal pattern of behaviour.

Nearly every week, I hear stories of expats in Spain and the Canary Islands being victims of fraud, yet I had completely forgotten the key principles of checking the validity of tradesmen before letting them into our home. Admittedly, I was not feeling very well at the time, but this failure could have ended up costing me a lot of money, as well as more unpleasantness. I am now pleased to report that our toilet is flushing well, although I remain flushed with embarrassment. I have learned yet another serious lesson in life.


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