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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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​Let’s Thresh a Lentil

Let's Thresh a Lentil

An interesting photographic exhibition in Lanzarote caught my eye this week. The exhibition, which was presented by local students, brought together 300 photographs from the family albums of their grandparents and great grandparents, which reflected life on the island in the last century.

In one photograph, the great grandparents of one student are shown threshing lentils, which were grown on the island. Lentils are usually regarded as one of the world’s healthiest foods and it was interesting to see that they were grown and harvested in Lanzarote, as well as the other Canary Islands.

The island of Lanzarote is just sixty miles off the coast of the Sahara. It is a dry and volcanic island, with six to eight inches of rain in a good year and much less during a drought; both this and its volcanic geology became this island’s destiny. Serious problems for islanders were caused by volcanic disasters. As with all the Canary Islands, such conditions determined the crops that could be grown to ensure survival in sometimes wretched economic and climatic conditions. One of the answers was to be lentils.

Long before the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, people used the rich, fertile earth to grow a range of subsistence crops, which included lentils. The lentil is one of the oldest and hardiest foods in the world, and there is no legume more resistant to arid land than the lentil. It needs very little water to grow and can survive the hottest or coldest of climates.

Lentils originated in central Asia and have been eaten since prehistoric times and are one of the first foods known to be cultivated, since seeds dating back 8000 years have been found in archaeological sites in the Middle East. Archaeologists even discovered traces of lentils buried with the dead in Egyptian pyramids. The humble lentil had reached mythical status and was praised for its ability to enlighten the mind, even in the afterlife. In Catholic countries, such as Spain and the Canary Islands, lentils have long been used as a staple food during Lent.

Lentil stew is a popular dish in the Canary Islands, and often served with potatoes, chorizo and vegetables. I am also told that the addition of garlic croutons and red Canary wine together with crusty bread makes a comforting and wholesome dish, and best found in many of the small, traditional family-run restaurants on the islands. Lentils do not need to be soaked before cooking, have multiple uses in the kitchen, and their flavour enhances any vegetable or meat ingredient. It is no wonder that they have been a treasured foodstuff since early times.

As a vegetarian for many years, I have long been aware of the high nutritional properties of the humble lentil. They are an excellent source of cholesterol-lowering fibre, as well as having an ability to manage blood sugar levels following a meal. Lentils contain seven of the most important minerals, including B-vitamins and protein, and with virtually no fat. Indeed, just a cupful of cooked lentils will set you back around 200 calories, so they are great for anyone on a diet. The fibre content helps to overcome digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome and prevents constipation. There are also huge benefits to the heart; according to food intake studies, lentils were associated with an 82 per cent reduction in risk from heart attacks due to their fibre, as well as from the significant amounts of folate and magnesium. Lentils are rich in iron and, unlike red meat, are not rich in calories or fat, which makes them ideal for those who require increased levels of iron, including growing children and adolescents.

I am very fond of pasta dishes, but try to avoid eating them too often, because they can be very fattening. I have recently discovered pasta made entirely from lentils, which can now be easily purchased from some of the major supermarkets. At last, I can enjoy pasta without worrying about the calories.

This one old photograph of a couple threshing lentils on this beautiful island reminded me of the immense value of the humble lentil, which can be rightly called “an ancient crop for modern times”. If you haven’t yet eaten a lentil dish, or used them within a meal, I recommend that you do. As for me, I’m off to enjoy a lentil bake and a glass of red Lanzarote wine for lunch. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

Eleven Women and One Astronaut

Eleven Women and One Astronaut

No, it is not the latest hot, porn movie or a march for equality, but the rather impressive line-up of cabinet members announced by the new Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez. Politics aside, it is a cabinet composition that has stretched the imaginations of Spanish media headline writers, as well as briefly silencing opposition parties for just long enough for them to get their breath back following an exceptionally long and exhausting week in Spanish politics. It was a week when Spanish politics was turned upon its confused head. At the time of writing, apart from astonishment, criticism of the new line up has been unusually muted. No doubt the usual vitriol from both sides will flow again shortly.

It is not unusual for expats to lose interest or distance themselves from the politics of their home country when starting a new life in a country of their choice. That is, until the European Union referendum sparked the debate for British expats. Expats who had stubbornly refused to have anything to do with British politics suddenly became unwillingly entrenched in the debate, and often having to explain what was going on in the UK to mystified Spanish, German and Scandinavian neighbours and friends. “Were the Brits crazy?” many asked. Suddenly, expats began to wonder about their sanity, and worry about their pensions, health entitlement, as well as family and friends who are still living in the UK. Those who had previously ignored their right to vote under the fifteen-year rule suddenly became motivated with a demand that votes for expats should be for life. After all, didn’t they always have a stake in their home country?

It is under this backdrop of divisive events in the UK that many expats also became interested in political events in Spain. For many expats, an interest in the politics of their host country is a healthy one even though they cannot vote in national elections, being mostly restricted to voting in local and European elections. ‘Know your neighbour’ is a well-known adage, and where better to start than the politics of a country?

The new Spanish cabinet has been described by some commentators as “feminist, progressive, pro-European, pro-economy and pro-business”; it is one that prefers logic and reason over religion and belief. Accordingly, there were no crosses or bibles at the swearing-in ceremonies with the Catholic church kept at a polite and dignified arm’s length, at least for the moment. It is also the first cabinet in Europe that has a female-majority, as well as one that includes an astronaut, an aeronautical engineer, a doctor, teachers, two judges, a public prosecutor and economists. Even a new Ministry has been established; the Ecological Transition Ministry, which has been formed to deal with some of Spain’s (and the world’s) most pressing environmental problems, particularly related to climate change.

It is now widely thought that the new Prime Minister means to govern, as well as to prepare for early elections. As well as appointing 11 capable, experienced women to his cabinet, including the Deputy Prime Minister, who is also Equality Minister. Another woman, Teresa Ribera, is Spain's new Ecological Transition Minister who will be expected to lead the debate on climate change. Interestingly, the Prime Minister has appointed a non-separatist Catalan as Spain’s new Foreign Secretary; an imaginative move that would have been unthinkable a few weeks ago.

In response to the Catalan crisis, the new Spanish Government has already lifted financial controls on Catalonia and the new government has pledged to “try to move forward” with the constitutional situation that has so far blighted attempts of reconciliation. In the end, all parties will have to talk, and so the sooner that these talks begin, the better.

I recall the words of a professor of politics who made the statement that there should be no political parties or political party whips within a legitimate democratic process, in favour of a parliament of independents voting with only with their conscience. When challenged that nothing would get done, his response was just one word: “precisely”.

The silence and implied goodwill from normally vociferous observers that followed the fall of the previous government last week is probably no more than a brief pause for breath. Still, for expats, it does make a very pleasant change from listening to all those endless and argumentative Brexit debates that seem to go nowhere. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 



Do you suffer from ‘Linguaphobia’? If you are an expat reading this, I suspect not, since most expats recognise the need to make an attempt at speaking the language of their host countries. Challenging it may be, but learning a new language does not only help expats to feel part of their adopted country, but it also helps to keep the brain active and alert, and hopefully will help to keep dementia at bay.

Sadly, it seems that all is not well in foreign language learning, according to a recent study, where experts report that Britain will be further isolated from its European partners after Brexit, because of attitudes to learning foreign languages. Apparently, following the EU referendum, many British people have become even more ‘linguaphobic’, relying upon a false belief that everyone across the world can speak English.

Apparently, Britain has relied for too long upon the idea that English is the world’s most important language. It may come as a shock to many, but only 6 per cent of the world’s population are native English speakers, with around 75 per cent of the world population unable to speak any English at all. Interestingly, 75 per cent of UK residents can only speak English, which probably explains quite a lot about issues surrounding community integration.

Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of British schools significantly reducing the amount of language teaching on their timetables. The situation has worsened in recent years, particularly since the financial crisis, and has never returned to pre-crisis levels. Britain has long been behind other European countries when it comes to language learning.

In 2004, the British Government made the decision for language teaching to become optional once students reached the age of fourteen. This led to a reduction of GCSE courses, dropping from 80 per cent to around 50 per cent of their previous levels. This, in turn, had a negative impact upon language teachers employed by schools, as well as students studying modern foreign languages at university dropping by nearly 60 per cent over the last ten years. Conversely, it is interesting to note that around 94 per cent of students in Europe are learning English, with more than 50 per cent studying two or more foreign languages.

I have often maintained that the ability to speak English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would ensure that our young people are in a good position to work and communicate throughout the world. I am beginning to think that my suggestions are far too modest, since the British Council announced in 2017 that the ability to speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, German, French and Arabic are now necessary requirements for the UK to work and trade effectively in a post Brexit world.

There are warnings too that following Brexit, there will be a shortfall of European citizens to assist with language translation and interpreter services, which the UK heavily relies upon, and is currently a billion-pound industry.

Even more worrying is a forthcoming survey of 700 modern language teachers in England commissioned by the British Council, which reports a negative attitude among both pupils and their parents towards learning foreign languages in school following the referendum to leave the European Union. There is a warning that the UK faces additional isolation following Brexit unless the country adopts a more positive attitude to learning foreign languages. The danger is that economic opportunities and bridge building across the world will suffer and result in a deterioration in economic benefits.

There are also concerns that Brexit has led to ‘anti-foreigner’ attitudes, with the view that once the UK leaves the European Union, foreign languages will no longer be needed; instead, exactly the opposite will be the case.

Whatever happens post Brexit, the ability to communicate with our European neighbours, as well as those further afield, will be essential for the UK to prosper and flourish. Let us hope that ‘Linguaphobia’ does not become the norm, and that the importance of learning a language is recognised by the wider community and not only by those living and working outside the UK. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​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. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

​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. Protection Status © Barrie Mahoney 

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