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Letters Blog Letters Blog | Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Living in Caves

“Top 20 Caves to Rent in the Canary Islands” screams one advertisement, followed by “Hundreds of Cave Homes to Buy in the Canary Islands” shouts another. Well, I guess it all makes good copy, but is living in a cave just another symptom of ‘reverse one-upmanship’, and something to brag about to colleagues at work? “Oh, I’m just off to the cave for the weekend.”

During the Spanish conquest of the Canary Islands, the native aborigines, the Guanches, were considered to be living at a primitive level by European standards. The Guanches wore animal skins for clothing, made stone tools for hunting and lived in caves. Well, if that’s not primitive, what is? It is strange how with the passage of time, reverting back to cave dwelling is seen as ‘cool’ (in more ways than one) and is now a highly desirable form of accommodation for some.

A few weeks ago, we visited a friend whom we have known for many years. He bought a group of caves in the Canary Islands before it became fashionable and at a knock down price too. He and his family were not living in exactly slum-like conditions, since our friend’s caves were well equipped with all modern conveniences. There is running water and mains electricity, although many cave dwellers prefer to rely upon their own solar installations, since it gives them a feeling of self-sufficiency. Beautifully designed bedrooms, fitted kitchen, sauna and games room would put most homes to shame, with the added benefits of fast Internet connection and cable television. Our friend’s home included a patio and delightful, well-stocked garden crammed full with unusual and native plants.

There are many such cave homes throughout the Canary Islands, with the most villages made up of cave homes located in Gran Canaria, where the excavation of cave homes into the mountain side remains a feature of the natural landscape. One of the most appealing features of cave homes is that it is unlikely that air-conditioning in summer and heating in winter are needed, since they remain at a steady temperature throughout the year. How’s that for energy efficiency?

Visitors to the Aguimes municipality in Gran Canaria will also find some of the best preserved cave dwellings on the island in the Guayadeque ravine. There are several cave restaurants and even a cave church that is open to visitors, which may help visitors to appreciate the sense of coolness and atmosphere of cave dwellings.

If we now hop over to another of the Canary Islands, Lanzarote, visitors will discover a cave home in the middle of a remote lava field. This was the dream home of the renowned artist, César Manrique who utilised the simple idea of living in five volcanic chambers. This is not an ordinary home, but one lovingly created by a man who had the vision to develop Lanzarote’s unique volcanic landscape into an ecologically friendly dwelling. It is thanks to Manrique that regulations were brought into being to restrict tourism development on the island with any structure taller than a palm tree forbidden.

Homes are not the only use for caves in Lanzarote, with a cafe built into a rock on the island’s north coast and a theatre, swimming pool and nightclub built into another cave complex, which was hugely admired by Manrique as the world’s most beautiful cave adaption - praise indeed.

Of course, as time goes on, modern adaptions of original cave homes distort our vision of the lives and times of these early people. As a reminder, visitors to Gran Canaria may wish to visit one of the most important archaeological sites in the Canary Islands, the Cueva Pintada (the Painted Cave), which interprets life at the time of the Guanches. The original purpose of the cave is unknown, but it is decorated with red, black and white painted geometrical shapes and may have been used as a dwelling, a scared place or for funeral rites. This spectacular site is well worth a visit.

So, before you rush off to book your modern cave home experience with Airbnb, and yes, I have no doubt that a version of a cave home will be available on there too, do give some thought to these ancient people and the lives that the Guanches lived before the invasion by their Spanish conquerors and the genocide that was to follow. Personally, I’d rather book a nice hotel.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

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Life is Too Short to Stuff a Mushroom

I often think of that throwaway and impatient comment by the author, Shirley Conran, that “life’s too short to stuff a mushroom”. It is a quote that often occurs to me when I am confused, bewildered or reach a dead end in an argument that I am having with myself. I had one of these ‘mushroom moments’ a few days ago.

I’ve been uneasy about using the term ‘expat’ for many years. This confusion and conflict came to a head during the height of the migrant crisis when I began to see more clearly than ever before that there is no real difference between an ‘expat’ and an ‘immigrant’. As I have been writing a series of articles for ‘expats’ for some years, and published a book called ‘Expat Survival’, as well as running a popular website of the same name, it did seem an unnecessary complication and expense to change the title to ‘Immigrant Survival’, and so I left the issue on the ‘back burner’ to stew.

I am well aware that the subject of whether British ‘expats’ living in Spain, France, Italy etc. are expats or ‘immigrants’. Personally, I am very happy to be known as a ‘European Immigrant’, for that is what I guess I am. For me, the term ‘expat’ sounds colonial and temporary, whereas being an ‘immigrant’ sounds as if it is a long-term commitment, or even permanent. However, if we think about it, we are no different to the three million or so European immigrants currently living in the UK, yet we never refer to them as European, Spanish or French expats, do we?

I am aware that a debate over the subject can cause heated arguments over dinner, or drinks in the local ‘expat’ bar. If in doubt as to the true meaning, it is always a good idea to check the Oxford dictionary, which in this case defines an expat “as a person who lives outside their native country”. It stems from the Latin “ex” meaning “out” and “patria” meaning native country. So am I, and others like me, an ‘expat’ or an ‘immigrant’. Personally, I am still confused…

Let us now consider the good people living in Boston, Lincolnshire, which has become a pinnacle of welcome for Polish and Romanian people living in the UK. Do the locals refer to them as ‘expats’ or ‘immigrants’? Personally, I don't think I have ever heard the community being referred to as anything but ‘immigrants’, so why is it any different for myself and Brits living in the Canary Islands or the Costa Blanca?

By now, readers will probably think that I am being unnecessarily over pedantic about two simple words. No doubt I will also be accused of being ‘politically correct’, but words and definitions do matter, because they link to meaning, understanding and our subsequent attitudes to others. If I use the word ‘expat’, am I referring to well off, and fortunate foreigners who have made a temporary move to a hot and sunny country, only to enjoy sipping gin and tonics on their terraces all day? I am certainly not referring to refugees from Syria or Africa fleeing for their lives, travelling across stormy seas with little more than the clothes that they are wearing. However, are we not the same? Does it not really all boil down to a question of luck of where we happen to have been born and the opportunities that we have been given in life?

If we accept that immigrants are expats too, maybe it is a question of degree? Expats, in the traditional sense, usually have a choice of whether to return to the country of their birth or to stay in their adopted country, whilst many immigrants simply have no choice over their future. Instead, maybe the term ‘lucky immigrant’ is a better term to describe those that have a choice in the matter, of moving for the sake of a better job, more money or a better lifestyle. This is in contrast to those immigrants who have no choice, but to attempt to escape poverty and persecution at whatever personal cost.

All this thinking really is hard work on a sunny afternoon, and in the end I am not sure that it matters that much, as the two terms are not mutually exclusive. So, I have decided to continue to use the term ‘expat’, at least for the time being, mainly to avoid having my books reprinted. After all, sometimes life really is just too short to stuff a mushroom.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie and his books, go to:

I’m Just Having a Tertulia

One of my favourite cafe bars is called ‘La Tertulia’. It is not a particularly grand establishment and is completely unlike any of those overpriced and often pretentious coffee shops that are springing up in city centres all over the UK. Our ‘Tertulia’ is a friendly and welcoming safe space where good coffee and delicious snacks are served at a fair price. Customers are welcome to stay for as long as they wish; it is an oasis of calm in a busy world.

Usually, the Tertulia is an oasis of calm, but on occasions opinions become heated, voices are raised to such a disturbing decibel level that only the Spanish and Canarians can achieve. Generally, though, discussions are well mannered and good natured.

The Spanish language fascinates me, and like so many expats I have been guilty of many delicious misinterpretations of Spanish words within an English context. Before I managed to become more fluent with my Spanish, I mistakenly thought that ‘tertulia’ simply meant a type of tortilla. Later, for some unknown reason, our special cafe bar became known as ‘The Turtle Bar’. Later, of course, when I bothered to consult my Spanish-English dictionary, I realised that ‘tertulia’ meant something completely different, but entirely appropriate and special.

The definition of ‘La Tertulia' is basically that of a social gathering, often with an artistic or literary dimension, which is popular in Latin America and Spain. The word often refers to an informal group of like-minded people talking about local and national news, and politics.

Historically, a typical tertulia was a regularly scheduled meeting in a public place, such as a bar, although sometimes such events were held in someone’s living room. Those participating were known as contertulios, and in the creative context, often used the opportunity to share poetry, short stories, songs and art.

The Spanish and Canarians love to talk, preferably loudly, and delight in the company of others, and particularly with like-minded people. Indeed, some of the programmes on Spanish television may contain elements of ‘La Tertulia’ with invited guests taking part in a heated discussion. Another explanation that makes quite a lot of sense is that, traditionally, many Spanish men did not like to clear the table or do the washing up after a meal. Cleverly, they came up with the idea that the local bar would serve a better coffee than that produced at home. Sadly, many Spanish women let their partners get away with it, which essentially gave free reign to the idea of ‘La Tertulia’.

‘La Tertulia’ is said to have really taken off in the Sixteenth Century, because King Phillip II of Spain became very interested in the ancient world and its cultures. As a result of his growing interest, he employed experts to compose poetry intended to accompany the artwork displayed in various palaces. Academics and courtiers would meet together to discuss their work with the King, which resulted in ‘La Tertulia’ developing as a term for learned discussion between like-minded individuals.

Back to our coffee shop in the Canary Islands; let us not get too high minded and academic about tertulias, since this is not the tertulia that I recognise. Basically, most folk call into our tertulia for just a good gossip over delicious coffee.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

Join me on Facebook: @barrie.mahoney

To find out more about Barrie and his books, go to:

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