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'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

Learning The Lingo

Would-be expats often ask me what I consider to be the essentials when planning a new life in another country. My answer is always the same, to learn the language.

You could say that I am not a natural at learning languages. As an eleven-year-old starting at my new grammar school in Lincolnshire, I was forced to learn a language that I did not like, a culture that I had no empathy with and a country that I did not wish to spend any time in. Sorry, Francophiles, but yes, I am talking about the French language. Maybe it was the teacher, the quality of teaching or simply the sound of the language that I disliked, but I quickly learned, in the style of Del Boy, that ‘un petit pois’ was not for me and it was true that I have never ventured further into the country other than a day out in Cherbourg, which was more than enough for me.

Latin hit me in a slightly different way. Dead and dusty it may have been, but the subject was taught in a more effective fashion and with a degree of humour by my old headmaster. He was a strict disciplinarian whom I liked and respected, and I made adequate progress. After all, he was well prepared and seemed to enjoy teaching, which was a pleasant change when I considered some of his colleagues. He made a dead language sound broadly entertaining and the sounds that were uttered fell rather more easily upon my sensitive ears. However, I could see little point in the endless conjugation and chanting of those wretched verbs and “amo, amas, amant...” will forever ring in my ears. It was during one of my grumbles that I was told in no uncertain terms that I would need the subject to become a doctor, vet or pharmacist, or if I wished to apply for Oxford or Cambridge universities. I realised then that it would be of no use to me at all, as I had neither the academic prowess nor wish to follow any of these career options.

It was finally decision time. I had already dropped Latin and was doing my best to avoid French, using a variety of means of which I had become a master. As I completed my fifth year at the school, I was told in no uncertain terms that I had either to take on another language or it was an additional two lessons a week on the playing field. To me this possibility of yet more ‘hell on earth’ really was sufficient motivation to find another language very quickly. I hated the torment of rugby, cricket and cross-country running that schools such as mine were so keen to encourage.

German was an option and eagerly followed by many of my peers as we entered the sixth form. However, it is not a nice language to listen to, is it? It is far too guttural and makes sounds that I wouldn't wish to make in polite company. I have only to hear a short passage of a German opera to confirm that my decision not to learn the language was the correct one. Now, what about Italian? Yes, a musical language that is one of beauty, sincerity and where, I was assured, my Latin would come in useful. The only problem was that my school didn't offer it.

The truth finally dawned. To be successful in life I would need just three languages to conquer the world - English, Chinese and Spanish. I reasoned that with these three languages I could visit just about anywhere and do anything. My request for Chinese lessons was greeted with a stony faced, disinterested stare from my housemaster before I was bawled out of his study for wasting his time. Undaunted I decided to have a chat with one of the school secretaries, a charming young woman who rather liked me, I thought. A hurried whisper when her colleague disappeared into the stock room revealed that “Spanish lessons are off for the time being”. This, I learned, followed an unfortunate incident between the newly appointed young Spanish teacher and the middle-aged gym master in the sports equipment cupboard the previous week. In those days, I was far too naive and polite to ask for further details, but I had a vivid imagination. So Russian it had to be.

Russian? Yes, for an established grammar school in the middle of fenland Lincolnshire to be offering such a language did make several eyebrows shoot upwards, least of all my father’s. Nowadays, it would no doubt be considered ‘cool’ and it certainly brought many a conversation to a halt when announced, which I rather enjoyed. I was one of an ‘elite’ group of eight sixth formers who were ‘encouraged’ to take it on as a two-year option. It was my housemaster who told me the ‘elite’ part of the deal. I now think he was being cynical, but I believed him at the time although I do recall being surprised by his sudden concern and generosity. However, anything other than the sports field was a bonus, although given my track record in languages, it was a miracle that I managed to get on the course. Initially it appeared that my school was pushing boundaries in offering Russian. After all, in those days, the cold war appeared to be very much a threat to Western nations. However, I suspect that this seemingly enlightened addition to the curriculum was more to do with the fact that it would attract additional funding, staffing and publicity for the school rather than a genuine attempt to break down political and cultural barriers. Still, I was one of the ‘elite’ band of eight.

Sadly, it was to be a disaster. Even though my interest in literature had led me to become an admirer of the work of Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy, I was not prepared for the lesson to be taught by one of the most boring and disinterested teachers that I have ever had the misfortune to meet. Mr. Edwards had recently returned from studying a crash course in Russian at Leningrad University and was only a few pages ahead of his students in the textbook. However, looking back, it was not that bad and many afternoons when Mr. Edwards didn't even bother to turn up for the lesson, I spent many hours in the agreeable company of my peers, arguing the virtues and otherwise of a communist state and other such concerns of spotty teenagers who were about to change the world. Also, I did learn sufficient to ask about the weather in Moscow and to say “I love you” in Russian, which was a bonus.

Many years later, as a school inspector in Wales, I was amazed at the ease with which four- and five-year-old English-speaking children could learn a second language - Welsh. I hasten to add that I was not inspecting the Welsh language - that was left to a colleague specialising in the subject. However, my exposure to these children in the playground during break times, experiencing the ease with which they switched from their mother tongue to another, admittedly very difficult language to learn, both humbled and amazed me.

This all brings me back to my main point. I now know that learning the language of my host country is essential. Not only for the basic communication of need, but it is necessary to learn out of respect for the language and culture of my newly adopted country. However, do I miss the nuance of understanding that I have in English? As yet, I am not content with understanding the gist of what is being said, as I want more detail to be able to understand innuendo and to joke in Spanish – but all potentially dangerous stuff for a foreigner!

Learning Spanish later in life is not easy. However, I am pleased to say that I can now understand far more of what is said and written and I have growing confidence in being able to speak the language. Indeed, one of my highlights recently was to receive a certificate of competence in learning the language - admittedly at beginner’s level. That young Spanish teacher and the gym master in the sports cupboard at my old school have a lot to answer for, don’t you think?

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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The All-Seeing Eye

My recent article and podcast about ‘The Spiritual Tape Recorder’ encouraged several readers to contact me to ask more about the ‘Third Eye’ or ‘Inner Eye’, as it is sometimes referred to. I will attempt to explain a little more about what I have observed in my work over many years with young children.

As a primary school teacher, headteacher and later as a school inspector, I had many contacts with young children. My time working, particularly with nursery children, always fascinated me, since young children have no inhibitions about telling simply what they see. Yes, the lines between imagination and reality are often blurred in the minds of very young children, although I often wondered if they could see with far more clarity than adults.

I am sure than many readers will recall times talking to children when an imaginary friend enters the conversation. Children chat happily with their imaginary friend, whether they wish us to be involved or not. I often wondered if the imaginary friend really was imaginary, but really was there and could be seen and interacted with through a ‘third eye’. During my work with young children, I concluded that they are much closer to the spirit world than most adults who seem to have lost something in the growing up process.

When someone dies, we often refer to the deceased as ‘passing’ from this life, which is usually interpreted as ‘passing through the veil’. It is comforting for those left behind to recognise that the deceased has merely left one state to enter another, in other words, the deceased is there, but not in physical form. Maybe looking at this concept from a child’s point of view is helpful. The child cannot physically touch their ‘imaginary friend’, but they know that they are there, ‘beyond the veil’.

In our journey towards spiritual growth and enlightenment, we often come across references to the third eye. These concepts hold considerable significance in various spiritual practices and belief systems. The third eye is also often known as the ‘eye of intuition,’ which is a metaphorical concept that represents a heightened sense of awareness that allows us to tap into our intuition. Through the third eye, we can connect with our inner self, gain insights, and access higher truths. Activating the third eye is important for spiritual growth as it opens a world of personal understanding and connection. I have come to believe that young children have this innate ability, which is rapidly lost as we grow older unless we take steps to recover some of its purpose.

The concept of a third eye is not based on scientific evidence but is one that has existed throughout history in spiritual and religious traditions, such as Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. This third eye is thought to be an energy centre located between the eyebrows. Some claim that in adults it can be opened by activating the pineal gland, which is a pea-sized gland shaped like a pine cone, through techniques like yoga, mindfulness and meditation. Many find that these practices allow us to quiet the mind, listen to our inner voice, and to develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and the Light within and around us. Over time, we hope that this will unlock a deeper sense of spiritual connection, enhanced intuition, expanded perspectives, and an increased awareness that all beings are interconnected.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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Is God Really Within Everyone?

Most of us will have been shocked and horrified by the current criminal case involving the murder of many babies who were in the care of a young and deeply troubled nurse. Yet again, the wilful destruction of life is on our minds and challenges our understanding of goodness and, indeed God. Why did this happen? Why was it allowed to happen? Who is ultimately responsible? These are just some of the current questions being asked, together with cries for justice. We also know that the pain and anguish felt by parents who have lost a child is even greater under such tragic and cruel circumstances. We feel their pain but have no answers.

Regular readers will know that I am a Quaker, yet my mind is often troubled by the often-expressed Quaker view of ‘That of God in Everyone”, or words to that effect. I know many Quakers use this phrase when trying to explain to others about what it is to be a Quaker. Indeed, I have sometimes used this phrase, particularly when looking for an answer that isn’t too complicated when replying to a question about why I am a Quaker. The more cynical have often followed up my reply with a puzzled “What about Hitler, Mussolini or (currently) Putin? Are you saying that these people were God inspired too?” It is often a difficult question to answer and one that has troubled me for many years. In my reply, I now replace the usual phrase with “It is the potential of God within everyone…”, which I am much more comfortable with.

I often wonder if President Putin, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson or other currently controversial figures can claim to be “God inspired”? We must be careful here, since how much of these views are politically inspired by our personal prejudices? It may be that although these people do not fall within our political view of what is acceptable or not, or what we think God would approve of, how do we know? The opposite maybe be true.

Similar concerns were raised at our Quaker Meeting this week and it was, as usual, interesting to hear the views and thoughts of others. Is it right that we alone determine who is ‘God Inspired’ or not? For me, the answer was beautifully expressed by one of our members who gave a horticultural explanation. His explanation is that the goodness of God is within all of us from birth, as a tiny seed. As with all seeds, if it is watered, fed and nurtured, it will grow into a strong and healthy plant. If not, it will wither and die. During these unsettled times, the simple comparison of the goodness of God with the growth and nurture of a tiny seed has, for me, given an explanation that I can live with.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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“You’re an Angel”

“Oh, she’s an angel”, or “Thank you, you’re an angel” are comments that I sometimes hear, and often following an act of kindness or generosity. Maybe such comments are more common in the older generation nowadays, but I am used to hearing them. It is always a comment that startles me for a moment, and I wonder.

I believe in angels; I always have done. Admittedly my understanding of them has grown and developed over the years with the experiences of life. To put it simply, I believe that angels are the physical embodiment of the Spirit that guides, supports, encourages, and challenges us in our daily lives. The Spirit may manifest itself through people, or indeed animals that we are close to, such as our dog or cat.

My mother believed in angels too. She had experienced a troubling incident when she was about fourteen years old, whilst playing in a field in the village with her friend Laura and younger sister, Muriel. She always believed that the angel had saved them, and a view that was firmly supported by her friend and sister when questioned by my grandparents. Many years later when I was nine years old during an eventful Sunday school outing to Skegness, I was inadvertently abandoned and wasn’t noticed as missing until the end of the day. I still remember my father being very angry over the incident and the apparent negligence of my Sunday School teachers, but with my mother calmly replying. “Barrie’s fine, the angels would have looked after him.”

Mother’s faith was no nonsense and black and white, as was her later career in nursing. She was no pushover and could spot an untruth before I even opened my mouth. As I was growing up, she often referred to angels that surround us in our everyday lives, yet only rarely referred to the ‘incident’ that she had shared with her friend and sister. My father discouraged her from talking about it, since he thought it made my mother sound foolish. Later in her life, I questioned her many times about what she had seen, and the answer was always the same with a crystal-clear memory. “They are all around us”, she would say, “Just keep an open mind and you will see”.

Later, as a newly qualified teacher, I remember attempting to teach ‘the Annunciation’ to my class of nine-year-olds. The subject content for this age group troubled me greatly, and I felt neither qualified nor competent to deal with it. Despite this, as I was working in a church school, I had to give it a go. Later, I felt that the lesson had gone better than expected, my pupils seemed vaguely interested and I didn’t have any of the anticipated difficult questions about parenthood. I set them to work, predictably to write about the story and add a picture.

Michelle didn’t find writing easy, and I remember seeing her chewing the end of her pencil in deep thought before she committed her well chewed pencil to a fresh page of her religious education book. It took her some time to complete, followed by drawing a picture. When she had finished, she proudly presented her work to me as I sat at my desk.

‘Mary and the Fairy’ proclaimed the title, followed by two brief sentences describing the visitation to Mary by “the fairy”. Michelle’s accompanying picture of the angel was very similar to a fairy that had recently been placed on the school Christmas Tree, together with a very plump Mary who had a huge blob around her middle. Michelle beamed and was clearly very proud of her work; I gave her a gold star. Clearly, I hadn’t done a very good job in explaining the difference between angels and fairies, but I was content that Michelle had realised that Mary’s visitor was someone special. Maybe angels and fairies are the same, who was I to say?

As I progress through life, I have experienced support that I cannot always explain. I have met people who briefly enter my life with words of wisdom, suggestions, encouragement, and support, and often using words that don’t appear to be their own. Sometimes, it is someone that I know that is offering support, but often it is a stranger who enters my life briefly and I never see again.

Although angels are often popular in films, books and songs, they are rarely taken seriously in ‘real life’. I sometimes watch popular films that includes an angel, who is usually someone that you would least expect to represent ‘the heavenly host’. I often find it hard to dismiss these as fiction, since I suspect there is some truth behind the representation. I believe that angels are with us, supporting and helping us every day of our lives. The question is whether “You are an angel” comment refers to someone who is particularly kind or has done a good deed, or is really an angel? My guess is, it doesn’t matter.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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Are You Friendly?

This week, I received a very cross email from Dawn. Dawn is a British immigrant who has lived in Italy for many years, and is very unhappy about an article that she recently read in a publication intended for British immigrants. Dawn sent me a copy of the article that was basically a survey of nations that had the most friendly and unfriendly attitudes to immigrants living in their countries.

The article claimed that Denmark, Switzerland and Norway are the most unfriendly destinations for immigrants. Despite the generally high quality of life in these countries, they are just not friendly enough with poor attitudes to immigrants and a local culture that is difficult to get used to. These ‘sinners’ were closely followed by Germany and France that ranked 56th and 57th in a list of 67 countries. Again, the general friendliness (or lack of) figured highly in France, whilst in Germany socialising with the locals and the language were major barriers to successful integration. Mind you, it could be worse, with Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Czech Republic being the most unfriendly of all.

At the top of the friendliness list are Mexico, Costa Rica and Uganda, with Greece and Cyprus making huge leaps forward in the friendliness stakes. According to the article, these countries bend over backwards to make immigrants feel at home. However, the top destinations overall for immigrants are Taiwan, Malta and Ecuador, which is due to quality of life issues that include financial factors and healthcare, whilst Qatar, Italy and Tanzania plummet to the bottom as the worst countries for British immigrants to live in.

I think that it was at this point that Dawn felt sufficiently moved to fire off an email to me, since she has lived in both France and Italy for a number of years, and resents the implication that both countries are unwelcoming to British immigrants. She makes the point that these countries made her and her partner feel welcome, although initially she found negotiating French bureaucracy a challenge. However, Dawn also makes the point that being able to speak French helped her to settle during those first few months in a new country. In France, she lived in a small village where she quickly became accepted into the community, whilst in Italy integrating into a large city was more difficult, but Dawn quickly overcame this by helping to support a local animal welfare charity, voluntary work teaching English in her local primary school, as well as helping to deliver bread to elderly local residents from the local bakery!

Dawn’s email basically gives all British immigrants a simple lesson in how to be a happy and well-integrated immigrant. Those expats who claim to live in unfriendly countries should ask themselves whether they have bothered to learn the language and take part in local and cultural activities. Do they appreciate and value local traditions, or attempt to have a conversation with their neighbours? Have they fallen into the usual British immigrant trap of living in a British enclave, only socialising in British bars and restaurants, complaining about life in their host country and comparing it to the UK through rose tinted glasses? Do they only watch British television and only ever speak in English and expect others to speak to them in English? Frank answers to these questions may give an explanation of why some countries are regarded as more unfriendly than others.

So what about the UK? Based on the data before the Brexit referendum, the UK came in 33rd place in Dawn’s article, which was mainly due to friendliness towards British immigrant families, as well as job security. However, the cost of living was thought to be too high, pushing the ranking to a lower position. One can only imagine how immigrants from Europe view the friendliness of the UK population towards them following the referendum.

Of course, data and statistics can be made, massaged, and twisted to interpret almost anything, and surveys such as this are little more than meaningless. As all wise immigrants like Dawn quickly realise, much of our attitudes about the friendliness of people in our host country is heavily influenced by our attitudes towards them.

© Barrie Mahoney 2023

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