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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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Do You Speak English?


Do You Speak English?

I wonder if anyone has made a New Year’s resolution to learn a new language? I admire any expats who make a determined effort to learn the language of their host country and are willing to try to avoid asking that embarrassing question “Do you speak English?” at every opportunity. After all, without a basic knowledge of the language, culture and customs, much of the new life that was hoped for will never be achieved. No, I am not talking about not seeking translation support when dealing with medical, legal and financial matters, where it is often important to seek professional assistance. I won’t pretend that learning a language is easy as one gets older; it is not, since learning a new language takes perseverance and effort.

I was pleased to read in the papers this week that both Prince George and his sister, Princess Charlotte, are learning Spanish at their young age. They do have one major advantage, of course, in that their nanny is Spanish. As well as an acceptance of the need to reach out to a wider world, the appreciation, skill and some proficiency in communicating in another language will help these young people to recognise that they do not live in a solely English speaking world and will help to give them a wider perspective of countries and cultures outside the United Kingdom.

During my time as a school inspector working in Wales, as well as England, I was always pleased to meet many young children who were confident in speaking both Welsh and English. The very act of learning a second language at such a young age makes the brain more receptive to the learning of other languages later in their school life. I recall detailed research reports that indicated that children learning both Welsh and English achieved far higher success rates when it came to learning other languages than their English counterparts. The message is clear; to be a successful linguist, it is important that youngsters start learning a second language, any language, early in life.

I often hear from would-be expats who wisely make a determined effort to learn the language for some years before they even attempt to move to Spain. Others arrive in Spain and suddenly realise, and panic after a few brusque encounters at the Town Hall, that some grasp of the language would be useful. It is at this stage that those long forgotten Linguaphone tapes suddenly see daylight after many years. Sometimes, newly arrived expats find themselves attending over-crowded language classes provided by the Town Hall, whilst others seek private lessons or attend a ‘crash course’. Whatever the approach, a recognition that not everyone in the world speaks English is a good start.

Many teachers of Spanish will confidently assure expats arriving in Spain that anyone over the age of 50 can successfully learn the language. I question this assertion as basically a ploy to gain more generous fee paying students, although I am sure that many will contradict me. Let’s be honest, most older people find that learning a new language later in life to be challenging, but certainly not impossible. Whatever the result, the effort is always appreciated by the locals, and the ability to speak a few sentences, and to understand what is going on is invaluable when starting a new life in Spain, or any other country for that matter.

Many experts maintain that a grasp of English, Spanish and Chinese is all that is needed to conquer the linguistic world. I believe this to be true, since Spanish is the second most used language in the world after English. It always pleases me when I hear that Spanish is being taught in British schools, since I have always believed that this is the natural second language, and considerably more useful than French in today’s world. No, I am not a great enthusiast for the teaching of French in British schools, but it is certainly better than nothing at all.

I was once told that the best way for expats to learn a new language is to have an affair with a new partner from the country of your choice. Now, I am not suggesting that expats go in for partner swapping, but the point is that for learning to be successful, it requires a thorough immersion in the culture and traditions of the country, and not only learning the language as a dry academic exercise.

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​Overweight ‘Bridegrooms of Death’

Overweight ‘Bridegrooms of Death’

I guess that many of us may have over indulged during the Christmas and New Year festivities, and I assume that many are now in the period where reluctant gym memberships are booming, as well as desperate subscriptions to Weight Watchers. Sadly, all those temptations do have a price to pay when we see that we can no longer squeeze into our favourite clothes.

One of the many fat inducing temptations readily available in Spain and the Canary Islands are ‘Churros con Chocolate’, which is basically deep fried pastry strips, rolled in sugar and dipped into hot chocolate as they are eaten. This ‘snack’ is hugely popular in Spain, Portugal and the Canary Islands, as well as the United States, France and Mexico. Depending upon the time of day, and the state of your appetite, they can be both delicious and disgusting at the same time. Indeed, it is not unusual to see locals polishing off a huge quantity of churros in cafe bars for their breakfast. Needless to say, it is an excellent way to pile on the pounds, as well as keeping the health service busy with the coronaries that are the result of this over indulgence. My advice is to avoid them at all costs.

Speaking of being overweight and diets, you really should take a look at Spain’s ‘Bridegrooms of Death’, which is the cheerful nickname given to Spain’s elite infantry regiment, ‘La Legión’. The regiment is loosely based upon the French Foreign Legion, as a prestige combat unit with its best known member being General Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

Usually admired for their handsome physical appearance, these fine men are usually well known for their tasselled caps, to keep the flies off, and open necked shirts, to keep the ladies interested. Their uniform traditionally does not have a top button, which aids their reputation as “the top totty killers of Europe”. Sadly, this much-coveted reputation is rapidly disappearing, since it was found that a significant percentage of the 3000 troops were found to be obese, based upon their body mass index (BMI) of over 30.

This elite force is now having a few problems in the obesity department and the troops are now being given dietary advice, nutrition tips, as well as additional exercise to overcome their rapidly expanding waistlines with a target loss of between 500g and 1kg a week. Although ‘La Legión makes the valid point that significant weight gain may be as a result of cultural, pathological and psychological factors, I firmly believe that churros and hot chocolate are to blame.

So, there we have it. As we humbly trot off to the gym at the beginning of this New Year, and preferably to one that does not include a bar and restaurant, let us think long and hard about these fine Spanish men who are undertaking one of the biggest battles of their lives - that of losing weight without the comfort of a plateful of churros and hot chocolate to fall back on. Sadly, for many, I suspect that it will soon not just be the top button of their shirt that is missing.

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​Alice in Blunderland

Alice in Blunderland

Well, it is panto season again, so I have to use a panto title that broadly fits into the spirit of the season, don’t I? If you feel like shouting “Oh yes he did", or “Oh no he didn’t”, please feel free. I really won’t be offended.

Do you ever feel that you have stepped into an alternative universe, or into an Alice in Wonderland situation? I certainly do, and I have been aware of it more in 2017 than any other year that I can remember. Post Truth, Fake News, Trump, ‘Little Rocket Man’ and Brexit have all added to a period of uncertainty and confusion that makes many of us ask if reality, as we know it, is finally spinning out of control?

Currently, it seems that change, accompanied by chaos and confusion, is the order of the day and we had better get used to it. It is within this theme that I am going to suggest an idea that will add a little more chaos and confusion. How about visiting a Spanish town where they talk backwards for your holiday this year?

A flight to the lovely Canary island of Tenerife and a trip to the town of La Laguna could be just the place to visit in our new ‘Alice in Wonderland’ world. Here visitors will witness, and maybe experience, first-hand the Verres language, which is the only place in the world where they speak back to front. I guess it could be compared to rhyming slang used in English, or a version of Pig Latin. Verres is not to be treated as a joke or taken too lightly, since enthusiasts in La Laguna are currently asking UNESCO to consider making it an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’.

Verres started life in a barber’s shop in La Laguna in the 1930s. The barber, Francisco Fariña, started using the language mainly to entertain and joke with customers whilst he cut their hair. In the 1930s, La Laguna was a sleepy town with very little going on, and people went to the barber’s shop to read the paper, gossip and put the world to rights. Being quite a wag, Francisco invented a new way of taking scrambled letters and syllables of words to confuse customers, particularly from the rural areas, whom he liked to tease. Francisco’s language became so popular in his day that even students from the University of La Laguna began to ‘study’ the language with him in his barber shop ‘academy’.

Verres is currently spoken by around 60 residents of the town and is regarded as an amusing way of talking to friends. It is currently becoming more popular with its cultural heritage being taught and discussed in schools. Although dismissed as little more than a linguistic game by some, others point out that it has its own rules, whilst others use the language in their singing.

Currently, the European Union has 24 official languages and claims to be in favour of linguistic diversity across all of its member states. Maybe one day, Verres will also be included as one of its working languages. Well, I did say that we are stepping into an alternative universe, so why not?

History teaches us that chaos and confusion happen from time to time in all civilisations. Although I am not too keen on the chaos part of stepping into an alternative universe, I always like a new challenge. I know that many embrace change and long for a correction to an imperfect world order as they see it. As individuals, I guess that there is little that we can do about it, other than to embrace change and see the positive side of what it has to offer and to keep an open mind. I wonder what Alice would have to say about it all? Happy New Year, or I should say, Yppah Wen Raey!

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Crackers and Crappers at Christmas

Cracker and Crappers at Christmas

It is often difficult for people who move to Spain to leave behind many of the traditions that they are used to in their home countries, and instead to adopt some new traditions in their host country. For many, the traditions of the Christmas festive period (or Navidades as it is called in Spain) are a major adjustment. It is important to remember that Spain is a Catholic country, and for many Spanish people, the Christmas period is still an important religious holiday that is celebrated regardless of faith.

The first sign of Christmas is usually the Christmas Belén that appear in churches, shopping centres and large department stores. This is the traditional nativity scene that tells the Christmas story through often beautiful, intricate model displays; the best ones will keep children entertained for some time! For more adult entertainment, watch out for the ‘crappers’, which is a popular addition to the nativity scene. This is usually a figure perched behind Mary and Joseph seated in a defecating position. Usually, these figures represent politicians and sporting heroes, popular or otherwise. Many British readers will be proud to recall that the term ‘crapper’ is in memory of the Victorian English inventor, Thomas Crapper, who invented the modern flush toilet. It will come as no surprise to many that the most popular character for the last two years is Donald Trump!

Hot on the heels of the Belén is the Christmas Lottery, which is said to be the biggest of its kind in the world. Spanish people love to gamble, and the event on December 22 is a major event where many shops and businesses will close for a few hours to watch the event on television. If you walk down any shopping street on the morning of December 22nd, you will find that most shops are closed, and any people that are about will be crowded around a television screen or listening to a radio in one of the bars. The prizes are large, and there is said to be a one in seven chance of winning something. Listen out for the monotonous ‘singing’ from children announcing the winning numbers. I can guarantee that this noise will be difficult to get out of your head for at least a day afterwards!

Recognising that 5 January or Dia del Reys is of significant importance to most Spanish people, and in preference to Christmas Day, may take a little getting used to. Although Father Christmas or Santa Claus has become more popular in recent years, Christmas Eve (Nochebuena) is one of the big celebrations, with a big family gathering around a table full of treats and delicacies.

Christmas Day has only become commercially popular for gift giving in recent years. Instead, it remains a religious festival with attendance at midnight mass in church or cathedral, together with a family get together and a large meal.

January 5 is the day that you will see bakeries full of customers, desperate to buy their ‘Roscón de Reyes´, which is a traditional ring-shaped cake, to be enjoyed on January 6th. Be careful when you eat a piece of this, as they contain a ‘surprise’ item that is prone to break teeth and give dentists an even happier and more prosperous New Year. Whoever discovers this ‘gift’ in their slice is crowned King or Queen. The downside, is that there is also a bean hidden in the cake; whoever finds this has to buy the roscón the following year.

January 6th is the traditional day when the Three Kings bring children their presents. In most villages, towns and cities, there will be a procession of the Three Kings, usually complete with camels, and onlookers are showered with sweets, which is when an upside-down umbrella may come in useful! The streets are full of loud music and celebration.

If you love April 1st, which is April Fool’s Day in the UK, you will surely enjoy (or avoid) December 28th (Dia de los Santos Inocentes). This is the day for practical jokes, so be careful!

As in most countries, New Year’s Eve is a big celebration in Spain. This is the event when partygoers are expected to eat 12 grapes quickly and drink a glass of cava at the stroke of midnight. One warning, do please be careful with the pips as there have been many unfortunate chocking incidents over the years. Basically, this ‘tradition’ was designed to clear an excess of grapes grown in Spain before they went off!

Speaking of choking, there are a few other things to get used to, such as turrón, which is a kind of nougat made from almonds, sugar and honey. Turrón is an acquired taste and for some, it can be a very sickly treat and is inclined to stick teeth together, which may come in useful in some circumstances over the Christmas holidays!

Looking back at Christmas past in the UK, it is certainly very different from the orange and nuts in my childhood Christmas stocking. The Christmas ‘crappers’ had yet to be invented, and colourful crackers complete with cheap hats and jokes on the Christmas dining table appear to be non-existent.

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Living in Spain and the Canary Islands - A New Book by Barrie Mahoney

Living in Spain and the Canary Islands - A New Book by Barrie Mahoney

What a year 2017 has been for British immigrants living in Europe, as well as for those hoping to make a new home in the sun. Since I wrote the first ‘Letter from the Atlantic’ as a newspaper reporter in 2004, so many things have changed. When my partner and I moved to the Costa Blanca, it was a time of great optimism and exciting possibilities. The exchange rate meant that the British living in Europe were getting a very favourable deal. Property prices in Spain were realistic, and for many ordinary people the opportunity of a new life in the sun became a reality and not just a dream.

It was also a time when British entrepreneurs established new and successful businesses in the Costas, and Spain was grateful for the investment and made newcomers welcome. It was a time when it seemed that nothing could halt the enthusiasm of the British for a new life in Spain.

Then there was the financial crash, later to be followed by the EU referendum and what has since become known as ‘Brexit’. Looking back, it should have been obvious that the pound was severely over valued for many years, and that many Brits were living in a ‘fool’s paradise’ that would eventually come to an abrupt end. There was rapid devaluation of house prices, leading to negative equity and financial chaos for many who had over extended themselves when buying a property in Spain. A number of British owned businesses in Spain collapsed, leaving many disillusioned and with little option other than to return reluctantly to the country of their birth.

The result of the referendum, initiated by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, went badly wrong from the point of view of many Brits living in Spain. The result of the referendum was accompanied by a fall in the value of the pound, and left many with a reduction of around 20 per cent of the income that they were used to. Pensioners, and those on a low income were the first to feel the initial impact of the decision to leave the European Union, and for a time it seemed that the rush to leave Britain for a sunnier future had ground to an abrupt halt, as the electorate began to take stock of their new position outside the European Union.

My new book, ‘Living in Spain and the Canary Islands’ goes back to the beginning of the year with a series of letters that reflected and expressed the mood at the time. Confused as to what the future would bring, there were often angry, and sometimes depressed conversations in bars, restaurants and all areas of British social life in Spain and the Canary Islands, which is where I currently live. Estate agents were gloomy and removal companies were reporting a sudden resurgence in business, as many Brits were leaving Spain and heading back to the UK. Of course, many of the elderly and sick could not do this, because they had neither the resources, good health or inclination to deal with what would be for many a traumatic return to life in the UK. I also doubt that many would survive the rapid drop in temperature either.

The political climate is changing once again. As I look back over these turbulent 12 months, I know that many businesses, banks, estate agents and removal companies in Spain are reporting a greater positivity and enthusiasm from those who are still longing to move from the UK to Europe. For many, the EU referendum has confirmed what they already knew; that they are firstly European and not just British. Politically, many dislike what they see as a new anti-European order within the British political establishment and have decided to vote with their feet.

As well as retirees looking to fulfil their dream of heading for a healthier life in the sun, young people are seeing their future as still being part of the bigger European dream. Despite significant changes, there are new realisations for British people hoping to make a new life within a country of their choosing, and not just the territorial constraints created by an accident of birth.

It is true that many of the opportunities and freedoms have narrowed since myself and many others began our new lives in Spain, as well as other parts of Europe. The opportunities provided by the freedom of movement to live and work in any country across this exciting and inspiring continent are the envy of many across the world and should not be lightly overlooked. Life is short; if you have the enthusiasm and the means, my best advice is to grasp every opportunity to ‘live your dream’.

Available in both paperback and Kindle editions from Amazon, Waterstones and all good bookshops.

For more information, go to: http://barriemahoney.com/page/livinginspain.html


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