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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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​La Boda (The Wedding)

La Boda (The Wedding)

I gate-crashed a wedding last week. In my defence, it was a genuine accident, but I am rather pleased that I did. Like many people, I enjoy a good wedding; it is one of those events where the power of love forcibly overpowers the cynicism and doubt that can inhabit some of our lives. It takes the most hardened cynic not to feel just a twinge of emotion and ‘something of the beyond’ when watching a couple committing themselves to a life with each other.

I was enjoying a drink and people-watching in one of my favourite bars in a nearby village when a large crowd of chattering and laughing Canarians burst through the door. At first I thought that it was a local fiesta, but all wore smart clothes and some were carrying small bouquets of flowers. I soon realised from the conversation that they were attending a wedding that was taking place in the small church next door to the bar. It always amuses me when I see bars situated very closely to the local church, but Catholic services to tend to go on for rather a long time, so I guess it is very sensible planning.

This particular group of wedding guests had arrived for the wedding service a little later than planned, and the small village church was already full. Undaunted, the group wisely decided to relocate to the bar next door and to begin their wedding celebrations early. I was told that both the bride and groom were very popular local teachers, which explained the large number of young people in the group.

Spanish and Canarians don’t really do small intimate weddings; it is very much a case of ‘the bigger the better’, and it is not unusual to see the uninvited chatting and gossiping outside a church when the ceremony is in progress in the hope of catching a glimpse of the happy couple after the official event, and taking part in the celebrations afterwards. Spanish weddings are best regarded as marathons, and guests are well advised to allocate a whole day to the celebrations; they are best described as a test of endurance.

After throwing rice over the happy couple (confetti is just not done over here), the couple will be involved in endless photo shoots, which is a good time for guests to head to the local bar, often accompanied by the officiating priest. By the time that the real partying begins, guests are already very happy and ready to tuck into cocktails and canapes, followed by a multi-course banquet (sitting down, of course). Later, coffee and cake are served before guests head to the generous open bar and to enjoy the dancing and raunchy ‘follow my leader’ games that will eventually bring the celebrations to a close.

At this point, you may well be asking how all this partying is paid for. Traditionally, much of it is paid for by the guests, which is very much part of Spanish tradition going back to the days when this was the only way that a wedding could be paid for. If you are invited to a Spanish wedding, please don't think that presenting the happy couple with an electric toaster will get you off the hook. It will not, but a generous amount of cash or a cheque will do very nicely. A basket is usually handed around during the reception to collect the generous monetary gifts, although the more discrete will have paid the money into the couple’s bank account before the event. In order not to appear a cheapskate, a wedding gift should at least cover the cost of your food and drink at the reception, plus a bit more. My partying friends told me that 100 euros per person is currently regarded as the acceptable starting point.

My wedding party, and I say ‘mine’ because I was invited to join in, quickly entered into the celebratory spirit. Later, huge doors were opened to the rear of what appeared to be a small cafe bar to reveal a huge banqueting hall all beautifully set out for the lengthy banquet to come. We were soon joined by the main guests, looking very relieved as they escaped from the church and headed to the bar. Later, much later, the bride and groom would join the party and the real fun could begin.

I had unexpectedly witnessed and briefly taken part in yet another side of Canarian life. Sadly, I had another engagement to go to, and reluctantly left before the bride and groom returned from their photo shoot. I left wondering what condition the guests would be in the following morning, but felt quite sure that they would have given the happy couple a day that they would never forget.

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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.


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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.

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Linguaphobia

Linguaphobia

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.

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