One thing that never ceases to amaze me is just how many fascinating people there are around, living, working and pursuing their interests, often in the most unlikely places.
This week I discovered a lady living just down the road from me, who runs a service for foreigners living in Spain called the Expatriate Information Exchange and dedicates all her spare time completely free of charge to helping foreigners who move here. Her name is Wendy Winter and she is a qualified translator and former member of the Institute of Linguists. She is a prolific reader and writer and has written articles, poetry and books on a wide range of subjects, including a biography of her ancestor Sr. William Winter. She is now a pensioner and an invalid and spends many hours a day working on her computer, doing translations, finding out information from the Internet and writing information sheets about many aspects of concern for expatriates in Spain. She formed the Expatriate Information Exchange with the backing of the former British consul in Alicante and is listed in the British Consulate Care Directory. As well as having a network of contacts spreading from Andalucía to Cataluña and the Balearic and Canary Islands, she also does local emergency interpreting work for people living in the area of San Pedro del Pinatar, where she has lived for the last fifteen years.
From Ceylon to Spain
I always like to know about people's backgrounds, so when I met Wendy that was what we talked about first. Wendy was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to a British father and Eurasian mother. Her great grandfather started the first English newspaper in Ceylon and her family owned a tea plantation there for over a hundred years. She moved with her parents to Britain in 1959 after the plantation was taken over by the government. Wendy was brought up as a bi-lingual, speaking English and Singalese. She has been fascinated by languages since childhood, and as well as being fluent in Spanish, she can translate from Portuguese, Italian, French and German. She developed a love of Spanish at an early age after noticing the similarities between it and Singalese – the result of the Spanish/Portuguese colonisation of Ceylon in the sixteenth century. In the UK Wendy worked as a secretary and translator, but because she qualified as a translator the same year she got married she was never able to work in this area as much as she would have liked. After moving to Spain in 1988 she found she was at last able to devote her time to doing what she loves best - writing and translating.
Working with ex-pats
Wendy started working to help other ex-pats in 1992 after getting to know an English couple who had moved to San Pedro to retire. As the husband of the couple was just six months away from receiving his pension he didn't bother to renew his private health insurance, but unfortunately during this time his wife became seriously ill. There then followed a dreadfully harrowing time when they tried to get her treated in Spain, but they was desperately worried about the health bills they might be incurring. Wendy became very involved in helping and advising the couple who did not speak any Spanish or know anything about how the system worked. Eventually the lady was sent back to the UK where she sadly died shortly afterwards. It was this experience which made Wendy swear to herself that she would do whatever she could to help people in a similar situation. Shortly after advertising her services she was contacted by a Spanish man who told her he knew exactly how English people must feel in Spain. He had lived in England for a few years and said he had felt like a two-year-old child, unable to communicate or understand what was going on around him.
As well as helping individuals, Wendy spends a lot of her time lobbying local government, central government and the European Parliament about issues affecting foreigners in Spain. One of her interests is the fight against "linguistic discrimination" in Spain. While a Spanish person has access to free health service, non-Spanish speakers are obliged to pay for an interpreter to accompany them. Also when dealing with lawyers or other professionals, people who do not speak the language have additional translation and interpreting bills to pay on top of the usual fees. The fact is that many expatriates are retired people and are often disabled or suffer from ill-health. They may be able to learn enough Spanish to get by in everyday situations, but they are not going to be able to explain themselves to doctors or lawyers in complex situations. Wendy would like to see system of free-lance interpreters and translators being set up and paid for by local authorities. As Wendy says: "There are so many people around who speak other languages – I discovered the other day that the lady in the local shop speaks fluent French, I know a taxi driver who speaks German and the man who came to paint and tile my kitchen could speak Greek! There is an untapped wealth of language speakers and it wouldn't cost so very much for local councils to pay them on a free-lance basis to help foreigners in official situations." Other areas where Wendy has been active in lobbying has been regarding non-contributory allowances for British pensioners abroad, and equality of work opportunities within the European Community.
Basically, whatever issues come her way Wendy tries her best to help and get involved by finding out information and writing to the relevant authorities. Although she is not very mobile these days, she does some emergency interpreting work locally, and she liaises in English and Spanish with government departments, town halls, doctor's surgeries, hospitals, the police and the civil guard. As one might expect, over the many years Wendy has been doing this work she has accumulated a wealth of information. Just one example - some years ago she got involved with helping the friends of an Englishman who was found dead in a river near Murcia. The bureaucracy involved in the case was immensely complex, but as a result she now knows exactly what happens when someone dies intestate in Spain. She translates Spanish legislation into English and often translates people's medical records and other documents into Spanish. As The Expatriate Information Exchange, Wendy collaborates with many official charities and organisation and produces regularly updated information sheets. "There is so much incorrect information around. People often tell me things as facts which I know are quite wrong according to the law. The Spanish authorities are often very bad at communicating to their expatriate communities, so I try to find out the facts for them."
Wendy is keen for people to know about the services of the Expatriate Information Exchange and I asked her whether she was worried about being innundated with people asking her for assistance. "No, I spend many hours on my computer and I can always stop and have a rest when I get tired. It keeps me occupied."
*Wendy Winters sadly passed away not long after this article was written.
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