Malta, or the strangest place on Earth (so far, in my limited experience) and some thoughts of Grandpa
So we got on the 3 AM bus, delirious, then on our Ryan Air flight of 2 hours to the southernmost European country, Malta. We wouldn’t have gone save for the extremely cheap tickets (39 Euros for us both, baggage included) and the cheap housing (a whole apartment, 25 euros per night–a luxury for us). I tried to sleep on the plane, which put me at about 6 hours of sleep in 48. Needless to say, I was out of my mind when we landed in Malta. We had rented a car, which we had trouble finding. Apparently if you rent a budget car in Malta, you don’t go to any of the rent-a-car stands, you should expect to ask every single person awaiting at the arrivals gate if they’re looking for you, and the hand gesture we would use for “go away” actually means “come here”. Our flight landed early, but the man who came to meet us complained very loudly that he had already been waiting for an hour. I put my newly-acquired French-style skills to use to ask him why he came so early, which really agitated him but probably sped up the whole process of signing the papers, etc., since there was no further chit-chat. And he didn’t yell at us
anymore. Austin was the official driver, which was exciting because he hadn’t slept in two days and had to re-learn to drive a stick shift on the LEFT side of the road on very weird skinny windy hilly roads on a remote island, board a ferry with the car, and then find our way to our apartment on its smaller, more remote, sister island. It’s only funny because we didn’t die. The landlord met us near the apartment and we paid him in cash, then promptly passed out for 24 hours, thereby missing our last chance to go grocery shopping before Sunday, when everything is closed because the Maltese take their Sabbaths seriously.
-has been occupied by every major European power and has a bizarre mixture of a culture/language that reflects this
-is a TINY archipelago: “Malta covers just over 300 km² in land area, making it one of Europe’s smallest and most densely countries,” says Wikipedia.
-has the oldest free standing structure in the world, the Gigantia Temple, which wouldn’t be impressive but for its phenomenal history…also features the Hypogeum, the world’s oldest underground temple which I didn’t get to visit because it’s very expensive and you have to reserve tickets three weeks in advance
-drives on the wrong side of the road
-has built everything out of the limestone which makes up the islands…therefore everything is the same colour as everything else and makes for a very alien landscape
-is basically a big, barren rock…the top of a volcano, actually, a mixture of sandstone and limestone which makes for very interesting rock-scapes carved by harsh winds and waters
-is the most Catholic place I have ever been. Divorce is illegal, and so is abortion (of course). Homosexuality is tolerated in tourists if you don’t let anyone know you’re gay. I was frowned at very sternly when I wandered into a Church with shorts on.
-has English as an official language, and was very enthusiastically a British colony for the sake of protection…there are still lots of British people there, and you can get by very easily with English
-is a member of the EU for the same reasons as it was a British colony (being in the middle of the Mediterranean makes it a strategic naval base for those who have the force to occupy it) This isn’t great for the average Maltan (prices have gone
WAY up, but their salaries haven’t) but is good for tourism and infrastructure.
-isn’t very expensive; top-shelf well drinks on Gozo are 2 Euros (that’s not how you gauge the economy of a country? What?)
-has gorgeous domed churches
-is a place full of summer celebrations; each village has a patron saint and on that saint day has a huge festival, procession, and wholesome catholic party
-is beautiful and bizarre for all of these reasons
Malta may have been the debut of my interest in history, as far as this trip goes. Spain’s history in general isn’t so interesting to me; I much prefer the history of the conquered than that of the conquistadors because…well, if the conquered survive, they reflect their influences, whereas the conquerors–with them, it’s just more a gradual dying out of traditions as American-style capitalism conquers the world…it’s not so much
recipe but a base ingredient. It’s not as multi-faceted or complex for tourists who can only learn a little bit of surface-level history. I’m not saying French or Spanish history isn’t fascinating, it’s just that you can’t look at it as an uneducated person (like me) and necessarily see facets of every other influencing civilization because they haven’t been occupied to the extent that other places have, haven’t been subject to the same political upheavals at the hands of foreigners that less traditionally powerful countries have. Melting pots are always more interesting to me, I guess.
We had ten days in Malta, which was more than sufficient, even though we never actually visited Malta and spent our entire time (excepting the last few hours )on Gozo, the smaller, wilder island. I think this was a good choice, as I get the feeling that Malta itself is a party island. I have learned to deeply fear drunk British people, and I think that their population is very high on the big island. I guess I fear drunk Americans also, but they’re very rare here, and when you meet them and they learn that you’re American, there’s nothing more to be afraid of. Okay, maybe it’s not really fear but mere annoyance. Whatever.
I went for runs on the cliffs overlooking the sea, we climbed the nearly un-climbable limestone (no one climbs there so it all seems to crumble under your feet and make your hands bleed), swam a lot, and basically spent ten days relaxing. Austin convinced me to go scuba diving, something I have long-opposed due to the unnaturalness of it. It’s like going out into space; it’s just common sense that you shouldn’t go anywhere where you can’t BREATHE. But I did it, and I loved it,
mostly because there were a million of my new favorite kind of fish, hereby known as the rainbow fish, because I don’t know its actual name though I learned it at the Barcelona aquarium, but if you see one, you’ll know, because they are most definitely rainbow and very beautiful. And common, which is nice. Rarity seems to make things precious to people, but if something is extraordinarily beautiful, I really do want it to be everywhere. These things were like koi in fountains in the Mediterranean, absolutely everywhere. Austin liked diving with me because I was constantly squealing with delight because there was always something beautiful to look at. And lots of trash, but the ocean makes that beautiful as well.
I was also introduced to deep water soloing in Malta, which mostly just scared the shit out of me. You’d think that falling off a cliff into water would be fine, but somehow I just can’t get over my mindset that falling is bad and it hurts and water doesn’t improve your landing. When the problems were low enough to the ocean’s surface, I really enjoyed it, but there was always the issue of climbing with wet hands…it ended up either being terrifying or inconvenient, so I gave it up and just swam a lot. We even bought goggles. That water is the clearest, bluest, most beautiful water I’ve ever seen (well, that you can swim in…the glacier lakes in Banff National Park are clearer, but you can’t experience them in the same way). Unfortunately, I again found myself wondering if the Maltese hate Malta because I watched them constantly throwing their trash into the ocean. Clearly this just has to be an attitude you’re born and raised with, and somehow we North Americans have the luxury of witnessing untarnished land and so value its preservation (at least some of us). I don’t know, really. It’s frustrating because I want to ask them why they think it’s okay to throw soda cans in the ocean and instruct their kids to do the same, but this is such a presumptuous attitude to have, after all, it’s not my country…though we all share the planet (gag me with a rain stick or something else appropriately new-agey, ugh). It’s not like I even believe it will make much of a difference, I’m just curious.
We found the Maltese to be exceedingly friendly (littering aside). Everyone was helpful if we were lost, etc, as is often the case in small communities. I loved the informality of everything, the horses on the street, the old people smoking in lawnchairs on every corner, the way all businesses were shut at seemingly random hours…the only bad encounter we had was with a British person (somehow I’m not surprised…maybe the French are half right?), an angry fat old man with stockings visibly suffocating his calves. The roads often become so skinny that you think you can’t even fit, and we were stuck on one such road which actually turned out to be too skinny, and perhaps not a road after all. We were already extremely stressed out, we had been lost for hours (perhaps I exaggerate there, the island’s too small for that) and were arguing, and now we were stuck in an alley or driveway which we would most definitely have to back out of since there was no hope of turning around…we stalled many times and actually, very gently and slowly however, ran the car into a building (doing no harm to the building but a little to the car)…suddenly behind us was a red shouting face “WHAT EXACTLY ARE YOU TRYING TO DO?????!!!!!” The answer to which I thought quite obvious…but I said anyway “back out?” and the fat angry man yelled “WELL THEN TURN OFF YOUR RADIO AND DO IT”. I hadn’t even realized the radio was on, but I very obediently turned it off and we backed out, stalling, restarting, cowering under the surveillance of this inexplicably furious authority. When we’d finally made it back to a spot where we could safely turn around he continued to scream “WHERE ARE YOU TRYING TO GOOOOOO?????!!!!!” and I told him, only to hear “WELL IT’S NOT THAAAAAAT WAY!!!!” to which I replied, finally dropping the charade of politesse “Well I figured that”. The man raised his voice even more, which I didn’t think possible, to scream at me about how he was trying to help and if we didn’t want his help we could piss off, while muttering under his breath things like “can’t even drive, pathetic!”…I burst into tears…I just don’t know how to handle people screaming at me, especially if I don’t know why they’re doing it…and then he sarcastically said “oh, no, don’t start CRYING for god’s sake,” and Austin told him to fuck off, turned around, and we left, abandoning our attempt to see the cathedral. We thought about covering the scrapes on the car with black nail
polish; we even experimented with that but the results looked like the typical teenager’s attempt to hide damage to their parents’ car. It wasn’t a big deal, the damage ended up costing an extra fifty euros or so. Really that mean, scary man did more damage…I just cannot comprehend why he was so furious with us. Yes, Austin still wasn’t great with a stick shift, but why did that bother him so much?
I was really fragile in Malta. Austin had just learned while we were in El Chorro that he will be moving to Spain next year, and ever since then I think I’ve been on edge. But besides that, I found myself thinking about my Grandpa a lot. He really would’ve loved Malta. They’ve got saying “If it flies, it dies,” which I find terribly unfortunate, but Grandpa loved goose hunting, so he’d probably dig it. The island also revolved around leisure…it was a nice climate, and everyone fished. Rum and cokes were cheap and there were lots of old men smoking cigars. We even found home-made Gozo wine that was delicious. Grandpa loved red wine.
Oddly, today is exactly the one-year anniversary of his death. Give or take whatever the international date-line, which I am actually in the process of crossing, adds or subtracts. I think about him everyday (and other people in my life who’ve died, too, but Grandpa especially) and also how his idea of morality influences mine. Not that I would ever imitate his actions, knowing what I do now about his flaws, but his ideals provide me with some sort of direction…I do think he tried to live by them…but nobody can live up to their own standards. Whoops, tangent…..But he would have loved Malta; undiscovered, yet luxurious and comfortable.