Malta (Newsletter No. 10)

After 4 short days, Malta remains a cognitive dissonance-y enigma to me. I love it.

The Language: A mix of Italian, English, Turkish, Arabic. People speaking perfect English with heavy Italian-ish accents reminds me of Singapore’s Singlish. Words on signs either have the flourish of Italian or abrupt ending of Turkish. Shampoo bottles are fully labeled in English. Electrical outlets are British.

The Architecture: So grand and romantic, yet facades are flaky and dusty, deteriorated. Reminds me of Cuba. Although unlike Cuba, the people don’t seem grim. The Maltese open and close their magnificent doors walking in and out in humble flip flops but there’s still this indescribable posture of elegance.

The People: friendly, yet neutral. Chill. Not the overly showy friendliness that can flip in an instant, like many Mediterraneans or Latins, or South East Asians, or Middle Eastern countries. Not over top with their politeness like East Asians where you feel like you’re bowing and thank you-ing forever, and yet they’re not overly stoic like the Dutch or Scandinavian. And definitely not ruff and gruff like the iron curtain countries. They won’t tell you to go with the flow or call you darling. But maybe they’ll proactively think of little extra things that’d make your life easier, like stopping the bus so you don’t have to chase it, or an additional fresh sauce if you asked they don’t take the remaining dregs of the first one away. Or if you need your take-away wine opened first because chances are you don’t have a corkscrew on you, or extra thick napkins for your kannoli. And if you ask, they answer, and answer again, they won’t say no problem, and they won’t sigh with impatience. They just will.

Everyone seems tumbled together, and it doesn’t seem like it’s a big deal. East Asians, West Africans, Middle Easterners, Southern Europeans, English. Expats too frugal to find their dreams elsewhere.

The Terrain: Walking is hazardous here. The roads can be steep, so steep, maybe steeper than San Francisco, maybe also Prague. The sidewalks are often narrow. and when it’s not bumpy with loose debris or random subtle swells in the concrete, or outright cracks, it’s slippery, as if worn down shiny by millions of feet. And when you cross the street, you often feel like you have to make a run for it because there’s very few pedestrian crosswalks. Mere walking is a mental exercise, always on alert.
Beautiful beaches are also precluded by steepness, narrow but scenic ridges. It always felt like a very big deal to me, as if Malta is daring us, “if you want to see this very beautiful thing, you have to pass these tests, because there’s no fully relaxing safe reward, unless you stay very still.” Because when you finally make it, maybe there’s not sand to rest on, but more rocks to stub your toe on. But it is so very worth it. I am impressed when I see babies or elderly (and there aren’t very many) at these beaches because it means they were willing to put up with these tests.

Traffic: At first it looked crazy to me. (Did I mention the very few pedestrian sidewalks? Might explain why whole blocks of the city were empty, everyone’s in their cars.) But when I took video to show you, the chaos looks a little more organized. Although to be fair, I was filming at bus stops rather than in the middle of surviving. Anyways, it was crazy. Many roads didn’t have painted dividers in the middle so you had to observe for several seconds to follow all the directional possibilities that cars would zoom. And not only would they merge, they would merge from curves that started behind your line of sight, behind buildings, swerving into a single stream out of nowhere. And yet, it was seamless. There was no bottlenecking nor beeping. You could tell who was native, they calmly cross the street without looking 7 times, even if it looks like a line of cars is gonna run them over. It miraculously doesn’t. The natives don’t stop and sprint in fits and starts. A secret rhythm that you have to find, (alike a slipstream, or swinging, beating, double dutch jump ropes.

Food: My favorite are the snacks. All the blog guides told me to get the small ruffly puffy pea or cheese pastizzi, but my favorite were the chicken mushroom turnover kind. Also the homey kannoli. Also the bread and the bean and sweet tomato spreads. There’s a lot of fried chicken places, which I thought was interesting. There’s also a lot of car dealerships. There was a late night food stand in the middle of a gas station parking lot that had good burgers and sandwiches.

Beaches: Wild. Mermaid, Lagoon-like,Grottos. Reminded me of Call me By Your Name or By the Sea. Movies that I didn’t like the plot of but captured that lackadaisical sun on water or brooding blueness very well. Do I have any worthy pictures? You’ll just have to see yourself what it feels like to float deep in the middle of it all. I got my first proper jellyfish sting from a pretty pink one.

Churches: So many churches but it was a secret to me when they were open to the public without pay. On my way towards one I saw a heavy-set minister in black with a giant rapper-approved cross against his chest and two bodyguards—I mean clergymen flanking his sides. Another night I walked past another one that seemed to be overtaken by cats. Streets everywhere were named for saints, offerings were everywhere but there was a very secular vibe to the ritual displays.

The Weird Thing: At the very end of the trip, an egg bounced off of me. When it hit me I thought it was pigeon poop (it had already happened once on the trip), but noticed my shoulder was dry, no evidence except a fleeting bruised feeling, and the pile of runny goo on the sidewalk. An egg hit me hard and it didn’t crack??? Did someone throw it parabolically, did it drop, from above, I’ll never know. I didn’t see any snickering teenagers nor grandmas exclaiming “oops” from a window.

Kristy Lin