Tag Archives: Malta

Bienvenido a España

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I had been contacted by a head hunter about a job.  I wasn’t really looking, but I was intrigued this particular opportunity. It would be based in Cambridge, England.  Having lived in and loved Cambridge’s bigger twin Oxford, this was very appealing.  It was an environmental organization.  At the time, I thought that would be less depressing than torture, but now that the White House is full of climate change deniers, I’m not so sure.

The head hunter was in Madrid, and as I sat waiting for my flight—to Madrid—we tapped Skype messages back and forth.  She wanted to make sure I knew I would “have to” move to England for the job.  Was that okay with me?  Was it?! Yes, I replied, that was a plus, especially given the US election results.  She then wrote a number of long messages about how she and her colleagues at this international recruiting firm were shocked and worried, depressed and sickened.

She said she would put my CV forward, but I never heard from them. Oh well, it was nice to daydream about for a few weeks.

I sat next to a 30-something Maltese guy on my flight to Spain.  He had olive skin, light brown hair, and glass-green eyes.  I told him I had loved Malta and would like to go back.  He listened as I gushed about the sea views, the friendly people, the fishing village, the food, and the humble shops.

“Sometimes you forget,” he said reflectively, “when you have lived in a place all your life, how good it is.”

Lynn sent me a What’s App message telling me how to catch the airport bus to Madrid’s central station, Atocha.  Of course I wandered around the airport first for 15 minutes, but this time it wasn’t my fault.  There was construction everywhere, and if there ever had been signage, it had been removed or covered up.  I went up the escalator, down a long hall, back the other way, back down, down a long hall, then spied an information desk.  It was a handicapped assistance desk, but the two young employees behind it looked as though they hadn’t had a customer since 2010.  They were slouched over with their chins in their hands, looking at their cell phones.

I asked for directions to the bus stop in Spanish.

“This is the handicapped assistance desk,” the young woman said in English.

“I realize that,” I said back in English, “What would you tell a handicapped person?”

She reluctantly struggled to sit up and put aside her phone, while her male coworker ignored us and kept scrolling.  I wasn’t in Malta anymore. She gave me halfhearted directions which turned out to be wrong.  I finally stumbled upon the main assistance desk, which was hidden behind construction sheeting.  The employee there acted surprised by my question, as though I was the first person ever to ask where the bus stop was, but his directions were accurate.

The bus was direct and had wireless.  In half an hour I was at the station, where Lynn was waiting for me.

As usual when we meet up, we had a lot to say.  We don’t communicate a lot in between trips, except via Facebook, so there was a lot to catch up on.  The Brexit vote and Trump’s election alone would be fodder for hours of conversation.

We talked as we walked to the Hotel Paseo del Arte, sine very nice digs Lynn had booked, just two blocks from the station.  We cracked open that bottle of red wine she had ready and talked some more.  It was only 4:00 in the afternoon and life didn’t really get going in Madrid until 8:00, so we had plenty of time.

A couple hours flew by.  Lynn had scouted out that it was free admission night at the Reina Sofia art museum, home to Picasso’s masterpiece about war, Guernica.  Like our trip to Berlin the year before, this would be the first of about a dozen museums we would visit in two weeks.

Shops Lost in Time

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Should I say, “in” or “on” Malta?  It’s an island, so it feels like I was on it, not in it.  But it’s also a country.  I would never say, “I was on Germany.” Curious.

I rarely sleep past 6am, but on my last day in Malta I slept until nearly 9:00.  While the previous day I had been awakened by a message from my cousin alerting me that the election wasn’t looking good for Hillary Clinton, this morning the first thing I saw, at the foot of my bed, was this:

spooky-robe

Why would anyone think this was a good place to hang the complimentary bathrobe?

Spooked, I jumped out of bed.  I had to get moving anyway, since I had only a few hours before I had to catch my flight to Madrid.

People ask what my favorite thing is about traveling.  That’s easy—not being at work.  Now, I like my job, but it does require me to show up every morning, go to meetings, meet deadlines, and achieve goals.  Everything is measured, tracked, and scheduled. I must be organized, coordinate with others, prioritize, and strategize.

Aside from catching flights and trains, little of that applies to traveling.  I can float like a moth from one thing to another, when I like, depending on what catches my fancy.

Today, I wanted to revisit the little shops and the Maltese balconies I’d caught glimpses of on my first day.  So I wandered around Valetta for a couple hours and took photos.

bakerydrapersdagata

There seemed to be a lot of drapery makers.  My grandmother was a drapery cutter, believe it or not.  She was one of the grunts in an interior design shop which made custom drapes for rich people.  Thirty years ago, when I was living in public housing, she gave me a set of exquisite pale green silk drapes that her rich clients had rejected.

Some of the shops were open.  Some appeared not to have opened since 1929, although life on Malta didn’t really started until after 10am.

When was the last time you saw a “notions” shop?

notions-shop-2 notions-shop

I know I will regret not buying a couple of those trim pieces the next time I want to make a dashiki.

There were these two forerunners of Target and Walmart:

family-store-close-up universal-store

Can you imagine taking your kids to the Family Store?  The looks of horror and disappointment on their faces?  I would give anything to visit these places in their heyday.  I wondered when that would have been.

I felt nostalgic for a time when craftspeople like my grandmother worked in neighborhood shops making high-quality goods.  I saved until I could buy them with cash.  I had a couple really good pieces in my closet that I wore over and over.  Now, I have 50 cheap tops; the buttons fall off almost before I get them home.

The top balconies below are Maltese.  What makes them Maltese?  I guess the fact that they have a roof and are enclosed.

balconies

And yes, that is blue sky—at last, my weather luck had turned.

I threw my still-wet socks and underwear in my suitcase, and my friend the desk guy effortlessly carried it up the 200 steps for me.  “People write angry reviews of the hotel because of the steps,” he said mildly.  “But we have them on our website.”

I just looked, and I don’t see any photos or mention of the steps on the SU29 website.  However, if you’re going to Malta—or just about anywhere in Europe—you shouldn’t be surprised that there are lots of steps.

I was at the pickup spot for my prepaid airport shuttle 10 minutes early.  It never arrived, and I had to pay €25 to take a cab to the airport.  I sent Malta Transfer an email when I got home but they never responded.  So scratch them off your list if you go to Malta, but that was the only thing I could complain about besides the weather, which wasn’t Malta’s fault.

Here were some of the world news headlines in the airport:

trump trump-7 trump-4 trump-3

 

Skellies and Wabbits

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

Back in Valetta, I still had a couple hours until sunset.  Unlike in Italy, no one had warned me, “Don’t go out after dark by yourself!” Malta is such a sleepy place; the biggest risk of wandering around at night would be tripping over a cobblestone, not being accosted by stick up men.

But first I washed my socks and underwear and draped them all over the room.  For fun, I looked at prices on the laundry bag.  Malta certainly wasn’t any cheaper than Rome—it would have cost me around $50 to have all my items done for me.

I also What’s App’d with Lynn, who I would meet in Madrid the next day.

“Look for American seeking political asylum!”

“I shall have a very large bottle of wine waiting at the hotel,” she replied.

I asked the front desk guy if he would print my boarding pass and if someone could help me lug my bag up the steps the next day.  He was so nice.  You can tell when people genuinely like other people, vs. when they are putting on a smile because it’s their job.  He agreed to both of my requests.  I asked to see the cigars they had for sale in a small humidor.  Cubans!  Perfect.  I bought two, one for my cousin and one for me.

I also asked where I could get a good meal.

“At the British Hotel, right across the steps,” he replied without hesitation. “They are the best restaurant on Malta.”  Much as I enjoy a good fish and chips, I was looking for something more local, but I smiled and thanked him.

I headed out to see the main attraction in Valetta: St. Johns Co-Cathedral.  It cost €10, the most expensive thing I would pay to see on this trip.  I wondered why it cost so much.

I have seen a lot of churches and mosques and synagogues (as an aside, there are 365 churches in Malta, for a population of about 400,000 people).  Like the church in Marsaxlokk, the Co-Cathedral was outsized for the size of the city, and it was the most over-the-top gilded house of worship ever.  Here is my shaky faux Go-Pro video.  When I posted it on Facebook a friend commented, “Looks like Donald and Melania Trump’s penthouse.”

Here are a couple photos.  I don’t recall seeing twirled columns like this before:

st-johns twirled-columns

As usual I found myself wishing I had read up more ahead of time.  Why was it called a co-cathedral—“co” with what?  It was built by the Knights of Malta.  All I knew about them was that they provided security for the crusaders.  Obviously they had more money than they knew what to do with.  How did they acquire it?

Clearly the knights liked their skellies:

maltese-skull maltese-skelly

These two are from some other church but you get the idea.  Skulls and skeletons were everywhere.

skull skeleton-mama

The football field-sized floor contained hundreds of burial crypts.  These were the big kahunas of their day, no doubt buried with great pomp in this gilded monument.  And now, their images and epitaphs were worn smooth by thousands of tourists’ feet, tourists who shuffled along gawping at the gold, not even noticing they were walking over tombs of great personages.  So much for eternal glory.

The co-cathedral’s main claim to fame is its two Caravaggios, the Beheading of St. John the Baptist and St. Jerome Writing.  These were in a separate room and it was strictly forbidden to take photos, so you’ll have to Google them yourself if you’re really interested.

Malta’s national dish is rabbit stew.  I passed restaurants with placards claiming to have the Best RABBIT Stew!  I’ve had stew of rabbits—shot by Lynn’s husband and stewed by her.  In the end I went to the British Hotel and had the best meal of my trip so far—marinated octopus and prawns in tomato sauce.  It was a white linen table cloth place with ocean views and impeccable service from the Maltese maître de and a Czech waitress—not the kind of place where to photograph your food.

Marsa…wha?

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I “oohed” and “aahed” at the temples in Tarxian, and now I headed in what I hoped was the right direction toward the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus.  I know I write a lot about getting lost, but this was the worst.  As I wrote in a previous post, all the buildings in Malta look similar.  It was raining, so people were walking with their heads down under umbrellas and it would have been hard to get their attention to ask directions.  Although English is the official language, for the Maltese people I met it was clearly a second language.

I asked a woman in a pharmacy and she haltingly directed me to a city bus stop.  I stood there a few minutes, thinking I could just give up on seeing more of the country and go back to Valetta.  But which direction was Valetta?  I struck out again was soon panicking.  What if I never found the bus stop?  What if I had to spend the night in Tarxian?  I hadn’t seen any B&Bs or even a downtown area.  Could I take a taxi back to Valetta, if they had taxis?  My umbrella blew inside out and splattered me with rain just as a truck drove by and splashed water from a puddle all over my feet and legs. I started to whimper, then told myself, “Anne, buck up!  It’s not like you’re going to die … probably.”

I went into a tiny store and asked the man at the counter if he knew where GymStars was, the landmark I had noted at the bus stop.  He knew it!  He gave me clear directions and within 10 minutes I was on the bus.  But first I bought this orange at a fruit stand.  Look how beautifully wrapped it is.

orange

We were off to the fishing village of Marsaxlokk. I love that name. Like the Maltese people, their language reflects the mix of cultures that have passed through or ruled the archipelago.  Maltese is the only Semitic language in the EU, and it’s a “latinized form of Arabic” that originated in Sicily.  About half the words are of Arabic origin, a third are from Italian, and the rest are from English.  Here’s a sample of Maltese:

malti-paper

As soon as I stepped off the bus in Marsaxlokk I felt at peace.  I took more photos here than I can count, but here are just a few of the boats in the bay.

best-boat-shot boats-3 boats-5boats-7

I decided I didn’t care about anything else on the bus route.  I was going to savor my time here. It started to rain again, hard, and my umbrella heaved inside out then totally collapsed.  I thrust it into a trash can and stepped into what I assumed from its massive size was a cathedral, although the village couldn’t have had more than a few thousands residents. Here’s the dome:

church-dome

I could hear water dripping from the dome; there was a bucket in the aisle to catch it.  The church had the usual icons such as this one with Mary with a dagger in her heart:

stabbed

I guess a lot of believers find this inspiring.  Personally I prefer female role models who aren’t martyrs.

An elderly man and woman were sitting in the back of the church chatting.  I asked what the name of the church was.

“Our Lady of Pompeii,” came the reply.

Pompeii?”

“Yes, but Our Lady is gone for the month.  She is visiting Sorrento, Italy.”

I walked into a restaurant and was seated at a table facing a TV that was blaring, “Donald Trump … next American President … President Elect Trump ….”  I buried my face in my hands.  It was still sinking in, and as I write this, he has just been inaugurated and it still seems unreal.  If only someone would jump out right now and yell, “Ha ha, pranked ya!”

The hostess very kindly and discreetly changed the channel to music videos.

I had a good fish meal (the boats weren’t just for show), then took the bus back to Valetta.

fish fish-2

Here was my last sight of Marsaxlokk:

doors

Tarxien Temples

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

As one does, I hopped off the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus in Tarxian, just outside of Malta’s capital city of Valetta.  I knew that the whole reason I was here—my desire to see the 3000 B.C. underground burial site called the Hypogeum of Hal Saflieni—was closed for renovation. How do you “renovate” a 5000-year-old burial site?  But the driver had said there were other ruins off to the right somewhere, so I decided to have a look.

Here’s something about Malta.  While Italy offers a full palette of colors—ochre, Pompeian red, peacock blue, cerulean, warm beiges, every iteration of green—Malta is monochrome.  Everything is built out of limestone, and limestone doesn’t have a lot of variation to it.  Also, the buildings on Malta are all built to about the same height—two or three stories.  A coworker who had been to Malta told me before I left, “It all looks the same.”  So before I left the bus stop, which had no sign, I took a mental snap shot of the area.  There was something called GymStars which I figured I could remember and which would be unusual enough that people might know it if I had to ask for directions.

Two other women had also hopped off the bus with me, or I should say, I hopped and they stepped down.  They were much too sensible to hop, with their sturdy shoes and serious rain coats and hats.  They were from England, so they were much better prepared for rain than I was.

They were in Malta for the annual convention of Soroptimist.  Had I heard of it?  Umm … it sounded vaguely familiar but a lot of things do to me.  If it was a missionary thing I didn’t want to know.  Was it like the Women’s Institutes—where women in rural England compete on pie baking and floral arrangements? I asked.

No, and here I quote from their website: “Soroptimist is an international volunteer organization working to improve the lives of women and girls, in local communities and throughout the world.”  The italics are theirs; why they emphasize international I don’t know.  Maybe so you don’t confuse it with that local Soroptimist group that keeps knocking on your door and trying to give you pamphlets.

I kicked myself for not knowing there was an international women’s conference in town during my visit.  How great would that have been to attend?  I wondered what kind of freebies they handed out.

We chatted a bit about my job working for a refugee organization and about their convention, but within a few minutes we were lost.

“The bus driver waved in this direction,” one of my companions said, “so we at least know we’re on the right track.”  We asked for directions, walked a few blocks, asked again, and so on for about 20 minutes until we stumbled upon the temples.

There was a tiny office and gift shop where I paid my €4 or whatever it was, then we stepped outside to see the site, which was covered by sailcloth to protect visitors against sun and rain.

The Tarxien temples are megalithic structures built between 3600 and 2500 B.C.  “Megalithic” means “relating to or denoting prehistoric monuments made of or containing megaliths,” or “massive or monolithic.”  You get the idea.

megalithic

This was a floor section, about a foot and a half thick.

floor

It is believed that these stone balls were used to roll the mega sized slabs into place. No doubt with slave labor.

balls

The holes in these slabs were thought to be used to lash doors to the walls.

door-holes

There wasn’t much left of the decoration except for this lovely half a fat person.

fat-lady

I glanced around to find my two Soroptimist friends.  They were still at the first signpost and were consulting a book, so they were clearly taking a deep dive and would be there for hours. It was 11:00 a.m.  I had 32 more bus stops to go and had to leave the next day, so off I went in search of the bus stop.

On the Move

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I awoke in Malta to a new a racist, misogynist, and xenophobic regime in my poor country.  Of course that’s just my opinion and I’m one of those elitist, city-dwelling liberals who believes in facts.  Who needs facts when you have someone telling you what to think?

Based on the American news, I had expected to see hordes of refugees in Europe.  I follow the liberal news sources, and the scenes we see are of throngs of swarthy, dusty people behind fences, their fingers entwined in the chain links as they call out to be released from whatever camp they are in. Cut to scenes of dark young men sitting on the sidewalk in some European city, looking like they’re plotting something. Then there are the close-up shots of dusty, tired-looking women (always wearing hijabs) holding young children who have one tear rolling down their dusty cheek.

The impression we get from even the liberal news is that refugees are invading in massive numbers.  Specifically, Muslim refugees.  Now, I don’t know the exact numbers but since I work for an organization that serves refugees, I know there are many thousands of people seeking asylum in Europe.  However, the images we see didn’t play out for me in Europe.  I never saw crowds of refugees—unless they were wearing Prada and I mistook them for Italians.

I may as well say here that my American image of Italians as being dark, short, and well-dressed were confirmed on this trip.  The Maltese were also dark, even shorter, and while not as impeccably dressed as the Italians, I didn’t see many people wearing jeans or sweatshirts.  Many of the Maltese I saw also had beautiful green or amber-colored eyes.  Was this a result of the mingling of many nations that had taken place over millennia?

I could count on one hand the number of women I saw who were wearing hijabs.  I saw more nuns than black people during the entire three-week trip in three countries.

As I wrote on Election Day, I did meet an Ethiopian immigrant in Malta who went to the immigration office with me to find out if I could claim political asylum or just buy my way in.

After I learned that I couldn’t run away to Malta forever, I decided to at least see as much of it as I could in one day.  I had been up drinking espresso since 4:30 am and had had very unsettling news; what a perfect mode in which to explore a new country!

I found the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus, which is a great way to get the layout of a city without having to figure out public transportation. Here is the map:

hop-on-hop-off

I ran to catch the bus, then sat for 45 minutes and talked to the driver and ticket seller until starting time. Both of the men appeared to be in their early 40s.  There were no other passengers, and the rain drizzled down continuously while we waited.

The driver didn’t have much to say but the ticket seller was up for talking. Topic number one was the American election, and they were as shocked as I was about the outcome.

“Probably some people here are happy about it,” the ticket seller said.  “Malta is a very conservative country.  Very Catholic.  Abortion is illegal and divorce was only legalized a few years ago.  Gay marriage?  Don’t bring it up.”

Maybe it hadn’t been such a great plan, me moving to Malta.

“But things are changing.  We’ve only got 400,000 people and of course a lot of the young ones have different ideas.”

Finally, the bus got going.  We stopped at a few hotels and picked up more passengers.  The first “stop,” if you could call it that, was in Tarxien, just outside of the capital city of Valletta.  The street was so narrow and congested that the bus basically slowed to a roll while some of us leaped off.  The driver waved his arm to the left and yelled, “Hypogeum!” then to the right and yelled, “temples!”

I was hopelessly lost within five minutes.

SU29

This is a series of posts about Italy, Malta, and Spain that starts here.

I was in Malta, at last, after a travel day I had dreaded for a month but which was only stressful due to my own anxieties.

I arrived at my hotel, the SU29, which was named for the alley in which it was located, St. Ursula Steps. This was an apt name since I thunk, thunk, thunked my suitcase down 200 steps to get there, and the hotel was only half way down the alley.

This was the third of my three hotels on which the website had promised, “We won’t charge your credit card until you check out.”  In all three cases, I immediately received texts and emails from my credit card company asking, “Did you approve a $300 charge by Moda Studio?”  Unsure, I texted back “no,” and my account was immediately frozen.  In the end, everything was fine and I hadn’t been duped into paying for $300 worth of Italian clothes that I would never receive.  Just know that when they say you won’t be charged until you’re there, what they mean is, “We will charge you the instant you hit submit, and your credit card company won’t like it.”  I had brought printed copies of my hotel receipts just in case the hotel disputed that I had paid, but none did.

One more thing about booking hotels. In case you’re not familiar with Rick Steves, he’s an American travel guru who specializes in Europe.  He does TV shows, publishes guidebooks, and sells travel gear on his website.  I found my Italian hotels in his books, and he says to mention that to get a discount.  Not.  They could have cared less.  He also recommends staying at least three nights and offering to pay cash in order to get a discount.  Nay.  Neither hotel responded to this.  Of course it was the off season, so maybe the prices were so low already they couldn’t be further discounted.

Here is a photo of my groovy hotel room at SU29.  It rained most of the time I was there, so I never sat outside, but I enjoyed the idea of it.

hotel-room

There is a scene in the old movie Fargo where a typical blond, blue-eyed Minnesota store clerk says all the things that drive me crazy about my home state, in that embarrassing Minnesota accent that surely I don’t have, right?  I can’t find the scene online but she says things like, “Hi der, how ya doin’?  Did you find everything you need?  Cold outside, eh?  Paper or plastic?  All righty den, have a nice day!”  You could spend 20 minutes listening to all the niceties.

In Italy, it was the opposite.  With the exception of Ristorante Fellini, I would be seated at a table and wait.  And wait.  Finally I would flag down a waiter, who would throw down a menu as though it was utterly beneath him, then stalk off before I could ask for a glass of wine.  This would be repeated for an hour or so, and the check seemed to be especially difficult to procure—I felt like I was begging for it.  Not once did any of these insouciant waiters come to my table to ask, “How is everything?” or “May I bring you anything else?”—standard questions in Minnesota.  Even on the street, most Italians walked along looking as though they had just bitten into a lemon.

I immediately noticed that the Maltese were friendly.  They had an openness and innocence that made me feel like I was in Minnesota, and I realized I had missed friendliness, even if it was fake.  I also knew that as soon as I got home, the niceness of my fellow Minnesotans would bug the hell out of me.

I went out for a walk.  I loved Malta!  The steps, the balconies, the sea, the quaint shops, its compactness.  Then I got to bed early so I could wake up at 4:00 a.m.  I couldn’t wait for the election to be over with; I only wanted to know by how much Hillary had beaten Trump, then I could relish my day.