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From Malta

By Sahand Rabbani

from Malta

Dear Friends,

My first flavor of the Maltese language was delivered by the flight captain apologizing for the two-hour delay out of Heathrow on Friday evening. The flight had us in Malta no earlier than half past three on Saturday morning. My friend and I made our way by taxi to the small town of Sliema in the north of the island, where our lodging awaited us.

The Mediterranean archipelago of Malta is comprised primarily of two islands, the larger, eponymous one, and the smaller Gozo to the northwest. Strategically located in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, Malta has been the envy of many civilizations. Achieving independence in 1964 after 150 years of British hegemony, Malta owes much of its modern infrastructure to the UK, such as left-side driving and the British electrical outlet pin configuration. On the other hand, the island's culture uniquely its own, deriving from the Sicilians, French, and Arabs.

To an untrained ear such as mine, the Semitic language resembles Arabic with a splattering of Italian (ċintorin tas-sigurtà) and English words. Indeed, it took me almost the full length of the trip to internalize the oxymoronic juxtaposition of an Arabic language and mannerisms and the widespread Roman Catholicism that is a dominant force in the country.

We began our first morning in Malta by renting a car and driving down to the southern coast of the island to visit Ħaġar Qim, one of the megalithic temples for which Malta is famous. Ħaġar Qim and the other megalithic temples of Malta date back to somewhere in 3600-3000 BC as the oldest known buildings in Europe. The temples confessed to the relatively shorter height of prehistoric man and, not to mention, a bizarre fetish for obese women celebrated in the form of various stylized sculptures.

Following Ħaġar Qim, we drove to the small coastal town of Għar Lapsi and enjoyed our first taste of a Maltese specialty, rabbit fried in garlic and wine. This delicious lunch presaged a consistently excellent culinary experience in Malta. The rabbit was tender and well seasoned, and an assortment of root vegetables complemented it well. In fact, the fried rabbit is Malta's national dish and the basis for the Maltese tradition of fenkata, a gathering for the feast of said rabbit. We also ordered an octopus stew prepared in a traditional Maltese sauce of tomatoes and capers. While the sauce was delicious, the octopus itself was not the best.

After lunch we stopped by the red beach at Għajn Tuffieħa Bay, where we joined some native Maltese on their perpetual vacation at the beach. As the sun set, we proceeded to the center of the island for the old fortified capital of Mdina. We parked outside of the walls in a free public parking area, but a lingering ne'er-do-well extorted a fee out of us nonetheless ("You move the car! I said you move the car!"), an unpleasant interaction that evoked memories of Egypt.

The tall, narrow alleys of Mdina were glowing orange with the rays of the setting sun. On a hilltop, Mdina overlooked the gray, dusty island that we had traversed several times earlier that day, as the poor road signs had sent us in many circles. We returned to Sliema by night, and the weekend-long festival of Saint Julian ensured that there was very little available parking in the town. After an aggravating hour of driving around, we finally found a parking spot somewhere in the greater Sliema area. So excited by our success, we did not think to mark the precise location of our car, causing us great consternation the following morning.

We walked into the town of San Ġiljan, whose unsightly, gaudy tourist-ridden harbor was the center of nightlife on the island, and with all the kitchens closing and the tables at the restaurants full, we ordered two pizzas to go and consumed them while sitting on the dock of the bay. The pizza was good.

The next morning, we spent another hour undoing our moronic deed from the night before. ("I'm pretty sure we parked on the left side of a dead-end street with the car facing downhill. Or was it the right side?") By the time we had found the car, we were exhausted and drenched in sweat from the unbearable noontime heat. We then attempted to find the second hostel we had booked for the final two nights of the trip, and once again due to poor signage and bad directions, we drove around for another hour to achieve a net displacement of no more than one kilometer. To our delight, the hostel, having opened just a week earlier, was a colorful, airy villa with an excellent staff and great vibe, a major upgrade from the barracks of the first two nights.

After checking in, we set out on foot to explore the area around Valletta, the modern capital. On the way, I had a delicious rabbit burger for lunch. While all of the shops in Valletta were closed on Sunday, I did enjoy some of the most stunning architecture on the island. Beautiful in its own right, Valletta overlooks three small peninsulas to the east. Each of these peninsulas contains its own fortified city. We rode a bus to the middle city, Il-Birgu, and climbed through its narrow alleys and its bannered main square where the local marching band was preparing for a cacophonous episode.

For dinner that evening, we drove to the nearby town of Il-Gżira, where we enjoyed another serving of rabbit and local seafood shortly before the restaurant closed at eleven. On account of our getting lost on the way back, that evening ended later than planned.

We dedicated our final day in Malta to the island of Gozo, a day that turned out relatively uneventful as we were weary from the heat. Before departing in the morning, we enjoyed some ftira, a Maltese bread, for breakfast. It was during our journey to Gozo that the tagline of the trip was coined. While waiting in the line of cars to board the ferry and having realized that we did not have a ticket nor the opportunity to obtain one prior to boarding, I approached another vehicle to inquire about the ticket acquisition process. An Australian man with a straw hat rolled down his window. "Naw, mate, I don't have a ticket. I wouldn't worry about it. It's only Malta!"

First stop was the grocery store in the Duke shopping center for a bottle of wine. Then we set out for Dwejra Bay and the famous Azure Window, a natural arch of rock that frames a vista of the crystal blue water of the bay. Following a quick dip, we drove to the town of Xlendi for lunch, based on a recommendation by a local we had met earlier. Having accomplished very little in Gozo, yet thoroughly exhausted, we returned to the main island and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening in San Ġiljan. Notable was a fine dinner of local rockfish followed by good use of our Gozitan wine with our friends from the hostel.

Malta has been one of the most interesting places I have come across. Simultaneously beautiful in its architecture and food while also quite barren in landscape and hideously polluted by hard-partying European tourists, this cultural crossroads is cacophonously unique. Malta seems to have three channels, each one showing its own program without interfering with the others. There are the Maltese locals going about their daily life, the tropical thermophilic tourists who are looking for a raving party, and the cheap middle-aged British couples, some of whom eventually retire to the island, presumably thrilled by the warm weather, the low prices, the predominance of English speakers, and the convenience of being able to use their electronics without a pin adapter. While I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Malta, I would not, despite incessant recommendations from billboards and Velcro head flaps on the airplane, buy property and move there.


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