I am hungry. I’d come to Valletta for the umpteenth unpaid appointment with the EU Council’s event planning committee. First, I’d spent 20 minutes lost in the multi-part office building’s internal courtyards that resembled the board game, Chutes & Ladders. Then, I’d then spent an hour politely listening to the same thing I’d read in multiple emails. Finally, I leave the meeting cursing bureaucracy, tummy grumbling. I’ll feel better if I grab a snack on my way to the Sliema ferry.
Despite the fact that small-scale grocers squat in every Maltese neighborhood, I search fruit-lessly for a fruit-seller along the antiquated limestone streets of Valletta. Peering around corners like an actor to be caned offstage, I finally notice green plastic vegetable containers in front of a small store. Ducking below the low-hanging sign, my eyes slowly register the staff inside the dusty space. It doesn’t help that two of three staff are kneeling down, searching for something below the cash counter. I assume they are a grandmother and her grandchildren. I assume by their volume and pitch that they are yelling at each other. I assume, by their completed disregard for me, that they don’t much care about serving customers.
As I watch, the grandmother yells something like, “Well, kid, have you found it?” The little boy looks guilty. The little girl slaps the back of his head, saying something like, “There you go again, losing Grandma’s stuff!” He snaps something back, they crawl around a moment longer, and then with a loud huff give up on finding what had been lost. At which point they turn to look at me, standing nervously, subconsciously pushing my ankles together.
“Um, do you have almonds?” I ask meekly.
“U ejja*,” she replies, which in Maltese means something like, “Yah, whatever.” Her bent finger points to a pack of Rokky Nuts, the same brand I buy elsewhere for something like €1.80. Placing them on the counter, I ask, “How much?”
Grandma looks at me. She looks at the almonds. She croaks, “€2.20.” The youngster’s dark eyes pierce mine. They dare me to disagree. Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
Rounding the next corner, I notice a new uber-hip vegan café. The kind of place that charges €3.20 for a cappuccino made out of milk derived from something without udders. Since I’ve already broken the bank on foreigner-priced almonds, I might as well buy a luxury beverage.
“Can I please get a cappuccino?” I ask the barista over a tray of dark-chocolate gluten-free truffles that cost more than my overpriced almonds. “Is almond milk okay?” she asks. Proudly displaying my Rokky treat, I inquire as to alternative. “That’s all we have here,” she replies. U ejja¸I think. A few moments later she hands me a cappuccino the size of a glass of port. “€3,” she smiles. Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
Jauntily, I guzzle my first swig of the cappuccino. Promptly, I begin to choke. It tastes like someone stuck a burnt twig down my throat. My tongue shrivels. It is the worst cappuccino I’ve ever drank. I am sure that the milk was burned, or something. Despite myself, I howl with laughter, the shrill sound of surprise bouncing off the porticos above. I slam the cappuccino like a shot of tequila.
Taking my last turn toward the ferry port, I notice a pile of wooden detritus outside a small doorway. I remembered someone telling me that a man baked delectable Maltese bread in a wood-fired oven in Valletta. Because firewood is hard to find on this desert island, hungry locals kept him stocked by dropping their useful rubbish outside the door. Although there is no demarcation on the open doorway, I surmise with delight that this must be the infamous baker. Alas, I had found it—the perfect snack in Valletta!
As soon as I place my big toe on the first step into the basement bakery, a man charges back up the stairs toward me. Moving aside for him to pass, I question, “Do they sell bread here?”
“Obviously,” is his cross reply, brushing past me like a football player in the end zone.
Despite it’s underground space, the entire store is tinged white. I realize it’s because it’s covered in a thin powder, like a bag of flour had burst in front of a fan. There is an internal window facing a backroom, where I see an industrial-size drying rack stacked with Maltese bread. While I am surrounded by packaged grocery items on shelves, there’s no bread. I move toward another doorway to my right, toward excited Maltese voices. Entering the next room, I come upon a Maltese family yelling at each other (as interpreted by my fragile American ears).
I stand in shock at the center of a domestic scene: children and an older lady sit on the ground; other ladies sit on a couch behind them. They seem to be talking—loudly—about something mundane, like the weather or the electric bill. My stepping into the scene immediately silences them, their heads snapping in my direction.
A little girl in a pink tracksuit was the first to break the silence. She is as tall as my belly button. “There!” she barks, prodding me backwards into the room full of groceries.
“Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry!” I exclaim. “I thought you sold bread here!”
“Bread?” she asks.
“Yes?” I reply.
“What you want?”
The look on her face explains that I am very stupid. I understand this is true, but haven’t the faintest idea how to be smarter. Sighing, the girl humours me. Walking back into the family room, she shouts something in Maltese to the family. A young boy jumps up. The little girls’ curly brown hair disappears and re-appears behind the window to the bread room. The little boy flips the switch of a huge stainless steel machine on a wall inside the family’s room. It grinds loudly to life (the women’s clucking raises in reply). The little girl returns to the family room with a large loaf of white bread in her hand. She stands on tiptoe, lifting the bread high over the machine in one hand, in a graceful arabesque she’d evidently rehearsed before.
No! I think. This is my last chance to have a decent snack in Valletta! The only thing I want is a wholesome loaf of nutty brown bread, the kind that’s difficult to find unless you go straight to the source.
“Wait!” I shout in the split second it takes the girl to alight. The little boy switches off the machine, confused.
“What?!” The girl seems appalled.
“Um, well, it’s just, do you have brown bread?”
Silence. Then, the grandmother shouts a question in Maltese. Without looking away from me, the girl replies over her shoulder to the grandmother. Upon hearing her reply, the family room erupts in laughter. They goad the little girl on. She acquiesces, rolling her eyes. Again her curly ponytail bounces away, reappears in the bread room, disappears again, and then returns to the family room. She marches swiftly toward me, extending her hand.
Inside her petite palm is a micro-portioned single roll of bread the color of honey.
Now it was my turn to cackle. Involuntarily I throw my head backward as chuckles erupt from my throat. A grandmother pokes her head around the corner from to get the full image of this ridiculous situation, a huge smile painted across her face. The other women howl with laughter inside the family room.
“Okay, okay, okay!” I croak. “How much?”
“Twenty cents,” she replies.
“Here’s a euro,” I offer, pushing the metal coin into her palm.
Laughing, I shake my head, buy my snack, and return to the cobblestone streets.
*U ejja is translated to something like, “Come on!” or, “Whatever!” or, “Yeah, right!”
I was recently asked by one of my new yoga employers to describe my “yoga journey.” It was the type of email that I read, and then just sat staring at, fingers hovering over my keys, pinkie flicking expectantly like the twitch of a tired eye. My yoga journey? I didn’t realize I had one. My relationship to yoga is part of my relationship to my fitness. That’s related to my health. My health is the life force of my body. My body is vessel for my mind, creating the whole being that cradles my soul. To isolate yoga is like isolating a leaf from its tree trunk. What will drink the water? What will take the sun? In fact, there’s the matter of the sun and water themselves. A tree is a reflection of and dependent upon its surroundings. In the wrong soil, a tree will not grow.
This piece is my answer to the “yoga journey” question. My yoga journey is that of a young woman growing up. The story is of a physical being that changes as it interacts with the world. A body that responds to a mind that responds to limitless stimuli. Recognizing its own limitations, and the knowledge of others, this being seeks aid. My yoga journey is a story of ages, stages, and sages.
Stage 1: The Bullet
With little effort I am able to recall my first soccer game. I remember running on a breakaway. I can feel the soft thud of leather-polyester blend on my foot. My friend, a boy named Stuart, ran parallel to me, calling “Pass! Pass!” Little wisps of hair caught my eyelashes. My arms swung, propelling me. I kicked the ball. I’ve not got the faintest clue if Stuart received it. But I know my cheeks bunched in a smile.
Until the age of about 13 my physical and emotional selves were blissfully ignorant to their blissful ignorance to people’s comments about my “long legs” and the fact that my body might be somehow separated from my mind and health. I ran, kicked, jumped, ate, played, and loved without inhibition. My mother learned how to cope with her energetically reckless firstborn. My dad was my sage, a fisherman, soccer enthusiast, and ski-instructor. He named me “Bullet” because of the way my blue helmet head bobbed on skis down the mountain behind him. In summer I rollerbladed endlessly with my first friend-and-sage, Jenny Lucas. We fuelled with Dr. Pepper and raw cookie dough. Stretching and boys? Who had time?!
Sometimes, at night, I found a little hill in the greenbelt that wound its way through suburbia. I sat there with my black dog, stretching my feet in front of me, feeling the soft cement under my legs. Looking back, I think those dusky hours were my first savasana.
Stage 2: Delighted Detachment
It was around the age of 13 that I first conceptualized my body as separate from my soul. I will never forget the moment. I was in the shower listening to Destiny’s Child. It was in the home of my Auntie Val, a sage to me then and now (in memoriam). I glanced down at the warm water running over my body and for the first time saw curves. The water dropped from elevated sections of body like little rivers over cliff ledges. Since when was the possible? That’s when I learned to look at my body.
Throughout High School I explored my physical/ spiritual/ emotional connections with delighted detachment. I am truly blessed to be of sound mind, body, and spirit, so my American high school experience presented unlimited opportunities. Despite pimples and a big nose, my womanly features deemed me “hot.” At the same time I also explored spirituality, attending different religious gatherings with my family and journaling. Of course, I was forever an athlete, except athletics were social and stress-reducing activities. Friend-sage Jen Davis and I spent cross country practice flirting with boys or secretly eating chips and queso at her house, which was conveniently located on most of our running trails. As egotistical as all high schoolers are, I didn’t recognize sages of that time: Coach Selle, my cross country coach who expressed such patience, knowing my chattering mouth inhibited what would surely have been a stellar running career. Staci Stech, my English teacher with a cool demeanor and love for written words who demonstrated spiritual writing. My boyfriends, whose love and curiosity taught me the meaning of deeper relationships.
It was during this stage that I also witnessed my first yogi. I cannot recall where, I think probably the local “rec center.” I just remember seeing this man in loose, thin, lungi-style brown trousers. He was in happy baby position. So, I saw everything he used to make his baby happy. I remember feeling totally repulsed. I swore I would never do yoga.
Stage 3: Foundations
I went through intense psychoanalytical changes from the ages of 17-22. I see this stage as a slow-growth process of foundation building that dictates the rest of my life. While I became sexy, strong, and bountiful, I slowly developed into a pawn of social pressures that formulated negative personal habits. I loved my body and it loved me back. I was athletic, smart enough to study, excitable, and feminine. And yet I remember one scene, at the age of 17. My friends and I had come back from a late party and were eating bags of chips. One friend complained about her belly; another her butt. We all acknowledged that I had “the best body” and it was “because I worked out.” Comments like these incited my doing short exercise videos in my room after school, before dinner. This was the first sign of little rules and judgments that would come to rule my life and the false “sages” that my unwitting friends, family, and greater society would become.
And yet my first three years of college were magical. I studied, partied, ate, performed, and kissed to my heart’s desire. Very special friends became sages, people I was honored to know. Certain professors pushed me toward my best skills, challenging and empowering me. I discovered a love of group fitness, aerobics and, surprisingly, yoga. “Why do you like yoga if you’re so hyper all the time?” people asked. “You never stop moving.” Yoga just felt right.
A deep yogi instinct sent me to India to study-abroad. Yoga there was like jumping into the Mediterranean Sea on one of its colder beaches. For five months I practiced at least 3 times a week with a single teacher in an inner-city ashram. After a perfect puja and dripping bamboo canopies my slight yoga instructor forced my toes over my head, barked military-style Sanskrit at me, and guided me through the most ethereal whole-body connections I have ever experienced. At the end of classes I felt everything. One time, sexier than Lakshmi. Another, angrier than Kali. Sillier than Ganesh. More tired than The Buddha, under his tree.
I just wasn’t the same when I came back from India. It was like watching the sunset over a humid sea. Everything is there: pink, yellow, blue, grey. But it hovers behind a fuzzy shadow, its edges a little less crisp than science intended them to be. My sun was there, bright and beautiful, but lacking sincerity. In college the world began to tell me that I was physically “perfect.” To become that way I must be taking great care. To others, my God-given love of vegetables became “healthy eating.” My adoration of exercise became “staying fit.” “What exercises do you do to get legs like that?” These insinuations planted a deep guilt and doubt within me. Would cookies make me fat? Other people say they will… The very “should” became an internal compass. Fears about losing my body became rules about what exercises I should do. Food became calories that should be eaten, based on calories that should be “burned.”
Stage 4: Doing
And that’s how I became a human doing instead of a human being. By my final year in college I was a robot. Exercise, work, intern, homework, sleep, repeat. My sages weren’t real. They were the people on the cover of magazines. They were CEO’s whose 10-question interviews I read online. They were my friends who were as good at “faking it” as I was. My biggest sage was the impossible Emily I strived to become.
Any my yoga...what a shame. I only did yoga as a complement to a full day of exercise or on days when my body was too malnourished for Body Combat and I too guilty to relax. I was perpetually unhappy with my yoga classes, going into them with the expectation that I would experience a divine spiritual appeal that would make the class “worth it.” I blamed the teacher for leading to class poorly and usually thought they were too easy. I nearly always left for savasana. And when I did stay to lay, I didn’t pray. In fact, I often cried.
I fed myself on comments like, “How do you stay so thin?” and, “Are you a rock climber? The muscles in your arms are so developed”! and, “Why don’t you just eat a burger?” It’s a curious thing in American society that you can’t comment on an obese body but are at liberty to speak of a thin one. The world thought thin was better than fat. The thinnest were the best. I’m ashamed to type that sentence. But, it was my truth. I was a human doing, not a human being.
Stage 5: Planting
Enter one of the greatest sages of my life, Kim Merkel. She was a fitness instructor who tracked down my mother’s contact details. Kim, my mother, and most everyone else recognized my sickly stage. Kim and I first connected when I was the wildest aerobic attendee at her classes. People told us we acted alike. She offered my advice about getting certified in Group Fitness. She saw the irony in the fact that I was overexcericsing at the same time I was leading others to find their optimum fitness. Kim calling my mother was the last straw. I finally allowed me mother to be my sage when she walked me to the Eating Recovery Center.
After regaining the necessary weight, I was allowed to practice yoga. Oh, the sages…I was coaxed and cooed by teachers like Susanne and Carrie Varela. I smiled walking into the studio and smiled walking out. I felt small movements in my muscles. I made friends with other yogis. I was shy in my body. No one seemed to care. Although my period never returned, a physical and spiritual repair commenced. Through yoga and love, I grew into my current stage.
Stage 6: Being
In this stage, every day is a journey of connecting my being with my doing. I’m a tree that recognizes the soil it needs to thrive, although this recognition doesn’t make the soil easier to farm. Roots run deep. I hope one day I can have a conversation about “healthy eating” again without feeling resentful. I hope I don’t feel the need to defend myself for eating “unhealthy.” I hope that I won’t feel like I “should” exercise. However, I’m proud to write these sentences because they show my intention. So what if I can’t touch the ground. At least I am bending my way toward it, know what color it is, and am enjoying the stretch anyway.
Today my yoga practice and instruction are founded on this “journey.” I ask myself what my sages would do and try to make them proud, fictive observers and muses. I look at my yogis knowing that I cannot fathom what brings them to their mats. I stay true to myself as an instructor, knowing that there’s not much else I can do to make it “right.” When the yogi is ready, I will be there. Most importantly, I teach yoga because it helps me. It helps me feel graceful, energetic, strong, sexy, grounded, and confidant, the way I was born to feel. It shows me the unification between mind, body, and, soul. It’s me doing human being.
Malta truly is the land of opportunity. If you want to earn money fast for little effort, this is the place to do it. Maltese people are naturally opportunistic and foreigners are ready to spend. Maltese people aren’t so much early adopters as they are “try anything once-ers.” People in Malta like new ideas, never want to pay full price, and prefer having someone else do their work. If you’ve got any sort of presentation and networking skills, you’ll be turning jobs down within a couple months.
Truth be told, it’s easy to operate “on the black market” and “under the table.” The economy here is so cash-based that you can feasibly make a living without a document to your name. At some point, though, a client will ask you for a VAT number. This is mostly chalked up to accountants: The banking system here is so strict that accountants can be held responsible for fraud. It’s also nearly impossible to send money from Malta without a bank account, so you’ll probably want one of these, too.
Applying for a freelancer’s visa in Malta is not easy, even if you are a citizen of the EU. I made this easier by getting a part-time job. Yes, I sold out, registering as being only part-time self-employed. Why? My life is now ten times easier. The company I work for files taxes on my behalf. The only way I qualified for a bank account was with their forms. I also confess that I am a dual American/ Irish citizen, so the only reason I’ve been able to get a Maltese ID at all is because I claimed my Irish citizenship. I haven’t the faintest idea what you’ll need to do to register as an American, but I suspect it will require more than seven Cisks.
A big hint: carry your passport with you at all times. If you have them, also carry a contract of housing and a contract or statement of work from one or more of your clients. Do not leave your house without a pen and a hard surface to write on. At some point, I will apply on behalf of the Maltese government for European Union funds to provide pens and desks at their public offices.
Here is a step-by-step breakdown, complete with drinking cues and recommended bars. By the end you will be much better acquainted with Malta’s city centers and its drinking spots. Please note that this guide is not all-inclusive; do your own research on specific items and procedures. What I’m trying to say is that I’m 100% sure I’ve left something out.
1.Get a social security number.
Rejoice: If you follow this post exactly, you’ll have made one of the most burdensome aspects of moving to abroad more delightful. Here I recommend a route to purchasing a mobile phone and plan in Malta. And since it just so happens that my recommended purchase location is right next to a well-priced, popular beauty salon, you’ll have ample opportunity to treat yourself to a pampering celebration.
Beware: There’s a few pre-requisites to this post.
1) I do not herein explain how to get a new mobile phone. I explain how to purchase a used mobile phone. Why? Personally, I’m not interested enough in mobile technology, nor am I dexterous enough to brave the purchase of a fancy new gadget. Furthermore, modern techies drop their “outdated,” barely-used gadgets to used shops, allowing the rest of us to purchase their excellent gear at half the price while they chase the next iPhone. I haven’t bought a brand-new mobile phone in a decade, and I won’t start simply because I moved to Malta.
2) I recommend getting a pay-as-you-go plan with Melita. Why? I really loathe contracts, especially when I move home so frequently. And I really loathe trying to sift through all those GREAT PLANS and SIGNING DEALS and BUY NOW, PAY LATER in small print. I like Melita because it’s Maltese, it has free WiFi across the island, and it’s most helpful customer service employee works right next to the used mobile phone shop which is right next to the pedicure salon. Done.
3) In case you didn’t notice, I’m all about local and budget. Want to buy a shiny new phone and a loaded contract and wear plush white flip flops while sipping cucumber water and having your toes poked? Then you might be reading the wrong beauty blog. I recommend you get in touch with this sophisticated and sweet blogger, Elaine at Some of my Favorite Things instead.
Step 1: Get your Gadget
Mobile-Malta is a used mobile repair and sales shop in Park Tower Supermarket. It’s the newest offshoot of my favorite used laptop repair and sales shop, Laptop-Malta in Balluta Bay. Mobile-Malta is located at the top left of the northern escalators of Park Tower Supermarket. It’s the shopping mall between the St. Julian’s LOVE sign and Ballutta Bay. When you arrive, ask the nice Hungarian fellow for a mobile phone in your price range that meets your requirements. Be sure to explain that you want Melita as your provider—you’ll need to purchase an unlocked phone or a phone locked to Melita. Even if Mobile-Malta hasn’t got what you need then, they’ll likely be able to source it for you. Don’t worry about a warranty: these guys will continue to assist you with your phone or laptop long after the purchase was made. I frequently visit them for things like getting my SIM card stuck in my phone; dropping my laptop after falling asleep with it on my lap in bed; and other dumb accidents. If you need a small fix (like the SIM card), Mobile- and Laptop-Malta won’t ask for a cent.
Step 2: Get your Plan
I highly recommend purchasing Melita’s Pay-As-You Go plan, then getting an optional add-on for 600MB of data for 30 days. It works like this: Every month (or so) I purchase a €10 top-up card. After topping up, I text Melita at a certain number to request a data add-on (your Melita representative can provide you a paper with the add-on phone numbers). The add-on is €4.50 and lasts 30 days. Then, all Melita customers are able to register one of their gadgets for Melita’s free WiFi anywhere on the islands. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the WiFi’s reach, but you’ll have to be still in order to connect (no walking and Instagramming). With my combined data allowance and use of Melita’s WiFi, I use alternative programs like WhatsApp, Skype, and Facebook to get in-touch via voice calls. Normal telephone calls come in for free. There’s a small fee to receive/ send text messages. My total monthly cost is around €10. I rarely use more than my 600MB, even when stream music for my fitness classes. It’s the best plan I’ve ever used, and it’s not even a plan.
Step 3: Celebrate with a Pedicure (even if you’re a boy, because Italian men do it all the time here)
Well, that was easy! If all goes well, you’ll have a functioning new phone within an hour. If you’re someone who moves regularly, you’ve probably allocated way more time for this normally painful process. Great! Take the opportunity to walk directly across the hallway from Mobile-Malta to Skye Chinese Massage & Beauty Salon. This salon was recommended to me by a Maltese lady because it’s one of the few massage parlors that doesn’t offer a “happy ending.” Lo and behold, a large sign on the door says “DO NOT ASK FOR A HAPPY ENDING, WE NEVER DO A HAPPY ENDING.” Maybe that’s why this salon is always busy. With at least three staff members working, these ladies know how to get people trimmed and toned. Their deluxe pedicure costs €23, which involves soaks and scrubs and polish. They’ll even take that cheese-shaver thing to remove callouses until your feet look like a newborn’s. The best part of the salon is its seaside view. Ask for a seat by the window to watch yachts, sailboats, and scantily-clad tourists meander by. The ladies are happy for you to sit awhile until your nails dry. Do so while marvelling at how lucky you are to have a new mobile phone, a new mobile phone plan, a new set of shiny toenails, and to call this turquoise vacationland “home.”
Like most neighborhoods in Europe’s Catholic countries, San Gwann is arranged with its church at the center. On Sundays the mostly Maltese population of San Gwann flocks to the Church and then dissipates to various family-centered activities. A most popular pre-and post-Church stop-off is Café Pinto, located just to the left of San Gwann Parish Church. It’s crowned by a red awning. Here’s your guide to a very Maltese Sunday in San Gwann.
Part 1: Churching
Mass is held at San Gwann Parish, locally named Madonna ta’ Lourdes, multiple times on Sunday morning, beginning at 7AM and ending in the early afternoon (or, if you’re super hungover, there’s a 6PM service, too). Attend an earlier service and you’ll see mostly older generations and singles; as the morning progresses you’ll witness more families. Get there at least 15 minutes early to secure a spot near the action up at front. The church’s thick white columns are pretty, but unless you speak Maltese you’ll become fairly bored by looking at those columns and listening to the gobbly-gook that is Maltese to the undiscerning ear. If you forgot your nun’s habit, don’t fret: most people are dressed “conservative casual.”
If you’ve never been to Mass before, simple follow along with the standing/ kneeling/ bowing/ praying procedures. It’s kind of like an aerobics class! Mass is 100% Maltese. I know my way around a Mass and could have recited the prayers out loud in English. But I didn’t feel comfortable enunciating a foreign language within the sea of mumbled Maltese, so I kept my head bowed and fingers clasped. Unlike the very organized Catholic masses I’ve attended in the States, whereby you are cordially asked to leave your pew by an usher in a quiet, humble procession at the appropriate time, the Maltese jumped from their seats in a free-for-all communion bid. If you’ve completed Catholic Confirmation, then you’re free to enjoy a piece of the Body of Christ at the front with the rest of the congregation. If you’re not Catholic but curious, respectful, and in need of a blessing, walk to the front with your arms crossed over your chest. Bow your head in front of the priest and he will thumb a small cross onto your forehead. While whine flows freely in the Bible, in Malta t seems that the only person who gets a sip of Jesus wine at church is the priest. The rest of us can only imagine…
Been bad? Confession is open between the 7AM and 8:30AM services. I suggest going to confession early. The confessional sits at the very front of the church pews, near the altar. I wonder if maybe this is another way to discourage one from leading a shameful life?
Part 2: Café Pinto
After you’ve worked up an appetite with all the kneeling and standing and bowing and walking to communion, move your way to Café Pinto next door. With tables outside and inside, you’ll likely find a place to sit, although I recommend not lolly-gagging after mass just in case. At Café Pinto you’ll most likely find the following patrons: men sitting in one’s and two’s, smoking cigarettes on the spindly tables outside; an elderly couple reading the Sunday [Malta] Times; someone British, looking at the ground; and a family of five or more, crammed onto tables hastily aligned. Servers will likely be a young girl, slightly flustered; a dark-haired woman who coos and caws like a loving crow; and the chef, watching TV when not taking orders from behind the counter. He’s cooked most of the hot and cold savoury items you see lining the display, like traditional pastizzi and croissants. By far the most popular items are on the menu are thin grilled sandwiches served with a single leaf of lettuce and one-half a cherry tomato. If you’re okay with waiting, order the vegan “mixed veggie” baguette. In about 10-15 minutes you’ll receive a fresh, slightly herbed, just-grilled vegetable delight. Drizzled with a little balsamic dressing and washed down with a cappuccino, it’s practically perfect.
Sit and be Maltese. Read the Times, stare out of the window, contemplate picking up a smoking habit, listen to the rising-and-falling, l-m-n-o packed Maltese chatter. Mella! Mella! [flip of the hand, chuckle, cluck]. Watch fruit sellers man trucks lined with green plastic bins; see a small sandy-haired woman carrying a bouquet larger than her head. In case you didn’t get enough God earlier, live Mass plays on the local TVM channel from a silent TV in the corner. Order a dessert of one of the home-made cookie or bread things (kwarezimal is my favorite) and sink into the scene like a clam in the sand.
Part 3: Lackadaisical Shopping
Café Pinto is not expensive, so burn that hole in your pocket by enjoying some lazy shopping on your way back toward St. Julian’s. Since most of the shops are actually closed Sunday, you won’t have that much opportunity to over-spend. What will be open is the hodge-podge thrift shop just a few doors down from the Church. In need of a bright pink nutcracker? What about vintage comic books? A mug? A picture of Elvis Presley? Then this is the store for you! If you’ve still got money after purchasing those treasures, explore the little grocery stores along Birkirara road. While they look nearly identical on the outside, each one of these grocery shops opens into its own unique world. Some double as bakeries; some specialize in cheeses; some sell organic products. Most are tied to the fruit sellers in stalls and trucks outside, gayly free of competition from San Gwann’s Lidl (closed on Sunday). Paws for a Cause charity shop is also open later in the morning, located down the street to your left just after the Bank of Valletta. As you walk back toward St. Julian’s, take a moment to pause outside Titu’s Place on the right. I’m not exactly sure what this shop is—a café? betting shop? “timeout” for naughty husbands? It’s always packed with men and never seems to be closed. The men are either speaking loudly at one another or sipping coffee and mumbling like they’re planning a dangerous heist. If you can figure out what Titu’s Place is, do comment below!
In the past two years I’ve attended two events endeavoring to bridge the gap between open data and a community via the creation of privately-ideated, publically-supported smartphone apps. The first was as a blogger for Plymouth Data Play Day in southwest England. The second was StartAPP 2.0 in Malta. Maybe it’s because Malta is a former British colony, or because “smart city” is a current buzzword, or because it takes a certain kind of person to tackle satellite imagery for the sake of traffic appeasement, but I was surprised the number of similarities between the events. And yet, the mostly social and ambient differences between the two reflect the same traits in their host geographies.
The Bigger Picture
The first similarity between Plymouth and Malta’s data-focused events is the fact that they are located in start-up friendly environments. In fact, Maltese start-up tax benefits are compared to the UK’s Seed Investment Enterprise Program. While in his article, “Malta: the pros and cons of building a start-up on the sunny island” Jeffrey Romano claims that Malta’s e-government system is leading in the EU, LinkedIn’s digital Economy and Society Index shows Malta’s overall technical environment as being much lower than that of the UK. This tool provides per-country snapshots of connectivity (how widespread, fast and affordable broadband is), Internet skills, the use of online activities from news to shopping, and how key digital technologies (e-invoices, cloud services, e-commerce, etc.) and digital public services such as e-government and e-health are developed across Europe.
However, it is on a social level where I see the greatest similarities between Plymouth and Malta. Mr. Romano explains the draw of Malta for many start-up companies: “Malta is a popular place to come and work in; the fantastic weather, lively nightlife and the fact that it is a family-friendly location has attracted many professionals to the island.” Insert [opportunity to explore nature] for “lively nightlife” and [port city] for “island” and he’s describing Plymouth.
Although both events were intended to be a grassroots way of opening data for public use, the event sponsors are the true impetus of the movement. Data Play Day was started by Plymouth City Council’s Planning Community. The focus of the event was “bridging the gap” between public private, councilman and Joe Public. Funding for the winning App ideas is picked from public pockets.
In his opening speech, MITA Innovation Hub leader Alex Borg described the happenstance that founded StartApp2.0. MITA partnered with the University of Malta to host the first StartApp event, titled 15k, which resulted in the provision thousands of euros investment funding to two app developers. Soon thereafter Alex was called by Eurisy, a European non-profit that supports the use of satellite applications in the public sector, the sponsor the next event. Finally is ZAAR, Malta’s first crowdfunding platform. With so many potential pockets it’s no surprised that StartAPP 2.0 will run in four total instalments, with winning apps being launched thousands in seed funding each time.
The biggest differences between Plymouth and Malta’s data events is the ambiance created by the planners and subsequent networking. StartAPP was hosted at SmartCityMalta, a hyper-modern retail/ office/ residential compound on the outskirts of Three Cities, Malta. And yet, when I glanced out the window I saw a traditional Maltese horse-and-cart [insert photo by Colin and Sarah Northway via Flickr saved into Website Content Manager]. The sign-in sheet contained scribbled names sans email addresses, and from what I could tell attendees were at least 50% affiliated with the pitching team and 60% affiliated with sponsor organizations. We sat in rows facing a Powerpoint. After all pitches had been delivered myself and other attendees indulged in Maltese tapas like mini ftira, croissants, and caviar-dusted bread, snacks intended to “to oil the socializing” (as stated in the MeetUp invitation), and washed down with a Cisk, of course. After being announced, the winning teams were whisked off to a debriefing. After 20 minutes waiting for them to emerge, I left, tucking my unused business cards back into my wallet.
In this way, StartAPP 2.0 felt world’s away from Plymouth’s inaugural Data Play Day event.There, I and other attendees spent as much of the day networking, conversing, and idea-generating as we did sitting and listening. The planners facilitated discussion and changed the schedule to match the mood. Plymouth College of Art, was the perfect venue for such a light-hearted atmosphere. For example, attendees used crayons to draw complex robotic diagrams. There were sign-in boards and mailing lists and Polaroid pictures and play-times. Ironically, Plymouth’s more socially oiled attendees also ate more oily fare, scarfing pizza like high schoolers. It’s true that not a single sustainable app model was generated at Plymouth Data Play Day. No one left there with cash in-hand. But, I left Plymouth’s event feeling connected.
The Social Media
If there is one thing the Maltese business people do well it’s communicating on social media. On the first page of Alex’s Powerpoint the StartAPP hashtag, #startapp2pit, was displayed. It seemed to play on the Maltese affinity for racing and served as its own call to action. Throughout the evening StartAPP event organizers tweeted updates and attendees weighed in. I only wished the chatter in the room was as great as that online.
I chuckled to myself when comparing the StartAPP hashtag to Plymouth’s initial confusion over what hashtag to use (at one point there were two different “official” hashtags). Many attendees showed up to Data Play Day without a smartphone. I was asked to blog through the event but struggled to find a place to tell the story on my website. No one seemed able to tag or categorize the day.
Despite the fact that both Plymouth Data Play Day and Malta’s StartAPP 2.0 supported the same basic premise, they presented dramatically different experiences. To me, this can only be a reflection of the environment. Plymouth is following on the coat tails of recognized Open Cities like Bristol. Plymouth is a smaller player with nothing to lose, humble even in a society that values humility. Malta is a country recently recognized for having the highest GDP in Europe. It’s keen to professionalize itself on a European front. Both geographies are prime open data start-up spaces. The question is, who’s apps will appear on my Smartphone first?
In a country where buses are notorious for arriving either ten minutes early or ten minutes late, there is one thing you can count on: Maltese bread, “ħobż malti” (“ħobż” for short). Do not take this resource for granted! The simple white rolls may dot every window and comprise every sandwich, but its history, edibility, and cautionary notes render ħobż unique amongst breads of the world.
Bake your Hobz…
According to Doris Frenech, author of “Maltese Bread” via Maltese Traditions, wheat was historically taken by farmer’s wives to a local windmill. After grinding the wheat, housewives spent hours kneading dough into a standard roll or a flattened donut-like circle. Adding flour, yeast, sea-salt, and water, women spent at least a day preparing the family’s weekly ration of ħobż. Since many families preferred not to build ovens in their sun-soaked homes, wives took their unbaked bread to communal ovens once weekly. The crunchy sourdough crust kept the inside of the ħobż super soft for one week.
…And Eat it, Too
Visit any Maltese café and you’ll find some version of ħobż, whether it skirts a bowl of rabbit stew or is sliced with butter and washed down by a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice. The best way is to order ħobż is in “ftira tal-ħemi,” referred to just as “ftira.” Classic ftira is made with a slightly sweeter bread called “hobz biz-zejt.” Today, nearly all ftira sandwiches are made with cheaper, crunchier ħobż. A standard ftira contains “kunserva” (an herbed tomato spread), local tuna, olives, capers, and oil in an open ħobż roll. As the island opens to foreign influences, many restaurants serve modern versions with gluten-free ħobż and vegetarian substitutions. Standard ftira sandwiches are sold in nearly every street vendor, café, and high-end lunch place in the city. They cost around €1.10. Add a Cisk lager for €1, sit in the sun, and enjoy one of the best low-budget dining experiences in Europe.
There are a few things to beware of when seeking ħobż malti. Do not be tempted to swipe the seemingly untouched rolls set outside house fronts during morning trash collection days. While the bagged ħobż perched on top of other black trash bags seems to be fresh, no upstanding Maltese citizen wastes good bread. After one week, ħobż goes bad. Then it smells like putrid eggs and is stiffer than a block of Maltese limestone. Less scary but equally upsetting, beware the proportion of ħobż-to-filler in ftira. An ftira with too much bread will result in a tired jaw and dry mouth. Moreover, one should never choose ftira while dining for business. The bread is dusted with flour that inevitably lands on the tip of your nose and top of your suit collar.
Like chips in England or tacos in Mexico, ħobż is that one Maltese food that you can depend on no matter your budget or the situation. Passed through centuries of rickety windmills and communal ovens, edited to fit more creative modern palates, anyone who takes care with their ħobż malti order will be a happy diner indeed.
In the two months since I’ve moved to Malta, I have conducted a great deal of my private and public business on the black market. “The black market” being a blanket statement for any alternative, untaxed economy, or discussions about doing alternative, untaxed things. Like payments between “friends,” in cash, with no signature required. I am not a pirate. I, like the majority of Maltese citizens, have simply found this to be the most accessible and efficient way to get things done. Contracts, receipts, validation, certification…I’d say that around 60% of daily Maltese transactions actually use a paper trail (that’s transactions of any size). I’m not sure who really gets taxed and how, but the considering that this minute country has the 15th highest GDP in Europe and only a 3.9% unemployment rate, I am also unsure of who’s concerned about it.
Not following rules in Malta is fun! It means you can drink a bottle of wine next to sea while sitting in your car, drive on the sidewalk when the bus is in your way, and get inordinate discounts on purchased items simply for making the cashier laugh. It means you can find a rental flat without proof of income. If your friend is a nurse, it means your mom gets to move to the front of the line at the hospital. In Malta, following the rules is like being the nerdy kid at the front of class. Sure, you might get to Harvard. But you won’t get an invite to a party Saturday night. And Maltese parties are not something to miss…
You can imagine my surprise, then, when I met my first rule-following Maltese person. He is the owner of one of the largest shipping/ marketing/ construction/ importing/ exporting companies in Malta, the type of company that has made-and-broken entire markets on this little island. We’ll call him Henry of Family Co. It’s thanks to Henry that Maltese people eat cheap bananas. Family Co. also owns big names in Maltese architecture, transport, real estate, and advertising. When I arrived to be interviewed for a content marketing position with his company, I was curious as to how Henry had grasped hold of so many influential markets. After sitting in front of him for five minutes, I knew. And it was not the way I expected.
Rule Breaking Based on Cultural Urgency
There’s a certain cultural sense of urgency in Malta: When a business person wants something, whether it’s a new car or a new contract, they want it NOW. People in Malta are constantly starting companies and groups only to give up once they face too much red tape or a lack of immediate interest. Walk through any neighborhood to witness the gorgeous half-empty, under-construction houses for an example of what I mean. Sometimes these empty houses are a result of urgency: The builders wanted something done, so they didn’t follow the rules. And when it got too hard, or too expensive, or their rule-breaking was discovered, the project was dropped. It’s part of the system here to pick up and leave things. I think that’s why so many foreigners come here to fund or propel their career, staying only a few years.
Introducing the SMRF
So what about companies like Family Co.? How have they sustained success? From what I can tell, they rebel against the system by following its rules. Ironic, no? To do so takes great courage; imagine competitors make millions in quick company boom-and-busts while you slog along, doing things the right way. These people are scary and powerful. I call them Scary Maltese Rule Followers (SMRFS).
In fact, I have now met two other Maltese people who lead local organizations with scope, clarity, goals, and success. They act like Henry (differently than many of their Maltese counterparts): they’re transparent, boasting, short of smiles, disinclined to take a day off, and Type-A goal makers. I feel like a puppy dog caught drinking from the toilet bowl when I’m around these people. From what I can tell, Henry and the other two Scary Maltese Rule Followers have found success because they ignore cultural urgency, taking instead the straight-and-narrow path of highest resistance. Their actions mean they cannot be denied, faulted, or undercut. By living resiliently toward their goals, these people demand respect. They’re brilliant and forceful, side-stepping the Maltese penchant for charisma to create infallible structures.
The Power of SMRFS
Like a good King, most people dually love and hate SMRFS. SMRFS provide jobs. They engineer “share-bait.” They and their friends have the ability to create long-term change in a country relatively young on the “modernization” front. SMRFS are focused enough to be patient. Companies run by SMRFS spawn direct and indirect followers that elevate Malta much further than its miniscule geography. It’s not easy to get on the good side of a SMRF; you’ll need fortitude, to say the least.
What’s the point? In Malta, there is a black market economy. You can live on this economy, work with its freeholders, in a largely uninhibited way. But if you want to get anything done, you’ll need to figure out how to deal with SMRFs. I’ve developed a short guide for harnessing the power of a SMRF. And I’d love for you to comment here: What’s your experience with the Maltese black-market economy? What about SMRFS? And words of advice?
It’s 12PM. I sit in my room, fingers tapping away at my computer, and hear Jodie moving around in her bedroom. She issues a low grunt, reflected in the groan of the bed. Through the thin walls I imagine her rolling out of bed, slowly, painfully. Placing her feet on the ground, adjusting her stained shirt to cover her nipples, grabbing a dirty pair of shirts off the ground. It’s been a couple days since she got out of bed. Eyes blinking, she wanders to the bathroom, where she pulls the cord and then curses. She forgot that our bathroom light had been broken for months. I was trying to get Lee to take some ownership of the situation and purchase the lightbulb himself, after standing on the toilet to read the lightbulb specifications on the ceiling. Lee insisted that he didn’t have enough money for the bulb and the cost of transit until they got their bi-monthly JSA (Job-Seekers Assistance) check next week. Until then, Lee and Jodie would live on packets of crisps, sweets, and whatever food items were on sale at Spar across the street. It was during these dry times that Jodie usually preferred to sleep her days away. And where things like lightbulbs were distant dreams.
Jodie pissed and sighed for at least three full minutes. I could smell the acrid urine from my open door. Disgusted, I left the chapter I was writing to walk the blue steps (on blue carpet past jarringly light-blue walls) to my door, trying to shut it as lightly as possible so as not to reveal to Jodie that I had heard her. It didn’t work; in her sharp intake of breath, I could tell that Jodie has forgotten she and Lee had a boarder living in the room of their daughter, a girl was taken from them as a child to be adopted by a family that was more competent to care for her. When Jodie wandered up the thin staircase, her hand sticking slightly to the railing, and settled herself upstairs on the couch with Lee, I wondered if they might look at photos of their daughter. But after greeting her, Lee found Jodie’s favorite cooking show, turning it up loudly.
For a few more hours I sat in my room, writing the book about Plymouth that I knew had no space for the explicit story of Jodie and Lee. I tried to convey in the most sensitive of ways the Plymothian subculture that Jodie and Lee represented: grandparents of grandparents who had been on government benefits. People who had never learned how to take care of a child, clean a toilet, who suffered mental disability and were given public aid in the form of psychiatric medication and money. I wanted badly to explain that Jodie and Lee were lovely people. How lucky they were to have found each other, to have avoided drugs and alcohol, and that Lee’s everlasting positivism could mitigate Jodie’s all-encompassing depression. I wanted to explain that they were very smart. One night Jodie sat on the stairs while I cleaned the toilet, which was covered in shit because of their perpetually frustrated bowels, and Jodie told me her life story. She had been abused by an uncle (although she didn’t say it that way) and hurt by her mother (which she explained in detail). She had held a couple jobs in customer service, which she liked and did well in. She met Lee online. They spent all night on Plymouth Hoe for their first date, just sitting and talking, mostly because they had missed the last bus home. They went to great lengths to qualify for the squalid house we now lived in. And they meant to get pregnant. They didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they soon realized they couldn’t raise a child. Especially when, some days, Jodie couldn’t raise herself out of bed.
Jodie and Lee were good with money, the way calculating people with no common sense are. They could analyze the pros and cons of different television payment plans the way Eisenhower analysed D-Day. They were constantly subscribing to deals: 12 magazines for the price of one; a month’s worth of MMA channels in exchange for a free t-shirt; facial products for re-sale. They were good deals, but not deals that someone who had no other savings should ever partake in. They never had any money, living hand-to-mouth alongside their paychecks.
The night they got their check they always ordered pizza: 2 or 3 Large pizzas; soda; chips; buffalo wings. They ate until they could burst, and then they let the rest of the food waste away on the kitchen counter. The next day they went to the grocery store, where they purchased lovely, nutritious food that they would cook in the kitchen (after cleaning the dishes that had sat in the sink since the last time they cooked two weeks before).
Lee loved sport. He sat on the couch, taking notes on goals, football stars, punches, and championship rounds. He could accurately predict outcomes through very clever algebraic equations he created. Jodie was eloquent, lively, and witty, reciting recipes out of books and detailing the origin and characteristics of ingredients. The still loved their daughter, frequently looking at pictures of her. They told me about taking their daughter to the doctor. I look around the house, covered in small objects and hairballs and tubes, and know that their memories are selective when thinking about the short time they spent raising their daughter. When they talk about her, their face glows slightly, but their eyes drop and voices trail…Jodie and Lee love each other. I only ever once saw them fight, an incident that I quickly chastised them for because I worried they might become abusive like so many of their family members.
After a couple hours, it’s time for me to go. I have a date with the gym and the grocery store; I’m sick of using my University-Level diploma to write a book; maybe I’ll grab a beer with a friend. I suck in my breath and open my door, trying not to smell the stench that wafts from Jodie’s room. One time I watched her “clean.” I sincerely doubted she actually knew what that meant.
“Bye, guys!” I call over my shoulder, grabbing my expensive bike. They come to the doorway with me, smiling and asking me if I wanted them to make me some dinner. I felt guilty taking their food but loved Jodie’s cooking, when she was in one of her “healthy” kicks. “Yes!” I said gratefully. I walked up the steps out our front door, into the sun (our ground-floor home was typically dark and drab, as most public housing in England is). Lee waved from the doorway; Jodie called, “Lee, can you get me a cold drink?” from the recesses. I smiled back.
Jodie and Lee, I thought. Just like you and me.
This article was written in the winter of 2015, after I'd already left the home of Jodie & Lee for more appropriate accommodations. In the winter of 2016 I received a Facebook message from Lee: Jodie had died in her sleep. She has been suffering a great deal of pain. After she'd been in bed for some time, he tried to rouse her. When he couldn't get her to wake, he ran to a neighbor's, who also could not wake her. When the ambulance arrived, they declared Jodie dead.
When he told me, Lee admitted to feeling very depressed. He planned to leave their home to live with his family in London, who he didn't get along all that well with. But, at least he wouldn't be alone.
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.