Squinting into the wind, I looked up at the big, grey cloud threatening rain above me. Surrounded by light blue sky and jolly white puffy clouds, I nearly laughed: the menacing cloud was actually the shape of a heart. At that moment, I knew what I wanted my gravestone to say.
“Leave when it’s still good.” Of course. I smiled happily to myself.
You may think it morbid that naming my gravestone would bring me such pleasure; alas, I had been thinking about death most of the morning. The death of women past, to be clear. Most recently, the death of my partner’s grandmother, Babe, and her sister, Mary-Jane. Unlike Babe, who suffered from dementia in her later years, Mary-Jane died at age 99 the brain of a fox. Babe and Mary-Jane had been apart for some years, no longer able to travel to each other’s states to meet. And yet they remained with one another in spirit. In fact, it was Babe’s inability to recall Mary-Jane that helped my partner’s mom begin the grieving process for her mother. Her mother’s spirit that was lost, evident in the fact that her mind could no longer recall loved ones.
My move to Seattle in March to live with my partner’s family is related to the passing of his grandmother. Like many elderly, Babe had accumulated years of treasured-- and not-so-treasured-- items in her home. My partner’s family had moved into the home years ago to better care for Babe. Now, the sorting process: what to keep? What to heap? What will make us weep? Their goal is to sell the home within a few years; there’s a lot of items, and memories, to get through before then.
As I walked down the seaside, thinking of the mind in death, women past, and their home thereafter, I realized my last relocation was also connected with the death of a special lady. Shortly after my move from the States to England I visited the home of my deceased heroine, Auntie Val. Val was actually my Grandmother’s Aunt. My grandparents and I had the task of clearing her fantastic home to prepare it for sale. It’s very difficult to describe the type of emotion I felt at that time; something like adoration, loneliness, and spirituality. Each trinket we picked up had a story; my Grandmother surprised herself by the memories she held of my Aunt. Like Babe, Auntie Val lost her self-sufficiency to the recesses of dementia. Like my partner’s mom, my grandmother dissociates the woman Val was in her final years as being different from the woman’s travels, tales, and talkative nature. Her legacy.
We may think that Mary-Jane left when it was still good, her brain communicating with her body. I think otherwise. I think all the ladies left when it was still good, because their legacy was established. Even though their bodies and minds died at different rates, these women’s legacies were created before, and lived on after, their actual passing.
Many people lightly explain yoga as “mind-body” connection. But that’s a very reductionist view of the pursuit. Us yogis realize our mind and body is already connected: when we practice pranayama, we come to see that we breathe all day long without actively thinking about it. We use yoga to become aware of that connection, and then move past it. We see that something special is created when our mind and body merge. That is our legacy, our spirit, the difference between ourselves and a cadaver. Without the body there is no mind; without the mind there is no body; put them together, and there’s a fully functioning human. If that’s all it takes to make us function, then what makes certain people shine? What lives on after they’ve died? What happens to the human when just one part of the mind-body connection wavers?
When we mourn someone’s passing, we grieve their complete human packages. Not their mind; not their body; but the way they choose to live their life. By making decisions that establish their unique objectives and persona, they create a legacy. One day at a time, for many, many years. When that legacy is detailed in stories passed through generations, then that character lives on. One of my mantras is, “WWAVD?”-- what would Auntie Val do? With her legacy, I create mine.
When I was clearing out Auntie Val’s house, I remember thinking quite clearly that when I died, I wanted to die like her-- a lady with a life of great stories, who was remembered for her positive attributes and who’s legacy would be carried on. Now, preparing to help clear the house of another lady, I experienced the same feeling of timelessness. As I walked, I visualized my gravestone and the woman buried below it.
I had gone on the walk that morning to blow off steam. I was supposed to be earning money. Instead, a client cancelled on me. It was the fourth time that week. After thinking of grandmothers, death, and trinkets for some time, I wondered why I wasn’t bothered by the lack of income I’d had that week. I realized that the legacy I wanted to create was not, “Obsessive about money.” In fact...
That woman’s legacy was not on her plate.
That woman’s legacy was not in her bank account.
That woman’s legacy was not in her harmful habits.
That woman’s legacy was not in her social anxiety.
That woman’s legacy was not in her wine glass.
That woman’s legacy was not in blind ambition.
That woman’s legacy was not in her egotism.
That woman’s legacy was not in her rude outbursts.
That woman’s legacy was not in her silence.
That woman’s legacy was not in her workaholism.
Suddenly, my values poured into my heart like a raincloud just burst. I saw my sisters; my partner; I saw my parents; I saw my own healthy body; I saw a curious mind; I saw new friends; I saw adventure; I saw a comfortable retirement; I saw pain, sacrifice; I saw success, and love. I knew that every step, every day, every rain cloud represented another chance to assert the woman that would eventually die. The woman who lived life with a big heart, grey or white or any other color.
Upon my entrance to my flat, the big heart cloud poured rain on Malta. I rejoiced in my good timing. I didn’t expect to be so lucky again. But if I lived as the brave women did before me, I could handle the next storm. I might even turn it into a story...
As soon as I’d huffed my luggage in, the dark wooden door frame slammed shut behind me, cutting off the sound of honking cars. Three other people in line had apparently waited until the last second to send their post, as well; it was 12:40PM in an office that closed at 12:45PM. Seeing that they were foreign, I wondered if they shared my irritation that a public business should close before most people have eaten lunch.
A man appeared behind the glass screen, smiling widely and waving his hand toward me. “Hello, come in! How can I help you!” I was taken aback- unlike many countries, Malta lacks customer service folkways (or at least repercussions for not following them). From buying groceries to getting a moped serviced, there is no rhyme or reason to the level of acknowledgment, personalization or assistance you will receive.
Moving toward the counter, the postman gleefully eyed my pink suitcase. “Would you like to ship that? Great!” He hurried out from behind the counter and ushered me to a desk, tucking the chair underneath my [petite?] bum. A pen was whisked into my hand and papers placed in front of me. “Now, we can send it via a service today, if you want. It will be more expensive. But there’s another service that leaves once a week, on Thursdays. If you elected to do that it would be much cheaper, but it won’t arrive for some time. What do you think?” Fingers on his chin, he looked at me with 100% focus, empathetically weighing our options. “I’ll take the cheapest way!” I asserted.
“Mela!” he shouted, turning on his heels to arrange the necessary preparations behind the scenes. Five minutes later he’d managed my little case’s journey. I turned at the door to thank him, maybe even to ask if there was some survey I could fill out to acknowledge his work. But he was busy coo-ing at the next client’s baby. Customer service win! I rejoiced.
Customer service opportunity #2 sat across the street. It was fat, white, and intimidating. The Peace Corps required that I provide fingerprints for a background check, advising a visit to the US Police Station. Unsure of Maltese alternatives, I wanted to see if my local police station might help.
An older gentleman stood in the hall, wearing a tweed suit jacket, bow tie, and expertly curved white hair. His hands were behind his back. He looked at me with smiling eyes as I craned my neck left and right. When I looked to the right, the door nearest slammed shut. I followed the old man’s gaze left, where I saw several policemen leaning on counters, hands in pockets, chatting to each other behind a slightly open door frame. A large printed white sign said, “PLEASE KNOCK AND WAIT.”
“You have to wait,” he said to me. “I think they are talking on the telephone, something important.” He wiggled his chin a few times, Maltese body language for, “I guess that’s what’s happening and I won’t argue.” I, for one, saw no cops on phones. Before he could look away, I caught eyes with an officer. He glared at me, making a STOP gesture with his hand and then wagging his finger. “Stupid puppy- sit! Stay!” he seemed to say. Tail between my legs, I ducked behind the gentleman.
A few moments later a man came in. He did everything I did, although he received only a slammed door. Apparently he was a better dog than I! Then a lady came in. She was one of those cool Maltese chicks who always seemed to know exactly where she was, what she was doing, and didn’t need to open her eyes very wide to understand these things. After standing for a few casual minutes, it was her presence that seemed to bring the policeman inside out of their stupor. Suddenly three of them descended: one female, carrying papers and rushing past us down the corridor; and two men, who kept their hands in their pockets and walked right up to me, toes turned outward and chest jutted forward.
“Yes?” Pointing at the older man, I blurted, “He’s first!” The second policeman turned to him. The first turned back to me. “Yes?”
“I need to get my fingerprints taken by an authority. The police can do it where I’m from, in America. Are you able to help me with it here?”
“What?” he smiled meanly.
“I need my fingerprints taken.”
“Why?” he smiled curiously.
“I’m not in trouble! It’s for the Peace Corps! You know? A two-year volunteer program in Africa.”
The he said something that sounded like a very rude thing that sounds like “fudgeyourmudder.”
“Huh?” I ogled, nearly laughing.
“Floriana.” He smiled in a bored way, crossing his arms over his massive chest.
“There is an organization in Floriana that can do it for me?”
He crossed his arms and grinned. “Floriana Police Station. The main station. They can do it there.”
I smiled widely. I knew where that was! (That’s another blog). “Oh, great, wonderful, thank you for your help, sir!” With a chuckle, he turned to the next man in line. I ran out of the station. Customer service tie, I thought.
As I rounded the corner I saw one of the ubiquitous Maltese vegetable sellers. This man was always busy, a good sign. As I walked past I noticed a clear bag full of what looked like chopped vegetables. I stopped-- where was the seller?
“Those vegetables!” someone shouted from inside the cart. I jumped, seeing a blue hat bobbing behind a turnip. He hopped out the back and walked toward me.
“I put everything in it! Kale! Broccoli! Potatoes! Cabbage! Turnips! Lettuce! Sweet potato! Cilantro! Everything from my truck I put it in there!”
“Oh yeah?” I ask.
“Everything from my truck I put it in there! I chop it back there, with my knives!” he roared with laughter, pointing to the raised caverns of the truck bed, behind the green plastic vegetable bins.
“What do people use it for?”
“For everything! For soups! For casseroles! They do it with meat! They do it on the stove! They roast it! They do everything with it!” He threw his hands up to the sky, to those great gods who inspire his wonderful cooking customers.
“How much is it?” I ask.
“I put everything on my truck in it! Three fifty! Everything goes in! Hahahahah!”
“Great! Hahaha! I’ll take it!” Tucking my treasure into my backpack, I laugh with him as I walk away. Customer service winner takes all!
Finally, to the grocer. Like most grocers, they’re located directly next to another grocer. Somehow, they both stay in business. Not only does my preference carry a certain kind of chewing gum, but they also treat me like dirt when I come in. I love it: If I’m in the mood, I tease them into turning the corners of their mouth upward ever so slightly, like a grandfather irking a moody child. If I’m not in the mood, we avoid each other’s gaze and secretly fall in love (at least that’s what I think happens).
Today she’s in a tizzy. I barely enter the shop, wanting only to fulfill my addiction to minty freshness and leaving. She’s on the telephone with a BOV cheque and some papers on the counter. She turns away from me when I enter. I count out exact change and try to reach past her to the gum that’s kept behind the counter. This is a bold move. Alas, she doesn’t seem to care. Still, it’s a bit too far. She does nothing, continuing her anxious chatter. I hear the words, “Twenty-five euros” several times. I feel bad for her. But, I’m also keen to get out. Again I crane. No luck. I step away from the counter, sigh loudly, and look at her.
She looks at me, phone to her ear. I must be transparent.
I look at her, frowning, eyebrows raised. I am conveying a clear message. “There is your money. You know what I want.”
She barely moves the phone from her mouth. “Yes?”
“Chewing gum please. The big green kind.” She grabs the wrong kind and scans it. I give up, pointing to the money on the counter. She nods at me, brings the phone back to her mouth, and keeps talking. I exit.
You can’t win them all, I think.
I’ll never forget when I first met Josette. I was trudging up the hill from St. Julian’s into Ta Giorni, the first time of what would become many a forlorn commute. I had given myself three days to find a job, a flat, and some semblance of a Maltese identity. At least that was how long I’d asked my Couchsurfer to host me for. I was mid-way through a day full of timetables, apartment viewings, interviews, bus rides, currency exchanges, etcetera. Typical to Malta in spring, the wind was howling. I was trying desperately to keep my interview-ready hair free of sweat and dust while navigating around a place I’d never been with limited access to WiFi. Exasperated, I thought, “I need to eliminate some variables here.”
That’s when I rounded the corner onto Josette’s hair salon. I don’t recall what it’s name was; just the classy brand, a silhouette surrounded by a wave of hair that looked much better in the wind than mine. Checking my watch, I decided that 15 minutes was plenty of time for a capable stylist to chop my hair off. I charged in.
It was the first time I’d receive a most characteristic Maltese gaze, the one they reserve for foreigners who they do not expect to notice. It is like being regarded and disregarded at once; like looking into someone’s eyes that are shaded by a hat in the sun. “Are you available to give me a haircut? One that’s very short?!” I asked.
Fumbling with my mobile phone, I Googled ‘Emma Watson short hair.’
“Like this,” I said, displaying the image of Emma Watson with a Twiggy-style do.
Josette jutted her chin out, made a soft clicking noise, and muttered mela. It was the first time I’d here the resourceful term. “So short?” she asked, peering at me over her spectacles.
“Yes. I have fifteen minutes. Can you do it in fifteen minutes?”
I pointed the clock, on the hour. “Can we finish by one?”
Her mouth partially open, she looked at me, the clock, and the photo. “Your name?” she asked.
“Emily. What’s yours?”
Shaking her head slightly, she stood up with a sigh. “Josette.”
That was the 9th of February 2016, the first of many serendipitous days that have made my lucky life in Malta. Jogging up the street with a new sweat-free coif, I did in fact claim the next flat I looked at. Jogging back down the street an hour later, I did in fact land the next job I interviewed for. It was like getting launched from a rocket. And now, after flying so high for two years, landfall is finally in-view: I’ll be moving from Malta this March, two years and one month from when I launched.
My relationship with Josette in many ways encapsulates my successful journey here. With time to spare and feeling guilty for the momentary havoc I’d wrecked on her otherwise peaceful salon, I popped in to thank her again. By way of her customer, who provided translations when Josette and I couldn’t make ourselves understood, Josette asked me about my life-- where was I from? Was I living here? Did I work? When I explained the situation, Josette started “WhatsApp”-ing madly. She connected me with people who had flats to rent and told her friends about my yoga classes. My original interpretation of her being standoffish was incorrect. Consequently, it would be the first of many times I misunderstood Maltese interactions.
My first job was as a waitress at the Hilton. I only planned to work part-time, wanting the locally-based gig so that I could get a bank account, a steady income, and a few friends. In fact, I worked overtime, commuting past Josette’s hair salon twice daily. When Josette was there she waved gaily at me, and often came to the door asking me to come in for a chat. For the first few months I would stay, comforted by the warmth and familiarity. We didn’t speak much, as her English was limited, but she always asked how I was getting along in Malta. As I became more consumed in my own life, I stopped finding time for Josette.
Eventually, I transitioned from working at the Hilton to teaching yoga and Pilates; writing; and picking up other odd jobs. The next time I was to see Josette was at The Corinthia Hotel’s pool. I had my head down, sneaking in from the seaside between SUP yoga lessons to grab a much-needed coffee. “Emily!” I heard in her uniquely hoarse voice.
“Josette!” I squealed, hugging her (with a sigh of relief- she wasn't pool security).
“These are my grandkids!” she proudly displayed two kids who gave me one eyeball of an acknowledgment as they snacked on hobz sandwiches that I could tell were lovingly folded by Josette’s own hands. Dozens of other children and a score of mothers and grandmothers sat nearby. Curiously, the Maltese love big hotel amenities as much as tourists. Many families book summer-long discounted memberships to hotel pools, spending the summer splashing full-price paying visitors with a callous lack of remorse. Josette was delighted to see me in my bikini that day, earning an income in the sun and sea. She clucked and smiled, a round mother hen.
Like a typical expat, I soon left my home on the edge of San Gwann for the more centrally-located and posh area in Sliema. On one typically crazed day, nearly a year since I’d seen Josette smiling with her grandkids at the pool, I flicked on Facebook to see a notice at the top of my newsfeed: Josette had passed away in the night. She was less than 60 years old. I read the posts on her wall. There were many from people just like me, who’d met Josette on a whim and been captivated by her compassion. I sat there recalling every time I’d run past her hair salon offering barely a nod as she smiled and waved. I wrote a simple Facebook note on her wall, thanking her. It felt hollow.
My next class passed by in a daze. I drove the long way home past Josette’s hair salon. The blinds were down; the sign said “Closed;” a wreath was on the door. I felt weak. A week later I passed by on the way to a client’s house who happened to live on the same street. There was a “For Sale” sign on the door.
After our class, my client mentioned saying that they were looking to buy a small studio where they could host their Balinese massage therapist. “There’s a hair salon down the street for sale,” the clients said. “I guess the lady who owned it had a heart attack.”
“Oh, you knew her? Do you know if we can get a good deal on the place?”
I stood looking at them, dumbfounded. Things got awkward.
“So sorry you lost your friend…”
It wasn’t until I said, “She was my first friend in Malta,” that I realized it was true.
That’s the thing about Malta. Fifteen minutes, six months, two years can pass in the blink of an eye. As soon as one expat comes the next one goes. As soon as one property is leased the next is put on the market. That’s why the Maltese have that look, that offish curiosity: they cleverly and cautiously navigate the ever-changing environment, aware of its cyclical nature.
I’d always said I would live at least two years in Malta, required that I achieved a long list of goals. With a boyfriend stuck Stateside, many a family event beckoning me home, and a taste for adventure, I will become another expat that came, tanned, made some money, and then left Malta. If I let my experience here disappear the way Josette’s presence did, I’ll forever regret it. I spend all day telling my clients they’re not too busy to invest in their body. Now it’s time to tell myself that I’m not too busy to invest in my memory, to honor this little rock that changed my worldview.
Stay tuned, my friends. During this final month in Malta I will blog daily, even if just a short “Maltese Moment.” I’ve spent the past two years burning my candle on both ends. As the moon rises, I’m ready to slow down, muse, and delight on this island life so that I can leave when it’s still good.
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.