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 run to the grocery store on my way home at 8:30PM. The shop is my “local,” within walking distance of my house. I pop by at least once a day. Alan is the owner. His wife works behind the deli counter. His sulky pre-teen sulks in sometimes. Once, his mom and I conned him into sharing a bite of his figolla during Easter. Much to his chagrin, I have never let the poor kid forget it. “Hey, gimme’ a bite of your figolla!” I chide every time I see him.
Once outside, I hastily park Hamallu, my steadfast scooter. Without bothering to remove my helmet, I brush past three men outside the netting-covered storefront. They are workers, their clothes splattered with white goop and their fingers stained black. They rub their hands in that way old men rub their callouses, petting their own hides. One man sits on a short ledge. Next to him are piled empty cans of Cisk Excel. The other two men stand next to him with Cisks in their hands.
This site, blue-collar men drinking at grocers after a long day, is common in Malta. It reminds me of my BASEDtraveler Plymouth days, when I watched British men stand outside bars, drinks in-hand. Maybe the Maltese penchant has something to do with British influence on the island. It’s true that there are not many bars in the area (unless you count the black-market brothel that fronts as a bar). However, I do not think the men would go to a bar even if it were there. They enjoy being curbside, paying quickly and sitting as long as they like. Perched, hands unwashed, watching the world pass by. Their colleagues ask nothing more than to banter and pass enough time for their muscles to cool. This scene repeats itself in every country: working men drinks in hand, sitting outside some no-frills establishment. Cooling down with the setting sun.
Under green netting outside the front entry, I grab a bag of crispy apples smaller than the size of my fist. According to 2010 census data, 66% of Maltese agricultural landholdings earned less than 2,000 Euros annually. Therefore, Malta ships in almost all of its fruit and veg. Sometimes the produce bears signs of defrosting. As I check the bag thoroughly for the telltale mooshy apple, the men peer at me. From inside the shop I hear raucous yelling.
That man is accosting poor Alan again, I think. Walking inside, I see the loudmouth I expected: an older Maltese fellow with a paunchy belly, salt-n-pepper hair, a sweatshirt bearing a few random words, holding a Styrofoam cup full of red wine. The nearly empty bottle next to the pastizzi hot tray. He was here sometimes late at night. Like usual, Alan tries to ignore him. Although I consider him a friend, Alan is typically Maltese in that he is not exactly the warmest character. With clean-cut hair, a hulking body, and curt words, Alan seems Mafioso. He is the one that told me about an underground gym in a garage behind the shop. He and I go to train on some Tuesday evenings after he closes. On those nights, Alan and I barely speak to each other, but we train hard for 40 minutes. The first night, courteous Alan paid for my class and tipped the instructor.
This evening the man is particularly raucous. He is loudly shouting says the same words repeatedly: “I run!”
I set my apples on the counter, glancing around. The shop packed to its miniscule hilt. It is so small that two people cannot comfortably move down one of the two aisles. The meticulously cleaned and organized space is evident despite its darkness. Buried under granola bars, the shop even has a machine for mobile top-ups, like an ATM for cell phone data. It is tempting to buy something worthless, like 30-cent yogurt or pack of roasted broad beans, but am overwhelmed by the detritus in the shop.
“That’s all, I guess,” I say to Alan, who barely nods in acknowledgement of my presence. While he sits unmoving behind the counter, his red-haired evening assistant patters nearby, organizing and cleaning. Alan weighs three times my size; she weighs 1/3 less and is much taller. We are an odd bunch at the counter: the loud drinking man; the red-haired assistant; Alan; and myself, wearing a scooter helmet and yoga clothes.
“I run!” the man repeats.
When no one replies, the man looks at me. He moves his hand lightly back and forth in front of his chest, palm up, and turns down his lips at the side. It is a gesture that Maltese people use to signify something like a sigh. The person thinks, “Oh, you know, what can we do?”
“Thirty years ago, I run!” as he says so, he starts laughing madly.
“You know how you have a ‘Hamallu’ scooter?” says Alan. “Well, I have a hamallu Uncle!”
Hamallu is a Maltese term for a person of lesser class. While it originally referenced people from “the wrong side of the tracks”—in this case, the wrong side of the island (the South), today the term references most any trashy Maltese people. Hamallu wear name brand outfits that match from head-to-toe; gold bling; have wide bellies and skinny legs; don cigarettes, sunglasses, high heels, and stiff collars. I named my scooter Hamallu because he is ghetto. He shakes a lot; has a few loose screws. He is also covered in bright stickers. One is a skeleton hand showing a downward-facing middle finger sign. This sign does not mean the same thing in Malta as it does in the States. I presume this is the reason why my sticker faces the wrong way.
Alan is totally fed up with his uncle. “I run, I run!” Uncle shouts. Over him, “2.80,” says Alan. I pour my change onto the counter, taking the opportunity to rid my bag of ubiquitous Maltese small change. With one cent, two cent, five cent, ten cent, 50 cent, 1 Euro, 2 Euro coins, my change purse is always heavy.
“I run!” states Uncle, with a red smile.
“You run, you run, we know you run!” Alan shouts back, throwing his arms up in disgust. I have to laugh: here are two generations of overweight Maltese men in the middle of a grocery store arguing about running at 8:30PM. If this guy were not Alan’s Uncle, he would be out on the corner with the workers.
As I count my change, Uncle refreshes his Styrofoam glass. When is see that the bottle is a higher-quality red, I say to Alan, “I like your Uncle! He drinks good wine!” Uncle turns to me.
“Do you know why I drink red wine?” he asks.
“Why?” I reply, genuinely curious.
“Because I try to be like Jesus!”
The workers move to the side as I exit the grocery store, helmet still on, my American-accented laughter pinging off the green netting. I am still chuckling as I strap my bag-o-apples onto Hamallu’s backseat. From inside the shop, I hear Alan yelling, “You run! You run! I know you run!”
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.