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.
DISCLAIMER: This article was originally written for a major publication, after a friend recommended me for the prompt. Alas, the publication didn't like it. While the piece is a bit more "sales-y" than I like, it's still a great guide to visiting Malta with an all-ages family. As always, comment with your ideas below!
Few countries boast so delightful a mix of historical fascinations, modern adventures, and nearly-perfect weather as Malta. The cosmopolitan landscape offers delightful activities for every member of the family-- even those discerning young adults! Here’s why families with older children love visiting Malta...
While Malta was voted the second-best place for expats to live, expats and locals alike enjoy spending as much time next to the sea as possible! During summertime establishments like MedAsia and KuYa Asian Pub open beach lounges. For as little as €10 daily families can rent deck chairs, take dips in the pool and/or private beaches, and nibble globally-influenced food concoctions.
All are Welcome
It is common to see gay couples walking hand-in-hand in Malta. Malta is ranked #1 on the Europe Rainbow Index as an LGBT-friendly place. One website, Gay Guide Malta, details LGBTQ-friendly attractions. Certain bars and clubs, like Monaliza Lounge in Valletta and Michelangelo Club in Paceville cater specifically to gay clientele.
Certain classic Maltese food items are ubiquitous: pea Pastizzi; wood-fired pizza with olives, gbenja cheese; crisp Cisk beer. For more flavour, try Malta’s innovative dinning options. There are hip restaurants like PastaHaus, where home-made pasta is derived from unique ingredients. Legliglin offers a multi-course meal of traditional Maltese small plates with impeccable flavour from inside a quaint cellar. Even freaky Maltese foods, like rabbit and horsemeat, are exciting and accessible at fashionable restaurants like United Bar & Restaurant in Mgarr.
Focus on Fitness
Perhaps because people spend so much time in swimsuits, Malta is packed with gyms and fitness groups. Young people frequent trendy gyms like Fort Fitness. Yoga is a big industry; from Bikram-style HotYogaMalta to outdoor sessions with freelance instructors, there’s many classes choose from. Take an outdoor group fitness class to get a new perspective on Malta’s beach scene. Most classes and gyms offer affordable single class and day rates.
There are many creative ways for family to travel in and around the Maltese archipelago. Guided tours by segway, jeeps, boats, and on-foot are easy to find. Self-guided alternative transportation, like moped and mountain bike rentals, are also available. Traditional Maltese ferries run between Valletta and the Three Cities. You adults feeling particularly adventurous might try a StandUp Paddle Board for their island tour!
The European Environment Agency recognises Malta as having some of the best bathing water in Europe. Visitors are encouraged to take a deeper dive into Malta’s fascinating underwater sights: sunken WWII ships and freighters are just meters off-shore. While younger swimmers hone their snorkeling techniques, young adults might consider earning PADI training course with local scuba schools like DiveShack.
Educational OpportunitiesEven teens will appreciate the fascinating lessons in Malta’s recent history. Well-preserved citadels in Mdina and on the Maltese island, Gozo, offer history-rich tours. The architecture alone at the Esplora Science Centre is an intriguing blend of historical Maltese elements and contemporary design. Climbing into the Lascaris War Rooms is like walking back in time, complete with archival footage of Malta under siege.
Just DanceAt the end of the day, Malta is a great place for all-ages to party. In Paceville music-filled bars and eateries open until the wee morning hours. For a relaxed night, seek out reggae-inspired music venues like Funky Monkey in Gzira and Zion in Marsaskala. Or, dress-to-impress at high-rise Suite 22 and high-energy events by The Electronic Factory. But if a casual family night out is on the agenda, enjoy a drink and live music at one of the restaurants on the St. Julian’s/ Sliema promenade.
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!”
Overview: Recognized by Maltese people as one of the most legitimately Italian places on the island, Scoglitti is one of the rare restaurants as packed in winter months as summer. That’s because Maltese people visit here to celebrate in a place where they will receive the type of fine dining experience normally reserved for tourists. Scoglitti was full of Maltese people when my friend and I blundered in late one weeknight, two lost, starved, and buzzed foreigners.
Atmosphere: Tables sit under a wide roof lined with glass frosted by light blue inscriptions. Bright lights shine under heaters and then bounce off metal and glass chairs, tables, and ice buckets. Even in the middle of Maltese “winter” (if it can be called “winter”) the restaurant feels sunny. The Maltese emit a special series of noises when they’re together, consonants intermingled with rolling chuckles. I felt like a happy seal laying on a beach, being fed fish.
Service: I’m not sure what was more delightful: the suave service I received from maybe five different people throughout my evening or the stellar food. Socglitti’s service matches the food perfectly. Smart, efficient, and demurely superb. NOTE: Much of the staff only speaks Italian, so you may need to request an English speaking staff or use charades (which is perfectly acceptable).
Prices: Despite the story below, Scoglitti’s prices are shockingly affordable! Like all Maltese establishments the food comes in huge portions. A couple can easily split a starter, a main, and a bottle of wine and walk out only €20 shorter. Considering how much fun eating at Scoglitti is, it’s great value for money.
Location and Contact: Access Scoglitti by walking down the long ramp toward Sliema/ Valletta ferry port and the Sliema. It’s located directly on the Sliema port’s Valletta entrance. Use the online reservation system to find details and book.
The Story: One blustery weeknight, my friend and I decided to meet in Valletta for drinks at Café Society. A very fast two hours later, we giggled gingerly back into the uneven streets of Valletta in search of sustenance. We were carrying backpacks, wearing jeans, and smiling in the foolish way slightly buzzed people do. What was supposed to be a quick jaunt to a mid-range restaurant for which I had a coupon turned into a 30-minute dilly-dally to an empty, checker-tabled dive that told us, “the kitchen closed at 7PM.” Which is ridiculous considering most kitchens OPEN at 7PM in Malta.
Wondering which one of us might cannibalize the other first, the blue Scoglitti sign beckoned us like the North Star calls a shepherd. “It’s probably too expensive,” I muttered. “Let’s treat ourselves!” she said. “Good idea!” the beer taking over my nervous system replied.
I wonder about the scene my friend and I must have made throughout the course of our dinner. Windswept, we started by “ooing” and “aaaing” over the fish lining the front entry. Then we stared at the other customers with our mouths open, realizing how terribly underdressed we were. The compassionate hostess approached us, smiling, as if we were wearing the same glitter and heels of other guests. If there’s one thing I appreciate about Scoglitti, it’s the fact that every one of our servers treated us like a deserved guest, ignoring completely the fact that we ordered the cheapest wine, devoured the free bread, split two appetizers (also the cheapest) and an entrée, and then struggled to pay the check with a denied credit card. As the meal progressed my friend and I grew more animated. We drove through our appetizers like a bulldozer, savouring every bite the way a lion savors a gazelle (not slowly, but with appreciation). I was completely awed by the flavors, the efficiency, the service, thanking the waitstaff as only an American will—repetitively. My brilliant friend spoke fluent Italian, so the staff had every right to ignore my incomprehensible purring. But the staff started giggling right along with us, seeming to enjoy my amazed satisfaction as much as I did. As the wine disappeared I started asking staff to pull up a seat and have a drink with me. I don’t know why Italian made me act like a drunk British bloke. Apparently, swordfish and white wine make me ballsy.
Walking out of Scoglitti around 10:30PM in our interpretation of a straight line, my friend and I marvelled about our luck. I promised to pay her the €15 I owed her (plus tip), since my credit card had been denied at the table. Embarrassing, yes. And still, as I ignored nausea and men on my bus ride home, I couldn’t help but chuckling about how very “Pretty Woman” the whole evening was…
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!”
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?
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.