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.