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!”
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.