I’ll never forget when I first met Josette. I was trudging up the hill from St. Julian’s into Ta Giorni, the first time of what would become many a forlorn commute. I had given myself three days to find a job, a flat, and some semblance of a Maltese identity. At least that was how long I’d asked my Couchsurfer to host me for. I was mid-way through a day full of timetables, apartment viewings, interviews, bus rides, currency exchanges, etcetera. Typical to Malta in spring, the wind was howling. I was trying desperately to keep my interview-ready hair free of sweat and dust while navigating around a place I’d never been with limited access to WiFi. Exasperated, I thought, “I need to eliminate some variables here.”
That’s when I rounded the corner onto Josette’s hair salon. I don’t recall what it’s name was; just the classy brand, a silhouette surrounded by a wave of hair that looked much better in the wind than mine. Checking my watch, I decided that 15 minutes was plenty of time for a capable stylist to chop my hair off. I charged in.
It was the first time I’d receive a most characteristic Maltese gaze, the one they reserve for foreigners who they do not expect to notice. It is like being regarded and disregarded at once; like looking into someone’s eyes that are shaded by a hat in the sun. “Are you available to give me a haircut? One that’s very short?!” I asked.
Fumbling with my mobile phone, I Googled ‘Emma Watson short hair.’
“Like this,” I said, displaying the image of Emma Watson with a Twiggy-style do.
Josette jutted her chin out, made a soft clicking noise, and muttered mela. It was the first time I’d here the resourceful term. “So short?” she asked, peering at me over her spectacles.
“Yes. I have fifteen minutes. Can you do it in fifteen minutes?”
I pointed the clock, on the hour. “Can we finish by one?”
Her mouth partially open, she looked at me, the clock, and the photo. “Your name?” she asked.
“Emily. What’s yours?”
Shaking her head slightly, she stood up with a sigh. “Josette.”
That was the 9th of February 2016, the first of many serendipitous days that have made my lucky life in Malta. Jogging up the street with a new sweat-free coif, I did in fact claim the next flat I looked at. Jogging back down the street an hour later, I did in fact land the next job I interviewed for. It was like getting launched from a rocket. And now, after flying so high for two years, landfall is finally in-view: I’ll be moving from Malta this March, two years and one month from when I launched.
My relationship with Josette in many ways encapsulates my successful journey here. With time to spare and feeling guilty for the momentary havoc I’d wrecked on her otherwise peaceful salon, I popped in to thank her again. By way of her customer, who provided translations when Josette and I couldn’t make ourselves understood, Josette asked me about my life-- where was I from? Was I living here? Did I work? When I explained the situation, Josette started “WhatsApp”-ing madly. She connected me with people who had flats to rent and told her friends about my yoga classes. My original interpretation of her being standoffish was incorrect. Consequently, it would be the first of many times I misunderstood Maltese interactions.
My first job was as a waitress at the Hilton. I only planned to work part-time, wanting the locally-based gig so that I could get a bank account, a steady income, and a few friends. In fact, I worked overtime, commuting past Josette’s hair salon twice daily. When Josette was there she waved gaily at me, and often came to the door asking me to come in for a chat. For the first few months I would stay, comforted by the warmth and familiarity. We didn’t speak much, as her English was limited, but she always asked how I was getting along in Malta. As I became more consumed in my own life, I stopped finding time for Josette.
Eventually, I transitioned from working at the Hilton to teaching yoga and Pilates; writing; and picking up other odd jobs. The next time I was to see Josette was at The Corinthia Hotel’s pool. I had my head down, sneaking in from the seaside between SUP yoga lessons to grab a much-needed coffee. “Emily!” I heard in her uniquely hoarse voice.
“Josette!” I squealed, hugging her (with a sigh of relief- she wasn't pool security).
“These are my grandkids!” she proudly displayed two kids who gave me one eyeball of an acknowledgment as they snacked on hobz sandwiches that I could tell were lovingly folded by Josette’s own hands. Dozens of other children and a score of mothers and grandmothers sat nearby. Curiously, the Maltese love big hotel amenities as much as tourists. Many families book summer-long discounted memberships to hotel pools, spending the summer splashing full-price paying visitors with a callous lack of remorse. Josette was delighted to see me in my bikini that day, earning an income in the sun and sea. She clucked and smiled, a round mother hen.
Like a typical expat, I soon left my home on the edge of San Gwann for the more centrally-located and posh area in Sliema. On one typically crazed day, nearly a year since I’d seen Josette smiling with her grandkids at the pool, I flicked on Facebook to see a notice at the top of my newsfeed: Josette had passed away in the night. She was less than 60 years old. I read the posts on her wall. There were many from people just like me, who’d met Josette on a whim and been captivated by her compassion. I sat there recalling every time I’d run past her hair salon offering barely a nod as she smiled and waved. I wrote a simple Facebook note on her wall, thanking her. It felt hollow.
My next class passed by in a daze. I drove the long way home past Josette’s hair salon. The blinds were down; the sign said “Closed;” a wreath was on the door. I felt weak. A week later I passed by on the way to a client’s house who happened to live on the same street. There was a “For Sale” sign on the door.
After our class, my client mentioned saying that they were looking to buy a small studio where they could host their Balinese massage therapist. “There’s a hair salon down the street for sale,” the clients said. “I guess the lady who owned it had a heart attack.”
“Oh, you knew her? Do you know if we can get a good deal on the place?”
I stood looking at them, dumbfounded. Things got awkward.
“So sorry you lost your friend…”
It wasn’t until I said, “She was my first friend in Malta,” that I realized it was true.
That’s the thing about Malta. Fifteen minutes, six months, two years can pass in the blink of an eye. As soon as one expat comes the next one goes. As soon as one property is leased the next is put on the market. That’s why the Maltese have that look, that offish curiosity: they cleverly and cautiously navigate the ever-changing environment, aware of its cyclical nature.
I’d always said I would live at least two years in Malta, required that I achieved a long list of goals. With a boyfriend stuck Stateside, many a family event beckoning me home, and a taste for adventure, I will become another expat that came, tanned, made some money, and then left Malta. If I let my experience here disappear the way Josette’s presence did, I’ll forever regret it. I spend all day telling my clients they’re not too busy to invest in their body. Now it’s time to tell myself that I’m not too busy to invest in my memory, to honor this little rock that changed my worldview.
Stay tuned, my friends. During this final month in Malta I will blog daily, even if just a short “Maltese Moment.” I’ve spent the past two years burning my candle on both ends. As the moon rises, I’m ready to slow down, muse, and delight on this island life so that I can leave when it’s still good.
Emily Stewart is an insatiably curious merrymaker and busy-body.
Everything on this website is Copyright © 2017 by Emily E. Stewart, Sole Trader. All rights reserved.
Special thanks to Paul K. Porter, who's pictures appear most frequently on the site, for being the best yoga retreat photographer EVER.