Like most neighborhoods in Europe’s Catholic countries, San Gwann is arranged with its church at the center. On Sundays the mostly Maltese population of San Gwann flocks to the Church and then dissipates to various family-centered activities. A most popular pre-and post-Church stop-off is Café Pinto, located just to the left of San Gwann Parish Church. It’s crowned by a red awning. Here’s your guide to a very Maltese Sunday in San Gwann.
Part 1: Churching
Mass is held at San Gwann Parish, locally named Madonna ta’ Lourdes, multiple times on Sunday morning, beginning at 7AM and ending in the early afternoon (or, if you’re super hungover, there’s a 6PM service, too). Attend an earlier service and you’ll see mostly older generations and singles; as the morning progresses you’ll witness more families. Get there at least 15 minutes early to secure a spot near the action up at front. The church’s thick white columns are pretty, but unless you speak Maltese you’ll become fairly bored by looking at those columns and listening to the gobbly-gook that is Maltese to the undiscerning ear. If you forgot your nun’s habit, don’t fret: most people are dressed “conservative casual.”
If you’ve never been to Mass before, simple follow along with the standing/ kneeling/ bowing/ praying procedures. It’s kind of like an aerobics class! Mass is 100% Maltese. I know my way around a Mass and could have recited the prayers out loud in English. But I didn’t feel comfortable enunciating a foreign language within the sea of mumbled Maltese, so I kept my head bowed and fingers clasped. Unlike the very organized Catholic masses I’ve attended in the States, whereby you are cordially asked to leave your pew by an usher in a quiet, humble procession at the appropriate time, the Maltese jumped from their seats in a free-for-all communion bid. If you’ve completed Catholic Confirmation, then you’re free to enjoy a piece of the Body of Christ at the front with the rest of the congregation. If you’re not Catholic but curious, respectful, and in need of a blessing, walk to the front with your arms crossed over your chest. Bow your head in front of the priest and he will thumb a small cross onto your forehead. While whine flows freely in the Bible, in Malta t seems that the only person who gets a sip of Jesus wine at church is the priest. The rest of us can only imagine…
Been bad? Confession is open between the 7AM and 8:30AM services. I suggest going to confession early. The confessional sits at the very front of the church pews, near the altar. I wonder if maybe this is another way to discourage one from leading a shameful life?
Part 2: Café Pinto
After you’ve worked up an appetite with all the kneeling and standing and bowing and walking to communion, move your way to Café Pinto next door. With tables outside and inside, you’ll likely find a place to sit, although I recommend not lolly-gagging after mass just in case. At Café Pinto you’ll most likely find the following patrons: men sitting in one’s and two’s, smoking cigarettes on the spindly tables outside; an elderly couple reading the Sunday [Malta] Times; someone British, looking at the ground; and a family of five or more, crammed onto tables hastily aligned. Servers will likely be a young girl, slightly flustered; a dark-haired woman who coos and caws like a loving crow; and the chef, watching TV when not taking orders from behind the counter. He’s cooked most of the hot and cold savoury items you see lining the display, like traditional pastizzi and croissants. By far the most popular items are on the menu are thin grilled sandwiches served with a single leaf of lettuce and one-half a cherry tomato. If you’re okay with waiting, order the vegan “mixed veggie” baguette. In about 10-15 minutes you’ll receive a fresh, slightly herbed, just-grilled vegetable delight. Drizzled with a little balsamic dressing and washed down with a cappuccino, it’s practically perfect.
Sit and be Maltese. Read the Times, stare out of the window, contemplate picking up a smoking habit, listen to the rising-and-falling, l-m-n-o packed Maltese chatter. Mella! Mella! [flip of the hand, chuckle, cluck]. Watch fruit sellers man trucks lined with green plastic bins; see a small sandy-haired woman carrying a bouquet larger than her head. In case you didn’t get enough God earlier, live Mass plays on the local TVM channel from a silent TV in the corner. Order a dessert of one of the home-made cookie or bread things (kwarezimal is my favorite) and sink into the scene like a clam in the sand.
Part 3: Lackadaisical Shopping
Café Pinto is not expensive, so burn that hole in your pocket by enjoying some lazy shopping on your way back toward St. Julian’s. Since most of the shops are actually closed Sunday, you won’t have that much opportunity to over-spend. What will be open is the hodge-podge thrift shop just a few doors down from the Church. In need of a bright pink nutcracker? What about vintage comic books? A mug? A picture of Elvis Presley? Then this is the store for you! If you’ve still got money after purchasing those treasures, explore the little grocery stores along Birkirara road. While they look nearly identical on the outside, each one of these grocery shops opens into its own unique world. Some double as bakeries; some specialize in cheeses; some sell organic products. Most are tied to the fruit sellers in stalls and trucks outside, gayly free of competition from San Gwann’s Lidl (closed on Sunday). Paws for a Cause charity shop is also open later in the morning, located down the street to your left just after the Bank of Valletta. As you walk back toward St. Julian’s, take a moment to pause outside Titu’s Place on the right. I’m not exactly sure what this shop is—a café? betting shop? “timeout” for naughty husbands? It’s always packed with men and never seems to be closed. The men are either speaking loudly at one another or sipping coffee and mumbling like they’re planning a dangerous heist. If you can figure out what Titu’s Place is, do comment below!
In the past two years I’ve attended two events endeavoring to bridge the gap between open data and a community via the creation of privately-ideated, publically-supported smartphone apps. The first was as a blogger for Plymouth Data Play Day in southwest England. The second was StartAPP 2.0 in Malta. Maybe it’s because Malta is a former British colony, or because “smart city” is a current buzzword, or because it takes a certain kind of person to tackle satellite imagery for the sake of traffic appeasement, but I was surprised the number of similarities between the events. And yet, the mostly social and ambient differences between the two reflect the same traits in their host geographies.
The Bigger Picture
The first similarity between Plymouth and Malta’s data-focused events is the fact that they are located in start-up friendly environments. In fact, Maltese start-up tax benefits are compared to the UK’s Seed Investment Enterprise Program. While in his article, “Malta: the pros and cons of building a start-up on the sunny island” Jeffrey Romano claims that Malta’s e-government system is leading in the EU, LinkedIn’s digital Economy and Society Index shows Malta’s overall technical environment as being much lower than that of the UK. This tool provides per-country snapshots of connectivity (how widespread, fast and affordable broadband is), Internet skills, the use of online activities from news to shopping, and how key digital technologies (e-invoices, cloud services, e-commerce, etc.) and digital public services such as e-government and e-health are developed across Europe.
However, it is on a social level where I see the greatest similarities between Plymouth and Malta. Mr. Romano explains the draw of Malta for many start-up companies: “Malta is a popular place to come and work in; the fantastic weather, lively nightlife and the fact that it is a family-friendly location has attracted many professionals to the island.” Insert [opportunity to explore nature] for “lively nightlife” and [port city] for “island” and he’s describing Plymouth.
Although both events were intended to be a grassroots way of opening data for public use, the event sponsors are the true impetus of the movement. Data Play Day was started by Plymouth City Council’s Planning Community. The focus of the event was “bridging the gap” between public private, councilman and Joe Public. Funding for the winning App ideas is picked from public pockets.
In his opening speech, MITA Innovation Hub leader Alex Borg described the happenstance that founded StartApp2.0. MITA partnered with the University of Malta to host the first StartApp event, titled 15k, which resulted in the provision thousands of euros investment funding to two app developers. Soon thereafter Alex was called by Eurisy, a European non-profit that supports the use of satellite applications in the public sector, the sponsor the next event. Finally is ZAAR, Malta’s first crowdfunding platform. With so many potential pockets it’s no surprised that StartAPP 2.0 will run in four total instalments, with winning apps being launched thousands in seed funding each time.
The biggest differences between Plymouth and Malta’s data events is the ambiance created by the planners and subsequent networking. StartAPP was hosted at SmartCityMalta, a hyper-modern retail/ office/ residential compound on the outskirts of Three Cities, Malta. And yet, when I glanced out the window I saw a traditional Maltese horse-and-cart [insert photo by Colin and Sarah Northway via Flickr saved into Website Content Manager]. The sign-in sheet contained scribbled names sans email addresses, and from what I could tell attendees were at least 50% affiliated with the pitching team and 60% affiliated with sponsor organizations. We sat in rows facing a Powerpoint. After all pitches had been delivered myself and other attendees indulged in Maltese tapas like mini ftira, croissants, and caviar-dusted bread, snacks intended to “to oil the socializing” (as stated in the MeetUp invitation), and washed down with a Cisk, of course. After being announced, the winning teams were whisked off to a debriefing. After 20 minutes waiting for them to emerge, I left, tucking my unused business cards back into my wallet.
In this way, StartAPP 2.0 felt world’s away from Plymouth’s inaugural Data Play Day event.There, I and other attendees spent as much of the day networking, conversing, and idea-generating as we did sitting and listening. The planners facilitated discussion and changed the schedule to match the mood. Plymouth College of Art, was the perfect venue for such a light-hearted atmosphere. For example, attendees used crayons to draw complex robotic diagrams. There were sign-in boards and mailing lists and Polaroid pictures and play-times. Ironically, Plymouth’s more socially oiled attendees also ate more oily fare, scarfing pizza like high schoolers. It’s true that not a single sustainable app model was generated at Plymouth Data Play Day. No one left there with cash in-hand. But, I left Plymouth’s event feeling connected.
The Social Media
If there is one thing the Maltese business people do well it’s communicating on social media. On the first page of Alex’s Powerpoint the StartAPP hashtag, #startapp2pit, was displayed. It seemed to play on the Maltese affinity for racing and served as its own call to action. Throughout the evening StartAPP event organizers tweeted updates and attendees weighed in. I only wished the chatter in the room was as great as that online.
I chuckled to myself when comparing the StartAPP hashtag to Plymouth’s initial confusion over what hashtag to use (at one point there were two different “official” hashtags). Many attendees showed up to Data Play Day without a smartphone. I was asked to blog through the event but struggled to find a place to tell the story on my website. No one seemed able to tag or categorize the day.
Despite the fact that both Plymouth Data Play Day and Malta’s StartAPP 2.0 supported the same basic premise, they presented dramatically different experiences. To me, this can only be a reflection of the environment. Plymouth is following on the coat tails of recognized Open Cities like Bristol. Plymouth is a smaller player with nothing to lose, humble even in a society that values humility. Malta is a country recently recognized for having the highest GDP in Europe. It’s keen to professionalize itself on a European front. Both geographies are prime open data start-up spaces. The question is, who’s apps will appear on my Smartphone first?
In a country where buses are notorious for arriving either ten minutes early or ten minutes late, there is one thing you can count on: Maltese bread, “ħobż malti” (“ħobż” for short). Do not take this resource for granted! The simple white rolls may dot every window and comprise every sandwich, but its history, edibility, and cautionary notes render ħobż unique amongst breads of the world.
Bake your Hobz…
According to Doris Frenech, author of “Maltese Bread” via Maltese Traditions, wheat was historically taken by farmer’s wives to a local windmill. After grinding the wheat, housewives spent hours kneading dough into a standard roll or a flattened donut-like circle. Adding flour, yeast, sea-salt, and water, women spent at least a day preparing the family’s weekly ration of ħobż. Since many families preferred not to build ovens in their sun-soaked homes, wives took their unbaked bread to communal ovens once weekly. The crunchy sourdough crust kept the inside of the ħobż super soft for one week.
…And Eat it, Too
Visit any Maltese café and you’ll find some version of ħobż, whether it skirts a bowl of rabbit stew or is sliced with butter and washed down by a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice. The best way is to order ħobż is in “ftira tal-ħemi,” referred to just as “ftira.” Classic ftira is made with a slightly sweeter bread called “hobz biz-zejt.” Today, nearly all ftira sandwiches are made with cheaper, crunchier ħobż. A standard ftira contains “kunserva” (an herbed tomato spread), local tuna, olives, capers, and oil in an open ħobż roll. As the island opens to foreign influences, many restaurants serve modern versions with gluten-free ħobż and vegetarian substitutions. Standard ftira sandwiches are sold in nearly every street vendor, café, and high-end lunch place in the city. They cost around €1.10. Add a Cisk lager for €1, sit in the sun, and enjoy one of the best low-budget dining experiences in Europe.
There are a few things to beware of when seeking ħobż malti. Do not be tempted to swipe the seemingly untouched rolls set outside house fronts during morning trash collection days. While the bagged ħobż perched on top of other black trash bags seems to be fresh, no upstanding Maltese citizen wastes good bread. After one week, ħobż goes bad. Then it smells like putrid eggs and is stiffer than a block of Maltese limestone. Less scary but equally upsetting, beware the proportion of ħobż-to-filler in ftira. An ftira with too much bread will result in a tired jaw and dry mouth. Moreover, one should never choose ftira while dining for business. The bread is dusted with flour that inevitably lands on the tip of your nose and top of your suit collar.
Like chips in England or tacos in Mexico, ħobż is that one Maltese food that you can depend on no matter your budget or the situation. Passed through centuries of rickety windmills and communal ovens, edited to fit more creative modern palates, anyone who takes care with their ħobż malti order will be a happy diner indeed.
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?
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.