Visiting the Island of Malta – For Those Times When A Good Italian Cafe Might Be Too Much Joy

Malta. Malta rates TWO posts, the other post, which I will post shortly, includes a subtle yet effective history of the island; vital information on flora, fauna, mineral deposits and fishing rights; a through ranking of the health food stores; a pictograph of the mountain ranges; a fascinating riff on the impact of the Averginian heresy on coal imports and a chart of the interdenominational factions. Look for it soon.

To begin – have you ever heard of Maltese fashion? Malta style? Did you think was an oversight of world opinion, that Malta was an undiscovered pearl of splendor and magnificence? Hah. Hah. Hah.

I arrived at the departure gate for my flight and thought, “Oh no, it’s going to be another Brindisi.” We need to get this over with early. Never have I seen such a collection of seedy and scruffy, not in a rakish/ raffish way but a rap sheet/ prior conviction way.

On the plane sat next to nice middle-aged British women, that kind whose husband does something international/ technical has lived everywhere, unshockable, tea drinking and you can have those great conversations about how hard it is to get good help in Azerbaijan and lighting fixtures in Abu Dhabi. It is all very 1875s but without the imperialism.

When the plane landed, everyone clapped, then immediately stood up and started to pull things out of the overhead bins – as the plane is still breaking on the runway. Quite amazing. The stewardesses were all fussing over the loud-speakers. Made no impression. About 2/3 of the plane were standing up as we approached the gate.

Airport security were not in uniforms, not so much as an insignia – middle aged men in middle-aged men kind of sweaters. Same feeling as in the Middle East, you misbehave and they will take you in the back room and beat you to a bloody pulp. Then kill your pet dog. If you really annoy them, they will put your grandmother in a “French sucks” shirt and abandon her in the middle of Montreal.

Western European security regulations are tight, but the people enforcing those regulations are either adenoidal teenagers who spend their whole time flirting and sucking down cokes (“Oh, was that, like, a grenade, oh, whatever”), elderly gentlemen snoozing and mom-types (“Is that a sawed off shotgun – no TV for three weeks and you have to baby-sit your sister on Friday night”.) Maltese security people are all former drug lord bodyguards who are wanted for questioning by Interpol.

Taxi driver to hotel did not talk. Not one word. Hmmm. In Singapore the guy was racing to tell me every detail about the wonderfulness of Singapore (and evils of the Japanese); London taxi drivers are usually chatty. But the silence gave me time to solidify my first impression of the countryside – a combination of Greece, Italy, France and Spain – but not as nice as any of them.

Hotel. Of course it was under repair. I can’t think of a hotel I have been in lately that either desperately needed a paint job or was in the process of getting a paint job. There is a world-wide reservation network: SHE is coming, break out the jack-hammers. [Exception was Raffles – which had no construction but ruined my breakfast. They are STILL not forgiven. NOT FORGIVEN RAFFLES!] The room was decorated in dark brown and pumpkin orange and they did that really annoying thing where they put all sorts of mini-bar goodies on the dresser and if you moved them goodies to a drawer or cupboard – they charged you for them because they were no longer “in sight.” Cable TV had no movie channel, 4 business news, three cartoons and the local station. See don’t you feel better about staying home?

The hotel was 10% occupied, definitely off season, which meant no foreigners, which means you get to see more Maltese, not in the sense you have the opportunity to, but that you had to and while I don’t mean to repeat myself or be harsh (as if it was even possible for me to be harsh) but having to see (as in, not having the chance to not see) more Maltese is not a good thing. Did I mention I kept scrawling words like “dingy,” “reprobate,” and “subterranean” in my daybook? Was Malta ever someone’s penal colony? Men look like they all had unsuccessful careers in car theft and the women of all ages had the fashion sense of Madonna, circa “material girl.”

You know how you walk down the street in Italy, even in your best clothes and wearing your gold, you want to cry as everyone is so well-attired, so smart, chic and elegant looking, with sleek hair, smooth skin and confidence galore? That doesn’t happen here. Awake for 27 hours, wet hair, jeans and a canvas bag and I was still ahead of the game.

Then, of course the shopping district was seven minutes walk away. I hate that. The shopping district is always a bloody seven minutes walk away, which means it is 25 minutes and you get lost twice. Shopping districts should either be part of the hotel or a short taxi drive away, so you can go shopping in fun shoes. When a hotel clerk says “Seven minutes walk,” he is really saying, “Ha, ha, you have to wear your sneakers.” Brat.

So I go outside and seeing a few taxi drivers standing by their cabs [looking particularly disreputable, smoking, hunched over in dirty black zip-up jackets and old tennies] I ask them how much the cab fare is – OPPS. They are guests at the hotel, sorry.

Found the shopping district. OUTDOOR mall. No cafes. First purchase is a jacket – brrr, crisp, low 60s. Got some books. Bookstore had a 68 volume of Maltese history, 68 volumes – what could have possibly happened to merit 68 volumes? In a large font it couldn’t possibly be worth more than 23 pages. I have spoken. Then for an authentic Maltese meal at the Hard Rock Cafe. Nachos, salad and a cheeseburger. Oh bliss.

Thought I would be all over the bread, but either the bread was not good or I have lost my taste for it – was all over the LETTUCE. Me, can you imagine? I was eating it with my fingers, kept forgetting you can’t do that in public in the west, and stealing it off the food displays.

Breakfast at hotel: 4 kinds of pork, blackberries and apple pie (they had sparkling wine but I didn’t indulge), paper napkins (sigh) and Andrew Lloyd Webber without words (double sigh), stewed tea (triple sigh), over-baked mini-chocolate croissants (quadruple sigh and a back flip) and the famous Maltese pea-pastry.

Go to main city – Valetta – large, walled city with huge lovely gate – looked promising. But the main fort is called, wait for it… St. Elmo. First, someone needs to look into possible attempts of Jim Hanson to proselytize by naming Muppets after catholic saints. Second, I can’t take a fort seriously, no matter how old and big, that is called “Elmo.” Third, although it is huge, ancient and impressive looking – you can’t go inside it except on Sunday afternoons because the Maltese police “NEED” to use it. You know how big the island is? 122 square miles. And the police need a crusader fort to control it? Massive police stupidity? They don’t want tourists in there fortsie? Fort is being used for large-scale drug production?

Walked around and then stopped at my first cafe. A very important step. How well I remember, how I wish I could forget, my first Greek pastry (it was a Tuesday, I was facing southeast): I bit into a slice of fabulously decorated cocoa-chocolate cake to find the cream was fake. The horror. The horror.

Would the Maltese get it right? Were they to be grouped with the southeastern Mediterranean (ok for baklava, never trust a cake) or ascend to the chosen land of “even the cardboard is delicious” Italy? Well. COLD cappuccino, messy appearance, bad cannoli and an almond macaroon we will not mention.

Walked around more, one main walking street with shops and lots of small streets off to the sides, sloping down to the water. Definitely a place not lawless, but with laws unto themselves, insular, very very “us” versus the tourists. It was all about the money – I got cheated a little every time I bought so much as postcards. They have EIGHT coins in circulation. Every penny counts. But I didn’t complain, I mean, sure they were covetous, but it’s not like a chemical peel and a new shirt would help them join the human race. Theirs is an integral scruffiness.

They reminded me of stage-hands, a sense that this was a party-place, many discos, cafes, gentlemen’s clubs, tourists shops that weren’t open now – but they place would be packed in the high season with the Maltese carefully extracting maximum profit.

I can’t imagine how awful it would be in the heat with MORE people when it already felt overcrowded when I was there, ick. Not many tourists – a few Germans in ostentatiously functional orthopedic shoes. Hate them. (functional shoes that is.)

Walked around more – walled cities are very nice but this felt too crowded and all the views of the water (city is surrounded by water on three sides) showed harbors full of boats. Yet, my radar was working and I managed to find the completely unmarked shop full of Moroccan pottery on the otherwise deserted and shopless street. Hah!

Second cafe: real cappuccino with cute little flower shape from powered dark chocolate, horribly weak milk (anemic cows?), good chairs, proper marble tables, profiterole with heretical lemon-flavored custard and too-sweet chocolate sauce, fake whipped cream, mini sweet they gave with cappuccino was dry and burnt. Cannoli had stale nuts, flaky (crossantesque) shell and same heretical lemon-flavored custard filling. I, personally, would nail that custard to a tree and slap the person who made it. Standards, people, standards.

Walked out to the fort, which was nice but, really, I can not count an “Elmo” for anything.

The language is very interesting – a combination of European and Arabic. Number are Arabic, they say ‘good morning’ in Italian, ‘good night’ in French etc. Written it has a lot of the letter ‘j’ and many apostrophes. I want to know the linage of “triq” – their word for street.

While wandering decided Malta is like Austria – has the reputation of being small and cutesy but they are a ruthless people, bent on self-preservation at all costs. Only people who I could get to smile were a few middle-aged women who were in obvious sympathy with the electrified rodent that seemed to be hanging on to my head. Epic bad hair days in Malta. I think my hair was trying to blend in.

Went to 5 star hotel, meant to have afternoon tea but when I saw the tearoom I knew they were not to be trusted. I would bet anything it would be stewed tea. And since it was 3:30, decided to have lunch: roast pork with spinach. Yum. I practically licked the plate. Then I went back to hotel and had a massage (yes, jack-hammer going in the next room). That night went to “wine bar” at nearby hotel and had an antipasto with two glasses of rosé. Then I went swimming in the heated indoor pool.

Next day I got up early and took a bus (Leyland, a BRITISH firm, thank you very much) to an old walled city inland (called Mdina, as in “medina” Arabic word for “city” – as in Medina in Saudi). Very much a sense of quiet daily life. Store fronts are uniformly eight feet across and very deep, maybe 40 feet. No heating and very few with A/C – wear the same clothes indoors and out like Greece in the winter. American’s contribution to shopping is stores with enough room to swing a giraffe, which are kept at a 40 degree difference from the outside temperature.

Took bus back to main city and oh look the “Cafe Royale”! Playing Bee Gees music! Time for today’s necessary scientific experimentation. Cappuccino: sloppy presentation but hot and good foam. Tiramisu was in cake form (round shaped, of which we do not entirely approve), more of a nutty flavor than strictly canonical and the cream was a bit more plasticy than we have expressly sanctioned. Almond cookie was not exactly comme il faut.

Back on another bus to the northern part of the island. Palm trees, cactus, green fields with low stone fences – but no vistas. In any direction you could see large, ugly, new buildings – so sense of sweep of landscape (kind of like parts of England where every tiny plot of land is manicured). Very palatable sense that I had come to late, and you know this is not something I say often. I don’t moan about how beautiful Nice was before the tourists but Malta must have been amazing about 40 years ago, beautiful limestone buildings from the 1200s to the early 1900s on which you can trace Italian and Arabic influences, but everything modern in concrete and without style. Too many people, tatty shops, packed roads. It Italy and Greece you can get out into the countryside and see hills still covered with trees, orchards or acres of vines without a person in sight but there is no ‘scope’ in Malta. Claustrophobic.

Looked like parts of Crete but no sense of Greek friendliness and openness. No Homer. No Hector. No Hercules. Kept searching for signs of Italy (Sicily is only 60 miles away) but the driving had no death-defying esprit. No anemones. Olive trees lined some streets but in an unromantic, boring sort of way, as if there were mere linden trees, not heroic, storied, fabled olive trees. No visions of the Apian Way, tree nymphs, marching legions, or passion. The only thing better than Italy was Malta had fatter, sleeker cats.

To another nice hotel for afternoon tea, sigh. Tea in a tea bag, paper napkins, chocolate chips in the scones, oh let’s just throw a veil over the whole thing shall we.

Next morning had breakfast in the hotel lobby. A raspberry gateau which would not disgrace a provincial cafe in France and a cappuccino with a slight liquor flavor to the coffee. Little treat you got with cappuccino was one of those dry, crunchy almond cookies. Only took three days but I finally had a proper snack.

To sum up: the point of civic pride in Malta is doorknockers, often in the shape of dolphins. While I would never suggest a plague and earthquake, if every structure erected after 1939 were to disappear, well, I wouldn’t necessarily qualify that as an utter tragedy.  If you want the Malta experience in the States, eat some sugared almonds in a biker bar.

Going back, we ended up in a holding pattern for 2 hours with the plane bouncing around because of a RAIN STORM. Think how often that happens! And the flight crew were Lebanese. Sigh. They all sang fun songs together as the plane took off which I don’t think stewardess and stewards should be doing. As I was sitting in the back and for the 2 hours of bouncing around no one could get up, the crew all joked about where we might have to land if we ran out of fuel before we could get permission to land. Then one of the stewards “heard something” so there were long talks to the captain about something possibly haven fallen off or broken because of the turbulence.

a short story – I stood in front of the candy counter at duty free, looking for something yummy and seeing only 2590 Kitkats and literally, without thinking, without conscious thought, started to sing “some day my prince will come.”