Sunday, June 22, 2003

Damned Turks!

Patience, my friends...I fear this entry will be loooooong. I've had the details floating around in my mind for exactly one week.

Upon arriving at the port in Malta (pronounced MOLE-dtuh by the locals--go ahead and say it aloud; I know you want to), I took a bus to my guesthouse, which sits atop a curvy hill, overlooking, among other things, the nearby Mediterranean Sea), I called Nick to let him know I was here and in good spirits, and he came right over.

Fifteen seconds of greetings later, he asked me if I was ready to go to church.


I checked my face and clothing for signs of blantant heathenery, but he explained that it was the first stop on our tour--he had just learned more than a bit about the history of the building and was eager to make me his first victim, er, audience.

And Saint John's Cathedral, in Valetta, was worth the journey. There are 350 valiant knights buried below the marble floor, and the ornate details of the interior (which is well belied by the unassuming exterior) rivaled only Saint Peter's in Vatican City. Okay, indulge me...I have a limited frame-of-reference.

Though I am no longer religious, I have to say that there is something very comforting in being able to attend a mass anywhere in the world and know when to stand, when to sit, and when to sit quietly and brace yourself for a long-winded homily...

In Maltese!

Needless to say, I didn't understand a single word, but the enchanting voices of the choir members (a real choir, which is difficult to find at Catholic churches in the States) reached down and took a firm grip on the innermost knot in the bottom of my soul (I had been wondering where it was (the bottom of my soul, that's good to know).

Then, a walking tour. We checked out the ENORMOUS fortifications built, uh, a very long time ago (sorry Nick, you're a better guide than I am a student) to keep the Turks out. Damned Turks! Always trying to sneak in somewhere.

When you walk up and down the narrow streets of Malta, your shoes make the sound that shoes make in British documentaries. Do you know the ones I'm referring to? In these documentaries, there's some old man, always walking UP a hill for some reason. So between heavy breaths, he says something like (think high British pronunciation), "For the Egyptians, mumification ensured the soul's being kept in-tact during the afterlife," and all the while, he continues to walk and his shoes, on the limestone/sand combination, make a cool kind of crunching sound. Do you have the slightest idea what I'm talking about? Well, the streets of Malta make that sound. When talking to myself as I walk (one of my favorite passtimes), I always have to affect a British accent; it seems so apropos.

But, of course, one needn't walk everywhere. There are busses...if you dare, mwah ha ha. Well, actually, the busses themselves seem entirely safe. The problem is me. See, they drive on the left here, and I've been nearly killed at least a half-dozen times. Guess my learning curve is less-than-optimal.

The busses are relic "gifts" from England, many of them dating from sometime in the 1950's, chrome fenders and all. Their interiors are best described using a phrase I don't think I've ever uttered in my life: A real hoot. There are religious stickers plastered all over the front dashboards and window panelings (many featuring images of a glowing Virgin Mary and the like). Some of the more modern-looking stickers read things like "Think GOD," or "Jesus Loves Me," but the most intriguing one so far read "I Love Safely." Now, I don't know if this was a typo, meant to say "I Love Safety," or if the driver of the bus was especially careful about the way in which he loves and wanted to make sure all his passengers knew this about him (in my feeble understanding, public transportation is handled in a private-contracted sort of way--each driver owning and (sometimes) caring for his own vehicle), but anyway that's what it said.

Which brings me to the language discussion.

As I wrote before, English is one of the two official languages here (three cheers for British Imperialism and the Knights of Saint John), but that doesn't remove the possibility of encountering some idiosyncratic discrepancies.

My favorite sign so far reads "Andrew's Beefy Crunch." I've never seen the establishment open, but I'm eager to find out what exactly is sold there.

Another, written on the side of a mini-bus, read, "Stuff Your Jealousy." Okay, I'll get right on that.

A shirt worn by a local man: "International Delivery."

The Maltese speak with a charming accent that sounds like a combination of the accents you would here from native Arabic and native Spanish speakers, which is fitting considering the island's location.

The worst thing I can say about Malta (which is a relatively welcoming place, otherwise) is about the service, which is probably the worst I've ever encountered (seriously, you thought Original Joe's was bad!) I don't know if this is owing to a general and overwhelming annoyance with tourists or the effects of the weather (oppressive sun with a healthy dose of wet--wet air, not actual rain), but SOMEthing has crawled under the skin of every person in the service industry here (and, I suspect, laid eggs).

An example: The other day I was sitting at a cafe, writing in a notebook, when my server (an elderly and sour-faced man) came to take my plate away. I realized, as he was taking it, that my notebook had been resting in the ketchup on the plate's edge. I made an "Aww" kind of in, "how unfortunate," which he misinterpreted as my assigning some kind of blame to him and to which he responded by pointing an extended forefinger in my face, followed with the words, "It's YOUR fault!!"

Hot Damn!

But, as cultural differences can be charming, I've found eliciting a smile from a server to be a challenging and, when successful, gratifying way to pass the time.

And speaking of food (because we kind of were), I'll share what I've learned of it so far. Well, they have rabbit (stewed), rabbit (fried), and rabbit (baked). The end.

Kidding of course, though rabbit is a favorite when it comes to local cuisine. Unfortunately, it seems the Maltese (probably having something to do with the British occupation I referred to earlier) suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. It is difficult to determine what true Maltese culture is all about. So, my choice vegetarian option is chips and egg (how much more British can you get?), followed by couscous and pita bread from the Istanbul Kebab joint near my guesthouse (I guess some of those Turks snuck through after all). And then, there's (surprise, surprise) McDonald's, Burger King, and Pizza Hut. The notable menu item in a Maltese McDonald's: salad with fresh tuna or shrimp. And Italian gelatto has meandered its way here, as well...

There IS a God!

And now for the best thing I can report about Malta: It is--by far--the safest place I have ever been. Locals and tourists alike muse about the fact that anybody (man, woman, child) can walk down the dark, deserted streets at any time of the night and feel completely at-ease.

Do you think it has anything to do with the absence of a National Rifle Association?


Really, though. It's a nice change from the dagger-like sideways glances I had grown accustomed to throwing during my stay in Rome. Oh, and while I'm thinking about Rome...I wanted to remove any remaining doubt about my being a bona fide freak from the minds of my friends and family members, by making a side-by-side comparison of....drumroll please....

Body Odor!!

Now, the overcrowded busses and Metro of Rome afforded me with countless opportunities to (connoisseur that I am) take a whiff, sampling the smells of Italy (or, Italians). Assessment: pleasant, in that horse maneur kind of way. You know what I mean? How B.O. can sometimes be not-so-bad? My friend Nicole (thanks to lessons learned in her Human Sexuality class) would point out that our attractions to another's sweat smell has something to do with the likelihood of that person's immune system, coupled with our own, producing offspring with healthy immune systems (ain't that cool?). Assessment of Maltese B.O.: more offensive. Is it the proximity to the salty sea air? I don't know, but the smell is very bitter, most unwelcoming. So, my belief in this immune system thing has been thrown into doubt. I mean, it couldn't be that I would produce healthy offspring with EVERY single Roman...afterall, the women have this smell, too. And there's no way my coupling with any native of this island would result in weak little sicklings. Or is there?

But anyway.

I fear I haven't really given a good description of this place. Where to go from here?

On the boat here, I was told that Paceville (PAH-chuh-vill), the local hot spot here, offered the best nightlife to be found in the modern world. Though I'm not really one for "nightlife," I figured I'd check it out, especially after I learned there was a Salsa club. After days of loafing around in the sun, I was eager to expend some energy.



Paceville is a nightmare.

Well, I suppose that if I were 17, or drunk, or eager to spend too much money to go to a club exactly like any club I could find in the United States, it would be quite a thrill. But since I'm none of the above...

I went to the Salsa Club (Fuego, it's called), and was happy when I entered and heard a merengue song, followed by a salsa. But then, suddenly, the tides turned, and the next 6 songs were (sometimes) in Spanish, but with nothing even close to a salsa beat anywhere to be found. Most were just overlaid with a thump, thump, thumping just perfect for losing your mind to. I guess that's the idea. Oh, and a resident of the guesthouse where I'm staying had kept mentioning to me a song that had the words "Life is life" as the main chorus. "Life is life?," I asked, "What does that MEAN? That doesn't mean anything." I heard that song that night..."Life is life," and apparently it's quite popular, because after the "Life is life" part, the DJ would turn down the volume and, in one loud voice, the entire contents of the club would yell "La la la la la," the rest of the chorus. Is this a local phenomenon, or is my ignorance, like a poorly hemmed slip, showing again? Please, if anybody knows anything about this, do set me straight.

Ah, but last night, in a wonderful stroke of luck, I discovered the local jazz club. It sits underground in a sultry, red little room that seems like some sort of a secret, and like--among the patrons--there should be real live beatniks or maybe Boris and/or Natasha. Sadly, they only have jazz on Thursdays, but I'll be sure to be there.

As for daylife, I have only the beach to offer explanation of, but the beach is enough. The great thing I can say about the beaches in Malta is that all are welcomed with open arms...big'uns, lil'uns, all types, all sizes, all in bikinis (well, the women anyway). They are far less body-conscious here, and it was incredibly refreshing to see old and young, thin and not-so-thin, tawny bronze and ghostly white and beet red, all enjoying the sun as it should be enjoyed. And the Maltese children, splashing and sand-castle-building and running and screaming, are especially nice to watch.

Though eating and entertainment are comparably priced to the U.S., accomodations are cheap, so I've decided to stay a while before heading to Spain. My purchases so far include the obligatory sarong (only $6 here, compared to the $15-20 you'd pay at, say, the Jazz Festival) a sun hat (which I bought from the Maltese version of a dollar store--awesome!), and a traditional henna hand tatoo.

Despite bad service and yucky nightclubs, life here has treated me well. Next time I write, I will tell all about the cast of characters at the Savoy Guest House, a motley crew of folks so strange at times that, in hearing the reports, Nick (in the classist and superior manner for which he is known) has taken to calling "Halfway House" rather than "Guest House" residents. Our differing attitudes about what is "uncivilized" and what is simply interesting and quaint, has resulted in a general happiness (in both of us, I think) about the fact that our respective hotels are located on different parts of the island. :)

La La La La La.

I wish you all well.

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