Wednesday, June 25, 2003

The Savoy Guest/Halfway House

As promised, I would like to invite you into the world of the Savoy Guesthouse.

First, a bit about the house itself.

There are three floors and something like 14 rooms. My room is on the second floor, where it's warm, but not as warm as the third floor, so I lucked out. There is a little rooftop terrrace where I can go at night and look at the stars above or the people below. I can also hear, for example, the sounds of neighbors' domestic disputes, and a strange little bird warble I've never heard before. I've yet to see the actual bird, and I think it's more interesting that way.

My room has tile flooring, a double bed, and a window that overlooks a busy street, where there's a crosswalk just perfect for getting killed while crossing (the crosswalk is right at a curve in the street, where cars come a-flyin'). Mine is also one of the few rooms with its own shower, for which I sacrificed having a kitchenette. The kitchenette would have been nice, but I've been grateful for the shower since I realized that a pervy old male resident named Tony likes to check out (up close and personally) the laundry of the women who use the rooftop clothesline; washing and drying my clothes in my private shower has afforded a nice alternative.

There is a common room where people watch T.V.... about 6 channels in Italian, 2 or 3 in Maltese, and one sometimes showing American series (series'? serieses?) in English.

The plumbing, due to the building's age, is, um, a bit of a gamble. Everytime I flush and the toilet actually works, I feel like I've won the lottery. Also due to this temperamental plumbing, I never know exactly what I'm going to find in the toilet, courtesy of the last visitor, who may not have been so lucky with the plumbing lottery. I've had a few frights in this situation, unable to imagine what said non-flusher might have consumed or imbibed the night before to have produced what was left in the toilet for me to find.

The window in my room is best left open at night (as the afternoon sun makes my room pretty stuffy in the late afternoon), but leaving it open means letting in the mosquitos, and I have a very bad relationship with mosquitos. Last week, after declaring an all-out war with one particularly robust pest, I witnessed the emergence of my alter-ego, which was quite disturbing. See, I don't usually kill bugs. I'm more one for ushering them out, or ignoring them. But you know, with mosquitos it's an "us or them" sort of thing--"eat [or "kill" in this case] or be eaten." So I chose "kill." Now, this mosquito had an admirably determined will to live; I had thought I killed it twice, when I saw it land on my bedspread, on my leg. I was just about to turn the light out and go to sleep, so I knew that this was the Moment of Truth. He would have had his way with me all night long. So I moved my hand slowly toward him and threw my hand down in a quick and violent SLAP!! Then (and this is where my dark side exposed itself) I actually uttered the words...

"YES!!! DIE, M@therf*cker!!!"

Mygoonus! Then, in what I'm sure was my universal lesson for the day, I became aware of a warm and throbbing pain coming from my leg. See, I had forgotten, in my focusing on KILLING, that I had a fresh sunburn, and I had struck my leg hard enough to keep me awake with the sore, radiating effects of the slap for another 25 minutes. Tisk, tisk, tisk. We'll work on ushering the little buggers out from now on, eh?

But anyway, enough about my room and my evening death-related activities. I want to introduce you to the players...the Savoy Guesthouse Horror Picture Show. I use "Horror" in jest. There is nothing terrible about my fellow residents (well, most of them, anyway), but they are indeed interesting.

First, I'll start with the house Mamas--two sisters who run the place and who keep everyone reasonably in-line.

The first is Josephine, a buxom sort of Mother Hen with a wicked dry sense of humor. It took my a while to plug into this humor, and a few times I really thought she was upset with me. For example, the other day I was talking with my friend in the common room, and I turned the T.V. off because nobody was watching it (or so I thought). Josephine emerged from her little office, where she had been talking on the phone, and said, "WHO turned off my T.V.?!!!!" I said, "Oh, I'm sorry. I did. I didn't think anybody was watching it." She replied with, "Well, I was watching it." Then, looking directly at me with raised eyebrow, she said, "It was an AMERICAN film," and walked off in a huff. A couple minutes later I realized she was joking when my friend pointed out that she had actually been watching the news. But despite her sometimes ambiguous comments, she is clearly a caring woman who always remembers to give messages, never goes snooping through rooms, always remembers to bring a fresh towel, and likes to ask about the plans you may have mentioned having for the previous evening..."How was the jazz?"..."Did you have fun on the island of Gozo?"

Her sister, Lina, is a bit more military-like in nature and is less likely to chew the fat. In the afternoons, she sits watching T.V. with her boyfriend Charles, a red-faced Maltese man who's been living in San Bruno, California for 44 years or so. He comes to visit her every summer and watch T.V. They are both cordial and pleasant enough, though definitely more distant than Josephine. I would never refer to Lina as a "Mother Hen."

But both sisters stir up a mean carafe of instant coffee in the mornings--my choice meal after I fast grew tired of the standard breakfast fare...corn flakes and milk, orange juice, and bread with marmalade. I bought my own wheat bisquit sort of things (called "digestives"(?)) and usually have a few of those as well. Incidentally, I wanted to say a bit about the milk here in Malta because I promise it's unlike anything you've ever experienced. Okay, you know how thick all-fat, Vitamin D milk is in the States? Well multiply that by two, at least. The milk here crawls down your throat at a pace that might make you feel like gagging, or chasing it with something like cranberry juice to clear the canals. But if it's cold enough (which is rare), it can be especially satisfying and take the place of a three-course meal.

But we were talking about the residents...

There's Iris, a young Chinese student studying English here. She has a wonderfully soft and most melodic voice, and when I told her this, she said that she'd studied voice (as in, singing) in China and had trained her voice to be that way. Cool. I asked if she would mind giving me a little concert sometime, which she answered with the words, "Yes, I will sing to make you feel happy." Isn't that awesome?

There are two other young Chinese students who are also studying English but are loathe to actually speak it. The only conversation I had with one of them concerned American movies and basketball, during which the young man (Da) declared his favorites to be "Bread PEE" (Brad Pitt), "SUHdra Block" (Sandra Bullock), and "SHUH-cle OH null" (Shaquille O'Neal). Please understand I'm not making fun of his accent, just trying to give an idea of why I had to strain and stretch my ears in my desire to have a conversation with him. He was nice, but I fear the fact that the two share a room and never leave the guesthouse is keeping them from learning much English while they're here. Da told me that they must pass Standard English exams next month in order to be admitted to the University of Malta. Hmmm. Oh, one other thing he told me was that, growing up in China, one of the few American series he saw was "Growing Pains." It took a while to determine this was the show he was talking about, finally becoming clear when he mentioned a 'Michael' who was always getting into trouble. Turns out Da's dad had always wanted a son more interesting, less shy than Da himself, and continually asked Da why he couldn't have been more like Michael from "Growing Pains" and at least do something interesting once in a while. That broke my heart.

There's an Egyptian man named Mario who brews beer in his room and wears a near-constant scowl on his face. The only time he ever spoke to me, the conversation went like this:

Me: Hello
Mario: Hello [heading up the stairs and then retreating to add to this initial response]. Are you Jewish?
Me: Me? [a line from "The Princess Bride" coming to mind: "Do you always begin conversations this way?" ]
Mario: Yes, are you Jewish?
Me: Do you mean religion or race?
Mario: Religion
Me: No
Mario: But your parents, are they Jewish?
Me: No, I was raised Catholic
Mario: Hmm. [turning, without another word, toward his room]

So. That's Mario, as far as I know him.

There's an older British man and a young Russian girl, neither of whom I've seen enough to have learned their names or anything about their situations.

There's an older Maltese woman named Anne, whose habits and the incredibly lived-in state of whose room would make you believe she's been living in the same guesthouse, piling the same tangerine marmalade on her bread in the morning, for the past 37 1/2 years. In the afternoons, she can be found in the foyer, where she serves as the house's first line-of-defense, or last barrier-to-your-exit, depending on if you're coming or going: "Where are you going?" "To the beach? Which one?" "When will you come back?" "Who are you going with?" "Where did you go?" "What did you do there?" This drives some of the guests absolutely crazy, and I think Anne is reason #1 for Nick's refering to the Savoy as a "halfway house," but the woman is harmless and actually very sweet. She's just a bit inquisitive, which I think is merely due to the fact that she is, I think, somewhat physically unable to leave the house and so lives vicariously through the other residents.

I felt bad the other day because I was sitting near Anne in the foyer when I happened to glance down at her feet and caught sight of her breathtakingly overgrown toenails. I, anticipating that maybe she didn't own a pair of nailclippers and thinking she might like to borrow mine, embarked on this conversation:

Me: Anne, I noticed your toenails are a little long. Do you...
Anne: I know, I know. I'm sorry. I was gonna cut them last night and then I forgot.
Me: No, no, I was just wondering if you needed to borrow some clippers.
Anne: No, I have them. I'm sorry. I'll cut them tonight. I will cut them tonight.
Me: I don't care, I mean, it doesn't bother me. I was just gonna offer you mine.
Anne: No, I have them, but it's just a little difficult for me to cut them.

So then I was thinking maybe she needed help cutting them, and the conversation continued:

Me: Oh, do you need help? I mean, I could help you if you wanted.
Anne: It's okay, and I promise, I'll cut them tonight. I'll cut them tonight.

I felt really bad at this point because I could see that Anne couldn't understand that I was just concerned. She thought that I was disgusted by her toenails and was trying to hint/guilt her into cutting them. The more I said, the more I felt that she was misunderstanding me and that I was making her feel bad. So, I dropped the toenail subject. Now, I've neglected to mention yet that Iris (the young Chinese girl) had been sitting in the foyer also, but she wasn't listening to us; she had been watching T.V. I'm not kidding...five minutes later, during a commercial, she gingerly glanced around the room, looked casually at the two of us, caught sight of Anne's feet, and said (in the harsh and unapologetic way that only English-as-a-second-language speakers do accidentally), "Are you going to cut your toenails?!"

Oh my. The whole conversation started all over again, Anne becoming more and more convinced, I'm sure, that her toenails were an affront to the civilized world.

The next morning, I walked into the breakfast room and the first thing Anne said to me was, "I forgot to cut my toenails again, but I'll cut them tonight. I'll cut them tonight," shaking her head absolutely in betrayal of the fact that she was not only trying to convince me of this intent, but to convince herself as well.

And that's Anne.

Then there are Tony and Eddie, both elderly long-term residents who hover on the edge of eviction every single day.

See, Josephine's problem with Eddie is that he begins drinking at 11:00 every morning and doesn't stop until he's consumed an entire bottle of Auld Lang Syne Scotch Whiskey. His only defense to this beef is to point out that Tony begins drinking at 5:00 in the morning and doesn't stop until he's consumed two entire bottles of Auld Lang Syne Scotch Whiskey. Both arguments are true, and the entire hallway near these men's rooms reeks terribly of sour alcohol breath.

Tony is Maltese, but he lived 44 years in England, where he was married to a woman from India. Tony fled the country when his wife died and her son (from a previous marriage) tried to kill him for attempting to incinerate her body in compliance with her wishes. So he brought her dead body and all to Malta and has been living in something like exile for the past who knows how long, in the Savoy Guesthouse. Now, this lamentable tale might cause you to take pity on the old man, but nay, I say. You should hear the rest first. You might remember my having referred to Tony earlier as the "pervy old man" who checks out women's clothing on the clothesline. Well that's true of him. He is also given to offering hourly work to female guesthouse residents. And he sees absolutely NOTHING wrong with this. On the day he offered this kind of work to me (as if it were some kind of favor), and I became angry and yelled for the first time in I have no idea how long, he asked, very innocently, wherein lied the problem. "It's good money," he reasoned, "Ten Lira per hour."

Ten Lira is roughly 27 American dollars.

Eddie is alternately disgusted with Tony and is his best friend. That afternoon, after Tony had been asked to leave the room, Eddie denounced him as a scoundrel, a truly reprehensible human being, a waste of good oxygen. Moments later, Tony reappeared in the doorway, having forgotten his glass of whiskey. And when he left, Eddie said, "Ok, I'll come see you later."

I throw my hands up.

Eddie is from Pakistan, where he was forced out because of an inability to find work, having suffered from prejudice associated with his being a Christian. He claims to be a palm reader, and has offered to read my palm but failed to deliver on this promise so far. Until now, he's only shared with me that my lucky day is Wednesday, and that things I begin on Wednesday will have good outcomes. Good to know.

Eddie also writes jokes (or joke, as far as I know--so far he's shared the same one with me three times). The example:
A bartender closes his bar and goes home to sleep. A little while later he's awakened by the phone, and the man on the other line asks when he'll be reopening in the morning, to which he answers, "Sometime around 10:00 am." A couple of hours later, the man calls back, wanting to know EXACTLY when he'll be opening, and the bartender repeats, "I told you! Around 10:00." By the third call, the bartender is irate, and when the man asks again for the exact time, he answers with, "You bloody bastard! You've ruined my night! If you're so bloody fond of drinking, why don't you buy a case of liquor and drink it at home?!" The voice on the other end answers, "Look man, I don't drink. I promise. I just came into your bar to use the restroom and now I'm locked inside until you reopen."
Now, it's difficult to find that joke funny more than once. But watching Eddie's face--the way he cracks up at his own cleverness--makes it worth waiting for the punchline.

The other day Eddie tried to pay his rent and Josephine told him to keep his money because she was kicking him out. In a panic, he called Tony downstairs so the two together, whiskey bottles in hands, could brainstorm a solution to this new problem. After a couple of hours of careful discussion and plotting, their answer was to send Tony in to speak to Josephine. Slowly, cunningly, he crept into her office, his lines planned. She took one look at him and said only these two words: "You're next."


But it's not true. They'll probably both die there. I think she just likes to scare them into compliance...she's told me how happy she's been with the silence and the cleanliness of rooms she has observed since she made her threats.

The one guest I've yet to discuss, Saad, refers to them as Tom and Jerry, but we can't really figure out who's who.

Saad is a young man from Morocco who's here to find work. He's full of insane tales about Morocco and what he refers to as "magic." He also talks a lot about "phantoms," which he pronounces "FAWN-tomes," in a way that makes them sound truly scary and almost believable. He claims this magic has been responsible (in his eye-witness experience) for:
* A young man spelling an American woman into falling in love with him, her taking him back to the States where they still live.
* His mortal enemy coming to his house, weeping, and waiting with his mother for three hours until Saad came home, at which time the enemy apologized for all past transgressions.
* Same said enemy coming to and wondering what the hell she was doing in his house, after Saad asked the spell-casting third party to remove the magic.
* A young newlywed being unable to do the deed on the wedding night, thanks to the magic performed by the scores of young bachlorettes in the village who were jealous and angered at his finally getting hitched.
* Same said newlywed impregnating his wife when Saad's magical grandmother intervened with her White Magic, on his behalf.
* A young man who moved to Libya to work being sometimes given to intense and overwhelming desires to return home to his girlfriend, who made a magic paper and tied it to the leaves of a tree so that the magic would make his mind change with the wind.


It's funny, though...if you listen to him tell these stories, they sound true. Do you think that magic is merely a matter of believing in it? It seems to me that might be a contributing factor.

All in all, these characters have made the stay entertaining and well worth the whopping fifteen bucks a night I'm paying to stay there :)

And that, my friends, is the Savoy Guesthouse. Ya'll stop by sometime, y'hear?

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