The island of Malta is a tiny gem nestled in the Mediterranean, home to a mere 400,000 citizens. But don’t let size fool you. Malta has a rich history, its own language, and a quirky clan of islanders. It’s a mix of Europe, Africa and the Middle East, and reminded me of Italy only with a quirkier vibe. Four million tourists pass through every year; most of them come to escape the cold weather in Europe, to party, and surprisingly, to learn English. European students who want to learn the language, but want to avoid the dreary winter in England have warmed up to Malta. Most of the people I met there spoke English.
Last January I joined my girlfriend on her trip home. When I first met her I thought she might have been a gypsy or a pirate; I’d never met a pretty girl from Malta. I kept asking her stupid questions like, “So, are people in Malta Italian or Arabic?” She was very patient and would respond with certainty, “No we’re Maltese.” I had a hard time seeing how 400,000 people could hold on to their own identity in the midst of Southern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and England. But the mash of cultures and invasions actually made this unique tribe of tightly knit islanders who they are. The knights of Saint John were enlisted from all over Europe and I imagine them as a kind of medieval E.U.
The capital city, Valletta was our first stop, and just a hop, skip and ferry ride from Maria’s home in Sliema. We strolled down the quirky, cobbled streets together and stopped at a cute restaurant called d’Office; where we shared an amazing mozzarella di bufala. It was absolutely delicious! The waiter directed us to a table for two on the slanted sidewalk right outside. Our small tilted table only added to the charm. After lunch we found a cute pastry cafe, where the owner gave us a free warm tart. The day felt like an old romantic movie. It even ended with a happily-ever-after ferry ride scene into the sunset.
Another day we visited Mdina. Our car stayed outside the gates. Inside there were narrow streets, with medieval archways leading to courtyard cafes, restaurants, and private homes. I swear if I knocked on one of them I could have found Rapunzel or Cinderella. Then we went to the dungeons—a place where in the centuries past rebels, revolutionaries, heretics, and your common criminal all experienced some degree of gruesome torture. A fact that was made explicit by the models of prisoners from various periods in history being subjected to various punishments: stretching, starving, burning, breaking, and beating, along with others I didn’t understand or care to think about.
The best adventure I think was to a Permaculture farm created by Maria’s friend Peppi. The farm has geese, chickens, no-dig organic gardens, olive trees, and cute steps made from old tires filled with gravel. There were also exceptional composting toilets and an aquaponics system. I heard rumors that the farm also had a cave that Peppi dug all by himself, but I didn’t get to see it. We also went to a ‘creativity vortex’ started by a local NGO named ‘WhyNot.’ Here I found a crew of unconventional travelers. Americans, British and the odd German, all coming to help make the vortex spin. Old war bunkers were being renovated into dorms. There were also geodesic domes hiding in the bushes, a newly adopted horse, and a garden. The site reminded me of the Regenerative Design Institute in California, a place where I have spent some time interning. The vortex wasn’t as developed and was much quirkier, but it had all the good vibes needed to spin along. I am always happy to see people in different places having fun, and wanting to make a difference. “Xeba” cool as they say in Maltese.
My slogan for the trip is, “Everything is closer in Malta.” I felt as though it has everything you need but closer together. Everyone knows one other, and it seemed as though some people knew me simply because they knew Maria. I could walk to many places and a ‘long’ drive lasted a half hour. Even the cars tended to huddle by the curb, roads felt more intimate and the cars were cuter. Parking, however, was a challenge. The only thing that seemed further away was the end of a good meal. New Year’s lunch lasted from one o’clock till six, with breaks in between courses. But of course this enabled me to become closer to Maria’s family because we had plenty of time to get to know one another. Malta has a strong sense of family. Her parents were cooking for the meal two days in advance. They were incredibly sweet and cooked special pasta and lasagna to accommodate my gluten needs. I was very impressed by their capacity to let a funny Canadian boy who grew up in Bali into their home and hearts. They were extremely welcoming and hospitable. I picked a good woman with a solid family, with the added bonus that she’s from a novel little island called Malta – a place I hope to visit again soon.