Malta Diary: “This has been the best day of my life!” – that’s Malta – take it or leave it
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It’s difficult to be neutral about Malta – you either love it, or you hate it. It may surprise you or it may disappoint you, but some kind of emotion it will evoke. I can recall three memorable anecdotes that illustrate this.
Back in 1988 I was Administration Manager of Malta’s then largest insurance broking company. One fine day our CEO called the Accounts Manager and myself to his office and detailed our brief. We had an important visitor from Swiss Re, one of the largest reinsurance companies in the world, and the two of us had to look after him, take him to lunch and show him around a bit.
The brief came with a warning. He was a top executive, Swiss-German, adroit, stiff, dry, punctual, a no-nonsense type of guy. We were to be on our best behaviour, formal and no monkey business.
Martin drove and we picked him up from the Hilton, punctually. He wanted a fish lunch and so naturally, we chose Marsaxlokk, our main fishing village – and off we went.
We struck up general conversation, pointing out areas as we drove by and I being I found the formality unbearable. I lit up a cigarette.
“You smoke in cars?” he asked disapprovingly.
“Yes – why, would you like a cigarette?”
“No, no thank you, I cannot smoke. My wife forbids it”.
Martin’s and my eyes met in the driving mirror, conveying a mutual message without words.
Along the route we had a rush of hair-raising experiences on the roads – a car driving wrong way in a One Way street, another doing a sudden u-turn on a main road, hooting, parping, shouting, hand gesticulations, a driver stopping in the middle of the road to converse with a friend in a car on the other carriage lane, people crossing at random and everything else possible.
Our guest blinked often, raised eye brows often, let out a gasp or two and did much incredulous head-shaking.
We had a great lunch, lovely fish and lashings of wine. Slowly and surely, down came his disciplined demeanour as he began to relax. More wine and more relaxation. He began to chat freely, laughed loudly and made some descriptive remarks about one or two beauties strolling by.
On the way back he asked me for a cigarette and on the return journey smoked three on the trot.
Arriving at the Hilton he was much the worse for wear and tear and we jumped out of the car to shake hands and say our farewells. His arms opened wide, his face beamed raptures and he hugged us closely.
“Thank you for a lovely day. This has been the best day of my life! It’s so wonderful here. This is a wonderful country. Everybody is free. Everybody does what they like and what they want to do. I have never been to a country like this”.
As from henceforth on a weekly basis I shall insert a Maltese saying, expression or proverb and where possible English equivalents that will help give insight into the Maltese psyche, starting from this week.
“Its soul is in its teeth”
This indicates a state of total fragility because soul and teeth are fragile. English equivalent “hanging by a thread”
Later, I left the brokers and took a temporary situation as a teacher of English to visiting foreign students with the international Inlingua School, exclusively one-to-one teaching because I did not want classes of flighty youths from all over Europe more bent on drinking, partying and clubbing. My students were middle aged business executives – mostly Germans.
One, a lady, was a high executive with a leading Germany manufacturer, very much uptight and very nervous. On the third day she said she had decided to return to Germany because she could stand the indiscipline around her no longer and it was fraying her highly-strung nerves.
I calmed her down and told her to give it a little more time but essentially to relax and take things as they come. We held many discussions about her work and the stress and strain she was always under and I counselled her to review her whole situation and if needs be find an alternative job.
She stuck out her two weeks and three weeks later I received a surprising letter from her. She said she had taken my advice and given up her job and she intended to travel and to learn to relax – starting off with a mountain trek!
The band march by two parish bands at pique rivalry on the Sunday morning for Hamrun’s San Gaetano feast is Malta’s largest, attended by thousands from all over Malta, normally held on one of the first weekends in August – in steaming hot temperatures.
During the time I write about the bands left their band clubs at 10.15 am, strolled around Hamrun one following the other (in annual alternate fashion to keep all happy) and re-entering their club at 4 pm – a marathon of heat, alcohol, continual tension and rivalry. Nowadays, the time has been drastically shortened to avoid incidents.
A friend of mine asked me if he could bring his cousin along, a cousin of Maltese descent but resident in New York on his first visit to Malta. Before we left I cautioned him to be prepared for all and everything.
Patronisingly he smiled and said he lived in New York and had seen everything before, parades, band marches, St Patrick’s Day, blah, blah and did not expect anything to surprise him in little Malta.
By 4 pm he was like a rag doll, worn out, completely sloshed and we had to carry him back to our car.
However, he did manage to say “boy – I’ve never seen anything like it – completely amazing”.
Yep, that’s Malta, love it or hate it because there is no place for emotional indifference.