MALTA DIARY: It takes an unexpected incident to take you back down Memory Lane!
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My work nowadays is doing online translations from Maltese to English of news and current affairs, both nationally and internationally, for the national broadcasting company and that puts one in the privileged position of being among the foremost to break into the breaking news.
Last week I was having a quiet morning of just doing odd bits and bobs when at 11am an item came on screen that a pharmacy in Rudolph Street, Sliema was severely being ravaged by a raging fire – and I knew immediately which pharmacy it was because we go a long, long way back – and it has always been there since my very early childhood and I am now 72 years old.
There is simply no comparison between those days and life nowadays, a startling and astounding chasm that many youngsters would have difficulties to understand. Rudolph Street is one of Sliema’s major inland roads, a street then noted for its elegance, today sadly darkened and besmirched by traffic pollution.
My mother’s family lived a couple of back streets away in a not-so-elegant zone but a zone of propriety, a street of families trying to do their best for their offsprings – Falzon Street.
One of our close neighbours was Mary who knew me as a baby in a pram and later as a steadily growing boy. Later, she was to become Ms Eddie Fenech Adami, wife of a former President and Prime Minister of Malta, Dr Eddie Fenech Adami.
Many days of my childhood was spent there with grandparents Giovanna and George and as I was the first-born grandchild, I was the apple of my grandmother’s eyes, My mother Pauline and her sister Annie having married had set up their own homes but their four brothers (Guzi, Johnny, Harry and Gino), still single, lived with their parents.
What was life like then? Good, but basically rudimentary. Downstairs consisted of a small lounge on entry, a restricted space under the stairs, a small dining room, an even smaller adjoining kitchen and a minute toilet, all backed by a yard with a well and an array of plants.
The toilet was not equipped with a flushing and had no running water with metal buckets having to be filled from the feeble water flow from the only kitchen tap.
Upstairs consisted of a main bedroom and two other bedrooms and an adjoining toilet – again no flushing. A narrow staircase led to the roof where my uncles Harry and Gino kept their racing pigeons, a small cage for chickens and a cockerel and another small cage for rabbits.
Bathrooms were non-existent and of course ‘mod-cons’ like a geyser, showers, fridges and freezers some way away. All the houses in the street and indeed the area were identical.
Cooking was on a paraffin stove. Empty metal buckets filled with perishable edibles and bottles of water were continually lowered and raised from the well which acted as a fridge. In summer, small metal water baths were filled from the well for a good open-air wash in the yard and in winter, they were brought indoors and metal cauldrons used to heat up the water.
The two paraffin stoves sufficed for daily cooking needs, but Sunday was speciality day! Grandma Giovanna would prepare a massive dish of meat and potatoes and it was my task to carry this round to the local bakers a few hundred metres away to be roasted in his ovens alongside the crusty bread.
The baker would give me a metal tag to identify my dish and a pick-time when the dish would have been cooked and allowed to cool down to enable one to carry it.
The surrounding aroma was enough to make one stagger if hungry as the smells of roasting meat, potatoes, macaroni dishes and baked bread swirled around the area. The temptation was always too great and although the baker would swathe the dish in greaseproof paper I always managed to sneak in and gobble a couple of roast potatoes or topping strands of macaroni on the way home, hastily smoothing out the disrupted grease paper just before arrival!
Dishes could then be gently warmed up again on the stove.
And the pharmacy – where did that come into it?
Traffic then was minimal – I am going back to 1951 and 1952. The pharmacy in Rudolph Street was a 15 minute walk away and as soon as I had gained a semblance of awareness and intelligence (aged six onwards), I executed the family errands to the pharmacy, with great cautions beforehand to “be attentive at all times”, to “walk on the pavement and not in the road” and “to look left and right and then left and right again before crossing” – even though traffic was sparse.
My consignments were virtually always the same. A bottle of anti-constipation/purge liquid (flushing out the intestines regularly was very popular in those days), a box of plasters, a box of aspirins, and bottles of “brilliantine” for my uncles, a transparent oily liquid to knead into one’s hair to make it smooth, shiny and oily – just as gel is used nowadays.
There was a confectionary shop on the way to the pharmacy, ‘Blackley’, and very popular in those days because they made and baked English-style confections such as jam and cream buns, sponge cakes, fruit tarts and the like and I would always spend a good ten minutes ogling all the goodies in the shop window – and dreaming.
Occasionally I would have enough funds to manage to buy a jam and cream bun and would gobble it up in seconds.
The pharmacy was classical and old style. The counter top was filled with massive glass jars of different coloured chemicals; colourful posters suggesting commercial remedies for headaches, rheumatism, colic, baby-wind and everything else under the sun were plastered all over the walls and there was that smell of clean, chemical propriety that reeked with healing, cleansing and cleaning.
As last week I sat and winced at the incoming news and later watched newsreel film footage of the burning pharmacy, my morale winced sharply.
This was my childhood past burning away and being reduced to ashes and the nostalgia I felt was overwhelming as all these episodes flashed before my eyes. Thankfully there were no injuries except for a few people who were treated for smoke inhalation.
However, for me, life will never be the same again without this remnant relic. It may well be rebuilt and restored – but it will not be the same.
“Don’t dwell on the past – think of the future”
Little use in looking back with nostalgia – dwell on the future.