MALTA DIARY: Into 2019 – all our yesterdays – were we better off or is it just nostalgia?
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Well, into 2019 we plunge and what better way to start a new year’s journey than by reminiscing on the past that has precipitated in what we are and what makes us today – and taking a comparison?
Does time ever stand still? Mentally, yes it does – for some, mainly those that have been away for a length of time. In 1989 I spent a year in Australia and met aunts and cousins who had been away from Malta for some 20 years and their vision of Malta was exactlty identical to the times when they had left. For them, time had stood still.
Hence George Orwell’s classic novel “Coming Up for Air” when he fled the big city to return to his boyhood village to rekindle his youth to find it had all changed. The village no longer existed as he nostalgically remembered it; everything had changed; he was a complete stranger in his own village.
An already vastly over-populated Malta and Gozo have seen a population increase of 52,000 people in just five years, 20% of which are illegal boat immigrants and the others drawn from all over the world in the wake of an economic boom, with Europeans boosted by Schengen Regulations of automatic entry for EU Member citizen entrants. The current population is that of 430,000 people packed into a few square kilometres.
Regularly I come across people from places like Nepal, African countries and Siberian islands who surely had never ever heard of Malta before coming!
Foreign friends who regularly visit Malta lament that “Malta has changed”. Yes, of course, Malta has changed; the world has changed; our lives have changed.
So, what were my roots 50, 60 and 70 years ago?
Malta and Gozo were places where goats and sheep were herded along roads and lanes to provide milk at doorsteps. Today we have trucks, trailers and cars packed into our roads (400,000 registered vehicles) providing polluted air choked with petrol and diesel fumes. Thankfully, the islands are small and often windswept so the pollution sweeps on to pollute others less fortunate.
In my day, a few boneshakers trundled along rocky roads, funeral hearses were drawn by splendidly decorated horses and horse and mule/donkey-drawn carts brought round fresh bread, vegetables, meat, fish, paraffin and household goods to your doorstep on a daily basis.
Each street had a little grocer packed with amazing smells of ripe cheese, barrelled olives, anchovies, joints of smoked ham and tomato puree. Bakeries were within walking distance, baking daily food dishes, bread and sweet pastries because nobody had ovens so they provided a daily baking service.
In ‘entertainment areas’ – these were areas where one could stroll and get fresh air and sea breezes while today we have flashing-light discos blaring ear-shattering music, druggees and tattooed musclemen chucker-outs – there were vendors on every corner selling roasted and salted peanuts, ice-cream and confectionery and the much-prized Maltese pastizzi filled with cottage cheese or crushed peas and oven-roasted in larded and buttered fats. Another favourite was date or fig-filled fritters fried in boiling oil.
Music was still melodious and lyrics romantic and understandable. Films had their heroes and heroines and we laughed and cried with them and in the end they always triumphed.
One of my fascinations was mechanised street barrel organs, elaborate show pieces hauled by a lovely and gentle mule. The ones less elaborate were in the form of a piano or a church organ, bedecked with streamers and flags and each would have a Maltese flag, a British flag and the Yankee Stars and Stripes.
The organ grinder would grind the handle and produce waltzes and melodious music and a monkey on a chain would hold out a tin can to collect donations. At the merest sound of an approaching organ, crowds would gather on street corners to marvel and make merry, clap and pat the little monkey on the head.
On summer evenings an accordionist and a guitarist would plonk themselves on a doorstep, playing and singing traditional Maltese songs.
Summer gave way to winters (Malta and Gozo have no noticeable spring or autumn) and thus we grew up in all our yesterdays with what we now perceive to be all the shortcomings but at the time you blessed what you had and life was ideal and full of dreams.
And now – into 2019, kids who only communicate with their laptops and ipads, politicians egging us on into cryptocurrencies, blockchain and the digital future and terrorists wanting to destroy life and the world.
As I write, London-Gatwick Airport is at a standstill because drones flew over it and hundreds of thousands of stranded passengers fumed and cussed in frustration.
“If you carry your own load you are not a servant and you are not a porter”
This goes back to the days when the middle and upper classes had servants and paid an insignificant coin or two to a “lower class” person to carry their cases and their loads and packages. As times changed, people began to carry their own loads and when questioned provided this answer.