Malta Diary. One of my Adventures in the Mediterranean – not what you know but who you know
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Take one large melting pot, bung in equal volumes of Latin, Greek and Semitic blood and heat up to boiling point and you have a veritable witch’s brew, a Mediterranean Molotov Cocktail ready to explode.
You can only think and act Mediterranean if you are actually from the Mediterranean. I was born in Malta (right at the very centre of this sea) but at an early age we moved to England as my father was an officer in the UK RAF and for the next 15 years, “being and acting British” was my upbringing as the son of “an officer and a gentleman”.
In Brixton (London) and Market Rasen (Lincolnshire) I attended two very classic old-style Grammar schools where I was indoctrinated in things like “Fair Play”, “Don’t kick a man when he’s down”, “May the best man win” and “it’s not winning that counts but trying your best”.
In retrospect, with hindsight, the passage of time and contemporary developments, all of this of course transpired to be a load of bullshit. Nowadays, the doctrine is kick a man when he’s standing, kick him again in the crutch when he’s down and make sure he stays down.
The Mediterranean Philosophy has finally won and we have converted the rest of the world! Fair Play and the best man – not where money and power are concerned – but naturally when the lucre is offered, there is no need to try one’s best because the lucre itself has the key.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately), a modicum of my Britishness has remained and it has also remained in Malta and the majority of Maltese after 150 years of living alongside the British. But, don’t be misled – we still have the Mediterranean character.
The late French author, privateer, smuggler and contrabandist Henry de Monfreid (early 20th century) cruised the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea for many years making his fortune and then recording all in a series of books about his adventures. On a number of occasions he wrote about his great displeasure in coming across Maltese seamen, describing them as being crooked gangsters, thieves, desperadoes and blasphemers!
Malta of course has a lengthy history of piracy and coursairy in the Middle Ages and its pirates have historically been described as being the fiercest and most vicious. This was the result of living hand-to-mouth on a small island where dog-ate-dog and there was constant fear of either falling foul of the colonial masters or otherwise being dragged off into slavery by the Ottoman pirates.
These traits of unpleasantness are by no means confined to Malta, being widespread throughout the Mediterranean littoral. Some years back I accepted an invitation from my English boss Philip (now sadly passed on) to accompany him on his cruising yacht, together with another English colleague John and my other Maltese colleague Mario on an extended week-end cruise to Taormina (Sicily) and Reggio Calabria (Italy).
The invitation was based on my reputation of “being handy in the kitchen”. However, cooking on land in a stable kitchen and cooking at sea on a wave-tossed boat in a kitchen so small you couldn’t even swing a match stick is definitely something else. After I had served up my first breakfast of bone-hard, blackened bacon rashers, fried eggs that had stuck to the pan and black toast there was general consensus that any further eating would be on land and in restaurants!
My reputation as a seasoned seadog had already been sullied during the first night. With John, I took the first shift whilst the two others slept. John had to go off for a pee and in the gloomy darkness I took the wheel and noticed curiously that whilst a partial moon had been visible at the prow, after mysteriously disappearing, it was now at the stern!
When John came back I mentioned this phenomenon. He took a quick look around and frantically grabbed the wheel.
“You idiot” he grunted. “You’ve turned the boat 180 degrees. We’re heading back to Malta!”
We spent a wonderful day and night in Taormina harbour and proceeded to the Reggio Calabria marina. En route I asked Philip whether he had pre-booked a berth. He shrugged indifferently. “No need”. Well, it was his boat, he was skipper and boss and had done this run often. He obviously knew best – and he did.
Pulling into the Reggio marina I immediately noticed it was packed to the brim with boats. There was not a single berth available. “Ha ha”, I thought, “so much for your expertise Philip the know-all”. As we edged further in, Philip was scouring the wharf as Italian Carabinieri (policemen) scurried about looking busy. He then waved to a lazy looking guy propped up against the marina wall, and the man sprang into action.
He approached a Carabinieri and pointed at a Danish boat berthed against the marina wharf. The cop called two others and they boarded the Danish boat. There were a lot of hand gesticulations and displays of paper which I guessed were permits and crescendoed in a slanging match (in broken English) with the Danes (perfect English-speaking) insisting they had the berthing permits and the Italian coppers steadfastly shaking their heads and pointing for the boat to back out of their berth – which they ultimately had to.
As they backed out and we slid in to replace them, I distinctly heard one of the Danes giving us an earful. “You crooked bastards”.
Having secured our berth, Luigi – who was a taxi driver – came on board. The smell of something being cooked led him to the small kitchen. He picked the pan which Philip was cooking off the cooker, smelt it, grimaced and shouted “this is rubbish”. He took the pan to the boat side and poured it overboard.
“You come eat with me at home”. He rang his wife and when we arrived the delicious smell was devastatingly overwhelming. What else may one expect from an Italian housewife’s kitchen? We feasted on grilled steak and a fresh salad with lashings of three different varieties of potatoes. Luigi showed us his wine cellar, filled our glasses directly out of a barrel and needless to say, we all ended up pickled.
On the way back to the boat, Luigi told us that wherever we went in Reggio, we must mention his name and say “We are friends of Luigi”. Meanwhile I had let slip I was a fervent supporter of the then Malta Prime Minister Dom Mintoff. It did not go down well with Luigi; he spat several times and exploded a list of obscenities. Later I realised why – Mintoff had worked hard to curb Reggio Mafia operations in Malta!
The next day, wherever we went, the name “Luigi” was the key to everything, opened all doors, ensured royal treatment and made us feel like Kings.
Yep, that is the Mediterranean in a nutshell.
“Better a word less than a word more”
Time to shut up – the less said, the better!