At first I thought it was a mistake to rent a car in Malta. It was almost midnight; I was tired and had to drive on the left with a stick shift. I usually drive a stick but I am spatial and I think of first gear as being next to my knee, doesn’t matter if it is my left knee or my right knee, it has to be MY knee, not Suzi’s knee; so I kept wanting to start the car in 4th. Further the place was full of traffic circles, 5 in the first three minutes, and I had to keep thinking “clockwise, clockwise.” Further still, signage in Malta is terrible. If I had had a chance to get a guide book before I left it would have told me that. The one I got in Malta did tell me that.
I like traffic circles, there are lots in Serbia, and in Serbia they go counter clockwise. They move traffic right along, at quite a clip. There are other good things about traffic circles. You can just keep going around and around until you can make out the sign or make out the map. Further, if you end up going the wrong way a U turn is very easy in a traffic circle. Finally, as we got into the city, most traffic circles came equipped with a pretty young woman in tight Capri pants leaning on a lamp post or fountain, usually smoking a cigarette. They were very helpful in giving directions and, surprisingly, they seemed to know where all the hotels are. Thanks to more than one pretty young woman in tight Capri pants, we found our hotel.
Malta turned out to suit my interests almost perfectly. There is the sea, all sorts of boats, history, fortifications, culture and festivals. Suzi and I took the Grand Harbor cruise. The harbor is ringed with historic old cities, guarded by fortifications stretching over 5 centuries. The harbor hosts modern dry docks, yacht harbors, cruise ship landings, and an historic dock for fixing tall ships. We liked the tour so much that we walked the docks and found a skipper whose small boat we could hire to give us a private tour at night when the historic towns and ramparts are floodlit. And then there was the ferry boat going back and forth painted in Lowenbrau Beer livery. It costs 93 cents to cross the harbor; I wonder how they came up with that figure? The ticket taker had 7 cent stacks of coins along with a ticket loaded with advertising (silver shop, jewelry shop, and an exhibit of 500 Maltese Crosses as well as a promotion for Marsmaxetto Steamferry Service Ltd.) to exchange for one Euro.
Most Maltese speak English but the Maltese language is Semitic, a branch of Arabic left over from when they ran the island. The words for hello and good-by are about the same as in Arabic, (although the pretty ladies in Capri pants say “ciao baby”) but the word for “thanks” is Grazzi, very Italian. Listening, it sounds like Arabic spoken with an Italian accent. Place names include Mdina, Rabat, and Gizera. Mdina (from the Arabic Medina) was the capital, on a hill away from the sea, until the Knights of St. John moved the capital to Valetta on the Grand Harbor where it could be more easily bombarded by the Turks. Both Rabat and Mdina are filled with Catholic churches not mosques. We also drove to St. Paul’s Bay where the evangelist was washed up in a shipwreck and converted the island. He enjoyed their hospitality for 3 months and never wrote a thank you note. There is no epistle to Malta. He did, however, leave enough mythology to fuel a tourist industry although Malta hardly needs Paul to be attract visitors.
Malta is fortunate to have one of the most iconic graphics in history. The Maltese cross is not on the national flag; the George Cross, far less graphically appealing and awarded to the island during the World War II siege, is. That’s too bad because the Maltese cross on a flag is striking. The cross is everywhere, around the necks of flight attendants, on building plaques, t-shirts, tote bags – everywhere. And it looks appropriate everywhere. Souvenirs from Malta do not need to have “Malta” written on them. The icon says it all.
We traveled to Malta for a long Labor Day weekend in 2011. Normally Suzi and I get to savor the memory of a new place in the weeks that follow our visit. But in the middle of the night, just after we got home, we got a call that my mom had been hospitalized. Within a week she was gone and we were in New Jersey for a funeral. I wrote the letter above just before I got on the plane for New Jersey. I wanted to get it out so Mom had something fun to read while we were flying from Belgrade to New Jersey to see her. I’m not she ever got a chance to read it. She was gone by the time we got to her. Only now, three years later, am I going over the pictures from Malta, rereading the letter I sent to family and enjoying the memories.