Stories I’ve heard in Malta: My roommate’s friend works for English company that is technically based in Malta but only for tax reasons. In order for the company to continue to operate as if it’s Maltese an office must be established, and in order for the office to be a valid office an employee of the company has to work there more than six months out of the year. So for six months and a day, this friend of my roommate’s lives in Malta and goes to work five days a week at an empty office full of empty desks and an empty conference room with a huge table and no chairs, and he sits at his desk alone and does what work he can, standing every fifteen minutes or so to avoid going completely nuts, and going to lunch when he can with people his friends connect him with like my roommate, who says he seems all right, but doesn’t go to lunch with him again.
Or, as my landlord’s Bulgarian friend Kosta told me as we whipped along the oceanside drive in his blue construction truck: Many years ago, a Maltese friend of his got in a crash with a government official. It was the official’s fault, but he never paid for the damages, so the man sued the official. The court summmoned the interested parties once, waited a year, summoned them again, waited another year—this went on for nine years. During this time the judge, an elderly man, died. The police officer who first reported to the scene and took down names and numbers and scribbled the shouted complaints died too, tragically. Finally the government official who was driving the car died, and because he was dead, there was no one to pay Kosta’s friend the money. Kosta’s friend’s car was long since fixed—he’d paid for it himself. So nine years after the accident, the new, living judge dismissed the case.
Or, as my other roommate told me when we talked about who’d lived here before: In the room adjacent to mine lived a Spanish girl who had friends over almost every night and made a lot of noise. This is a family building, and my landlord doesn’t like disturbances, so when my roommate told him about the commotion my landlord slept on the apartment’s couch for three nights and policed the ins and outs. On the last night he woke up to the noise of a small party, so he stormed the girl’s room with a bottle of Febreze and chased her and her friends onto the landing, squirting the scent of lavender after them like it was pepper spray. The partygoers shrieked and ran down the stairs. Who knows what they thought the blue, odoriferous liquid was. They ran out in a squealing line. Then my landlord locked the apartmment door and went back to sleep on the couch.
The shower curtain in my bathroom is lined with Adobe Illustrator paint strokes, on which are printed the following, repeated phrases:
You + Me = Love!
You are my . . . sunshine
He stole my heart. So I stole his last name.
. . . XO XO . . .
Love conquers all
Hold on tight & Never let go
I love you always and forever
Scotts Supermarket promises that it’s
Finally, the supermarket you deserve.
Every garbage truck in the city blazes my name in capital letters across it—DENNIS—except for the one blasting toward me through the tail end of a torrential rainstorm, driven by a grizzled man hunched over the wheel like it’s a plate of meat. The front of that garbage truck says:
FIRST LOVE NEVER DIES
The black tank top of a tourist I see in my neighborhood:
OWL YOU NEED IS LOVE
And, just beyond the reach of tourist heaven/hell, where the desiccated landform resumes and a rocky path follows the coastline nearly to St. Paul’s Bay, I run past a series of signs printed with a cartoon explosion. They say, in Maltese and English:
Do Not Touch any Military Debris
It may explode and as a result may either maim or kill you
The English here is not American English. It’s not British English either, though it’s closer to that. Instead it’s a version of English that has developed with minimal intrusion from native speakers, at least since 1979 when the British left, and so has taken on certain lilts and significances that ring strangely, as if they’re based on another native form of the language that I’ve never heard and never knew existed.
To me the words and phrases that don’t mean what they want to mean—the supermarket motto, for example, that sounds vaguely like a threat—are windows, gaps between intention and action that can only be filled by the ever fluctuating uncertainty that characterizes human interaction, here and everywhere. They’re almost a relief in their inadequacy; the bizarrely precise military signs I see on my runs fully admit, by their off-tone precision, that they can say nothing of what it might feel like to be burned by an actual bomb.
Same with the giant shafts that pierce the center of apartment buildings here. They’re for air, mostly. More windows, more breeze, less heat in the summer. But they are also nothing, gaps without any material use. You can’t put anything in them. When you look into one, the only thing you can imagine is falling down it and dying with a perfect square of blue sky taunting you from above, as if you were in a well. Sensibly, there’s a door to the first floor apartment at the bottom of every such shaft. But its concrete is cluttered with empty propane containers and old electronics. It’s a space where you put things you want to disappear.
To me this tendency toward disappearance, the gaps in structure that make way for the actual emptiness that underlies being, are both unsettling and welcome. They seem to say: I know you know there is nothing here.
Or: I hear shots from across the bay. I’m on mile four of my run and the last thing I want is to die amid the scrub brush and pocked stone of this random peninsula on the Maltese coast, so although I know there’s no way the shooters are shooting at me, or even that the cracks across the bay come from a gun, I am infected by the suspicion that even in this country so far away from the United States, a crazed sniper might be picking off Americans who dare to venture onto the abandoned outcrop. So I pick up the pace until the smooth silver sidewalk is in sight, the adjacent highway empty of cars because it hasn’t been opened to the public yet. When I see the pavement I calm my stride, though I keep my legs high over the strewn stones. Another crack across the bay. Crack. Crack. Then a fly hits me in the temple, and for a millisecond I can’t believe it’s true: me, me, someone wanted to kill me, and did.
Then I come to and I’m on the sidewalk, still alive, still running, in the fifteenth safest country in the world. The fly—it hit me like a reminder that somewhere people are running from an actual something, and that place is not here.
Or: I see the dog first, neon orange collar around its neck the color of my running singlet. I see the hat next, making its way across the parched earth. I see the body third, stepping over rocks, head down, returning from a hunt—and the gun last, hoisted over his shoulder. What the man is doing in camoflauge, hunting the barren rock-cluttered hill beside the water, I can’t imagine. He’s fifty meters away from a well-trafficked pedestrian path. I could be in America, from the look of the man. I start to suspect that I am.
Or: The red flags are finally up. I could have sworn the firing range was abandoned, from all my days running through it and seeing nothing but rebar twisted out of concrete walls, but today I hear shots, actual shots, so I keep my run inland, on the road. The shots come in a burst and stop. Then I hear no more. Past the range, I descend again into touristland. I wonder: Which way do they shoot? At the ocean, where they might hit boats? Or at the land, where they know the bullets will stop eventually, but who knows in what?
Every day is impossible, until all of the sudden it isn’t. At the end of my second week of school, as I walk home past the roaring cars and through the thick air, I feel an unfounded elation enter my body. It is slow and subtle but unmistakeable: Suddenly I’m not worried, I’m not terrified. I consider that this unplaceable feeling might be the beginning of comfort, of settling into a place, of having some notion of what to expect and what is expected of me and fulfilling those things, of coloring in boxes and leaving them full. I consider that a new era is at hand.
The feeling dissipates soon after I notice it. There are more stressors at hand—the perpetual visa nightmare, the ghost of loneliness—and you know as well as I do that the moment a baseline comfort is reached, the body accommodates by requiring so much less input to generate pain. But still it’s an omen. A week later the bureaucratic nightmare will end. A few days after that, I’ll become so overstimulated by social activities that I can’t wait to go to a movie by myself—to watch intrepid men die on Everest and almost cry watching Rob Hall’s wife say goodbye to him.
Night brings a flotilla of snails pasted to the white concrete wall outside my apartment. I’m coming back from somewhere, I don’t remember where, and can’t believe how many snails there are. The smallest ones are nearly microscopic. The big ones are fat and mighty. The shells of some hang off as if fastened by string. A family of three, one big, one medium, one tiny, scrapes upward, fighting slowly toward soil.
A week later—time is an image, time is water we pour back and forth—I eat twenty or thirty snails in a go. I pluck their little bodies out of their shells with a toothpick and let them hang in the air for a second, glistening intestinal spirals, before I pop them in my mouth. The oily foil container piles with shells. My breath grows rich. When we’re done we stand and explore the friary. In one corner of what must be the display room, a piece of the dome destroyed by a World War II bomb lies on a wooden cart, part of it actively crumbling. In a chair against a wall of the room, a white-faced priest with an iron nose waits tinily as the tourists file past. Jesus dies brutally on the wall.
We return outside to the candles hanging from the village’s avenues, to the locals strolling idly by and staring up at them. Around some corner, a band plays American cover songs. We’re happy, I’m almost sure of it; we’re in a dream; I’m so tired tonight everything blurs; I’m so alive I can hardly see.
This is the fourth in a series in which I live in Malta for a year. Find the rest of the series here.
This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.