The beginning is a movie: From the Upper Barrakka Gardens in the southern corner of Valletta, I can see not only the Three Cities across the bay fortified with their five-hundred year-old walls, not only domes and ancient sand-colored homes rising beside towering steel cranes and container ships in the harbor, but also a fat white arrow of a cruise ship rolling across the blue water as if in the opening credits of an emotionally ambitious American film in which the hapless protagonist arrives in Malta, wanders with confusion and a map around its historic capital, and finally emerges with the help of serendipity at an unimaginably beautiful panorama of the bay, prefiguring all the majesty, wonder, and mystery of his coming days and months on the island. There’s even music, which fits so perfectly with the ship’s waltz across the glowing water that I at first believe it’s being played by loudspeakers on the ship’s deck designed to announce its arrival. But it’s much too far away for that. Just below the Gardens, on a perfectly manicured lawn with eight black cannons pointed toward the ship, are a pair of speakers aimed up at us.
It’s not so often that attempts to curate wonder succeed, but today they do. On my left and right, and all along the railing, tourists gather and stare with awe at the approaching ship. It angles in for what appears to be an impossible landing. The tourists, me included, rush to the far corner of the railing to see whether the ship, of all the ships in the ocean, has miscalculated and will become the next Titanic. But we can see when we’ve arrived in a clump at the crucial vantage point that everything is going according to plan—the dock is angled in a way we couldn’t have known.
When disaster doesn’t strike, the tourists start to leave the Gardens. I wait a little longer and watch the ship inch closer to land. But something so huge must move slowly; any motion it makes is multiplied a thousandfold. I don’t have the patience to stay and see the first cruisegoers file off.
So I leave the Gardens too, and back in the city it feels as if Malta has begun.
Or: The bus squeaks to a stop at the roundabout just before my neighborhood and the bus driver stands and punches his fist against his palm and shouts across the bus, “There’s been a smash! We can’t go on! Where’s everybody going?”
The riders answer in a chorus, “Valletta!”
“Everybody’s going to Valletta?” he says.
“No! Ta’ Xbiex!” I say.
He looks at me. “You might just be lucky, my friend,” he says. Then he leaps back into the driver’s seat, accelerates through a roundabout, and steers into a set of narrow roads I’ve never seen before. I work my way over to him.
“So you’ll drop me in Ta’ Xbiex?” I say.
“Yeah,” he says, and I detect in his accent what I’d been unsure of before: He’s definitely not Maltese. Is he English?
He shakes his head: “Australian.”
“No way,” I say, and what I really mean is I’ve never seen a person drive like this before in a country that’s not his own, steering a huge bus along such tiny streets around cars like pinballs as if he’d been born at the wheel.
We talk for a while. He tells me how he went to the U.S. once, to California, and how he stopped in Mexico first and got a thousand dollar leather jacket for two hundred, and some Nikes for cheap too. Then an older woman gets on the bus and he begins to talk to her in Maltese. I stare at them with awe. Since I left the U.S. for a second time I’ve begun to see expatriates with some sadness, now that I understand how far they are from what they know and who they are supposed to love. But the bus driver is more alive than most people, and listening to him yak in Maltese makes me feel optimistic, and before I know it we’re in Ta’ Xbiex. He slams to a stop beside the marina and as I get off he and the old woman tell me good luck, as if I’m headed out into the city alone with no idea what I’m doing. They’re right. As the glass doors close, the bus driver winks at me.
Or: The beach is made up of tiny pieces of gravel that look like sand, mixed in with cigarette butts and the occasional piece of trash. Behind it is a kiosk selling gelato and precooked hamburgers and behind that is a short street of stone steps lined with clubs that from what I hear fill up at night with blind drunk legal minors and from what I read on their glossy signs sell fifteen shots for eight Euros. Hotels and restaurants line the right and left sides of the bay, and twenty or thirty boats populate the water just beyond the buoyed ropes that indicate where you’re allowed to swim. The beach itself is host to hundreds, probably thousands, of tourists every day even though it’s smaller than a football field.
But right now, they’re not so many. The time is six o’clock and people have begun to take up their towels and cover-ups and make for the restaurants, bronzed beyond belief, leaving me with more space than I expected. I’m sitting on my new towel, which depicts a Maltese luzzu, in my new bathing suit, which is cheap and green. But I don’t go into the water. It’s too cool out for that, too late, and I’ve got a book that I’m reading and out of a coincidence I can’t help but treasure, the story is “A Line in the Sand” by Andrés Neuman. Its first lines read,
Ruth was making mountains with her foot. She dug her big toe into the warm sand, formed small mounds, tidied them, carefully smoothed them with the ball of her foot, contemplated them for a moment. Then she demolished them.
Like Ruth, I’m here because I believe in the beach, even if it’s not the greatest beach, and I believe in the insistence of the ocean, particularly when I live within a five-minute walk of it. It’s not the great beyond I like to imagine when I think of the ocean—the boats block the view, the rest of the bay blocks the view, even the waves sidle up in tame bumps as if they’re artificial—but a gently volumed speaker from the gelato kiosk is playing a techno song with a chorus that tells me that this is heaven so what the hell, I believe it for a second, and suddenly, in that same second, I feel across my back the first insistent wind of the season. It tells me, as nothing has come close to telling me since I arrived in this country, that I ought to retreat indoors because I am cold.
I am cold! Think of it!
A damp breeze was beginning to rise on the beach, or Jorge noticed it at that moment.
He stood and gathered his towel and walked back to his apartment, elated at the strength with which the feeling returned to him: the certainty, which he had nursed for years but was sure had been eradicated by these two weeks, that he would rather bake in the sun than be cold even for a minute.
Or the plaque says:
The Walls of Perception, 2015
This is an installation made of 25 photographs grouped as one artwork depicting construction boundary walls and ‘blind’ walls that are the vulgar effect of building without planning. The piece is a non-apologetic take on the fact that Malta has been, in the last 30 years, a permanent building site governed by incompetence, greed and outright aesthetic failure.
Beside it, true to the plaque’s promise, is a five by five grid of photos framed in benevolently light wood, each one depicting a different blank, windowless wall. At first “non-apologetic” seems just the word; the grid as a whole seems cynical, almost artless, limited by its insistence on showing us the ugliness we see every day and try to ignore. But when you keep looking, you notice that in every photo there are some windows—just not the windows you want so badly to break up the walls. In one, the top of a well-used spiral staircase peeks above a wall. In another, a mess of electric wire is tangled atop a telephone pole in the foreground, sending signals out of the frame to people and homes we will never see. A red hand-painted sign in an empty lot reads
NO PARKING HERE. 24 hrs.
No SHIT of Your Dog.
A sideways Giant’s Causeway made of cinder blocks. A vine-eaten house that cowers below its towering, lifeless neighbor. A sliver of wall that juts out strangely from an otherwise rectangular structure as if it is paper thin. And, in every photo, the swimming pool sky.
As heartened as I am by cynicism in a place where I can’t communicate well enough to be cynical, I am more heartened by the reminder that behind the blankness, or on its borders, there are living moments I haven’t taken the time to see.
I step away from the photos and stow my notebook and leave the building—a giant windowless fort from the 16th century, half-filled with earth.
Or: The left one I got pierced during my first semester of college. My friend K. and I were suddenly eighteen years old and living on our own so we walked across campus to the tattoo shop and she got her eyebrow pierced and I went second and they stuck a needle through the cartilage halfway up my ear and I almost passed out, but I didn’t. I turned ghost-white and sat there sipping juice. Finally, nine years later, I wear a diamond my grandma gave me. My sister has the other one. K., as I recall, took her eyebrow ring out before the end of sophomore year.
The right one I got pierced two years ago, when I was leaving Boulder. They poked a 14 gauge needle through the soft semicircular cave before the entrance to my ear and followed it through with a thick, wide ring. At the time E. and I were dating, and she got a cartilage piercing. I’m almost certain she took hers out, but I couldn’t ask now. I still have mine. I think it’s cool. It looks like a pirate’s earring.
Until today: There are rules at the school where I’ll teach, and one of them is men may not have piercings, and when in Rome, so a woman with latex gloves is slipping the pirate ring out of its hole and sliding a transparent rod through it and slipping a translucent rubber o-ring around that and moving to the first piercing and struggling, now, with that one, digging around inside the hole with the new plastic rod because it was pierced at a strange angle and because the hole has narrowed since its birth and my ear is starting to hurt, and the scar tissue protests, and I breathe and remain calm and my mind can do whatever it wants but my body has other ideas that I know nothing about, and finally although she is done I can feel the cold sweat rising to my skin and the blood lost from my head and if I don’t have a sip of water I’m going down without a doubt, so I stand slowly and fill a cup from the water cooler and humble myself by returning to the seat.
“Sit back,” says the owner, who’s sketching a tattoo design nearby. “It’s better than hunching up, all tense.” So I sit back.
I’ve been saying to myself these past few weeks, I’m too old for this shit. But I think what I really mean is that I’m too old to be reminded how young I am. I can see a year from now: A piercer in the U.S. slips the old earrings back in, stirs up some scar tissue, and I almost pass out again. Or maybe I actually do pass out.
Same as the first time I had my blood drawn. “You’re hurting me,” I said to the nurse, and drooped forward. My sister, seeing me, collapsed where she stood.
I am twenty-seven years old. The feeling passes quickly enough. So I stand. And with nothing more to ask of the woman in latex gloves or the man with the pencil—I’ve asked everything: why are these so expensive? what does bio-plastic mean?—I walk with naked ears into the bright and peopled street.
Or: I’m standing in McDonald’s and it’s just as terrible as in the United States. Kids that almost seem to have been curated scream and chase plastic toys across the nondescript tile; people hunch over their food chewing amid a sea of discarded waxy paper and bright red cardstock; an unhappy woman shuffles to the register and calls me forward. I step forward. I order a Big Mac. And fries. I take it outside. Self-loathing is at times a great pleasure. While I eat, a brother and sister who are racing in circles around the second floor of the outdoor mall sideswipe a standing wood ashtray, which issues a loud crack when it hits the faux-wood floor. The boy halts by it, stares at it, torn between his guilt-free childhood and the inevitability that he will become an adult and have to deal with such problems. Thankfully he moves on, leaving cigarettes scattered in a modest arc around the fallen ashtray.
The Big Mac tastes great. So do the fries, which are salt and not much else. For that short time while I am eating, my body is convinced that it is succeeding wildly at doing one of the few things it was made to do.
When I lived in Taiwan, I knew the people at McDonald’s well. It was considered a decent restaurant there, a bastion of corporate stability in a city that hummed with nightmarkets and street vendors and soy-sauce splattered menus I couldn’t even try to read. The woman I always ordered from spoke excellent English, so good that I wondered why she worked there, and she knew I liked ketchup. I would ask for hen duo ketchup and she would laugh with me and pile eight of those little packets on my tray. Then I’d go upstairs and stare out the huge glass windows at the passing street, surrounded by teenagers doing their homework, and for a short time I’d feel as whole as I could feel.
Though I promised myself I wouldn’t, I need this refuge in Malta too, four years later. The McDonald’s is worse, and it’s hard to achieve the same timbre of alienation and despair in a country where one of the national languages is English and most people I see look like me. But I am still on the second floor, still hovering above the action, and rich people are piloting their Land Rovers down the narrow streets and nearly hitting the tank-topped tourists and I can almost begin to imagine myself as a number, unable to speak to anyone even if I wanted to.
The next time I look up from my Big Mac, the big wooden ashtray is righted. I believe, for some sad seconds, that the boy who’d knocked it over and stopped and looked at it with such indecision returned to pick it up. I hope he didn’t. Not yet.
This is the third in a series in which I live in Malta for a year. Find the whole 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.