Sicilia 12: fingers dipped into the sea

There’s a rumor going around that I love small things that add value to the bigger picture, but one thing that cancels all the arguments about me being detail-oriented is the fact that I sometimes do not pay attention to them, when it’s truly needed… instead of writing 2500 characters I write 2500 words. Therefor this is going to be a short story about our weekend trip to Malta!

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Sometimes to truly realize how much a place has taught you, how living abroad has transformed you, it is necessary to travel a bit further. Going from North to South is a big step, but if the South starts to feel too familiar and you dare to say that it has no effect on you, it is time to get on a plane. This is a eulogy to the Mediterranean Sea which laves the shores of Southern islands with azure colors; heals the wounds with salty water and splashes the tiredness out of you with unrestrained waves.  This is praise to beige-colored buildings that reflect the sunlight, making a city radiant; and an encouragement to try typical foods that would transform you to the mindset of a local, but most of all – this is an inducement to accept the fact that you are a tourist in a strange land, even if you desperately try not to be one.

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A journey starts already within the country you are traveling from – the excitement before leaving, the luggage check, which is never predictable – Will I be let through? [..] considered a drug dealer? [..] have something shady in my bag, shoes, jewelry? The airport employees in Italy are truly Italian and never miss an opportunity to chat with each other or have an argument while you are waiting for a green light. And even if you have something unauthorized in your bag, they will just smile, take it from you, say “Scusa” and let you proceed. There is a huge difference in attitude, when compared to Nordic countries.

We arrived one and a half hours later than expected because of a delayed flight.
Malta airport seemed quite small, but the realization that people actually understand and speak English there was astonishing for me…that, of course, did not cancel the automatic Italian phrases that are rutted within us after 5 months of living in Sicily. Instead we had to focus on speaking English even though a huge part of Malta’s inhabitants come from Italy.

This resort island that you could compare to a normal-sized European capital is so multinational that there were no particular facial features or body shape, hair or skin color that would describe Maltese people. Whenever I thought that I have figured it out, it turned out that the person came from another part of the world. The island serves as a melting pot for all cultures and nationalities. And to make it just a bit more understandable, I have a story to tell. While we were walking through Valeta – the capital city of Malta in the size of a tea spoon – I met an old acquaintance – a Latvian, who is now living in Malta. A Latvian! Our country is a small nation in the North and still there are representatives living on this island, not to mention someone I know and recognize, and can salute on the street! What is the chance? This is how mixed the population is, and I am sure there are people from all over the world.

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The first thing that I did, when we arrived, was ordering a cappuccino in one of the coffee places that we also have in my country, but as hard as it is, I have to admit that I have been spoiled with good and strong Italian coffee. Deep down in my heart I blamed Italy for that, but after a couple of days in Malta, I learned to see the pattern. When we first arrived in Sicily some of the hardest things to let go were the flavored coffee drinks from different coffee chain places. But now even the simplest cappuccino with a nicely made latte art drawing on top in a coffee chain shop cannot be compared to a cappuccino at an Italian place. I mean, I tried Costa, I tried local Maltese places, but we ended up returning to a place called “Restyle Café ” in  Swieqi, Malta. And let me just say that the owners were Italians coming from a town called Cecina – North from Rome. So if you will be in a search for a nice cappuccino and a chat in Malta, keep this Café in mind.

Our trip continued with an attempt to catch a bus. You can never predict that the buss which should bring you from the airport to an AirBnB will arrive an hour late because of St. Patrick’s Day. There is an Irish community living in Malta, and that was their night to shine. So we got on a bus that supposedly went to the same direction we needed, but it wasn’t clear where to get off.

No city map, no GPS, no nothing – only a street name of a location where a person called Alicia might be waiting for us for more than 2 hours, and a Spanish phone number. Sounds like a recipe for success, doesn’t it? Well, in spite of everything, it was. After getting off at a bus stop that sounded like “squeaky” – Swieqi – the town we were supposed to stay in, we asked for directions to a young guy who didn’t have the chance to answer because of a middle aged American, who stepped into the conversation. He shortly glanced at the map and said that he will show us the way. Since I come from a country whose inhabitants are not particularly drawn to helping strangers if they are not asked, it always amazes me how helpful some people can be. After living in Italy for a while and getting used to having mobile internet connection wherever I go, traveling to Malta caught me off guard and, well, made it clear that even a detail-oriented person can miss some crucial details.

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The man’s name was Mark. He and his wife had been living in Malta for 3 years, nevertheless the urge to escape to an even less populated place made them buy a house in Spain, so they will be moving there in April. In the meantime he spends his days working at the airport and helping lost travelers. He walked us to the street I mentioned, but when it turned out that our host hadn’t provided us with a house number, Mark offered his phone to call our host, saying: “You cannot go knocking on every door, and the hotels are very expensive.”  When we finally found the right house described by Mark as “the home of Spanish students” – an AirBnB owned by a Spanish lady, he waved us goodbye and gave a fatherly advice to look out for each other, especially on the night of St. Patrick’s.  We did not see much of the town that night, but waking up the next morning and walking through the small streets of beige, white, light gray and creamy color buildings made it somewhat magical – like you woke up in a dream.

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The architecture and colors of Malta could be described as the typical Mediterranean landscape. You can see trails of Roman influence, English classicism, prehistorical temples and breathtaking Baroque churches – and everything is dressed in light colors making the scene spectacular. It is the picture that comes into mind, when you think about Southern people leisurely spending their days in the sun, their dark skin vibrant on the light background of limestone buildings. And even though it is possible to find the same artistic influences elsewhere, the light stone, the sun and the azure water is what makes a difference.

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We went to search for the legendary Blue Lagoon since the Azure Window had just collapsed into the sea. And the aim was clear – to at least dip our toes in the transparent water, while looking at the rocks and the sea-view that encircles the lagoon, but the reality exceeded our expectations. The island of Comino is the home of Blue Lagoon and besides that the touristic notion is quite plain, but the island itself can amaze in many other ways. We walked through the fields of sand-dune in the color of clay, stepped over stone fences and climbed the mountain-like rocks. We saw tourists coming and going, but only a hand full of people decided to walk around the island. Only startling some birds would make you curious enough about the wildlife situation, and a walk in the desert-like area would make you warm enough to take the leap and go swimming in the cold water. It turned out that Comino has been identified as an Important Bird Area because it supports 50–80 breeding pairs of yelkouan shearwaters – a bird species I had never seen before, but stumbled on twice while we were walking on the island. It is a place so calm and isolated that another question arose in my mind: Is this just a tourist destination or there are people living on the island? I knew that it used to be inhabited by farmers, and the caves were used by pirates in the Middle Ages, but nowadays the island is mainly known by the Lagoon…

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So after some investigation it turned out that there are a small number of people living on the island – a population of four, if we are precise, and they stay all alone after the last ferryboat leaves the island around 4 p.m. What an amazing adventure it would be to camp on Comino and live there for a week – rock climbing, sunbathing, swimming, bird-watching, reading and drawing – a dream! And I am quite sure that some people have tried it already. But our trip brought us further – to the island of Gozo with ancient temples and Mediterranean-style summer house areas on the peaks and valleys of small mountains. We saw a movie set worthy village of Bethlehem, pine trees growing in strange shapes and a sea-view with clearly distinguishable ferry traffic. And seeing the ferries going back and forth reminded us that the aim was to find a nice restaurant in the heart of Malta, because a great part of the experience comes with tasting the traditional food.

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You have to learn the art of not slipping into habits like eating at places you could find back home or choosing chain restaurants, going for the first touristic places on the main street or living on fast food and pastries. The local cuisine can differ so much due to geographical location, historical elements, different influences and even the preferences of the chef, so finding the perfect place is a game of luck.

The task was clear and our determination – unbreakable, so we went from street to street searching for that one place that would fall into our hearts and a place called “Ir-Rokna” chose us. With its nice and traditional design, street corner building, a table outside, enclosed by plants, Malta’s oldest pizzeria became the best place to be on a Friday evening.  We returned the next day, sipping home vine and tasting the Maltese goods, and when the time to leave approached, we faced a long queue in front of the restaurant – both local people and travelers were lining up, willing to wait for a seat, while we walked out. And that is the sign of a truly good place.

One of my favorite dishes that I had the chance to try – adapted for vegetarians – was Antipasto Maltese which I would definitely recommend, if you want to feel the real taste of Malta without running from one place to another. Malta for me tastes like sundried tomatoes, cherry tomatoes and big, soft and juicy olives – harvested from the numerous Olive trees that grow all around the countryside. Even while we were walking about it turned out that the capital has a port view with Olive trees on the sides – just like Orange trees in Sicily or Linden trees in Latvia.

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For a place that attracts numerous tourists all through the summer season, I would say that it is the most beautiful right now – in March, when the trees are blooming and the sun warms the skin without burning too much; when the streets are not crowded, but you can still feel the liveliness in the city’s attempt for revival. It is the time for exploration without feeling too invasive, and a chance to see the untired faces of locals, who have just woken up from the winter nap and are ready to face the streams of travelers who will be eager to see their country. With its colors and vibrant glow the Republic of Malta will stay in my memory for a long time, drawing an image of the Mediterranean lifestyle.  But I will not forget this experience because it thought me to appreciate the place I am settled now. While gazing at the view from the airplane window I saw a sight I did not see before. The Blue Lagoon of Comino was just a small piece of Catania beach and the East cost of Sicily. The limestone buildings we had seen in Gozo are the same in Siracusa, Agrigento and Palermo, and what can a mountain say when faced with the tallest active volcano in Europe? Seeing other parts of this world is a life changing experience and a chance to see how much you have already been given.

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