Cultural Encounters: Green, White & Red Matters in Malta

The instantly recognisable colours of Italy

Due in no small part to its perfectly strategic location in the centre of the Mediterranean sea, Malta has, over the ages, been occupied by very many different cultures through the ages, from the Phoenicians and Romans to the Arabs, Normans, a mixture of different European nationalities from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth centuries, the French, and finally the British. Malta’s vicinity to the large island of Sicily (it is located a mere 80 km from the Sicilian coast, and is once believed to have been part of the same land mass) has led to nearly 600 years of shared history, a fact which is reflected in a good number of Maltese family names, which are Siculo-Arabic in origin (including that of yours truly); the language, which has Semitic roots but numerous loan words from Italian, and the cuisine, some elements of which were imported almost wholesale from the island region, such as the traditional seasonal sweets. Added to the above is the fact that, during the rule of the Order of the Knights of St. John, the Italian language was the lingua franca of the order’s members. The upper echelons of Maltese society spoke Italian, initially rather than and then in addition to the vernacular up until a few decades ago. Indeed, when English was first instated as one of the country’s two official languages in pre-World War II Malta, the decision received strong opposition from the genteel classes, many of whom were more familiar with Italian. We therefore find a good number of elements that engender a certain closeness of culture between the natives of Malta and those of Italy, particularly when it comes to Sicilian and Southern Italians. Up until a few years ago, Malta was home to a small Italian community, mostly hailing from Sicily or Southern Italy. However, in the last ten years or so, this previously small enclave has expanded in size, to the point that some 40,000 Italians are now believed to reside permanently in Malta and Gozo. The reasons for this apparent hike in numbers are many and varied: sadly, many parts of the mother country still seem to be in the throes of an economic lull which has never quite recovered from the crisis that held much of Europe in its grip some ten years ago. Added to this comes Malta’s geographical and apparent cultural vicinity to Italy, and the fact that natives may initially use their own language when they first move to the island, as some locals still speak it (although English is a necessity for most well-paying jobs). For the younger, English-speaking Italians, it may be the draw of island life away from a large city, the excitement of searching for something different, or simply having to relocate due to their workplace opening an office on the Maltese islands. Whatever the case may be, it is an intriguing situation to ponder. I have become increasingly aware of the fact that it is difficult to leave my house without hearing the Italian language being spoken. For instance, Italian-owned catering and fine food businesses – cuisine being an area which the country shares a well-deserved reputation for, together with its French neighbour – now abound in all areas of the island (surely one of the advantages of sharing Maltese shores with our more northerly neighbours!) My locality is a case in point – though tending to the residential rather than being overly commercial, it boasts at least 3 Italian-owned enterprises:- a gourmet food store focussing on mainly Piedmontese delicacies, a Sicilian confectionery and a restaurant offering mostly Southern Italian and Sicilian dishes, run by the chef-owner, who hails from the Italian island-region itself, and his Milanese partner.

My curiosity about what Italians who have settled here or who may have relocated temporarily to the island generally think of their Maltese experience so far led me to seek out a few individuals who have been in Malta for varying periods of time. For reasons of data protection, each contributor will be referred to by their initials. The first person I spoke to was RF, a software engineer in his late forties whose initial contact with the Maltese islands was the result of a chance encounter in the form of a spur-of-the-moment search for the most economical destination where he and a friend could celebrate their birthdays together. He was charmed by what the brief break yielded, and decided to take the plunge to move here two years after this happy episode. He has now been in Malta for four years, and is the proud owner of a penthouse apartment in the centre of the island, as well as a sailing boat. He gets around traffic-congested Malta on his scooter, using a small city car, a Renault Clio, to run errands and to travel in greater comfort when the weather is not amenable to bike-riding. For him, Malta provided the chance to dwell in a Mediterranean climate after having experienced the fog, rain and snow of Northern Italian cities, while also allowing him to explore a different, if not wholly dissimilar culture. He came here primarily seeking to be steeped in an authentic local culture. In his experience, it was very easy to integrate with other residents, and he counts many locals, as well as fellow expatriates, among his circle of friends. RF treasures the unspoilt areas still found around the island, such as secluded beaches, walkways and tiny hamlets, and cherishes the hope that they will be preserved for posterity. He cannot abide the northwesterly wind that besieges the islands with its brute force, and abhors the haphazard manner in which some buildings are constructed in Malta. During our conversation, I get the sense that he adores the elements that he finds so quirky about Malta, such as the following scene, which unfolded before him on a beautiful early summer’s morning:- a middle-aged man watching the sunrise with his elderly mother on the beach, with a religious radio programme solemnly intoning its dawn prayer in the background; a tableau that displays a juxtaposition of the sacred and the ridiculously comic, for those hailing from a culture to whom this is alien. It sounds as if RF has found his niche on this little island. When he visits his home region in Southern Italy or his friends further up along the boot, he is glad to see his family and friends, but misses Malta, and is content to return. When pressed on whether Malta will always be his home, he is non-committal; just like a rolling stone, home is wherever he lays his hat. The Maltese language remains fascinating but unknown to him, other than a few choice words here and there. His opinion of compatriots on the island is that if they are open-minded enough, they will make their time here work. The only thing that truly jars for him about the island that he has made his home is, he says, the worrying way in which certain high-profile, controversial events such as the well-publicised murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia have been handled, with not enough progress having been made – he feels – on the matter.

The lure of the sea and the Mediterranean way of life has been a great attraction for RF

My next contributor, EM, has been in Malta for a couple of years. At the age of 35, she holds a desk job with a local company, while pursuing her passion for food and building-centred photography on a part-time basis. EM hails from Umbria, lives with her partner and two other flatmates in a quiet and mostly residential central area on the island, and hopes to start a family soon. She made the decision to move to Malta after having spent two years in Egypt and fallen in love with the culture. In Malta, she was looking for something similar to the Egyptian environment but perhaps a little closer to home. Incredibly, she wishes that Malta were a little hotter, but other than this, seems to relish her relatively new home. She came to the island ostensibly to learn English, liked the environment, met her life-partner and the rest, as they say, is history! One of the things that first surprised her about Malta is the mixture of cultures encountered on the island – not merely in the environment and the way people go about their lives on a daily basis, which clearly contains the stamp of a mish-mash of foreign occupations over the centuries, but also in terms of the number of expatriates now settled on Maltese shores from all over the world. She enthuses about Valletta’s beguiling nature, but bemoans the rents, which have recently skyrocketed owing to the building boom and surge in demand for accommodation by employees of various international companies. EM finds the word “mela”, a kind of filler used to mean anything from “of course” or “definitely” to “and how”, or simply to punctuate a codeswitching sentence, absolutely hilarious. She would love to learn the language, and will do so once she finds the time for this. On a serious note, she is very pleased about the state of affairs on the island regarding LGBTIQ rights, which are not, she says, given as much prominence in Italy as they are here. Being gay herself, this holds a special significance for her; she can marry her life-partner and bring up a family more easily here than in Italy. EM feels a strong pull to the island, and envisages the distinct possibility of spending the rest of her life here. When visiting her loved ones in Italy, she longs to return here. She rounds off our interview by saying good-naturedly that she doesn’t mind bumping into fellow Italians here, but she feels that there are too many of them!

One of the reasons that EM feels at home in Malta is the strong presence of LGBTIQ rights on the island – a rather recent phenomenon

OP, a sales executive for the Italian branch of a Belgian bathroom sanitary ware and plumbing utensils company, has a different outlook than the other interviewees as far as some matters related to Malta are concerned. First and foremost, the move from her native Milan was, for her, entirely predicated upon her work circumstances. She had no desire to leave her family or friends; instead, her relocation was precipitated upon her by the company she worked for, which determined to transfer one of its branches to Malta. Although she feels that it is easy to integrate in Malta, she takes issue with the laissez-faire attitude that she feels is engendered by some locals and some ways of doing things on the island. She does not feel that a lot of things are done with a sense of style or good taste in Malta, and is baffled by the often naïve brand of nationalism which she encounters in the Maltese. On the plus side, the weather is a great selling-point – the blueness of the sky and the sea, the sun and the natural light never cease to amaze her. OP does feel a sense of belonging Malta. She can utter a few words in the vernacular, “the fun ones”, as she tells me, with a twinkle in her eye, but would need to learn the language more deeply in order to speak a level which would enable her to hold a decent conversation using it. For her, the ‘loudness’ of Maltese culture can sometimes be a little disconcerting – listening to locals simply greeting one another sounds as if they were quarrelling to a Northern European. She tellingly reserves the right not to comment about her fellow countrymen and -women residing on the island. At bottom, OP rather enjoys living in Malta, even though some of her observations may sound somewhat negative, and the fact that she has been here for the longest amount of time out of the four interviewees – a good seven years – is testament to this.

Malta’s cerulean seas, azure sky and its natural light keep OP on our island…

The last of my interviewees, IP, has only been in Malta for six months, so her grasp of life in Malta will, naturally, have been affected by her shorter sojourn. Being from just outside Rome and having been accustomed to living in the huge, heaving, magnificent city that is Italy’s capital, Malta represented, for IP, a respite from the hectic metropolis and from the disorderly tangle that Rome constitutes, together with a multitude of other things. At the same time, it promised a variety of jobs in the financial sector, which is where IP’s expertise lies, in a Mediterranean island setting. She muses that life here is not that far off from what she experienced in Italy, aside from being less chaotic than the Roman order of things. The job element was something of a disappointment for her, however, as her current work situation does not, she feels, adequately reflect her skills and abilities. She is hoping that this situation will change in the next few months. IP lives in one of the most commercial, touristic and sought-after towns on the island. She has not found it difficult to meet residents of both local and foreign origins, and says that her routine was easy to fall into – but she was, perhaps, luckier than others, already having a good friend living on the island who was able to take her under her wing and show her the ropes. Two weird and wonderful things IP has noticed in her time here so far have been the drinks served in establishments found dotted all over the nightlife mecca Paceville, in the centre of St. Julians, and the fact that grocery shopping seems to be a primary preoccupation here, with people seeming to gather groceries at all times of the day. Being accustomed to Rome, with its multifarious cultural offerings, IP sometimes finds Malta a little limiting . Intriguing events are frequently held, she concedes, but you have to really look for them, and make it your business to know what’s going on. Also, she finds the shop opening hours rather short (which would explain the odd behaviour displayed by shoppers described above!) Notwithstanding the fact that life in general is quite similar in Malta to the Italian way of doing things, IP finds that, fundamentally, there is a greater adherence to religion in Malta, that the Maltese are much more greatly attached to traditions – something which is mainly evident in rural settings in Italy – and, lastly, that rules and regulations in Malta are sometimes followed to the letter, which is, for her, surprising. Like OP, she finds that the Maltese language makes people sound rather irate, perhaps due to the harsh musicality of its rhythms associated with Arabic. IP does not anticipate a permanent residence in Malta, saying that she may move back home at some point, perhaps due to work-related reasons. She does not feel that Malta is truly her home yet, but this may come with the passing of time. When questioned about other Italians here, IP admits to the misfortune of having dreadful neighbours in the town where she resides here coming from Italy. Facebook is a constant source of hilarity for her, with the obsession of some of her compatriots of locating goods and services in Malta which are exclusively provided by Italians. Despite all of the little hurdles she has met with so far, IP is committed to improving her life here, and is sure that she will become more integrated within the community at large – a positive outlook which, it must be said, expatriates the world over would do well to adopt.

IP feels that she needs to come across the right working opportunity in Malta

Ultimately, a residential experience in a different country is determined by many varying factors, amongst them relationships, work-related matters, finances, integration into the community at large, natural environment, accommodation and just plain luck. The rest of it, though, is mostly down to the individual’s take on things, and how ready they are to make things work.

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