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Saturday, 26 January 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 1 - Where is Malta?


‘Min ibiddel l-imkien ibiddel il-vintura;
Għaliex l-iradi għal kull xiber sura
Who changes his place, changes his fate;
for each land has its own shape

From 1962 onwards Hugh M. Hefner wrote many thousands of words describing The Playboy Philosophy, a multi-faceted doctrine advocating positive evolution through considered immorality. A warning against puritanism, prejudice and superstition.
By 2007 Neville Borg, a self-professed Maltese Playboy, had distilled the Playboy philosophy and lifestyle into his own short credo:
            You only live once,
            Try to have fun.
            I’m not Tom Cruise,
            But I have my own tongue.

Chapter 1.
Sat in a laundrette at the main campus there was a smell of stale clothes, a few scattered empty chairs and a strip light humming orange. I felt some affection for the sadness of the place. I had read the first two chapters but even in this banal setting I had not been able to take a word of it in. I flicked back to the contents page:
1. Theoretical Accounts of the Life Course
2. Social Differentiation and Determinants of the Life Course
3. Reproduction, Infancy, and Parenting
4. Childhood: Issues and Perspectives
5. Contemporary Youth
6. Relationships, Sexualities, and Family Life
7. Work, Leisure, and Consumption
8. The Challenge of Mid-Life
9. Ageing, Old Age, and Death [1]

There it was laid out before me, everything I had to look forward to if I continued on my current Life Course. I had just started studying sociology; in one of the previous lectures we had learnt that the average number of suicides is a predictable percentage of the population across almost all cultures.
- Do they study sociology across almost all cultures?

            I stepped out into another grey late afternoon in Bristol and caught the bus back to my dorm room. A carpet tile torn from within sat outside my door painted with the slogan ‘Well Cum.’ The past few weeks were a blur, maybe I was getting into the student lifestyle after all. Inside my room the walls were covered in streaks of yellow and blue paint from the night before: “Layers of lost merriment on the thin walls of the human condition” as my wannabe poet flatmate put it. Miserable, I stared at my pin-board where I had stuck a newspaper cutting that I thought would come in handy for an essay on Marx’s theory of alienation. ‘The Happiest Place On Earth’ was the title of the article about an island called Vanuatu in the South Pacific whose people, despite having very little to call their own, seem to be satisfied with their lot and are accordingly happy. ‘Why has their relatively primitive lifestyle - for they still have their witch doctors - with so few modern comforts, knocked most of Europe, with all its mod cons, cinemas, TV comedies, computers and so on, off the ‘happy and contented’ register? [2]

            I am naturally skeptical. How can you measure something like that, especially on a worldwide scale? I was not even keen on the idea that seemed to be getting ever more popular lately of chasing happiness. I saw more sense instead in embracing a broad palette of human emotions in accordance to one’s current situation. The last thing I would want to see at my funeral is some old friend caught up in some new-age mumbo-jumbo smiling because they were ‘genuinely happy’. Often I encouraged my mild depressions; melancholy can be addictive and contagious. But the article had triggered something within me; an urge that lead me, as many other urges did at the time, to the Internet. I wanted to find an island of my own, one where life could be uncomplicated. 

            Akin to the out-spoken majority of British people I was convinced of the self-deprecating fallacy that “I’m no good at languages.” After seven years of learning French at college my competency was nothing to write home about, unlike my bad behaviour. This is why when searching for islands the term I used was ‘British Overseas Territory.’ The result was a list of remote islands, some lush, some volcanic, some tax havens. Although far-flung and impractical, just the knowledge of their existence temporarily calmed my soul, and for the time being I went back to reading The Life Course whilst subconsciously forming a plan.
            The situation in late- or postmodernity is now more complex. If youth has historically been interpreted as a ‘crisis’, then the nature of that crisis may have changed. It is one informed by choice, opportunities, discontinuities and problems of identity – all of which may be impacted by periodical moral panics and negative appraisals which cut across the positive image of looking and ‘being’ young.

            I continued with university for some time but took it less seriously each day, eventually turning up to a lecture - given by the author of the aforementioned (and quoted) book - with two friends dressed in afro-wigs, ponchos and sombreros. After a sleepless night, and drinking another bottle of whiskey from the first shop to open, we were a little frazzled. I interrupted the lecturer’s drone by shouting to him. 

“Why do you keep telling us you fuck donkeys?” - a rhetorical question.
He looked at me quizzically, silently and slightly stunned. But this was university, not secondary school, and the other students did not laugh. Instead they threatened to smash our faces in unless we left; so we danced out stepping on top of their tables and any empty chairs like mariachi monkeys on the loose.

            I felt that we had done something good, that maybe some of the other students would find it a little harder now to ignore the infinite unique details that elevate our lives above a structured preordained path. The good feeling did not last long. Soon I was wallowing in post-binge depression, gorging on chocolate for its endorphins. The chocolate didn’t seem to help so again I browsed the web for a longer-term solution; English speaking islands. This time I found a more accessible archipelago, no longer under British jurisdiction but still with English as an official language: Malta. Jettisoned between Africa and Europe in the Mediterranean Sea with a population of less than half a million and part of the European Union. The facts spoke for themselves, this was what I was looking for, the place for me. I decided to bring instant substance to this daydream and booked a budget one-way flight. Entering my debit card numbers and proceeding with payment, my future was made manifest before me. I was set to depart just after Christmas, giving me enough time to quit University before the start of the second term, enjoy the festive season with my family, and make a break with the remainder of my loan. 

            Was I just another happiness chaser? No. I was seeking sunshine, not as metaphor, just sunshine. I had a self-diagnosed case of S.A.D.ness or Seasonal Affective Disorder.  A kind of ‘winter blues’ brought on by the lack of exposure to sunlight. Not to be scoffed at, as the S.A.D. Association estimates that 7% of the UK population suffers from the condition every year between September and April [3]. One hypothesis for the reason behind this gloomy affliction is the lack of vitamin D that the Sun’s ultraviolet light provides the body. But instead of taking Holland & Barrett supplements - which surely couldn’t compensate for the honest service the one true Sun had been providing for millennia - I decided to become a Sun Seeker. The first step on the ladder to an orthodox Sun Worshipper!

            I was however sure that my state of melancholy was not influenced by lack of sunlight alone: I was a complex being – going through a ‘crisis’. At times feeling a detachment from the human race as a whole, which seemed to accept as gospel a predictable route through life that lacked variations. How could people face growing old in the town they were born? School was legally compulsory until the age of sixteen but after that it wasn’t legally compulsory to work every day making correct, considered decisions. Or to gain further education year after year, striving for an enjoyable job. Whoever actually enjoyed a job? It pays the bills, makes economic sense with an exotic holiday once a year, drinks down the pub every third night and enough pot to make the telly good. But take that Gap Year, tick off place names and take photos with fellow ‘travellers’ who also like travelling and meeting people. A year’s change is as good as a rest. No need for any major alterations. You could understand the world through the newspaper. Well I couldn’t, only art made any sense: Gauguin’s paintings and Fante’s books. I was even getting sick of the way friends and acquaintances talked. How the people back home sounded just like the people at university who sounded just like the presenters on TV who sounded just like me. It had gotten to a point where not even I was sure whether I was being sarcastic or not half the time.

            I realise now that I was a borderline misanthropist. I was supposed to like these people! Sure I did individually but not as a whole - most people's lives seemed prescribed. 
          I saw my own failings in others, but subconsciously knew it was myself I needed to change. So I set off, as many the disillusioned few had before me, amid fond farewells from friends and family whose guesses as to how long I would be gone were no better than my own.


[1] Hunt, S. (2005) The life course: a sociological introduction.
[2] Shears (2006) Irish Daily Mail.

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