You will know when it exists -- Obscure journalism direct from our man on the ground.

Monday, 28 January 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 2 - The Astra Hotel in Sliema.


Chapter 2.

After booking my flight I mostly forgot about the whole thing. There was no research or planning involved except booking three nights at the cheapest hotel on the island –The Astra - and checking to see if there was a university in Malta. From my recent stint spent in Bristol I gathered universities were a great place to find notice boards with offers of affordable flat shares for young adults. When the day came I had a duffel bag full of an assortment of clothes, swim shorts, a laptop and 20 CV’s printed on crisp white A4 paper.


Curriculum Vitae

Career Aim

Higher Education
Level 3 Diploma in Foundation Studies (Art & Design) Merit 

BA Hon’s modules focused upon Classical Sociology and Modern Industrial Society, The Individual and Society: The Life Course & Practical Philosophy.

Technical skills
Project Management – Using research techniques, data analysis methods, working on individual and teams projects.
Field Work – Liasoning with other organisations and general public.
IT Skills – Capable of using both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.
Office/Studio skills – Used to working unsupervised and managing my own work. Keeping accurate reports.
Data management – Collecting, analysing, storing and presenting data using spreadsheets.

General Skills
Hard Working – Get pleasure out of completing a task to the best of my ability. 
Adaptable – Can adapt to many situations, can fit into teams and meet and exceed expectations.

Other Education
Launceston College 1997 – 2004
GCSEs – English Language A, English Literature A, Art A, Religious Education A, Graphic Products A, Information Technology A, Maths B, French B, Double Science C.
A Levels – Art A, Product Design C, Media Studies C, Photography C.

Employment Experience
2005-2006           Waiter/ Kitchen Assistant/ Bar staff. Working for Jethro’s Comedy Club providing entertainment and silver service dinning for corporate events and private functions. Also general bar and restaurant work. – Devon, UK.
2003-2004           Water bottling plant manager. Maintaining smooth operations with heavy machinery and production staff for private owned spring water company. Also involved in the design of labels. – Devon, UK.
1998-2000           Assistant at Lifton Farm shop / Pick Your Own fruit centre, this job was a good way of learning about working with others and interaction with the general public. – Devon, UK

Other Initiatives And Achievements
Completed higher education course in life-drawing and had work experience at the TATE art gallery. Produced a children’s book and a choose-your-own-adventure book and written articles for local and university newspapers. Hold a Provisional UK driving license and a food hygiene certificate.                                                  


Looking back on this CV the first thing I notice is that I must have used a template as there is a heading for Career Aim under which I haven’t written anything. Make of that what you will. The template format seems to hinder me again as the Technical Skills section is very formal and strangely vague: 
Field Work - Liasoning with other organisations and the general public.
I hate to think what I was trying to portray, as the only field work I had experience in was picking strawberries. My own take on the situation seemed designed to give my persona a more corporate edge, even using my own version of the word Liaising - preferring ‘Liasoning’ - a more futuristic-sounding word. 
A few other points that I should mention for integrity’s sake:
I included the modules I had taken in my three-month tenure at university, and why not? I had learnt lessons, even if I had gained no accreditation. 
The articles in local newspapers were written by way of a friend and I writing letters to the editor pretending to be our own mothers who just couldn’t allow the good deeds we had done go unannounced. Of course these deeds were just spectacular lies, but they got published nonetheless. Our motivation was not delusional vanity but to prove that you shouldn’t believe everything you read. This entire CV could be seen as further re-enforcement of this principle as any employer hiring me based on the grades would have done well to ask to see the certificates. This book however isn’t fabricated – if all art is an artist’s attempt to live on after death then it doesn’t make much sense to have an imposter as a ghost. Also I lose my memories after about five years and an accurate aide memoir works far better than a falsification.

            On arrival at Hotel Astra I was a little drunk. The warm evening air of this new climate was intoxicating and the wine on the plane was complementary. I travelled by bus changing once and managed to get from Luqa airport to the hotel doorstep, spending most of journey with my head stuck out of the window like a hillbilly’s dog; tongue flapping - my eyes picking out the orange phantoms of churches and statues in the sparse street-lamp light. The room was very large and had two single beds and a sea view. I stepped out onto the balcony, looked at the snoring obsidian ocean and fell asleep impatient for the morning’s transformation of the scene.

The sunshine was glorious. I saw a large open-air public swimming pool that was not visible the night before. I felt my instincts had already been reaffirmed; this was the place for me. Breakfast was on the top floor, a buffet of cold meats, toast, jams and plentiful orange juice. I sat with a big woman who was to be the first Maltese person that I had the pleasure of conversing at any length with. Her name was Jocelyn, she seemed warm and inquisitive, she was on holiday from the other side of the Island to get away from domestic chores. She was middle aged, had olive skin, breezy floral clothing and was large enough that it might be considered a disability. 
Leaving her enjoying the endless supply of toast, I stepped into the bright light and wandered the streets all jittery like the last slurps of a milkshake through a straw. I tried to get acquainted with my unfamiliar home as if trying to recall what happened on an inconsequential Wednesday three years ago. What I noticed first was that, unlike myself, nobody else was paying any attention to where they were. The streets of Sliema running alongside and up to the sea were full of people who knew exactly where they were and what they were doing – right then and there. Girls in skimpy shorts strutted in and out of glass fronted shops, all colourful shopping bags and yesterday’s tan. Capitalism shone in supernatural glory as two men in blue shirts, ties and sunglasses stepped out of a white taxi, adjusting themselves on leaving the air-conditioned cab. There was a Marks & Spencers store, remnants of days more British, re-assurance for expats not yet feeling at home. Above the smaller shops enclosed balconies protruded, their boxed out windows shuttered and covered in dust. I wondered of their former days as luxurious town-houses built for the rich to escape Valetta’s confined heat. Now they longed for living residents rather than excess stock from the shop below, I saw these houses as homeless people visibly lacking family life– unshaven and unwashed. 
Traffic snaked along the narrow roads; cars and vans negotiating routes with the honking of horns, and boisterous shouts in an Arabic-sounding tongue which must have been Maltese. Cafes hosted important brunches. Old couples eating ice-cream were hassled by touts selling historic harbour cruises. Ferries commanded long queues of Fifty-somethings reading maps while street vendors sold ice-cold soft drinks. Sliema was up and running, with a spring in its step and it was just the beginning of February. In a square of palm trees concealing a miniature fountain I rested for a mesmerising moment besides a bald man in a straw Stetson. The wind creating a chop across the creek, which catching the sun created a hundred unseen reflections that made me squint.
Ancient sandstone Valletta looked over timeless turquoise waters at the young city of Sliema. To the right Manoel Island bore the masts of a hundred boats.  Along the waterfront coffee shops dealt cakes to smokers reading imported magazines and groups of women sat on the white faux-wicker chairs looking at one another’s purchases, contemplating the morning’s decisions.
Small trees with pastel firs dotted the waterfront, interspersed with the ferry ticket booths where boys in lurid T-shirts goofed around endlessly. The air was host to the noise of dusty men fixing shops and digging up roads and constructing scaffolding. Sliema was modernizing under the eye of Valetta old and complete.  Cranes jumped up unexpectedly around narrow corners. 

Congregations at bus stops trade impatient gossip. Business women march past concealed in tight black skirts, proud white collars & immaculate pink lipstick. I realised there was an overwhelming majority of girls; buying the latest footwear, handbags and dresses to look like the mannequins whose clothes never get dirty, never fade. Spotless tiny white shorts, walking in pairs. Talking and smiling, square paper bags full of shopping. Legs everywhere.  Here was the heart of an emerging Malta: one soon to enter the Eurozone. Fed by brands bought by girls in bug-eye sunglasses & red dresses, in denim shorts & black boob-tubes, pink plaid skirts & white crop tops, brown short shorts & little black T-shirts. With sun-tanned skin. With sleepy eyes. With innocent lips. Wandering mercilessly in this morning full of promise. Only a year left to spend every last Lira. 

            In the evening I looked for a cheap place to eat near the hotel and found The Damier Restaurant. As I walked in I noticed and was noticed by Jocelyn, the woman from breakfast. I ate a standard Spaghetti Bolognese and explained to her in more detail my back story before apologising for wanting to head off without indulging in the restaurant’s deserts, that she assured me were delicious. Out on my balcony I met my neighbour Eric, a stocky German with a side-swept fringe and the makings of a goatee. Here to learn English. He invited me out for a beer with himself and a French girl, a fellow student on his English course. I accepted. Her name was Davinia, her hair was a soft blonde and her face was freckled - distant and dreamy she seemed as if she had come from outer space to experience life as a human – her thoughtful silences provided comfortable halts in a fast moving night. The cellar bar served complementary popcorn, peanuts and juicy Bruschetta. Talk centered on how the way I spoke vastly differed from their Maltese teachers. My conclusions from what Eric and Davinia told me were akin to those from a recent paper on the linguistic subtleties of the Maltese style of speaking English:
 MaltE [the way Maltese people speak English] differs from Standard British English at all levels of linguistic structure, albeit more so at phonetic and phonological levels.’ It is not, however, accepted as a separate variety of English due in part to the situation where ‘MaltE speakers view their English as simply ‘bad English’ rather than a separate variety with its own linguistic norms.’ [1]
Eric and Davinia also warned me of a notorious place they avoided called Paceville (pron. Patch Ville). We ended our night on the penthouse bar of the Tower Palace Hotel, stood on the balcony looking down at the pavement. A piano added to the melodrama as Eric told us how back in Germany a friend of his who had worked in a metal factory recently committed suicide, Davinia recounted how she had cried at age seven upon realising that one day we all must die. 

            The next morning, feeling half-dead already, I made my self go ahead with my intentions of visiting the university. As I imagined, getting the bus there today would prove to be a nauseating task.
Reaching Msida where a tourist information map placed the university was relatively easy but there was no university to be seen, only an extensive array of small yachts and a petrol station. Swarming traffic added to my filthy headache. A lot of the cars looked like they should have been scrapped years ago, but their customised BUMPER STICKERS told me they would be seeing more action yet: ‘Children in the back seat cause accidents, Accidents in the back seat cause children’ read one. Another ‘Mysterious Boy’ revved his Toyota aggressively and sped off only to be overtaken by ‘I think about sex when I’m driving’… in an old Ford. I then saw a brazen variation on the classic ‘My other car is a Ferrari’ joining the traffic jam that was forming near the roundabout; on a pick-up truck the proclamation “My other toy has tits”.

The buses ran in a similar vein though slightly further from the gutter. It was hard to tell which bus was going to the university when cryptic messages dominated their fronts. Mottos such as ‘Hungry Eyes’, ‘Flames of love’, ‘I don’t care what people say!!!’ and ‘Stuff your jealousy’ started some unwanted questions spinning in my mind… Do these slogans represent the bus, the driver or the passenger? More buses passed with baffling banners: ‘Sexy eyes’, ‘Life in Heaven’, ‘Strong enough’, ‘I wish you triple you wish me’ and ‘The world is mine’ the quantity of variations seemingly normalizing each. I started to question my own sanity. If these messages aren’t freaky then maybe its me? 
The older buses – the Leylands and the Bedfords – with their polished chrome grills, green sun-visors and bulbous headlamps were more than just public transport, they were a national icon. A fleet of hand decorated yellow fun-buses with orange speed stripes, white roofs and unique personalities. Eventually I got on one labelled ‘Easy Rider’ hoping I had chosen correctly.
On board the decorations became even more elaborate. The driver’s cabin a cluttered combination of shrine and teenager’s bedroom wall:  Rosaries and a playboy-bunny key-ring hung from the rear view mirror, a Holy Mary figurine was fixed to the dashboard and a Bob Marley towel acted as the driver’s seat cover. On the backwards-facing partition, alongside an ‘I heart Jesus’ sticker was a poster of a bikini clad babe and some Juventus FC bunting. Ornately painted names were tattooed on the bus instead of the drivers arm – Jilian, Maria, Sandra - possibly those of the driver’s daughters, or, more likely I postulated, ex-lovers. 

            Once off the bus I walked through a worn-out skate-park covered in graffiti: An aqua-green duck making the peace sign holding two feathers in a V shape, from its beak a speech-bubble plead “Save bullets – Don’t shoot ducks” but nearby a black and white stencil of two suited gangsters holding tommy-guns stood beside the message ‘The boys aint done playing’. 


When I arrived at the university I felt like a spy - sporting a rucksack I fit right in – unnoticed - even had the gall to eat at the canteen. When the crowds dispersed sure enough I found ‘Flat-mate wanted’ adverts on the notice boards. By the afternoon I had arranged a viewing. On the way back to Hotel Astra I read a radical looking student newspaper ‘Ir-Realta’.

            After the successful morning I decided to have a short siesta. No sooner had I got comfortable than the phone on the bedside table rang. It was Jocelyn, she hadn’t seen me at breakfast this morning and inquired about my day. I gave her a much briefer description than I gave above, said I was very tired and needed to sleep then hung-up. The hotel’s rooms must have had phones with numbers corresponding to each room number and somewhere along the line Jocelyn must have asked me which room I was in and made sure to note it down. 

Feeling drowsy, I imagine her room to be darker than mine, a luminous green light radiating through the curtains highlighting the undulating rolls of flesh that form her half naked body. Lying diagonally across the bed cooled by the ceiling fan’s gentle breeze she plots her next move. I drift off and dream of a swamp full of giant bullfrogs, all staring at me. They begin to croak amongst themselves, deep-south jazz and tombstone paranoia resounds. I am told that until 200 years ago Africans used to have twelve toes on each foot and an awful image flashes through my mind. I am stuck in heavy voodoo waters and the mouth of the largest frog descends upon me. I manage to reach out of the darkness with one arm.
The phone on my bedside table wakes me. I fumble and grab the receiver.
“Hello, are you going to eat at the restaurant again tonight?” It is Jocelyn.
“No, I think I am just going to stay at the pub below the hotel. The Time Square bar.”
“You like it there? You like the food there?”
“It’s alright but I’m going for a drink, not to…”
“Because it’s full of oil there - their food, and I don’t like it anyway.” Interrupts Jocelyn.
“But I’m not going to…” I unsuccessfully try to make my case.
“They don’t do the Ravioli at Times Square, and Cannelloni”
“No they don’t” I concede.
“They have Cannelloni where we ate together, at the, Damier Restaurant. They have umm... Ravioli, Cannelloni and Salad.”
“Well I’m going to go downstairs with this German guy.”
“Ahh the one we, we were, when. We saw him, when we met first time?” her tone rather sly.
“No it’s a different guy he’s staying in the room next door to me.”
“You made friends with him?” Her question sounds like an accusation.
“Yeah” I say, sounding embarrassed like a naughty boy admitting to his overbearing mother he’s done something she wouldn’t want him to, but they both kind of knew he would anyway.
“You’re going to have dinner with him?”
“I don’t know really I had quite a big lunch…”
“OK, alright, it’s up to you.”
“So I might not have anything to eat, y’know, but we’re going to have a few drinks.”
“OK then” 
“So if you want to come down for a few drinks…”
“Well um very well.” Her voice deflated.
“…At Times Square because we are probably just going to stay there this evening”
“I don’t like it, Times Square. I prefer that restaurant, ahh it’s nice to eat there ta, that restaurant?” 
“Yeah it’s alright.” Here I use alright as a word used for things only slightly better than appalling.
“You can have a drink there if you want. Take that German friend there.” Her accent makes the there sound like a dare.
“Mmm, well I have already planned to meet the German guy downstairs at Time Square. He is just on the phone to his parents now.”
“But I must be there in the restaurant.”
Four or five seconds pass in bitter silence.
“You have an appointment with him?”
“Yeah, was going to meet him at half past, so in about fifteen minutes.”
“How old is he?”
“He is the same age as me.” I switch the receiver to the other hand, rub the sleep out of my eyes and sit up straight. 
“I see. You will go to Time Square… Oily food is not good for your health. For my health. For everybody in general, it’s not good oily food. I’m not saying that their food is not good but it’s my O-pinion that I don’t like to go there to eat.”
“Mm Hmmm”
“It’s not healthy.”
“Well you don’t have to, you can always…” I get cut off again and give up trying to be heard for a while I just listen to her monologue, bewildered.
“There is a variety where we ate together. There is a variety to eat. They have fresh fish, they have Tuna, they have Cod, Fish and Chips – English; you like it. Umm…ah everything. They have soup of the day. Umm… if they had nice, cream of tomato soup first, first for starter they give you a big plate of tomato soup. It was very good, very nice ta. And they have chicken, chicken nuggets, half roast chicken, they have salads you can have toast and baguette umm its bread with mushrooms, anything, with ham. Ooooooh we have, can have a cheese salad, tuna salad, chicken salad, anything. They have fish, they have Maltese sausages. Everything. You have pizza, you have a large variety from where to choose. They have the rib eye steak, fillet steak. Everything. Yesterday they had Au-gratin, very nice ta, Au-gratin potato with cream, tomatoes. Rice.”
“That’s good, Its just…”
“Its very nice.”
“…Its just I’m not very hungry, I’m not going out to eat tonight, just to have a few, you know, a few beers.”
“You like beer?”
“Yeah” Again I’m the naughty child.
Jocalyn forces coy giggles “Well its up to you. You want to meet me downstairs or… what, what are you going to do?”
“Well I’m just going down to the Times Square for a beer, so you know where I am if you want to have a few drinks with us as well. Ok?”
“LET US GO TO THAT RESTAURANT WHERE WE ATE TOGETHER!” by now she sounds possessed.
“No, sorry.” I resign.
“See you at the restaurant alright?”
“Ok, Bye.”
“Bye, take care, bye.”
            I hang up phone, uncertain whether she was more interested in me or her food fantasy. Was she asking me out on a date or trying to cajole me into her eating fetish? Whatever. No way was I was going anywhere near that restaurant tonight, in fact I would probably avoid it at all costs from now on.  Somebody’s creepy aunty had given me my official welcome to the island. 


[1] Introducing Maltese linguistics: selected papers from the 1st International Conference on Maltese Linguistics, Bremen, 18-20 October, 2007, Volume 2007. Bernard Comrie, Ray Fabri .eds

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  1. I wanted to read all of this because your writing is witty and entertaining, I am sure I will come back later and read the latter half. However I felt moved to comment as I'm quite sure I knew Davinia. Or met her once, she was seeing a friend of mine. This really is a small country.

    1. Thanks - that is interesting, a very small country & small world indeed. I will read some of your blog, I had a quick scan and it looks good. I've put chapter 4 of this story up now. hope you get a chance to read it.

  2. Very interesting story... some parts reminded me of my own reflections when I first visited Sliema :-)
    What a thing are impressions/feelings -- completely unknown (and maybe different) people can see a thing in the same way... Did you visit Paceville, haha, it's mental!

    1. Thanks for the nice comment Gergana. That is a little strange that you had similar impressions. How long were you in Malta for?

      I did visit Paceville yes, I wrote about it here

  3. Cool,
    that first time I stayed 40 days and do not know why I had the feeling I lived there 4 months.
    I'll have a look, thanks.