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

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 6 - An Immigrant With A Job

Chapter 6. 

Neville turns away to conceal his chuckling when I arrive at work.
He bangs his hands together twice then holds them there, palms out, volunteering himself for arrest.
I give him a confused look.
He huffs at not being instantly understood then begins talking “You remember the other night? Us drinking. Me talking to Steffania, the one with the burnt face.”
“Yeah I remember - Kylie’s friend.”
“She is young ta. Fifteen only.”
Again he mimics being handcuffed.
“Well you only talked to her.”
“Ah Allah, I took her number. I S.M.S.ed her. But now, no. No more.”
Then out of nowhere he squawks “STEFFANIA!”
Once he settles down I ask “Should I message Kylie? She is sixteen, so that’s OK right?”
Neville shrugs, then holds his wrists together again, silently laughing.
“But I am younger than you Neville. I’m only four years older than her.”
He doesn’t respond to me, he just leans on my shoulder as if I was built to be his arm rest. I contemplate how to ask Kylie out but my thoughts are interrupted by Neville shouting.
“I wannababba, I wannababba!” and laughing.

After a good few weeks at the job the paperwork had caught up with me - apparently I needed a Work Permit. Neil the manager muttered, “Just tell them you will start at the end of the month, OK?” in as casual a manner as he could muster. 

To pick up this permit I had to go, with my passport, to the ETC head office in Hal Far. The following day I left early…ish. It took two buses and a good while to get there, I arrived just as they closed the large rolling gates, desperately I explained I just needed to pick up a permit but “We close at twelve, man. You will have to come back tomorrow, we open at nine A.M.”

Feeling slightly stunned - who simply shuts at midday? - I meandered around a bit. Not much in the neighbourhood: a few workshops and warehouses, the sound of grinding steel and the dust from limestone blocks being cut. An army jeep drove slowly past followed by soldiers in formation quick marching after it; a road sign pointed the direction to The Base. In the vicinity, amid an overgrown evergreen hedge, was a sign stating PEACE LABORATORY that stood out as a welcome contradiction juxtaposed against the areas otherwise military trappings. Through the fence I saw some nice potted plants, some empty tents and some modest (though nude) statues. It looked like a disused Kumbayah summer camp. Perfect for an evening roughing it, as long as it remained empty of happy-clappers. 

I decide to walk down to Birzebugga, spend all day on the beach then come back to sleep stealthily in a vacant tent eliminating the hassle of taking all those buses home then back again.
In my backpack: a litre bottle of water, a snorkel and my passport.

The walk down to Birzebugga from Hal Far is solitary except for occasional butterflies along the rural side-roads. Passing a Boy Scouts H.Q. I see more vacant tents – seems I am in luck today!
Pretty Bay is a little strip of sand that sits in front of Birzebugga and is the most southerly beach in Malta. While snorkelling I talk to an old Canadian man who is prizing shells from the rocks and collecting spiky sea urchins called Rizzi, eating them as he goes. He opens a large Rizzi with his knife and offers it to me. Its deep orange core tastes of the ocean with just a hint of days gone by. I swim out and look at the Freeport; cargo ships come and go. I guess it was named Pretty Bay before the heavy industry moved in, either that or the naming committee got off on irony. But for all its aesthetic gloom the port adds an air of mystery to the otherwise banal idyllic headland. Swimming in the clear water I wonder what those cargo ship’s stories are and what freight is in all those large faceless containers. Unlike the sea that surrounds it the whole operation is anything but transparent, looming large like an family secret.

After drying myself with my T-shirt and letting it dry in turn in the sun, I shuffle into Birzebugga for lunch – pizza slice. I see a bunch of teens skateboarding and watch for a bit, then ask to have a go and soon I am skating with the group. The action takes place on a large semicircular concrete seat on the beachfront. We ollie on and off, then go and skate the steps outside of the church.

The day passes quickly, the sun starts dropping and the skate rats go home. I head back the way I came. The Scouts tents are full of muffled chit-chat and activity, it feels like my luck is diminishing along with the light. I continue past the ETC and it seems a much longer walk this time, in the half dark. 

The Peace Laboratory smells of a mish-mash of spices. There are lights on in a little cabin so I go in, I am greeted with confused looks from the three North African men sitting around a small table but those lying on the bunk beds don’t sit up to look. I ask if there is any room to stay in the tents and once I manage to explain it is just for one night one of the men goes to find someone he says can help. A couple of minutes later in he walks my saviour: a dark black man wearing a retro Manchester United home shirt, overflowing with energy and all conquering smiles. 

“You want to sleep here tonight my friend?”

“Yep, I have to go to the ETC tomorrow morning.”

“Ok no problem, follow me. My name is Beckham.” He laughs pulling the red football strip down at the back to showcase the white-stencilled surname. 

            We walk out of the Peace Lab and shortly get to an open gate in a compound enclosed with high fences. Piles of shoddy clothes are laid out on the floor near the entrance.

“Take some if you need” Black Beckham enthuses. 

I have a brief scour of the heap but it seems all the football kits are taken. There is a sort of security block: a pre-fab hut with its lights on. Beckham reassures me that we needn’t worry about informing them of my presence as I am only here for one night. Then as my eyes adjust to the darkness I see where we are. Many dozens of old military tents set up in long rows with a few fires burning in petrol cans here and there. It’s a refugee camp. 

We bounce through the makeshift neighbourhood and Beckham spots an aggravated man being very loud with arms flailing. Confiding in me, Beckham tells how this loud man hogs all the women. He advises me not to look at the nearby women and believe it or not I take his advice.

Beckham speaks to some people outside his cousin’s tent; two women are cleaning clothes in a bucket, twiddling my thumbs I watch, hoping they have nothing to do with Loud Flailing Man. I get shown into the tent. Inside is unlike anything I have seen before; isles of bunk beds turned into four person rooms by segregating them from the adjacent bunks with cardboard boxes. A lot of the people are out in the middle corridor and look like they are making the most of the cool evening that is slowly winding down. Seeing my dizzy white face amuses them all, as they carry on doing whatever they are doing. 

In a makeshift dorm I am assigned Beckham’s cousin’s vacant bed, its silky sheets are surprisingly comfortable. The man opposite offers me the only food he has which is a jar of mayonnaise, I refuse politely – shaking my head happily. I feel sorrow and respect for him. He tells me to sleep on top of my bag: again I take the advice given though it adds to my image of a wary child of the west. I lie down feeling warm from the generosity shown by these people who obviously have very little even for themselves.

I let tiredness command my thoughts, allowing them to run uncontrolled and to mingle organically with the whispers, shouts and laughter of this haphazard community.

I drift off to sleep to the sound of joyous singing.

Early morning. All is now quiet and motionless. I look at the picture pulled from a magazine of a Californian woman in a bikini posing sexually. Pinned onto the cardboard wall, here, in this setting, she looks more unobtainable than ever. Everyone else is asleep, I write a note that reads:

‘Thank you for your hospitality’ then leave quietly.

It is only 8am as I walk out of the camp, there is dew on the grass and the sky is a white shade of blue. I wait for the office to open as the sun rises. I see the first few people come out of the camp wearing heavy work boots covered in paint, and clothing that clashes so badly it begins to look like high fashion. The office opens and after sitting in the waiting room for over an hour I go in. After a signing a form I get my work permit. I walk out into the courtyard where pink flowers glow in the sunshine. Waiting at the bus stop I feel once again that luck is on my side. Now I have a work permit in my bag to go with that ever-important passport. 

            I hadn’t known anything about the immigrant situation in Malta before that night. Later I would read bits and pieces in the newspapers, turns out it was a hot topic. I heard people talk about the displaced Africans in scorn, where this scorn came from seemed entirely unfounded. Hysteric xenophobia had implicated migrants as the sole blame for every unsolved crime. A simple target means that any complications or uncertainty can be ignored, overlooked. I even heard the urban myths, which I expected were fallacies arising from bored suburbia. How “a Maltese man, on his stag do, naked except for a learner’s ‘L plate’ was handcuffed to a lamppost and left there overnight. When his friends returned for him in the morning he had been gang-raped by a group of ten or twelve savage immigrants.” 

            When I got back from Hal Far I went out in Paceville. As I walked into a nightclub I overheard the mercenary bouncer turning away a black guy saying “You don’t have an invite” I’m sure he didn’t but neither did I, neither did anybody.

            I didn’t know which African countries were currently gripped in civil war but I knew if war came knocking at my door step I would sure as hell up and leave. The situation was beyond my grasp. Who was I to say there should be no borders, allow everybody in and treat everyone as you would wish to be treated yourself. Malta is a small island and I’d heard of something called Economics. Newspapers reminded me that the country was one of the most densely populated in the world. Its a small island how can we deal with this many immigrants? All I know is saying there should be a cap on immigration it doesn’t put a smile on your face like when you sing:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
Sign was painted, said private property
But on the back side it didn't say nothin’
This land was made for you and me.[1]

Singing that song you feel something old, something powerful, something right. Some mad holistic worldwide perspective. Overpopulation may well be a real problem but issues surrounding man-made boundaries seem mere avoidance of the issue: assisting in foreign birth control might be worth thinking about instead, if that really is the worry. And if overcrowding was Malta’s reason to detain refugees then what could explain the decrepit vacant houses or all the half buildings whose construction had ceased at the critical juncture of adding windows? I’d considered squatting in them myself, if they didn’t give the impression of a mousetrap. 

One lesson I remembered from history is that the flow of people is nothing new and it is unstoppable.

At least the government gave refugees that made it past the boundary line some aid. But the prevailing unsavoury attitude that fueled unhealthy contempt towards these unwelcome, un-European guests was no help to anybody. 

[The best reportage I've since read on the matter is The Unwanted by Joe Sacco it is available in full in his book Journalism or abridged here for free]

 Malta was the safest place I’d ever visited. The whole country felt like one big playground. The country made it easy for Europeans to live what Neville called The Play-life. There were no areas that gave me an uneasy feeling. No small roads through ancient woodland whose overhanging branches block out the moonlight. No shadowy city streets, whose human walls constantly observe you, waiting for the first sign of weakness. No dubious characters tarnishing the wholesome, healthy Maltese street scenes. Not a single (white) homeless person to be seen on the whole island, not even in Valletta. I never even saw any fights. The only violence I ever fell privy to was when an American knocked me out while I sat on some steps – (our nations separated by a common language... and uncommon sense of humour). I was told he repeatedly punched my head against the corner of the step but I didn’t actually witness this either, I was too unconscious. 

            The San Giljan Police force could be seen sat around outside the Spinola station most days directing lost tourists to Paceville and unless I was imagining it half of The Force was made up of gorgeous women. The long legs of the law. You heard the wail of sirens about as often as the pitter-patter of rain. Parents stayed at home while their young children played in the parks long into the evening. I figured if I ever had kids this would be the place to raise them. But after hearing the racism from the bouncer, I wanted to be somewhere other than San Giljan, Sliema or Paceville for a bit. So I did what the Maltese do when they need to get away from it all:
 I went to Gozo.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

The Maltese Talkin' - Chapter 5 - Paceville (And Its After Effects)

Chapter 5.

Paceville: The nightlife zone in between my flat (Riviera Court) and my workplace (Superbowl). Paceville: the clubbing district of Malta. I had been warned by Eric and Davinia to avoid it, but its location had made that neigh impossible.
The place came alive as evening emerged, the central nightclubs would start pumping out dance music too loud for that daylight hour. Promoters would be handing out B.O.G.O.F drinks tokens to encourage the all-important first customers in. During each evening’s early stage a few of the youngest language students would be milling around looking lost, while holiday-making families sought out restaurants. Soon the Maltese would congregate on the outskirts hanging around shop-cum-bars drinking in large groups, jesting and fooling around. One guy would act the lummox, playfully accosting passers-by as his friends exaggerated their amazement with cries of “Il Allu!” – translated into English it means “Oh God” but the Maltese is misspelt to make it less blasphemous, so the direct translation, I suppose, would be “Oh Gud!”

I grabbed some drink tokens and went home to cook and get ready to find out what all the fuss was about. As midnight drew near I left my flat and followed the crowds all heading towards the magnetic neon pull, a steady stream of pupils arriving at a new cult. I recalled all the times in my life I had seen a beautiful girl walking in the opposite direction to me in the street. As they passed me I would often wonder where they were going. Now I knew. I felt I had stumbled upon the secret of each and every babe’s absolute final destination: Paceville.

When they arrived they didn’t stop walking. Everybody there seemed in a rush to get to the next club, to follow their friends, to meet others someplace else, always just around the corner. I stood still and watched. Maltese girls seemed to dress like twins; matching outfits. Two girls dressed in black and yellow like bumble bees. Three dressed all in white, save for their red belts: darling plump parcels wrapped with red ribbon. Groups of guys prowled in packs. You could almost smell the pheromones, the excitement, the hormones. Wondrous confusion resonated from the pavement’s dry heat, from the cigarette smoke, from the garish mixture of songs converging into an out-of-time throbbing pulse at the central crossroads: the country’s arteries. 

 - Hearts were broken and sparks of lust set others aflame - 

            As the night thrust on, the nightclubs filled up and squashed you onto the dance floors, no choice but to move - either rhythmically or out of there. The songs got into your head and you smiled a drunken smile, and it seemed everyone smiled. 

By the early hours of the morning the Maltese had returned home. Disheveled members of the European aristocracy were smooching on the padded seats at the edge of the dance floor and the streets were littered with empty glass bottles and passed-out Aryan teenagers. On the way back to Riviera Court was a Pastizerria: a small shop that baked Pastizzi: a cheap little pastry filled with pea paste or ricotta cheese. This Pastizerria named ‘Champ’ was open 24 hours a day, it also produced trays of pizza loaded with molten cheese and flavoursome green olives on a thick doughy base that soaked up all the excess oil. The Pizza came in a white paper bag that was made translucent by the grease almost instantaneously. It was dirt-cheap and the perfect ending to any cheap, dirty night.

            My alternative option for an evening’s stroll was back towards the Astra Hotel. I would often walk this route if I didn’t feel like drinking. A wide promenade ran all the way to Sliema and was full of dog walkers, groups of nuns, new mothers pushing baby carriages, exemplary families all sporting Ralph Loren, joggers sweating for success, and just about anyone who was anyone. The promenade hugged the twilight’s navy blue sea that turned the orange streetlamps and yellow lights of hotel rooms into dancing sea snakes. I could sit on a bench underneath thick palm trees and get overcome by the aura of richness and fertility. At times like these, sat under the moon’s insect glow, I would feel acute loneliness. Peculiarly it felt liberating, because it allowed for extensive introspective trains of thought. I was beginning to construct a new identity on my own agenda. I was reading extensively. Gin-soaked paranoia and ‘The Fall’ by Albert Camus made me consider the effects of being judged and of judging people. Following this I came across a ‘non-violent communication’ theory known as Jackals and Giraffes on the Internet. It was a way of talking whereby you never demand or judge but say how you feel and give others the opportunity to act or respond accordingly. You observe others and guess how they feel and what they need, occasionally making requests in the hope of coming to an empathetic understanding. 
  • A Jackal might say “Don’t sit on that bench under that palm tree staring at us with your wild eyes, it gives our pleasant evening an edge of awkwardness.”
  • Whereas a Giraffe would say “You look wild eyed. Is it because you feel lost? It makes us feel less comfortable about ourselves. We would feel better if you strolled along at an amicable pace like the rest of us.”


One night I stole a large rectangular board that had come unattached to the railings. On one side it advertised ‘Calypso’ but the other was pure white. Onto the white surface I painted an elegant giraffe’s neck and head, swirling black and white circles jumped out of the figure that stuck out its long blue tongue. 

When you get creative it gives you a rush. I liked playing with the forms and I liked this image of the land animal with the biggest heart since the dinosaurs, so I began making a conscious effort to speak like a giraffe. 
I noticed it making a positive effect on Yin my Korean flatmate.
“I see you are cooking, you must feel exhausted and in need of energy after a hard day learning English. The smell of the food makes me feel hungry.”
I tried the seaweed she was cooking but didn’t like it at all. Never the less I continued talking in Giraffe.
“I don’t like the taste of this but I feel more cultured for having tried it because seaweed isn’t a staple cuisine in England.”
“Oh OK Chris.” She said nervously.
…“You’re beginning to look stressed. Would you like to go out, drink some beer and blow off some steam?”

At a Paceville bar I got to know a Chinese friend of Yin’s who agreed to come over and cut my hair. It was all very giggly; a drunk giraffe getting a tipsy haircut. A week later I went out with my newly trimmed head and saw my kind hairdresser on her own. We drank a few sangrias together. She had left the clippers at my flat and asked if she could come back to pick them up. I obliged and before long we were both naked, sat cross-legged in my bed and she was rolling a condom onto my little giraffe. As we screwed she made high-pitched noises but they didn’t turn me on, they sounded grim like a squeaking baby strapped to a seesaw.  In the morning I no longer wanted to be a giraffe and refused to let her join me for breakfast.

Come Saint Patrick’s Day the whole Superbowl crew were going for a night out in Paceville, or PV as they called it. As I mop the floor Neville pulls on a T-shirt emblazoned with the Pepsi logo; the writing reads ‘Sexsi.’
He yells “Yeah Yeah!” and rubs his hands together. 

We all drink a lot of Cisk larger and are soon up and dancing, I feel a rump bumping my crotch and place my hands on Dawn's hips. I admire a beauty spot on her face and her bashful expression. We kiss for a minute or two but then Dawn pulls away worried she will hurt Neville’s feelings. He hadn’t seemed to notice as her friend was suggestively dancing with him at the time. Soon they both leave and the remainder of the group plonks down at a table in a different nightclub.
Alex and I spy and group of girls a-spying us. We invite them over and I begin nattering with a girl with short hair called Kylie who is just my type: tomboy, big gums! We hit it off talking skateboarding after I’d noticed her Vans shoes. Neville is speaking to a girl with a burnt face, and Alex has run out of conversation and looks bemused. The girls leave; Kylie gives me her phone number and a peck on the lips.
The drinking continues. Back at my flat Timms, Kurt and Alex start drinking the gin from the kitchen. Soon Kata, my witchy Hungarian landlady, flies out of her bedroom shouting at them to get out, says she can’t trust strangers in the house. 

In the morning fueled by sleep and still half-drunk, the joy of waking up with no hangover gives me a buzz-saw madness, I begin going about the day as normal. I shower and get on the bus to Valletta. I'd planned to visit Malta School of Art to investigate its potential as ‘the place for me’. Approaching it, the ancient crumbling Old Bakery Street installs bohemian anticipation in me. I enter the hallowed halls of an esteemed, pillared building that houses white Romanesque nude statues and renaissance paintings. A tutor tells me to come back in two hours for a tour. My head begins to pound as the sunlight grows vicious, and a violent need to rehydrate in a dark room grabs me by the throat. I see a sign for a cinema down a back-street so I grab a ticket and a litre cup of Pepsi.


 As I sit down the room fills with a ten-foot erect penis, then the largest pair of boobs I’ve ever witnessed graces the silver screen. I look around: a few old men reclining in the shadows. I’ve stumbled into a porn cinema! The sheer size of the pornography makes it more frightening than erotic and as I sit there St Patrick’s effects take a hold. I shiver, my eyes push against my bruised brain. My mouth dries up. My head thumps itself and my body weighs me down. Never before have I felt terrified by the effects of gravity. I force myself to endure two hours worth of the gargantuan genitalia. In the end the darkness helped the hangover and, after wildly cracking and chewing all the ice from my supersize Pepsi, I was ready to face the world of natural light: reborn, a child conceived in a porno.

All was well again, except now, any mundane situation seemed on the verge mutating into hard repetitive sex. Until I felt a little less fragile I would need to avoid mechanic’s garages, faulty showers and Romanesque banquets. I doubt I will ever be able to forget the noise, in full digital surround sound, of skin slapping against skin. The art school was nice, tranquil, but for someone like myself, maybe it was a little too conservative.