Malta is an enchanting little island nation. It’s a tranquil place where residents christen their homes with names like “The Anchor” or in created words that mesh together a husband’s and wife’s name. Its cities and fishing villages possess harbors studded with elegant white yachts and their slower, colorful, wooden fishing boat cousins. What Malta lacks in its diminutive size, it makes up for with history, heaps of culture, grand and simple architecture, and a dramatic landscape that Mother Nature painted from a vibrant palette. It’s a joy to slowly unwrap the present that is Malta!
Malta is located in the Mediterranean close to Tunisia and just south of Sicily. Given its stepping-stone location between Europe and Africa, the country has absorbed tidbits from the numerous civilizations and cultures that ruled it through the centuries, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Sicilians, Knights of St. John, French and the British.
Traveling there solo several autumns ago, I snuck peeks of almost-forgotten lanes whenever I turned corners in the capital city, Valletta. Symbols of the famed Knights of St. John were seemingly everywhere – in Malta’s fortresses, its churches and on souvenir items. (The Knights of St. John operated out of Malta from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries and are considered to be the oldest surviving knight fellowship.)
I quickly discovered that the preferred mode of transport were classic British buses -remnants from Malta’s 160 years of British colonization. Other traces of British culture could be seen in the cherry red telephone booths in most cities, the vintage Mini Coopers that chugged along on roadways, and the left side of the street on which Maltese motorists still drive today. I used those shiny buses as my sole source of transportation – taking jaunts to the well-preserved walled city of Mdina and to a traditional cemetery.
On my second day there, I was extended extraordinary hospitality by a warm and lively family. The souvenir image I snapped of the icebreaker moment that led me to the family is still framed on our kitchen wall today. In the photograph, a young girl – with oars in hand – is sharing a quiet moment with an RCA-esque dog. They are piloting a colorful fishing boat in a village harbor.
One late afternoon, I had hopped onto a shiny, orange-colored vintage bus in Valletta’s transportation hub bound for a little place I had a hard time spelling and saying -Marsaxlokk. I had read that Marsaxlokk was a charming fishing village that was a mecca for anyone with an interest in photography. When I arrived there, I could see why! The tiny fishing village’s harbor was embellished with a fleet of fishing boats painted in an array of primary colors ranging from cherry red, to mustard-yellow to royal blue. How the colorful tones contrasted sharply with the emerald-colored water and the buildings fronted in limestone hues.
At the water’s edge, I was charmed to see fishermen at work who were busily sewing cobwebs of fishing nets and touching up the paint on their colorful vessels.
Suddenly, a little girl rowing a boat with the dog at the helm caught my eye. I was amazed that the child was navigating through the sea of boats so skillfully, and at such a young age! The girl saw that I was snapping pictures and rowed the boat ashore so she could introduce herself. Yazmine spoke impressive English.
“What is your name?” she asked.
Within minutes, it seemed as if Yazmine’s entire family had descended upon the two of us. Yazmine’s older sister, Margerita, came, donning a school uniform. Also arriving on the scene were Yazmine’s mother, Rose; her Aunt Mary, Cousin Marija and Uncle Joseph. It was decided that I must immediately go out into the harbor on the grandfather’s boat, which would be steered by Uncle Joseph. Yazmine and I would also be accompanied by three canine companions. It was a magical sunset ride. As the sun approached its slumber, the buildings were illuminated in remarkable shrimp tones. The sun’s glow reflecting on the water was breathtaking and the boat’s Maltese flag flitted in the breeze. Yazmine and I shared girlish giggles. Yazmine’s uncle remarked “Red sky at night, fisherman’s delight.”
Once the sky had darkened, the family again welcomed us to shore and invited me to come into their home for dinner. On the menu was fish caught just hours earlier. The fish was seasoned deliciously with olive oil, pepper and homemade sea salt crystals. The family must have eaten while the three of us had been out in the harbor, because now, I was eating solo, with six pairs of eyes anxiously gazing at me. My audience was trying to ascertain my thoughts about the dinner. I felt badly that we could not share the meal together but knew that they experienced just as much pleasure by hearing my reaction, as by tasting the food.
Following dinner, the family crowded around the kitchen table and boisterously sang Maltese folk songs. I was struck how the Maltese language featured a variety of linguistic sounds – everything from Italian, Spanish and French, to even Arabic. After the laughter and singing had subsided, the family asked me if I wished to meet the patriarch of their family, who was bed-ridden with cancer and resting in an adjacent room.
The family led me into the hall and then the adult family members closely crowded around his bed. The girls showed me pictures of their grandfather in past decades. They explained that Grandfather had been a fine fisherman and that he had descended from a long-line of famous Marsaxlokk fishermen and women.
On the wall, a black and white photograph of his grandmother was framed. She had a prized catch in hand. Also within Grandpa’s line of sight was an image of his beloved fishing boat – the one we had just ridden that evening. The girls walked me to Grandfather’s bedside. I exchanged niceties and then debated whether or not to tell him about my excursion on his boat earlier that evening. I questioned if it would make him sad or long for days bygone when he regularly navigated his special boat on the water.
When I returned to Marsaxlokk hours before my scheduled flight to Frankfurt, the girls ran off, bound for the bustling stands of the fish market I’d explored earlier in the day. It seemed that they were on a covert mission. I didn’t get a chance to say a proper goodbye to them. A week or so later, a little box arrived to my home in Germany.
When I tore open the brown packing paper, I was delighted to see a box that the girls had decorated themselves in bright collage fashion. Inside, were a mug and small plaque bearing images of Marsaxlokk’s colorful harbor. Now I knew why the girls had secretly run off the last afternoon I was visiting their families. In the letter, they wrote that they were saddened to have not gotten back in time to say goodbye to me.
Malta is a diminutive country, geographically-speaking, but as they say, “good things come in small packages…”