Random travel observations (Malta and Sicily)

By Lorenzo

My tips for long flights are:
Stick to water on the flight;
Have salt;
Get massages. (Had a massage the evening I left and at the Dubai stopover. So worth it.)

Malta
Australian cuisine being Mediterrasian means that, when one gets to the Mediterranean, the food is familiar.

There are lots of construction cranes dotting the Maltese skyline. I noticed help wanted ads in cafes. The Eurozone crisis is not in evidence.

It was striking to see preening Mediterranean boys in their original habitat.

The Arabic influence on Maltese is fairly clear, as when the Virgin Mary is entitled Sultana tal Paci (Queen of Peace). Mary is omnipresent; one wonders how much she took over from sea and earth goddesses.

Malta is not pedestrian friendly, even in the service-vehicles-only parts, as Maltese drivers are a touch on the aggressive side.

Monday morning, went to Knights Hospitallier exhibition under the Sacre Infirmia (the famous Hospitaller hospital, now the Mediterranean Conference Centre). The exhibit made a big deal out of two year French occupation (1798-1800); the third major siege of Malta (the other two being the 1565 Turkish siege and the Axis air-sea siege of 1940-3). It took remarkably little time for the forces of Revolutionary Enlightenment Virtue to enrage the Maltese into revolt. The French did not seem to understand that, to the Maltese, the treasures in Churches were their treasures and they objected to these newly arrived foreigners looting them.

The War Museum did a fine job of conveying Malta’s experience of two World Wars. (Did you know the Imperial Japanese Navy had a force stationed in Malta in WWI or that Rudolf Hess–future Deputy Fuhrer–was interned in Malta while Karl Donitz–U-boat commander, Kreigsmarine Grand Admiral last Fuhrer of the Reich–was a PoW there?)

The Malta Experience film (with gift shop; the Maltese are keen to sell you things) conveyed the history of Malta quite well–the island has the world’s oldest free-standing stone buildings. Malta seems to wear its history lightly. Of course, in all three sieges, the people they identify with won.

Malta does not believe in early breakfast–anything other than something light does not seem to be generally available before 9am.

English is the language of commerce, Maltese the language for official things (except when they are in English).

A very Maltese sound is the sound of church bells, which ring out regularly, day and night. (Apparently, parishes got so competitive a law was passed to limit bell ringing.)

Hardly any Americans in evidence, lots of Brits. Also Germans; English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Danish, Japanese standard tourist languages.

In Malta, inter-racial couples seem to be no problem. Very much a country of small cars and aggressive drivers. The planners seem to be fond of roundabouts.

During WWII, Malta was the most bombed place on Earth; 35,000 homes were destroyed in a country with not a large population. Malta chose to rebuild as was, not modernist rubbish. Even postwar buildings in the political/commercial area have neoclassical grandeur.

At the local taxi rank, taxi drivers wait in shade chatting, smoking, rather than sitting alone in cabs.

Maltese guide books are generally well done–clear, informative, not big-noting.

The educated Maltese middle class of the 1930s (what would now be known as the chattering class) was eager for Malta to embrace its Italian nationhood and destiny: what a bad idea that was, Malta is so much better off not being part of Italy. But, given the educated middle class tends to control the framing of public debate, whatever its current enthusiasms are often seem more compelling than later experience suggests was warranted.

How small Malta seems from the air as we fly away from it; Sicily is clearly much greener.

Sicily
While the EU flag is in evidence in Catania, it was much more evident in Malta. Of course, so was EU spending restoring the enormous fortifications.

The C11th Norman castle at Acicastello is mounted on a spur of volcanic rock, only approachable through a narrow ledge; its lord would indeed have been lord of all he surveyed. Back in Catania, I had thought the contrast between the Graeco-Roman brickwork and later medieval brickwork fairly sad, a sign of a loss of skills. But the castle at Acicastello is an immensely impressive feat of construction. Yes, the brick work lacks the symmetry and finish of the Graeco-Roman work of a thousand years earlier, but it is almost a thousand years old and going strong. Moreover, an imposing castle had been built on top of sheer rock with very narrow access (which had to be constructed in the first place). All done by hand plus a few pulleys; sheer determination being literally on display. The grasping energy of the Normans resonating down the centuries.

As we went through the rural bits during our Sicilian interlude, you could see that Sicily was richer than Malta; volcanic soil being much more fertile than Malta’s. Clearly, however, Malta is better organised, so query how long Sicily will remain richer.

Looking out at what I now recognise as volcanic rock from past lava flows forming the coast line and thinking of how the C13th castle in Catania used to be one the coast but is now 2kms from it due to a 1669 eruption, this land may be old in human civilisation terms but it is young and active geologically. Being Australian means a very odd placement in terms of “young/old”. Geologically a very old land; in terms of human habitation old (much older than Europe). In terms of being a country young but with one of the first and oldest continuous democracies in the modern world and one the older continuously operating constitutions.

Government spends about 34% of Australia’s GDP, much lower than in Europe (and also has much lower public debt); but the Europeans don’t seem to get much out of that extra 10+ %pts of GDP spent by the political-bureaucratic elites who brought us the Euro. Of course, we are a richer country, so a lower % of GDP can be a similar amount per capita.

Unlike in Valetta, balconies in Catania seem mostly for show, though they do seem to be good places to put potted plants (sometimes a bit sad), air-conditioners and satellite dishes.

Thin cats and enthusiastically swirling swallows are the two most vivid images of the fauna of Catania (though there was a thin and piteous kitten trying to cadge some of our lunch at Siracusa).

Mediterranean driving
Horns seem to be a necessary part of Mediterranean driving. In Catania, like much of Malta, they are useful for announcing your impending emergence around a blind corner (of which there are quite a few). Principles of Mediterranean driving seem to be–horns are a form of communication, it is preferred if you indicate and whatever you are doing, do it clearly. They may not let you do it, but they want to know what you are trying to do.

Mediterranean driving is one of weak expectations. Things that would end badly back in places with stronger expectations about rule-following, folk get away with because everyone is much more alert to sudden actions. Hence Mediterranean driving is a process of constant and assertive negotiation.

Noticeably less use of traffic lights than in comparable Australian cities. We have seen various types of police (municipal, regional, carabinieri, garda di finanzia) in Sicily but no sign of traffic police; hence the traffic code not being so much a code as more of a general guideline.

5 Comments

  1. Don Aitkin
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 5:44 am | Permalink

    Good to read again about Makta and Sicily, places that we enjoyed a great deal. On GDP, it’s worth remembering that in Austalia a great deal of activity takes place in the voluntary sector, and is not counted in GDP, which makes inter-country comparisons a little wonky. Sweden appears to have a higher GDP than Oz, but the cause is that much ‘meals on wheels’ work and its counterparts are carried out by public servants, and are therefore counted in GDP.

  2. Andrew Reynolds
    Posted June 2, 2012 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Just one thing to add. If you are likely to need to sleep, you can’t go past one of these:
    http://www.necksolutions.com/orthopedic-neck-brace.html
    $10 to $20 at your local chemist.

  3. Posted June 2, 2012 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    On the bell-ringing: I always notice in Italy that it isn’t exactly a Kent Triple Bob Major, just a rather mindless clang-clang-clang-clang-clang.

    Is Malta any better? I am rather fond of the English change ringing, and the French carillon…

  4. Posted June 5, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    [email protected]: Just clanging, I’m afraid.

  5. Posted June 5, 2012 at 1:43 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Nice point about voluntary labour. GDP does have these little wrinkles. Such as government production being valued at cost.

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