Saturday, June 15, 2019

Meandering through Malta: a three month belated blog

I went to Malta not to front life, like Thoreau, or to escape life/self as Annie Dillard described in her encounter with the weasel in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Valletta, the capital city of Malta, was built hight to deter invaders. Byron complained of the steps.
Harbor of the three cities, across the bay from Valletta. 

My ambitions were not so grand. I went to escape the cold. I left in mid-February and returned in mid-March.

St. John's in Valletta, home of two Caravaggio's. The artist lived in Malta for several years, as did Coleridge.

I also wished to be in Europe. I googled 'warmest places in Europe in February.' The Canary Islands came up first, followed by Malta and Crete. I didn't "feel" the Canary Islands because I  craved culture more than sun and surf. (And perhaps the Canary Islands have a vibrant cultural scene I missed ...).

The blue grotto in Malta. Minerals turn the water a magnificent color. I loved visiting it. It was the kind of old-fashioned adventure, though we went on a motorboat, that I could imagine the Romantic poets embarking on in a rowboat. 

Roger, who has an almost unerring instinct for travel, picked Malta. And so I went. Possibly for the most banal and  most profound of reasons as mentioned earlier: to be warm. To be outside during a month that usually has me huddled in a house. To worship the sun, as Bonhoeffer longed to do from his prison cell. I imagine Wordsworth would approve these pagan instincts to reconnect, however tenuously, with the natural world. I am grateful to live in a world where I can travel as only a man once could.

Glorious weather at the Blue Grotto. Motorboats await tourists.

Life is up high on Malta, with many steps down. 

I enjoy wine with Roger (not shown) at an outdoor cafe at the Blue Grotto. Usually it was jacket weather, but this March day was warm and beautiful.  

Another incentive was turning 60. Sixty crystallizes and clarifies the mind: time's winged chariot, etc. I was conscious that even if alive in 20 years, my body might not cooperate with the mind's desire to travel at 80 as it does at 60. 

So I packed my bag. Actually, I packed my bag six months after booking the trip. 

I composed a narrative about my journey in my head before I went. Since I would spend the first two weeks alone, I decided it would be a contemplative sojourn, an interior journey into solitude, nay, a pilgrimage. With that story in mind, I even managed to cram watercolors, paper, and brushes into my carefully calibrated carry-on luggage. I had in mind dreamy impressionist images of mornings reading in cafes with good coffee and excellent wifi, afternoons sitting in the sun painting against the backdrop of the medieval domes and buildings of Mdina.

Towers in Mdina. 

Wherever we go, it is a narrative of place. 

What perhaps makes travel so fascinating, however, is the way reality intrudes. In retrospect, the trip was defined by sociality and activity. I didn't paint and was never (despite valiant efforts) able to locate a cafe with working wifi.  But I did meet people. Josephine my airbnb hostess went over and above the call of duty. She took me to a glorious farmer's market, the likes of which I have never seen here, invited me up for dinner, connected me with her hairdresser, came to check on me and chat.  Then I met Peter, in something like a scene from a movie, on a street in Sliema. He is a retired British naval officer (oh Admiral Croft, oh Jane Austen!!) and we struck up a friendship.  And I enjoyed my casual encounters with the Indian students working their way through an MBA program in Malta  by earning money in the nearby coffee shop--more handholds on happiness for moi as they would cheerily chat with me every day. I also met British ex-pats who have started a tiny Quaker meeting in Sliema that gathers once a month. The friendly bartender at the Phoenician.

My hostess Josephine at the farmer's market. 

Of course, all of this was nothing but sociality: the superficial travel encounters of people who will  never see each other again. I liken it to the illusory, Orientalist quality of fashion that was emphasized at a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago: the central metaphor, made half-literal in room devoted to a square pool of midnight blue water with a light shining on it to replicate a full moon, was the transitory, ephemeral nature of moonlight shining on a pond.

Mdina streetscape. 

 The trip was also defined by all I saw: historic palazzos, cathedrals, a Roman villa, neolithic ruins, art museums ...  all of this has the quality of travelogue, so I won't belabor it, but have simply included some photos. 

The Roman Doma is a museum on the presumed site of the house of Roman high official stationed at Malta.

Many beautiful mosaics were recovered at the site of the Roman house.

Maltese bread. Wonderful and inexpensive. Though it looks like an internet photo, this is my bread. 

Streetscape in Rabat, the city very close to Mdina. 

Another favorite time was a trip to Sicily from Malta, where we visited Modica and Mt. Etna. Our few days in Bath and Austen country warrant another blog.

Glass of wine in Modica, Sicily, in an outdoor cafe on the street. 

Roger in Modica. 

Since I moved to Ohio ten years ago, I have been fascinated with the problem of seeing: I have come to understand that how we see depends literally on our horizons. For instance, it took me about a year to really see the full breadth of my acre of lawn or how high on a hill our Ohio house is located. I was simply used to leveled housing land and the half acre or smaller lot. I then--a few yers later--noticed while visited my in-laws quarter-acre lot that where I had never seen beyond the limits of their small backyard, suddenly, I was constantly "jumping" their lawn, my eyes falling on yards beyond. Thus, with a month in Malta, and particularly Mdina and nearby, I was fascinated with how more and more details gradually came into focus as time went on, as the brain became capable of absorbing. One problem with the quick travel we so often do is that the eyes miss so much,  

People ask me what was the favorite thing I did. My favorites were the Blue Grotto, the Roman doma, walking the streets of Valletta, fancying see Admiral Croft and Jane Austen. 

I take away memories: people friendly, kind, and open. Beautiful places: Mdina, the Meditteranean,  and Valetta. The cat the people of Rabat shelter in a little cathouse.   Not every place was beautiful--the island is crowded, and beautiful areas melt into uglier, less clean sections in disrepair where people clearly do not have as much.

As well as space, travel inspires me to contemplate time. I have taken three months to write this blog: in our hurry up society that might as well be three centuries: and yet, having slowed for my trip, this time lag to absorb and reflect feels exactly right. Our first impressions may not be our best impression, emotions recollected in tranquillity may be preferable. But as I write I recognize I am rearranging the narrative: the biggest impediment to posting has been the devastation caused when I spilled water on my computer, had to replace it, and now am still trying to retransfer all my photos. And then too I am busy ... Yet now, as I look at photos, memory flood back, and I feel joy.

Getting back to the image of the moon reflected on water: that perhaps best describes what the trip was: Illusory on one level, very real on the other. I would go again.


  1. Yes travel is illusory, and especially maybe the relationships. Perhaps that is true of all our relationships, even those where we actually get to meet face-to-face. I like to write down what I felt and thought about as I moved through the time and space and places because otherwise I forget these things and it is as if they've never been. By writing it down, it makes me live out whatever it was thoroughly and consciously not inchoately. I'm miserable at taking photos anyway. I like the metaphors you used -- it has taken me years even to know the names of the streets in my neighborhood and only very recently did I realize how they connect up. When I was in hospital once, someone asked me my address. I had to think a minute, then I knew it but I did not know whether the numbers went up or down to the right or left of me. In NYC I lived in an apartment house on 200 Street for 7 years and only in the last year did I discover there was no sixth floor.

  2. Malta was great! What a crazy place to drive, though!

    1. Yes! A whole blog could be devoted to the driving, which was harrowing on those driveway size streets!

  3. Ellen,
    What was odd about writing the blog was facebooking daily about the trip, so that by the time I got to the blog, I didn't know what else to say. So I waited! :)

  4. I would also like to emphasize that travel is very real too. Just as the reflection of the moon on the water is really there, travel is real. Mdina, eg, the enchanting city where I stayed, really was built in the 1300s and real people really live there today. Valletta is rebuilt from being bombed in WWII, but to look as it did, and again, it is real: you can touch the water in the Mediterranean if you go down the flights of (real) stone steps, feel the sun and the breeze, etc etc.

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