March 4, 2012
Luminous gray sky over Valletta harbor. The flights were long but without much event. To Newark I sat across from a woman who had just won a ballroom dancing trophy, which she had with her as a carry on, and which seemed to be exempt from the completely-under-the-seat-in-front-of-you rule. To Frankfurt I sat beside two strapping Swedes who had been seeing to business (“energy distribution”) in Pittsburgh. To Malta I slept so violently I don’t know about the woman beside me, except as an elbow attached to an arm attached to a hand which was working Soduko puzzles. My remembering the German word for “airsickness” convinced the cute steward on Lufthansa that I was German, and we had conversations in Deutsch throughout the journey– which I mostly understood because of the narrowness of the context. Malta looks wondrous tiny from the air, and uninhabited, as its buildings are pale yellowish gray and look, until you’re quite close, like jumbles of stones.
Wrote a poem in the Asheville Airport snack bar. Wonder if that’s a first.
The Excelsior Grand is indeed very grand–my limo driver thought it the second best hotel on the island, after the Phoenicia–and all the personnel are kind and courtly. My room has a fairly crappy view– a broad expanse of roof over which buildings on a distant hill can be seen. My view karma is very bad indeed, or maybe I manage always to check the box asserting I want a room in the ventilation shaft. Walked twice through the town–once in the afternoon, where I ruined myself by consuming a full bottle of excellent Maltese Chardonnay, and once at night when I had slept that off. Valletta on a Saturday night is taken over by kids, as it should be, but what they were doing–unless it was just strolling about–I couldn’t figure. Entire streets were silent and empty. I found one establishment that was like a bar–a downscale English operation called the Pub. The Pub has a shrine in one corner to the actor Oliver Reed; it turns out that Reed died there one night after an extended drinking bout with wife and then with a bunch of sailors. Always stumbling into history!
In Italy I strained to understand what people around me were saying, but Maltese is so odd and off-the-beaten-track linguistically I don’t bother. “Grazzi” serves in both languages, so that is well. Everybody speaks English, with a vaguely Levantine accent. The people are distinctive looking, sort of Sicilian-Arab, though I say that without sure knowledge of what Sicilians or Arabs at home are really like.
Later. Attended Eucharist at Saint Paul’s, the Anglican Pro-Cathedral, founded by Queen Adelaide back when Malta was recently a colony. Never was there a more chirpily British place on earth. The greeter had just seen a TV show where North Carolina had been mentioned, so he felt we were kindred spirits. I sang harmony to the Schubert service music and thought myself very grand. The cathedral architecture is undistinguished, but it had made it through the Nazi bombings. When you look around Malta you know that most of it must have been flattened–the bombing here went on longer than on London-- and they must have taken care to put it back essentially the way it was. All through the morning I was in love with this town. It’s like the parts of Rome that tourists don’t go to. I was going to say “it’s like a redneck Rome,” though racism plays a part in that word back home as it cannot do here. The people seem as cheerfully mixed along those lines as it is possible to be. Actually did almost nothing but stroll and stroll, in the flat, overpowering winter light which one craved because the sea wind (which here is all wind) was dauntingly fresh. Lunched across from St. John’s co-cathedral beside people I eventually gathered were Bulgarians. What a fine time they were having! The words I recognized were “Bulgaria” and “telephone.” They said “hello” answering the phone and “All right, ciao, bye” turning it off again. Can recognize the Maltese words for “street” and “John.” Valletta itself is at once picturesque and liveable. I chose two streets down by the harbor where I would want to live. Laundry flapped at some of the windows. The many-storied narrow houses rise over the streets like waves, for the land is uneven and very sharply hilly. I have climbed more steps today than. . . than I would prefer. Eighty steps up just to get one out of the hotel compound onto the street.
Pigeons, weaver finches, crows seem to be the fauna here. Plus graceful brown fish in the sparkling blue-green water. The steep hills are beautifully yellowed by goatsbeard. Went to the archeology museum, where I learned that people began living permanently on Malta and Gozo around 5200 BC. The islands are too small for dependable hunting-and-gathering, so speculation is that’s the earliest there could have been permanent habitation. But the ruins and monuments (which I shall see in a few days) speak to a sophisticated culture, one I can’t remember having heard spoken of even in academic circles.