I've been here a week today and am beginning to adjust to a world where I know no one and where my routines need to be manufactured. There's no job to go to, no wife to wake up next to, no Sunday dinners with the kids, nothing set from day to day. I'm not used to this.
I'm gradually imposing a pattern on my days. Today was the best effort yet. Woke, wandered down to the harbour with the intention of a swim - hesitated, went in swimming (with my reading glasses on), crawled out, went to return and slipped on the rocks, lost my nerve, packed up and went for a coffee at the Bocci Club (a Maltese instant coffee for a euro - $1.60).
Home at 10am for breakfast (baked beans and ham), wrote till 3pm, hit my target (1000 words) so rewarded myself with an afternoon off. Went to National Archeological Museum, followed by a long black coffee at Cortinnas, the oldest coffee shop in Valetta, then returned to the harbour to watch a game of Bocci played between two rival Valetta teams.
All in all quite satisfying. You might say busy, but by no means Maltese in style or rhythm. Here are two tales that give me insight into aspects of the Maltese character.
Paul has a shop on St Dominic's Street nearby. My host Jo had introduced me to him by way of orienting me to the neighbourhood. I'd call him a hardware man though his sign says ironmonger. After Jo left I was having trouble with the plumbing in the kitchen sink so visited his shop asking for advice. His shop is a metaphor for Valetta. It's a tiny rectangular space - formerly a garage, as are most of the spaces which function as shops - crammed with an assortment of boxes and containers none of which is labelled. It looks like it hasn't been touched since Malta achieved independence in 1964 ( and neither does Malta) - about when Paul may have been working there as a boy alongside his father. It has not been swept, cleaned, reorganised, made over or tampered with in any way. As new products have arrived, new spaces for the new items have been miraculously found to accommodate them. It's. a magic pudding type of achievement
I joked with him that he was the man who knew everything - when it came to his shop. He replied that some people ask him why he doesn't organize his stock so its more logical and accessible and he says because then he wouldn't know where anything was. And sure enough he had exactly what I needed by way of a tapered seal for the sink outlet. He offered me two seals to try and neither came from the same section of his shelves.
I dropped by each day (mostly afternoons) over the subsequent days but each time he seemed to be closed when I visited. Then finally I found him open - it was the morning. He sat in silence and incredibly still in a dark corner. I thanked him and he quietly smiled. The odd thing was it was pretty clear Paul spent most of his mornings sitting there behind his counter, hidden from the passing foot-traffic, of which there is very little, simply waiting. He was not reading a book, nor a newspaper, He just seemed to be content to sit and wait.
I made contact with Alan by accident. I was returning to the apartment from a stroll and dropped a handful of change on the road. I picked it up and then heard a voice ask 'Did you get it all?' It came from a half open door of a garage. 'Are you Australian?' I enquired. Well almost - he was a New Zealander. We got to chatting. He said he was just doing a bit of tidying up. I could see he was moving an old pine palette around but apart from that here was no sign of any real purpose to his activity. He was a little cautious in his responses and then we bad farewell.
Without any intent I ran into him a second and then a third time. I learnt that he'd been here 20 years, that his Maltese girlfriend worked a tourist stall in the main square and he, well, mucked about in his garage. It turned out he also leased the adjacent one as well so he was building an empire of derelict garage spaces. He invited me in for a viewing. No electricity, but a bed, a toilet, a large bookshelf and lots of stuff he'd collected over the years - old chairs, picture frames, statuettes and of course a pine palette. It was very reminiscent of Paul's Ironmongery. Dusty, shambolic, uncared for in the modern sense but perfectly sensible for him apparently. Does he sound like some old eccentric? Well he wasn't. He was an intelligent man in his forties who lived a Maltese life.
The next time I saw him was from a distance through his garage door. He had a hammer in hand and was busy removing nails from the palette in order to take it apart. He would end up with a collection of pieces of pine timber of use to someone, somewhere, sometime. Three days he'd been working on that palette. He was in no hurry.
Valetta is in a state of advanced decay. It reminds me of Rangoon when I visited thirty five years ago. A sad apology for its former glory days but with all that, it has enormous charm and a timelessness that feels like it will continue forever. Thanks to the EU, enormous amounts of money are being poured into rebuilding the ancient battlements and historic monuments. As for the private buildings, there is some restoration happening but there is also a huge amount of neglect and abandoned apartments sometimes sit alongside international embassy buildings in the same streetscape. Jo, and others, assure me that Valetta is clawing its way back. It has been through a rough period, particularly since the British Navy departed in 1979, and has begun to turn the corner. Certainly tourists still find it fascinating. And that may save it.