May 25, 2007
After two days of long walks, I took it easy today and stayed in Sliema (except for an afternoon walk down to St Julian's), so this post will have a sequence of odds and ends.
I spent some time this morning at Stella's, a small cafe and coffee shop on the third floor of the Plaza mall, mostly reading my Doyle book. Then I browsed the Agenda Book Shop on the same floor and found a mystery novel (set in Malta but published in the U.S.) which I thought might make a good supplement to my sister's birthday present from Rabat. So once I got on the Internet, I ordered her a copy from BarnesandNoble.com.
This photo, the only one I'll post today, is of a building just a little ways down the street from the hotel. At one time, it must have been quite a lovely residence or office building, but this facade is almost all that remains, except possibly for the walls it might have shared with surrounding buildings. There are parts of walls inside it, but none of them is whole. I wonder if this was bombed in World War II--it certainly seems too fine a structure to simply let go. I think if you look carefully through the window on the lower right, you can see a Jeep parked inside:
Some Thoughts on the Cruise: I really do recommend a cruise as a way to relax and unwind. You travel without having to get in and out of cars or trains or jets and change hotels/motels; you have food, entertainment, and activities at hand; you have your days free to line up as you wish. I most enjoyed the days at sea. I couldn't, as it were, go anywhere, so I didn't have to worry about what time my onshore excursion was leaving or anything like that. I could sleep in if I liked (especially if we'd had another overnight time-zone change); breakfast when I liked; catch a movie or a dance class or a craft activity; exercise, or sit in the hot tub or sauna, or stroll the deck; or plop myself into a chair and read.
The onshore excursion days were more hectic, because I had to be ready to leave at a certain time (even on the occasions when the ship wasn't ready for us to leave) and worry about getting back on time. The excursions were fun, and I don't know that I would, in hindsight, cancel any of them, but they made the day a little more stressful.
One of the drawbacks is the ridiculous cost of some items on board: a can of Coca-Cola, for example ($1.75); or 75 cent a minute Internet access. But one can always get a Coke on an off-shore day and choose not to keep up with email (or do so sparingly). Another drawback is having an inside cabin. There was no natural light in my room, so I had to use the wake-up-call service or I might have slept who knows how many hours a day. Of course I was paying a premium for having a "state room" to myself, and I can't imagine what they might have charged me for an outside room. There were couples on the ship paying no more, or maybe even a little less, than I was because they were sharing a room. One of the men who had been on a number of cruises with his wife said that Princess charges the most for a single in a room, even though a single would presumably use fewer services and eat less than a couple.
Still, I enjoyed the cruise a great deal, enjoyed having "my home at sea", and certainly recommend the experience, if you have the time and inclination.
A Slower Pace?
Does life on Malta proceed at a slower pace? Maybe, but I'd guess it's not by much. Some of the businesses shut down for a few hours mid-day (lunch/siesta time) but after they open up again they may work an hour or two later than mom-and-pop shops in the US. A lot of the stores are closed on Sunday, including my home away from home, the supermarket. Shoppers don't particularly seem less hurried or more courteous than in the US, and there is certainly a great deal of pedestrian traffic to dodge on the narrow streets and sidewalks. On the other hand, you can stop just about anybody on the street and ask a question--such as "Where is the post office?" or "Is this where I catch the bus to Valletta?"--and they will answer if they can. If they can't, they may very well point out someone else you should ask. As a rule, the older people seem friendlier than the younger, but that's often true in the US as well. (Or maybe that's just an old person's perception! Maybe the young are much friendlier to young tourists.) I've gotten answers to questions from folks on the bus, and the bus drivers will answer questions and help you out as well.
I think I forgot to mention, in my inventory of automobiles, that there's a car here, a sort of mini-van, called "Picasso". I don't know what the make is: the emblem seems to be two chevrons, one above the other. Peugeot, by the way, has a very nice grill emblem: some kind of stylized animal rearing up.
I suppose I had expected that Malta would be much more British than it is and that the Maltese language would be more a curiosity, like Gaelic was not too many decades ago, than a functioning reality. But Malta is much more Mediterranean or Levantine than British, and one hears the Maltese language everywhere. Most Maltese speak English, but often with a rather heavy accent. The bookstores mostly have books in English, though there are Maltese titles as well, and yes, there are Maltese publishing companies: the books are not all imports. According to Lonely Planet, the population is only around 400,000, but Maltese doesn't seem to be a language in danger of dying. The kids speak it too.
Of course the fact that most Maltese speak English is a matter of British influence, and the tea-drinking may be as well, though I'm not sure that tea-drinking is much more prevalent here than in the US. Cafes and cafeterias (coffee shops) are everywhere; tea shops aren't. And one usually isn't offered a choice of teas either: it's tea, period, though the waiter will assume you want it with milk, if it's hot tea. The canned or bottled tea is always flavored: I have not yet seen (this may have been true of the excursions on the mainland too) a bottle of just sweetened or unsweetened tea. Lemon tea is popular, to be sure, but so is peach tea. Ick.
My tomato juice comes from Spain; my Gerber's applesauce from Poland; my Pringle's chips from Belgium; tuna from Italy; Quaker Oats and Nestle's Golden Crunch (which I eat dry, as a snack) from the UK. The Coca-Cola comes from Malta.
The Agenda Book Shop likes to sticker some of its books as having the "Original UK Price"--indicating, I suppose, that there is normally an import markup. Most of the English-language books probably come from the UK, no?
Malta joined the EU a few years ago and will switch to the euro next year. At first I had thought that prices were quoted in Maltese liras and euros almost everywhere because the stores would take both; but I don't think this is the case. I think most stores want only liras, but are either easing the people into the idea of the euro or helping the tourists from the EU know what they are paying for things. Just about the only place I have seen the dollar listed is where they are exchanging money or (I can't remember for sure) at tour locations where you can book a rental car or a tour of some sort.
I'm still not used to the fact that they drive on the left side of the road, like the Brits, and sometimes when I get ready to cross a street, I can't remember which way to look first. I feel like a safety-dyslexic.
The ATM fee here seems to be 1% of amount withdrawn, so it costs you no more to withdraw 10 liras 10 days in a row than to draw 100 liras once. (Of course your bank back home may charge you more for doing it that way.)
Someone here (I think it was one of the Maltese-Australians I've met) told me that the Maltese take care of nothing but their churches. I have certainly seen plenty of buildings with ragged "sea-side" exteriors, while others have clearly been recently refurbished. And there is no doubt that there are some incredibly ornate and beautiful churches here, especially in light of the nation's small population. After all, El Paso's population is more than 50% higher than Malta's!
Is Europe Just the U.S. with Old Buildings and Different Languages?
Sometimes one hears an American say there's no point in visiting other countries, either because they're too poor and icky or because they're just like the U.S., due to globalization. Well, I can't really comment on the mainland yet (though from my brief visits, only Cannes came close to being US-ish, and there you would have to question which way the influence is going), but Malta (or what I have seen of it so far) is certainly not just like the U.S. Besides the physical characteristics I have mentioned in this and earlier posts, there are other things that would seem to be more related to globalization, such as the prevalence of individually owned shops of all sorts and the absence of "superstores". (Correction: This morning, riding on the bus to Vittoriosa, I saw what looked to be an entertainment superstore.) I haven't seen anything like a department store. The supermarket I go to is on three floors (linked to a parking garage), but the total space of the three floors is a lot less than Albertson's and is maybe somewhat comparable to a local IGA or AG store. No Best Buy or Circuit City. No Michael's. Lots of stationers, who sell pens and paper, along with postcards and books and who knows what else. Confectionaries. (At one near here, you can get a "cheesecake", which is flaky crust, sort of like a croissant, with cheese inside it, for 10 Maltese cents. I had one the other day.) Newsstands. Food kiosks along the seawall, one of which has a fairly good-sized flat panel TV outside for the customers to watch. Do they take it home every night, or is Malta crime-free enough that it's safe locked into the kiosk? (Which is admittedly fairly large as kiosks go, but is still, as far as I can tell, a portable building resting on the brickish tile of the walkway.) There are brands we recognize, to be sure: but Panasonic is Japanese, not American, and when was the last time you saw a Panasonic store in the US? There are American clothing brands, like Quiksilver, but also European brands; and yes, the Plaza has a Polo/Ralph Lauren Store. But overall, I think the feel here is quite different.