Thursday, May 31, 2007

Teatru Manoel & so on



May 30, 2007

Do you think I'd get any smarter if I moved into this place?



**

Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena, a Portuguese knight of the Order of St. John, had the Teatru Manoel (Manoel Theater) built in 1731. Its first performance was in January 1732. He called it the "Public Theatre", and knights were the performers in early productions. Later it was called the Royal Theatre (after the British took over, I'm guessing) and finally, in 1866, the Manoel Theatre, in honor of its founder. It's the oldest functioning theater in the British Commonwealth and the third oldest in Europe. For several decades it was superceded by the Grand Opera House (whose ruins I've shown in a couple of earlier photos), and during some of those years it served as a poorhouse and as a movie theater. Now it features live performances by Maltese musicians and singers, as well as by performers from other countries. For two nights last week, a Maltese opera was being performed.

I took this photo from the main floor, looking up at the boxes at the rear of the theatre:



The three boxes in the center on the lowest level are reserved for the president, the prime minister and (I think) the minister of culture and their guests. Two more boxes, one on each side of those three, are reserved for I can't remember whom, and two rows on the main floor are reserved for the press and -- are you sitting down? -- the two censors! Malta still has official government censorship. There are also boxes on the two sides, coming forward toward the stage itself. During the years when the theatre was a poorhouse, families were allowed to rent a box, for a penny a night, to sleep in.

Originally the theatre was built entirely of wood, and the boxes, stage and ceiling still are. (Except, that is, for the 24-kt gold decoration on the ceiling.) But the main floor and its original wooden benches had to be removed because they had become infested with wood-worms which threatened the whole structure. So now there are theater-style seats and tile on the main floor. There are two large cisterns of water (under the orchestra pit, I think the guide said) which serve both to keep the wood from getting too dry and to aid the acoustics of the theatre. It seats only 620-something, and only 570 or so of those seats are sold, with the others being those in reserve.

In the theatre museum, there are architectural drawings of the theatre, costumes which have been used in various productions, printed material related to the history and productions of the theatre, and these two items:



The large wheel in the foreground is the wind-maker. The guide cranked the handle for us and showed how wind sounds were made for opera and play performances. When she cranked quickly, it really did sound like a 35- or 40-mph wind. A slower crank produced a gentler wind. It looks to be a large, geared wheel with a canvas roll wrapped around it. The odd-looking item leaning against the wall is the thunder-maker. She said the sound of thunder far off could be produced by rolling the single wheel (on the close side in the photo) along the backstage floor, and nearby thunder was produced by rolling all three wheels along the floor. She didn't demonstrate this one, however. She also showed us the rain-maker (not in this photo), which functioned something like a rain-stick, except that the tiny lead balls were in a drawer at the top of the contraption--sort of like a very skinny grandfather clock--and fewer or more could be released at a time, for a lighter or heavier rain.

The Teatru now also owns adjoining buildings (or suites or whatever you call them) which include a cool-looking cafe in an open courtyard where the tour begins.

**

We had rain today. Not a lot, but enough to wet the streets down. It happened while I was in the mall, having tea, a big chocolate chip cookie and Dracula at Stella's. As I came down the stairs to go outside and head for Vanilla Wifi, I noticed the wet pavement through the glass doors. It was very barely sprinkling still as I walked up the street. Otherwise the weather had been a bit chilly; breezy again, and pleasant enough in the sunshine, but chilly in the shade. After a mostly warmish to even almost hot week last week, this week has begun in a cooler fashion.

**

Hey, Allen, mira pa'allá. And don't forget to tell Bubba there's a place just waiting for him in Sliema, Malta.



**

The Bellowers have vacated the premises. Will my new neighbors be quieter? Who knows? (Late arriving news: the Bellower's brother and parents were at breakfast this morning, then--while I was still eating--I heard the Bellower himself talking to the lady at the reception desk. Ayayay. I guess they just changed rooms. As long as they're far away from me, maybe it'll be all right. My little hallway seemed quieter last night, at least.)

**

This morning while awaiting and then riding on the bus, I had an interesting conversation with another English couple. They had just arrived yesterday, though this is their fifth trip here. The woman asked if I was from New York, although the man thought that my accent was clearly Texan. They wanted to ask me about the West Coast, but I had to tell them that I hadn't been yet to the section they are planning to visit. They want to fly to Seattle, rent a car, and then spend about three weeks exploring from Seattle down to San Francisco. The man says he has used (he may have even said invented) a flight simulator upon which he has "flown" down the West Coast already. Apparently it's based upon satellite camera work. He liked what he saw so much that they decided to make the trip. Previously they have visited the Northeast. The wife has only just retired--I believe she said a month ago--and the husband must have retired just a bit before that. They live near the coast in western England, about 30 miles from Bristol.

All in all I've met quite a few kind and interesting folks while in Malta. The Maltese-Australian couple I met here at the hotel just shortly after arriving are here again now, after several days at a more resort-y area up the coast. This is their "home-base" until they return to Australia on June 27 (oddly, the same day I fly to London), but have already booked a week on the Greek island of Corfu in June and may book a few days in Rome or somewhere else as well. (They are spending more money than I am!) Their vacation time, all together, will be 7 weeks, they said.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Museum of Archaeology and the Silent Warriors

May 29, 2007

Consumer Flash!: Next time you're in Italy (or Malta), buy yourself a package of GS brand "Biscotti con Mais" (cookies with corn). The main ingredient is "farina di frumento" (flour of whatever-the-heck-frumento-is), but 21% is corn flour! And boy, do they make for good snacking!

**

Check the hood on this beauty: it's a Ford. What year, I wonder?



And this photo is a gift for Deron. Parked in a dead-end passage between two multi-floor buildings, a lovely Alfa Romeo:



**

Malta's Museum of Archaeology is small but a great visit. The first floor is about Malta's prehistory: the Hypogeum and the temple complexes at Tarxien, Haggar Qim and other places, with instructive panels to place what happened on Malta within the larger context of the spread of agriculture and the ending of the Ice Age. (Once upon a time, during the Ice Age, Malta was attached to Sicily!) On display here are artifacts both large and small from the various sites on Malta and Gozo, some -- at least -- brought in specifically for protection from the elements. There are several beautiful examples, carved on limestone, of the spiral and faux-spiral motifs so prevalent here. As one of the panels points out, not all of the carvings which look like spirals at first glance actually are. Some of more like Cs worked in together. A particularly nice example, on a monolith at least eight feet long, I'd guess, features two long horizontal lines, one above the other, of arcs or C-shapes: working together as they do, they suggested to me a line of horned animals moving across the stone face. I tried to draw it, but the drawing is pretty awful. Other stones are much more clearly abstracted shapes -- just spirals and arcs, as in one or two of the photos I posted from the Tarxien temples.

Right as one comes into the main gallery, one faces a large stone-carved cup, big enough to be used by the Fee-Fie-Fo-Fum giant at the top of the beanstalk. My guess is that it's about 30 inches across. It's not perfectly shaped, as there's a definite lean to one side, and it has no bottom in it now, though I suppose it might once have. But yes, it has to be seen as a cup, and not a cauldron or small cistern, because it has a handle on one side. Judging from the cracks running through it, archaeologists had to reassemble the pieces. This is my drawing of it:



The first large gallery, with so many examples of carved and pitted stones, also features several oversized photographs from early expeditions, allowing one to see what some of the sites looked like 80-90 years ago, when archaeologists were first working at the locations.

Perhaps more exciting than the large stones are the small finds from the various sites: various tools of stone, bone or horn; pottery shards; and various carved figures. I tried to draw some of these, but couldn't get a result I was happy with. There are small animal figurines and, especially, figures of women or goddesses. Many of these exemplify what is, I suppose, the Stone Age Maltese style: enormously fat women, often with the most delicately (and simply) rendered small hands. The hips and legs are particularly exaggerated, making for small upper bodies and inflated lower bodies. One of them, which seemed to be a sitting figure, reminded me of a Victorian woman with an enormous skirt spread out around her. The statues are of various sizes (and could be quite large, if you'll recall the photo from Tarxien which shows the surviving lower limbs and skirt of a huge woman). The most famous of these Maltese women is the Sleeping Lady, found at the Hypogeum but housed at the museum in Valletta now. It's a small carving of a woman lying on her side, apparently sleeping, and again exhibiting the small upper body and the wildly inflated lower body. It's really quite charming, and a few other carvings of figures on beds have been found as well. Workers have also found a number of phallic symbols, the most unusual of which is a grouping of three. One can only imagine what kind of cultic or religious significance that might have had.

The museum itself is housed in a 17th-century building right in Valletta. This building replaced a 16th-century building, a couple of parts (an archway, for example) of which can be seen through transparent panels in the floor.

The second floor of the museum currently offers a traveling exhibition, the "Silent Warriors" of China. I suppose several variations of this exhibit may be traveling the world right now. It explains and displays several of the large-scale terracotta soldiers and horses which were found in the tomb of the emperor who united China more than 2000 years ago, along with related smaller objects. The historical panels accompanying the exhibition explain that the tomb is still being excavated, more than 30 years after its discovery. Scholars estimate that there are 7000 of these soldiers in the tomb, though only 1000 have been uncovered to date. They are amazing pieces of work.

According to the information given, the bodies of the soldiers were produced on a kind of assembly line, but the shoulders (?), hands and heads were produced separately and then glued to the bodies. Each head is different and may represent an actual soldier of the Emperor's army. Various hair-styles are represented, and the men have different features and expressions. The real armor apparently was pinned or bolted together, though it's impossible to tell from the terracotta statues if it would have been metal or wood or even hardened leather. Not all are armored. They wear what look like knee-length tunics (or dresses, if you will), below which trousers hang down for another several inches. Below that you have either leg or legging--it's hard to tell in the low light of the museum.

In addition to two full-size (or larger?) horses, there is also a very interesting small-scale statue of a horse with a rider, whose body is either unfinished or somewhat abstracted, atop him. This horse's head is a remarkable piece of work, not quite realistic, with some of its features looking geometricized, as with modern art. It's possible, I suppose, that it might have been painted, long ago, to show that part of what looks almost mechanical about it was actually some sort of complicated bridle or armor. As it is, it reminds me almost of the sort of blend of "life" and "machine" you see in science fiction movies or illustrations.

Along with the soldiers and horses, there are smaller pieces of art, representative of China in or around the same time: incense burners, for example. Oddly enough, one of the things which moved me the most wasn't a piece of art at all: it is, instead, merely the name for an earlier period of Chinese history and it seemed to me yet another reminder of the grace and style which has characterized so much of Chinese culture. This time period is called the "Spring and Autumn Period," and it lasted more than 200 years. It makes one want to go read some more Chinese poetry.

Again, I am presuming that variations on this exhibit are traveling the world. (This one leaves Malta in August.) If you get the chance, by all means go see it. The skill that produced these soldiers will astonish you. And archaeologists, by the way, have found the enormous section of the tomb where the emperor's body ought somewhere to be, but they have not found the chamber where he is, presumably, still lying in state. Who knows what they might discover when that room is located?

**

The Mystery Deepens: The Bellower and His Family. This morning the Bellower and three people I presume to be his brother and his parents were having breakfast at the same time I was. The Bellower is older than I first took him to be, perhaps as old as 45. He is bear-ish: stocky, not fat; taller than I am, but not tall; very short crewcut. He looks like a former rugby player. But get this: he was sitting alone at a table with four chairs while his parents and brother were sitting at the next table, which would only seat three. Very odd. And I'm pretty sure the old man was speaking something other than English. So they may be yet another family with Maltese roots, but now living in England or Australia. The brother looks older, smaller, not at all like an ex-jock. The mother has short gray-white hair and is also smallish. The father is a bit stocky, shorter, sort of "old country"-looking. The Bellower himself actually seems to be capable of modulating his voice, though it's still one of those deep-ish voices which carries through bank vault doors. Sigh. (As I write, by the way, the Bellower and some/all of his family are in the room on the other side of me from where I have suspected the Bellower to actually be staying, with the television turned up loud enough to entertain the troops in South Korea, making the hallway practically echo. I seem to be the non-bellowing meat in a Bellowing-sandwich, with the lot of them on both sides of me. I can only hope they'll be moving along soon and will be replaced by other non-Bellowers.)

**

Here's my sketch of the plaque I wanted to "draw" the other day, the one that makes reference to Fascism and Nazism. Other than those two words, in the final line, there are what seem to be the word against (kontra); a reference to the Maltese (Lill-Maltin) and English (L-Inglizi), presumably working together, against Nazism and Fascism; and what seems to be a reference to a convoy (konvoj), although that may be totally something else. Maybe something like "In Memory (or Honor) of the Convoy of Santa Maria. . ." Your guess is as good as mine:

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Another lazy day



May 28, 2007

Late this afternoon (which was morning, Dallas time) I talked to my mom on the phone. She had just come in from a late-ish walk a few minutes earlier. I bought a phone card and called from an Internet cafe/international call center not too far from the hotel. It may have been the first time I have used one of those calling cards, and I'm sure the guy who told me how to use it thought I must be a relic of the Stone Age. Mom is doing well and is looking forward to the arrival in Dallas, in a week or so, of my little sister and her family, coming from Florida. Mom was planning to get together this afternoon (Dallas time: I think it hasn't happened yet as I write, after sundown here) with the Duncanville branch of the family for Memorial Day. Greetings to all!

**

I'm reading Dracula which, believe it or not, I've never read. While on the ship I borrowed from the ship's library Bram Stoker, a biography published in 1996, and found his life an interesting tale. I had no idea how serious his involvement in English theater had been. The author (Barbara somebody) seemed to strain too hard at delineating the idea of Stoker as a perpetual juvenile who needed a hero to worship and serve, but overall the book seemed solid to me. By the time I disembarked to fly to Malta, I was reading (and had not finished) the ship's library copy of E.M. Forster's Howards End, which I haven't seen in a book store here. I may have to wait till I get to England to buy a copy and finish it. I'm also still reading Ted Hughes's selection of Coleridge's poems. I read "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" a few days ago--it has been years, maybe decades, since I last read it. It's a fine poem. I'm looking forward to re-reading "Christabel" soon.

**

Some of you might enjoy a couple of photos of Sliema under construction (or destruction, if you prefer). Buildings are going up, or being remodeled, everywhere, it seems. A walled city like Valletta is pretty well finished--buildings can be refurbished, but are unlikely to be torn down, I would think, given that Valletta is a "World Heritage City". But Sliema is newer and not sacrosanct. Some of the buildings seem to use cinderblock, which is then coated in something that makes it look more or less like limestone; and some of the buildings probably really are limestone. I'm sure that building this sturdily makes the buildings more secure, in the event of volcanic eruption (remember that Mt. Etna in Sicily is not that far away, nor is Vesuvius in Italy) or earthquake (Turkey, particularly, seems to be an active zone, and I don't know how far the shocks waves spread), but I suspect they also help to give the people some peace and quiet, living as so many of them do in multi-story buildings, surrounded by other people, above, below and to both sides.

On this wall, you can see where stairs, walls and floors were, in the building which is now gone:



And this photo shows a wall with tile still remaining from the old structure and what look to be the holes where supporting beams were mounted:



It may be (I simply can't remember for sure) that these two photos show adjacent sides of one square, but both are definitely from a little peninsula called Tigné Point, where a lot of work is going on.

If any of you want to price properties for your summer homes, one of the big realty firms here is Dhalia.com.

**

"Hey, be careful opening those balcony doors!"



Fortunately if you fall, the ground's not far enough away to kill you.

**

There are any number of companies here offering "cruises" and bus tours to visitors. The cruises do various things: one of the shorter cruises goes up and down the harbors here in and around Valletta and Sliema and tells folks what they are seeing on shore. There are other cruises that take folks to Gozo (where I'll be in a couple of weeks) and Comino, which has only a few hundred residents. Mostly people go to Comino, I understand, to enjoy the beaches and maybe a barbecue for a few hours. Other cruises go all the way around Malta and/or Gozo. I'm almost positive this is one of the ships used by one of those companies:



One company, Captain Morgan, also offers bus tours to various places on the island, handy for folks who don't want to fool with switching buses or having to walk too far between sites that are a bit further from the bus stops. I may use them for a trip to the Blue Grotto and the temples on the far side of the island, but I'm not sure yet.

**

I sat for a while on a bench at the harbor and drew this picture of one of the ships. You can see that my gangway is a bit off, as is the prow:



This drawing, along with others I've done here (as well as the little watercolor I did on the cruise), has gone into the mail: little bits of Malta for the nieces and nephews (who may not care at all!) I do, though, have one great-niece and one great-nephew who are "into" art, so they may enjoy the drawings, even if none of the others do.

**

One thing that surprised me about Malta is the prevalence here of English language schools. Malta is definitely cheaper for tourists than England, and most people here speak English, so I suppose it makes sense for Europeans from non-English-speaking countries to come here to learn the language: but it's not something I had expected. I reckon it's a nice way to combine learning a language with a warm climate and oceanfront hotels.

**

Because I'm staying here longer than most tourists do, I can afford to have a lazy day like today, a resting kind of day, and still have time to see the things I want to see. I still haven't gone through all of the main sites in Valletta, including the Museum of Archaeology, which has the terracotta soldiers from China in right now, nor have I visited the Teatru Manoel, one of the oldest theaters in Europe. One of the books says that, if you take the midday tour on Wednesday, you might get to hear a live performance as well as see the building. And there's the Armoury, which I might have to visit, just to say I've been there: and who knows? Maybe those lances and spears and arquebusts (or whatever those early rifles were) will be interesting.

**

It's been blowsy and dusty again today. The nice thing is it keeps the temperature quite pleasant. I even wore my windbreaker to go out for a while before sundown. The drawback is the dust in the eyes and the wind tugging at things more than you might want.

Monday, May 28, 2007

A little this and that

May 27, 2007

It was one month ago today that I got in the rental car in Duncanville and headed off for Galveston to board the Grand Princess the following afternoon.

**

Congratulations to Marietta Fuess and Helen Bell, my co-workers over a number of years in El Paso ISD. Both are retiring and beginning their next lives: Marietta at the end of June, I think, and Helen within the week. Congratulations as well to Kayla Anderson, who will be Marietta's successor and guru of all things librarily technical for the EPISD librarians. And a big round of applause for Esther Arriola who will help Kayla ease into the job smoothly.

**

This photo goes out to Dave Larsen, also of El Paso, who is the world's foremost adorer of all things pigeon. I snapped this pigeon (I mean, I took its photo, Dave--I didn't snap its neck) while lunching at the plaza in front of the National Library in Valletta today:



**

St Catherine of Italy Church had another concert this morning. Today there were three musicians--harpsichordist, flutist, and bassoonist--although all three played together only for one of the five sonatas. The featured composers were Telemann, Handel, Mozart, Vivaldi and Marcello. The crowd was smaller, but the music was equally lovely. This is my impression of one of the wall panels and the painting of the crucifixion that hangs within it:



**

I am not Catholic and have not been keeping up much with news. Someone is being beatified or canonized this week, I gather. The friendly woman at the Hollywood Grocery in Valletta (which I frequent) reminded me that she would be closed four or five days this coming weekend because she is going to Rome for the ceremony/celebration. Perhaps one of you know who it is and can tell us all by leaving a comment.

**

Are there loud car-stereos in Malta? Unfortunately yes. But mostly they are playing dance music of some sort, rather than the hiphop/rap which is customary in the US.

**

Do I have the world's most obnoxious hotel guest in the room next to me? Perhaps so. Mind you, I'm not saying he's a brute, or a bounder, or a thug. Just obnoxious. His only volume level seems to be bellow, even if it's midnight and he's standing out in the hallway bidding the other members of his party/family good night. If he's irritated at one of them, then the bellow might become an aggrieved bellow. Judging by the accent, he's English or Australian. (Note: I have now seen the bellower, on the third floor. Is it possible he's so loud I think he's right outside my room when he's actually a floor below, or is it just chance I saw him below?) In the days preceding his residence in that room, there was someone (or someones) who liked to play Indian or Middle Eastern music loudly at 11:30 pm. Fortunately the walls here seem to be pretty thick, so most of the internal noise that comes in, comes via the wooden door. The external noise, of course, comes from the balcony. Certain motorboats crossing along the shore across the street seem to resonate with the balcony, making it almost vibrate.

On the other hand, one might look out off the balcony on a Sunday morning and see this:



I "auto-enhanced" this photo. The morning was not as lovely as it appears here. It was hazy, humid, and quite unpleasantly warm. Later the wind picked up and the sky looked like sand might be blowing in from the Sahara (although Malta, a limestone desert island, might have all the dust it needs for beige-ing out the sky). Then for a while it cleared out a bit and was rather nice, then grey clouds moved in and the wind got almost chilly. An odd day for weather, to be sure. Of course I hear that Texas is getting deluged.

**

One day last week I gave you a photo of an external wall of the ruined Grand Opera House. Here is a close-up of one of the arched window openings above the much larger rectangular window openings. You can see the wood which has been wedged into the opening, apparently to keep the arch from collapsing.



**

How is it that I didn't think sooner to take this photo of a restaurant just a few doors down from my hotel?



(The missing word after the & is "grill.")

The menu includes a "jacket potato" which is, apparently, a baked potato. I may have one, one of these days.

**

This evening on the seawall I saw a tall guy wearing a Texas A&M t-shirt. I debated approaching and asking if he actually attended A&M, but finally didn't. He was quite tall, apparently quite intent on getting wherever he was going, and had a rather odd gait which left me a little unnerved.

**

This afternoon, after coming in from my sultry time in Valletta, I got into the Mediterranean again for a few minutes. Even on May 27, even on a sultry May 27, the water was quite chilly, and the waves were fairly high as well, urged up by the wind. They weren't rolling breakers like one gets in the Atlantic or Pacific, but since the shore here is rock, one doesn't necessarily want to be tossed around. I wonder what the the salt and mineral content of the Mediterranean is, as compared to the Atlantic or Pacific. I feel oddly coated when I come out of the water here, but maybe it's just been too long since I've spent much time in salt water.

**

Is martedí Tuesday? If so, I might get the chance to see how NCIS plays in Italian this Tuesday. It comes on at 9.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Vittoriosa



May 26, 2007

I believe it's Memorial Day weekend in the US. I hope you are all having a nice three-day weekend.

One can really begin to get a sense, in Malta, for how much time you can eat up on public transportation. You may be going only 4 or 5 miles, but it can take 20 or 30 minutes, both because of the stops along the way and because of the pace at which traffic has to move on narrow winding streets. Sometimes I gape out the windows and look at the towns and neighborhoods I'm passing through; sometimes I read; sometimes I visit with other passengers. So it's not a bad thing, but it is a time-consuming thing. If one was working, and having to go back and forth to work this way, I think reading would be a good way to make use of the time.

Today I went to Vittoriosa, the "victorious" city. It's one of what are called here the "Three Cities" which are right together on two small peninsulas and the base where they come together. In Sliema, I am sort of northwest of Valletta, the capital; the Three Cities are sort of southeast. Man, this place can get you as mixed up as Las Cruces, New Mexico. I don't know if the whole island is hard to get a handle on, or if it's just in these cities that are all clustered together within a few miles of Valletta and the Grand Harbor. Going to Vittoriosa today we passed through Paola which is where I went to see the Hypogeum on Thursday. We were driving along to Vittoriosa, and I looked out the window, and there was the Addolorata Cemetery! I had certainly not pieced these cities together in that way. Riding on buses, I suppose, is not the way to get a handle on how an area is laid out, especially if much of the area is built along a sequence of small peninsulas and harbors.

We passed through enormous fortification walls on the way to the small bus terminus just outside the entrance to Vittoriosa. It gives one a pretty clear idea of how threatened the Knights felt on this small island between Sicily and Africa. The Great Siege of 1565 pitted the Knights against a fleet sent from the Ottoman Empire. Though the Knights were woefully outnumbered, reinforcements arrived in time to help them defeat the Ottoman fleet. The Ottoman Empire was still on the march at this time, if I remember correctly, aiming to conquer deeply into Europe. The big battle outside Vienna didn't occur until the 1700s, I think. So the Knights of St. John occupied an important strategic post here.

Other than the fortifications, the Inquisitor's Palace probably fascinates tourists more than anything else in the city. It's now a museum illuminating those times when the Inquisition was a major tool of the Roman Catholic Church in combating what it considered heresy. This plaque, on the wall outside the entrance, also points out how important inquisitors (even Maltese inquisitors) were in the hierarchy of the Church in those centuries:



The building itself is, like much of "old" Malta, made of beautiful soft limestone, which also perhaps softens one against the idea of the building's purpose. It is not a monument to torture. It was a residence, for one thing, for the Inquisitor, the prison warden and I don't know who else, as well as a court for hearing testimony and passing sentence. According to the various explanatory plaques, most of the accused were not tortured, and most of those sentenced were not sentenced to torture. Some of the plaques quote from various of the condemned, and include their recollection of their offenses (witchcraft or spells, for example), the length of their sentences, and so on. One man even notes that he was sent to the infirmary when he became sick and that, after he recovered, he was not returned to his cell. One or two plaques note that prisoners sometimes escaped relatively easily, since some of the cells were in rooms not originally been designed for security. Some prisoners received early release, as well. This photo shows one of the cells, if you can make things out in the darkness: flash wasn't allowed!



Torture did take place, however. One method was the stretching method, and another--which sounded incredibly painful to me--involved tying the prisoner's hands behind his back, then lifting him by his bound hands on a rope slung over a beam. A plaque noted that the rules limited torture to 30 minutes. 30 minutes is a long time, I'm thinking! Most of the cells, surprisingly, had "sanitary arrangements", which fed into ducts or tubes for whisking the "refuse" away.

This passageway once had 7 cells located off of it, 3 "public" cells on one side, 4 private cells on the other. The public cells could be looked into from the outside, if I remember correctly. They would be on the left in this photo; the others were on the right. The reason you can see so much light coming from those openings is that the British, after taking over the island, removed those cells to make space in the courtyard for sports activities!



This photo shows a sundial made on the wall right outside the window near the Prison Warden's room. One of the Wardens, apparently a very conscientious man, made the dial so that he could check on the prisoners at specific times.



I took this photo on the ground floor, just past the main entrance to the Palace and right next to a courtyard. It simply shows the vaulted arches on the ceiling there, which I found cool.




The Palace itself is quite a labyrinth, or at least it felt that way to me, wandering up and down from one level to another, using one staircase or another. Malta is celebrating the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio's time on Malta (1607-1608), and one room displayed salt paintings which duplicated various Caravaggio works. Apparently this making of salt paintings is a Maltese tradition for the Easter season.

There was also quite an interesting special exhibit on Father Emmanuel Magri, a Maltese Jesuit priest who was also one of the instrumental figures in early Maltese archaeology. He was one of the men, for example, who led work on the Hypogeum after it was first discovered, and it's an unfortunate aspect of the documentation that his journals/ledgers about the work he did there were lost after his sudden death in Tunisia just a few years later. The exhibit includes letters he wrote to various people (including noted English archaeologist E. Wallis Budge, some of whose books are still in print), documentary artwork from the early excavations, and so forth.

The Palace also features, of course, various paintings and other types of artwork, though most of us, to be sure, focus on the building and its former uses. Quite a fascinating place to explore.

**

I also visited the Maritime Museum there in Vittoriosa. It's in an old bakery (and what a bakery it must have been! It is a gorgeous building) on the waterfront, where there were also some very impressive yachts docked. Looking at some of them I was amazed to think that these boats are basically toys for their owners; somewhere all of them must have enormously expensive houses from which these enormously expensive boats are simply a diversion. I marvel.

The Maritime Museum celebrates sea-going, of course. It's a large collection of paintings of ships and portraits of important people related to naval history; ship cannons and other tools; books (some printed, some hand-written) of flag-signals and other subjects important to navies; and, perhaps most delightfully, a large collection of models of ships! Some of these models are amazingly detailed, with huge amounts of rigging and so forth. Others were made, apparently, for commercial purposes, to demonstrate what a particular boat or ship could offer, or educational purposes. Part of the exhibit includes information on a technical college that operated in Malta from the 1850s to 1970, preparing teenaged Maltese boys for careers in the navy or with ships in some other fashion. I even found myself enjoying the paintings, many of them watercolors, of the ships sailing across the blue. One section featured beautiful art demonstrating what Phoenician, Greek and Roman ships would have looked like, and there are even examples of Roman anchors on display.

One of the things which was interesting to me, both at the Maritime Museum and in the Magri exhibit at the Inquisitor's Palace, was the handwriting--whether in Magri's letters or in the hand-written ship books--of these times gone by. Some of it was difficult to read, but it was quite beautiful to look at.

Both museums have a lot to offer, though I think two museums in one day--or certainly in one afternoon--are a bit too much for this one traveler.

**

I may have seen Americans this morning. Up till now, I think the only definite evidence I have seen that I am not the only American on the island is a dollar bill dropped into the "extra donations" box at the art museum. This couple was sitting on a park bench while I waited at the bus stop in Sliema, and they got up and came to the stop as I waved the bus down. The man made a crack about my waving at the bus as it approached, and I told him you have to wave at them or the drivers don't stop. Then he made a crack about how "of course they'll stop," as if he thought I was some kind of yahoo. Hearing him talk then, and then on the bus a few seats away, I thought, "Those are Americans." They didn't sound English or Scottish or Canadian or Australian or Irish, and he certainly had that "I'm at home everywhere" kind of attitude that some Americans have. I thought about telling them, when we got off the bus at Valletta, that you really do have to wave the buses down. But by the time we arrived, I wanted to find my bus to Vittoriosa, and I figured he could learn about bus procedures in Malta on his own. Bus drivers here do not automatically stop at every bus stop. They stop if someone inside the bus has beeped that he or she wants off, and they stop if someone at a bus stop waves. Even on my ride to Vittoriosa today, I saw people get left behind because they waited too late to signal to the driver and he was already speeding on.

And, by the way, there are some nice new buses here--the ones called King Long--which even have TV screens in them, but far more numerous are the OLD buses, dating back to the '50s, I'm guessing, or the '60s at the latest. They are something.

**

I think I may be seeing some weird variation on the Picture of Dorian Gray here at the hotel. For the past couple of mornings, when I was eating breakfast, there were two high school or college boys, speaking German but looking very much like American kids with hip or preppy clothes and dark hair with bleached-out highlights. One of them had a very annoying giggle. Then this morning, I didn't see those boys, but instead a couple of forty-something men, also speaking German and looking like the adult version of those boys, even to the point of having highlighted hair. Strange. And there is a young woman here, whom I've seen maybe since my very first day, almost always eating alone and very reticent to say hi or good morning, which I normally do once I see people a few times. Mostly it seems people are here for a few days, or a week, but she has definitely been here longer. Maybe she is a ghost.

**

One more note on cars: my writer friend Alek Lindus from Samos says she has a Seat. They are from Spain. So I'm figuring the name is pronounced, seh-AHT.

**

By the way, it was four weeks ago that I got on the Grand Princess in Galveston harbor. A little bit amazing to think I've been gone that long.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Ruminations

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.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Hypogeum and Addolorata Cemetery

May 24, 2007: Part Two

The highlight of today's sightseeing--and what may well turn out to be the highlight of the trip to Malta--was the Hypogeum. If one visits Malta, one must see the Hypogeum. If one loves Stone Age cultures and prehistoric buildings, one probably ought to schedule some time in Malta specifically to see the Hypogeum. Only 70 people a day are allowed inside--7 tours of 10 people each--so if you're making a quick trip to Malta, go to the Heritage Malta website ahead of time and buy your ticket online. I went to the Museum of Archaeology last Wednesday, and today--8 days later--was the earliest I could visit, and this is not even quite the "high season" yet, though it's approaching rapidly.

The Hypogeum was, apparently, an in-ground temple. It was also a cemetery of some sort, though scholars say that the remains (mostly in mass graves, jumbled together) of 7000 people buried here over a period of 1000 years means that not very many people were buried here at a time: perhaps they were priests or priestesses. Like the Tarxien temples, it was abandoned about 4500 years ago, though it was worked on and expanded for a longer period of time. I can't remember if the guide said six or seven thousand years ago for its beginning. (The Rough Guide says 3600 BCE, but for some reason my mind is saying that's not what the guide said.)

The first, oldest area of the Hypogeum was originally open to the sky, a sort of sunken building or temple, but as the people continued to work on it, they went further into the ground, creating or adapting a cavern. The tour itself is kind of frustrating. On the one hand, you are led through it by a guide, who supplements (sometimes by snapping and pointing) the recorder/player you are holding to your ear to listen to the prerecorded information. This means that dawdling, to further ponder what you are seeing, is impossible. It's also true that even though there are only 11 of you--a guide and 10 tourists--in the Hypogeum at a time, the walkways and viewpoints are relatively cramped and there are inevitably things you will not quite be able to see because of the other people crowded in around you. On the other hand, the Hypogeum, one of the oldest buildings on earth, is itself just amazing. The light is kept low, of course, to fight against the growth of algae, and this contributes to the sort of "holy" atmosphere of being in the place, moving along on (sometimes elevated) walkways through narrow passageways, stooping to see through an open "window" or "door" into another chamber, looking up to see the red ochre spirals painted on the ceiling. According to the guide, the scholars think that Stone Age people may have used red ochre to indicate blood or life, and they consider the spirals significant, even with no idea of what they might have meant, simply because they are symbolic and not representative of a particular object: a kind of writing, I suppose.

There is, at the furthest point (or one of the furthest points?) in the descent, a "room" they call the "Holy of Holies". It is, as the guide points out, a sculptural representation of architecture--that is, it is a carving, out of the native rock, of a temple, which therefore provides information to archaeologists about how the above-ground, ruined temples may have looked when they were whole: apparently circular, with a sequence of progressively smaller, recessed roofs. Photography is strictly forbidden, of course, and this is my little drawing of the Holy of Holies. I'm pretty sure my circularity is exaggerated, and the rest of it is an approximation, working from memory (as I sat outside the Tarxien temples) and with a less-than-perfect drawing hand. The Holy of Holies itself is not terribly large. It's hard to judge, gawking at it from a number of feet away and through an opening, but I'd say the columns of the "sculpture" are no more than 6 feet high, and maybe are actually less.



In one hallway, the guide points out openings which were apparently doorways, though they look more the size of windows and are above the surface of the cavern. But scholars hypothesize that there was dirt in the cave when it was used (perhaps with the bones of the dead in the dirt!), making the doorways at ground level at that time.

Unlike the Tarxien temples, a great deal of money has been spent to preserve the Hypogeum and present it to the public in an attractive and meaningful way. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and well deserves it. The "intro" room that the tour goes through first has several large "poster walls", in English and Maltí, explaining about the site and its discovery and displays of some of the material (or replicas) found in the Hypogeum. From the intro room, the tour goes into a small theater for a short film discussing the Hypogeum and what scholars think about it. Then the tour itself begins. The site first became known to scholars in 1902, though there is a theory that it was actually discovered in 1899 and not reported for three years. (Exactly why this is theorized must be in the book.) Its discovery is owed to men digging a cistern for a house and breaking through into the Hypogeum. We were told that four houses had to be removed to preserve and explore the site, which is, like the Tarxien temples, right in the middle of a town, with streets and buildings on all sides.

The most famous object from the Hypogeum, which is now housed in the Museum of Archaelogy, is called "the Sleeping Woman." A very small figure, smaller than most dolls, it depicts a woman/priestess/goddess, with a rather small upper body and an enormous lower body, sleeping on her side. The "intro room" has a replica of it.

How about the employees at the Hypogeum? A mixed bag: a little bit bossy and snappish, while also obliging and helpful. Our personal guide (as opposed to the pre-recorded guide) reminded me of a man leading an elementary school field trip. When I first arrived at the lobby, I was ahead of my pre-arranged ticket time and started asking if I should go wander around outside for a while or-- and the man behind the counter said, "Why are you shouting at me?" I think most of you would agree that a shout isn't my normal tone of voice (and maybe I should have said, "If I'm shouting, it's because I just walked in off a Maltese street and just got off a Maltese bus and I can't hear." But I didn't.) Then when they realized I had an 11 o'clock ticket, they rushed me in to join the 10 o'clock tour, which had an opening, telling me that I could make up what I had missed with the 11 o'clock group (and also allowing them to resell my 11 o'clock spot!) They also made fun of my famous hat, asking me where I had left the horse!

**

Yes, yes, you are all thinking, "Enough with the cemeteries." But while in the Paola/Tarxien area, I took the opportunity to visit the Santa Marija Addolorata cemetery. The name, I presume, is the Maltí version of Saint Mary Dolorosa. It is an enormous cemetery, located on a long sloping hill, with a small-cathedral-sized church in the middle of it, near the crest of the hill. In addition to "normal" tombstones, there are also multitudes of graves with sculptural decorations and lots of small buildings I presume to be family crypts or mausolea.

This is a shot looking up the hill at the church:



As I continued the climb from the downhill entry toward the uprearing church, I came across a large family tomb-marker, with this remarkable bas-relief sculpture in the center of it. I wonder what you will make of it. I thought perhaps it is the Angel of Death leading away the resisting Spirit of Life. It made me think of William Blake's artwork.



This group area puzzled me a bit. Surely not all of these men are buried at this spot. I'm assuming the small markers are memorial markers rather than indications of standing graves or something similar. But what an interesting thing to want to commemorate in a cemetery:



I also came across a German couple who were both painting, with acrylics on art paper, in the cemetery. The man was painting a view of a family crypt there near him, and the woman was working on a representation of an angelic sculpture. I wish I had their skills! They said this was their first trip to Malta, but that they intended to return in the fall.

**

And here is a photo of me, with one of the Tarxien stones behind me, for those of you who have been wondering if I have grown a beard, or had my entire face tattooed, or lost an eye in a shaving accident! I do apologize for the goofy grin and the weird angle of my head. Taking one's own photo is a bit of a problem:

Tarxien and sundry

May 24, 2007: Part One

Because I took so many photos today, I'm going to divide today's entry into two parts.

The Tarxien (pronounced something like TARSHEEN) Temples are right in the middle of the town called Tarxien. Who knows what the original builders called them or themselves! The grounds occupy, I suppose, two or three acres, but they might be bigger than that. A project is underway to greatly expand the visitors' center (one might almost say to create a visitors' center since the existing one is so small), and there is not a great deal of explanatory material on the grounds themselves. One is allowed to wander through at one's own pace, but if you want more information, I suppose you are supposed to buy the book!

The Stone Age structures on Malta and Gozo, to which the Tarxien Temples and the Hypogeum (see part two) belong, were all built prior to 2500 BCE, when the civilization producing them came to an end. Archaeologists have even suggested that the people may have abandoned Malta at that time. There seems to be no direct influence of the mainland on Malta, or vice versa, in the matter of these buildings--except, I suppose, in the general fact that there are a lot of megalithic (big-rock) structures in Europe. According to my Rough Guide, Tarxien belongs to the latest stage of development, the final 500 years of so before the end of the civilization.

There are three-piece (trilithon) structures here, as at Stonehenge--two standing stones with another stone lying across them--though these are not as big as though at Stonehenge. When excavations began here, not quite a century ago, the stones were in the ground, some knocked over, some still standing. A farmer kept running into the big rocks as he was plowing, and he notified the authorities. This photo shows some of the stones forming a wall. I can't remember exactly, but I'd say this wall was probably 7-8 feet high:



These are big rocks! The stone on the far right shows the signs of earlier archaeologists' attempts to "restore" the temples to their original appearance, which is now a no-no. There were small round rocks, not quite as large as bowling balls maybe, scattered around the site, and scholars hypothesize they might have been used to move the larger stones around.

This photo shows the surviving bottom of what must have been quite a large statue, maybe twelve feet or more high. It looks like a woman or goddess to me, but who knows what these early Maltese people wore? Maybe it's a priest or a god! Such delicate feet for such a large body.



This frieze is rather charming, isn't it? The animals marching along together:



At another point in the temples, there are three carvings of larger animals--two bulls and something else which looked to me like it might be a lactating mother animal of some sort--but the carving is so weathered that the photographs are difficult to make out.

This is another frieze, using geometric patterns which might in some way recall or be linked to the spiral patterns inside the Hypogeum painted in red ochre. Though the Hypogeum was begun long before the Tarxien temples, it was still being worked upon until the civilization's end.



This shows an example of the doorway or trilithon feature, though this one is closed in. The supporting rock on the left actually seems to be made of separate stones, which might be reconstruction. I don't know. The "cauldron" in the right foreground is probably about a yard across.



It was fun to wander the grounds at Tarxien, especially being allowed to go at one's own pace rather than in a guided tour as at the Hypogeum, and it's impressive to think that this accumulation of walls and temples is old enough that, when it was abandoned, the Great Pyramid was still a few decades away from being built. But the feeling one gets here in these reconstructed ruins is nothing like as powerful as one gets at the Hypogeum.

On the way to the Hypogeum and Tarxien, I talked to an English couple on the bus. They have been coming to Malta four times a year for 18 years!

**

Just a note a propos of nothing (or is it a propos nothing?). At one time or another, on the ship or on land, I have seen folks who have reminded me of: Linda Rivera, that Dallas-church-singing dude named Cecil (who looks like Kenny Rogers--Marty will know who I mean), Virginia Sinclair, Wayne Jackson, Frances LaChance, Vicky Glynn, Stacy Childress, and Deron Bauman.

**

Another note a propos of nothing: Don't most folks who spend four weeks on or very near the sea get tanned? Mind you, I'm not sunbathing, and my shorts come to my knees, and most of my T-shirts cover most of my upper arms, and my Malta hat pretty well keeps my head covered, but I'm only using SPF 8 on my lower legs and arms and neck, but I'm not sure I'm any darker than I would be from taking afternoon walks in El Paso. Of course it's true that I have generally found that SPF 4 is all the protection from sunburn that I need, unless I'm on the beach or in the river for hours at a whack, but this is ridiculous. Finally today, after wearing sandals without socks almost every day for four weeks, it begins to look like the 'sock' part of my legs may finally start to tan.

**

Cars in Malta:

The cars are mostly European and Japanese, which is not surprising. I have seen one Chrysler/Jeep dealer, which surprised me, and this morning I saw a tiny little Chevy parked on the street. (Don't tell my nephew Maddison that Chevies aren't prominent here.) There is a vehicle named Seat, which I have never heard of before. There are Fiats, Peugeots, Toyotas, Nissans, Hyundais, Smarts, Land Rovers, etc. Mostly small. The streets are mostly quite narrow, and on some of them drivers go up on the sidewalk if it's a tight fit. One of my guidebooks says that the accident rate is high in Malta. I haven't seen an accident yet (and hope I don't), but I've sure heard squealing brakes and honking. Traffic goes slower because the roads demand it, but the drivers aren't any calmer, as far as I can tell.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Long Walks

May 23, 2007

Today I took a long walk again, from Sliema to Valletta, going mostly along the harbor-front and taking my time. I began by going over to Tigne Point (where there's a little park with a set of jungle-gym-style bars that I can do some chin-ups, push-ups and dips on). I'm not sure about the total distance: three miles maybe? Four?

Along the way I passed this beautiful Morris Minor convertible in the parking lot of the Msida Marina:



It made me think of my two older sisters, because June (or was it both of them?) drove a Morris Minor for a while in the '60s, when I was probably a sixth- or seventh-grader. If I remember correctly, it was the car a gush of water shot up into, one day during a heavy rain, when June drove into a big puddle: there was an open hole in the underbody of the car where the gear level was. Morris Minors were, and remain, quite an oddity in the U.S.

Not too much farther along from the marina is the "ecumenical" cemetery which I visited last week. This tombstone, which I found rather poignant, is simply one of many for men and women who died too young:



Along up the hill into Floriana from the cemetery I strolled a bit through the Argotti Gardens again and found an old man taking a noontime nap in the shade. If you squint, you can make out his shoes under the bench:



It doesn't take too long to walk the length of Floriana and come to the bus terminal just outside the Valletta city walls. In the center of one of the turn-arounds there is this fountain, truly one of the most peculiar things I have seen in Malta so far. The three mermen (?) hold up the smaller fountain bowl above them, and what peculiar mermen they are! For one thing I think you can see, at least with the merman in the right foreground, that their lower bodies are not the long single tail of a fish which one expects, but rather like two individual legs (with knees!), each of which ends in a fish-tail. Furthermore, their faces, which you cannot make out in the photo, are markedly Asian, almost like something you might see in illustrations for a Chinese folktale involving pirates or river-spirits. The water was flowing as I took this photo, but was off a few hours later when I came back by here to catch a bus:



***

While eating my lunch at the Upper Barakka Gardens, I thought it might be fun to do a "drawing", rather than take a photograph, of one of the plaques mounted on the walls of the garden. The one directly across from where I sat was in the Maltese language and was clearly in commemoration of some aspect of the Maltese involvement in World War II. It was interesting to recognize the Maltese versions of "Nazism" and "fascism" -- N-Nazizmu and Il-Faxizmu. (I'm not sure I correctly remembered the spelling on the second: the Maltese x is pronounced like "sh".) But I decided against drawing this plaque, because the older man I was sharing the bench with didn't seem pleased to have to share the bench. So I wandered down a ways and worked instead on a (Rats!) longer plaque, in English, in memory of Sir Thomas Francis Fremantle, who died in 1819. I had some trouble keeping the rows of the engraving centered, as they are on the plaque, but at least the printing's not too bad. I guess you can't really call a transcription of a text a "drawing": maybe it's more like a document. I don't think Her Majesty's Forces will be needing my help in the art department:



The "slant" in the photo is because I angled the camera away so as to avoid flash-glare, and the "Upper Barakka Gardens" is my notation, not part of the entire monument.

***

The Grandmaster's Palace, which was once exactly that, the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Order of St. John, is now used by the Maltese Parliament. Two museums within it are open to the public: the Armoury (British spelling) and the State Rooms. Today I visited the State Rooms, which feature paintings of the Grand Masters and suits of armor in a long high hall, several state rooms, a room of tapestries, and a lot of scenic and faux-carved frescoes. One is not allowed to walk all of the way into the various state rooms, which means that some of the art is not at all easy to see. It's also true that the portraits of the Grand Masters aren't distinguished art: they serve more of a historical purpose, I would say, for a pre-photographic age. The most interesting thing about the suits of armor is how small they seem to be. Assuming the lower body proportions are correct on the mannequins which hold the armor, the knights would seem to be smaller than I am--not just shorter, but smaller. Most of us have read about how much larger people have gotten, but it's one thing to imagine a 5' 2" Beowulf, 1200 years ago, and quite another to imagine mounted horsemen much the same size only four or five hundred years ago:



The tapestry room was probably the most interesting, and it's a pity that one is kept out of the back two-thirds of the room and has to peer at the art from so far away. Most of the tapestries are quite large, and a number of them depict scenes which I take to be views of exploration: one features an elephant; I think I recognized a tapir in another; and at least one or two look to be versions of the "new world", with iguana-ish lizard, scantily-clad aboriginals with bows and arrows, and so forth.

The State Rooms show signs of wear and aging which have not been recently repaired, and the 2 Lira entry price is ridiculous: a gallery of work which requires about 20 minutes of browsing oughtn't to cost more than 6 dollars!

Oddly, when I gave the ticket taker my money, he asked if I were 60! That's the age at which their "senior" pricing begins, and I think it's the first time I've been considered to be possibly that age. It was especially interesting to me in light of something I had just noticed earlier, when getting ready to go out this morning. I suppose we all do strange things (make faces, smile, frown) when we are, for whatever reason, looking at ourselves in mirrors. And we men certainly make lots of strange expressions when we are shaving with non-electric razors. So I had noticed months ago, if not farther back, that I had acquired a long vertical wrinkle in my left cheek, beginning at the outside corner of the eye and going almost straight down. I wouldn't call it a "worry line" because it was prominent when I smiled as well, but I noticed this morning that it is nearly gone. I took that as a good sign that retirement was agreeing with me--until the ticket-taker came along, anyway!

***

Corrections: Both my Lonely Planet guide to Mediterranean Europe and one of the employees at St James Cavalier have corrected my misperception about the Maltese language, Maltí. It is not derived from Arabic, although there are some Arabic imports into the language, along with other imports from English and, I assume, the languages the Knights spoke. It is, like Arabic, a Semitic language, but according to Lonely Planet it is "believed to be based on Phoenician." This makes sense since the Phoenicians/Carthaginians were here before the Romans took over in 218 B.C.E., but it's amazing that the language survived all those subsequent conquests, beginning with the Romans. The man at St James also said that Maltese people can understand the Lebanese, and vice versa, and I didn't even realize that there was still a surviving version of a native Lebanese language!

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

National Museum of Fine Arts and American Embassy

May 22, 2007

This afternoon I received an email from one of the writers I've published in elimae, who told me his 22-year-old son dreamed of Malta after reading my Travel Log!

**

I got off the bus to Valletta in Floriana this morning. Floriana lies more or less at the "land" end of the peninsula it shares with Valletta, which is at the "sea" end and guards the Grand Harbor. I got lost trying to find Triq Sant' Anna, also known as St. Anne Street, which is where the U.S. Embassy is. I realized last Friday that I hadn't checked in with them, and I thought it might be a good idea since I'm here for an extended period. I passed through two security checkpoints, one at the entrance at street level and the other on the third floor where the embassy is located. On the third floor I filled out a registration form letting them know where I am staying, who my emergency contacts are in the U.S., and when I will be leaving. It was a quick and easy procedure.

From the Embassy I headed toward Valletta, but before I entered the city walls, I made a couple of stops. I visited both the World War II Memorial in the center of a traffic circle/turnaround. It features commemorative messages from King George VI (I think that's the right number--he was Queen Elizabeth II's father) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Roosevelt's message is, interestingly, dated on the second anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. I'm not sure if you'll be able to read it from the photo or not, but here goes:



To the south of the war memorial is a garden overlooking the harbor, and along one arm of the garden is another small monument from King George proclaiming his pleasure in assuming the "Colonelcy-in-Chief" of the Royal Malta Artillery in honor of their support for the R.A.F. during the war so far. I took a photo of this proclamation especially for Ron McDougle, husband of my old teaching buddy Suzanne McDougle. Ron already knows more about Malta's military history than I will learn in six weeks here. If I thought Cary Phillips cared anything about Maltese history, I'd "give" it to him too:



I took this shot from the sidewalk looking over the wall into a parking lot below. Even with the cars evident under the tree, the brilliance of the blossoms seemed worth snapping:



**

The National Museum of Fine Arts is quite an impressive place. The building itself, while lovely enough, needs some renovation and it suffers from a failing common to so many museums: lighting the paintings without creating a glare on them. Along with sculptures, some of them quite nice, and even a display of pocket watches, there are paintings here going back to the 15th century, if not further, and many are dark: I don't know if it's from smoke or soot in centuries past, or if the artists intended the darkness. I found myself wanting to get closer than I could without stepping into a glare.

But the work on display is well worth seeing, and a great deal of it features Maltese scenes, particularly the Grand Harbor at Valletta and paintings displaying some portion of the city's defensive walls which are of course still here. Much of the work is apparently by Maltese artists, artists whom I've never heard of but whose skill is not in doubt. There's even a special room for watercolors, deliberately dimly lit to preserve the watercolors from fading. This room includes the museum's single JMW Turner work. Turner himself never came to Malta, but created the watercolor based on another artist's work. This Maltese scene is small and tidy, with a lot of highlighted details on top of the background colors which seem, at least to me, almost impressionistic.

There are many portraits in the museum, including church figures and at least one of the Grand Masters of the knights, as well as other persons of no particular historical interest. The very severe-looking woman in one of them seems to want to reach out of the painting and smack somebody. Two of the works which most impressed me were Mater Dolorosa by Giuseppe Cali (whom I presume to be Maltese) and a painting of Mary Magdalene by an anonymous "early 19th century Maltese Nazarene painter" (whatever that means). The Mater Dolorosa shows Mary's head close-up, tucked into what seems to be the corner formed by the two beams of the cross. She wears a head-covering, and one tear has just fallen from her left eye. Though the rendering of her face is a little soft and hazy, rather than razor-sharp, the effect reminded me of Pre-Raphaelite work. The Mary Magdalene, on the other hand, is brightly colorful, with a beautiful blue sky behind Mary and a very thin gold halo above her head. Perhaps the traditional confusion of Mary Magdalene with the "woman caught in adultery" led the painter to depict Mary topless, though her long wavy hair and upraised hands keep the viewer from seeing anything untoward. She gazes serenely upward with that sweet Renaissance expression of bliss on her face.

There are also two paintings concerning the Cain and Abel story, which I don't recall being a prominent theme in art in general (though Romantic poets were attracted to the Cain character). One of the paintings depicts Abel sprawled on the ground while Cain, with a club raised over his head, has one foot in the center of Abel's torso, ready to strike the fatal blow. In the background one can make out the altar and a small figure, presumably Adam, next to it. It is notable, since the story deals in part with a sacrifice of grains rather than animals, that the brothers wear animal skin loincloths, in what we would probably consider the "caveman" style. The other painting is one of the museum's larger works, probably at least 6 x 8 feet, and shows Adam and Eve discovering the dead body of Abel.

The large staircase which connects the basement, ground and first floors of the museum features banisters made of chains with small maceheads at each end, a reminder of Malta's very military past (and perhaps a survival from the building's original purpose as a private home), and the courtyard at basement level has a small fountain and a large sculpture of a seated Anton Chekhov. All in all, I definitely recommend this museum and the Cathedral Museum in Mdina.

**

This is a shot of the longest surviving wall of the Grand Opera House. It has been destroyed twice, I read, once by fire and once (I think) by German bombers. Currently there are blue plastic seats inside it, so I reckon it's still used for some kind of open-air performance situations:



**

This afternoon, after my almost daily grocery stop (if I buy deli ham or turkey, I have to eat it right then, since I don't have refrigeration!), I gave in and bought only my second book of the journey so far: Ted Hughes's edition of A Choice of Coleridge's Verse, which includes Hughes's 100-page essay about Coleridge's work. I'm still reading my Spanish Arthur Conan Doyle, but I wanted some English to read as well.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Here and there

May 21, 2007

This morning I strolled along a section of the seawall where I hadn't walked before. There are two completely enclosed "rock pools" there (one of which is pictured below)



as well as other partially enclosed pools, with steps cut out of the rock or metal pool stairs going down into the water.



The two enclosed pools are actually attached to the sea as well, but through an opening under the water level. Even inside the pools, the water surges up and down.

Perhaps the most colorful character I've met on this trip so far is a Maltese-Australian man (born in Malta, but at some point emigrated to Australia) who is staying at the Europa. He said he used to swim in these pools as a boy. He is currently in Malta for a wedding and then plans to go to Istanbul, with the intention of buying a large sailboat (with two diesel engines). He has negotiated a price over the Internet/email with the seller, but won't make up his mind for sure until he sees it. If he buys, then he will have to hire a crew and take several weeks sailing it back to Australia. He said he has an engineering company in Australia, and he's getting ready to retire in a couple of years and turn it over to his son. He wants to completely redo this ship and start his own "Windjammer"-type cruise company sailing in the Southwestern Pacific out of Australia. The boat has both double and single bedrooms and a room for the crew. This man, who is probably a little older than I am, mostly wears tank tops: his upper arms are covered with tattoos. He has a sort of British look and coloring, except that he is very deeply tanned. He's full of opinions about the tax rate for upper income folks in Australia and about the government assistance the Maltese receive. On the other hand, he has said that a typical Maltese citizen only makes about 80 Maltese liras a week (somewhere in the neighborhood of $250), which makes the 200 liras-a-month apartment I saw posted a pretty steep proposition.

***

My first "conversation with a stranger" today took place a little further along. The woman is from England and is here with several friends. They are on a package deal, almost like a cruise. They are staying at a hotel called Plevna, and their package includes three meals a day, usage of the hotel's beach club, and drinks (she didn't say if she meant alcoholic or not, but I'd guess not) throughout the day. I had walked down the staircase into the beach club, just to see if the public sidewalk continued that way (it didn't), and was coming back up as she was coming down. Overlooking the sea, the beach club has a pool, a wide deck for sunbathing, and some kind of snack bar. From what she said, they pay significantly more than I do, but they get lunch and dinner for it, which might mean that a "normal" person, who can eat regular food, could save money on the deal! She certainly spoke highly of the place.

It was right in that same area that I had this reminder of El Paso: iceplant hanging down a wall:



This building was in the same neighborhood as well, but almost right across the street from the harbor, on the other side of the peninsula:



***

After lunch back at the hotel, I spent an hour or so browsing what is so far the best bookstore I've seen here (and, no, I haven't seen them all, believe it or not). Books Plus is small, like most stores here, but is very nicely laid out. It's on two floors, and the staircase that leads up to the second floor features a plate glass half-wall along the stairs, with stainless steel banister, as well as a mirror wall to the side, making the store look twice as big and quite bright (and also making one catch a glimpse of oneself out of the corner of one's eye and wonder if someone is approaching). What distinguishes the store, besides its design, is its inclusion of poetry, apparently not in high demand here, and a nice selection of "classics" published in the Wordsworth line from the UK which are priced at only 99 Maltese cents--quite a bargain for this neck of the woods. They also have an edition of Coleridge's poems with a long introduction by Ted Hughes, the late poet laureate of England.

***

This evening, on my way up the stairs from a short walk and reading-on-the-Strand time, I got into a conversation with a young couple I've run into several times here. He is Spanish (Galician, actually) and she is Italian. They have been living in London, where they went specifically because she wanted to learn English. (She already knows French as well, and he also speaks Portuguese and English, and probably Galician.) She is interested in working in the travel industry, and he has already trained as a chef. They had thought Malta might be a place worth relocating to, but changed their minds after spending this trip here. They don't feel (remember that they are young) that there is enough to do here, and they are also not excited about the number of buildings still in ruins, even with all the construction going on. She said they would probably end up in Italy, where her employer in London can transfer here. With his skills as a chef, he can pretty well work anywhere. He also gave me contact information for his father, when I mentioned that I would be going to Spain, because his father has a hostel in Santiago de Compostela, a prominent tourist and pilgrimage site in Northwestern Spain. The hostel (not a hostel in the "youth hostel" sense; more like a bed-and-breakfast) is probably more expensive than I can afford for more than a night or two, but he recommended I go and see it, even if I don't stay there: he said the building is beautiful. He said his father might be able to give me a discount if I mention that his son sent me, but that that would be difficult in summer.

***

I need to end today's post on a somber note. Last week, quite unexpectedly, my brother-in-law's mother passed away of a heart attack, though she had no known heart condition. The funeral took place today. I ask you all to send your warm thoughts to Bryan, his father Jim, and his sister Melanie.