Stepping off a plane just outside Valletta, there was something dreamlike about the summer humidity that you could almost taste as it subtly lingered in the breeze – the smell of warm, damp grass and a novel sense that one might just get by here without a jacket. After enduring the longest winter in recent memory back home – snowstorms leading to a string of cancelled and rescheduled flights in March, and more to come in the foreseeable future – we were pastier than ever and ready for a healthy dose of Vitamin D.
As is always the case, the bus ride to the hotel took an estimated 30 minutes, in which time we took a few moments to share what little we knew about the island on which we’d landed. Maltesers, malt loaf, malty beer, and malt vinegar, it turns out, were not necessarily cultivated here, or even available at all. The Maltese language was not ‘just like Italian,’ and we were definitely not, as one team member wondered, ‘going to Africa.’ It had got off to a great start, and perhaps highlighted just some of the reasons people should travel.
Looking out of the windows it appeared we were travelling on the left-hand side of the road – and not just because the driver was somewhat reckless – and every road sign displayed a place name that looked like an unfamiliar mix of Italian and Arabic. What with Malta sitting in the middle of the Mediterranean between Sicily and the North African coast, this actually makes a world of sense, and perhaps gives some level of justification to anyone who thought we were off to another continent.
According to a man who steered my colleague across the Valletta harbour in a boat one day (perhaps a more reliable source of information than Wikipedia), following a mass migration during World War II there are now approximately only 400,000 Maltese people living on the island. Meanwhile there are up to 1.2 million tourists in Malta at any one time. We got a good sense of this, not only from the lack of Maltese people we met, but particularly from the hordes of spatially-unaware elderly tourists crowding the hotel lobby at all times, and from the moment we stepped through the painfully slow rotating door. The lobby looked like something out of a 1980s Hollywood blockbuster (Die Hard comes to mind), and a faint smell of cigar smoke lingered in the air while an endless queue of confused or grumpy white-haired holidaymakers bustled around the front desk. The concierge was friendly yet serious, with round glasses, bald head, large moustache and a striped blazer, like a character out of a play. Each room had a balcony which overlooked the sea on the other side of the road below, and it was gratifying to keep the sliding door open at night to hear the waves crashing against the rocks.
The gig itself was at a spot below street level and right by the sea, with white flooring, palm trees between the tiles, and a small infinity pool perched just down by the sea rocks. A soundcheck in the daytime caused a small crowd of onlookers to gather on the street above, while we battled with the strong sea breeze rattling through the PA system. By night the breeze had settled down and we were processing through a crowd of American delegates, skating across the smooth white tiles towards the stage, gracefully avoiding inconveniently-placed palm trees, swimming pools and precarious glasses of red wine.
The following day was a rare day off, but one which highlighted the value of having a guide. With no local host to show us around, we wandered aimlessly around the city of Valletta – an old fortress and the southernmost capital of Europe – admiring its beauty, its ancient ruins, its harbour perched on a sea bluer than blue, and its quaint old streets, with no particular place to go. Fortunately, for an amateur photographer, wandering like this allows ample time for experimenting with a camera, stopping at every opportunity to get a good shot.
For lunch we reluctantly skipped the traditional Maltese rabbit stew, which seemed to cost a small fortune in this tourist trap, and settled on a relatively modest pizza and beer. Hoping the hostess might be able to teach us a thing or two about the language and culture of Malta, we began by checking the pronunciation of ‘thank you’ in Maltese – ‘grazzi’ instead of the Italian ‘grazie’ – but were quickly informed that she was in fact Italian and didn’t know a great deal about Malta. We slurped down our drinks, including a vibrant cocktail consisting of Malta’s bright red Bajtra liqueur and sparkling white wine, and ambled down a cobbled street towards the Grand Harbour.
Towards the end of the afternoon we returned to the main street in the old town, just beyond the city walls, where there appeared to be a huge political demonstration in full swing. People with placards filled the streets, all moving towards a large stage that had seemingly appeared from nowhere in the few hours since we’d started exploring. So here were the Maltese people, evidently not happy with the current state of their government, following news stories about money laundering and the murder of an investigative journalist. The mass of meandering tourists – which we had become a part of – suddenly seemed so senseless, so incongruous with this unstable political landscape. Travelling is always a learning experience, and sometimes what you learn is that being a tourist isn’t necessarily helpful. As performers we follow the gigs, and with gigging comes so much more than just a performance. Long may the learning continue.