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Viva Malta u l-Maltin: Chapter II

Friday, September 26, 2014 by

'Oi Ton!' thundered a voice three meters away from its intended recipient. You could see the hair on the back of Tony's neck remain as motionless as the hulk it grows on. Xejn.

‘Ton!’ More urgent now, a higher pitch. The muscles on the back of Tony’s neck flickered. Almost imperceptibly, he starts turning towards us.

A few seconds later, he is still turning. Slower than an overloaded bus going up to Mellieħa on a busy summer day, his lips part, and a guttural, almost primitive sound escapes.

‘Aw?’

‘Ħa mmorru?’ Joey speaking from the seat next to me. He’s a swarthy, warty, old barfly, past his prime, with oily-black hair under his fedora and the same poking through the top few undone buttons on his shirt. Dumink is on my other side, opposite Joey. He’s enjoying the show but doesn’t feel the need to partake in the easy pickings that are to be had from Tony. It’s noon, he’s on his fourth pint, and his eyes are already red and watering. I’m not sure if it’s conjunctivitis or drunkenness, but whatever it is, his entertainment is taken care of at €1.50 a pop. The banter is just a nice extra.

‘Fej’?’

‘Għawdex.’ And with just that, the table explodes. This could very well be the funniest thing they’ve heard all week as far as these two are concerned. Even Tony manages a chuckle. I worry he might choke. Movement of any kind does not seem to be his forté, and his puffy eyes and pregnant stomach seem to agree. Dumink, on the other hand, actually does choke, causing a bit of a stir. Tourists eating a late English breakfast and a burger two tables over look on disapprovingly.

Then, Tony emits a sort of cough. Joe asks him to repeat as Dumink obligingly reduces the volume of his deathly gasps.

‘Kemmuna.’ And that was that. People playing pool come over, bent over with laughter. Duminku’s face goes the way of his eyes – red and sweaty. Joey bangs on the table. A glass almost falls. The tourists nearby pay and leave their unfinished meals behind. There’s no tip on the table.

A man on another table nearby calls the waiter and points to us. A moment later three half-pints of Malta’s finest arrive on our table. I have no idea what just happened. Was there some shared meaning? Għawdex? Kemmuna? Why are they relevant? Here or anywhere?

Beats me – I’m as much a tourist here as that Swedish babe tapping away on her iPhone. Incidentally, we’re all staring at her. We raise our bottles to the smart bastard who thought of hot pants, and go back to our conversation. I was asking what the life of an old-timer Belti was like.

There is the usual misting of the eyes [few things are as consistent as long-time residents’ answer to this question] as they gaze back through space and time to when ‘id-dollars kienu jtiru’ and they ‘used to make as much in a night as those in the villages earned in a month’. I press them for something more substantive than what you can get out of every single 60+ person you happen to see around Valletta. Joey says, by way of explaining:

‘Back then, we used to be a community. If a woman was ever thrown out by her husband, with hungry kids to feed, we’d never let her stay out in the cold. Everyone who needed help was granted it.’

‘They would repay you though, eh?’ says Duminku with a lecherous laugh. I see what he is getting at, and man does it make me wet. Joey, on the other hand, seems taken aback, offended even. ‘What the hell do you mean?’

Dumink backtracks. ‘I mean financially, ey. This wasn’t some charity service.’

‘Well, we’d help them get the money to get back on their feet.’

‘And how exactly did they make this money to repay you?’ Duminku shoots back at him pointedly. Joey shifts a bit and pulls out his hand-rolling tobacco. He’s uncomfortable. It seems to me that while he prefers to think about his fat wallet in those times, the weight of reflection on his experiences as an amateur pimp is a burden.

He takes a swill of beer, looks down with what looks like a moment’s sadness. Duminku grins at him and indicates to his half-rolled cigarette, ‘Immissek titfa’ ftit mill-ħadra,’ before turning to me. ‘Listen to this. Joe, qum minn hemm, qisek bużżieqa. Tell him about the camomile.’

The clouds part from Joey’s face. ‘Mel’ isma din,’ he laughs, and dutifully recounts a tale he must have told a thousand times.

‘When I was a kid we used to get matchboxes and fill ’em up with camomile. We’d sell it as grass to the drunken navy men. Sometimes they’d notice immediately and grab a hold of us, but – ah you had to see those times – it was no problem. Money back – a few times, they’d even forget to demand it back,’ he guffaws, ‘a stern warning, a laugh and a pat and you’re off looking for your next deal.’

With all the talk of great fortunes made in a night, I ask them point blank why they aren’t in a more comfortable situation now. They exchange glances like school boys and laugh.

Joey explain: ‘Women, bars, and gambling. That’s all there is to it.’

Duminku says with a mixture of pride and regret: ‘U le, aħna qatt ma ħdimna ta’ nies.’

Joey interjects: ‘Għid għalik! Tletin sena bolla għandi mħallsa jien! Tletin sena!’

Duminku splutters into his drink. ‘OK, OK. Jien qatt ma ħdimt ta’ nies mela’, he says sheepishly.

Turns out, Joey’s enjoying his €500 pension, but Duminku’s still working. He doesn’t mind though. ‘I wouldn’t be able to afford this otherwise’, pointing to the Rothmans Blues and by-now 6 beers on his side of the table, compared with the Drum rolling tobacco and single bottle on Joey’s side.

The mood is jovial. It’s almost 1PM on a Wednesday. Tony gets up to go to the bathroom. Joey goes out for a smoke. I offer Duminku a beer, which he gladly accepts. I ask him if he’s going to stay there for long.

‘Eh, who knows. Maybe I’ll go home for a nap and come back later.’

I ask him what he works as. His reply is ambiguous, and I don’t press for an answer. I get another drink for Joey and, shaking hands with Duminku, leave it with him. As I exit I see Joey leaning against the wall, one foot up, hat slightly down, his cigarette hanging limply, idly staring at the world go by. I imagine him 50 years ago. It’s not hard to do. We exchange goodbyes and I inform him of the Cisk waiting for him inside. His eyes light up, he takes one final drag, and steps back inside.

==================

I meet Indri sitting on some palace’s front steps with a couple of others. He’s bored, he tells me. Perhaps you’ve lived here for too long, I reply. He rubs his hand along his stubbled chin.

‘Maybe. I’ve considered moving away, but then, what’s the point? To catch the bus back here every day? If there’s nothing good here, there’s nothing good on the island.’

Talk turns to the the City Gate project. He doesn’t mind it. He’s apprehensive about the new parliament building, but he likes the new gate. What he doesn’t like is the price tag: ‘€80m u ‘l fuq!’, he exclaims with awe.

‘Ħa, ma nistħix minnek’, he says as he pulls out a €5 note. ‘That’s all I have until Monday. Then I get my €400 pension. And only till Monday because I exchange it “fuq l-idejn”, otherwise I’ve got till the Friday after. With this!’, as he shakes the bill. I ask him if he has to pay rent with the pension. He laughs at my naivety. ‘Of course. After rent and utilities, I have, what, €250, if I’m careful? With that I need to buy clothes, food, give something small to my grandkids.’ He scoffs. ‘And they pay €80 million for that.’ He points, frustrated, at the monuments under construction.

——–

I see Indri again on Saturday. I’m happy to see he’s still got just under €4 left. He tells me he intends on having a blowout later – a ftira from a takeaway.

=================

Alex

Past St George’s square there is the Juve Confectionary. Alex, the owner, remembers when his mother ran a bar on Strada Stretta. ‘I used to wash the glasses. We had the dancing maids. They called them something else as well, but I assure you, we never dealt with those things. Our money was clean.’

Noone else I met remembered those times as fondly, not just for the sake of the cash flowing out of US and UK state coffers into Belti pockets via the navies, but for the sake of Valletta. ‘Back then people came here as an outing. It was alive.’

I ask him about V18, if he’s noticed any changes.

‘Hawnhekk? Hawnhekk minsija ħi.’ He shows me the pavement. ‘Look at that. 20 years I’ve been here. Not once has it been fixed. Not once in 20 years. It’s not the party that’s in government that matters. Ma jaħmluniex hawn isfel.’

Alex believes the rough reputation of certain people living in the area is a detriment to its development, but he doesn’t blame them. He puts that squarely on the shoulders of the law – and policy-makers who often act as if ‘we’re not their constituency’.

He has seen the regeneration already under way further up, and is hopeful about it. ‘It’s already picking up pace.’ His wife is just as impressed. ‘We hadn’t been up there in the evening for a while. Then, last week, we went and we see people everywhere. We thought there was some festival we weren’t aware of. But no, It was just a normal Friday!’ Her excitement is palpable, and brings a smile to my face too. If regeneration is going to mean anything, it has to have this effect on people living there.

Alex will tell you of his time as casting director on movies like Midnight Express, and of the football tournaments they used to organise for the local kids. He rues the lack of appropriate facilities for residents, especially children. He gives you the sense that as long as there are people like him around Valletta, it’s going to remain, at least partly, a city with a heart.

==================

I’m in the Due Balli area, looking for the shortest way to Mandraġġ. I ask a youngish guy for directions. He’s going that direction anyway, so we walk together. I tell him how beautiful Valletta is, that I would love to live there. He laughs, and not in a nice way.

‘Hawnhekk kulħadd iqarraq u jgħid fuq in-nies. Drogi fuq kull kuntuniera. Min f’sensih irid jiġi hawn?’

Are drugs really that prevalent, I ask him. He pulls up his long sleeves to show me track marks. ’10 years they took away from me. 10 years of my youth, my best years.’

He’s in his early 30s and clean for some years now. As we separate, he points me down to Pjazza Mattia Preti. ‘Issa għad-dar ħa npejjep joint bil-kwiet. Xi ħaġa trid tqiegħed fl-istonku ux?’ he laughs as he walks off.

==============

I sit down at a bar and start off a conversation with my table mate – a certain Żojż. He seems unassuming enough, a lone Maltese man among the tourists in the refurbished square. And then I code-switch. That is, I put in an English word in a Maltese sentence. That’s meta it simply qabżitlu!

Zojz

What follows is, frankly, a schooling. He puts my skill in my native tongue to shame. He teaches me what “moħfi” is, which I promptly forget [just like that fateful mid-morning in Form 2. Remember, Ms. Ebejer? I do. Call me.] He takes me to task for not knowing my Dun Karm. We have an illuminating conversation on the merits of contemporary Maltese poetry. He talks on the corruption of the Maltese in his time by the Akkademija tal-Malti. And then, I mention I teach English.

Oh Lord. The Perfect Received Pronunciation accent comes tumbling out. He asks me how I teach. Am I teaching the classics? Austen? The Brontës? Dickens? I explain that no, it’s for foreign people. Mainly vocab, grammar, that sort of thing. ‘But of what level?’, he insists. ‘Are you teaching them how to say “How do you do” and “If I may request to be excused”?’

I explain standard English has changed a bit from how it was thought in the 50s and 60s. He’ll have none of that, accusing me of slaughtering languages.

‘Hey, look at me! Don’t you know it is rude to look away?’ I had only turned for a second… ‘Tell me, if you are speaking to someone and they are looking away, what do you think?’ This was quickly turning into an assault. I wasn’t ready for this. ‘I know what you’re doing. You must be studying sociology or anthropology aren’t you? Looking to get examples of people from Mandraġġ.’ I explain I haven’t touched those subjects in years. ‘So why are you here?’ I tell him about PATRON and promise to pass him a copy of it when it is published, and then I scaramouche. So here it is, Żojż.

===========

I’m walking out of Valletta late at night, thinking of the various people whose lives are like paintings on the city’s canvas. I meet a recently-made acquaintance. It’s a 14 year old resident of Valletta who hustled me before. I ask him for my €25. He refuses. His older, larger friends crowd around us. I keep one hand in my pocket over my wallet and phone. Reason tells me to give way and I listen to it. I disengage and beat my retreat. They’re on home territory here. This particular aspect of Valletta’s culture isn’t dying out just yet it seems, for better or for worse.

===========

Walking out through City Gate, a rogue “taxi” approaches me. ‘Taxi!’ a familiar voice calls out. I look over. It’s Tony. In another taxi further up I see Duminku. I wave. Duminku’s busy snoring. Tony gives me a blank stare.

‘Taxi?’

*Many names have been changed.

Illustrations by Maria Isabella Grech

Category Gazette,Stuff

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