A Home and a Place – Swieqi, Malta

A Home and a Place

Swieqi, Malta

the Gardenia in Swieqi
the Gardenia in Swieqi
My second place of residence in Swieqi – after a week of living with a strong Maltese woman and many cats – was one such disastrous dissonant cry between reality and expectation. My first residence was peaceful and accompanied with a whirl of camera-snapping, gasps, language familiarizing, and deep, deep sleeping. I believe I left a permanent imprint mixed of my side silhouette and drool on this woman’s beige pillow. I slept in a stark beige room, filled with religious paraphernalia, ate at a beige kitchen table topped with crunchy breads, olives, capers, sliced hams, tuna, and tomatoes. I chatted with a beige-colored woman, tanned to permanence with long, stretched wrinkles outlining her weathered but wise expressions, and dined each morning over beige cereal and beige biscuits. It was the ideal preparation for my adjustment to color changes – for although Malta is renowned for its fishing boats (locally called luzzus) and resident balconies splashed in bold, bright colors, the rest of the country is washed in beige. Perhaps because beige matches the dust quite perfectly, perhaps because it’s a good compliment to the shrubs and pervasive cacti, perhaps because it’s a testament to its nearest neighbors in North Africa, Malta has embraced and inhaled the characteristic color lacking color.

But, because in all other facets of Maltese life (and probably more important ones at that), planning is not part of the ritual, I’ve no idea how exactly everything became so uniform. Everything else in Malta is certainly closer to chaos.

It must be one of those unanswerable questions of the world-among those that ask why Americans call football such a name that frowns on foot contact other than punting and kick-off.

My new Maltese friend Alba arranged for a temporary stay with her aunt, an incredibly patriotic and sweet-mannered woman, who passed most of her time as a local tour guide. For the first time in my life, she had christened me a new name: Kris. It was charming and gentle the way she addressed me, as if we had crept into each other’s personal life with ease and grace. Twenty-one years answering to a stark and full Kristin, and suddenly a sweet chop fixed my true name to a nickname. The origin of this name-chopping is unclear, but it occurred to me that there is something incredibly special inherent in toying with a real name. It’s almost as if we’d transcended the barriers between strangers and friends to include a fresh side of companionship with my new identity. For the first time in my life, I shared a secret with her – I had a nickname.

Together we dropped in to visit Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John, and I flinched at the realistic strokes with which he painted his signature in the blood. We stopped at various art exhibitions highlighting silk weaving and glass-blowing, all inspired by local artisans. She held environmental activist group meetings around her beige dinner table, and taught English and trained new tour guides. She was interested in foreign languages, art festivals, exotic foods, feeding homeless cats, accepting cultural differences, even me. The magnificent Grande Harbour took us along the coast to a fishing village where we watched luzzus carry men across the vast and perfect sea. We dined in traditional restaurants, where I unknowingly chomped into the slimy tentacle of an unfortunate octopus. We shopped along the bay, stopping in bookshops and London fashion boutiques, souvenir shops, pubs. I hadn’t any idea that one woman could do so many things at one time.

I learned to walk along the cracked streets with airs of confidence. I listened to the silent sounds of my new culture and I learned to speak clearly so that my soft accent would be more distinct. I listened to the attitudes of the new Maltese girls who had taken responsibility to assimilate me, staring into the endless blue sea and wondering how they could think that I was the lucky one. They told me stories of confinement, of feelings of inadequacy, of dreams to leave their island in hopes for a better life. I breathed in the sweaty human air and looked for trees.

It was after a week of traveling with this exceptional lady and meeting the Maltese girls that I parted for the Gardenia, leaving just an Italian merlot and a note of gratitude. After a week spent in such lovely conditions, I was all tiptoes, dancing delicately in a dream world. I was dancing, one could say, in my initial love of exotic colors, fantastic blue waters, and foreign words.

Katerina arrived early that morning as I was still sleeping upstairs in Heidi’s guest room (Heidi was in charge of my assignment in Malta, and a college student herself). Katerina had traveled from the Czech Republic, a country I would like to visit if for no other reason than to waltz down the streets and address people with ahoy. How wonderful that hello in Czech is ahoy; wonderful still that Katerina had never heard that we pin ahoy to sailors and ships. I had never met anyone from the Czech Republic before; needless to say, I was truly excited to meet her, wondering how she would move, how her speech, mannerisms, and style would interact to create this person. As I heard her come inside, I bounced from my bed and ran downstairs in my pajamas as if to see what Santa had left me.

As she turned to greet me, it stunned me how noticeably brilliant Katerina’s teeth were. They were large and white, and her smile was interestingly both giggly and exasperated. Her accent was uncanny, recognizable, often omitting the article from the noun, and sometimes sounding like the result of learning British phonetics. (Three months after living with an American, however, she left with a bit less bite to her “bot-tle,” a few more articles announcing the forthcoming nouns, and she had dispersed a few phrases of my own into her vocabulary). She was very mild-mannered and polite; quiet at first, almost cautious, conservative in thought yet an atheist in belief. This was strange to me, as I was accustomed to American conservatives and people branded with Puritanical beliefs and faith for the church.

Katerina and I on day
Katerina and I on day one
After bumbling downstairs from Heidi’s bedroom, I introduced myself while rubbing sleep from my eyes and trying to focus on my first Czech encounter. “I’m Kristin,” I said, extending my hand to greet hers. “It’s really great to finally meet you! I’m so glad you’re here! How are you?”

“Yes, hello!” she replied, turning to face me from her perched position on the bar stool in Heidi’s kitchen.

She smiled. I asked her about the Czech Republic, noting her accent yet exceptionally good English. I was certainly impressed, as she told me that it was her first time in an English-speaking environment. We chatted in pulsed questions and answers, something I likened to the Spanish system of addressing people in formal conjugations before you’ve let them in.

“So when do we begin this job? Do you know many things about it?” she asked.

I admitted that no, I knew about as much as she did. I noticed that her face contorted just slightly, failing to cover her uncertainty. I wondered how strict Katerina wanted our job to be, for it seemed as if she thrived on order and precision; and the longer I wandered the streets of Malta, I was beginning to realize how little of this actually existed.

Quickly, though, I learned Katerina’s reaction to stress – her arms flailing to the air, her voice repeating oh my gosh, oh my gosh with some Czech tossed in under her breath. It was like a conditioned reaction, and we laughed every time.

Her manner of dress was a bit less outrageous than most, usually starting with her thin, wire-rimmed glasses, a plain pair of khaki shorts, and a striped shirt draped over pale skin. Her eyes, although gentle, were full of innocence and a life of shyness, order, cleanliness, and calmness. Her face was haloed by blunt brown bangs and long, straight, fine hair. Her sense of self was a bit more reserved and conservative than are their more Western or Americanized descendents, probably owing to the harsh world of Communism and the breakdown of their society not long in the past. I noticed her slight awkward behavior towards me, as if she wasn’t sure how to perform among an audience such as myself. My feelings unquestionably matched hers.

We introduced ourselves that first morning by shaking hands, something in place of the two kisses, probably something quite unfriendly in European culture – Katerina, fresh-eyed, curious, excited, yet quiet, and me, sleepy-eyed, pajama-clad, having just rolled out of bed and already full of stories, shaking hands, like business executives. We were, as she said, like a black and white photograph; at first, I understood this as meaning completely contrary to one another, one black, one white. Only later did our meanings slightly change. A black and white photograph is elegant, distinct, it whispers; it meshes between the absolute color and the absolute void – it’s perfectly balanced.

As Katerina and I cracked open the door of our new place after leaving the Gardenia hostel in hopes of a better tomorrow, we continued chatting. Or, I suppose, I continued chatting, desperate for conversation from a girl who, as she declares, “prefers to listen.”

The Gardenia was, not much to our surprise, a beige building atop a beige slab of limestone carved into a staircase with little square windows in tight little rows. As we passed through the door, however, we noticed much more than just the color of the walls. There was, it seemed, a slight flaw in the color scheme: politely positioned right beneath the horizontal light switch, a streak of crimson blood was painted down the wall as if striped by a hand. Fingerprints touched the tips of the bloodstain, furthering our proof that this was indeed the remains of some human. We both started screaming hysterically, as little girls in all cultures do. A startled and naked French girl emerged from the kitchen.

Katerina threw down her straw hat and an enormous cockroach planted himself in the warm brim. We continued shrieking, as people usually do when presented with a big bug, and threw our eyes on the naked French girl standing in front of us. Knowing each other for just one morning, we could hardly comfort each other in this lovely excuse for a humble abode without feeling awkward or too familiar. We carefully kicked the hat out of the room and left the cockroach to leave as he saw fit. The naked French girl walked back to her room guzzling a bottle of wine during the fiasco.

We handled the yellowed sheets scattered with holes and cigarette burns fairly well. We handled the excretions on the bedsheets with uptight dignity, holding our hands over our mouths and removing the sheets from the mattresses. We handled the towels on the ground with uneasy poise, pulling them from the wad on the floor to find them drenched in wet chocolate smears and someone’s disgusting nose-blows caked with creamy snot. We discovered that there was a pile-up of human excrement in the toilet, that it wouldn’t flush, that the lamps had no bulbs, that there wasn’t any toilet paper, that the shower had no curtain, and that there were half-empty bottles of local beer tossed around the room. I stepped on a cigarette butt and stumbled back into the hall where my eyes rested on the blood stained down the wall and the sounds of the naked French girl in the next room.

The kitchen reeked of odors unexplainable, there was a stupid cat outside my window that would not stop his meowing, there was a problem fitting the key properly into the lock; and, to ice the cake that appeared to have been living in the refrigerator for something close to two years, I realized that I had picked up a terrible earache. My right ear suddenly lost all feeling, all sound, and all perception, and I was unable to take a shower. The tap spewed the water all over the walls, and the water held a slightly beige color of its own, so I reasoned that I wouldn’t have been able to shower anyway. We dipped our bodies into the chlorine-filled swimming pool in the hopes to free ourselves of our recently overactive sweat glands.

Katerina, whose disgust matched mine absolutely, decided, quite obviously, that the Gardenia was an unacceptable place to house two new foreign employees. This, of course, was a given fact; however, when we went to discuss this with our boss, he seemed to think that this matter was on the list of priorities up there with installing video cameras in the girl’s bathrooms and getting our work permits processed. As our boss was outrageously gay and not concerned with our salaries, this also wasn’t a main concern.

view from the bedroom windows
view from the bedroom windows
It was simply this: a promise, an oath that this wasn’t exaggerated complaining on behalf of a pampered middle-class American child and her Czech counterpart. It was, of course, merely the naked facts, something of a tiny error to add to the sweet scrapbook excerpts and warm memories to tell the grandkids. For the sake of our sanity, we silently prayed for residence number three to hold some better surprises. The three days spent in the Gardenia were interminable, lagging like an afternoon whose sun won’t set. Our temporary roommates, Valérie from France and Julienne from Russia, entertained us with their butchered version of English and their morning antics – Valérie with her casual way of meandering around unclothed, Julienne with her blasting techno tunes, wine bottle, floating dance, and talks about her underwear and plans to become an architect. The poor girl had lived in the Gardenia for nine months as well, which was pretty entertaining in some respects. As far as Katerina and I were concerned, we survived our three days by staying as far from our room as we possibly could, chatting about how we certainly hoped to be greeted with flowers and not by somebody’s bloody salutation next time.

As the taxi driver skidded to a stop to meet us, we remembered to snap a photo of the Gardenia. For how would this place seem like anything but a flaw in a dream sequence had we not practically documented it? We giggled to ourselves as we hauled our suitcases, now stuffed and disheveled from the numerous pack-unpack-pack escapades, onto the rack in the back of the taxi, and left for residence number four.