Five Words for Love – Luqa, Malta

Five Words for Love

Luqa, Malta

the window to a new world--Ghajn Tuffieha Beach
the window to a new world–Ghajn Tuffieha Beach
There are five words for love in Italian. It may just be coincidence, but I feel like we use this word too interchangeably with our mildly inexpressive English language. We don’t really love all of the things that we might profess to. In fact, in just one day it’s possible to hear love alleged for any number of things: love for movies, love for mom, love for rain, love for best friend, love for Chinese takeout, love for school cancellations. It’s possible this primary mistake that sets us up as a society too concerned with satisfaction. We have trouble explaining our true feelings, and now love has become entirely irrelevant. At least in Italian it would be possible to actually describe the feelings vacillating in our minds with a bit more accuracy.

With this in mind, I knew that I was going to just love Malta. How could I not? I was leaving my boring homeland for an exotic land of limestone rock and crystal blue waters. I had seen the pictures, I had read as much as a person can read in just six days, I had dreamed of the places I would go and the people I would meet. I was a dreamy child, playing with her imagination through fantasies and visions of perfection. Perfection, of course, is illusory, and nothing suspected to be so ever really achieves it, yet the nervous butterflies dancing the tango in my stomach couldn’t have heard voice to reason with all the music down there. It’s literally impossible for expectation to greet reality with a firm handshake. It’s more like a limp lump of fingers after an exhausting journey. Malta, on its elevated, distant pedestal, gleaming from travel guides and history books, leading a mystical life on a vague splattering of land, was indeed something worthy of love. Brilliant suns, glistening limestone architecture on white rocky beaches among the bluest skies and seas creation has ever conceived. Lovely languages flitting from strangers’ lips, dancing through the humid air and dabbling in a world history of cultural influences.

It wasn’t as if I was traveling to France, China, Mexico, Canada, or Germany – places we know without ever possibly setting foot in their territorial boundaries. We may never truly understand these people without visiting them, but we can understand their history, their place in the world market, their geographical location, their languages, their cuisines, their tastes. Malta might have well have been an imaginary land discovered by Columbus in the 13th century had I been an explorer with a prime taste for adventure. Although the islands do indeed hold the oldest Neolithic temples on earth, they were a secret unveiled at the most appropriate time for my life. Full of mystical magic, methods of superstition, thousands of years of exiled explorers and overlapping cultures, I may as well have been shot in a rocket to a new planet.

It was this that intrigued me most about Malta. I equated the word Malta with a unique paradise. Everything we think of as paradise – fantastic beaches, exotic culture, preserved languages, unusual smells and sounds, erotic stirrings in our bellies – had to be wrapped up in this tiny island of just eight by twenty-six kilometers. Of course I had no tangible grasp on the fact that I was going to a country that had just joined the European Union in 2000, perhaps not realizing that its society might not match the defiant, super-efficient (and often annoying) standards of my own. I refused to see that Malta might not have held all the spiritual enchantment I gave it through pictures and imagination. I never dreamed that discrimination, social inequality, poverty, lawful injustice, pain, destruction, ignorance, and the rest of the ill class of human absurdities could follow me to a place untouched by American culture, where these things seemed to thrive.

the city of Valleta from a distance
the city of Valleta from a distance
Or was it really untouched? The first thing I remember, after stepping off the plane onto dusty rocks to the pungent smell of thick air and human sweat, was the familiar sound of an American pop song gently weaving its way through the intercom in the airport terminal. Heidi, my foreign ambassador and welcoming committee, approached me wearing a shirt branded with the words I Love San Francisco on the front. I wasn’t quite sure what to do. Was this some kind of effort on behalf of the Maltese people to properly assimilate me into their own mysterious ways?

I waved to Heidi but was immediately stopped by a dark-skinned man and demanded to hand over my passport. “Let’s have it,” he mumbled, extending a chubby hand dusted with dirt. His fingernails were caked in crust, as if shortly before his shift at the airport he had been digging up tomatoes, and his voice was unnaturally gruff harsh. His English was not my English, although a mutual understanding was reached – my passport passed from my hands to his with a speedy quickness. The conversation, however, then rapidly changed: I was suddenly out of it. The man turned to his companion and the two began waving around my passport and wrestling with the most interesting collection of sounds I’ve ever heard. The air became chaotic with smells of trouble, and I wondered if I would experience the Maltese prison before the Maltese people. After a time, however, I meekly peeped up, my tiny voice strained and scared, and inquired if the process was going smoothly.

The man proceeded to scream at me in unintelligible garble. The only word I could distinguish from the grunts was the word Americana. I supposed he was referring to me in the distanced third person, to erase me as a person and just lump me into a group of millions. Americana, Americana, grumble, grumble, grumble. I wondered, as I stood staring uncomprehendingly, why he was screaming in Maltese, but I was too frightened to ask. I hardly doubted that many blonde-haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned foreigners communicated in this language, but I merely watched, transfixed by the flexibility of our vocal chords’ adaptability. Eventually it became clear to me that he was questioning the validity of my passport.

As Malta has two official languages (English and Maltese, with Italian as an afterthought), it’s no shock that some fascinating things popped up with respect to their manner of human expression. This being the first, I became accustomed to their unique interpretation. Imagine taking the English language and stringing it along a Maltese landscape of gently sloping hills and stark shrubs. Adding a raspy, guttural growl to letters like “h,” rolling the words out on an Italian’s inflections, and tying sentences together with qualifiers like “ta” and “mela” would give a basic idea of this geographical change. Like Spanglish, that strangely American phenomenon shaping the language of the 21st century into a dialectical party between English and Spanish, Maltese English is like the English language infused with cultural overtones. It’s like a skeleton with a dress on – no skin in-between.

The Maltese language, this strange, unaccountable jumble being spit on my passport, is the result of a mating experiment gone horribly awry with Arabic, Italian, English, French, and Spanish participants. I had imagined a language drifting like feathers and tickling me with their tips, and here they were, grumbling, growling, spitting, yelling. It was incredibly bizarre, hearing a remote tongue any interested linguist could ever hope to analyze. Standing there, fronted with this linguistic game of sounds, words, and expressions, I couldn’t dare dissect it. Totally fascinated yet utterly frightened, I imagined being shackled to chains, dragged to the nearest holding cell, and questioned incessantly about my business on their island. I was eternally thankful that didn’t happen.

first moments on new soil--city of St. Julian's
first moments on new soil–city of St. Julian’s
I was greeted with hostility in a place I had designated as true paradise. I was no longer myself, but just one reeling by in a restless school of weird fish. I was still American, I was a traveler, I was a nuisance to customs. This not being in the plan, I was somewhat worried, and with good reason. However, after the fiasco and the final stamping in my book, I discovered that my luggage was not on the baggage claim. It was, after much panicked searching, on the line coming from Lisbon. How my floppy bag of clothes skipped from London to Lisbon is beyond my comprehension; however, without another moment, I passed through the gate and stepped into the radiant sun. The sun has always been something to relate to, for the soft, warm feeling from a sun-drenched day is somehow the same anywhere when I close my eyes.

Perhaps my idea of love was already changing.