Hello from Malta
Welcome to Malta, country number 16 on my list. Malta is the smallest member of the European Union and only has 400,000 inhabitants. Seven islands, three of which are inhabited, together make up the country. Malta is located South West of Sicily and mainland Africa. Capital city is Valetta which is a part of the main agglomeration on the North Eastern side of the biggest island. Like I did in all of the countries I visited so far, I start off with a fairly simple question: What`s Malta about?
My adventure in Malta started yesterday night, when a rocky ferry took me to Valetta. I did not know that a capital city could ever be so empty. The Valetta I find is as empty as I would have expected the forbidden Cypriot city of Famagusta to be. Beautiful buildings in sand-like colours, the whole together protected by a huge fortification. Impressive, but hard to enjoy without having eaten and without having found a place to stay. Fortunately, everything sorts itself out before midnight, allowing me to continue my mission with today`s interviews.
`The Maltese mindset mixes English and Italian character traits`
The English, again
Malta`s history is similar to that of Cyprus. Many foreign empires have come and gone, all trying to conquer a strategic part in the Mediterranean Sea. The Greeks did not make it to Malta, but the Turks (then Byzantines), the Romans, the Sicilians, the French and the Spanish did. The last occupying force was the British Empire, whose troops settled on the island in 1813.
During World War II, Malta played a key role in the battle for North Africa. Independence was obtained in 1964, but it took until 1979 for all British troops to withdraw. Britain left Malta a significant legacy: education, public administration and healthcare are all modeled on the Westminster system. English is Malta`s second official language after Maltese and cars drive on the left hand side of the road. The abundant presence of restaurant chains like KFC, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Burger King make Malta distinctly different from Sicily. A local Marks & Spencer is never far away either.
Celine (22, photo) tells me that Italian culture also greatly influences the Maltese way of life. `Foodwise, we are more like Italians. Working-wise, we are more like the English. The Maltese like to go out of their way to help each other out, while Italians are better at simply dumping work on other people`s desks. Also, Malta has a lot of corruption, which may not be as visible as it is in Italy, but it does exist under the surface. Also on Malta, your connections rather than your skills decide how successful you can be in life.`
Thanks to its pleasant climate, Malta is a popular tourist destination for Italians or English. Summers are hot, dry and perfect for beach holidays. On the negative side, excessive air conditioning use can cause electricity cuts and farmers suffer from drought. Also, the island can be very crowded, while never-ending construction works continue to nourish the thriving real estate market.
Still, tourists who come to Malta can expect a warm welcome. Celine explains: `They make a huge contribution to our economy. We have quite few resources of our own so there`s little we can export. We depend on tourism and trade to make money. Because of that, joining the EU in 2004 was a logical step, and so was the integration into the Euro-zone.`
Less welcome than tourists from mainland Europe are immigrants from the South. In spite of Arabic elements making up important parts of Maltese culture and language, Maltese people are not very fond of influences from North Africa. Althea (29) tells me that refugees from Africa are eager to use Malta as a base to reach European mainland. `They leave on boats from Libya, but many of them originally come from much further south. Once they land in Malta, they stay around for a bit, taking advantage of our social welfare system. If they manage to get a residency permit, they will aim to reach Italy and more of mainland Europe to start a new life. In the mean time, they steal our jobs, all of which is supported by the construction industry who exploits them for cheap labour.`
The main headlines in Malta nowadays all focus on the upcoming national elections on 8 March. The nationalist party has been in charge for the last 20 years, and its most recent 5-year mandate has expired. The only other party, Labour, is challenging the incumbent government. Alexis (25) can`t be too bothered about the result: `But the good thing about the elections is that there will be many parties organised by both sides. They do it to attract votes, but many people obviously just go there to have a good time.`
Chris (21) and Joseph (21) confirm that Malta is a perfect place for partying. They explain me that Saint Julians is a good place to go: `Bars charge no entry fees and some stay open until the morning, so it`s easy to hop from one bar to the other. Football matches are another great reason for parties. Our own national team is no good, and neither are our local teams. Everybody therefore supports a team from the Italian Seria A or the English Premier Leage. The same goes for national teams. We cheer along with them, and if they win, we party as if it was our own national team who won the title.`
Malta vs Cyprus
Before coming to Malta, I did not really have any idea what to expect. Like Cyprus, Malta is not displayed on any interactive maps like Googlemaps or Viamicheline. Both Cyprus and Malta are typical package holiday destinations: tourists get picked up from the airport and are sent straight to their hotels so they don`t really need to consult maps in advance anyway. For backpackers, it`s a different story. Fortunately, I do find out in one day is that Malta`s public transportation network is much, much more efficient. So is the internet as a source of information about the country. Everything else, I need to find out during the next four days.
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