Flashback: Malta

Beginning in late April of 2016, Carol and Pip and I spent a month in Malta. The presence of His Fuzziness ruled out the easy route to get to the island nation (flying). Instead we packed up our redoubtable Skoda and took an overnight ferry from Genoa down to Sicily, then a high speed ferry from Pozzalo to Malta.

Only about 60 miles due south of Sicily, Malta nevertheless feels surprisingly remote. Its two next closest neighbors are Tunisia and Libya to the south, and Arabic and North African influences are evident in the architecture and language of the islands. While its official first language is English, the native Malti is widely spoken and found on signage. With roots in the speech of the ancient Phoenicians who came to the islands around 750 BC, Malti has been shaped over the centuries by the many peoples who have fought over and inhabited the land since, including the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the English. It is the only Semitic language written with Latin characters, which is cool if you’re a language geek like me.

Malta encompasses three inhabited islands. At an overall length of about 17 miles, the largest island, also called Malta, hosts the national capital, Valletta. A short ferry ride to the northwest is Gozo, about 9 miles long; and between them is the tiny island of Comino, whose glorious main attraction is the enchanting Blue Lagoon. In total extent, the country is about twice the size of the District of Columbia — but surrounded by over 250 miles of spectacular coastline.

Visit our extensive Malta gallery! »

It’s astonishing how much history and architecture you can shoehorn into such a pint-sized place. Beginning as early as 3600 BC, settlers in the islands were erecting megalithic temples and monuments that would survive the ages. The millennia thereafter saw restless cycles of conquest, settlement, consolidation, and re-conquest. As late as World War II, Maltese under British dominion were still making their imprint on history — sticking a thorn in the side of Nazi military dominance in the Mediterranean, while withstanding constant attack from sea and air.

The most famous episode of Malta’s history was the Great Seige of 1565. 700 Knights of Malta (the Order of St. John, also known as the Knights Hospitaller) and about 8000 Maltese footsoldiers fought off 40,000 invading Turks commanded by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. It was a near thing, the defenders suffering cruel losses and barely hanging onto their last few fortifications before outlasting their exhausted foes. In the decades after, the wealthy Order of St. John healed the country, pouring money into magnificent churches and other public works, including the sumptuous Co-Cathedral of Saint John. The city of Valletta takes its name from Jean de la Vallette, the Knight commander of the Maltese forces that faced down Suleiman.

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[Above] Nave of the Co-Cathedral of St. John. In addition to its rich decoration and stonework, the cathedral features two paintings by Caravaggio, who was briefly a brother of the order until he fled after spilling the blood of a prominent knight.

Today, Malta is a thriving, friendly business hub and tourist destination. It is also a surprisingly reasonably priced place to live, where you can find a furnished two bedroom apartment in a nice stone building — practically everything on Malta is built from the lovely local stone — for under 100,000 euros. That won’t buy you waterfront; but given that you almost have to try hard to find a place farther than walking distance from the sea, it’s not much of a hardship. Mediterranean warmth means that you pay little for heat in Malta, while the cool stone buildings and ubiquitous swimming pools help you chill in the hottest months.

I should mention that if you want to buy a detached house, you’ll need to bring along a truckload of money. In a country as small and populous as Malta, land comes at a premium, if at all. The overwhelming majority of homes are apartments, townhouses, and maisonettes. (Where you see a “farmhouse” advertised for sale, it’s nearly always an attached house with a tiny yard.) New construction is virtually all multi-family or attached dwellings, and existing detached homes, when they come on the market, go for an order of magnitude beyond an attached home of similar square footage.

Medical services on Malta are excellent, and out-of-pocket payment for routine office visits is cheap compared with the US, though buying into the national health service as an expat is unfortunately not so inexpensive. The country is also statistically one of the world’s safest refuges from violent crime. With regard to food, despite its tiny acreage, Malta manages to produce a nice variety of gorgeous local produce, and grocery prices generally are about average for Europe. Eating out is quite reasonable, and usually very good.

You will pay a lot for a liter of gas. That, along with the narrow, congested roads, is why most cars on Malta are tiny. If you’ve ever wondered why you rarely see any Suzuki Sidekicks on the American road anymore, it’s because they and their older siblings, the Suzuki Samurai, all emigrated to Malta. Maltese owners love their tough little Suzukis not only for their parsimony with gas, but also because they stand up to the potholes, ruts, and washboard ripples of the infamous roads on the islands. In any case, between the small scale of the country and the daunting aspect of most backroads, you won’t be blowing through a tank of gas very quickly.

Quality of life in Malta can be quite good, though where you choose to live will depend a lot on what you enjoy. If you want world-class culture, thriving night life, great shopping, and fantastic multicultural cuisine, the main island is your huckleberry. Just be prepared for lots of traffic, a very high population density, and a dearth of quiet places to get away from it all.

On the other hand, if you value a slower pace of life, less congestion, and more opportunities to explore the outdoors, you’ll opt for Gozo. You’ll still be able to enjoy plenty of fascinating history and beautiful architecture, as well as outdoor cafes and local color — but you’ll also enjoy wide-open vistas out to the sea, and long, quiet walks on deserted trails. And if you buy a place there, you’ll have peace of mind knowing that those lovely open spaces outside the villages will remain unbuilt by law; the Maltese government has wisely recognized the value of maintaining its remaining green spaces, and so it protects them from development.

It would be overselling Malta to say it’s a place that “has everything.” It’s too small for that. If you’re looking for downhill skiing, or theme parks, you’re pretty much out of luck. Golf begins and ends with the 18-hole Royal Malta course. But if you’re looking for the kinds of things Malta offers in abundance — sailing, hiking, fishing, history, culture, beaches, and the rest — you’ll be hard-pressed to find them better anywhere else that mortals can afford.

I can’t wait to go back.

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Bureaucracies

Warning: This post is dull as dishwater. If you think you might be interested in moving to Germany someday, it could be useful to you. Otherwise, you’ll probably want to move along. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Last week I got to deal with, respectively, the immigration and the health bureaucracies of Germany. And survived, though it was a near thing. (You should understand that I’m a confirmed introvert. I don’t enjoy dealing with strangers even in my own language. In a tongue of which I speak little and understand less, it gives me the fan-tods.)

Alien Nation

On Wednesday, I went with Randall down to the Aliens’ Department (Ausländerbehörde) where we boarded a ship for the Gamma Quadrant. Okay, that was just to see if you’re still paying attention. We were really there to submit his application for a student visa.

This was actually our third visit in as many weeks to that office suite. The first time we foolishly arrived about 45 minutes after the office opened — only to find that the numbered tickets for being served that day had already been distributed to the hundreds of refugees, asylum seekers, and miscellaneous other would-be Germans who got there ahead of us.

The next week, we arrived 15 minutes before the office opened, and it was still kind of a close call. (True confession here: I cut the line. Which is sort of tantamount to murder in my sad little ethics book. I’ll never live down the shame.) Anyhoo, we got a number — which gave us the privilege of waiting in line for 3 hours or so, in order to make an appointment to come down the next week and submit Randall’s application. After getting the appointment we were also sent downstairs one floor — another ticket machine, another (mercifully shorter) line — to register Randall’s local address with the authorities.

Over the next week, we prepared the necessary documents ahead of our visa appointment. Those included:

  • the visa application itself (2 pages, pretty easy to complete)
  • documentation that Randall was registered at a school here
  • proof that he has health insurance that works here
  • proof of financial support — in this case, printouts of my pension payslips and retirement fund balances, and my word as a right guy that I’d be paying the freight
  • Randall’s passport (and mine too, which I fortunately brought along out of an abundance of caution)
  • a spare passport-type photo of Randall

All in all, it wasn’t a burdensome packet to put together. (As compared with, say, Carol’s walking nightmare of trying to register our car in France.) I was increasingly worried as the time approached, though, because Randall and I had somehow failed to catch the office number where our appointment was to take place. We decided the nice woman at the Aliens’ Department desk just forgot to tell us. No wonder, with all those legions of people to help!

So, on the day, we got down there long before our stated appointment time to make sure we could find out where to go. I probably should have twigged to the fact that our set time was, coincidentally, precisely when the ticket line opens up. After speaking to several people we realized, even with our vestigial German, that we were supposed to get another ^@%*£+!/>@ ticket and stand in the $&£*!~:^@ line again.

Oh well, at least we were really early this time; I wouldn’t need to cut the line. Instead, we got to queue up with a few hundred of our close friends in the narrow, airless corridor waiting for the ticket machine to begin serving.


Did you know that Freiburg is well beloved for being the sunniest city in Germany? In a country with as much gloom and chill as Deutschland, that’s a pretty glorious thing. Indeed, buildings in this country don’t even need to be air conditioned; the Germans are admirably practical people, and they realize it would be foolish to waste resources and generate greenhouse gases to have A/C when there’s only one month a year when you really need it.

That would be August.


Back to the line. After a relatively swift, if sweaty, 2.5 hours, we made our way back up to the service desk. The woman there verified our documents were in order, then pointed us to a private office where — huzzah! — we could submit our paperwork. After all that had gone before, the interview itself was quite anticlimactic. 20 minutes later, give or take, Randall’s passport had his visa stamp and we were back into the August sunshine and headed for Schlappen for a half liter of Freiburg’s best.

Medicament

A couple weeks ago, I realized with an unpleasant shock that I was almost out of my asthma medicine. I guess that’s what happens when you take the damned stuff every day.

The true horror for me was not that I might run out of the medicine; in that case the worst outcome is just that I’d have an asthma attack, turn blue, and die a slow, choking death. No, far worse was the prospect of having to deal with the German medical establishment and make a complete ass of myself in an unfamiliar language.

But you gotta keep the pharmaceutical companies in business.

Before I left the US, my doctor wrote me prescriptions for my various medicines. Unfortunately, those little pieces of paper don’t cut a lot of mustard with pharmacists here. To get my US prescription filled here, I would have to (1) go to a local doctor and ask him to write a prescription; then (2) take that prescription to the Apotheke (pharmacist).

So, having the address of a doctor recommended by our Airbnb host, I walked down to the office, dithered outside for a few minutes screwing up my nerve, then marched in to face the receptionist.

As it turned out, she was great. She knew about as much English as I do German — but with good intentions and the occasional awkward chuckle we managed to establish what I was trying to do, and get an appointment set up.

It helped going in that I knew a few of the words I would need, like Rezept (prescription) and Medikament (medicine). (Actually, Medikament sounds more to me like the problem you have when you’re out of medicine, but whatever.) I’ve found generally that even if my command of a language is pretty laughable, I can still brazen it out if I memorize two or three words beforehand that apply to the situation. Apropos which, thank God for Google Translate. The two searches that show up on my phone most frequently now are translate german to english and translate english to german.

Unfortunately, my health insurance (GeoBlue) was no use at all. The receptionist asked me if I had any, and I duly handed over my little laminated card, but the office folks couldn’t seem to make head or tail of it. On the other hand, the visit only cost me about 22 euros altogether, so the card wouldn’t have saved me that much.

Anyway, about two hours later I was in the office with the doctor, who spoke excellent English. And it’s possible that in that context the prescription from my US doctor may have helped me. I brought it along to the appointment, and not only was it a quick way to show the doctor what I needed (including dosage, etc), but also probably lent more credibility to my request — given that the man didn’t know me from Julius Caesar (whom I’ve been told I resemble).

Shortly, I had the German prescription in my sweaty hand and was off to the Apotheke, where I had to pay in advance for my medicine. Oddly, neither the doctor nor the pharmacist would accept a credit or debit card; I had to use cash in both instances. I’m not sure if that’s a Germany-wide thing — I suspect it might be — or just a policy of those two specific vendors.

So all’s well that ends well. My kid is legal, the bureaucratic dragons are slain, and as soon as I finish writing this, I’m off to the Apotheke to pick up my prescription.

If I’m not back in two hours, please send help