Monday, December 03, 2012

Local Christmas traditions

Valletta decked out for the festivities
Why is it that Christmas preparations seem to come round earlier every year? The race is on to arrive unscathed, yet sometimes you wish to pause and take the time to watch everyone else dashing around for once.

And why not do just that? Surely, this year you can afford to delegate to someone else the joy giving, the cake making and the stress that comes with putting together the Christmas lunch. While you're at it, why not observe someone else's traditions, somewhere else in the globe where they do things differently?

The mouth blown glass tree


So how do the Maltese celebrate Christmas? They still indulge in the usual frantic shopping, they still decorate the major shopping streets with colourful lights, they still adorn real or artificial trees with tasteless ornaments (although this year's Valletta Christmas tree made out of large mouth blown glass baubles is particularly stylish) but they also have some unique traditions of their own.

Napolitan crib on show at St John's CoCathedral


The Crib

Many of the traditions linked to this time are aimed at children and this is one of them. As children, we were sent to the local version of Sunday school, only it was every day - and, without a shred of irony, it was known as Duttrina (indoctrination). For our troubles, just before Christmas, the teachers lovingly crafted a presepju (crib) for each child - a miniature model of the nativity scene constructed in papier mâché, complete with plaster statuettes of the holy family. The tradition of the crib is one that's shared with the southern part of Italy and Sicily. Various towns in Malta exhibit cribs of various sizes and complexity around this time. Some of them can be extremely beautiful. Crib building of the type prevalent in Naples in Malta is said to have been introduced to Malta in the first half of the 17th century but was then the preserve of the rich. In the nineteenth century the Sicilian style of crib was introduced and flourished.

Little processions in the streets


The Children's Procession

Again, this tradition was started in 1907 by the same Society that runs the 'Sunday School'. Even for a heathen such as myself, coming across one of these processions in the streets of Malta can be quite an experience. The children hold candles and carry a statue of the baby Jesus while singing carols.

Photo by tisjir.com


The Honey Ring Cake

Although these days you might find this traditional sweet in all times of the year, the qaghaq tal-ghasel is a Christmas delicacy. The original mixture for the filling seems to have been made up of a cooked mixture of honey, semolina, and a liqueur of sorts. These days it is filled with a treacle mixture (see recipe on tisjir.com).

Spend Christmas & New Year at Valletta G-House

Saturday, March 20, 2010

On the map

April 1st sees the start of a project that will place Valletta on the map. The Financial Times today features the project that will transform the entrance to the city:

It is 1565 and the Knights of St John have just recorded a famous victory over the advancing Ottoman Turks by resisting a four-month-long siege against their adopted home of Malta. How do they celebrate? Protracted feasting? Grand displays of vanity and hubris? No, they immediately start building. Galvanised by the fear of further raids, they erect what will become the fortifications for – and are still defining structures of – Valletta, the Maltese capital.

Flash forward a few hundred years and a similar sense of urgency again pervades in the southern Mediterranean island state, even if this time the stakes are not as high. Once more, Valletta stands poised at the brink of an epoch-defining construction project – perhaps the largest in scale since the knights’ initial undertaking. The historical comparison might seem a stretch but Malta is a place in which the past is ever present and it confronts the visitor at almost every turn – something that has led Italian architect Renzo Piano to note that “Valletta is full of ghosts”.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Old Valletta

Just thought I'd share these pictures of life in Valletta in the past:

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Maltese Chav

A word I came across often in childhood was one which portrayed the bogeyman of social standing, the one label you avoided, the ultimate condescending insult. Here, Dr Mark-Anthony Falzon, Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Malta dares to tackle the social connotations of the word - ħamallu.

So, who are the ħamalli? We tend to use the word in two ways. First, to describe individuals who are boorish, crass, loud, and the rest. One can be a ħamallu generally, as in a life project, or episodically, as in a lapse or moment of rudeness. There may, on occasion, be a certain subversive delight in performing ħamallaġni - the Prince of Hanover urinating in public sort of thing.

Which brings us to the second usage, which has to do with class rather than individuals. To a certain middle-class eye, the ħamalli are people who are fond of hoop earrings, mullet hairstyles, flashy cars referred to in the masculine, tile-clad façades, and frilly wedding dresses. They also tend to address people as 'ħi', talk of 'dik' and 'dak', and flail their arms wildly as they do so.

Ħamallaġni is thought to be a territorial animal, in Malta as elsewhere. Jeremy Clarkson, for example, commonly mocks the 'Cheshire-ishness' of car spoilers and alloy wheels, and the 'Croydon facelift' is not a compliment in contemporary British culture. No prizes for guessing which parts of Malta are imagined to be the prime lumpen candidates.

Things get more interesting if we consider the antonym of ħamalli. 'Puliti''s the word, and it means all those who abhor hoop earrings, mullet lifestyles, and so on. When they blaspheme, they do so in private. If they speak Maltese in public at all, they make sure they soften their 'r's. Ħamalli call this effete, but what do ħamalli know.

Puliti are also keen to maintain a certain aristocratic hauteur. Things like festa and regatta, which involve verve and passion, are not for them. (Incidentally it may well be that the recent Church document on 'restoring' feasts is also a class discourse.) Nor are a bit of noise and fun - puliti weddings, for example, are boring affairs where people stand around talking politics in hushed-up voices. So far so clear, but there are two problems. First, one man's ħamallu is another man's pulit, and it is in fact very difficult objectively to be the latter. One could always move to Ibraġ (soft 'r' at all times), run a family hatchback, wear greys and browns, and pretend not to know the neighbours. As much fun as slitting one's wrists, and less colourful. If we add to this the terrifying possibility of arriviste pulit-hood, there really is no escape.

Second, the word is hardly clinical. I wouldn't recommend walking up to Mr B.I.G. Silencer and explaining he's a ħamallu. Whether or not he thinks he's pulit, you're going to come away with one very black eye indeed. You'd deserve it too, because it's not nice to call people names. Ħamallu, then, is a derogatory word, and pulit a complimentary one.

Friday, January 08, 2010

A facelift for St Magdalen?

Anyone who has stayed at Valletta G-House will have noticed a pretty old church at the top of North Street in dire need of TLC. Ok, this is speculation on my part, but could it be that it's in line to be restored to its original glory?

According to the Malta Independent today, the deconsecrated church (I don't think it's 'desecrated', Ms. Borg) will no longer be used as a store for Carnival floats because veteran enthusiast Pawlu Curmi, well known for his creative creations, has been instructed by the authorities to clear the building.

As much as I feel for Mr Curmi (hopefully he'll land on his feet and find a better place to store his creations), I can't but be happy at the idea of what could be in store for the church.

If I am not mistaken the church was dedicated to Mary Magdalen and it is the one that in the past served the Magdalene Asylum for poor and abandoned young women who were in danger of ending up in prostitution, also referred to in Catholic circles as Magdalens.

I'm intrigued to know if there is already a planning application as well as plans to restore the church.

Kinky metal wear

The Guardian's Jonathan Jones writes about armour in art:

The artist Willem de Kooning once said oil painting was invented in order to portray flesh. He might just as well have said it was created to convey the metallic gleam of armour.

Men regularly wore metal in the 15th century, when oil painting first came into its own, and some of the greatest European painters were fascinated by the strange sartorial splendour of the battlefield and tournament.

You can visit the titillating armour in the Grandmaster's Palace in Palace Square when parliament is not in session.
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Thursday, January 07, 2010

Are you ready for a blast of colour?

Carnival 2010 (or il-Karnival as it is known in Malta) will kick off on 12 February this year and it will bring a much awaited injection of colour to Valletta. Here are some pictures from last year's Carnival.











Monday, January 04, 2010

History books were wrong on arid land

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An article on the Times of Malta today reports new evidence that contradicts the common myth that Valletta was built on arid land.

Mount Sceberras had been chosen by Grand Master Jean de la Valette as the site to build the new capital city after the Great Siege in 1565.

Described in most local history books as a barren outcrop, arid or rocky, the hill had to be levelled before construction could start in 1566 and completed with bastions, forts and the cathedral, all in 15 years.

The new evidence refuting the long-repeated theory came to light last February during the first excavations at St George’s Square by the Valletta Rehabilitation Project.

The oldest part of the square dates back to classical period (circa 8 AD - 395 AD) and investigations revealed rock-cut features. However, fragments of pottery dating back to the late medieval period indicated that the area was still covered by agricultural land until it was built over, Mr Borg said.

“Enough evidence was collected to prove that this was the site of intense ancient and medieval agricultural occupation. This challenges the often-repeated idea that Sceberras Height was just an outcrop of wasteland before the founding of Valletta by the Knights in 1567,” he said.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Citta' Magica



The 9th of January holds a few surprises to those visiting or staying in Valletta. Citta Magica follows the events of Notte Bianca and Notte Magica. The only difference is the event caters for creatures of the day as well as those of the night. Citta Magica starts at noon and will go on until midnight.

The newly restored St George's square will feature heavily but events will also be spread out in other parts of the city such as Merchants Street and Freedom Square. Visitmalta.com lists the events taking place.

All the events are within walking distance from Valletta G-House.
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Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hearses with horses



Some time ago, in Sicily I noticed a funny thing happening when a funeral cortege passed by. Some of the male onlookers touched themselves - a superstitious habit that I have not noticed elsewhere. Not a thing of elegance, I'm sure. The Times of Malta has recently reported the entrepreneurial idea of a local businessman who is reintroducing the beautifully poised and dignified carriages of the past to the Maltese islands.

Horse-drawn carriage hearses were last seen on our streets some 40 years ago but an undertaker has dug up his collection and is breathing new life into them, following public demand. Louis Borg's resurrection of the horse-drawn hearses comes in the wake of the liberalisation of the motorised market, which led him to diversify, giving him the edge over double the competitors he had before.

Now he is bringing back from the dead his first-class carriage (tal-kewba), which was used by "rich Sliema residents"; the prima and sekonda, which are for lower levels of society respectively, but equally elaborate to the fresh eye; and the white version for babies and single women.

The set comprises the priest's carriage, which would also transport the altar boy dressed as he would have back then and carrying the large cross, sticking out of the window as tradition would have it.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The little shop of follies


"Cafe du Brazil" by Evilpainter

This morning I met my friend Frank who is managing director of Hugo's Tapas in St George's Bay, for a coffee in Birgu. The city is all set for the second village feast this month (don't ask me which patron saint this one's dedicated to) so there's a feeling of celebration in the air.

Frank's been a great support to me with problems I have encountered lately. We had a pleasant conversation inside Caffe du Brazil in Victory Square and, before Frank left to prepare for gym, he mentioned a little boutique had opened in G. Cassar Street. (Walk up Hilda tabone street and turn right into Cassar Street)



Follie is indeed a sweet little shop. No bland chain shop material - every item is lovingly sourced, some original items sewn by owner Monique herself. Spent a good half an hour chatting and looking at the accessories, gifts and unique pieces all around me.



Most of all I fell in love with the cushions inspired by Maltese traditional tiles. Perhaps I should get a couple for Valletta G-House. They'll fit in splendidly with the bedroom tiles. Monique even said I can have my own choice of colours. Monique can be reached on +356 99891722 or on her e-mail. For Birgu take buses 1 or 4 from Valletta Gate.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Summer festa

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Anyone who's in Malta at this time of year will come across whole villages dressed to kill with elaborate banners and festoons, colourful lights and lovingly painted lifesize models of saints and angels that look down from pedestals made to look like marble. I have always admired the amount of effort, money and craftsmanship that goes into the setting this all up even though it only lasts all of three days to a week. Then again, when you think about it, the same effort goes into the amazing costumes and floats of the carnival in Rio and the massive glossy statues in Valenzia's great bonfire feast in March (The Fallas).

This year I decided to experience the evening festivities and the procession with the patron saint for myself. I had heard of the loyalty and devotion to the saint and to the statue's beauty itself. I must admit to having always found this a bit too close to idolatry for comfort. On one pleasant summer night in a small village in the south of Malta I experienced first hand the saint/statue's loyal following. As the statue was carried shoulder high throughout the streets, a group of supporters walked backwards before the statue, facing it and shouting out sweet little poems dedicated to the saint/statue and clapping until they're blue in the face and hoarse.


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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Gay Pride in Valletta

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This week sees various activities for DiversCity, culminating in the Pride March this Saturday. Pride March is about visibility. It's a celebration of diversity. It's there to voice the wish that same sex relationships are recognised by Maltese law. Its also about a bit of fun and should not be seen as antagonistic toward the rest of society. It's as much about inclusivity as about individuality.

Some have commented that the colourful dressing up, common in more well attended Gay Pride Marches in other cities all over the world, are hardly the best way for LGBTs to be taken seriously and to be assimilated within the mainstream. I have known various gay men who describe themselves as 'straight acting'. They are adamant that what they call men with a camp disposition, those who stand out for not fitting into the grey stereotype of the 'virile' man, are a disservice to other gay men. They are equally scornful of lesbians who's demeanor fall short of what they expect women to look and act like. Their use of the phrase 'straight acting' to describe themselves is a clear sign of their repression, and how unwilling they are to accept the beauty of diversity. Assimilation does not mean melting into a mulch of indistinguishable sameness. It means enriching an already heterogeneous society.

Gay Pride is, above all, a celebration of diversity. That is not to say that the fight for equality is not also part and parcel of Pride. Fighting to change the law so that it recognises same sex civil partnership does not mean playing the victim as some would have us believe. And it is not an impossible task, even when one considers the staid two party system ruled by a powerful church institution Malta is lumped with. Look at Spain. It looks as though Ireland will be following suit too. Both have a very strong Catholic Church and yet they acknowledge the need for society to encourage stable partnerships of love.

Here is the programme of events prepared by MGRM. Hope to see you in Valletta on Saturday.

Mon 13 July: Film festival - 'Ma vie en rose' (released 1997; run-time 88 minutes) St James Cavalier, Valletta

Tue 14 July: Film festival - 'Bent' (released 1997; run-time 105 minutes) St James Cavalier, Valletta

Wed 15 July: Women Space. GAIA Foundation, Ghajn Tuffieha

Thurs 16 July: Film festival - 'I can't think straight' (released 2007; run-time 80 minutes) St James Cavalier, Valletta

Sat 18 July (10:00am at City Gate Valletta): PRIDE MARCH
Sat 18 July (20:30): Concert performance with The Pink Singers (London) and Zghazagh Haddiema Nsara choirs. City Theatre, Valletta
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Sunday, July 12, 2009

Malta Arts Festival and Censorship

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It does not augur well for the annual Malta Arts Festival when the Arts Council decides to exclude an installation by artist Raphael Vella from a collective at 68 St Lucy Street.

It is not the first instance that the Maltese islands have been in the news for censorship. This year, the play “Stitching” was banned on moral grounds (Case is pending in court) and, egged on by Gozo Bishop Msgr. Mario Grech, police arrested a group of young men who dressed as Jesus during the Nadur carnival celebrations.

All is not doom and gloom for the 2009 Arts Festival. The Malta Jazz Festival has returned to its original form, taken away from the hands of purely commercial private interests. The annual Jazz Festival will hopefully become a fixed appointment on the calendar of many a true jazz enthusiasts, both local and foreign.
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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Piano piano, quickly.

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Is Valletta finally getting the entrance that it deserves and in such a short period of time? The time line in the brief to world renowned architect Renzo Piano is completion in four years.

A friend of mine was adamant that I should go visit the Museum of Archeology where Renzo Piano's concept plans for Valletta are showing. I was not to be disappointed. Piano's new entrance will put Valletta on the map. I thought I'd share some photos of the exhibition with you.


An overview of the plans


The back of the Parliament building


The new City Gate


The open air theatre


Parliament exterior stonework

I do suggest you take the opportunity to go and have a look for yourselves. The exhibition explained some of the thought process behind the plans. Seeing the plans in three dimensions gives one a clearer picture. There is also a presentation of the kind of thing that can be achieved visually in the theatre.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The new entrance to Valletta

Great expectations in Valletta today as this evening world renowned architect Renzo Piano himself will unveil his plans for City Gate. A hand-built model of the project plans will be the main attraction in this long awaited launch outside the Museum of Archeology. The grand ceremony will also be televised live.

Piano interviewed on Bondi+
Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Square by Christmas

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Various projects are mapped out for the north side of Valletta. There have been reports of a luxury hotel planned just up the road from Valletta G-House (where the Evans Lab building stands now), a boutique hotel where the fish market and the Rural Affairs Ministry now stands (as reported by The Malta Independent on Sunday 17 May 2009), and the development of Fort St Elmo into a centre for cultural and leisure activities with cruise liner berthing in the harbour below.

These are projects that will take some years to materialise. However, the transformation of the Palace Square from unappealing car park into an embellished pedestrianised square is to be ready by this Christmas. The proposed design (see picture) is to feature a lit water installation with 14 jets of water of different heights, lighting fixtures, public wi-fi and street furniture.

The Knights had built a fountain in the square to celebrate the piping of water into Valletta.
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Monday, May 18, 2009

Bakeries in Malta

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My uncle and aunt ran a bakery in Żabbar. Their day started early before sunrise and aunt Berna drove around town in a white van delivering their freshly baked bread. I very much recall as a child being sent to our local bakery in Tarxien to buy bread. Wicked rascals such as my young self would dig out a hole in the soft core of the bread, annoying our mothers no end. It was also common for households that lacked an oven in the home to make use of the services of the bakery to cook their Sunday roast or their għaġin il-forn (oven baked pasta). This is from a short story by Carmen Debono in a book printed by Midsea Books - Top Ten Tales of Malta 1977.

The bakery was cosy and warm. There were long low trestle tables where people placed their dishes and were given metal tickets for receipts. Long muslin-like sheets covered the tables to keep the food clean until it was time to be put in the oven. There were about six women gossiping when I went in. One of them detached herself from the group and came forward to meet me. She wore a white overall and looked both brisk and efficient. So this one was the one in charge of this bakery, I thought. I was relieved as I had expected a man to be in charge. I was soon to change my mind, however, about her. She lifted the sheet on one of the tables and showed me where to place my dish. She then stopped an stared.

'You's better change that dish,' she said, 'as it will break in the oven.'

Very sure of myself, I said that it was oven-proof and there was no question of it breaking. The lady pursed her lips and looked at the other women, who had stopped talking in order to listen. I thought she was going to insist on my changing the dish but, instead, she took another look at the contents. I squirmed, thinking that I might have left an eye or two while peeling the potatoes. But no.

'You'd better add some liquid to the dish,' she added. 'This oven is hotter than the ones in home cookers, and things dry up quickly.'

Bakery in Valletta:
Old Theatre Street (the stretch between Merchants' Street and St Pauls' Street)
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Sunday, May 03, 2009

New kid on the blog

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This blogging thing is becoming habitual. As a certain articulate chap said, I can resist anything but temptation. An invitation came my way to guest blog on Robert Micallef's WIRED MALTA and I gracefully accepted (as elegant an undertaking of the sort can possibly be). The one strand of entries I am mostly excited about is a story that will be published in episodes. The story takes place in the town of Birgu (one of the Three Cities) and no doubt you will recognise quite a few locations and landmarks if you follow it. So far, only the first episode has been published, introducing our heroine, a British woman who has just moved to Malta and is in search of a house to buy.
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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Fireworks festival postponed

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The Malta International Fireworks Festival, which was to be held tomorrow and the day after at the Grand Harbour, has had to be postponed due to a mechanical fault in the ship carrying some of the fireworks. The organiser of the festival, the Malta Tourism Authority, said it is doing its utmost to hold the festival on Friday and Saturday.
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