Touring the Iceland Ring Road in December

Visiting Iceland in December and taking on the Ring Road has its challenges: four hours of daylight and increased chances of encountering deadly snow blizzards and forceful winds. 

However, the plus side of visiting during low-season is respite from the crowds, cheaper prices in accommodation and car rental. 

Here’s how we covered 1,400km in eight days:

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Day 1: Keflavík to Reykjavík

Total distance: 49km

We flew easyJet via London and landed in Keflavík airport a few minutes after 10.30 on a foggy Sunday morning. We got the keys to our white VW Polo and headed off to our first destination: Reykjavík.

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We drove straight into the oldest commercial streets in town, Laugavegur. Parking is free on Sundays.

The street is lined with typical Iceland shops selling typical Icelandic stuff (such as the iconic Icelandic Sweaters – Lopapeysa – made from Icelandic sheep wool and sold complete with a signed hand-written note from the maker), quaint cafés, street art and colourful houses.

Icelanders’ timber dwellings are equipped for their climate, coated in a curvy outer layer of corrugated steel. Houses are kept warm using geothermal energy, and all their resources are 100 per cent renewable.

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Walking around in the faint glow of a typical Icelandic morning in 8 degrees (heatwave by Icelandic winter standards), we observed women in their empty shops knitting away at the counter, a handful of Asian tourists posing in front of their selfie-sticks and young Icelandic couples calmly push their babies in buggies.

But most notable of all was how quiet the most vibrant street in the capital was. It felt almost as though silence was a presence that filled the streets of Reykjavík, such that one is almost obliged to break into a whisper when speaking.

Svarta Kaffið: Home-made bread-bowl of reindeer soup.

For lunch, we sat ourselves at the last vacant table of a family-owned café, Svarta Kaffið. There was no menu, but a choice of either vegetarian soup or reindeer home-made soup. We opted for the latter. It was the warmest welcome one could ever receive in a country, taking the shape of a cosy bread bowl of reindeer soup (1850 KR).

  • Sleep: Red Door Hostel (basic amenities, round the corner from Laugavegur)
  • Eat: Reindeer Soup from Svarta Kaffið (1850 KR) and try a hot dog (860 ISK) from Bæjarins beztu, Iceland’sand now possibly the world’smost famous hot dog stand.
  • Shop: Bónus (Iceland’s answer to LIDL)

Day 2: Reykjavík to Vík—City Walk & Golden Circle

Total Distance: 218km

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The next morning, we went on a City Walk with our Icelandic guide, Martin, and a sizeable group of tourists from all around the world.

Note: The walking tour is free, but donations are encouraged. 

Our comprehensive walkabout gave insight into the Icelandic culture and background stories of important sites. Our tour was concluded at around 2pm, with this sunset.

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We then checked-out of our hostel, booked the last room in Vík and start our anti-clockwise journey round the Icelandic ring-road (or Route One), taking on the popular tourist route in the last hour of daylight.

Around the Golden Circle, we visited Þingvellir National Park (which lies in a rift valley marking the boundary between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plate), witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air and felt the cold spray of the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls before darkness fell at 4pm.

Note: If you’re travelling in winter, it’s advisable to plan days well and to research the times the sunrises and sets. Unfortunately, most of the sites along the Ring Road couldn’t be appreciated due to the lack of daylight. 

  • Sleep: Puffin Hostel (Vík)
  • Do: Reykjavík City Walk – Professional local guides share curious facts about the city, its history and Icelandic culture. Requires booking via website.
  • Do: Golden Circle Tour – This is pretty doable for independent travellers renting their own car. Main attractions are all located on one paved road and highly accessible from Reykjavík.

Day 3: Vík to HöfnHikes, Glacier Lakes & Langoustine Soup

Distance: 272km

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We woke up in the creaky attic of The Puffin Hostel, a mere 10-minute walk from the Black Beach in Vík. It was already 10 in the morning, but the lack of light made it feel as though it were still 10 in the evening.

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After having a quick breakfast, covered ourselves in thermals and stuffed the rest of our belongings into our backpacks, we embarked on a mini-hike to explore the southern village of only 300 inhabitants.

Our exploration was short-lived. From the ravenous waves of the deserted Black Beach, we ended up trudging up a very steep hill in an icy drizzle that was so cold, it felt like needle darts against our cheeks. And when we almost reached a layer of thin clouds, we headed back to the warmth and shelter of our car.

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On the remote footpath behind the Vík church.

Our eastward drive towards Höfn (literally: harbour), was probably the most spectacular part of the entire ring road  lined with majestic snowcapped mountains and a luminous icy-blue lake huddled between them.

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The light was very faint by the time we arrived at Jökulsárlón lake. At 4.30pm, clouds hung low, allowing the light to diffuse magically, creating a piercing blue contrast with the grey.

Giant icebergs floated silently and at a glacial pace in the glass-like lake, as if in deep sleepI felt as though I had to tiptoe along the promenade to avoid waking them up.

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That evening, we treated ourselves to a lovely meal at Pakkhusas recommended by the kind lady upon checkin-in at the Höfn Hostel.

Höfn is known as the Langoustine Capital of Iceland, and we had the privilege of sitting by the window overlooking the very boat that goes out in the morning to catch the ten-legged shellfish in our humarsupa.

The home-grown duck breast and lamb shanks that came later were so tender, you could cut them with a spoon.

Even spreading plain butter on bread was an event at the table. Smjör Butter is so fluffy, it tasted like clouds on freshly warm bread! 

  • Sleep: Höfn Hostel (Höfn)
  • Eat: Pukkhus (Höfn)
  • Shop: Nettó Supermarket (Höfn)
  • Do: Walk along the Black Beach (Vík) & Meditate in front of Jökulsárlón Lake (Ring Road)

Day 4: Höfn to Akureyri— The Mammoth Journey

Distance: 451km

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The most perilous part of the journey.

During our trip, we never had any hostels booked or fixed itinerary to follow. Stable internet connections and the flexibility of booking.com made it possible for us to plan according to circumstance.

There was nowhere to spend the night between the two major towns of Höfn and Akureyri, so we were obliged to embark on a mammoth journey that saw us cut across half the island.

Google Maps predicted it would take us 6 hours to reach north. So before hitting the road, we stopped at Nettó Supermarket to stock up on suppliesmost importantly, the velvety protein-rich Icelandic yoghurt, Skyrwhich we kept naturally refrigerated in a cardboard box at the back of our car.

Note: Expensive food and drinks was a recurring theme in our Icelandic experience. An average sit-down meal for two (incl. an alcoholic beverage, such as beer or wine) could easily tally up to €100. And to overcome the challenge, we compensated by cooking our own meals or stopping for an Icelandic hot dog (€6.50) at gas stations. Water is free in Iceland, and among the purest you’ll ever taste. We kept an empty bottle handy and often stopped to refill from fresh-water streams along the Ring Road. 

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This was by far, the most perilous part of our journey. We took on gravel roads (bear in mind, our vehicle was a modest VW Polo, and not a 4×4), gushing rain bursts and misty mountain roads covered in a carpet of thin ice.

At a point it was so dark and foggy, it wouldn’t have made a difference if we drove with our eyes closed. We had no idea what lay ahead of us.

Note: In our attempt to reach our first pit-stop in Egilsstaðir, our sat-nav advised us to drive up the shorter inner-route via Oxi, but common sense prevailed, and we stuck to the Ring Road, which wasn’t any less adventurous but safer nonetheless. 

Night began to fall, outside temperatures started to drop, and the visibility became worse. I had to lower the volume of the radio which by then had become distracting, and could hear the car tyres crunching against the icy road paving, as it abruptly changed to gravel and slowly started to incline.

Our wipers were swishing to and fro, headlamps blaring. We were literally driving up a mountain, the fog becoming thicker and heavier as we ascended deeper into the clouds. At a point, the visibility was so dense we couldn’t see a metre ahead of us.

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En route: Driving to Akureyri via Egilsstaði, the most remote part of the Ring Road.

Fingers curled tightly round the wheel, our eyes both wide as we both tried to make out this surreal experience. All I could imagine was what would become of us if we missed a sharp turn and tumbled off the crumbling edges into nothing.

Icelandic roads are totally isolated, unlit and unbarred. Our fog lights couldn’t keep up. We rolled the windows down, leaned our heads out into the arctic air hearing echoes of our car’s engine as it roared into second gear, pushing us higher and higher in a constant zig-zag of blind-corners on the narrow road.

We eventually peaked at almost 500 metres before the gravel turned into tarmac again, securing the tyre’s grip. The path took us lower and lower and we started to see again.

Click here for the official Icelandic road safety guides.

  • Highway Emergency: 112
  • Road conditions: +354 563-1500
  • Search and Rescue: +354 570-5900

We had been driving for hours, bend after bend, and still the amount of kilometres on our sat-nav seemed to remain unchanged. Mobile service was still limited and never a soul in sight.

I had heard stories of how you could drive for hours in Iceland and never encounter any cars or people – but you have to experience it to actually understand what it means.

Even though sitting the entire time, driving is mentally draining, let alone in those chaotic conditions. It was almost 8pm by the time we started to see a faint flicker of golden lights, like candles, on the black horizon. And it was such a wild relief.

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Akureyri on the horizon: The last part of the 6 hour journey.

Day 5: AkureyriVisual diary

Distance covered: 0km

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Early morning in Iceland’s fishing centre.
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Midday in Akureyri.
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Street Art in Akureyri.
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Lamb Burger and sweet potato fries from Hamborgarafabrikkan.

  • Sleep: Our Guesthouse (Akureyri)
  • Eat: Lamb Burger at Hamborgarafabrikkan
  • Drink: For those who like to tipple, Iceland may not be your favourite destination. Beer prices average at €8 per pint. However, there is a way around it: Happy Hour. While in Akureyri, indulge in beer for half the price during Backpackers Hostel‘s famous Happy Hour. (Try: Brennivín—Iceland’s signature liqueur (€13) & Einstök—White Ale Beer (€8)).

Day 6: Akureyri to Fossatún—Northern Lights Sighting

Distance: 316km

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After approximately an hour sliding across pot-holed roads, crawling over intimidating single-lane bridge and an unscheduled meeting with the Icelandic horses, we checked into Fossatún at 03.00pm sharp on Friday.

It was literally in the middle of nowhere, just on the top of a waterfall. The grounds are run by a lovely couple who are acclaimed children’s authors, famous for their folk stories about trolls, which are inspired by the hiking trails around the grounds themselves.

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As we were given the key to our sizeable pod, and charged an extra €11 each for a pillow and a duvet, owner Steiner Berg said it was highly probable we would encounter the northern lights that night.

Download your Aurora Forecast app here.

They usually come out on clear nights in winter (September to mid-April) and visible in places away from light pollution, peaking between 11.00pm to 2.00am. 

At 10.00pm, with the clouds swept away and the northern star shining brightly for the first time since we landed in Iceland, we set out for a little hike away from the camping grounds to experience the enchanting Icelandic nightlife.

Would we hear the northern lights approaching? Would we actually feel them sweep through the skies? It was an inconceivable notion for us, so we stood there as though we were little children waiting for Christmas.

Read: In pursuit of the Northern Lights

After almost an hour and a half standing there, looking up, toes completely frozen, we witnessed the first signs of the northern lights. 

Completely isolated from everything, the raw skies opened up to a pathway of shimmering emerald particles, dancing gracefully through the darkness. 

  • Sleep: Fossatún Camping Pods (linen pack not included)
  • Eat: The Settlement Centre Restaurant in one of the oldest houses of Borgarnes
  • Drink: Grýla beer (made from glacial waters, sold only here)

Day 7: Fossatún to Reykjavík 

Distance: 99km

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The last hurdle!

The next morning, we headed west along the coast towards Reykjavík. For the first time we could see the sun setting over the horizon, staining the pale blue sky with pretty pink and orange tints, as though a celebration for completing our road trip.

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Conclusion: Is it worth visiting Iceland in winter?

Visiting Iceland in winter isn’t for the faint-hearted. Fortunately, we were there during a ‘heat-wave’ so the temperatures and weather conditions were much better than expected.

However, it was a constant race to pack as much into our itinerary, given the limited amount of daylight we had. Plus, most of the country is hibernating: there’s no whale-watching, no puffins, no chances of camping outdoors and could be too cold or dark for long treks.

Having said that, winter in Iceland means freedom and the flexibility. You can book a room for the night a couple of hours before your visit, eat at restaurants without having to wait or making a reservation, and of course, the chance to encounter the northern lights in their full glory.

Bridging the digital divide

Elderly people and technology don’t flock together. They move at different speeds. And yet, Lewis Spiteri has managed to adopt the latest technology. Perhaps it’s his capacity to be curious and critical that has seen him successfully cross the bridge between a world without a phone to using a smartphone.

Lewis, 71, has been using an iPhone as a communication and file-sharing medium for the past five years and has recently also upgraded to an iPad. He also owns a Kindle, even though he still prefers reading a bound book since the scent and feel of the paper draw him deeper into the character.

He has always chosen to remain abreast with evolving technology trends that have within the past decade changed so rapidly. In fact, as we chat, we weave in and out of episodes from his life, for which technology remains a common thread.

Lewis was brought up in Vittoriosa and currently resides in a cosy apartment in Santa Luċija with his wife Josephine. Together, they raised three children and now have seven grandchildren, the eldest of whom is my friend. In fact, we coupled the interview with one of her visits. So on a sunny Saturday afternoon we drive south to be greeted by the bubbly Josephine, who kindly leads us to the living room, where Lewis is sitting on a sofa, enjoying a game of local football on a large screen.

While Josephine can be heard clinking in the kitchen preparing our tea and biscuits, Lewis and I gear up our conversation. He comes across as a courteous and reserved man, one who weighs his words carefully.

“It’s unbelievable,” he tells me. “I started my working life with an afro and now I’m as bald as an onion. I was still a teen when I started out as an apprentice at the dockyard, which was, in my belief, a technology hub. I learnt a lot about technology there. I remember having to come up with my own tools every day, and this skill allowed me to sharpen my thinking and learn how to be innovative. No ship we worked on was identical, so I always woke up to develop new concepts, to fail and try again until something worked. After around 30 years, I moved into an office to work in administration and later as a teacher.

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Photo: Yentl Spiteri

“In the 1960s, we taught using a blackboard and a box of white chalk. Eventually, we had coloured chalk, so by the end of class, my hand would resemble a rainbow splashed in coloured dust.

“Thankfully, we soon got anti-dust chalk. By then, the blackboard was also rotational, a new innovation which reduced the annoying process of having to constantly erase what I wrote. I still remember the introduction of the epidiascope. Have you ever seen one? I’m not sure you have. Gone are the days when I used to buy a set of transparencies. I remember I used to prepare the slides at home and then project them on the wall during class. This was a major improvement over the blackboard because we didn’t have to erase everything and the teaching material could be reused. However, this is nothing compared to now. Today I prepare Powerpoint presentations and can also use internet in class.

“The internet made life so much easier for me, especially as a teacher. I remember having to print handouts which I would pass round in class. Now, I gather a list of my students’ e-mail addresses and send them their notes directly. Also, if someone asks a question, I can easily go on You Tube and explain through a video. Looking back, I barely believe how we used to get any work done before. Today, it only takes me five minutes of preparation before a lesson, because all I do is enter the class, switch on my laptop, and I’m set,” he says.

“I have recently bought two external hard drives of 16Gb each, just to make sure I’ll never run out of storage space. It’s unbelievable how external memory has changed the concept of filing. In my time, filing was literally papers, files, cabinets and a lot of physical space. Data retrieval has also become so easy. Before, I used to stress over a paper I might have misplaced, whereas now, all it takes is typing out the first three letters of the name of the document and it’s right there in front of you. Back in the days, only a magician could do that,” he smiles.

In 2000, Lewis was encouraged to read for an MBA.

“To be completely honest with you, I was initially quite hesitant since I didn’t think I would be that competent,” Lewis admits. “You see, my typing skills were close to nil – I used to type with only one finger. However, I went for it. I learnt the computer on my own, because I had no time to go for lessons on how to use it. I remember back then, we still had a tower and a printer which sounded like a stone grinder. And of course, no internet so all my research had to be done manually. I believe a lot in research. When you’re doing your own research, you’re learning how to search and gather information, how to be critical of what you are reading.

“I frequented the public library and the University. Basically, it was all about hard copies. And since a lot of my work was done through distance learning, I had to send my assignments by post. Just imagine how difficult it would have been if I hadn’t adapted to new technologies and learnt how to use the computer. I surely wouldn’t have managed, but I did. I got my MBA. I learnt on my own, the hard way.”

Curious to know at what stage our conversation has arrived, Josephine tiptoes back into the room to switch on the light, and as she leaves, I’m compelled to ask him one final question. How did the two meet?

“I met my wife in Valletta more than 50 years ago. We’re talking about the days when Paceville didn’t even exist. We were both in some teahouse and she caught my attention. I remember she was with a group of girls and I said to myself if I had to date one of them, it would be her. In our time there was no such thing as meeting someone online.

“I think that this is the only negative aspect of technology because social media is shunning us from physical encounters and this is changing human nature. When we meet people face-to-face, we are studying each other not just through the words we say but even through the way we say things. Right now, I’m actually seeing you and you’re answering me in the here and now. I’m listening to your voice, noting your tone – there’s personal contact.

“I think when I first met my wife, it was love at first sight. Well, let’s not call it love at first sight, but I’m sure the emotion exists, because the phrase didn’t come out of nowhere. That deep feeling you get when you see a person for the first time can’t be replaced when seeing someone’s picture online.

“Anyway, Josephine and I didn’t date for a long time, maybe three weeks, or a month at most. Let’s say it was a month. Then I met her parents. Before we got married, I used to go to her house in Birkirkara after work. Remember, we’re still talking about the days when there was no telephone, so I literally had to go to her house in order to see her! And if I had to work overtime, I used to ask the bakery close to where I worked whether it would be okay for them to call and pass on the message.

“When I look back, I realise how life has gone by so fast that I never had the chance to stop and think. I started working at the age of 14, married at 21 and today, I’m 71. I never stopped, I just kept on learning. I believe the human being was created to move forward, to walk, to run. Unless you’re dead, keep going. It’s true there is a lot going on and society is constantly changing fast, but you can never stop progress. I believe that if you don’t accept new technologies, you’re very likely to fall behind, because technology offers so many advantages and it makes life so much easier.”

This interview was originally published in The Sunday Times of Malta on April 13, 2014. 

10 mouth-watering dishes from Malta

Malta’s cuisine relies heavily on locally available produce such as tomatoes, honey, olives and other vegetables, which thrive in the warm but harsh climate. Recipes have been derived from other Mediterranean kitchens, the Sicilian, French and North African all seemed to have left their mark, although there are also traces of British occupation – oddly enough, the Maltese still enjoy their tea served with a splash of milk!

Here are ten Maltese dishes that have come to represent the island and its rich cultural heritage.

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The Savoury

1) Soppa tal-Armla (literally: Widow’s Soup)

It is hard not to notice the irresistible smell of authentic home cooking when walking through the narrow streets of a typical Maltese village before midday. Up until half a century ago, Maltese women would leave their broths to cook slowly on their small paraffin stoves from early or mid-morning.

widow soup recipe

Is-soppa tal-armla is considered to be the most traditional Maltese soup recipe, borrowed from a past where the poorest widows boiled the cheapest greens as a warm and healthy alternative to rich protein meals. Its contents are typically green and white vegetables, potatoes, carrots, beans, peas, cauliflower and others, all mixed together with a tomato paste (locally: kunserva).

In Malta, soups were not always meant to be a starter – very often, they were intended to form a nutritious meal by themselves, and frequently, any leftover soup would be eaten again for supper with a poached egg, or served with a ġbejna (a Maltese cheeselet made from goat’s milk), typically prepared by the widows themselves.

2) Torta tal-Lampuki

The lampuka (or the small dorado, dolphinfish or mahi-mahi) is a shimmering silver and golden fish that swims between Malta and the sister island of Gozo between the end of August until the beginning of November, before making its way towards the Atlantic.

The Maltese are very fond of their lampuki, and when in season, it is very likely that you’ll hear lampuki vendors roaming the streets with their small vans yelling: Lampuki ħajjin! (They’re alive!) to emphasise their freshness. Insider tip: fresh fish tend to have clear eyes and red gills.

This popular fish can be cooked in a variety of ways: either shallow-fried or oven baked. It is generally served with a rich tomato sauce mixed with capers, onions, olives and fresh herbs. However, a local’s favourite way to cook lampuki is in a pie, combined with spinach, olives and any other ingredient that would tickle the Maltese housewife’s imagination. Each family tends to have their own unique way of making lampuki pie, since recipes are usually handed down from mother to daughter.

If you’re visiting Malta in season, make sure you try Busy Bee‘s recipe. For the catch of the day, visit the Ix-Xlukkajr restaurant in the quaint fishermen’s village of Marsaxlokk.

3) Timpana

The timpana is definitely not a good choice for the weight-conscious. The recipe is thought to be adapted from Sicilian cuisine and is – more or less – macaroni enclosed in a pastry. Traditionally, the dish was prepared for a Sunday meal, but this was during a time when women were still taking their large trays of food to the communal ovens in the village bakeries.

The timpana is nowadays prepared as an entrée for Christmas lunch, followed by turkey. It is prepared with penne-shaped pasta, blended in a rich tomato and minced meat sauce and mixed with eggs and cheese. Finally, the whole mixture is wrapped in a short-crust pastry and topped off with a flaky puff-pastry to resemble a pie.

4) Pastizzi

Pastizzi are the most popular savoury snack on the islands. They must have already been much-loved in the days of the Holy Inquisition, since records archiving 18th century lifestyles in Malta highlight that the navy mention cheesecakes and pastries, possibly similar to modern-day pastizzi.

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Pastizzi look almost like croissants, but are rolled in a flaky pastry, stuffed with either salty ricotta or mushy peas. They’re typically bought from little tuckshops or pastizzerias, nestled in almost every corner of every village.

The most famous pastizzeria in Malta goes by the name of Crystal Palace (in Rabat, Malta) – known by the locals as ‘Tas-Serkin’, which is the owner’s nickname. The shop’s popularity isn’t due to the fact that they make the best pastizzi, but because the shop is always open. This is convenient for young clubbers who frequent nearby discos to pop by for a late-night (or early-morning) snack.

Make sure you enjoy your pastizzi with a classic cup of tea or a bottle of Kinnie (Malta’s very own tangy orange-flavoured soft drink).

5) Fenkata (Rabbit Stew)

Rabbit meat was relatively affordable during the Middle Ages and was considered the ‘beef of the lower classes’. In fact, both rabbits and hares were hunted in large quantities until prohibited by the Knights of St John, in order to safeguard the island’s meagre resources. The dish became popular after the lifting of the hunting ban in the late 18th century; today, it is one of those concoctions widely identified as the ‘national dish’.

A fenkata would typically consist of two courses – the first dish would be a huge bowl of spaghetti tossed in a rabbit ragu, wine and herbs; the second dish would be the actual rabbit meat cooked in a similar sauce, served with peas and fries. One of the most authentic places to try fenkata is at the United Bar in the rural village of Mġarr (Malta).

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The Sweet

The Maltese menu does not really contain a lot of sweet dishes and desserts, since main courses were usually followed by fresh fruit or local cheeses, such as ġbejniet. The desserts we now know tend to be borrowed, and the majority is similar to those served in Sicily.

6) Qagħaq tal-Għasel (Treacle or Honey Rings)

The honey ring dates back to the 15th century and is widely associated with Carnival and Christmas periods. It is a ring pastry filled with qastanija – a mixture of marmalade, sugar, lemon, oranges, mixed spices, cinnamon, vanilla and syrup.

Although not very difficult to make, the sweet rings do require time and patience to prepare. It is usually served with a round glass of wine of a warm cup of English tea.

Qagħaq tal-Għasel can be bought from any grocery shop or local confectionery, although Caffe Cordina‘s secret family recipe is acclaimed as the best sample of this gooey treat.

 7) Pudina tal-Ħobż (Bread Pudding)

The 18th century Maltese were very poor and bread was considered the most important food – in fact, some pensions were even paid in bread. Thus, in order to economise on food resources, they would leave their stale bread pieces to soak, and by adding some sultanas, candied peel and chocolate they would transform it into a sweet pudding. Unfortunately this delicacy is becoming far less popular among locals since it is considered time-consuming to make.

8) Christmas Log

In continental European countries, such as Germany, France and Belgium, the traditional Christmas log (or Buche de Nöel) is made out of an Italian sponge cake coated in chocolate. The Maltese version, however, consists of crushed biscuits, dried cherries, nuts and liqueur, mixed together in condensed milk, then rolled in the shape of a log and coated in melted chocolate. It is refrigerated overnight, and served in round slices at the end of Christmas lunch.

9) Kwareżimal

During the period before Easter, most Maltese used to fast by denying themselves meat on Wednesdays and Fridays. They also avoided sweets. The kwareżimal (derived from ‘quaresima’, the forty days of lent) was the only ‘sweet’ that was allowed during the Lenten season.

Although recipes tend to vary, it is traditionally prepared with almonds, honey and spices, containing neither fat nor eggs. As a biscuit, the kwareżimal is quite large, approximately 15cm by 5cm wide and 2cm thick, and has an oblong shape.

Even though Lenten rules are no longer insisted upon, the kwareżimal is still in demand, especially around Lent and Easter periods, as tradition dictates. These days, they are served while hot, and should be enjoyed with unsalted pistachio nuts or chopped roasted almonds on top, or a thread of local honey.

10) Kannoli (Ricotta-filled cornets)

The kannoli are deep-fried pastry tubes filled with sweetened ricotta, sometimes candied peel, and icing on top. They are generally served in the finest cafés on the island. You can enjoy an icing-covered kannol with a view at the Fontanella in Mdina, where they are served only on Sundays and Public Holidays.

Originally published on The Culture Trip.

Are online identities real?

It’s Carnival: That festive time of year when it is socially accepted to dress-up and be someone other than yourself. And it’s not merely for school children, adults also get very much into the whole costume and drinking frenzy. 

Wearing a mask or a costume and heavy make-up could make one feel less self-conscious, and Carnival is a good excuse to leave your true identity hanging in your closet in exchange for a more exciting one.

Role playing is a liberating experience where one is allowed to experiment with different means of expression. You could be a cowboy or batman for the day, or even a wingless fairy on a scooter – in Carnival, no one cares, really.

It’s like scriptless theatre where people take on the streets as their stage and act out their parts.

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The Internet, like Carnival, offers us a sense of freedom and control over our embodied identities – a chance to portray ourselves as someone whom we perceive as more desireable.

We tend to carefully re-create our story and hide behind our perfectly edited profile pictures or avatars.

But, are online identities real?

Oscar Wilde wrote: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

To an extent, online identities are both real and not real: They are what we make them.

The person behind the mask (or, avatar) is still you, even if what you are saying is being said ‘in-character’; it’s still you who’s thought of it and wrote it.

Avatars are there to alleviate certain inhibitions, to save face and explore another facet of who we are.

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What is fascinating is that we can easily grow to believe that the identities we assume online are really real – no matter how far-fetched or exaggerated.

Nowadays it isn’t uncommon for online identities to leak into everyday life and bear very real and threatening consequences.

Catfish: The TV Show is a good eye-opener into the lives of people who assume fake identities online.

It gets even more complicated in some stories, where two people fall in love online, and one of them is “a catfish.”

The permeability of the online and the offline realms makes it almost impossible to get away with online role-playing. The situation becomes delicate when other people are involved or emotionally invested: Even if online profiles may be fake, it is important to note that they may be very real in their consequences.

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We never know ‘real’ identity since we’re so multifaceted. Even our ‘fake’ identities are sometimes real in their effects and are, to some extent, a part of who we are.

Let’s face it, even what we choose to dress up as for Carnival could reveal a lot about who we are and who we want to be, even if the identity we assume is not ‘real’.

Why do we take selfies?

Some ten years ago, my childhood best friend and I would head down to our baroque capital each Saturday morning to window shop, gossip and sip strawberry McDonald’s milkshakes while overlooking the spectacular grand harbour views.

Then, we would visit the Savoy shopping mall and as part of our weekly ritual, squeeze ourselves into a photo-booth, insert an Lm1 coin (which would nowadays be roughly the equivalent of €2) and pull funny faces at the automated camera.

In 2003, neither of us had a mobile phone nor a digital camera. The photo-booth was our only means of documenting the outing.

If we were the same teens now, we’d undoubtedly be using our smartphones to capture selfies, and instead of keeping the shameful photos in our wallets (as we did), we’d keep a log of them on instagram for the entire world to admire.

The “selfie” has quickly come to symbolise our culture in 2013.

In fact, the word selfie has recently been included in the Oxford English dictionary as the most influential word of the year.

Here’s the official definition: “(n.) a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”

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What intrigues me about the selfie is just how an act of vanity is quickly coming to be accepted as a norm by society.

Boys Collage 1

Moreover, none of these people seem to be taking themselves too seriously. The expressions are mainly sexy, mysterious and playful.

How are selfies different in comparison to posing in front of a ‘traditional’ camera?

I’d like to think of the selfie as being very similar to looking into a mirror.

At least whenever I switch on my front-facing smartphone camera to capture a furtive selfie, first thing I do is check that my face is in order, before eventually pouting or squinting at my reflection on the screen.

You see, whenever we look into a mirror, we go through an internal process of scrutinizing our appearance – we try to cover up the elements we dislike, and enhance the attributes we like.

Girls Mirror Selfie 2

However, we tend to do all this in the privacy of our bedrooms or in the bathroom.

We pull faces at ourselves in the mirror, experiment with our hair, try on new make-up, play dress-up – we perform and experiment with different identities within a safe and secure environment.

Now with the selfie, we are placing the behavior considered normal in front of a bedroom or bathroom mirror, into the public sphere.

And this is perhaps one of the reasons why the selfie has sparked up controversy; it is a new phenomenon, one that we love to hate. Purely because the art of selfie taking requires not taking yourself too seriously, acting goofy, and making public what was once carried out in private.

Girls Selfie 1

As a generation, we are the pioneers of the selfie as a means of expression. Meaning: there are those who have already embraced the selfie and harness it (e.g. teens and celebrities). Then there are those who are still testing the waters, and in the process, delaying the selfie from fully becoming a normalised aspect of our culture.

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A selfie shared online is simply a process of bringing to the forefront what was once done in the background.

Basically, what the selfie is doing, is unleashing our obsession with self-portraits; it has made what was once invisible, visible across the entire internet universe.

In fact, selfies have always existed, albeit in a different format.

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Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter, best known for her self-portraits.

Through a set of brushes and a vibrant palette, Kahlo depicted how she perceives herself to be, on an external level. In today’s vocabulary, she painted her selfie.

Frida Kahlo Self-Portrait

Painting is nowadays often perceived as time-consuming and expensive. In this regard, the smartphone has democratised the art of self-portraiture to the extent that selfies are taken, modified and shared instantaneously at no cost, whatsoever.

But if we could take pictures of anything, why are we so interested in our faces?

Our face is the organ that distinguishes us from other persons and is crucial for our identity. By flipping the lens and entering into the frame, we come to communicate deep ideas about who we are and where we fit into the world.

One of my favourite, and probably Frida Kahlo’s most famous quotes reads: “I paint myself because I am so often alone, and because I am the subject I know best.”

The selfie is a phenomenon in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph – just like the self-portrait, but through a different medium.

What is perhaps most gauging about the selfie is the fact that we are given control over how we are seen by the world – definitely lacking in the filter-less photo-booth that had my first selfies taken, ten years ago.

Networked Intimacy

Whether it’s for work, study or leisure, it has become fairly common for twenty-somethings to pack their suitcases and jet off to travel the world. What could have once been a unique experience in terms of travelling alone and to experience one’s culture anew, has now become somewhat of a lived dichotomy between being home and away through the marked use of technology.

In the pre-networked days, to travel alone meant leaving your whole world behind you to teeter into unknown cultural terrains. The only news from home would be through snail mail or the monthly (expensive) phone call.

Nowadays, the Internet holds our world together in a network infrastructure, and wireless Internet devices, make our networks portable. What’s more is that online communication (such as e-mail or Skype) is free and instant, championing both constraints of these classic communication methods. Therefore, tethered, we carry a sense of ‘home’ with us, through our mobile Internet devices.

During my solo travels in Asia and continental Europe, the smartphone was my Swiss Army knife of sociality since it carried my physically scattered social networks intact. It offered an instant portal to people, news and memes that kept me up to date with the rhythm of life in Malta. As heavenly as it might read on paper, in practice, it proved to create somewhat of an inner-conflict.

In a sense, I was in-between worlds, because my best-friends weren’t necessarily in the city I was nor in Malta – but on the Internet.

For instance: while I rattled my bicycle to and from the library, in a quaint cobble-stoned city in the Netherlands, one of my best-friends attended pub-quizzes behind the York Minster after lectures, while another boiled haggis for occasional Sunday lunches in Glasgow. The three of us Maltese ventured alone, yet social networking apps such as Facebook messenger or WhatsApp allowed us to remain pretty much together.

Irrespective of where our loved ones are, the idea of here and there is somehow shattered through this newly acquired networked intimacy. The phone has facilitated communication with all our friends, irrespective of where they are, altering our perception of time and space; it has come to represent a ‘mobile home’.

My German friend Saba had once told me, “I moved from Germany four years ago, I went to Botswana, I went to Luxemburg, to France. I always took my friends with me, through my smartphone. That’s how I felt. Now I can talk to my friends instantly through my phone.”

Like Saba, my friends travelled with me from the Philippines, to Italy, to Belgium and to the Netherlands thanks to the Internet, and more intimately via Skype.

Video-conferencing (like Skype or FaceTime), is a fairly new and very common means of maintaining close contact with those that matter most. The quality of the call makes up for physical meetings, when these are not possible. While living in the Netherlands, my Polish housemate used to Skype with his mother in Warsaw almost every evening, “I feel that we are near each other during the conversation,” he used to tell me.

Our brains seem to record so-called ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ events so similarly that modern technologies conspire to blur these realms as well. As a matter of fact, we code face-to-face and online experiences similarly, often with equal realness. One may notice this in everyday language, when we speak of online encounters as if they were real: How is Sarah doing? Fine, I guess. I spoke to her on WhatsApp. Did you meet her new boyfriend? Yes, I saw them together on Facebook.

The sense of visual immediacy experienced via video-conferencing and modern social networking creates a simulation of presence and intimacy. Such that, even when people are physically distant, social networks could act as a connective tissue, coordinating and synchronising conversations with friends who are scattered across the world that would otherwise dissolve into silence.

Nonetheless, these mediated communication platforms do not merely substitute face-to-face interaction, but constitute a new kind of presence.

The Internet and smartphone could be used to either enhance a sense of belonging to the place where one is physically present, or it could alienate the individual from fully experiencing the actual place, culture and surroundings.

From my experience, technology compensates for rarity of physical encounters, but doesn’t replace them. Even though the Internet eliminates feelings of distance, the sense of presence and level of intimacy is only short-lived. At the end of the day, we all need to live certain aspects of our lives together with the people that we love most, and cannot be replaced through a screen.

Before the emergence of online social networking, communities were formed around a fixed geographical space and therefore led to a tangible concept of what it means to belong and feel at home within a given space.

Now the Internet beckons us to ‘come together’ across a medium, suggesting that we can feel and experience home, and belong somewhere that is not necessarily the same place we are physically bound to.

Living in a network society, it has become easier for me to define home in terms of people who are scattered, than a physical town or city. To the upcoming generation, our sense of belonging need not necessarily be tied down to residential geography but a new, emotional geography.

This article was originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Sunday Circle.

Unplugged: Why do people refuse to connect?

There is a homely Italian hang-out outside the Tal-Qroqq campus, which sits around fifteen people on its black and white plastic tables outside, and maybe another thirty on its two floors inside. At lunch hour on your average Wednesday, the place is full-up. Students, scholars and staff have all gathered to refuel, gossip, network, and surf the net.

To my left, two male students are swiping through photos on their iPads, the girl in the corner is discreetly reading something off her laptop, while the couple behind me is snapping selfies on their smartphone.

I’m guilty as charged – my fingers are typing away at a laptop, while I listen to The Killers on my iPod and attending to e-mails on my smartphone.

Despite the seemingly unstoppable tide of wireless devices that is sweeping our planet, it may seem surprising that there are still people out there who have never used the internet. Today, to connect means to be online. Yet, in the EU, 33 percent of citizens do not have internet access at home, and 29 percent claim they never access the internet. While in another survey, 15 percent of Americans do not use the internet at all.

Who are these black sheep, and why are they not flocking online?

At the moment, we are accepting a worldview wherein adoption of new technology is the norm. Science and technology scholar, Sally Wyatt wrote, “the use of information and communication technology (or any other technology) by individuals, organizations, and nations is taken as the norm, and non-use is perceived as a sign of deficiency to be remedied, or as a need to be fulfilled.”

As figures show, the majority have quickly come to adopt and adapt the internet to their everyday lives, demonstrating that the internet is no longer a luxury, but a given.

Just as users take an active role in shaping a certain technology through its use, non-users also contribute to the configuration of technologies across society and culture. Wyatt explains that it is important to get to know who these non-users are, and more importantly, why they opt not to conform to a rising culture of connectivity.

One would assume that the problem for these citizens is access, therefore making the internet cheaper, and providing education and training would be among the obvious solutions to reduce the amount of digital virgins.

This year, the EU has successfully achieved full broadband access across the entire continent, as part of the European Commission’s Digital Agenda, to make ‘every European digital.’

But, enhancing access is also based on the assumption that internet non-use is a problem to be solved, and once these barriers are overcome, people will embrace the technology with arms wide open.

The way that technology is adopted into our everyday life depends highly on the demographic and psychological characteristics of its users. Like users, a non-user’s age, gender, education and income also plays a role in determining motivations for non-use. When asked about their main motivations, non-users gave a variety of answers for shying away from the internet.

In the recently published Pew survey (US), 34 percent of participants do not use the internet because they feel it is not pertinent to their lifestyles. They claim to be disinterested and do not want to make use of the said technology. Others mention a concern about privacy (virus, hackers, spam) or that it was frustrating or difficult to use. As least, those who are offline are aware of the value of the internet: 44 percent of these offline adults said they have asked a friend of family member to look something up, or complete a task on the internet for them.

Interestingly, even those who do not have a computer nor plan to use the internet in the near future express a belief that computer skills are becoming a necessity – even if they could not articulate activities for which they could potentially use the computer.

Age is a major factor of internet usage and unsurprisingly, these people tend to stem from an older generation. 44 percent of offline Americans are older than 65, while only 2 percent are between 18 and 29 years old.

Moreover, those with lower incomes or lesser education are also more likely to be offline, as well as those whose future goals are less clear than those of adopters. From the 34 percent of offline Americans, there are those who are constrained by financial reasons (19 percent) or lack of physical availability or access to the internet (7 percent), which could even mean illiteracy.

Wyatt draws a distinction between non-users, that is, those who do not have access to a respective technology, and the want-nots, those who consciously resist or reject a technology. She explains that it is the latter group which, if paid sufficient attention to, can help in diversifying and enhancing technology.

Truth be told, I formed part of the want-nots until earlier this year, for I had refused to venture into the smartphone world. For a number of years, I went by with using a Nokia phone whose most exotic feature was a torch light. As long as it fulfilled my basic need to send and receive texts, I was happy.

However, in the restraining eye of society, I was excluding myself from the 60 percent of 16 to 24 year olds across the EU, who accessed the internet on the move. I was a black sheep – a non-adopter of new technology.

There was a personal choice that separated me from the rest of my fellow contemporaries. To be frank, I can’t say that I wasn’t intrigued by smartphones, but I had my doubts. Apart from being expensive, I thought a smartphone would be intrusive and I very much appreciated the notion that when I’m out of the house, I’m completely disconnected from the internet.

Usually, diffusion of new technologies and behaviours across society occur through a process of modeling and social influence. I was part of the diffusion, but as a spectator – a rebel of wireless internet technology. I wasn’t ready to take the plunge and have my ‘life changed’ in such a short period of time. I was protesting against the idea of being constantly connected, and at times, I romanticized over the beauty of letter-writing and instead of falling victim to the future, I fell into the trap of nostalgia. Alvin Toffler would diagnose my behavior as a symptom of future shock.

During the past five years, wireless technology use has diffused across society becoming a ubiquitous symbol of today’s culture. In this day and age, a high-speed internet connection is not merely restricted to the haven of our homes, or the conditioned air in our offices. Public spaces have also come to embrace wireless technology access. In fact, a lot of cafés, recreation centres, and village squares offer free Wi-Fi and accessible power sockets to change our devices, encouraging people to pull out their devices and stay connected, whenever, wherever.

Everywhere I went and whoever I was with, I was followed by this unspoken pressure to conform. Evolutionary psychology repeatedly shows how our basic human motive is to connect, and this is what eventually drove me into buying a smartphone: the basic need to connect.

I was getting tired of the resistance, which slowly made me feel like a grandma living in a twenty-something’s body. I had to adopt to a world with smartphones by getting one too. Having a smartphone made me feel connected, part of something. As superficial as it may sound, I belonged.

What is interesting is that when, as part of a personal research I conducted, I asked my friends why they had decided to buy a smartphones, I was met with ambivalent answers. Essentially, they explained that they don’t feel the need to own a smartphone and would willingly give it up, however, it makes it much easier for their friends to reach them.

So there: it’s not that they really needed their smartphones, it’s the tide in the wake of the culture of connectivity that’s swept them in.

After his year of self-imposed exile of the internet, The Verge journalist, Paul Miller came to realize just how easier the internet makes it to feel a relevant part of society. Without the internet, he fell ‘out of sync with the flow of life.’ “The internet isn’t an individual pursuit,” he writes, “it’s something we do with each other. The internet is where people are.”

Even though back in Tal-Qroqq, we were all sitting in the same café, only to ignore each other, we were all connecting, through the internet.

When in the mid-1980s, Joshua Meyrowitz wrote “to be out of touch in today’s world, is to be abnormal” the smartphone was still a product of science-fiction. Today, it is but a mainstream commodity becoming the most rapidly adopted technology in human history all for but a main reason: the internet.

In 2013, the internet is all embracing. It’s unavoidable. Everything is the internet: we are the internet. Manuel Castells said that it is difficult to go back to a pre-networked society, just as we cannot go back to a world without electricity.

Connectivity is no longer something abstract, it has fashioned itself into a state of mind. Now we are tethered to the rest of the world through the internet enclosed in a pocket-sized device. For better or for worse, the internet has changed our lives forever. Despite the digital divide, in the future, everyone will be online.

And in my earphones, The Killers front-man echoes the words: “This is the world that we live in/no we can’t go back.”

Originally published in the  The Sunday Times of Malta on November 10, 2013.