All posts by Christine Spiteri

Minimalist Artists’ Guide to Malta

Design duo Andrew & Craig translate symbols of our archipelago’s eclectic culture and unique identity in their one-year old project, Te fit-Tazza. Their contemporary pieces of art set out to document iconic elements of Malta.

“Malta is changing at a rapid pace, and we’re here to document it in our own way,” says Andrew. “We wanted to create a visual archive of all things Maltese. All of our prints celebrate the island’s charm, but some in particular also add a dose of nostalgia.”

 

“Our aim was to capture and document these attributes in the form of minimalist depictions. Taking away as much detail from our subjects as is possible, while keeping the subject instantly recognisable.”

In their first series, Te fit-Tazza takes us on a visual trip around the island’s intriguing landscape:

South Tour: Filfla & Marsaxlokk

Filfla

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Image: tefittazza.com

One of the smallest islands in the archipelago, Filfla floats calmly in the middle of the Mediterranean, serving as a home to a protected ecosystem and marine species. She is best appreciated during a picturesque coastline drive from Wied iż-Żurrieq to Għar Lapsi, where one can absorb its silent beauty awash with the colours of sunset.

Luzzu by Day

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Image: tefittazza.com

The colourful fishing boats, dating back to the Phoenicians, can be admired rocking gently at Marsaxlokk. They are now considered a symbol of Malta, lending to years of tradition and history, with the iconic eye as a protector from evil and sign of good health. If you visit on Sunday morning you can observe fishermen at work.

Artist’s note: These were the two first artworks we created. We spent months refining the style, removing and re-adding details, until we achieved a result that was both modern and minimalist but is still local and recognisable.

Gozo Tour: Qbajjar & Wied il-Għasri

Qbajjar

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Image: tefittazza.com

During the sweltering summer months, one can witness locals scraping up the salt-crystals in what is a century-old Gozitan tradition of sea-salt production, passed down families, for many generations. The scenic salt-pans stretch about 3km of the the north coast of Gozo, west of Marsalforn,

Artist’s note:We’re amazed by how people interacted with this natural beauty and used this place for their salt production. This print represents a healthy and respectful interaction between the land and her people.” 

Wied il-Għasri

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Image: tefittazza.com


Just up the road from Qbajjar salt pans, you’ll find Wied il-Għasri — a hamlet on the western part of the sister island famous for its picturesque valley. Tucked between its high cliffs, at the end of the valley, is a secluded little pebbly-beach, like a natural sea-corridor, which is quite remote, but well worth the effort to get to.

Artist’s note:We still remember the first time we walked down the narrow stairs to discover this hidden bathing spot. The way the valley flows out to sea protects it from rough seas making it one of the most peaceful gems in the Maltese archipelago.”

 

North Tour: Mellieħa

Torri l-Aħmar

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Image: tefittazza.com

Majestically perched on top of a hill, the Red Tower — built in 1647 by the Order of St John to strengthen northern coastal defences — is an iconic part of the northern landscape, famous for surrounding country walks as well as its history.

Artist’s note: “This print comes with a lot of unforgettable childhood memories that we can treasure for years to come. As a watchtower it is definitely the most iconic on the island: its colour and the aesthetic of this unique tower tie in as an illustration, lending perfectly to the beauty that we try to capture in our prints.” 

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Image: tefittazza.com

Te fit-Tazza has recently unveiled five new portraits to celebrate Maltese summers, and will soon be releasing a new style of prints later on this year. 

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Published in il-Bizzilla – Air Malta’s inflight magazine.

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Driving around 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.

Side 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.

Side note: If you’re travelling in winter, plan days well and research times the sunrises and sets before heading out to explore. 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.

Side 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 drink. 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.

Side 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.

In pursuit of the Northern Lights

We ventured to Iceland on a whim. All it took to convince us were a couple of ill-referenced blog posts illustrated with a collage of pretty pictures. It was only weeks later, when our Lonely Planet guide arrived, that the reality of what we were about to experience on the fringes of the Arctic, in December, started to seep in: four hours of daylight and a probability of driving through deadly snow blizzards. But at least we had greater chances of encountering the rare and unpredictable Northern Lights.

My travel buddy and I are the adventurous type who travel on a budget, with no more than 10kg strapped to our backs while sleeping in stuffy hostel dorms. The only thing we had booked prior to landing was a rental car, a place to sleep on our first night, and a return flight six days later – what happened in between was basically us winging it. So as you can imagine, our pursuit of the Northern Lights was as unpredictable as their actual sighting.

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We drove counter-clockwise across the empty and secluded Icelandic ring road in our modest VW Polo. Even though the ring road is considered as the main road round the entire island, where goods are transported from one remote town to another, what struck me most was how you could drive for hours, wherein the only signs of life were wild Icelandic horses and grazing sheep.

Bend after bend on Route 1, a procession of snow-capped mountains would morph into jagged black rocks covered in patches of green moss. It was so unreal that, at times, we were obliged to roll down the windows, let the Arctic air in and lean our head out to be part of the view rather than a mere spectator.

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Don’t call the Icelandic horses, ‘ponies’

Driving in Iceland made me think about how architecture shapes not only spaces, but also our minds. As humans we’ve evolved so much since our hunter-gatherer days in the savannah that looking into a screen feels more real to me than being out in the wild. It took a while to get used to the untouched landscape that panned out before us, and as clichéd as it may sound, the majestic views were often perceived like a movie-set or a painting.

It was the perfect mental detox, for I could be alone with my thoughts and, as we saw the authentic landscape unfold through our windscreen, I questioned what Malta would look like if it weren’t so heavily built up.

The route from Keflavík International Airport to Reykjavík transported me back to my childhood in Naxxar, treading through ix-xagħri in my denim dungarees and steering my bright pink bicycle across fields that are now mega-supermarkets and concrete blocks of houses.

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The Icelandic Ring-Road

In fact, it isn’t a country you’d visit for its bustling city life or architectural landmarks. As we hopped from one town to another, manoeuvring through potholed gravel roads and single-lane timber bridges, hoping to stumble upon ideal conditions for Aurora sightings, we would stop to stretch our legs and walk along the most surreal natural wonders.

Fortunately, we were in Iceland during a ‘heatwave’, when thermometers stood at an average of eight degrees Celsius, which wasn’t as cold as we had predicted. This meant there was barely any ice on the majority of the ring road, making it easier for us to explore independently.

Around the Golden Circle, a few kilometres outside Reykjavík, we witnessed a gushing geyser hurl boiling water up to 70 metres in the air, visited the roaring Gullfoss waterfalls and the bubbling geothermal pools nearby. My favourite part of the journey was when we meditated in front of the famous Jökulsárlón, the glacial lake in the southeast.

Days are short and nights are long there in winter. The sun hovers on the horizon, making the panoramic views a photographer’s paradise. We arrived at the edge of Vatnajökull National Park late in the afternoon, and clouds hung low. Most of the Asian tourists were making their way to the parking area, where engines of big white coaches were humming, ready to whisk them away, giving us the privilege of exploring the lake in solitude.

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Jökulsárlón is the deepest lake in Iceland and one of the country’s prominent natural wonders.

Everything was at a metaphorical glacial pace, almost at a standstill, distinct echoes of the ice breaking off at a distance. The light catching the ice that crashed off the glacier during its final journey into the Atlantic reflected a luminous blue on to the still water, like a mirror.

In fact, I found the lagoon to be more magical than the overrated Northern Lights. We had been tailing after them for almost five nights, constantly monitoring the Aurora forecast and, on a clear Friday night in the remoteness beyond Borgarnes town, our chances looked promising.

The sky was clear, moon shining brightly. Everything seemed perfect, except that we were both freezing. I, in particular, was getting impatient. Teeth-chattering and arms crossed, we stood there in complete darkness, waiting for the Aurora to emerge. I remember that by midnight, all the thermal and fleecy underlayers weren’t enough to keep us warm.

We had read how the lights were formed when the Earth’s magnetic field drew the sun’s flares towards the North Pole. Albeit special, it was an underwhelming experience, possibly because the photos I had seen online had raised my expectations. The Aurora visible to the naked eye was a thread of faint emerald green specs, shimmering across the sky. But on camera, the very same vision appeared to be much brighter and definitely more spectacular. Perhaps the ones we saw weren’t strong enough, we remarked the next day.

Actually, the photo published has a story behind it. We were convinced we were alone on top of the little hill at the Fossatún camping grounds. But just a couple of minutes after witnessing the lights, a faint flashlight approached us.

It was an Asian man with half his face concealed in a black bala­c­lava, carrying a DLSR on a tripod. He showed us a remarkable image of the same Northern Lights we had just witnessed –  which on the screen of his camera seemed much more luminous – and, in the bottom left corner, a silhouette of two people: “Iz you!” he said enthusiastically.

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And that experience brought our road trip to full circle, flying back home with our backpacks laden with more memories than dirty laundry. Indeed, travelling to the fringes of the Arctic in December was a bold idea, but it was what made it special. Challenged by treacherous mountain roads, lack of daylight and unpredictable weather, our quest to drive around Europe’s most sparsely populated country was an eye-opening experience, realising there’s so much more to Iceland than the Northern Lights.

Originally published on The Sunday Times of Malta. 

Why we should perceive death as liberation

At 90, my friend Gina still lives a youthful life. She tells me how the older she gets, the younger in spirit she feels.

When I was living in Italy in my early 20s, I used to volunteer at a retirement home. There I came to terms with a different reality to the one I was exposed to as a happy-go-lucky university student. Twice a week, I would spend my mornings at the Casa del Pensionato attending to old people’s needs, be it feeding, cleaning, going for a short walk or having a chat. It was both demanding yet rewarding and gave me a lot of fodder for reflection about ageing.

We seem to age on multiple levels: internally and externally, individually and culturally, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately, most of us soldiers of ageing trample through the process as if it were a war zone, laden with fear. We fear what our bodies might become: frail, wrinkled and ugly. We fear loss of strength, vision, agility, stamina, independence and loved ones. These fears are real. But living in fear of ageing will keep us from living our lives fully.

Academics explain that the problem might not necessarily be ageing, but rather ageism, the discrimination we face based on our age. Our personal narrative of who we would like to be is often blurred by society’s norms and values. In our culture, ageing is perceived as an undesirable phenomenon, one which reduces beauty and brings us closer to death. But what if we were to stop perceiving ageing as a threat and affirm it as a significant part of life?

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Gina Dall’Aglio with the paintings on her garden wall. 

One of the friendships I formed at the retirement home was with a former volunteer. At 90, Gina Dall’Aglio is still fully engaged with life. She lives alone in the house she built with her late husband straight after World War II. She still shops, cooks, and takes care of her front garden. Whenever inspiration strikes, she paints her favourite flowers: papaveri, gira sole and margherite. But mainly, she spends her time nourishing her spirit in prayer.

Gina is an ageless soul. So many people limit their own capacities by allowing their fear of ageing to take over. Most of the time, this leads to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy which could further accelerate the ageing process.

Gina is humble and grateful for all the hardships she has been through and celebrates the beautiful moments, even if it’s merely sunshine on a cloudy day or a piece of cardboard she may come across on the street which she can use to paint on. Spending time with her taught me what it means to live a long and youthful life without the fear of ageing.

“Our body is like a dress,” she says. “And a dress you wear every day will naturally have a hole here and there, especially after 90 years. My body may be frail, but funnily enough, I seem to be ageing in reverse, because the older I grow, the younger I feel. My spirit seems to be more youthful than ever.”

We could call this the paradox of ageing, where our bodies and spirits age inversely proportional to one another. As our bodies become frail, we tend to feel we are growing younger. In fact, a 2009 survey on American attitudes towards old age showed that almost half of the respondents aged 50 years and over reported feeling at least 10 years younger than their actual age.

“I have no idea where these past 90 years have flown,” Gina says. “Mamma mia, I’ve had a long life and survived the war and poverty. I was so poor I had to borrow a pair of shoes to wear for my wedding. I’ve had a lot of loss, pain and pleasure. But having faith and focusing on the beauty of life has kept me grounded.”

As we get older, we seem to become more familiar with our daily routines and this seems to make the seasons roll by quicker. The fact that we live our lives forward but understand it backwards means that the older we are, the easier it is for us to connect with ourselves on a deeper level.

“I find it hard to be friends with other old people because they aren’t always in a good place,” she says. “They prefer to spend most of their time indoors, moping. I try to pass on a bit of my energy but some prefer not to listen. And so I’d rather spend time with myself in that case. I’m never alone. My spirit always keeps me in good company and gives me the inner strength and energy to spur on. I nourish it with prayer every day.”

Society has constructed a stigma surrounding ageing. As women especially, we tend to grow concerned about becoming invisible or sidelined in life, while men may mourn their loss of strength. Messages in the media repeatedly tell us to fight ageing and so we start to believe there is an age limit to certain things.

“Because I ride my bicycle everyone thinks I’m some kind of phenomenon. It isn’t every day you see a 90-year-old on a bicycle, yet here I am. It’s way beyond the norm, but it’s my only means of being mobile.”

Gina cycles to mass every morning and later visits her friends and husband at the cemetery. On weekends, she has lunch with her daughter, grandson and great-grandchild on their farm in the countryside. She doesn’t allow her age to stop her from living her years filled with adventure. Despite having lived for almost a century, she is still busily engaged, connecting to the world and immersed in her faith.

“Life is a gestation for eternity. I’m ready to leave this body behind. At least I’ll stop worrying about all the pain it causes me. I have no teeth, so I can’t eat whatever I want. My legs are fragile, so I can’t travel long distances without my bicycle. Once I’m dead, I won’t need my glasses to read my beloved gospel – I’ll be free.”

She admits to having lived a full life and is ready to let go of her body or “worn out dress” as she calls it. She perceives death as liberation from any physical pain.

I guess this is the gift that comes with age. You start to become more comfortable in your own skin, even if your body doesn’t quite fit so well. You learn who you are and who you aren’t.

And this is why we shouldn’t give in to ageism.

Embracing our age without feeling ashamed of it is the secret to ageing gracefully. Perhaps we do remain in some sense all the ages we’ve once been, as well as the age we are now. We find ourselves acting more like the old selves we were in certain situations, sometimes playful as a child and rebellious as a teen, but it’s still us. We need to look at ageing as part of a process, because if we’re going to keep thinking like soldiers battling against ageing, we’ll never be happy, because it will happen anyway.

Originally published in the Times of Malta in October, 2015.

The story of the Maltese balcony

I usually get to know a city intimately by doing two things: walking and looking up. By walking, I’m more likely to discover places which haven’t yet been rated on Trip Advisor and by looking up, I can appreciate the architectural features a city offers.

I have a thing for balconies. When travelling in Paris last June, I embraced the art of flânerie to savour the beauty of the wrought iron balconets. Later in Berlin, I witnessed residents’ attempts to recreate a picnic area in their own balconies, complete with plants, colourful striped parasols and a satellite dish to ensure no game of Bundesliga is missed. Meanwhile up north, Stockholmers seem to rarely use curtains in an attempt to invite every photon of light indoors.

Although every manner of balcony adds to the unique personality of a city, no balcony in Europe tells a more fascinating story than that of the Maltese balcony.

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Clipped to Valletta’s golden walls, the traditional gallarija immediately strikes visitors as distinctive and extremely versatile. Its aesthetic, proportion and colour enrich the visual aspects of our streets through bright paint, wood and simplicity.

But where do these balconies come from?

It all started in the late 17th century, when Valletta acquired the first timber enclosed balcony on the island. It is widely held that this was the pine green one in the Grand Master’s Palace, stretching from Old Theatre Street up to St George’s Square. However, we have no record as to whether this was locally designed or imported.

The Maltese balcony is probably a derivative of the Spanish style balcony, which in turn is strongly influenced by the Arabic mashrabiya. However, the ethos of the Maltese balcony is different.

“In Arabic culture, the mashrabiya, literally a ‘peep-hole’, is a lattice screen enclosure generally built as a wooden window frame, which screened the window space completely,” architectural historian Conrad Thake says. “This style of balcony presented the Muslim female with her only direct contact with the outside world.”

Meanwhile, the function of the Maltese balcony is more of a theatre box and serves as an unobtrusive platform whereby one can witness the unfolding events on the streets below, designed to be seen, as well as to look out from.

“Put simply, the mashrabiya was a means of hiding away from life outside, whereas the Maltese balcony provides a platform through which you can participate in the life outside,” Thake says.

Winston Churchill said that the buildings we shape end up shaping us. The spaces we live in and the way we interact with them have had a significant impact on our culture. And the balcony is not only climatically and architecturally an important feature, but also a sociological one too.

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On a practical level, the balcony is used to provide light and to control the climate. It’s also common to see the day’s washing hanging out to dry on balconies.

In the early 1990s, anthropologist Sibyl O’Reilly Mizzi observed this indigenous cultural phenomenon and wrote how:

“Many houses have a closed balcony, an ideal observation post for the street below and the activities of passers-by, without one’s self being observed. Towns and villages [in Malta] are densely populated, so there is almost always someone passing, some activity to interest a watcher. It is a perfect arrangement for neighbours to watch each other surreptitiously. It enables them to become familiar with the daily routine of everyone in the neighbourhood. Any deviation from routine, even a minor one, is immediately noticed.”

Two decades later, the balcony’s function on a practical level still exists, but what about its sociological use? Do people still spend their afternoons sitting in their balconies as they once used to?

While many in Valletta still adorn their balconies with a collection of plants, drapes, lights and effigies of saints during religious feasts, or use it for storing things, very few are those who casually while away their time interacting with life outside.

Wandering through the streets of Valletta on your average Sunday afternoon, most balconies are open to let in the crisp sea breeze, clothes hang outside to dry, while music can be heard having a duet with the pigeons’ clapping wings. But otherwise, I could only see two women peering out of their balcony at the world below.

The balcony is moving on to a new chapter in its history.

Its function of knowing from the inside what is going on outside seems to be declining. But is this a threat to the traditional Maltese balcony?

Not necessarily. Paraphrasing Churchill’s quote, it seems like it’s no longer the architecture that is shaping us, but the opposite.

Featured in The Times of Malta and Il-Bizzilla – Air Malta’s Inflight Magazine.

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.

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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.