All posts by Christine Spiteri

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.

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.