Tag Archives: history

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.