My Adventurous Trip to Malta

TRIUMPHS & MISFORTUNES

MY TRIP TO MALTA 1-14 MARCH

The weather in Malta was a bit like my trip, sunny at times and plain ugly at others.

It began with an hour plus equipment delay leaving Minneapolis, turning what should have been an easy connection at Gatwick into a breakneck race to catch our plane for Malta. Evie and I arrived thirty minutes before the Air Malta flight was to leave. The connecting flight agent called the agents to tell them we had arrived. When she looked up at us I knew we were in for some bad news. We were on the passenger list but they didn’t have our tickets so we would need to produce them. We didn’t have any. All we had was the confirmation letter we had received from the travel agency. Moreover, the agent at the gate didn’t have the authority to make up a new ticket. “Would you please wait?” she asked. It was the ultimate rhetorical question.

We stepped aside. While we were waiting I sold copies of my book to two American tourists who were on their way to their first visit to Malta. After all the other passengers left, I began to count steps to various points, (I think there’s a psychological term for this behavior). Not surprisingly, when I measured the distance from the desk to the baggage x-ray I got suspicious looks from the security agent.

Minutes later a loudspeaker announced the last call for boarding the Air Malta flight. Noticing our frantic looks, our friend at the connections desk said not to worry. Even though we were starting to make plans where to stay near Gatwick for the night and maybe for the whole trip, the phone finally rang. The tickets were ready.

After a spectacularly sunny flight over the Alps and down the Italian coast we neared Malta. As we did the sun disappeared, the sky turned gray and raindrops splashed on the windows. When we deplaned, it was as cold as it was when we left Minneapolis. Even so, we were happy to be back to our adopted land. Until we found out that our baggage hadn’t arrived, that is. We had forgotten to check it through to Malta when we left Minneapolis and the bags were still in Gatwick. A very friendly young man at the Malta airport told us there was nothing to worry about. They would be delivered to our hotel by the next day at the latest.

All we had with us was the clothes on our backs and what we had brought with in our backpacks. At least we could wash our faces and brush our teeth that night and change our underwear.

We were expected at the out-of-way but inexpensive guesthouse where we always stay, but our room was near the top level and, as in the story, the elevator wasn’t working. The Bellestrado in the book is actually the Soleado in disguise. Exhausted from lack of sleep, we puffed our way up the stairway and went to bed.

I woke up at 2 o’clock with a sore leg. I had severely torn my right hamstring in September and was rear-ended twice within a month (remember how Rick was always bemoaning his bad luck?) and was being treated for low back pain by various doctors and chiropractors. I also had sciatica in my right leg for a while as a result. This time it was the left. Luckily we had aspirin in our backpacks. I took one and went back to sleep.

The next morning we were ready to start promoting the book. Even though we didn’t have a copy of it with us (they were all still at Gatwick) we had a few fliers in our backpacks. We decided we would visit every bookshop in Valletta to let the shop owners know that we were in town and that copies would be available from Agius (pronounced as ah jus in case you aren’t familiar with Maltese) and Agius Booksellers. The shops were cheery and smelled of fresh newsprint, but we found few of the purchasers present. The clerks were friendly and told me to come back tomorrow. One actually suggested a definite time. Little did we know that this was just a taste of the typical Malta business style, and that we would be gnawing off the ends of our fingers before the trip was over.

When we got back to the hotel we found our bags sitting outside of our room and the manager, Joe Bugeja (Josefina in the novel) waiting by our door. When I could breathe again I commiserated with him for having had to haul the book-filled bags up the stairway. He just shrugged and stuck out his lower lip (the typical Maltese gesture, I’ve decided.) “It wasn’t that bad. The elevator is working.”

I bit my tongue or they would have been able to hear my shriek in Mdina, five miles away.

Exhausted, we turned in early. I woke at 3:00 with excruciating pain in my leg. I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t sit so I paced the floor for most of the night.

The next morning, after breakfast, we were off to see Dr. Tony Abela-Medici, our friend and the coroner of Malta. Tony looked more tired than I was. He had three family members “in hospital” and was maintaining a vigil on them. Even so, he was anxious to do whatever he could to help us. He told us he knew the president of Malta and he thought he could arrange for a book presentation.

Things were looking up.

We walked back to Valletta and met with the distributor. David De Angelo was amazed at how much I knew about Malta and said he really liked the book’s cover. He gave us names of contacts, including a Maltese-language talk show host who sometimes talked about books. We also got a promise from an editor associated with Malta Times that a review of the book would appear before the booksigning.

We immediately headed for legendary Strait Street where the talk show was produced. In the old days Knights dueled each other on the cobblestones and ladies of the night came there to show off their wares. No one had any idea where we wanted to go, (numerical addresses mean nothing in Malta), but finally a pub owner pointed at a newer structure across the street. The building turned out to be a highlight of the trip. A dark entryway and hallway passed an iron gate. Beyond, a courtyard with hundreds of exposed pipes hissed and gave off a hint of methane. Best of all, a basket hung from a rope tied to the top floor railing had both of us laughing uncontrollably. We never did find out what the basket was for, but we guessed it was so the mail carrier wouldn’t have to walk up the six flights of steps. After climbing five flights, we found a tiny business card stuck in a closed door with the name we were looking for. We took a chance and knocked. A very pretty young woman opened the door for us. After we described the book, she said she was interested in it and planned to have it mentioned on the show.

Later on, we also had a meeting with the Maltese Director of the Tourism Authority and presented him with a book and spent a pleasant half-hour chatting with him.

After that, the course of events rapidly went downhill. The sciatica kept getting worse during the rest of the week and walking was actually my only relief. By the following Thursday, it was unbearable and we walked to a hospital that was just a few blocks from the guesthouse. A woman who was a perfect Caterina from my novel treated me. She was tall, gorgeous, and had the bubbly personality to match and I immediately started to dream about the day when I make a movie out of the Cellini Masterpiece so I could cast her in the role. She gave me a prescription for an anti-inflammatory and painkiller and sent us on our way. Unfortunately, her prescriptions didn’t work and we were back at the hospital at four the next morning. The doctor on duty hospitalized me and I was given a powerful injection that finally relieved my agony. The next day I was to have an MRI.

Getting to my exam was cheaper by ambulance than by cab and the woman who rode with me was chatty. She told me how Maltese women hate the Russian women who were coming to the island. “We cook for our husbands,” she said in a disgusted voice, “we keep house for them and have their babies. Then these Russians come and steal them from us. And they only know one thing. It’s terrible.”

I laughed so hard I didn’t need any pain medicine for the rest of the day.

The next day I was released in time for the book signing. We only sold a few copies but I was convinced that the distributor was genuinely interested in the book and we both felt that once it started making the rounds to the kiosks and shops, it would sell well with the tourists. Unfortunately the talk show didn’t pan out. Because we didn’t know the language we watched the entire two-and-a-half hour show in perplexed silence. It never appeared.

The trip ended pleasantly enough. When we flew out of Malta we were bathed in brilliant sunshine. We made an easy connection at Gatwick, and when we got back to Minneapolis, our luggage was in the carousel.

What next? Trips to book distributors in the US, Canada and GB. My book is already hopelessly dated as far as book reviewers are concerned, but I am resorting to guerrilla marketing and the number I’ve sold is now more than 600.

Driving in the Outer Hebrides

When you think of the Outer Hebrides, you normally think of sandy beaches, ancient standing stones and lilting Scottish accents. You don’t normally associate the Outer Hebrides with some of the best driving in the British Isles…

I certainly didn’t expect to enjoy the driving so much when I visited the Western Isles (the other name for the Outer Hebrides) in Scotland recently.

It certainly isn’t speed that makes the roads in the Outer Hebrides so exhilarating. In fact, for much of the time I didn’t get out of third gear…

The roads are often single track with passing places. And where they are single track, often there are rocky ditches either side of a surprisingly narrow track. If you are at all in doubt of the width of your car, don’t drive on the Outer Hebrides!

If the width of the roads wasn’t enough, there are other distractions to keep you busy. The first are sheep. There are several times as many sheep on the Outer Hebrides as there are people, and for some reason sheep enjoy standing around in the middle of the road. Lambs are particularly lively and you have to take care when passing.

The other distraction is the often jaw-dropping scenery. Sometimes it’s all too tempting to look at the view when you should be watching the road…

The roads themselves are often sinuous, snaking their way through rugged scenery. You can’t relax for a moment when you’re behind the wheel in the Outer Hebrides.

Fortunately there isn’t much other traffic. And while it’s always polite to wave to someone who pulls over to let you pass (and return their wave), you quickly find that everyone waves anyway – even where you don’t need to pull over. (One chap painting his fence even waved as we drove past.)

The combination of sinuous, single-track roads with awesome scenery populated by obstructive sheep and polite drivers makes driving in the Outer Hebrides such a pleasure.

My top tips for driving in the Outer Hebrides:

Makes sure you have a car with a good third gear. You’ll send most of your time in third.
The B8011 from Calanais to Uig Sands on Lewis is fantastic. The beach at Uig Sands is wonderful, but it’s worth going there for the drive alone.
If you have a passenger with you, get them to help by spotting approaching cars. An extra pair of eyes can be invaluable.

And although I have now returned from the Outer Hebrides, I have found that I’ve brought a little of the islands with me: I’m much more patient and polite than I used to be behind the wheel – and that can only be a good thing.

Tourist in My Own Hometown

I lived in the suburbs of New York City almost all my life and it was only when I was in my 20’s and working on 5th Avenue when I finally went to the top of the Empire State Building. It took me almost two decades as well to ice-skate at Rockefeller Center, browse the Museum of Natural History, and see a Broadway play.

Now living in New England I still tend to overlook the tourist attractions in my own backyard. It took us eight years after we moved to Keene, NH before we climbed the “most-climbed mountain in the world,” Mt. Monadnock, just a 15 minute drive from our house.

I once read a magazine article about a family that took a week-long vacation in their own hometown. They visited museums, ate out every night, and basically took in their surroundings with the new eyes of visitors. I didn’t have a week – but a few hours I did have. So when my neighbor suggested that we become tourists for a day in Keene I jumped at the chance. My neighbor and I planned a simple late morning excursion with our kids on the Keene trolley.

I have never been on the Keene trolley. I see it motoring around town every time I leave my house to run errands. It looks sweet, touristy, and fun. The windows are rolled all the way up in the warm weather. The seats are wood. The pick-up spot was a five minute walk from the house, so we all walked down to our local Hannaford’s to wait for the 11:35 a.m. trolley.

Why it seemed so exciting is beyond me. I knew where the trolley went and I’ve seen all those spots a thousand times. I knew our final destination was a mere one mile from our house. But somehow, shedding the car and climbing aboard the trolley made it all different. And the kids actually cheered (the younger ones) when the trolley made the turn into the parking lot.

I want to say it was a pleasant ride and wax philosophical about the wind blowing through my hair and seeing the familiar scenes through different eyes. And I would if my 6-year son had not had an intense attack of vertigo which made him exclaim (uh, shout) that the trolley was going to tip over with all of us in it with each turn the driver took. He insisted on sitting up front, where the windows were closed, with me glued to his side; I spent the entire 20 minutes of the ride trying reassure him that this was not a doomsday ride.

But hey, those are the chances you take traveling with children, even if it’s in your own backyard. The ride took us the “long way” past the hospital, toward downtown. “It takes a lot longer to get the Colony Mill on the trolley,” my son said when we finally got off, relieved to be on solid ground (the driver I’m sure was even more relieved).

The Colony Mill Marketplace is the Keene, NH version of a “mall,” – it is actually a renovated mill originally built in 1838 to produce wool garments, including uniforms for the Union troops during the Civil War and the Allied forces during the World World Wars I and II. And it housed scores of civilian companies and families until it closed its doors in 1953. It was completely transformed three decades later into a regional marketplace.

Today it houses quaint shops like Dilly’s for Kids, Mill Toy Works (my son’s favorite), Pocketful of Rye, Toadstool Bookshop (this is my favorite bookstore – no Borders for me!) and True Necessities (my daughter’s favorite). My kids, with their pockets jingling with birthday money from grandparents, made some modest but happy purchases – a few shorts and a shirt for my 12-year old daughter; a strap-to-the-head flashlight and a pull- back toy car for my son.

We had lunch at the mall’s atrium — unlike your typical “mall” setting in both food and atmosphere. Sometimes they even have live piano music. Homemade artichoke soup from Kristin’s Bakery, croissants stuffed with spinach and cheese; the other choice at the Marketplace is Chinese food and I ordered a plate of dumplings for us to share. It was good, satisfying; not a French fry or double cheeseburger to be seen yet all four kids ate heartily (maybe it was the thrilling trolley ride that made them so hungry.)

Our trip ended at another adjacent historic “mall” next door called The Center at Keene, originally a scenic railroad station in the 1800’s that now houses several retail shops and a really good ice cream shop, Rick’s Gourmet Ice Cream. We ate our ice cream outside (I had chocolate custard with chocolate sprinkles – yum!). While we were enjoying our ice cream, we suddenly saw the return trolley go by. “Oh well,” my son said, “we can walk.” And we did — bundles in hand — on the bicycle path.

My friend and I looked at each other, pleased with the day. It was already past 2 p.m. “It wouldn’t have been the same if we took our cars,” she said. And I agree. There is really something special about being a tourist in your own hometown.