This article first appeared in Malta Today
I was swimming at a communal pool the other day where there are signs clearly stating a list of “dont’s”…one of which was “no balls or inflatable items”. I find these admonitions quite reasonable because when you are sharing a limited private space (as opposed to a public beach) with other people, it is annoying to be continually hit on the head by a flying beach ball, or being bumped by huge unicorns or flamingos or crocodiles or whatever the latest summer fashion in inflatables is.
Sure enough, within minutes, a few young tourists came to the pool with a ball, and while openly remarking that they had seen the sign, they started tossing it around anyway. Maltese people who were watching this scene unfold politely pointed out the sign, and the guys agreed to stop using the ball. “We thought we would try to get away with it” they said with a cheeky grin. However, the fact that they had tried to flout the rule was telling, especially since they were British, a people who are rather known for adhering to regulations. Heck, they will even form a queue at the drop of a hat without being asked to.
This little episode is, of course, something which repeats itself all over the island on a daily basis and is probably the root cause why rules are regularly broken by visitors as soon as they cotton on to the lay of the land. Our laissez-faire attitude is, indeed, catching and is probably the best indicator of whether a non-Maltese national has integrated into our culture. The minute you hear someone foreign shrugging nonchalantly and saying “u iva…mhux xorta?” don’t even bother with the formalities and just hand the guy a passport.
Last week a man double parked his car just as I was approaching mine, making it impossible for me to get out of my parking spot, and when I automatically spoke to him in Maltese to ask him to move it, I was a bit startled when he answered me in a Cockney accent, “only be a minute, luv”. I was taken so off guard that I just stared at him, and true to his word he popped in and out of the shop in one minute flat, revved up his engine and drove off. To further underscore just how assimilated he has become, he didn’t even bother to apologise. Welcome to Malta, my son!
There is some truth to the oft-quoted belief that lack of discipline is a Mediterranean trait, Many attribute the laidback attitude to the stupor caused by a scorching hot sun for so much of the year, although now with climate change and France frying at 43 degrees, I don’t think we can get away with that excuse for much longer. Purely out of curiosity I went on a Facebook page called “Expats Spain” and came across this gem by an Englishman who has relocated to that country:
Admin building president won’t give swimming pool access to the owner of my flat until she pays her 7 year standing debt in comunidades. I’m the tenant who isn’t getting to use the pool. This punishment is hitting me not the owner but I’ve paid my rent and electric etc. They openly admit I’ve a right to use it but this is their only way left to apply pressure to the owner to pay them. Nonsense. The owner won’t pay them for my sake this is the only year I’m here. I refuse to accept it so what do I do?
The advice he was given by his compatriots? “Go ahead and use the pool anyway!” So he did, posting a photo of himself lounging by the pool for good measure. While he was right that he should not have been the one penalised, the fact remains that the owner still got away with not paying for the common parts.
In yet another group which gives assistance and legal advice, there was the following introduction from the person who set it up:
“We all know that The Spanish system and Spanish legal system can be a headache. There are laws in place, there are systems in place. In my experience, on many occasions, I have noticed that processes are not followed, matters have been handled very unprofessionally, and it seems that if you are foreign (and in some cases Spanish) your rights are limited or non-existent. If your Spanish is not up to scratch, this can work against you. In many conversations I have had over the years, everyone describes their experience as hitting a wall.”
My next exploration was of an Expats group in Itay, and it all continued to sound very familiar:
“If buying a house get an Italian to make the offer, do the negotiations. You just pick the house you want and walk away. Have your friends do the purchase for you. There can be no hint you are involved until final papers. The minute a foreigner is mentioned the price doubles. Saw it time and time again. Would go to Farnese in March there would be a vendisi sign with 25,000 Euro price. 2 months later we would come back and still the same cobwebs, place in worse shape but when we ask ‘che costa?’ suddenly it’s 50k.”
I have to admit, however, that in no other country’s expat group did I find the avalanche of complaints one regularly comes across in our local FB pages. The reasons for this could be either that a) Malta’s severe lack of discipline and enforcement truly presents a multitude of unnecessary challenges for foreigners, or b) we Maltese complain so much about Malta ourselves, using English, that it is very easy for other nationalities to be swept along and join in with our moaning about absolutely everything.
Needless to say, a considerable percentage of our complaints are justified and the need to keep up the pressure on authorities is paramount. Apart from enforcement of existing laws, we truly need ongoing educational campaigns, as used to be aired in the past, about basic traffic laws, driving etiquette, disposal of waste and how crucial it is to reduce our dependence on plastics. When I Googled that very effective cartoon of that little boy riding in a car wailing, “ħa noqħod quddiem! Ħa noqgħod quddiem! (I want to stay in the front) I was shocked to realise it was last aired in 1993. Unless I missed it, I have not seen a similar nationwide traffic safety campaign in recent years, especially when it comes to seatbelts and the use of mobile phones (those electronic billboards by Transport Malta are obviously not doing the trick).
We also continue to fail abysmally on educating people on the environmental front. In yet another one of those famous press conferences which are much ado about nothing, in December 2018 we were promised a refund scheme for those who dispose of their plastic bottles. Reading it again, I realise that it was the usual cotton candy floss of a lot of promises which are reduced to basically nothing. “An agreement in principle has been signed at Castille between the Recovery and Recycling Agency and the private sector…Environment Minister Jose’ Herrera said that the next step is to begin a process of tenders so that the private sector can start working on this refund scheme which will give consumers ten cents back for every container which is deposited in these special machines.”
Some of the news reports even quantified how many bottles would be recycled: “150 million bottles”, “3 out of every 4 bottles!” they predicted. But don’t get too excited just yet. Seven months later, here we are at the peak of tourist season and regular family outings to the beach, and the mounds of plastic bottles keep on accumulating because there is no scheme in place.
In fact, a further search showed that way back in 2014, the Government was already trumpeting that it would launch an expression of interest for this scheme. Five years of talking about it and nothing has actually materialised. Why are initiatives which can save our environment never rushed through with the same lightning speed as development permits for the fat cats?
Of course, a lot of the problems when it comes to breaking the law and not abiding by the rules stem from those at the top who set a bad example. However, I still believe every individual has to start with himself. Being Mediterranean and laidback should not prevent us from embracing civic pride to show that we really love our own country as much as we claim we do. We cannot expect those who come to live here to treat Malta well, if we don’t do so ourselves.