Tuesday 23 July 2024

From a distance

As we celebrate Christmas, our thoughts go to family and friends who have left Malta and are unable to be with us at this time of year.  This is also a time of reflection about the choices we make.  Does emigrating give people a completely new perspective towards the land they once called home? How well can they really know what is going on simply through their Facebook newsfeed and online news portals?  Josanne Cassar interviews two people who have left Malta, to find out more…

Vancouver city, Canada

Vancouver city, Canada

John Zammit will soon be celebrating his 60th year of Canadian life, on March 28th. “Being “British-born”, as all Maltese of my generation were, it was very easy to fit into Canadian society … fluency in English helped strike down one of the major barriers to integration”, he recalls.

In the early years, he says, he visited his native land on a regular basis, but now, he only visits on special occasions, such as the last election. “I knew that it was going to be a Labour victory, and I did not want to miss the excitement. I am born Labour and from the South to boot (and proud of it in spite of what the ‘puliti’ think of Labour-supporters).  At the last pre-election Labour meeting at Hal-Far, I told my friends that “half of Malta must be here”! Well, I was not too much off the mark, as the swing was by about 36,000 souls!”

John explains that as the plane approaches Malta, it is always an emotional event for him. “I think about my childhood and who might be missing when I land – the news of loved ones’ and old friends’ passing is enough to bring me down to earth.”

As an ex-pat, John tells me that he has a daily morning ritual: Facebook, to keep him in touch with family and friends and then he checks the online news portals, to keep pace with political and social progress (“or lack of it”). For him it is not just mild curiosity either. Despite nearly six decades of living overseas, John says he is still, very much, Maltese, “as such, I do care very much about what goes on in my native land.” I ask him whether he thinks his sources of information might sometimes give him a skewed picture of what is really going on.  On this point, John is very much a realist. “Having been involved in politics, most of my adult life, I keep the “shaker of salt” very handy.”

Despite his interest in politics,  once he is in Malta, his focus turns to family.

“When I visit, I am as far removed from Maltese daily life as the earth’s poles because I am too ‘busy’ enjoying the company of family and friends to worry about what politicians are saying or (not) doing – it is the perfect holiday!”

As an observer from afar, John has certain issues which are close to his heart: “First and foremost, the notion that politicians and prelates still have a say in what women choose to do with their bodies, is the biggest bone of contention for me. For this situation to be still prevalent, I lay the blame squarely at the feet of (I) the media whose lack of firm leadership (on this particular issue), is incomprehensible; (ii) the Chamber of Advocates who should be up in arms against this abuse of fundamental human rights; (iii) the Medical Association of Malta, which tolerates undue interference, by said politicians and prelates, in the conduct of its professional-members. I am also still intrigued by the toxic nature of Maltese politics: the either-with-us-or-against-us/you’re-always-wrong-we-hold-the-divine-patent-to-leadership, is what irks me no end. I believe that the existence of political party clubs, together with a partisan press and broadcast stations, are anathema to most civilized societies, such as the one I live in. Why must Malta be so different?”

A lifetime of being away from Malta has not diminished John’s emotional pull towards his homeland.

“Time has not diminished my love of Malta. I am quite comfortable being an ardent Canadian and a proud Maltese. So are my Canadian-born children. With modern technology, living in a Canadian town is not much different than living in a Maltese village as far as being ‘connected’ is concerned — the “Global Village” has shrunk.”

Talk of national pride cannot be touched upon, of course, without referring to two ongoing controversies, irregular migration and the “citizenship for sale” issue. I asked John for his views:

“In answer to you last questions I used the terms, “ardent Canadian” and “proud Maltese”, to which I must add that, neither term includes “patriotism” or “nationalism” as presented by the far-right hate-mongers. It would be more correct if I were to say that, while I am not ashamed of having been born on the island, I am thankful that I could make Canada my home. To my mind, we are all equally endowed, and the incidence of birth is not a warrant to exclude others or to look down on them. In the matter of irregular migration, I find Maltese attitudes to be, in general, shameful given that Malta relied on emigration for its economic survival (some 115,000 of us, from among a population of 250,000, migrated due to lack of economic opportunities at home). This begs the question: why do we, now, frown upon those who are doing the same thing we did back in the 1950s and ‘60s? In the matter of “citizenship for sale”, I cannot get excited, after all, it is neither a new concept, nor a Malta-only exercise. Just about every country, including Canada, USA and the UK do it, and have been doing it for years! On both these issues (migration and citizenship), it’s a case of camouflaging a molehill in a politicized mountainous terrain.”

As much as he loves Malta, John is very sure where his future lies: “For as long as I am healthy, I will continue to visit Malta (and take an interest in what is going on there), but my ‘life’ is in Canada.”

Having lived in two different countries always gives one the advantage of being able to compare and contrast the traits of various nationalities. However, John agrees that, ultimately, human nature is the same everywhere. “We all want what is best for us and our community; we all have our fears, hopes and dreams. Only our laws are different (in some respects), with no system being perfect.”

Living overseas tends to make people nostalgic and homesick, but there are three things which John definitely does not miss: “The already noted political toxicity; the religion-based laws; and ‘my’ language, which I can no longer understand– it’s so bastardized that I need an interpreter to translate the TV news! And I should add, the torrential rains which are so prevalent – we used to light votive candles and say special Mass in the hope of bringing some rain!”

So what is it about Malta that he does miss? “I do miss the village festa, the abundance of architectural treasures (Piano not included), the majestic Grand Harbour, the bustle of the city and the pastoral serenity which can still be found. The history which emerges from every nook and cranny on the islands. And Mdina! During my first years in Canada, I did suffer from the occasional bout of homesickness, but as time marched on, nostalgia became the norm – now, when the yearning is high, I take the first plane out … even though the past is long gone!”


Sunrise over a Norwegian mountain

Sunrise over a Norwegian mountain

Zillah Bugeja packed her bags and left for Norway on 13 April 2012 and tells me that while she does not regret her move, adjusting to her new life in a Scandinavian country is still something she is working on.
“It wasn’t difficult to make the move. Firstly I met a wonderful Norwegian man, and secondly, the economic downturn in Malta was affecting my earning ability as a freelance writer. I now work part-time and have a job I enjoy, in the tourist information office here. My boss is wonderful, so I’m actually happier work-wise than I have ever been.
As for fitting in, that is still an ongoing process. Suffice to say that I now understand why the Maltese are known to be friendly,” she says.

For Zillah, visiting home is a special treat because of the expense.  “I visit only once or twice a year as flights are quite expensive, and one has to make a living! I get very emotional as I see the islands. So small; so beautiful. I love flying over my house.”

Zillah gets her source of news mostly from Facebook, and then turns to the TOM website or follows other news items when interested. Although she only wants to know what is happening out of “mild curiosity” she  realises that this method does not always give her the whole picture, “Yes, my friends become gatekeepers. Unfortunately this means that the highlights tend to be: cats crucified, refugees drowning, gardens disappearing and EU citizenship for sale. Oh yes, and bad weather and traffic jams. I don’t check what’s going on very often because I really want to protect myself from feeling homesick,” she adds.

“When I visit, I see many new shops and restaurants and many fewer parking places. I’m very aware of the difference between the ‘life’ you read about and what you actually experience. Real life is more mundane. And it’s those real-life issues that concern me.”

As an ex-pat what most concerns Zillah about the island she left behind are the little things that make up our daily experiences: “The traffic and the impossibility of parking. Low wages, bad manners, unhealthy eating habits and prejudice. I am really concerned about property development. In a nutshell, it’s that this tiny, tiny country is being ruined by development, greed, ignorance, selfishness and lack of aesthetics, which could all be avoided.”

Since she is half English, Zillah has always felt “a little out of things”, to use her own expression. She points out, however, that this has also helped her to keep a clear head as she doesn’t  have that almost ’natural’ Maltese prejudice: whether it comes to politics, football teams, locality or social class. “I have always been fiercely patriotic and I am glad I’m not a political animal because it helps me to see the big picture and long for more unity.”

When I ask her about the “citizenship for sale” issue has been viewed from afar she says that she has never heard of Malta being spoken of disparagingly, although if the criticism is deserved, that’s fine with her. But now that she lives in Norway, Zillah can give new insight into the meaning of real nationalism. “You haven’t experienced patriotism until you come to Norway on their national day, 17 May. Everyone flies flags, wears the national costume (which is usually home-made and costs an arm and a leg) and takes part in parades. Patriotism is so strong here. Television is full of programmes celebrating the Norwegian way of life, in particular the concept of enjoying the outdoors. Life is very traditional and totally based on the seasons. For example, it’s perfectly acceptable for cool young men to wear mittens knit by granny. Everyone eats the same foods, which is why there is such little choice in the shops. I do find it strange that hunting is an integral part of life too, with many women having hunting licences. The idea is that it’s better to get your food directly from nature. Oh, and everyone fishes too.”

Zillah’s perspective sheds new light on how different countries treat other nationalities. What she has to say is quite eye-opening: “The Norwegian patriotism means that foreigners are expected to integrate into the Norwegian way of life, and again, there are many TV programmes about this. The pressure to speak Norwegian is incredible, even though they speak perfect English. This has really made me appreciate the Maltese attitude to foreigners which is totally the opposite – very welcoming.”

Ideally she wishes she could afford to spend half the year in both countries. “I really try hard not to feel homesick. I can’t let myself think of the sea or just wearing flipflops and going for a cappuccino at an outdoor cafe. (In fact, this interview is making me reminisce more than I’d like). Shopping is so much better in Malta, as is the bus service. Here, choice is limited and to go out, you have to go into town. Can you imagine only being able to go to Valletta for all cultural and social events? You can almost forget using the buses during the holidays!”

And for those (like me) who often complain about how noisy Malta is, Zillah makes an interesting observation: “It is very difficult to get used to the absence of noise. Supermarkets so quiet they are like churches; streets like ghost towns.  It’s also very interesting that the absence of a religious tradition doesn’t mean an absence of ethical behaviour.  Norway puts people, and the family, first. Can you imagine the working day ending at 4pm, in all offices, and no-one, not even management, pressurised to stay on? Even hotels and restaurants close at Christmas and Easter so that staff can be home with family, and go skiing. There aren’t even any Sunday papers!”

You can tell Zillah is a writer because of her keen sense of observation of the things which make a country what it is: “It’s an honest and transparent society. You can check anyone’s earnings online. You can safely leave your power tools and the children’s toys outside. No law that says to pick up dog poo, but everyone does! No social class and no great divide between rich and poor, better distributed wealth due to good salaries.”

And yet, despite the fact that she seems to be describing the ‘perfect’ society, there is a note of nostalgia which is obviously tugging at her heart about this admittedly flawed but charming little place we call home in each of Zillah’s replies.

“I never thought I’d say this but I miss the humidity! Yes, my hair has gone flat, and my skin and nails horribly dry. This is a real problem for me. I don’t miss the bad language and the traffic/ parking situation. It’s lovely here to be able to drink water straight from the tap and be comfortable temperature-wise, indoors. And no cockroaches! What a relief! But I do miss a good coffee, sitting outdoors in the warm winter sun, and the choice of places to go, especially restaurants and cafes. Small island living is great, and could be even better.”

Do you want to share your experiences of your perception of Malta from abroad? Contact me on info@josannecassar.com

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