Monday 01 March 2021

It would not hurt us to be more like Doris

This column first appeared in Malta Today

Last month, a young woman who was unknown to the general public found herself becoming an Internet sensation when someone stumbled upon her YouTube videos.

Simply entitled Doris & Joel’s Kitchen, the YouTube channel could not have been more basic. Filmed, as the name indicates, in the couple’s kitchen, Doris demonstrated her recipes and Joel (presumably) was the cameraman. So far, so what? There are probably tens of thousands of such home-made videos all over the Internet.

What caught the public’s attention, however, was Doris’, shall we say, creative food combinations which would definitely disagree with you if you suffer from a delicate palate. A strange assortment of frozen vegetables, eggs, yoghurt and anything else which came to hand were chucked in together, sometimes on an air fryer, as Doris patiently and sweetly explained the instructions.

But what really caught my eye was not so much what Doris was saying or doing, but the public’s reaction to her videos.

As they moved from being shared on a private What’s App group and migrated on to Facebook (from where they were eventually picked up by Lovin’ Malta), the comments about the videos took the inevitable ugly turn. People no longer restricted themselves to mocking her recipes, but it became a vulture-fest to see who could tear this poor woman apart the most. Everything, from her modest kitchen and utensils, to her leopard skin bathrobe and of course, to her heavily accented English became fair game to those who always seem to be lurking in the background, sharpening their knives so that they can readily skewer their next hapless victim. This being Malta, politics and social class also had to come into it, and of course, she was then also sneered at for being a Labour supporter from a working class background .

This dark side of social media, which brings out the worst in people, has always bothered me, but when news portals encourage this behaviour because it is easy clickbait, it is made a million times worse. The easy, casual cruelty of some online remarks, which try to pass themselves off as being witty, always takes my breath away (not to mention the twisted irony that some of these same people have always been the first to protest at being the victims of similar hate speech). Thankfully, the comments also included many who chastised Lovin’ Malta for carrying this ‘story’ in a way which instigated even more unkindness and ridicule against this woman.

But it was Doris herself who taught all of us a lesson on how to handle haters gracefully and with dignity. Following several weeks of intense media scrutiny, she posted a short video and explained that she was uploading her easy to make recipes for those who might feel lonely during the pandemic. Without missing a beat and with her trademark charming smile, she added, “I can understand that there may be people who dislike my videos and to those I say, please, do not see my videos and see other videos that you like”.

Not one word was uttered in retribution against her critics, nor did she attempt to hit back in the same nasty way she was addressed by complete strangers. I watched it almost speechless, almost in awe of the classy way she handled it. She showed everyone that she has the strength of character and self-confidence to rise above those who seemed hell-bent on destroying her simply because she dared to do her own thing. After all, she was not hurting anyone with her videos, and as she quite rightly pointed it out, if you don’t like them, don’t watch.

To be honest, it really would not hurt any of us to look at life in such a positive, uplifting way. Maybe we should all try to be more like Doris.

The cost of living this life of ours

On Friday, Caritas issued the findings of its report for 2020, ‘A minimum essential budget for a decent living’. The research study is based on three low-income household categories, and the minimum amount per year was calculated on eight categories: food, clothing, personal care, health, household goods and maintenance, education and leisure, transport and housing.

These amounts came to at least:

•   €13,946 for two adults and two school age children
•   €11,038 for single parent with two school age children 
•   €8,157  for an elderly couple (65+)

The reactions to the report were mostly of disbelief, with many protesting that the amounts were not realistic and that they verged on poverty rather than a living wage. However, it must also be pointed out that, not for the first time, many threw in a comment based on just a headline. On further reading of the report it is clearly stated that other expenses such as the costs of having a car, eating out regularly and paying rent would shoot up the above figures to 25k, 22k and 18k respectively.

Having said that, it is also true that the cost of living in Malta, when compared to the average income (and compared to other countries), is exorbitantly high. If one wants to eat well, by which I mean buying fresh fruit and vegetables on a regular basis, as well as meat and fish, one’s grocery bill can quickly skyrocket. It is no wonder that the cheaper, but less healthy options such as pastizzi and fast food can be found at very corner, whereas if you are trying to maintain better eating habits when you are dining out, you can easily end up spending €12 for just a salad.

What saves many families from being destitute is our robust social welfare system – social housing, free healthcare, free education, free childcare, free school transport and a host of other benefits which many on the minimum wage qualify for.

But it is also true that for many people (especially pensioners), eating out is an unheard of luxury and they have to count their pennies to make sure they last until the end of the month. They are frugal with their use of water and electricity and nothing in the household goes to waste. They don’t buy the latest fashions every season and they certainly don’t give away bagfuls of hardly worn, or even new, clothes every year.

I often see Malta as an island of extreme contrasts where some think nothing of buying the latest expensive iPhone or PlayStation “because they must have it”, and nonchalantly ditch the previous model without a second’s thought, while others gasp in downright shock when told of the price tag. There are those whose designer homes, wardrobes and storage spaces are bulging with items they don’t even know they have, while some discreetly try to obtain second-hand items from recycling pages or charity shops.

It is an unjust state of affairs because there is no fair distribution of wealth.

Having said that, if we had to be completely honest with our own spending, there are many things which we could cut out, ruthlessly, if our backs were against the wall and we absolutely had to do it. There are people who have lost their jobs over the past year, or who have had their paycheques drastically reduced, who have had to do just that. It is at that point that you will be forced to focus on the bare necessities such as food and shelter, and it is perhaps at that point that one wakes up to the realisation that, for some people, this way of life is all they have ever known.

For this reason, rather than just looking at the headline, everyone should read the recommendations made by Caritas in their report, where they give concrete solutions on how to improve the situation for those at risk of poverty. Just to mention one idea, they suggest reducing food waste from supermarkets by donating food with a close expiry date to food banks or other NGOs which are in touch with vulnerable low income individuals or households.

Rather than merely telling us what we already know, I believe they have come up with practical ideas which make sense all round.

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