Years ago I taught English in the deep south of Italy. Prior to relocating to my job, the school and I went through a tedious back-and-forth with the Italian government about my work visa until it came to the point that I simply would have to move there without one and sort it out later if I was to start the school year on time. Paperwork arrived with “good” news… about 6 months later. And even so I would have to fly back to Chicago to wait indefinitely for it to be processed, a cost and teacher loss the school would have to bear. Bad plan. The school owner agreed it would be easier to send me over the border, out of the EU, that is, just to renew the 90-day limit on the tourist clock.
The New Year was almost upon us and I needed someplace close. I checked some flights and brought back prices and the owner gave me the nod: Malta! I’d be on my own for expenses there, but they’d even pay for my significant other at the time to fly with me. “You can’t be alone during the holidays!” Very generous of them I thought.
While one might often think of the Mediterranean as sunny days at the beach, winter there can be a bone-chilling cold and damp under slate skies and facing choppy waves like even the seawater doesn’t want to be there. It rained most of the time in Malta as we ducked in and out of old churches, traipsed through the mud among Neolithic ruins, and pooled together coins for cross-island buses or just simply thumbed a ride in a couple cases. We got the flight there, but were nevertheless short on cash, and the Maltese pound was surprisingly snooty toward our Euro.
We stayed in a guesthouse in Valletta, nothing very special in a big drafty room with a poorly functioning heater. We ate whatever cheap foods we could find. Honestly, I don’t even remember what we ate, so it clearly wasn’t memorable. I do recall one of those Can’t-Find-a-Place-to-Eat Death Marches that the longer you continue, the hungrier and less patient and logical you get. It is a downward spiral into primal urges that nearly always ends badly — either a fight, a couple days of continual concern for where the next toilet is, or both. I only remember that rabbit was on the menu and I could only afford fries and broth or something similarly indulgent.
We enjoyed what we could during those several days, defying the weather to even get as far as Gozo, the next island over, for its dramatic views (made more dramatic by stormy seas and a rough ferry crossing). But at a time when we needed a relaxing vacation, we wore ourselves out with racing, running… and frowning.
Finally, it was New Year’s Eve. I bought the second cheapest bottle of wine I could find, had the clerk open it and replace the cork, and brought it back to the guesthouse. We were the only guests and the owner wasn’t around. We climbed up to the rooftop and stepped out into a cold drizzling rain. In one hand I held an umbrella, the other the wine. She held out the plastic cup and I topped it off. But she had reached her limits. Things hadn’t been ideal. She was exasperated with what was an anticlimactic end to the holiday and the year. There was no countdown. No parties we knew about (or likely could have afforded anyway). Our shoes were soaked going on three days already, and the damp ache had settled into our feet and calves. Scowling, she lost it a bit, grumbled about it all, and made a case for what a disappointment this all had been. And the whole moment felt like finding a gift under a Christmas tree when you thought you had none and opening it to find an empty box.
But all I could think is: Holy crap! I’m in Malta! I’m standing in the rain, drinking wine, and looking out over the rooftops at the city lights of Valletta, at the harbor beyond. We saw the enormous original painting The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio days before. We saw megalithic temples over 5000 years old. We got free flights to get us here. That guy joyriding his wife’s Mini Cooper while his crappy car was in the garage stopped to pick us up and take us all the way to the Arch of Gozo when we resorted to hitchhiking because the buses weren’t running. And the tour-bus driver took a couple coins and let us take two empty seats for the return. This was nothing short of awesome! And the rain, the umbrella, the wine in a plastic cup is a romantic moment that should never be forgotten.
We waited until midnight, and a few dim fireworks popped out over the dark waters, their sounds nearly absorbed by the heavy skies. And we just shuffled back inside and took turns for the hot shower.
Never lose your perspective on things, and always appreciate how good you have it even when you think you don’t. May you find the positive in 2012, and plenty of it!
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