Despite having lived, worked and travelled in many different countries, coming to live in Malta took a lot of getting used to. Of course, there is no massive culture shock or language barrier to negotiate; my British sense of humour is understood; there’s shared history; and shops stock Marmite and Heinz Baked Beans.
But, there are of course some things to get used to in order to settle in to a new pattern of life. Most of my early struggles were about getting around and shopping.
Here’s how I dealt with them and why I get a smile on my face when I reflect on them now.
Things to despair over (at first)
Walking: In August, heavily pregnant, with two very young kids – on pavements which are either non-existent, look as if they were built on a fault line and are just too narrow for a buggy. I tried, I really did.
Driving: I was used to walking to shops, pools and parks, bussing to museums, tubing to work. Here in Malta, most things are a drive away – albeit a short one – but that means braving the roads…
The Roads: Potholes a plenty – unless there’s a big sign announcing EU funding for works. Make sure your tyres have a bit of give in them.
The Road signs: Key junctions and roundabouts are bereft of signs… maps don’t help. Allow plenty of time, know the general direction you are heading in, and memorise the place names, just in case there is a random sign.
The Road Users: Snail snow or furiously fast. Overtaking irresistable, particularly on hills, blind curves, approaching junctions etc. No use of indicators, ever. I now drive very defensively, and usually very calmly.
Opening Hours: In my village, I think the shops open at 6am. I know they close between 12 and 4, but don’t re-open on a Wednesday afternoon, or a Saturday afternoon, and never on a Sunday. But I now know where to get the UK papers on a Sunday morning, and where to get fresh bread any time of day or night.
Milk: In the UK, I used to buy 4-litre recyclable cartons to last the family a few days. In Malta, milk comes in non-recyclable cartons and 1 litre is the biggest size – which in the heat of summer can go off anyway before you get it home.
Hawkers: The best type of ‘man with a van’ (I rarely see female hawkers), where I love to get bread, fruit, veg and fish which are fresh that morning. If I can find the van that is! Different days and times mean it’s in different locations. I still haven’t figured it out, and have been known to drive round the village in hot pursuit.
Choice: I used to live on little tubs of hummous, bagged salad, any fruit and veg, any time of year, preferably hand-picked from organic slopes, the odd ready meal…I was shocked that none of this was available. But my wallet and my waistline have benefited.
With Kids: In the village store, aisles are narrow, shelves stacked precariously and cakes at toddlers’ eye level. Very stressful. Supermarkets have more space, but none had trollies with seats for more than one child. Very uncharacteristically, very few people offered to help with unloading/packing bags/getting to the car.
….And the delights
Traffic Jams are practically non-existent – once every few months I may get stuck for 10 minutes if I’m very unlucky. Though, accidents do gridlock roads pretty quickly.
Vintage vehicles: The ancient, cherished cars and vans still delight me – I even saw a motorbike with a side car the other day.
The buses: Always cheap, usually reliable, often full of character – and a great outing with the kids!
Getting lost: Many times I have stopped to ask someone directions, and they have jumped into the car to direct me and make sure I know where to park.
Everyone delivers: So I don’t need to brave the narrow aisles with the incomprehensible queue-jumping or the terrible trollies. One ex-pat friend with a new-born would SMS the veg man and get the baker to leave ftira on her door. All with no charge and lots of smiles.
Less choice means less temptation: I just don’t really shop much, which means I save loads of money, and my kids aren’t hanging out in malls and exposed to rampant consumerism.
Fresh, seasonal produce: In the UK people will pay a premium for locally-grown fruit and veg. Here, it’s a fact of life – if we could buy tasteless strawberries 365 days a year, would we still enjoy the sublime taste of the local harvest in early summer?
All this, makes me smile, and it still does…
Photo: Gethin Thomas