In the days following my arrival home, I’ve spent little time trying to comprehend the whirlwind 3 days that was Malta. A few people have asked me curiously how a tiny Mediterranean island known for Sicilian inspired chow and relaxed locals could have sent me half mad in such a short time. I guess it’s a combination of A) the insane backstory which led me to meeting its shore and B) the outgoing nature of both locals/ yours truly combined. I guess I am writing this in order to break apart and digest the thicker bites of my short stay as well as share it to the next unsuspecting holiday-goer (not that I am saying you too can expect to end up drunk with an 80 year old local, searching the back street of a church at 4am but it’s totally feasible).
Part 1: Insane backstory
If I am to be completely honest, I should admit that in the lead up to my mini adventure, I had at times imagined myself as some sort of black, female, totally unrelated James Bond. I harbored the dream of hiring some sort of private detective. I envisioned myself lounging about a grimy bodega, drinking dark whisky, muttering code words and smoking spiced clove cigarettes. The idea of searching for a long lost family member had this cinematic attraction to it. It felt as though I could feign investigator and my notions somewhat differed to the reality of the situation I was soon to face. The thing I had missed out in my egoistic spy visions, was the emotional gravity of the whole she-bang which was inevitably now in my wake.
The whole reason I went to Malta was in search of (this might get confusing) my grand fathers’ brother, so my grand uncle if you will. Carmel Cutajar (my grandfather) was born in the Hamrun municipality in Malta in the late 1940’s.
During the early stages of his life, the Cutajar family’s humble hairdressing business was in bad shape, having barely survived the continual shelling of German pilots during the 40’s, the family had little left to name and in desperation moved to a smaller two room apartment in the seaside district of Sliema. If you were in Sliema nowadays, it would be hard to induce pictures of crumbling limestone dwellings and rolling hills of shrubbery and megalithic ruins. The Sliema strip has now been injected with a hefty dose of capitalist fare and as I taxied along the bay, I found it hard to ignore the euro trash extravagance of what by late night/ early morning was now an ode to the ever so gritty and semen soaked holes of America (Vegas, I’m looking at you).
Existence on this teensy Mediterranean sandlot during the mid-1940’s translated to being continually shelled. This was mainly a problem if you lived remotely near an industrial area, which on a tiny island means you probably lived within target range. Following this explosive period (pun intended), my family were enduring starvation and sacrifice. All six of them sharing a 12 square meter dwelling. Barely living in the shreds of a once recognizable family home and sandwiched between gutted remnants of life and businesses.
The future for the Cutajar family was questionable post war, at least until the fateful day The Catholic Church came knocking. The group was dubbed “The Christian Brothers”. They were an organization which in cooperation with the Catholic Church and the British and Australian Governments’ were selecting eligible children from The Commonwealth to move to Australia. This would give them education and greater opportunities and their families would receive a salary for sending their children for what would only be a small number of years. Naturally she agreed to this and little did she know she was signing away my grandfather for the most part of his life. Carmel Cutajar, an 11 year old child was trusted to an organization that would bring him to Australia as a child laborer. Little did my grandmother know that he would be beaten, refrained from education and paid next to nothing in order to repopulate post-war Australia with the roughly 1200 other children who were stolen because they were white, of poor families and within the British colonies (seriously, google “Malta’s Stolen Children”). 1200 children were taken, abused and exploited and the entire thing would only come out in the 80s. It’s just mind blowing to think something of that scale could happen and be kept covered up for so long in what Australia thought was a progressive new society post war.
Working for years as a labourer, Carmel (whom immigration renamed ‘Charlie’) met my grandmother at a young age and they entered an affair, conceiving my mother not long after. Financial hardship and social responsibility led my mother to be adopted. As a young adult she then began to seek out Carmel, to find out her roots and to inevitably be told by the Australian government they had during the inquisition into his immigration, burnt the entire contents of his records (charming). This chain of events is what had led me to Malta. I wasn’t searching for my grandfather Carmel though, but instead his brother Anthony, the oldest of the group and who I hoped would have the answers I needed for my visa woes and could help me untangle this web of misfortune.
Part 2. Malta – Bali of the Mediterranean
I’m in an airport transfer bus on the way to the country’s main bus port, I’m staying close by in Valetta. The road is probably wide enough for one large truck but it sure as hell is not adequate for a passenger bus, a van and a sun kissed 50 year old cruising a horse to be sharing. Somehow, we all manage to sandwich ourselves on this road and once we meet a roundabout, the old sailor with his horse stops in the center island for a smoke break and we fly past. Everything is made out of limestone, which makes sense if the island you live on is made out of limestone, but it gives Malta this distinct quality of older times. The bus takes you down rolling hills covered in dilapidated limestone factories, walls, farm houses, cemeteries, bus stops, Burger Kings and on occasion you’ll be treated with a Statuette of a Saint you have never heard of. In Valetta city they’re as frequent as red faced, sweaty Brits. Usually resting on a limestone pillar the painted figures moan and bow, surrounded by prayer candles and shiny light bulbs.
Airbnb is my go to for holiday accommodation. If it weren’t for the savvy website, I wouldn’t have found the designer binge apartment owned by a Maltese architect and his equally cultured wife. Upon entering, I uttered a sigh of relief when their abnormally cheery Philippine cleaner led me upstairs to my room. The crisp white sheets and aged teak automatically transported me to earlier décor related fantasies I held. There’s something about minimal Mediterranean living that is so difficult to achieve if you don’t live in a seaside city that’s fed continual solar warmth. One could say the same about the clichéd sunny disposition of the locals.
Having a couple of hours spare that day (and an entire evening), I decided to take the bus to the far opposite of the island, trekking on public mobile is easy enough. Valletta hosts the main terminal to which you’ll find all bus routes depart from and arrive to. I decided to ride to the northern point of the island, not too far from where one would catch the ferry to Gozo, the second largest and equally as diverse brother to the Maltese mainland. I just want to warn you of something now, if you plan to visit Malta, and at some point, ride a public bus, you must know a few things. 1. Sometimes you have no idea what stop they are at because they haven’t switched on the LED box that informs you of its name or you’re incompetent. 2. The buses are never, ever on time. So late are they that by the third day in the country I had grown accustom to the local way of catching a bus, which was to simply show up at a stop and hope it arrived soon. Checking the time table is good for a rough estimate but the bus is usually 10 minutes after that proposed time, or 10 minutes early however you’d rather approach it. 3. These buses go from Valletta to the farthest reaches of the mainland, meaning if you board at Valletta and for example you want to go to Popeye’s Village (a legitimate if not tourist polluted set on the island) you must understand that the hour journey you expected, will in fact be closer to two, maybe two and a half sweaty hours. The public transport operates here with the same apathy and cheery casual cool that I remember struggling with in the more dense South East Asian localities. So goddamn frustrating whilst charming at the same time. Bless em’.
So I finally make it to one of the tourist adored beaches of the mainland, Golden Bay. Golden bay, is your typical azure. It’s everything you could imagine of a blue lagoon, only to its right side you have a fading apricot beach resort and the air wafts Manchester dipped English strains into your ears from all directions. I thought it was nice, and hey I was still attempting to find bearings after a grueling hour and a half bus ride. A bus ride which in its defense was made bearable by shrub dipped hills of disintegrating limestone.
I ended up asking about the frequent limestone ruins some hours later. Antonio is both stocky local and runner of the Golden Bay horse riding company. Yes, I know you’re thinking I’ve turned my self-envisioned Bond escapade into more of an Eat Pray Love awakening (never, ever). I went on a hunch and I am glad I followed it. Instead of calmly trotting down a worn in path with a dozen sweaty middle aged spinsters, I was entrusted to a thick legged stallion and ignored for the 90 minutes I paid for, well ignored other than the few times I trotted back to ask of the landscape.
Once mounted and ready, Antonio nodded to me as though to say “go on” and (having had riding experience) I was left to lead my fly barrel out of there. We walked in a small group for some time, and then were left to trot off along the cliffs whilst our nonchalant guide busied himself with a dirt soaked flask of something or other. On occasion the stunning view from the cliffs edge of the bay and the endless blue sea that met it, would be interrupted by some sort of decrepit tower or fort like edifice. I asked Antonio about one of these, he answered that it was a fort, it had been built by knights in the 1500s. I could have leant out from my horse and touched it, but the awesomeness of its age, and the confusing disregard for its place in Malta’s war soaked history wouldn’t let me. Nearing the end of the ride we passed more dilapidated buildings. Two of these worn huts resembled the remains of an official establishment. As we passed, I caught glimpses beyond the dark curtains of emptiness doors had once occupied. Rotting tables, papers everywhere, shreds of clothing and burnt out fireplaces. Antonio noticed my interest and explained that the exposed and ignored property had once been the offices of the British Army. I struggled to picture the skeletal frame with its rotting wood and it’s poisoned stone in earlier years. Once regal and shrouded in artillery during Malta’s fundamental role in the Second World War.
Part 3. Anthony (Tony) Cutajar
After a long and unintentional night of drinking, I awoke the next morning coated in a thin film of sweat and smelling like I bathed in whisky the night before. I guess you could say I did, in a way. I rolled out of bed and wandered around the chic of my hosts living room in awe and tried to recover brain cells. For some hours I waddled around slowly, hung over and searching for biscuits or something to soak the last remnants of booze in my belly. Whilst hobbling around and occasionally tripping in a puddle of my own self-pity, I started to drift back into thoughts of Tony. I still needed to find him, I had been there a day, and other than browsing the phone book, I hadn’t done anything yet other than holiday.
At that moment of thought, my cell vibrated off the side table down the hall and after 20 minutes of digression my mother got to her point, which was that she had my Great Uncle’s old address. So where to go from there? I have always liked to think of myself as resourceful, so, using this imagined resourcefulness I searched further. Gathering Western Australian immigration reports and spending forty minutes looking at a detailed map of Sliema, I began to figure out which street it could have been.
After some time and finally, a coffee, I realized they have a public registry in Malta and it’s on one of the floors in the new and improved super happy fun time Evan’s Building. Which I suspect at some point was a (horrible) school, though now holds my favourite departments all in one urine soaked establishment: The Public Registry, Passport Department and my personal favourite, the Immigration Department.
I attempted whilst there to ask someone regarding my citizenship. I trudged down stairs into the immigration department, a large room with halls running off it on all sides. There was a chubby, sweat ridden man who resembled security, squeezed behind a desk in the center of the dank room. Beside him sat a one armed, sun-kissed army veteran. The war vet sat calmly smiling, watching his chubby mate yelling at a deafening volume into a switchboard phone born of the 80s. A tiny framed photo of Malta’s president hung above them, his cheesy smile the only thing on the walls other than one large crucifix. I felt disheartened after 20 minutes of the guard shouting “MADAM, NO, NO, MADAM, I CAN NOT HELP YOU, NO” into the receiver, and smashing his stubby digits into the keypad. My feelings ran true minutes later when he told me, to very little surprise, that he can’t help me either. Though the hours spent inside that establishment are hours I’ll never be able to swap. I did manage to find Tony’s address. It hadn’t changed in many years.
“Who is this?” The aged voice crackled through the receiver.
“My name is Kaitlyn, Did you have a brother named Carmel? Carmel Cutajar?”
“…Yes, He’s dead now though, who are you?” The voice now tinged with curiosity.
I paused, hoping not to give the man a heart attack. “I’m his granddaughter”.
The buzzer whirred.
My climb of the tiled stairs to his apartment was short but felt slow enough for me to recall it with precision. So much had built up to this moment. I had no idea what I was supposed to say to this man but figured my nervous ranting wouldn’t fail me now (if you’ve ever seen me drunk you’ll understand). There he stood, an old man like any you may pass on the street or free* your bus seat for. It felt strange, standing across from this everyday man. He was a stranger to me yet we shared unseen bonds of foretold ancestry, they wound us together in a situation no one had ever wanted to be dragged into nor could have foreseen.
“You look just like your grandfather.” His voice choked and he staggered his body to the closest chair.
After that statement things seemed to slow, the hours following are hard to recall and some things can be shared for interest while others can’t. He told me of his life, his divorce. He told me about the war.
We sat and looked at photos for some time, Tony was a collector or as I like to call them, a hoarder. He collected travel sized spirit bottles, broken lamps, candlesticks, figurines and now stamps. His house has that powdered smell of your gran’s dresser and he shows me some old pasta shells he keeps in a jar.
“They used to make them like this, not no more though, not no more.”
I tell him about my wedding, about my husband and am interrupted repeatedly by knocks at the door. In Malta’s suburbs everybody keeps their eyes on everybody’s business.
After rifling through his assorted collections he asks me if I would like to see a photo of Charlie. I nod enthusiastically. The time in his apartment has been surreal and has overall felt as though I’m sitting in the apartment of someone who thinks I know them though I don’t. Finding it hard to make the connection I wanted to grow so badly, the photo viewing opportunity seemed like a step towards the track we’d swerved from. He struggled to find photos of my grandfather in his living room. He glanced at his bedroom and it seemed as though he was hesitant to agree with the suggestions his mind was making. Begrudgingly he waddled to his bedroom and called me after him. I entered to find him pulling a dusty box from one of those upper shelf cupboards you avoid things with.
I sat on the bed, sifting through the photos whilst he busied himself staring at the wall and door frame.
“I don’t keep many photos, I try to never look at them. They only hurt. As an old man as I am now, you look back on your life and are hit with feelings of happiness as well as regret so often. I wish I could have spent the time I needed to with your grandfather, I knew him in old age and that makes me sad. I couldn’t have helped him. My poor mother, my poor mother Kait.” Tony spoke to the ceiling, his back to me. His loneliness still managing to find me. “Would you like to see his house? I mean, where he was born? I was there when it happened, we had 2 rooms. 12m squared in total, I remember it. We were so poor, my father was a hairdresser.”
We hop in his modest ride and as the clock passes 3 I realize we’ve spent hours talking and staring uncomfortably at each other. My daydreams of the hours passed are sharply interrupted by Tony’s driving. As I have mentioned earlier Malta streets are unpredictable in the least and I try to slow my breathing as he narrowly misses a passing truck. He looks at me whilst talking about the harbor, whilst driving, whilst I imagine what I would say to those I love if I could before my impending death. At that moment my memoirs are flung out the window along with my nerve as we hit a sign post. Still alive.
Tony chuckles and hobbles out of the car scratching his golf hat. “We hit a sign, I love you, I think I am going to die” I text my husband. I look up and see him smiling at me through the windscreen. Thumbs up means we continue on this death-quest.
After numerous steep hills and the little euro-mobile choking on each incline, we make it into the heart of Sliema. Tony can’t quite be sure of the street (there aren’t signs) and an old woman asks what we’re looking for. The two speak in Maltese then he starts trotting in the other direction. “Yes! Behind the church, yes!” he yells ahead of me. Stopping in the distance he looks to me and I see he has stopped in front of an aged blue door. Beside the door is a single window , also blue. Their design mirrors the doors and windows either side of them. Each tiny apartment the same, each apartment abandoned. Tony tells me they are so small they are useless to owners unless you buy three and install some sort of bathroom or kitchen. I picture is lanky body as a young boy, washing in the street where I stand with his brothers .
I push at the loose wooden window shutters. A splint gives way, sliding back into the darkness of the home with an echoing snap and I can see the window inside is broken. I feel overwhelming sadness for my grandfather at this moment. I see him in the doorway, 10 and unaware. Hand clasping the hand of a stranger. This knowing hand leading him into a future that brought forward decades of displacement and pain. We walk back to the car in humbled silence.
I remember that I had come here for a passport among other things. Palms flit past my window in the early morning still and the radio static cuts the final silence of the night. “I can’t help you with the passport” Tony begins.
“I worry, things are fragile in families. I don’t doubt that you are my brother’s granddaughter. That I can see just in your face. However, there are other things I do doubt. Families are complicated things. In old age I can see now that we should just be happy to have each other. DNA testing is a clarity I don’t want, not with you but with other things.” I sit listening. All though it does concern me, the urgency of the citizenship had fallen away with the realization that there were bigger things in Malta for me than I had originally anticipated. “I think things should stay as they are. We all have each other now, Charlie would have been happy. Also, I think my mother had a fling.”