At last! The part of the trip I was most looking forward to: 3 weeks in Malta. Sure, I was still fighting off a pesky chest cough and the weather forecast for our entire stay in Malta was mid-high thirties with 85% humidity, but nothing was going to stop me from enjoying this part of the trip. This was something I'd been dreaming about for almost 15 years. And the dream was about to be realised.
Rather than recap the sites and history of Malta, this blog entry will give you a little back story to explain why Malta means so much to me. The next blog entry will cover the essential sight-seeing and adventures to be had on the world's most amazing little rock!
Mum's side of the family is Maltese and she still has first cousins living in Mellieha, the village where her family comes from. My dear departed Nunnu, Lewis Bartolo - affectionately known as "Toby" (pronounced "Tobby") by us grandchildren - was one of the most remarkable characters to ever grace God's green earth. A practical joker, an entertainer, a man who went to any length to provide for his family (including moving halfway across the planet) and one of those guys who knew and was loved by everyone. Tobby really was the total package! Imagine my Jess - but an older, hairier male version with a Maltese accent and a constant aroma of cashew nuts. Sounds pretty huh? If only they could have met one another - they would've hit it off like Lennon and McCartney!
I know that sounds like one of those typical eulogies that anyone could write about their grandparents but my Tobby really was one of those few people who leave a lasting impression well beyond their immediate family and friends and whose antics are recalled many years after their death. After being an overweight chain smoker for 50 years, Tobby gave up the gaffs and became a fitness freak - running marathons at the age of 75 and setting the record for medicine ball sit ups at the Footscray gym (where the then Footscray Bulldogs players used to work out). He also managed to find time to take up line dancing and it wasn't uncommon to find him at weddings and family functions tearing up the dance floor into the wee hours of the morning with his typically loud mauve or light pink shirt transformed into a dripping, sweaty mess. The next morning, he'd be back at the gym in his fluoro orange singlet and shorts, putting younger professional athletes to shame. His antics at the gym became the stuff of legend as he worked out and played practical jokes on notable characters such as Les Twentyman (who clearly hasn't been to the gym since Tobby passed away) and Barry Round (ask Barry about the Nike Pegasus shoe that just wouldn't fit).
It's been almost 15 years since Tobby passed away. I'm now reaching the point where I've lived more of my life without him than I did with him. And as the years go by, the stories become more exaggerated, the finer details fade away, and you start to wonder whether the reality has been replaced by myth and wishful thinking. Before we flew into Malta, Mum reminded me to introduce myself to the locals in Mellieha as Tobby's grandson because "everyone will remember him". Highly unlikely. Tobby hadn't lived there since 1949 and his last visit was in 1998. And Mellieha was no longer a village. It was a tourist hotspot on the beach, similar to Victoria's Mornington Peninsula. Surely some old man's visit from 15 years ago was a long forgotten memory.
Within 5 minutes of being in Mellieha I learnt a lesson that I never seem to stop learning: your mother is always right! Mum's cousin Charlie and his wife Connie chaperoned us through the streets of Mellieha and told everyone that I was Toby's grandson. Almost all of the older people we met remembered him and had a story to share - how he used to jog the streets of Mellieha in his crazy outfits, how he used to make baskets and trinkets and sell them on a street corner, how he used to love dancing, etc. I couldn't believe it - they were talking about a man who hadn't lived in Mellieha for 70 years and whose last visit to the village was before mobile phones became an essential personal item. One bloke was reminiscing about Tobby and as he did so, he looked at me with a smile that stretched so far across his face I thought he was about to tear a cheek muscle. He paused for a moment and remarked that "your Nunnu made history here". That is a moment that will live in the warmest corner of my heart until I'm a crusty old man who is unable to pee without assistance.
As Charlie continued to show us around in those first few days I couldn't help but notice the similarities between he and Tobby - the constant jokes, stopping in the street to talk to everyone and the simple enthusiasm for life and determination to squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of the limited days we have on this planet. For the first time in 15 years, I felt like Tobby was alive again and playing a role in my life. It was one of the most amazing feelings I've ever experienced and I never wanted it to end.
It's a unique experience to be halfway around the world and yet somehow feel like you are home or you belong in this place. I think a lot of that had to do with Mum's…no make that our family in Mellieha. They never let us feel like visitors. In their eyes we were family and we belonged here with them. In addition to Charlie and Connie, there are Tony and his wife Josephine, Jimmy and his wife Maria, Christopher and Margaret, Joe and Mary, Katie and many others. We were most familiar with Charlie, Tony and Jimmy as they had visited us in Australia in recent years. Charlie and Connie put us up in a spectacular apartment for the first half of our trip with a balcony, swimming pool and the local shops and restaurants literarily at our feet. Tony and Josephine then opened their home to us for the second half of our stay in Malta - providing us with our first family experience since leaving home and meals on their balcony overlooking Mellieha, Gozo and Comino.
I could bang on about the history of Malta and the must see sights but that would only be telling a smidgen of the tale of our three week stay there. The best moments were spent with our family - celebrating Jess' birthday, having a meal, reading the paper and trying to work out the crosswords, sitting on the balcony with a cuppa, reminiscing about my cousins' previous visits to Australia (when I accidentally mistook Tony and Josephine for Jehovah's Witnesses and almost didn't let them in the house!) or just hearing stories of what life was like back in the day for their parents and their Ziju Tobby, my Nunnu.
Even as I type this, my mind is flooded with memories of being in a constant state of laughter as Tony and Charlie unloaded one witty joke after another on Jess and I. It's difficult to explain it on this blog. It's something that works much better verbally than in writing. Their relentless pursuit to keep you in a state of laughing (and, in my case, coughing) euphoria is a DNA trait they share with their Ziju Tobby. And it's something I had missed for so long.
This is what made our three weeks in Malta one of the best periods of our lives thus far. This, and the knowledge that Tobby's impact on the other side of the world was lasting. The feeling that he was alive again slowly began to fade with each passing day. And then by the time we boarded our ferry for Sicily, it was gone. Probably forever. But at least I had it for a fleeting moment. And for that I will always be grateful.