I moved to the Mediterranean because I wanted to write an island book inspired by Lawrence Durrell. But it had to be a place no one else had written about — at least, not in that way.
I found Malta after a brief web search. I knew nothing about the place apart from indirect Dashiell Hammett references and vague notions of Knights battling Turks. That vagueness appealed to me.
And so we gave up our rental house in Guelph, Ontario and entrusted our belongings to an international removal company. When the guy asked where we were headed, I said, “I’ll send you an address in two weeks.”
We flew to Malta for a weekend to look at rental properties. The chaos and crowds we found on the ground were not what I was expecting after earlier travels in the Mediterranean. It felt like Libya rather than Provence. But I signed an agreement for the house I became obsessed with. Then it was back to Canada to pick up the cat, and a couple weeks later we were living on a small, rather heavily populated rock caught between Sicily and North Africa.
It would be our home for the next 6 years.
The Palazzo Years
I had rented a 400-year old palazzo in the village of Zejtun, with 8 bedrooms, a billiard room, two cellars and a jacuzzi on the roof. And it cost me less than renting a house or a lakeside condo in Toronto. It just seemed like a cool idea at the time, and an incredible experience to look back on.
Services are very cheap in Malta, too, and so our standard of living improved dramatically in many ways. But we hadn’t bargained on how cold and damp the Mediterranean could be in winter, especially in stone houses without heat or insulation. Those winters would be our second big shock.
The first shock was the village festa, and being hurled out of bed by enormous aerial daytime bombs which had nothing in common with fireworks. There were other surprises too, and clashes of culture. But those came gradually, and they’re slowly receding into some sort of balanced perspective.
At first we were busy exploring the history of a place where so many layers of culture overlapped: stone age, Bronze age, Phoenician, Roman, Carthaginian, Muslim, Norman, Knight and British colonial. And Malta was a great jumping off point for Europe, too. But those years mainly revolved around the house.
Friends sometimes asked me if I found that enormous stone house creepy. But I had spent the first several days getting to know it: going from one room to the next, polishing each piece of furniture, and finding its hidden corners. I cared deeply for the house, and I felt that the house accepted me in turn, so I always felt very much at home there, even when staying alone.
A few friends visited in those years too: my old comrade in travel Zachary Peoples from Vagabond Dreams, friends from Japan, and my wife’s parents. But mostly we lived there alone, wandering from room to room, and just getting on with our work.
I published a few articles. We did a few expeditions. And I finally got my first book out after 10 long years of rewrites.
But those years were linked to sad events, too. The most heart wrenching was the death of my cat Dashiell. She had been such a great friend to me for 17 years, and my last memories of her are associated with that house. (I told her story here, and I still can’t read it without tearing up)
And as I delved deeper into the stories of the island, I found a sense of disillusionment growing within me. The more I uncovered, the more I began to realize that the Maltese themselves had had little to do with their own incredible history. In many ways, they were passive recipients of cultural advances brought by one conqueror after another. Each time I found something which seemed unique to the island, I discovered it had been brought by someone else. Present-day Maltese culture feels completely disassociated from the island’s incredible past. I have some thoughts on what this has meant, but you’ll have to wait for my island book to read them.
The Palazzo Years were my best years in Malta. The house was everything I’d hoped it would be, and I remain grateful for the chance to experience it.
But all things must end, and those years did too. The owner listed the house for sale, and we were inundated with a steady stream of real estate agents disturbing our peace. It was time to leave.
The 360 Degree Penthouse Years
Our next island home was a penthouse on the outskirts of Mosta, a village near the centre of the island. It was high on a hill overlooking the rugged valley of Wied ta’ Isperanza, and we had the entire top floor.
The terrace was massive, with distant sea views, and a broad panorama of the entire south, the Mosta dome, and the old capital of Mdina. No other building overlooked us, so it truly was a 360 degree view.
It felt like a nice change to move into a modern building after several years in a sprawling 400 year old house. But we would soon find out that modern buildings in Malta are very badly built indeed.
The penthouse was incredibly cold in winter. We were already used to stone houses with no insulation or heating, but this two-year-old flat seemed to soak up the damp. It came through the walls in large wet patches which quickly festered with mould.
The electricity was unstable too, and pretty much everything broke: the water heater (in winter, naturally), the microwave, refrigerator, water pressure pump, the elevator (every other month), the laundry machine. Even the television emitted a high pitched squeal.
I used to enjoy watching storms sweep over the island, but we soon began to dread the sound of distant thunder because the power would inevitably trip off. Our breaker box was substandard too, so I’d have to go down to the ground floor elevator room and flip main switches while my wife tried the ones upstairs, until we had isolated the unstable circuit.
And let’s not discuss the noise. But despite the incredibly shoddy construction, we did have some good memories there.
I enjoyed exploring a new side of the island: the old capital of Mdina, the catacombs of Rabat, and the Victoria Lines.
I also became friends with a bird. It showed up on our terrace one day; I think it had been shot by a hunter. We fed it throughout our entire period of residence, and it grew plump and healthy and took on a very distinctive character.
I never managed to get the bird to eat from my hand, but it did walk over and sit near me anytime I was reading on the terrace. And when we overslept, it pecked at the bedroom door to remind us that it was waiting for fresh seeds.
Speaking of flying things, our building was directly beneath the flight path of the international airport. The steady stream of passenger jets were still a couple thousand feet up when they swooped in to land, but they looked so enormous from our penthouse terrace that you’d swear they’d almost skim the roof.
I loved watching those big jets come in around 2am. I couldn’t make out the shape of the plane in the darkness, only lights and a vague outline blotting out the stars. The sound wouldn’t come until they were nearly above us, and for a brief moment in the disconnected dead of night, I could imagine I’d fallen into Star Wars, and a ship of the Empire was approaching my distant desert planet.
And with that, I’d take one last look at the sleeping town before turning in. And more often than not, I would cup my hands around my mouth and give a defiant cock-a-doodle-doo. It would spread like a ripple all the way across Mosta, from the fields below us to the far end of the village — and, presumably, on to Naxxar — as every confused rooster in the area made their morning call.
Those were my favourite things about life in Mosta. But the 360 Degree Penthouse Years were a challenging time, both personally and professionally. I was in the midst of the crisis years between 38 and 45, the Mid-Life Transition, when the sense of our own mortality sinks in and we find ourselves questioning everything.
I think I came out the other side a much better and happier person, with a clearer understanding of my priorities and of what I want in life. But that top floor flat still holds the resonance of those struggles, and I was glad to leave its sadness behind.
The Semi-Nomad Years
Our final residence in Malta was a large flat on the ground floor of a terraced house, and it wasn’t easy to find.
We attempted to view a total of 6 places over a frantic two week period of internet searches and time wasting phone calls, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t begun to despair of the entire human race, and of the Maltese in particular. I was bitten by a monkey, and we were stood up and lied to at every turn.
But our luck eventually turned. Our home was near the famous Blue Grotto, on a dead end road at the edge of Zurrieq. The front window looked out over terraced fields and dry stone walls, and a view that went all the way to Dingli radar station. I had a nice sized office, too.
This flat was much cheaper than our previous residences, and so we were able to undertake several experiments in Lifestyle Design.
Our first year in Zurrieq was one of nonstop travel. I think we visited 15 countries in all, and several of them more than once. If you follow my blog, you’ll have read of my adventures in the Baltics and Scandinavia, the fruit planation in the Algarve, and our expedition to the Tibesti mountains of Chad.
It was a year of creating memories and stories, but the pace was exhausting and I couldn’t keep it up. So the following year I tried a different strategy: fewer trips but longer stays.
We spent nearly two months in Japan, half of that in a rented flat in Tokyo. And we spent a month in Berlin, with a 4×4 camping trip to the central highlands of Iceland and a few shorter trips thrown in.
I thought longer stays would mean more progress with my writing, but this theory didn’t quite work out. I can run my online business from the road; it’s easy to flip in and out of that mindset. And I can write regular blogs and magazine articles, too. But I didn’t get any farther with a new book.
And so that’s where I find myself now.
I’m craving a more settled period where I can immerse myself in book-length projects, and in reading and culture. I have several volumes sketched out in my head, and they need an uninterrupted daily routine to find their way into the world. That and peace and quiet.
I’ve learned that Malta isn’t the environment for such work. It isn’t just the constant noise. It’s that life feels very stagnant there, and it exists firmly in the present.
The Mediterranean taught me to slow down. To let things go. To not put my hand up and take on all the work just because someone else wasn’t doing it. Island life brought me back to essentials in many ways. But even after 6 years of living in Malta, I still felt like a complete outsider. I’ve never been able to relate to the culture, or to the mentality of the cultural majority.
It was finally time for us to leave.
In the end, we just slipped away. No one at the gym seemed to notice when I walked in and returned my key. The guy who cut my hair just about every month for the past 6 years said, “Oh, well, good luck then,” and that was it.
I wasn’t expecting trumpets or open weeping, but it felt like my existence on the island was as transient and unimportant as I had intuited all along. Surface friendly, and that was all.
There were a few exceptions, of course. We said our goodbyes to that handful of friends who truly were sad to see us go, and we spent a few days revisiting some of our favourite spots. I guess you could call it a farewell tour.
We sold the car. I packed up my books. And last weekend we boarded an Air Malta flight with one-way tickets.
I thought I’d feel nostalgic as I watched the island vanish below me for the last time. I often felt that way when we set out on long trips. And Malta is at its aerial best in winter, clad in green, with the bones of its hills poking through, and pale stone houses jutting up like teeth.
But it was an early flight, and all I felt was tired.
Life is like that, isn’t it? There’s no clear dividing line between phases: between sadness and happiness, or adulthood and old age. They just sort of drift together, and we move on without a backwards glance.
Photos ©Tomoko Goto