Have you ever dreamed of living in the middle of an artillery firing range? Then Malta in summer is for you.
Whereas the military might lob a few shells over for a couple hours a week, here you can be treated to a nonstop bombardment, varying in intensity between dull monotony to cataclysmic barrage, with a brief break between about 1am and 8am.
I can still recall my first experience with the Maltese festa.
I was startled from my bed like a projectile, completely disoriented but certain that the recent Libyan civil war had spread across that small gap of sea and come directly to my village. I expected the windows to shatter at any moment, and the doors to blow off their hinges. A thin trickle of plaster dust was already falling from the ceiling as each new round threatened to bring down the walls around me. If Jericho could be felled by a trumpet, then surely this was enough to wipe all but a bunker off the map.
Of course, it wasn’t the Libyans at all. This mind-numbing seasonal barrage is brought to us courtesy of the local marching band club, who are of course well qualified to handle both tubas and large quantities of unregulated explosives.
What do JC, the saints and explosives have in common? I wish someone could tell me. It’s either an offering to the patron saint of hearing loss, an attempt at enacting the apocalypse, or people really miss the Nazi bombardments.
I’ve sometimes wondered if I dug a deep enough shelter, would I be able to form a coherent thought, or read a paragraph all the way through? But sadly, no. Tunnelling would just be busywork, and a distraction. Earplugs hold no power over this infernal racket, nor does any form of industrial hearing protection. Nothing short of total deafness — and even then, you still feel the explosions as a big shove on your chest.
It feels a lot like getting punched in the head over and over for at least 10 rounds. And when that incredible aural assault is coming from every surrounding village simultaneously, it will drive all thoughts short of suicide out of your mind. [See video: 9 minutes of tedium]
The entire valley outside my window fills with thick toxic smoke, too. I’m told that at least one of the chemicals used here for these massive — and of course Holy — kablaaaams has been banned in Europe as a likely carcinogen. The residue falls on the fields immediately below, and much is washed into the surrounding sea, along with all the paper and partially burned crap that flutters down from the sky. The farmers in the area are really nice people, but we’ve stopped buying locally grown vegetables for fear of contaminated soil.
So yeah, let’s get something straight. Petards are not fireworks. There’s no beautiful display of colours or patterns. They’re simply enormous aerial bombs that make an incredible amount of noise. And they might just be the stupidest and most annoying “custom” I’ve ever encountered in my decades of travel.
I still can’t believe anyone would get excited enough about these things to roll out of bed early and sit in a field waiting for the church bell to strike 8 so they can get started. Only someone with an incredible tolerance for the repetitive could possibly take any delight in it.
But please don’t suggest that this “hobby” is an imposition on others, or you will invite a surprising amount bile and swearing, for this is “tradition” and it is inviolable — much like the smoker who fights for their “right” to light up, polluting the air of everyone else in the room.
So before the minority of petard enthusiasts bombard me with the usual “Fuck you! Get off the island!” — or even better, “Fuck you, leave your wallet behind and get off the island!” — I’d like to add a small clarification.
As an outsider, I often see things here in Malta that make me sad — the litter, the out of control building, aggressive hunters taking over what’s left of the beautiful countryside — but this is not my country to change or push. Who am I to say what’s best for people here? I’m just temporary, like a song floating by.
I’ve largely enjoyed my time on the island, but never felt that I fit in. However, I’ve never felt that any place owes me anything, either, whether that be comfort, peace and quiet or an easy ride. It’s me who should adapt where possible, and simply choose not to participate in parts I’m not aligned with.
And so I do my best to stay away from the island during the height of the festa season. The decorations are lovely, as are the processions and the songs. But those petards are a menace.
To those who blast these things off all summer long: I hope you go deaf, and I curse you to a lifetime of tinnitus, bad breath, pounding headaches and shingles.