Culture

I Dream of Malta: Knights, Caravaggio and Cave Churches (plus unfermented beer)

I dream of Malta.

Now that sentence can actually have many meanings to different people. I am a Nuyorican afterall. It could be that I am dreaming of the Puerto Rican malt beverage that my mom used to love.  For that matter, that many Puerto Rican households love. Those of you who have not sampled it, malta is a way for a teetotaler like my mother to actually have beer. See malta is a beer that has not been fermented.   It is a carbonated malt beverage, meaning it is brewed from barley, hops, and water much like beer; corn and caramel color may also be added. However, malta is non-alcoholic. Towards the end of her life my mom didn’t drink it as much as she had been trying to lose weight and that is what she decided to focus on.  Which yes, it has high number of calories but it is also high in B vitamins. So, ironically enough vitamin B is believed to be associated with elevating metabolism.

I remember drinking my malt from its bottle, as a teenager, thinking I looked so cool since it could pass for beer. As a went away to boarding school, lived in Spain and then went away to college I slowly lost the taste for Malta.  When I moved to California I started to reacquire the taste because I started my journey back to being a Latina at that point.  Nowadays, I keep a six pack of malta at home, however, it is more often for show. I have since developed a stronger taste for rum and for me that is just as Puerto Rican.

But, no. The Malta I dream of is not the unfermented beer. I dream of Malta, the country.  Its official name is the Republic of Malta. It consists of an archipelago (group of seven islands to be precise) in the southern part of Europe – the Mediterranean. Who does not dream of sunbathing on a Mediterranean island?   How cool is it that only the three largest islands – Malta, Gozo and Comino – of the total seven that make up the country are inhabited.  And while it is an island, how quirky is it that there are no permanent rivers or lakes on Malta?  Just everything I learn about Malta makes me want to go visit that Mediterranean haven.

 

Despite growing up with the malta beverage, I had not heard of the country of Malta until I lived in Spain. At that time, Malta was the host country for the summit between the US President George H.W. Bush and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.  This was the first time that they met face-to-face and served to send the message that the cold war was indeed over.  Several years later, I started reading about the Knights Templar and then about the Knights of Malta.  Despite the crusades there were several big infrastructural development projects undertaken by the Knights, including a “healthcare” system of sorts.  In modern times, as recently as 2009, Malta was ranked number five in the World Health Organization’s ranking of the world’s health systems.  Its healthcare system provides free care at the point of delivery (just like England—and back in the late 1300s both countries had already built hospitals).   And, just three days ago Former Maltese foreign minister Tonio Borg was appointed the European Union’s new health commissioner by the European parliament.

For several years now, five to be exact, I have made plans to travel to Malta.  Four years ago, I reserved airline tickets to Malta to only learn that the connecting flights were near impossible to make and ended up instead going to Greece instead.  Which was actually kind of fortuitous for me.  Fortuitous in that although I didn’t know it I was pregnant at the time and consequently everything I ate in Greece just did not sit well. Unfortunately, that trip kind of ruined Greek food for me.  I’m slowly returning to it. Thus, I am happy I didn’t go to Malta back then and can look forward to eating some interesting cuisine when I finally do make it.  Food has been important historically in the development of a national identity in particular the traditional fenkata (i.e. the eating of stewed or fried rabbit).  Not too sure about the rabbit part of the meal but it is funny, in that ancient Maltese (as did other ancient Mediterranean cultures) worshiped a fertility figure.  Fertility goddesses and statues and the consumption of rabbit: maybe Malta is a place for the adoration of the womb? In that vein, did you know that all census counts since 1842 have shown a slight excess of females over males?

Here are some other facts about Malta that have enhanced my dreams of going there:

  • Malta does not have a property tax.  Wow.  New Yorkers (especially those in Westchester) can only dream of the day that ever happens here
  • There are more than 360 churches in Malta, Gozo, and Comino, or one church for every 1,000 residents.  Churches and their architecture fascinate me. Growing up I dreamt of living in a church (don’t psychoanalyze me). Perhaps one can buy a church there and live property-tax free? Dare to dream. Dare to dream.
  • There are a fair number of cave churches.  Ok. Can I say awesome? There is a cave church at Mellieħa (which is a Shrine of the Nativity of Our Lady).   According to legend, St. Luke painted a picture of the Madonna there.  Did I happen to mention that my son’s name is Luka? It has been a place of pilgrimage since medieval times.
  • Malta has some of the same traditions and superstitions like Puerto Rico. For example, in Malta pregnant women are encouraged to satisfy their cravings for specific foods, out of fear that their unborn child will bear a representational birth mark.  Also, in Malta (just like Puerto Rico) in order to tell whether it will be a boy or a girl (forget about the ultrasound) a ring is placed on a string and it is then dangled above the abdomen (sideways denoting a girl, back and forth denoting a boy).
  • There is an art scene in Malta.   The great Caravaggio painted at least seven works during his 15-month stay in Malta. Two of Caravaggio’s most notable works, The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome Writing, are on display in the Oratory of the Conventual Church of St. John.  Caravaggio’s time in Malta seems to have been embedded in the local consciousness.
  • There is a growing music world stage. For instance, there is a jazz festival in the month of July and a “death” fest (like heavy metal music) later in the year.  If I could have a Fulbright fellowship at this point in my life, it would be to attend jazz festivals around the world. The role of music can not be undervalued.
  • The Maltese Falcon has played a historical role there.   It isn’t just one of the best film noir movies.
  • Lastly, a study found that the Maltese were the most generous community in the world, with 83% of Maltese contributing to charity.  Enough said on that.

 

So, I dream of Malta.  I will make the journey there. And when I do, I will enjoy the sun, wine, olives and all else it has to offer.  Until then, I will raise a toast in my mom’s honor and have myself some of that unfermented beer us Nuyoricans love so much.

 

 

 

P.S. RIP Larry Hagman. You were great in “I dream of Jeannie”

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