Image: Brijesh Patel
May 03 2011
I have been travelling a great deal. This is obviously relative – I’m sure there are many who trawl the skies more often, clocking up air miles with the same whirring fervour of the electricity meter at home when the technology-devoted, hair-straightening family are all in residence. It often feels like a scene from the film Groundhog Day and here I am again back at Heathrow.
Sadly, regrettably and inexcusably, in the travel department, I am a glowing fireball of consumption. Last month we were in Beirut (where we have just opened a shop), and then Damascus. For Easter we were wallowing on the Kenyan coast showing, barring the flights, excellently low consumption levels – we had little choice, no internet, terrible phone reception, thankfully no television and meagre electricity. North of Lamu, shudderingly close to the border of the current five-star pariah that is Somalia, we found good old-fashioned entertainment in the form of swimming, snorkelling, walking, reading, playing backgammon and plenty of talking. We slept at nine (usually with sunstroke) and woke at six (with a hangover). I ran on the sharply-sloping beach (now I know why crabs move the way they do), sinking into the sand with every heroic stride, my heart thumping, pleading. The Somali pirates have inadvertently become fish-saving warriors, friends of the deep blue, champions of the cast of Finding Nemo. The local fishermen are delighted to see the Japanese trawlers banished from their waters and fish stocks returning. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good.
And now, after more air travel, we are in our beloved, dishevelled Malta. Suzanne (not dishevelled) is Maltese and the country’s finest export. It sounds like an unlikely choice, possibly the result of too much baking in the tropics (it’s a peanut of a country, a mini-market), but we are intent on opening a Rug Company shop here. When the children were small we lived in Malta so we hope we know what we’re doing. On account of its micro economy and favourable tax laws for foreign companies, the Maltese have avoided the worst of the economic chill and there’s a comparatively sizable group of people, both local and foreign, who love to decorate. A huge number of new houses and apartments have recently been built and they all need good rugs!
The sun invariably shines in Malta and today was no exception. It’s one of those places where in the winter, especially if you’re English, you keep saying “What a lovely day” and in summer, because it’s so hot and you’re losing pints of water hourly, you can’t say anything. We had a hectic schedule and booked a taxi for the day. Our driver, Joey, has a highly polished Mercedes and a resident wife in the passenger seat. She gets bored at home so she’s come along for the ride. When I first get into the car she is halfway through eating a huge, oozing hobz biz-zejt (a bread roll filled with tomatoes, olives, tuna, capers and onions – highly recommended). I say, “That looks delicious”, and she says, “Have a bite” and turns to pass it to me. It’s losing its filling as it waits suspended between us. I decline politely: “I’ve just eaten, thank you,” but she’s insistent – “Come on, it’s good” – and she gives it a good shake.
Our new shop is currently a concrete box, a shell, overlooking the marina in Ta’Xbiex (it’s a tricky language), but we have some ideas and met Sonny Borg, the builder, to explain our vision. He’s a serious chap and probably suspects and fears that our “ideas” will be complicated and conceptual – he’s visibly relieved to discover that we’re keeping it simple. No London funny business.
Between Suzanne’s family and our friends, we know a sizable percentage of the population so there are plenty of chance meetings and these encounters are time-consuming. The Maltese are officially, indisputably, the chattiest people in the world and each encounter requires a full update of the past 14 years. We eat a pastizze (a local pasty filled with ricotta) between each meeting. If we stay here too long, we are sure to inflate.