Me, myself and Malta

A view of Valletta, Malta IRENA KARSHENBAUM PHOTO

Some things are hard to explain.Like why we are drawn to certain people or places. My theory is we’re drawn to certain people because we have a long history with them, even if we just met them. We’re drawn to certain places because we walked through that land earlier, or in a past life or our ancestors did, and the memory of the experience has been seared into our soul or DNA.

This is why I was drawn to Malta.

Initially, I was scared to travel alone but overcame my fear by envisioning myself sipping a cappuccino at a cafe on a cobblestone street while writing “The Great Novel of Our Time.”

At the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where I transferred, I met Peter, a former Torontonian who coincidentally lives in Sliema, blocks from the Imperial Hotel where I was staying, and who helped me find my way around as I made no travel plans. “We’re Canadian,” he explains.

Sliema, Malta’s largest town,  is the main centre for shopping and restaurants. At one restaurant I write in my Moleskine, “I ate beef olives called bragioli only there were no olives.” I read back what I wrote. Needs work.

At the Imperial, I imagine myself all so like Lost in Translation. I plonk down in a mid-century armchair determined to perfect my brilliant writing.

I must have looked so Scarlett Johansson, or antiquated, as a man sitting across from me looks up from his 21st century communication contraption and asks about my diary. Thomas from Slovenia confides that he worries about loneliness and alienation. 

The main island of Malta is 316 square  kilometers and peppered with small cities. The streets are cobblestone. With a population of 450,000, you see the same people all over and say hello. Peter shows me his “typical Maltese townhouse” with high ceilings, a large modern galley kitchen and a back patio that manages to fit a pool.

I walk along the shore of the Marsaxlokk fishing village and sail the caves of the Blue Grotto. I visit Hagar Qim and Mnajdra Temples built around 3600 BCE, considered some of the oldest places on earth.

In the capital city of Valletta, I visit  Our Lady of Victory Church where I meet an attendant who tells me that 30 per cent of Maltese have Jewish surnames, himself included. I call hoping to find an ancient Jewish community tracing its lineage to the Alhambra Decree (Edict of Expulsion). 

An elderly man tells me there are about 80 Jews living in Malta, mostly Sephardi. His family came from Morocco in the 1930s. There is an ancient Jewish cemetery in Rabat where they buried in the rocks “but we don’t have the keys.” Is there a JCC where I can hang out? He explains there is a synagogue in a private flat.  He wishes me a good trip and hangs up.

I feel bruised. Thomas from Slovenia and I drink wine together in the lounge and talk late into the night. He tells me that he only learned his daughter was not his biological daughter after she was born. I tell him of a dying man who possessed my heart with a single whisper of my name. “You can’t explain love,” he says.

Sicily is two hours away by ferry. Snippets of memory dance in my head of my family’s journey on a HIAS bus. It’s 1978. The bus is full of Soviet refugees and is racing towards Rome. There is no toilet on the bus. I’m eight. My father throws plastic bags of my pee out the bus window. The tour guide tells us the bus does not have a toilet and there will be no bathroom stops until Taormina, two hours away. Taormina is worth every bladder sacrifice and dazzles majestically perched on a hillside over the Mediterranean. I feel I’ve come home.

Back in Malta, I visit Comino, one of the three islands that make up the archipelago. Comino is where the prophetic Kabbalist Abraham Abulafia wrote the Sefer ha-Ot. Thousands of tourists come daily to claim a piece of this sand and hang on rocks all for the pleasure of dipping into chilled azure waters.

I travel to Rabat in search of Jewish catacombs where I bump into a site officer who tells me the catacombs date back from 4 to 9 CE. The Jewish and Christian catacombs are similar he says, “because there wasn’t much difference between the two religions back then.”

Bugibba is the seat of the newly arrived Chabad. The trip takes me to the synagogue in the private flat in Ta’Xbiex where I meet Reuben Ohayon, the head of the Jewish community. After our visit, he walks me to the bus stop where he pulls out a book, in Hebrew. He explains it was written by Adam after he was expelled from Gan Eden. “I felt compelled to give it to you,” he says. It’s his last copy. The inside cover reads, The Abulafia Jewish Foundation of Malta.

I know one thing, God is the perfect author and he writes our (long) lives according to the best travel plans.