Remembering my childhood in post war Malta

The George Cross awarded to Malta for valor: 1942

Sunday morning is “my” time. A quiet cup of coffee, a good book, creating some amazing dishes, and always listening to Campus FM, a University of Malta radio station.  Campus FM is my umbilical cord to my Maltese roots and language.  My mother’s passing left me with no one to speak Maltese with on regular basis. Sadly enough I have lost the ability to write it, read it, and quite often understanding it.  Campus FM enlightens my life with Maltese history, art, daily news, and local folklore.  As I sit with my coffee on this beautiful sunny Sunday morning, I listen to Patricia Salomone’s  journal-like story of her childhood “My Pizza and Toffee Apples in the 1950’s”.  A vivid recounting of her life in post WWII British Malta. 

RAF Valiant Bomber

She could have written about my life. Except for the nanny and living in another part of the island, Maltese 50’s children  all grew up the same way.  We were the post war generation.  Patricia’s family was similar to every other Maltese family in the 1950’s.  After the war, Malta was part of the Marshall Plan and rationing was still in effect.  I remember the local grocer measuring  our “rationed” portions of flour, rice, and sugar from large calico bags embossed with an American flag and large  black letters “Donated by the people of the United States of America”. The rationing went into the late 50’s and eventually and slowly disappeared in the early 60’s.  Like the rest of us, Patricia remembers a childhood without television and a country trying to recuperate from Luftwaffe bombings and destruction. 

Unidentified village in Malta after a bombing

The island suffered over 14,000 bombs, 1,500 casualties (of a population of less than 300,000), and 30,000 destroyed buildings.  There is only one other country that has been bombed more than Malta in the last century: Laos, during the Vietnam War. The George Cross, a medal and award normally awarded to individuals for valor was awarded to the entire island, for enduring months of day and night bombings meant to bring it to its knees. In April, 1942, King George VI made the singular personal decision to award the highest honor to Malta. Conditions were so dire that even Churchill was considering surrendering the island, just to feed its people.  Up to the day she died in 2016, my mother abhorred the sight of canned beef. A poignant reminder of a time when food was scarce and her weekly ration was a can of something. With no food and Italy just 60 miles away preparing to invade and occupy, the Maltese dug in, endured, and survived the barrage of attacks by the Axis.  This was the Malta that most of us were born into.  But rubble and destruction led the way to an era of hope.

Chalet at Ghar id-dud

Patricia Salamone took me on a journey into my own childhood.  The simple enjoyment of late summer walks on the promenade by the sea in Sliema.  The treat of going to Valletta on a multi-colored bus without doors and windows that let in fresh air, smells, and noise.  The wonderful aromas of traditional Maltese food sans McDonalds, Pizza Hut, or Subways.  I can still remember walking to the end of the promenade at Ghar id-Dud, where the Chalet stood in its classic white limestone elegance.  A dance and music hall suspended above the rocks and sea below.  The music reached out into the wonderful warm summer nights as couples danced to Italian melodies and rock’n’roll.  In the winter, it doubled as a skating rink for those few lucky ones who owned a pair of roller skates.  In bad winter weather, the sea would rise up in defiance and cover the dancing floor with foamy waves, knowing full well that there would still be dancing the next summer. 

Post war British Malta was an enigma. Just as Patricia recalled, children were only allowed to speak English at school . This was the British idea of easy assimilation.  Maltese children were expected to sit and pass the same school leaving exams (GCE) as the rest of the British Empire.  An annual summer ritual that caused raw nerves as students anxiously waited for their GCE exam results from Oxford, London, and Cambridge universities. Those results opened doors to a future. Through it all Maltese remained on the back burner of our education erroneously assuming that it was spoken at home.

Maltese cheese pastries Pastizzi

The Maltese still found ways to cling  to their Mediterranean roots, and generally through the kitchen.  Maltese dishes like lampuki*, cerna*, fenek*, qarnita*, and the ultimate hobz biz-zejt u tadam*, were imbedded in our childhood.  But the influx of British military and their families also provided neighborhood Fish’n’chip shops, English sausages, beans, and the inevitable red telephone kiosks and mail boxes; crested with the royal crest of whoever happened to be on the throne.  But the Italian influence would not disappear either.  Italian music and pizza were essential to our well being and realization that we were still Mediterranean.

Toffee apples  held a significance akin to the local pastizzi*  we bought from a vendor’s cart. Every summer, and mostly in Sliema, possibly because of its proximity to the sea, we were treated to a Luna Park, loose translation: “moon park“.  There was nothing extraterrestrial about it, but it was meant to conjure up adventure and fun that winter months could not provide.  An escapism so to speak. Everyone’s favorite ride was the bumper cars.  Without cell phones, iPads, X-Box, or the latest Avengers movie; 50’s teenagers in Malta quickly realized that bumper cars were the closest thing to a driver’s license.  Malta in the 50’s did not have many privately owned cars or telephones for that matter.  In some small villages there may have been one of each. But I digress. Of course, the Luna Park was a family affair.  Especially on Sundays, rides were chock-a-block full.  Kiosks with soft drinks in real glass bottles and paper straws were also busy selling candy floss and toffee apples. Smells I still cherish from my childhood.

Mosta Church today
Mosta Church inside
One of the bombs that went through the Mosta Dome

Malta in the early 50’s, was like the rest of Europe; attempting to rebuild and return to normalcy. Our parents would often show us the aftermath of the war.  We all knew where the Italians had dropped the first bombs, or which village sustained the most damage, or often who died where.  Later we learned how two large German bombs possibly targeting the neighboring British airfield at Ta’ Qali, were instead dropped through the dome of the Mosta Church. But they failed to explode.  250 people were at mass when the bombs came through the roof and rolled on the marble floor without exploding.  A miracle? 

We grew up British singing the God Save the King or Queen as the case might have been.  Some 50’s Maltese children were raised speaking English rather than Maltese.  With schools demanding that English be spoken in lieu of Maltese, I unfortunately have never learned to write my language well enough. Reading it is also a chore. If truth be told, most of us cherished the fact that Maltese was not mandatory because we found it more difficult to master than English.  However we learned other languages, most common were French and Italian. Italian was easy because we listened to Italian music on the radio, plus the close proximity of both countries made travel to Italy frequent.  In the mid-60’s Italian television was introduced in Malta. RAI* remained the sole provider of television programming for the next 30+ years. No one would have thought that just a few years prior we were at war with our dolce vita*  neighbors.  Live and let live and we still enjoy Italian music, movies, and food.

St. Julian’s circa 1950

Technology and 21st century problems have unfortunately reached the wonderful shores of Malta.  English and Maltese are the official languages, but Italian, German, French, Swedish, and even Chinese is now being taught and spoken.   Malta evolved with the times which I often regret.  I miss summer evening walks at  Ghar id-Dud.  I miss the early morning cry of the fisherman or milkman rather than the irritating horn of a BMW SUV in a hurry to go nowhere.  I miss when we could still take drives to the kampanja* and play in the open fields at Bin Gemma;  looking out at the island of Gozo in the distance.  Now we try to dodge 5-Star hotels in a futile attempt at a peek at the sea. I miss being able to eat locally made Maltese cheeses and sausages without an EU stamp of approval.  I mostly miss the simplicity and clarity that life in post war Malta gave those of us born out of the ashes of war.

My dad driving his Triumph motorcycle shortly after the war.

As I sit in the silence of a warm Sunday morning with my cup of coffee, I listen with nostalgia and warmth to what could have been my childhood.  Yes, Patricia’s life mirrored my own.  I gently sip the warm coffee and as I turn my eyes to my parents’ 1938 wedding picture, I realize that they had gone through the terror of war, but we had gone through the aftermath. At that moment I also realized that I missed them both terribly, and that my story was also theirs.  Thank you Patricia Salamone and Campus FM; because for a few minutes on a Sunday morning, you brought back fond memories of my parents and my childhood.

GLOSSARY:

Cerna: Mediterranean fish Grouper

Lampuki: Mediterranean fish Dorado

Fenek: Rabbit

Qarnita: Octopus

Hobs biz-zejt u tadam: bread with oil and tomatoes aka “bruschetta”

RAI: Radio Televisione Italiana

Dolce Vita: the sweet life

Kampanja: country side

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