The rain in Spain

After remembering my Hungarian disaster, memories came flooding back of past trips I’ve been on. It wasn’t disastrous, but definitely memorable.

1. In 2011 I visited the south of Spain with my mum, dad and sister. They were going on a tour organized by some agency and being seasoned tourists, they knew that going as an odd number is never a great idea because someone will have to sit near a stranger on the tour bus. Yeah, we are a friendly lot. So I went to Spain over Easter for 10 days.

2. We were a large group, two tour busses full. We had the plane to ourselves. I started to suss out the people I would be spending time with for the next week. Most of them were pensioners, there was one family with an 8 year old girl and a mother and daughter duo. But the person of note had to be the tour leader.

3. I honestly don’t remember his name. We called him Sean. No, he was not of Irish descent. But any word ending with ‘tion’ or ‘sion’ was over pronounced so he would say ‘today we are going to an exhibi-SHON followed by an excur-SHON to a renowned institu-SHON…’ so yeah, Sean. He also thought he was very funny. I have very little patience for people who think they are funny and then turn out not to be. He had free reign of the microphone on the tour bus where he would make crass jokes that nobody would laugh at and dedicate songs to various members of the tour. It would have been humiliating if he did not butcher the names of the other tourists so badly that we would have no idea who he was talking about.

4. The tour guide thought it would be amusing to change our names to have a more Spanish ring to them, so he would call me Maria Pellegrinos or my sister Georgina Pisanos (my sister’s name is Yvonne Georgette, but since he had a great devotion to St. George, he’d just leave out the Yvonne part). There was one old lady in our group, I think she was over 80 , Jane Borg who subsequently became Guzeppa de los Borgos, even though there is nothing Spanish about the name Guzeppa.

5. Guzeppa de los Borgos turned out to be quite a character. She was over 80, and even though the tour was pretty fast paced, she kept up quite well. One afternoon we were off to Seville and Sean did a head count and we couldn’t find Jane. And we were all frantic, calling out her name and looking for her… ‘Jane!’ ‘Jane!’ ‘Guzeppa de los Borgos!’ She was eventually found, fast asleep on the sofa of the hotel lobby.

6. My dad had an interesting nickname for her: the firecracker. This nickname had nothing to do with her speed and agility. No. It was because of the ripping farts she would let out while on the bus. The bus would be rank with the smell of Jane’s bum vapour. My dad, who is slightly deaf so he really yells when he talks, would shout out ‘oh God! The firecracker strikes again!’ Thank goodness, nobody could understand what he was on about. Kind of like Sean and his dedications.

7. We spent an afternoon at the Alhambra palace. It was amazing. And huge. We were given this high tech walkie talkie headset and we followed an expert on the place while he gave us explanations of everything and let us take pictures. I think it was my favourite part of the whole trip. When it was time to go back to the hotel, we piled in to the bus and the firecracker happened to be sitting in front of us sitting next to this other lady who happened to be a doctor who was traveling solo. We had been driving for half an hour when Guzeppa de los Borgos told the lady next to her ‘By the way, what am I meant to do with this?’ and she brought out the high tech walkie talkie from a plastic bag of souvenirs she was carrying. My sister burst out laughing and said very audibly ‘oh my God! The firecracker is a thief!’ The doctor momentarily had a look of horror on her face and told her ‘oh well, now leave it!’ Ah! She got herself an accomplice!

8. There was one guy who had a rather pronounced limp. His wife was a peroxide blonde screechy woman. Every day he would go up to my mum and dad and tell them how much he liked their daughters. Sometimes he would approach us directly and tell us. We named him Limp-perv.

9. Breakfast was a buffet every morning, generally consisting of buns and various cold cuts. But one morning there were strawberries and I nudged my sister because we both like them. As usual we would keep the table while my parents served themselves and then my sis and I switch places with them. When we got to the fruit table there were no strawberries to be seen. I guess we had imagined them or something. Later on the bus, Limp-perv’s wife opened her handbag and it was teeming with strawberries. When she noticed us noticing her, she hunched her shoulders and turned away from us. The selfish hussy.

10. Sean used to run through the streets of every place we would visit. This was not good for the pensioners. It wasn’t good for most people. At a point the eight year-old piped up and said ‘mummy, why is it like we are always in a hurry? It’s like he always has to go to the bathroom!’ Ah, from the mouth of babes….

11. It was Easter time and in Andalusia they make a huge deal, with massive processions attracting huge crowds. The crowds were moving way too slowly and my sister and I don’t do well with large amounts of people surrounding us, so I grabbed her hand and lead her to the front where there was more space. All of a sudden we heard a panicked bellow ‘MARIE-CLAIRE! YVONNE! WHERE ARE YOU??!’ May I mention that I was 27 and my sister was 23? I wonder what my dad thought? That we got lost maybe ten meters in front of them?

All in all, we had a great time and it was a great holiday. I had never been to Spain up until that point and it was a wonderful experience. I hope to travel again with my sister, hopefully with Eloïse in tow. I can’t wait.

The Hungarian disaster.

I haven’t travelled in a really long time and lately I was reminiscing about past trips. Most of the time, my holidays have been great fun, but one sticks out as being the complete opposite of fun. It was an awful horrendous shit show. I refer to it fondly as:

THE HUNGARIAN DISASTER.

It was 2003. I was 19 and quite active with the Green Party. I was young and idealistic and I was kind of discovering the world somewhat. This opportunity to go on an exchange in Hungary came my way with a group of friends and we took it. We thought it would be fun. And it was practically free. It was linked with the Green Party, and meant for ‘young European greens’. So I’ll just break this down and begin at the beginning.

1. It was to be a camping, outdoors experience in a remote part of Hungary called Kesztolc. Now, this would be an immediate deterrent for me, as I am partial to being able to flush away my personal waste. However the email exchanges made this camp site seem quite civilized. They mentioned eco-toilets and eco-showers and a functional kitchen. So we were sold. We were told we would be provided with a luxury tent so we didn’t have to bring our own. Oh and it was an all vegetarian camp.

2. On the day we had to leave, our group leader had to drop out as he got chickenpox. Another member of our group’s grandma had passed away the night before, so he was out too. From a group of six we became four. All of a sudden, the group seemed rather mismatched. I only really and truly knew one of them particularly well. The other was an old school friend who I had kind of lost contact with and the final member, the last guy on the team happened to be someone I had dated briefly and didn’t end particularly well.

3. We arrived really late at the camp site, it was already dark. The campsite was on an incline. The luxury tent was a kind of makeshift teepee/wigwam. Where the foundation poles met at the top was a gaping hole. And it was freezing. The eco toilet was a bucket with two planks across it, one for each butt cheek, surrounded by transparent cheese cloth for privacy. Near the ‘receiving bucket’ was another bucket full of ash and a little shovel. The idea was to smother your poop with ash when you were done. Someone had been there before me. There was like a small, ash covered Eiffel Tower in the bucket. When I urinated on it, some of the ash washed away. It wasn’t nice.

4. We were actually given chores. We had days where we had to go shopping at a tiny grocer that was nearby and make breakfast and dinner for the camp. Since it was a vegetarian camp, my friend and I decided to make minestra. We bought all the vegetables and set ourselves up in the kitchen. The kitchen was a chopping board, a cauldron and fire. That was the ‘fully functioning kitchen’. The cauldron was so old and used that it was making the stock go an interesting grayish purple colour. Everyone in the camp (and believe me when I say half of Europe was there) ate it without qualms. Being Maltese, we made too much and it was left in the cauldron overnight. By then, the stock was deep grey and it had congealed. The hippies ate it for dinner again. I was surprised that nobody had died.

5. By day four, the small Eiffel Tower in the poop bucket was looking more like the tower of Pisa, and almost the same scale. The poop had surpassed the planks of wood and you could no longer sit if you needed to do your business. People were still optimistically trying to cover it with ash which resulted in this large fuzzy swamp creature ready to engulf you. That is if the fumes didn’t first.

6. The eco shower. It was a hose with one temperature: cold. Again more transparent cheesecloth for privacy. Shower gel and shampoo were banned from this camp because the residue is very bad for the environment. I was expected to wash myself using ash. Well, I’m not the contents of the eco toilet, so I disobeyed and snuck in soap, shampoo and conditioner. I’m such a rebel, wanting to be clean and all. When the camp leaders approached me later they were very suspicious that I smelt of the body shop ananya range. I said it was my natural scent. Yep.

7. The camp had a dog. His name was Toponc. Even the dog was a hippie. He was a Hungarian Puli dog, their coat is naturally formed into dreadlocks. Toponc looked like this:

Toponc was dirty, slobbery and rank, but he had a very sweet and friendly nature. One of the Maltese contingent sharing our teepee was a total slob. She was constantly eating, leaving crumbs everywhere, she spilt a sugary drink on someone’s sleeping bag and eventually attracted ants. Low waisted jeans were very fashionable back then and she wore hers with a thong, which was ALWAYS visible. Oh, and she had no qualms farting in public while sitting on someone else’s sleeping bag. Also, she was hoarding meat that she was buying from the supermarket like ham and salami. She was also constantly accusing others of stealing her ‘loot’. Well one afternoon I headed back to the tent to get my jacket and there was Toponc, sitting on my sleeping bag, chowing down on the meat stash. The camp prided itself with having a vegetarian dog. Ah well, not anymore.

8. The meat was too much for dear Toponc and he vomited on my friend’s sleeping bag. She ended up having a massive row with the slob. That’s when we had enough and three of us ran away to Budapest. The slob stayed at the camp.

9. We found out that there wasn’t a bus to Budapest until the next day. We were desperate and did something insane. We hitched. A man passed by with his young daughter in the front seat. It was crazy but we did it. Turned out it was a really nice guy. But it could have also ended very badly.

10. We checked into a hotel and jumped up and down on the beds. We soaked for hours in the bath. We flushed the toilets because we could. We hadn’t eaten in 4 days and we went to a restaurant and ordered a three course meal and had terrible indigestion.

11. On catching the subway back to the hotel we got fined because we bought the wrong train tickets. My friend elbowed me in the ribs and told me ‘cry!’ and I said ‘what?’ she went ‘I said cry, for Christ’s sake!’ So we both went ‘Waaaaaaaaaaah!’ We still got fined, but less. The guy I used to date who was with us had to pay the full fine. Ha ha.

12.There was some festival in Budapest at the time, so we only had the hotel for a couple of nights. We spent the last night asleep on the floor of the airport. The only time the airport was totally empty was between 3am and 4am. The flight was at 7am. A security guard came by to check our passports and I was shitting myself thinking she was going to throw us out into the streets at 3.30 in the morning, but she didn’t. We caught our flight at 7am and finally got home.

At the end of the day, I don’t regret a thing. 16 years have passed, and my friend and I still mention this disaster. It’s one of those memories that always makes me laugh.

I don’t know when I’ll get to travel again, but I know I will never have another experience like that.

Goodbye grandma.

Yesterday my phone rang and I didn’t pick it up, as it was on the other side of the room and I was feeding the baby. It rang again but I still couldn’t pick up. My husband asked ‘do you think it’s urgent?’ to which I answered ‘probably not….’ because let’s face it, since we’ve been on lock down and implementing social distancing, my phone has been pretty busy. But then my husband’s phone rang and it was right next to him and it was my dad.

My grandma died.

She was 96 and a really tough old bird. She was so tiny, but mighty. She was my godmother twice. She actually came to Canada back in 1984 for the baptism and I understand that traveling wasn’t so easy in the 80s. The second time was for my confirmation, which was in Mosta, an understandably easier commute. I remember there was a girl with a really ugly dress, it had a ton of ruffles and she could barely sit in it. My grandma whispered rather audibly ‘what a ridiculous dress!’ and I remember just nodding, because well, it was kind of true. Nanna always called it as she saw it.

I did not have much of a relationship with my grandparents because the greater part of my childhood was spent in Canada. We would come to Malta during summer holidays, whirlwind sojourns trying to cram all our friends and relatives in the couple of months that we would be there.

But I do remember all of us meeting at her house, the cousins were all quite close in age…my uncle’s first was born in ‘83, I was born in ‘84 and my other cousin in ‘85. And coincidentally, our children were also born in succession, one in 2017, the other in 2018 and mine in 2019.

We used to play hide and seek around her house and sometimes pick capers from the bushes nearby. It’s so funny, back then my older brother, born in ‘78 seemed ancient and my little sister born in ‘88 seemed so little. My grandma would make cheese sandwiches and we would drink all her orange squash. We used to mix it with sparkling water and call it Fanta because my grandma had this weird aversion to soft drinks.

When I was 9, my grandma wanted to make me a dress. It was not very important if I actually wanted a dress, because she REALLY wanted to make me a dress. Remember, my grandma only sort of knew me, we hardly had any relationship to speak of and at the time, dresses weren’t really my thing. She made me a grey dress with pink buttons. If I walked over a grate, it would inflate. It was a bad dress. But it was made with so much love, that I ended up wearing it quite often. I wish I still had it.

She also saved my ass once. At school we had needlework and I was terrible at it. We had to make a tissue box cover (now that’s truly ridiculous) and mine looked more like a misshapen shower cap. She fixed it for me in a heartbeat and I didn’t have to face the wrath of sister Doris.

When she got to know I was pregnant, she was 95 and her health was going downward and obviously she was not as sharp as she used to be, but she would always ask my parents if I was ok.

Rest in peace, dear nanna. We live in weird times where you can’t be given a funeral but I’m sure all those who knew you are thinking of you.

My grandma on her wedding day

Grandma and I 4 years ago

Some funny things.

Today I’m feeling a little down in the dumps. The worst part is that nobody knows when it could possibly end.

At times like these, I like to think of ‘funny things’. Funny things that have happened to me or in my presence. For some reason, I seem to attract weird situations. I’ll be just minding my own business and bang, I find myself in some odd situation which later makes me smile. Big emphasis on the word ‘later’. So I decided to list some of them to make myself smile and hopefully others who are reading this post.

1. I am from Lebanon: I was at work and I like patients to keep their curtains open if possible, so if something bad happens, I’ll know right away. So I was absentmindedly opening curtains and I accidentally opened the curtain on a little old lady who was about to get dressed, with her daughter giving her a hand.

Me: oh, I’m sorry, please excuse me…

Old lady: oh don’t worry, you’re a lady too! I’m not going to impress you….unless you are…you know…

Me: I don’t know what you are talking about…

Old lady: oh you know….*whispers* Lebanese!

Well, I do make a mean tabouleh….

2. Good Friday: I had only ever seen a Good Friday procession when I came to Malta…in Canada there is no such tradition. I was always impressed by the hooded participants dressed in white so during a religion lesson when I was eleven, the teacher asked if we had any questions regarding Easter traditions and I asked why do members of the Ku klux klan take part in the procession. (Anyone who went to sacred heart, I asked this of Mrs. Fenech, who didn’t take kindly to such an inquiry).

3. A bit crass: Maltese was not my greatest forte and I needed to go to the bathroom during the Maltese lesson…so I asked my teacher ‘Nista mmur sal-loki?’ I had heard my grandmother refer to the toilet like that and honestly had no idea that it was not used in polite conversation. I mean, my grandma said it, it couldn’t have been that bad, right? (Again, those at sacred heart, this was with Mrs. Grech who was much kinder when it came to childhood idiocy)

4. The one toilet: back in st.lukes, where I used to work, there was only one staff toilet. I had drank about six cups of coffee during my break and I bolted for it because I was absolutely bursting. When I lifted the toilet lid, there was this massive log of faeces just staring back up at me. It was HUGE, the ends of it were poking out of the water. Ew, who was this dirty pig who didn’t flush? Anyway, I flushed hastily, emptied my bladder and as I opened the door, I came face to face with another member of staff, holding a can of air freshener clearly at the ready to take care of his disgusting deposit. Busted. We looked each other in the eye, he grabbed his air freshener, twirled it around like a majorette’s baton and gave a little whistle and walked away, like he always just happens to walk around with air freshener in his hands. Always prepared. Like a Boy Scout.

5. In church: St. Paul’s church in Valletta is kind of notorious for attracting weirdos and we used to go there quite often because my uncle who was a priest would say mass. Well, right in the middle of his homily, an old man walked right up to the altar and just snapped a picture of my uncle saying mass. Now this was the mid nineties, there weren’t any discreet camera phones or digicams. This old man brought out this massive instamatic camera complete with flash cubes and snapped away. Then out of nowhere, he pulled out a hotdog and went to town on it.

There are many more where those came from and I will try think of more to share in the coming weeks.

Stay positive people.

One is not necessarily the loneliest number.

I’m sitting in our living room. It is quite spotless. I have disinfected everything, even my daughter’s toys. She hasn’t been out of the house in ages and neither have I. We are getting our purchases delivered to us, but since my husband has to go to work, he bites the bullet, armed with sanitizer and gloves and goes to the local grocer to get us our essentials.

We plan everything to the letter. We have planned our meals for the next number of days and made sure to buy all the ingredients so he won’t have to make more trips than absolutely necessary. Usually, I just wing it…go to the supermarket, see what’s fresh or if there are special offers or I wake up with an idea I want to execute. That’s a luxury that had to be extinguished. We reorganized our cupboards and went through everything and planned meals around the stuff so as not to waste.

In a strange way, this behavior somehow makes me feel as if I’m a little in control of everything that’s going on. I mean, I know I’m not. But seeing the cupboards all organized, seeing my lists, allows me to breathe. This is an altogether alien feeling for me. I’m a notoriously untidy person. I’m a firm advocate of the ‘dust if you must’ philosophy and I look upon those obsessed with having everything in place as vapid and substituting having a personality with orderliness.

Well, my eyes have been truly opened. I understand. Keeping things in order honestly gives one a sense of control. I see it. I feel it.

I’m not panicking about covid-19. I’m oddly calm. Unhappy, but calm. And I’m tired. Sometimes I get some horrible thoughts, but thank goodness they are fleeting. I make an effort not to dwell on them. I’m very good at dealing with whatever is thrown my way and if something awful does happen, I’ll figure it out, as I have always done.

I have renewed my parental leave (well, pending acceptance). I did this in an effort to safeguard my daughter since I am in a lucky position to be able to. Or is it lucky? Because a big part of me feels like such a coward. My colleagues are all on the frontline, fighting and here I am, holed up at home, making lists and re-organizing things. It’s a double-edged sword, because I went through so much to just be able to have a baby so I protect her with all I’ve got but at the same time I could actually tangibly help in the fight against the corona virus and I’m not.

I have my husband and my daughter and I feel so loved. But I miss all the other people in my life. I want to walk arm in arm with my sister. I want to hug my best friend. I wanted to restart my career. I want to have brunch with my posse.

All in all, staying indoors is not like some big sacrifice, nothing near the sacrifices people in war torn countries have to make.

Maybe, in a way, this can be a time of reflection: never ever take the people you love for granted. Savor every hug and kiss and conversation and handshake.

Stay safe.

Stay inside.

But also, stay sane.

This is the rhythm of the virus.

I don’t think I have ever experienced such a bizarre and dystopian situation.

It feels like something out of science fiction novel. First we heard about covid-19 on the news, in lands far away. So at first we are just concerned but not too worried. We even scoffed at those who were afraid. Then it got closer, so we began to take the threat more seriously. Some of us cancelled travel plans, some stocked up on masks and hand sanitizer. But still most people were pretty cool about it all.

Then it arrived on our backyard. That is when the terror set in. That’s when people started panic-buying and stocking up on non-perishables. And most of us mocked these people.

But now it’s here, there are over 10 cases and the fear is very real. However, the need to stock up is not due to boarders closing but because we all have been advised to stay indoors and lead as risk free a lifestyle as possible, which means avoiding crowded places like the supermarket. Those people who panic-shopped aren’t looking so stupid now.

So yeah, it’s kind of awful to be alive right now.

But there are some positive things.

1. People are appreciating healthcare professionals so much more. I’m still on maternity leave, so I’m not in the thick of it but my colleagues are very much on my mind. The outpouring of gratitude on social media has been tremendous and it’s a beautiful thing. Pity it took a disaster to realise that nurses are pretty great but ah well.

2. So much kindness. There are people offering to deliver shopping, giving tips on how to occupy kids on lockdown, giving each other lists of movies to watch…

3. People are more aware of the importance of hand hygiene and infection control.

4. By staying indoors, we are significantly reducing our carbon footprint.

5. Being at home so much has allowed me to do some of the annoying jobs that have taken me ages to get round to doing.

Ok, the positives are really few. But they are there. And probably focussing on them can relieve a little of the collective anxiety we all must feel.

So breathe.

Just not on each other.



The vacuum cleaner guy

I am not a great housekeeper. There’s this poem I once read, the main theme of it being ‘dust if you must’ but making that a priority will inevitably make you miss out on the finer things in life or the more important things. Don’t get me wrong, I keep my house on the cleaner side of the spectrum but I don’t obsess over it.

And most of my friends are the same. And this came to a climax of sorts when my equally untidy friend sent me a text message saying that she nominated me for a vacuum cleaner demonstration with no obligation to buy…essentially a guy comes to your house and will vacuum your carpets for free.

Hmmm. Sounds good, I’m game.

So this morning the doorbell rings at the time that was pre-arranged and I get up, baby in arms to answer. As soon as my hand is on the latch, I am transported back to the 50s, during the boom of door to door sales and apparently, selling vacuum cleaners that way was the most successful.

So I open the door and come face-to-face with a rather beautiful black man. He looked like a mix of Idris Elba and Jason Derulo. He has a thick Nigerian accent and greets me with ‘Hello lady!’ and then turns to my daughter and says ‘hello baby!’ and offers her his hand to shake it, which my tiny 11 month old does with a big smile. He then tells her ‘give me five!’ and holds up his hand and she giggled and obliged.

The flirting hussy.

He wastes no time. He sets up his enormous vacuum cleaner and gets to work on my main carpet, where there is my daughter’s play mat and many of her toys. Now that carpet had actually been dry cleaned, but the amount of crap that came out of it was nothing short of astonishing.

Mr. Vacuum Man had a lot to say about this.

‘You see madam? You see? This is where you let your baby play! Do you deserve this in your beautiful home, madam? Do you deserve this???!’

I must say, Mr. Vacuum Man has a flair for the dramatic.

He proceeded to clean our mattress and my high chair. And I must say job well done.

He spotted my regular vacuum cleaner in the corner.

‘You see that vacuum over there? It is deceiving you. You think your house is clean but it is not. Do you think you and your baby deserves this? No, you don’t! Now, you tell your husband to give me a call so he will buy you this vacuum cleaner…it is not just a vacuum but an entire home cleaning system!’

Just what I’ve always wanted. Luigi, hold off on the Swarovski for my next birthday, I think I may want a vacuum cleaner. I DESERVE an entire home cleaning system.

So I ask for a catalogue or else the specifications of this product and he gives me a website and says ‘now you give this to your husband and tell him to check it out on his computer and tell him to give me a call!’

Because, you see, these website things are just too complicated for my female brain that’s made of cottage cheese.

And just like that, he was gone.

And basically cleaned my house for free!

Hurrah.

And no, I’m not buying a 3000€ vacuum cleaner.

But thanks!