The Immaculate Conception

When we arrived from Canada to Malta back in 1992, it was a culture shock to say the least. We would often come for summer holidays and those would be a whirlwind of relatives, friends and nearest and dearest who all want to see you in the three short months that you’ll be around. It’s very different from living here, going to school here and living your daily life on this little island in the Mediterranean.

We were living in Bormla at the time and it was really quite wonderful. There were two little grocers, one owned by an Australian-Maltese guy and the other was called ‘Mizzi General Store’ or something like that and a small stationery called ‘Troisi Bazaar’. Now, almost 30 years on, these are normal mundane things but to the girl who was used to Safeway, Toys R Us and Canadian Tire they were exotic and new and weird. Everyone was so nice to us and treated us so well. And everything was so personal and insular which was also quite new and weird.

But what was also new and very weird was what would happen in Bormla on the 8th of December. And that would be the day commemorating the immaculate conception. More popularly known in Bormla as ‘il-festa’.

I had no idea what was a festa. No idea whatsoever.

So my dad decided to rectify this situation by telling me to grab my coat because we were going venture out into ‘festa-land’.

I was almost 7. I was very tiny and very quiet. The festa was not tiny or quiet. As soon as we hit the principle road, there were people everywhere, shouting, singing and drinking. Out of nowhere a man with a tuba blasted a cacophony in my ear. Then an entire marching band materialized there, in the middle of the road. Kids were everywhere, running around and shouting, holding clouds of pink candy floss. Crowds of people chanting something in Maltese.

It was really something. I had never seen anything quite like it. It was quite an experience.

I didn’t know it at the time but my dad was on a mission. While away from under my mother’s watchful eye, my dad approached a cart which seemed to be selling oblong, beige bricks with nuts in them. He bought a particularly large brick, asked for an opaque plastic bag to hide this thing from my mum and brought it home, grabbing my hand and rushing as it had started to rain heavily and none of us had an umbrella.

Once in the safety of the kitchen my dad unwrapped the brick and sliced off a piece and proceeded to chew it exclaiming ‘oh how I’ve missed this!’ He then proceeded to cut off a slice for me and told me that this was going to be the best thing I’ve ever tasted.

I looked wearily at the slice of chewy brick, which by then I had been told that it was nougat. This was not the first time my dad had told me that something was going to be the best thing I’ve ever tasted and it turned out to be horrendous: kippers, anchovies, picalilly to name a few.

And this was no different. So sickly sweet and nasty. Another shock to the system. My dad was devouring the brick with gusto. I wasn’t so keen, to which he replied ‘ok! More for me!’

Back then everything was so wonderful and new. Every day was an adventure and a learning experience.

And every time the 8th of December rolls around I feel nostalgic and warm and happy.

So I wish a really happy feast to all those from Bormla today. Maybe you can’t go out and celebrate due to these scary Covid times, but I hope you can get the feeling in your hearts that I have on this day.

Slight edit: the Australian grocer was not Australian at all, I’ve been informed…his name was Karmenu and he was actually Maltese-Canadian, like me! He had run a corner shop in Mississauga before coming to Malta.

I took my kid to McDonald’s.

I am blessed with a kid who is very curious. She wants to know everything and try everything.

This includes food. She will try whatever is put in front of her. If it’s new, she will take a bite, contemplate, maybe make a face and if she likes it, she’ll continue eating, if not, she will push it away and say no.

So far, there are very few things she does not like. She eats with gusto, but she doesn’t overeat, when she’s had enough, she simply stops. I hope that this practice continues as she grows older. I hear that there are many kids who all of a sudden become picky or only want junk.

I was a very picky eater when I was around 4. I would only eat chicken noodle soup, chicken nuggets and chocolate pudding. That’s it.

A friend of mine who has a child only slightly older than mine gave me excellent advice on how not to raise a picky eater and she gave me an article about it which I have followed religiously. It has really worked. Basically, if a kid doesn’t want a particular food, put it away but don’t write it off: try again a few days later and keep trying. Also, kids naturally taste foods a bit more bitter in flavour in comparison to adults, it’s a defense mechanism so they don’t eat inappropriate things. So one has to make sure to give a large array of flavours early on: a bitter taste isn’t necessarily a bad taste, it is just less appealing in comparison to a sweet taste.

Another big trap not to fall into is food that is geared towards children: chicken nuggets, fish fingers, chips, pasta with tomato sauce. There is nothing inherently wrong with these foods but they are so limiting. Who says a kid can’t like tortellini with mushrooms and bacon? Who says a kid can’t like a mild creamy chicken korma? Or a well made ricotta pie from a loving grandma?

I honestly have no excuse: my kid eats anything, so ready meals are not an option unless I’m exhausted. Good thing is, I love to cook, so I’m not really put out when it comes to creating good and healthy meals.

A few weeks ago, my mum suggested that we take my daughter to McDonald’s for the first time. It’s a rite of passage, I guess. I don’t really approve of that kind of fast food but whatever, it will definitely not be an everyday occurrence and it could be interesting.

So for the first time in the 20 months my daughter has been on this earth, she ate at McDonald’s.

And she LOVED IT.

The fact that the food came in a little box.

The high chair was really comfortable.

The toy that came with the meal.

She could make all the noise she wanted.

She could make all the mess she wanted.

She was one happy kid. And all of a sudden I understood the appeal. The whole experience is totally geared towards kids and admittedly exhausted parents. My kid was fed, safe, entertained and I didn’t need to discipline her for the duration that we were there. I was also fed with little interruption and in record time. For the child, the food part of the experience is really minimal. It was more about opening the box herself, examining the toy and looking at the brightly coloured surroundings and seeing other kids.

I get it. It’s cheap and convenient and familiar.

We won’t be doing it again in a hurry, but I hold no judgment for parents who maybe make it a monthly outing.

And to all the parents of picky eaters, don’t lose hope: I was once the worst of all picky eaters and now I’m a massive foodie who eats almost anything. And probably a little too much of it.

My relationship with chess.

I am a stay-at-home mom to a 20 month old toddler. My days are filled to the brim taking care of a very demanding and tiny dictator. It is wonderful and exhausting.

And sometimes I forget that I was once many things before I became a mother.

I just watched the entire series of The Queen’s Gambit and I was reminded that I used to be a very good chess player. Not as good as Elizabeth Harmon, but decent. Watching her take part in tournaments really brought back memories.

I learned how to play chess when I was around six or seven. My mum was teaching my brother on the kitchen table and I decided that I wanted to learn too. She had no objection to it. First she showed me how to set up the board. When I did that perfectly, she taught me how the pieces moved. When I had that down, she taught me the objective of the game, which was to give a checkmate, ie: immobilizing the king. Then we began to play. She beat me, of course. So we played again. And she beat me again. Then we played a third time and I managed to take her queen. She still beat me, but she was so impressed. When my dad got home, I remember her telling him really proudly.

Chess is a bit of a legacy in my family. My grandfather was Malta’s first chess champion and his brother was one of the founders of the Malta chess federation. It is said that my grandfather would know exactly how a chess game was going to go after the first five moves.

For a while, my mum and I played almost every day. And she won every time. But I was definitely getting better.

And one fine day, I won. And then I won again. And again. My mum was pleased as punch. My mum is an excellent teacher by profession, and nothing pleases her more than seeing a student excel, whether it was in French or her other school subjects or at chess.

And then I let it go and forgot about it. We were about to emigrate, life became a massive bustle and upheaval and then it became all about settling in to our new life in Malta from Canada. Then came further upheaval when a place opened up at The Convent of The Sacred Heart School where my mum taught and my sister attended and my mother desperately wanted me to go to school there, so I skipped year six and went in at form one.

It was there that I rediscovered chess. My mum had a chess club during midday break and I joined as a way of making friends. I even managed to rope in a few other form one girls. I found I could hold my own with the form five girls…I remember they seemed so big and smart to my tiny and inexperienced 11 year old self, but they helped me improve and I sometimes even won.

When I was fourteen, my mother signed me and my fellow classmates up for a tournament as part of youth fest in 1997. It was held at De La Salle college. My mum thought it would be a good experience. Also, the organizers told my mum that they would love to have a girl contingent. I should have smelled a rat there and then, but I was too unsophisticated to realize that this was going to be nothing like the friendly atmosphere of self improvement I was used to.

This was a totally different ball game.

The tournament was a total sausage fest. There were around 30 boys and maybe five girls, four from my school and one from St. Joseph Blata l-Bajda. That girl turned out to become a nurse with me and one of my very best friends ever. Strangely enough, that day we didn’t even speak and we didn’t get paired up to play, but she did play my sister and ended in a draw.

Immediately, I got a sense that we were not welcome. When the boys asked each other who they got paired up with, they would just reply ‘A girl.’ even though we all had name tags on. They also made the grave error of thinking I don’t understand Maltese. I was very nervous and I lost my first game. But by my second one I was ok, and I started winning. After my fourth win, on my fifth game, my opponent and I happened to be sitting next to someone I had beat earlier and he asked him in Maltese ‘This should be easy, right?’ and to my delight the other boy replied in Maltese ‘no. Don’t let the blue nail polish fool you. She made me sweat.’

These boys were GOOD. They were the type who read all the books, knew the names of all the openings and played confidently and decisively. Plus they all knew each other. But still, I managed to place really well over all and I won best female. That pissed my mum off a little, after all, why should women be singled out for a title? It makes one question if men and women play chess differently and if that is the case, like in most sports, maybe men and women should not play together. In all honesty, I do think men and women play differently, but I don’t think that it means they should play separately. When questioned about this special title, the organizers said it was to encourage more female players to come forward next time.

And in fact, we did participate next year with a larger group of girls. Unfortunately, the mentality was the same, nothing had improved. I was doing well, better than the year before but during my final game, the boy I was playing with did something very unsportsmanlike to me…we were playing with clocks and towards the end, I didn’t push my button down properly and my opponent played on my time. My time ran out and therefore I lost. The boy sat there like the cat who got the cream. By looking at the board, one could see that I was in a much better position than he was, but the arbitrator ruled in his favour and that was that.

The whole female contingent was livid. In spite of all this, I still got best female player that year. But the sense of triumph was not there. I was kind of disgusted.

After that I played a few rapid chess matches at the federation which back then was in Sliema and there were some amazing players during those matches. I learned a lot different techniques and improved my game immensely.

After a while I stopped playing and got completely cut off from the scene. I like winning, but I’m not really a competitive person. It just wasn’t fun anymore. I was not prepared to read all the books and study them by heart.

I was not prepared to make it the most important thing in my life.

And in a way, thank goodness. I am aware that I have a slightly addictive personality. Winning at something as elite as chess could definitely become an addiction. Learning all the combinations and probabilities could very well make even the most sane and well-adjusted individual lose his or her mind. When you are heavily involved in that world, it consumes you, like a heroin addict: your only friends are chess players and when you get together you only talk about chess or else play all night, just like how heroin addicts only have junkies as friends, non-addicts begin to avoid them and they are constantly jonesing for the next fix. In fact, the first bit of advice given to those who want to leave the lifestyle is to find new friends.

After watching The Queen’s Gambit with my toddler fast asleep in my lap, I couldn’t help but wonder what could have been. I can’t help but wonder if I will teach my daughter the game as my mother had taught me and where will it lead?

I guess only time will tell.

The Parent Police

I’m going to go straight to the point here:

How do complete strangers who do not know you think it’s ok to criticize your parenting skills.

No, it does not come from a place of caring. It simply doesn’t. How could a comment in passing about my child from someone I do not know, possibly be for my daughter’s wellbeing?

It isn’t.

Here is a list of admonishments I have received while out with my daughter in her stroller at various stages of her 19 months here on earth. I am not going to dignify them with an explanation, I don’t owe anything to anyone.

1. On a scorching hot afternoon in May a woman told her husband as she passed by ‘oh that poor baby, with her thighs out in the cold! Doesn’t her mum afford a pair of tights? Poor baby!’

2. I was cuddling and kissing my daughter while walking to the car in a parking lot- ‘oh my God, is that lady going to keep kissing her baby? That’s why children are so spoilt now!’

3. My daughter removed her hair clip and her fringe was in her eyes- ‘why don’t you put a clip in her hair? Otherwise we can’t see her lovely face!’

4. ‘Oh Mary mother of Jesus, look at that baby with two fingers in her mouth!’

5. ‘What a little fatty that baby is! How tubby and fat!’

I’m reading over this list again and I can’t help imagining what it would be like if I said these things to the people who said them about my daughter and when it boils down to it, me…imagine if I went up to a random adult and said ‘hey lady, put some tights on, your thighs look chilly!’ It is considered incredibly rude to comment about other people’s bodies and do you know how many times I have to look away from teenagers running around Valletta, sticking their tongues down each other’s throats, giving each other a good old fashioned tonsil polish, yet people had something to say about a few pecks on the cheek for a baby.

I have a motto in life: before speaking I ask myself ‘is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?’

Mums are under so much pressure now…there is so much information out there that we worry ourselves sick if our child isn’t studying astrophysics by the time it’s 4 months old and we freak out if they aren’t pirhouetting down the stairs at 14 months old. The last thing we need is an unhelpful two bit comment which you might forget the moment to you pass us by but we cling to for days or sometimes weeks.

It’s downright mean. And asshole-ish.

Don’t be an asshole. Just shut-up. Your two cents are not welcome here.

I started a mom war.

My tiny one is 18 months. She toddles but prefers to be held and cuddled, understands everything, asks for things (well, more like demands), loves music and in general is an absolute delight. I especially love watching her interact with other children, it is so sweet, she is so friendly.

Another thing about my kid: she eats anything. There are very few things that she does not enjoy. That is one headache that I don’t have to deal with for now. Peas, spinach, chicken, fish, pasta, muesli…you name it, she will eat it. With gusto. Which is precisely what got me in trouble.

You see, many kids are not like vacuum cleaners when it comes to food. Many children are very, very picky. I found this out from the numerous mommy groups I am part of on social media.

Now I always try to give my kid fresh food and variety. From a plain omelette to chicken murg mahkani , she has tried it all and for the most part liked it and licked the plate when she’s done (I am actively trying to discourage this practice, but she only does this at home so I’m not too worried). But some of these other moms….wow. They put me to shame. They make these absolutely beautiful platters of food for their toddlers, on wooden plates in the shape of woodland animals. My goodness, I would gladly eat their fare, let alone my daughter. Seriously gorgeous stuff.

Now whether their kids actually eat this gourmet fodder is another story entirely as nobody posts pictures of their kids actually eating the food. They also don’t tell us just how long before their offspring destroyed their rose-shaped tomato and orange supremes. I distinctly remember one mum having the courage to show a little honesty and basically told us that her child refused to even nibble her turmeric and salmon fritters, which is a crying shame because I would have eaten them myself in a heartbeat.

So on day, I decided to poke a little fun. I was tired, I had a headache, and I turned to Captain Birdseye for my daughter’s lunch and steamed some peas for her and gave her a couple of crackers as an appetizer. It was a little half hearted, with slightly high sodium levels, but oh well. It also wasn’t exactly pretty:

The chicken nuggets were already inhaled at this point.

I posted this picture on social media and basically said that I’m a lazy mommy and Captain Birdseye was my friend.

Then I went to the toilet.

5 minutes later, I return to my phone and find 30 notifications.

Little did I know that while nature called, I had started a full-on mommy war.

Most mums were very understanding about how we all have off days.

But some mums accused me of depleting their self esteem because their kids ONLY eat chicken nuggets so are they lazy mums then? Huh?! Are they!?

Then quick as a flash, before I could intervene (because my motto is ‘don’t throw kerosene on a fire’) another mum said ‘yes! You are lazy if you make chicken nuggets every day!’

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!

This was a joke! A funny, light hearted joke! A joke to show that we are mommies but we are also human and even though most wont admit it, convenience food can be a godsend! We can’t make organic falafel every single day. And not every vegetable we give our kids can come from a lush field where the fertilizer comes from unicorn poop and the air is purified through the flapping motions of the wings of a thousand majestic eagles. Sometimes we have to open a packet of frozen peas and get our kids fed on time, before the hunger whining sets in (and trust me, hunger whining makes you want to saw your ears off and coat them in breading and deep fat frying those suckers.)

I ended up deleting the post. I couldn’t deal with the drama. I’m exhausted all the time as it is with toddler drama, I can’t really do more.

But I do need to say one thing:

The mommy shaming has to stop. Everyone has a different reality to deal with. It’s not easy being a modern day mum.

But at the same time, I think we should lighten up and get a sense of humour….I find it helps me on the hard days.

School stories.

I’m very candid that school was not a fun time for me, I rarely went with any form of joy or vigour. School was a place where I was, for the most part, grossly misunderstood by my peers and teachers alike. It doesn’t mean that it was a bad school. It wasn’t. I just didn’t enjoy it much.

There were some funny moments however. At the time they did seem so, but twenty or so years later I am more than capable of seeing the funny side.

1. Needlework: for the first half of the school year in form 1 and 2 the class is divided in half, surnames beginning from a to m got to do home-economics and the rest had to do needlework. We were taught by a nun who had an obsession about not allowing students to walk behind her. She would sit like a queen at the head of this massive table and demonstrate what we were meant to do. On the first day we all had to say our names. When I said ‘Marie-Claire Pisani’ she looked with sudden interest.

Sister: Pisani? Are you Clementine’s girl?

(My mum taught at my school)

Me: yes, I am.

Sister: I was expecting a redhead!

Sorry sister, my dad has the coloring of a light skinned arab, so the ginger genetics didn’t quite swing my way.

Sister: are you quite sure Clementine’s your mother?

Me: yes, sister.

(Well, the woman comes home with me, has the massive c-section scar to prove it).

Sister: I thought you’d be a redhead.

Me: sorry to disappoint you sister.

Sister: mmmmmm.

I was rubbish at sewing. And we made the most useless stuff. Tissue box covers. Tacky Christmas decorations. Ugly stuffed animals.

Those stuffed animals. She made us stuff them until they were so hard, I considered carrying one around to use as a club if anyone bothered me. And she expected our stitches to be so tight, industrial strength, instead of tiny, 11 year-old finger strength. I remember distinctly that my friend made this awful blue teddy, and while the nun was inspecting it, she grabbed its nose and exclaimed ‘These stitches are too loose! What if a little boy were to do this?!’ and with Herculean effort, she tore the nose clean off poor teddy’s face, leaving a few strands of thread where his little snout once was. Everyone stared in horror at the newly mutilated bear and stitched with all their might with our miniscule pre-pubescent fingers.

In the end I whipped out my trusty stapler. Somehow, the nun didn’t notice. She was probably too distracted by my mundane Mediterranean appearance.

2. Religion lessons: in form one, we didn’t have religion. We had doctrine. Because that is precisely what it was. Our teacher told us plainly from day one that we are to study her notes off by rote, word for word because we were all too young to possibly be able to study any other way.

The condescending hussy. After all, why were her notes any authority on the teachings of the Catholic Church? Did she have weekly phone calls from the pope, giving her pointers on how to mold our young minds?

In her tests and exams, if you did not write out her notes as a perfect mirror image, she would deduct marks.

This woman absolutely didn’t score any points with me. And she made us learn the most useless rubbish. On her very first lesson with us, she handed out two A5 bits of paper with a list of every single book in the Bible, to be learned off by heart to get tested on later. I couldn’t remember this ridiculous list for the life of me so I actually composed a little song to help me.

I sometimes find myself thinking ‘hmmmm, let me dig up my bible and see what good old Hosea had to say about the modern day problems I face right now….’

Yeah, I really don’t do that. I never have. And when I was eleven I simply thought that Hosea was the funniest name I ever heard. I always imagined an old man with a beard, brandishing a hose.

Which is why making little kids study entire passages of prose by heart without any explanation is criminal …there I sat, learning that the book of Hosea exists, without knowing who Hosea was. To be entirely honest, I found out Hosea was actually a person because when I got home I asked my dad ‘What’s a Hosea and why is one so great that it has its own book in the Bible?’

The teacher’s reasoning behind giving us the laborious task of learning all the books in the Bible by heart? Because they’ll ask us about them in the o’level.

Five years passed. I did the religion o’level, aced it, no questions whatsoever on Hosea and his posse.

3. Luring us in: there are very few vocations to speak of nowadays. Part of going to a convent school involves constantly being reminded that if you want, you too can become a nun. This would be done in a number of ways-

(i) telling us all about ‘the call’: God will tell you specifically if He wants you to become a nun. It is very important to recognize the call as you can’t become a nun without it.

(ii) bribing us: on the notice board there was a sign to visit the nuns quarters if we wanted some ice cream. We were 11. We wanted ice cream. The moment we sat down to eat this ice cream, a herd of elderly nuns came out and told us about ‘the call’ and if we became nuns we could eat ice cream every day, which seemed wonderful and amazing. Ofcourse none of us knew what sex was and if we became nuns we would definitely not be having that every day. So in the grand scheme of things, ice cream looked pretty grand.

(iii) live ins: these would be weekends where we would basically sleepover at school and have the nuns take care of us. These would happen when we were slightly older, 14 or so. All the stops would be pulled out on these occasions: the best food, very little rules, being allowed to chat and run around all night…. because being a nun is fun! And before lights out we would be reminded about ‘the call’ and how we must obey it if it comes and it may come at any time.

(iv) we considered it: back then, nobody would admit it, but I’m sure the idea crossed all of our minds at some point. I thought of it for a few days. I even had the courage to tell a friend and we contemplated becoming nuns together.

Nobody in my year became a nun.

School is such an interesting experience. You spend the greater portion of your childhood in that place and certain experiences you kind of carry along with you forever. And what makes it so interesting is how your perspective changes when you look back: when you are very young, school is basically your world and all you know. As an adult, it feels like hardly a blip on this radar we call life.

When they taught us about time in primary school, I doubt we knew what a wondrous and mystifying thing it is.

I love my dad.

My dad is such a special guy. I’m sure a lot of people say that about their dads, but it’s really true about mine. It’s Father’s Day tomorrow and my hubby is entertaining the baby, so I’ll just write a quick post about how great and funny my dad is.

1. Once we were walking through Valletta when I was in my twenties and my dress was a little short. My dad told me “You are getting looks from unsavory characters…but don’t worry, if they try anything I’ll give them a knuckle sandwich!”

2. We had just arrived in Malta to live here for good in 1992. I was almost 7 and my dad and I went to Valletta to run errands, but in reality I think he just really wanted a chicken sandwich from Cordina. He told me ‘shall we make this fast and stand at the bar? I’ll get you a milkshake…’ So we stood at the bar. What my dad failed to realize was that I was 6 and couldn’t reach the bar, so while he ate his sandwich in a haze of nostalgic bliss, I was jumping with my arms outstretched trying to get my milkshake. When he had his last morsel and suddenly remembered that he had a daughter he said ‘don’t you want your milkshake? If not I’ll have it!’ Just as he was about to devour it, he became aware of my predicament and handed it down to me.

3. When I was 5, I had a crush on a boy at school. It was reciprocated. Before getting off the school bus at my house, I would give this boy a kiss on the cheek and he would give me one back and I’d be off. when my dad found out he told me very calmly that if that boy ever kissed me again he would keep his lips together for good with cement. The next day, when this boy turned to kiss me as I got off the bus I told him ‘better not, because if my daddy cements you’re lips together, you won’t be able to talk or eat and those things are more important than kissing.’ And I hopped off the bus.

4. When I was in form 1, my English teacher told my dad on parents day that my English left much to be desired. This came as a shock to my dad and he asked why and the teacher said it’s because I used words like ‘weird’ and ‘messy’ which were not appropriate in an English essay. Dad said ‘imma dawn hmerijiet!’ (but that’s nonsense) and he left.

5. Every birthday he makes me this special pork dish that’s really time consuming and nobody else likes but me. And he makes it every single year.

6. He ADORES my daughter. ADORES her. She’s the apple of his eye. He buys her toys and dresses and makes her special food. He put her picture in a special frame. Simply adores her.

7. When I was 20 and my sister was 15, we went out for a curry with my dad. I think my mum had papers to correct and my brother had to study which is why they didn’t join us. While waiting to be seated, my dad was daydreaming and the waiter approached my sister and I and said: ‘table for 2, girls?’ My sister replied: ‘and our father. So 3 please’ The waiter said ‘oh, what lucky girls you are, with a daddy who takes you out to dinner!’ Suddenly, my dad snapped back into consciousness and told the waiter ‘what are you talking about?!’ and the waiter said ‘oh no sir, no worries, I’m just having some fun with your girls, hee hee hee!’

Dad turned an interesting shade of puce.

‘NO! NO YOU WILL NOT HAVE FUN WITH MY DAUGHTERS! EVER! NO FUN WITH MY DAUGHTERS!’

‘Ok sir, so sorry sir, no fun sir, ever sir.’

‘GOOD. Now show us to our table please.’

Best. Curry. Ever.

Happy Father’s Day, dad. You are truly one in a million and we really love you.

A chicken sandwich and a memory

Today for lunch I made grilled chicken breasts with vegetables and potatoes, a pretty standard meal. As usual, I cooked enough for a family of five, so we had some leftover. However, I honestly did not feel like eating it again, so I figured I’d slice some up and make a sandwich.

I don’t know if it’s only me, but food often conjures memories and since being on lockdown, so many memories have just come flooding back and randomly racing through my mind.

And the chicken sandwich from Cordina is one of them.

During the ‘90s, being the good little catholic family that we were, we would hear mass every Sunday in Valletta at St. Barbara’s at 10am. In French. My mum is a massive Francophile, so we would troupe down there and listen to mass in French. It was generally very poorly attended so when my mother sang the hymns, you could REALLY hear her. It wasn’t nice. I can still hear her ‘seigneurRRRRRR ecouteEEEEE nous SEIGNEUR exauce nouUUUUUUUSSSSS!’ A voice that can turn milk into ricotta. But what she lacked in talent she made up for in enthusiasm. And she always delivered the readings for the congregation beautifully. There was also this member of the congregation who used to pull things out from between his teeth and rub them on the bench in front of him and then tried to shake your hand when offering peace. We fondly called him Monsieur Cure-Dent, or Mr. Toothpick, if you please.

Good times, fun stuff.

However the highlight would be going to Cordina afterwards. Us kids would be given pastizzi and milkshakes or cokes. But my dad would get the elusive chicken sandwich.

I was so curious about that chicken sandwich, but I knew better than to ask for one. When you are one of three siblings, if I got one the other two would have to get one too and I knew they probably cost a lot more than pastizzi. And pastizzi were great. So ah well. Also, watching my sister eat one was entertaining. When she was little she had this habit of doing what we called naked-ising food. Like if you gave her an aero mint chocolate bar, she managed to eat off the chocolate and leave a perfect green bubbly bar, grooves and all. She could nibble off the outer casing of garden peas. The girl had nimble teeth. When eating a cheese cake, she would manage to eat away the pastry and be left with this perfectly round disc of ricotta. It was quite impressive.

Yet one Sunday morning, my sister was at a sleepover and my older brother had severe allergies and had to stay home so I got to be an only child for a morning. We heard mass at St.Barbara’s and without my siblings, the congregation was even smaller than usual, making the acoustics insufferable.

Then we went to Cordina as usual. But this time, there were no siblings to speak of. I thought yes, now is my chance. I deserve a chicken sandwich. I’m a nice catholic girl who’s ear drums have just been assaulted with French hymn singing.

And I got one. We stood at the bar to eat it, so I could watch them make it. They brought out the chicken spread from an enormous stainless steel bowl. The lady was wearing these transparent gloves to make it, like at the delicatessen at a supermarket. It was placed in front of me on a little white saucer.

And it was delicious. It was everything I hoped it would be. And I felt so grown up and sophisticated. No pastizzi for this girl. She has risen up in the world. She eats delicate chicken sandwiches now.

Needless to say that next Sunday we were the five of us once again and this newly sophisticated young lady was back to pastizzi and watching her little sister perform surgery on hers.

In the mid ‘00s, they stopped making their chicken sandwiches with that delicious spread and now they are quite generic. Good, but not special.

In a desperate plight of nostalgia, this evening I tried to replicate that spread by blending up the chicken I made for lunch with some cream cheese and mayo and then added a few capers for good measure.

It was a very good attempt. Almost exact. I took a bite, in my kitchen, surrounded by baby snacks, the loud whirr of the robot vacuum on the floor and in my ratty pajamas and was immediately transported to the hustle and bustle of cafe Cordina on a Sunday morning, with the smell of coffee and a time where true happiness was a chicken sandwich.

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.