I’ve felt an odd kinship with Malta ever since I created a minor international incident with the tiny island nation by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in an 8th grade model U.N. exercise in 1986. When my teacher decided to throw me a curveball by assigning me the task of dressing up like a citizen of Malta, I was initially displeased. In the pre-Internet age, it wasn’t easy to ascertain how the Maltese dressed if you lived in Buffalo, New York, as I did.
I dressed up like Gaddafi because Malta and Libya seemed close enough on the map and I had no better ideas. A photo of me in Arab garb made it into The Buffalo News and once the Maltese got wind of it, they were none too pleased. In their indignant response, Mario Cacciottolo, the private secretary of the Prime Minister of Malta, told me that I should try to correct the misperception I’d created regarding their country. But I was a 13-year-old kid living in Buffalo. How was I going to do that?
My school was alarmed by the letter and sent it to the State Department. Several months later, the Desk Officer for Malta sent me a letter encouraging me to consider a career in diplomacy. I did just that in my 30’s. Over the last quarter of a century, I’ve traveled extensively in more than 50 countries, including most of Europe. All this time, Malta’s been on my radar, but I’ve been circling the place without actually landing there.Over the winter, I attempted to secure a phone interview with Mr. Cacciottolo via the Maltese embassy in Washington, but the Maltese ambassador said that the matter was closed. Mario accepted my apology but he didn’t want to speak to me. I wondered whether the embassy actually passed on my request and, if they had, why Mario didn’t want to talk to me.
In February, I watched a documentary on the Costa Concordia disaster and decided to look into going on a Costa cruise, with the idea that they’d be offering bargain rates. Perusing their website, the cheapest cruise I could find also happened to make a full day stop in Valletta, Malta’s capital. I was hooked.
Seeing the old port of Valletta, with its picturesque sprawl of shipping cranes and indestructible, uniformly sandstone colored buildings set against a perfectly blue sky had me chomping at the bit to explore the city that had been looming in the back of my consciousness for more than one-fourth of a century.
I was the first person off the boat and made a beeline for a tourist information hut in the port. It was 7.45 a.m. and 21-year-old Kathleen Polidano was having a coffee and getting ready for the usual onslaught of map-requesting tourists when I ambled in with photocopies of myself representing Malta in the St. Gregory the Great School Model U.N of 1986 and the indignant response I received from the Maltese.
I explained my story and as soon as I pulled out the photocopy of the press clipping, she burst out laughing.
“This is the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.
I told her I was looking for Mario Cacciottolo, and showed her the address and phone number I’d found in an online phone directory. Without my asking, she said, “Can we call him? I want to hear what he has to say.”
It rang and rang but Mario didn’t answer. I chatted with her a bit and she reassured me that I wasn’t the only foreigner who was clueless about Malta, a nation of just 122 square miles that’s been ruled by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the Hapsburgs and the British, among others.
“A lot of people don’t even know we’re an independent country,” she lamented. “We’ve been independent from Great Britain since 1964, but I guess the news travels slowly for some people.”
I walked uphill towards the old town and immediately noticed the British influence – hotels with British names, bright red British phone booths and an entrance to the city called Victoria Gate. And most people I stopped to ask for directions could speak English, in addition to Maltese.
Watching Valletta wake up was joy – old men labored to raise the shutters on their storefronts, women filed quietly into the St. Paul Shipwreck Church and murmured responsorial psalms, and a pleasantly quiet buzz pervaded the beautifully decaying streets. The streets are called triqs in the Maltese language, which sounds like an exotic, melodic mix of Italian and Arabic.
After a stroll through the Upper Barrakka Gardens, which offers a stunning panorama of the city, I saw a line of men outside a stall called Champ on the Old Theater Street near St. John’s Cathedral, and decided to join them. I followed their lead and ordered a Maltese ricotta cheese pastry called a pastizzi, one of the Malta’s national treats, and a coffee. They use the euro in Malta and the bill came to 70 cents – 40 for the coffee and 30 for the pastizzi.
I can’t remember the last time I had a cup of coffee for less than $1, let alone 50 cents, and the pastizzi’s artery clogging goodness was so satisfying that I ended up getting a second one. Every street I wandered down seemed to have new discoveries – a crumbling piazza, an old man in an ancient looking workshop, a time warp café that looked like a WW2 era postcard.
But I wasn’t in town to frolic on the ancient streets; I wanted to know what was going on in Malta in 1986, when I got the letter, and I wanted to find Mario. I paid a visit to the National Library and met Carmen Muscat, a Maltese librarian who wasn’t as amused by my story as Kathleen was.
“What were you thinking?” she asked, when shown the photo of me dressed like Gaddafi.
“I was only 13,” I replied, more than a little defensive.
“But we’re closer to Sicily than Libya, why didn’t you dress up like an Italian?”
The real answer is because it’s more fun to dress up like Gaddafi than an Italian, but I let it slide. Carmen read through the letter from Mario and then called her husband on the cellphone to see if he knew him.
“My husband used to know him,” she reported back. “But they lost touch a long time ago. My husband studied Public Affairs and so did Cacciottolo.”
She pulled out the local phonebook to look him up and found a different entry than the one I found online. She was certain that the entry she found was the correct one.
“Look, here,” she said, pointing to a line in the phone book. “He has a B.A. and a Diploma of Public Affairs, so this must be him.”
She explained that in Malta, people listed their degrees in the telephone book, and Mario had a Bachelor of Arts degree and a DPA, a Diploma of Public Affairs, listed after his name. She jotted down the rest of the address to me but it made no sense. She wrote, “Il Holma, Triq Xmiexi, Msida.”
Carmen explained that “Il Holma” means “The Dream” in Maltese. His home had a name, not a number. The street he lived on was called Xmiexi, which is pronounced shhh-mee-she in Maltese. Msida was a town just outside the center of the city. We tried to call the number listed for Mario in the phonebook, but once again, he didn’t answer.
I met up with my wife and children and spent a few hours visiting Malta’s stunning old capital, Mdina, a half-hour outside of Valletta. As we arrived back in Valletta, my wife said that she had no interest in tracking down Mario, so I was on my own. I bought a box of chocolates for him and felt a bit like a nervous schoolboy heading off to first date as I alighted onto a public bus bound for Msida. But would I find Mario, and if I did, what on earth would we say to each other, after all these years?
Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.
[All photos by Dave Seminara]