I was sitting aboard a battered old bus in Valletta, Malta’s capital, on my way to search for Mario Cacciottolo, a retired Maltese diplomat who sent me a gentle rebuke after I misrepresented the country by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in a grammar school model U.N. in Buffalo, New York, in 1986. It was an insane quest, but I felt like I had to try to find him, so I could apologize in person, and let him know that I intended to correct the mistake I made all those years before.
(Read part 1 of this story here.)
On board, I showed the address I’d found for Mario in the phone book to a woman sitting next to me and she was able to tell me where to get off the bus, but couldn’t provide further details on how to find Xmiexi (shh-mee-she) Street. I ambled around what appeared to be an old, working class neighborhood lost in time, showing people Mario’s address like a lost child.”Ah, shmee-she street,” they’d say. “You’re very close!”
But no one seemed to know precisely where it was. I asked again at a shop that sold delicious looking pastizzi for 23 cents, and a woman in a dirty apron led me across the street to confer with a friend who directed me to a police station to ask for further help. Feeling like perhaps Il Homa really was just a dream that wasn’t a real address, I flagged down a taxi, but alas, he had never even heard of the street.
Inside the police station, I approached a bored looking officer sitting at a counter. Rather than simply asking for directions, I decided to tell him my story, just to gauge his reaction to my quest. Like most Maltese, he spoke English, and listened patiently as I told my tale. As he studied my letter from Mario, I waited for his reaction, but got none. Instead, he looked at me like I was crazy and then proceeded to give me extremely complex directions.
“You go up this street,” he said, vaguely pointing behind him. “Continue on until you see a mailbox – then look for a little set of stairs on the right. That’ll take you to St. Luigi Street, go up and take the first set of stairs on your left. That will lead you right to Shmee-she street.”
I wrote it all down but felt intimated, so I flagged another taxi. But the second driver appeared even more confused than the first. “I have never heard of this place,” he said.
I followed the police officer’s instructions, and after climbing the second set of stairs came upon a street where all the tidy little newish homes had names rather than numbers. I assumed it was Xmiexi Street and felt triumphant a moment later when a passerby confirmed it. I walked up the street, butterflies in my stomach, taking note of every house name. Some were in Maltese, but others, like “April Showers” and “Goodfellas” were in English. Halfway up the street, I saw a home on my left called Il Homa, but felt a wave of disappointment as the place looked dark and empty.
I rang the bell several times but no one answered. I went to the home next door on the right, rang the bell and a woman answered in Maltese on the intercom.
“Hi,” I said. “Do you know Mario next door?”
“Who?” she asked.
“Mario Cacciottolo,” I said. “He lives next door to you.”
She said she just moved in and didn’t know him. I told her I had a gift I wanted to leave for him and asked if she could come outside so I could explain. A few moments later, she called out to me from her side porch, up on the second floor.
I looked up and struggled to explain my story from a distance. After hearing the Cliff Notes version, she said, “You are in the United Nations?”
“No, no, it was the Model United Nations,” I said, feeling ridiculous. “Back in 1986. Mario sent me this letter.”
I held up the letter, and then the news clipping with my photo, circa 1986, and the woman burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I don’t know him and I can’t help.”
And with that she went back in her house. I tried the house to the left of Il Homa and a man in his 70s came outside to speak with me.
“Mario moved a few years ago,” he said, as my heart sank.
The man explained that Mario moved to a town I didn’t quite catch the name of. Apparently it was nowhere near Valletta and I had just 2 hours before my ship sailed for Catania. I left the man a folder with the letter and clippings, a note from me, and a business card, along with the chocolates I bought for him. In my note to him, I apologized to Mario and told him that I hoped to correct the wrong impression I’d given of Malta back in ’86, as he asked me to in the letter. I asked him to send me an email or a letter. The man promised to pass the items on to Mario and I left wondering if I’d ever hear from him.
I didn’t find Mario, but I was fortunate to strike up a conversation with a gentleman who worked at Valletta’s archeological museum who was able to help me understand Maltese politics, circa 1986. When I showed him my documents, he had a good laugh.
“I’m not surprised they were angry at you,” he said. “The truth is that we’re a bit defensive and we don’t really like Arabs.”
The man’s cousin is a former political leader of the country and he asked me not to use his name in the story. He said that Malta’s Prime Minister at the time was Carmen Misfud Bonnici, a socialist who won a disputed election that touched off a period of political violence in the country.
Bonnici forged strong ties with the Soviet Union, Gaddafi, N. Korea and other communist states. Relations with the U.S. were frosty, at best. There was an open campaign against Catholic churches in the country, some were raided and vandalized as were newspapers that were critical of the government.
As the teachers at my little Catholic school in Buffalo were wondering about the somewhat aggressive tone in the letter we received, the streets of Valletta were awash in protests – some broken up violently with police firing on and killing demonstrators in some cases. We had no clue, but the country was deeply divided. In 1990, conservatives took power and relations with the U.S. improved. The country has made great strides in the last two decades, managing to grow its tourism industry and joining the EU in 2004, but Bonnici, now retired, still publicly agitates for Malta to pull out of the EU and go back to the old days.
But that’s not going to happen. Malta’s future is in the EU and the increasing flow of tourists into the country means that gaffes like the one I made years ago are unlikely to happen again. When I turned up at our model U.N. in Buffalo representing Malta as a Colonel Gaddafi look-alike, no one batted an eyelash, or rebuked me for being dead wrong. These days, if a student tried it, they’d certainly be laughed out of the room.
More than a quarter of a century late, it’s time for me to correct the false impression I gave about Malta. Malta is a beautiful, independent European country with a fantastic climate and friendly people – people who dress in modern fashions. I had no idea, but now I do. Sorry, Mario. Please drop me a line someday. I owe you a beer.
Read Part 1 of this story here.
Read Part 3 of this story here.
Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.
[All photos by Dave Seminara]