Regular readers of this column will recall that I created a diplomatic incident with Malta by dressing up like Colonel Gaddafi in a grammar school model U.N. in Buffalo, New York, in 1986. 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.
I never found Mario and assumed I never would but the Maltese press got wind of the story and found the incident as hilarious as I did. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a popular columnist for The Malta Independent, wrote about it on her website and the post generated more than 40 comments, including at least one from a person who believed that I’d forged the documents and made the whole story up. (My imagination is vivid but not that good.)A reporter from the same publication wrote a piece about my attempts to find Mario, which concluded with my line: “Sorry, Mario. Please drop me a line someday. I owe you a beer.”
With Malta being a relatively small place, the story found its way to Mario himself and several weeks ago he finally contacted me via email. I was initially a little alarmed, because in the first paragraph of Mario’s message, he seemed more than a little annoyed with me.
“The affair of the Gaddafi costume had been forgotten until you brought it up again last year, and to tell you the truth I was not at all pleased to have my name and (former) address published in the international press with a repeat in a local newspaper,” he wrote. “I only hope that the affair stops here.”
But after those lines, he warmed up considerably. “There are no hard feelings, and I was really gratified by your great efforts to find me, to ‘make peace’ in person,” he wrote.
Cacciottolo, now 71, went on to explain that I had “earned” an explanation of what had transpired back in 1986 and again last year when I asked the Maltese Embassy in Washington to contact him on my behalf. Mario wrote that he responded to a series of questions from the Maltese Ambassador last year, forwarded to him on my behalf, but he was unaware of the fact that the Embassy never passed his response on to me. (In fact, they told me that he didn’t want to speak to me, which wasn’t true.)
Cacciottolo went on to claim that he didn’t understand back in 1986 that the matter concerned a schoolboy but maintained that he had “no shame or regrets for what I had written back in 1986!”
Given the fact that Mario referred to the photo of me, at age 13, in the letter, his confusion is, well, confusing, for lack of a better phrase, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. But Cacciottolo also insisted that his reaction reflected no specific anti-Arab bias, but rather a patriotic response to my mischaracterization of the country.
“We may be a very small nation living in a tiny state,” he wrote. “But we are as proud of our country as anyone else in the world.”
Mario also took issue with my characterization of the mid ’80s as a time of violent protests in Malta.
“No demonstrators were EVER killed in the streets by Maltese policemen,” he wrote. “Don’t be offended or shocked, but you repeated a lot of exaggerated hogwash.”
He also insisted that the source that briefed me on what Malta was like in the mid ’80s must have thought I was a C.I.A. agent. But after setting me straight on those scores, Cacciottolo apologized for not realizing back in ’86 that I was just a 13-year-old schoolboy, and said that he’d be looking for the card I left for him with his former neighbor.
Since receiving that first message from Mario, we’ve exchanged a few more emails and I feel pretty safe in saying that we are now friends. Someday, I will buy him a beer. The only bit of unfinished business is the fact that his former neighbor apparently ate the box of chocolates I left for him. Note to neighbor: you owe Mario a box of Lindt chocolates.
Read more from “A Traveler In The Foreign Service” here.