A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Making Peace With Malta

valletta maltaI’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.

valletta maltaSeeing 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.

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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.

pastizziAfter 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 Part 2 here and Part 3 here.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]

Cisk Lager: The Worst Best Beer In The World

cisk lager malta best beer in the worldIs it possible that the world’s best beer is brewed in Malta, a nation of just 400,000 souls?
There’s a bus driver named Steve in the Maltese capital of Valletta who is quite certain it is. I was chatting with Steve, a half-Maltese, half-English immigrant who’s lived in Valletta for 25 years this week and as we passed a brewery on the outskirts of town, I asked him if their brew was any good.

“Good?” he said, stunned by my apparently dumb question. “They make Cisk Lager – it’s the best beer in the world.”

I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t.

“It’s brilliant,” he said. “You’ve got to try it while you’re here.”

“It’s the best beer in the world?” I said, still not quite believing it.

“Absolutely it is,” he repeated in his thick English accent. “They had an international contest and it won – best beer in the world. It was in the papers here.”

The sun was shining and we were enjoying a glorious day in a beautiful city. I wanted to believe him. If someone tells me that I have to try some beer I’ve never had, they don’t have to ask twice.

I waited until later in the day when I’d build up a nice thirst and then went into a shop and picked up a can of the stuff for 1 euro. It was a warm day and I expected it to be a thirst quenching lager, if nothing else. Upon first taste, it seemed excessively bitter and almost completely devoid of any discernable flavor. I thought that perhaps I just needed to get used to it, so I kept sipping away.But The Best Beer in the World, or The Best Beer in Malta, if you like, didn’t get better. With half left, I found myself grimacing each time I willed the bright yellow can up to my lips for another sip. I wanted to throw it away, but it didn’t seem right. Throw away a can of The World’s Best Beer? How could I do that, when the whole rest of the world outside Malta can’t even get a can of this stuff?

But I couldn’t finish it. I made it 2/3rds of the way through the can and tossed it. I haven’t really quaffed much cheap, bland lager since college, other than the occasional crappy beer at a sporting event or wedding, so maybe I’m too picky, but this beer tasted like something that dripped out of a sewer. A few hours later, I conferred with my wife, who had tried the same brew, but on tap at a bar and she concurred that it was swill.

I wanted to board the #52 bus to Mdina again to track Steve down, ask what on Earth he was thinking, dubbing this beer the world’s best. But the more I thought about it, Steve was right to be stoked about his hometown beer.

I’m a seeker – the kind of person who is always convinced that there’s something better on the next block. Sometimes it takes me an hour to settle on a restaurant while traveling because no matter how good a place looks, I always have this sneaking suspicion that there’s someplace better and cheaper right nearby. Even when I make a great discovery, I tend to wonder if I might have missed something even better.

That mentality is a ticket to unhappiness and a lifetime of restless wandering. There’s nothing wrong with satisfying one’s curiosity through travel and exploration but you have to learn how to master the art of appreciating what you have in your own backyard. Maltese Steve really believes that Cisk, the beer he drinks, is the world’s best.

When I lived in Macedonia, the locals were certain that Skopsko, their national beer, is the best in the world. And thousands or perhaps millions of other people around the world are convinced that the local beer they drink is the best. The point is that there is no best beer in the world – there is only the one you drink. And figuring out how to believe it’s the best one might be one of life’s great lessons.

The 10 smallest countries in the world

ten smallest countries in the world

The world’s ten smallest countries in terms of area fall into two general categories: European microstates (Liechtenstein, Malta, Monaco, San Marino, and the Vatican) and small island nations of the Indian Ocean, Pacific, and Caribbean (Maldives, Marshall Islands, Nauru, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Tuvalu.) Some of these countries are quite new as independent nations: Tuvalu gained independence from the UK in 1978, while the Marshall Islands gained full independence from the US in 1986. Others have been around for a very long time. San Marino dates its founding as a republic to 301. These countries vary greatly from one another along other axes as well: population, income, life expectancy, industry, tourist facilities, and membership in various international organizations.

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[Image of Tuvalu: Flickr | leighblackall]

A Traveler in the Foreign Service: Not much of a diplomat

My journey into the U.S. Foreign Service started as a Colonel Muammar Gaddafi impersonator in a school auditorium near Buffalo, New York in 1986. I was taking part in an 8th grade Model U.N. assembly, and had been given the difficult brief of dressing up like a citizen of Malta and delivering a speech advocating Maltese interests, whatever those were during the Cold War.

According to my trusty Encyclopedia Britannica, (remember those?) Libya was one of Malta’s primary trading partners, and since it appeared to be relatively close to Libya on the map, I went ahead and donned a flowing white Arab-style robe with matching headdress and aviator sunglasses for my speech. A photograph of me in my Gaddafi costume appeared in The Buffalo News, and someone at my school decided to send a copy of the press clipping to the embassy of Malta in Washington, in the absurd belief that they might find some amusement in the fact that a 13-year old boy was photographed grossly misrepresenting their country.

A few weeks later, I received a package from the office of the Prime Minister of Malta with some books about the country, along with a scathing letter, which darkly and absurdly hinted at a sinister, anti-Maltese conspiracy perpetrated by our “so-called free press” in Buffalo. My school was convinced that I’d created an international incident and forwarded the letter to the State Department. Five months later, I received a letter from the State Department’s Desk Officer for Malta, which contained an unlikely piece of advice: consider a career in diplomacy.

My parents bought me a shortwave radio and the crackling sounds of far-off places fed my desire to see the world. After college, I took jobs in advertising and publishing more or less to fund travel opportunities, and took off as soon as my bank account allowed for extended overland trips in Europe, the Middle East, Russia, Central Asia and China. The trips left gaping holes in my resume but renewed my interest in joining the Foreign Service.

Wanderlust is a romanticized concept but it can also be an affliction, a malady that prevents people from becoming settled, productive members of the rat race. After returning to Chicago, my adopted hometown, after along overland trip in 2000, I resolved to make a serious push to get into the Foreign Service, in the hopes that it would be a career that could channel my wanderlust into something productive. Rehabilitate me, if you will.Others have had much longer and more distinguished careers in the Foreign Service than I have, and this series isn’t meant to be a definitive account of what life in the service is like. There are more than 5,000 Foreign Service Officers working in some 200 posts all around the world, and everyone has their own stories, experiences and perspectives.

When I tell people that I was in the Foreign Service, I get a lot of blank stares and awkward questions. Even well educated people often have no idea what the Foreign Service is.

“Is that like the French Foreign Legion?” a medical doctor and Ivy League graduate once asked me.

In this series, former Foreign Service Officer, Dave Seminara, will attempt to explain what the Foreign Service is and isn’t, share some Foreign Service vignettes, and provide an answer to this question: is the Foreign Service a good career option for compulsive travelers?

Next: ‘You’ve Never Smoked any Marijuana?’ Getting into the Foreign Service

Read more from A Traveler in the Foreign Service here.

Knocked up abroad: international travel with a baby

travel with a babyThis is the third in Knocked Up Abroad‘s guide to traveling with a baby. Before you go, see tips on planning travel and flying with a baby.

So you’ve decided to travel abroad with your new family addition, well done! You’ve chosen the best baby-friendly destination, packed light, and even survived the long flight. Now that you’re on the ground, possibly recovering from jet lag and hopefully learning new foreign phrases for “what a cute baby!,” how can you ensure you and your baby have a fun and relaxing vacation? After five countries in under four months (several of them without other adults), I can say it mostly comes down to attitude and planning. Here are my tips for international travel with a baby:

-Don’t expect the world to cater to you. The most important thing to bring on a trip with a baby is the right attitude. If you travel expecting every restaurant to have a baby-changing table in the bathroom (which they probably won’t, especially in Europe) or that public transportation should be stroller-accessible, you can be sorely disappointed. Keep your expectations low and get creative. I’ve changed my baby on many toilet seat lids, on top of and even in sinks (stuff your diaper bag in to make a flat base), and occasionally in her stroller. Allow yourself to be surprised by people, too. In New York, I was prepared to carry my stroller up and down stairs at some subway stops by myself, yet I was helped by strangers every time. A restaurant owner in Italy set up a makeshift table on top of their deep freezer when she saw me struggling to change the baby on a sink top. Look at inconveniences as part of the adventure rather than a sign you should have stayed home.-Plan your logistics carefully, and then let the rest of your plans go. As noted previously, it pays to do your research before departing. Each day of your trip, plan out where you want to go, how to get there, and what you might need but realize that you might not do any of it. In Malta, there was a wine festival in the next town with cheap tastings and free food, but a cranky baby meant we stayed within walking distance of our apartment (good thing too, or we could have missed a great parade). In Slovenia, we had to make a detour back to our hotel after a diaper incident meant I had to strip my baby down to just her winter coat and diaper. Babies can be unpredictable, so you may need stop at a cafe to feed a baby, take an extra walk around the block before bed to soothe crying, or go back to your room early when the weather turns bad. While combination transit or tourist passes might be a good value, they won’t be if your baby won’t go in a museum without screaming or prefers an open-air stroll to a bus ride.

-Find favorite rest stops. When you need to take a time out from exploring to feed or change your baby, there can be some comfortable places to stop that exist in nearly every destination. Museums and large hotels tend to have nice bathrooms, sometimes with changing facilities. Large baby stores may have a private nursing room or a place to change the baby, plus plenty of gear and gadgets if you need them. Pharmacists generally speak English and carry nearly all of the necessities. At night, however, you may have to be creative again. I tend to visit the same cafes in Istanbul again and again not just for the food but for the bathrooms, the waiters who rush to coddle and play with the baby, and comfy seating while I feed her.

-Breast is best when traveling. While it’s a personal choice how you feed your baby, if you can and want to breastfeed, there is evidence both anecdotal and scientific to support that breastfeeding is preferred while traveling. According to the CDC, it provides needed immunities, nutrition, and hydration for the baby. Even if the mother gets traveler diarrhea, breastfeeding can help to protect from contaminants and rehydrate the baby. It’s also convenient: perfectly packaged, the right temperature, and nothing goes to waste! Nursing mothers may still want to carry a manual pump and store a spare bottle or two. So far, I’ve found every country to be friendly to breastfeeding mothers, though I carry and use a scarf for modesty and spit-up. La Leche League has resources in many countries if you need help, check their map for local groups.

-Document your baby’s trip. It goes without saying that you’ll take plenty of photos and perhaps journal, blog, or tweet your trip, but it helps to document the more mundane activities too. When my baby was born, I got a set of cute notebooks to help me keep track of her feeding and sleeping schedule and diaper changes. I maintained it faithfully only for the first month or two, but now try to revive the records when I travel. Especially if you’re dealing with a big time change, it can help you to figure out how the baby is adjusting by keeping track of how often they eat and how long they sleep at a stretch. It’s also useful when deciding how many diapers to buy so you don’t get caught short or hauling around a mega pack. In the event that your baby gets sick (fingers crossed that they don’t!) during or after your trip, you can tell the doctor if anything is out of the ordinary and help pinpoint causes. You don’t need a fancy notebook either, you can jot down notes on the back of a museum ticket or restaurant receipt while you’re making a pit stop.

-Pack “in between” clothes. If your baby has clothes that he is about to grow out of, bring them along on your travels. If they have only one or two more wears left in them, you won’t mind if they get left behind in a hotel room, will have less to launder or carry, and you’ll probably take many photos of your baby so you can remember a favorite outfit before it gets too small. Keep a spare in your diaper or day bag in case of a changing emergency.

-Know your conversions. Do you know your baby’s weight in kilograms? Does 39 degrees sound hot or cold to you? If you’re American, you probably suffer from the disadvantage of not knowing the metric system used by the rest of the world. You’ll need to know measurements when buying diapers as size numbers might change between countries. My baby was born weighing 3.4 kilos (about 7.5 pounds) and wears a size 2 Pampers in every European country, but wore a size 1 in the same brand of American diapers. In case of a fever while traveling, you should know what temperatures require a visit to a local doctor or just a dose of Children’s Tylenol (which is called Calpol in many other countries, by the way). This info is all online, of course, but it can’t hurt to jot it down in your wallet just in case.

-Carry lots of bags. One of the more useful items to pack and/or collect on your trip is bags disposable, resealable, and reuseable. Bottles can be kept clean and stained clothing can be kept separate from the rest of your stuff in a Ziploc bag (bring a stash from home, they are harder to find in some countries). Supermarket store plastic bags are useful for laundry and diapers until you can deal with them properly. You’ll be going to the store more than usual for baby supplies, and many countries don’t supply bags for free, so bring your own reuseable tote for groceries, carrying gear from your luggage on an outing, or bringing souvenirs home. Bags are useful even without a baby but can also make a huge difference if you have a wet baby miles from your hotel.

What are your secret weapons for traveling with a baby? Leave us your success stories (and mistakes) in the comments.