“Good morning Madam,” said the old man, smiling, as he stood at the entrance of his house. It was one of those traditional entrances with two heavy wooden doors and a decorative brass knocker on each. Beyond it was the “antiporta,” a more delicate door with large glass windows, lace curtains maintaining a smidgen of mystery about the interior of the house.
“Bonġu,” I replied, smiling back.
“Maltese?” he asked.
“I am,” I replied, “but my friend here is from Germany.”
The man seemed delighted that we seemed to have time for small talk. Within two minutes he told us about his family: his wife who passed away, his nine children and twenty-two grandchildren, and then proceeded to invite us inside to look at a small table packed with framed photos of all of them.
We did have time, as we were just wandering aimlessly, charmed by the narrow winding back streets of Victoria, Gozo. And he was so polite and had such a bright smile that we obliged.
We looked at the old photos – the youngest child in the picture was now a teenager, he said – and then noticed, at the end of the hallway, a statue of the holy mother amidst several plants behind glass. Noticing our curiosity, the man led us further in and talked some more about his house, offered us tea, and proceeded to tell us a few things about Gozo and how it used to be in his younger days.
We spent about half an hour with the man, and left with a smile on our faces and our hearts warmed by his hospitality and complete lack of fear of strangers. Perhaps his ease was born from his younger days, when it was customary in Gozo to leave the key in the front door to show your trust of the neighbours?
I had a similar experience one day while working on a photo shoot in Siġġiewi. And I find such experiences most endearing.
Some might say that lonely old folk might do anything for a chat; I do not agree. Loneliness and friendliness are two very different things, and one does not necessarily call on the other. I perceive it as village culture, a culture that still persists today despite the influx of foreigners visiting and living on these islands which have, in general, contributed to Malta’s more cosmopolitan feel and modern way of life.
In the villages, where few tourists might venture and the inhabitants are not concerned with the commerce related with them, Maltese people still live a traditional lifestyle; one where people say hello when they meet strangers in the street, get curious about outsiders and want to get to know them, feel inclined to offer tea as a gesture of amiability, and generally have time for interacting with their neighbours and anyone who might visit their village.
I recently moved to a village so that I could savour, on a daily basis, the feeling of living among real people. I felt I had spent too many years living in various apartments where I never met the neighbours and didn’t even know their names.
There is something beautiful about the quaint way of life in a village, a way of life which nonetheless may also include curtain twitching and gossip when the fine line between familiarity and nosiness may be crossed.
In any case, while I genuinely enjoy the variety and excitement of cosmopolitan culture, I also hope the charm of small town community life will continue to be a reality in years to come.