Home thoughts from abroad - Michela Spiteri
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Home thoughts from abroad - Michela Spiteri

The French Riviera, in some respects, is a sort of Sliema-as-was. Both enjoy the reputation for being fashionable resorts. The South of France especially. Favoured in the 19th century by the wintering British and Russian upper classes, it became in the 1920s the summer playland of those bright young Americans who invented sunbathing and beach culture. It has never lost that cachet. It is still the epitome of chic, culture and couture. 

Apart from an amazing climate (more than 300 days of sunshine each year) and its picturesque and protected coastline, the Riviera even today conjures up images of pastel and terracotta villas in subtropical gardens set against blue skies. What you don’t think of are high-rises, unsightly hotels, incongruous unfinished edifices and dreary concrete. But these things do exist, much to the despair of local residents, and there can be no question that they have cheapened and commercialised this otherwise stunning part of the world. Sounds familiar?

I spent an enjoyable week there over New Year and had plenty of time to think about things at home. And I returned home without any of those post-vacation ‘blues’ that some experience. Quite the contrary. Travelling – even to an exotic destination – always has a strange effect upon me. I suddenly feel idealistic and wistful about my Malta. I who only days before had wanted to be rid of her.

It’s something that usually surfaces three or four days into the trip – call it wearing rose-tinted spectacles and seeing our island home in an altogether different light. And within a week, all I want is to be reunited with my mother country, which like most mothers (so long as they are there) is unappreciated and taken for granted.  

If Malta is our mother, we are her spoiled and self-indulgent children, given to excess and short-term gratification. These shortcomings are perhaps most visible in the spoliation of our cultural heritage and the exploitation of our landscape. Excess and ruination now threaten our picturesque coastline, as developers, not content with urban or even ODZ space, eye the shoreline (and even the sea bed) for further money-making projects of doubtful aesthetic and environmental value.

 In this they are aided and abetted by an equally materialistic and indulgent government which naively believes that the good times will roll and roll and roll.

The Riviera didn’t touch my soul… I returned feeling humbled and grateful for what we’ve got

Having said that, I have also to say that there’s another sort of person. The kind that is hell bent on bashing Malta at every turn (and in doing her no good turn in the process). Some of her children, it would seem, are incapable of political detachment and cannot even shed their most blatant prejudices and excess baggage. It’s like this: if you’re making hay in Malta, you won’t be bashing her; if you’re feeling in the shade, chances are you will be.   

Which is why the most honest and objective opinions usually come from visitors and outsiders: those who were not born here but who, with perhaps eyes sharper than ours, have chosen to make Malta their home. 

These are not stupid or gullible people. Being sharp-eyed, they are of course not blind to Malta’s many aesthetic faults and everyday shortcomings: the unsightly litter, the treacherous pavements and potholed roads, the noise and noisomeness, the dust and over-development. But they also know a good thing when they see it (with those sharp eyes).

We Maltese, on the other hand, have trouble with just about everything. Even sorting out waste becomes part of the national pastime of self-flagellation. 

Because when all is said and done, sharp-eyed discerning people are drawn to what is authentic, charming and unpretentious. They don’t want tacky tourist traps or fluorescent casinos and hotels. They want the real deal: places that are off the beaten track or at least not trampled and trashed. 

As a visitor myself, my favourite part of the Côte d’Azur was certainly not Canne’s La Croisette, or even Monaco: the former was completely unmemorable, the latter only worth a visit in a ‘one-hit-wonder’ sort of way. In fact, my one-week stay in the South of France became rather an introspective Maltese experience. 

If you disregard the mountains, the abundant greenery and close an eye to the perfect pavements and clean streets (NB the French pay for what they get with high taxes and tolls), there are striking similarities. There are also some very important lessons which Malta and the Cote D’Azur ignore at their own respective perils. In short, the French Riviera’s own kind of ‘authenticity’ is fast becoming as difficult to find as Malta’s.  

Stony, sun-baked and overcrowded she may be, but Malta still has so much going for her. There’s Valletta, there’s the Grand Harbour and the Three Cities, there’s Mdina and Gozo… and also out-of-the-way places like Fawwara and Mtaħleb, which doesn’t look so very different from the February day in 1863 when Edward Lear painted its delectable valley, so unexpected and lovely in winter sunshine.

These, I suppose, are our country’s ‘set-pieces’; but we have soul too… and heart… and (I’m convinced) we have them in greater abundance than most places.

Yes, the Riviera, slick and chic as it may be, and for all its fabulous coastline, is oddly deficient. It didn’t touch my soul – at least not this Maltese soul. I returned feeling humbled and grateful for what we’ve got.  

And so it was I arrived feeling more committed than ever to saving them from the ravages of commercialisation and over-development.

And then, opening a newspaper, I read about Corinthia and St George’s Bay…

michelaspiteri@gmail.com

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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