Before I met Malta, I used to vacation on the island of Hilton Head in the United States. Some of my family lives there and so I had a taste of island life before coming to Malta. Although the similarities between these two islands are few, there is the organising factor of community that shimmers around the edges of each experience and underscores every daily event of island life.
Island life thrives on self-reliance and support from others, paradoxically. An island is literally broken off from the mainland and thus the inhabitants are forced to fend for themselves. Such independence lends itself to the creation of a community in which the members of the tribe look out for one another. As an island, Malta is a geographical orphan; there may be distant relatives or friends, neighbouring countries who provide meagre influence or aid, but it is generally on it’s own. And so, the island’s inhabitants look to each other; they band together to form a cohesive whole.
Island life can be isolating, even stifling. Unless one has the means to purchase an airline ticket, it is difficult to leave. Unless one has the gall to hitch a ride on a ship or commandeer a fishing boat, one is inevitably stuck. Conversely, my homeland has long stretches of intersecting roads and highways that could carry me far away. Even if one does not own a car, in the impressive geographical mass of North America, one could always walk if need be.
This containment, or finite geography, is why islanders place such a high value on “going abroad.” A phrase that is often heard amongst all classes of Maltese and suggests an escape, an adventure, a break from the routine. They key to happiness on the island is the ability to get away. A local — who lived inland, as so many do — once told me, “I have to go to the edge everyday. I have to see the sea. If I don’t, I go mad with claustrophobia.”
Living in such a small island community does boast some important advantages. Of interest to me is this organising factor of ironclad community, a phenomenon missing from my own life experiences as an urban child. In her novel, The Innocents, Francesca Segal details a tightly knit community of North-West London: “There was no life event — marriage, birth, parenthood, loss — through which one need ever walk alone. Twenty-five people were always poised to help. The other side of interference was support."
This description can be likened to the Maltese community, at least the one in which I have become familiar. Segal points to the dual edged sword of a small community: interference and support. Living on a small island, within a small sub-community, has proven to me that the old maxim is true: everyone knows everything about everyone.
Although learning to accept this truth may be difficult, it is as inevitable and unavoidable as humidity in summer or strong winds in winter or the festa fireworks. And therefore it is best for all new parties, such as myself, to yield to its authority. If you have an argument with your husband; if you’re having an affair; if you’re ordering lurid items online; if you’re rich/poor/nouveau riche/bankrupt; if you fail to put out your trash at the right time of day; people will talk and everyone will know. The Maltese are known for their warm, welcoming personalities (which are in fact, entirely genuine), but they can also keep their cards very close to their chests. Their deepest thoughts and secrets are often locked away as securely as possible, as it is the only way to avoid mass exposure.
But then, of course, there is the other side of the sword: support. Recently, the Maltese community has rallied to assist a young man who suffered a brain haemorrhage and is currently in an induced coma. After spending a few days in the local hospital, he was flown to London to receive specialised care. Within hours, there were groups formed online to support and pray for his full recovery (one page has over 19,000 members). Local sports teams were raising money amongst players and club members. Community members organised fundraising events to collect money for the family. Such compassion is done without question — there is no corporate sponsorship or any buried political or social agenda — it is entirely altruistic.
This outpouring of support from so many friends, family, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, and even distant community members is profound. Although I am not surprised, as I have witnessed the Maltese generosity many times over. The annual L’Istrina, a televised fundraiser for Maltese charities held every year at Christmastime, collected over €3 million last year and over €2.5 million the year prior. Even more impressive, considering Malta’s population of only ±400,000. “I have, you need. So take.” Such a fitting articulation (borrowed from Segal, again) of an island, or perhaps more particularly, a Maltese mentality.
I think I would gladly trade to be on the whispered lips of a few well worn gossips and even a perpetual lack of privacy for the passionate support of a whole community in times of grave need. Such moments and events such as these remind me of the jewels of life here on this island. “I have, you need. So take.” A simple, but powerful motto that I have witnessed in this community.
It makes me proud to be a part of it.