Imaginary countries, fenek, rented farmhouses, zombies’ hands, Saint-Exupéry, terraced fields, composition books, shehecheyanus,
fresh lampuki & the Azure Window.
Before there were bucket lists, before there was The Bucket List, before I even knew what it meant to kick the bucket or understood the need to accomplish things before I kicked it, there was Malta.
People ask me why Malta, of all places, should have been the dreamland of my childhood. There’s no satisfying answer. It was because of the knights, I tell them, and the fortresses and the palaces and the great walled cities. They seem to understand, maybe, because what little boy doesn’t love knights and fortresses and ancient walled cities? But I don’t know. Maybe I loved the sound—Malta—the way it sits in the back of the mouth, heavy, almost unromantic, lacking the too-obvious melody of Santorini and Sardinia. Maybe I loved that everyone had wanted this piece of rock—the Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Crusaders, Ottomans, French, English, Italians and Germans—so it must be something worth seeing.
Mostly, I must have loved that it was small, out of the way and an island. I used to pore over an enormous atlas with a dark-green cover. I would open it on the floor and stare for hours. I knew all the big places, but I preferred playing hide-and-seek with the smaller ones—not India but Bhutan, not Germany but Liechtenstein, the ones that begged you to wonder what was there and how they came to be. My father dreamed of tiny Mustang, high in the Himalayas and cut off from the world, and my mother the Galapagos way out in the Pacific, so I suppose it’s inherited.
With the years, I grew and gave away a collection of guidebooks I hoped someday to use, but Malta, like a soul or the chickenpox, always remained.
Islands fascinated me because so many are, by their nature, small and out of the way. My imaginary countries were nearly all islands. I loved the concept of a place with borders that were really real. Where Richmond blurred into New York and even Paris eventually became Brussels, Malta was just Malta. It went along as far as it wanted then dipped down into the sea and disappeared.
My favorite book was The Little Prince. An only child, I think I must have identified with a boy from a tiny planet no larger than a house surrounded by other planets no larger than houses, each with some single, defining characteristic that by itself comprised an entire world. Islands, especially small nations on small islands, seemed alone to offer that promise. I remember Narnia mostly for the Dawn Treader’s voyage from island to island to the end of the world.
All I know for sure is that when I was in second, maybe third, grade, I’d written in a black-and-white marble composition book, “Countries of Europe: (1) France (2) Spain (3) Malta.” By the time I was a teenager, I’d saved enough money to buy the Insight Guide to Malta, with the familiar, smiling face on its cover of a young woman who must by now be middle-aged. It replaced the Insight Compact Guide I’d been given as a birthday present but found too compact. With the years, I grew and gave away a collection of guidebooks I hoped someday to use, but Malta, like a soul or the chickenpox, always remained.
In February, I committed to a June trip to Malta, and in March, the Azure Window fell into the sea. It was too perfect a symbolism. It reeked of foreshadowing. In a matter of hours, a storm had swept across the Mediterranean and torn down that magnificent archway that had soared for years across pages 262 and 263 of the Insight Guide. The symbol of an island, the symbol of the island of my mental wanderings, had simply disappeared like something out of “Carmen Sandiego.”
I imagined a couple on holiday waking to the news in their rented farmhouse. “Let’s go see the Azure Window,” she’d said to him the day before. “Not today,” he’d told her. “Let’s lounge by the pool. Tomorrow.”
I turned back to the Insight Guide I hadn’t flipped through in years. I remembered the quilt of red and orange and green and yellow terraced fields on pages 132 and 133, the rubble walls that surrounded them like stitching, the narrow lane that swerved between them down to a rocky cove and the bright, blue, endless sea beyond. I remembered the chaos of dozens of green and beige and white balconies on page 144. I remembered the diamond-shaped walled city of Mdina, the Silent City, alone atop its hill on page 184. I remembered the boat full of happy tourists shooting like an eel through cliffs and caves and grottoes. I remembered the church lit up for festa. I remembered the five-thousand-year-old temples. I remembered the woman with loaves of bread and the man with a plate of stewed rabbit, and through time came a word: fenek.
Maybe I loved the sound—Malta—the way it sits in the back of the mouth, heavy, almost unromantic, lacking the too-obvious melody of Santorini and Sardinia.
I checked the copyright: 1999. Almost two decades ago.
To have a place you’ve always wanted to visit is a wonderful thing, but terrifying. After so many years of reading about it, tracing its coastline with your finger, walking its streets in your mind, memorizing its names, feeling Marsaxlokk coat your tongue like a lemon lollipop, whispering Gozo sweetly like an ancient incantation, letting Birkirkara fall out with the soft staccato of a river over rapids, tasting fresh lampuki beside Phoenician boats that bob in turquoise harbors, walking golden bastions at sunset and golden lanes at sunrise, standing beneath a perfectly formed limestone arch they call, like poetry, the Azure Window, you’ve accumulated a thousand pristine images that can’t possibly be realized.
Of course, you think rationally, Malta is also a place of McDonald’s and Taylor Swift and Benetton and a thoroughly modern people who love all those things. Just like home, just like everywhere, really, there are shopping malls and drive-thru lanes and, God forbid, people who lead lives not much different from yours. You’ve imagined a place like nowhere else, totally unique, but how many places are totally unique? What if Malta is nothing like you’ve imagined it and utterly like every other place you’ve ever been?
“What if I hate it?” you finally ask yourself. How sad it would be to dissolve some remaining fantasy of youth, and so the years tick on and on and on until you finally go to Kayak, enter the sixteen digits of your credit card number and click “Buy,” committing yourself, finally, to seeing a place you’ve already seen in your mind a thousand times before.
To get from Frankfurt to Malta, we fly along the spine of Italy. We pass over Venice, covered in rain clouds, and Rome, splayed out below like a living page from the atlas I used to study. Sicily comes and goes, and there’s only blue.
“We are beginning our descent into Malta,” the captain says, and we strain to see anything out the window. There’s only blue stretching out in every direction. We descend lower and lower, and still there’s only blue.
A gray cliff jumps out of the blue, dry and skeletal like a zombie’s hand. Where the blue hits the gray it turns suddenly to an unnatural turquoise the color of an energy drink. We see rubble walls surrounding parched fields and lanes weaving among them like lace. An enormous golden church appears, then another, then another, each surrounded by a cubist cluster of tightly packed houses. It’s beautifully unusual, raw and surreal. We see the cliffs where the famous falcons once roosted.
Without the privacy of trees, everything—ancient cities, industrial parks, the airport, buses too big for the lanes, a conspicuous pair of golden arches—seems strewn about like playthings in a nursery.
Boats bob in a brief bit of blue, then the cliffs pick up again on the other side, displaying millennia of geological history like a slice of mille-feuille. There’s a bright-red castle atop a hill. Torri l-Aħmar, I exhale, overemphasizing the pharyngeal sound like a baby playing with speech. A perfectly ridiculous village of New England fishing huts. Sweeps of golden sand surrounding turquoise bays like fine jewelry. A hilltop town surrounding a silver egg-shaped dome. Mġarr, I whisper just to hear its name. Two white canopies stretched across a lonely outcropping. Ħaġar Qim, Mnajdra, I say aloud, rolling the Semitic sounds around in my throat like a shehecheyanu. This landscape is so ancient. I gasp. It looks so much like the imaginary islands of my childhood.
There isn’t a tree in sight. We see blue again, as, not ten minutes later, we’ve traversed the entire length of the country and shot back over the Mediterranean. We circle around, catching glimpses of a port and a power plant framing a vaguely heart-shaped bay flooded with stripes of toothpaste-colored water. We dip lower over scrub, a date palm here and there, then lower, still skirting just over narrow lanes squeezed between limestone walls. Cars and buses wind along them between towns only a few fields apart. Without the privacy of trees, everything—ancient cities, industrial parks, the airport, buses too big for the lanes, a conspicuous pair of golden arches—seems strewn about like playthings in a nursery.
Bump, bump, we land, bump, we hit the asphalt hard, and the plane erupts in applause. An enormous red-and-white flag, emblazoned with the Maltese cross, unfurls beside the red dome of a church aflame with the midday sun. It’s a homecoming to a place I’ve never been. I’m ready to run.
Jeremy Graboyes is a writer and illustrator based in Washington, DC (when he’s not practicing law). His writing ranges from dead malls to wandering to local history, and his illustration focuses on city streets. He intermittently runs a blog at duckpie.com and can be contacted through his website at jsgraboyes.com.
Lead image: Micaela Parente