Coming Home | The battles to be fought

We’re finally packing for our trip back down to Malta, which will cap off a hugely eventful summer that was stressful and ecstatic in equal measure, for reasons that should be more or less obvious to anyone who has graciously inhabited the orbit of Virginia and myself during this heady time.

Though many of my new friends and family — yes, that includes V. and my in-laws — will view Malta through their own subjective lens, the place remains a home for me.

A home, with some complications.

I grew up there, but I was not born there. There’s an “arm’s length” quality to both my own perceptions of Malta and also, perhaps, how its other, “more native” inhabitants — including those closest and dearest to me — view my positioning as a latter-day Maltese citizen.

It’s a place that’s defined by waves of foreigners. It’s a place defined by its ability to serve, to coddle, to indulge fantasies. These fantasies could be fey and harmless — the dreams of spending time on a sun-kissed, sea-rimmed and historically layered island are an appeal in and of themselves — and also quite literally concrete.

 

10481190_10154601192990019_3815372133040823538_n

It’s the latter that’s dirtying my impressions of the island like a splotch of expanding ink as I think about heading back after a month’s absence. And it’s come to a point when resisting the concertisation of the island by developers needs to become part and parcel of one’s daily routine if any change to the malignant status quo is going to occur. And even if such resistance leads to nothing in the long run, I still want to put myself out there in whatever way I can — as luck would have it, a mix of absurdism and stoicism has become my MO since my late teens, so I can just about stomach the thought of my actions leading to nothing much in the long game as long as I feel their conviction in the short term.

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

A studio in Rabat is a great thing to have

Because for better or worse, I am marked by this island, and being of a nostalgic disposition anyway, I feel the wedges of these marks press all the deeper once we’re abroad. It’s not an exaggeration to say that thinking about the streets of Valletta and Rabat, about my routine walks along the Sliema coastline, and even far less idyllic walks around this overdeveloped rock, are images that drop like lead in my heart and mind — that remind me of just how indelible my connection to this island is.

I’ve spent this summer around Rome and Helsinki — two cities whose beauty is far more varied, expansive, even more efficient if such an adjective is appropriate — but neither of them have the cruel power Malta has over me (at least, not yet). The environs of Rome are becoming like a second home to me — a ‘new family’ connection that I’m grateful for — and the rugged beauty of the city-proper and the (often verdant) variety of the surrounding parts are like a tonic to me, after the scrunched, yellow and small — and shrinking — stretch of Malta.

And in some ways, Helsinki, with its geometric lines, its traffic-free streets and its efficient public transport system felt almost like a parody of all that I thirst for in Malta: so refreshing was it to be in a place where you’re not gutted by heat and humidity, and where public spaces were just that. (V., in fact, describes it as utterly science-fictional).

But Malta is where the significant experiences of my life happened, and this is something that cannot be replicated even in the places that would otherwise fit far more comfortably with my ‘lifestyle’. Perhaps it was growing up in Malta as an immigrant that made me appreciate its contours even more — and I’ve detailed some of the psychological ins and outs of what having/not having a Maltese passport really means in an article last year — so that I’ve never taken my connection to Malta for granted.

Chernobyl Barbeque

And ironically, it’s the ability to travel more that has cemented this connection, not dampened it. Perhaps carelessly, when I was actually growing up in Malta I’d assumed that I would move away eventually. Applying the same crass-economic logic that many of those who actually settle into Malta operate under — the relative low cost of living, good climate, tax breaks, etc — I’d instinctively assumed that living in Malta would mean selling myself short, and that the real opportunities lay elsewhere.

In other words, I was letting the specifics of the island slip by in favour of abstract notions of what constitutes happiness: a larger place where you’re more likely to meet like-minded people and secure jobs and other opportunities that would not have been possible in Malta.

But as the years went by, and as life events continued to teach me to appreciate the granularity of life over any broad brush strokes, I began to cherish the specifics of Malta. I began to appreciate how all those streets I’ve walked up and down are actually inside of me, in a way that I couldn’t possibly say about any other country I’ve visited (even my native Serbia… but that’s a whole other blog post right there).

Now, I want to head back home to our flat in Marsaskala, release the cat from her carrier bag and take in the sea view. Maybe even go out for an ice-cream by the promenade (it won’t be as good as the one in Rome, but…). Now, I actually appreciate the memory of walking down from the utterly nondescript suburb of San Gwann to what is now my father’s apartment in Sliema after a long shift at the paper. Now, those dingy, potholed streets — which morph from industrial estate to government housing to beautiful 18th century follies in the blink of an eye — are no longer bitter images of fatigue and routine. They’re memories of a real life’s trajectory — valuable because, not despite of the fact that they’re routine.

The rock is cooler than you

The rock is cooler than you

Now, I look forward to visiting my father at the same Sliema apartment, sipping his trademark Turkish coffee (the one true family tradition whose baton I’ve grasped firmly with both hands) and chatting. To the noise of construction outside, no doubt. But also to the healthy bustle of the various photographers and other helpers that populate (and animate) his studio.

This is why I don’t want the specifics of Malta to be washed out by an overdevelopment drive. This is why I want us to be able to breathe in the little of the island that’s still left. Developers will always speak of doing their utmost to strike a ‘balance’ — as if this is already a concession, an act of charity on their part. But what they don’t understand is that things have been thrown off balance already, for a very long time. Building ‘sustainably’ is no longer possible. The island is too small, and too much of it has been eaten up.

It is with an always-complex cocktail of emotions swirling in my head that I will land back in Malta tonight; to the air that I’ve described as “milkshake thick” in TWO. What I know for certain is that I will make a concerted effort to meet the people I love more often than I have over the past few months. And that, hopefully, they will all join me in the fight to preserve what’s left… in whatever way each of us deems fit.

10255806_10154194279525019_6547924044003383833_n

Advertisements

Citying

Belgrade, August 2015

Belgrade, August 2015

“Consider the nature of a city. It is a vast repository of time, the discarded times of all the men and women who have lived, dreamed and died in the streets, which grow like a wilfully organic thing, unfurl like the petals of a mired rose and yet lack evanescence so entirely that they preserve the past in haphazard layers, so this alley is old while the avenue that runs beside it is newly built, but nevertheless has been built over deep-down, dead-in-the-ground relics of older, perhaps the original, huddle of alleys which germinated the entire quarter.” – Angela Carter

*

Read previous: GREEKING

There and back again | Trip to Serbia

Just returned to the island home after a long-overdue visit to the original homeland of Serbia, and apart from the dreaded-but-expected plunge back into the heat and a grudging return to the work routine, what sticks in the mind is that heady cocktail of nostalgia and sentimentality that such a trip inspires, and which, I think, even those most impervious to such irrational (but all-too-human) reactions would find difficult to short-circuit.

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Kovilj: True Detective-worthy?

Apart from the usual visit to relatives – a nicely balanced town & country trip encompassing both Belgrade and the Vrujci Spa – this time I also joined a group of fellow Maltese on a tour to Kovilj, a village near the city of Novi Sad known for its rich stork population and which boasts a proximity to the Danube.

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

Some non-euclidian architecture courtesy of the Kovilj monks

There’s obviously something bracing about visiting your native country after six years, not least because you’re bound to change your perspective substantially since the last time you were there.

One of the reasons for my absence was that I wanted to travel a bit more. Malta -> Serbia was pretty much the extent of my travel experience for the longest time – i.e., until I was granted Maltese (and therefore EU) citizenship a couple of years ago – and having now seen a bit more of the rest of Europe, I could view the home country with a bit of a tilted perspective.

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Eclectic sight in Belgrade

Belgrade itself certainly reminded me of other places now – Rome, Berlin – and so I could appreciate its beauty better for placing it into some kind of context. Edinburgh was one of my favourite recent travel destinations; Belgrade doesn’t have all that much in common with it save perhaps the comfortably compressed size of its city centre – a coziness I find essential.

Malta is infamous for its lack of greenery, and an aggressively neo-liberal policy of its current government only spells further doom for the island in this regard. So the trip to Banja Vrujci – where my maternal grandparents have been keeping a summer house for 35 years, give or take – was welcome as ever, even if the overcast weather was something of a downer.

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

Our family plot at Banja Vrujci

But the Kovilj tour took us to other green places too – some of them housing beautiful monasteries – and it was a reminder of how Serbia, for all its problems, retains a proud farming tradition in certain areas.

One thing I didn’t do much of in Serbia is write. Between the fact that we were moving around so much and simply being on ‘holiday mode’, I can’t really say I took full advantage of a change of setting and pace to give a fresh spin to the projects I’m currently working on.

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

On the Danube: Algernon Blackwood was on to something

But the summer – and its attendant torpor – should be winding down soon enough. And Malta is inspiring too, in its own way. Obstinate yellow streets and buildings, flashes of beauty both random and stuffily curated, contradictions that can’t be explained and so make for great fodder. We’ll start at the Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival, then take it from there…

And amusingly enough, our Kovilj tour made it to the local online news portals… 

The World’s A Stage | Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Reviews – Part 3

Small Gods: Scandimania

Small Gods: Scandimania

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

AUGUST 4 – 13:10 – Scandimania: Gods of Ice and Fire

A hearteningly good student performance, this potted history of Norse myth felt neither bookish nor amateurish.

In what was thankfully a more straightforward homage to Norse mythology than Jethro Compton’s Loki, Sundial Theatre, the young troupe behind Scandimania succeeded in not only bringing the Norse sagas to life – impressively speeding through Creation to Ragnarok in nary an hour – but in delivering a finely polished performance using little more than their bodies and minimal props (read: a single, creatively applied ladder).

Dressed from head to toe in white, the team relied on traditional storytelling and crisply choreographed physical performances to present their take on the ever-popular epics. The minimal sets and equally sparse ‘costumes’ were a wise choice, as it allowed the story to unfold without any distractions.

It was also a good trick to keep any tackiness at bay and play into what we can assume was a modestly budgeted affair.

The company also deserve kudos for allowing their show to come to life despite the uninspiring venue – a hotel conference room is hardly an adequate arena for epic battles and cataclysmic events, but like the best storytellers, Sundial Theatre sucked you in.

This kind of event is precisely the sort of thing you hope to find at the Fringe – up-and-coming, but highly promising stuff.

AUGUST 5 – 23:50 – Comedy Sans Frontieres

From left: Francesco De Carlo, Igor Meerson, Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran, Michael Mittermeier and Yacine Belhousse

From left: Francesco De Carlo, Igor Meerson, Eddie Izzard, Dylan Moran, Michael Mittermeier and Yacine Belhousse

Eddie Izzard and Dylan Moran bring a quartet of international comedians to a sold-out crowd, for a mixed-bag night of entertainment whose good intentions, however, are undeniably heartwarming.

Eddie Izzard. Dylan Moran. Names that doubtlessly enjoy top billing in the minds of many stand-up comedy fans… particularly those of us who like our comedy a little bit absurd and a little bit surreal (and a lot of bits British).

So when I heard that this particular duo was headlining a one-off show in the very city that I was planning on visiting, I booked my tickets immediately. Who cares what the event will be about, exactly, if that pair will be leading it, I thought?

But it turns out that this was exactly the kind of reaction Izzard – the erstwhile mastermind and compere of the event – was hoping for. Essentially, with this event Izzard and Moran were using their fame for a higher purpose: namely, to bring comedians from non-English-speaking countries to a mainstream English-speaking audience.

Though it was disappointingly male-centric for an event that placed much stock in promoting diversity (“You are the future,” Izzard told us as he thanked us for indulging his cosmopolitan comedy experiment), the gig was consistently entertaining.

Taking into account the fact that stand-up in a secondary language is bound to be a notoriously difficult thing to pull off, some acts ran more smoothly than others. Germany’s Michael Mittermeier emerged the strongest of the international bunch. Not only was he entirely at ease with the English language, his set had a polished pace and tempo that a couple of the others couldn’t exactly boast of.

Despite his otherwise diminutive height, he certainly stood head and shoulders above Russia’s Igor Meerson and Italy’s Francesco De Carlo, whose material was decent but whose delivery was less of a stand-up comedy show and more of a storytelling session down at the pub.

Meerson, however, offered up some interesting cross-cultural insights. Stand-up comedy would never work in Russia, he told us, because upon hearing someone complain about their life, Russians would likely just scramble up on stage and try to help with whatever problem the comedian may be struggling with.

Like the rest of his travelling comedy comrades, France’s Yacine Belhousse placed a lot of stock in cultural stereotypes, even basing one of his gags around a hypothetical Hollywood blockbuster – a superhero film that would embody every stereotype imaginable (“It would be the only way the French could get leading roles”), while also doing his bit to demystify the idea of Paris as an eternally romantic city.

Izzard and Moran (the latter an Edinburgh resident) were on relaxed and confident form, with Izzard in particular clearly proud of the cadre of international comics he had managed to round up for our delectation. Perhaps a more sinister underbelly to all this is Izzard’s previously declared interest in running for politics; “you are the future,” smacks of exactly the kind of feel-good-factor rhetoric you’d expect a politician to peddle in (in the context of Edinburgh, this has an added bitter edge: Izzard had previously done fundraising gigs for the ‘No’ camp ahead of the Scottish Independence referendum).

Moran shuffled on stage thankfully free of any such baggage, delivering a three-part monologue with his trademark brand of inventive, meandering wit. (During the preamble, Izzard said, “I tend to be surreal and bonkers. Dylan is surreal and poetic”).

By now a consummate professional – if not something of a stand-up comedy legend – the Irish actor-comedian assumed the role of a crazed Fringe participant (bemoaning the fact that nobody has yet some to see his broomstick-installation version of Macbeth), confessed his frustration with Edinburgh machismo (I like the festival, he said, at least it brings in smiling people) and as a side-splitting coup, regaled the audience with a few paragraphs from his Fifty Shades of Grey pastiche.

*

And so ends my round-up of Edinburgh Fringe highlights. Expect the blog to return to its regularly scheduled programme soon. Now that doesn’t mean I in fact know what this programme consists of, but there we are. 

Crime & Punishment | Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Reviews – Part 1

Before I set off for my first-ever trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I laid out a couple of unassailable ground-rules for myself, namely:

1) No stand-up comedy. There did turn out to be an exception to this rule (more on that later, and trust me when I say that it truly was exceptional), but the fact is that the Fringe has become over-saturated with stand-up over the past few years (or so I hear from my kind hosts) and even if I wanted to delve into the comedy on show, it would take me a good couple of days to rifle through that particular section of the programme to isolate a few favourites. Which brings me to the next rule.

2) No running around like a headless chicken. Look, I know that a part of the Fringe’s appeal is that it’s a gathering of both the best and worst performing arts talent – that it’s supposed to be, in theory, a democratic free-for-all that both showcases tried-and-tested quality talent and provides a testing ground for up-and-comers. And though I understand the appeal of just wandering into – often free-of-charge – student productions and stand-up comedy shows by unknowns, I didn’t want to add that element of randomness to the hassle of finding my way around venues in a city I wouldn’t have been all that familiar with anyway.

Despite these restrictions, however, I still think I managed to pinpoint a selection of events that were both eclectic and very much worth my time. Here’s reviews for the first two – more to come!

AUGUST 1 – 14:00 – The Capone Trilogy: Loki

The Capone Trilogy by Jethro Compton Productions

A blisteringly energetic comedy of errors that owes more to classic-era Hollywood than Norse mythology.

Jethro Compton Productions set themselves an admirable challenge: perform a six-play cycle at this year’s Fringe, all of which take characters from history, literature and mythology as a starting point and transpose them to a specific historical setting: World War I in the case of ‘The Bunker Trilogy’ (Morgana, Agamemnon and Macbeth) and, well, you-know-what in the case of ‘The Capone Trilogy’ (Loki, Lucifer and Vindici).

Being a fan of trickster myths in general and Norse mythology in particular, I decided to sample Loki out of this batch of intriguing-sounding and supposedly ‘immersive’ one-act plays.

Well as it turned out the mythological hook was just that – a convenient way of labeling what is essentially a rat-a-tat pastiche of classic-era Hollywood gangster films and imbuing it with some post-facto gravitas. To wit: the only real connection to the titular Norse trickster god is our protagonist’s name: Lola Keen (!), a showgirl keen to put herself on the straight and narrow path – an ambition we see unravel in front of our very eyes as Lola consistently fails to remain faithful to her dull and morally upright husband on the eve of their wedding night.

The extent to which the production is in fact ‘immersive’ is largely down to just the size of the venue itself. Studio 7 of the C-Nova is transformed into a cramped hotel room that soon develops an often abused and potentially dangerous revolving door policy. Preece remains an alluring and likable presence throughout – the beat-perfect slapstick that underpins the entire play leaves little room for wallowing in the casual cruelty of Lola’s behaviour, instead moving things along and making sure that the gags are coming in thick and fast.

Preece’s co-stars David Calvitto and Oliver Tilney deserve the lion’s share of the credit, however, as they effortlessly alternate between a myriad of characters which run the gamut from henpecked husbands, hot-blooded Italian suitors, the good/bad cop combo, submissive bellboys and clueless gangsters.

Written by Jamie Wilkes and directed by Jethro Compton, the play is neither formally groundbreaking nor emotionally resonant, but it commits so entirely to the source material that it’s paying homage to that it can’t help but be a raucously entertaining hour from start to finish.

AUGUST 2 – 15:15 – The Lieutenant of Inishmore

The Lieutenant of Inishmore

A blood-splattered satire penned by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths) that does for IRA-inspired splinter groups what Four Lions did for hare-brained Muslim fundamentalists.

This In Yer Face Theatre production not only lives up to its company’s name with a vengeance – it also paved the way to a Fringe day marked by projectile fluids (more on that in the next post).

As someone who holds the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Clive Barker and Nicolas Winding Refn as cultural touchstones, the promise of being splattered in blood during a live theatre show was bound to capture my interest either way – good thing that IYF succeed in giving McDonagh’s brutally funny script a run for its money: the cast-and-crew clearly get that, despite the frequent jets of blood and gristly acts of violence that occur during the course of this short-and-sharp one act (both on and off stage), the play is first and foremost a goofy farce, albeit one with a politically-focused satirical backbone.

Self-styled ‘Lieutenant’ of IRA splinter-group INLA Padraic (Mark Barrett) takes a break from administering brutal justice to INLA infidels after he’s drawn back to his hometown of Inishmore. The reason? His beloved cat, Wee Thomas, is revealed by his drunken father Donny (Kenny MacLeod) to be doing “poorly”.

The fact that the poor cat is beyond any help is, hilariously, what propels this (literally) bloody mess of a play into action.

The (once again) minuscule performance space at the Hill Street Drama Lodge is made to look like Dexter’s ‘kill room’, with black plastic bags coating the room from floor to ceiling. That the audience (never topping the 15-seat mark) is given ponchos to guard from the jets of splatter that we’re promised is to come adds to the excitement.

But the play itself both plays into and transcends this initial gimmick. It’s a bloody play, yes, but this isn’t a scary fun-fair ride, it’s a knowing and urbane take-down of the ignorance that underpins fundamentalist, retribution politics.

Though a penchant for gore and black humour may be necessary to go along with the ride as gleefully as the play asks you to, the gory set pieces are more Looney Tunes than torture porn, and McDonagh partakes in a noble satirical tradition which uses humour to show how grisly but supposedly righteous acts of terror are often executed by clueless idiots operating on a murky-at-best understanding of ideology.

Next time: CHRISTEENE!

Fringe & Con | Edinburgh + London break

Visiting the Edinburgh Castle too touristy? FUCK YOU, IT'S A GODDAMN CASTLE.

Visiting the Edinburgh Castle too touristy? FUCK YOU, IT’S A GODDAMN CASTLE.

I’ve taken a bit of a break from the blog over the past few weeks because I’ve taken a break from life in general.

To wit, I’m newly returned from a two-week trip to Edinburgh and London, as I embarked on a mission to escape from the Heat & Humidity combo that characterizes the Maltese Islands during this time of the year, while also taking in two major cultural events I’ve always wanted to check out but have never really had the opportunity to until now, namely the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and LonCon (aka WorldCon, aka the World Science Fiction Convention aka The Geek Convention That Clearly Suffers From An Identity Crisis).

Having these big events as bookends to the holiday was useful, because I’m a pretty shitty traveller, by all accounts.

I’m certainly not an experienced one: having been stifled by a Serbian passport for the longest time, I’ve only been freed to embark on the kind of heedless global traipsing a lot of my peers take for granted after I was finally granted a Maltese passport.

And that was only two years ago.

So I’m an inexpert and often flustered map-reader, an inexpert and often nauseous train-traveller, and a persistent shyness (coupled with the fact that I’m socially spoiled by Malta’s insular and rapidly-mushrooming social circles) makes me hesitant to meet and mingle with locals unprompted.

But as luck would have it, I have friends in both Edinburgh and London who were – once again – more than willing to open their doors to me and let me crash at their respective abodes, which automatically calmed any Nerves of Displacement I may have had and allowed me to enjoy the stuffing out of my stay.

*

So I’ll be posting about some highlights from the trip in the coming days. Expect a few capsule reviews of Fringe Festival stuff I got to see, as well as some observations from LonCon.

Beyond these often wonderful ‘distractions’, you may catch hints of my total and complete love for Edinburgh: a gem of a city that somehow manages to be both cosy and cosmopolitan…

It's also gorgeous at dusk.

It’s also gorgeous at dusk.