We came to Malta for a conference, eager to explore this exotic little country which occupies two islands, Malta and Gozo, and several tiny islets in the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to our visit I conducted a short web search, and learned that Malta was in turn conquered by warriors from many countries since long before the Christian era, until it finally became a republic in 1974; it is also part of the British Commonwealth. The population is over 400,000. The state languages are Maltese and English; Italian is widely spoken too. The people are beautiful, with the Italian heritage clearly seen in their faces. The colours are incredible, it’s one of those occasions when later you look at the photos and think, “If I didn’t take those myself I wouldn’t believe they are real!” The main official religion is Roman Catholic. One of Malta’s main sources of revenue is tourism, with its lovely climate, warm sea, and gorgeous nature. In recent decades, the island became home to many English language schools. One can meet students from all over the globe. A private school is not cheap. For instance, a Russian school for very rich children boasts classes of only ten pupils, excellent teachers, a well-equipped students’ dorm, and housing facilities for visiting parents. It also guarantees their graduates’ further education at a European university or college. The standard of education is quite high, with special attention being paid to linguistic skills.

The republic’s capital Valetta is a large port and home to repair and service docks where one can watch a few luxurious yachts overhauled on a continuous basis. Its architecture shows various influences through the ages. Many buildings are decorated with intricate mosaics and small statues. It is allowed to use only real people, angels and dragons as façade accoutrements, and only executed life-size. Now I know, for instance, what a life-size angel or dragon looks like. There are no monumental overhanging statues in the capital. Many place names are connected with the old Latin word “mel” meaning “honey”; the language itself sounds mellifluous, with the smooth intonation and musical sounds. The way the locals pronounce their country’s name was a small discovery: they say /muelta/, with the first syllable the same as in mew or Tuesday. It is easy to understand the locals most of the time, since they speak slowly and distinctly. At language schools, they teach British English, with overtones of the Maltese variant.

In several places around the island, we saw ancient dolmen which date back to almost pre-historic times. There are also life-size statues of Madonna standing in an otherwise empty clearing or on a hill; and there are little chests sitting near their feet. They were erected centuries ago to fulfill a very important function. One can drop some money into the chests and buy a few days of forgiveness for one’s sins this way. The more money one puts in, the more days one gets. I was walking along the road looking for a church to study the local architecture and the various bygone influences on it, and I did not realize that I was already in a different town, since there are no signs, no boundaries. Feeling a bit lost, I asked an old man strolling along with his grandson where a church was. He stared, then cackled. “What do you need the church for, child? Sin now, repent later, eternity will take care of you!”

There were a few linguistic misunderstandings, too. A sign announced, “Harry Books Here!” I went in expecting a bookstore. No, it turned out to be a diving school, where its owner Harry booked you for lessons and excursions.

There are a few things a tourist is not warned about. One was a relatively minor hazard. There is an excellent beach, but it is all stone, and the sea bottom is the same white stone too. To get into the warm enticing water, one has to very carefully crawl to the water’s edge, grasp the rails and slither in. People are warned not to jump in, ever: the water is transparent, very clean and sparkling. One can see the white stone bottom, but there is no way to judge the actual depth, so one can get a nasty jolt, hurt or even break one’s leg if one jumps in, since it is quite shallow near the shore. Once you manage to get in however, you are home free. It is very warm and clean.

The other specific feature turned out to be quite a problem for me. The islands and most structures on them are the same kind of stone. I was fine while walking outside; once inside anywhere, including our hotel room, I began to cough, first in short spurts, and then non-stop. I went to a pharmacy (built of the same stone), the clerk heard my hacking cough and said brightly, “Oh, you got our local tickly cough! It’s an allergy. Unfortunately, it means that you should not stay here long!” He gave me a bottle of cough syrup which did not do much for my nightly bouts of wheezing and trying to get rid of that “tickly” sensation in my throat. I had to stay the whole conference week. Once we left, I was fine, no cough, and no irritation in my throat at all. Looking down at all the loveliness below, I could not help thinking, “Paradise – paradise lost!”

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