If you knew the inordinate amount of time that I've spent juggling puns for the title of this blog entry, you'd be seriously ashamed; however, being my father's daughter and all, I'm not ashamed in the slightest. In fact, I told Maggie that I was "punny"--this was at 2:45 a.m. on the bus to Dublin, to take the plane to Malta, to begin the first leg of our European adventure--and she laughed. Then again, most people would have laughed, it was the middle of the freaking night. When you're on 2 hours of sleep, a garbage disposal would be hilarious.
It's been over a week since our Maltese excursion, and already the details of it are beginning to fade....like it was a dream, someone else's very vivid dream, and I got to borrow it for a while. It all happened so fast. One day in March, Maggie texted me: "any interest in going to Malta?"--this being before, of course, either of us had the foggiest idea where Malta was. Somewhere near Italy? Where all those fluffy white dogs come from? And what, exactly, is a Maltese falcon? Will we meet Gregory Peck?
These were the questions running through our mind... that, and how to navigate the labyrinthine Ryanair website. It wasn't until we had bought tickets for Malta (and its neighbor, Sicily) that we realized we were heading approximately 685 miles from Libya...oops. Plot spoiler: everything turned out to be just fine. Truly. We were all a little nervous once we found out the proximity, and cursed ourselves for having slept through elementary geography back in 5th grade--Alyssa bit her nails down to the quick, for the first (but NOT the last) time--and kept our eyes peeled for any hint of travel warning. But none came, and , the wee hours of April 12 rolled around and we found ourselves on the bus to Dublin...passports, sunscreen, and optimism in hand.
I say that we "found" ourselves on the bus, because you have to understand--there wasn't a single moment on the entire trip that I felt anything less than awed by my location in space and reality. When we stepped off the airplane and into the dry Maltese air, I put on sunglasses. For the first time in 5 months. There were palm trees and clouds speckling our sight line, and I simply couldn't believe--still can't--that I could possibly be lucky enough to be there. It never proved to be a bad thing, this weird dreamlike state... it just made the scenery seem that much more colorful, that much more like a gift. It means my feet never quite touched the ground. I doubled the amount of countries that I've been to in one week--what kind of lucky duck gets to say that?
I do, apparently. And there wasn't a dull moment on the entire trip... seriously. Both good and bad, it was unforgettable. I should have known as soon as the bus pulled up to the airport stop, because the words "no risk, no fun!" were printed above the bus entrance, which--surprise!--had no door, directly next to a crinkled photo of Jesus Christ and a pink Playboy bunny sticker. All the essentials, I guess. We bounced and bumped our way from the airport to Valletta, Malta's most popular and historic city; and despite our giant backpacks and delirium, walked around for at least three hours. Right as we entered the gate, we passed by Libyan Airlines-- enclosed behind a metal grate and a layer of filth. Someone had thrown a fistful of black paint at one of the windows, which were almost too cloudy for us to see the creepy man staring out at us as we took pictures... almost. He gave us an unmistakable look of strike one, tourists: put your damn cameras AWAY and get a grip. So we did. Or at least, we got the hell away from there, and started speaking Irish as much as possible to avoid seeming so blatantly American. Ni thuigim. If anyone there could understand us, we would have looked like complete idiots, piecing together our spotty Irish into interactions like "What's your name?" "America. Where is the bathroom? I like studying." "I live in Ireland now. It's sunny today! Thanks be to God." "Really? I have five sisters."
An-mhaith. Next stop on the tour was to sample the local cuisine; because in case I forgot to mention, this excursion was as much of a Food Tour than anything else. I am simultaneously disgusted by and proud of the amount we ate, but at least we attempted to eat our way through the week with the utmost respect for Maltese and Italian traditional fare--which we soon found out, involves a whole lot of rabbit and bean paste. Fortunately, we managed to avoid those two for the most part, and instead focused our energies on eating more Pastizzi than humanly possible. Oh, pastizzi. They are these lovely pea/ricotta-filled pastries, usually running at about 30 cents apiece--meaning that we justified eating a half dozen at a time on the grounds of being economical. Eh, whatcha gonna do. We ate our first round with ice-cold cokes and sat on the wall by Victoria Gate, looking over the harbor where The Count of Monte Cristo was filmed. Sooo cool.
Now, this was the initial point that I remember Alyssa's Long Island flag start waving itself; she sprawled herself out on the stone wall, chattering about Batmitzvahs and mani-pedis, and proceeded to "catch some rays." This girl is absolutely the most hilarious, and slightly travel-illiterate, person I have ever met. Whenever we stopped for more than thirty seconds at a time, she would literally roll up her sleeves and shirt and pop her face up to the sun--this girl will stop at NOTHING to get a tan. Sitting out over the water that day, she could not have been funnier. At one point, lounging back on her backpack with her eyes closed, she let out a throaty "helloooooooo sunshine" to the world. Only, it happened to be right as a fortysomething man was walking past....and he proceeded to lean into Maggie and ask, slightly frightened, "was she talking to me?"
Hahahahahaha. Oh, Alyssa. I don't think anything I could write here would do justice to how hilarious that girl was during our trip--or the fact that, at multiple points, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to whoop her upside the head or adopt her. A little of both, I think. Traveling with others is such a tricky thing--I don't think I ever fully realized that until now. My Ireland family has become just that: family. We have a beautifully contradictory relationship, where we simultaneously drive each other nuts and know that we can never again be without one other. We've interrupted each other's mindsets; we've adopted facial expressions, turns of phrase, habits. Alyssa has gotten us all to start playing with our hair on a regular basis. I know I'm doing that prematurely nostalgic thing again, oy vey... but I can't help it. It's important to explaining my experience this past week, because these people mean more to me than I can possibly explain.
Alrighty, back to the action. Our hostel, Shamrock Apartments, was in Bugibba--a beach-bummy little town about 40 minutes away by Maltese bus. We had a helluva time finding it, but it was well worth it: clean, spacious, and only 6 euro per night. There's something a little bit screwy about expenses in Malta--for example, where else in the world does it cost more to buy an ashtray than it does to sleep for the night? Furthermore, where on earth is it less expensive to drink alcohol than water?! Holy moly. We stocked up on bottled water from the wee shop near the apartments, but during our nights out in St. Julian's/Paceville--the nightlife capital of the island--we didn't buy a single drink. Club promoters hand you tickets for free cocktails as you walk into the club; no limit to how many. It's hilarious, because we--being who we are--scarcely took advantage of this. Ultimately, drinking only would have slowed us down in our mission to eat twelve meals per day. We bounced around the clubs a little bit, amazed at the fact that we were the only Americans there... but unanimously decided that the best moment of all was when we walked into a club that was completely empty, and had the dancefloor to ourselves. We jogged laps around a Maltese nightclub. I'll never forget that.
During the daytime, we saw the sights: Wednesday we took the bus to Wied iz-Zurrieq and the famous Blue Grotto, which looks exactly like it sounds. It was my first real taste of what I've always pictured the Mediterranean to look like: white stone walls, yellow flowers, blue upon blue upon blue water. We paid 7 euro to take a little motorboat on a tour of the most famous caves in the grotto; not imagining that, like the Maltese buses, our chances of survival were about 50/50. We literally hit the waves at the absolutely WORST angle that it is possible for a dinghy to hit waves, and each time, caught about four feet of air. There was a tourist couple perched on the bench in front of ours, neither of whom spoke English--or common sense, apparently, as the husband neglected to move over to the right side of the boat to balance out the weight, despite our sweeping hand gestures to that effect, and we nearly capsized. Like, reallyreally nearly. It was completely worth it, though, even though Alyssa turned an impressive shade of green and looked like she had decided it simply wasn't worth it to go on, no cave could be that beautiful. But it was. The grotto was ancient and creepy and breathtaking, and we celebrated it--and our survival--afterward over Maltese bread, butter, and Cisk lager (the local brew) in a rooftop café. After that, we took a cab to Marsaxlokk, a fishing village in the southwest part of the island. It's famous for its colored boats, and now I know why--they are one of the most astounding things I've ever seen. It is like a giant watercolor crayola set emptied out over the entire harbor, and is just sitting there bobbing in the perfect aquamarine sea. There was a market selling fresh honey, prickly-pear jelly, limoncello, nougat, trinkets, you name it--and we strolled up and down for hours. I got horrifically sunburnt, but wore it as a victory badge: this certainly wasn't Ireland. If I ever go back to Malta, which I certainly hope I do, Marsaxlokk will be the first place I go... I feel like my concept of vivid hues has been peeled away and replaced with a newer, technicolor version.
The next day, we visited the "Silent City" of Mdina: which we all read about at one point or another, either on Wikipedia or in a guidebook, and all promptly forgot minutes later. All I remember is that the island's locus was shifted to Mdina at one point, and infrastructure was built around it; and that we were told there would be no cars allowed, it was perfectly preserved in silence. Obviously, we swallowed it hook-line-and-sinker, and along with the zillion other tracksuited tourists there that day, took pictures next to the Dungeons! Knights! Glass-blowers, oh my! and were seriously disappointed by the amount of white noise in the so-called "silent" city. There was a whole mess of cars there, right next to the women in Medieval costume begging us to take the authentic Maltese train. We opted for chocolate cake instead, which was highly recommended on one of the "Best things to do in Malta" lists that Maggie printed out--and boy, am I glad we did. We had a panoramic view of the entire countryside, and it was breathtaking. We left Mdina to go to Ta'Qali craft village, walking through wildflowers and countless rows of grapevines along the way. We perused ceramics and glass and the most gorgeous silver filigree I've ever seen, and then when our pockets were significantly lighter, took the bus back to Bugibba and--you guessed it--ate some more.
Without a doubt, Malta was one of the most incredible places I've ever been--if not the most. It's a tough call, because the beauty of Ireland blows my mind on a daily basis... but this was a whole different breed of gorgeous. It was sun, stone, and history. Instead of endless expanses of green, it was turquoise.
Somewhere in the middle of the night--we're fans of the weirdo flights, it would seem--we hopped on a 5 euro plane ride to Trapani, Sicily. Now, let it be said that Sicily was the point when our trip started to get a little less Disney movie, and a little more Marx brothers: In the 28 or so hours that we were there, we managed to exploit just about every opportunity for comical misunderstanding. It was one long culture clash, and I loved it. It began the second we stepped off the tarmac, and realized that--though we had an address for our B&B--we had no idea how to get there. It also occurred to us at this (very late stage in the game) that we were, in fact, in Italy... and that we don't, in fact, speak Italian. Not even a little bit. We somehow managed to get into a cab and get to Paceco, where our abode awaited--and after a prolonged and disorienting conversation with the owner that involved a whole lot of hand gesturing, tucked ourselves into bed... sincerely hoping that there were no other boarders to be disrupted by our clomping around the room, or Alyssa's rather dynamic vocalization of her craving for hot wings.
Breakfast was at 8 the next morning, served by--no joke--Vincenzo, Veeeeencheeenzooooh, the owner's very shy and handsome son. He laid out colorful mugs and plates, and an assortment of crackers and biscuits. We ate so many of them that I think he got the hint... the next morning, there were twice as many packages. Viva la American eating habits, I guess. Anyhow, he took our coffee orders first thing--the lot of us trying desperately to fashion some sort of pigeon Italian out of our limited French, Spanish, and common sense--but apparently, it was too much for us to handle. I think he asked if I wanted cappucino, so I just nodded and held out my mug. Alyssa, on the other hand, is a caw-fee person, so she asked for a big one--placing her hands about five inches apart to indicate the size--and Vincenzo cocked his head at her, smiling. "You drink this coffee you no sleep before three days," he said... clearly thinking that she meant she wanted a mugful of espresso. Oops number one. We polished off breakfast and headed out into Trapani, trying to locate a bus stop without knowing how much it would cost, or what bus we wanted, or where we wanted to go--oops number two. Again, we made it on... thank goodness for the list of basic Italian phrases that Maggie found in her archives. Apparently "non capisco," if repeated over and over again and with gusto, can get you pretty far.... eventually people just give up and you hand them a couple of euro and hope that the bus goes in your direction. That or you wait until it gets to its last stop, and smile stupidly until someone hands you a map.
So that's what we did, anyhow--and after a lot of aimless wandering (broken up by necessary gelato stops), we found our way to the heart of Trapani. It was gorgeous; old, old churches filled with frescos, pigeons perched on statues, sidewalk cafés boasting breadsticks and wineglasses, metrosexual men wearing scarves and handbags. Ah, Europe. The best part of my day was when I broke off from the group to wander around alone-- I sat by the ocean and let my thoughts buzz around a little bit, bought postcards and sampled wine at the tourist office, and pretended to be Audrey Hepburn. The whole city closed down between the hours of 3 and 5, most likely for siesta--or siestizzzimo, or whatever the Italian equivalent is--and I felt like I had the entire place to myself. It was good for me, being alone like that. I soaked it up like a little sponge.
So where's the comedy, you might ask? We finished the night off with a fresh seafood dinner at a restaurant by the sea, and that's when things started to get really funny. First of all, they opened the restaurant for us because no European eats before 8 p.m.--we couldn't have seemed more American (and therefore cranky, and obese) if we had been wearing cowboy hats and blasting Tom Petty out of jukeboxes on our shoulders. We ordered wine and bread, and ordered seafood dishes mysteriously lacking in any concrete description--and as a result, Alyssa ended up with a plate of prawns that still had the heads on. We tried to explain that it was perfectly normal, that they were as fresh as can be--but she wasn't havin' any of it. Those little buggers still had eyes and whiskers. Not one to be squeamish, Victoria and I ate them--this being after she had already consumed what looked to be an entire octopus covered in breadcrumbs, delivered steaming to her plate.
We left soon afterward, in search of--what else--gelato; and after a successful round, began the trek home. But guess what? That's when it started raining. Pouring, actually. We were still ages from the bus station...and not having any other choice, ran through it like the sopping, clueless kids that we are. The sequence of events that followed can only be made funnier by being told in rapid succession, so here goes: we realize the bus has stopped running. We can't find a sign for the route to Paceco. We wonder if Paceco is actually a real place, or if we are part of some Mafia scam. We walk across the street into a restaurant and gather the attention of all the employees behind the counter. I remove my jacket and realize that my shirt is soaked in two places only... directly over my boobs. We call a cab company and wrestle with more Italiglish, even more hand gestures. We realize that hand gestures cannot be communicated via telephone. The number of employees watching us at this point has doubled; should we start charging admission? One of the waiters realizes that the B&B we're staying belongs to Vincenzo's family, and he knows Vincenzo! He calls him and laughs about the stupid American girls, how funny they are. I go to the bathroom, and instead of pulling the toilet's flush (located on the ceiling), I pull the restaurant's alarm... repeatedly, for almost two minutes. I walk out of the bathroom and am met by a very concerned management team. I turn almost twelve separate shades of magenta. We get in a cab and finally get home; the cabbie realizes he had driven the night before as well, and are equally as hilarious as we were then. We curse the euro and pay him in about a thousand tiny coins. We finally get to the door, and we can't open it. We call Vincenzo. He opens it for us, and with that delicious, decidedly-Italian smirk, tells us he'll see us in the morning at 8 O'CLOCK (holds up eight fingers in case we are in fact even more mentally handicapped than he thinks we are), and sends us on our merry way. Yeesh.
I wish I could say that was the end of the embarrassment, but the next morning, the B&B owner couldn't find the right bus stop and ended up having to drive us all the way to the airport himself. He went about a kajillion kilometers per hour on the highway, and we laughed so hard at our own silliness that tears ran down our faces.
By the time we were on our flight home, we were content to sit in our own thoughtful corners with our music in our ears and our sunburns on our noses. On the bus from Dublin to Galway, we sat separated throughout the bus...like someone had smacked their hand in the middle of a puddle and sent us scattering to different seats. It was nice. I looked out the window and felt so, so happy to be back in Ireland--almost disturbingly so. I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this was it, that this was home. That's the thing...it's wonderful to travel, and I'm loving it more by the minute. But I don't feel like I'm traveling in Ireland anymore, I feel like I'm home. I feel like I've been here forever and only just starting to realize what that means.
I'm waking up.