Archive: Posts about Malta
June 18th, 2013, 1 Comment »
Podcasts were my gateway drug into audio books. Some time around 2007, I started listening to more books than I read. Some of my first audio books were Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, beautifully read by George Guiddall. I often listened to those books while wandering around the Maltese countryside, so that place and those stories are inextricably linked in my memory.
I’m a big audio book booster. Like podcasts, they make exercise–walking, running, hiking, cycling–slightly less loathsome for me. I find myself advocating audio books to lots of friends and colleagues, but I seem to generate few converts. Is it the technical hurdle of downloading them to a mobile device? Or is it their ‘books on tape’ reputation, that they’re only suitable for senior citizens with poor eyesight?
I suspect that they’re not as well-understood as they could be. Here, in point form, is an introduction to audio books:
- I’ve also used Audible. I like their subscription model, and in earlier days they definitely had the best selection (I haven’t done a comparison recently). They also sponsor a number of my favourite podcasts, and I want to reward that. My wife and I are the platinum plan at the moment, which means two credits per month for $23. In my experience, nearly all books are one credit per book. The credits roll over up to a certain number. You can, however, put your account ‘on hold’ for a while, which means you stop paying but you retain your credits. I’ve done this a couple of times, and it’s a handy feature.
- You’ll consume books at a slower rate because you have to listen to every word–speed readers need not apply. Books range from five hours (for The Great Gatsby) up to 40 or 50 hours (for a really long Stephen King book or the latest Game of Thrones novel). I’d say most are in the eight to 15 hour range. Because there’s no way to skim, I find florid writers a little intolerable. I have a love-hate relationship with George R. R. Martin because he cannot resist describing every pigeon pie and quilted violet doublet in excruciating detail.
- I prefer fiction for listening, though well-written non-fiction–Malcolm Gladwell or Michael Lewis, for example–works too. I find that the average business book becomes laborious to listen to. They’re often written lazily, and so they demand too much of my focus to maintain a consistent sense of the text.
- Narrators matter more than you’d think. I never really pick a book based on the narrator, but it’s always nice if I recognize them. I sometimes experience a weird cognitive dissonance when I hear a familiar narrator in a new context. I grew familiar with Scott Brick, for example, while listening to him narrate Justin Cronin’s books. I’m currently listening to the excellent Devil in the White City, and he narrates that one as well. I find myself constantly expecting vampires to climb out of the foundations of the Chicago World’ Fair.
If you dig podcasts, then consider trying an audio book. They’re the same as books, except you insert them through your earholes.
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July 29th, 2008, 1 Comment »
One of the things I miss about living in a tiny Mediterranean country is the charmingly weird local news stories. Julie still reads a couple of Gozo blogs, and this one recently mentioned a transit strike with a peculiar origin:
Move to break hearse cartel sparks transport strike in Malta
A move by the Maltese government to unlock a death grip on hearses by just 11 undertakers met with an indefinite, nationwide transport strike on Monday. Buses, minibuses and taxis blocked major arteries across the Mediterranean island state, notably around the capital Valletta and the tourist area of Sliema, to protest against the decision to offer more licenses to hearse operators.
Hilarious. I don’t usually include the headline, but that one was too good not to.
That’s what can happen in a country of only 400,000 people–the right 11 people can wield a lot of clout. There’s a marketing lesson about influencers in there somewhere.
As it turns out, the Maltese government is just trying to comply with European Union rules to end monopolies in public transport.
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July 2nd, 2008, 13 Comments »
Maybe it’s just been a bad week, but VOIP feels like a rare Concorde-esque backward step in technology. In the past week, I’ve had three separate conversations (all, coincidentally, with software startups) interrupted by lousy phone service. In each case, the person I was speaking to blamed their dodgy VOIP service.
We were reasonably happy with Skype (and SkypeOut) when living in Morocco and Malta (the Maltanet VOIP service was awful). Yet, counterintuitively, it’s been much more unreliable when making calls from BC. Maybe a busier network is to blame?
On the other hand, Shaw has provided the most reliable VOIP service I’ve ever used.
In short, making a phone call used to 100% reliable. Thanks to VOIP, we’re down to about 85%. What gives?
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April 3rd, 2008, 10 Comments »
We’ve just moved into our fourth furnished apartment. The other three were in Europe and Africa (where it’s par for the course, as far as I can figure)–this is our first in Canada. I can’t sing the praises of furnished apartments enough–they make so much sense:
- They reduce waste, because people (especially young people) aren’t buying crappy furniture that gets used for a few years and then replaced. It’s in the landlord’s best interests to buy furniture that lasts.
- In a small way, they reduce fuel consumption. There’s much less business for moving companies and their trucks.
- It’s bloody convenient.
Normally any move is fraught with painful, expensive trips to Ikea. Our place in Victoria is ‘furnished’ right down to cutlery and cleaning products. We could literally walk in with a bag of groceries and be ‘moved in’. We’re also fortunate to have a garage in which we can store our sundry boxes and the few sticks of furniture we’ve got kicking around.
When singing the praises of furnished apartments, people often become concerned about aesthetics. It’s not their stuff, so they could never get comfortable. I wondered about this, too, but it turns out that I couldn’t care less. Yes, we’ve lived in nice places in Malta, Morocco and Victoria, but our first apartment in Ireland was kind of shabby. And appeared to have been decorated by a colour-blind octogenarian with bad cataracts.
You get used to things pretty quickly. So the walls are a kind of rotten robin’s egg blue, so what? Either you learn to live with it, or get permission to change it. In either case, these aesthetic compromises seem like a small price to pay for the convenience of your place being fully furnished.
Do you prefer furnished apartments or blank slates on which to lay your lifestyle?
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March 13th, 2008, 9 Comments »
Living abroad teaches you how little you know, and forces you to re-examine long-held assumptions.
One of these assumptions is about poverty. My general assumption about poverty used to go like this:
Most people in the West are rich. Most people in the developing world are the suffering poor.
Broadly speaking, I perceived people as dirt poor, middle class or rich.
A few experiences have made me question these assumptions:
- Reading Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety, which postulates that our thinking about rich and poor changed with the rise of democracy and the Industrial Revolution.
- Listening to some BBC radio documentaries about people surviving (or not surviving) on a dollar a day.
- Living in Malta and Morocco, and seeing how the average person lives in these countries.
In rural Morocco or Malta, people don’t have much. They own their own small house. They might have some sheep or cows. In Morocco, they probably have a bike, and in Malta they have an old car. They almost definitely have a cell phone. They probably have a television, or know somebody who does. If they’re farmers, they have fields to tend. If they live in town, they might own a tiny shop.
Their basic needs are usually met, but they’re not driving a 2008 Mini Cooper and their kids aren’t playing Super Smash Bros. Brawl on their Wii.
I’ve been back in Vancouver for a few days now, and had fresh eyes for Vancouver’s homeless problem. I’ve seen the occasional person sleeping rough in a doorway, and addicts, dressed in filthy old clothes, wandering around like zombies. How much do these people have? The contents of their shopping cart?
We were walking around the old, nearly abandoned kasbah in Agdz. A few people still live there in crumbling adobe buildings, and they’re seriously poor. I gave this girl two dirhams–25 Canadian cents. That would buy two loaves of bread, or about a dozen oranges.
A young guy asked for me change on Granville Street the other day. I didn’t give him anything. I never do, because we give to the Union Gospel Mission every year instead (that’s an unexpected search result).
On Gozo, there were no beggars or homeless people. In Morocco, the only beggars were the very old (here’s one) and a couple of young kids. In Vancouver, they’re young men and women.
Who’s More Impoverished?
Who’s more impoverished? Before my year away, I’d have definitely picked the rural Moroccan. Now I’m not so sure.
The Moroccan lives among his peers who, more or less with the same level of wealth. The homeless Canadian lives among veritable towers of gold and conspicuous consumption, but can’t have any of it.
Who would I rather be? Again, I’m not sure.
I think the question I’m orbiting here is: who is happier? I’ve got not grounds to speculate, but I’m guessing it’s not the homeless Vancouverite. That leads to a bigger question: is it better to live simply and be happy?
At the moment, that’s all I’ve got. I’d like this to be a cohesive little essay featuring a parable and carefully-craft conclusion, but I haven’t worked it out yet. I clearly don’t know enough, or understand enough about the hands that these Moroccans, Maltese and Vancouverites have been dealt. As such, it’s just food for thought (that anybody can afford).
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February 21st, 2008, 5 Comments »
From the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (heh) department: what’s wrong with this comic (click for larger size)?
Dagwood’s dining companion (nice homo-erotic subtext, by the way) has a cell phone. That just seems so weird. Dagwood’s still wearing the same black suit and bowtie that he’s been wearing since 1930, and Blondie’s still keeping house, yet the world has moved on.
Looking around at other Blondie strips, I see computers and mentions of the Web and stuff. Here’s a note in Wikipedia about how the comic has changed to reflect the passing years.
Just like Dagwood himself, I guess I haven’t been paying enough attention to Blondie.
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February 4th, 2008, 2 Comments »
In Moroccan medinas, there’s a store every ten feet. They’re packed in like stalls at Playland. Or the average North American mall, if each store had one-fifth of the usual frontage.
Malta taught me a valuable lesson in shopping outside of North America and mainland Europe: what you need probably isn’t in plain view. Morocco has reinforced this idea. Most of these shops aren’t ‘shops’ in the way we think of them in North America. They’re stalls, with all of the inventory behind the counter.
That shift took me a while to make. You just hazard a guess at the right shop–few have signs–and ask the proprietor. This week in Essaouira I guessed correctly while seeking un marteau et des clous (“a hammer and some nails”–be careful to use ‘clous’ and not ‘ongles’, for the latter refers to fingernails).
Last week I incorrectly visited an electronics store to ask about une rallonge (a power bar). They directed me across the street to what I can only describe as “the wire and cable shop”. He hooked me up.
The Shop Comes to You
In our small village on Gozo, the shop came to you. Each morning you’d hear a tooting horn grow louder as the vegetable man drove into town. He’d park his truck in the town square, and sell vegetables to the local women. And me. There was likewise a fish man who had a different horn, and also yelled a lot in Maltese. On Tuesdays, the gas man would come through to replace propane tanks. In bigger towns, you’d also see other trucks–hardware, dried goods and so forth. Like whale dialects, we’ve come to recognize the distinct honks of each mobile seller.
There’s a similar kind of culture of announcement here in Morocco. The gas man says something in Arabic (I’m guessing “gas”) as he pushes his laden handcart through the narrow alleys of our medina. Likewise, the garbage men call out as they come by to collect the refuse twice daily.
Julie just spent ten days back in Vancouver, and we were discussing the radically different retail models. She pointed out that whenever you bought anything in downtown Vancouver–clothing, coffee, groceries–you stood in a line.
The opposite is true here. In fact, ‘shopping’ is a bit of a misnomer. You’re pretty much always shopping–as in browsing–when you walk down any street. The wares–particularly for the tourists–burst forth from every stall. More accurately, I never stand in line when I’m buying.
Why are there no queues? You almost always buy with cash, and, despite the medina’s dense population, there seem to be too many shops per buyer. There’s also far less customization–nobody orders “a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon”. They have coffee. Full stop.
If I were busier, I’d probably crave the order and sterility of a Canadian mall or grocery store. This year abroad has really reinforced my ascetic tendencies. I’ll never look at shopping, buying and consuming the same way.
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January 20th, 2008, 9 Comments »
In a comment on a recent post, Mark asked about how we choose where to live:
How do you go about choosing locations, and what other locations you have on the list? I imagine you look for cheaper places that still have decent internet, along with easy access to lots of culture and sights. Are there any sites you use to find out about the net or apartments?
Any thoughts on Buenos Aires, Cinque Terre (Italy), or Cyprus?
I described my rationale for choosing Malta a year ago, but I figured I’d revisit my philosophy and try to extend it to a generalized, goofy theory of choosing foreign homes. I call it the Foreignness Index.
The Foreignness Index is a value of 1 to 100 which describes how foreign a new home is to you. Using the Index is personal–the value you ascribe a place is particular to you, today. For me, living in an apartment in Vancouver might be a 1, while living in a cave in Afghanistan might be a 100. Obviously those numbers would be very different for, say, an Afghan.
What factors contribute to rating a place? Here’s what I can think of, in vague order from more important to less important. When I use ‘new home’ in this list, I mean to refer to a variety of scales–the destination country, city, neighbourhood and your actual dwelling:
- Do locals speak the same language as you? If not, how much of your language are locals able to speak?
- How safe–in terms of crime, war, disease, and so forth–is your potential new home?
- What religion are most of the locals?
- How open and welcoming is the culture? This speaks to how important is it that you meet and befriend locals.
- How different will the weather be?
- How different will your actual dwelling be from what you’re used to. If you’ve always lived in modern apartments, how weird will it be to live in a mud hut?
- How different are the environs from what you’re used to? Are you an urbanite moving to the countryside, or vice versa? Will your new home’s population density differ from what you’re accustomed to?
- How difficult will it be to obtain the products and services that are really important to you. For me it’s reliable web access and Coca Cola. For you it might be Neiman Marcus and caramel lattes.
- Is the locals’ relationship to time different? Are shop hours more fluid? Is timeliness important?
- How different is the food? This one’s a bit tricky to objectively measure, but you can, both figuratively and literally, just trust your gut.
- Does the alphabet use the same character set as yours?
The list could be much longer, and each person will have different criteria, but that’s a good start.
The Foreignness Index in Action
Now, let’s apply that list and arrive at some values for places I’ve lived, and might go.
- Dublin, Ireland – 20 – Same language, similar social structures, similar weather, lived in somewhat different environs.
- Gharb, Malta – 35 – Plenty of English spoken, North African and Arabic influences, radically different location and environment, significantly different weather, limited access to usual products and services.
- Essaouira, Morocco – 55 – French is a second language here, radically different culture and religion, different weather (I walked on the beach wearing only a t-shirt yesterday) easier access to stuff than on Gozo, but not as good as the West.
Let’s put those and a few other values on a map (you’ll want to click for the big version):
A Dearth of Data on Living Abroad
To answer Mark’s specific questions: I like to find a couple of country-specific forums, particularly those frequented by ex-pats, to ask dumb questions. Here’s one I used in Malta.
There’s actually a real dearth of centralized information about living in foreign countries. I guess that it’s a hard data set to assemble, but the only book we found was Getting Out: Your Guide to Leaving America. It wasn’t bad, but it was US-centric, and focussed on permanent relocations instead of temporary time abroad.
Buenos Aires was actually on our short list, along with Malta and Panama. To select a country, I printed out the Wikipedia list of all the nations in the world. Julie and I then went for burgers and milkshakes and eliminated all the countries we definitely wouldn’t consider. That got us down to about 40, and we winnowed it down from there.
Argentina felt a little too foreign for our first time moving the business, and it’s a long way from Canada. Plus, we knew that if things went south business-wise while living in Malta, we could always scare up local business or make a quick trip to Europe. I didn’t fancy trying to make a solid living earning Argentinian pesos.
Italy is my dopplenation–it’s beautiful, but I’ve never cared for it. Cyprus might have been nice, but it seems like it wouldn’t have been that different from Malta.
Presumably the next time we live abroad we’ll choose somewhere more adventurous–a higher number on the Foreignness Index. Or maybe not. Who knows?
What about you, dear reader? What nation would you rate at, say, 50?
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