A small reflection on small Maltese cultural norms

Having lived in Malta for exactly 54 days, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve noticed a fair amount of the differences between life in Malta and life in the United States.  Obviously there are the major differences, such as accents and choice of words, which side of the road is used to drive on, currency, food, etc.  However, there are a lot of subtle differences that take a bit longer to pick up, but have come to seem almost natural over the course of the past several weeks.

It’s always interesting starting up a conversation with a native Maltese as they are often surprised that I am an American, as they are so used to other Europeans, primarily the British, visiting the country.  They become even more surprised, and perhaps even slightly impressed, when they learn that I am here not for a week to vacation, but for ten months to study.  Not just regular university mind you, but Graduate level university.  A prime example of this surprise was seen the other day during a break in the school schedule when I went to a coffee shop down the street with a friend.  The barrister, after talking to us, seemed happy, even pleasantly surprised, that we are American, as he commented saying, “You are American?  You have much nicer accents than the British.”  A fact I’ve often thought myself.  This was pleasing because, as an American who has done a fair amount of travel in general, not everyone has been so polite upon learning I am American.

Other less noticeable differences include:

  • People say “sorry” instead of “pardon” or “excuse me,” a fact that after the past 54 days has really come to be one of those little tics that just irritates me for no valid reason
  • Crosswalks are called Zebra crossing (because they’re striped)
  • Personal space is not as valued.  This is most noticeable to me in the grocery store when I am comparing prices of an item and someone comes to look at something near me, and stands entirely too close, but is completely unaware of the crime committed
  • When paying at restaurants, the term “check” is not recognized, and the bill will not be automatically brought to you in an effort to clear your table for the next round of guests.  Instead you have to ask for it, and the prices are never split between the group, making it a true skill to master when thirteen different people are able to successfully pay their shares with correct change
  • Water at restaurants is either still or sparkling, and even is not free
  • Everyone consumes their water from bottles bought at the store.  We’ve learned that we can purchase a six-pack of 2 liter bottles for only €2.  Compare that with the price you might pay for a 16oz bottle at a baseball game (at least $1, if not more).  Upon moving into our house, we asked our landlady if we could drink the water from the sink.  Her response, consistent with others we’ve heard: “Yes it’s very safe.  But I don’t do it.”  Soooo, maybe not then
  • Instead of foods being “microwaveable,” or simply ready to be put in the oven, they are labeled as “ovenable.”  Ask someone if they have any ovenable dinners and see what they say

While I’ve done a decent amount of travel, I’m still from rural Rockingham County Virginia, and moving to any urban area is a huge change of pace already.  Slap on the fact that I’m across the ocean on a tiny European island, and I don’t know if things could be more different.

Yes they speak English, they wear similar clothes, they eat foods I am familiar with, and yet, I found myself feeling more comfortable and more at home in a tiny Sri Lankan village feeding fruit to wild elephants at a Buddhist temple or wearing a hijab while visiting an Islamic soufi shrine in Morocco.  Those two instances, as well as most I’ve encountered while traveling, have put me in situations that are so polar opposite from anything I would or have encountered at home, and yet I felt normal.

Where I live here in Malta, where I go to school, and where I hang out with my friends are all in the city.  We’ve all mentioned at least once how much we miss grass.  I don’t even know when the last time I saw a cow was.  That should give you an idea of how this is such a built-up, urban environment, and that it is going to take a lot more adjusting to than others might realize.

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