Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

hidden europe Notes

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This weekend Valletta hosts the big street festival that regularly marks the end of the Christmas season. Under the banner Citta Magica, there will be music and performances aplenty, and the streets of Valletta will be full of visitors from across the Maltese islands.

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The city of Valletta surely has to be one of Europe's most amiable capitals. Indeed we reported from the capital of Malta two years ago this month, and you can read our impressions of Valletta here. "A curious mixture of elegance and unkempt charm. Diminutive, but instantly appealing," we wrote in that January 2008 account.

This weekend Valletta hosts the big street festival that regularly marks the end of the Christmas season. Under the banner Citta Magica, there will be music and performances aplenty, and the streets of Valletta will be full of visitors from across the Maltese islands. This is essentially an event for the locals, which begs the question why it has an Italian name. In fact, Italian pops up often in public life in Malta. An all-night street festival in Valletta last October was promoted under the title Notte Bianca.

Resorting to Italian is a way of by-passing Malta's knotty language politics. The country has two official languages: Maltese and English. A touch of stylish Italian nicely avoids the question of whether Maltese or English should take precedence. Just as a café we know in Brussels skirts around the issue of whether Flemish or French should come first by proclaiming its credentials only in English.

This article was published in hidden europe notes.

About The Authors: hidden europe

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.

Comments (5)| write a comment

  1. Anna
    8 January 2010

    Sicily and Italy are Malta's closest neighbours so it shoudn't be wondered at. Admittedly it's an overnight trip by boat, but the only other such destination must be the North African coast!

    Is there still a Star of Malta travelling between Valletta and Sicily? My memories of this boat in 1960 leaves much to be desired.

  2. hidden europe
    9 January 2010

    What an interesting comment, Anna. Thank you. But surely mere proximity of Sicily does not explain while today's Citta Magica events in Valletta have an Italian name. The event is not aimed at day trippers from Sicily but at a local Maltese clientèle. Indeed the principal ferry operator from Sicily to Malta (Virtu) has no sailings today. Their vessel is on its annual dry-dock maintenance until 17th January. We would stick with our original suggestion that the Italian name is a neat way around the complex language politics of the island – which you can follow in almost every issue of 'The Times of Malta'.

    You ask about the Star of Malta. She was a very interesting ship, and perhaps when you travelled on her in 1960 you did not realise that she had already sunk once. That would surely not have been an encouraging thought as you stepped aboard. The Star was built in the mid-20s as a luxury yacht for a US businessman. In 1952 she entered service as The Star of Malta on the regular mail run between Syracuse (Sicily) and Malta. She capsized on one of those crossings in summer 1955, having hit a reef just off Malta. Amazingly, she was salvaged a few weeks later, refloated, repaired and returned to service under the same name. She regularly made the Malta to Sicily run until 1966. Her near demise in 1955 and subsequent return to service is a quite remarkable episode in European maritime history.

  3. Unexpected Traveller
    10 January 2010

    Malta has always had a lot of Italian influences and was ruled from Sicily for a long time. The real reason that you're looking for is socio-political and dates back to the last few decades before the British granted the island independence.

    In the early years of the twentieth century, Malta was a British colony and a thriving Naval base. Britain ruled the Mediterranean from here and used Malta for refuelling, supplies and even as a hospital for wounded sailors. This meant that a large chunk of the economy was based on the military and the naval dockyards.

    Class systems still in place at the time meant that people on the lower rungs of society worked with and for the British and consequently spoke English. Higher class locals viewed their English-speaking disdainfully. These people, typically in the professions, would have studied at the (Catholic) University which still taught things in Latin and Italian. Consequently, they spoke Italian more often that English and considered themselves to be "better" than their compatriots.

    Fast-forward to the post-WW2 years. The Nationalist party (centre-right) had been banned during the war for their pro-Italian views and was now vying for Independence from the British. The Labour party knew that the British needed the island and did not want independence; they went as far as petitioning the Brits to include Malta into the United Kingdom directly and to be represented in the House of Commons. The island was broadly split on the issue between the Italian-speaking and therefore pro-Nationalist professionals and the English-speaking and pro-Labour working class.

    Malta then gained independence in the sixties. Fast forward to today and Italian is no longer the lingua franca used at University mainly since the Maltese language took over. English and Italian speakers are no longer necessarily Labour and Nationalist supporters but, in an interesting twist, supporters of the British football team will tend to be Labour party people (red and white being the main colours) and Nationalists will support Italy (Blue being their colour). Go to Malta during the World Cup and notice what happens - Labour party people support and cheer the Brits (and will hold car-cades of celebration if they win a match) and the Nationalists will do the same for the Italians.

    Hope this helps

    The Unexpected Traveller

  4. hidden europe
    17 January 2010

    Thank you very much for sharing your knowledge about Maltese history, Unexpected Traveller. The link between identity and language to which you allude was a point we tried to make in our original contribution. Your thoughtful comments on the matter have however done much to improve it. It seems that the Italian language still has iconic status amongst the Maltese population.

  5. Emma Kaye
    8 February 2010

    What a lovely book the 'The Kappillan of Malta' by Nichlas Monsarrat is. I'll have to re-read it, but as I recall there is something of the class system as well as, the pro-Italian leanings of some of the upper classes. Note that Monsarrat is most famous for his book, The Cruel Sea.

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