Friday, March 12, 2010

Malta: My Own Personal Benidorm

My Beloved Kinnie:
Bittersweetness in a sad, disgusting world of Maltese Benidorminess.

I'm not going to lie - I've seriously been avoiding posting my thoughts on our trip to Malta last October. Not that we had a bad time, but, well, the food was just terrible and to me that kind of taints the whole experience. Yes, I do realize it's been like 5 months, but it's such a dreary day outside, and if nothing else, we had great weather in Malta, so here's to the memory of that!

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Have you ever seen the show "
Benidorm?" If you haven't, you're not missing much. Well, ok, you are. because it's a comedic show that exploits the natural hilarity and inherent grotesque quality that is the reality of the used-to-be-quaint-village turned skyscraper-hotel-package-holiday-hell in the south of Spain called Benidorm.

Benidorm (the show) cleverly draws out and makes fun of the stereotypical (can't emphasize that word enough here!), working-class, Northern-European (read: British) tourist. It points out their quirks, annoying habits, and inevitably-familiar preferences. To them a vacation is an all-inclusive package of nothing but British food (English breakfast every morning!), bad cabaret shows put on by dolled-up locals who treat the tourists like the idiots they are, and days spent sunning (burning?) at the pool, critiquing the other "stupider" tourists and / or conspicuously flirting / making out by said poolside.

It hurts a little bit to watch shows like this because probably every single one of us either knows someone like the characters or has to admit to wanting their "eggs and bacon" breakfast
everywhere they go. But it is hilarious because, in the end - whether it touches something personal or not - we all know exactly what they're talking about, and can laugh our haughty that-will-never-be-me-laugh from the comfort of our (my British) living rooms.

The Family: single-mother-daughter with token-interracial-baby, annoying brother, overweight dad, clueless mom. Mel & Madge, the feisty grandmother with the saggy-perma-tan and her (not-so) beau.

I did say grotesque.

But returning to the point of this post, I'm still not quite sure how Matt and I ended up in the real-life Maltese version of Benidorm in early October, but we did.

We were at a really nice hotel in the off-season in what was advertised as a "quaint village" north of Valletta in Malta. Numerous people on Trip Advisor had specifically commented on how great the
buffet breakfast was --

* Small Note on Buffet Breakfasts *
I do not hold my nose up at buffet breakfasts. I am a fan of the buffet concept as a general rule, as long as it is done well. For example, the hotel we stayed at in Thailand had a buffet breakfast that rivaled many a la carte restaurants I've been to. Grilled fish, fresh tropical fruits, complimentary champagne...on the other hand, I've had my fair share of crappy Chinese buffets and so I do know the dangers that can and often do lurk beneath the stainless steal lids...
* end small note on Buffet Breakfasts*

-- and frankly, I was looking forward to my all-included gluttonous morning feastivities. The hotel had three pools (a must with the Master in tow), was in walking-distance from the beach, and offered easy access to both Valletta and Gozo. Great? Not so great.

* * *

My Top 5 Stories, Thoughts, Musings on the Maltese Experience
or, why Mellieha is Benidorm
5. Guido the Cab Driver
As is often the case, our first introduction to Malta came via our cab driver from the airport. Unlike in Brussels, the guy we got was about as close to the stereotypical idea of a sleaze-bucket-douche-bag as one man can get. His name was Guido (I won't get into the ironically appropriate implications there) and he knew everything there was to know on any subject worth knowing - and better than anybody else (especially women).

We weren't paying him to drive us, he was doing us a favor. He escorted us to the car by clicking his mouth to signal he was ready to go after leaving us to wait (me, seething) for five minutes while he chatted in Maltese with a fellow cabby, all the while lifting his shirt half-way to rub his nasty middle-aged belly, the way sleaze-buckets are wont to do. (This was at 2 in the morning, mind you.) He would only address Matt ("stupid women don't understand") and he claimed to speak four languages and assumed we only spoke one ("stupid Americans don't understand") even after we'd told him several times that wasn't the case (still seething).

He gave Matt a lecture on driving on the left-side of the road (even though he has done it pretty consistently for the three years we've lived in the UK, which we mentioned to Guido), told us to check "on top of [our] heads" whenever we park somewhere to see if there is a no-parking sign, told me that all women are after men's money and possessions and that's why he'd never married (apologizing the whole time for saying so but that it was true, "so, sorry") and was back in Malta living with his mother (silent internal screaming fit in Brenda's head start NOW.).

When we asked if there were any good restaurants in Mellieha (his hometown apparently), he patronizingly said, "well, none of them are bad - you'll get food no problem. It's not tough - just check the menu to see what they have and how much it costs before you go in or you might end up somewhere you don't want to be."

Thank you Guido. Seeing as the stupid American woman has never been to a restaurant, other country, or outside of the kitchen (where she permanently resides, barefoot and sometimes pregnant, scheming for her husband's money and possessions) frankly, it is a good thing we got you as our cabby.

Once we'd arrived, he then proceeded to say he didn't have change (in order to "con" the stupid American man out of an extra large tip) but quickly changed his tune when Matt said he had no problem waiting for him to go into the hotel lobby to get change from the concierge. Bastard Guido. At least now we knew where we stood as American tourists.

4. The Food Dilemma
The buffet breakfast was up to snuff...if you're a character in Benidorm. It consisted of a continental breakfast (not my bag) and a British breakfast, complete with badly cooked sausages, soggy bacon, baked beans, and copious amounts of ketchup and brown sauce available. In fact, probably the best things they had were the fresh rye bread loafs (which I could only snag on the days we were early) and the fried eggs (and even those were sometimes really bad). Oh and the little foil-wrapped cheese wedges you get at all European hotels. I'm a fan of those.

Thinking breakfast was an anomaly, we decided to try out the hotel's really well furnished pizzeria downstairs. It offered really basic fair that it would take a decidedly, determinedly bad chef to mess up: pizza, spaghetti, salads. Guess what, they had a decidedly - triumphantly, even! - bad chef.

The experience at every other place we ate was the same. The menu looked good, the place looked good, the food was horrendous, even their "typical Maltese dishes" which were generally "rabbit in a white wine sauce" (oh it sounds good, but oh it isn't!) or some horrific variance thereof.

To put it in black and white for you: Matt and I ended up eating at the local Chinese Restaurant 3 out of 5 nights we were there. Desperate times call for desperate measures (and fried ice cream).

3. Another Douche Bag and his Famiglia
When you're at a medium-sized hotel it's inevitable to run into other guests on a repeated basis. I actually find that charming about certain travel experiences - getting to know others on a basic, acquaintance level, so that you have someone to nod or smile to every morning at breakfast, at the pool, or even a new friend. Sadly, the only people (besides several German, senior citizen couples) this happened to us with was a douchey Italian power-couple and their catamite (as Matt shamelessly dubbed him) son.

I wish with every fiber in my being that I had mustered up the courage to take a picture of these people. You probably won't believe me when I describe them. Then again, if you've ever been to an Italian city or beach you are likely to have run into them or one of their many followers: Hands flying, chins jutting out and shoulders raising, they walk and talk as if they were being followed by an entourage of paparazzi at all times. After all, they are too cool with their curly hair stiff with too much product, a generous whiff of spray-on deodorant, skin-tight clothing and permanent sunglasses - at breakfast, lunch, dinner, while swimming, while coffeeing, day or night, inside or outside. Oh, and they all seem to possess an unshakable conviction that they can convince anyone of anything anywhere (I like to call this the "veni, vidi, vici complex"), just because they deserve to get their way.

Matt, Roman and I were lucky enough to see them everywhere every single day of our vacation. We breakfasted at the same times, swam at the same times (their 6 year old, for the record, swam entirely naked in the pool and I am compelled to comment here that I really think that age is a little past the cutoff where kids are "cute" when naked in public places), asked questions (well, demanded things) at reception at the same time, we arrived the same day and left the same day, and we even decided to take a day trip to Gozo and eat and play at the same beach the same day. It was funny in a "why the hell is this happening to us?" kind of way.

2. Gozo & Jeffrey's Restaurant
Gozo: If you don't plan to go(zo) there, you better not go(zo) to Malta. :) Ok, enough with the cheesy gozo jokes, and enough with the exaggeration: there were other nice places in Malta. Valletta was very pretty, actually, and has lots of amazing history. But Gozo is stunning. Stunn-ing. And if we hadn't gone there, I probably would have left Malta feeling really cheated because my favorite place we'd have gone would have been the indoor pool at our hotel. (Enough with the exaggeration, Brenda!)

But of course there was a catch: Jeffrey's Restaurant almost ruined Gozo for me.

We spent the day lounging on beaches, seeing Calypso's disappointingly small cave, and driving through beautiful little villages. The island itself is the picture of rusticity and untouched beauty with only one small "town" on the harbor for the large ferries that are constantly coming and going, and even that is very pretty. The most amazing thing we saw while there was what is sold to tourists as the "azure window." It is a rock formation that dramatically juts out onto the ocean on the wilder side of Gozo and one of the most beautifully wondrous places to see a sunset. Being there on the off-season, it was only lightly sprinkled with other sunset seekers. But it is awkward climbing on spiky eroded rock, and the light goes quickly, so if you do go, make sure you're not carrying a baby, or bring a flashlight. Or both. :)

After a small transcendentalist moment at the azure window, we, famished, headed out to find a restaurant that was open nearly 9pm, which in Gozo is much harder than one would imagine. Given that there are literally probably under 5 ATMs for the entire island, Matt and I jumped at the first half-decent place we saw that wasn't fast food and ended up at Jeffrey's Restaurant.
So quaint, so cute, and so jam-packed full of happy looking people, I sighed a great relief when Roman fell asleep and the women gave me a table despite not having a reservation (several people came through the door and were turned away after us). How could we go wrong? The menu was full of local dishes as well as international cuisine and had some decent sounding seafood. Matt and I felt happy to have finally found Malta's culinary redemption in an off-the-beaten-path little family joint such as this.

But then we got our food. Seafood soup - more unopened mussels and clams than open ones. Shady fish, and crappy broth. I ordered a filet mignon steak (mistake 1), then asked for it medium (mistake 2). What I got was something approximating leather in the form of a salisbury steak - so dry and old I almost threw up the moment I tasted it. Then Matt thought I was exaggerating (mistake 3) so he tasted it (mistake 4) and also almost threw up. I tried to compose myself as I gagged into my napkin and realized the maitre d' / owner had seen the whole thing. He brought the chef over who insisted on giving me a new steak. ONLY in order not to make a scene did I accept the second steak which was slightly less old but equally disgusting. I couldn't eat more than 2 bites. We paid and left as soon as we finished the "on the house" dessert we got to compensate us for the rotten 40Euro steak they had given us, TWICE.

Ah, we had a good time anyway. But if you like food and depend on it as a big part of your vacations - take it from us, don't go to Malta.

1. How Kinnie Saved the Trip
One out of two of the only truly and uniquely Maltese things that I found redeeming about this trip was, amazingly, a soda.

I don't drink much soda and therefore I'd never heard of Kinnie until this trip to Malta. I've still never seen it sold here in the UK, and think it would probably be hard to find almost anywhere. But I dream about it - oh how I dream about it.

Kinnie is like coca-cola with a few drops of orange bitters thrown in. It's like a grown-up version of a soft drink minus the alcohol. A campari and soda with the sweetness of pop. It's tasty, refreshing and comes in an awesome orange can reminiscent of the only other uniquely Maltese thing I found redeeming of Malta: its really cool retro orangey-yellow public buses.

GO KINNIE! At the end of the day, I took refuge in you, knowing that I would one day get back to my own kitchen again and eat normal food, but just a little bit the sadder also knowing that you would not be there to share it with me!

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Some fun Maltese Moments

Roman at Ramla Beach;
still young (and cute) enough to go naked at the beach.

Fried Ice Cream at the local Chinese in Mellieha

The Azure Window: worth the trip to Gozo.

Maltese Public Buses - super retro, super cool.

So happy to be here.

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  1. I was laughing so hard by the end of your post. I've had similar experiences but am happy to say they were paced over multiple adventures and not all in one trip. I can well appreciate everything you wrote down and had a running movie going on in my mind.

    Happy you survive - it probably took 5 months just to put things into perspective and see the humor about it. What an adventure - glad to see the happy smile at the end!

  2. Guido sounds amazing... condescending AND lives with his mother?? That's a rare combo.

  3. Oh he was all that and a bag of chips alright.

  4. I am horrified beneath the laughter. So sorry you had to go through all of that but you've survived admirably! At least there's some redemption for Malta: Kinnie and Roman's heinie! 8-D