Which Malta will it be?

“All foreigners who don’t like it can muck off back to their own miserable countries.”

That was the first comment I read below a Times of Malta article on The Expat Insider’s report, which saw Malta plummet in their Quality of Life index of living conditions in 187 countries.

It’s the same tired line every foreigner comes to know well if they’ve ever dared to express an opinion on Malta which isn’t glowingly positive. I never took that very seriously. But I did give some thought to the criticisms raised in this survey, in part because some of those things had also driven me from Malta for good.

I still remember a different Malta, the one I first encountered, though it is fading away as distant memories do.

I remember how the afternoon light slanted into our street, transforming limestone blocks that had been bleached white by harsh daytime sun into a rich honey colour.

And long conversations in the courtyard with my landlord’s elderly father, who told me about his childhood in Birgu during the war.

Ditching work on hot summer afternoons to swim at Delimara, where the sea rose and fell like the heartbeat of the world.

The kindness of neighbours, who stopped by each day to check on the housebound old woman across the road.

The trainer at the gym who always noticed that I’d been away, and always greeted me with a warm “Welcome back!”

That magical feeling of Valletta at night, when the sound of my shoes echoed off the Auberge d’Italie, and there was no one else on Merchants Street for as far as I could see.

The crisp taste of white wine on summer evenings with friends, and the way the bottle sweated cold drops of bottle sweat and made a pool on the floor.

And the sound of the wind around the walls in winter, and reading a book wrapped in a blanket as the gas heater hissed and jagged lightning flashed over a distant sea.

Things bumbled along back then. They weren’t always done in a way that people back in Canada would have thought of as “proper” or even entirely safe. But somehow it all worked out through a sheer application of hope and goodwill.

And then, very gradually, things began to change.

At some point, the feeling of being insulted when I noticed that Malta had been left off yet another museum map was replaced by discomfort when an accountant in another country said, “I had long term client who moved to Malta to dodge taxes. I refused to do any more business with him”.

I didn’t like the way his eyes narrowed when I said I’d just gone there to write a book. And I hated feeling like I was guilty by association with a place whose reputation abroad was quickly deteriorating.

At some point, the taste of car exhaust replaced the briny smell of the sea.

Road rage replaced civility, as “me first and to hell with you” transformed more and more people into furious toddlers.

Passionate arguments used to end in back slapping, well-placed insults, and the offer of cold beer, but now open hatred and the threat of violence feels one diverging opinion away.

The worst sorts of behaviour are accepted, and people act in ways they would have been ashamed of years earlier, because their leaders condone it.

Greed has gone off the rails, too. Not the struggle to get ahead, or pride in the home or in the business one has built, but greed for easy gain. An eagerness to cut corners, to screw someone over, to grasp whatever one can get away with. “Why not? Everyone else is doing it, too.”

Where a glance around Malta once revealed history carved in blocks of stone, now those magical views are interrupted by a forest of cranes, great clouds of construction dust, and a hideous hodgepodge of high rise steel and glass that look like monuments to failed design.

Rapacious developers and kickback-hungry politicians are transforming what was once the jewel of the Mediterranean into another generic Monaco-Brazilian favela, with all the overcrowding and none of the charm.

It’s difficult when you’re in a situation to see just how much is changing, and not always for the better. Like the frog in the gradually warming pan of water, your thermometer is off, and you don’t know you’re being boiled.

But foreigners see these things. In part because we’ve lived most of our lives somewhere else, and in part because we just visit at intervals. Sometimes you have to be away from a place to see those changes clearly.

It has nothing to do with “meeting the approval of Johnny Foreigner.” A statement like that says more about the insecurities of the commenter than it does about the survey. It’s simply a warning sign, like gasping canaries in a coal mine.

When foreigners who have spent their precious holidays in Malta year after year suddenly stop coming, you have to wonder why.

When people stop choosing Malta — or only choose it for the cheapest holidays, letterbox companies, or lax law enforcement — you’re seeing a small glimpse of the future that’s hurtling toward you.

I travel quite a lot for my work. I always look forward to those trips, and to something new to write about. But during those first years of living in Malta, I looked forward to coming home even more.

I decided to leave Malta permanently for some of the very same reasons these foreigners are citing in the Expat Insider quality of life survey.

Daily life had become incredibly abrasive, even in the small villages where we’d always made our home. But it was the constant corruption scandals that really made me question what we were doing there.

As scandal after scandal hit the newspapers, any one of which would have brought down the government in a normal, functioning western country, they were met with a shrug. No one was investigated, let alone prosecuted.

After months of being bombarded by such stories, it had all begun to seem very dull and very normal. But Malta also began to feel like a place where anything could be done to you without anyone ever hearing about it. Especially if you were an outsider.

This expat survey tells me I wasn’t alone in feeling that way.

Two years later, I’m hearing departure prep stories from friends who I never thought would leave the island, both foreigners who settled there and Maltese who returned from lives abroad.

The world’s a big place, filled with possibility. I couldn’t imagine staying in Malta any longer than we did. Fighting for change felt like ploughing the sea. After a while you just write it off and walk away.

I’d rather hang on to the island I remember from those early years, even if it only ends up existing in old books. I don’t want to go back and see what has become of it.

Reports like this Quality of Life Index, or Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, are a bit like those views of the Earth taken from the moon. They provide a perspective you can’t always see from the ground. You can give some thought to the message they’re sending, or you can brush them off and hate the messenger.

From where I’m sitting, Malta looks like a plane in a steep dive, and the ground is getting closer. But there’s still time for someone with a different vision to pull back on the stick.

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