Saturday, March 24, 2007

Inital Malta

March 14, 2007
When we arrived at the airport and checked in, we were told that although our bags were checked straight through to Malta, we could only receive boarding passes for the Dulles to Frankfurt leg but we would have to get our Frankfurt to Malta boarding passes when we got to Frankfurt. Trusting the competency of Lufthansa and the efficiency of the Germans we decided this was no big deal. Our flight was relatively uneventful, with the highlights being that the movie wasn’t working and the food service was exceedingly slow (normally they have us fed within an hour or so and get the movie on to keep us shut up and happy, the modern day version of bread and circuses). We were tired so we did sleep all 3 hours between dinner and breakfast.

We disembarked in Frankfurt and blearily tried to figure out which way we needed to go to find our next flight and get boarding passes issued. We thought we were doing very well, given that the plane landed almost ½ hour early. Well, we needed every minute of it. We were directed to an extremely long line that wasn’t moving very fast (in a 10 minute period at one point we didn’t even move up a single person). When we got to the gatekeeper person she told us we could go to the gate, we told her we tried that but the gate are itself had another security check and we needed boarding passes to get through, she said the line ahead of us was too long, we would never make our flight, and we stifled the “duh” look while she decided to let us go ahead in the 1K/First Class line. When we stepped up to the ticket agent, he asked if we were going first class. We said no, but that our plane was leaving in about ½ hour (true). In stereotypical German fashion he sternly told us that everyone else was waiting in line. We said his colleague had sent us into that line and he did grudgingly issue us out boarding passes. We ran downstairs to our gate, again waited in a long line, this time to get through security, then into yet another line to get onto the shuttle bus that would take us to our plane. Note, the plane was not some tiny prop plane, they just don’t have enough gates.

March 15, 2007
Surprisingly, every one of our bags arrived and we headed out to where our sponsor, Carlos, his wife Judith and his son Juan were waiting for us, with a rose for me. What a welcome! They helped us get our bags outside where Charlie, another embassy employee, waited with the big van to carry us and our bags to our apartment. Carlos handed Terry his work cell phone, on which there was already a text message from our Community Liaison Officer (CLO) Lisa asking if we got in OK. Judith went to get their car and came out with the next happy surprise – bags of groceries to get us through our first few days. They included ham and cheese and bread for sandwiches. Like my very lovely client who sent me a Honeybaked spiral cut ham with a 6 pound wheel of Swiss cheese to thank me for something around Christmastime, our sponsors have a strongly Catholic background and the concept that there could possibly be a Jew around probably never even occurred to them. It gets even better.

Our apartment is a 3 bedroom, 2 bath seaside apartment in one of the “hotter” locations on the island. The floors are all stone and it has a balcony where we have already spent hours standing out and looking at the sea and the promenade next to the sea. One thing I have to say about the building materials used here – it is freezing in this apartment. When it is almost 80 degrees outside, even Terry has a hoodie sweatshirt on inside because these buildings keep their cool very well. Yes, July and August will be miserable, but it will probably be comfortable inside the home otherwise.

In our effort to stay awake until bedtime, we went ahead and unpacked all the bags, took showers and went outside to see the neighborhood and get some sunshine. We also decided that Maltese money would be very good to have, so we went off in the direction of the HSBC bank, which we knew would take our foreign ATM cards. It turns out that in Malta the ATMs only take money out of checking accounts, not savings accounts, so we were unable to get money out of our joint account. Luckily, I remembered I should have had some cash in my personal checking, so I got out a pitiful LM10 ($30) and we went to find me a snack, since I was of course by this time starving. Thus, I got to try on my very first day the pea pies that I had heard about in several guide books. They are basically English meat pie type foods with curry spiced peas inside. Yummy! While we sat with my treat and some hot beverages, Carlos called to see where we were because he was going to come over with dinner cooked for us by his wife. You guessed it – pork cutlets, and a rice dish with sausage and pork, as well as potatoes and salad. I was able to pick out the meat from the rice and it was very tasty, and Terry said the cutlets were delicious. Judith can cook.

After dinner we went back out, mostly because it was the only way to keep us from falling asleep. This time we walked the other direction, along the water, where we discovered about a dozen or more stray cats hanging out. We also saw some really amazing playgrounds. In Maltese fashion, we got some fruit at a produce truck – we have been advised that produce and fish are best gotten from folks in trucks who set up on the side of the roads. It is weird handling such “small” sums of money, because the Maltese Lira is about $3 = LM1 so a bag of fruit cost 1 lira and change. It looks like we can get almost any fruit we want here, from apples and plums to lychee and pomegranate. We make a salad and try the tomatoes – they are ALMOST garden-good, and at least a thousand times better than any tomato found in a USA grocery store. We congratulate ourselves on finding something we like about Malta. We had gotten home around 7pm and by 8pm we were dying and finally let ourselves go to bed.

March 16, 2007
Today began with a realtor picking us up to begin the fun search for housing. We had absolutely no idea what we wanted; to be honest we didn’t even know what all the types of housing in Malta were. Now we know that a “maisonette” is a duplex; a “bungalow” is a ranch house; a “villa” is any detached home with a pool; a “house of character” is any older home. Every house we saw had a pool, although some were small enough that nobody but a 2 year old could actually do laps. A few had indoor plants, meaning there were actual plots of dirt on the inside of the house – generally front entrance area – where plants grew. One house had a row of citrus trees – orange, lemon, tangerine. One house had a front area between the gate and the door which was where the animals used to be hitched – there was even still standing the food and water troughs, of course all cleaned out and looking like large built-in stone planters. Terry decided that would be a great house for us to house the goats. After 6 very different houses, we decided we had a better idea of at least where we wanted to be, and a slightly better idea of what we wanted. We discussed meeting up again on Tuesday to look at more places, and he dropped us off at the apartment.

We then called the other realtor, who had been recommended to us and arranged for her to take us out tomorrow, then we went back out to the internet cafĂ© we had seen yesterday to take care of a few things and to wander that area – it has all the fancy shops. Carlos called to see where we were, as he had been tasked with rounding us up for the “meet and greet” for us and a new Marine at the embassy. It was great to finally put faces to email addresses and as always nobody looked anything like we thought they would. The Ambassador even showed up to say hello and to meet us. Before coming to Malta we had joked that we would certainly be the only Pennsylvania license plates in Malta ... well, you know what they say about making assumptions. It turns out there are no fewer than 4 Pennsylvanians at the embassy – and the embassy only employs about 30 Americans. One lady is from outside Scranton and knows Harveys Lake very well – who ever would have thunk it? We are not complaining about this, but we are seriously over-represented.

Additional Pennsylvania coincidence #1: earlier in the day, while poking around the kitchen, we found Villanova Law School Alumni cups. This started an argument as to whether it was more likely that a Maltese person who happened to own, rent or know the owners of this apartment had gone to Villanova, or if this was the apartment where Michelle Pistone had stayed when she was here last year. (Michelle is the Villanova professor who came on a Fullbright last year and helped the University of Malta law school create a clinical legal program that provided representation to asylum seekers.) The embassy community is small, heck the Maltese community is small, so everyone knew the apartment where we are staying, and I knew Michelle had gotten to know some of the folks at the embassy. At the meet & greet I asked if anyone knew if Michelle had stayed there and the answer was yes. I love being right! I also scared one poor guy who, after being introduced with only his first name, I put his last name to it – Michelle had known him and given me his name.

Additional Pennsylvania coincidence #2: On our way to the grocery store, we saw a car with a Penn State sticker on its window. The car was an EU car, not USA plates, and the plates were “PSU 095”. Elissa, did you ever hear about any Maltese people at Penn State before you got there?

Terry’s boss had told him that the two of them would go into the office on Monday – a national holiday – so Terry could start to get up to speed with nobody else around. I was fine with that because I had already arranged to go for a walk/hike around the Dingli Cliffs with other embassy folks – an outing arranged by Lisa. Happily, Bruce (Terry’s boss) said he and his wife would be driving us to the outing – they only live a few blocks from where we are staying – so Terry gets to go! It is only a few hours, apparently, so they will go in after that.

March 17, 2007
Today began with a different realtor who only showed us 3 places, but they were all much more like what we are looking for than the stuff shown to us by the other realtor. She also has friends with sailboats who are always looking for fellow sailors (yahoo!). Two places we saw were on the same street at the Maltese President’s palace and the American Ambassador’s residence - think she’ll give Terry a lift to work ;-) ? We’re set up to see a couple more places on Tuesday – once she learned that we were able to look through construction and have a sense of what a place will look like when finished, she decided there were more places we had to see. For those of you who were along for the ride during our house renovation blog, you know we can look through blotchy red paint on a stucco-like surface and see what beauty might lie beneath, or in that case, by adding drywall above.

Like the USA 20 years ago, we are told, Malta is shut down tight as a drum on Sundays and because of the public holiday is closed Monday as well, so Terry and I had to get our grocery shopping done today to take us through the weekend. It was fun walking home with big bags of groceries and experiencing something we were beginning to think was only a story – rain in Malta! It was a drizzle most of the time, gathering force during our walk home and reverting to drizzle again halfway back. But, we can now say with certainty that precipitation does happen here.

March 18, 2007
Today we finally decided to take the leap and try to figure out the buses. One thing that makes this easy is that for the most part, all buses start and end at the Valletta bus terminal, so as long as we get on going towards Valletta, that is where we will end up. Although the embassy claims to be in the neighboring town, Floriana, you could probably crab walk backwards to the embassy building from the Valletta bus terminal (but you would get run over). The bus trip cost 20 cents ($0.60) and takes about 15 minutes on a Sunday without traffic. We’ll see how long it takes on a normal work day.

March 19, 2007
Today we met up with a bunch of other embassy folks and took a hike along the Dingli Cliffs. Yes, it is fun to say. It was a very, very nice way to get to hang out with some of the folks we will be living and working with for the next 2 years. We also got some good dog cuddling time, as several people have dogs and the pooches enjoyed the hike as much as the people! Terry’s boss and his wife live only a couple of blocks from us, so they graciously drove us to the outing, as there are no buses and our car probably won’t arrive for another month or more.

One very interesting phenomenon I am seeing is that everyone seems to assume I have been offered and accepted the secretary job at the embassy. I suppose that with only one applicant during the time that they need someone to fill the job, it makes sense, however I had assumed that as a government job I would need to at least make the face effort of applying. Our CLO is planning an orientation for me on Thursday, so when I am at the embassy I plan to find her husband (my future boss) and find out exactly what is what. Nobody wants to talk shop on a holiday, or I would have prodded already.

March 20, 2007
Today’s highlights include: seeing my 2nd favorite house, lunch at the Malta Yacht Club with my realtor, making my first solo trip to the fruit cart and the grocery store, and seeing a car flip (the elderly man driving it, after being helped out of the car that stood on its hood, walked away without a scratch. It was amazing, and of course quite frightening). Also, our landlord called to let me know the cable folks were coming on Thursday morning and after that is set up the internet can be arranged. So I will soon be able to put all these random musings up where unsuspecting souls can read the thoughts of a woman spending too much time on her own! OK that isn’t really true, I have been with Terry all weekend and realtors all week.

We also discovered that the one outlet near the kitchen can’t handle having 2 ovens and a space heater plugged in at the same time, so we blew the power just before dinnertime. Luckily, Terry did manage to find the right switch to get the power turned back on and we unplugged the space heater. We then decided to finally use the dehumidifier that has been sitting in one of the spare bedrooms and it does make a big difference in how cold this place seems.

March 21, 2007
Today I saw a new second favorite house. I also met a lovely woman who’s leaving in 2 months, and who currently holds the job I am most likely to be taking. She showed me her seaside apartment in Sliema, which seems to be the most popular choice of locale for folks who don’t have small children or dogs. Between meeting her, running around with our realtor – who showed me 3 places in the morning, came back for me around 3pm and is coming back again at 6pm – I have not had my nap, nor have I eaten as frequently as I should. Result – grumpy Lynne. The good news is I checked in with the regional nurse, who’s here only today from Tunis, and he confirmed that what I am doing is exactly what I should be doing, namely finding an OB/GYN in the economy, and letting me know we can work out details if I want to be medevac’d home to deliver or if I want/need additional testing that is not done in Malta. I also got the name of another realtor because I keep feeling like there must be more than I have seen – I have spent 4 days (well, parts of days, but I couldn’t schedule anything else) with realtors and only seen 15 places – 6 of which were entirely too far away and inappropriate for our needs.

March 22, 2007
I ended up spending most of my day at the embassy, quite unexpectedly. It started because Terry needed me to access a web site where he refuses to memorize the password, and print something for him from it. We decided it would also be a good time for me to get my embassy badge so I can come and go without having to have a specific person meet me and escort me around. Sounds simple enough, sounds like a couple of tasks that take 1, maybe 2 hours to accomplish. We must always keep in the forefront of our thoughts that this is Malta (to be honest, we also said that a lot in Singapore).

First, I ended up getting introduced around to almost everyone at the embassy, which was very helpful although of course I remember about half of the names, and that is only because half of the people are named “Jo/Joe” both male and female. Of course, putting the name, even Jo, to the right face is also a challenge right now. Then, to get the badge I needed to get a photo taken at one place then the badge printed at another place. The machine to print the badge decided to show who’s boss and chose to stop working, which required the expertise of two different technical folks – neither of whom were Terry – to come and attempt to solve the problem. I was finally told to go amuse myself and the badge would be brought to me. This was my opportunity to get on the internet to satisfy item #2 of my mission, and check email. Of course, the printer hadn’t been installed on that computer, but I was able to download what I needed and send it to Terry where he could print it. During my round of introductions, I met the cashier who told me Terry had arranged to meet him at 1pm to open our joint bank account. So, I guess I am sticking around until 1pm!

While hanging around the embassy, I got invited to the next (all-women) book club meeting – tonight, with a 600 page book I have never even heard of, much less read. I figure this is a good opportunity to meet folks I haven’t met yet, so I agree to go. It also helps that the woman hosting is lives only about a 10 minute walk away from our apartment. As Terry comes home at 7pm I am heading out, figuring that I’ll easily be home within a couple of hours. The women I meet are lovely, and our conversation ranges from the book for the night, the other books in the series that some have read, recommendations of realtors and doctors (for me), and discussion of life inside and outside the embassy. I finally wander into our apartment around 11pm and practically collapse into bed. There are times I really hate being Pregnant Lynne (not that Pre-pregnancy Lynne could stay up past 11). At least I can still get 10 hours’ sleep before getting up tomorrow in time for the realtor to pick me up!

Oh, and the discovery of today – in the back of our minds we remember being told that fruit and veg deliveries are made on Mondays and Thursdays so those are the best days to load up. Terry ran out while I was at book club because we were low on fruit and he was in love with the selection and quality. I guess that means we have new standard shopping days – like most of Europe, people here shop every few days and have very fresh foods rather than stocking up like we do at home.

March 23, 2007
Like every other day this week, it is cold, windy and rainy. From the embassy folks I am told that this is winter, and it normally lasts through January and February, and is easing off by now. This year, winter never came, and temperatures stayed mild and the sun stayed up. I guess this is our welcome to Malta – other than the rain I think Terry prefers this so I don’t complain … too much. The wind is awesome, though, and the sea is the choppiest I have seen it today. I am now questioning weekend plans of doing any wandering around if the weather is to be like this. We’ll have to find something to do indoors. My realtor for today calls and begs off because of a migraine. This is my first day to just laze around and do anything (or, more appropriately, nothing) since we got here. Conveniently, our landlord finally got us TV (basic cable, like many places back in the USA without at least basic cable there is no TV) – this is also the necessary predecessor to getting internet in the apartment. Just like in the USA, with a couple dozen channels, nothing is ever on! We do get the Discovery Channel, and it is even in English, so that is generally the best bet. Right now the thunder is causing some vibrations in the building. When the weather wants to be severe, it really follows through.

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