An angel in sequins and fur: MALTA & GOZO.
I screeched up to the boat terminal at the exact moment the ferry was supposed to depart. My 80 year old taxi driver screamed goodbye as I threw the door shut and ran towards the gates. I was relieved to see other person in front of me, but I saw a security guard mouthing the words "CLOSED" as they approached the door. They spun around, tossed their fur scarf around their neck, ran towards me and grabbed my hand.
"We have to run around to the other side! Come on, Quick!"
Hand in hand we "ran like hyenas" desperate to catch the boat and not be stuck there for another hour.
"I'm Nicki, by the way!" He screamed over his shoulder, his purse bopping between us.
We bound towards the cars that were still loading below and snuck onboard with them. At this point, I had been traveling for almost 16 hours that day. I was shocked and relieved to be crossing the Gozo channel before midnight. It was ambitious for a weekend trip, but it's places like these you find people like Nicki and I was already extremely content with my current situation. It was warm enough in December to ride on the top deck and look at the stars on the 20 minute journey to the island of Gozo, and I had already found a fascinating local friend.
Malta is the smallest country in the European Union, and Gozo is the smaller island beyond it. The whole country is 1/10th the size of Rhode Island. "Gozo is what Malta used to be," everyone told me. I was eager to find out what that meant.
Nicki told me about Gozo, and about Malta, and about how in general he feels claustrophobic when trapped inside metal things, which is why he always rode on the top deck and also drove a convertible.
"Whats taking so long to dock this thing?!" He demanded. "I could've landed a SPACESHIP by now... Oh look, it's my friend Charlotte! Hi Charlotte!"
He hugged a lovely Australian woman toting a bearded Frenchman with a guitar over his shoulder. Nicki offered to chauffeur all three of us to our respective destinations, so long as we joined him for a drink at his favorite bar. Nicki put on his glasses, took off the top of the car, and the four of us crammed in with the guitar and sped away towards Zeppi's Pub.
Zeppi's immediately reminded me of New Orleans. Perfect mood lighting, excellent decoration, crumbling walls, and a Dalmatian turning circles on the ancient painted-tile floors. I would find myself here again the next night chatting with the man that took famous photos of the only swans to ever get lost on the island of Gozo. Zeppi's is run by a charming 22 year old and her Aunt and has an international crowd mixed with 14 year olds drunk on Lemoncello.
There's something immediately mythical about Gozo. It is supposedly the place where Calypso lived and lured Odysseus into staying for 7 years. You can feel a similar pull when you're there.
We packed up shortly after Nicki had two quick vodka tonics and one for the road. He asked me to steer as he tried to figure out where my Airbnb was on a map, but I momentarily disoriented by the backwards card and forgot that Malta drives like the British. I put us on the total wrong side of the road. Luckily we were on the smaller island of the smallest country on a backroad at 2am. We were the only lunatics on the road at that hour.
We found my lodging without too much trouble and Nicki waited as I opened up the lockbox only to find there was no key left for me as promised. Nicki invited me instead to stay at his house, which he said was actually more like a castle. I had been awake for around 22 hours at this point, didn't feel threatened by him at all, and had little choice anyway, so we pushed on to the House of Snails.
Nicki was not exaggerating when he said his house was like a castle. It's true he was the only human in his house, but he did not live alone. There were two cats, two turtles, two birds, a horse, and tonight- me. Something told me there were snails lurking about as well, but I never saw any myself.
As Nicki did a quick costume change and opened up a fresh bottle of vodka, I surveyed my new surroundings. The ceilings were all arched stone, lit tastefully from below, and just beyond the patio with an outdoor fireplace was a pool and several tiered patios that overlooked the Mediterranean sea. I couldn't believe my luck as I sat petting one of the cats.
"I see you've met Qetesh! She was supposed to be the Egyptian goddess of ecstasy, but then he grew balls."
We sat listening to Lana del Rey on repeat as Nicki told me he felt like Calypso himself, because he had a special talent for wooing straight men and making them stay on the island for longer than they ever intended. Calypso's cave was, in fact, only a 15 minute walk away. Nicki woefully recounted the story of his latest fling to me, wishing wistfully for a hunky man that would stay around and take care of all his animals so he wouldn't have to.
He showed me his giant, Victoria-Secret style angel wings, which he stored under the bed I would be sleeping in. This convinced me in my drunken state that he probably was my real-life Guardian angel. Had I not met Nicki, I would've had a delayed flight, causing me to miss my bus, leading to an expensive taxi with an ancient, slow-driving driver that caused me to miss my boat, only to finally arrive to an airbnb with no keys at 2am. I would've hated Gozo, for sure, yet here I was in the castle of snails painting the nails of Calypso, the Greek nymph of the sea, drinking too many vodka tonics surrounded by fine art and strange animal friends.
I slept well that night, and spent the rest of the weekend exploring Gozo and the larger island of Malta with one pair of broken shoes held together by a rubber band. I met the swan photographer and the drunk 14 year old, I met several native Maltese people with strange names with Xs in them. I drank wine from dusty unmarked bottles and ate sun-dried tomatoes on bread straight out of stone ovens. Malta is famous for these savory pastries stuffed with Peas called Pastizz. It's very rare indeed for a traditional food to be vegetarian.
Gozo felt very old and enchanted. I didn't see a single store I recognized, as it seems capitalism has not yet found this secluded spot in the middle of the sea. This is exactly what I look for when I'm traveling- something I don't recognize. An authentic breath of fresh air that is rare to come across in this age of globalization. It felt like it was stuck in time. I wandered around and found buildings constructed in the 1500s and ruins of aqueducts and castles. It's true that the main island of Malta felt much more touristy and commercialized, but Valletta still had it's own magic, twinkling in it's Christmas-lit glory.
Each colorful door along stair-stepped streets seemed to lead to another world, and it all felt totally exotic yet very accessible, as English is an official language there in addition to Maltese. This was a comfort I realized I miss immensely living in other places
I struck up conversations with several other locals in the coming days and was shocked to find that none of them were anxious to get out. With Malta being such a tiny country, I would expect that everyone knows everyone and the youth would be dying to escape for freedom and a change, but they aren't. They like Malta and appreciate that they are surrounded by beauty. They explained that there is a community and a tradition there that they didn't find elsewhere when they traveled, and this love and pride for the country was contagious and inspiring to me.
I somehow broke the screen on my camera during this trip and was having serious foot pain from all that walking with broken shoes, but I savored and loved every moment of my time in this place. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to travel and though I love traveling with friends and loved ones, I find so much freedom in being able to travel alone. You arrive somewhere with an inability to have expectations, which is a magical feeling. I am forever blown away by the encounters you have when you put yourself out there and let the universe catch you.
Cheers to Calypso, that tantalizing nymph of Gozo.
A View from Calypso's cave.