April Tomfoolery


Once upon a time, like today, April 1 was a Sunday. The only difference was that Easter holidays had already begun.

It was one of those rare occasions where cousins from both sides of the family had met at our Buġibba flat which – and this is important for the dénouement of the story – had a balcony that went all around it, thus facing over three streets, with a door at each face.

Now this balcony was built in a precarious, weird manner.  A row of stones, with pillars at intervals, joining two steel tubes running horizontally (health and safety, anyone?) and a sill made of pre-cast concrete.

My sister had a habit of sitting in one of the corners; a very dangerous practice that had passers-by yelling at her to get off because “she was going to fall”.  One of these Nosey Parkers, whom we did not even know from Adam’s off ox, was particularly vociferous, insisting that unless she obeyed, my sister would be “taken to prison” because she was going to “report her”.

And this, I swear, is what made me do it.

I conveyed The Idea to my sister and my cousins, and most of them were game.  Those who would have nothing to do with it went inside and pretended to be engrossed in their books.  I have always been known for my banshee shriek, and when the street was relatively quiet, I let rip.

Of course, the adults inside the house assumed the worst, and since my sister was crouching at the very edge of the balcony, that is, round the corner where they would not see her since they logically came out through the nearer two doorways.

It worked – even more than I had imagined. The confusion that ensued was such that the cousins who were in on the joke but had not seen my sister go away to hide actually thought she had been injured. So when she suddenly appeared, laughing, we both got the telling-off of our lives.

Today I am older, but not necessarily wiser; yet I realise that this was not a nice joke to play at all –m and that, for that matter, it was not a joke at all.

Then there was a time when at school, one particular girl (who could do no wrong) went up to class during mid-day break and spilled sugar on the floor, wet the chalk, and moved the desks around.

Without even asking who had done it, the teacher whose lesson it was right after recess singled me out and yelled at me. Since I was at the end of the line I did not even know what she was talking about.  When I produced at least four witnesses that I had been in the yard all along – and the culprit admitted that she was to blame – all she got was a “thank you for owning up, please do not do it again”.

And this goes to show that sometime, it is not the joke itself that matters – but who plays it, and on whom.

I grew up – and got a job, and one April 1 – a weekday this time – I was beavering away at some files when suddenly, a senior office came to me with a legal notice covered in undecipherable edits, saying that “The Minister” wanted it  within the hour, and left the room.

The Minister in whose portfolio the department where I worked then happened to be, was a very-laid back person. And since I did not work in  a Ministry, there was no way he would have asked my colleagues (who, by some coincidence, were all out of the office at that moment) or myself to do  the job – especially since scrawled across the trop, in red marker, were the words “Top Secret”.

At the time, there were only electric (not even electronic) typewriters, and definitely no computers, so a mistake would take time to rectify

So, playing it by ear, I continued with my usual work, and waited until my colleagues came in, one by one.  Each of them glanced at me, my typewriter, and my In tray – where the said document was in full view.  And that gave the game away, and merely confirmed either how untrustworthy they were, for wanting to paly such a mean trick on the office Junior, or  how much they toadies up to superiors so that, as was the general idea in those times “they would not get a transfer”.

There are people who still enjoy going around with bandaged heads and fake blood; those who pretend to fall off chairs; and those who seek to collect an audience by pretending to argue in the middle of the street and then bending over double with laughter.

It’s a given that there are many who, today, will think their cars have been stolen, just because someone who has access to the keys will pull a prank on them and drive the vehicles to another street (and hopefully finds a parking space).

I hate to rain on anyone’s parade – after all, I have been guilty of concocting a joke or two in my time – but I honestly do not see the point of making someone the butt of a joke. If this person happens to believe that revenge is a dish best served cold – well, then, you never know when he will return the favour.

I don’t even smile when newsrooms of different media try to impress us with their ‘breaking news’ item, as I sip my glass of My CreativiTea.

Of course, some news items of these days – that some scientists want to create a society where no “problem” gifted children are born (and will therefore ‘fix their brains’ during the gestation period), or where prospective employers would want your passwords to all your social sites and e-mail accounts  – go way beyond a joke, because they are actually true.

I don’t think jokes such as swapping the caffeinated and decaffeinated coffees in the office canteen and using a remote control to change the channels of other people’s television sets (and, if you are lucky, the ones in clinic waiting rooms) are funny to anyone but the perpetrators.

Over the years, April 1 has lost its appeal for me, perhaps because I have better opportunities as to where I may allow my imagination to roam.



Wedding Belle

Friday, March 23, 2012, 16:56 by

The bride wore a long, peacock blue dress and carried a bouquet of white roses. Her matron of honour was her best friend.  The groom  was nowhere to be seen; perhaps a better was of putting it is “inexistent”.

And yet, Nadine Schweigert insists that her wedding ceremony, at Ecce Gallery in Fargo, North Dakota, was beyond awesome. As she describes herself (now), she’s “…just a unique, awesome person who doesn’t fit anyone’s mould or ideal, and I hope you’re OK with that, and if you’re not, that’s OK, too.”

A few weeks ago the press reported Babylonia Aivaz’s “union” (she called it a wedding) with a building, specifically the 10th and Union warehouse in Seattle. Aivaz’s friends sang of love and against displacement – the building is being torn down to be replaced by residential units.

Unfortunately, although the building indicated “I do”, and Aivaz

Promised to “love and cherish and protect this warehouse”, the demolition proceeded anyway… and the woman lost her fight against ‘gentrification’.

The wedding reception included a potluck picnic, and vegan cake. There were no confetti – these were replaced by soap bubbles blown by the children present.

In the case of Schweigert, however, the cake was covered in icing to match her gown. Let’s look on the bride (!) side of things; she had no arguments with her partner about whether the bills for the do were escalating too much, and too fast, or about the choice of venue, and whether great-uncle Jim, who is known to be partial to the ladies and the bourbon in equal measures, was to be invited.

Aivaz was not the first person to marry a building – who the partner of Erika La Tour Eiffel of San Francisco is, is obvious; so is that of  Eija-Riitta Berliner-Mauer.

Schweigert did not have to worry about whether her mate would refuse to accept tweaking to the wedding vows, such as the removal of the phrase “to obey”.

This farce of an event simply required that she be present – having remembered to purchase her ring – on the date and time  she asked her guests to “be there”, and say, I, Nadine, promise to enjoy inhabiting my own life and to relish a lifelong love affair with my beautiful self.

Alas, she may not even realise that she is not the first person to get hitched to herself.  Visitors to Madame Tussaud’s who would have asked why “Sue” Sylvester, portrayed by actress Jane Lynch, from Glee, is wearing a red tracksuit already know to what I am referring. Sue announces her intention to marry herself to deflect attention from Rod and Andrea, two characters who had become engaged – and wears the said tracksuit to the event.

But even before that, in 2003, artist Jennifer Hoes married herself in Haarlem, The Netherlands, 2003, on her 30th birthday.  “

I was prepared to embrace my own life and agree on the responsibilities that come with that. I married myself at the age my father died; I decided not to stay in the shade of his death at thirty.”

In 2007, Liu Ye married a foam-board cut-out of himself, in a lovely red dress, because he was “dissatisfied with reality”. Schweigert only had her own dress to think of.  Three years later, 30-year-old Chen Wei Yih married herself in Taiwan. Her idea was to stop people from pressuring her to get married, without the hassle of actually sharing her life with a male of the species, since none met her specifications.

There are records of people arbitrarily assuming that a dolphin, a cat, a dog, and a snake have agreed to marry them; and another instance where a man was made to marry a goat because of the circumstances in which he was surprised with it.

Occasionally, the “odd news” bulletins give us news of people who have preferred blow-up dolls or pillows, roller-coasters, trees, or other objects, for  partners, to humans.

As it happens, Schweigert’s beautiful self is already a mother of three. She is divorced, so it’s not as if she never liked men.  But it is a woman’s prerogative to change her mind. And this of course begs the question  – if at any point in the future she meets a man she would actually like to be with, would that make her ‘unfaithful’?

We have all witnessed celebrities’ weddings where it was obvious that the whole caboodle was all about money. Statements such as “I was in love with love and I did the wrong thing” do not really impress me – especially of the marriage is over before the wedding expenses have been paid.

I asked some single (by choice) friends if they would ever consider marrying themselves – and some of the replies and the reasons for them would have been edited out of this blog anyway, so I am not even attempting to repeat them.

The consensus was that they are happy with their status quo, but although some of them do have ‘friends with benefits’, they consider Schweigert’s type of behaviour quite over the top – although of course they would not sneeze at a solo holiday in New Orleans, which was Schweigert so-called “honeymoon”.   A couple of wits among them actually indicated that at least in this case, “till death doth us part” is for real. One male friend called her a “milksop Bridezilla, escaping reality”.

Be that as it may, Schweigert says that this ceremony is solid proof that she has finally accepted herself as she is… Those of us in a monogamous relationship, according to her, have “somehow failed” because we are “co-dependent”.

She is wrong when she thinks she is breaking new ground – just as she is wrong about her evaluation of relationships.

Danger: Exposed!


It began as one of those fashionable “letter to the sixteen-year-old-me” visual blogs. Older, and presumably wiser, people gave the usual ‘If I knew then what I know now’ spiel.

And then, it got serious, to the point of grimness.

To those of us who spent halcyon childhoods in and out of the sea from March till November, it was a shock to the system. And so, I think, will it be to anyone who considers roasting in the sun, or on a sunbed, the excellent way to acquire a “healthy” tan.

Malta is blessed with an inordinate amount of sunshine that attracts cats, locals, and tourists alike. Tan tidemarks indicate favourite flip-flops, sleeve-length, and wedding bands – and we acquire these without even trying.

There was a time when ABCD (Asymmetry; Border; Colours; Diameter) was the standard mnemonic for the clinical diagnosis of melanoma. These days, it is no longer considered ‘enough’ – and although some diagnosticians add E (Elevated), more contemporary-minded doctors add F (Funny) to drive the point further home, and the modern trend is to add T (Time).

Some pencils have erasers; there was a time when their circumference used to be considered the ‘alarm size’ for getting suspicious skin lesions or pigmented marks checked. However, this, too, has changed. So has the condition that melanomas only occur in places that have been sunburned in the past.

A “beauty spot”, a “freckle” or a “mole” that changes in any of the following ways must be checked out.

Asymmetry: not a circular shape, but like a map, or one of those childhood drawings of amoebas. Basically, this means that there sis nowhere you can draw a line to have matching halves.

Border: the border is irregular border, sometimes higher on one side than on the other.

Colour: the ‘stain’ on the skin has more than one colour. Pigmentation may range from pink to dark brown.

Diameter: not necessarily larger than the aforementioned pencil eraser; especially if it appears to be growing larger each time you look at it.

Enlargement, Elevation, or Evolution: even if it is not as raised or rough as a scab from an injury, a mole that has a raised surface might spell trouble.

Funny: Call it instinct, call it extra-sensory perception – but if you feel that a perfectly innocent-looking mole may be harbouring a secret, you may be right.

Time: if you keep an eye on your pigmented areas, you might notice that the shape, colour, or texture of the surface changes over time; also, the place where you have the pigmentation could be more sensitive to touch.

Other risk factors include: bleeding when the area knocks against a surface, or even rubs against clothes;

A family member with melanoma or any other type of skin cancer;

Burning rather than tanning after exposure to the sun;

Having more than 40 moles over the body;

Having a lot of moles with uneven pigmentation and / or irregular shapes;

Sudden or gradual changes in the patch, such as itching, flaking or oozing of blood or pus;

People with any shade of red and blonde hair, any shade of green and blue eyes, and fair skin and freckles must watch their skin even more carefully than the rest of us. The lack of melanin makes these persons especially susceptible to melanoma.

One also needs to keep outliers or “ugly ducklings” in the crosshairs. This ‘atypical mole’ is the odd (!) mole that is different from the rest of those on the same body, which are usually similar in thickness, shape, and colour.

One must note that it is not only deliberate sunbathing that may cause the development of melanoma. Activities that take place in the sun – jogging, farming, chores such as cleaning windows or hanging out the clothes, racing, boating, building and gardening, also mean that a person spends a longer time in the sun than is good for him.

Tanning booths are actually machines that provide potentially lethal long-term exposure to artificial sources of ultraviolet rays. This intensifies any damage caused by sunlight, since ultraviolet light thins the skin, making it less capable of healing itself.

And let us not forget that people may even get addicted to the very idea of being tanned, where flippant remarks like “If I get cancer, I get cancer. At least I’ll look good,” are said with the utmost sincerity.

This, of course, comes from Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, where 16-year-old traveller Sammy Jo said she uses sunbeds three times weekly.

Indeed, the classic CAGE (Cut Down, Annoyed, Guilty, and Eye-opener) questionnaire, originally created to help identify alcohol abuse was re-formulated with UV light substance abuse or dependence disorders in mind.

The feelings of those who felt tanned was the only way to be clearly indicated that sometimes, the feel-good factor associated with tanning was skin to those of substance abuse, including smoking. There is even preliminary evidence showing that if the “high” from expose is no longer attainable, there are withdrawal symptoms similar to that from opioid drugs (such as heroin).

Besides, some researchers think that this madness is another symptom of body dysmorphic disorder.

Of course, an extreme lack of exposure to the sun may lead to conditions such as rickets – and a yearning for sunlight may be the body’s way of ridding itself the symptoms of S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder).

The amount of sun we ordinarily get during the course of the day ought to be enough to keep us safe rather than make us sorry.

If you still think you ought to watch the video clip, please go to: http://dcmf.ca/ .

Shock tactics

When I was a new mother, many parents chose to put “harnesses” on their children. These were nothing more elaborate than leather bobs to which straps were attached.

Worn by a child, they could be used by a parent to ensure that the child never strayed further than an extended arm’s length from the parent. I never liked them, so I never used them; I just considered them the human equivalent of dog lead.

These days, things are rather more sophisticated. Children wear a GPS locket or bracelet so that their parents know where they are at all times – and yet, they cannot be reeled in, if they go ‘out of bounds’, as used to be the case with harnesses.

So if the alert sounds, you have to heave yourself out of your hammock and catch the child before he crosses the street to go to the ice-cream van just because he thinks you are asleep and won’t notice. The latest variation on this theme is alas, a sign of the times.

Per Hahne, who has taken his invention to a weapons corporation near Toronto in Canada for production, insists that it is innocuous – I disagree. Lampered Less Lethal is manufacturing what can only be called a “shocking bracelet”. It works by delivering a shock akin to that of a Taser gun. This is the stun gun that was in the news of late, capable of killing healthy young people, let alone anyone who is not in peak health condition. In some countries it is considered a potentially lethal form of torture, and therefore barred.

The theory that it leaves no “permanent injury” cuts o ice. Who is to say what happens to people who have a history of heart disease?

Mr Hahne, an ex-airline pilot, insists that there is a need for his invention, because it sets people mind at rest. In tended to be used by passengers on air flights, this bracelet is just an item of Bling until the need to activate it kicks in; then, it becomes a weapon in the hands of whoever holds the remote control.

Basically, the item is an electronic ID device that tracks the movements, suspicious or otherwise, of airplane travellers. It also holds personal information (i.e. it cannot be bartered with that of the passenger in your neighbouring seat)… and can stun anyone into immobility when triggered. It would be in lieu of a ticket, and also track one’s carry-on luggage. One would have to wear it until disembarkation.

This means that any hijacker attempting a plane take over would not be able to carry it through. Presumably, armed with this knowledge, the rest of the passengers on board any given flight would sleep easy in their reclining seats, without having to wonder whether there was an Air Marshal in disguise amongst them.

Playing on emotions, the inventor insinuated that people who refuse to wear the bracelet would prove that they had “something to hide” from the rest of the passengers. He said that making wearing them mandatory would pay for itself quickly, and save billions of dollars into the bargain. 1984 has returned with a vengeance. This is the stuff of science fiction – Sylvester Stallone and Rutger Hauer types with explosive collars around their necks aimed at preventing them from escaping high-security prisons, or wreaking havoc on a futuristic flight of inmates bound for some penal colony on the God-forsaken fifteenth planet from the Sun.

And what if something goes wrong? What if another electronic device – even a mobile telephone – somehow triggered off the “stunning” bracelet? What if someone hacked into the force field of the device and made them all go off at once? “It is better to be safe than sorry”, says the adage. But here, being made to wear one of these bracelets means you are being hailed as potentially guilty before being given the chance to prove you are innocent. The mechanism to activate the bracelets would be in the hands of the crew – but what if one terrorist did manage to grab that apparatus himself by seizing a flight attendant? Forget humming the song about going to Barbados.

Victoria Beckham was recently caught short (i.e. un-posh, in airline-issue pyjamas) when her flight was aborted because the plane engine swallowed a bird. Our worries, should we choose to fly, will be much worse. We will have to assume, if we are “made” to wear this thin gummy-jig, that our flight has a better than average chance of being hi-jacked. Incidentally – how does an air hostess, given the stress hormones bouncing around her system during a hi-jacking incident, aim her activator properly?

Could she, by ‘accident’ stun half a dozen passengers instead the person posing a threat? Suicide combers act with the surprise factor in their favour; and I doubt how many stewards will be that on-the-ball to stop them in their tracks. If hand-luggage and baggage-compartment suitcases are correlated with the data on a bracelet – what happens when, inevitably, a piece of luggage goes astray? Are alarms triggered off? Is the person whose luggage is lost, through no fault of his own, automatically assumed as having abandoned it?

What about the fact that wearing a tight bracelet for any length of time, especially on an aeroplane effects the circulation? Making it lose, on the other hand would enable one to slip rubber, aluminium foil, or gel in order to interfere with the signals emanating from the skin to the device.

And, the way things are going, insult will almost certainly be added to injury because the passengers will probably be made to pay for their own virtual incarceration… Perhaps it is time to smile, and remember the gentlest of all control devices worn on the wrist. You know, those scratch-and-smell, turquoise sticking plasters that you smell whenever you feel like something sweet – which, however, do not spoil your appetite for salt cod, pretzels, Twistees, olives, and bigilla…

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle?

Penny-pinching. Stingy. Skimping. Miserly.

Frugal. Thrifty. Parsimonious. Careful.

All these words are nuances of the same attitude; but either set sees things differently.

Most of us would agree that some people take “waste not, want not” to the pathetic levels of “losing a ship for a ha’p’orth of tar”.

But I was highly amused to read the recently headlines about how Her Majesty Queen Elisabeth II is living a “patch and mend existence as her palaces crumble around

Apparently, it is the “rising cost of living” that renders her unable to fork out the readies for outstanding repairs, redecorating, and rewiring at Buckingham
Palace and Windsor Castle. Other problems include leaking roofs, damaged guttering and asbestos contamination.

However, this appears to be a cumulative problem, caused by running repairs not being done when the need arose – state rooms have not been painted since she
ascended the throne years ago, and the electrical system is not too hot, either. Never was it more appropriate to quote the proverb “a stitch in time saves nine”.
This reminds me of how, all too often, some group or other descends (in a manner of speaking!) on the bastions to clean them up, or how a group of divers gathers tonnes of rubbish from the sea bed.

When I wrote the Family Talk pages for this newspaper, I liked to include a “box” with tried-and-tested hints that would, I hoped, help my readers to do things
better, faster, and cheaper.

This topic is still popular today – however, with the advent of IT, sometimes the glue oozes out of what is patently a cut-and-paste job.

In one of the sundry magazines given out with the sister paper to this, for instance, there was a list that included a hint on how to neutralise skunk odour. Now, when was the last time you saw a non-human skunk in Malta? And, just for the record, just when did you need something to remove a Kool-Aid stain from your clothing?

Some people, for that matter, make a fortune out of collecting these hints and selling them in book form.

Some of them work – and have done so ages before Mrs Beaton said they did. But some of them may end up being more expensive to do than replacing the article itself. Many of the hints are impractical, others are downright silly – and others may prove dangerous. Some have obviously been passed on without being tried by the authors of the list.

However, some people actually think it is worthwhile buying a reel of cotton that costs more than three pairs of socks, when only a single sock of which has a tiny hole in it.

One of these “Household Hints” books is Penny Pincher’s Book by John and Irma Mustoe.

I quote some of the tips here – with my own comments, so you can decide whether to resort to them or not the next time you have a problem.

1. Egg white makes excellent glue for paper. So are tinned milk and used chewing gum for that matter – but in time they go mouldy and spoil the project.

2. Extend the useful life of empty scent bottles or talcum boxes by putting them into drawers to perfume the contents. Scent cannot permeate glass; and clutter takes up precious space.

3. For a cheap mouthwash, use one tablespoon of vinegar in a glass of water. But don’t complain if the acid eats your tooth enamel.

4. Leftover salad can be boiled and whizzed into a soup. I am sure the amalgamated taste of olives, capers, pickled onions, garlic, lettuce and tomatoes will kill anyone’s appetite.

5. Patent leather can be cleaned with Vaseline or the inside of a banana skin. Then, of course, you need something to get the glop off your shoes before you wear

6. Plant lettuce seeds. A packet of seeds produces about 10,000 lettuces and costs about the same as a single lettuce in shops. Unless you own a rabbit farm, you do not need that many lettuces in a lifetime.

7. Steam iron (or freeze) woollen clothes during winter to kill moth eggs. It’s the larvae, not the flying moths, which do the damage. And then buy another freezer for your foodstuffs.

8. The bags inside cereal boxes are excellent for storing bread and for using in the freezer. And of course, this assumes you think cereals are nutritious.

9. The best bird-scarer is free, biodegradable and very, very, quiet. First, obtain a dead bird. Attach one leg to a branch with a piece of string, letting the wings and head hang down to flap gently in the breeze. Welcome to The Edge. Do you scare of the hordes of flies that arrive for the feat by hanging a fly from one leg and letting that sway gently in the breeze, too?

10. When altering a hemline, dab vinegar on the crease and then iron dry. No telltale line left! But you will have to explain away the smell that lingers as you pass by. Inevitably perhaps, I have to confess that my friends sometimes do ask me what to do if something untoward crops up. I do have my own favourite shortcuts, ten of which are listed here:

Clean curtain hooks easily by placing them in a screw top jar filled with soapy water; shake, rinse in a colander, and allow to dry before re-using.
After home haircuts, use talcum powder to remove hair from the nape of the neck. Always put two garbage bags in the bin with newspapers in between, so that if the
first one leaks, the other will catch the drips. If it does not, leave the paper and outer bag in place for next time.
Clean marble by putting a few drops of baby oil on a cotton ball.
Clean the outside of windows in vertical strokes and the insides horizontally; that way, you will know where the smears are.
Clothes in charity shops are sometimes worth buying solely for the buttons, or for unpicking and using as a pattern.
Condensed milk, reduced over slow heat until it resembles toffee, makes a wonderful caramel sauce for ice-cream or fruit salad.
Cut a circle of cloth from leftover curtain material with pinking shears; encase a pot plant and secure near the edge with an elastic hair band; instant co-ordination.
Can’t find a pretty camisole? Buy a lacy petticoat and cut off what you will not be using…
Invest in a pair of sharp scissors; you can cut up bread, vegetables, meat, fish and chicken for croutons, kebabs, pies or soups more efficiently than with knives or
kitchen scissors

Maltese Gemgem: Good Moaning Begins Here!

Wherever Maltese are found

The grievance culture follows;

We are wont to protest

As if there’s no tomorrow.

We complain when it’s sunny;

We object when it’s not

We find fault when it’s freezing

We grouse when it is hot.

We gripe in morns and evenings

We whinge day in and out

We bellyache in cities…

In our villages and towns

We moan about the neighbours,

Our relatives and friends

We chunter about in-laws,

And the law of the land.

We beef at the high prices

But we frown when things are cheap;

Standing in queues annoys us…

But the fast life makes us weep…

This poem, dated 1976, fell out from between the pages of The Complete Works of Geoffrey Chaucer when I was looking for a quote for another feature. I must have written it in a moment of boredom during an English Literature lesson, and then forgotten all about it.

I cringe at it amateurishness – in fact, I grumble, too – when I see how it fails to scan properly, but the message is clear. Then, as now, I never complied about “being born under an unlucky star”; I may not have what I want, but I want what I have.

Grumbling is a national pastime – however, it is an essential ingredient in the money-earning potential of my psycho friends (psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists). They tell me that sometimes, people complain simply because they do not want to be seen as doormats, or because they crave attention.

Because, really there is a psychological reason for grumbling. Whether it is disappointment at temperature of the tea you have been served at a bar, annoyance at having been wound up by a friend, or frustration at having been shoddily treated at a major shopping establishment where you had been a loyal customer, dissatisfaction is bound to manifest itself in letting of steam in the way of grumbling.

My kids tell me that if I didn’t have anything about which to complain, that is exactly about what I would be peevish; Sesame Street’s Grouch looks like Pollyanna when compared to me. But that is no skin off my nose. Really. But I have been vindicated.

According to my afore-mentioned psycho-friends, moaning is an essential part of life. Unless overdone into a full-blown persecution complex, it may actually be healthy to complain about something, anything – and it’s a moot point about whether it’s better than gossiping, too.

The British stiff upper lip mostly ensures that the person or institution being complained about is the last to know; but complaints about the weather are “fine”. Only rarely do they even consider complaining by “letting rip”.

But our Latin blood ensures that we Maltese are rather vociferous about complaining. Most complaints arise from the fact that we know we could carry out their jobs better than the Pope, the President and the Prime Minister and anyone else in authority.

There is also the fact that if people did things are way, life would be so much better for everyone. As Michael Winner succinctly put it, “co-operation is a lot of people doing what I say.” Why have I complained this week? let’s see… there was a host of different government departments all asking for the same documents to confirm the same thing; going to collect some photocopies that had to be ready the week before, but were not; a new pair of mules where the sole parted company with the shoe the minute my daughter climbed the steps of a bus; a new handbag that had a strap that was flaking off…

Complaining, done properly, brings results; but the chances are that when done aggressively, it alienates the person at whom the complaint is addressed, and makes him bend backwards to avoid fixing things for us. And most of us know better than to complain at eateries when another course is yet to follow.

We complain about he status quo, the slowness of the check-out girl at the supermarket; the footprints on our hitherto clean floor, the Health, Education, and Taxation systems; the amount of packaging we discard after shopping for a week; and we just know that things would be fine if everyone did things our way, simply because we cannot do everything ourselves (although it seems like that).

The book Complaint: From Minor Moans to Principled Protests by Julian Baggini, just out, mentions another type of complaint – the insincere, ‘boasting’ ones, which are part of a status symbol, rather than aimed at changing or at least improving anything. If you pay attention, you can hear people complaining about how their dress that cost €200, “apparently had the buttons stuck on with spittle..” and how difficult it was to get a table at a five-star restaurant, or how “tired” they feel because “in their social position they have to socialize nearly every night”. So the next time your friend says that it cost her €50 to do her fingernails and then she “got a fungus under three of them”, just smile coyly… and don’t remind her that where’s a blame, there’s a claim…”

My Maltese Christmas Table

The word “turkey” probably brings to mind classic pictures of Native Americans and Pilgrims sharing a meal of corn, turkey and potatoes < http://rhodiadrive.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/11/first-thanksgiving.jpg&gt;. Just for the record, the tribe was that of the Wampanoag (People of the First Light), a tribe that lived for thousands of years in what is today coastal Massachusetts.

Not too many people celebrate Thanksgiving in Malta. To us, turkey is something we cook – or avoid like the plague – come Christmas – and disguise in pies and soups and patties for as long as we dare risk it without getting salmonella.

Why bother? Isn’t it a bit naff to boast about how the turkey was so big you had to remove the upper shelf from the oven, in the same breath as wondering how to finish off the leftovers? The answer “because it’s traditional” does not cut ice; capons or roosters were the poultry of choice for our forbears before this foreign fowl invaded our kitchens when British soldiers and sailors were stationed in Malta during he First and Second World Wars.

If you could actually see the point of eating tofu masquerading as meat (some supermarket do chains sell it), be my guest… No, not really, because I won’t be counterfeit chops or bogus beef or fake fish or replica rabbit for Christmas. However, bigilla, tofu’s delicious local cousin, is something that makes perfect sense at a Maltese meal, as are my world-famous stuffed olives… and roasted peanuts

Considering that most people could take or leave Brussels sprouts (and usually leave them), I don’t cook those either. I much prefer the soft onion and garlic mixture at the bottom of the baking dish in which I bake shredded cabbage mixed with Bacon and ġbejniet.

Christmas dinner at my house is always typically Maltese. Because this means that everyone will find something they like; and if it means having two helpings of one dish and none of another, well, so be it.

So this year, yet again, it’s brodu tal-ħasi (capon broth), timpana, and baked potatoes, Maltese style. Fruit juice will be the freshly-squeezed type, and the water and wines will be local.

That having been said – I wish more restaurants would include more local, wholesome, traditional dishes in their menus, rather than virtually boasting about the carbon footprints of their kangaroos, moose, wild boar, and ostriches.

The Take On Giving

Batik – découpage – charcoal drawings – patchwork clothes… crafts come and go by fashion. One such fad involved sticking nails into bars of soap, and winding coloured strings around them in a pattern.

A friend had a sister who resided in an Assisted Living facility. She could not communicate well and had different needs that could not be met inside a family home. Whenever I went to see her, she always smelled of Palmolive Soap. The carers at the place always made sure that their charges lacked for nothing; they were kept scrupulously clean and well-fed, and comfortable.

I did not count how many wannabe decorated soaps ended up in soap dishes with bits missing, after I tapped in the nails too brusquely. However, my first successfully, perfectly decorated soap just happened to be a bar of Palmolive, and I knew just the person to whom to give it.

When I took it out of my bag, her eyes shone – because, she said, that was the first present anyone had given specifically to her in “all her life”. It was then that I realised that sharing and caring are sometimes not enough to make someone feel loved; the extra element is giving – without ever expecting anything in return.

Time passes inexorably on; digital dots blink relentlessly and the hands of an analogue clock lock, only to part and meet about 65 minutes later. Each minute we spend being selfish and thinking of our own needs is a minute less that we have time for others. As Saint Francis succinctly explains, it is in giving that we receive.

Judaism lauds charity, known as tzedakah. The great Jewish intellectual and physician Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon, most often referred to by the acronym RaMBaM, lived in the 12th century. It was he who wrote the Mishnah Torah, the code of Jewish law based on the Rabbinic oral tradition, and enumerated the different levels of tzedakah from the least to the most honourable.

At the very bottom of the list come the donations that are given grudgingly. When someone passes the hat around, you don’t want to be shown up in front of the other guests. And you could do with another pair of earrings, couldn’t you?

You may, alternatively, opt to give less than you know you ought to, yet with good grace. You can get a cheaper pair of earrings, and you’ve done your part, simultaneously.

Collections are made for those in need. When asked for financial help, you make your donation. This, according to RaMBaM, does have merit – but it is even better had you made your gift without being asked.

RaMBaM states that the fourth level of charity is when the beneficiary knows who has contributed to his needs, but the donor does not know who has received his tzedakah.

Next up on the list comes an act of charity where the giver knows who will be benefitting from his donation, but for the person who receives it, it is “heaven-sent”.

People to whom making charitable acts is a way of life, don’t usually chase their money to see where it ends up. And people who survive on charity may not even have the vaguest idea who has recognised his need and has chosen to lighten his burden.

RaMBaM cites as the absolute perfection of tzedakah when one helps sustain someone before the need arises. And it is here that tzedakah becomes a prayer and a sign of empowerment.

The perfection of charity is not giving hand-me-down clothes that do not fit you anyway to a divorced friend who finds herself living hand-to-mouth with three children to care for. It is preserving the dignity of a person by sharing what you have – what you are still using yourself – in a casual manner, and stating that you know she would have done the same for you.

Because friendship goes beyond love and empathy; it is doing unto others what you would have liked them to do to you. If you are in a position to do so, you can offer them, before they become impoverished, a significant amount of money in a way that does not make the person feel beholden to you. You can, if the person prefers it that way, offer the sum as a loan, with the minimum amount of interest possible.

You can also help a person find employment… or, as the adage says, teach him to fish so that he will not be dependent on the next fish you purchase for him.

Give until it hurts;

Do as you would be done by;

And the world is cured!


Share and share alike;

Contribute to charity…

No more platitudes.

Lend me your ear…

Walk another mile with me;

Be my friend in need.


Do good while you can –

Charity begins at home

The world’s your oyster.

Child’s Play

It was one of those surreal conversations that lead nowhere.I was idly looking at a Situations Vacant column on a website, and “Malta” caught my eye. The people posting the advertisement wanted to employ someone for a temporary job here, this coming summer – as follows (certain details, as they say in the newspapers, have been removed to protect the innocent):

Fabulous Temporary job in stunning Malta – for 4 months. Sole charge of 14 month old girl 6 days per week as Mum will be working long hours. Own room with shared bathroom with baby in apartment in town centre. Excellent salary for the right independent, resourceful and experienced Nanny. English spoken in Malta which means you can involve baby in lots of activities with other children. Feb 14th approx 4 months. Arriving at the best time of year early Spring. Up to $450 per week for the right experienced candidate. If you have not worked as a sole charge Nanny before or not travelled independently this post would not be suitable. Excellent references and a current CRB essential.

Since CRB stands for “Criminal Records Bureau”, I could not resist replying to this advertisement.

Making it absolutely clear that I was not applying for the job, I suggested that these people go no further than these shores to employ the nanny. This would be practical on all counts – she would know her way around the Island and consequently, the best places to take the kid; she would speak English, as the advertisement required, but also the vernacular; her criminal record would be more easily accessible; and the child would have a “real” taste of Malta, inclusive of food, and traditions, rather than the scratching of the surface that a foreigner could offer…..

Quick as a flash came the reply:

How incredibly rude you are and clearly your current post does not keep you busy enough! Please refrain from any further pathetic emails or I will have no option but to report this abuse. As for your opinions they are irrelevant and pointless! Please do not email again.

The use of the word “post” indicated that they thought I was after the job myself – so I mailed them again, despite their order – and also because at the end of their mail there was the additional note that said:

This e-mail has been automatically generated. [this company] does not screen or censor the information contained in this e-mail and is not a party to any transaction between a candidate and employer. As a result [this company] has no control over the safety, security, accuracy or legality of the information provided and therefore cannot be held liable for any resulting loss.
For further information on bogus e-mail that have (sic) been sent through this site, please click on the following link (etc).
At this point, my curiosity was piqued even more; and several e-mails later it transpired that a nanny had actually been employed – through this American Agency – from Australia. The mind boggles.

A recent sting operation by Imogen Willcocks, the undercover BBC reporter, was aired on the flagship Whistleblower series on BBC1.

Having spent eight months applying for – and working at –childcare positions in the United Kingdom, Ms Willcocks discovered that “a new carer’s criminal records and references are never checked, yet they will immediately be left alone with young, vulnerable children.” Scary.

In Malta, where we are used to foisting our beloved kids upon grannies, aunties, neighbours, and other assorted kith and kin, until they are old enough to go to a Play Centre or Kindergarten. It never occurs to us that they will be left to cry themselves to sleep while their baby-sitter is in our bed with her boyfriend. We are not worried that our children are crammed into a room with a dozen others, in the sole care of a teenagers working for less than the minimum wage.

There were no induction courses, and no activities to keep the children occupied, other than television sets and potentially hazardous toys strewn around the unsafe play areas. Not once were the nursery assistants forwarded that, to guard against accusations of child abuse, they were to refuse to change nappies alone. They were not told what the adult: child ratio ought to be, and that before they got their licence proper, they had to be supervised y an adult at all times.

Even a specialist agency that supplies nannies willing to travel, such as the agency I had contacted, did not check Ms Willcocks’s CV, contact her references, or do a criminal records check… they didn’t even check her basic identity, so she could even have given a false name and address.

The tacit rule at Ofstead, the Agency empowered to make health and safety checks at childcare centres, is “If you don’t see a problem, don’t look for one. Take a quick look and get out.” Indeed, it was an Ofstead Inspector who tipped off the journalist.
So Ms Willcocks went undercover; and what she found made waves. Armed with a fake CV and fictitious references (which would probably have been rumbled in Malta since everyone knows everyone else); she soon discovered that she had forged them for nothing – because nobody even bothered to check them. But at least Ofstead checked her criminal records.
What I found unfair in all this was that only the substandard companies that employed her were named and shamed. Others, possibly even worse, were let off the hook simply because she did not investigate them.
In the end, Ms Willcocks even set up her very own Childcare Centre – and provided the Ofstead Inspector with a “wish list” of improvements that would make the rambling building child-safe. She obtained her childminder’s licence; and no one checked up on whether the alterations had been carried out.

Advertisements: A Happiness Machine?

Even bad publicity is publicity. No news is bad news. Always judge a book by its cover.

Sometimes, I think that advertising agencies actually live by the previously mentioned type of mangled adages in order to draw attention to the products they represent.

Most of us remember the advertisement for Dolce and Gabbana, which to all intents and purposes intimated a stylised gang rape scene. The woman is prone and fully clothed, wearing stilettos; her long hair is artistically splayed out on the ground behind her head, and that all the toned males are oiled within an inch of their lives. This makes no difference; the connotation is there.

Sex sells. Ask Abercrombie and Fitch, or Calvin Klein. Ask Heinz of mayonnaise fame, too, for that matter.

Have we not had enough of women fighting tooth and nail over the last pair of shoes in a shop? Aren’t we sick and tired of gorgeous people drinking alcohol is exotic or palatial surroundings? What about the advertisements that imply a woman is not worth her salt if the members of her household cannot eat off the floor (never mind that she has thrown out her cooker and invested in a tin opener and a microwave instead)?

I remember the fuss that had been made when Martina Navratilova had worn a Kim t-shirt during a tennis match. Back then, product placement was almost unheard of – since then, it had become a megabucks industry.

However, it is not only sex that has become a toy in the hands of advertisers. Subjects previously regarded as taboo – including death, suicide, homophobia, gender discrimination, disabilities, religion, and poverty – are also being recycled for schlock value.

Take the silly Snickers advertisement in which two men “accidentally kiss”. The gay pressure groups were not too pleased about it… and in fact, the bumph was pulled because of the total number of complaints it engendered.

Next in line – literally and figuratively – came the robot in the GM assembly line. Endowed with the human foible of perfectionism, he actually contemplates ‘suicide’ after dropping a bolt.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, inevitably, sent the company a letter that said humans might be encouraged to see suicide as a “solution” to problems. This might happen especially if the person already feels depressed. Apparently, the company does not feel it has to stop the advertisement, because it only received “a handful” of complaints.

Suicide was also the theme of a Pepsi Max advertisement, which shows a bean-shaped “very lonely single calorie” ending it all… and, ironically, even Dior got on the death bandwagon by advertising a lipstick with the words “New! Dior Addict Lipstick to Die For…in 30 killer shades… Get hooked. Now.” which had the added nod to substance abuse addiction.

Technology brings with it new ways of insulting women – whether or not they are included in the following list: artist; aspiring actress; athlete; bookworm; businesswoman; celebrity; cougar; dancer; foreign exchange student; Goth; Indie Rocker; married; Military girl; nerd; out-of-your-league girl; political girl; princess(?); Punk Rocker ;Rebound girl; Sorority girl; Tree-hugger; Trouble (presumably with an upper case T); twins; or Women’s Studies Major.

Sci-fi buffs who used to watch Quantum Leap would remember that the series is mainly about the adventures of Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a scientist who becomes lost in time following a botched experiment. Al (Dean Stockwell), appeared to him as a hologram, and therefore only Sam and a select group could see or hear him.

Sam spent each episode in the body of a different persona – into which he would have leapt at the end of the previous episode, usually with his trademark expression “Oh, boy!”

What is of particular interest is the apparatus Al holds in his hand; through it he connects with an artificial intelligence called Ziggy, and other entities, and a few clicks of colourful, noisy, keys, usually produce information relevant to the situation.

Now it seems that this contraption was nothing but the precursor of an iPhone. Indeed, an Application for this gadget consists in keying in the “category” into which a female “falls”, and the ‘system’ will give you chatting-up lines and whatever else is needed to hit on her… going as far as to describe itself as “…a roadmap to success with your favourite kinds of women..”

Does this mean that “un-favourite kinds of women” are easier to impress because they would be thankful that someone – anyone? – would be paying them attention? On the other hand, does it mean that women who cannot be pigeonholed into any of the above categories do not deserve any attention at all, even if they do happen to desire it at any given time?

Oh, yes, I am fully aware that there are advertisements equally insulting to men who are portrayed as dweebs who are unable to mop a floor or change a nappy without making a mess. Nonetheless, these adverts are usually played for laughs – they do not sexualise or objectify the men.

The other day I read a spoof advertisement that went “… nine out of ten lawyers prefer this filing system – and we’re negotiating with the tenth one.” This is the reasoning behind all those slogans which tell us that we cannot be without something, or that we deserve it, or that most people prefer it to any other, or that failing to obtain it is tantamount to ruining our lives and those of the members of our household… including the pets…

The latest in a string of quasi-obscene adverts that use and abuse women comes from The Foundry, responsible for the Jamieson’s Raspberry Ale campaign. Snow White – renamed “Ho White”, lies in bed with her seven friends, now called the likes of Randy, Filthy, and Smarmy, blowing smoke rings. Disney, of course, was not too pleased about this. The advertising campaign site, which I tried to access as I write this, informs me of “English and French domain names for sale / noms de domaines en Français et en Anglais à vendre.”

Should we, as women, be boycotting products and services that debase women, or use subject matter that is aesthetically or morally offensive to use? To take this further, should we support companies that try to pull wool over our eyes by making exaggerated, unproven claims for their products?