Tuesday, December 28, 2010

December in Malta & Skiing in Chamonix, France

Sorry that we haven’t posted anything new lately, but December has been a pretty busy month for J and I, so recording it seems to have fallen a bit behind.

December in Malta

Early this month J and I went back to Teatru Manoel and saw the play “Speed the Plow.”  It’s an American comedy that pokes at the Hollywood industry.  It was well put on but it was tough to buy the “American” accents that the Maltese actors were trying to use, they seemed to think that everyone in the US talks like Tony Soprano.

We also went to see the Nutcracker at the Mediterranean Convention Centre (MCC) in Malta.  The MCC is a large convention center in Valletta that was originally a hospital that the Knights of St. John built in the 1500’s.  It was heavily damaged by bombs during the Second World War and then rebuilt as a convention center. 
It was interesting to see where the old parts of the building were intertwined with the new convention center.  It was also good to look at all of the old rich people dressed up in expensive fur coats. It was about 15 degrees out that night and I was more than comfortable in a shirt and sweater, but every old lady wore the heaviest fur coat they could possibly find.

The Nutcracker itself was put on by a local dance school here and was promoted as having guest stars from the Moscow State Theatre and the Bolshoi.  We were somewhat surprised by the cheap ticket price (about $15 each) seeing that it had real Russian dancers in it, but quickly learned why. The show itself had all of the members of the (amateur) local dance school (including the 4 & 5 year olds) dancing alongside the “guest stars” from the Moscow State Theatre and the Bolshoi. Clara and the Prince were played by the Russian dancers, they were incredibly talented and great to watch (Yes Jan, I actually enjoyed a ballet, after years of being dragged).  The other roles were played by local dancers.  Unfortunately the contrast in their abilities kind of felt like a ballet version of the dance-offs from the film “A Night at the Rocksbury” and I kept concentrating on how awkward the entire performance must have been for everyone involved. In the end it was nice to carry on our tradition of seeing the Nutcracker during each holiday season.

Just after J’s last post in November, we entered Christmas shopping season.  Like most things, J had prepared for our Christmas abroad a long time before we left Canada by making paintings for our family and friends in the summer, and wrapping and delivering them to all involved before we left in September. I, however, had left it with my family that we wouldn’t bother mailing presents across the Atlantic. Then, half of my family decided to come to Europe before Christmas and I had to engage in one of my great talents…. Christmas Gift Shopping.

For those of you who are unaware, J has a slight obsession with Oprah and anxiously checked Oprah’s website in November to see which Amazing Gifts Ideas would be recommended in her annual Favorite Things episode.  As soon as J had done enough research (approximately 20-30 hours) she ordered everything that she wanted to get for me online and supplied me with a list of suitable Christmas gifts for her. 

I somewhat ignored the list for about 4 days at which time I was warned that it was now too late to have all the gifts arrive before we left for Chamonix on December 15th.  In another 4 days I agreed with her that it may be cutting it close so I ordered my gifts online and calmly hoped that they would arrive before we left. I figured if they didn’t, I could easily pull my classic Christmas move and go to a pharmacy on Christmas morning and load up on a few gift cards.  The postal worker rang our doorbell about 30 minutes before we left for the airport on the 15th and the last of presents that I ordered arrived. Some people have said that I may have horseshoes up my ass (permanent good luck) whereas others, including J, simply believe that it is unfair that these sorts of things keep working themselves out. I was quite pleased that I was right with my cash-flow-maximization (more accurately described as Christmas shopping procrastination) strategy but probably have not learned anything from this experience for the future.

Our First Visitor

A few days before my father (A.K.A. Jack, Jack-o, Dr. G, etc.) arrived, J and I rented a car to do a bit of Malta touring and to get a few things together before we had our first visitor.  We “re-decorated” the man cave so that I can no longer look out the window while I work, and so that the room can actually allow guests to sleep in the beds without getting a little woozy from my d├ęcor.  J and Jack thought it was a great improvement but the real test will come when I get back to full-time workweeks after the holidays. I have now gone full circle in seating arrangements at work.  I started out in isolation staring at a wall, then I moved into an office for a little time, then I was allowed to work in a group setting for the summer, then for the first few months here I had a window with a view of Valletta and now I’m back to staring at a wall. 

Before Jack arrived we used the time with a car to drive through a few of the rural areas that we hadn’t been to yet, return to the beach with the dogs, and enjoy the legroom in a vehicle that is not a 1960’s bus.

J and Dogs at Pretty Bay
J and Dogs at Ghajn Tuffieha Beach

The Little Explorer at Ghajn Tuffieha
M and Ellie at Ghajn Tuffieha
Ghajn Tuffieha
Crazy Kite Boarders at Golden Bay
I learned that gas stations here allow you to “pay at the pump” while the station is closed by going to a machine and pre-paying for your gas before you pump.  The first time I tried this I inevitably chose a pump that was dry and had to pay a second time to select a functioning pump. I asked another driver what to do to get a refund (as no one was working that day) and he said just to come back tomorrow and tell the operator that you didn’t get any gas.  So I did return and, like the good Catholics that they are here, I wasn’t even asked for my receipt for the gas that I didn’t receive. They just believed me and gave me my €20 back.

Jack came to visit us for 3 days before we all left to meet my sister Kelly and our British ski/drinking friends Mathew and his brother Tom in Chamonix (France).  While Jack was here we ferried him around the majority of the island and only got lost a few times.  It was great to see someone from home and Jack seemed to enjoy himself and was amazed by the blend of old, new and decaying buildings around the island. 

In a fashion quite unlike my normal procrastination, I pre-booked a tour for us at the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum while he was here.

There was a Stone Age culture in Malta that built extensive above and below ground temples between 5500 and 4500 years ago. The hypogeum is an elaborate underground temple and burial complex that was built around 5000 years ago and was accidently discovered during residential construction in the early 1900’s.  It is entirely carved out of the Maltese limestone and quite impressive to think that it was built before Stonehenge, the Pyramids or widespread use of metal on a small island with few resources. Follow this link if you’re interested in really old stuff.

Skiing in Chamonix

Jack had originally purchased a ticket with his American Express (because he gets more Aeroplan points) to fly out to Geneva via Frankfurt with Lufthansa on a flight two and a half hours before J and I were flying out on Saturday morning. We were all going to stay in Geneva on Saturday night before taking a shuttle to Chamonix on Sunday morning with Kelly and our friends from the UK.  I was only going to drop him off at the airport, but he had his whine on about the large amount of luggage he was taking for others, so I parked the car and came inside the airport to help him with his luggage. 

Jack and his luggage at the Malta airport
We got into the check-in area and there was a large line behind the Lufthansa counter.  I looked at the departures board and saw that Jack’s flight to Frankfurt had been cancelled due to airport closures in the UK and Germany…Panic now set in for Jack and he was sent into un-controllable travel-anxiety mode.  It had snowed about 10-15 centimeters in London and Frankfurt, which caused airport closures and a lot of criticism by Canadian travelers who usually consider 10-15 centimeters to be padding on a runway. 

So I waited in the line with Jack (about 100 people long at this point) to rebook his flight to our flight that was still scheduled to go to Geneva via Zurich in two and a half hours.  We called all of Jack’s Air Canada super special status numbers and they basically gave us the, “It’s Lufthansa’s system, I can’t do anything for you even if I felt like looking into it more.” So I waited in the Lufthansa line while Jack went to the AirMalta/SwissAir line to see how full our flight was. In true Jack style, (he was once quoted as saying, “When travelling, money solves all problems”) he bought a ticket on the AirMalta/SwissAir flight (with his VISA, because they don’t take American Express) just in case there were no seats left before we got to the front of the Lufthansa line.  He went to check-in on his newly booked flight but no-longer had super status so had to pay for extra luggage and “Club Class” seating. He definitely could not travel in steerage with the rest of us common folk.  (To be fair, it was actually cheaper to pay the upgrade fee than to pay for extra luggage space)

Once he had his “security blankie” flight booked, I picked J and our luggage up at home before returning to the airport.  We checked into our flight and found Jack at the front of the Lufthansa line.  The Lufthansa agent was incredibly confused as to why someone would go buy another ticket when they hadn’t talked to their cancelled flight carrier yet.  It turns out they had already booked Jack onto our flight, in “Club Class”.  He now had two “Club Class” tickets on the same flight.  There wasn’t enough time to get back into the AirMalta/SwissAir ticketing line to ask for a refund so he just accepted the increased “security blankie” flight costs and got on our plane.

Our flight got into Zurich 10 minutes late which made our 45 minute connection time even tighter but we got to Geneva close to on time… but our luggage was no where to be seen.  Jack immediately re-entered un-controllable-travel-anxiety mode and B-lined it straight to the lost luggage claim area. J and I decided to wait at the luggage carousel to see if our luggage came on the next flight from Zurich which arrived an hour later.  About 5 minutes after Jack registered all of our “lost” luggage the two bags that J and I packed came tumbling down the luggage carousel… but karma came for Jack as his two bags were still missing.  

Since there wasn’t another flight from Zurich for another 3 hours we decided to go to the hotel and have dinner.  After dinner (which was traditional Swiss/Japanese Tapanyaki and Sushi. Good but odd.) J and I headed to bed while Jack ran images of his lost luggage through his head.  At 11:30 pm Jack took a shuttle back to the airport and returned with one of his bags containing my ski boots, Kelly’s snowboard boots and Tom’s snowsuit.  Jack admitted defeat that his other bag was lost.

The next morning J and I did a quick visit to the center of Geneva.  It was pretty cold for us and I sported my incredibly attractive winter gear as we walked along the lakeside in Geneva.

J in front of a monument near Lake Geneva
M checking out the Swiss Christmas decorations
In front of Lake Geneva
Lake Geneva at sunrise
Later on we found out that Kelly, Tom and Mathew’s flight was delayed from London and that Jack’s luggage was still in Malta (the double ticket thing probably threw them off a bit).

Malta's Next T|op Model
We decided to take the shuttle to Chamonix without the others and Jack all of a sudden realized the silver lining to his lost luggage (and associated anxiety).  It would not get to him in Chamonix within 24 hours of his flight and therefore he could use the travel insurance on his American Express card … and his VISA card for both of the tickets that he had purchased. This means – shopping! So our shuttle driver suggested a few ski supply stores for Jack to buy a new set of ski gear.  Jack proceeded to rent skis, buy a new snowsuit, helmet, three pairs of goggles (one for him, Kelly and J), and then bargain for a free pair of socks on VISA and American Express’ bill.  I now know where my questionable educational funding skills come from. 

Later in the evening Kelly, Mathew and Tom came to the Chamonix and had a good time laughing at Jack’s expense. We stayed at the Club Med resort in Chamonix.  My family has stayed at quite a few Club Meds now and we had a good idea of what to expect.  Absolutely terrible “choreographed” entertainment Spectacles, mediocre food, great ski lessons and mountain guides, and all booze and food included.

Our "Alpine" room
Club Med lobby
The first night we indulged in too much of the last two items, which led to embarrassing over eager cheering for the terrible Spectacle performance and a dance off between Kelly and I.  We woke up the next morning and it was time to hit the slopes (it's a good thing that I don't get hangovers, others weren't so lucky). 

Over the next 3 days we all skied in separate groups except for Kelly, Mathew and Jack who mastered the groomed trails of the mid altitude pistes.  J and Tom became masters of the bunny hill. J even ventured up to mid-station at 2000m (~6000 feet) and then had to take a 1-day breather from skiing due to the incredible height and thin air. 

I was enrolled in “Niveau Quatre” in Ecole du Ski Francais language, or as most sane people would call it, “I like to throw myself down un-marked trails and avoid crevasses at 11000 ft in avalanche zones.”
The Club Med Chamonix resort
About 100 feet into my first run, I realized that I hadn’t skied since March of 2008 and that my legs weren’t completely getting the message from my brain on how they were supposed to react in a few feet of loose snow at high altitude.  I skied mostly at high altitude for the first three days except for the 1-hour avalanche gear training that our guide thought was a good idea for everyone to know. 

The highest cable car goes to 3400 meters ( 11400 feet) and
then you take the stairs down the mountain about 150 feet to start skiing.
The actual run starts by dropping down a small chute...
...into an open glacial field
My legs were a bit shocked to meet this snow
The avalanche training consisted of how to use a shovel, a locator beacon, and depth measuring sticks.  After our guide buried locator beacons in the snow he made us search for them.  We found 4 of them in about 8 minutes but then it took another 15 minutes to find the last one, which he had hid on the roof of a cabin close to the other beacons.  He then explained to us that most people only live for 12 minutes when they are buried under an avalanche, that helicopter rescues are pointless because it takes at least 20 minutes to get there and if you find someone in a tree or on a roof, they are most likely dead well before their beacon is activated.  It was generally a cheerful lesson that I hope I never have to use.
The avalanche gear that I (thankfully) didn't get to try out. 
A rare clear view from the top
Jack, Kelly, Mathew & M during a day on the slopes
By the end of the third day I had found my legs and had time to enjoy the views and actually take some pictures on the hill and in the village of Chamonix.

M in front of a mountain meat shop
Chamonix Village and alps
Macaroon shop
Traditional French transport?

J in Chamonix village
Chamonix village lit up with Christmas decorations
We had a great time with Jack’s visit and the trip to Chamonix.  We’ll try to make it through the tough Maltese winter and look forward to showing a few more people the island. Best wishes for a happy new year from both J and I.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas in Malta

Merry Christmas or Millied it-Tajjeb from Malta! We hope you had a lovely holiday break and enjoyed good food, drink, and company with family and friends. After a fantastic week skiing with M's family in Chamonix, France (blog post to follow by M!) we arrived back in Malta on Christmas Eve in time for our first Christmas abroad. Our fake tree hadn't lost any needles during our departure, and our Christmas turkey dinner tasted almost as good as mom's.

Given its high percentage of Catholicism Christmas is obviously celebrated in Malta. However, there are some notable differences between the Canadian and Maltese versions of Christmas. From decorations, to food, to shopping Malta does Christmas big. The "Christmas season" appears to start later in Malta, with decorations and shopping really beginning in the first week of December (vs. mid-November in Canada). There is no Christmas TV in Malta - not even Frosty the Snowman or Rita McNeil's Christmas Special. There also wasn't as much Christmas music in malls or on the radio as there is in Canada, and obviously, not as much snow.

Christmas decorations in Malta are much different from Canada, being in a warm climate with no "front yards" so to speak. Christmas decorations in Malta include "cribs" or nativity scenes, 60 watt light bulbs strung between houses up and down the street to create a kind of light canopy, and purpose built light structures such as the ones below.

Lights in Msida, near our flat

Christmas lights in Republic Street, Valletta (image source unknown)

The capital city of Valletta puts on a very good Christmas show with lots of decorations. Christmas (and curiously, Top 40) music blares on speakers throguhout the main shopping thoroughfares. It seems to be a Maltese tradition to spend a day in Valletta shopping and eating at a sidewalk cafe (that's right, outside in December!). The malls are also decorated, just like in Canada. One mall in Sliema even had an outdoor "skating" rink (synthetic ice and plastic skates).

Merchant Street with Christmas decoreations by day

Jess on Merchant Street after attending a performance of the Nutcracker Ballet with guest dancers from the Bolshoi and Moscow Ballet - superb!

Republic Street street decorated for Christmas by day (notice the crowds of shoppers up the street!)

Republic street lit up for Christmas by night
This gives you a less than perfect idea of what Christmas decorations look like in Malta, made better if you imagine every village and every major street lit up like this. Needless to say, it was quite festive!

Actors at the Ghajnseliem Crib (timesofmalta.com)
Traditional Maltese crib (image source)

Another Maltese Christmas tradition is the Maltese "crib" or nativity scene. Similar to Sicilians, the Maltese pride themselves on their elaborate cribs, from small, intricately carved wooden figurine scenes to Ghajnsielem, the real, built village of "Bethlehem" in the Maltese countryside populated with 150 volunteer actors and farm animals. Whereas in Canada a favourite Christmas tradition is to drive around to look at lights at night, in Malta a favourite Christmas tradition is to tour these "live" and "artistic" cribs in every village. Cribs are so popular that there is a specific profession dedicated to the creation of crib figurines year round!

In Malta Christmas foods are much the same as in Canada (I suspect this is due to the British influence in both countries). In Malta Christmas dinner is turkey and all the trimmings. The Maltese also do Christmas pudding and mince meat pie. Uniquely Maltese Christmas foods include honey rings - pastry filled with mince meat and treacle, and a cocoa chestunut soup known as imbuljuta. The Maltese also love their panettone - Italian cakes that come prepackaged and sold in supermarkets. We tried one and it looked and tasted curiously like a giant Twinkie (with a similar shelf life). Christmas "sweets" in Malta include Quality Street chocolates, but oddly, no candy canes!

We had a really nice, warm Christmas in Malta, our first away from "home". It was great to talk to our families on Christmas Day and we hope they enjoyed the holiday as well. It was quite strange to be in a warm climate for Christmas, but however different our holiday was it was very interesting to experience Christmas in another culture. I do hope that even though they don't do "Boxing Day" here in Malta they still do Boxing Day Sales!

Our Maltese gingerbread house, complete with roof top terrace, luzzu, and beach

Christmas Eve in Sliema (left) and Valletta (right)

The larger lit up buildings are churches
Churches lit up in Valletta for Christmas
Sliema churches and The Strand lit up for Christmas Eve

Cave style dog beds. What more could a wiener ask for?

Our fake Maltese Christmas tree - no real trees on this island!

Our first turkey
Our first Christmas dinner. It was more delicious than it looks.
Best wishes for a happy and healthy new year from both of us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Palazzo Parisio

before you get started - we posted about Palazzo Parisio in a more recent post with better, original photos, like this:

original post

We had always planned to visit Palazzo Parisio in the village of Naxxar when we returned to Malta. It was something we had missed during our first visit here and I was interested by its claim to be the "Mini Versailles" of Europe. During our visit yesterday we were not disappointed by this claim

Palazzo Parisio is a breath taking 19th century palace owned and operated by the Scicluna (pronounced shik-clu-nah) family (who still have legit "titles") and is frequented by such impressive visitors as Oprah (which means, since I visited there, I've sort of "met" Oprah by extension - right?)

Palazzo Parisio was originally built in 1733 by the Portuguese Grand Master Manoel de Vilhena (the is the same guy who built the Teatru Manoel in Valletta) who ruled the island during the time of the Knights of St. John. It was later bought and embellished by Marquis Giuseppe Scicluna in 1898. As a banker and philanthropist, it was Scicluna's vision that inspired the magnificent interior of Palazzo Parisio, as is evident in the many tributes (sculptural and painting) to the inventions of the steam engine, electricity, commerce, etc. that can be found here.

Palazzo Parisio is lavishly decorated with ceiling and wall murals and frescoes, stucco work, antique furniture, paintings and extravagant gilding. The massive amount of decoration is no doubt overwhelming, but less so than Versailles itself, and its miniature scale is actually quite charming. The property is one of the only privately owned and operated "historical" tourist spots in Malta, and it shows. The restoration, conservation and visitor services at Palazzo Parisio are very good. Palazzo Parisio has a lovely restaurant, cafe and lounge and is probably the most luxurious place in Malta to have a cup of tea or a glass of wine. Besides being a tourist site it is also used for private functions and weddings. 

The walled gardens rank amongst the finest in Malta and are the only privately owned gardens open to the public, marketed largely towards garden loving tourists. Classically baroque in style, they are a mixture of Italian symmetry and Mediterranean colour and perfume, reminiscent of my favourite Maltese gardens - San Anton Gardens at the president's home in Balzan. Overall, Palazzo Parisio is a lovely spot to spend an afternoon and nourish any fantasies you have of living in a palace...or hanging out with Oprah.

Oprah with the Scicluna family at Palazzo Parisio in 2009

all photos (except first photo) from palazzo parisio's web site.

see our more recent blog post (with original photos) about palazzo parisio here.