Alex Grech's blog
Wednesday, August 03, 2011
Thursday, February 04, 2010
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Friday, November 06, 2009
And today, I came across this clip on Yoko Okono's site. And I thought: can you imagine what John Lennon would have done if he'd had access to the social web, like we have today?
Put the right tools at the disposal of creatives, dreamers, heretics and doers. And watch the world change.
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Sunday, August 02, 2009
Someday, I want to go and watch the Cure.
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
For a short period of time, when I was setting up Heritage Malta, I was technically his boss. He was patiently waiting for some bureaucratic mountain to be moved so he could finally do what he was born to do: get people to understand that modern art in Malta deserved a museum and that artists deserved a voice, a friend, a scholar to put what they did into context.
Everyone has a personal picture of Dennis. Mine is goggle specs, a book on Sciortino seemingly permanently tucked under his arm, even in the middle of a drunken party. Vague, smiling, wispy, gentle, anarchic, elegant, even dapper, sometimes. A fine chef. Owner of a Pandora's treasure chest of art at his house - many of them artists he had discovered, encouraged, sponsored. He bought my brother Shaun's piece called 'Three White Scum' for the museum just as racism started to rear its ugly head in this country.
A brave guy, easy to forget, particularly if he came to stay with you - because he could bury himself in a book or spend hours admiring something in your house that you had forgotten you owned. Never ever boring. He once cooked this incredible lamb casserole, and being the only single guy at the lunch party, kept a spare seat for a Russian icon he had just bought from some antiquarian in London.
Now he's gone, at 56, I just hope someone will have the grace to see his lifetime project to its conclusion. And set up a Museum of Modern Art in Malta, in his memory.
So many of us have lost a person that in some way, contributed to making our lives more interesting - and this country, that much more bearable.
Yesterday, as I was preparing to leave my office, my eye caught a Norbert Attard print I have hanging on the wall. It's an old present from Dennis, to coincide with my return to Malta, all those years ago. It's called 'Intelligence of the Heart.'
I'm just so glad I bumped into you, Dennis, over the past 30 years.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Marco Cremona, 40, is a man in a hurry. A wiry man in perpetual motion, he speaks quickly. The conversation veers from green issues - at the core of his business as a mechanical engineer and environmental consultant - to the mountain boots he has just bought online for Euros 690 from a US specialist store. At an altitude of 8,000 metres and in minus 40 degrees, size 40 feet need size 45 boots to accommodate thick socks and swelling.
Dr Greg Attard is next to show up. At 32, he’s a cross between a rugby player and a 1960s’ Rock Hudson. He lets Marco do the talking. A query about whether Maltese climbing mountains is akin to Jamaicans doing bobsleigh at the Olympics is met with a shrug.
The answer comes later in an email from Robert Gatt, the third man in the challenge8000 team. “We’ve lots of good quality rock climbing in Malta. From rock climbing in Malta, it’s a natural progression to other climbing disciplines and bigger challenges.” Climbing is also a natural way for Robert to live. “Whether it’s a sun drenched rock wall in Malta, fell running on a wet English day in the Lake District, climbing up a frozen waterfall in Italy, an Alpine gully in Chamonix or a Himalayan peak in Nepal, it’s my passion,” he says.
The three did not discover mountains at the same time. Greg was always an all-action type; a Scout, in love with the outdoors. By 17, he’d started to travel. In the summer vacations on his medical course, he’d go for an elective exchange and spend two months a year climbing in eastern Europe and Greece. Marco got the mountain bug when he decided to join the Kilimanjaro One project. “After that climb I was hooked. I met Greg when I went to Etna for training. Robert I knew socially.” Marco is the glue among the men, and the expeditions.
The three were consistently climbing higher mountains; raising the bar by 500 metres with each climb. This September, the team plans to tackle Cho Oyu, the world’s sixth highest mountain. At 8,201m, it is the standard preparatory trail for Everest. The technicality of both mountains is similar – oxygen is required, and the expedition can take anywhere between eight and 10 weeks. The Everest expedition is scheduled for May 2010 and will entail climbing and camping in inhospitable terrain and unforgiving, cold to reach the summit at 8,848metres.
Climbing is a logistical challenge: the team needs the support of a specialist organisation to take care of equipment, flights, porters (two sherpas for each climber), food, water, visas, transport and equipment. The missing piece in the jigsaw is Victor Saunders, the guide, who has climbed Everest four times in the last five years. Victor calls himself a cautious coward. He was chosen on the basis of reputation, which is basically measured on the number of people he has got safely up and down the mountain. He’s known as a warm, level-headed, Scotsman, and is an architect by profession.
Training can be gruelling as you need a good cardio-vascular background. Greg runs and cycles. Marco says he’s lucky that he’s lightweight, but admits to doing aerobic exercise running up and down 60 degree clay slopes. “You have to train your mind too. Mountaineers are hard-headed and everyone involved has an opinion,” he says.
Timing is everything and often make or break of a climb. There’s only a short season, pre- monsoon, in which to climb the mountain and this can result in a kind of ‘people jam’ on the ascent routes, with up to 200 people all having a go at the same time. “I hate crowded mountains. You can have one to yourself,” Greg mumbles.
Climbers have eight hours on oxygen going up, and another eight coming down. In minus 25, sweating, they’re pushing it and running out of time and energy. Hypothermia can start to kick in. “If you don’t make summit before 2pm, you need to turn back. Till now, we’ve never failed a peak. I don’t know how I would react to failure,” says Greg. It’s no surprise that 30 per cent of attempts to climb Everest end up in failure.
What makes a good team? The team’s roles seem well-defined: Marco is the logistics person and more of a trekker; Greg is more a mountaineer; Robert is ‘very technical’ and more a climber. Male-bonding is inevitable; if you are going to spend ten weeks in a tent together, you have to get on. “The mountain brings out the worst and best in each of us,” smiles Greg. “You’re dealing with fatigue and bruised egos. Saying we’re all hard-headed is an understatement”. Marco says he finds it relaxing. He can get away from the day to day and the mundane and just concentrate on the task at hand.
We skirt around the subject of danger, but it’s something they are reluctant to discuss. “Climbing is dangerous and even more so at high altitudes where the ability to make decisions is hindered by hypoxia and extreme mental and physical exhaustion. Danger is a challenge to be managed both individually and as a team. We’re not madmen. We’re taking a calculated risk. People engage in extreme sports because they are so demanding, mentally and physically, that you live for the ‘now’,” says Marco.
If you collapse on a mountain over 8,000 metres, the chances are that you will stay there. They’ve seen a couple of bodies on previous climbs. They’re too heavy, with all that kit, to retrieve without risking other lives. Knowing your limits is key to survival, and that’s where a good guide comes in. He has to know how to push a climber to his maximum capability, but not let him get beyond that. He has to look for tell-tale signs – people getting out of breath for instance. The guide can turns things around if necessary.
What makes a man contemplate bad food, no sleep, no sex for 10 weeks, pain, danger, fractures, falls, frostbite, hypothermia, altitude-related injuries, disorders or possible brain damage? The answer seems to be one word: the summit. It’s a loaded word and keeps cropping up in the conversation. It’s as powerful a driver as the purely nationalistic one - to be the first Maltese to climb Everest. There is a sense of history being made. But the real motivation is personal; it’s part dream; part challenging yourself to get out of the comfort zone; and all about ‘pushing yourself to the point where you never thought it was possible to be, mentally and physically.’ They hope that their forthcoming expeditions will inspire people to dream and have a go at turning those dreams into reality.
There is nothing as painful as summit day. Their longest climb to a summit to date was 17 hours. “Half way during summit day, you think, this is the last time I am doing this. Once you get to a summit, you have to calculate the energy reserves you have to get back. You may get summit fever. You get intoxicated. That’s the risk. People judge if you are successful if you have got to the summit. Ten metres away doesn’t count. It’s a very cruel thing,” says Greg.
What happens when you’ve climbed a mountain? Marco says on the way down he dreams of beer, junk food, and a good shower. Greg says he’d be happy to stay on the peak, and that he gets ‘post-performance depression’ when he gets home. Both men say the mountain is a drug. “We read about mountains every day. We may live here, but we live the mountain each day”.
I wonder what it’s like to live with these men. They grin and say the heroes are the women who see them risk their lives, and spend a long time away from home and large sums of money on their lonely passions. Marco says the mountains came after his relationship, and that his wife knows he is cautious, but it’s tough not being able to communicate for long periods of time. He has been away climbing a mountain for one month a year in the past years. Greg says his girlfriend knew that ‘the package involved the mountain. ’ Robert, they tell me, lives for the mountain. I ask them what happens after Everest. Marco squirms. He says he’s agreed to have one shot at Everest and then that’s it. He’s 40 and this is his last big climb. Greg says that he will find some gentler peaks to go for, and perhaps take his girlfriend with him.
There are perhaps other limitations on their expeditions though. So far, they’ve been funding themselves, but the big two climbs coming up need funds from corporate sponsors. “Climbing is expensive, so that means I have to work harder when not climbing, “says Robert. Hopefully, corporate sponsors won’t be long in coming since the team’s effort is all in a good cause. Challenge8000 has pledged that throughout the next year it will be promoting awareness of asthma and better air quality in Malta through its association with the Society of Maltese Asthmatics and the ‘Stop the Dust!’ campaign.
As they leave, Greg jokes about the frostbite from his last climb and that his big toe is still stuck. Marco says they will be linking up on Etna over the weekend. When they leave, I switch off my laptop, and wonder if I’m any closer to understanding these two complex, gifted men, intoxicated by a summit on the other side of the world.
Saturday, June 20, 2009
Sunday, June 07, 2009
Friday, February 20, 2009
Then I remembered this song. I guess I'll always be in search of Mr Blue Sky.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Thursday, December 25, 2008
At 6.15, there was the first fragment of conversation from the kids' room. Santa had delivered, Jacob was tearing into the contents of the sack on his bed, and Scarlett was screeching at the Barbie and the pink fake make up kit. There's little you can do except surface from what's left of the alcohol stupour of the night before and mumble instructions about toilet doors, clothes, tripping over spiral stairways, breakfast soon on the way.
You grasp your first mug of hot coffee, look at the exhausted face of the mother of your child, and hope the caffeine will somehow carry you through the day.
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Tommy Camilleri spent the first seven years of his working life opening blocked drains. Then he got fed up inhaling fumes and he got a job as a road sweeper in Naxxar. “It’s good work if you want to get to know everyone in Naxxar,” he shrugs.
Tommy is the last tambourine player of
Tommy played with some of the finest folk musicians of his generation - Toni Cachia ‘Il-Ħammarun’, Ganni il-Ħawli. They played in hotels for tourists, in Carnivals, during Christmas, at weddings and for anyone who would pay. Like all tambourine men, Tommy was the front man for the band, with his own well-rehearsed act. Then, in the second half of the last century, Maltese folk music went into terminal decline. And now the people Tommy used to play with are all dead.
He turns up for our appointment on a Tuesday morning in his finery: cap, black waistcoat, matching pin-striped trousers, white shirt, black sandals. He refuses a glass of wine at the Mqabba Band Club because he says he is recovering from a heavy night. Behind his thick glasses, I could make out watery eyes. Tommy is 78 going on to 98. He’s tiny and quiet and weaves his hands nervously on his lap.
Just as the acrid black coffee kicks in, we are joined by a beaming Guzi Sciberras, also known as ‘Il-Mija’. Il-Mija is 57, and clearly still relishing early retirement from the Dockyard, where he was a Charge Man. He now makes the flejguta, the Maltese end-blown cane flute. It’s his idea that we should talk in his field ‘next to the Torri Vincenti’. “It’s where I find my space and peace and quiet. I’ve been spending all my spare time there since 1967,” he says.
The glue between the tambourine man and the flute maker is Ruben Zahra, the freelance composer who often uses folk material within his contemporary works. Ruben is in a race to save traditional instruments from extinction. “Together with Guzi Gatt, I’ve listened to hours of 1960s recordings of Maltese folk music. All the core Maltese traditional instruments - the żaqq, the Maltese bagpipe, the tanbur, and the flejguta – have stopped being made, for more than a generation. In the case of the flejguta, we could not even find one. But we knew the sound it made. We decided to try and make these instruments before we lose them forever. Our research led us to the makers of traditional bird whistles. Enter il-Mija.’
Il-Mija’s piece of solace is a tongue of soil and a stone hut right by the perimeter fence of the airport. In the middle of the patch is a beehive with an open door. I immediately think of bird traps and sense that this place was a killing fields of sorts, at some stage. “We used to bait the guys from the RAF for some morsels, through the fence, when we were kids,” grins il-Mija. “Don’t worry about the bees,” he adds, as one zooms past my left ear.
Il-Mija opens a box over-spilling with pluvieri, the Maltese bird whistles. He’s like a kid with the cookie jar. The names of birds roll off his tongue as he goes through a demonstration of the sound each whistle makes. “This one is Il-birwina – listen carefully! This is the tellerita. This is the gurlin.” It is difficult not to get intoxicated by the childish delight of a man who has spent 40 years making whistles. And as for the sound – if you close your eyes, you could believe that you were in the midst of bird song that most people in
Maltese traditional instruments were made from locally-sourced material: ashwood, cane, string, animal skins and cow horns. Il-Mija is both an artisan and a recycling man. In the true spirit of the Maltese, nothing is wasted. He showed us whistles made from the bone of a horse’s leg, a piece of walnut, and the tubing from an old car tyre. “You cannot make one of these things unless you are a whistler yourself. The cane needs to be firm, dry and straight – but most of all you need to understand tone. If you are going to fake a bird into thinking another bird is calling, you have to master this with precision. There is no margin for error.”
We ask him about his tools. He laughs and shows us another box: a hand drill, a vice, a scalpel, a chisel. “I’m not interested in TV. I have made 89 whistles till now.” Making the flejguta is just another challenge. The air is directed against the sharp edge of a hole cut in the cane just below the mouth piece. Six finger holes along the length of the flute produce different tones and distinguish the flejguta from the simple whistle.
Ruben thinks it’s time to get to the music, unfurls the zaqq from his bag and coaxes Tommy into playing a tune, right there, against the wall. Coming face to face with Iz-zaqq is a bit of a shock – half goat, complete with tail, half whistle; the weirdest of instruments. Its bag is made from goat skin, its chanter from two cane tubes and a horn that projects its drones.
When Tommy plays, he is like one of those Wallis & Gromit Plastecene men, moving in slow-motion. The tambourine is in perpetual motion, and the man seems stuck to the tambourine. One moment it’s under his leg, then against his knee, then it hits an elbow, then it’s under the crescent of his darting fingers. And the music is familiar, Moorish, raw and sad rolled into one. I am told later that Il-Hammarun played the same melody on the zaqq all his life.
When they finish, I don’t know whether to clap or just relish the moment. Instead, Matthew’s camera moves and snaps the moment. I ask Tommy what he thought of the new tambur Ruben is producing, as he cradles it on his lap. “I like its voice,” he whispers. “Remember that the first sounds that Christ heard were iz-zaqq and the tanbur. These are instruments of the shepherd.” He cocks his head like a thoughtful dog when il-Mija announces that we cannot leave before we share a drink with him.
I watch the jet planes take off and ask Tommy about playing abroad. “I’ve never been on a plane,” he says. “I’m scared of heights . Even going up in a lift is not good for me. ”
The two men have different ideas about legacy. Tommy has five children, il-Mija has two, none of them are musicians. Tommy says one of his granddaughters has promise. Il-Mija boasts: ‘My craft will die with me. Besides, if I teach someone, will they attribute credit where credit is due?’ He etches his ‘100’ mark on the back of all his whistles. Somehow, there are different egos at play here.
On a humid morning in Mqabba, the bees buzzed, the jet engines screeched and the zaqq droned and flirted with the tambur. And our heads were filled with folk music, Il-Mija’s excellent J&B and the indelible passage of time.
Thursday, December 04, 2008
Friday, November 28, 2008
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Saturday, August 16, 2008
You watch Michael Phelps collect his seventh gold medal and know he is just going to get his eighth tomorrow.
Then you see the glint in Bolt's eye as he poses in front of the Jamaican fans, and hear Phelps say 'I don't believe anything is impossible, if you really want it.'
Visualise it. Execute it. Just like Philippe Petit did, in August 1974, when he walked the tightrope between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in NYC.
These guys truly walk on air.
Sunday, August 03, 2008
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Randy lived his dreams. Even more so when he got news of the dreaded 'C' and knew that the ticking clock was for real.
We all need a wake up call, sometimes. To get us out of our comfort zone. And follow our passions, maximise our talents, and listen to our heart.
I'm 47 tomorrow.
Friday, July 18, 2008
Sons bring you gifts from the heart. Drooping dandelions. Half-eaten bags of potato chips. Saveloys. Plastic daffodils. Pop- eyed plaster pug dogs. Cans of lager. Strange scent. Second-hand books – tatty or antique. Hugs.
Pam Brown, b. 1928.
Sometime in 1977, in the full flush of testosterone rebellion, I shared my theory of parental responsibility with my late mother. ‘I don’t owe you guys anything,” I chortled, from my perch on the battered kitchen cupboard. “I never asked to be brought to this planet. If I ever decide to make a child, the same rule will apply to me. I won’t expect anything in return from my child. In fact, I’ll owe my child everything. That’s how the world goes.’ And my mother’s eyes watered and she bit her lip: ‘You’ll only understand something about your life if you find someone unfortunate enough to give you a child.’
Men will eternally fret about this parenthood business. Two weeks ago in Rome, I was collected by a short taxi driver called Fabrizio who blurted out that he had just found his girlfriend was pregnant. I spontaneously launched into a checklist of scans, communications strategy (don’t tell anyone, till 3 months have gone), pre-natal holidays and the real costs of baby gear (say yes to hand-me downs). I exited the cab leaving the guy looking more bewildered than grateful.
My son Jacob is nearly six. I’m past the terror stage with parenthood. My life has morphed seamlessly from three year-old tantrums to a maze of cartoons, puppets, teachers, egos, giggles, homework, parties, wizards, waiting, rushing, mid-air hugs, a story every night at bed time.
I’m like millions of other men: running to keep up with the constant change. Most times, I’m just left playing catch up. I have no idea how he worked out how to use a mouse, let alone a Playstation console. In one week, he went from staccato reading to something close to writing his own poetry. At this age, a child’s brain is a sponge while your middle-aged version stutters and loses hundreds of neurons a day.
Sons bring exclamation marks into your life. They hang out of the back window of your car, repeat your expletives in front of strangers, see things you have forgotten to notice. Don’t you still wish you could still feel the wind on your face, making soup of your hair, caressing you like you didn’t have a care in the world?
Nobody can touch my Saturday mornings. Rain or shine, most times we’re walking from Manoel Island to Sliema for our breakfast and cornettos. The timeshare touts and the harbour cruise guys look at his hair and try and sell us stuff on the way. Jacob has taken to saying ‘Jiena patrijott Malti’ to facilitate our passage. It doesn’t help that he likes collecting brochures for his scrapbook
Kids this age want to belong. So you struggle with haircuts, clothing, anything that they think differentiates them from the world they roam in. You still get tears. Pickles the bear gets spun in the washing machine when nobody is looking.
Young kids don’t lie. Well, not much. “How come you have such a big, fat belly?” screamed Amber, at a portly executive Dad at a kids’ party. “How come you’ve lost your pants?” retorted her cousin at the edge of the pool. Truth is brutal and harmless, slices through the crap we concoct as adults to keep things under wraps, get on with people and survive the day to day.
Some things are being figured out. “Is it possible for grown ups not to work in an office and do work they like? I’d rather paint pictures and have people pay me for that!” There is a growing sense of what is right and wrong. The worst thing you can do, to a child, is accuse him of a misdemeanour he has not done.
Sex kicks in early. They are suddenly aware of their bodies and private parts. Changing on the beach is becoming a bit of a shenanigans. The girls on the playground already have older boyfriends. The boys slam into each other, play Power Rangers. Jacob watches his cousin Scarlett doing her ballerina pirouettes with a mix of affection and bewilderment.
Imagination runs riot. I need to write down his tales of Oink the Pig, the Bully Beef Butcher out to get Oink’s bacon and Dr Snitch the wily rat trying to make sure he doesn’t. I keep the first poem he wrote in my laptop case.
I still can’t do discipline. Where do you draw the line when a child turns up his nose at tomatoes with a summer looming of only tomatoes to buy and eat? I watch his fork hovering over his plate and remember my terror of anything remotely green or orange. Though his phobia is red.
Kids magnify your own inadequacies. I was never good at making kites. I don’t understand the big deal about knights and sieges, or goldfish who speak to him at night. I worry about him spending too much time with adults, and whether an only child invariably grows earnest and distant and bookish. Then I watch him in a scrum with some school friends and I heave a sigh of relief.
The older he gets, the more questions I have. What’s the difference between assertiveness and arrogance? Standing on his own feet and not standing on someone else’s toes? How can I help him grow the thick skin I’ve never had? At what time do children realise that you are not ‘Mr know it all’; that you are vulnerable, like they are; that on a bad day, because of the life baggage we have, we can be far from role models and be total scum bags? How can we just not give them baggage, period?
He now understands that death is the end of life. Ants die, cats die, people in his book on famous people die. I take him through some scanned pictures of my mother. He wants to know why hospitals could not save her.
Sometimes I blink, and see networks of my family tree over his shoulder. I look at his flat feet and despair at the genetic legacy I have bequeathed him. There are nights when my fear of loss are the trigger for nightmares that every parent experiences; sometimes I close my eyes and think of his goofy face to keep out the dark stuff.
I know the connected, virtual, online world he is inhabiting is far removed from my safe, island childhood. And that’s OK. Because we are finally raising citizens of the world, not little islanders.
Everybody wants something for their child. I want to give mine a trampoline for his life and his dreams. I want to find time and space for him – away from the baying attention of phones, computers, the need to make a living. Hopefully, I will remember something about my own growing up pains and not pass them on to him. When the time comes, I hope I will not make a total ass of myself. And just let go.
All I want is for my child to know that I continue to muddle in this parenthood business in good faith. And that every time I think of him, wherever I am, or see his face on my mobile, I smile and know that at least I got one thing right in my life.
I do owe my child. Everything.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
When I was a child, Luqa Airport was the crumbling gateway to holidays, real chocolate and escape. Things change. You grow up, your hair thins, you join a generation of suits with red eyes whose working life keeps them on the move. Until you find yourself in another airport and you stop.
Everyone has an airport story to tell. 300 cancelled flights and a mountain of 28,000 bags over 5 days means a lot of people will shiver at the mere mention of London Heathrow’s new £4.5bn Terminal 5. Somewhere, in Milan or Memphis, lies the unreturned luggage of a passenger who died on a BA flight from Hong Kong to Heathrow on 2 April. “To lose the luggage of a dead person is unforgivable," said his son.
There is something mildly surreal about airports. There are silent airports, electric ones, sad ones, others crackling with life. In most, design has gone riot. Spider-like structures morph out of steel tubes, concrete. Everything seems to be vacuum-wrapped in plastic. The wavy roof at Barajas Airport is supposed to be calming.
Once you arrive, you are sucked into a conveyor-belt of queues. It’s like being back in primary school. There are lines for check-in, then passport check, then security, then the gate, then your seat on the aircraft and then baggage reclaim, immigration and customs checks at the other end. Whether you’re the Pope or Paris Hilton, at some stage, you’re just going to have to queue.
Sandwiched, between the queues, is so-called consumer heaven. Airports are the new plazas, the new town squares. Brands elbow each other for space and your attention. The familiar has made way for the more exotic Giraffes, Wagamamas, and Victoria’s Secrets. There is food for the mind and for the soul. Mountains of pastries, fine leathers, silk ties, smoked salmon, designer trainers, sunglasses, ice cubes, gadgetry. The new colour for luggage is lime. I purchase my guilt offering to a five year-old who doesn’t quite understand why I have to be away.
This is a good place to go numb. To remember that you forgot to take the suit to the dry cleaners. That Dad’s birthday is round the corner. You are lulled to stupor by security ding dongs. Do not leave anything unattended. The fire alarm is just a test, do not be alarmed. The flight announcements at Sofia Airport are made by a girl who is into James Bond movies.
So you ease yourself into a rich tapestry of people watching. A carousel of rabbis, happy shoppers, modern gunslingers, window cleaners with yellow stripes silhouetted against a backdrop of buses and snow-capped mountains. Women with golden handbags and gentlemen with leather holsters. ID Tags. A rose tattoo quivers on the wrist of a waitress with jet-black hair. People hang on to kids, the kids struggle out of the leashes of their comfort zones. Awkward teenagers rub shoulders with silver surfers with men in crumpled suits with nervous blackberries. Deals on the run. Newspapers with Cyrillic lettering. Shields. Feet. Clacking heels. Phones that refuse to stop bleeping. You drum out text messages to people you love, to people you hardly know. Pot bellies, hairy bellies, pregnant bellies. Pouts. A Pekinese lady in a cat suit purrs in the ear of the guy with a bullet head in front of gate B3 at 07.17.
There is humour where you least expect it. The Zurich Airport shuttle has a soundtrack of mooing cows and tinkling bells. “We’ll soon have you naked,” winks the Customs girl in Gatwick, as I studiously remove my belt, my watch, my shoes, my jacket and place it in the plastic box. A granny sets off the alarm system and watches sheepishly as a stranger fiddles with her bra strap. A friend missed a plane and sleeps at a gate at Rome airport next to an attractive girl from Serbia. They raided the Duty free for hams and cheese once they realised the restaurants had closed.
Things go wrong. The checkout girl fixes her makeup and cannot be bothered to check if your bag can be checked straight home. Suitcases break. Suitcases go missing. You arrive in a heap in Vienna from Sofia to find the Air Malta flight is doing a little detour back east to Budapest. A 5am flight to Rome via Reggio is delayed by an hour because Reggio Airport does not open in time to greet the Air Malta flight.
Perfectly rational people turn to gibbering wrecks within a matter of seconds. Anxiety mounts as the bags roll off the carousel. You look in envy at jolly fellow passengers with red suitcases and redder arms. In a noisy toilet it is possible to experience soaring resentment. I start feeling a sense of brotherhood with people who vandalise toilet flushings and write cryptic graffiti on the doors.
Who are these people, who piss on the floor, refuse to flush, spill cartons of coffee and stuff half-eaten burgers into the folds of pseudo-leather seats?
You tune into conversations. “I cannot just live on love and air! Either they pay me my share or I make sure the contract dies! She had keyhole surgery in March. We’re waiting. And this is how you pop your ears. Stop pulling your tongue at that old man. What do you mean, he winked at you?”
Do we need to be dragging all this luggage, all these designer tags? How many of us will still be here, in a year’s time? You eye up the size of your fellow-passengers’ hand luggage and just hope that seat 6D is not next to the Jehovah Witness with a loose bladder.
I close my eyes and try and drift for lift off. An airport is a Faustian farce, full of ants rushing to make it to the top of the ant-hill. We are all cattle now, herded from one check point to the next. Perhaps that is why airports have terminals and gates. We are here to be bounced by a pin-ball machine from one holding point to the next. One day someone will see the business opportunity in running therapy courses for air travellers.
Then the plane starts to board and I am on my feet to join the shuffle before I know it. We are all going somewhere. We all have other lives. We are all nomads now.
Monday, February 04, 2008
Paul Asciak, aged 85, former tenor and first tutor of Joseph Calleja, Malta's finest tenor.
Tomorrow my father is 71. Quite a milestone for him, and for us. I cannot remember celebrating my parents' birthdays, when I was a child. After all, life revolved around us kids, not grown-ups.
I guess all that changed, once I had my own child.
What also changed is that I live in perpetual fear of losing people I love.
So this evening I embed this little, twisted black video here, to chase away my fears. And in honour of my father - who has lived his life, his way, despite more than his share of deaths and misfortunes.
Since cheating death is not a viable option, there is much to learn from my father. In his winter years, he has became adept at living for the day, for the moment, for the 90-minutes duration of a Milan match and a beer with his friends. My father just refuses to grow up. So when I see him with my five year-old, it's not difficult to know which one of the kids is the wiser. Or the merrier.
Happy birthday Dad.
Monday, December 31, 2007
1. What is it about New Year's Eve, that makes you stop and take stock and wait for something to happen and then realise that it isn't going to, unless you really go out of your way and rock the boat and do something dangerous, impulsive. Or downright calculated.
2. I've written 10 new year resolutions. Some are scary. I read somewhere you should print and tape them to your desk so you cannot run away from them. I'll store mine on my laptop.
3. What am I scared of? Phone calls in the night. The inevitable.
4. I love being a father. My son is still at an age where he asks me questions and waits for an answer. He is already a better dancer and wordsmith than I can ever be.
5. If I find a cartoonist, I will finally get the story we've called 'Oink the Pig' actually written. Instead of just woven in our heads, in laughter, on the way to school, each morning.
6. How to learn from mistakes, grow a skin, move forward without listening to all the voices clamouring for attention.
7. How to move forward. Period.
8. If you have words, you can wriggle out of trouble as much as you can land yourself in it.
9. You do not have to be next to me for me to think the world of you.
10. Count your blessings. We're still standing. Here comes the new year.
Sunday, December 30, 2007
There are nearly 14,000 Maltese who have a Facebook account. Five weeks ago, when I started thinking about this snippet, there were 8,000.
Facebook is the Internet site of 2007. In October, Microsoft spent $240 million for a 1.6% equity stake, valuing the company at a whopping $15 billion. With 34.5 billion page views in September, according to comScore Media Metrix, Facebook is now www.strategywothe fourth most highly trafficked Web property worldwide. Together, with the iPhone, Facebook was the Internet story of the year.
What nobody can say for sure is whether Facebook will be as popular in 2008. Such is the fickle nature of social networking sites that the next big thing may be round the corner: Google recently announced its Open Social network.
I wanted to understand why the Maltese are taking to Facebook in their droves, when they can pick a phone and meet a mate in 30 minutes for a drink and a chat. And why people keep sharing the most mundane and (sometimes) intimate details of their lives with online ‘friends’.
So I asked six questions to 13 friends within my Facebook network. I spread the mix, to make sure there was nothing much in common (except that I knew them all). 12 Maltese, 1 Canadian in Gozo, from all walks of life: sales & marketing executives to businessmen, students, a technologist and a published poet. This is some of the chatter that came back:
Joining Facebook tends to be a collective of peer pressure, curiosity, professional obligation and boredom. Facebook helps people rediscover old friends and keep tabs on those living overseas. Or those anywhere else with an Internet connection and time on their hands.
Facebook is an addiction, a guilt trip, a time-waster, a laugh, a glorified Hi5 for adults. We find ourselves trapped in our need to communicate: we check our email continuously; we get mad if we forget our mobile; and, now, there’s Facebook. Many use it like SMS or Twitter, with fingers rattling on a keyboard to keep up with hundreds of ‘friends’ from all walks of life. It's an incredibly powerful virus which motivates people to infect their friends and colleagues.
Voyeurism and narcissism appear to be key drivers. Girls inevitably change their profile picture on a more regular basis than the boys. We are an ego-centric, nosey nation, and now have a licence to pry quietly into other people’s lives and what makes them tick. Exhibitionism is a major characteristic of contemporary life. Except that on Facebook, you're only exposing yourself to the people you choose, as opposed to the entire web.
You can also lose yourself in your kind of crowd. Join’ Michael Mifsud for President’ (869 members and growing). Or groups managed by restaurateurs, rock bands, politicians, journalists, socialites and lonely hearts. Throw a virtual sheep, send a zombie kiss, order an electronic ice cream or play Scrabulous with your grandmother.
Concerns about privacy are growing. Employers use Facebook to search and measure up current and prospective employees. Some may already be paying the price in terms of lost employee productivity without knowing it. And others have been quick to see the branding opportunities. Paraphrasing Shakespeare… all the world’s a stage, so potentially anyone and everyone is your audience. Act with caution.
Not everyone is convinced that all is what it seems to be. Who’s a friend? Are friends counted in numbers or shoulders to cry on? Are the ‘friends’ on your list simply contacts, or merely trophies? This is one facet of the internet: trying to personalise, even embody, contacts that could well be anonymous. Facebook can also stand for currently bored, lustful, socially unfulfilled or generally avoiding real life.
Yet surely there’s no easier device around to help you organise a party, share your videos and pictures, market your talents, illustrate your life, let people know your every mood swing. I found out about the lovely Café Brasil concert at MITP because ‘Indri Mangu’ set up a Facebook Group for the occasion. New friends to Facebook are regularly greeted by older ones with the rousing ‘what took you so long to get here?’ There must be a reason for being here, surely?
The Facebook backlash has started. Credit information group Equifax said members of sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook may be putting too many details about themselves online, and putting themselves at risk of identity fraud. Fraudsters could use these details to steal someone's identity and apply for credits and benefits. About 80,000 people in the UK were victims of identity theft last year, at a cost to the economy of £1.5bn. Facebook’s own new Beacon Advertising Service added to concerns about privacy issues. On 6th December, Mark Zuckenger, the Facebook founder ate humble pie and apologised for the way Beacon had been launched. People simply don’t want their personal data used for commercial purposes without their permission – even if the company using it is as familiar a travelling companion as Facebook.
Despite its success, nobody is quite sure if Facebook is here to stay. While many profess an inability to live without it, the same people think that like all technologies, Facebook will eventually be surpassed. It's the latest in a long line of social networks, starting from Friendster and, most recently, MySpace. Like all trends, the 'cool kids' will move on to the next big thing, and the masses will follow. Such is the fickle, transient nature that something deemed indispensible this year may well be old hat next. Just like the bar that was impossible to get into last summer and is not quite in vogue this year.
It’s as if our life cycles just got accelerated.
Maybe Facebook is just another indicator that being Maltese simply means being part of a global goldfish bowl. We use social networks like everyone else does. We will always run in herds to the next best thing, a time-poor, utility generation. Or maybe we’ve run to Facebook because the ‘cosy’ Maltese parochial life is long gone, as we spend more time in front of laptops, speak to fewer people in the flesh, pry over their shoulder online and gauge our social life success in terms of numbers of online friends. We long to feel connected in an age when one inevitably feels disconnected. There is a lot of talk, but much of it is mundane, and not of all of it may be true. We may be creating virtual online selves to make up for other things that we find lacking in our real lives.
Or maybe, we’re just smart, on the ball, and live full lives. Like millions of others, we are now connected, but on our own terms. The new glue for our social networks is online conversations. We’ve just become as good as anyone else in making our voice heard, assuming someone is really listening.
I suspect this conversation will keep going for a while longer.
More Facebook conversations here.
Sunday, December 02, 2007
It's been a while, since I posted anything here. Blame it on life, living, and a growing sense of what Talking Heads used to growl about. Say something once.. why say it again?
I was dragged out of hibernation by Lily, who edits Manic, a magazine for the Independent. This piece appeared there a week ago. It gave me an opportunity to get out of my current skin. And be in a place I am now linked to, that I need to go visit, again. Because it is a place that serves as a mirror to the canvas of my life.
When the rains come, I long to escape. A year ago, I succumbed to a growing sense that time was running out for doing things on impulse - and escaped to Rio for the year end.
Rio. The word alone triggers a chain of postcard clichés. That Duran Duran video. Jesus on Corcovado with his arms sweeping over Sugar Loaf mountain. Carnaval. The land of samba, the tanga, verde e amarelo, beautiful football, beautiful people and all night parties. Then the other Rio... the dark underbelly of violent crime, drug culture, corrupt police, Central Station and City of God.
Everything about Rio is a contradiction. It’s all black or white. You will either love it or run away fast, murmured the Sicilian seated next to me, as the Varig flight touched down at Tom Jobim Airport. He was in Rio for his 15th visit.
Rio is a full frontal assault to the senses. You wake up suddenly to the sound of bird song or a street vendor selling water melons. You leave an Alexander Calder exhibition downtown, walk round one block and find a cow tied to some railings. Everything is cheek by jowl. The ocean and the sand and the great curves of the beaches with the elegant high-rise hotels and apartments. And glued, on the hills, at the edge of the forest, in full view of the privileged, is the scar of the favelas.
You have to quickly get into the swing of things. Especially, if like me, you only have 14 days to burn. I was told to leave my watch and credit card at home and to dress ‘poor’. We’re lucky – we tan quickly and blend in.
But we’re not Cariocas. To understand them, you have to first understand something about their music. And then, start tuning to the rhythm of their conversations. And finally, you will notice the way they hold themselves, the way they walk. And how they dance.
Music is ageless. I watched the legendary Caetano Veloso play under a yellow moon in a cauldron called the Circo Voador. At times he was pure nectar, sometimes his backing band made Nine Inch Nails seem tame. At Trapiche Gamboa, kids aged 15 to 70 sang and danced the night away to the uplifting samba of Galo Canto’ and several litres of Chopp. The next morning, Alexandre, dentist cum samba connoisseur, turned up with a boxful of CDs because I’d said I really wanted to get into mu’sica brasileira.
Rhythm is everywhere. Someone is always tapping away on a table, waiting for a coffee, humming a tune. Women have hips, and use them to killer effect during a samba. In Laranjeiras, every Saturday afternoon, musicians meet up in the little square and play for hours, in return for a drink, or two.
Sometimes, things get weird. An impromptu trip to an exhibition of graffiti art led us past the market and the saffron shops and men in string vests and the black mamacita smoking a big joint in an alley. That was when I realised the exhibition venue was the Hotel Nicacio, and that ‘Sex Art’ was a project by local artists to paint the walls of a thriving brothel.
You need to watch your back. Car journeys are planned to reduce the number of potential red light stops, and the risk of car-jackings. One Sunday, en route to the amazing La Plancha, a kid not older than 7 ran in front of our car as we cruised to a red light stop in broad daylight. He took one look at us and raised his t-shirt over his head for a second. Then he juggled three red balls high above his head. Leo lowered the window a hairline crack and handed two reais to the kid, who flashed a white grin and scampered to the side as the lights turned green. “What was that all about?” I said. “That’s to show us he didn’t have a gun,” said Brunno, as another Tom Jobim number purred. It was only later that Leo told me his mother’s Toyota was bullet-proof.
Eating and drinking is great value. Think fruit, juice, fish, rice and beans, finger food, real Brazilian coffee. Nothing quenches your thirst quite like agua de coco. Or a Guarana’. Or a cachaca. Or a chopp.
Rio is a beautiful, colourful mess, with Cariocas as its glue. Skimpy lycra bikins and havaianas jostle for space with nail parlours and cosmetic surgeons. Hedonism is institutionalised - on every beach, on every paved sidewalk. From Copacabana to Ipanema to Barra. On an apartment on the 21st floor, you look over Lagoa, and wonder if you are in a dream. Because even favelas twinkle in the dark.
Sometimes, when I am stuck in a jam, I close my eyes and succumb to a saudade for Rio. A longing for what is now gone, but which might return in a distant future.
Pencil in 2014, when the beautiful game goes to Brazil.
Go to Rio.
Before you lose the urge to do things on impulse.
My top 10 things to do in Rio
Before you get to Rio: befriend a local. Find someone on Facebook. That way you stay safe, don’t get hassled by street vendors and live like a carioca.
1. Get a snapshot with your own Personal Jesus at Corcovado. Pinch yourself when you do your slow 360 degrees.
2. Settle down for the evening at the Academia da Cachaça in Leblon. Try the cachaça with honey. And then the 30 other variants. Try the feijoada. Watch the laughter.
3. Go body watching on a beach. The best beaches are further away. The best bodies tend to stay central.
4. Cross the bridge to Niteroi. Feast your eyes on Niemeyer’s MAC, the most beautiful museum on the planet. Drive to the top of the mountain and face the city across the bay. Be brave, tag on to a hang-glider buddy and jump over the edge.
5. Watch the posers and rollerbladers at Avenida Atlantica on a Sunday. Follow up with a detox breakfast of juice and pancakes at Ipanema. Or head straight to Boteco Belmonte in Flamengo for pasteis and empadas.
6. Take the rattling trolley at Santa Teresa. Have lunch at Sobrenatural. Go back in the evening for some ice-cold Chopp at Bar do Gomez. Hug strangers.
7. Roam downtown. Buy saffron in the market. Find some peace in the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet. Peek into the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Sip tea in the elegant Colombo café.
8. Hire a car and in two hours you are in Buzios on the Costa do Sol. Stay at the Pousada dos Gravata’s in Geriba’. Open the door to your room, and you’re on a sandy beach.
9. Go and dance with the multitudes at Trapiche Gamboa. Watch a samba school rehearse. Do your funky chicken.
10. Spend your last night watching the sunset at Ipanema. Make a wish. Life is beautiful.
Tuesday, June 05, 2007
The Old Vic is not normally the venue for an eight-piece band and four nights of sell out concerts – you only have to look up at the gods and the massive crystal chandelier and wonder whether the insurance applies to a wall of sound. But there is nothing normal about Rufus Wainwright (or ROOOOOFUUUUUUS) as the burly guys in the boxes insisted on screaming.
You have to experience a Rufus concert to understand how sublime, funny, outrageous, clever, unique an artist this man is. Gifted with a voice to make any mortal’s heart shiver, Wainwright’s music is a mix of jazz, pomp, ballad, soul, rock, blues. He is also the campest, funniest of performers. Someone who is in your face, takes incredible risks with the patter patter and the heavy breathing down the microphone and then dives into a sublime piano solo.
Five minutes into the show, Rufus gets up from his piano stool and grimaces. ‘Gee, I have sweat running down my buttocks’ he frowns, patting his striped posterior. ‘At least, it feels like sweat. I hope it is.’ The gays in the stalls whistled, everyone else hooted. This was a bastion of regal English theatre, for heaven's sake! 'Let's do some rock and roll. At the Old Vic... just don't break anything'. He does a costume change after six songs, and comes back in lederhosen. As everyone shrieks he shakes his head and says 'I know. Just before they ran off to the mountains. Oh, by the way.. it definitely WAS just sweat.'
No, Rufus is not Liberace for the 21st century. He does hover dangerously close to pastiche, sometimes. But there's always the music and the complex orchestration and that voice. Rufus at the Old Vic is one of those rare moments, when you watch an artist realising that the peak they aspire to is just there, within their reach. And Rufus reached out. Cappella singing without a microphone. On-stage cross-dressing to emerge as Judy Garland crooning a foggy day in London town. Laughter, pathos, fun, wickedness rolled into one.
Anything I write will sound like a pastiche. You cannot write about or picture where music can take you to. I just know that last Friday, for two hours plus, I was transported to a place where nothing else matters.
Friday, May 25, 2007
So here's a list of where I've been.
1. On Wednesday night, I joined about 600 others at the AC Milan club to watch my team triumph (probably undeservedly, on the night) over the old nemesis of Istambul. Several highlights - the obvious one, watching Inzaghi's second goal crawl over the goal line and ending up with my neighbour's arm pit in my face. The best one was probably Gejtu the Club's secretary's announcement before the game: sic 'Friends! WHEN we score.. for fuck's sake... make sure you don't throw bottles at the screens! We rented them this time and they cost us a bomb!'
2. I'm setting up a startup called Muovo. Startups are normally the fodder of young guys in a garage in Silicon Valley or Tel Aviv, no? No, they're not. So the rollercoaster of creating something out of nothing has started. I've done this before. I've made a lot of money for other people. This time, it's me and two other illuminated souls. If we fail, we will do it gloriously, no doubt.
3. My ISP has been losing emails for the past two weeks. I finally lost my sense of diplomacy and sent a rude email to the technical director. He received it nearly 20 hours after I sent it.
4. Yesterday, at 17.14, a tiny sparrow, not more than a couple of weeks old, flapped against the window of my room. I stopped, blinked. Then a paw came out of nowhere and the sparrow screamed. And I charged out to see Smudge the cat, aged 10, run off with the bird in its mouth. By the time we had prised its jaw open, the bird was a goner. Seriously upset. Smudge looked smug for an entire hour.
5. Darren munched some pastizzi with me at Cafe Cordina and told me about BarCamps. Wicked ideas spinning in our heads.
6. I spent the best part of three days driving around Malta with a key associate for Muovo - a Bulgarian man who had never visited the island and confessed to liking Geneva. George liked Malta. A lot. I hadn't been to Mdina at night, for a while. The place just looks lovely. Palazzo Falzon is stunning, the lighting is subtle, and you still get a view from Fontanella. We've finally got a city we can be proud of.
7. I started one of those 'take a picture of yourself for 365 days and watch yourself age' projects. Mercifully, my memory card screwed up and wiped out an entire week's supply of mug shots. Project canned.
8. I washed my car, after a couple of months. Now I can see all the bumps and scratches.
9. Liz wants to build a room over our bedroom to 'improve the quality of our family life' and 'increase the value of our property'. No, there is no ulterior agenda.
10. Jacob has taken to calling himself 'Is-sur Jacob'. Primarily to irritate his mother, who cannot speak Maltese, I suspect. Then again, neither can he. Still, a near five year-old who aspires to becoming a chef might have a better game plan than a 45 year-old in a start-up.
Next week, I'm off to London to watch Zoot Woman, Rufus Wainwright and Cheek by Jowl's new production of Cymbeline. And to lose myself in crowds, think of new things, recharge the old grey cells, look up an old friend. And try and find some more answers.