…Going back to where you came from – By Revel Barker

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…Back where you came from - By Revel Barker“I am hearing stories that many old-time settlers on Gozo are in process of upping sticks and returning to the mother country or elsewhere.

By “many” I mean more than a dozen, for example, from Gharb alone. But they are leaving the other villages, too. It is of course highly likely that there are yet more, that I haven’t heard about.

While this news may bring some glee to the few (but vociferous) “anti-colonialists,” I should point out that the Leavers – for want of a better word – are not all Brits. There are Germans, Danes, Irish and South Africans among them, and probably other nationalities.

They are (they appear to be) mostly long-term residents. Some, looking only for a warmer climate, had tried places like Spain or Cyprus first. Some had been here in the forces, or as children of service families and maybe even been educated here (in the old days). Some – a much smaller number – had married local nationals. Others had come on holiday and decided that Gozo was the place they wanted to retire to.

They had all fallen in love with it.

They bought property here, and generally improved it. They became, in effect, locals. And the Gozitans, for the most part, welcomed them, openly flattered that, in competition against all the other options, these people had – rightly – chosen Gozo.

But it was a different place, then.

I have repeatedly said that people used to come to Gozo because nobody came. It was not a destination for package tourists, but for travellers, most of whom had seen and experienced something of the rest of the world.

It was bare, and beautiful. It was virtually empty. There was a small handful of acceptable restaurants and a couple of decent bars. There was nothing to do, except walk, maybe cycle, read, write, paint… enjoy the scenery and the colourful weekend fiestas, while the natives mostly fished and farmed.

The roads were dreadful but there were so few cars that it barely mattered. Certainly nobody on Gozo was in a hurry.

The incomers became volunteers, and supported local charities. If they needed a builder or plasterer, their Gozitan neighbour had a brother-in-law or a cousin who could do it (or at least start it!) for them.

It was like that when I discovered Gozo (while writing about Maltese political corruption) in 1974. And not much different when I found my perfect spot on my perfect island after travelling several times round the world nearly three decades ago.

(I once wrote a travel piece in an English newspaper extolling the island’s charm, for me, along the lines of “please don’t come here, because I have found it and I don’t want to share it…”)

In those days electricity, although not exactly reliable, was cheap, as were telephone calls. The post office effected same-day delivery of mail. The guy on Directory Enquiries seemed to know all the phone numbers by heart, and knew everybody’s nickname. Eating out, which meant “local”-not “European,” not “Mediterranean” or “fusion” – was appropriately priced.

In short, the living was easy. Which was why we were here.

Then two things happened.

First, despite the best efforts of the Maltese Tourism Authority, package tourists found the place. I never saw any evidence of the MTA promoting Gozo as a destination, but all the pictures of “Malta” were actually from Gozo, so there was a knock-on effect.

Just as any Gozitan with a small screwdriver could call himself an electrician and any man with a spanner was a plumber, now anybody who could cook pasta or fish became a chef overnight and turned his garage or stable into a “restaurant”.

Second, the people on the other island realised that discerning tourists greatly preferred Gozo, so went there for a look and quickly realised (their conclusion) that it was “cleaner, greener, and quieter” than the disintegrating place they lived in, and started to holiday there themselves.

They, too, bought houses, and realised how much more pleasant it was to shift there every weekend and public holiday and for their long annual vacations, than to stay at home where everything was filthy, overbuilt, and noisy.

They also bought extra land (still cheap, at first) and started building – much of which remains unfinished. The four-storey limit and the no-buildings-on-the-coastline edict were quickly forgotten, because it was the Maltese who wanted to break the rules.

Gozitans didn’t lock their cars and used to leave their keys outside in the door, “except at weekends and in August, when the Maltese come over”. In fairness, I have heard of only one car theft on the island – by two Maltese who were stopped by police before they reached the ferry.

But most Gozitans know about the Maltese who came over on Saturday nights and stole from the homes of elderly people who were attending early mass on Sundays.

Goods in the shops had been unlabelled in the old days, because shopkeepers had different prices for locals (including foreign residents), for tourists, and for “the Maltese” – in ascending order.

Then they, like the taxi drivers who asked 50 euro for a ride from the ferry to Victoria, because visitors didn’t know what the distance was, quickly learnt The Maltese Way: Rip them off while they are here because they are not coming back (and they won’t be coming back because they got ripped off.)

It seems astonishing, now, but all this changed only in very recent years.

The “mainlanders,” as they consider themselves, now claim that they keep the island economy afloat by coming all year round. But all they do is keep the third-rate places going, at the expense of the first-rate: the many, at a cost to the few. Like for like, it is now cheaper to eat in London or Paris.

Otherwise it would be the few locals and the few ex-pats who supported the few, deserving, restaurants through the winter months . Weekenders also like fast food and grub from vans that have parked up and declared themselves to be “kiosks,” like they are used to back home.

They have filled the island to overflowing, parking anywhere – often in a manner that would elsewhere be described as “stopped in traffic.” And then they cry like children that they have been “picked on” if they get a ticket.

The locals (native and foreign) can’t even get into Xlendi or Marsalforn, formerly quiet seafront retreats where roads and pavements have been first “embellished,” and then given over to tables and chairs.

They can’t do the traditional passagiata, the walk, in their finest clothes. along the Mgarr bay track, on Sunday evenings because they can’t get there through the streams of traffic queueing for the ferry.

In short, Gozo is no longer the place that many of the early settlers chose.

Lots – I would guess that by now it is hundreds of them – have lost, through new building, the sea or country view from the homes they bought. Some can’t bear the constant noise of builders or that the weekenders create. Some complain about the amount of litter they have to pick their way through in the streets, especially on Mondays. Some fear that the creation – or even the suggestion – of a tunnel will spell the death knell for their island.

I can fully understand that some elderly people want to go “home” in order to watch their grandchildren grow up.

I know that some – despite the fact that much (by no means all, and there is a tendency to exaggerate it) about Gozo’s medical care is generally excellent – want a more accessible health system for specialist treatment. But that does not explain why some of them have been considering relocating to the Azores, or the Canary Islands, or Croatia.

Me? I am a Remainer on Gozo. I have lost the better half of my view but got used to cement mixers and cranes and stone-cutters outside my window on a near-daily basis for the past 15 years. I have no noisy neighbours and there are no weekend lettings nearby.

And I’m confident that there will be no tunnel in my lifetime.

When I travel to the UK I say I am going “back, for a visit.” When I return to Gozo I am coming “home.”

But for many established foreign settlers it seems that Gozo has become a No-Go…

How sad is it, to fall out of love?

A former Fleet Street reporter and editor, Revel Barker is now an author, book-editor, and publisher. His latest book, The First Gozitans (…and Ggantija) was published last month.

Photograph by Alain Salvary

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    9 Responses

    1. anthony zammit says:

      Good write-up Mr Barker. Yet I do not see why some would want to leave Gozo because with all its faults, for me it is still a lot as you and I know it if we just drive out for a couple of minutes. I would think that they had some rented flats in their neighbourhood or something which continuously bothered them.

      I love the Maltese, those who live in Malta, but I do not like it when they come to Gozo and the reason is that they come with their smart phones, tablets and laptops and this overloads the wireless server which I use and my poor TV Android box tell me ‘sorry Anthony too many Maltese this weekend in Gozo and the server is too slow to have continuous viewing, change your server!’ So until my wireless server decides to boost their boosters I will continue to be annoyed by Maltese WiFi drainers.

    2. anthony zammit says:

      Dear Revel,
      As I already commented you gave an honest review that the glass is half empty. As soon as I wrote my comment that the glass is at least one quarter empty I received this link from a foreign friend of an American who sees Malta as an overflowing glass of water. And I condone her vision. https://youtu.be/JoNj0KDuDR8

      • Revel Barker says:

        Oh, come on, Anthony. I couldn’t bear more than the first half of that. An American googled Malta, found photos of its beauty and described it as “the most under-rated country” (or something), on that basis.
        So much for the credibility of “Buzz-Feed” – whatever that is.
        I think I mentioned that the MTA pictures were mostly of Gozo, anyway, but she wouldn’t have known that.
        There are as many pictures showing what a dump that place is. And I was writing about GOZO, Which used to be “half-full” and is now overflowing.
        I care about Gozo. The Maltese don’t care – they just use it.

    3. david mossop says:

      Wake up Anthony Gozo is nothing like it was 30yeas ago when we first came here to live.

    4. Gideon Woodside says:

      Sadly I have to agree with you Revel. We moved here 10 years ago and it was a different world even then to that which it has now become. I have said in these pages before that there are just too many visitors making life for those of us who live here more and more difficult. Too many big double deck buses and coaches, too many convoys of jeeps and quadbikes, too many people in the shops and too many people clogging up roads, pavements and parking spaces. I too go to the UK ‘for a visit’ and come ‘home’ to Gozo. I too will ‘remain’ because I still love it here and do not wish to live anywhere else. I too, care.

    5. Mark says:

      We benefit and suffer from what is broadly classified as ‘progress’, reaping the rewards with increasing dependency. Yet history teaches there’s a cost. The references included in this poignant article remind us of such costs; inevitable and endemic.

      We witness a familiar recurrence – North to South, East to West. It’s part of human history. And yet as often we appear to care only when personally affected.

      Gozo is a fascinating place even after 12 years of residence. It has its good along with its bad. And as such, suspect both elements will increase along with our populace. A populace expanding exponentially due in some part to society’s progress.

      An interpretation of a Native American Indian quote is possibly worth reflection for those evaluating Gozo retrospectively:
      “To be yourself in a world constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment of all”

      I suspect the people civilized at the end of a sword had their own thoughts on change. Upon contemplation tentatively suggest Gozo remains a reasonable place to reside.

      Is it Gozo? Is it the West? Is it the World? Or is innate?

      Yours respectfully

    6. Nigel Baker says:

      Mark. Didn’t understand a word of that.

    7. just an expat says:

      basically Nigel – that’s the life – things change – sometimes for the good and sometimes not but nothing remains the same. I am with Revel on this one and still love Gozo but for how much longer is debatable – if I return to my homeland will it be the same as when I left? Of course not – in fact when I visit now I don’t like it much!

    8. Terry Bate says:

      Bought my house in Gozo 44 years ago, and no, Gozo ain’t what it used to be, but where is? Gozo is still pretty special and as changes go is less “changed” than most.
      However, not all change is bad. Remember when there was no supermarket and daily shopping was really hard work!! Then for a boat mooring, you dropped your own barrel of concrete wherever you wished in the harbour – chaos! …..and so on!
      Old standard final note – we all have free choice – if you don’t like a place – leave.

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