Hope is a Four Letter Word

A few weeks ago, I wrote a story. I had several members of the family read it and all of them enjoyed it so much that I had my first burning desire to submit it for publication. Now that I look back, it seems strange that I have never submitted a single piece before. No…that’s not right. I remember many years ago my mother submitted a poem that was published in a compilation of poetry. So this would technically be the second piece submitted, the first submitted of my own volition. Besides, the poem that my mother submitted when I was 16 was awful, and when she has guests over and takes me through the horror of finding the tome it’s in and passing it about the room I become awash with embarrassment and want to vanish. So, for the sake of this story, this was my first writing submission for publication.

The requirements for submission were simple. I printed it up, double spaced, placed a short cover letter inside explaining that I lived in Malta, and that any correspondence should be sent to my U.S. post office box instead of the return address. At the time, Linda and I were formulating a way to return to the States, a story for another day, but one that has the same level of anxiety building up to our flight as the escape from Alcatraz and would have the Anglin brothers nod their approval. I stuffed everything into an envelope plastered with numerous Maltese stamps and walked it down to the nearest Malta Post drop box. I remember having some butterflies as I watched it slip into the darkness. Was this going to be my first published work? Would the world look back, long after fame and fortune had elevated me to unseen heights, to this first story as the keystone to my writing career?

Oh, the things I imagined. It’s amusing when you think about what you think about. As I strolled down Triq Guze Howard, back to our flat at the Howard-Milner Residence, my mind became filled with the wonders of a new, sweeping epic of a life, borne on the winds of this small, traveling envelope. Linda would never work again. We would build our dream home with the money earned from my novels. I would continue to write into my twilight years from my new study, surrounded by books, old and new, and the smells of decaying leather and paper. Travel & leisure, and more time to enjoy our remaining days would be ours.

Soon the letter was forgotten. My wife and I got caught up in the stresses of moving back home. Resignations needed to be submitted at work, items that weren’t going to make the trip with us sold or given away. Packing and shipping consumed us, and of course, goodbyes to all of our wonderful friends here in Malta. Yet every once in a while as the weeks wore on, I would remember the submission, and wonder what became of it. Thinking about it always gave me a pang of excitement. The small letter had evolved into something more than a container of a story. It contained limitless possibility.

We visited friends in North Carolina and Florida before we ended up back in our home state of California. My daughter was getting ready to attend her first year of college, my son desperately wanted to return to the same elementary school that he had left behind. And there are so many friends to see! First, we needed to find a home to rent. Our home was still going to be leased for another 3 years. We didn’t realize we would be returning from Malta so soon. And although we had taken a peek at the rental market from Malta, it didn’t sink in how things had changed in 2 years until we actively began our search. If it wasn’t for the generosity of friends and family, this experience would have been so much worse. What began in late July as casual house hunting became a desperate situation by late August. Because of the recession, construction on new homes had ceased. Banks had taken so many homes from people that what remained became rentals. Inventory quickly shrank to almost nothing, and landlords had an opportunity to raise prices to astonishing heights. Unfortunately, we were being priced right out of our home town. Add to this the need to find work!

Then it came! The response to my submission. This could change everything. It was as if the envelope would contain thousands of dollars. The gushing review of my masterpiece was inside, and the springboard to my career as a novelist/screenwriter/playwright/poet was in my grasp! The world had begun to spin anew.

I opened the envelope and began reading the letter inside.

It was a rejection. I kindly letter, stating that hundreds of submissions come through every day. That this was no reflection on the quality of my writing, just that it wasn’t a good fit for the magazine.

hopeAt first I was disappointed, but it only took a few moments to, strangely, feel elation. I held in my hand a response from strangers that had read my work. The important thing about this letter was that it was proof that I had taken a leap to submit it. I had put myself into the most vulnerable place a creative writer can. I had exposed my underbelly to be gored by the beast, and although my courage had left me bloodied, I was not shamed. It was at that moment that the letter became one of my most prized possessions.

I have always told my children that they need to feel failure to feel the triumph of success. That they will fall down numerous times on their way to their goal. That picking ourselves up after each misstep builds character and teaches us something. In my hands were my own words to them, but it was their beautiful faces, and my dear wife Linda’s, that were speaking them back to me now. This letter might be the first of many more rejections. I envisioned a box full of them in my near future, and that box was to be my greatest treasure. More submissions are forthcoming.

Now I write for you, and for myself. I can’t care who loves it or hates it. I just write. Because, as someone told me recently, that’s what writers do.

We write.


Making Malta Home

I’m finally able to take a moment to write my first post after my first full week at work and 10 days on the island. I leave for work at 8 and come home by 6, quite a change from the last seven years. But, it’s a welcome one. The TRC team is smart and fun; the environment – dynamic and exciting. The office is being built out as we work, so there’s lots of activity. We’re all crammed together on the same floor while saws and hammers pound in the background. My only requests – an awesome coffee machine and a microwave. Comin’ up!

Last weekend was spent getting our flat in order — unpacking and shopping at this huge Walmart-like store called Pavi for essentials that we need. We wandered the streets of the Sliema shopping district, not far from where we live. I love how safe we feel walking around; lots of kids and families out until late in the evening. Friday and Saturday nights, I feel like I’m back in college — it’s a party out there! What a bustling little town.

Our son being inappropriate with one of the local statues during our stroll through Sliema, our new home town.

I was hoping to get out this weekend with the family, but Malta is experiencing a storm it hasn’t seen in decades. Our landlord is a native; probably in her mid-40s. She said she has never seen a storm like this before; it’s a “sandy” storm coming in from the Sahara, apparently. Check out the news posted here. I’m sure Trent will be uploading more of the videos he took later on. Pretty incredible.

I’m loving the small City experience — buying food and other items as we need them from the small businesses around us, not being tied to a car, and affording a weekly house cleaner, Sandra — at 6 Euros, or less than $8, an hour! I feel your seething jealously…

I do like what this low humidity is doing for my skin, but not my hair. Frizz, Frizz, Frizz! It’s my goal to find out how these beautiful Maltese women keep their hair calm…

We are desperately trying to figure out the coffee situation. Since the office has yet to install its heavy duty espresso machine that makes a perfect cup every time, we bought a drip coffee machine. But the only coffee available is either espresso (which stops up the filter due to its density) or – brace yourself – Nescafe instant coffee. Yes, instant coffee. And there is no creamer. Just Coffeemate powder or evaporated milk.

Needless to say, we are returning the drip coffee maker to Pavi and investing in a serious espresso machine, switching to cappuccinos as our mainstay. This desperation will be worth weathering this storm and heading to The Point — an AWESOME shopping center about a half mile away. In the meantime, we park ourselves at Mint next door, an incredible cafe run by New Zealanders — different homemade foods and desserts made every day based on what they have available. And the cappuccinos? We’re addicted.

The other two items we really miss: a microwave and a clothes dryer. We have a washing machine, but air dry our clothes! Those things that need dry cleaning go there, but electricity is expensive so dryers are not a default installation. We have arranged to have our towels and sheets changed every week by Sandra, and she takes them with her – returning them the following Friday. She also irons anything we ask. She’s my new best friend….Anyways, we’re working through both of these inconveniences because we’re spoiled Americans who need to experience at least a few of the ways locals actually live.

Aidan is doing GREAT! I’m so proud of his adventurous spirit. He and Trent get out every day to explore our surroundings and fill me in at dinner. They have created a list of “must sees” from their explorations and plot out when we go again as a family. After my stamp of approval, it becomes a place to go when we have guests.

Trent is an amazing partner, as usual. He’s lining up work during breaks in the day so that he’ll be ready to go when Aidan starts school after Spring Break in mid-April.

What can I say? I’m a lucky girl.

Day Trip: Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra

Ħaġar Qim

Ħaġar Qim is about 7,000 years old. Who built this temple complex, and what was it used for?

One of the main attractions of Malta are their many prehistoric temple structures. There are a few on the main island as well as some on Gozo. The history one can see and touch will leave you enthralled.

Each day I try to get Aidan and I out of the flat. Sometimes we walk around our neighborhood to discover local shops, talk to people, collect seaglass, and generally familiarize ourselves with our new surroundings. My son is a wonderful companion and explorer. On this day we decided to try out the local public transportation system and brave the two transfers that would take us to Hagar Qim and Mnajdra, two of the oldest megalithic structures on earth, arguably pre-dating the pyramids of Egypt.

We start out from our flat in Sliema. I had packed us a nice lunch, squeezed it into a small pack, then we made our way downstairs to the bus stop which is conveniently right in front of our place. The people in Malta are very friendly, and I have had no qualms about walking up to strangers and illustrating my lack of knowledge. I usually always find someone who speaks English well enough to understand the help I seek. We immediately learn that we just need to get a bus that will take us to the capitol of Valletta.

The Valletta terminal is located at the City Gate square, surrounding the Triton Fountain, sculpted in 1959 by Vincent Apap. This now serves as the hub for the countries entire bus system. As far as I know, all buses begin and end here.  From Sliema, we could jump on one of several buses, then take the express (X4 or X5) to the airport. Once there you take the 201 to reach the Blue Grotto and Hagar Qim. But beware – a mis-timed arrival at the airport could mean you wait a while for the next bus since they arrive only once per hour (and vice versa on return). Time your day accordingly for some waiting.

As soon as you arrive you notice a large protective structure that shields the temples from wind, rain, and solar radiation. It also inhibits plant growth. By no means permanent, it does hinder the deterioration process that has been occurring over the centuries. It’s not the most attractive structure, but I do have to appreciate the invaluable protection it must provide. Perhaps someday they will have a new technology that will preserve these sites without the need to cover them so.

Hagar Qim and Mnajdra are located high above the Mediterranean

I was absolutely entranced by these two temples and the views of the surrounding Mediterranean sea that the sites offered. My appreciation for things this old is obviously related to how old I am. My son, barely nine, tended to be less interested, especially since we didn’t find any 10,000 year old artifacts like I had promised (you have to promise them something treasure-like, or how else will you get them to come along!).

Unlike the states, the temple areas are ‘loosely’ guarded and I was amazed at how easily people could touch the stones. The areas directly around the temples are fenced to keep vandals from striking again with graffiti and the dislodging of megaliths. However, the areas leading to the the cliff edge are wide open for exploring and it made for a delightful and picturesque excursion from the beaten path.

I highly recommend this day trip, and the Blue Grotto nearby looks like it would be beautiful as well when it gets warmer.

Our First Morning in Malta

It may have taken 28 hours and 5 airports before we arrived early Thursday morning, and I do mean early, but we got here in one piece. 12:45am Malta time which put us home with our ridiculous amount of baggage around 1:35am. Linda, exhausted and running on adrenaline, somehow shuffled out the door on 2 hours of sleep to report for her first day of work that very morning.

Mediterranean Sunrise

Not a bad way to start our day and our stay here in Malta

My task was much easier. My son and I slept in a bit longer, then began unpacking the few things we brought from California to start making our new ‘flat’ home. Our first morning in Malta was sunny and mild, and I am still stopped short when I look out of our windows at the view we are blessed with here.

The journey wasn’t too bad at first. After researching cargo shipping from San Francisco we decided that we would just fly with extra baggage, take the hit there. According to everything we found online it seemed that this option was going to be $1,500 to $2,000 cheaper. Shipping meant crate delivery, pickup, shipping, customs taxes in Malta, then delivery to our flat were going to be in the range of $4-$5k for a small 4’x4′ crate.

We should have shipped everything.

When we checked bags in SFO with Virgin America, things seemed like they were going so well. Only $400 to check our bags through to Gatwick! And we had FOURTEEN checked bags (Mostly donated by neighbors and family). Amazing right? We should have saved the celebrating. It went downhill from there.

We had one layover in Las Vegas where we were to transfer to our long flight with Virgin Atlantic. This is where things got ugly. They informed us that they had no record of our payment to Virgin America for our checked bags, and to make matters worse, the boarding passes that they gave us which tell how many checked bags we had didn’t include another essential item recording our bags. After a long, messy conversation at the Virgin Atlantic counter with management, we had to cough up another $1,400 for our excess baggage. Ok, fine…we are still on track for our estimate, except for one thing; Virgin Atlantic refused to check our baggage through on our connecting flight out of Gatwick to Malta (which we found out later at Virgin ticket counters in Gatwick was totally absurd). So for 10 hours we begin to worry—will we make our connection in Gatwick to our Air Malta flight?

Have you ever flown into Gatwick or Heathrow? They are amazing sprawls from the gate to customs/baggage claim. Miles of walking (and cajoling a nine year old to hustle). Once we reached customs, non-UK citizens are escorted to a line made up of ever other nationality. To put it mildly, that line took us out of the running to make our flight. Regardless, we still had the nightmare of baggage claim (remember the fourteen bags I mentioned – oh, boy!). After piling this plethora of bags (I’m beginning to think about throwing a match on the lot of them) onto three pushcarts, we head over to talk to another ticket officer to find out that the next flight to Malta from Gatwick is not in a few hours, but the next day. Our options are now find a cab that will take all of this hot mess to a hotel (way more money) or take a bus to Heathrow to catch an Air Malta flight 9 hours later (more money). We choose the latter of two evils.

After we are loaded on the bus to Heathrow, unloaded, repacked onto three new puchcarts, we head to the Air Malta counter. This is when every fiber of my being is needed to keep me from being locked up in some UK dungeon. Air Malta’s policy (which is never stated anywhere on their website) is to charge for, get this, not the extra bags, but extra kilos over a certain amount.

£15 per kilo.

And we had 185 extra kilos—that’s £2,775 or, $4412.78.

At this point you are a hostage. What do you do? Wheel everything out into a dumpster? You are exhausted, you have a child with you, and your wife looks like she is going to join you in a collective meltdown that leaves nothing but a crater where London once stood. So you beg. You get ignored. So you pay. We even spoke with management. He was no help whatsoever.

Ship it. Period.