I don’t mean to alarm you, but your Capital City is about to undergo major surgery.
It’s cosmetic surgery, mind you, so the results are bound to look good. More streamlined, less messy… but possibly also, less human.
Nobody has kicked up much of a fuss about the removal of the old Valletta bus terminus kiosks. It was decided for us that it would be in Malta’s best interest to fix up and look sharp in time for 2018, where our very own Valletta will be wearing the crown of “European Capital of Culture” for the world to see.
And maybe that’s a good thing. We’re getting a big open space neatly lined with trees, modern, minimal, and most importantly European-looking, to enhance the dramatic effect of entering our walled Capital City from its moated main entrance. It will be elegant, sleek. A far cry from its garishly colourful past.
Until recently, upon entering Valletta through City Gate you’d be bombarded by a sea of kitsch signage, advertising everything from cigarettes to milkshakes in fonts that have been outdated since the 50s. Our own mid-century miniature Times Square, with yellow buses instead of yellow taxi cabs.
The current plans are to smooth out the kinks in the shape of ramshackled old kiosks. Some are nondescript stone buildings and some are no less than immobile trailers, clad in shiny retro looking chrome, aluminium or even corrugated iron.
It would be a farce to pretend their appearance was traditionally aesthetically pleasing. They mustn’t be glamourised or sexed up in our stories in years to come as if they had anything on the sari stalls of India, or the spice stalls of Marrakech.
But for all they lacked in beauty, they possessed a certain charm, even if as a local you’d disagree. You definitely felt like you were in a real city, that’s for sure. It was a diverse place but had its own identity, a melting pot of cultures; and on listening to the sounds of the locals, you could tell by our language we’d come from a rich, long lineage of Empires.
But the kiosk surroundings were dirty and unkept, the stench of stale urine was unfortunately customary to anyone who’s ever walked through our City Gate, and we all knew it wasn’t just coming from the working horses.
Jostling through leering taxi drivers, commission-based salesmen and market stalls selling a variety of synthetic handbags was normal, all part and parcel with a visit to “il-Belt”.
You’d keep your head down and make your way into the city on your way to whatever appointment you had lined up, a concept seemingly alien to the sometimes unsavoury looking characters loitering around. They had all the time it the world, it seemed, to smoke and chat and sit about on metal chairs or beer crates, belly out, drinking tea out of glass. But you had more important places to be.
The longwinded makeover has presented itself in many stages. We dropped our old “new” City Gate, the one that was propped up when the last one fell in the War, acting as a stand-in for its sorely missed predecessor.
It was a handy shelter from the rain and served as an impromptu “convenience souk” but did nothing for our image. It simply wasn’t beautiful.
It was obvious our fair Valletta, grandiose and baroque deserved a better introduction than that. Evicted were the bread carts, the lottery touts and the hair-braiding gypsies. We’d no longer have to eye-dodge the doomsday religios, or worse, the Melita/Vodafone/Go salespeople handing out fliers.
Somewhere along the way we also lost our Sunday flea market, where – if you ever found the need for it – you could pick up an old giant farmhouse key, a rusty saw or individual cut-glass pendant from a dulling chandelier. Iron bar structures were efficiently erected and dismantled by hard-working hawkers by lunchtime, selling everything you can possibly imagine. Imported seashells, old coins, lace tablecloths, cheap and cheerful beach towels, chickens…
Way before we could illegally download the latest hits, we’d get our hands on tape cassettes and spiky studded wristbands, longing to be more like our rock star idols. Later, knock-off compilation CDs with poorly printed track list in their plastic wrappers would be in demand. Nothing was more thrilling than getting home to listen to your new DJ Mix ‘97 CD- if it worked that is. Then came the snap-on fake Louis Vuitton Nokia 3310 covers and the rest is history.
If only those temporarily retired Tritons could talk, what tales they’d have to tell! They’ve seen it all since they appeared in 1959, acting as a meeting place for Malta’s youths and subcultures for decades. They’ve watched you grow up and seen trends come and go like buses- the fashions, the hairstyles… They’ve known the rockers, the mods, the punks, the new romantics, the metalheads, the grungers and the Beltos.
I’d bet they can’t wait to get back to work, to serve their intended purpose- an iconic landmark and water feature and imposing backdrop for a new wave of admirers; the explorers, the lovers, the kids in colourful carnival costumes, as well as the misfits, the drunks, the weirdos.
So since we might not have had a chance to say goodbye because we were all so caught up in our own lives over Christmas, let’s raise a toast to the Humans of the Triton Fountain Kiosks.
Here’s to Michael, who got up early every morning for 40 years to open his snack bar and stir up instant coffees for the nicknamed, blue-shirted bus drivers, setting them up for the day with fried egg sandwiches before they’d embark on their same routes, day in-day out from morning ‘til late.
They know only too well what it’s like to have to move with the times- if anyone can relate to being uprooted it’s them. He’ll eventually be compensated with another nicer, newer kiosk, but whether his regulars will follow or call it a day he can’t tell.
Here’s to all the diehard Beltin who refer to the bus terminus area as “Floriana” with contempt, but still choose to start their days there, or seek solace in the shade of the mature trees on hot summer afternoons.
Here’s to the sunburnt tourists who enjoyed joyful trips to Malta and would come back to the same stall for their postcards and Ambre Solaire, as if the kiosks owners would remember them. They probably have Polaroid photos of Valletta somewhere and they’d be shocked to return in 2018, maybe even saddened.
Here’s to all the nanniet who ever took their grandkids to the city for a day out, stopping at the imqaret kiosk for a heavy, grease-spotted paper bag of sickly sweet deep fried dates encased in sugary golden pastry to share between them.
Those hot, neat, flat parcels, the perfect streetfood for roaming around the city- but let’s face it, how many times do you part with change for one these days? They’re bound to go the same way as our buses; not quite extinct but endangered, always on standby for special occasions but reserved mostly for fond memories and fridge magnets.
Shout out to the kiosk overflowing with confectionary, which has had your back over the years whenever you were caught short of payphone credit, thirsty for a Kinnie, or fancied a packet of Twistees for your journey home.
Here’s to the dreamers, who’s hearts bleed for a romanticized version of the recent past. For those of us who still reminisce fondly of a time where we’d pull a wire to get the bus to stop, who remember the thrill of sitting at the front as it sped over bumpy roads, close enough to the driver to hear him cuss-out the nervous foreigners who fumbled with their change.
And here’s to those relieved or indifferent, who unbeknownst to them will ironically miss our kiosk culture once they’re wiped out, in the same confused way they miss the exhaust fumes of the old buses.
So here’s to the cream cake eaters, the orzata drinkers, the card players, the pavement spitters and the għana singers. You’ve served us well but it’s time to move along now, there’s nothing to see here.
Archive photos by Alan Edwards.