“Why in Malta?” Tolga Temuge: “Once we happened to evacuate a tiger when cleaning Lower St. Elmo for a backstage”

Tolga was born in Turkey in 1967. After his graduation in business administration, he worked in international trade for several years until he joined Greenpeace. He sailed on Greenpeace ships and became the co-founder of Greenpeace in Turkey. He was then appointed the campaigns director for the organisation’s regional Mediterranean office. Tolga has been actively working on environment, human rights and peace campaigns for over 20 years. He was the executive director of BirdLife Malta between 2006 and 2010. His company, East to West Communications, provides service on communications, campaign and project development and management to non-profit organisations in Malta and abroad.

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WM: You were born in Turkey and had visited many countries, what made you settle in Malta?

TT: The first trip to Malta was related to my job with Greenpeace. At the time I was part of the Greenpeace Mediterranean Regional Office. Besides Malta, we had offices also in Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel, but none of these locations was suitable for setting a headquarters as we couldn’t organise staff meetings all together due to hostility of most of these countries towards each other apart from Malta. Thus, the Greenpeace Mediterranean headquarters office, previously located in Mallorca, was relocated to Malta. I remember my first arrival to Malta in 1994, when, on board of “Rainbow Warrior”, we entered the Grand Harbour. My jaw dropped! The Grand Harbour is the most spectacular natural harbour in the world! In 2000 I met my partner at the time in Malta who is Maltese and had started working for Greenpeace. I moved to Malta temporary in 2003, as I thought, but I have been living here for many years now – eleven to be exact.

WM: Do you think life in Malta influenced you in a way?

TT: Living in any place for over ten years influences a person – you cannot isolate yourself from the surrounding. Malta certainly did it in a very positive way. Here I have learnt to take life less seriously and a bit easy too. Istanbul is a highly populated place (with a population of fifteen million) and life there is way too fast. At the beginning, it was difficult to get used to this easy lifestyle but, as time passed, I started appreciating it and understood that living fast is not the right thing to do for one’s health.

WM: Do you feel a mentality difference between Malta and Turkey?

TT: Since Malta is a Mediterranean country, I am less exposed to cultural shocks here than, say, people who come from Northern European countries. It is true that here it takes so much long before something is done, and yes, it was difficult to adapt to that. However, the main thing that struck me, as an environmental activist, is the attitude of many Maltese towards nature. Do not take me wrong, Maltese are very respecting towards both, each other and foreigners, yet often this respect stops once they leave their home towns and villages. There are many examples of such lack of respect to nature, or, to be specific, to the countryside: hunters, fireworks enthusiasts, campers etc.

WM: In your opinion and from your personal experience, is it an advantage or a disadvantage for Malta to have foreign residents?

TT: Definitely, it is an advantage for any country. Malta, as a small island state, benefits genetically from the influx of foreigners. Another advantage is in experiencing other cultures. Many Maltese travel abroad and get a chance to see foreign lands but it also is great to be able to learn about foreign customs and traditions here, at home. Besides, foreigners bring new ideas and professional experience. It is especially true when speaking about NGOs, this sector lacked experience in management – just one example from the NGO I worked for BirdLife Malta which became a truly professional NGO over the years thanks to the involvement of many professional foreigners who worked for BirdLife.

WM: Do you prefer to spend your spare time with Maltese or with foreigners?

TT: Mostly with Maltese.

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WM: Which experience in Malta would you classify as “ultimately Maltese”?

TT: There were many curious incidents; one of them was especially memorable. In 2004, after having moved to Malta, my partner and I decided to organise the first world music festival, for which we brought famous musicians from all around the world. Lower St. Elmo was chosen for a venue, as we wanted to bring this place to life. It is a magical, mystic historical place, which also served as a set for “The Midnight Express” and it could be used as art space. Sadly, Lower St. Elmo was used as a dump site for many years, the amount of garbage estimated in truckloads! As we were preparing the venue, a curious accident happened. Once I received a phone call from the stage manager, telling me “We have a tiger here! What are we going to do with it?!”…

WM: a real tiger?!.

TT: Yes, a very real tiger! We heard that the animal’s owner bought the old tiger from an Italian circus (the information was not officially confirmed) and just kept it there, at Lower St Elmo. It sounds unbelievable, but when we were cleaning the place for a backstage we had to move the tiger out! Besides the tiger, there also were other animals – donkeys and pigs. We kept them though, to keep the atmosphere.

WM: Do you plan to stay in Malta for long?

TT: I do not make such plans. I never had an idea where I will be a year after. I always dreamt about living in Barcelona but so far I am enjoying living here. I will see what life will bring.

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Train Stories

Trains, how much I miss them. Especially long routed ones, with a brass boiler and berths, crossing vast Russian ghostly spaces. It is often said the world became smaller due to air travelling; airlines connected distant corners of the world and placed them all within reach. Undeniably, planes have facilitated travelling with speed and comfort yet hardly have brought distant places together. A collective term “world” still remains an abstraction, used to describe a great number of realities, sharing common space and coexisting in time though still remote from one another. Every time, arriving to a destination only a few hours away from a starting point, it is so awkward for the mind to accustom to the suddenly changed reality. Air travelling feels like moving through a set of diverse rooms, with no corridors and staircases and where doors connect and isolate at the same time. Trains provide the missing corridor and erase borders, binding together travellers and spaces.

Twenty-nine hours – this is how long it takes to arrive from Astrakhan to Moscow by train; by plane – it’s two and a half. How unfortunate it is to sacrifice those twenty-nine hours for two and a half in order to “save time”! Time does not exist in trains. There is nowhere to rush. It’s time for books, long conversations, staring at the slowly changing landscape and consuming an impressive amount of food supplies. Yes, trains must be a nightmare for introverts and diet freaks. Although, there is an escape – upper berth, where one can just stare at the sky through a dusty window right above the head.

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After sunset, the view is swallowed by darkness, rarely interrupted by other trains heading from the opposite direction. More jokes, more food sharing, more stories. Someone would be completely drunk by then – Russian distances also encourage the national sport. The upper light in the wagon goes off, but conversations still continue in whispers. Someone is preparing to leave – to dive into that tick darkness outside the window at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere.

Night at trains is surreal and annoying at once. Falling asleep to a lullaby of monotonous “choog-choog, choog-choog”, you are very likely to be soon woken up by newly arrived passengers, loud snoring of a neighbour, drunk as skunk, or by thunder of an oncoming train. Slumber, tinkle of a teaspoon in a glass, crush of luggage, whispers, choog-choog, the dusty smell of the pillow, rhythmic swaying of the wagon… Moving forward at full speed while being asleep to wake up in another town – that’s train for you.

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Morning greets with another station, gleaming by the window, new faces and queues to lavatory. The atmosphere is no longer careless and fun – it’s the arrival day. All plans and urgent matters jump back to mind, discussions turn to practical issues. “Why are you going to Moscow? For how long? Transit?! – Luckyyy!”. Remains of food are finished in a rush, bags – all packed, mattresses – rolled and placed on upper berths. Dust particles shine in the sunlight.

Half an hour is left until arrival and facial expressions become concentrated, impatient, longing. Soon all of them, who once were so close, will disappear from your life as randomly as they walked in. The giant megalopolis will absorb them together with their secrets, leaving no trace – it feeds on people. Final goodbyes, gnashing of breaks and, a few moments after, then-friends and now-strangers roll away as quickly, as peas scattered on the floor – each one to a different direction.

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Alone in the snow

It was a gloomy winter day, the train was crawling through the endless fields powdered with snow – the same view for hours. “Next stop is for two minutes only. Stay inside please!”, warns the conductor. We stop in the middle of nowhere (literally), the station consists of a one-story building with one window and a kiosk nearby. “I will only buy cigarettes! I’ll be quick, will be back in no time!”, one of the passengers, a man in his 30s, quickly ventures out of the wagon, wearing bed slippers and light jacket. Two minutes pass as a finger click, the doors are closed and the train is gaining speed. There he is, our careless fellow, trying to catch up with the train, running on the snow with snow-white bed slippers, shaking his hands, screaming something. “Let’s stop the train! Please pull the break, pull the break!!!”. “Are you insane? She wants to stop the train! We’ll end up in such a trouble! What time we arrive then?!”. You fuss about strangers left in the middle of nowhere in the middle of Russian winter only when you’re 24. Others, older and more experienced in life, do not have time to waste and Moscow does not wait.

Bearded late night visitor

Late night train, 30th December 2008. Right after checking in and saying hello, me and three other passengers (a middle-aged woman and a young couple) prepare our berths in a cosy modern compartment. Lights go off and someone mumbles something about locking the door before falling asleep – something that everyone knows. Sleep refuses to come and I decide to spend some time in the corridor. Memories of Malta and of waves, crushing on the shore in Sliema Surfside, are still so vivid. I wholeheartedly hate to return to the frozen desert and want to weep. After a walk from one wagon to another, I return to the compartment and try to fall asleep. Ten minutes later, the door opens and one of my fellow travellers walks in, locking the door behind. I realize someone is sitting on my berth and is going to lay down. “Oh, please, I am not in mood for jokes!”, I whisper, not seeing a thing in pitch darkness. Not saying a word, the interrupter of my dreams starts climbing on the upper berth. In a few moments that same someone gets down again and climbs on the upper berth on the other side. “Man, who are you?!”, I hear next. Someone switches on the lights and we see a bearded man on the upper berth with our male fellow traveler. All becomes clear: the stranger simply entered a wrong compartment and, since drunk (New Year celebrations had started), he could not remember what berth was his. He apologizes and leaves quickly. The accident amuses us all.

– When he sat on my bed I though it was Raisa!

– When he sat on mine I thought it was Sergey!

thought it was my dear boy, so I did not notice anything wrong!

I thought it was my dear girl, I hugged her and was about to kiss her … then I felt the beard!

Have to admit, It was my fault – I should have locked the door behind me.

The couple leaves the train in the morning. “I bet, she’s his mistress, not wife”, my only remaining fellow traveller is in mood to gossip. “He is cheating on his wife, I smell these things”. I shrug shoulders. Well, trains must be paradise for swingers.

Malta: lovely yet overly politicized

When politics is not about ideology.  ~5 minutes read~

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Politicks, the card game created by Log Hob Games was a smashing success on crowd-funding site Indiegogo. The game finally gave Malta a chance to play with politicians.

What would you call Malta’s signature trait, a specialty that can be experienced only here? Besides its relaxed and life-appreciating lifestyle, it is the extremely polarised and passionate political involvement that makes Malta so exiting to witness. With its two-party system, Malta is divided into Laburisti (red) and Nazzjonalisti (blue) with a [growing] pinch of liberal-minded citizens. It was utterly surprising to me as foreigner to discover that almost every Maltese above 30 has a strong political opinion and is assigned to either one of the political parties. Politics literally infiltrates every aspect of life in the country. Everything here – from universal concerns such as environmental conservation and development to personal preferences like the colour of car and dressing style – might be seen as political.

To even bigger surprise, I learnt that political views are often inherited from family members. Open support for one of the parties eventually becomes a label, strongly associated with the rest of personality and is often used as description. A phrase like “He is Labour” or “She is Nationalist” is a piece of information, sufficient for indictment. Members of the two clusters support their party’s decisions with near religious fanaticism, at times bordering with complete intolerance towards the other party’s members. To liberal-minded Maltese and outsiders, numerous examples of such passionate devotion look similar to fights between football fans during big championships. Not only such association comes to mind from direct observations of supporters’ delirious performance but also they result from a failure to logically comprehend the reasons behind such fanaticism with a touch of serfdom.

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Sometimes it is hard to tell whether politics inspire carnival satire or the opposite is true. Cartoon by Steve Bonello.

What is the difference between the two confronting ideologies? Are they ideologies at all? It would be unjustified to say that one represents the interest of underprivileged while the other stands for more established citizens. So, if not ideology, what makes one Labour or Nationalist? After a few years of wondering, I have come to a conclusion it is [hopes for] personal benefits for oneself and his/her family or paying off for the benefits/lack of them in the past. In a nutshell, it is gratitude or rancor. To be fair, not everyone in Malta is enthusiastic about the two-party system. There are a number of independent thinkers siding with Alternattiva Democratika, and those utterly skeptical about politicians as a class, labeling them all immature.

All these observations are quite unbelievable for a Russian person. At the beginning, Malta’s political realities were incomprehensible for a citizen of the country with a very low, almost non-existent, trust in the political elite whichever side it represents. Yes, despite the ever-alarming political and economic situation in the country, Russians do not believe their vote would make any difference or that it has any power at all – that is why the political climate in Malta was a whole new experience.

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Red vs Blue. Cartoon published on MaltaToday in 6th January 2016. The original is available here.

Even though at times Maltese political scene looks like a verbal gang fight, there are still some undeniably positive facts about it – facts regular for the Maltese and incredible for foreigners. Politicians here are very close to their electorate – they literally are part of the crowd. You are very likely to meet them on streets, at restaurants or on the ferry. A minister might be living just a few doors away and a Member of Parliament might hang at your bar. The powerful guys are just one handshake away and they do remember to whom they owe their power. The very fact that reaching for the Prime Minister’s hand in Malta is quite realistic is already surreal to me. Living in a nearly totalitarian country, I got used to the fact that politicians exist in some parallel universe, completely isolated from mortals with high fences and protected by armed guards. While  Russia’s leaders might well be virtual remote characters or realistic game-generated images, in Malta they are mere humans made of flesh and bones. And that alone gives the public a very powerful mechanism of controlling them.

Politics in Malta is a very delicate personal issue. Personal, because by declaring their vote to one party or another, the Maltese very often follow practical, not ideological, interests: contracts, job promotions, boathouses, customised business offers, little treats for the party clubs and so on. At the end of the day, an outsider understands there is a lot more sense in overwhelming political involvement of the Maltese than it seemed at the beginning. Behind the curtain of fanaticism, there is a very logical desire to be well-connected. Whereas in many other countries voting for ideas will get you nowhere, in Malta a vote can transform into a very feasible matter and the gang can eventually throw a bone or two.

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Votes are Malta’s priciest currency. Cartoon published in MaltaToday on 6th January 2016. The original is here.

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