For the want of fish and chips

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[It's Thursday afternoon, and we just boarded our Alitalia flight back to Rome. I'm writing this in a black vinyl-bound journal with a skull-and-crossbones on the cover that I got for my 40th birthday. When I next have the chance, I'll copy this back into my blog.]

Tuesday morning at the Intercontinental, Laura and I opted to have only coffee delivered to the room. My Monday morning order of French toast with cinnamon had been disappointing in the extreme. The four slices were all still soggy with egg batter in the middle. I had eaten around the edges and tried not to gag. The Intercontinental may be a 5-star hotel, but it gets no more than four, maybe three, in my book. The internet connection, via ethernet cable, is not very reliable, and neither is some of the concierges' advice.

I spent the morning working in the room while Laura attended her morning conference sessions. At noon-thirty, I ran into Laura and her colleague Cyndee in the lobby, just as I was heading to the hotel bar in hopes that I could sneak in a pint of Cisk (the local lager, pronounced chisk) before they arrived. They had to run to the rooms and change, so I gulped down a half-pint that looked larger than that. By the time I was done, they were back, and we all took the bus to Valletta.

Valletta on a weekday is far different from Valletta on a Sunday. Very crowded, every shop open, from the tiniest silversmith to McDonald's and Burger King. Our first stop was at a gelateria because our quest for gelato for Laura had ended in disappointment the night before. [Beginning to taxi.] Laura was very happy with her Valletta gelato, but I had already been served my two scoops when I spied the tub of fig gelato. I enjoyed my pistachio and "banofee"—banana toffee—but became fixated thereafter on finding and trying fig gelato elsewhere.

We next visited the Palace of the Grand Masters, where, faced with a choice between paying to tour the state rooms, the armoury, or both, we chose the state rooms. (I knew my vote for the armoury would count for naught against two state-room votes, so I abstained.) [Takeoff. Flying now over blue-green lagoons, and now out over the Mediterranean. The surface looks wrinkled somehow, with still blue veins running through it like cracks in a pudding skin. Currents?] The state rooms were certainly impressive, rich and baroque, together with the long galleries lined with portraits of all the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta. Most interesting to me, though, was that past a velvet rope, through an archway, and up a short flight of stairs that curved around a wide column, you could read the plate beside the door that led to the office of the president of Malta.

We wandered around Valletta window-shopping for a while longer, then hopped the bus back toward St. Julian's. Laura and Cyndee debarked somewhere between Valletta and Sliema, hoping to find the Zara they had spotted on the way out. (Too soon, it turned out, and that was my fault.) I stayed on board, intending to find food in St. Julian's. Not just any food, either, but fish and chips, which I somehow had a hankering for. (The women weren't hungry. Having stuffed ourselves the night before, I think Laura's exact phrase, gelato aside, was "I never want to eat again.")

In St. Julian's, I walked confidently into a bar I had noted a few times earlier, the Scotsman Pub. Two different signs outside [pen starting to leak! ink disaster!] promised British fish and chips within. I strolled on up to the bar past the only two patrons, took a seat in a spot under a light [pens nearly impossible to use on plane—now Saturday morning on train to Aswan] where I could read in the dimness, and waited for the bartender to arrive to take my order.

"Guinness," I said.

"Aye," he said, having emerged from the back room.

"And a menu, please."

He looked at my oddly, already sliding the glass under the tap. "We've got nae food, mate," he said. He was Scottish and shaved bald.

Confused, I shrugged and said, "Then I guess it'll just be the Guinness."

Hey, it's a meal in itself.

Outside, I verified that fish and chips were indeed advertised, chalked it up to Malta, and continued in search of food.

Most places I saw didn't look very appealing, whether because they served burgers and pizza, or because of the young, rowdy, hip clientele and the improbably of reading in peace. I found what looked to be a fine little Turkish doner stand, but peering around inside I could locate no actual worker.

This is how I ended up, at last, at the Hard Rock Cafe, eating a damn burger and fries and drinking the worst caipirinha in the history of Brazilian commerce. I bought a T-shirt for my son in the gift shop, in part to justify my appalling lapse of taste.

Later that evening, I met Laura and Cyndee and we set out for beverages and light food. We sat in the far corner of the terrace at a place called Paparazzi, overlooking one of St. Julian's several small bays. I had a gin smash. When I ordered a silver cloud after that, the waitress commented that I must be out to try everything on the cocktail list. My mixed salad plate was loaded with capers, Maltese sausage, ġbejniet, oven-dried tomatoes, paté, olives, and more. I shared my bounty in exchange for pizza slices—good individual pizzas—from Laura and Cyndee.

We went to the tenth-floor hotel bar at the Intercontinental for one last nightcap (I was trying to tank up, I think, for nine days in the dry desert), where on the spectacular open-air plaza that even higher balconies look down on from three sides, the Welsh bartender and I had a laugh at our mutual inability to comprehend the other's pronunciation of "Laphraoig." He told us that the Maltese and Italians often ask him to speak English. Laura had a Johnny Walker Black, Cyndee a half-pint of Cisk, and we all jumped when the fireworks went off, out of sight, just the other side of the hotel tower, with a sound like artillery. It sounded like a war.

That scared us. What scared the cockroach making its way toward us across the plaza was two waiter dropping a table they were putting away for the night. That spurred the cockroach to flight. The scurrying kind of flight, that is, not the flying kind.

The bar closed at midnight. And that was Tuesday.

[ original post:  http://shunn.livejournal.com/456015.html ]

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This page contains a single entry by William Shunn published on May 26, 2008 5:17 PM.

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