There’s No Champagne Left in Malta

At 4:15am on July 31st, I awoke to do a truly ridiculous thing: fly 1,200 miles to Malta, attend a wedding where I knew exactly 2 of the 600+ guests, and fly back the next day.

This, my friends, is what life is all about.

For those of my readers who are a bit rusty on their European geography, Malta is an alluring little nugget quietly basking year-round in the Mediterranean sunshine, a few hops south of Sicily. For such a diminutive island (or, 3 islands, actually), it has robust history of rubbing shoulders with great empires of the east and west – think, Phoenicians, Romans, Ottomans, Arabs. And if my parochial-school upbringing still serves me well, it’s one of the few European countries to garner a mention in the Bible – which perhaps explains the Maltese people’s strong Catholic bent. I’ve been told the islands are very proud of their 365 churches – one for each day of the year.

History aside, I confidently left Hamburg armed with little more than a carry-on bag, great sunglasses, a snort-worthy Bill Bryson paperback, and a confirmed reservation at the luxe Hotel Phoenicia. Malta experts will assure you: you don’t need much more.

Several hours and 1 connection later, Lufthansa flight 4128 touched down in Luqa. It did not escape my attention that the Malta International airport is cleverly designed to maximize the arrival impact to the visitor by immediately requiring one to step outside: as the airplane door is flung open, the weather-worn northern European stumbles onto the stairs descending to the tarmac, pauses for a moment to allow one’s eyes adjust to 500% more sunlight than usual – gasps at the stunning, stark blue Mediterranean sky above and rich limestone landscape below – and involuntarily cries ” Malta! WOW, MALTA!!!!!”

Ok, maybe that was just me.

I admit, I’m an easy target for the Maltese Travel Bureau. I’m totally beguiled by Malta and its people, having spent a glorious week there about a decade ago. Pure delight and anticipation coursed through my veins during the 15 minute taxi ride to my 5-star hotel which I had quietly booked without consulting my more frugal-minded husband. The Hotel Phoenicia is the grand dame of hotels in Valletta; it exudes a quiet, assured elegance that is not contrived. I appreciate its tasteful appointments, the lobby’s sparkling chandelier, the fabulous pool, and of course the enthusiastic flirtations of the 60-something bellman.

Having risen earlier than the roosters, I conceived a notion of taking a long and satisfying nap to prepare myself for the festivities. This, fair reader, was not to happen. With my “travel diva” sensors on full alert, I knew I could not waste precious hours in slumber. A small chat with the bellman allowed me to outline my program: I wanted “˜insider Malta’, and I wanted it in 90 minutes or less. This fine chap gave me a knowing nod, whipped out his cell phone, and 6 minutes later produced driver “Tony”, who would prove to be at my service for the duration of my trip. Tony assured me of his qualifications: he spoke no fewer than 6 languages and had an impressive grasp of the history of Malta. I duly appreciated his comfortable, air-conditioned Mercedes taxi, and was soon to learn of his trained eye for women’s clothing (having owned several dress boutiques at one time), which proved handy in the hours to come.

Our whirlwind tour included the Upper Barracca Gardens in Valetta, which command an unparalleled view over the Grand Harbor, plus an incredibly scenic drive through the winding streets of the “Three Cities”. A dash through the yacht harbor, a slowdown by the sites of the “Water World” and “Midnight Express” movie locations, a detour through a thoroughly decked-out village celebrating a “festa” that weekend, a cruise by Fort Rinella and Kalkara’s hidden beach, and then probably a few other things I’ve forgotten, and back to the Hotel Phoenicia with ample time to prepare for the evening’s main event.

Tony cast a bit of fear into my heart when I asked him to drive me to the wedding that night. He replied “Certainly! But, what are you planning to wear? You know, in Malta people dress very formally for weddings. You must have a gown fit for the Oscars!” My eyes widened with concern as I envisioned my knee-length wrap dress still stuffed carelessly in my carry-on. Oscars? Gown? Panic set in, and I promptly fled into the hotel to consult with the concierge. After listening with raised eyebrows to my obvious lack of preparation, she sternly instructed me to go put on my dress with all accessories and return to the lobby for further inspection.

With all the moxie I could muster, I sashayed back into the lobby 10 minutes letter in full regalia. I appreciated the approving stares of passing menfolk, but knew that a more stringent test would soon be administered. Upon my approach, the concierge brightened considerably and said with an almost unsettling amount of surprise “my, you look quite nice now!” (and how did I look before?!) “Very smart, very stylish. Maybe this will be ok. But you still should have brought a gown. Unfortunately, all the stores are closed for the day, and so this is your only option.”

My pocketbook breathed great sighs of relief at the latter statement, and I resolved for future international wedding attendance to obtain appropriate dress code consultations well in advance.

At 6pm sharp, a more freshly-scrubbed Tony arrived to pick up a more fully-coiffed, bejeweled, and babed-up me. His bushy eyebrows raised in surprise as I approached the car. “My dear! I almost didn’t recognize you! You look fantastic! The dress suits you perfectly. The line is perfect. The color is perfect. You will be fine!” While perhaps he overstated the situation a wee bit (it was, really, just a wrap dress, and you can’t very well hide the effects of having undergone childbirth under that”¦), I took it that the Maltese ascribe a high value to wedding attire, and so I was pleased that I would not totally embarrass and dishonor my family name.

Upon our early arrival at the church in San Pawl tat-Targa (yes, that’s a name of a town), I tried to mingle casually with the other 600 guests while awaiting the bride. My very clever opening line, as I strode up to a friendly-looking Finnish gal and her handsome, chain-smoking Italian boyfriend, was “why are we all standing outside?” This garnered a few shrugs, but at least I’d found a friend. Mari expressed wonder at knowing 600 people to invite to one’s wedding (her comment was “I’m from a small Finnish town near the Russian border. We do things a bit differently out there.”).

Soon enough, everyone was comfortably seated inside (I panicked a bit over identifying the “bride side” vs. “groom side”, but it seemed to be more of a free-for-all seating plan), and sparkling bride Maria and dashing brother Joseph made an elegant appearance in a white vintage Rolls Royce convertible. This was my first experience with an authentic Catholic mass wedding, and I (as well as the other foreign guests – hailing from no fewer than 19 countries) was grateful that it was conducted in English. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that the priest didn’t come in with the powdery, fragrant swinging incense thing, but I guess they’ve modernized. Those mundane thoughts quickly vaporized when brother Joseph (a world-renown opera singer – seriously) took the stage to sing “Ave Maria”. Mind you, this was sort of akin to having Gauguin paint a picture for your living room. It was absolutely heart-stopping. People stopped breathing. Even the birds stopped chirping. All of nature paused to listen for 5 glorious minutes.

And then, about another 90 minutes later (mind you, this was Catholic MASS), the priest finally pronounced them “Man and Wife”, and after a very chaste kiss the newlyweds and their 600 guests poured outside to generally rejoice, snap photos and sneak a few quick smokes.

Now, all this has been leading up to the star of this report: The Reception. Under heaven and earth, there has surely never been a wedding reception like this one. I suspect even the legendary Wedding at Cana (with all that water-to-wine business), if measured up against The Reception, would be found sorely lacking. As I entered the luxurious, antique- and art-filled Villa Arrigo, my travel diva sensors missed no detail. My approving eyes swept over the tasteful furnishings, the glove-clad servers, the hand-carved banisters, the white rose arrangements. But, there was more: we were escorted outside into the immaculately maintained, romantically-lit Marquee gardens. After I was able to tear my gaze away from the gorgeously uplit fountains, I noticed the real, no-fake-stuff-here SWANS gliding gracefully across the marbled pool. I gasped at the perfect ice sculptures (this, I have only seen in movies), then strolled over to the stunning hilltop view of the lights of Malta. All this wedding “shock-and-awe” piqued my appetite, and I spent several bewildered minutes trying to decide between the lobster table, the caviar table, the sushi table, and the made-to-order wrap table. Someone thrust a glass of Taittinger in my left hand and a canapé in my right, and I had to resist falling to my knees and thanking God Himself for bringing me to this once-in-a-lifetime event.

As I was chatting up some of the pink-bedecked bridesmaids, Joseph appeared out of nowhere with a bottle of champagne in one hand (“champagne” would prove to be an important theme for the rest of the evening – truly, I have never seen such a quantity of fine golden bubbly!), 2 glasses in the other, and firmly escorted me off to his secret “VIP” lair up on the hill. Note, as a rule, I don’t get to spend a lot of time in “VIP” lairs, but this was a refreshing exception. In said lair, stylishly-clad guests lounged about on stone benches, sipping endless glasses of bubbly and beckoning the wait-staff to keep our canapé trays full. I accepted all hospitality gratefully, and settled in for an entertaining evening of jovially tasteless Italian jokes (helpfully translated to English by Joseph’s friend Anton) and the type of general banter that arises between old, old friends. Little beknownst to me, I was sitting amongst folks with impressive musical pedigrees: Joseph, of course (a regular at the Met), several of his friends who comprised a popular Maltese rock band called Winter Moods, and who I perceived to be the “Mick Jagger” of Italy – Riccardo Cocciante. This quiet, gentle man with very wild hair was accompanied by an elegant and ever-watchful wife – clearly having beaten off a few groupies in her day.

The evening really got started when the brass band took to the stage and started sending dance vibes through the audience. And, much to everyone’s absolute delight, Joseph grabbed a microphone for an impromptu concert. Not much later, our tranquil Riccardo – apparently having had a firecracker stuffed into his belly button – burst onto stage with dance moves and sounds of which I haven’t heard the likes of in years. This musical dream team was further augmented by talented members of the Winter Moods, and the crowd truly went wild!

This brings me to a topic which I have been sorely remiss in discussing: the Bride and Groom. Maria, our blushing bride, looked to have jumped out of the pages of Modern Bride, with perfectly coiffed hair, a spectacular dress, a sparkling smile, and the genuine glow that is emanated only by a truly in-love bride on her wedding day. Groom Ian looked equally dashing – as dashing as a man can get when standing next to such an all-eclipsing beauty – and they delighted their guests by dancing on stage as Joseph-and-team regaled us with the pop hits of America & Italy. Throughout the evening, Maria had managed to accomplish something that few brides can pull off: the ability to greet each of her 600 guests as if THEY were the special, beloved guest of the evening. I calculated that if she spent only 1 minute speaking to each guest, it would take a mere 10 hours for her to cover her entire guest list. Good thing Maltese wedding receptions last a very, very, very long time.

One of the highlights of the evening was meeting, and having a surprisingly articulate conversation with, Joseph’s 3-year-old son, Xandru (pronounced “shandru”) – decked out head-to-toe in a white suit that stayed startlingly crisp and clean throughout the festivities. We like to joke that Xandru is my daughter Sophie’s future husband in the making, so I regaled the poor lad with stories about my brilliant daughter. He, somewhat bewildered, asked “but, where is she? Does she want to come play?” and I had to explain that she was at home in Germany. He winningly replied “Oh. Is that far?”

Sadly, all good parties must eventually come to an end – although this one, as it turned out, was not destined to end until strains of dawn appeared in the sky. At 2:30am (after many telephone calls pushing back the pick-up time “just another hour”¦”), my driver finally drew the line and called to say “it’s now or never, lady”. Since taxi drivers are quite difficult to come by in the middle of the night in suburban Malta, I bid sad “adieus” to the bride, Joseph, and many new friends. I had now been awake for nearly 23 hours, and I had a plane to catch the next morning. On my way out, as I dragged my heels and sniffed a little, little Xandru called out to me “Jennifer, where are you going? Are you leaving already??!” I had to laugh that this 3-year-old had out-partied me, but I suppose that is the Maltese in him.

6 hours later, an alarm clock rudely dragged me from the depths of glorious slumber, and I awoke with a smile and smudges of mascara still on my face. A perfect weekend was capped with breakfast on the massive stone balcony of the Phoenicia, overlooking beautiful gardens and beyond to the Grand Harbor. Tony whisked me away to the airport, and I departed Malta with fabulous memories, a handful of photos, and some stylish glass coasters that were gifts to each of the wedding guests. Back at home as I sip my tea and place it back down on my Maltese coaster, I recall with fondness this amazing weekend”¦ one I will not soon forget.


Some photos of the weekend:

Much of Malta is long, narrow, mysterious streets:

A view over the Grand Harbor:

In the Upper Barracca Gardens:



A traditional Maltese fishing boat in the yacht harbor:


Movie afficionadoes will appreciate some of the boats from Kevin Costner’s “Water World”:

A Maltese neighborhood decks itself out for its patron saint’s festa:

These are actually made of finely-painted wood!


Back to my digs:

And finally, the Big Event:


The newlyweds depart in a vintage Rolls Royce convertible:

The fabled reception locale:



I snuck a shot of Riccardo ..

The boys jam:

Sneaking a moment with the bride (us, clearly needing some powdering!)
CIMG2234 edited 550 Maria.jpg

And some quality time with Joseph up in the “lair”:
CIMG2237 edited 550 Joseph.jpg

The next morning, back at the hotel, a scenic end to a perfect weekend:






Thank you Tony, for the fine driving!

Posted in EUROPE 2005, GENERAL | 6 Comments

Back to the Wild West

You’d think after 5 years living in Europe, a trip back to California would not hold as much of a sense of utter relief as it did the first 2 years. But, well, it still does. As soon as we board that jumbo, my coat goes in the carry-on bag, not to be seen again for at least 2 weeks. About halfway over the Atlantic, I stop speaking any German with the flight attendants. A good hour from landing, the sunglasses go on my head and the socks come off. When those wheels touch the ground, a decidedly non-European “dude, that’s AWESOME!” slips out of my mouth, and I wonder how long before I can sink that first chip into a bowl of guacamole”¦

This trip, a slight deviation from the above program, took place when we decided to buy “real”, fully-booked tickets (Soenke had gone on “˜standby’ strike) – this time, Hamburg to London via Lufthansa (so I could stop speaking German a lot earlier..), and Air New Zealand from London to LA. Mind you, these were cattle-class tickets, at about 3 times what we pay for business class standby tickets. I began seriously doubting the wisdom of our decision as we continued farther and farther back in the Air New Zealand plane “¦ past the red-carpeted first class stairs”¦ past luxurious business class with its champagne-sipping passengers”¦ even past premium economy class with attractively upholstered seats and precious extra inches of legroom”¦ all the way back to “really cheapo class”, which pretty much involved 20 rows of beach chairs, a vending machine, and a couple of porto-potties.

I had actually never sat this far back in a jumbo, and was somewhat interested in the peculiar configuration of toilets at the very aft of the airplane, which I proceeded to explore during the pre-flight preparations. My interest was, unfortunately, short-lived – interrupted by our new cabinmate: a seedy-looking criminal being extradited to the US – in handcuffs – firmly escorted to his seat a few rows behind us by two heavily-armed air marshals. All this may not have captured too much attention except for the fact that said man was frothing at the mouth and screaming what surely were foreign obscenities at the top of his lungs. As I blinked in disbelief (and wondered how expensive it would REALLY be to upgrade us into champagne-class”¦), Soenke calmly began inserting his earplugs and commented “oh, they do this all the time – they yell, hoping the captain will kick them off the plane. He’s harmless and he’ll settle down as soon as we take off.” And, God bless him, he was totally right. Within an hour after takeoff, seedy-criminal was sipping English breakfast tea with his pinky in the air, chatting pleasantly with the flight attendants.

Super-cheapo-criminal-class notwithstanding, the next 10 hours represented the most pleasurable and relaxing transatlantic flight our Sophie-inclusive family has ever had – with toddler watching her beloved Cars movie on not one, but TWO adjacent in-seat video screens for most of these 10 hours, and me watching just about every other in-seat movie in unprecedented, uninterrupted peace and quiet (and yes, I KNOW that a respectable lady should in NO case watch such a lowbrow movie as “˜Bachelor Party'”¦ much less LAUGH and SNORT during said film”¦ but”¦ < < insert valid + believable excuse here.... >> )

Fast forward to 4am next morning – jet lag day #1, Soenke & Sophie happily ensconced on Lazy-boy with chips & guac in progress. I have trained them well.

As usual, our Cali visits consist of a blur of nephews, rowdy BBQs, and serious shopping expeditions, punctuated by fish taco outings and a heck of a lot of sunshine. However, this month brought an extra special twist to our usual March sunshine program: cousin Steve, with his totally cool convertible jeep, was road-tripping his way down the Pacific coast to hook up with the So Cal Crawfords. That up’d the ante, and therefore we (well, someone) organized ever more elaborate outings, including aquarium tours, bi-plane rides, and even a visit to the hallowed LEGOLAND.

As always, the photos tell the best story:


Day #1 Jet Lag: early AM Guac party:

Legoland.. I can’t BELIEVE how expensive this place is, but the kids (ahem, and my sister-in-law..) went gaga for it:

Bro + #5 son Levi shake it up:

Nephews Drew & Chase hang with Aunt Sis (me):

My favorite spot, with Mom, under the portico with climbing, lavender-flowered vines:


Post Lego-land search for suitable grub…. through typically Californian beach town at sunset:

Ka-ching! We know the good stuff when we see it:

10,000 calories of pure Mexican pleasure:

How to top Legoland? Maybe with a visit to the Long Beach aquarium…

En route, Sophie channels her inner California girl:

Now these are some FISH:

Spooky… surreal:

Yeah, that’s my daughter petting a manta ray (clearly a violation of mommy-approved protocol):

But wait, do my eyes DECEIVE me? Or is that an Easter Island head I see?

Forget about the fish, this is Big News. The placard said it was gifted from the people of Rapa Nui (aka Easter Island) to the Long Beach aquarium. How do I sign up for that gifting program???????!!!

Took awhile for that thrill to sink in (ended up being an inspiration – surely a sign from God Himself – to go ahead & book my 2010 Easter Island trip! which I did…!)

The next day, we decide to do some aquarium comparison and head down to the San Pedro Aquarium (free). Clearly a bit more budget-strapped, but we had a blast. I don’t know who took all the good photos – it sure wasn’t me – we were with my entire family, including cousin Steve.

Sophie seemed to like these fish the best (go figure)..



The best aquarium experience EVER was a fascinating little outdoor seminar describing the rare nighttime grunion run, which occurs once a year on California beaches. We were totally excited to hatch our own grunions in this very jar! (ok, so we had to give them back afterwards…):

Later that evening, I got my first ride in Steve’s awesome JEEP! the ultimate antidote to any mid-life crisis (ahem, not that my cousin Steve is anywhere NEAR the age of mid-life crisis 😉 ) :

Next day, a special outing to Brackett Field, a small-plane airport and primo picnic area near my bro’s house. Big thrill, there was also an airplane show & biplane rides that day!


Nephew Channing is ready for action:

Off go Channing + cousin Steve (while my sis-in-law crosses herself and prays a lot..)

Steve has the appropriate post-flight pilot strut (although he didn’t fly, of course, he IS a honest-to-goodness pilot..)


Sophie picked out our rental car:

First stop out of Phoenix, our favorite Starbucks at this exit (love that streetname!), with the tattooed/pierced barrister that always remembers us:

And then, our favorite, dangerous-critter-full rest stop:

Final destination, SEDONA. Can never get enough:





This year, Sophie takes an interest in some “hiking”:

Who knew anthills could be so fascinating (this is just one of dozens we closely examined together):




En route back to civilization, we are not ones to snub our noses at a good, old-fashioned Starbucks drive-through:

A final night in Phoenix before looping back through LA – en route to Hamburg – finds us in the newly-renovated, VERY funky Clarendon Hotel. We decided it was just a little too cool for us (although, the rooftop bar with flamenco dancing was a nice touch). Wish I had a photo of the pool & lobby to prove my point:


Back in Hamburg, here is a true photo of Extreme Jet Lag:

Posted in EUROPE 2005 | 1 Comment