Changes in City Gate

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Another piece of Valletta is about to be improved.

The scruffy, shanty-town collection of kiosks and bus ticket offices circling the perimeter of the former bus terminus which converges into the bridge crossing the dry moat to City Gate have already been closed down to be demolished to make space for a pedestrianized, tree lined plaza focused round Vincenzo Apap’s bronze masterpiece, the Tritons Fountain which is also set to be returned to its former operating glory.

Sounds fantastic. Rundown, dilapidated, downright ugly and nondescript structures selling a variety of cheap foodstuffs and convenience goods. With clients to match. To be replaced by a neater, well planned, uniformly designed layout in which the pedestrian is king.

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The demolishing of these eyesores, ugly and unloved as they are, cannot but also raise a tinge of nostalgic regret in me. A nostalgia comprising half a century of memories of a location which is central to the lives of the majority of the Maltese. A location which for decades has served not only as the fulcrum of the Island’s public transport network, but also as the meeting point for friends, students, colleagues, lovers and countless other combinations of humanity.

A nostalgia based on memories of childhood, youth, love, friends, education, work and family.

For within those ugly structures lurked a world which shall not exist any more: some of which already has not existed any more for some years now.

A world comprising establishments such as the Milk Van and the Imqaret Kiosk. Both synonymous with their unique City Gate location. I have early childhood memories of drinking flavoured milk from a pyramidal carton purchased from that Milk Van. I also remember buying milk in glass bottles, fresh ricotta and yogurt from what was probably Malta’s only surviving stand-alone retail outlet exclusively selling dairy products.

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The same Milk Van also served as the area’s ubiquitous Meeting Point. Meeting a girlfriend on a first date, a group of friends for a hike or a day at the beach or a visit to Valletta to go to the cinema or shopping generally involved meeting “near the Milk Van” at a specific date and time.

The Imqaret Kiosk: a ramshackle structure from which the enticing smell of deep-fried dates encased in golden pastry attracted people in droves to buy the ridiculously affordable, if unhealthy, deliciously warm and tasty heartburn bombs. The Kiosk operator would lure people to buy his wares by adding a few drops of anisette to the bubbling oil in which the mqaret were frying, and the resultant aroma had a pull not dissimilar to that of magnetism. Such was the brand value of the humble Imqaret Kiosk that other kiosks have sprouted elsewhere on the Island bearing the reassuring statement, “Imqaret minn tal-Belt” which translates into “same provenance as those of the Valletta kiosk”.

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The Kiosks selling cheap pasti: fake kannoli filled with butter cream, atrociously coloured cakes containing a potentially lethal mix of food colourings and pies composed mostly of dough with the consistency of seasoned hardwood. And, from an age which predates one of the curses of our current age, plastic, the flavoured water dispensers from which orange or almond squash drinks could be purchased in real glasses which were returned to the kiosk for re-use. The same kiosks which remained open until the last bus left at 23:00 and which offered a telephone service for two cents a call when one missed the last bus and needed to do some explaining to one’s irate parents!

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There were other shops too of course. I distinctly remember a news kiosk selling not only newspapers but also stocking a variety of glossy magazines, books and classics such as Marvel and DC comics which we would stop and look at in awe, penniless as we were as students. Carts selling deliciously smelling fresh bread in the morning, lottery ticket sellers and a variety of itinerant, enterprising seasonal sellers selling you umbrellas on a rainy day, vetch seeds for the Christmas crib in November, carob sweets during Lent, sandals and hats in summer.  Apart from the then familiar but now rare sight of matronly ladies selling mulberries, capers, parsley, mint or bunches of stocks (gizi) from ancient prams.   The scene was completed by the cheap souvenirs kiosk aimed at the panicking departing tourist who left it till last or bus passengers seeking a beach towel, a baseball cap or cheap sunshades!

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Apart from all of these shops there were others less frequented. Shops which were attractive and provided sustenance to the bus and taxi drivers, bus conductors and ticket sellers. Burly men on metal chairs hunched on spindly formica tables drinking tea from a glass and eating a greasy pizza slice, a plate of imqarrun il-forn or a steaming qassata. A few rough looking ladies, bleach blonde and bedecked in garish jewellery made the picture complete. And in the narrow passageways behind the kiosks, another little world, not unlike Naples: unsavoury men betting money on card games or playing “morra”, a numbers guessing game which involved opening a number of fingers on one’s hands with the other side trying to guess a number from one to ten. Men who even the forces of law and order gave wide berth to.

The bulldozers shall be moving in soon. The structures will become but a distasteful memory from yesterday. Whatever will replace them will definitely be more visually attractive and appealing. But for nostalgics like me, the memory of what shall be no more shall always cause a small lump in my throat, a slight pressure in my chest whenever I pass from this well trodden patch of land.

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14 thoughts on “Changes in City Gate

  1. A good account of Valletta City Gate that was! Let’s hope that what will come next is better and remains superior to what the place had become.
    My apprehension comes from the experience of a mentality that everything goes as long as it works – and these kiosks did work for many, for so long. “Rundown, dilapidated, downright ugly and nondescript structures selling a variety of cheap foodstuffs and convenience goods. With clients to match” survived and had a clientele which kept them going (strong); little, it seems, did their patrons think about what goods they sold, and from where these came, and how these were kept and presented.
    Let us be positive and augur that a new page is being turned for the better, for the future.

  2. All this you speak of happened long after I left but the mqaret piece brought back memories of the aroma from a small shop as the bus travelled through Hamrun. I bake rather than fry mqaret which creates just as powerful an aroma.

  3. A beautiful read.But the narrator forgot to mention,or beg your pardon, you might be younger than i am,the plump woman with a 1950 or earlier pram selling capers,mulberries(tut according to season) and bunches of tursin…….iz zmien ikaxkar mieghu kollox.But we look ahead….

    • Thanks for the memory rejig Tessie! Of course I remember the pram sellers in City Gate and also our residential areas. I have edited the story to include your memory too!

  4. My mum (god rest her soul) used to buy a milkshake from master whilst I nipped across for a red coconut sponge cake with a blob of jam on top. Together with the buses this is just another nail in Maltas coffin. Most unique country in the world and should of been left like that. Going back to it joining the EU is where it all started. Shops in Valletta will be targeted next.

    • I too look back with nostalgia at many of the things we lost Neal, but I do not place blame on any particular event but rather on the inexorable pace of change. Pity is that most of what we are removing is generally replaced by sterile concepts which comprise excellent design but very little in terms of character.

  5. A nice read indeed, lovely to hear the value that these little shops have had, I have still seen some of them when in Valetta last Spring. Things are changing, I too would sometimes like to hang on to the past when it comes to traditions and ways, ways like these little shops. As long as the regulations of the EU do not take away the authenticity of a place, we don’t want uniform countries where everything is found to be similar. It is the strength of a people if they retain their special ways and for a city to have certain ‘corners’ where life is little changed. But then I guess that is unrealistic thinking on my part and life has to move on and improvements need to be made always…. still I too feel nostalgic when I hear old ways/places are changing.

    • I agree Agnes. My dilemma is whether to nostalgically stick to what is there and traditional and most probably inferior/decrepit or whether to embrace change which is motived by improvement. Problem is that most of the change I encounter possesses a sterility and artificiality which scares me and de-personifies a place. And this is not a Maltese phenomenon alone either. Most urban regeneration projects I have witnessed out there all possess that clinical, sterile, cold, plastic, stainless steel feel which makes it almost repellent to humanity. This is why decrepit kiosks in a filthy, rundown bus terminus manage to elicit a feeling of loss when, logically, their removal should be cause for celebration…….

  6. Those kiosks no doubt brought the tone down, any replacement an improvement. Who remembers boys selling a barrow full of freshly cut bunches of chick peas and others with leather thick hands selling prickly pears? The reason I for one feel nostalgic is that the past is an embedded fond memory of a time when life was vastly different and the new order of things too sophisticated, cold and impersonal sadly.

    • I share your feelings Alice. I don’t know whether you still speak or understand Maltese but what you are saying is reminding me of the paradoxical Maltese saying, “kemm konna ahjar meta konna aghar”, which translates into “things were so much better when they were worse”. As you say, an embedded fond memory of a time when life was vastly different………

  7. I can write and do speak Maltese Leslie but with some difficulty in that I can’t find the right words to convey my meaning. What I find interesting is the way the Maltese language has been evolving to accomodate words previously unheard of namely amalgams of whatever language and Anglicizing more of the language, evidence I assume that the Maltese vocabulary is insufficent for the times we live in. I enjoy your blog keeps me in touch with my origins.

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