I was amused by the news that an Italian linguist has published a grammar guide to Maltese for Italians, inspired by people he heard in Catania 35 years ago asking for “ċikkulata”. Professor Giulio Soravia was apparently intrigued by what turned out to be Maltese persons who had travelled to Sicily for much sought-after chocolates so they could smuggle them back home for family and friends.
Soravia’s Maltese grammar forms part of a series of guides called “The Enchanted Languages”. It’s interesting to know that an Italian finds the Maltese language enchanting, when so many Maltese themselves look down on Maltese as a bastard mix of foreign languages better left to the uneducated part of our population.
But what I find enchanting are the circumstances that inspired the Italian professor. Those of my generation will definitely remember the times when Dom Mintoff’s government was hell-bent on import-substitution as a tool to reduce Malta’s dependence on imports. Knowing that the Maltese had a sweet tooth, Mintoff believed that the country could save precious foreign exchange by producing its own chocolate, rather than importing it.
It’s interesting to know that an Italian finds the Maltese language enchanting, when so many Maltese themselves look down on Maltese as a bastard mix of foreign languages better left to the uneducated.
Now, import-substitution has often been seen as a strategy for economic growth and development. Mintoff was one of a band of third-world country leaders who believed in the ideas of Argentine economist Raúl Prebisch, who equated economic development with industrialisation and capital investment. Why import foreign-made goods when one could produce them at home and employ workers in doing so? At a time when the Maltese economy depended almost exclusively on the British military base and this was being run down, the idea of import-substitution seemed alluring.
The problem with Mintoff’s adoption of the logic of import-substitution was that by the time he was implementing it, the idea was already falling out of favour with the rise of the “Washington Consensus” that supported freer trade. It is the bane of the Maltese approach to ideas in general. Our insularity meant that foreign ideas were always adopted with a lag, such that when they were being adopted abroad we delighted in sticking to the ideas of the previous decade. By the time those ideas were ditched abroad, we adopted them locally as the new gospel.
I well remember my own experience of Mintoff’s insistence on import substitution, when I was responsible for AirMalta’s fleet of aircraft. We had decided to buy our own aircraft to replace those leased from Pakistan International Airlines. Once we wrapped up the negotiations with Boeing, Mintoff called us in at Castille to tell us that he would only give his blessing if Boeing would purchase Maltese-manufactured goods in exchange.
Once we wrapped up the negotiations with Boeing, Mintoff called us in at Castille to tell us that he would only give his blessing if Boeing would purchase Maltese-manufactured goods in exchange.
Now, Boeing had already seen the hilarious experience of their rivals McDonnell Douglas who, when they sold DC9s to Yugoslav Airlines, were compelled by the Jugoslav government to buy millions of tins of corned beef. Thousands of tonnes were involved. The problem was that the American consumer didn’t want the Yugoslav version of the better-liked Argentinian corned beef. As a result, McDonnell Douglas could not sell the tins anywhere in the USA and was reduced to pushing the stuff at its staff canteens.
Boeing were determined not to go through the same experience. After much theatrics, and Mintoff venting off his anger by derisively calling me “the professor”, Boeing gave us an additional financial concession, and the crisis was solved. Many of us were happy, particularly AirMalta itself, which could use the additional money to buy spare parts for the aircraft. Mintoff obviously wasn’t, as no new jobs had been created in Malta. Well, that’s what he thought. What he failed to see is that, the purchase of new aircraft enabled the airline to become more efficient and competitive, expand into new markets, and create new jobs for marketing people, pilots and engineers. So, new jobs were still created, but not in the way the old man imagined.
However, coming back to chocolate. One problem with import substitution is that it only works to the extent that consumers are happy buying the local product, rather than the imported one. Mintoff’s decision that the Maltese consumer should start consuming Desserta rather than Cadbury’s Dairy Milk or the more up-market Belgian Godiva, was that Desserta was a poor imitation.
People were up in arms. They did not besiege Castille, but they sure did besiege Catania. Thousands started flying there, in search of their preferred chocolate brands, as well as of other popular items that had been prohibited under the import-substitution policy. The whole shenanigans had unintended consequences.
For a start, Maltese became the second language of Catania, as shop-owners scrambled to learn at least a smattering of Maltese words so that they could communicate with visitors. What the Maltese did not spend in Malta, they spent in Catania and more on sightseeing, hotels, and entertainment, thus boosting the Sicilian economy and creating jobs, albeit in the “wrong”place. AirMalta had to increase its flights to Catania, not to bring Sicilian tourists and earn foreign exchange, but to take the Maltese the other way and spend hard-earned foreign exchange.
So, the economics of the whole exercise sucked. But the more entertaining part of the saga was the lengths to which the Maltese consumer went to hide the previous chocolate from the attentive eyes of Customs at Malta Airport. Imagine. It might have been ok to hide Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut in a pair of soiled knickers, but to do the same thing with Bruyerre or Corné Port Royal was positively sacrilegious.
It might have been ok to hide Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Fruit and Nut in a pair of soiled knickers, but to do the same thing with Bruyerre or Corné Port Royal was positively sacrilegious.
Another unintended consequence was that rather more than a fair number of Customs officials were tempted, because of their own sweet tooth, to participate in the whole masquerade. The typical Maltese, who knows a trick or two, would leave a bar or two of chocolate (the cheaper stuff, of course) on top of his clothes, so that the official could see them and be invited to help himself to them when he opens the luggage, while the more expensive stuff was hidden away in those smelly knickers.
Of course, the officials concerned would sometimes make a scene and confiscate some chocolate, all the more to persuade the Gods that they were doing their sacred duty of protecting the Maltese economy from foreign competition. This presented a different type of problem, because what could one do with the confiscated stuff? At the time, Malta did not have a Fort Knox where to store the precious chocolate in the ideal conditions. So, the confiscated chocolates had to be disposed of in some other way. I leave it to your fertile imagination to decide where they ended up.
Thirty-five years later, we can have a good laugh about this. But back then, the Chocolat was serious stuff, much desired, heavenly to smell, triggering the senses, feeling the chocolate slowly softening and eventually melting.
Oh, how delicious were the tastes of raspberries, raisins, coffee, red wine, and sometimes even a hint of pepper! Thank you, Dom.