“Do you still feel Maltese?”

Like cats, we seem to have an innate tendency to land on our feet.

Having now lived outside Malta for close to two decades, few questions manage to stump me as much as this one.

How to answer? You feel angry. Or happy. Or sad. But how can you feel a nationality?

And feelings – like anger, happiness, sadness – come and go, most of the time linked to changing circumstances. But nobody feels Italian from the mere act of eating a well-prepared dish of pasta alle vongole just as no one feels German just by listening to a well-executed piece from Beethoven.

Isn’t nationality supposed to be more objective and more stable? I’m Maltese. Without needing to feel anything. Born in Malta, to Maltese parents, with a Maltese extended family, a product of the Maltese educational system and with two-thirds of my life – the most formative years – spent there. In fact, being Maltese is so close to what I am, it’s transparent.

A bit like my glasses. Most of the time I don’t feel them – their weight on my nose, their standing unobtrusive a few millimetres in front of my eyes. And yet, if I were to take them off, the world becomes an incomprehensible blur.

The feeling of being Maltese, that’s different. That I get. I’m close to fifty and there is a way I feel about being my objective and undisputable age (not sharing it here, though).

In the case of my nationality, it’s decidedly unsentimental. Don’t get me wrong. If you want to feel like you won at the lottery of life by being born Maltese you need do nothing more than listen to a few stories from other, less fortunate people from other parts of the world. It’s worth remembering that, for most of the planet’s population, misery or lack of freedom, or both, are the order of the day.

Yes, of course, your number could have been drawn for someplace richer and with more opportunities (including easier travel abroad which I would rate one of the main setbacks living in Malta). But statistically, you could have had it way, way worse than it turned out to be. In being Maltese, a feeling of luck prevails over a feeling of pride.

And, seeing as I do now from the outside, as Maltese we’ve learnt how to turn any disadvantages in being born and bred on a small island to our favour. Like cats, we seem to have an innate tendency to land on our feet. We’re incredibly adaptable, which is why we have always made the best of immigrants. And being somewhat isolated from the world’s main metropolises made us curious about the great elsewhere. A tendency which, ironically, seemed to reverse when the world wide web became an integral part of our lives.

The world wide web has also drained much of that feeling strongly associated with expatriation: nostalgia. Of course, there’s things I miss from home. But nostalgia is supposed to be more than that (it was first described as a psychological disease in the 17th century to which Swiss soldiers serving abroad were particularly prone). Missing relatives? They’re a Whatapp call away. Missing pastizzi? There are regular, well-priced direct flights if you’re dying to indulge. Oh, and there’s the frozen version you can pack on the way back so as not to get cravings as soon as you’ve left.

To think that, not so long ago, to keep in touch with relatives abroad meant laboriously handwriting letters. Or making momentous phone calls on Christmas, Easter, birthdays and whenever someone in the family was born or had died.

Times have changed. Malta has changed. So has the Maltese emigrant (anyone still using that term?). And the way the two perceive each other.

Franklin Mamo lives in Brussels. The views expressed here are entirely personal.

Photo: Suzy Hazelwood

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