From the sublime to the ridiculous

While it is true that we are not used to seeing a major project being completed in record time, transmitting the pizazz of the inauguration live on national TV was a bit over the top

As we count down the days before some more COVID-19 measures will be lifted, it has become pretty obvious that we are clinging to humour simply to retain some measure of our sanity. Either that, or it has become just too tiring to keep getting worked up about things which irk us. Instead, everything has started to seem absurd and ridiculous, like that feeling which overwhelms you when you get the uncontrollable giggles at a completely inappropriate time and place.

When I saw the photo of saplings planted smack right under one of the flyovers, I couldn’t even get angry about Ian Borg anymore; the Transport & Infrastructure Minister who is hell-bent on carrying out a one-man mission to eradicate every single mature tree from the face of Malta. Instead, he gives us those newly planted trees which, as they start to grow will go… where? Who knows? Maybe holes will be drilled into the flyovers to accommodate the branches which we can zigzag around to make the journey more interesting.

It was already quite a sight to be regaled by the dazzling, flashing neon lights of the Vegas-style seven flyovers (as they were inaugurated for the third or fourth time, I’ve lost count). While it’s true that we are not used to seeing a major project being completed in record time, transmitting the pizazz of the inauguration live on national TV was a bit OTT. But then we would expect nothing less from our Ian, who never misses the chance for a great photo op. This is probably the PR dream he has cherished since he was first elected as the youngest mayor of Dingli at the age of 19, back in 2005. I suppose we should be grateful he did not commission Destiny to belt out a ballad dedicated to “O flyover, O flyover”.

Then there was Infrastructure Malta CEO Frederick Azzopardi and that dangerously tight jacket button, straining to contain his portly tummy. Had it popped, it would have definitely taken someone’s eye out. Surely the man can afford to buy himself a new suit for the occasion? Or maybe his supply of suits cannot keep up with all these inaugurations.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree that the Marsa flyover project was needed and it’s a relief for many who commute to that area that it’s been finished. I suppose with everywhere still closed and the weather so grey, this weekend many people can content themselves with whizzing up and down what looks like a giant Scalectrix, simply for something to do.

But I still don’t get why we need to practically genuflect with gratitude when a Minister actually does what he is supposed to (isn’t that what we are paying him from our taxes to do?). Tell me, do any of you get a ribbon cutting ceremony, TV cameras and a giant plaque at your workplace with your name engraved on it for posterity every time you finish a project at work? Maybe everyone should start posting self-promoting selfies on FB from their workplace at the end of each week with the hashtag #Ididmyjob.

Another absurdity just has to be the news that we will be required to wear masks at the beach this summer. Every time we take a dip we will have to put on a mask “as soon as possible” once we come out of the water. Apart from the fact that this will ruin the very experience of going to the beach, the whole idea is just not feasible. And how is this going to work exactly? Are we going to seriously have wardens poised like sprinters in the 100 metre dash ready to pounce on a hapless family which doesn’t make it across the burning sand to their towel in 24 seconds flat to slap on their masks?

But what really took the whole idea to new levels of ridiculousness was Tourism Minister Clayton Bartolo’s statement that mandatory mask-wearing at the beach “will not be a deal breaker for tourists”, adding that they don’t just come to Malta to go to the beach. I realise he is new at this job and that maybe he has lived a sheltered life, so let me break it to him gently… yes, that’s exactly what they come for. In fact, a similar decision in Spain was met by a huge backlash from the tourist industry and health officials have now modified the law, and those at the beach will not have to wear a mask as long as people respect social distance and remain in one place.

Come to think of it, one thing no one has asked about the mask rule is whether (and how) it will be enforced at hotel swimming pools. If Maltese health authorities do not reverse this decision it will take a whole lot more than waving money at them to book hotels, which is one of the latest schemes to attract tourists to our islands. Speaking of the latter, while the idea was met by sneers and guffaws locally (“as if people who can afford a five-star hotel need a €200 rebate!”) several foreign news sites such as welcomed the idea and reported it in all seriousness. The lesson here is, never underestimate the fact that even those who are well off still love a good discount.

This was also the week of what is being described as perhaps one of the best pranks ever carried out on a whole nation. It started with a video posted on Instagram of a party which was geotagged to be located in Bugibba. Cue the inevitable outrage (rightly so), as Malta’s intrepid reporter Gerald Fenech, who runs his own COVID-19 update page, and who loves a good scoop, fell for it hook line and sinker.

In this fast-paced social media age where no one checks and no one verifies, the story was also picked up by several newsrooms. As it turned out, it was an elaborate stunt, and the party actually took place in London. “We did the prank to prove that people believe absolutely anything they see on the internet,” said Timofey Lotarev who came up with the idea. To be honest, watching the video in which he explained how easy it was to carry out this prank, what impressed me the most was his rather good pronunciation of the Maltese obscenities which were directed at him.

Speaking of pronunciation, who doesn’t remember the Labour party’s video for the 2013 election campaign in which a daughter argues with her (Nationalist voting) mother about why she wants to vote Labour? At the time it created quite a stir because we had never seen such stereotypes being so openly used (and smashed) in a campaign before. The middle class family speaking in that familiar rhythm of Maltese/English seemed to accurately reflect the heated discussions which were really happening in households everywhere. Well, this week, we had one of those ‘you could not make this stuff up’ kind of situations, as the young woman portraying the daughter has now been charged with money-laundering which is linked to a major fuel smuggling ring. Since she happens to have a distinctive name, she was identified quicker than you could say, ‘Tagħna lkoll’.

And of course, the stinging irony was not lost on anyone that the same person who was so scathing in that infamous video about the arrogance of the PN administration which does what it likes “as if they own the place”, was now going to be hauled into Court for much, much worse. In the light of everything that has happened, maybe the real message should have been, “vote for Labour, so WE can do what we like instead of them”.

However, the height of absurdity this week was the turn which a thread took on Facebook after a few silly, immature men wrote sexually suggestive comments about what they wanted to do to the rendered image of a Maltese woman from 2,000 years ago. Giving so much publicity to what turned out to be just a handful of remarks was actually what these types of men crave and ignoring them, in my experience, is always the best approach.

I am still baffled why so much fuss was made over a woman who does not even exist and why news sites think that wasting more column inches to draw attention to these cavemen is going to stop misogyny and sexism. News flash: it doesn’t. Unfortunately, because of its very nature, social media serves to attract like-minded trolls who love to swarm like locusts every time they see someone voicing their outrage on a thread, giving them another platform to vent their prejudices. Every time you engage or reply, you are just helping to keep their comments afloat and more visible, so rather than squashing this type of talk, you are unknowingly, giving it a wider audience.

Like the guy in London who pranked a whole nation discovered, it has become much too easy to trigger people these days, and it is about time we learn not to be so quick to take the bait.