A tiny island which is too big for its boots

It may be a bitter pill to swallow for those who can only lick their chops and think of the Ka-ching! But we need to lower our expectations, adjust our targets and above all, know our limitations. 

A very descriptive colloquial phrase in Maltese is ‘tara kbir’, which loosely translates to ‘being too big for one’s boots’. 

It can be used when one fills one’s plate with heaps of food from a buffet, only to realise that you feel stuffed halfway through, or when a businessman expands too quickly and recklessly, only to end up bankrupt. Or when one organises a dinner party for 10 people but cooks enough for 30 and ends up with mounds of leftovers. Or wanting to buy a house, when one’s bank loan can only really cover a modest apartment. Or buying a huge monster of a car only to find it is a pain to fit into an average parking space. 

It is used in reference to excess, to greediness and gluttony, to failing to know one’s limits. ‘Naraw kbir’ is also often the default mode on a national level. 

You can hear it in the way politicians speak when they are at global conferences, as if we are the centre of the universe in everything we do and we are the answer to the world’s thorniest problems. And you can hear it in the undertones of locals when they interact with each other (and even more so, with other nationalities).  Like when some say, ‘Isbah minn Malta m’hawnx!’ (Nowhere is as beautiful as Malta!), in response to which I am almost tempted to ask, in Chandler Bing style, “have you actually BEEN anywhere else?” 

It is almost reminiscent of the (admittedly annoying) American habit of saying everything in the USA is ‘the best’. Best city in the world. Best food in the world. Best, best, best. I mean, unless you are a world traveller and have literally been everywhere and tasted every cuisine, you are in no position to make this outlandish, highly inaccurate, claim. 

But at least when Americans brag (as cringe worthy as it is) they are doing it from the standpoint of being from a very large country which is indeed a world leader in many sectors. When Maltese people go around puffing their chests and boasting unnecessarily it is, frankly, just embarrassing. 

I find it tantamount to the small man syndrome… you know the types. The ones who are very short and, as a result, feel insecure so they walk around as if they own the place, being loud and obnoxious as they try to over-compensate. Likewise, what we have here is the small island syndrome; the end result of being just a speck in the Mediterranean Sea, but constantly acting like we are some kind of super power. 

I was reminded of the small island syndrome and the phrase ‘naraw kbir’ when I read that Sigma founder and CEO Eman Pulis had defended his decision to move the annual iGaming convention from Ta' Qali to the old shipyard next to the Marsa flyover, saying it “paid off beautifully” despite nationwide traffic jams. 

The reason he had decided to change the venue was because this year it was going to be “bigger and better” and Ta’ Qali was deemed too small for the numbers that were expected to flock to the week-long event. 

In fact, no less than 25,000 delegates and 1,000 exhibitors were driving back and forth on Aldo Moro Road, which is congested at the best of times, let alone with the strain of even more additional commuters. Bear in mind that apart from attending the conference from their respective hotels, all these tens of thousands of people were also going to other events organised for them all over the island. 

When word started spreading about why the island had become gridlocked even more than usual with lengthy traffic jams, the fury directed against this decision reached octane levels. Questioned about what he thought of this negative impact on commuters, Mr Pulis admitted that “Malta has no adequate space for the organisation of big conferences of this nature”. 

Uhmm, ok. So (silly question)… if you knew this, why did you expand in the first place? I think we really must come to grips with our small size and admit that Malta just cannot handle such large-scale events. It may be a bitter pill to swallow for those who can only lick their chops and think of the Ka-ching! But we need to lower our expectations, adjust our targets and above all, know our limitations. 

The ‘naraw kbir’ attitude can explain many of the pitfalls of our island. For example, we keep building more hotels, expanding existing ones and boasting about how many tourists have travelled through our airport every quarter (with tourism operators always setting higher targets for the next season). Yet at the same time everyone agrees that in summer our beaches are chaotic and lined with wall to wall bathers, the sea is choked with boats, and a place like Comino has become a no-go area, especially on weekends. We keep wanting more tourists when it is patently clear that this island has reached its infrastructural limits. 

Even in the off season, Malta is now heaving and teeming with so many people that going out has become a calculated endeavour of weighing the pros and cons of whether it is worth the stress of the crowds, the bumper to bumper traffic and the parking frustrations. If you opt to use the bus many will pass you by, full to the brim. Instead of logically adding more buses, more routes and more frequent trips, we build flyovers, widen roads and expect the traffic issue to resolve itself as if by magic. We keep building apartments, even though blocks of flats remain unsold and instead of the glut of property on the market pushing prices down, they are inexplicably pushed upwards. Meanwhile, we keep encouraging more people to come work here, for all the world as if we were Australia with its vast expanses of land.  As I said, ‘Naraw kbir.’ 

Personally, these days, before venturing out, I check FB for traffic updates to see whether there is any area I should avoid, and if there is some event which has created an impossible situation, I change plans.  A case in point was the Mdina Grand Prix held in October. 

As soon as comments starting popping up that the road towards Rabat was one angry gridlock, it didn’t take long to figure out the cause. But, much like the Sigma event, my question is why are we organising these things if we clearly cannot cope with the fallout?  And if we do insist on holding them, then (1) make sure it is prominently advertised so that drivers can avoid the area and (2) provide a reliable shuttle transport service to and from the venue so that people do not use their private cars. 

One also has to admit that sometimes public transport is provided and people are simply too obstinate to use it. I’m writing this before the Joseph Calleja/Andrea Bocelli concert at Ta’ Qali but I do know that transport arrangements have been made which sound quite feasible, with special bus services catering for all parts of the island. I really hope that the public does utilise these services so we do not have a repeat of what happens every time there is a major event: disorganisation, exasperated motorists, road rage, miles of tailback and general mayhem until people get in and out of the venue. 

After all, if major cities which are ten times the size of Malta manage to hold major events with members of the public happily using public transport, it is about time we stopped being too big for our boots, got rid of our car obsession, and just learned to board a shuttle bus when it is made available.