Valletta, Malta Report of what it's like to live there - 01/23/14

Personal Experiences from Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta 01/23/14

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

2nd experience living abroad, the first being Dhaka Bangladesh, but also have extensive foreign leisure travel.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

From the Washington D.C. area, most are routed via Frankfurt on United or Luftansa. Generally about 8 ouhrs to Frankfurt, a 2-6 hour layover and then Luftansa 2 hours to Malta.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Approximately 4 months.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

We are here with the U.S Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

This is a LQA (Living Quarters Allowance) presently for the embassy community, so you will be provided allowance money and required to find your own quarters. We find this to be a GREAT treat and have found a lovely home in a small village, but many complain that the allowance is too low and congregate in an area called Sliema/Saint Julians. The LQA is also your utility money, so you have to watch your budget. Utilities in Malta are quite pricey.

Most people live in beautiful high rise apartments or duplexes on seafront areas of Sliema or Saint Julians. A handful live in homes in outlying areas. Ours, for example, is a 2 story home with 3 bedrooms and lovely garden with inground pool. The embassy encourages against "houses of character" which are old homes (some up to 500 years), many with maintenance or mildew/mold issues. Part of our home is 400+ years, but it has been updated and built onto. The options here vary greatly depending on your needs, likes and convenience wants.

Most commute between 10-25 minutes one way to/from the Embassy. The schools are also close and offer bus service.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

Most everything you could want is pretty readily available, though it will set you back more than in the U.S. Fresh breads and produce are affordable and good quality. There is a twice weekly NICE open market by local farmers near the embassy, which we frequent and save money and enjoy better products than the grocers. Seafood is not nearly as nice, prevalent or affordable as one would expect, living in the middle of the Mediterranean. You will NOT find ranch dressing or some other American staples.

Several take the ferry to Sicily (Sigonella Naval Air Station) to enjoy access to the U.S. commissary. The ferry is several hundred dollars, but transports your vehicle.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

More groceries, especially liquids (soda, peanut butter, salad dressings, etc), kids clothing/shoes (very available, but expensive here). With LQA housing, most furniture is generally provided, but we wanted some of our own items and our house did not have closets built in, so we needed more storage options.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

A handful of American fast food, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Burger King and Subway. Fast food is a fairly new concept here and not hugely popular except in tourist areas. There are lots of restaurants, but Maltese are not known for their cuisine like their neighboring countries. Eating out is fairly expensive.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Haven't seen many yet. We did have a few scorpions (arachnids, not insects) in our house and the occasional roach or flies. No mosquitoes to speak of yet, heard of some in summer with a plethora of flies.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

We receive mail or packages via pouch, but can only send outgoing letter mail. The Malta mail service is not much more expensive for letters, a bit pricey for packages, but arrives to the U.S. in 6-7 days. We sent all of our holiday letters and packages via local mail with success.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Domestic help is available, but not inexpensive. There are locals and some Romanian or Filipino workers. Most help will cost 5-7 euro per hour.
Most expats have some part-time help, but few afford to employ anyone full time. Finding babysitters can be taxing, as in Maltese society teenagers do not babysit, but the grandparents. There are not a lot of child-care providers after hours, though a service is available for 9 euro/hour. Ouch. Most find there own via word of mouth or classifieds.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are some, don't know the cost. The Embassy has nice facilities and an outdoor pool.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

We only use HSBC and BOV (Bank of Valletta) ATMs. We had been declined at some smaller bank ATMs. Credit card use is widely acceptable, but you will pay your card's foreign transaction fee.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Catholic is very available, though not always in English. Most denominations are represented here.

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6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Most everyone speaks great English. Some older Maltese speak choppy English, but are still friendly and helpful. The language is an odd mix of Italian, Arabic and North African dialects.

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7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

It is a very hilly and ancient country. Physical disabilities would be difficult to deal with on a regular basis here. Some buildings have elevators, but most every building has front stairs.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

No trains. Taxis are safe and available by phone, they don't really drive around trolling for customers. Buses are convenient and affordable. Most routes will go to Valletta where there is a hub and spurs off to other routes.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

A small car is best, as roads are TINY and parking is tinier. A bit higher clearance is best, as you'll be living on a chunk of stone which floods quickly when it rains, no where to run off or soak in. We were told to buy a car here... I would ship our own if I did it again, as vehicles are expensive here for not high quality. Would recommend an automatic, as the terrain is hilly, windy and traffic can get dense at rush hours.

Mechanics and service are readily available. There are local weird rules and testing, registrations, taxes, etc that your employers can assist with.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Available and generally good, about 50-80 euro/month.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

We brought smart phones and got plans activated with no problem. The main carriers are GO, Melita and Vodaphone. Most also offer bundles with home services/tv/internet.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No quarantine. Good veterinary care. No kennels to speak of, but you could hire a sitter or ask co-workers to help out. Pets are widely adored by the Maltese, from dogs/cats to a wide love of caged birds.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Not really.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are several outlets to volunteer- war refugees from North Africa/Syria, orphanages, churches, historical sites and there is a plethora of groups that cater to homeless animals and animal welfare.

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3. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business at work. Smart casual in public. Women do dress more provocative and wear tight clothing here. Maltese like to dress up for evening events. In the summer, anything goes. Swimwear is tiny.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Malta is generally very safe country. Occasional pickpocketing in tourist areas. The smaller villages experience little to no crime. It is very safe to walk at night, just be conscious as in any place. There is a notoriously dicey area called Paceville that experiences some crime due to bars, adult scenes and late hours.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

No health concerns other than sunburn. The medical care here is adequate, most offices being through the hospitals. Dentists and other services are readily available. Major health concerns sometimes medevac to London.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Air quality is generally good, some vehicles puffing, but hey, we lived in Bangladesh. There are occasional sandstorms that blow in crazy sand mixed with rain from North Africa. The amount of stars to see at night is lovely.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

We arrived in October to warm days (some A/C needed) and ocean/pool swimming. The sea is warm in the fall. Winter has been mild in our eyes, with some windy, rainy or cold days, but in general blue skies which override any yuck weather. We did buy winter coats for the kids to use occasionally, as it is very damp here in winter and all the homes are built of stone. Often it is warmer outside than inside. We have heard summers are hot, but there is generally breeze. We lived in Bangladesh and Houston, so not really thinking an island in the middle of the Mediterranean could out do them for heat and unpleasantness.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

Most go to Verdala International School. We have a elementary-aged child who enjoys school. The classes are small (most under 18) and attention seems good so far. We have not heard the best things about high school, but there are options. The classes do not offer heating or cooling or a cafeteria, which we found a tad poor for the high tuition charges. The children take many fieldtrips, which our daughter loves, and we find to keep the children's interest high. There are quite a few community events also through the school.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

This is a Class 2 post, so there are some accommodations, though I cannot comment from any experience.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

We have not experienced personally, but many use either Verdala for preK or San Andrea's school. I cannot comment on the cost, but believe it relatively high. There are a handful of outlying hourly drop off preschools and some people use nannies.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

Yes, in limited quantities through the school. Outside school, you can hire for some sports, horseback riding, diving, swimming, etc.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Less than 30 direct hires at the Embassy. Morale is not as high as you would think with a small post, but hardships generally make for closer ties, while the community is open and free here to explore. There is some negativity with those who expected a idyllic island atmosphere or that they were coming to Europe. This is really not Europe and you can get island fever.

Luckily morale is on an upswing, with optimism for continued improvement. Malta is amazing if you take effort to enjoy it and don't look so much at the negatives.

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2. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

Beaches, outdoor activities, seeing historical sites, movie theater, restaurants, home entertaining. Many take short travels to Europe or Mediterranean locations. There are many art exhibits and local events, music, religious festivals, Carnival and MANY feasts in the summer.

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3. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Find it to be great for all! Couple and singles should have a great time, especially if they enjoy the outdoors or history. Families with smaller children may enjoy more, as older kids may occasionally lack for things to do.

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4. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

The island and communities are small, but there are an abundance of gays/lesbians. It is a Catholic country, but still see many gays/lesbians.

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5. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

In general the people are pretty tolerant, but you will run into some prejudices against North Africans or Eastern Europeans. Most immigrants who come from these areas are looked down upon, especially those working in the hotel business. Locals sometimes accuse these groups with compounding any crime or prostitution problems.

People of dark skin and Muslims, we have observed being treated poorly or with prejudices.

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6. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

We are new to Malta, but have few complaints thus far. We love to drive around on the weekends and see new beaches or historical locations. Some say you can see everything in a few weeks... we would strongly disagree. We arrived in fall, but still know the summer swims will be exquisite. We enjoy the beach still most every weekend, strolling, playing in the sand or picking through rocks. We've found the residents to be friendly, though we live in a more small town area than most embassy folks.

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7. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

History, history, history... there is no shortage of cathedrals, catacombs, crypts, caves, palazzos, etc. Several forts offer tours. The beaches and views are to die for - some of the most picturesque being Golden Beach, Gjenja Beach and the old port city of Marsaxlokk. If you enjoy hiking, while not many noted trails, there are miles to explore. Renting a boat or taking the ferries to Silicy or Gozo are enjoyable. There is a new and nice small public aquarium in Bugibba.

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8. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

If you like religious items, this is your place. There is local glow blowing, which is beautiful. Silver filigree is mastered here. There is also beautiful needlework and lace in Malta.

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9. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

The history is incredible and the views are just beautiful! The island is only about 16 miles top to bottom, so the views on any given day are awesome. The weather is mild for winters. Again, just stunning scenery!

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10. Can you save money?

Not really. Groceries and services are more expensive than in the U.S. If you do start to save money, you'll want to get off the island to travel occasionally and fight off island fever.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. What do you wish you had known about this particular city/country before moving there?

The difficulty or cost to find some products. The true situation of buying a vehicle locally. I wish we had shipped more comfort items, as with LQA, we had plenty of weight allowance.

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2. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely! This is a sweet spot, one filled with so much beauty. We are not big city seekers, not dreaming of the Paris, Rome, Tokyo posts of the world, but this is a welcome retreat in between developing countries. We'll enjoy it while we are here and reminisce of it in years to come.

I do believe in a LQA post, choosing a home is an especially important decision, one the surely impacts the success or demise of your tour.

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3. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Thought of this being convenient Europe, giant SUV, plans to save money and short patience.

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4. But don't forget your:

Sunscreen, snorkel gear, history books and camera.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

Filmed here: Troy, Gladiator
, parts of Game of Thrones, Popeye, Agora
, Captain Phillips
.

Many films have been filmed here.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

Malta has so much to offer. Posts are what you make it and many focus too often on the drawbacks and not the charming qualities. As in many places, you must make some of your own fun and LOOK for things to do. No one will put a calendar on your plate, but if you look, there is so much to do here. The weather is sublime, the scenery stunning, the locals friendly, security safe and just a pleasant place to be. How many people have the opportunity to live on a 16 mile island in the middle of the Mediterranean?? Make the most of your short time here, it can be incredible!!

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