Valletta, Malta Report of what it's like to live there - 09/01/16

Personal Experiences from Valletta, Malta

Valletta, Malta 09/01/16

Background:

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

No. Other cities in Europe.

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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?

Washington, DC. Flights are generally through Frankfurt (8 hours) and then a 2-5 hour layover and another 2.5 hours to Malta. Other routings from US are via Rome or, most recently for some, Paris.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Posted 2 years.

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

Diplomatic mission - US 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?

Housing here is decent. Post was formerly Leased Quarters Allowance but has transitioned to STL housing pool. It is mostly apartments down near the water, but there are a few folks towards the center of the island with nice views and closer to the Embassy. The transition to STL seemed quite rough and the first crop of apartments selected have been interesting, but post seems to be doing better with most recent selections. Many expats live in apartments in the Sliema area, but it's a quite busy area. A couple of the remaining LQA people have large villas with pools, which are nice.

Commute from the Sliema area can be 20 min and it can be an hour. Traffic is light in the summer and brutal in October when school starts and in the winter when it rains (Maltese cannot drive in the rain, they can barely drive at all).

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

Pleasantly surprised at the availability of items. Cost of some things can get expensive, but you learn what to buy locally, what to pouch in, etc. Fresh produce is very nice here and not expensive, but you tend to get that from fruit trucks/markets as the big grocery stores don't have great quality. Same with meat, you'll go to a local butcher in your neighborhood. Some Americans go to a nice one in Naxxar called Charlie Butcher (many businesses here just go by a name and then what they do - Kevin Garage, Donna Hairstyles, Charlie Butcher, Joseph Towing, Kevin Taxi - original huh?)

Also, if you see something you like, buy several. Next time, there will not be any on the shelves or an empty space where the item used to be. On an island, availability of items can get spotty.

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

More cooking oil (if you like Wesson), Crisco, syrup, and anything else liquid you might want. Suntan lotion/spray (crazy expensive here). Corn meal also. Can't get it here.

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

So restaurants and going out to eat in Malta is interesting. You will not get an amazing meal here. You'll get some very good meals and you'll learn which restaurants are consistently good quality. Others will be absolutely hit or miss. Good one time, complete garbage the next and they won't care because it's a tourist economy and you look like a foreigner and you probably won't be back. Plus, money is not a motivating factor in Malta. More on that later. But, there are numerous restaurants. Lots of Italian/seafood, pizza, hamburgers, a couple decent Chinese places (not great ones), a couple good Indian restaurants, good sushi, steak places (none are very good, but a few are decent) and your basic continental European fare. And, there are Maltese restaurants (rabbit, maybe horse at a few places, and other junk). The Maltese go for quantity over quality. They think Americans eat big portions but here they got with "starters" then the "main" and dessert plus a ton of bread before the starters even come.

There are several fast food franchises. Subway, McDonald's, Burger King, KFC and Pizza Hut. Subway is decent. McDonald's is OK (we don't care for McDonald's in Europe, just tastes different), Burger King is better when they don't completely overcook the burgers which they tend to do (Maltese go for well done and they don't tend to even ask when you order a burger at a regular restaurant), KFC is good but we always leave hungry and it's way more expensive than the US and Pizza Hut is pretty good.

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

No, not usually. Mosquitoes crop up during the usual seasons, but you can get the plug-in devices to keep them out. the tiny lizards will get in your house (one here, one there). They don't hurt anything and you can't keep them out since Maltese construction standards are so shabby there are gaps in your house they're getting into that you don't know about.

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Daily Life:

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

Pouch only, no APO. Usually twice per week, but depends, It was pretty bad when we first arrived, but post switched carriers. Turkish Air was straight up losing pouches. Switched to Emirates and much better. Local mail is fast and reliable if you're mailing anything local, but it's not hard since the island is tiny.

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

Fairly available and ranges up to 8 euro/hr. Some have used local Maltese, some a service and some have gone with the Phillipino mafia (we call them) that are good and also babysit. If they're foreign, you may have to be willing to sponsor and that can cost extra.

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

Several good gyms on the island. Not too expensive. Post also has a decent gym.

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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?

Yes. If they ask whether you want to pay in USD or Euro, always choose Euro to get the better exchange rate from your bank. If you choose dollar, you get a locally cooked up exchange rate through the local banks (HSBC, Bank of Valletta) that will easily add 3+ percent to your purchase.

Chip/pin cards are nice to have and faster. Can't get a local bank account without a letter from the Embassy (if you want one, but since switch from LQA, most don't need them and don't bother). With all the banking secrecy laws the US has passed, most banks in Malta don't even want American business. Too many reporting requirements. HSBC closed many American expat accounts.

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

I'm sure there are some. If you go to Catholic Mass, it will be in Maltese. 95% of the country is Catholic.

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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?

None. Maltese and English are the two official languages of Malta. That said, you will often need to repeat yourself to Maltese when speaking English to anyone who isn't used to hearing English quite a bit throughout the day. Example, at the store or at a small business and usually on the phone. At the Embassy or other places where English is spoken frequently, not so much. Sometimes, if you engage with uneducated Maltese, they will speak little to no English as they didn't finish school and Maltese learn English in school.

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

Yes. This place is absolutely not handicap accessible.

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Transportation:

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

Taxis are generally safe (as safe as anybody can be on the roads in Malta). The white ones drive crazy because they're trying to hurry up and get back in the queue. eCabs and several others are very good. There is no tram or train. Buses are often over-crowded, terribly inefficient and take forever to get anywhere. Even the Maltese complain about them. The government has tried in a major way to make improvements, but efficiency in public transportation is important and efficiency is just not in the Maltese's nature.

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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 one. Even a small SUV (RAV 4, etc) would be considered a full size car here. Seriously. A few Americans have brought bigger cars in the past and couldn't get them into their parking garages and had to park on the street. There are usually Dip cars for sale from people leaving post and other missions will have them for sale. A few Americans have rented cars for their tours. It's all up to personal preference. The rentals tend to be small/compact, cheap on gas and they handle the plates, insurance, etc. Any issues with the car, trade it in for another. Registering a car here can be a long process. You can drive for a short period if you bring American plates, but the Maltese have been cracking down on foreign plated vehicles. You have to do a technical inspection, police inspection, Transport Malta inspection (just so they can value your car for tax purposes, even though you will never pay any import tax - seriously, the Maltese don't know how to think outside the box or change a process that isn't needed), and then you have to get the plates. And, you have to get insurance before you ever start the process. It can take a month or longer, be somewhat frustrating and GSO is not very helpful.

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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?

Yes, multiple providers and decent service. 100Mbps is available with a TV package for 70-80 euro/month. Be careful of contract length if you choose to do so. And, most foreigners get screwed on deposits for equipment. Again, just the Maltese way.

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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?

Vodafone is the best. GO Mobile is decent and what the Embassy uses (we switched to GO from Vodafone to save money, but the service is not as good and I'm sure we don't save money. My wife's Vodafone service package was exactly the same as my official phone and it was cheaper). Vodafone also has LTE service in more areas than GO.

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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?

Yes. Check the regs for pets. It's all EU standards and the Maltese follow them to the letter. Quite extensive prep needed.

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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 many jobs on the local economy. The wages are extremely low, so not worth the hassle. Maltese make it extremely hard for foreigners to work. Commonwealth citizens and EU citizens have a somewhat easier time. Others not so much. And, businesses have to "prove" why they couldn't hire a Maltese and have to essentially sponsor you. One spouse works at the international school. Another does some educational consulting. A few work at the Embassy in EFM positions.

Internet is very good, so telecommuting would be feasible.

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2. What volunteer opportunities are available locally?

There are plenty of local NGOs to get involved with.

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

Section heads are usually suit/tie. Malta is not a super formal place. Higher-end private sector contacts, dip corp and government officials tend to go suit/tie. Others as their work requires. Out in public, it's all over the place. Nice Euro dress to seeing people in t-shirt/shorts. Maltese don't have much disposable income, so they tend to dress on the lower end unless their position demands other. In the summer/hotter months, it seems like 80% of the country wears flip flops. I get tired of looking at a bunch of jacked up feet.

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Health & Safety:

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

Maltese are not that security conscious because they've never had to be. It's quite interesting. But, Malta is fairly safe. Tourism is high, so those types of crimes prevail. Club drugs, fist fights, petty thefts, etc. Cell phones left unattended will vaporize. Sometimes you get European criminal gangs coming in to pickpocket. But, all in all, you're safer in Malta than big cities around the world. Common sense prevails. And, the RSO office is excellent and puts out useful info at the first hint of an issue, so they keep people informed.

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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?

None to speak of really. Embassy has a local nurse and there is a local doctor that has office hours once/week at the Embassy. Also by appointment at her office. And, there is a private clinic/hospital that most Americans go to. The public hospital is much larger and has great speciality capabilities, but it's a zoo, so most go to the local private hospital. (Maltese get free healthcare for life and they seem to like their medical procedures here, aside from not generally being that healthy to start with, so the public hospital is always super busy).

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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?

Good. I think some have allergies at times and there is quite a bit of dust at times, although not terrible (wind up from Africa brings sand and this is a rock in the middle of the sea that is slowly eroding).

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4. What do people who suffer from environmental or food allergies need to know?

You can shop for food allergies here. Even gluten free. Environmental allergies are less common than other places. This is not a green country. Again, the dust and grit can bother some at times.

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5. Are there any particular mental health issues that tend to crop up at post, such as Seasonal Affective Disorder (winter blues)?

It's an island post. And, everything they say about island posts is true. This is a tiny island and island fever kicks in. You can drive from the northern tip to the far south in maybe 45 min if there isn't any major traffic. The Maltese are a somewhat crude society with not a very high level of education. They can be fairly reserved at times given the leftover British influence from when the were part of the UK. But, it's a me-first society, they totally take advantage of foreigners, are fairly misogynist towards women and racist. They're scared to death of migrants and social media comments on migrant issues are downright nasty. And, Maltese are at their worse when they're on the road. Traffic is insane and the Maltese drive like animals. Vehicle accidents are the worst fear. Everyone gets fed up on the road and the Maltese just try to plow through, especially when up against women. The Maltese are literally the hillbillies of the Mediterranean.

How do you counter? You have to get out of here periodically or you feel it closing in around you.

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

Very hot in summer. Very nice in spring/fall. Winter here is really just a rainy season. It gets maybe low 50s, high 40s F when it's cold. But, everything is made of stone, so you can get that cold, dampness during the winter that's hard to counter since the limestone just sucks in the moisture. Most Americans have space heaters and you maybe throw on a sweater at times. Many houses don't have central heat/air because of the Mediterranean climate. Most places have split packs, which are really supplemental units, but you sometimes have to run them quite a bit in both summer and winter to stay cool and warm.

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Schools & Children:

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

There are two that American students attend. Verdala International School is the largest with over 400 kids in all grades (K-12 and preschool). QSI has about 125 kids. Some parents that either want the smaller environment or missed the signup cutoff for Verdala send their kids to QSI. Both are quite decent but not stellar. Some parents didn't care for Verdala so they passed their thoughts off to incoming personnel and now a few parents use QSI whereas in the past there were no US Embassy kids there. Again, both are decent if a little different.

QSI is an American curriculum. Verbal is IPC and IB. I think the issue lies in that most institutions eventually take on the characteristics of the country. So, Verdala has over the years been somewhat slow to move on issues, they worry about things at the last second, are sometimes disorganized and are generally Maltese in nature about some things. QSI is a little more American which some prefer. While many Embassy kids like Verdala, I often sensed flashes of anti-America sentiment at times. I think it's sometimes just a chip on the shoulder thing since whenever the school really needs something, the US Embassy comes through, not anybody else. The elementary and middle school had no fence or separation from the road. RSO got a huge soft target grant which funded a proper perimeter fence.

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

Malta as a whole is very limited in services they provide for special needs kids, especially if those needs are significant. The international school will provide an LSA (Learning Specialist Assistant) for kids with identified needs. But those LSAs will not have a special ed background generally. And, there would be no special curriculum that would be utilized. Just your child with an assistant by their side spoon-feeding them the same materials/curriculum as the other kids. And, parents would pay the cost above and beyond normal tuition fees.

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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?

Yes. QSI and Verdala have half and full day but are expensive and there is a waiting list at Verdala. Maltese children, by law, start school at age 3. But, it's just state-sponsored daycare. A few Embassy personnel have enrolled their little ones at local schools, which cost very little. The only additional expense is usually uniforms.

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

The international schools have numerous after-school activities. Both sports and other club-type activities. And, there are private lessons available for numerous sports (tennis, 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?

Very large European expat presence. A ton of Brits, all ages (even retired since it's cheaper than the UK). Not many Americans. The entire AmCit community probably numbers around 2,000 I'm told. But, many are dual Maltese/Americans that just hold citizenship but never lived in America for long or were just born there and, therefore, aren't really "American" and most of them, strangely, live on the other island, Gozo. Outside the EU and Commonwealth (Brits, Aussies, etc), you don't meet many other foreigners as the Maltese do not make it easy for others to emigrate here.

We often got questions about what we were doing in Malta (again, unusual to meet Americans living here). And, American tourists generally come off cruise ships as Malta is a little of the beaten path for American tourists. You say, "I'm with the American Embassy" and you get "Ohh, OK." Even the American businesses are just franchises owned by Maltese so they could barely be considered "American" companies. Just American brands.

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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?

Go to the beach, attend the village festas (or "feasts"), go to the clubs in Paceville. Other expats you get to know from living in the same buildings as American employees, or they're part of the Dip corp, etc. Also at Verdala and QSI, parents often attend functions and some make friends and hang out as the kids make friends with each other. But, it's interesting as Malta is quite unusual in that many expats here are very "clickish" and have lived here for some time. Their kids have gone to the international school their whole lives and will likely graduate from them (vs. move like we do). It's very interesting.

Or, you could just go sit in your car somewhere or on a bench and watch the world go by for 4-5 hours like Maltese do sometimes and maybe strike up a conversation. Seriously, I've seen it happen. In the U.S. you'd call the cops on someone just sitting somewhere for hours, but here in Malta they're just resting or they're retired and don't have anything else to do. It's hilarious. Time is absolutely not a commodity here.

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

Good for all. There are things for all to do. Singles, families, etc.

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

I can't comment specifically, but I think it would be fine. There are LGBT activities and groups, although the Maltese are not accepting of that culture. But it exists.

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

While I think the Maltese, despite being 95% Catholic, are somewhat tolerant of other religions, they are shockingly racist. Dark-skinned people get treated quite badly. Also, women are certainly not treated equally here. This entire society is planned around having someone who stays home (cooking, cleaning, having babies, etc) as many services are deliveries and are conducted during the day. Maltese don't really work odd hours. Work is generally Mon-Fri during regular hours. Only if your industry demands other hours (retail, etc). It can be frustrating in that you have to run home to meet a repairman, etc or can't be home to get something delivered because you don't have a stay-at-home spouse. And, you'll see men yell at women on the roads, calling them stupid, etc.

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

The weather is great, water sports, beaches, cultural events, school events, etc. You can take great trips out of here if you shop for cheap airfare. Also, there is a high-speed ferry to Sicily.

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

You have to look, but you can find great things to do. Sailing, good restaurants, etc. You have to dig. Maltese do not offer information. It's like peeling back layers of an onion sometimes to get information. They're not big on details. Many newspaper articles are one column or a few paragraphs. Even on substantial issues.

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

Lots of cool glasswork. A ton of lace if you're into that. Antiques are dicey as the Maltese impose strict export controls on anything considered "antique." They do try to protect their heritage if nothing else.

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

It's safe, weather is great, decent food, decent availability of items, etc. Water sports are great. You'll just get tired of the Maltese.

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Words of Wisdom:

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

That Malta is a place where you have to take things as you find them. If you can't do that and go with the flow, you'll be miserable.

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

Sure, there are worse places to be.

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

Expectations of efficiency, timeliness, getting great food (too much leftover British influence), as well as expectations that people will be super polite to you in public. Maltese are not warm to strangers. And if you get in their way, they don't care to just run into you, shove, etc. When they get moving in a direction, oddly they just don't stop, no matter what. Whether they're driving, walking, crossing the parking lot or sidewalk as you're trying to park. There are days where I feel like I've lost a cumulative hour of my day because everywhere I go there's a Maltese person in the way. Seriously.

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4. But don't forget your:

defensive driving skills, suntan lotion/spray (crazy expensive here), sense of humor and, most importantly, your patience.

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5. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Numerous films and TV shows filmed on location in Malta. Just Google it and you'll get a list. Gladiator, 13 Hours, early seasons of Game of Thrones, etc.

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