While I certainly don’t dislike people, many of my friends would probably agree that I’m someone who is comfortable with their own company a great deal of the time. Long before the pandemic, I’d committed myself to work remotely, untroubled by the relative isolation brought on from spending hours intensely immersed in a project. I have been quite happy to sacrifice the ‘water cooler moments of the shared office for the uninterrupted concentration afforded me while working on my own. I’m usually quite happy to get my social fix by catching up with friends over an afternoon coffee and or the occasional late-night down at the pub.
After many years spent living in cities like London, where it can sometimes be impossible to escape the crowds, I’ve become imbued with an instinctual desire to spend time in places where large numbers of people are not. This is particularly the case when I’m trying to get a clear picture of some famous landmark or public space. On more than a few occasions I’ve stood for nearly an hour, patiently waiting to photograph one section of an iconic location, uncluttered by map-reading tourists wearing dayglow backpacks. Trying to capture a beautiful building or structure built by human hands in all its naked glory.
So it’s ironic that on an April afternoon this year I had a perfect opportunity to do just that. We were off to photograph Malta’s ancient fortress capital of Valetta, on a day when there was not a soul to be found. It was a fascinating, but also strangely hollow experience.
To date, Malta has been relatively fortunate in that it has, so far, managed to escape some of the more devastating effects of the pandemic. I say relatively, because like so many places it has already bore a deep economic burden at having most of its shops and services closed, and its population has definitely felt the lonely isolation of being largely confined to their homes for several weeks. Still, being a small island that was quick to shut down its borders and airports, the death toll here has thankfully been comparatively low – so far only 9 have sadly succumbed to the virus.
Lockdown was also less restrictive here than in neighbouring countries, like Italy, that caught the first wave front-on. Here, during the lockdown, it was still possible to walk the streets relatively freely, order a takeaway pizza or even grab a beer from a street vendor to bring down to one of the country’s stunning rocky coastlines and watch the sun go down – even if the park benches had been enveloped in cling film and trees stapled with viral-infection warning notices.
It’s against this backdrop that on a warm summer afternoon we wandered up towads the hilly capital. Valetta is a majestic high-walled city who’s windows often glimmer gold in light of the evening sun. If its streets were already quiet on a regular day of lockdown, it was now positively post-apocalyptic; the only evidence of carbon-based lifeforms being the multitude of street felines that famously congregate around the many make-shift outdoor cat hotels that are dotted throughout Malta. It was Good Friday, the holiest of holy days on the Christian calendar in a country that is profoundly Catholic.
As my wife had pointed out to me shortly after we first arrived in Malta, the day the pandemic really hit home for the Maltese was the day they decided to close the church. That was when the population appeared to accept things were really getting serious. So, aside from ourselves and the cats, the population was appeared to be almost completely indoors, cloistered in prayer or familial gatherings. For myself, being not religious – and only recently allowed out after strict two-week quarantine – it was a perfect day to walk through the old city, camera in hand, and gets some pictures of Valetta’s narrow streets and stone-cobbled pathways.
As we walked through the city’s gates and past Triton Fountain – the city’s epicentre for tourism – we found ourselves completely alone. Not a single shop open, windows shuttered, doorways padlocked, little movement beyond the increasingly desperate pigeons and the flutter of laundry hanging from balconies. We walked the city from end to end, past the empty outdoor Teatru Manoel, a large outdoor theatre, through St. George’s Square, around The Grandmaster Palace courtyard and peered out over the enormous embankments overlooking St. Elmo Bay – places that even on a quiet day would normally be heaving with visitors. It was a unique experience, like someone had snuck us into the Sistine Chapel after hours to spend as much time as we liked absorbing our surroundings, free of the fear of being shuffled along by a security guard.
We spent several hours walking around on our own on that day. In the end it was the call of nature rather than the Pulizija that forced us into a cab back to our apartment (nothing being open also included, of course, ‘no public facilities’).
In a weird way it was a great memory, possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But, not one that I am honestly keen to repeat. In the days and weeks since then, the country has slowly, bit-by-bit, started to relax its restrictions, ever more confident the virus is for now at least appears soundly in retreat. Time of course will tell if its wise for me to be sat outside, 10 feet from the nearest table of people as I type this. And even though I’m a bit annoyed by the group of children running apparently completely feral around me, and I’m struggling to concentrate over the thundering conversation from the group of men fishing along the banks of the marina (the Maltese are infamously loud talkers), I’m sort of glad they are all there. It’s nice to hear these voices, and see these faces, even if many of them remain hidden behind surgical masks.
It turns out that cities – even historical tourist spots – are made up of the people that inhabit them. Without the bustle and the social activities, without the high-street shoppers, street vendors, and hucksters, even without the pretentious men in linen suits and tank-top-clad women running along behind toy dogs, a city is nothing more than a mausoleum. A dusty old museum. A relic, like Pompeii, as my wife described it. A snapshot in time, interesting, but lifeless and empty.
I don’t know how long this freedom we are currently enjoying will last. It could be the that the pandemic takes another harsh swing at the island and we are all forced back indoors for even longer, and the streets again fall empty. Until then though, I’m going to have another beer and stare out at all the lovely people walking past me and reflect on even while may sometimes enjoy my own space, I think a few more tourist in day-glow backpacks might find their way into my next urban landscape.