MotM Update | Going With The Flow

In Valletta, Malta. October 2018. © Pamela Kerpius

In Valletta, Malta. October 2018. © Pamela Kerpius


30 October 2018

MotM Essay
Going With The Flow

Part I

You could hear the horn blowing from the ship at night reverberating off the white limestone buildings through the heart of Valletta. Malta really is nothing like a “big Lampedusa” as I’ve heard it called. There is an attitude here that comes from the friction of life on a timetable that is entirely unlike Lampedusa. There, time is measured by the plane landing, and even then urgency is makeshift.

Here, there are fast drivers teetering on thin treads on tight curves on the left side of the road, a mark the British left behind. I was under the charge of a taxi driver who balanced plugging in his headphones with a light touch of the steering wheel at a speed that said there was nothing left to be afraid of because it was all out of your control now. I figured, anyway, he knew the lick of the tires against the road in the same way I knew the click of the A train through Brooklyn. Like the gears grinding to passengers’ ears on an airplane, they all make sense to the people pulling the levers. 

Richard was working the 444, my normal route from Kennedy to Fiumicino in Rome. I don’t take any other flight because I know exactly the windows of departure and arrival at each city on either side of the Atlantic to time my day. I know what seat I’ll have on the plane (about 15 A or F, the window). I know the departing runway will be 4L/22R as all European-bound flights in the afternoon are, and so prefer the F seat to keep the tower in sight as we lift off, cross Rockaway beach, and fade into the black of the ocean below.

The F seat was taken by the time I booked this time around, and this was a blessing because Richard––the airline steward––normally works the A side of the plane. He passed with the cart and we had pockets of chit-chat while he poured heaving cups of white wine to people who stuck themselves in neck pillows. After dinner service we were in the back galley, his colleagues dining by forkfuls from their laps. He told me about New York in the early ‘80s when he saw Andy Warhol and Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. This is the quickest way to keep my attention: tell me what you know about New York City in the 1980s when I could only look on at it as if it were Oz from blinking kindergarten eyes. 

We were literally going with the flow. Flying with the jet stream and talking on some stream of consciousness that brought us here after starting with a conversation on immigration. I was saying it was the irony of colonizing nations in Europe that they had their formally-colonized at their borders and wondering why. It triggered something. He was remembering a song from his youth, “Cherokee Nation.” I had never heard it; he cupped his hand over his mouth, “And all the beads we made by hand/Are nowadays made in Japan.” He straightened his suit. They have new uniforms since my last flight, I like the cut. The song was the first time he realized we were complicit, he said. He handed me a pair of wings before landing. You can find friends even in amorphousness, in anonymity, in thin air. People are even there.

. . .

On the limestone island you hear the silence of the blue moon on the Mediterranean. A shock against the taxi ride that hadn’t given me as much adrenaline since the one I had in Bogota, Colombia at night, alone, years ago. I remember only colored lights bleeding into raindrops on the windshield.

Valletta central is all stone hills, and steep.

The sun is acute, so warmth isn’t sustained as the day shifts to night. The sun heats the stone, and when it sets the stone cools and the damp breeze turns from a point of relief to triggering a chill. You can’t foresee the shift until you’re too far from home to remember your jacket. I was at a sidewalk restaurant in shreds of jet lag. There was a mingle of voices, but the air lifted them up and placed them somewhere into the void surrounding us. If the wind is strong enough, no sound will stay. Juan, the waiter, was from Medellin, Colombia. Who from Malta would be named Juan? 

De donde eres?” I asked him, and as I looked up from my plate I realized I had forgotten where I was in the first place. It was like living one life across multiple split screens. Malta is a motif of otherness and clear on the fact that no one else on earth speaks Maltese. Everybody here is speaking another language. Everybody here is speaking English in a cascade of accents. Some people speak Italian. Maltese sounds like everything I’ve never heard.  

Malta is asymmetrical. Dusty and also dewy. It’s a world crossroads and an abandoned isle––in that respect not unlike Lampedusa, which is only some kilometers over the sea to the west from here. The moon is high. I looked at my dinner plate. The tomatoes are not as red as they are in Sicily, but are like blood compared to what we see in the States. 

I didn’t sleep. I coughed once at 2:00 in the darkness in bed and my throat, still desiccated from the dry air of the flight but now doused in pure saline humidity, caught something in its fibers. 

Imagine losing your voice at a women’s studies conference specifically designed to let a woman’s voice be heard uninhibited. The pharmacist the next morning gave me honey-lemon cough drops to stave off what I figured was really just a result of exhaustion. Tomorrow, when I spoke, I’d be better, I hoped.

Today, at the opening of the 20th annual WAVE (Women Against Violence Europe) Conference, the president of Malta, Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca––the second woman to hold the office here––welcomed us. The rest of the day was packed with back-to-back speakers chosen from women’s specialist service organizations across Europe. And although I was still living in that split screen of time, and although I quite literally fell asleep for a second while standing in the hall on a coffee break, cup in hand, head dipping, I was energized by being in an environment where I didn’t have to pause to make a man feel comfortable with my power, where I didn’t have to pause to explain decades of feminist discourse to a man who says he thinks I just misinterpreted what he said…

Let freedom ring! And nary a salad or yogurt in sight.

The next morning it was clear this was no normal jet lag: I was full-blown sick. So I did what any self-respecting New Yorker in the midst of trauma would do when flown in to the middle of the Mediterranean Sea to speak to leaders from across the European continent: I showed up.

61% of migrants arriving in Italy are women and yet only four of the 55 journey stories on Migrants of the Mediterranean are women’s. My presentation was to discuss why this gender gap exists, and it does, according to my fieldwork, for four reasons:

  1. First Reception
    The restrictions upon reception on Lampedusa island that label women and children “at-risk,” frequently have women transferred to the mainland for immediate medical care (e.g. pregnant women who need specialized care), making meeting impossible.

  2. Religious Restrictions
    A woman’s religious affiliation may by law require her to stay at home, out of the public eye, and thus, upon reception on Lampedusa, in the hotspot where greeters like me cannot reach her.

  3. Lack of Education
    Men are frequently favored for education in their originating countries, meaning women and girls do not receive an English (or French) education that enables communication with me to collect their stories.

  4. General Subjugation
    Supposing a woman is on the island, does leave the hotspot, and can speak English (or French), she will be conditioned to let men and boys speak before her, diminishing her presence and voice. 

All of which is to say, it has been an incredible challenge to find women, and further, women willing to speak about what happened to them on the migration route once I do. There are four exceptions to this: Maiama and Mariama, two sisters from The Gambia; Mary from Sierra Leone, and Blessing from Nigeria. I urge you to read their stories if you have not already. 

There is a new way in to amend the disparity on the site, and it takes me beyond Lampedusa as the place to initially greet migrants. At housing camps across Italy, where I regularly visit male migrants met in Lampedusa, I gain access to whole new populations of people whose stories have never been told––including, and most importantly in the context of this writing, women.

[To read the conference presentation, email me and I’ll send you the PDF.]

I delivered the presentation by absolute will, and possibly by the power of cough drops. In the end, I heard my voice reverberating off the back of the room’s wall. I met incredible new friends and contemporaries in the meantime, and you can count the footprint of MotM as expanded.

My plane took off from Malta the next day. When I landed, I would be in a place that could not be––in the cultural realm of Italy and the Mediterranean––further from it. I would go with the flow here too, I would have no choice. Touchdown Milan.