The Feast, or: The Loudest F@#%ing Fireworks You’ve Ever Heard

My home for the past two weeks, and the next two weeks, is the oldest village on the smallest (inhabited) island of the smallest country in the European Union.

Merħba to Xewkija (that’s pronounced SHEV-kee-yuh), a village of 3,000 on the Maltese island of Gozo and the latest residence of my ever-itinerant grandmother. Born in Hawaii, she grew up in the back of a trailer as my great-grandfather criss-crossed America recruiting the country’s young men to join the fleet. They called 49 states home over the better part of a decade, failing only to settle in Alaska. After meeting a Swedish biochemist in 1994 and marrying him six months later, she later followed him to Scandinavia to take advantage of the classic commie Swedish välfärd state. When the doctors ordered her to hightail it to warmer climes for health reasons, my grandparents opted for Malta — the southernmost English-speaking country in the EU, with its occasionally nippy winters and blazing hot summers. Wanting to live in a relative backwater, my grandmother found Gozo, which houses less than a tenth of Malta’s 400,000 strong population, and from there the centrally-located Xewkija, because why live on the outskirts of nowhere when you can live in the middle of nowhere?

It’s a story not uncommon for the island, though the seniors in question are usually British and more accustomed to remaining stationary. (The Navy brat-part might stick; Malta was previously home to a large British naval garrison, and a relatively cushy one at that.) Geriatric Europeans come here for the low, low cost of living and stick around for the climate. It hasn’t once dropped below 74 °F / 23 °C in my three weeks here; the worst one can expect is the occasional wintertime hail or the frost that comes once every few decades or so. Add to that excellent food, idyllic scenery and regular cheap flights to Stansted, and you’ve got quite the retirement castle.

For visitors, Xewkija’s most notable landmark is its church, the largest one on the island. One could be forgiven for thinking it was built in at least the 19th century, but it was actually completed in 1978, its massive golden dome securing local victory in the ever-ongoing competition of civic piety. Older Gozitans can be a fearfully pious bunch, dutifully showing up for Mass while tut-tutting the absentees. A friend of my grandmother’s draws her income as a full-time intercessor. Our next-door neighbor, the village priest, even cops to drumming up the threat of purgatory during his sermons, which doesn’t exactly harm the local congregation’s coffers.

Xewkija’s rotunda illuminated for the village festa.

Against the backdrop of these paranoid parishioners come the weekly summertime feasts honoring the patron saints. Each town or village has its own patron saint, and when that saint’s day rolls around on the calendar, that municipality hosts visitors from across the island, day-trippers from Malta, and the occasional tourist to go bananas.

The initial preparations were subtle; the only indication that a celebration was afoot came when relatively tasteful lights started going up on archways spanning our street. The celebrations that ensued were anything but subtle, mostly because people around these parts really, really like to blow shit up. Unlike the pyros in my native United States, who often just like to see things explode, catch fire, and/or burn to a crisp, Gozitan firework technicians are all-in on creating the loudest BOOM they possibly can. Scant attention is paid to the amount of shimmering or sparkling light they produce. The displays run from before dusk to well past the official curfew of 10PM, and the hilly landscape ripples every detonation for miles. Attempting to sleep was futile; my bedroom may as well have been in Ramadi.

Not pictured: the petards producing explosive noises in the triple-decibel range.

But why sleep with such festivities afoot? A full-on marching band proceeded down the street on each of the feast’s four nights. Fried food purveyors peddled chicken, shrimp and other meats on a stick to pedestrians. The main ceremony features a St. John the Baptist statue being paraded around town before being hoisted onto its final resting place in the town square. And you can go to Mass every evening!

None of these are the main attraction. Even in a country where everyone has a mother who compulsively prays the rosary for everything, people like to have a good time. During the daytime, you’ll find plenty of folks of all ages downing cans of Cisk, the local lawnmower beer. The evening is not much different, with crowds clustering outside Xewkija’s two bars, which seems like a high number of drinking establishments to me. Everyone told me to go to the “feast disco” — essentially, a social hall someone rented out for purposes of putting on a dance party — and so I downed Jägermeister shots to the tune of €1,50 each. Even the ice cream truck has freaking vodka slushies. I don’t know how long this has been the norm, and I don’t know if I could find out, either. I also don’t know if St. John the Baptist would approve of the Gozitans getting rowdy on his big day, either.

Blurry images of Sylvio and I at the “disco” — and the Korean Jesus we found on the way home.

Of course, there is little overlap between those nursing their hangover while watching the afternoon donkey races on the streets and those admitting every last half-swear in the confessional booth. However, it is noticeable that the latter group is winning — at least demographically. There is a notable dip in the age distribution of Gozitans between those ages 25–44. Young people here often head for the big island to study, or to the U.S. or Australia in search of better-paying work. Nearly everyone has some sort of family abroad, and it’s not uncommon for people to spend their entire working lives abroad before heading back home to retire. Of course, most of the emigration calculus is influenced by simple household economics. Some of it is geographic, too — there is a palpable sense of confinement one can feel in a place where you can stand on a hill of any repute and see the Mediterranean in three directions. But the cultural gap between generations feels vast. Moving is ever-easier given that Malta has been part of the EU for a decade now and Ryanair has flights to everywhere. The Internet has pulled back the curtain on the dogmatic Catholicism that pervades, and given how well Malta has been marketed as one of Europe’s main party spots, it’s not particularly surprising that those who are here take religious holidays as an occasion to loosen up.

The weekly feast has rotated onto another village, and I haven’t ventured out to visit another one. Suffice it to say I haven’t adjusted my social calendar to the small-town rhythms very well. But I’ve found the experience to be an intriguing microcosm of life here. Although Gozo might feel like a quaint little island where not much happens at first glance, there is a fair bit of change afoot, and the trajectories of Gozitans can vary widely. Some can’t wait to check out, and some will never want to leave, mentally or physically. I have no idea how I will readjust myself to working life in a megalopolis, but for now I’m enjoying stopping to watch the fireworks.

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