on my very last night in malta, something moved me.
something that maybe changed the way i'll look at life forever.
i had spent the evening at a barbecue on a rocky beach surrounded by maltese friends who were so beautiful and so intelligent, so politically aware and environmentally conscious, that i was borderline annoyed at their perfection---annoyed that i found them in that foreign land, and that i'd be leaving it all behind in a matter of hours.
a gorgeous way to end my time in malta, i thought. i was so content.
cedric dropped me off at the penthouse just before midnight, because i had a flight to paris early the next morning. i still hadn't packed, but i wanted to walk the dog one last time. diesel danced when he saw me pick up his leash, as he always does.
i was a little tipsy from the wine we passed around at the barbecue, and i occasionally smoke when i drink (sorry mom!), so i put two cigarettes in my pocket for the walk.
my carefree tipsiness also gave diesel free reign along the beach. whereas i'd normally give him a gentle tug if he was sniffing too closely to strangers or wandering off on some crazy path, on this final night, i simply followed and wallowed in absolute gratitude.
although it was late in the evening, the rocky shores were still speckled with groups of people hanging out, just like every other summer night in malta. we glided among them for a while. then diesel led me to a dark space behind a restaurant, where we normally never went... i saw the shadow of a man standing alone, staring out at the sea.
rational stefanie might have turned around at that, but diesel led me closer, and the man turned. he smiled and said hello. he was a young man. and he didn't seem maltese, because the maltese never said hello to me. i flashed him a smile and some generic greeting, and went on following the pup wherever he wanted to roam.
i watched diesel pitter patter in shallow water as i smoked my cigarette. and then, as if from out of nowhere, the young-and-definitely-not-maltese-man was directly behind me. smiling.
rational stefanie might have awkwardly fast-walked in the opposite direction, thinking this guy was obviously here to hit on me or do something creepy. but this seemingly unsafe situation actually put me at ease. there was something about his smile that radiated kindness and peace. i didn't feel scared for the slightest moment.
he asked me for a cigarette. i had the one in my hand and another tucked in my pocket. but i still had at least 45 minutes of walking left, and i wanted it for myself, so i lied. i said, "no, i'm sorry," and expected the conversation to end there. but then he asked me where i'm from. so i told him. and i told him about dog-sitting for dutch friends and that i was leaving the next morning. his responses were warm and sincere.
soon, diesel started tugging me further along the coast, so i began to walk away from this stranger. but then he asked, with a sort of curious desperation in his expression, if he could walk with me for a while... it was an unexpected question. i hesitated for a moment, then thought about how boring these dog walks were alone... and what harm could it do? and wouldn't it be nice to have someone to talk to? so i said yes.
he walked with me and we immediately dove into intriguing talk. he told me he was originally from pakistan. and that many years ago, he was forced to serve in the military there. he endured danger against his will, because it was against the law not to. but after some serious threats to his safety/life, his family made him flee to libya to escape the military in pakistan.
when hell broke loose in 2011, and libya erupted in civil war, this young man and his friends fled for their lives, yet again. this time, they boarded a boat to cross the mediterranean. he said they spent 5 days at sea, with 40-foot waves, before finally reaching one of italy's small islands, with hopes of soon finding security on the european continent. but because this poor guy spent all these years illegally fleeing dangerous countries, he had no passport and no papers. italy denied him.
it was about this time in the story that i pulled out my second cigarette (after badly pretending to discover it was there), lit it, and handed it to him to share.
so after they denied him, italy recorded his fingerprints to make sure he could never bypass customs. with nowhere to go, he somehow found his way to nearby malta. he's been living on malta ever since, serving in restaurants to get by.
he told me that maltese people can be extremely territorial and racist. their little island is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, so they don't like the idea of immigrants coming and taking their jobs. he said in the last restaurant he worked in, his employers unjustly withheld a portion of the tips he made everyday for themselves. and there was nothing he could do about it. they eventually fired him and gave his job to a maltese person. he told me he'd now been without a job for a few months, because everywhere he applied refused to hire him.
he told me all he wanted was to leave malta, but he was stuck. he can't leave, because malta won't grant him basic civil rights---he has no way to get documents, and nowhere to go without documents, and now no way to make money in the only place he's allowed to be, because he's not wanted there. what a tragic paradox, right?!
we sat on the beach beneath the spotlight of a crowded cafe, and i listened, fascinated by this unusual life. i'd never met anyone like him---someone with so many life or death sorts of struggles. maybe because i'd never before been to a part of the world so close to countries overrun by war. i couldn't fathom these experiences... what was once maybe a headline on my yahoo news page was now sitting beside me in the moonlight, smiling, as gracious as anyone i'd ever known.
he somehow seemed lighthearted as he retold this unfortunate series of events---as if that's all they were---random events, a hand he was dealt, a role he was playing out with such composure.
he told me he was all out of money and didn't know how he was going to pay this month's rent, but he didn't seem worried. it was a matter of fact, oh-well, this-is-the-situation-and-im-doing-my-best-everyday sort of statement. he joked that his real concern was that he couldn't afford more cigarettes (he loooved cigarettes). and he was down to his very last one.
we talked about politics and war while the dog played in the water. he told me about how, where he's from, unmarried women are not allowed out of the house without a chaperone. women must be covered up, and he thinks they're more beautiful that way. he said i'd look more beautiful in muslim robes. i looked down at my bare legs, and i hugged my naked knees in with my bare arms.
and i listened.
we started talking about women's rights in his country vs women's rights in western culture. we were both surprised about the ways of the other's culture. that led to talk of god and religion. and this sweet pakistani guy soon found that he had been talking to a non-religious, jet-setting, shorts-wearing, solo dog-walking american female. and he was taken aback... but he was not judgmental.
in that moment, i realized---we two people, of different sexes and different races and different religions and completely different cultures from opposite sides of the world, we met in the middle, in a place that felt foreign to both of us, yet we SOMEHOW got along... almost like old friends.
i thought, there's a fundamental similarity here that needs to be emphasized instead of discussing cultural differences. because the details don't matter. those are mere customs. what matters, is the fundamental faith that we base our lives on.
so i said that we are from very different places, and we have very different ideas, but those are what we were grown to know. i said that my religion is love. and that my faith is the idea that every little thing has a purpose, and that every human being is inherently good. i said that as long as you're positive and have faith in some sort of higher entity... well, that's all that matters.
he ardently agreed with me.
i hardly noticed that in the midst of this talk, he pulled out his very last cigarette to share with me. his LAST cigarette. that may not seem significant to anyone, but let's review this guy's circumstances: no money, no job, no way to pay rent or go home to family, and not even small change for more cigarettes---the only thing he finds solace in these days, and he shared it with ME... a complete stranger (with opposing religious, political, and cultural beliefs).
the symbolism behind this was ground-quaking for me. a small gesture, sure. but a selfless small gesture from someone who has nothing... it grows exponentially in scale.
after well over an hour of talking to this lovely stranger soul, he walked me back toward the apartment. when we were across the street, i started to say goodbye and asked if i could give him something. i pulled a 10 euro note out of my pocket that i had shoved in there at the last minute, in case i wanted a drink or something. i gave it to him and said something along the lines of, "i want you to have this. it's not a lot, but it's all i brought with me. buy yourself cigarettes or something happy, something to tide you over for now."
...the sheer GRATITUDE in this guy's eyes was heart-breaking. after the unkindness he told me he'd been shown lately, i could tell that this was the last thing he expected to happen. he looked at me with the warmest appreciation and said, "thank you. i will never forget you."
i wished him the most sincere "best of luck" i've ever wished anyone. and then we went our separate ways.
by the time i got back up to the apartment, i realized that i didn't even know his name. i have no way of contacting him to see if he's okay. or to give him more help. or maybe just to tell him how much he moved me. but somehow, i get the feeling he's going to be okay. he's got too much love in his heart to not be.