You are middle class, ey?
At a lunch recently, the person sitting opposite me made a remark about an acquaintance of his who went to live in Żejtun. He rounded the remark with a snigger. “And we all know what the Żejtun people are like. I mean, their character, you know?”
As none of us acknowledged his point, he saw it fit to expand and said: “How shall I put it, they are certainly unlike the people of Sliema.”
It is so refreshing to come across blatant, in-your-face snobbery. The man was clearly unwilling, possibly unable to see other people except as stereotypes.
Here was a gentleman who actually believed that out there, away from the ‘civilised’ Sliema, it was all a jungle.
But what made me desperately want to burst out laughing was the fact that, with the exception of one or two, all the people in the room were from the so-called ‘rough’ south.
“Beware!” I wanted to whisper, “Even though we’re speaking English, believe it or not we’re from Qormi, Paola, and brace yourself, Żejtun!”
Discussing class in Malta is not something we usually do. Classes are incredibly obvious and intuitive, and barely worth mentioning (ħamallu, pepè, faux-pepè and neutral).
But just because we don’t talk about it, it does not mean it is not there. Ask any recruitment agency. Employers shirk when they are presented with ace candidates from the south of Malta.
In a couple of private schools, unless you’re in the Sliema-area circle, you will have a hard time to join in parents’ conversations and your child will be left out at parties. Even for my generation, the school we attended made a difference. I lost count of the number of times I’ve been told: “You went to Sacred Heart, ey?” No. “St Dorothy’s?” No.
I can see my status in their eyes being notched down when I say I went to the little known Church school in Tarxien that was only two doors up from where I lived and luckily I could get out of bed just as the school bell rang.
It’s not the first time I’ve been asked which school my parents went to. All these questions really mean one thing: “Before I give you more of my time, I need to know if you are in the same social class as ours.”
Which is probably why now in the pseudo-election campaign, the ‘middle class’ phrase gets bandied about left, right and centre.
But what exactly is middle class? Sometimes, when I’m stuck in traffic I like to mull over this one. What am I? Am I lower-middle or middle-middle. I know for a fact that I’m not upper-mid class. Although I’m not sure how that works.
Is it on the basis of my very blue-collar income? Or does it depend on the family connections?
Can I ever join the upper class? Or is one born there?
But, most importantly, I ask: do we really all want to be middle class?
To my mind, if we all become middle class, with the same earnings, that’s pretty much a communist ideal. Possibly politicians are tapping into our subconscious ambitions.
For a while there I used to think that language is a key indicator. One of the signs of social mobility was the language we spoke. If you wanted to be middle class, then you had to talk to your children in English.
But it’s not like that anymore – a new national identity is slowly taking over. And perhaps Alex Vella Gera’s highly recommendable book Is-Sriep Reggħu Saru Valenużi brings that to light.
Here is a novel in which the characters speak the language out there on the streets. It’s in Maltese. Only it isn’t: it’s a hotchpotch of English and Maltese. This is our new national identity. Perhaps slowly, slowly, we are solving the language questions.
Here is an example of the complexity of my day-to-day interactions. I was brought up in a Maltese-speaking household. I speak to my mother and my sister and my aunts, uncles and cousins in Maltese. I speak to my daughter in English. I swear in English.
I speak in English to some of my friends, but to others in Maltese, and with some other friends, I speak a bit of both, depending on what we’re talking about.
Interestingly a recent NSO poll, however, said that 91 per cent respondents prefer Maltese as their everyday language. Only six per cent prefer English as their everyday language.
I am not sure these statistics are right. I think in surveys we like to be patriotic. We like to fly the Maltese language flag. But perhaps it’s high time we accept the reality out there.
And now I’m off to Żejtun. Will I survive the experience to write another column?