Saturday, April 26, 2008

Chris Fehrman

Just a bit of news. Just before Christmas, Chris Fehrman and Sayward came to visit me on their way home from their tour in the Peace Corps in Ghana. Sayward had completed her Master's before going, Chris had to write a thesis based on his work in Ghana. I'm happy to say that he defended his excellent thesis very well last week. I was on his committee and participated in it via Skype. That was a new experience for all of us, but worked well. GOOD JOB, CHRIS.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Need Maltese advice for a talk

I'm giving a talk on the US elections this Th (Ap 24) at the la Valette Rotary Club at the Intercontinental.

My talk is in good draft, but I want to make sure it hits things that interest and or confuse the citizens of Malta. Please send me your questions via the comment function on the blog. That way I can improve my talk.

Thank you

Humor: My accent

In the US we often say how we just love someone's British accent. Today I was walking and overheard a group of British gentlemen debating where something was. I stopped to ask if I could help them. The men were from the Birmingham area. One of them asked what part of the US I was from and I said the far north of Michigan. "Oh, I just love your accent."

Reflection 3: My (smaller) ecological footprint

Recently, I talked about the concept of the ecological footprint at a boys' secondary school in Gzira. Now, I'm getting ready to give a two -hour university class on international relations theory and the environment. Both activities have gotten me thinking.

In getting ready for the boys, I went on line (redefining and calculated my US ecological footprint and then my footprint for how I live here in Malta. An ecological footprint tries to estimate how much land surface one's lifestyle is using and then it shows how you compare to your national average and also how many Earths it would take if everyone in the world lived the way you do. I was really struck by the difference. My Malta ecological footprint is about half that of my US footprint. Technical quibblers out there may object that there is no baseline for the Malta footprint--for example I'm sure the energy used to create my tap water is WAY higher than back home, due to desalinization. But I did use the "island" option when I calculated the foot print.

What accounts for the difference? No car, a smaller living space, fewer appliances, and I seem to have slightly different eating patterns (less eating out, less packaged food, less meat). My air travel still gobbles up a lot of the planet. I don't have a dryer; my laundry, like virtually everyone else's, is drying up on the roof. I've already waxed rhapsodic about the pleasures of hanging laundry last fall. I still like it. I probably wouldn't like it if I had a large family. I almost never miss the car, except for evening events and my periodic aggravation with the bus system (see previous post). I know I'll miss all the fruit and veggies, either grown locally or just over in Sicily.

But, here's the thing. I'm actually happier and certainly healthier with this smaller footprint.

So, I'm thinking a lot about what I can adapt or change about the way I live in the US. I'm deep into snow country. It snowed a week ago, for example. I won't be hanging laundry in the winter, even if pioneer women did--aw, who am I kidding? my Mama and my Mom in law both hung clothes out in the cold and brought in pants frozen stiff. My husband has offered to put a line up in the yard, and I might take him up on that for warmer times of the year. As for the car, I can walk more, car pool with my husband, ride my bike. All three of those options would be fun and better for me. My husband isn't big on meat, so keeping that down won't be a problem.

So, Malta is teaching me a thing or two about what matters and what doesn't matter in creating a happy, high quality life.
The flower photo is just so you can have something pretty to look at: nasturtiums on my seafront walk--a benefit of walking is that you can actually look at things.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Public transportation

Malta is a bit less than twice the size of Washington DC (proper, not all the suburbs). It is densely populated. It is fairly wealthy. Malta is one of the most wired countries in all of the EU and it shifted to the Euro with aplomb. Vast numbers of its young people go to university. It has thoughtful and decent medical care. It should have the most perfect public transportation in the world. Instead, it has a mess.

Public transportation is so "out of synch" for the quality of the country that I simply can't get over it. The bus system is an embarrassment to the country, and it is one of the major reasons why there is so much air pollution (over 30 times the EU limit!) and traffic congestion.

I've been appalled by the buses ever since I got here. I decided, however, to keep riding them to give them a fair run. But, now I've been here and on those buses for seven months.

What's good
1. They are inexpensive--.54 Euros (~75-80 cents US) for me to get from my home to university, a bit less if I just want to go a little ways. I think they are perhaps free or nearly so when you are retired.
2. They go everywhere, with a bit less service on Gozo.
3. If you want to go to Valletta there are a lot of choices.
4. Around 31 million people ride in a given year.

What's Not Good
1. If you are going to the university or Mater Dei hosptial from the St Paul's Bay/ Mellieha bus every hour, because the two most likely buses often run about 5 minutes apart from each other.
2. Because they don't have enough bus service at peak times, you need to allocate TWO hours to get 15 km if you have to get to a meeting. I needed to go the hospital for care and ended up waiting 1 hour and 40 minutes for a bus in St. Paul's Bay. Possibly I could have gotten one sooner if I'd walked to a more distant stop (which I normally do...but I wasn't feeling so hot). But one of the buses that would have taken me was full and so it blew by me and it would still have been full at the other stop. I waited another 40 minutes.
3. They do not appear at reliable times. This is not just in my area and it is not just a whining American--I hear this from the Maltese who take the bus. There is roughly a 20 minutes early/late gap. Hard to plan, hard to be on time.
4. The buses need replacement or at least shocks. Some are getting replaced. Check out the website of the bus service:
5. The buses often allow diesel fumes into the bus--I had to put up a plastic bag against the window, on one junker running between my area and Rabat.
6. Buses that are going to the hospital may have very high steps. Only a few buses are modern and can "kneel" for the elderly or handicapped or sick. In my view no bus going to Mater Dei hospital should be inaccessible to the infirm.
7. The buses have no heat or air conditioning (or none that I've noticed).
8. Some, BUT certainly NOT ALL, bus drivers are rude and abusive. I have also had wonderfully kind drivers, the ones who could help train their colleagues in customer service and quality.
9. While there is no smoking on the bus, the drivers routinely smoke.
10. If you don't know where a numbered bus is going, you have to stop the bus to ask. The driver will either be helpful or swear at you and pull away.
11. I don't think they use operations research to figure out when to put more or fewer buses on the road.
12. Buses are owned by the individual drivers, so there is almost no control over them.

Taxis are extremely expensive--I checked on the fare to Mater Dei and they wanted 20 Euros (30 US). I do take cabs, but I try to minimize it.

RESULTS: Malta roads are jam packed, it can take two hours to get from St Paul's Bay to the university by car if it has rained, depending on construction blockages and accidents. Most cars--like the US, only on a tiny space--have one person in them. There are no rail systems or subway systems. I think the extreme use of cars, other than a Maltese love for independence, is due to the unreliability of the bus service and possibly the need for more earlier and later buses.

Tourists use the buses a lot. Perhaps it is charming for two or three days. It is not charming thereafter.

What I wonder.

While, I don't understand why the system isn't nationalized, I will respect the drivers who love their buses and who want to hand down the work to their sons (I've never seen a female driver, but they may exist).

A) Raise prices to a Euro, so that drivers can afford the rising price of gas. If the government wants to subsidize users and not foreigners like me, that would be fine. This would also save the drivers a lot of time making change.
B) Ask the University to help them with operations research.
C) Change the rules on what buses can go to the hospital.
D) Turn on the heat and AC when it gets extreme--wind in the windows only helps a little.
E) Have extra buses from the Gozo ferry to university, especially in early morning from the ferry and late afternoon from the U. Perhaps there should be a dedicated one for Gozitan students going home for the weekend.
F) Have some smaller van type operations that cost more, but might be deployed as needed or on a highly regular bases between places. I don't know if "on demand" would make sense--5 Euros to go the hospital or get near where an appointment is going to be, would be no problem for me. It wouldn't have to be door to door. even.
G) Consider adding a monorail, train, subway.
H) Perhaps there could be more regular ferry service to more places, but I have little experience with this.
I) Introduce the concept of car pooling to the Maltese.

In American cities, where there is high density, all kinds of people--bankers, govt workers, teachers, sales people, iron workers, you name it--take public transportation. It is just what's done. Here, there is a tendency to think the bus is for students, the poor, pensioners, and tourists who won't be back. Better public transportation could move Malta in a better direction. I want the bus drivers to have a good living; I want Malta to be livable.

OK. I'm done with my soapbox. My apologies if I have, as the outsider, given offense.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Alternate Walk 2

Alternate walk with dog 1

Last fall I put up pictures of my usual walk along the sea that I take with my foster dog. We also go up a hill sometimes, so I thought I provide some photos of that. I did not take the dog on this particular walk--he is still a handful on walks, never having been taught to walk on a leash. He's doing better after all these months, but I never know when he'll be feeling his oats, so to speak. But, I do enjoy it, and he seems to as well.

The land is not quite a green as it was. The rains are tapering off. It is supposed to get into the 80s (F) this week (mid to upper 20 (C)). Still, the island is a marvel of flowers. It's like getting giant bouquets as you walk. I know my Houghton readers like seeing the wildflowers (and yours are going to start really soon--I saw that warm weather of last week on the Tech webcams!).

Saturday, April 5, 2008

More Pisa photos

We really enjoyed our short stay in Pisa. It was much better than we expected it to be, somehow.
Photos of the lovely setting for the bapistry, tower, cathedral, etc. A view of the Arno as it goes through Pisa. It's a university of town and had that flavor where we were.


My husband and I also visited Florence on our trip to Italy. Too bad both of us had been hit with some sort of intestinal bug. I slept my first day in Florence. STILL...we managed to see some of what we originally planned, like the Uffizi art museum. Our hotel room had a view of the bell tower and the Duomo, so we were in a great location. We took a look at Dante's church and his house. Very recently I finally got around to reading the Inferno (OK, so my liberal education back when was not so liberal)--picked it up in an airport. It grabbed me, even after all these centuries. I'm not sure I'd like the other two books as well, but I will read them eventually. We also walked over to the Boboli Gardens and had the requisite picture taken of us on the Ponte Vecchio looking out over the Arno.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Malta cats

I've been meaning for a long time to take some photos of the cats that are all over the place here in Malta. They get fed by "cat ladies" and "cat men." These people take care to take the animals in to be spayed and neutered. People donate money to them to help with the food (I have, anyway). I'm not entirely sure if the cats belong to anyone. They all get fed, but some seem very fat, so they may have other homes. There are cats in parks, along the street, at the university (where offices adopt them and feed them). There are cats everywhere. Here a are few from along my walk in St. Paul's Bay. I do believe many of them had the same parents. Eventually I'l come along, with my camera, just before their feeder shows up. I've counted 15 of them waiting for dinner.

Views of Tuscany

Some photos of the Tuscan countryside. We stayed at Adler Thermae Spa near the ancient spa of Bagne Viaggi. This is the closest I've been to snow all winter.

Up the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Don and I went to Italy a while back and visited Pisa, the Tuscan countryside, and Florence. The Leaning Tower of Pisa has been stabilized enough that they let visitors climb all 291 (or thereabouts) steps to the top. I went up. It was very, very odd, because sometimes it felt very easy taking the steps while at parts it felt like each step was three feet tall. Going down was challenging and did a number of one's inner balance. But, it WAS fun. Here are photos of the walk up.