May 5, 2010

MALTA: Those were the days

VALLETTA, Malta / The Times of Malta / Interview / May 5, 2010

Frank Zampa, 70, reminisces about the Valletta he knew as a boy and as a young man as he talks to George Cini.

"I remember standing in the balcony of the house we lived in, overlooking Kingsway (now Republic Street) watching well-to-do gentlemen waiting outside the barber shop next to the then cinema called Coliseum (now Ranieri's), run by an Italian by the name of Merola. The clients, all elegantly dressed, would stroll back and forth in front of the barber shop until they were called in by Sig. Merola."

Frank Zampa at his jewellery shop in Valletta. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The entrance to the Zampas house was in Carts Street and they could also enter the house through the Ellis photography outlet in Kingsway.

The enclosed market in Valletta, known as Is-Suq tal-Belt, was a veritable hive of activity. In the market's basement, the firm Caruana Curran produced slabs of ice about a metre long and 15 centimetres wide. The firm used to refrigerate the meat for butchers who had stalls at the market.

When news broke out in 1939 of a possible war in Europe, Philips, who had a shop in Kingsway next to Carts Street, brought two loudspeakers outside their retail outlet and people milled around to hear the latest news.

"War for us kids was an adventure. As soon as we heard the siren signalling an air raid, we went down the shelter beneath the area now called Freedom Square. The block where Ellis was had been bombed.

"The extent of the shelter was enormous. Going down was a spiral staircase and you might go down 100 steps and get dizzy by the time you reached your landing. At times, we used to close our eyes not to lose our balance."

Business transactions were carried out there and then with people using cash because most people held little trust in banks.

People used to buy gold as surety and to wear and show off during village or town feasts. They used to keep their jewellery in a tin box, often bearing the brand name Oxo, the broth cube company.

Business was carried out in the four corners of Merchants Street, corner with St Lucia Street. The sellers would wait at the corners and whisper their price in the ear of middlemen. Items for sale included potato seed, wheat and barley.

The café Cadena in Merchants Street was known as Ta' Żewwiġni, meaning The Matchmaker. It gained this name as many a mother would take her daughters there hoping for a good match.

After the end of World War II, Nerik Mizzi, who, together with others accused of harbouring Italian sympathies, had been interned to Uganda at the beginning of the war was released and went to live in St John Street, Valletta, opposite the church of St Mary of Jesus (Ta' Ġieżu).

Dr Mizzi, who studied law in Italy, was a leader of the Nationalist Party with a vision for Malta as a European and Mediterranean nation. In February 1942, the British authorities issued a warrant for the deportation of 47 Maltese, including Dr Mizzi, who were exiled to Uganda. He was repatriated from Uganda on March 8, 1945 and immediately returned to Maltese politics by attending the Council Sitting on March 15.

"I used to go to his house and ask whether he needed any help. I had bought a Fiat Topolino, which had a soft top and used to take him around in it."

One day, during a meeting at Café riche in Vittoriosa, there were about 150 Nationalist Party supporters but the majority of listeners hailed from the opposite political divide.

"All of a sudden, steel nuts and stones rained over us. When Nerik Mizzi was sworn in as Prime Minister in 1950 he went to his office at the Auberge d'Aragon and then I escorted him in my Topolino to the Rediffusion cable radio office in Melita Street next to Pippo's to address the nation.

"I switched off the car's engine and was pushed along by supporters but when we turned into Old Bakery Street from Mayfair House, which then housed the offices of the General Workers' Union, eggs were thrown at us with one hitting me in the face.

"In order for the Prime Minister to be able to wave to the people who lined the streets, I removed the passenger seat and instead placed a bar stool and rolled back the soft top for Nerik to be in an elevated position." [rc]

Copyright: Allied Newspapers Limited