Nov. 3, 2007
By Ken Krayeske • 7:45 AM UCT
The second floor Malta Labor Party Bar on Republic Street in Valetta.
Thousands of pedestrians crowd Republic Street, the main avenue in central Valletta to shop, to meander, to gawk, to soak in the history. Among the cobblestones and the tourist traps, nestled next to a bank stands a sign over a door, in red lettering on a white field, that reads "Malta Labor Party – Restaurant & Bar – Tourists Welcome."
Alex, the mate on board Maverick II who replaced Tim and his broken leg, always wants genuine experiences with real people in the places we visit. He came back one night after a few pops and talked about Charley, a rotund Maltese man holding court at the second-floor Malta Labour Party bar.
Charley bought us all drinks, Alex said. Walking around the boat, Alex kept saying, "Heeey buddy," imitating Charley's deep voice and second-language slang. Alex's ad was too much, so I had to meet him. On our first night off, Alex showed me the scene.
From Gzira, where the boat is docked, we took the 62 bus to Valletta, strolled down Republic Street, walked up the stairs and found a dozen man hanging around a spacious 1,000 square foot restaurant and bar.
Most of the tables were empty. On the televisions hanging in the corners of the room, commercials pantomimed the sales pitch, because Hank Williams "Okie from Muskogee" dominated the bar.
On another wall sat stately photos of the leaders of the Malta Labour Party. Who would've thought it – a political party owning a bar and serving drinks?
Sure, the Republicans and Democrats stateside get plastered at their fundraisers, drive drunk, and make laws hungover, forget the rumors about the CIA and the Bush family's connections with international cocaine cartels.
But you have to admire a political organization that's openly in the business of selling drugs like alcohol. The MLP, founded in 1949, is one of the two main political parties in Malta, a country of 400,000.
The MLP currently holds 30 of 65 seats in the Maltese parliament, won on the strength of a left wing platform. According to Wikipedia, the MLP is affiliated with the Socialist International organization.
The MLP's agenda is popular enough to have won the control of the government here at various times in the past 50 years, most recently in 1998.
For a small island, Malta's role in history is large. St. Paul shipwrecked here in 60 AD, and Christians have preserved the grotto where he slept for two months before heading off to Rome for his beheading.
In this very Roman Catholic country (St. Paul was shipwrecked here in 60 A.D, and Malta claims to be the first Christian country), reading or thinking about the MLP was deemed a mortal sin from 1958 to 1964, when Malta finally gained full independence from British colonial rule.
By 1971, MLP leader Dom Mintoff won the prime minister seat. In 1974, Malta became a republic, and in 1976, Mintoff's administration legalized homosexuality and adultery. Yet Mintoff could not end the prohibition on divorce, and the Roman Catholic influence on family still reigns, as only 34 percent women work, according to the Lonely Planet travel guide.
Mintoff was prime minister until 1984, and MLP held the seat until 1987. The other Maltese political party, the Nationalists, have dominated since.
Yet elections will occur soon, and the current head of the MLP, Dr. Alfred Sant, who was Malta's prime minister from 1996 to 1998, promises that the MLP will win.
The MLP runs a gay radio station, a normal television channel, a Sunday paper and an online news site. Across the island, they have multiple restaurants and bars. In the MLP bar in Rabat, an old man beat the socks off me in a pool match, while others watched and in the corner at a table, another group of men played cards.
The MLP club in Valetta has occupied prime real estate for at least 20 years, if not longer. The bar balcony overlooks Republic Street, and old men hang out the window smoking cigarettes, watching the endless parade of tourists.
For a minute, we were a tourist being watched, then we walked up the stairs and into the restaurant and bar. There sat fat Charley against the wall, across from the bar, surrounded by a few small tables.
He wore a gold chain and two large rings, one on each hand, both gold British pound coins from 1903, when Edward VII was still king. I'll be damned if I can remember Charley's attire, other than an unadorned baseball cap.
Charley talked about gambling and how he hates politics.
"So what are you doing in the Labour Party bar?" I asked.
"They're good people," he said. "They know I don't agree with them, and we don't talk about it."
Charley's not a Nationalist, either.
After about a half an hour, the bartender turned down the Garth Brooks and Johnny Cash and turned up the television, almost to an earsplitting volume.
All the men in the bar, and one little old woman sitting at a table by herself turned their heads and watched attentively as a man in a suit stood at a podium and waved documents in his right hand.
I have no idea what was said. Maltese is half Italian and half Arabic with sprinkles of English, like the cab driver who plowed through Arabic's guttural sounds and the sing-song rhythm of Italian, then punctuated his conversation with "anyways" and finished with "alright alright alright."
A fishing boat cuts across the Grand Harbor in Malta, leaving the eastern walls of Valletta heading to Vittorioso. The garden walls from Senglea are in the foreground.
In this live broadcast, Labour leader Dr. Sant was serious, responding item by item to the Nationalist 2008 budget for Malta.
"Insisting that the budget gives too little too late. Dr. Albert Sant (sic) that the government does not have any new ideas and is afraid of the general election," the Malta Media News reported.
"On the other hand Dr Sant went into some detail into the several initiatives a new Labour government will take after the imminent general elections. At the same time he promised a smooth and 'tranquil' passage of power after the democratic elections," the MMN said.
Throughout Dr. Sant's speech, Charley kept talking.
Click here to find out what Charley said.