Monday, 6 May 2013

Times: Less is more – go back to basics
Sunday, May 5, 2013 by Michela Spiteri

At the weekend – and most any day – I’m happiest on my sofa. Every so often, overcome by a profound sense of couch potato guilt that comes with having a son and having missed out on Heritage Malta open day, or yet another Birgu, Mdina, Notte Bianca, Milk or Strawberry Festival, I throw myself out of the house with a mild sense of dread schoolchildren must feel when they’re riding to school on Monday morning.

Which is how we ended up at the Milk Festival last Sunday. We spent more time driving around looking for a parking place than we did driving there or at the actual festival at any rate. And when we did eventually park, we were clearly in breach of traffic regulations. And yet, having made the effort, I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to get out of the car and milk it for all it was worth.

There was just about everything, and yes, there were even stalls selling yoghurt, shakes and milk products. But, were it not for the big plastic life-size cow on display – which allowed you to sit on a stool and simulate milking a cow – you’d never have known you were bang in the middle of the much-hailed Għargħur Annual Milk Festival.

Most times, whenever I am about to embark on any trip or excursion – whether it’s a new city or a supermarket I’m visiting – I have already formed a mental picture of what the event should look like. This time round, I was clearly way off the mark.

Most anywhere in the world, milk festivals raise awareness about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) equality. They are weekends of fun, which essentially celebrate and honour the life of Harvey Milk, one of America’s first openly gay elected officials and civil rights heroes.

Now there was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the festival in Għargħur was celebrating an altogether different kind of milk, and yet it probably would have been far better and much less confusing had it been a LGBT parade. As it was, the identity crisis was far more acute.

If you’re going to host a festival in a quaint, rural village to celebrate – and presumably cultivate and develop people’s understanding about – milk and animal production, then stick with the programme. Don’t go off at a tangent, don’t branch out into plants, costume jewellery, antiques, memorabilia and army wear. And whatever you do, don’t turn it into a trashy, cacophonic, anachronistic affair with a teeny bopper strutting her stuff on stage, belting out pop music so loud, you are barely able to hear yourself think, never mind talk to the stall sellers or the people you are with. That said, she was probably the cheesiest by-product at the whole event. And when I saw her there, I half expected to turn round and see a hot-dog truck – and what do you know, I probably did.

Much of my annoyance was down to Malta and the Maltese having all the right ingredients if only they knew it. We could easily have nailed the festival and gone to town with Gozitan and Maltese crafts and delicacies; perhaps had some sheepskin rugs, slippers, woolies and tapestries thrown in the mix. Add to that some Maltese folk (Għana) music and farmers (possibly even milk maids) wearing traditional peasant costumes interacting with the crowd.

Throw in livestock or a live talk or presentation, a trip to a nearby farm or anything vaguely educational and alternative. They could have created a cheese and wine corner or had people sit down to a traditional type meal – replete with ricotta pies, cheese cakes, goats cheese, ice-cream and whipped cream. They did none of that. They didn’t even have the common sense to keep it simple and tranquil, which always works.

Why do you think places like Gozo and Mdina have always topped the charts and been so popular both with locals and with foreigners alike? And why do you think cities the world over try so hard to emulate that which should come ever so naturally to us if we weren’t so bent on deleting and annihilating our identity and everything which ought to define us?

When I visited the Christmas market that stretches from the Grand Place to Place Sainte-Catherine, in Brussels, I was blown away by the simplicity of it all. Take away the light show, the real-life animals and the ice-rink and it was just lots of little wooden-roofed huts, selling mainly arts and crafts and typical Christmassy food and drink. It was stylish, low-key and very peaceful, and when we (I was one of a group) sat down to eat at a nearby restaurant, we all marvelled at how easily done the whole thing was. And all of us, without exception, laid bets on how, in Malta, we’d have ruined the event with bumping cars and karaoke.

And it’s not for want of trying or for want of capability, because we are certainly able, although not always willing, to rise to the occasion. It’s almost as if we haven’t yet understood that less is more, that going back to basics, keeping it simple and stylish is always a winning combination. If it’s a cultural event we’re hosting, then it needs to evoke a sense tradition, of culture, of times gone by.

And then, of course, there’s the other very frightening reality about these events – knowing that you’re going to be one of 20,000 people vying for a parking space, and that traffic there and back is going to be impossible. The Birgu Fest last summer was so hopelessly busy and deafening that no sooner did we arrive than we literally took refuge in the first wine bar we came across and didn’t emerge until the crowds had dissipated and there was no festival left to speak of.

And all the while, I couldn’t help wondering why I had left my sofa in the first place.

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