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My memories of Malta, formed mere weeks ago, are jumbled and not altogether sensible. Like many recollections of past trips, the ones formed here make no sense on paper, but the associations are somehow even more solid for their inexplicability to others. I’ve written before about some nonsensical links I’ll always have from my travels and how they sound absurd to outsiders but are so tightly connected for me. Think Boy George and St. Petersburg, Russia. R.E.M. and the roads of the Peloponnese. Beyond those questionable musical connections, I’ve reminisced about toilets in France, paper products in Tibet, a mysterious white horse in Ecuador, my radio claim to fame in Cape Town, and so many other random but powerful memories.

As our trip to Malta was planned, we only really had four days to explore and get to know our travel mates better. As executed, we were down to three days and two nights, and a chunk of that turned out to be devoted to a couple of World Cup football matches, a sporting event I don’t think I had ever watched – or really wanted to watch – in my life.

The trip started poorly, with our Turkish Airlines flight leaving Houston so late that we missed our connection and had to spend what would have been our first evening of cocktails and dinner with old and new friends at Istanbul airport instead. It could have been worse. IST has been massively updated, and the place was hopping with activity, had a decent airside hotel, and offered an array of fun dinner options. Not Plan A, but we made the best of it.

Arriving early on day two, we met Kelly and J, along with J’s brother and his wife (an amazing bonus couple!), at our quaint little hotel in Valletta. After a quick breakfast, we were off for a walking tour of the capital city, some barely-past-noon beers, and then a boat ride to the Three Cities, which the group had explored a little bit the day before we arrived. Here we were treated not only to toasty yellow stone walls and narrow streets, but to the brotherly banter of J and T. My J is one of two brothers as well, and it was clear even in the first hours of strolling and chatting that we would be a compatible, and often goofy, group!

Kelly and J had spent the previous week in Doha at the World Cup, and like true World Cup fans, their schedule in Malta would include a double header of matches on our second night. Not certain we would be able to sit through both contests, we showed up for match #1, Croatia vs. Brazil, with intentions of politely watching for a short time and having a small amount to eat and drink with the group before venturing out on our own for the evening. In short order, however, we tumbled headlong into the excitement of the match and a cascade of drinks and cheers. Buoyed by the upset results, we hung around for a change in venue and the start of the next quarterfinal, Netherlands vs. Argentina, only to find ourselves once again entranced by a sport we had only ever suffered through as our children played youth soccer for the few years we all could tolerate.

We did manage to see more of Malta than the two bars that hosted our soccer-viewing marathon. In addition to the Three Cities, we ventured out on a bus to Marsaxlokk, a small fishing village south of the capital.

We ambled for hours above, below, and within the burnished stone walls of this fortified little island, and we even had a Michelin-star dinner at Noni in Valletta.

We admired doors and door knockers,

San Francisco-style urban hills,

and a full complement of beguiling streetscapes.

We burned a path in Merchants Street, up to the city gates and Christmas market, back down to the hotel, up to St. John’s cathedral and its Caravaggio paintings, down to Fort St. Elmo, over to Old Bakery Street, and out onto the ramparts on all sides of the city.

We got a solid feel for this unique little island that sits between Sicily and Tunisia, and we had a great time with our friends old and new. It was a joy to be back in Europe again and, in spite of its newness to us, it had the familiar old feel of so many beloved places on the Mediterranean.

We’ll remember the walks and the walls, the cuisine and the scenery, but when we think about Malta in the future, my bet is that we’ll always associate it with soccer (ok – football; see how fast I’m learning?!) and the simple good times of watching those exciting matches with beers and snacks in hand and convivial friends by our side. We even watched the finals when we got home; we’re hooked, and it’s all because we met Kelly and J and T and R in Malta!