Last week I received a link to an article on BBC Travel about Maltese pika, in which the author explores this concept, apparently alien to our northern neighbours, and tries to establish the reason behind the competitiveness instilled in the Maltese.

The article itself is quite interesting, but I would like to touch upon something else here, which, to my Maltese mind, is, or at least should be of more interest to us, and I say this not out of pika or any desire or intention to one-up the BBC, which I will most obviously end up doing nonetheless, but rather out of genuine concern for my fellow countrymen, who have been afflicted by this malady for longer than I can remember.

This “neighbourly rivalry”, as the author translates it, is nothing to be proud of. The author himself hints at this sentiment throughout the article: comparing Maltese festive competitiveness to that found further north, he states that “the rivalries exhibited on Malta have an additional spark of vitriol that is something uniquely Maltese”. I have yet to encounter a use of the word “vitriol” where it carried no negative connotation.

And yet, the majority of the Maltese are indeed proud of this rivalry they harbour, and many still seem to think that this pika is a positive thing. When the author joked that they could use the interview “as material for the next festa”, he was met not with laughter, but with the cunning look of a man with a plan.

That the author could see the faults of this tradition (for everything bad in Malta is “tradition”) I have no doubt, for, unaffected by the illness of pika and therefore unperturbed by the delusions it engenders (and I do hope, for the sake of his fellow countrymen, that he was properly quarantined upon return), his reason must have shown the path that such unbridled rivalry leads to.

The majority of the Maltese are indeed proud of this rivalry they harbour, and many still seem to think that this pika is a positive thing

The more myopic of us, however, may not see how it leads to a destructive game of who has it bigger: bigger skyscrapers, bigger hotels, bigger malls, bigger whatever-else-we-do-not-need-more-of-on-this-tiny-island-of-ours.

Thankfully, there was at least one of the interviewed Maltese who seemed to get it, at least partially, realising that “rather than going for what is beautiful and entertaining, we go for what would be a first in our village”. The wisdom and truth of those words is not hard to see, and the only reason I have discarded my idea to draw up a heritage trail pinpointing all the uselessly big and needlessly ugly ‘improvements’ around the island is that I fear few would be ready to undergo such a long and depressing journey.

Things were not always this bleak, for it is true that, at first, even pika can produce positive results. Alas, without reason reining it in, it quickly gets out of hand. I remember a time when, during the village feast, one could hear the village band playing without even leaving home: nowadays the band music is muffled by the noise of more contemporary and entirely irrelevant offerings blasted from speakers which, as one can imagine, are bigger than the rival club’s. That and other such ‘improvements’ pose a real threat to our once charming festa, examples of which are dwindling in favour of this ‘pop-disco-party’ trend (a trend not limited to the village feast either: last Christmas I noticed that carols were conspicuous by their absence!).

This is all the result of an unhealthy competition nurtured by malicious envy, the kind where you want to be better than your neighbour at any cost, even if it means harm to the latter or, indeed, to one’s own self. It is not the competition characterised by a constant yearning for improvement, a benign envy whereby one looks at the other in admiration and desires to emulate success, and a competition which, in the end, is with ourselves and leads to self-improvement. No, it is precisely the opposite: the kind of competition that inevitable leads to ruin.

Once again I should be thankful that there is hope left, or at least I should hope so. A few years ago I visited the town of Dingli during their feast: a simple, quiet affair, with a marvellous choir and an abundance of genuine Malteseness. It was a triumph in simplicity, and a clear reminder that bigger is not always better. I only hope that pika has not spread there too.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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