You know how sometimes, when you’re abroad, daydreaming in front of a shop window, you suddenly hear a voice which stands out in the background noise?
The first thing you pick up is the decibel level (loud-ish); the second thing would be the tonality (argumentative); and lastly the language (it’s your mother tongue).
Usually it’s someone saying “Aw ara! Tajjeb dan jidher! Ejja!” (“This looks good! Come on!”) You can always tell when there’s another Maltese in town; we aurally detect each other out.
So, when this half-Maltese US presidential candidate suddenly started hitting the headlines I wondered: would there be a trace of Malta in Pete Buttiġieġ? The answer is: audibly, no. If you’ve heard him speak in one of the many interviews he’s given, you’ll have noticed that his decibel levels are low-ish and his tonality is one of absolute calm. Actually, he does not really sound American either – there are no tedious drawls anywhere – and in fact his whole demeanour is simply one which says: continental Europe.
Hmm, I thought, so how are we going to spot those Maltese genes? We know that his father Joseph was a Maltese immigrant who made a name for himself in the literary world – but what else do we know about the son, a candidate with an unpronounceable surname for all the world apart from us?
I’ve been on the lookout for column inches about his Maltese family link but came across none, so in the end I called a friend of ours who is a direct relative of this Pete Boot-edge-edge.
“Noel, tell me, how much of a Maltese is your second cousin?”
“Very,” came back the answer. Throughout his childhood, young Pete often spent summers here in Malta, so he knows the island well. He would stay with his Nanna Ċettina who could only speak to him in Maltese “and therefore he had no option but to speak Maltese to communicate with her”. As he grew older, he also took an interest in the political scenario of the island and even followed closely the Maltese election campaign of 2017.
Hamruniżi readers will rejoice at the fact that he’s a fan of the festa of San Gejtanu and always made sure that his visits coincided with the much acclaimed Marċ tal-Brijju which sees rival band clubs San Gużepp and San Gejtanu battle it out. (I did ask if he’s a Gużeppin or a Gejtaniż, but that information is, alas, classified).
And there’s another thing that this US presidential candidate, mayor of the city of South Bend in the state of Indiana, loves about Malta, and that’s the Lija village grand fireworks show held annually in August to celebrate the feast of Is-Salvatur.
He’s a fan of the festa of San Gejtanu and always made sure that his visits coincided with the much acclaimed Marċ tal-Brijju
Seeing as he’s clearly enthralled by saints and fireworks – has he read Jeremy Boissevain, I wonder? – he’s more than welcome to come and watch the pyrotechnics display from our garden next time he’s in Malta, whichever way the primaries go.
I like him and I like what he’s trying to do. And I don’t mean that in the island-centric “qed jagħmel unur lil Malta” sense, like he’s some Eurovision singer. He is, thankfully, bigger than that and the world is a global village. He is actually honouring and giving hope to all those who share his ideology – those of us who are liberal, but who treasure the traditional values of the family, community and common good.
In his trademark rolled up shirtsleeves and tie (now I’ve seen that look somewhere, wink, wink) 37-year-old Buttigieg is the antithesis of Trump and all the populist leaders in the world, including ours. He studied history and literature, is a Harvard and Oxford graduate and a Rhodes scholar. An interview held in his living room showed how it’s pleasantly crammed with bookshelves and strewn with books which look read and loved. He speaks eight languages, is a concert pianist and served as a military officer in Afghanistan.
As a mayor, he reinvented his dying ghost city. He reclaimed abandoned houses, confronted gun violence, attracted high-tech industry, and the South Bend population starting growing again for the first time in half a century.
Would the fact that he is the first openly gay presidential candidate in the US hinder his success? I so hope not. Buttiġieġ is married to Chasten, a school teacher, and what matters is that they share a love story. “I am a better person because Chasten brings out the best in me, that’s how a good marriage works,” Buttigieg said. They also share the care of two adopted rescue dogs, Truman and Buddy. (Incidentally, Buddy looks exactly like a typical chubby dog you’d find in most Maltese homes.)
Buttigieg would be a textbook-perfect candidate if only the world still wants people who are knowledgeable, polite, cultured and with a well-mannered demeanour, to be their leaders. But what are the chances of that happening in a world which wants loud-mouths, macho, chest-thumping men to lead the packs?
Today, what happens in one country has a domino effect on the rest. Dare we hope that next year, the US will change track and will give us politics that we can identify with? I hope so and I hope that next year lots of American voters will look at Buttigieg and go “Aw ara! Tajjeb dan jidher! Ejja!”
Good luck Pete.