Yesterday we signed a lease on our new home, a maisonette (ground floor apartment with a door directly to the street) in Mgarr (Um-Jarrr), in the North West of Malta.
It was such a refreshing experience, getting to know the property and then finalising a rental agreement with our landlords – a sun-bronzed farmer and his wife, Jimmy and Doris, in their young sixties. It reminded me that the sophisticated cities that we have lived in for the last 15 years have lost much of what is precious about being open and human, and being in community.
I wrote here about the dynamics of the Malta market, and that our particular challenge was to find an unfurnished property with a garage in a rental market that is almost exclusively furnished, with very few garages.
Our approach was to offer a lease term of two years, longer than the norm (which appears to be 6 months plus, usually a year) to make it worthwhile for the landlord to remove their furniture. And also to emphasise what great tenants we would be, with no children, no pets, always in bed by 9 pm (I’m sure you get the idea).
One of the agents we encountered mentioned that she knows a good landlord who has an unfinished apartment (the kitchen is not yet installed), which will be available by the end of October. It has not yet been furnished. I asked her to inquire if the landlord would consider not furnishing it, in exchange for a two-year lease. I also said that we would be happy to lease the apartment even before the kitchen is installed if we would be allowed to unload out container into it now, and then unpack and move in at the end of October.
Long story short, that’s what we’re doing, and I would like to share with you some of the “human moments” of the experience.
When we first arrived to view the apartment, a small and battered pick-up truck overflowing with fresh vegetables pulled up, and a diminutive lady jumped out while her husband went to find a parking space around the corner. And so we met Jimmy and Doris, resplendent with radiant smiles and firm handshakes. As we were shown around, we heard soundbites about the building and the town. Jimmy and Doris have built four apartments in a small block of eight, the other four are being built by Doris’s brother, making the building a true family affair.
The land had belonged to Jimmy’s grandfather, who was the building supervisor of the nearby Mgarr Parish Church. According to Doris, the building started in 1912, was stopped at times because of the two World Wars, and was finally completed in 1948. Remarkable. It is well-known for its unusual egg-shaped dome, and the tourist buses regularly stop by to appreciate it.
Mgarr’s village motto is “small, with a big heart”, and it was clear that Jimmy and Doris are keen to live up to it. When discussing the bedroom window, we asked if it can have a curtain rail installed – Jennifer said that she has some curtains that would go well there. After quickly agreeing to the request, Doris added that if the curtains are too long, she would be happy to make the necessary alterations to them. I told her that she was offering to sew for the world’s most expert human sewing-machine, “You sew?”, she asks Jennifer, and the two ladies immediately ramped up the connection.
Rather than the classic negotiation where each party tried to get more and give less, it was apparent that Jimmy and Doris wanted us to love the maisonette, making generous offers to accommodate our preferences in colours, furniture, and other amenities. We gladly found ourselves doing the same, concerned for them and making sure that they were not being inconvenienced or taking on unnecessary stress.
When we asked if we could unload our container into the apartment, Doris said of course, but she would have to clean it first (it was a somewhat tidy construction site). Somehow we both knew that this didn’t mean she would call the cleaning company, but rather that she would clean it herself. True enough, when we arrived yesterday to sign the contract, the place was sparkling, and Jimmy and Doris were there finishing up.
Within 10 minutes we were introduced to the lady from the apartment on level 3 and the niece from apartment 6, who took the time to insist that if we ever needed anything we must just knock on her door, she would love to help. Doris proudly showed us some of the finer details of their design (master light switches next to the master bed, the fibre internet connection already at the door, bathroom heaters with remote controls for winter, etc.)
Jimmy and Doris had brought a small table and chairs and arranged it for the auspicious signing of the letting agreement. We went through the three pages together, discussed various preferences, added initials and signatures, and that was it. We then asked about their farming and about Mgarr in general. We learned that they farm mainly strawberries and have several small fields dispersed around the district.
We had, of course, noticed the distinctive small Maltese fields, often separated by stone walls, often carrying different crops to their neighbours. We were told that every generation typically divides up the farming land
between the children, of which there are typically many. The fields are further divided with each generation and added to by each marriage, so they become smaller and less contiguous over time.
Jennifer and I went to eat at a local restaurant afterwards, where it was clear that the Mgarr community attitude was everywhere. Little cafés and watering holes are situated all around the church square, their patrons spilled out on chairs scattered across the pavement and into the street. The warm summer evening, ancient stone walls, conversation and laughter made us feel very grateful to have stumbled across this, the magic of Mgarr.