Familiarizing the Unfamiliar

When I first got to Malta, I was unsure how I would get around. ‘Public transport,’ I assumed, because that’s what I did in Switzerland. But there were many things that I found weird or negative about Maltese public transport that made it difficult for me to use. Not all the stops were listed on the bus timetables – how was I supposed to know which bus went where I needed to go? The arrival times were wrong at the bus stop, on Google maps, and on the bus’s own app. This made bus transfers virtually impossible to calculate into travelling time, since I didn’t know if I’d be waiting for 10 or for 50 minutes. Also, the buses were often late, especially in the warmer months when traffic was worst due to the number of tourists.

I had to wave down buses, so I had to pay close attention to the road and couldn’t do anything else at a bus stop – not read, watch a show, or study. Which was fine, since I couldn’t sit at many bus stops anyhow, but at first it felt like a waste of time. I bought my ticket on the bus itself with either small cash or a bus card – the small change could get annoying, no notes over 5 Euros were allowed, but tapping on with the bus card was cool. Sometimes the buses malfunctioned and incorrectly displayed which was the next stop, which was frustrating since the bus stops didn’t have all the information – sometimes it was guesswork where you needed to get off.

At the beginning, I thought it would be problematic forever. I thought I would never get the hang of Maltese public transport.

A few weeks in, an exchange student asked me which bus to take to get to a beach. I knew it from memory and told her. I surprised myself. I tried all the buses for my route to the university and learned which was the fastest and most reliable. The more I travelled, the more I understood the seeming chaos: I learned where to find bus arrival times in the bus’s app, I learned which places could be counted on for acceptable bus transfers, and I subconsciously learned all the bus stops along certain routes.

It was simple – the more time I spent using the buses and going around the country, the more I learned how everything functioned. Most of this learning was subconscious memorization and increasing familiarity with the country. By the end of my stay, I rarely checked the app and intuitively knew the general time I had to leave my apartment to catch a bus. I was comfortable enough that if I missed my planned-upon bus, I knew which one I could take in replacement and didn’t need to look it up. With some time and not much effort, it all became familiar.

I still think that Maltese public transportation could be improved, but it has some good aspects: older people get discounts, students can ride for free, and a winter-time discount. The main change that occurred was not that I learned how the buses worked, but that my perception shifted. Instead of perceiving the public transport as weird or bad, I perceived it as different

This triggered a similar change in other areas. People are louder and strangers just talk to you – this could be perceived as rude in Switzerland, but it’s normal in Malta. People don’t often stand in lines, but rather crowd around and the loudest might get served first – this isn’t necessarily bad, one just has to adapt and learn to be loud sometimes. A further difference. 

Now, when I’m confronted with something different about another culture, instead of automatically thinking, “That’s weird/unhealthy/bad,” I tend to think, “Oh, that’s different and interesting. I wonder if that’s just a cultural difference, rather than one way being better/healthier than the other.” This has even happened in Switzerland since my return. When I saw someone stand on the left side of an escalator (the walking side), instead of getting annoyed, I wondered if they had come from somewhere where one walks on the right side instead. 

This entire perspective change has affected how I view many people and different behaviors. I believe it has made me more reflective, more tolerant, and a less judgmental person. Familiarizing the unfamiliar has made me more self-aware, as well as more aware of others around me, how we all affect each other, and the impacts our behaviors have on our surrounding environments.

Kaylena Steiner

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