US national Dave Seminara was a 13-year-old student when he received an indignant letter from the Office of the Prime Minister in Malta, accusing him of grossly misrepresenting the country.
Twenty-six years later, after finally getting the opportunity to visit, he came to Malta and attempted to make amends. He currently works as a freelance photojournalist, and his account of the visit was featured on travel blog gadling.com this week.
Mr Seminara was an 8th grade student at St Gregory the Great school in Williamsville, a suburb of Buffalo, when he ruffled the feathers of the Maltese government.
The school had organised a model UN exercise for 8th graders in which participants role-played as representatives of different countries or organisations during a simulated UN session.
Mr Seminara was tasked with representing Malta, a task he admits he was initially displeased with. He notes that finding out how the Maltese dressed in the pre-internet age was not an easy task.
In the end, he decided that since Libya was one of Malta’s primary trading partners and was relatively close – and since he lacked better ideas – he would dress up like Muammar Gaddafi.
Malta is closer to Italy than to Libya – and during his visit, he was asked why he did not choose to dress up as an Italian instead – but the reason is simple: “it’s more fun to dress up like Gaddafi than an Italian.”
So on 8 May 1986, after donning a traditional white Arab robe with matching headgear and sunglasses, Mr Seminara turned up to school to represent Malta at the mock UN session.
A local newspaper, The Buffalo News, snapped a picture as he addressed fellow mock-diplomats for a caption story on the next day’s issue. Someone at the school sent a copy of the press clipping to the embassy of Malta, apparently believing it would find such a misrepresentation amusing.
Mr Seminara was in for a surprise a few weeks later, when he received a package from the Office of the Prime Minister.
The package included some books about Malta and also a letter, written by the Prime Minister’s private secretary Mario Cacciottolo, which took offence at the schoolboy’s unorthodox choice of costume.
“Your picture supposedly wearing Malta dress was a very great shock to us,” Mr Cacciottolo wrote, underlining the last five words and adding two exclamation marks for effect.
“That definitely is not the way we dress,” he added, noting that the Maltese always dressed in European fashion and that their traditional peasant costumes were completely different to the one Mr Seminara picked.
Mr Cacciottolo noted that whoever suggested the outfit was either very much mistaken or wanted to give a very distorted picture of the country.
“We feel very sorry that through this misinformation, a very wrong impression is being given in the so-called free press in your country,” he added, and concluded by asking Mr Seminara, as a favour, to try to correct this wrong impression.
The school feared an international incident had been created and forwarded the letter to the US State Department, which appears to have found the incident amusing.
Malta desk officer Marcie Berman Ries wrote to Mr Seminara the following October, welcoming his interest in international affairs and urging him to consider a career in diplomacy.
“As you have now learned, taking the interests of so many countries into account and acting wisely and justly is not a very easy task for the government of the United States. Nevertheless, a career in diplomacy is a rewarding one and I hope that you will consider it,” Ms Ries remarked.
Mr Seminara actually acted on the advice and joined the US Foreign Service, where he spent six years before deciding to settle down in Chicago when his wife became pregnant with their first child.
He has travelled extensively but had not yet visited Malta – even though it had long been on his radar.
But the opportunity presented itself this year, when the cheapest cruise he could find included a full-day stop in Malta.
While he enjoyed strolling through Valletta and the “artery-clogging goodness” of pastizzi, he had something in mind: to find out what was going on in Malta in 1986 and to find Mr Cacciottolo to apologise in person.
The task proved to be difficult, but a possible lead came when he visited the National Library. A librarian found Mr Cacciottolo’s address on the telephone directory and jotted down the address.
The house in question is in Triq ta’ Xmiexi, Msida. Finding it involved asking for directions from a number of people, including two taxi drivers who had never heard of the street.
But no one answered the door when he rang the bell, and a neighbour eventually informed him that Mr Cacciottolo had moved a few years ago.
The neighbour did provide the new address, but the place was nowhere near Valletta and Mr Seminara had to leave in just two hours, so his quest ended there.
However, the neighbour did promise to pass on the items Mr Seminara meant to deliver to Mr Cacciottolo, including a note apologising for the wrong impression he had given and a box of chocolates.
Mr Seminara did achieve his other aim – finding out about Malta in 1986 – with the help of a man who wanted to remain anonymous because his cousin is a former political leader.
“I’m not surprised they were angry at you,” the man told him. “The truth is that we’re a bit defensive because we don’t really like Arabs.”
In the meantime, Mr Seminara says it is time he corrects the false impression he had given about Malta – “Malta is a beautiful, independent European country with a fantastic climate and friendly people – people who dress in modern fashions. I had no idea, but now I do. Sorry, Mario. Please drop me a line someday. I owe you a beer.”