There is a popular saying in Maltese that goes something like this: Tixtrix hut fil-bahar, or “don’t pay for the fish while they are still in the sea.”
But on the tiny European island, the Maltese are already making plans for what they will do if their favorite son’s son, Pete Buttigieg, is elected as the next U.S. president. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has even officially endorsed Buttigieg’s candidacy and has said he is proud to call him a friend.
“We will hold a parade for sure,” Maria Cutajar, a local florist, told The Daily Beast when asked what it would mean if he won. “It would be amazing to have a Maltese in the White House.”
Malta, which has an area of just 122 square miles, has been the site of numerous summits—it’s where U.S. President George H.W. Bush met Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War—and Franklin D. Roosevelt visited the island in December 1943.
The fact that Buttigieg is gay is the last thing on most Maltese people's minds. The island nation is leap years ahead of the rest of Europe in terms of gay marriage rights and same sex adoption rights, which has been especially slow to become law in Catholic countries in southern Europe. Locals are more concerned that his biggest problem is the country’s reputation for lawlessness.
Malta tends to be tied to corruption, whether for the sale of E.U. passports to wealthy Russians or to crime for the yet unsolved murder of muckraker journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. “It would be nice to be known for something good for a change,” Cutajar said.
But they won’t be renaming a Maltese street after the top Democrat—it would just be too confusing. You see, while Buttigieg has become somewhat of a comical challenge for Americans to pronounce, it is one of the most common last names on the tiny island state.
‘Mayor Pete’ as most people call the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, because his last name is too unpronounceable, is the son of a well known Maltese immigrant Joseph Buttigieg, who taught at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana until his death in January 2019. The professor studied in London and became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1979, but he also left a strong legacy in Malta. He was an external PhD examiner who often visited the university to lecture. He also continued until his illness to be an expert lecturer across Europe on Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist philosopher whose ideology is still embraced in many left-leaning circles.
The elder Buttigieg, who translated Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, studied at the University of Malta, where he has a lecture hall and a small coffee room dedicated to him. The elder Buttigieg traveled to Moscow to meet Gramsci’s son Delio as part of his research, and quotes him in his research notes.
Five of the eight aunts and uncles of ‘Mayor Pete’ still live on the island of Malta, where locals say the famous nephew has visited many times. There are numerous tourism websites that now show pictures of the Democratic hopeful on sunny beaches and superimposed in restaurants.
The ending ‘tigieg,’ which is Semitic in origin, oddly actually translates to the word ‘poultry’ and is part of countless last names. The first instances of the surname Buttigieg go back to the middle ages, and the Times of Malta reports that it is the most popular last name on the small island of Gozo off the Maltese coast, made famous in the movie By the Sea, in which Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt played a warring couple.
Writing in the Journal of the Maltese Diaspora, the editors have vowed to honor their American presidential hopeful whether he wins or not. “He has put Malta on the map,” they say.
And that isn’t always easy for such a tiny speck of land.