COLUMN ONE : Maltese Agog Over Summit : Tiny island abounds in broiled pigeons, saints and siestas. But no traffic lights, thank you.


Joe Polidano was thinking of the prawns in garlic butter he would serve for lunch that day, but mostly he was thinking about The Plane.

He savored an image of the droop-winged U.S. Air Force Galaxy C5-B transport jet: a monster wrapped in green-and-black camouflage paint. Thirty-six wheels in the landing gear; a reporter for the Malta Times had counted them. Page 1 story.

"From one plane they took two 40-foot containers! This whole bar's not 40 feet. One plane!" Joe Polidano marveled. He had heard few things so outlandish since his sister ran off with an American sailor to the United States where, 33 years later, she is a Maltese beacon in Portsmouth, Va.

Then, Polidano saw improbability's silver lining: "Whole world's coming here. Probably they're going to give us something."

Yes, and yes.

These are the times that please men's souls on an Italian-boisterous but English-proper, officially neutral but politically contentious, Mediterranean outpost of 122 square miles with nary a traffic light.

The 345,418 Maltese, gamecock proud, have unwittingly, unexpectedly, delightedly, built the better mousetrap, at least for a few world-riveting days toward the end of 1989. The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming! And the Americans, too.

A payoff for Malta from this weekend's seaborne summit meeting of President Bush and Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev is a bonanza of unprecedented international attention for a country whose national dishes include stewed rabbit and broiled pigeon--plus an off-season economic boomlet stoked by superpower logistics and an international press corps of about 2,000 that will outnumber the Maltese armed forces.

Complex international geopolitics is an overnight sensation among island folk whose Parliament once devoted 23 sessions to a national garbage-collection bill. Already, there's not an out-of-work forklift. And it's just begun.

"You ain't seen nothin' yet," said an American supervising the quickening stream of flying boxcars. Before it is over, one of them will disgorge three black limousines with District of Columbia license plates. In gabby, polyglot Malta, 58 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of the Libyan coast, they will drive on the left.

Reno's Bar in Birzebbuga, where the prawns are plump, the local Hopleaf ale is cold and Joe Polidano's artful espresso cuts all that goes before it, drifts in the lee of history. Out in the bay of this small port, out past the high-prowed, bright-painted, one-man fishing boats, a summit is brewing.

"This is the biggest thing to happen in Malta since ever," said patriot Lewis Portelli, who is helping the Maltese government organize an onslaught as daunting in its way as the arrival of 40,000 warring Ottoman Turks in 1565.

Sulayman the Magnificent's admirals anchored 190 galleys, six naked slaves chained to each oar, in the same horseshoe bay where American and Soviet warships will shelter in the name of peace. It was Marsasirocco then, and Marsaxlokk now, unless an international press conspiracy dubs it a more pronounceable San Luciano Bay after the gaunt, cliff-top knights' fort that commands the naturally protected waters.

Such forts abound in crossroads Malta, testimony to two millennia of invasions by strangers--Phoenicians and Carthaginians to Normans and Castilians--armed with strategic Mediterranean ambitions and weapons even more lethal than notebooks and cameras.

In the 16th Century, the last Crusaders, the Knights of St. John, now Malta, fought with distinction from fortress bastions to beat back a ferocious Turkish siege. This century, doughty Malta--"the unsinkable aircraft carrier," in the words of Winston Churchill--courageously endured savage Italian and German bombardment as a British colony during World War II.

The Maltese, who sometimes describe themselves as a Mediterranean people with a British administration, still relive those finest hours. Independence came in 1964, and there has been endless internal political wrangling since. But, as the world turns, Malta is a long time between headlines.

It's a down-home sort of place, in fact, where citizens with a problem who catch the Christian Democratic prime minister walking home from 7 a.m. Mass will probably be invited in to chat over a "cuppa." No talk of divorce, though. It is prohibited on an island where the devout Catholicism will be rewarded next spring with a papal visit.

In Malta, there are more saints per capita than even in Sicily. Neighborhood brass-band and fireworks celebrations of local saint's days, called festas , are a national sport. A Maltese who lives in the capital of Valletta recalls attending a festa in one village where a partisan of Our Lady of the Assumption taunted a faithful of Our Lady of Lourdes: "Our lady is the real lady. Yours is only a maid."

Such encounters occur in Maltese, a Semitic tongue that sounds like Arabic and was not written until the 19th Century. Maltese has a faraway look when reduced to Roman letters. Gorbachev: " Xi Tridu? (What do you want?)." Bush: " M'ahniex boloh. (We are not foolish.)"

Equally official English will also do nicely, of course. It is indeed the language in which Maltese address most of the 750,000 sun-and-sea-seeking tourists who come each year to an island that is prosperous and looks it, thanks to an inexhaustible supply of handsome yellow-brown limestone that is everyman's building block.

Because the single Maltese television channel competes with more than a dozen slick signals that filter across from Sicily, most Maltese are also at home in Italian. The police may look like British bobbies, and the Air Malta breakfasts are robustly English, but Maltese folkways, from saints to the siesta, are as thoroughly Mediterranean as the pace of island life.

"We tried traffic lights for a while, but they didn't click," said Lino Azzopardi, whose duties as part-time photographer for an overseas news agency leave him plenty of time to mind the toy store that his family has owned since 1876. "It's good these two bombers are coming. It's been some time since we had a piece of news."

For some Maltese in a society marked by long, deep and bitter political divisions, the summit is a harvest of political change. The Christian Democratic Nationalist Party won 50.9% of the vote and a 35-34 parliamentary majority in 1987 to end 16 years of sometimes zany rule by the socialist Malta Labor Party. That period included a long flirtation with Libya's Col. Moammar Kadafi.

Under Prime Minister Edward Fenech Adami, Malta is moving toward a free market economically, and toward the West politically. The Maltese allowed a military training and cooperation agreement with Libya to expire this month. While prizing a neutrality guaranteed by Italy, Malta says it will make formal application to join the European Community next year.

"The key political question is how the government should spend its money. We are revising socialist policies to invest heavily in the infrastructure: roads, power, water, telephones," said Austin Gatt, the young secretary general of the Nationalist Party. "The summit is one of the best things that could have happened to us. It is recognition that Maltese foreign policy is serious--and our whole budget couldn't have bought the publicity."

Across the ideological street, soft-spoken lawyer Joseph Brincat, who is deputy leader of the opposition Malta Labor Party, applauds the idea of the summit but not its seaborne structure.

"George and Mikhail are very welcome, but they should respect the will of the Maltese people. We don't want nuclear vessels in our waters. Why meet on warships to talk of peace?" Brincat asked. "There is a Hall of St. Michael and St. George in our presidential palace. We could take the word saint away and let them meet there comfortably on land and not on explosive powder kegs."

Brincat says the opposition is planning a "pro-peace" street demonstration during the summit. "We'll be peaceful unless provoked," he said.

Like the government budget now before Parliament, and plans for a new power station and a $240-million fiber optic overhaul of the static-ridden national telephone system, the summit in all its wondrous prisms is exotic fuel for the Maltese love of gab.

"The British didn't destroy the national Maltese instinct for the dialectic," said Brincat. "We live huddled on a small island, close together. People sit outside talking, arguing, for hours and hours. We can dissect any question."

It recently took Parliament longer to agree on a new anti-litter law than it did to hammer out the constitution under which Malta became independent in 1964.

On an island that vividly remembers the names of individual Christianity-defending knights four centuries later, and flies the George Cross it won for World War II bravery on its red-and-white national flag, the two-day seaborne summit is bound to keep Maltese tongues wagging over prawns and ale deep into the next century.

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