Ambassador John Lowell of Malta is reserved and mild-mannered, but he can hardly contain his delight in celebrating his country's entry into the European Union, the smallest of 10 nations to join the group on May 1.
"It just feels great," Lowell boomed as he talked about Malta and the role it might play in world affairs. Whether in trade, security or peace issues, Lowell sees modest openings for his diminutive homeland, a cluster of Mediterranean islands at the southern tip of Europe.
Lowell, 73, speaks with understatement and with a sense of history. Malta has a colorful past. Across the ages, it has survived and assimilated the cultures of many invaders and rulers who came to help or seek refuge: Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs. The Knights of Malta, also known as the Order of St. John, came from Jerusalem, on their way to Rome, and leased the island by paying Spain's King Charles V one falcon a year in rent.
Inhabitants of the trio of islands of sunlit cliffs, terraced slopes and aquamarine bays relied on their wits and walled enclaves to resist pirates and slave traders. The apostle Paul is said to have been shipwrecked there in 58 A.D. and to have converted the islands' inhabitants to Christianity.
Napoleon Bonaparte forced the knights from the island without a shot when they refused to give him water after an ultimatum in 1798. When the French looted Malta's churches to finance Napoleon's Egyptian campaign, the islanders expelled them, with British help.
The British colony was an inviting target for the Axis powers during World War II, and Malta suffered relentless German bombardment and a blockade. The ambassador grew up during that war and remembers taking cover from bomb attacks in underground shelters. It was a time of famine and devastation.
Lowell has never forgotten the privations of wartime. He stood in line for meals at a victory kitchen and wrapped his share of the family loaf in a handkerchief so it would last several days. "You cannot imagine the anxiety of hearing the sirens, having to rush up and down the stairs at night. . . . Seeing other children asleep in a doorway," he said. "Physically, we were hungry people. My mother sold a diamond ring for a sack of potatoes."
After the war, Lowell attended a Jesuit school. After graduating, he went to work in 1952 for Barclay's Bank. He was 16 years old.
He became a diplomat late in life after a career as a businessman, working in real estate, travel agencies and catering businesses. Lowell opened six of Malta's choicest restaurants and clubs, including the first Chinese and Japanese restaurants in the country. At 61, he decided to retire and sold his businesses.
His first public role came in 1992 when he was asked to help run and raise funds for the National Theater. In 1998, he entered Malta's foreign service, opening its first four consulates in the Balkans. He served as his country's first roaming ambassador to Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia while living in Valletta, Malta's capital.
Lowell said the offer to come to Washington in February 2003 was an honor. "It was tempting, even at my latish age," said Lowell, who has three grown children and seven grandchildren. Still, he described the new assignment as walking almost blindfolded and "on a tightrope."
He flew back to Valletta a month after he arrived in Washington to vote in the referendum on Malta's entry into the European Union. He returned again in April 2003 for general elections. Ninety percent of Malta's electorate voted, but it was close. If either of the votes had gone the other way, Lowell, a political appointee, would have had to pack his bags and go home.
"Luckily, I did not have to do that," he said. When he presented his credentials to President Bush, he carried a photograph of the president's father, George H.W. Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev taken when the U.S. and Soviet presidents met at a summit in Malta in 1989, signaling the end of the Cold War. A letter from President Bush thanking Lowell for the photograph is framed and hanging in Lowell's office.
Lowell said there has been a flurry of activity since Malta entered the European Union. After the interview this week, he said he was going to attend a reception at the Dutch Embassy that featured a photo exhibit of Maltese scenes.
Lowell said he focuses on good manners as the highest of values in his job. "I never feel at a loss in the company of other diplomats," he said.
He was not insulted, he said, when Malta, Luxembourg and Cyprus were not invited to a March 19 luncheon at the White House for an update on the Iraq war. But he did make a polite inquiry at the State Department afterward. "We took no offense; I just wanted to make sure there were no issues or hard feelings that needed to be sorted out," he said. It had been an "oversight," the State Department protocol office told him, which would not happen again.