Envoy’s Wife Works to Promote Her Historic Mediterranean Gem
Armed with gorgeous pictures of Malta, Maria-Therese Lowell, wife of Maltese Ambassador John Lowell, beckoned me to visit their sunny, historic isle in the azure Mediterranean—all the more enticing with Washington winter outside.
Maria-Therese and I were enjoying tea in the couple’s cozy sunroom and watching the daylight disappear over the charming side garden of their beautiful Tudor-style residence.
“Look at a map,” began Maria-Therese, “and we are this little dot [midway between Gibraltar and the Suez Canal]. But we are also the crossroads of civilization from 5,200 B.C. History went through us. Many of our artifacts are older than the pyramids and Stonehenge.
“And our people are very friendly, and everyone is bilingual [in English and Maltese],” she added. “We have the most gorgeous beaches with a beautiful, natural grand harbor that’s safe and admired by all the cruise liners. We are perfect for American travelers because we are a tiny island with sophisticated culture. We have been rated in the top 10 safe destinations for Americans worldwide by Laura McKenzie’s ‘Traveler’ TV show.”
Malta, a heavily populated country made up of two larger islands and several smaller ones, is a devout Catholic nation with a church in every village. In-habited long before the Phoenicians could sail there, this picturesque archipelago in the middle of the Med- iterranean has been a safe haven over many centuries. Remains of its many layers of civilizations are everywhere—from the Temple Period, Bronze Age, Roman Empire, Byzantines, Sicilian Arabs and Malta’s longer era as a part of the British Empire.
During the 13th century, this highly strategic locale belonged to the Ottoman Empire. Malta was also a part of Sicily for 440 years. When Malta became part of the Spanish Empire in 1497, Spain’s King Charles V vowed to protect Catholicism and “Christian Europe” by sending the Knights of St. John to the area to protect Rome from an attack—and they did just that. The knights, together with the Maltese, successfully defeated the Ottomans in 1565. Over the next 275 years, the knights built walled cities including the capital Valleta (“a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen”), impressive palaces, elaborate cathedrals, handsome gardens and enhanced artistic and cultural heritages peppered throughout this Mediterranean gem, thus becoming known as the Knights of Malta.
“The Knight Hospitallers of St. John, as they were originally called,” explained Maria-Therese, “were originally established to set up medical assistant outposts on the main routes to the Holy Land. To this day, their eight-pointed cross is still used on ambulances and major health organizations [such as the Red Cross] and even first aid kits. They were ‘hospitallers’ first, and military second.”
Today, Malta is a popular tourist attraction offering precious historic and religious sites, village fiestas, breathtaking views of the Mediterranean, unlimited sandy and rocky beaches, and exciting nightlife featuring open-air discos and wine bars. Only a short nonstop trip away from most European cities, Malta is a tempting destination south of Sicily and off the coast of North Africa.
“The Maltese are Italian, French, English and Spanish,” said Maria-Therese, who herself speaks English with a British accent, in addition to fluent French and Italian. She actually looks Italian, as do her two daughters who live in London with their own families. Maria-Therese noted that Malta’s proximity to North Africa and the Arab world have also influenced the country’s culture and cuisine.
The natural beauty of Malta, with its walled cities and incredible coastline, is a perfect Hollywood backdrop, and in fact many movies have been made in the capital of Valletta, a charming city that has the intimacy of a village. Here, limestone façades reveal the details of the country’s religious influences as well as the variety of Malta’s famed doorknockers.
When I wondered what it was like to grow up in—and choose your husband from—such a small country, Marie-Therese recounted the story of how she got married to John Lowell 48 years ago.
“I know it will sound awful when I tell you that we started dating when we were 14, but we moved in the same crowd and we have known each other all our lives,” she said. “My father was the founder of what used to be called Imperial Airlines, a part of British Airways, so when my mother didn’t want to travel, I went with him and got to see much of Europe.”
John Lowell was a banker, like his father and grandfather, at Barclays of London, later becoming a developer. His grandfather on his mother’s side was the chief justice of Malta and considered to be “First Man” of the island. He was also Malta’s best-known poet.
Even though she had traveled off the island with her father, Maria-Therese found herself homesick when she landed in New York’s College of the Sacred Heart. “My mother sent my father to fetch me. She was so strict. Out of rebellion, I got engaged to a man, a doctor, much older than I,” recalled this daughter of “a very over-protective Catholic mother.”
But Marie-Therese soon discovered that she had just traded “one cage for another,” she said of her fiancé. “He was so controlling. I remember when I wanted to go with my friends someplace and he said I couldn’t go.” That incident forced a breakup and her “friend” John Lowell became her new beau. They married at 20 and 22, respectively, and are about to celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary this Jan. 6 with with their three married children and most of their five grandchildren present.
John and Maria-Therese began their diplomatic travels together in 1999 when he was appointed non-resident ambassador to Croatia, Bulgaria, Romania and Bosnia-Herzegovina. After turning down ambassadorships to Australia (“too far away”) and China (“I was not well at the time,” said Maria-Therese), “John and I jumped at the chance to live in Washington.”
When asked what it’s like to live here while keeping in touch with Malta, she pointed to her husband’s early routine. “There’s a six-hour difference and since everyone takes off in the summer between 1 or 2 in the afternoon, John gets office calls from the [Foreign] Ministry at 6 a.m., just as they are ready to leave,” she explained. Fortunately, Ambassador Lowell customarily gets up early year-round to enjoy an early morning walk wherever he is.
For their January wedding anniversary and the December holidays, the Lowells welcomed to their Washington residence all the members of their family except for son Michael, who still lives in Malta, where he is the executive director for major art exhibitions, although his wife and two boys made the trip. “But we had all of them here [last year],” remembered Maria-Therese. “It was very cozy…. The children loved staying over in our annex, which is just next to the garage.”
She added: “Many holidays we’ve had the whole family in our small place in Capalbio, Italy, that we have owned for 24 years because … most islanders have to ‘use their wings.’ It is in the southern part of Tuscany and only two hours north of Rome…. I know the butcher, the grocer and we love it, but I don’t know whether we will retire there or not.”
Back in Malta, John and Maria-Therese are community leaders who volunteer their time for island charities. “While John is busy with his commercial projects, I have written a newspaper column for children,” said this proud grandmother. “His mother was a social worker and founded Malta’s first home for the handicapped, which John and I still support with our time and our energy. Being involved with charitable causes is not new to us.
“Washington has been so welcoming, the people so generous in their hospitality,” said this popular ambassador’s wife, who is often seen on the social circuit. Opting for Washington’s cultural life over anything else, however, the Lowells often plan ahead and get their tickets for top cultural events rather than worrying about attending “just another diplomatic reception,” she admitted. “The art and the music, there’s an abundance of that here, and I take every visitor to a museum. This city has fed my mind more than ever before.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.