My Menorca, Part One

The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
The Go-Between
L. P. Hartley
Pity this busy monster, manunkind,
Not. Progress is a comfortable disease:
e.e. cummings

In the fall of ’67 I arrived on the tiny island of Menorca, the most easterly of the Balearic Islands. I arrived from the highlands of Ethiopia after finishing up two-years as an APCD. I arrived on a DC-3 in the last year before the island’s new airport opened for jets and package tours from England, Germany and the Low Countries. I arrived in Menorca before the way of life on that tiny island changed forever.

It was a golden time and I thought it might last forever, this quiet eye in the hurricane rush of summer tourism to the Mediterranean.

I remember how on the first evening in Mahon I walked from my hotel through the tight, winding streets of the town perched high on the cliffs overlook the harbor and thought in some odd way, I had come home. The truth is that I do look like a Spanish Menorcan, or at least I did then! And there was the sea. Having lived in the Horn of Africa for nearly four years, it was bracing to have the Mediterranean within sight, to smell the sea on the night breeze.

I had come to the island on the recommendation of a PCV, Mark Foster (Ethiopia 1965-67). I was looking for a place where I could write a novel. Mark had been once been to the island with his mother, traveling by boat from Palma de Mallorca and recommended it because as he said, “no one ever goes there.”

I rented a two-bedroom apartment for $1 a day (yes, a dollar a day) and settled in to write my great ‘peace corps novel’ that was entitled (and never published) A Cool Breeze For Evening. I thought of myself at ‘Hemingway of the Balearics.’  I was twenty-five.

Over the years a number of things happened to me, job-wise and life-wise, but I always managed to return every summer to Menorca. Friends from the Peace Corps came to visit, old buddies from Ethiopia, friends from the publishing world. I took my future wife to Menorca.

I came to Menorca to hang out and do nothing. That’s the great gift of the island. There is nothing to do but go to the beach after starting the day at the American Bar at the Place Reial in the center of Mahon where everyone goes for café con leche and the  sugar-dusted ensaimada pastry and to read yesterday’s International Herald Tribune and watching the town come slowly awake in the morning sun.

During those years I bought a small apartment on the island, flirted with buying an abandoned farm house. I kept writing and working in the U.S. and gradually life interfered with my small island. For years I never returned to Menorca. There were other places to see. I traveled around Africa one year, down one coast and up the other. I worked for three months in Israel on a job, went to China on a travel assignment, wrote travel pieces on Ireland, Monaco, Brazil and the Caribbean. I became a college dean and a father. I published books on education, golf, and novels.

But always in the back of my mind, always was this little island in the Mediterranean where life went on as it had for decades. I saw Swept Away, (which Maureen Orth Colombia 1964-660) worked on as an assistant to the director) and realized they had filmed the movie on the remote beaches of Menorca.

When I first arrived in Mahon there were three Americans living on the island. One had come there to retire after years with AID. Another had arrived to work on a television program, met a British woman, and stayed. The third was a writer who had worked for Newsweek in Paris.

You never got to Menorca unless you really wanted to get there. Everyone had a story of how they stumbled on the place, one story more amusing than the next. Back home, you could drop the name of the place and no one had ever heard of it.

Menorca is not, however, without its American history. In the center of the harbor is the Quarantine Island. It was leased at the beginning of the nineteenth century by the Mediterranean Squadron of the U.S. Navy, the forerunner of our present Sixth Fleet. The some twenty-six years Americans used Port Mahon as their fleet headquarters. Their midshipmen were trained there until the Naval Academy opened at Annapolis in 1845.

There is this saying about the island:
Junio, Julio, Adogto y Puerto de Mahon
Los mejores puertos del Mediterraneo son.

In other others, the best harbors of the Mediterranean are June, July, August, and Port Mahon. I’m told it is only rivaled in depth by Pearl Harbor.

In those early years I was always curious why no one went to Menorca. Few Americans had even heard of it, though St. Augustine, Florida was originally populated by indentured servants from Menorca. Briefly the history is that when The 1763 Treaty Paris ended the French and Indian War and control of Florida passed from Spain to Britain, a Scottish colonist, Dr Andrew Turnbull, decided to bring Greeks to Florida to farm his plantations. He heads to Greece in 1767, but docks first in the Port of Mahon, as Menorca was under British possession. Next he went to Italy, recruited 100 men, dropped them off in Mahon before sailing to Greece. Returning to Menorca he found some Italians have married Menorcan women, so he brought those men and their wives to Florida, as well as other Menorcan families. Today there’s a Menorcan Society in St. Augustine, and some 35,000 descendants living still in the city. The most famous descendant of these Menorcan indentured servants of Turnbull was the Civil War Admiral David Farragut. The Admiral’s father was from Mahon.

End Part One

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