Sunday, February 13, 2005

Back in Time

The first week in October of 1999, three months before the "end" of the world, my son and I boarded an Air France flight to Paris, drank some good wine, and watched a bad movie. We wanted to visit Normandy on the Atlantic coast of France and see Omaha Beach.

What happened to Paris? I had last visited this fascinating city in 1968. Charles DeGaulle was running the country, and former members of the French Resistance were writing their memoirs. On the Left Bank, near the University of Sorbonne, US Assassins was scribbled on walls, protesting the war in Viet Nam, while the dark eyes of the Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara, on his pop-art poster, followed you down cobblestone streets. If you couldn't speak French--too bad. And the Parisians looked different in 1968 ... like Parisians.

But in 1999? Everyone spoke "American," had a cell phone attached to his or her ear and looked ... like Americans. The end of the world didn't happen but the bubble did burst in September 2001, and not just for Americans. A planet shifted slightly.

The info-entertainers on the cable news stations still drone on about the November election, telling us what it means and doesn't mean. But no one knows what it will really mean.

In April 1968 it was cold and "dark." My wife and I were staying in a pension in Berlin, owned by a German widow in her eighties. Her house had been the only one left standing in the area at the end of the war in 1945. Her husband had been a professor of romance languages, until he lost his job in 1938 because he refused to join the Nazi party.

The second day at the pension this elderly woman entered the dining room carrying a newspaper. She had tears in her eyes. She pointed to the headline and told us that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

On our last night there we sat around a heavy wooden table in a semi-dark living room, a setting out of late Victorian England. Two other guests had arrived the day before: two American girls who had been studying at the Sorbonne. They were catching a train at midnight and going East, to bear witness to a democratic experiment in Prague, Czechoslovakia.

We traveled back in time that evening. More than fifty years before, August 1914, a week before the start of World war I, this woman and her husband had stood on the sidewalk in front of her home and watched Kaiser Wilhelm pass by in a horse drawn carriage. She hesitated for a moment and shook her head sadly. "We of course all believed our cause was just," she said in clear English with only a slight accent. Twenty years later Hitler's motorcade passed by her house.

In June Robert Kennedy was assassinated, and in August Soviet tanks entered Prague, uninvited. We returned to America and paused briefly, before leaving for South America. Richard Nixon arrived.

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