Wednesday, April 12, 2017

rhyming time

“History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.”

Mark Twain nailed it. And the adage applies equally as well to our personal histories.

My first visit to London was in August 1973. Richard Nixon had just resigned the presidency, and I had moved from Greece to the United Kingdom as an officer in The Republic’s air force.

Like many a tourist before me, I stood slack-jawed in Trafalgar Square gazing up Nelson’s Freudian column. An older  Englishman in a well-worn suit and shoddy shoes started chatting with me. About what I do not recall.

The sights of London inevitably came up. It turns out he had a background in art and history, and had been the tutor to the heir of some dukedom or other. Or, so he said.

He started showing me around. It turns out he knew his stuff. I did not realize how accurate some of his tales were until I confirmed them from other sources years later.

He ended the tour at the trappiest of tourist traps -- the Sherlock Holmes pub. He was satisfied with a pint and the few pounds I gave him.

I cannot even recall what letter of the alphabet began his name. Let’s call him Nigel.

I thought of him this afternoon while we were standing in Bogota’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square -- Bolivar Plaza. Patty suggested we take one of the walking tours.

She returned with Nigel’s Colombian cousin -- wearing the same down-on-his-luck tour guide outfit. His name was Elgar. We think.

The fact that he spoke only Spanish was not a deterrent. Patty, of course, is fluent. And Dan and I were content to hop into the linguistic equivalent of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.

The tour covered a very small portion of Bogota’s central area -- Colombia’s Capitol, its presidential residence, some ministerial buildings with interesting architecture, and several distant churches.

The tour may have not covered much ground. That is just as well. Elgar had suffered a stroke that left him a bit eccentric in walking. 

But he concentrated a lot of information in that small space. We learned far more than we ever could have from a tour book. Elgar, like Nigel, knew his stuff.

Colombia only recently made peace with a group of criminals masquerading as revolutionaries. The war ran for decades. And the area around the governmental compund has long been heavily guarded.

Elgar knew the police, military, and presidential guards well enough to gain access for us. He formally introduced us to each of the guards, and they all greeted him rather indulgently. We never discovered the subtext -- though it was obvious there was one.

And, like any good performance, there were rules. No photographs here. Some there. No walking on the sidewalk. No spelling Colombia with a "u."

We were able to get a close up look at the president’s residence and office -- from the outside, of course. And, at Elgar’s request especially for us, he convinced the presidential guards at the front of the “white house” to perform a reduced changing of the guard.

On my last visit to Washington, DC, the security around the Capitol and the White House was so thick that you would believe the United States was at war with Germany, Italy, and Japan. But, of course, when we were, the security was nowhere near as thick as it is these days.

The young men we met were professional, but took the time to greet both Elgar and us. We ended up posing with one after another until I felt as if I was on an international dignitary tour.

And Elgar? He wanted us to pass on a message to our friends. Colombia is a beautiful country to visit. Everyone we have talked to is proud to be a Colombian. The country -- and its people -- invite all of you to come for a visit.

I second him. I expected a lot from Colombia. And it is delivering even more.

Our afternoon government tour was only a small part of our day.

We spent most of our time in a series of museums. The Botero Museum -- with its millions of dollars worth of Botero’s paintings and sculpture in their distinctive foreshortened perspective, and the associated international art collection with works from some of the art world’s most famous dadaists, expressionists, and impressionists. The Casa de Moneda with its exhibits of the various currencies used in Colombia through its history. And, certainly not least, a museum devoted to the modern art produced exclusively by Colombians.

But those are tales for another day. And I will tell them later. The Botero Museum alone was the highlight of our day.

To all of the Nigels and Elgars out there in our various worlds, I commend you. The amateur historian is a treasure for any country. Especially, when the historian is willing to rhyme history in his patriotic love.

We lift one to you and all your colleagues.

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