And so, a tortuous, roundabout refugee trail sprang up. Paris to Marseilles, across the Mediterranean to Oran, then by train or auto or foot across the rim of Africa to Casablanca in French Morocco.
These opening lines from the classic film Casablanca describe a time of turmoil, when the world was at war and refugees by the thousands streamed ever westward.
Last month, I spent a nostalgic evening in the coastal city of Casablanca at Rick’s Cafe. Patterned after the joint Humphrey Bogart’s character runs in the movie, I felt as if I had passed through a portal to an earlier era. Twin palm trees graced the front door as dinner-jacketed staff greeted me in French and Arabic. A large mirrored bar on the far end framed an open atrium in the center. A mixed tapestry of expats clustered and chatted among circular tables. Upstairs, a retired roulette wheel beneath a glass top symbolized the fate of would-be bygone immigrants.
As the place was packed on a Friday night, we were offered a seat at the bar. Noticing the vacant right corner, we almost mistakenly sat there before spotting the small “Place Réservée” sign. It was then that the pleasant bartender told us the story. Rick’s was founded by former American diplomat Kathy Kriger in 2004 to pay homage to the cinematic café. Sadly, “Madame Rick” passed away last summer at the age of 72, but her customary place at the bar remains reserved while her business partners, “The Usual Suspects,” continue to run the restaurant.
I usually write about humorous travel tales in this blog, but as a jazz trio began playing the haunting melody “As Time Goes By,” I found myself reflecting and contemplating the state of our current world compared to then.
The film, set in 1942, centers on those trying through money, influence or luck to make their way out of Casablanca to Lisbon and beyond. Unlike birds that simply fly south, these people need official exit visas. A fortunate few get them, while others wait and wait. Two blank letters-of-transit, worth more than gold, thicken the plot and, like the gambling wheel, add another faint chance of escape.
The map of wartime Europe looked much different then. France was partitioned in two. While the Axis powers of Germany and Italy controlled most of the rest, a handful of neutral countries like Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey stood apart like lone islands amidst the raging conflict. Various nationalities desperately fled Europe by any means.
Now, we again live in a time of global migration, as refugees and migrants seek fresh starts in new states. Many want to enter Europe. Though the direction of travel is reversed, the desire to leave war and find peace is similar. The immigration issue sparks heated debate from all sides who find no easy solutions.
On the surface it seems true that our world is smaller. Travel is cheap. Free video calls on smart phones connect us instantly to the far side of the world. Many speak a common language, and translation tools bridge other gaps. Crossing borders is often easy. Though not to escape war, I myself have moved to live and work in two different countries.
Yet, as time goes by, some things still remain the same. Boys meet girls. Couples marry. Families grow. Children smile and wave. Music brightens our days. Good food with friends in a pleasant café delights our senses. The sun rises in the east. And His mercies are new every morning.
And when two lovers woo, they still say “I love you”
On that you can rely, no matter what the future brings
As time goes by.