Shrinking Europe, shrinking world

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It was when we tried to pick up our bags from the left-luggage counter in Antwerp's soaring Central Station that I really wanted the Europeans to hurry up and introduce their future single currency, the euro, as soon as possible! We'd arrived in Antwerp by train a few hours earlier, midway between interviews in Brussels - also in Belgium - and a full itinerary the next day in the Dutch city of The Hague. So we'd checked our bags at the station before walking a few blocks to do an interview with a local specialist on Central Africa.

We got back to the station around 8 p.m. "Two hundred and seventy francs," said the baggage clerk. That's only $5 - but I didn't have it. I thought I'd done my currency planning well, but what with doing interviews in four European countries in less than a week, I'd failed to keep enough Belgian francs in hand that day to redeem our bags. The clerk was adamant. He couldn't take credit cards. He couldn't take any of the other four currencies cluttering my pockets. The foreign-exchange booth around the corner was closed. And our train to The Hague would arrive any moment....

As despair set in, a Dutch fellow passenger took pity: "Here, I travel to London a lot, I'll change some of your pounds!" I quickly agreed, and ran back to the baggage clerk with my francs. My relieved research assistant and I hauled our bags away to await our train.

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The receipt the clerk gave me was made out - like all Belgian receipts these days - in both francs and the future euros. But euros, which will be common currency throughout Belgium, Holland, and a dozen other major European countries in 2002, will not exist in tangible form until then.

The changeover will doubtless be a challenge for the countries undertaking it. But once it's happened, millions of small transactions like the ones I conducted along the Paris-Hague rail corridor last month will be much easier to plan.

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Slow and uneven though the pace may be, the European entities that gave the world the concept of sovereign statehood are now in the process of pooling their sovereignty in interesting ways. Britain is still a bit of a standout - from the euro and some other joint projects. But from London's Waterloo Station - named for the definitive British victory over Napoleon, in 1815 - 10 trains daily take you to either Paris or Brussels. Many London retail outlets, with an eye on their European customers, are rejigging their tills to accommodate the euro as well as British coins. Young British entrepreneurs effortlessly include "the Continent" in ambitious business plans. And as summer approaches, towns throughout Britain welcome an influx of "European" students, coming to perfect skills at what has clearly emerged as the continent's common language. The Latin of the computer age.

Back in the 1930s, when my father was studying the original Latin at Cambridge University, he needed to study German to have access to Europe's then-cutting-edge research in his field. But o tempora, o mores - how times change. Today, German and that other erstwhile contender as Europe's lingua franca, French, are both being swept aside in the general rush toward Anglophonia.

So while Britishers continue to debate in the local pub whether they really feel part of Europe at all, most of their continental colleagues are eagerly soaking up, and using, the language of Ted Hughes, Margaret Thatcher, and Shakespeare.

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Did I mention that my research assistant is also my 16-year-old daughter, Lorna Quandt? When not taking notes for me, she checked out the vegetarian options in numerous national cuisines. She drank in great art in several cities, and the Comic Strip Museum in Brussels. And wherever we went, she kept on the lookout for SmartCars.

These truncated vehicles are buzzing round all Europe's cities - even left-side-of-the-road London. Two comfortable seats back up against the hatchback, with space for perhaps one or two grocery sacks between. And that's it: a simple, jazzy, eight-feet-long way for two people to get around town. Few and far between, in Europe, are the minivans or SUVs that clog most American cities.

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One of my goals in Europe was to interview two of the continent's most noted experts on Central Africa - Gerard Prunier in Paris, and Filip Reyntjens in Antwerp. Though most European countries divested themselves of their African colonies some 40 years ago, Europe still harbors a wealth of detailed knowledge of the former colonial "possessions." The people I spoke to were pessimistic. One indication of this from Mr. Prunier: The working title for his next book - on Rwanda's involvement in the ongoing war in eastern Congo - is "From Genocide to Continental War." In our three-hour discussion, Prunier issued a blistering indictment of France, the United States, and all the NATO countries, for too often making things worse in Central Africa.

Another goal was to check out the seven-year-old court in The Hague that's trying alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in former Yugoslavia. (That court is linked to a parallel court trying cases related to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.)

At one earlier point in my research on Central Africa, I discovered that the term "crime against humanity," which we use in so many different contexts today, was first coined in 1890 by a minister investigating conditions in eastern Congo, which was then ruled as a vast personal rubber plantation by Belgium's King Leopold II. (The Belgian state took it over in 1908.) The minister was George Washington Williams, an African-American Baptist who had been born in slavery times.

Europe, Africa, and North America: For many centuries now, these three continents have been locked in a close economic and political embrace - and usually to the detriment of Africa. "Globalization" is not, after all, such a new thing.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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