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Princess begins her final chapter

Exiled for four decades, a 98-year-old Romanian princess has started the last leg of a lifelong journey in which she has seen her homeland survive two world wars, the violent overthrow of communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and most recently, the rebirth of democracy. Catherine Caradja, in self-imposed exile since 1951, left San Antonio on Tuesday night bound for Houston, then Paris, where she will live with her 70-year-old daughter until she returns to Bucharest.

She arrived at San Antonio International Airport with more than 35 years of memories of her life in the United States packed into three suitcases _ and her next destination firmly in mind.

"I'm going to Paris," Caradja said in French as she bid goodbye to friends. Wearing a beaming smile and a flower print dress, she received hugs and good wishes from her American friends.

"We'll see you on your 100th birthday," one promised.

"The fact that she is going back and knows she's going back, we hope will give her a second wind," said her granddaughter, Brianna Caradja-Johnson, 29, who flew to Texas from Paris last week to accompany the princess on the trip home.

The Romanian government, which has invited thousands of exiles to return home, has promised Caradja some land and a small pension.

On May 18, hundreds of former pilots and prisoners of war honored Caradja at a going-away banquet in San Antonio. Caradja has spent most of the last two months in the home of Dorothy and Richard Britt of Comfort, a Hill Country town southwest of Austin, while she prepared for her return to Romania.

Richard Britt has known the princess since Aug. 1, 1943, the day his B-24 bomber landed in a dry river bed near her estate. Britt's plane was shot down by German gunners during the first of what would later be hundreds of air raids on the oil fields of Ploesti, Romania.

One of Britt's crew was killed, but Caradja called for help and she and some villagers pulled the injured Britt from the wreckage.

Caradja later became known to American B-24 pilots as the "Angel of Ploesti" for helping to save the lives of more than 100 airmen.

In the early 1950s, Caradja fled to Paris, then moved to the United States, where she has been an outspoken critic of communism.

Caradja will spend the summer in Paris at the home of her daughter while arrangements are made for her return.