Last Tuesday, Apple opened the doors of its new 175-acre campus, built in the shape of a gigantic UFO, where 12,000 employees will be working. It will cost Apple five billion dollars– five times as much as Nasa’s Juno, which traveled to Jupiter. Because of the design of the main building, the Apple Park has already been renamed by popular agreement into the Spaceship campus. But the question is, will Apple’s spaceship, mother of all high technology, be able to take off?
From a silent residential street, dominated by tall ginkgo trees, D.C.’s busy 14th Street NW is just a few steps. And yet, when you turn the corner, it feels like you’ve stepped into a different city. The change is immediate; the street is full of bars, restaurants, and shops, the sidewalks crowded by fast walking young and slim people. At certain hours of the day, most of them are wearing tights or shorts and carrying rolled yoga mats over their shoulders. A young army of people with jobs, practicing yoga and gripping their smartphones. The future.
In this omnipresent, glittering digital world, a story of the never-before-heard languages from the remote and dusty past is a blast. A few days ago the Smithsonian.com enamored us with the smooth recovery of a collection of enigmatic manuscripts, carefully stored behind the walls of a 1500-year-old monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continually operating library in the world. Among its thousands of ancient parchments are at least 160 palimpsests—manuscripts that bear faint scratches and flecks of ink beneath more recent writing. These faint marks are the only clues to words that were scraped away by the monastery’s monks between the 8th and 12th centuries, to reuse the parchments. Some were written in long-lost languages that have almost entirely vanished from the historical record.
In May 1999, I visited North Korea. I was based in Beijing as a correspondent for a Slovenian newspaper and it was impossible not to visit the country that had aroused so many questions and offered so very few answers. One just needed to see the place. So I did. I joined a hypocritical game: I used my Chinese contacts to deal with the other side, added some money, and provided a letter that I was researching revolutionary art, a cover to facilitate my contact as he would never be able to issue a visa to a journalist. As I said, it was a hypocritical game, my passport and a Chinese visa within it evidence that I was head of a Slovenian news organization in Beijing. They never noticed.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a short piece on what was becoming an unsustainable situation at American colleges. And it is a phenomenon not limited to universities, but also some American private high schools, in their thirst for money, who could not resist Chinese cash. Two years later, John Pomfret wrote a remarkable piece on what is now a more quickly deteriorating situation, changing the model of American education.
Compared to today, 2012 was a romantic period in the brief course of human history. Four years into Obama’s government, things were relatively calm; after 9/11 and eight years of George W. Bush hovering in the White House, there was an effort to put the toothpaste back into the tube, at least.
It was in the summer of 2012 that I became aware of the Westboro Baptist Church, notorious for its angry, anti-gay protests at military funerals. More than a religious congregation, the Westboro church, led by pastor Fred Phelps, is a family-organized hate group that believes God will punish the United States for “the sin of homosexuality through events including soldiers’ deaths”. The scenes of the funerals of young soldiers, killed in foreign lands and buried by their shattered families while the hate group is shouting and insulting them, requesting the dead soldiers not be buried on American soil, is madness itself.
I needed salt. The house we moved into the previous night had no salt at all. The water for the pasta was boiling and the people we invited to enjoy our shady house and cool swimming pool were on the way. It was a hot summer Sunday, and the nearest shop where I could buy some was about ten kilometers away and closed. I got in the car. There must be some neighbors who will be generous with their salt, I thought. But our part of Tuscany was a sort of waste land. We wanted it that way, would it not have been for the lack of salt. There was no one on the farm closest to our house. A mile on, there was a renovated fancy villa with the huge lock on the entrance gate. Further down the road, I saw a sign that read “Frantoio” and “Trattoria,” or ”Olive oil mill” and “inn.” I turned in, drove for awhile on what seemed to be a completely abandoned road. The drive ended at the small group of countryside buildings, a borgo of some kind. There was no sign of people, there was no sound of plates and forks, that lazy chatter typical of Sunday family lunch.
I was fresh and rested when I got back to the country a few days ago. I’ve been traveling for a month across countries I like, and love. I have been taking trains, buses, and other public transport because I wanted to feel the pulse of the countries I was traveling in. And meet friends. It was some sort of vacation from Trumpland, by which I mean the obsession the United States has with its accidental president. Coming back to this country felt good, but having spent a month without Trump was better.
Europe spends very little time following the American president. The Europeans are concerned about their own matters, and more in a philosophical way. They’re older, so they think they’ve figured out Trump, dealt with his kind before, and they lost interest in following him. When they mention the 45th president’s name, their mouth twists into a mocking grin. Madness is the word they use most often, without making an effort to go into deeper analysis of the causes of the irresponsible behavior of President Donald Trump.
I tried to stay away from discussions about the president. First of all, because of the bad internet connections when I traveled (almost never watched tv) I was spared of the annoying reporting on the microcosms of the man who sits in the White House. As for my answers to questions on the American president–by my readers and friends–I followed a stereotyped formula of repeating a Slovenian joke: Slovenia has a great future because, after the divorce of Donald and Melania, my country will inherit half of the United States. To the Slovenians and others, I was saying that Slovenia and the EU managed to plant a secret agent in the White House, who ignites Trump to go after Europe and divide it. As we know, the latter had some really remarkable results in the greater integrity and unity of Europe. So the EU should pay Melania well. If not Trump himself.
So all this nonsensical rest was great until I got back to the U.S. Watching some news, I could not get a sense of what was going on, or better, I can no longer share the passion of following the presidential nonsense or maintain my curiosity in figuring out how America will liberate itself from this burden drowning the whole country.
Among Trump’s highlights upon my return, I think that his dealing with North Korea has been spectacular, but thanking Putin for expulsion of 755 American diplomats from Russia was beyond belief. Whoever might think that Trump was trying to be sarcastic on that one is woefully wrong.
There was, however, the third little thing that made me shiver, just by making me realize how many values have been lost with Trump only six months in command of the country. When I read that CNN fired their conservative commentator Jeffrey Lord, already a controversial presence, because he tweeted “Sieg Heil” I realized that there is a man sitting in the Oval Office saying and tweeting much more horrible things, and he is running the country. Has this country lost all sense of proportion? Have we really bore into the dark, open sea where nothing, not even the smallest thing in this world, can be guaranteed and respected?
I have been traveling for a few weeks now, on a journey filled with inner dialog. Searching first for long-desired destinations, I was soon digging deep into my childhood. It was a walk toward the past–a backtrack of the images and sensations that were important in forming my personality. Doing it together, in part, with my siblings, I was able to recreate some of the events I’d forgotten, and also shed a different light on the events that had anchored themselves in my mind for decades. My trip, therefore, was sort of like the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, in which all the protagonists have different recollections of the same event; different narratives that only manage to offset the perspectival subjectivity of events by adding them up, reconstructing them, and, in Kurosawa’s case, explaining a murder. No murders in my case.
“A few hours after we boarded and sailed out into the open ocean, I got a feeling that we, the passengers on this gigantic ship, were the only survivors of this planet, that we were saved on Noah’s Ark,” said Sean, the insurer from Red Hat, New Jersey. Sean and his wife were among the other hundreds of passengers on the Queen Mary 2, the world’s biggest ocean liner, that on the late afternoon of July 6 sailed out of Brooklyn Harbor towards Southampton, England. A few days into the cruise, as we were sitting in one of the restaurants on the Queen, fascination with the power and sheer mass of this boat had already settled in.
It was curious to hear what drove these passengers to board this humongous ship to cross the Atlantic, and I found Sean’s apocalyptic description one of the best. Sean, though, was not referring to Noah’s Ark in a biblical sense. He instead meant that we–the passengers of the Queen Mary–were the only survivors of the madness that is America. It, its people left behind, unaware of our small, life-saving departure, obsessed with Trump and his corrupt family.