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Dispatches

News and notes from around the world

Illustration Peter Oumanski

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Home of the hard drive

America’s love affair with historically important garages / By Jon Marcus

CALIFORNIA – In his sunglasses, shorts and polo shirt, Steve Staiger doesn’t look like a typical historian. Then again, the structure he’s standing in front of doesn’t look like a typical national monument. Staiger calls this place “a shrine,” but it’s actually a wooden one-car garage next to an ordinary-looking house in suburban Palo Alto, Calif.

“This is where it all started,” says Staiger, who serves as the city’s official historian, and he’s got a point. It was here, after all, that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built their patented audio oscillator in 1938, which marked the genesis of the Hewlett-Packard computer empire and of Silicon Valley’s status as the tech capital of the world.

The garage is tucked behind the old Packard family home, and there are stories of the pair using the kitchen oven to harden the paint on their creations. (Dave’s wife, it is said, would complain that her roast dinners never tasted the same afterward.) It’s touches like this, for Staiger, that make the Packard garage such an important place. “Silicon Valley is an amorphous thing,” he says. “The garage is a symbol you can look at and understand.”

As Staiger says this, a young man rolls up on a bicycle, consulting a map. He asks, in halting English, if Staiger would take an iPad photo of him in front of the driveway—which is about as close as any of the pilgrims who come here are likely to get. The garage and the house are owned by HP, which holds the occasional function on the property but does not let people wander in off the street (out of consideration for the neighbors, they say).

Important garages, it turns out, are not a rarity in America. Some are on the National Register of Historic Places—including the HP garage and one where Bonnie and Clyde engaged in a shootout with the police—and there is, of course, the garage where Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak did their thing.

“In Silicon Valley, the garage is the celebrated concept of where you start,” says Staiger. “Some people even claim to have started in a garage who didn’t.”

globetrotting2Pecking Order

A picturesque island employs big, boorish and beaky cultural ambassadors / James Dorsey

GREECE – Petros struts along a busy waterfront, posing for cameras and occasionally pinching the backside of a passerby. As an official greeter for Mykonos, he is forgiven such transgressions. The Greek island is currently enjoying a much-needed upswing in tourism, and this indecorous pelican is one of its more notable attractions.

The bird seems aware of his celebrity status. His name translates to “stone” or “rock” but can also mean “cantankerous,” which is fitting. With a 10-foot wingspan and weighing in at around 30 pounds, Petros tends to be  be quite insistent in his demands.

Petros isn’t the first famous pelican to wander Mykonos—he isn’t even the first famous pelican named Petros. The tradition started in the 1950s, when a wounded bird was rescued by a local fisherman, nursed back to health and allowed to live out his days on the local dock, being photographed and fed by tourists. The original Petros died in 1986 and was so sorely missed that islanders immediately lobbied for a replacement. They ended up with three—one donated by Jackie Kennedy Onassis, one by the Hamburg Zoo and one that just sort of happened along. Today, Irini, Nikolas and Petros II ply their trade on the Mykonos dock, all of them eager to follow in the webbed footsteps of their predecessor.

The pelicans have, in fact, become quite aggressive in their quest for handouts. Fisherman Ari Anastos says his son and his friends began selling anchovies to tourists eager to have their photos taken with the birds, who, with the right incentive, will open their wings on demand. While they prefer the docks, the pelicans often wander through town, surprising alfresco diners.

As for how to tell which of them is Petros II: “That’s easy,” Anastos says. “He’s the big one who chases after the girls.”

globetrotting3The Final Fairway

A funeral director accentuates the brighter side of a dismal trade / Christina Couch

PALATINE, ILL. – Doug Ahlgrim, the bearded, blue-eyed proprietor of Ahlgrim Family Funeral Services, is contemplating a skull, which is grinning from the middle of a sand trap. “This is my father’s, from his mortuary science school days,” he says. “You had to take clay and put all the muscles on, and then flesh. You had to reconstruct the nose, eyes, lips, ears.”

Today, the erstwhile anatomical model marks one of the hazards on the miniature golf course located in the funeral home’s basement. Free to the public when there isn’t a service taking place, the nine-hole course features a crate once used to transport corpses, a hangman’s noose and a teeny cemetery. “There is a two (2) stroke penalty,” a sign informs us, “for disturbing a grave.”

Set up by Ahlgrim’s father in the 1960s as a way for funeral directors to kill time between services, the course has since become a popular local attraction, something Ahlgrim encourages, in the hope that it will help puncture the gloom associated with the trade. “The funeral industry isn’t so scary,” he says. “We’re human too. We laugh, and we have fun.”

As he speaks, a motorized guillotine lifts and drops its blade with a slow, relentless rhythm, watched over by a life-size mummy. A ghoul-themed pinball machine cackles in the background. A miniature haunted house flickers. “Every golf course needs some kind of theme, and we had the parts,” Ahlgrim says, nodding toward the sand trap on hole one. “We had the skull.”

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The silk code

The fine art of finding meaning where there isn’t any / Boyd Farrow

BEIJING – On a sunny morning, the 798 Art Zone in the Chaoyang District is crammed with acrylic blobs and garish cartoons. If there is any subversion in the contemporary art thriving among the rusting factories here, it’s not readily apparent.

Intriguingly, though, there appears to be a message, in English, embedded in a delicate silk-screened image of a girl displayed inside one of the galleries. “Can you read what it says?” asks a tiny woman who has appeared from nowhere. “It says, ‘Stop Thinking.’”

The woman is Wei Ping, the artist, and she is eager to point out that the entire drawing—and the images in every other piece on display, in fact—is made out of the same phrase, repeated countless times in a spidery scrawl.

One of the people browsing the gallery, an Englishman, asks what it all means. Is it a wry commentary on the effects of political repression, a swipe at the anti-intellectualism of the ruling classes? “No!” Wei says, laughing. “It means just do it. Like Nike!”

Prince Charming

A former royal exile welcomes the world into his palace / Tom Rowley

BELGRADE – Alexander Karadjordjevic leans forward in his Louis XIV chair to point out the view over Belgrade. Serbia’s crown prince portrays himself as an affable and accessible monarch, to a degree—visitors to the Royal Palace can endure a lengthy wait before they are granted an audience.

Prince Alexander describes the Serbian people as “resilient,” a term he would also, no doubt, apply to himself. Born in 1945 in a London hotel, he claims to have been a “professional refugee” for more than half a century, prohibited from inheriting his father’s kingdom by Tito, the Communist ruler of what was then Yugoslavia.

Speaking during a recent tour of the home he reclaimed in 2001, the crown prince recalled striding up to the iron gates during his exile from the palace and demanding that the guards let him through. “They pointed their Kalashnikovs at me,” he says. “I thought I’d better not push that.”

Today, Prince Alexander controls those gates, and he has thrown them open to the public—for a few hours on weekends from April to October, anyway.  

Making his palace available to all, the crown prince says, is a rebuttal to its former occupants. “Tito didn’t live here,” he explains bitterly. “He used it for showing off.” He directs his visitors to the basement and points at one of the walls, upon which the eagles of the royal crest are just visible beneath the red stars the Communists painted on.

Nearby, a giant armchair sits forlorn on a balcony in an abandoned cinema, where Tito would watch comedies and cowboy pictures with his flunkies in the plastic seats below. When asked why he hasn’t rid the palace of such reminders, Prince Alexander shrugs. “I don’t cleanse history,” he says. “Only dictators do that.”

The Cannes-do Spirit

The world’s most vaunted film festival, by the numbers / Ed Frankl

This month’s Cannes Film Festival—with its screenings, seminars and, of course, awards ceremonies—is in some ways a sideshow. This year, as ever, the 12-day event will be partially drowned out by the buzz along La Croisette, the chatter in surrounding bistros and the cries of “Leo!” from the huddled masses at the red carpet. Ostensibly an homage to film, Cannes is also a celebration of bling, bubbly and discarded bikini tops—which, of course, is what makes it so much fun. Here, in numbers, a few highlights.

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