The Old World
I left the site for the first time in years without any of those technology gadgets that made sure ‘leaving’ became a word devoid of its original meaning. We had to be always in touch with the organization, and reachable 24/7. I went through the last moments in an aseptic mental state; the germs of anger, frustration, revenge, and disdain had yet to get hold of my emotions. All considered, was it not for the best? Weren’t anger, frustration and disdain exactly the feelings I’d fought daily for months?
I was used to waking up almost every night—or should I say morning—around 4am, my brain boiling with mixed up thoughts of work, one after the other. I reevisited all details, all discussions, all options over and over again. Worn out and stressed, I might have ended up with a bleeding ulcer before much longer. Now, the cause of all that had disappeared from my immediate future.
With these thoughts still lingering, I searched for an area to safely pull over the car and call my wife. She needed to know, no reason to wait to announce that later today. I repeated to myself that I had nothing to be blamed for. I had accomplished my tasks and carried out my duties with diligence and professionalism. I didn’t need to hide anything. Unfortunately—in today’s business environment—that didn’t enhance your job security.
I signaled a left turn, and entered the parking lot of the nearby golf course. One of the most exclusive and expensive clubs in the region, but I never played on its old, majestic course. ‘Private. Members Only’ the sign said. I had been for business lunches a few times at their restaurant. Once, I thought I had a chance of getting close enough to one of the members to be invited to play a round. Now that probability rapidly spiraled down to zero.
Stopping the car, I listened to the radio still providing local items of interest, soon to be replaced by national news. World News Geneva, the only English-speaking channel in town, broadcast hourly bulletins directly from London. The program listed the crude violence of recent days.
In Libya, word came of an alleged systematic purge of pro-Gaddafi loyalists as entire villages emptied and all inhabitants disappeared. Street fights increasing in Athens between civilians and police and army forces; the government announced tougher measures. Italy, on the brink of economic collapse, became the stage for rough protests with anarchist connotations.
In Syria, the city of Homs was still under bombardment from the loyalist forces committing atrocities against its own people. President Assad denying the allegations; world news and the Arab League supporting them. The Arab Spring seemed on the verge of turning into a rather Hot Summer of violence and death. In the US, the run for the Presidency inflamed hearts and captured all comments and attention. After a moment of hesitation, I pulled out the iPhone from my jacket and dialed home.
“Mary, it’s me…” I hesitated, unsure how to continue.
“Hi, love. I’m about to leave for school. What’s going on?”
I decided to be blunt. “I’ve been fired. They will pay me three months salary but they don’t want me in the game anymore.”
Silence. I expected a reaction, a gasping sound, a ‘gosh’, anything. Not total silence.
“Are you there?”
“Yes. Catching my breath. What are you going to do? What are we going to do?”
Heard that question before, hadn’t I? “I’m coming home. Will I find you?”
“No, I'm going to school for my lesson. I’ll come home when I finish.”
This time, it was my turn to stay silent. Mary is stoic, always has been. Even in this moment, while other women might go ballistic, she stayed resolute, her mind set on urgent things to do. I loved her so much and her strength was also mine.
“It’s going to be all right. In one way or another.”
“I know. Need to go now. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
I heard the dial tone.
The radio announcer still reported facts and events of the day. “… all penguins make considerably shorter treks to the sea in December or January and spend the rest of the southern hemisphere summer feeding in warmer waters until March. Chicks begin molting into juvenile plumage from early November, which takes up to two months. Often, the process is not completed yet by the time they leave the colony and the adults cease feeding them.
“It is believed the entire colony perished during what are normally extremely favorable conditions for each individual: warmer temperatures and an abundance of fish. Experts rule out that thousands of Emperor Penguins may have died of natural causes. Captain Ryan from the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines, which also monitors the Australian Antarctic Territory, had this to say: “This is something totally abnormal and we have no records of similar events in the past, even on a smaller scale. If they succumbed due to some sort of epidemic, we fear we could soon discover other decimated colonies. It is too early to come to any conclusion.”
Wow, I thought.
I turned the engine on, heading home. In my ears, I still heard Carl’s voice telling me the Board had decided to get rid of me and yet I couldn’t avoid thinking about what I just heard on the radio. What might be the cause of all those deaths? Pollution? Poisoning? Heavy metals in water? There had to be something responsible for thousands of sudden casualties. An entire colony? Adults, females, chicks, no survivors. Pollution and poisoning did not fit.
I made my way into the remaining traffic flow of early morning, just past the commuters’ rush hour. Something, I realized, I won’t do anymore. My mind had started to catalogue all the implications of what happened.
The radio anchor again grabbed my attention as I drove along the winding road down the hills toward Geneva.
“… the eminent gorilla specialist, George Schaller, tells us that the population lived in the area north and northwest of Lake Tanganyika. All three gorilla subspecies are listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and by the Convention on International Trade for Endangered Species. Schaller calls this is a natural disaster of immense proportions. The gorilla individuals—hundreds of them—have been found dead in various areas by members of the Diane Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Though no signs of gunshots or wounds are reported, all present evidence of physical trauma and distress. A representative of the Fund said it is too early to attempt providing explanations now and that a full investigation will be conducted, adding, “We are deeply saddened by this tragedy…”
A declaration about Syria just released by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to the General Assembly of the UN, interrupted the news. Syria was in a condition of civil war, he said, "We continue to receive information about summary executions, arbitrary arrests and torture,” adding that, on Thursday, “loyalist forces launched a broad assault against the city” and “civilian casualties were heavy. Homs, Hama and elsewhere have seen brutal fighting with civilians trapped in their homes, without food or electricity, and with no possibility of evacuating the wounded or burying the dead.”
I had just been fired but others in the world definitely lived in a more dire situation. The news went on with other reports about Greece’s social upheaval due to the economic crisis and the escalation of violence and unrest in Italy, which faced a huge sovereign debt and unsustainable interest payments to the international community. People were getting into open confrontations with the police and the Carabinieri—a military branch of the Italian Army with civil security duties.
I drove through the town in a trance. My mental autopilot would take me home while I was distracted by all sort of thoughts: the loss of my job and income, civil unrests, deaths of both animals and men. Everything is relative, nothing is important. Crucial only if touching you directly. No hard feelings, no strings attached, just life as it is and always has been.
Soon I reached the outskirts of the city. CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, stood as the last urban outpost before the national border with France. No agent staffed the customs station since Switzerland had joined the Schengen Area.
From there, a short ride led to our house. I got onto the expressway that saved me from having to go through every village along the way. The expressway became frustratingly congested at rush hour with commuters caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic every morning.
I pulled into the driveway, got out of the car and opened the iron gate. Neither Mary nor I had felt the need to put a automatic mechanism in place. We’d bought the old place when I got my last job. It was something in between a farm and a village home. We had renovated everything while maintaining the ancient character wherever possible, conferring a peculiar charm to the property. Old and new interlaced harmoniously, marrying different styles and materials with always a subtle contrast that made the house warm and cozy and…homey.
We liked this place, Mary and I. We’d put so much of ourselves into it. The colors, the tiles, the plants in the garden. A nice piece of land with some twelve thousand square feet of grass, bushes, fruit trees, and an olive tree growing in front of the terrace, a tree considered holy in ancient Greece. We’d planted the tree not knowing whether it would survive the frigid winters common in the area. It did. We had taken that as a good omen. Will olive holiness protect us from this, too?
The thought that we could be forced to sell the house struck me with the power of a sledgehammer blow to my chest. The first gut-wrenching reaction to the little speech from Carl, an hour before. No! I would prevent that at all costs.
Costs, right; I had to think clearly about the necessary and unavoidable expenses and what could be cut or reduced from now on.
I headed for the front door, pulled out the keys and fumbled a bit with them. I felt like I needed a coffee, or something stronger. I managed to open the door; the alarm welcomed me with its three-tone beep, the first three notes of the US anthem. I reached the keypad and entered the code. The house was submerged again in silence, Mary already at school. My throat was dry. I went to the kitchen, the room my wife liked the most as she had personally designed the large trapezoidal island for all her culinary adventures.
The kitchen was warm, welcoming and full of utensils. Mary had always been a terrific cook. Keeping in shape was a remarkable achievement and a source of astonishment, but I was motivated by a dose of criticism from Mary. She was always telling me I ate too much. To which I invariably replied, “It’s not my fault, hon. If you were a worse cook, I would enjoy eating less than I do.”
I noticed a small note on the stone counter. “Don’t worry. We will make it through. Together. Love you.”
Yes, of course we would, though how and when were still two open questions. I took a mug, put a new capsule in the machine and started brewing a coffee.
I went upstairs. Our house had three levels. Mary and I enjoyed the entire upper level as our quarters; bedroom, dressing room, bathroom, and home office.
On the middle floor, we had our family room with the TV set, a small storage unit, and our daughter’s bedroom with its own bathroom. At twelve, she had started to ask us to respect her privacy; she’d even got herself a sign for her door with ‘Keep Out’ on one side and ‘Please, Come in’ on the other. She did not use it often, and we took care to always knock if she had the door closed.
I sat on the couch and switched on TV, looking for some news reports. I hopped from one channel to another, the usual cocktail of CNN, BBC News, France 24, Rai International, Al Jazeera. Most were covering the recent election win for Vladimir Putin; with a landslide vote, the old KGB apparatchik had again retained full power and the Kremlin.
Changing the channel once more, France 24 reported the deaths of Mountain gorilla colonies. The causes of death still very much of a mystery, all gorillas presented bruising and blood in their soft tissues. Rangers had started to collect evidence and testimonials. Some local people reported seeing strange lights, or luminescent shapes, not far from where the gorillas had been found dead. Other witnesses heard rumbling sounds like thunder, though no meteorological events of any relevance had been reported in the area.
Officials concurred the deaths of the animals were a malicious act and promised a full investigation would be conducted to find and bring to justice the perpetrators. A veterinarian from the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project confirmed that, in the past days, locals had whispered among themselves about lights in the shape of a sideways capital “T” up in the flanks of the Virunga Volcanoes. They considered them the cause of the gorilla deaths. The veterinarian also specified that some elders said the watu wa mwanga—which could be translated from Swahili as people of light, or from light—were responsible. This information had not been verified independently.
I changed to RAI 24 International: the news focused on another mass bird killing, “… for the last five days, wildlife experts and officers from the forestry commission have picked up more than 1,000 turtle doves as well as other birds, including pigeons. Yesterday alone, 300 corpses were recovered, all of them having a blue tinge to their beaks. Scientists say this could indicate poisoning or hypoxia—a lack of oxygen—which could confuse animals and lead to death.
“The incident in the town of Faenza in northern Italy comes after a series of similar cases and, more recently, in the United States and Sweden. Birds were not the only species to be affected. Millions of fishes also washed up on river banks and coastlines. The turtle dove case is the largest incident to have hit Europe so far. In Sweden, 50 jackdaws were found dead. Italian officials said they expected results from forensic tests on Monday.”
“Let's hope it is poisoning or an illness, and not a sign that the world is coming to an end,” the announcer said half jokingly. “Tests are being carried out on the bodies by the local forestry commission. Results should be available as of next week, but it is the numbers that make this such a notable event and for the moment it is a mystery.”
Although I had never put much stock in apocalyptic conjectures, many people were deeply affected by fear. According to many—false—prophets, life on Earth would end soon. Something to do with the Mayan calendar, I recalled. December 21, 2012—the Northern Hemisphere's winter solstice—would be the last day. Scenes with religious fanatics carrying posters urging people to repent because “The End is Nigh” had always been common. These animal deaths were adding fuel to such foolishness.
I recognized the streets of Berkeley, California, where a group of individuals distributed leaflets to passersby and a large sign with huge letters filled the TV screen long enough for the announcer to read it through:
“The word of the LORD that came to Zephaniah son of Cushi son of Gedaliah son of Amariah son of Hezekiah, in the days of King Josiah son of Amon of Judah. I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth, says the LORD. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. I will make the wicked stumble. I will cut off humanity from the face of the earth, says the LORD.”
The news went on with other facts. Every one of them involved violence, fights, clashes and more deaths. This time, causes were identified with no ambiguity: bullets, bombing, and the general hatred human beings seem genetically armed with to inflict the greatest pain and suffering upon one another. I switched off the TV.
“Sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea. Sweep away humans and animals.” Now, that is a grandiose plan, I thought. The context did not matter to people who died in bloody conflicts, but God had spoken specifically to Judah and the officials of Jerusalem, not to us living in the 21st century. Still, I have to say it was an enthralling conjecture and a very special case of connecting the dots. No doubt, everyone would be astonished by the inordinate amount of dead wildlife, especially the gorillas, an animal so closely related to humankind. Investigations into the cause wouldn’t stop Bible scholars or would-be prophets from making doomsday claims, but in my opinion, we ought to ask ourselves how we were provoking such natural disasters.
I decided to Google those animal deaths because I needed to think about something other than the morning chat with Carl and my ensuing loss of employment. What I found startled me. My little online search revealed, and for 2010 only, reports of not less than eleven strange mass deaths of animals. Thousands and thousands of birds and tons of fishes, mostly in the US.
For 2011, the situation was not better. On the contrary, fifteen unexplained culling of birds and fishes now reaching locations in Europe, too. 2012 seemed to have started in high gear with more evolved animals being victims of something killing them in a quite unpleasant way. Whatever the cause, it had escalated.
With a jolt, I noticed the clock: 4pm. Time to go pick up Annah at school. Annah, our twelve year old daughter, attended the International School of Geneva. When she was three, we chose that school because, at the time, we were still planning to go back to the US. Our goal was for Annah to receive an education in English and a good one, too. Our choice turned out to be the perfect one, welcoming children from the youngest ages through diploma years.
Years back, I worked at CERN when I’d been offered a staff position at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. As a physicist interested in computer science, I found my turf: fundamental research with lots of computing. I had the feeling I spent my time playing rather than working.
Life in Berkeley Hills and at the lab had been a memorable experience. The weather was pleasant, colleagues and friends were caring, San Francisco a town I fell in love with.
We had friends in California. Tony Bennett sang “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”—as I learned—for the first time at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel in the famous Venetian Room. Mary and I had been there a few times and dined in the hall, with its crystal chandeliers and bronze marble columns. Whenever I traveled back to the City by the Bay, I felt like I was going home...much to Mary's dismay, for she judged herself as European as anyone could be.
We were from the old continent, and Europe is far away from California. Even with computers and telephones, the nine-hour time zone difference made you aware of the distance in a profound and acute way. After our daughter’s birth, the separation became intolerable. Sending pictures and the frequent phone calls were not able to fill the gap and ease a longing for our families. When the US Lab proposed a rotation of personnel to the CERN labs in Switzerland, I added my name to the list to spend two years in Geneva, allowing for easier contact with our relatives. At least for a while.
The two years became four, then five, and life took precedence with its own plans; other job opportunities came along, then the malicious and evil 9-11 attack. We never went back to live in the US. I always remember John Lennon’s words, so true in cases such as this: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Science was devoted to building massive apparatuses with such crushing images like modern cathedrals of molten iron and slabs of lead to demonstrate the world rested on infinitesimal entities and twined dimensions of an ephemeral reality. Scientists pursued the poetry of the invisible, the poetry of the infinitesimal unexpected possibilities. And life indeed had other plans...for everyone.
I arrived at the school around 4:30pm when students gathered in front of the main entrance. I only had to wait a couple minutes for Annah to show up. At twelve, she had started to go through a full transformation, the child leaving and making way for the young woman to be. Annah takes a lot after her mother and people say after me as well, though I know better.
She glanced around in search of my car. A smile rose to her lips when she saw me standing near our Volvo. She waved her hand, followed by a mute “hi, Dad”, then she started walking toward me. I decided to hide from her what had happened that morning. Mary and I needed to discuss it first, figure out clearly all it implied for our life. Annah would be told at the right moment and this one, with her beautiful smile, was definitely not a good one.
“Hi, Dad. How was your day?”
“Fine, sweetie,” I said, and kissed her. “And yours?”
I liked to take our daughter to school and pick her up whenever possible. With our schedules, we were all together only during breakfast and at dinner. Those rides with Annah allowed me to share some time with her every day; our usual conversation took place.
Annah was remarkably open with me about all that went on in her world. Her student life, her friends, the recent discovery of the existence of boys, and the first parties held by the school itself in the large gymnasium. I loved the privilege when Annah asked me how to tell whether a boy was in love with a girl. A hypothetical boy, of course, whose name varied from William, Victor, Robin, Lee… and a hypothetical girl named Annah.
How long would she keep me so much a part of her life? When we reached home, the gate was open and Mary’s car was in the driveway. I parked next to hers. Mary appeared on the door step with the most incredible smile ever to greet us. “My loves,” she reached us.
She embraced me, then Annah, who drove us back to reality.
“Hi, Mom! I’m hungry.”
Together, we walked home.