Greetings from Washington DC, where I have been having an exceptional time mulling the evolution of America’s role in the world for a magazine piece on, er, American exceptionalism. I’ve also begun emerging for a dose of spring in the superpower’s capital. Birdsong and blossoms — along with vaccine doses that are sating diplomats who are ravenous for the revival of in-person events (aka chatty lunches) — are bringing the most powerful village in the world back to life.

Hope you are as riveted by my picks of the week as I am. Click here if you’d like to receive Long Story Short by email every Friday.

India’s experience of its catastrophic second wave of Covid-19 has triggered a global response. FT reporters spoke to four people who are confronting the acute horror of the crisis on the ground. One university professor in Delhi took his sister to two hospitals after her blood oxygen levels dangerously dropped below 80 per cent, only to be turned away. Nearly seven times as many bodies as last year are arriving daily in the ancient city of Varanasi, where many Hindus are cremated, with wood shortages for pyres leading to considerable price increases. The chief cremator has been overwhelmed:

A farmer in a palm oil plantation

This extraordinary revelation into corporate double standards revealed that BlackRock, the world’s biggest investment group, has joined a shareholder protest against sourcing palm oil from an Indonesian company in which the US fund group is itself a sizeable investor. Primrose Riordan and Stefania Palma reported that BlackRock has an almost $350m stake in Astra International and a small direct holding in its subsidiary Astra Agro Lestari, which activists have accused of seizing land from local farmers and poor environmental standards. BlackRock said it was “well aware” of the concerns and has previously argued for behind-the-scenes conversations. The managing director at one investment consultancy said:

Pilita Clark’s column on returning to the office tickled me not only because she admits being “thrilled” to shirk it during lockdown, but also because it underlines stark geographic differences. While 97 per cent of Europeans want to keep up remote work, the proportion who want to max out working remotely in the US stands at 44 per cent. That chimes with what I was told when I first arrived in DC about its “professional” (aka workaholic) bent. There is a further twist: Clark points to studies indicating the increasingly shallow life of offices offers no antidote to lockdown loneliness:

US soldiers remove confiscated rockets from a home in south-eastern Afghanistan in 2002

US foreign policy has long been driven by the country’s sense of its own uniqueness. But I wanted to know if President Joe Biden’s decision to pull US troops out of Afghanistan 20 years after they were first sent there signified any evolution for “American exceptionalism”. In this in-depth report, Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told me the term was “not animating” the administration’s approach. Still, the president has made big claims for America, charging it must “win the 21st century” and arguing the country must lead by “the power of our example”. I met one veteran injured during the war who seemed decidedly less sure:

I loved visiting homes designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in Pennsylvania recently, so I was thrilled to learn that one of Mexico’s leading architects was inspired by Wright’s bent for buildings that vibe with nature and defy traditional boxiness. Jude Webber takes us on a tour of curvy works inspired by caves and igloos. Some buildings recall whales, others snakes and shells, but Javier Senosiain’s long-term project is Parque Quetzalcóatl, a Mexico City park filled with eclectic mosaics, secret passageways and an eye-popping Airbnb. He tells Jude his penchant for avoiding straight lines is bound to catch on:

Run free In my moments dreaming of escape from the home office, I’ve got my thrills watching others walk all over such buildings — quite literally. Parkour is the uplifting sport-come-dance that emanated from 1980s Paris, and which asserts the urban jungle is our very own obstacle course. In this Tehran-based Instagram account, I watch freerunner Mohadeseh Malekmohamadi jump walls, catch on to ledges by her fingertips and run up buildings only to backflip on to the beach. Sheer cheeky delight.

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KatrinaUS foreign policy and defence correspondent