Saturday, June 28, 2008

Rocky combat

In my article of 3 January 2008 entitled Fragile existence [display], I described a rock that had rolled down onto the road between Gamone and Pont-en-Royans. Shortly after, as indicated in my article of 12 January 2008 entitled Valley on the move [display], another rock rolled down onto that same stretch of road. And more recently, in my article of 27 March 2008 entitled Law of motion [display], I evoked an awesome stone column up on the slopes of Mount Baret, above that same road.

Over the last week, a small team of woodcutters, attached by ropes, has been cleaning up the area where the last rock fell, which lies directly beneath the above-mentioned stone pillar, and just a few meters above the roadway. By "cleaning up", I mean that they've removed trees and vegetation surrounding a pile of loose rocks.

The purpose of their intervention is to install heavy metal netting over these rocks, to prevent them from moving. I asked one of the workers why it wouldn't be preferable to dislodge the rocks so that they slide down onto the road, where they could be broken into small fragments and carted away. He replied in a sarcastic tone by a single word: "business"... meaning that such-and-such a company stood to make money by installing the metal netting.

Local folk with whom I've spoken, including our mayor, are highly critical of any technique that consists of destroying the vegetation that has been stabilizing the rocky slopes for so long. To fix the netting in place, holes have to be drilled in the rocks [at the places marked with orange paint], then metal rods are hammered into these holes. But everybody knows that these metal rods erode over time, allowing moisture to seep into the rocks. When this moisture freezes abruptly, the subsequent forces can split the rocks and cause them to budge, increasing the probability of the netting giving way. In the perpetual combat of man versus rocky slopes, there's no obvious winner.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Curious trail

This morning, while waiting for the Préfecture to welcome us for the naturalization ceremony, I took this photo of a wiggly red paint trail on the footpaths of the Place de Verdun. I saw this paint trail for the first time a few days ago, while visiting the Archives départementales to pursue my research about the origins of Gamone. I soon discovered that it leads, over a distance of a hundred meters or so, to the nearby Musée de la Résistance et de la Déportation de l'Isère, which honors local heroes of the combat against the Nazis during World War II.

After finding this blood-red squiggle on the footpaths of Grenoble [which would be trivial, were it not for the Résistance exhibitions to which it leads you], I happened to be reading a brilliant anecdote penned by my favorite author. Richard Dawkins talks of a curious wet wiggly trail he once saw in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. [You can read the story on pages 73-74 of his Unweaving the Rainbow.] Apparently, it was a trail of urine from a randy male elephant. The Oxford zoologist imagined immediately two complementary hypotheses:

(1) There was no doubt some kind of regular swaying rhythm in the pachyderm's prick. Its excretions of urine were governed by physics. First, there was the global gait of the huge animal. Then, there was the pendulum-like movement of the elephant's lengthy penis, wobbling and exuding urine beneath its giant body. Insofar as the urine trail was a kind of wobbly wave, Dawkins imagined that its form might be analyzed by mathematics that were imagined by Joseph Fourier... who once became the prefect of Isère, as I said in my article entitled Becoming French [display].

(2) Dawkins imagined that the elephant's urine trail might become fossilized one of these days, and that future scientific historians, armed with the imagination of our Oxford professor and the mathematics of our French prefect, might be able to digitize the elephant's urine train and apply Fourier analysis in order to determine... the exact length and weight of the elephant's dangling organ! Isn't that nice thinking?

Fifty million Frenchmen... and me

Young readers of my blog won't recognize the allusion to an archaic Cole Porter musical comedy whose hit song declared—for reasons that are neither here nor there—that "fifty million Frenchmen can't be wrong". Why not? From now on, with an additional Frenchman in tow (as of this morning at ten o'clock), the situation might change... for the better or for the worse.

By nine o'clock, we were some fifty or sixty future citizens gathered in front of the préfecture in Grenoble, waiting for the great oak doors to open. I had time to analyze visually my companions, who appeared to be largely from Eastern Europe and the Maghreb. There was a single African and a single Asiatic. Not only did I appear to be the only native English-speaking individual, but the fellow at the reception desk said that it was rare to see an Australian at such a ceremony. I told him—as I've informed others on dozens of occasions, whenever the question of dual Franco-Australian citizenship arises—that I would have been naturalized ages ago were it not for a stupid long-standing Aussie stipulation, only recently amended, that an Australian who decided to acquire a foreign nationality would be automatically deprived of his Australian birth rights. Tough typically-Aussie stuff, that caused us expatriates to hesitate.

Everything went over smoothly. A banal film explained the motto of the République: liberty, equality and fraternity. A few extra words concerned the republican theme of the separation between the state and religions. I knew this stuff off by heart, since these fundamental French principles are part of my everyday thinking and outlook on society in my adopted land.

I chuckled inwardly when I thought that foreigners in my native Australia, in a complementary situation to mine, are now liable to be asked, in a ridiculous cultural quiz, to name a famous Aussie cricketer and a billiards champion. The first correct answer was no doubt Donald Bradman. As for the other Aussie hero, I have no idea whatsoever. I didn't even know that Australia was a great billiards nation. In other words, there are few chances today that an ignorant Frenchman like me could ever become an Australian... apart from the fact that I'm already Australian, and have always been so, ever since my courageous pioneering ancestors invested their courage and energy in that great mindless continent, from the earliest days. But so what; I'm French, and tremendously proud to be a citizen of the grand République !

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

One-track mind and reading

The first time in my life that I tuned in exclusively to a single author, reading nothing else, was back in my adolescent Durrell days. Totally enraptured by this novelist, I've surely read the greater part of everything that Lawrence Durrell [1912-1990] ever wrote, culminating in Caesar's Vast Ghost, mentioned in my article of 27 March 2007 entitled Books about Provence and the French Riviera [display].

Later, in other domains, I often made a point of reading everything I could lay my hands upon from poets, intellectuals and researchers who impressed me greatly: Rainer Maria Rilke, of course, then my friend and mentor Pierre Schaeffer in France, and great US computer scientists such as Marvin Minsky and Roger Schank. At the same time, I was thrilled in particular by the literary opus of Kurt Vonnegut. Concerning all the above-mentioned authors, I ended up acquiring and reading all their fundamental writings. But, in all these cases, my basic emotion [to use the concept at the heart of Minsky's recent masterly synthesis entitled The Emotion Machine] was admiration, rather than total fascination as in the Durrellian universe. There always seemed to be some little thing that was missing in their works: maybe simply the power and magic of first-person poetic writing.

These days, once again, I've become a one-author reader. His name won't surprise readers of my blog: Richard Dawkins, born in Africa... like all of us, at one time or another. As a reader, I feel that my commitment is for life! Faced with the Dawkins phenomenon, I'm a little like a novice monk about to make his permanent vows. [Dawkins would surely sprout some kind of invisible rash if he learned that a devoted reader dared to liken him to a spiritual abbot.]

Unweaving the Rainbow, as the title implies, is all about rainbows, of all kinds: those that we see in the sky, formed by light passing through droplets of water, and those in our human minds, construed by the foibles of Darwinian evolution. The soul of this book is poetic. Was it not Keats who complained that Newton's analysis of the colors of the rainbows had destroyed forever their charm? Dawkins deals, as it were, with Keats, placing him on the sidelines of fabulous scientific revelations that enable us, now, to know the rainbow.

A Devil's Chaplain is pure Dawkins curled up in a leather lounge in front of a log fire, talking on about anything and everything: that's to say, about life and death, and the quest for profound challenges in our meaningless existence. Dawkins tackles all kinds of topics, including the emptiness of fashionable French philosophy (professed by intellectuals such as Lacan, Guattari and Deleuze), silly religious reactions to the cloned sheep named Dolly, alternative medicine, and the obnoxious expression of religion that disgusted the world at large on 11 September 2001. Dawkins reiterates that the religions of everybody are to be condemned, once and for all: Catholics, Protestants, Jews of all denominations and Moslems.

In the wake of Dawkins, I simply can't imagine what I might ever read from now on. Maybe old Tintin comics. Better still, exciting tales of archaic fiction from the Bible...

Monday, June 23, 2008


I'm fond of my Jewish skullcap, which I bought long ago in the extraordinary Holy City of Jerusalem. I used to wear it momentarily when visiting synagogues in Israel. I've always had a profound respect for the Jewish people, the legends and myths of the Torah and the modern state of Israel. There were even times when I dreamed vaguely about the crazy idea of settling down in that amazing and exciting nation, both profoundly archaic and terribly modern, but this kind of project would be senseless, indeed unthinkable, for a goy. In any case, I've always been a supporter of the Jewish state: a friend of Israel.

The recent beating in Paris of a lad wearing a kippa was initially presented as a case of anti-Semitism, but it now appears possible that it was merely an instance of regular fighting between youth gangs in the Buttes-Chaumont park in the 19th arrondissement of Paris.

Phantoms from an ancient world

After arriving in Paris for the first time, in February 1962, and starting to work with IBM Europe in the Madeleine quarter, I developed the pleasant habit of residing in cheap romantic Latin Quarter hotels... often in tiny upper-story rooms called chambres de bonnes, which used to be occupied by maids. Naturally, I ate out all the time. Today, Christine and our children think I'm maybe telling tales when I say that one of my regular eating places was the Procope in the rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie, where I developed a taste for snails. I assure them that, in 1962, it was a perfectly ordinary Left-Bank restaurant, well within the means of a young Aussie who happened to be earning his living as a computer programmer with IBM.

In those distant days, the Latin Quarter soon became my everyday backyard, and I ventured into every nook and cranny of this exotic territory that had belonged primarily, not so long before then, to the students of the Sorbonne and the existentialists. One of the quaintest places I chanced upon was an archaic art gallery known as the Akademia Raymond Duncan, whose boss was an aging American artist who paraded around in a Greek robe, as if he were a reincarnation of Aristophanes. French friends told me that the claim to fame of this ridiculous fossilized Californian, who had nothing in particular to exhibit in his Latin Quarter Academy, apart from his silly self, was the fact that his long-departed sister, Isadora Duncan, had been an amazing innovator in the world of modern dance.

Indeed, I soon discovered that everybody in Paris had heard of Raymond's amazing sister, who liked to dance half-naked to Ancient Greek themes. Even if they knew little about Isadora's celebrated choreography, Parisians remembered the terrible anecdote about her accidental death in 1927, in Nice. Isadora's friend Benoît Falchetto was going to take her for a ride in a fabulous Bugatti automobile named the Amilcar GS 1924. Nonchalantly, the lovely dancer threw a scarf around her neck. This scarf was caught up instantly in the spoked wheels of the automobile, and Isadora Duncan was choked to death.

For me, through the presence of her aging offbeat brother, this anecdote of the American dancer's death—35 years and a world war before my arrival in France—remained terribly present in my mind during my first encounter with the fascinating City of Light.

Gamone plants

In my article of 27 September 2007 entitled Façade at Gamone [display], I spoke about the renovation of the façade of Gamone. Before these operations, I had to sacrifice my rose bushes and the wisteria. And during the work, the earth below the façade was polluted with old mortar dust and sand. Today, I'm happy to find that things are getting back to normal once again.

For the moment, I'm not sure I want the wisteria to invade the entire façade, as it used to do.

Up until now, the flowers were protected from my billy-goat Gavroche by wire netting, which I've just removed. I have no idea how the midget animal will react to the challenge of the flower bed. Stupidly, no doubt, as usual. In case I haven't told you already, my dear billy-goat is, as they say in French, a kind of "casseur" (breaker, vandal), who seems to get high by destroying unexpected vegetation that he doesn't even want to eat. For example, Gavroche hates tomato plants. In fact, I shouldn't use the verb "hate", because I don't believe for an instant that Gavroche behaves with any kind of hatred in his heart. He simply doesn't give a damn.

I think of my billy goat in much the same way that Richard Dawkins talks of Nature in River out of Eden: "Nature is not cruel, only pitilessly indifferent. This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit that things might be neither good nor evil, neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous—indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose." Gavroche is indeed a more-or-less callous nihilist, on a par with the Roman emperor Caligula described by Albert Camus. But there's a bit of Sisyphus in him, too, in the way he trudges constantly up to the top of the slopes above Gamone, only to wander down here again to the house, a day or so later. To be precise, we should no doubt describe Gavroche as an existentialist goat.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Bacterial shit as fuel

The skyrocketing price of petroleum has given rise to a lot of buzz recently about revolutionary high-tech processes capable of producing cheap synthetic fuel. For a long time, hydrogen cars have sounded like the ultimate dream. It's lovely to imagine your exhaust pipe leaving no more than a trail of warm water droplets along the highway.

[Click the image to access an excellent website on this interesting theme.] Today, though, there aren't many hydrogen fuel stations studded around the countryside. So, in spite of new models of this kind that are continually being put on the market, it still remains a largely experimental and expensive approach.

There has been a lot of excitement over the last few days about announcements from a US company named Coskata, which is experimenting with a variation on the relatively classical approach that consists of using the biomass to produce ethanol. [Click the image to visit their website.] The initial step in such a process consists of transforming raw resources (maybe harvested crops or even urban garbage) into a gas mixture referred to as syngas (short for synthesis gas), whose primary contents are carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Then, the marvelous aspect of the Coskata system concerns the way in which this syngas is processed to create ethanol. They use exotic bacteria—once discovered on the bed of a lake—which consume the syngas and produce ethanol as excrement! In other words, once this technology is brought to fruition, we'll be able to fuel our automobiles with bug shit! Now, isn't that a lovely idea?

At Gamone, I use donkey and horse shit to fertilize my vegetable garden. In places such as Tibet and Mongolia, I believe they use yak shit as fuel in their cooking stoves. Ecologists inform us that our familiar cattle produce huge quantities of methane, which add to the global warming problem. Maybe the Coskata people could dream up some kind of small bug-filled device that could be attached to the backside of cows so that these dear animals would actually piss out pure gasoline. Ideally, this invention would be followed by a little bit of smart genetic engineering to breed cattle with a second set of udders. The first teats would deliver milk, as usual, whereas the second set would be used to fuel our automobiles.

Regional languages

One often imagines that, in France, everybody speaks French. Well, the situation is far more complex than that. Throughout the République (including overseas territories), there are indeed dozens of so-called regional languages, including Breton, Corsican, Basque, Occitan, Catalan, Alsatian, etc.

A Breton parliamentarian recently presented an amendment to the French constitution that would allow for the reconnaissance (recognition) of regional languages. Insofar as these ancient languages are a significant part of the cultural patrimony of France, it's not surprising that polls indicate that most people approve of such an amendment. In particular, French youth are largely unanimous in applauding such a change of outlook, which respects cultural diversity. After all, the right to speak the language of one's forefathers would appear to be no less sacred than the idea of perpetuating, say, their religion or their life style. Only an insensitive bureaucrat would argue that these precious regional languages should be allowed to die out in the name of progress and unity.

In any case, that's how the situation appears when examined superficially. However, we cannot ignore the fact that the acceptance of regional languages in an operational sense within the République could be quite a complex and hazardous undertaking. What I mean by "operational sense" is that citizens might end up demanding that official documents be drawn up in their local language. Imagine, say, that the authorities in Grenoble were to hand me, at the naturalization ceremony next Friday morning, an identity card written in some Alpine dialect. If I wanted to drive up to Christine's place, I would first have to find an official translator to obtain a Breton version of my driver's license. If ever this linguistic amendment were to be validated, it would only be a short while before an inspired French citizen started to lobby for the reintroduction of Latin, as a daily language, throughout the former territories of Cisalpine Gaul. Then the folk in Marseille would start to scream because they felt that it would be more fitting for them to have the possibility of using Greek. And the République would rapidly become a Tower of Babel, whose major economic activity consisted of language translation. Why reinvent such cacophony within the frontiers of the Hexagon when we already have the European Union? And soon the Mediterranean Union?

Don't take me too seriously. The truth of the matter is that I love the precious phenomenon of exotic languages, old and new... including those we invent these days to run our computers.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Home history

As explained briefly in my recent article entitled Fulfilling day in Grenoble [display], I'm trying to acquire information about the folk who lived here at Gamone in the past, long before I discovered this charming place.

For many years, I've carried out ordinary genealogical research both on paternal Skyvington themes [display] and on maternal Walker ancestors [display], and I've also been concerned by the background of Grafton, in Australia, where I grew up [display]. At times, activities of this genealogical kind can be frustrating, since I have few concrete associations with these research domains, particularly since I live in a land, France, that was never a part of my personal genealogical territory. Maybe my genealogical operations would acquire greater meaning if I were able to spend time in my native Australia, in the UK or in Ireland. Meanwhile, the genealogical challenge is, for me, a largely theoretical affair. Maybe genealogy is a bit like that for most researchers, in that few people remain "in touch" with their ancestral context.

In the case of the history of the place where I'm now living, my contacts with the subject matter of my research are far more concrete, because the house and property are still here to "back up", as it were, my research activities. For example, there was a former owner named Antoine Uzel-Maret. Here's his birth record, stating that he was born in Choranche on 6 September 1815.

He died here at Gamone in 1884. At 8 o'clock on the morning of 26 March of that year, a notary public from Pont-en-Royans came up here to the house and, with the help of Antoine's widow, named Sophie Belle, he drew up a precise list of all the objects and animals in the building. And today, I can read this fascinating list. Here's the start of the list of objects in "the second bedroom, to the west", which is where I'm sitting in front of my computer at the present moment:

I learn, for example, that there was a "bad" wood stove in this room, and a big clock. Curiously, there was equipment here for making bread, whereas the actual bread oven [which is no longer there] used to be located down beneath my big southern window. I haven't had time to analyze all this information yet, but I see that there was a lot of wine-making equipment, described precisely in the list, down in the ancient cellar of the house.

Through this list of the exact contents of my house in 1884, I feel myself associated with this Uzel-Maret couple. It's a little as if I've moved into their house to take care of it while they've left for a long journey.

Summer solstice in the northern hemisphere

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence

Dangers in Eden

It's around noon on a beautifully sunny Saturday, and I've been sitting outside on a comfortable chair and reading yet another superb book by Richard Dawkins.

As you can see from this image of the book in question, resting on my knees, along with an aesthetic view of my feet, I'm wearing shoes. Half an hour ago, this was not the case. I was wearing the comfortable sandals I bought in England last year—see End of English excursion [display]—when the weather was so hot.

I was so wrapped up in my reading that I hardly noticed the presence of a little beast as it slid over the toes of my left foot. As it wriggled away in the clover, I jumped up, grabbed a pair of long-handled clippers, and cut the snake in two.

It's a small viper, only 28 cm long and no thicker than a pencil. I spent a while convincing myself that I hadn't been bitten. I guess I'm more worried for Sophia than for me, because she would be capable of plunging at such a creature, just as she does with lizards.

Here are a few humorous sentences from the page of River out of Eden that I was reading when the reptile arrived:

It is as though cheetahs had been designed by one deity and antelopes by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one Creator who made the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is He playing at? Is He a sadist who enjoys spectator blood sports? Is He trying to avoid overpopulation in the mammals of Africa? Is He maneuvering to maximize David Attenborough's television ratings?

And notice the image on the dust jacket of the Dawkins book:

Spooky, no? One obvious explanation is that God sent this serpent to warn me of the dangers of reading Dawkins. If this were the case, then my cutting the beast in two with garden clippers has surely got me into the bad books of the Creator of tigers and lambs... not to mention the Dalai Lama.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Computer engineer

Superficially, my friend Thierry—resident of a nearby Drôme village—doesn't talk like a computer engineer, and certain observers might consider that he doesn't really look like such an individual... if indeed it might be said that computer engineers have a generic look.

How in fact does Thierry talk? Well, if you happen to have been wading for the last few months in the smelly and swampy meanders of broken-down computing systems of the Microsoft variety, then it's quite likely that Thierry speaks a language in which you'll recognize immediately certain references. Unfortunately, as a Macintosh user, I don't have the fortune of knowing intimately this murky world. So, I don't necessarily understand a lot of what Thierry has to say. But I love to hear him talking endlessly and smilingly about all this shit, which he seems to appreciate in a masterly fashion.

At a professional level, Thierry's undeniable success stems no doubt from the sad fact that all kinds of individuals and firms have encountered huge nasty problems through having invested in Microsoft... in the same way that their predecessors used to sell their business souls to IBM. Thierry has the knack of being able to extract victims, more or less, from their shitty swamps. Consequently, he earns a nice living, and leads a pleasant life as a reputed expert.

For me, it's always amusing to ask Thierry what he thinks about the Macintosh phenomenon. Naturally, he has nothing but sarcasm for the Apple computing universe, in which things don't necessarily and systematically go wrong. Thierry prefers to gravitate in an environment in which computing is an enormously shitty affair. Indeed, if the computing world were like Apple, Thierry would no longer be considered by his prestigious clients (including a nearby commune, for example) as a brilliant savior. Worse still, he might even be out of work.

Old times, forgotten places

I've often been amused by the fact that few folk around Pont-en-Royans, not even so-called old-timers, have a realistic grasp of the sheer depth of local history. They often reason as if our villages of Le Royans came into existence around the time of the grandparents of the oldest individuals whom they can recall: that's to say, roughly towards the end of the 19th century. Before that period, in the minds of these old-timers, everything was blurry, and no traces remain today.

In the commune of Châtelus, on the opposite side of the Bourne, it has often been said that there may have been a small Roman stronghold at the foot of Mount Barret. A local resident once showed me big cubic blocks of limestone that had been lying in the fields since time immemorial. When I suggested that a vast mound alongside his property might cover traces of the alleged Roman construction, he replied: "No, I don't think so. When my ancestors settled down here, a century or so ago, they would have surely noticed any such vestiges... and I don't recall any family stories of this kind." He seemed to be telling me that his pioneering ancestors, back at the time they decided to start farming at Châtelus, had never been obliged to get into conflict with Roman soldiers.

Here at Gamone, visitors often ask me if I know the origins of a twenty-meter tunnel in the hillside just behind my house. They expect me to explain, say, that the former proprietor Hippolyte Gerin [1884-1957] was probably looking for water. Consequently, when I tell them that I imagine that winegrowers may have started to dig this vault to hide their precious tools and produce during the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, when Protestant marauders devastated the great vineyards of Choranche, my visitors look at me in amazement, as if I had just started to rave on about invaders from the planet Mars.

The following document proves nevertheless, if need be, that our Dauphiné villages have been around for a long, long time:

This extraordinary map, drawn by Jean de Beins [1577-1651], dates from 1631. Click the image to access the French website, Gallica, that displays the entire map. The big river that flows down through Romans is, of course, the Isère. The Bourne tributary, which flows down below Gamone, is seen in the lower right-hand corner of this fragment of the map. Not surprisingly, Choranche was not significant enough to be indicated.

An old map of this kind is doubly fascinating. It indicates not only what has remained over the centuries, but what is no longer there. In my article entitled Neighbors who dwell in castles [display], I mentioned the lovely castle of La Sône, on the road from Pont-en-Royans to St-Marcellin. In the 17th-century map, between the villages of Pont-en-Royans, St-André-en-Royans and "La Saune", there's a vast forest, which appears to extend northwards up until the Dauphin's castle at Beauvoir. Today, I drive through vestiges of this phantom forest whenever I go to the Leclerc supermarket in Chatte, but it's sadly no more than a skeleton.

In the Royans region, the most surprising name in this old map is La Batye, south of the Bourne at Pont-en-Royans. It designates the celebrated castle of the Bérenger family, lords of Sassenage.

Today, the magnificent castle has disappeared, and no more than a mound remains.

The view to the north encompasses the giant mass of the Cournouze [in the upper center of the above photo], with the pointed Mount Barret to the left.

A handful of stones from the ancient castle lay scattered in the grass.

I feel like saying to this venerable witness of glorious centuries: "Tell me please, Old Stone, all that you have seen!" But we all know that old stones don't talk. They prefer to keep their secrets for themselves... and maybe for their ancient human companions, now dead.

It would have been nice to find that 20th-century folk, having stolen all the Sassenage stones [to build their own modern dwellings], might have erected a reminder of the medieval glory of the Bérenger family. On the contrary, in 1944, local folk preferred to erect a stupid Catholic statue, in concrete, evoking the silly story of Mary and her alleged sexless procreation of a child. Once upon a time, the lords of Sassenage were real, all too real. Their memory has been replaced mindlessly and shamefully, at the very site of their great home, by the evocation of a myth.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Road safety fashion

Soon, in France, our automobiles will have to carry, in the trunk, a red plastic triangle and a fluorescent vest.

This promotional photo featuring the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is very French. The text says: "It's yellow. It's ugly. It doesn't go with anything. But it can save your life." I approve of this mild kind of second-degree humor. I believe that most French viewers will get the message, and retain it... which is all that matters.

Hot day in Grenoble

Outsiders normally imagine Grenoble, capital of the French Alps, as a cold city. Today, it was bathed in sunshine, with summer temperatures. The Victor Hugo Square, at the center of the city, was a symphony of greenery and flowers.

Students (no doubt in the middle of their baccalauréat exams) bathed in the enticing fountain.

Between the blocks of buildings in the above photo, on the horizon, you can glimpse snow-covered mountain slopes. That's Grenoble!

The alert marketing folk of the Contrex mineral-water firm realized that this was an ideal day to put their products on the street.

These girls were offering free plastic beakers of icy Contrex to hot passers-by.

At first sight, I imagined that these poor girls wearing Contrex caps and T-shirts were obliged to stroll around in the heat with those huge plastic tanks of beverage on their backs. Not quite. The big yellow and orange "bottles" are empty and lightweight, whereas a nearby vehicle supplied the girls with ordinary bottles of Contrex.

As for me, I was indeed hot, like everybody else, but I was so busy taking photos (and intent upon catching the bus back to St-Marcellin) that I simply forgot about asking the Contrex kids for a drink.

Becoming French

On 18 June in 1940 [my year of birth], Charles de Gaulle broadcast a call from London on BBC radio inviting his compatriots to join his resistance movement in England.

On this morning of 18 June 2008, a letter with a tricolor heading is inviting me to the préfecture in Grenoble on Friday 27 June to receive a decree stating that I've been granted French nationality.

The naturalization ceremony will be taking place in the lovely old building on the Place du Verdun that I walk past whenever I visit the archives in Grenoble to do research on the background of Gamone.

I'm moved to think that I'll be naturalized in the Alpine capital where the great mathematician Joseph Fourier was once the prefect. Grenoble is indeed a moving city, through its history (both ecclesiastic and republican) and its achievements in science and technology. It was also the birthplace of the great novelist Stendhal. Strangely, whenever I set foot in Grenoble, I feel calm and reassured, as if I were entering some kind of protective cocoon. This is no doubt an illusion, but I always feel that, whatever might be happening elsewhere in the universe, the people of Grenoble have surely got their act together, and are mastering their destinies. In any case, to my mind, it's an ideal place in which to become a citizen of France.

The symbol of the modern city is this mass of black steel, located outside the railway station. It's a work by the American sculptor Alexander Calder [1898-1976]. Entitled Three Peaks, this huge sculpture was commissioned for the Winter Olympics of 1968.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Revolutionary euphoria

This pompous painting by Jacques-Louis David [1748-1825] provides us with an absurdly kitsch depiction of Leonidas the Spartan who defeated the huge army of Xerxes the Persian at Thermopylae in Central Greece. In David's time, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the memory of Leonidas was celebrated in France in much the same way that young people now worship, rightly or wrongly, intelligently or mindlessly, the theme of Che Guevara.

I insist upon this comparison, because we often tend to think of the French revolutionaries as crazy impassioned dreamers, many of whom were destined to soon lose literally their heads. During their brief period of glory, they transformed provincial churches into so-called Temples of Reason, and planted Trees of Liberty.

This morning, at the archives in Grenoble, I was amused to find that births in Year 2 (around 1793) were recorded on thick lumpy and crackly paper (a sensual pleasure for my fingers, not to mention the delicious old inky smell) marked District des Thermopyles.

Bloody hell ! as the local ladies used to say in my uncouth Australia... and still say, I fear. Did the little town of Saint-Marcellin really liken itself to the scene of the great battle of Antiquity between the Greeks and the Persians? Did my humble village of Choranche once become an authentic outpost of a latter-day Thermopylae?

A year later, the revolutionary crackpots of Saint-Marcellin had descended from their ridiculous pedestal, and they got back to labeling their district in the ordinary old way.

In colloquial French (a truly colorful language, largely more inventive and sparkling than any variety of English), a lovely expression can be applied to the citizens of a small French town who suddenly see themselves as reincarnated warriors on mythological battlefields of Antiquity. This kind of pretentious behavior is decried (pardon my Latin) as farting higher than your asshole.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Limits of democracy

Often, in the wake of a revolution, or maybe after a mere political victory, males like to hoist a waving female into the air, as a kind of victory symbol.

I've often felt that this symbolism is inspired, at least in France, by the famous painting by Eugène Delacroix showing a bare-breasted Marianne on the barricades of Paris after the revolution of 1830.

The Irish girl in the referendum photo is hardly a match for Marianne. Her breasts are securely buttoned down, and the object she's waving in her right hand (an Irish flag?) is too small to be identified. And I can't help wondering if she really understood what she had voted against...

To a large extent, the success of the Irish no was based upon ignorance concerning the detailed content of the treaty proposal. There was a referendum slogan: If you don't know, vote no! Well, that's fair enough. If voters are unable to understand what they're supposed to be voting for (or against), this means that the politicians and communications specialists who organized the referendum didn't do a good didactic job. But this observation leads in turn to a more fundamental interrogation: Is it really possible, in the case of such a complex entity as Europe, to expect ordinary folk to master all the issues at stake? My gut feeling is no. There are limits to the familiar democratic process founded upon voting by the people. It's like organizing a referendum to decide, say, what kind of nuclear reactors should be built in France for future energy supplies. As somebody might have said: You can question some citizens all of the time, and all citizens some of the time, but... there are many highly technical questions that cannot possibly be answered intelligently by a referendum. My conclusion on this affair is that the Irish government was naive [like the French government, a few years ago] in imagining that you can ask the people to decide upon the technicalities of our future Europe. So, Ireland has the responsibility of mending this error.

Splendid role model for French youth

As everywhere, far too many adolescents get into a rut these days, here in France, for one reason or another, or often for multiple reasons, before they've got around to organizing seriously, if at all, their future existence. They get bogged down in all kinds of swamps, caught up in all sorts of traps. Maybe their studies have turned out to be useless, in that they don't enable them to get a good job. Some are led astray by the false paradises of alcohol and drugs, which can easily lead to crime. Others are soon ensnarled in vacuous relationships based solely upon sex, with no thought for marriage and the founding of a family. In the most tragic cases, adolescent losers grow up aimlessly in dull but violent environments where unemployment and strife are the rule, and social harmony and happiness an exception. In the context of all these unfortunate situations, we can meditate fruitfully and joyously upon the case of this young man who has steered clear of all the above-mentioned obstacles, while organizing his future existence in a style that can only be described as brilliant, exemplary.

His name is Jean: the French form of the Christian name of the fourth evangelist, John. Don't be misled by the long hair. Jean is neither a beatnik nor a rugby man. Although he's merely 21 years old, Jean has already set out upon a political career in the suburbs of Paris, and he has just got engaged to a girl from an excellent family with home-appliance stores. So it's more than likely that, straight after their marriage, Jean and his wife will have the pleasure of stepping into a cozy little flat with all the basic modern necessities: stove, fridge, dish-washer, etc.

What a pity that there aren't more young men in France today with the same drive and convictions as Jean. The same appetite for success.

New kid on the block

The neighbors' donkey Mandrin has been residing at my place for so long, with my Moshé, that I now consider him as mine. Their horses Bessie and Aigle are still here as guests, because there's not enough feed for them up at Bob's place, and Alison is too busy (working in the Choranche cave restaurant) to find time to look after them.

Yesterday morning, just after Alison's departure on her noisy scooter (which always causes my Sophia to bark), a new member of her family arrived unexpectedly at my place: a marvelous little male dog, a few months old, named Pif.

Pif promptly started to romp around with Sophia, who seemed to appreciate the presence of this tiny animal climbing all over her.

I had the impression that Pif was greatly awed, at times, by the massive stature of Lady Sophia.

In any case, throughout the entire day, the two dogs got on wonderfully well, and Pif was also extremely friendly with me, often snoozing in my arms and licking my nose. I gave him food and organized a comfortable basket for him alongside Sophia's queen-sized model.

I can't be certain, of course, that Sophia approved entirely of this audacious little dog reposing on her master's door mat. But there were never any squabbles.

At times, Sophia would gallop around the lawn to impress her young companion, and demonstrate her weighty Japanese-style wrestling prowess. On the other hand, there were limits to the amount of ear-biting that Sophia would tolerate from Pif's sharp baby teeth, and Sophia would make things clear at this level with a few ferocious snarls.

Towards the end of the day, I was starting to imagine that Pif might have moved in here as a permanent guest.

But I had not bargained on the magic attraction of the spluttering din of Alison's scooter, as she returned home at the end of her working day. Pif recognized the presence of his mistress as soon as she turned off the main road down in the valley, and he immediately shot off home to wait for her. Consequently, it's quite likely that Alison imagined that her disciplined dog had spent the day patiently in front of their house, awaiting her return. On the other hand, it's possible that Alison might have noticed that Pif's jet black fur was covered in sand-colored hairs from another animal... unless, of course, Pif took precautions to shake off all this telltale evidence on the track back home.

My guess is that I'll be able to use the absence or presence of Pif at my place as a means of knowing whether Alison is, or is not, at home.