I happened to drive to Grenoble yesterday, to purchase a few odds and ends at Ikea. Only when I was home at Gamone did I learn that the Alpine capital had been the scene, earlier in the day, of a gun battle between police and gangsters who were robbing a jewelry shop (using automatic high-caliber military weapons). Here's an amateur video that gives you an idea of the ambience of the shoot-out (in which the unfortunate jeweler got mildly wounded):
The robbers (apparently two, three or maybe four masked individuals) grabbed a female pedestrian as hostage, laid her down on the tram lines to tie up her hands, then drove off with her in their 4-wheel drive vehicle in the direction of Chambéry. In the course of the police chase, the hostage was abandoned, unharmed, near the village of Saint-Ismier (15 km north-east of Grenoble), but the robbers escaped with their haul of jewelry at the level of the Chambéry highway toll station.
In the following photo, police personnel are gathering elements at the scene of the robbery:
The jewelry shop, with a wide bronze panel above its street-level windows, is located behind the navy-blue vehicle. In the video, you may have noticed the presence of a monumental stone fountain, just across the road from the jewelry shop (which I've enclosed in a red rectangle).
This is the Three Orders fountain, erected in 1897 to celebrate local events (such as the Day of the Tiles in 1788) that had preceded the French Revolution.
The three orders (as every student of the French Revolution knows) were the clergy, the nobility and commoners. The city of Grenoble played a very prominent role in the Revolution.
The three orders are represented in this medieval depiction of the Cleric-Knight-Workman trilogy:
In the following old postcard, we see the Notre-Dame cathedral of Grenoble in the background:
Beyond the north-eastern edge of the city, delimited by the River Isère, we get a glimpse of the mountains of the Chartreuse. This, after all, was the place in Grenoble from which Bruno of Cologne set out in 1084 to set up a hermitage that would later become a great monastery.
Here's a street-level view in the same direction from in front of the jewelry shop (located on the right-hand edge of the photo, behind a white automobile):
Looking at the fountain in the opposite direction, back towards the city, we see here the splendid restored façade of the cathedral.
There's no doubt about it: Grenoble gangsters have the privilege of operating in a glorious historical setting. Once they're captured and locked up, out of harm's way, I must remember to send them a book or two (they'll have time for reading) on the history of the wonderful place where they perpetrated their criminal deed.
As a bookmark, I'll include an image of the guillotine, to remind these uncouth fellows what they would have risked, in former times, by acting as they did.
The city of Grenoble (half an hour away from where I live) was the birthplace of the French novelist Stendhal [1783-1842], whose most celebrated title was The Red and the Black. And red and black were the colors, during this Tour de France, of the jersey of Cadel Evans.
After this afternoon's time trial at Grenoble, Cadel changed his colors from red and black to yellow. Normally, tomorrow on the Champs Elysées in Paris, Cadel Evans will be the first Australian cyclist to win the Tour de France.
When I was a teenager in Grafton, I would hear about this fabulous race through French cycling magazines that my uncle Charles Walker used to receive, in his capacity as the president of the Coffs Harbour cycling club. Not yet capable of reading French, I nevertheless admired the photos of champions named Fausto Coppi, Louison Bobet, Raphaël Géminiani… Much later, on 8 July 1963, I happened to be hitchhiking through Grenoble when the 15th stage of the Tour de France arrived there, won by the Spaniard Federico Bahamontes.
Watching the time trial on TV this afternoon, and seeing Evans obtain the yellow jersey, I had the impression that I was witnessing a momentous event in Australian cycling history.
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.
Once again, I took the train to spend the day in Grenoble at the Archives départementales de l'Isère: a friendly and efficient patrimonial institution. I can think of no more enjoyable excursion than this return to rare documentary sources concerning Choranche. It's pure luxury: taking a comfortable train ride to a building in a nice city where I can simply look up the marvelous notarial documents revealing the background of my adoptive home place, Gamone. Every old document that I encounter [today, I was examining the years 1880 and 1881] is a mini-masterpiece of humanity. I skim through all kinds of consequential, less consequential, but often dramatic events.
This morning, as I was driving down from Gamone, I ran into my neighbor Georges Belle on his moped. He told me he was coming up here to see whether he could find saplings for his tomato plantation. Georges is an old-timer who lives in the splendid Carthusian building located midway between Gamone and the village of Choranche. He knows I'm interested in local history... but there's no way in the world that this grumpy old guy might invite me into his Carthusian abode, which is probably quite a mess.
Before my day in Grenoble was over, I had learned that the property of Georges once belonged to a certain Julien Chabert. I also learned that a former owner of Gamone, the carpenter Eugène Gerin [1843-1891], purchased a vegetable garden in Pont-en-Royans on July 11, 1881... which suggests that, at that date, he hadn't yet acquired Gamone. Why would a fellow buy a vegetable patch in Pont-en-Royans if he already had enough space to grow vegetables—as I do today—at Gamone? So, that leaves me with a decade of notarial archives within which I should theoretically be able to find a document concerning Eugène Gerin's purchase of Gamone. The vegetable plot thickens...
Searching through archives is in fact a relatively sporting activity. First, you need to be intellectually alert, in the sense that you're using your powers of reasoning to find needles in haystacks. You have to be able to manipulate the fat dossiers of rusty old documents. And you need sufficiently good eyesight to browse rapidly through piles of hand-written pages of notarial acts, trying to glimpse a significant term such as Choranche. Personally, in a normal day of researching, I find that I can get through some two years of notarial documents. After that, everything starts to get blurry... which is definitely not good for this kind of activity. Maybe, one of these days, genealogy and local history research will be accepted as Olympic sports.
Every time I leave the nearby city of Grenoble, to return to Choranche, I drive alongside a vast scientific research zone, snuggled in the northern tip of the big triangle located between the two great waterways known as the Snake and the Dragon: that's to say, the Isère and the Drac. (The latter looks and behaves like a normal stream, but it's actually an Alpine torrent.)
This zone houses two extraordinary research tools, whose construction was financed by a consortium of nations:
— The ILL [Institut Laue-Langevin] is a nuclear reactor that produces neutrons. This research reactor produces the most intense neutron flux in the world. Its thermal power is over 58 megawatts. By comparison, Australia's recently-inaugurated Opal reactor, which is also designed to produce neutrons for research, has a power output of only 20 megawatts. Grenoble's ILL reactor is funded by France, Germany, the UK, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Hungary, Belgium and Poland.
— The ESRF [European Synchronotron Radiation Facility] is a giant ring-shaped tunnel that accelerates X-rays. Grenoble's accelerator, which is one of the three biggest synchrotrons in the world (the others existing in the US and Japan), is funded by France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Spain, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Portugal, Israel, Austria, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.
If I've listed all the nations whose scientists use these tools, it's to give you an idea of the kind of international atmosphere that reigns in the great provincial city of Grenoble, which has always been a major center of learning.
The two facilities lie side-by-side. In the above photo, you can see the circular dome of the ILL reactor just behind the big ring of the synchrotron. To a certain extent, they might be considered as complementary tools, since beams of neutrons and high-energy X-rays can both be used to analyze the physical nature of targets that are placed in their way. The differences between neutrons and X-rays are illustrated in the following radiographs:
I was reminded of Grenoble's extraordinary scientific research facilities a few days ago. In his book called Programming the Universe[click hereto see my previous article on this theme], Seth Lloyd tells us that he had been thrown into a stupor when told that, "not only was an electron allowed to be in many places at the same time, it was in fact required to be there (and there, and there, and there)". He couldn't seize this weird conclusion in a totally intuitive fashion, so he remained in a state of intellectual trance. It was not until years later, when Seth Lloyd happened to be working at the ILL in Grenoble, that the American researcher finally saw the light, as described here: "I awoke from my trance. Neutrons, I saw, had to spin clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time. They had no choice: it was in their nature. The language that neutrons spoke was not the ordinary language of yes or no, it was yes and no at once. If I wanted to talk to neutrons and have them talk back, I had to listen when they said yes and no at the same time. If this sounds confusing, it is. But I had finally learned my first words in the quantum language of love."
In the context of Lloyd's fascinating book, I got a kick out of hearing him say that an arrow from a quantum Cupid [a Qupid?] had finally hit him while he was working in the capital of the French Alps. Over the last 14 years, I've visited Grenoble on countless occasions. But I still find that I'm overcome by a tingling sensation of excitement whenever I set foot there. I don't know whether it has anything to do with Lloyd's "quantum language of love". Often, I've imagined that some kind of tellurian energy is accumulated in the celebrated mountains which, as Stendhal once said, can be glimpsed at the end of every street in this fabulous city at the heart of the ancient Dauphiné province.