Grenoble is quiet. It reverberates with the muted echoes of a past of great significance; a famous novelist on tiptoes. An ancient soldier whose lance is set aside in a place of honor leaning against the wall in a darkened corner of a once-imposing castle which is now an art gallery for third-best works; ones which still resonate with history, though nobody can remember the artist.
There are no tourists in Grenoble – it is a university town and a research town and a town people pass through quickly on their way to the ski slopes of the French Alps or to Geneva on some business of international import. Tourists in modern times have become the ratification of meaning, of a past of consequence in a world where those things do not matter anymore. Sure they are insufferable, with their Instagram likes and their selfie sticks – but they do ease the silence of now.
Grenoble is utopian, in the way of an old sanatorium hidden away in the cleft of a mountain beside a river. It is safe and old and protected by so great a welfare state as the French have tried to build in response to the millennia of war after war. Crumbling a little bit, gritty and kind of run-down but full of the people and their memories of when things were happening – wars being fought, occupations, trials, discoveries, tribulations; kings and dauphines and plagues. To be sure, nobody wants to repeat the turbulence (except perhaps the young, who never lived the momentous occasions and think perhaps in their heart of hearts that those times would have filled the gaping caverns in their spirits. But there are fewer and fewer of them – the young I’m referring to, not the holes), for it was after all quiet stressful. But the quiet of now is so all-consuming…
Despite all this there is something comforting and nostalgic about walking through the ancient alleyways of Grenoble’s old town. It is as if there, the answer to the question “What next?” has at last been articulated; and while it is not a satisfying one, for it lacks energy and purpose, at least it has the benefit of being tangible and true and really not so bad after all the posturing and peacocking of places that still seek their own significance, that still believe utopias are to be achieved in defiance of the deafening silence of now in places like Grenoble.