Thursday, November 13, 2008

Fait divers

English-speaking people use the French term "faux pas" to evoke an erroneous action, a slip-up. But I'm not sure they're equally familiar with the similarly convenient expression "fait divers", designating an everyday item of local current affairs, such as a village cat getting run over by an automobile. For example, apprentice journalists in rural newspapers often spend the first few years of their professional career handling the anecdotal "fait divers" columns.

In many metropolises, a blunt placename designates the local mental asylum. During my youth in Australia, this bogeyman place was a building, Broughton Hall, in a beautiful Sydney riverside estate, Callan Park.

When I arrived in France, in the 1960s, people still used the bogeyman term Charenton to designate the repository for crazy Parisians, but the true mental asylum was Ste-Anne.

Since arriving here in the Dauphiné, I've always heard that the local bogeyman place for crazy folk was Saint-Egrève, on the outskirts of Grenoble, not far from Sassenage. Later, I learned that my female neighbor M (now deceased) actually spent some time there. But I still ignored the exact location of this psychiatric hospital, in a territory located between the Chartreuse and Vercors mountain ranges, just to the north of Grenoble, behind the Vicat cement works. This morning, I finally used Google Maps to locate exactly this psychiatric complex. It lies right in the middle of the Grenoble area, but it's a bit off the beaten track, concealed by trees, between a mountain and the railway lines. You can drive nearby, or go past in a train, without glimpsing the mental asylum.

But this psychiatric hospital is not as remote as all that. Local media are giving front-page coverage to a shocking fait divers based upon this asylum. An inmate, this morning, strolled out of the park at St-Egrève, took a bus to Grenoble, purchased a knife, and mortally wounded the first innocent passerby whom he met on the footpath. There's shit in the administrative fan, because the schizophrenic inmate in question has a criminal dossier of stabbings. For ordinary citizens, it's disturbing to learn that crazy bogeymen do in fact emerge effectively in our midst from time to time...

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