Moving to Paris: Footnotes on a Trainride

January 8

I stand on the platform waiting for the train to Paris today and I am surprised by the way my twenty or so fellow travelers are so spread out over the slabs of concrete beside the tracks beneath the station’s steel ribcage that I can barely make out the faces of my immediate neighbors. I see gray across the solar panels on the glass roof. Mist blocks the view of the city. The mist presses on my face like a wet hand. No wind. Calvinist gloom.

There are times when I really love the generic familiarity of international airports and train stations.

Starbucks and Subway fuel you wherever you go. Like schools of mackerel, sleek and shiny, always on the move, businesspeople blend in with the scenery of steel and glass. Sprightly older couples, students in baggy sweatshirts, crying babies and their big families, with the larger children lugging jerry-rigged structures of suitcases—all make their way to security.

The international everyman and everywoman and everyperson like this populate what Marc Augé likes to call “non-places.” Airports, train stations, and their various international chain stores and hotels.

A place is a kind of space in which you can be rooted, where a sense of self has grown or has the potential to. Places, in this way, like a village or a college or even a nation, are where we can build identities. They’re where we might feel at home. This also makes a place highly historical, and though places obviously change immensely over time, they do give you the feeling that they have a past, still present and important to whoever lives there, as well as a future that these people imagine for themselves. Thus, places are coherent not just because humans happen to be there: a place holds together because people hold a self together there, because they help others do so, and because in a place people feel a continuity with the others who live there as well.

Non-places, then, do none of this. Perhaps they even actively undermine the feeling of continuous identity and history.

Marc Augé cares about such non-places not just because so many places are replaced by non-places in our contemporary lives. He writes about a non-place as the space where we most strongly sense the odd ironies of contemporary globalized life. One of which is that just when, given the state of technology, a truly global society is within reach—at least for a certain privileged class, which I belong to—most people seem to retreat from public life and want to return to the local, the authentic, the homey—a harmless cry for help, it may seem, but one that easily morphs into an earsplitting scream for the self and the nation in the face of those without any home whatsoever.

Where are all these people on the platform going? Assuming that they have somewhere to go, they might be going home, to work, to visit friends, on vacation, etc. Places where people know who they are and where they know other people. No one really wants to stay here.

Can I speak for these people; can I even imagine what their lives are like? Or can I only speak about myself, to myself, in their presence?

This is narcissism, but it is only by necessity that I become so closed off. Not the kind of narcissism of staring into a pool and falling in love with yourself. More like being inside a train or a bus and looking out through a window at a darkening sky, and because of the lights in there, where it’s warm, you can’t help but stare at yourself in the double-paned windows as you resolutely keep your head turned away from the person in the seat facing you. This narcissism is not comfortable or pleasurable; it is simply less uncomfortable than looking someone in the eye.

At the same time, how does this non-place, the airport, the train station, make me feel at least a little bit at home? What do I like about being there? Because this place cannot be owned, bought. I cannot live there. I only spend a few hours there and I don’t know anyone there. I can’t invest in it and build a self there. The sense of satisfaction and of freedom I get when I clear security would only last a few hours, I imagine.

But it does make me feel important, somehow, like the way buying something makes you feel good and important. Inflating the bubble of self; transparent and iridescent, it floats and protects you. It’ll burst over time, or when it meets another.

Or, all it takes to feel at home is the blue light of a screen in my hand.

I don’t feel far away from home or alone because the brands and stores and ads that I know surround me on all sides and because I could buy almost anything I ordinarily want here—Dutch cheese, Italian espresso, a beer, books, movies, clothes, and so on and so forth.

These ads want me to be a citizen of the world and so I become one for the moment. It feels great, I feel powerful.

Schiphol’s shopping section is called “See Buy Fly” if I recall correctly.

But what would it mean to live there? What is the experience of non-places really like? We lack basic vocabulary to talk about non-places, but it is important to start to thinking about how to think about them. Marc Augé seems to think non-places signal the advent of another stage of late capitalism, but I am not necessarily convinced, nor do I want to lay out his arguments here. Still, I am convinced that it’s important to recognize the rise of non-places, because so many people actually do live in them: les sans-papiers, the refugees, the home- and stateless. Because Camp Calais, close to the tunnel, Eurostar trains zipping by, represented another kind of non-place, one Augé doesn’t talk about. And thousands were stranded at Budapest’s Keleti station, for example, when the authorities suspended all traffic last year.

Bird People is a great movie about all this-about how ordinary people in France are affected by non-places and about how they manage to build a life in them, in spite of them. Audrey, a maid in an airport hotel, realizes she spends 40 hours a month commuting on the metro. Gary, an engineer, spends his working life away from home, hopping from meeting to meeting. The movie is about the night they happen to be in the same hotel outside of Paris. The first half of the movie is quiet, contemplative: the drawn-out shots focus on people in public transportation, accompanied by the intimate sounds of the music on their ear buds, their phone conversations, their thoughts—but its thoughts never quite rise to the surface. It’s like the more recent film Certain Women that way. We’re never quite given access to these characters and their lives but we realize they’re unsustainable. Because they resemble our lives a lot, too. At the same time, despite the movie’s subdued concern about alienation and digital technology—yes, at times the movie slips into cliché—what makes it compelling is not its message, nor its characters or its cinematography, but simply the stillness that it shows is still there to be found in our lives, if only we knew where to look.

I wanted to end by posting some fragments of a collection of poems by Cole Swensen. These are from Landscapes on a Train, not necessarily in order. She shows us some places where we might look for stillness (I might write about stillness later and I might write more about these poems, but I need to reread them and let them sink in.) She recounts a train journey through France. This was perfect reading on the Thalys, by the way.

Gray is more morning more quiet of empty. Paths. Field empty except for its green.

Will more inside green. Inside it is green and inside the green is another

Slight mist moving upward. A road moves upward quieting the fog and the other

Fog moving off down a river the low way all clouds low across the line of sky

Making the sky a straight line running low along its own.

 

Landscape is always also a painting. Again a small thing broken that is

Breaking from hand to hand. Each one. Passes to another the growing,

That then gone is one more. And then one more station on a station of roads.

And is crossing a road, a sequence of goings. The road in its offing, along

Which belongs, a church made of far distance severs. And one more station

Standing on the platform. And so we say no other we. Are the line of poplars.

Smoke rising quiet in its flight which is a slow loss across gray from a field of gray

The windmill farm bright in its flock of sudden large gray birds toward the sea

Of a sea of them, longer than their own. Own their time. Which is a private thing

Held up and far in the line of trees like far away another rain.

  

There once was a church. There once was a steeple. These things fall into landscape.

And then there were none. Canal across one. One white bird. Go on. And so it goes.

All my pieces thusly single. Horse beside a river. They lovers they onward and so

Next is a field. You could have guessed it. You could have painted it. You are painting

A long line of horses end to end are something farther on.

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