This personal essay is a sample of my work
A Flight of Fancy by Josiane Behmoiras
An excerpt from HEAT 21
A voice of honey announced the names of destinations as if those places were towns in Utopia. Quimper, Nantes, Bordeaux, La Rochelle… I was running late, jostling amid the Saturday morning crowds in the Montparnasse train station, scanning the row of TGV trains, their bullet-noses nudging the edge of the departure hall. The train would take me to a meeting with French philosopher Paul Virilio, also known as The Priest of Speed. I dreaded the image of the Professor waiting in vain outside the station in La Rochelle holding, as agreed, a sign marked ‘Virilio’ – he who doesn’t own a mobile phone.
I had landed a few days earlier in Paris’s backwater airport of Orly, exiting towards the bus station only to flee in tandem with another woman passenger: a man was urinating against the AdShel mechanical poster that was alternating images of brooding femmes and brainy laptops. The next day, walking along the banks of the Seine I would be overpowered by the stench of piss. However, Paris was merely a stopover on my way to the meeting at La Rochelle. Time was closing on me in Montparnasse, following a wrestle with the vending machine that refused to dispense my online prepaid ticket – something to do with the non-French origins of my Visa card, as if an Australian tourist had no business on that platform. From the ticket office I was swept with the human swarms that rolled and shifted, eager to board the Train à Grande Vitesse that would propel us away from the big smoke, plunging inside the purpose-built concrete canals, occasional sections of real landscape hurtling at us then vanishing, a flight of fancy between Paris and La Rochelle. If only I can catch that train, I thought, I will be sitting still for most of the three-and-a-half hours of the journey, writing in my notebook five hundred times I shall always arrive to a big train station one full hour before departure.
A few days earlier still, sitting under an umbrella on the French Riviera I had been preparing for the meeting, jotting in my notebook quotes and summaries of writings by Virilio and about Virilio. From Melbourne to Melbourne in a convoluted journey of fast travel – nevertheless sedentary above the clouds – I would have clocked nine flights, glossing over places of interest, nearing the practice which Virilio calls polar inertia. As found in my notebook: ‘The sedentaries of transportation are very simply travellers who buy a plane ticket at Roissy-en-France…for Roissy. They go around the world as fast as possible without going anywhere, barely making the necessary refuelling stop…a circular voyage which puts immediacy to the test…I think it’s a form of desire for inertia…’
I had paid 15 euros to occupy a sun-lounger on a private beach where bodies – many botoxed, topless retirees of both sexes – were marooned for hours under their hard-tanning duties. I was in the here and there, pausing between flights, attempting a précis of Virilio’s Environment Control. In his work on perception, Virilio argues that, with the technology of digital transmission, it is speed that makes us see, rather than light. He ponders about the implications for the transparency of air, water and glass – which constitute the visible ‘real-space’ – when ‘real-time’ replaces the notion of interval and distance, words that resonated at the edge of the Aztec turquoise water. I had no laptop, only books, paper and pen. Grains of sand lodged between the pages. I can still see myself on the platform in Montparnasse, flying in that slow-mo filmic projection of the self, under the immense skylight, in the chaos of noise and urgency. And next I was sitting in my allocated seat, panting, the train taking its time and finally departing suddenly and smoothly as a three-wheeled jogger-pram, the pushing hands invisible to the toddler sitting inside it. Under the influence of velocity, I read Ian James’s Paul Virilio, words on train travel and the body’s movement in space: ‘The spread of the landscape which might otherwise surround and envelop us is deformed by rapid movement; it is not something experienced in its material dimension as such since our body does not experience the fatigue or the extended delay of passing across it on foot.’