In transit: the places between

January 17, 2013

In the 1996 film ‘Traveling Companion’ (Compagna di viaggio), a young woman named Cora is hired to follow an elderly man, Cosimo, suspected of having dementia. Cosimo’s daughter is worried about him and wants to make sure he doesn’t get lost on one of his seemingly pointless trips around Rome, but since he’d balk at having someone accompany him, Cora must follow him undetected.

He doesn’t visit the Colosseum or the Spanish Steps or Campo dei Fiori, he doesn’t stroll up the Aventine Hill; there’s nary a picturesque piazza in sight in the course of his wanderings. Cora grows irritated as they move from one random outpost to another, but behind her impatience there is growing curiosity. One day she follows him to Termini station and watches, panicked, as he boards a train out of town. Where is he going? Must she follow?

She does, trailing him from one destination to another and sometimes moving in circles. It’s inevitable that they interact at some point along their shared journey, although Cora gives nothing away. There’s even some relief as now that she knows where he plans to go next, she can manipulate the situation to lead him home.

Her plans backfire and the journey continues, the action (such as it is) occurring in the places between destinations: a seemingly deserted village unreachable by train; an empty gymnasium that emerges as a bright sanctuary on the edge of a dark wood in the middle of a rainstorm; the tiny waiting area of a train station in a town that seems to exist only as a connection to other, more interesting places.

I came across an article by Frank Bures in World Hum about the concept of non-places, described as “spaces like airports and freeways and rest areas that are decoupled from the world around them, places that could be anywhere and everywhere, but are actually nowhere.” Bures writes that “the phrase “non-places” is creeping into the lexicon, because it taps directly into a fear we all have: That the world is becoming ever more homogenized and globalized, and soon it won’t matter where we go because the world will consist only of non-places.”

Is that where Cosimo and Cora were all that time, in non-places? Riding on trains, waiting at stations, sleeping in an empty gym and passing time at a home goods showroom?

Yet that tiny waiting area with its wooden benches and doors, filled with natural light during the day and lit by soft bulbs at night is a vastly different place than most modern airports. And when Cora opens the window in the train hallway and sticks her head out to feel the breeze on her face and watch the scenery pass in vibrant blurs of green and blue, or bums a light from her fellow passengers, she’s making real connections and interacting with her environment and the people around her. She lives in a country where cities and towns and villages, stations and stores and apartment blocks, were built on a human scale.

The non-place is the product of modernity and the desire for efficiency. Perhaps this desire didn’t have to conflict with our humanity and the small scale in which we’ve existed for centuries, but it did. And as long as it does, some of us will seek out places and spaces in which we fit, where we can feel the breeze and share a glance with a stranger on a train.

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