« Bon courage » – Death of Empathy and Stream of Consciousness in a Daily Parisian Life

[Cet article a été traduit en français par @now@n, sur son blog. Un immense merci pour ce travail que je n’aurais eu la force de faire.]

Today I was lucky. I spent less than three hours in public transportations. I never waited more than 3 minutes for metro, metro, train.

I managed to fit in every metro that arrived. I even managed to secure a seat most of the times. Hell, the last metro I took was almost empty: I had enough room to move and not touch anyone!


It was a lucky day for Ghosts, too: I only met 8 beggars on the way. Only two Syrian refugees waving their passports at me, speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, in the middle of the corridor. Only one guy and his dog going through the aisle of the metro, explaining how he didn’t earn enough money to have a flat, how social services wouldn’t give him a flat because he doesn’t want to leave his dog, and would someone give hospitality, or just some food.
I didn’t have food. And I would have welcomed him. Only not. Because horror stories. Because media sensationalism. This thing gets you killed in the newspapers. Because… I didn’t say anything. Didn’t even say hello. Didn’t look at him. Kept on reading things in English, as if I hadn’t understood a word he’d said because I’m not French, I don’t understand, don’t mind me. It’s always the best excuse. Put on your best accent, say « sorry I don’t understand ».

But the best excuse is still not to look up. Forget. Forget. Forget.

Only 4 people were sleeping in the metro stations today. One was drinking and cursing aloud. One (driven mad?) woman insulted each and every passenger in the train this morning. She did us all one by one. We deserved it. She cursed society, went on a rant, then got away.

After a while of doing the same 3 hour commute everyday, beggars became Ghosts in my mind.
I see them without seeing them. I know they’re here–but they don’t exist anymore.

And it drains me, it drains my heart. My empathetic side is stabbing me, who do you think you are? They’re striving to live, but they’re already dead in the eyes of the people who ignore them–I am among these people, guilty of erasing them from existence in turn.
And what can I do? I just go on. Don’t look. Forget.

Sometimes I meet more than twenty Ghosts in one day.
I force myself not to look at them.
It takes a toll on me.
It’s nothing like the toll it takes on them. I can’t fathom it.

Stop feeling for people. It’s fruitless. Feeling for people only brings hurt and pain. You can’t save everyone. Save yourself first.

Do I even want to be saved in a place where people have given up on humanity.

I am lucky. I am very lucky.

I don’t live in Paris itself, but just underneath it, in the South, under the 13th district, at the door of the city. It’s not Paris anymore. The atmosphere is different, more familial, heck, we even hear birds sing sometimes and we can catch a glimpse of green from our windows.

So maybe it smells like weed everywhere because people can’t live with this world anymore and turn to drugs to make it more tolerable.
So maybe the smell makes me physically sick because that’s just how my breathing disease makes me.

I am very lucky. I don’t work in Paris.

I work just beside Disneyland (Wonderland, oh, the irony!) and it is a nice, superficial, artificial place with a big mall and expensive shops and lots of tourists who are actually happy to be here and way, way away from Paris. Look up on a map. It’s not even in the same department. It’s far.

It takes a lot of time but I’m lucky. I’m very lucky. I don’t work in Paris, I don’t live in Paris, I just have to cross Paris every morning, every evening, three hours a day, two metros, one train, and things go well.

The best they could go.

Corridors, stations, more corridors. Mechanical stairs. Non mechanical stairs. Paris doesn’t care for disabled people, too bad for you if you can’t handle the stairs. My left knee is a bit of a mess, I have a phobia of falling in the stairs, but I fit in. It’s a flow, an evergoing flow. Get in the flow, follow the flow. Pray for the flow to go the other way, the way you don’t follow, the other destination, so there will be enough room for you to get on the next train–the one people didn’t pick.
Sometimes you have to stand and watch as two, three trains go by before being able to get in.

It’s funny, back when I was half in Paris, half in Lyon, there was this dreadful feeling I had everytime I approached the city. The first buildings and there it was, the bubble of anxiety, growing, growing. Just like when I feel the panic attacks start at night and tell myself, « oh, it’s midnight », and it is indeed midnight. My body knows more than I do. My body knows Paris. I am just looking over my shoulder, like one of these third-person games.

Nation, says the metro, and there’s that great burst of cold wind in the station, and then I take the train, and it’s almost a relief, and I don’t resent going to work because this place is nice, my office is warm, everything is artificial, there are so many tourists –so many people actually happy to be here, if only to be fooled by the lights of Disneyland. Val d’Europe, I get out, and it’s fine, and I would have enjoyed staying in the train a bit more, to finish reading that fanfiction or talking with people, but it will be fine, it will be fine, it will be fine.

Workdays are workdays. They can be interesting, surprising; most of the time they are bland. There are sources of smiles and lots of reasons to frown. You just push through, do the tasks, try not to procrastinate–often fail. My phone remains in my bag so as not to be distracted, but I take breaks by chatting with people.

Workdays are workdays. You’ve got managers and they don’t all agree and the instructions are all over the place. Sometimes the pressure is too much. Sometimes I just drop my head on the desk and have a good cry. It’s alright. We all do this, don’t we? Is there even such a thing as a healthy work environment? I shouldn’t complain. At least I only work forty hours a week? At least I get money out of it. Hey, I have a stable job, and some of my colleagues are nice. I shouldn’t complain. I am lucky.

And when it’s time to leave, I always leave late. Complete this task, do this or that, get thrown out by the agent who wants to close the building because maybe I got too into my work suddenly, or maybe I just collapsed and fell asleep on the keyboard but it’s normal, it happens, I’m just sick and tired, my doctor is helping me. Maybe I’m just procrastinating from facing the one hour and a half commute that awaits. Maybe I’m trying to gather strength to just get back home.


And the later I leave the worse it gets. Don’t leave after 7pm, that’s when Disneyland’s parad ends and tourists overflow. The cute, bubbly, way too happy tourists become noisy; they are excited and my senses are overwhelmed. Loud music of people watching the videos they took. Children crying. People laughing.
At least they’re happy and I can’t steal them that, I’d be happy too, let them be happy.
Focus on the fanfiction. Focus on the Discord. Focus on something else.


As long as my phone is in my hands, it’s okay?
And there it comes.
The train is back here, to the border of Paris. I don’t even need the voice, I know it, because the bubble is back in my chest, and that’s when I know, that’s the moment I wonder if anyone will notice that girl (woman, you’re 29) taking the pink pill, letting it melt in her mouth with an awful face, because it’s so bitter it hurts, and it’s back to the city, back to the flow.
And the corridors are here again. And Nation, and I wonder if anyone will notice that girl (woman) who desperately grips the border of the mechanical stairs because her knees have given up on her due to anxiety and physical pressure (so I am bad with pressure in every meaning of the word. So my ears may have troubles. I don’t know), but she can’t fall, not now, not in the middle of the mechanical stairs. People would get hurt, and there’s no way she’s falling in the metro corridors.
She won’t be yet another malaise voyageur. Not another speaker announcement in the corridors.
Get off the mechanical stairs and move on.

Huge ads for shows I know I’ll never see; huge ads for exhibits I’d love to see but probably won’t because there’s no energy for this on the week-end. Huge ads for very expensive jewelry–they released luxury jewelry over Van Gogh’s art lately. I’m angry at it. Van Gogh died poor and forgotten. And now a ring with a bit of his Starry Night on it costs 500€.

Funny how life is never fair to artists.
Feeling is a full-time job but it doesn’t pay off well.

And there’s the wave, that weird wave sound. It’s the rolling of the mechanical stairs. It’s the beating of my heart. It’s overwhelming, it’s like standing in a big ocean and trying to follow the wave. Keep moving.

keep moving

People go in all directions–follow the flow.

So many metro lines–so many people.

Beggars again–don’t look.

And it’s a wonder no one notices the people who cry–everybody notices them–no one notices. It just passes, and goes. Is there even a day without someone breaking down in transportations? The city is huge and filled with drama. One trauma for someone is a mere source of annoyance for another, and vice-versa.
People shout on their phones. Others roll their suitcases on an uneven, dirty ground.
Always look down. You never know what you can walk on.
Always look down.

And it goes on, the flow, and then there’s a metro, and it’s crowded, and how to get out, and the words are a mess in my head, words I can’t write because I don’t keep my phone at hand when commuting–too easy to steal. I have my own narrator, describing everything I see, hear, experience, and even if I managed to have my keyboard at hand I wouldn’t be able to write everything down because it goes so fast.
Forget the narrator, forget the sensations, focus on feeling as empty as possible, take another pink pill and just dumb it down.

And I swear if I hear these announcements again, that ominous, dystopian « For your safety… » that echo through the metro station, I swear if I hear them again…
…Then what?

Safety, security as a fucking excuse. Seeing people carrying rifles on my daily trip to work doesn’t do anything for my safety. It just kills me inside.
Dumb it down.

Sometimes people insult each other, because they’re tired, because they’re tense, because they’re assholes, because someone unadvertedly hit the other while walking. Sometimes they just ignore. Most of the time–don’t look up. Don’t cross eyes. Don’t listen. Gulp down the bitter taste.
Dumb it down. Focus on something else, on your ongoing source of escapism, on anything. It’s just a lie. It’s not real.

And yet I’m looking at it all, just over my shoulder, just here, as if I were the viewer of an absurd show, an evergoing stream of madness, and it’s crowded like a huge beehive, and it goes on, and on, a neverstopping buzz, and I feel my body smile. It’s the faintest smile, the most tired, the one that just admits that there is no sense to it all. It’s just the smile of the lost, lost in the middle of the beehive, of the wave I’m following.

Desperately trying not to be crushed.

And it’s not human anymore. Don’t look, don’t laugh–sometimes it’s so silly I could laugh. Once it was so absurd I started laughing. Other people started laughing too. It was one of those precious, rare moments when people just went and…were. People were. People saw. It hurts to open your eyes and realise the absurdity of it, it’s so hurtful you can only either laugh or cry–better laugh.
And then the moment was gone.
Don’t laugh. Sometimes you get to smile. And you look crazy, even to yourself. Even to that me on my shoulder. And I feel nothing, nothing but that conviction that all of this makes no sense, and that we’ve lost everything that made us who we are.
« For your safety… »

And then finally, after a very crowded metro, after people complaining, and this one saying that we can fit more people in there, and that other one saying I don’t have time I am going to see my father in the hospital and people ignoring the ruckus, ignoring these ones who lost it and are jumping at each other’s throat, after 210 seconds I counted–because the metro is so crowded I would never get my phone out, it would get stolen (For your safety…), so I have to focus on something, so I count the seconds, and it’s only 210 seconds, but very long 210 seconds, it’s finally my stop. And then the flow gets out, so many people at once, crowding the stairs.

And it’s 6:59 pm and the bakery outside closes at 7 pm and may I still buy something? Of course I can, and instead of just buying a baguette I end up buying loads of pastries just for the sake of buying nice food. Just because spending money makes me feel something. Or rather, the idea of spending money on that delicious smell (that I know is fake, we all know it’s artificial, that smell outside the bakery, just here to lure you in, and it works) makes me feel something. And the work I stomach, and these stupid hours lost to commuting, seem to have a new meaning when the spare money I earn from it can be spent. I hate it. I hate that I am so easy to buy, just another slut in a society that mass-produces sluts.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll manage to wake up not crying from yet another work-themed dream, instead looking forward to the delicious pastries.
Probably not. I always wake up crying.
But it’s fine. I’m lucky I have this job now so I can afford the pastries. And I pay and it’s nice, and we go all « Thank you »s and forced smiles and « good evening »s and then turning back.

And then one, sincere smile, the one accompanying « bon courage« . And I realize I’ve been saying it more and more, to the sellers, to my colleagues, to the cleaning lady, to my roommate, to everyone. It’s not « have a good day » anymore. It’s keep strength. Keep faith. Bon courage. And it’s the sincerest and it reminds me of my days in Disneyland as an Operator, when people just never saw me, except the ones who saw and understood, the one who were earnestly wishing me to hang on.

Hang on. Bon courage. It has become a thing in this city, it’s part of the French language now, and it’s the most earnest thing you can wish, to show that even when you keep your eyes down, even when you drown your emotions down in Xanax, even when you’ve stopped caring so much that you’re just looking at the world from over you inner window and keeping that weird metro-tiny-tired-smile-why-is-she-even-smiling, you still care enough to wish bon courage.

I hope these words never become a colloquialism. I hope they always keep their deeper meaning, that wish of strength, because we all know how hard it is and how much strength we need.

And it’s probably the same in all the big Western cities, but it’s exhausting, and why am I doing this, and what else could I do, and when I get back home I’ll be exhausted and my roommate will try to talk to me because they’ve also had A Day and need to talk, and I’ll be awful and need to rest, because it’s exhausting.

And tomorrow I’ll wake up crying but I’ll have delicious pastries and maybe I’ll be late or maybe not and maybe I’ll be lucky and there’ll be no problems and it will only take me 1h15 to go to work and maybe there’ll be the man with the accordion playing Ave Maria in Place d’Italie when I change for the second metro and maybe there’ll be only four beggars this time. And then I’ll read and feel bad and drown in Xanax –again, I dont care what I feel so long as I don’t feel at all, but it’s impossible. And maybe I’ll help students and maybe I’ll hate students and probably students will hate me and anything will happen and then I’ll see my colleagues and we’ll say bon courage.

Because that’s what it takes now. That’s what we live in. A beehive where eyes don’t meet and people become waves and sometimes, just once, you see someone. And it hurts. Because you realise it’s someone.

Just like you’re someone.

Sometimes you break the flow.
Sometimes you feel.

And you need the strength.

You need the bon courage.