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A mon avis, vous ne pouvez pas dire que vous avez vu quelque chose à fond si vous n'en avez pas pris une photographie. In my opinion, you cannot say you have thoroughly seen something if you haven't taken a photograph of it. —Emile Zola
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A DAY IN A FRENCH LIFE... by Kristin Espinasse
On Consideration and Connecting (This story first appeared in January 2008)
Not far from some lazy lavender fields, gray now with the grogginess of winter, lives a picture perfect town. There, above a valley of grapevines, geraniums grow in wintertime, tempting French cats to pose prettily beside them (they'll even say "cheese", or ouistiti, if you ask them to, unlike those hurry purry Parisians).
I reach up to snap a photo of some small flower pots that are crowded together, as if for warmth, along a window sill. Beyond the fenêtre, I can just see into a private residence, where a porcelain lamp glows above a well-polished table. My eyes zoom out and refocus on the painted volets. As the shutters come into focus, the private study receeds into a cozy blur. Très bien... I take up my camera again.
I am pointing my lens to the lively window, when my walking companion remarks, "The pictures frame themselves."
Her breezy comment ruffles me. Pretty pictures might frame themselves, but you must first search out the frame-worthy subject! Then, there are a number of considerations—including, for one, consideration! (I think about the window that I have just captured, careful to blur the private interior, choosing to bring the shutters into focus instead).
If I am a little froissée, or feather-ruffled, it is less about my friend's innocent comment than about my fussy reaction to it.
Thinking about the fuss, I recognize a familiar old character. L'Ego! Yes, here we have the ego talking, blathering on with its absurd sense of pride! C'est PATHETIQUE! It isn't as though I have ever taken a photography class or know anything about the rules of photo composition. The fact is I am an untrained photographer who is learning by doing, having had some lucky shots along the way—and some generous feedback. Perhaps the feedback has gone to my head?
Turning to my walking companon, I offer an awkwardly delayed reaction to her observation (I nod forcefully). When my head begins to shake, I recognize, once again, the inner wrestlings of that stubborn ego, which is still not willing to cough up a humble response, such as "So true! It is easy as pie to take a stunning picture in France! Anyone can do it!" (I am satisfied with this imagined response, especially since pie, to me, is rocket-science!)
Turns out there is no need to respond to the comment, and my mini identity crisis goes unnoticed. My friend is a million miles away, lost in the beauty of a Provencal village. Our photo périple rambles on, punctuated by her innocent commentary:
"Villedieu," she coos. "The name of the town says it all!" I relax back into the environment, as we stroll though the "Town of God," photographing the already "framed" pictures. Like a blessed writer—through whom words flow as if channeled—we point our cameras, letting the village compose itself.
My roving eyes catch on The Sweeping Woman. Every town has one. She is the picture of domestic sagesse: broom in hand... and yet wearing a dainty dress!
As I take up my camera, that itchy inner-dialogue starts up again. Now that the ego has fallen to sleep, Ms. Ethics has returned with a discours on dignity:
Madame—or "The Sweeping Woman", as you call her—is not behind bars in a zoo. She is not swallowing a blazing torch in one of three circus rings. She is not lounging in a window display, swathed in a beaded gown and feather boa—bringing fashion barracudas to halt along 5th Avenue, at Bergdorf Goodman's. She is, simply, being she. So let her be!
I consider Ms Ethics thoughts about dignity and manners. But might one try a direct approach, something like: "Bonjour, Madame, may I take your picture?"
I imagine Madame's response. "What is it about me that you find so amusing? It is my white hair? My worn robe? Or is it my Frenchness that is on show?"
In an ethical instant I decide not to snap a picture of Madame and her balai. And yet...
I want Madame's picture because she reminds me of warmth and not steel, being and not doing, prayer and not pricing. She is authentic, real—unswayed by commercial sex appeal. It is what is missing—hairs in place, make-up on her face, a knotted shoe lace—that makes her mystical to me.
No. Not all pictures frame themselves. Some must remain uncontained—free to travel beyond the camera lens, beyond even the mind's eye... to expand and to swell like a giant-hearted universe.
I slip the camera into my coat pocket and take one last admirative gaze at Madame. Her broom comes to a halt as she fastens her eyes on mine. The universe that is my own heart skips a beat. Madame smiles.
ouistiti! (exclamation) = cheese!
la fenêtre (f) = window
le volet = shutter
très bien = very good!
froissé(e) = offended
l'ego (m) = ego
c'est pathéthique = it's pathetic
le périple = tour, journey
la sagesse (f) = wisdom
le balai (m) = broom
la robe (f) = dress
This man gave me permission to take his photo, but that didn't keep Ms. Ethics from mumbling "and did you ask the cats for their permission? To name this photo or to add a caption, click here.
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For more online reading: The Lost Gardens: A Story of Two Vineyards and a Sobriety