My wife, Kim, and I were zipping along in our Twingo, on our way to Béziers. Driving a Renault in the Hérault you might say. We got lost just below the Montagne Noir and began looking for signs that would guide us back to a main road. Toutes Directions, though normally good signs to follow, only took us farther into la france profonde.
Just then, Kim saw a little sign, nailed to a tree. The hand-painted letters said, “VIDE” with a little arrow pointing à gauche. Never ones to pass up a flea market, off we went. Finding Béziers could wait.
Finessing my French
Similar hand-made signs with arrows continued along the dirt track, then disappeared in the middle of a vineyard. I was about to turn the Twingo around when I saw an old man headed our way, on a donkey. He stopped to give us the once over, lighting his pipe at the same time.
I rolled down the window and asked if he knew if this was the road to the Vide, which he mistook for “
Is this the road for vite, speed.”
That stumped him. After a long pause, he replied,
Pas de Vitesse ici,” exhaling a thick cloud of black smoke while waving his pipe. I had to agree, this was no place for a car race. A donkey was infinitely better.
Non, non, pas de vite, le vide grenier, marché aux puces.” I spoke slowly and a bit too loud.
Ah, oui, le marché. Là-bas, tout droit.” His old eyes looked down the road.
Turning back to me, he did what the French love to do, give the poor lost tourists a lesson in the world’s finest language.
Il faut dire Vid-Uh grenier. He repeated this a few more times, re-lit his pipe, and nudged the donkey to move on.
That little unpronounced e
The same thing had happened once before.
Funny enough, we were also looking for a flea market, this time in Antibes, not far from our home. The sign we saw in the middle of the road said Deviation, blocking the route Google Maps had suggested to us.
A long, winding detour took us up into the foothills of Sophia Antipolis, a seven-syllable tongue-twister that even the French have
shortened to SoPo. We were lost again. Two cops at a roundabout pulled us over to tell us we had to turn around. I said we were perdue and looking for Marineland where there was a huge flea market.
They just shook their heads. They’d never heard of Mareen-land, and, taking a good look at us, probably thought we were Norwegians. It would be hopeless to talk to us. Then I showed them our printout.
Ah, Mareen-A-Lan. Il est la, toutes directions.”
That little unpronounced e had led to a complete misunderstanding.
We now take more care with the endings of French words, giving them the emphasis they deserve.
Objects and photographs – all have a story to tell
The same might be said for why we love flea markets. We find little things that may not look important, but, if used correctly, can lead to immense enjoyment. Kim likes to find objects she can use in her assemblages and sculptures while I am always on the lookout for vintage photographs.
I’ll go through a box of hundreds to find the people I would’ve liked to have known or talked to, captured forever in photographs clearly showing the raw and untouched human spirit.
Two children leaning out a train window, saying goodbye to their father was, I learned later, taken during the Kindertransport when 10,000 children were spirited safely out of Europe just before the outbreak of World War II.
I own thousands of photographs, safely tucked away in archival boxes. They all have a story to tell. They’re just waiting for someone to take the time to listen. Kim once found a handful of photos with eight love letters written in 1926 that led us on a ten-year journey to figure out who wrote them and why. But that’s another story.
Tell me a story – Now it’s your turn
And if you can come up with a story for one of my photographs below, true or made up, send it along in the Comments section. I’ll publish the best ones here later.
A classic. Grandpa obviously focused on the food and not the photo of this Italian family.
A tiny, blurry image that has always been a favorite.
Four Women and Two Dogs
Bus trip to Lourdes
Now it’s your turn to tell me a story based on any of the 5 photos above.
Want to know more?
The Museum of Modern Art in New York now recognizes these old photos, snapshots capturing everyday life and subjects, as a major form of vernacular photography.
The MET has several important collections and this article on the rise of amateur photography:
There are hundreds of sites that share their images or offer them for sale. Here are some of my favorites:
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