Monday, March 22, 2010

Frozen Time

The weather was off-and-on rain, but for a few hours at the end of the weekend, I found myself enjoying the brief moment of sunshine. Spring officially started on Saturday--signs were in the metro and on the info boards, wishing travelers a joyeux printemps--and the weekend certainly seemed to follow suite. Rain came in short spurts, but never let up enough for me to put my umbrella away for good. And so, in one of the few sunny moments late Sunday afternoon--my favorite day of the week in Paris--I ran across a brocante in my old stomping grounds, near la Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower). I haven't lived there for a few years, but it still very much feels like chez moi. Every corner, metro stop, and movie theatre brings back a memory. I'm vividly reminded of my time here before, when I had much more free time, and subsequently, much less money. To make up for being incredibly poor, I walked everywhere. I remember walking the streets with my iPod, often just walking for walking, enjoying the scenery along the way. Certain songs still bring very particular images to my mind; I sometimes hear a song and am immediately at a certain place in the 14th or 6th [arrondisement]. This was one of the hardest parts of coming back a few years ago--it took me months to be able to listen to half the songs I have in my music library. Too many memories tied to songs. I don't live particularly far from Montparnasse now--I could walk there in 25 minutes--but with my schedule, I'm in "my" neighborhood less and less.

The usual suspects were at the brocante--the man who sells mini-drawings carefully crafted on metro tickets, the hippie woman trying to sell her acid-induced paintings, the DVD "pirates," always looking around to make sure the cops aren't close by to ruin the 5€ movies that are still in theatres. Along with this were the piles of rubbish--frames, vases, coins, lamps, books, tins, baskets, armoires, and any other random item you could think of. I perused through the goods--flipping through books and magazines, running my fingers over embroidered tea towels, and holding up knock-off designer bags to my arm, hoping to pull of that fashionista look the French women seem to be so good at. (Fake bag or not, I still fail.)

And then I came upon a stand on the corner, photos strewn across several tables. Boxes, crates, and huge piles of photos, to be exact. Some were new(er)--B-list French celebrities and recent politicans; others were older, from the late 19th century to the 60's.

These type of photo stands are fairly common in Paris. Old, canceled postcards and abandoned photos seem to pop up pretty often, especially on the banks of the Seine River. I'd never actually stopped to go through any for longer than 30 seconds, but since I had a few minutes, I decided to go through some of the piles, for fun.

Twenty minutes later, I had a handful of photos in one hand, unable to put them down. I kept looking through the masses of pictures--for what, I don't know--but for whatever reason, I couldn't stop. Were the pictures extraordinary? No, not particularly. Take this one. An old man and (presumably) his wife. It's simple, and they don't even look that happy. But it's so..ordinary. Real. I couldn't put it down. What were they thinking when they got this taken? Was the camera new? Were they annoyed? Was the man a farmer? Or butcher? And did his moustache naturally curl like that? So many questions.

The wedding photo was one of the first I found. I don't know what drew me to it, exactly. First of all, I love black and white photos, especially with lots of contrast. But I think what I liked most was the man's smile and slight dimple, the way his head tilts towards his new bride. For a moment, at least, he looks genuinely happy. Check out the unique photo studio design on the corner. Impressive in what seems to be early 20th-century wedding photography.

Funny thing about this one is that I immediately recognized where it was before flipping the photo over. I was in Fontainebleau the day before. It's a castle in the suburbs of Paris. I had a friend visiting and we went to see it on Saturday afternoon. I'm sometimes creeped out by how much my life overlaps.

These babies are probably at least 70-years-old, if they're even still alive. I love this photo.

Was this a vacation home? What does it look like now? And how many memories happened there?

This is my favorite find of the day. Look how happy they look. Especially the girl on the left. I like to create my own stories--the girl was goofing around and something funny, which made everyone laugh. Maybe she's crazy Aunt Mildred. I love how 1940's/50's the dresses are. They're in the country, maybe at a family reunion? Or maybe it's just a Sunday in France..the possibilities are endless. Just looking at it makes me feel, for a moment, like I'm there with them.

Thirty minutes after starting, I walked up to the man holding down the stand.
"Where do all of these come from?" I asked, shuffling through the photos, trying to understand them more with each viewing.

"Mostly estates," he said. "I buy them in bulk. They're the leftovers; no one wanted them." These are people's families. There are stories behind each of these photos.

"It's kind of sad, don't you think?" I looked down at the faces in the photos. I didn't know any of these people and probably never would. But I felt this connection to these unnamed people, stuck in the past forever on these little silver-emulsion photos.

He seemed to understand. I couldn't be the first person that had asked him.
"That's why I buy them. So they're not gone forever. People buy them for nostalgia, but at least they're not in a box somewhere, or worse, in the trash."
I handed him my money and smiled.
"I'll take good care of them."

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