France in Three Photos by Kendall Poe

It’s the last week of March, 2020, and the first official day of spring. Never have I gone this long without going somewhere besides the bathroom or the kitchen, but no one moves. We stay as they tell us to do. Day eight, I believe, but I stopped counting after five. A constant drone of sirens reminds us of the consequences if we disobey. This directive, however, has no control over our minds. We all want for something. Desire congeals in the air between our heads and apartment ceilings. Each of us wants something a little different; each of our air samples has a slightly different composition of longing. We’re stacked together. Each apartment is a volume of desire for where the renter wants to go but cannot. Some simply long for the corner where they sit with neighbors to watch the quotidian mechanics chug by. Some long for loved ones, the country of their body, the landmark of words. In the beginning (or the middle but certainly not the end) of this quarantine, I long for France and don’t care how pretentious I sound. I long for the Aix-en-Provence of 2008, when I was young and only concerned with learning and staying alive.

            In the prompt you ask for three high-resolution photos of the place we traveled and enjoyed. In 2008, I only had a Nikon Coolpix digital camera that my grandmother had given me. For the time it took wonderful photos but now when I look back, the images appear grainy and out-of-focus, a sad reminder of how nothing except for the real thing will suffice. But if I had a camera, a good one, and could go wherever I chose, no matter the constraint of time and space, I would take these three photos:

  1. Every morning I woke up in a seven-foot by eleven-foot room that was my apartment, my home, my pied-à-terre. It had a sink, a bidet that I didn’t know how to use, a desk, Internet, and one wall of wooden cabinets that separated the head of the bed from the sink. This was my world for ten months. While I spent most of my time exploring the South of France, rightly so, it was here I retreated to when I was sad or lonely; it was here I spent most of my evenings contemplating what I would do the next day, or what I could afford to cook that night. The best part of the room was a picture window that swung open in either direction and looked out onto Sainte-Victoire, the famed mountain of Paul Cézanne. It stood in the distance as a salute to each morning. Now, I could easily find thousands of beautiful, high-definition photos of every angle of the mountain, but I would want to capture the mountain within my window frame, a corner of my desk, maybe an edge of the cabinet where I stored UHT milk and muesli. If I could take it a step further, I would capture the few times when I woke from a dead sleep to see peach and fuchsia sunlight fanning around the mountain the same way light emanates around Our Lady of Guadalupe. How the light spread from the mountain as if it were a heart, beating oxygenated blood to the rest of the sleeping world.
  1. In order to get to the center of town I had to walk past Parc Jourdan, across the Boulevard du Roi René, and through place des Quatres-Dauphins. The courtyard was small but had a picturesque fountain in the middle and cobblestone streets on either side. Periwinkle shutters flanked each window. Few cars used the route because of how the street narrowed. The fountain was not my favorite—an obelisk with a pinecone on top—more phallic than I preferred, but its location was the perfect spot to sit under the shade of a linden and eat a fresh croissant, depending on the time of day, or marvel at the jar of peanut butter from the foreign imports store, watch the old women dutifully ignore their dogs, who pooped on the sidewalk. Every morning as I walked to language school this fountain marked the entrance to old town and the beginning of enchantment for me. It marked the way to learning, to open air markets, to other moss-covered fountains, to another me I didn’t know existed. If I were there now, I would kneel in the middle of the street to get the fountain and the treetops together under an azure sky.
  1. The third photo is complicated and might sound clichéd to some readers, but again, this is my quarantine fantasy and no one else’s. It would require the expert photographer who knew how to capture ‘moments,’ knew what lens to use that would highlight early evening light filtering through Le Festival’s patio in front of La Rotonde. The café itself doesn’t deserve too much mention. It served mediocre coffee and was notorious for surly wait staff that’d grown tired of serving tourists decades before you’d ever shown up. The café, however, lay directly between my dormitory and the bus station where my friends would travel back to Marseille after class. Aix was too expensive for them, they’d said. After ordering and paying for our espressos, we’d linger until the ground lights of the fountain turned on and lights hung high above the Cours Mirabeau shone through the plane trees. We’d banded together as strangers, all in the same boat as ‘students.’ Some of us studied economics, some studied law, others, like me, studied liberal arts. We’d met through one highly social and likable individual named Books, who had a way of bringing people together. None of us were French. Some were only staying a few months. Others would spend their entire scholastic career in Aix, until they either earned their degree or grew tired of the rattrapage. During those evenings when the crepuscule and cigarette smoke crept towards each other, we talked; we laughed; we supported one another through whatever obstacle had arisen. There’s a way in which you create a family out of necessity and not even know or understand it until much later. If I had a high-definition camera, I would take a photo of one of those meetings, not focusing on any one person, nor the fountain behind us, or the canopy above us, but perhaps the space between our open mouths, to capture the movement between us, the hint of laughter, shadow of some deeper emotion just outside of the frame.

BIO: She’s a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has appeared on the blogs of Tin House and Paris Review. Last year Southeast Review awarded her the honor of World’s Best Short-Short Story. If she’s not writing, she likes to bike around Central Park.


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