11 March 2007
Paging through a magazine about life in France, I was again struck by the way some photographs resonate with me.
They trigger something in my brain, some reflex that picks up the feel of the air and the quality of light and transports me somehow, if only for a quick second.
It must be some atavistic pull, because it only happens with photos taken in France. And it began happening long before I traveled there.
A somnolent village in the noonday sun, an early-morning street in Paris, twisted lanes in ancient cities, apple orchards in Normandy and the skyline of Old Menton: Each of these scenes and others pull me in and infuse with with something — what? — some sort of genetic memory, perhaps?
These short flashes of something are both welcome and bittersweet. Circumstances often force us to live our lives not quite as we would prefer to live them. We do our best, we try to make the right decisions. But often, we spend much of our time yearning for what might have been, had circumstances been different, had our wisdom not been such a hard-won victory.
The photo that touches me the most deeply has nothing whatsoever to do with sun-warmed red tiles or stormy skies over wheat fields painted by Monet.
It is this photo, the famous one of a man weeping as the Nazis marched into Paris in 1940. It is one that is used always when this heinous event is shown in documentaries.
This photo of this well-dressed man, perhaps a banker or civil servant, is the face of recognition, the realization of what the fall of France meant. There is more than grief on his face.
I struggle with photos of someone's agony. But this one tells a story, and one that people who are quick to criticise the France of 1940 ought to grasp. Too often they don't.
This gentleman knew what it meant and what it would mean to France and her dignity. He weeps for more than the thought of occupation, I suspect. He weeps, perhaps, for the world.
I tried to find out about him online, but was unsuccessful. Who was he? Did he survive the Occupation? Did he go on to live a peaceful life when the war ended?
I wonder. I hope for the best.
I know one thing, if I want to make myself cry I look at the photo. Perversely, sometimes I do just that: I never want to forget.
Two favorite fellow bloggers are heading to France this week, and I want to wish them bon voyage et bon chance.