Photos from a Flea Market
After a recent spring break trip to San Diego and Las Vegas, my older sister Tiffany recounted her experience, “Oh, it was so cool. When we were on the beach, a whole group of hot ASU guys had just gotten off a cruise. You know I did a keg stand. I gets crazy.”
And while describing her first adult trip to Las Vegas to our father and myself over a lunch of soup and salad, she presented pictures. The most distinctive were pictures of drunk, middle aged Texan businessmen ogling college girls and mooning the camera. “We had free drinks all night,” Tiffany bragged.
Listening to her brag about her travel escapades, the photo album of 1953 France she had given me was her only saving grace.
Five months earlier, after Tiffany turned 21, she took her first trip to Europe. She spent a week jumping from Amsterdam to Brussels to Paris. When she returned to California, she was “changed”.
“You don’t even understand,” she said referencing Europe. “Everything over there is so clean and there are hardly any fat people. I was like the biggest girl there.”
The first time I visited her after she returned, she over-enthusiastically lectured me about her newfound enlightenment about the unhealthy lifestyles most Americans lead.
While she did so, I fantasized about getting my own chance to visit Europe, specifically France. At the time, I had completed three years of high school French, working on my third semester of college French and completed nearly all of my application to study abroad in France. I knew everything she was telling me, just not first-hand.
In the first picture of Tiffany showed me of herself in Europe, she wore a mini Chico State sweatshirt and a cut-off denim skirt so short and tight, her butt almost hung out just like her stomach. She stood in fur-lined lace-up boots to her calves, and big, bug-eyed sunglasses next to an old man on cobblestone road. Her earrings that hung almost down to her shoulders were the epitome of American pop-culture. They were her “bling” glistening against the dismal, gray stone background.
I listened to her stories about Amsterdam and drugs, and the Red Light District just so I could claim the gift she had brought me from France.
I anticipated receiving some sort of clichÃ© French gift, like an Eiffel tower paperweight. In my head, I devised a plan of escape from her ranting. She surprised me by handing me a French book from the 1920s she purchased from a street market in Paris, La FÃªte Nocturne (the night ball). I was very grateful that she had brought me such an un-typical traveler’s souvenir. But then she started in on how disappointing Paris was.
Tiffany thought that a trip to Europe made her more sophisticated and cultured. About as sophisticated as Jell-O. But, I do think some small part of my older sister knows to look for valuable bargains wherever she can. This quality comes more from her working-class poor American values than her new-found perception of other cultures.
I have benefited from Tiffany’s “cultural realization”. She brings me special gifts she found especially for me after digging through peoples’ old stuff. Gifting such treasures upon me, I think Tiffany is trying to prove her knowledge and culture. But I think she is subtly letting me know that she cares about me and wants have something between the two of us to share.
On a recent trip to Concord, California near the San Francisco Bay Area, to visit her ex-boyfriend, Tiffany came about another French artifact: a faded forest green photo album from a woman at a flea market for two dollars. The gift was spectacular and its contents are priceless.
Whoever put this album together, lovingly pasted a tour of Paris and through southern France. Bridges, cathedrals, general architecture and people are shown regally.
Before the idea of internationalization became trendy, the designers of this visual, black and white trek through history, traveled to Europe. They must have been either highly educated people or recent French immigrants to have taken such an expensive and unusual trip. Regardless, they took great pictures.
In the same photo album existed a cutout of a pin-up girl, a post card dated 1953 and a portrait of a family and two french sailors.
During a visit with family friends Mary and Greg, who both studied French history and language, the true value of the album jumped out at me. Speaking about religious unrest in Southern France, Mary explained the old forts of Cahors. Savoring each picture, she recounted the historical value of each. But one particularly unremarkable photo of two men and a dog was invaluable. That picture had a caption that read, “the two boys and dog who first discovered Lascaux Cave.” Lascaux Cave is one of the oldest and most notorious locations of prehistoric cave paintings, discovered in 1940 by four little boys.
After Google-ing the names of the four boys who discovered the cave, Marcel Ravidat, Jacques Marsal, Georges Agnel and Simon Coencas, the search left me empty-handed. There were no pictures of the discoverers of Lascaux on the Internet. The picture must be taken to that same location to prove its legitimacy.
After learning about the possibility of actually having such an artifact in my possession, ideas of adventure and discovery popped into my head. I was determined to prove the legitimacy of the photo myself. But to do so, I would have to take a trip to France.
Traveling to France for research would normally be an extravagant expense for a college student. Fortunately for me, I would be traveling to Paris to study abroad anyway. How convenient.
Tiffany was amazed the 1953 Paris pasted in the album had appeared to be just like her 2005 Paris minus glitzy jewelry, short skirts and booze, but in black and white.
But her Paris and my Paris are entirely different. I want to go to France to immerse myself in the culture, experience the perspective on life, and speak French fluently. Studying abroad holds deep and profound meaning to me. France and Europe means crazy partying with legal marijuana and absinth to Tiffany.
She tore out all of the pictures in the album of the Eiffel Tower and other parts of Paris, that she had seen personally, showing through Tiffany’s facade of sophistication. Even with an official trip to France under her belt, Tiffany may have experienced her Europe, but has no idea of the value of the history displayed in the album she gave me.
When I return next summer from Paris, the pictures in my photo album will be exactly like the ones in my coveted weathered, old green photo album of 20th century French architecture and countryside. Unlike Tiffany’s embarrassing accounts of Americanism, my photos, like those that inspire me, will display travel, culture, passion, wisdom, tolerance and beauty.
Perhaps visiting France has helped her to identify French things, but French is pretty easy to identify, so I won’t insult her by assuming she had to visit to decipher a French object.
I think Tiffany’s photographs, whether of the Eiffel Tower, male genitalia, or the rear-ends of middle aged men (yes, she has them all), will serve a purpose. Who knows where those photos will one day be? If she could find photos of France from 1953 at a flea market in Concord, California, I wouldn’t totally discount ones of the Eiffel Tower ending up at a yard sale in Kentucky. Or crazy American college pictures of sex, drugs and alcohol being purchased by a young Spaniard, looking for an experience with American culture, from a street market.
So Tiffany has an expensive European trip to brag about (which she is still paying for), but I am enriched from research and the occasional gifted knick-knack from a flea market.
Traveling can be done through junk considered to have been someone else’s. It doesn’t have to include extravagant accommodations, a heavy price tag and 14-hour flight.
Tiffany remembered me talking about living in France while studying the culture and language, but she pretended like she didn’t. In some way I suspect she wanted to scare me away from Europe so that it would be something only she had. It didn’t work.
She said it was a dirty metropolis and its portrayal in books, magazines, movies and on television misleading. She spoke about the French and how they were unfriendly and very conservative. “You would fit in well there,” Tiffany said while complaining of the people.
She knew exactly how I felt about France, its people and culture. Although I hadn’t been there, I knew I identified well with the culture and people. Does a person have to take an expensive trip to know that they understand a place and identify with its ideals?
Maybe or maybe not, of that I am not sure. But what I do know is that my pictures of France may end-up in the hands of a person who is a traveler at heart, but doesn’t know it yet. Until they begin their travels through the pictures in some old album.