Telling Stories, About French Bread

Even years later, long after someone took this photo, I can see this young boy – I’ll call him Jacques –  standing in the street, lugging his heavy basket made of tree branches, no doubt the same ones that Jacques’s father might use on the poor boy’s legs if he doesn’t sell all the bread that day. Look at his shoes, it’s hard to tell, but is one of the soles higher than the other? And his toes, poking out of the other shoe, it seems so, no? And if I bought one of those hippopotamus-sized loaves, what would I do with the rest after I’d hacked off a few slices and slathered them with sweet butter and peach jam?

Let’s call her Jeanette. Or maybe Claire. Yes, Claire. Whatever her name, her clothes suggest that she might be a servant, ordered to fetch the bread for the day. And the wine, of course. Is it for a christening party? Or a family of 10 sitting down to lunch? She’s no doubt enjoying the cooler fall air, for she  left her coat at home, and instead went out to market just wearing her blue plaid shirtwaist. Or maybe she doesn’t own a coat and must hurry before her nose turns even redder and Madame Porcher sniffs in disgust when she sees Claire rubbing her nose with the same hand holding the bread.

I’d be willing to bet that the thick, heavy bread tasted better at that moment than the best chocolate pastry ever baked in the highest-falutin’ Parisian patisserie. But for Pierre Roussel, from Lyon, France, and Joseph Xavier D’Amato, from Brooklyn, New York (we’ll call them that), the only thing that matters in this moment, the sole important fact, is that there’s bread, chewy, hard, but slightly wet from the pouring rain. In the universal language of humanity, Pierre offers bread to Joe, sharing something he could have hoarded, tucking it into the deep pocket of his greatcoat. They eat in silence, neither one speaking, except to murmur like small children, mmm, mmm, good. And then the shelling starts again. They run in opposite directions, crumbs falling from their lips as they breathe the air like frightened children waking from nightmares.

Provence 55 (Photo credit: Elliott Erwitt)

Iconic. That’s the word everyone uses for this famous photo. I’ll confess something: an enlarged version of this print hangs in one of my bathrooms. The trees, lined up just so – a very dangerous design for inattentive motorists – invite me in, urging me to follow the man and boy to wherever they’re headed. The nameless boy looks worried: “Will that crazy person following so closely hit me”? Not only is the guy crawling along behind, probably in a Renault R4, a veritable tin can on four wheels, but he’s leaning out the window with a big camera! Elliott Erwitt gets the shot. So did he follow them to their house and invite himself to lunch? It’s a warm summer day, I can tell from the shirtsleeves the boy and his grandfather wear. Did the boy sit at a rough wooden table, waiting for his soup, breaking off bits of bread, and talking with his mouth full as he told his grandmother about their adventure? Come to think of it, you might ask why did the grandfather ride on the wrong side of the road? (He didn’t – this copy of the photograph is reversed.)

© 2012 C. Bertelsen

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