November 18: Too chicken to snap

Trompe l'oeil shutters on a house at the end of our street

I have a photograph of a little round Australian surveyor who came round from the London Borough of Ealing to finalise whether or not they could grant us permission to start the building extension. He was among the first few people involved in that extension, completed about six years ago now. What I wanted to do was to take a picture of every single last person who worked on the tranformation of the house. I visualised a wonderful panel of portraits of diggers and roofers, plasterers and plumbers, electricians, skip-haulers, decorators and kitchen fitters… There must have been 60 people involved, even for a short time, and I wanted to record them all. Every last one was worthy of a photograph.

Only the window at the bottom right is a real window - another house near the end of our street

The wonderful panel of portraits exists only in my memory now. I gave up after a while, because people really just freak when you point a camera at them. They get so anxious about their hair or their stomachs or their teeth, they put on strange expressions or hold their heads at awkward angles. (I do the same sort of thing myself, I suppose. When caught in someone else’s view finder, I smile. I fling my arms around the person next to me. Happy happy! I don’t want pictures of me being glum hanging around in people’s photo albums.)

If people are that anxious, they make me anxious. They make me too afraid to snap, as if by not taking the perfect picture of them as they want to be seen, I’m failing them and they’re failing me. It’s the reason why, I suppose, I don’t have lots of pictures of people on this blog, despite wanting, desperately, to take them. I simply don’t have the guts to say, once I’ve taken a pic, ‘Oh god, that’s dreadful, your teeth are awful! Let’s do that again, shall we?’ (Joel and Ted don’t count, of course. They never fail me.)

Joel eating tripe a customer brought in for him

Dates ripening on a palm tree on the Promenade des Anglais

So, that’s why I can’t show you (yet?) a pic of the amazingly lovely old Italian woman who comes to the restaurant for a drink in the afternoon with her husband and Lucky (‘Lookie’) the dog. She nearly squeezes me to death each time she sees me, and brings food. Oddly enough, several customers bring food as gifts: this Italian woman is an amazing cook – her last offering was a mix of baked aubergine, tomato and fennel. She goes to Italy to buy her fennel because she thinks the stuff you get here is too moist. She’s not even a foodie… she’s just Italian. I can’t cook back, of course, not at her level. I wash out her tupperware containers and return them filled with thank-you scented candles, postcards, whatever. She counters with yet more food. It could go on forever. But if I point the camera at her, she goes wild. There’s no point in trying.

The chef in the kitchen

When I do get good shots of people, it seems to be because they’re calm and in their element, like this one of Elie, the chef at the restaurant, in the kitchen. He is really a terrific chef, and I’m not saying that just because he’s ours. Yesterday he did a duck terrine with four-spice powder (not five!), with an unusual clove-y flavour. Jeez, can he talk food, however. He and Joel’s uncle can spend hours discussing how to roll a ham, hams they have loved, hams they have hated, hams with too much salt, hams from this or that part of the world, the price of hams… You can insert pretty much any word instead of ham, too. I tried to take a picture of them talking ham, but they both suddenly perked into photo mode and looked like… they weren’t talking about ham anymore. Maybe I need a telephoto lens, so no-one knows I’m there.

Anyway, there you have it. That’s my explanation for why I’ve posted a load of photos of amazing trompe l’oeil windows, which I notice every day, instead of people.

The middle windows aren't real: the Misercordia church in the Cours Saleya

A pretty mangy-looking fake window in Vieux Nice

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About Suellen Grealy

In 2011, a series of coincidences led my husband Joel, our cat Ted and me away from London, where we lived quite happily for 30 years, to Nice, where Joel grew up. While he and his sister ran their restaurant, I wrote a novel. Family being family, Joel and his sister no longer work together. Writing being writing, the novel lingers on... Meanwhile, we've found ways of living a completely different life from the one we had in London, including running our own restaurant together, 7 Villermont. The only constants are our Ted, our now-battered Peugeot, and each other. Everything else is a complete surprise
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