The Digital Journalist
The Best Picture Books Aren’t Always Picture Books…

by James Colburn

August 2006

In preparation for my trip to Perpignan in September, and because I like books about France, I picked up something a few weeks ago that really opened my eyes, so to speak.

It's called "Report From a Parisian Paradise: Essays From France, 1925-1939" by Joseph Roth (ISBN: 0393051455), published by W.W. Norton, and is available in paperback. I thought, silly me, that this was going to be some la-dee-da travelogue from the time between the two World Wars (1920s and '30s) but was I ever wrong.

It seems that Roth was a Paris-based correspondent for a German newspaper and filed stories about all sorts of things, including his travels throughout France. From the first story I was transfixed and amazed at the way this guy could describe the things he was seeing and the places he was going. I hate to say this but with Roth you don't need photographs. You can "see" what he's talking about and it's an absolute mind blower.

His descriptions of trips though southern France to places like Lyons, Marseille and Avignon aren't pretty – he was there during the depression, don't forget – and some places were pretty dire, but so vivid that you don't even have to close your eyes to know exactly what he's looking at. He talks about Paris in a way that, if you've ever been there, hits the spot right away and then goes on to warn his readers about the coming problems that the world is going to have (this is the late-'30s after all) with some new German politician named Adolf Hitler…

A hell of a lot of credit must be given to Michael Hofmann, who translated the work from the original German and must have not only the linguistic chops but the soul of a poet as well. I got more visual stimulation from this almost-picture-free book than I have from almost anything since Jim Nachtwey's "Inferno," and that is saying a heck of a lot.

Regarding Perpignan:

I'll be there and attempting a daily column/blog so if you see me, stop and say hello. I'm hoping to get some decent access and will also be shooting and posting some photos of people at exhibits, parties and other gatherings, one of which will be shot every night at the stroke of midnight at the Café de la Poste and called, amazingly enough, "Midnight at the Café de la Poste."

If you are going and need some basic French for your stay, here it is:

S'il Vous Plait or "See-Voo-Play"... means "Please" and is very important. Use it a lot.

Merci or "Mare-Se ... means "Thank You" and is also very important. Use it as much or more then "please." The French really dig polite.

Bonjour or "Bone-Jur" ... means "Good Day." Say "jur" like the beginning of the word jury and slur the "j" just a bit. Say it if you walk into a shop or café or just about anywhere; it's the nice thing to do.

Au Revoir or "Oh-Rev-Vwar" ... means "Good Bye." Say "vwar" like a Southerner would say "thar." Say it as you leave a shop or a café or just about anywhere.

Ou Est Le WC? Or "Ooo-Eh-Leh-Vee-See? ... means "Where is the Toilet?" A useful phrase after using the following:

Je Veux Une Biere or "Juh-Voo-Une-Bee-Aay"… means "I'd Like a Beer." Slur the initial "j" just a bit and always follow this phrase with "See-Voo-Play."

Those six phrases should take care of 80 percent of your language needs. If you need anything else, just smile and point to the menu.

See you there.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer