She eagerly walked out on the street as though she had somewhere to be.
My job was to capture the city of Paris, which was now damp with fear and blood. And yet, when I saw her, when my curious eyes met with her incurious ones, all of a sudden, there seemed to be more life than death around me.
War and the cold had entirely changed the visuals of the city of light. Romance was not in the air. I had seen enough men leaving and the women waiting.
She was well-dressed for the cold, not particularly a rare sight on Rue de la Paix, showing no interest in its wealthy displays. She looked at me looking at her very keenly. I hesitated before stiffly asking if I could photograph her. She agreed and I clicked my one and only portrait of Marie-Jeanne.
I was too tense and eager to enjoy the silence between us. And without thinking, I hastily asked her if I could accompany her for a while longer. Something about my youthful inexperience played to my advantage and she agreed again to my proposal.
“Is this your first time in Paris?” She asked.
“Yes.” I answered.
“Would you like to know Paris more closely,” she asked.
“YES!” I blurted.
We walked to an apartment just a short distance from Rue de la Paix, where a young woman opened the door. She welcomed Marie-Jeanne into her dull, half-empty apartment along with me, the unexpected visitor. As we entered, Marie-Jeanne softly whispered something to the woman, and only then she offer me a welcoming smile into her home.
The two women sat and the woman began to talk, endlessly, emotionally while Marie-Jeanne just listened; fully present, careful and calm. After more than an hour, Marie-Jeanne silently got up to leave and I followed.
“I hope you did not mind joining me,” she said, not needing my answer.
“Absolutely not” I replied anyway. “I am curious about it though. What is it that you do? Are you a journalist? A writer?”
“I am just a listener,” she replied with nothing further.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“It means, they talk, and I listen. I am just as much as a stranger as you were, to that woman”.
“I don’t understand”.
“While men are at the war, many women have had to replace their jobs to support the economy. So much is being photographed, heard, written and spoken on the battlefield, but rarely about the lives of the women back home. Some women are angry who just need someone to scream at. Some are lonely and just need a person to sit with them for a while. A few I met were overjoyed with their new found freedom but have no one to share the excitement with. Mostly, an empathetic listener is what they needed”.
She listened. But never asked, suggested or shared. A story-listener is what she was.