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Sweet Serendipity


They sat around the table to discuss the matter.

"The problem," Eitan told his parents, "is that I don't really know what I'd like to do for a living." He was home now, after serving three years in the army in a rather humdrum clerical job. At school, he had been quite weak in maths, and average for everything else. The only bright spot was art. "He has a good eye, and a good sense of color" was the art teacher's opinion. ("And a good pair of hands," added his mother, loyally). But it was clear to all of them that art was a pleasure, not a paying proposition.

Then, quite unexpectedly, a possible solution was suggested by his aunt, Sophie – what did Eitan think of working as a framer of pictures and photographs? In this way, he could use his hands and, to a lesser extent, his artistic talents. And, also quite by chance, Sophie's husband, Max, would soon be needing a framer in his photographic studio, as the elderly man who had been working there for years would shortly be retiring.

And so, after the army, Eitan started working for Max. As well as gaining practical experience, the young man picked up several tips from his uncle. One was this: if the customer should ask for advice on which color or style she should choose (it usually was a woman), he should suggest only two or three different models. Suggesting more would probably render her completely helpless; it could take her hours to come to a decision. Max also told him that it would be wise to keep his own opinion of the customer's taste under very close wraps – even if it was obvious that the customer's taste left much to be desired. "He who pays the piper calls the tune," he commented after a client with rose-pink hair (and a small poodle to match) tottered out of his studio on very high heels. She was clutching a reproduction of the Mona Lisa; it was in a rose-pink frame.

"I wonder if she's color-blind?" murmured Eitan. His uncle shrugged and suggested that they went next door to "Old Vienna" for some coffee.

As time passed, Eitan did more than making frames. Max saw that his nephew was blessed with common sense as well as a good eye, and gradually the young man took over more and more of the business. He checked the accounts, ordered chemicals for the photographic studio, and a wider variety of framing materials for his own work. All this left Max more time for the love of his life: photography.

Once, over coffee, Eitan asked Max what he thought were the reasons for the success of the little studio. After all, it was not situated in the center of town and had a rather narrow frontage. His uncle mused for a few minutes and then answered: "Location and serendipity." Seeing Eitan's puzzled face, he explained that he might be the best studio photographer in town, but this would not count for much if the customers couldn't get to the studio.

"Look", he said, "there is a large parking area outside and this is very important. Your average client is not willing to "schlepp" a long way on foot – either to have his photograph taken or to have a painting framed. A convenient place to park is a priceless, invisible asset. Another advantage is the fact that we are opposite the local cinema, so when people come out in the evenings, they can't fail to see us. Which is the reason I keep the lights on at night – until the end of the last film. And we are sandwiched between "Old Vienna" - a favorite coffee shop in Haifa - and a travel agent which serves many of the academics in this area. These are people who need their photographs taken and their pictures framed."

"And what was the other factor – er, serendipity?" asked Eitan, stumbling over the word. He was not sure what it meant, nor whether he had pronounced it correctly.

"Ah, serendipity," said his uncle slowly as though he were rolling the word around in his mouth. "That's another invisible asset. It means making wonderful discoveries quite by accident – or, in other words – good luck. I found our present studio several years ago after I'd been working for a particularly unpleasant, grumpy fellow in the Carmel Center. I learned a lot there, but I didn't like the man and I was longing to have a studio of my own. Your parents said they would lend me the money, interest-free, to buy my own place – but only on condition that I took a course in photography in the evenings. They admitted that Old Grumpy – as they called him – was paying me a fair salary, but they thought that I was capable of more independent, artistic work. Such an offer was hard to refuse so I signed up for a course and I must admit that I learned a lot."

He paused to spoon some sugar into his coffee. "Then, on the last evening of the course, I was idly looking at a noticeboard in the college, waiting for your Aunt Sophie, when I saw a small hand-written card, advertising a laundry for sale. That was to become our studio – yes, originally it was a laundry, but the owner said that as everyone now had a washing machine, his laundry was losing money and he was selling it. And your parents were as good as their word: within a week of my spotting the advertisement, the laundry was mine and they also helped me with the necessary funds to convert it into a studio. They also suggested that I advertise the fact that the laundry had now become a photographic studio. Your parents are really something special. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be where I am today."

That afternoon was unusually quiet – for some reason, very few people came in to collect the pictures for which Eitan had made the frames, and Max said that they might as well close early. He was ready to go home – maybe Eitan would lock up and then he could also go home. During the afternoon, Eitan had been thinking: he had no complaints about his work or the conditions – Max was paying him a generous salary, but something was missing. He came to the conclusion that, like his uncle, the artistic side of his life had not been fully developed. He needed a challenge.

Eitan was just locking up when a plump, middle-aged woman came in, clutching something wrapped in paper. "You're not closed, are you? It says outside that you're open until six o'clock and it's only quarter-past five." Glad to speak to someone after the silence of the past few hours, Eitan asked what she wanted. "Can you frame this? It's my daughter's birthday next week and I'd like to have …" He took the parcel from the woman's hands, removed the paper and, despite his uncle's warning never to pass judgment on any picture that he was asked to frame, he could not restrain himself. He let out a short, low whistle and softly murmured "Wow!"

Rather concerned, the woman looked at him. "Is there something wrong? You can't frame it?" He looked at it and said reassuringly, "We'll be happy to frame it. This is really beautiful." For a few seconds, he was not sure whether she had handed him a photograph or a painting. The picture, depicting part of a forest with sunlight glinting through the branches of the trees, was realistic – but it also had a rather ethereal quality. He looked at it again and repeated the words, "Beautiful, beautiful." Then he asked, "Who did this?"

The woman said proudly, "My daughter. She signed it. Here, in the corner." Eitan looked but all he could see was the short word, "Sam".

"Sam? But that's a man's name."

"True," said the woman, "But she's convinced that people – especially those who judge paintings in competitions – think that women can't paint and so she uses the name, Sam."

Eitan was determined to make a frame that would bring out the muted colors of the painting, and after asking the woman to wait for a minute, ran down to the basement where he knew there was a frame with a subtle green color – unlike the rather bright green shades upstairs in the shop. She agreed with his choice of color, paid him, took her receipt, and said that she would be back on Thursday to collect the painting. Thursday came and went – but the woman did not appear. After a week had passed and she did not come to the shop, Eitan took the painting downstairs and covered it carefully. There was no way he could contact her: he knew neither her name nor her address. All he knew was that she had an artistic daughter who called herself Sam.

The next day, after discussing the matter with Max, Eitan signed up for a part-time painting course at the college where Max had attended photography classes and, two weeks later, went for his first lesson. The teacher, a pretty young woman called Talia, pointed out several elements of painting that Eitan had not learned at school. "Don't rush to put the paint on the canvas; think, plan and then paint. Proportion is very important and so is space. If you overcrowd the picture, you'll lose the key element – unless, of course, you want your viewer to search for it."

Eitan found himself looking forward very much to the lessons; his artistic talents, which had not been given a chance to develop since his school days, were now growing. And he found himself looking forward to listening to Talia's words, and to looking at her. He wished he could see more of her – outside the class, but did not have the courage to ask her out.

Meanwhile the business at the studio was expanding very satisfactorily. People were happy with his work and recommended him to their friends. At the end of a particularly busy day, Eitan was looking forward to going home to a long hot shower. He had locked up when there was a knocking at the door. Sighing rather wearily, he was tempted to ignore it, and leave by the back door, when there were a few more knocks. He opened the door; it was Talia, the art teacher.

"Oh, I didn't know this was your studio."

"It isn't: it's my uncle's. But do come in." All weariness and thoughts of a hot shower vanished. "How can I help you?"

Talia fished around in her pockets and then triumphantly produced a slip of paper. It was a receipt from the studio.

"Do you still have this? My mother paid for it weeks and weeks ago – but then my father became ill and she had other things to think about. I hope you haven't lost it or …"

Eitan took the receipt and went down to the basement where the painting of the sunlit forest had been stored. He returned with it, cradling it in his arms.

"I'll be sorry to lose it – it is so beautiful." And he could not help asking, "But who is Sam?"

Talia blushed slightly. "I am. I'm Talia Samuels." She did not explain her fear of judges who preferred male painters. That would come later.

Now that he was on home ground, so to speak, Eitan felt a rush of courage surge through his veins.

"Well, Sam, I'm glad that the enchanted forest has returned to its rightful owner. What would you say to a hot drink? I know that "Old Vienna" does a pretty good coffee. They also serve a wonderful hot chocolate that I discovered quite by chance. I call it 'Sweet Serendipity' ".

He gave her a smile; she smiled back. And they left the studio for the coffee shop together. 

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Wednesday, 17 July 2024

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