The middle-aged German couple at the next table in this cafe in Malaga, Spain looks somber to me this Christmas morning. I glance at them out of the corner of my eye, unsubtly trying to be subtle. She looks wan, the long rainy northern European fall recorded on her skin. Her eyes are tired, sad, reflecting, perhaps, the disappointment of coming here, almost as far south in Europe as is possible, and finding only rain. In contrast, his bluff face is more expansive than hers, but still I sense a tightness and weariness. In my mind, they seem firmly enclosed in the cocoon of their coupledom, oblivious to the warmth of season.

Cold Christmas, Malaga (Barry Evans)

They are, in short, a challenge to my sense of Christmas bonhomie, and I want to make them happy. It just so happens I have the perfect tool at hand. I’ve just finishing downloading yesterday’s photos from our diminutive digital camera to our laptop, so camera and laptop are at hand. Louisa is using the laptop, editing a freshly written essay. I take a photo of her, the embodiment of concentration as she types fast and furious with two fingers—I’ve seen perfect strangers stop and stare at her index-finger dexterity.

In a pretense of sudden inspiration, I look around and seem to see the couple for the first time. “Do you speak English?” I ask, trying to look at both of them simultaneously. He answers for them both. “Yes,” wariness in his deep voice, “a little.” Of course. When was the last time we met a German who didn’t speak English, and fluent English at that? “Would you mind taking a photo of us?” I ask lightly. A wide smile breaks out on his face. 

I know exactly what he’s feeling. I love it when I’m asked to take a photo, usually for a couple, sometimes for a group. I pride myself on my composition skills, on my willingness to get close, to capture expressions, to avoid deep shadows, to not let the background overwhelm the subject, to squeeze-not-jerk the shutter button. Perhaps asking my subjects to say “Cheese!”, “Tequila!” or “Patatas!” (depending on the country). All the right moves to create a memorable photo.

He takes his time, checking the camera controls, adjusting the zoom, framing us just so, checking on the light, the background. I love this guy. He takes several. Then I take some of him and his wife, and we swap emails so we can share.

He’s smiling, his wife’s smiling. All is well with the world. Such a gift: to ask a favor from a stranger.