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That Time a Woman Offered to Take Our Selfie — and She Turned Out to be a Chinese Annie Leibovitz
She was a very, very, very serious photographer.
I don’t make a habit of handing my expensive Pixel 7 Pro over to complete strangers.
On the other hand, this particular stranger — a very insistent, very stern older Chinese woman — was hard to refuse.
Brent and I are currently living in Sydney, Australia, and we’d come to spend the afternoon in the Royal Botanic Garden.
Not for me to take pictures! I would never do that to Brent, who hates it when I interrupt our day to take my photos.
On the other hand, it was a pretty scenic spot, right on Sydney’s famous harbor. It’s possible I was secretly hoping Brent might be willing to pose for a picture or two.
We were down by the section of the gardens called Mrs Macquarie’s Point, where, in the 19th century, the wife of the local governor used to come and watch ships sailing in from Great Britain.
And no, that’s not a typo: there is no period in the “Mrs” in Mrs Macquarie’s Point.
Look, do you want to hear this damn story or not?
I glanced over at the city’s iconic Opera House, which loomed like a glorious assortment of shimmering seashells — or boat sails. Aussies can’t seem to make up their minds which of these their famous Opera House most resembles.
Beyond that, the majestic arch of the Harbour Bridge provided the perfect backdrop.
“Hmmm,” I said to Brent, oh-so-casually. “This might maybe be an okay place for a picture, don’t ya think?”
He instantly saw right through me. “Let’s just take the picture, okay?” he said. “But quickly.”
I whipped out my phone to take some shots.
But the glare on the screen made it almost impossible to see anything. The fact that I have polarized lenses on my glasses wasn’t helping.
I took several shots.
“Did you get it?” Brent asked.
“Uh, I’m not sure,” I said. “I can’t really see my screen.”
He looked for me. “I’ll say. You cut off the Opera House. And the bridge. Try again.”
I tried again — and he looked again.
“Now it’s blurry,” he said. “And the next one’s crooked. One more time.”
I could hear the impatience rising in Brent’s voice.
“It’s okay,” I said. “We don’t need—”
“I said it’s fine. Let’s just get it over with.”
I lifted the camera to blindly take more photos.
I still couldn’t see a damn thing on my phone, but I did notice two older Chinese women standing nearby, watching Brent and I grow increasingly frustrated with each other.
One of them suddenly marched toward us.
She was quite elegant in a floral, lavender dress. She had made other bold stylistic choices too: dangly earrings and a massive pendant of some orange stone hanging from the black beads around her neck.
Her friend, standing behind her, was dressed in a flowing white dress with a straw bowler hat. She seemed slightly more reticent — and if possible, even a bit more judge-y.
The first woman thrust out her hand, demanding my camera.
I immediately handed it to her. In a very real way, there was no way I could not.
I also felt somehow inadequate. After all, I flatter myself a decent amateur photographer. Yet I couldn’t even take a damn selfie?
My camera in hand, she quickly went to work, taking photo after photo. If I was an amateur, she seemed to be a Chinese Annie Leibovitz.
When out sightseeing, I often offer to take photos for other people. Since I really wanted this shot, perhaps this was the universe paying it forward to me.
Annie Leibovitz stopped and studied the results of her photos so far.
And frowned. She shook her head, as if to say, No, no, these will never do.
She marched back over to Brent and me, and still without a single word, started pushing us into different positions.
And I do mean pushed. She took Brent by the shoulder and grabbed me by the elbow. For a smaller, older lady, she had one hell of a grip.
She stepped back to take more pictures, and examined them too, but then shook her head again. Still no good!
Now she came forward to drag us this way and that. I felt not unlike a new potted plant that no one can quite figure out a place for.
That’s when I realized: she wasn’t Annie Leibovitz — she was Mary Poppins. Stern and firm, and maybe also just a little bit loving.
“Are you okay with her doing this?” I muttered to Brent.
“Are you kidding?” he said, amused. “It’s never been so easy to smile for a picture.”
By now, others had noticed her efforts too — including a blond and handsome Aussie man sitting on a nearby bench. He smirked, clearly loving the show.
All this said, she had to be taking some great photos.
Except Mary Poppins clearly didn’t think so. Even now, she was looking at the photos — and still frowning.
She suddenly decided more input was needed, so she turned to her even more serious friend — let’s call her Nanny McPhee.
The two of them conferred for a bit, then Mary Poppins stepped forward to try something else. She took me by the shoulders, readjusting me again and again. Finally, she almost shook me.
Relax! she seemed to be saying. You’re too stiff.
The blond Aussie watching us snorted.
I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about all of this. As with handing my phone over to strangers, I’m also not accustomed to people I don’t know touching me, much less moving me around like said potted plant.
But in terms of my needing to relax for the photo, she wasn’t necessarily wrong.
With Brent and I finally in acceptable positions, Mary Poppins started taking still more photos.
From every imaginable angle.
She even knelt down to snap some pictures from below. Nanny McPhee watched all this gravely.
Finally, Mary Poppins stood up, brushed herself off a bit, and handed me back my phone. We were finally done, right?
Nope! Now she retrieved her own phone from her handbag and handed it to Nanny McPhee so that she could take a picture of all three of us together.
Which Nanny McPhee was happy to do, although first she removed her straw bowler hat and placed it on Mary Poppins’ head at a suitably jaunty angle.
Because when you’re a stern but loving nanny, things can always be improved.
At this, the blond Aussie burst into outright laughter. He was definitely telling this story to his mates later, over pints in some pub.
Only now were we done — except, of course, Brent and I wanted our own picture of the three of us.
How could we not?
Neither lady had spoken a word of English this entire time, but as she handed my phone back to me again, Mary Poppins said, “Where you from?”
“The United States,” I said.
Well, said the look on her face, that explains a very great deal!
“Where are you from?” I asked.
“Thank you for taking our picture,” Brent said.
To which she merely gave us both a curt nod, unfolded her umbrella, firmly took hold of her friend, and then the two of them flew off together into the blue Australian sky.
Or something like that.
Once they were gone, I said to Brent, “Were you really okay with all that?”
“Oh, please,” he said. “People say that travel is about places, but it’s really not. It’s about people — about connections. And that was a connection for the ages.”
Brent was right. We’d be talking about this encounter for years.
I finally smiled myself. “So it was a good thing I wanted to take our picture here, right?”
“Don’t push it,” Brent said, leading me off toward the Opera House, so we could make the reservation for our upcoming tour.
Hmm, I thought. I bet standing so close to the Opera House would make for a really great photo….
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