There's an old Soviet-era joke from Eastern Europe. "Young farmer, own land, seeks girl for matrimony. Must have own tractor. Reply to Box 123 with picture of tractor." What do you do, though, when you don't have a farm but you meet a pretty girl with her own tractor, and she wants a kiss even though you have never  in your life so much as placed a small ad in the Matrimonial section of Collective Farmer's Weekly? And what if you're about nine times her age and don't actually understand that she wants to kiss you? 

The tractor was huge, and she was unquestionably in the driving seat. As well the whole set-up being irredeemably cute, it was also a wonderful parody of the sort of thing you used to get at trade shows, and for all I know still do: a pretty girl ornamenting a completely irrelevant piece of machinery. Draping scantily-clad models across motor-cars is a well-known cliché, and at least once Agfa, the now defunct photographic company, had a couple of nudes on their stand at  photokina in the 1990s.

This was all a bit different, though. She was certainly pretty enough to be a model, but she was fully clothed and (as you can see) about seven years old. Nor was the tractor the sort of thing you'd find in a showroom or at a trade show: at a guess, it dated from the 1950s. She, and it, and I were at one of the small regional shows of old vehicles that are quite common in rural France. 

Climbing down for a kiss.

Part of her cuteness, though, was an extraordinary pout: the sort that models at trade shows flash at photographers as if to imply that if only they or their readers bought the right tractor, or the right brand of film, they would be irresistible to beautiful women. She'd hold the expression only for a moment, too fast for me to capture it, but then she'd go back to it a few seconds later.

In the UK I might well have hesitated before taking her picture. The level of paranoia surrounding photography and children, especially pretty little girls, is incredible. But not, fortunately, in La France Profonde. I'd spotted her on the tractor, and taken a picture in case she wasn't supposed to be there and was about to be chased off. 

As it turned out, that was about as far from the case as might readily be imagined. Her parents were leaning on another tractor on the other side of the road, and watching with amusement. I suspect they had put her on the tractor to keep her in one place, so she couldn't run to and fro across the admittedly not very busy road: it was far too big for her to get on or off without assistance. It was when I moved closer, and tried to capture that pout, that her father said, "She wants a kiss."

I looked askance, but her mother smiled and nodded. "Yes. Give her a kiss." The word they used was bisou, the sort of little kiss with which you greet friends. So she climbed down as far as she could on the tractor and leaned down, and I stood on tiptoe, and we kissed fleetingly on the lips. That's the way you kiss small children in France, at least where I live: kisses on the cheeks are reserved for adults. There is no exact age at which a child graduates to adult status: it depends on how long you've known them, and how well, and how grown up they're feeling that day. Once I'd kissed her, I took some more pictures. 

There are no doubt those who will be shocked at all this: at my daring to take her picture, never mind the kiss. Some will even suggest that she wouldn't have wanted a kiss unless she had already been subjected to Abuse, with a capital A. Of course she may have been, but I seriously doubt it, unless all small children in France have suffered the same fate, which seems even less likely. I don't actually find it easy kissing small children I hardly know, or don't know at all, so I generally compromise by kissing the hands of small girls, and shaking the hands of small boys. It makes them feel wonderfully grown up, or at least, that's the way they react, and it's a useful half-way house between kisses on the lips and the kind of icy, paranoid distance that exists between adults and children in what the French call Anglo-Saxon countries (read: English-speaking). 

Besides, as a small boy I used to hate kisses from anyone except very close relatives, and even then I wasn't always keen. As far as I can guess, this was at least as much a consequence of being born in 1950 as of personal preference, and it doesn't look as if French children have ever suffered from the cultural inhibitions I had. I couldn't kiss this little girl on the hand, because she was using both hands to support herself as she leaned down from the tractor; and in any case, kissing a pretty girl is rarely a hardship. 

Back in action: the last picture I took of her. 

I'd gone to the show to take pictures of cars for a series I've just reactivated, a sort of cut-up technique that is easier to illustrate than to explain, though that's a subject for another article. She was purely a bonus. The photographs were little more than snapshots, and I wish now I'd taken more, but I was utterly nonplussed. The whole episode was however a very cheering affirmation of common humanity, and of how the world ought to be; or for that matter of how it would be, if so many people weren't so paranoid.

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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016