Today Paris has a multitude of ways and venues to feed the less fortunate, though history has not always proved so generous. For example, the four-and-a-half-month siege of Paris during the Franco Prussian war was devastating and some ways of staving off starvation can only be described as uniquely French.
Still manna from above is always welcome.
After all, in his early days in Paris, it has been said that Ernest Hemingway found that the city provided cheap sustenance when he would capture pigeons in the Luxembourg Gardens to supplement his diet.
As a youngster from 1935-1941, Henri Bérenger (my better half) lived on the Avenue de Paris leading to the Palace of Versailles. Therefore, the gardens were his playground. He remembers well riding the ancient “carrousel” there and spearing the brass rings with his stick, but he does not remember going there during the German occupation. Though the soldiers were not bivouacked in the Palace, they were in many of the peripheral buildings.
One day, as Henri and some pals were walking home from school, a truck full of soldiers drove past them and one of them chucked a loaf of bread in their direction. Rations were short; many of the French were in a state of constant hunger including these 12-year-olds. The offering was caught by one of his friends who immediately ran off with it. When Henri returned home and told his mother of the incident, she said to him sternly, “You wouldn’t have accepted bread from a German soldier, would you?” Correctly reading his mother’s tone, he assured her he would not have. But he would have…had he the luck of his schoolmate.
It wasn’t bread or cake we found in the gardens one autumn a couple years after I arrived in Paris. Henri and I were celebrating a spell of mild weather in October by visiting the park. We were relatively alone as we meandered through the English Garden on the way to the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet), so naturally I was quite surprised when I felt a sharp tap on my right shoulder. I turned around quickly to discover…no one. Puzzled, we continued our stroll when something thunked me on the head. Looking up, we realized we were under an enormous chestnut tree that was literally pelting us with its bounty. The ground was being carpeted before our eyes with the ripe nuts. Cavorting about and laughing, we stuffed the tree’s obvious gift to us into our pockets and tote bag. Thus, back home we feasted on the fruits of the estate of the Kings of France for over a month.
I have not seen the tree since then and suspect it was a casualty of the catastrophic hurricane that destroyed over 10,000 trees on the grounds in 1999. However, in my memory, that venerable arboreal denizen will always be there, tossing its royal manna at us from above.
Adapted from “Paris in the Fall” printed in the “Massey Fine Arts” newsletter Vol. 5 No. 1, Winter ©1997, 2022 by Ann James Massey, SWA, CPSA, UKCPS, AAPL
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