Grandpa in the Park

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Grand-père is tall and stands up very straight, raincoat buttoned up, his left hand behind his back. He pushes the stroller with his right hand on the left handle, so grandbaby rides next to him, not in front. I suspect he knows what he is doing and has his reasons, but his face gives away nothing to me. He is not smiling or frowning, but looking placid. The impression Grandpa makes, and it’s a big one, is one of companions taking a turn around the park arm in arm. He is not the nounou, the sitter, the nanny.

 

He is by far the oldest person in the park, more coincidental, I guess, than incongruous. But aside from his bearing as he pushes the stroller there is one real incongruity—a scarf around his neck on a sunny day in August, not a hot day, but about 21°C. Why he wears a silk scarf when it’s 70°F follows everything else into the mystery cubbyhole from which nothing ever emerges. I could ask pépé, I suppose, but he would certainly tell me, were he friendly, that he wants to button up his raincoat and wear a scarf, which would tell me nothing. Or, were he brusque, say nothing or why not? Or pretend he was having trouble hearing me. The mystery, I conclude, is better, and anyway it’s all I’m going to get.

 

The park is dedicated to little children although no sign announces as much. There are some playground climbing bars and a few other outdoor toys, brightly painted and neat as only objects in Parisian parks can be. You wonder if children ever use them or if an army of cleaners—after swilling out the gutters in the evening—shows up in parks all around the city and waxes the jungle gyms and seesaws after polishing up the statues and fountains and dusting the gravel in the paths. Who knows? This is one of the oldest mysteries in the cubby, going back years and years.

 

Beside the climbing toys, there is a lawn “reserved for children playing ball,” a few other childish things here and there, and best of all a tidy and abundant vegetable patch. In the formal garden in front of the Musée Galliera, a fashion museum, you can see fava beans growing alongside flowers and ornamental shrubs—maybe a witty fashion statement having to do with texture. After all, the museum is housed in a formidable mansion in the Sixteenth Arrondissement and is entitled to its caprices.

 

But here, in the Seventh Arrondissement, is a vegetable garden, with, I reckon, at least twenty varieties all getting ripe—and no one has picked anything, so it’s not as if the citizens of this lesser quartier need allotments to flesh out their food budgets. The garden is obviously tended, but there is no official looking person in sight other than the three policeman hanging around the gate to the garden, perhaps to reassure the mothers, the nannies, and Grand-père that no evil or harm will befall their young, though Grandpa does not look to be much intimidated ever. A stone hut that looks like one of the survivors of Haussmann’s wrecking crews is locked up tight, hoses coiled up neatly, implements clean and lined up inside.

 

Perhaps the vegetable garden is supposed to let children understand that their tomates and courgettes and oignons don’t sprout in baskets on shelves in Monoprix, but from the soil. The children of friends who lived in a farming village in northern New England were asked where milk came from and answered “from bottles,” so maybe the park’s gardener is on to something. A couple of children are evidently getting the message and enjoying themselves, if a little incredulous: “Ce sont des carottes? Mais elles sont vertes.” Yes, sweetheart, the green part is the tops and the carrots are growing beneath the soil—and puckered faces all around. I think some children will not be eating their carrots tonight.

 

Other children are playing with balls on the reserved lawn or climbing on the bars, and the infants in strollers are napping. I am the only person without a child in tow, but the police, who make me very nervous in Paris, did not pay any attention to me at all. All the while, Grandpa does not stop walking or take grandbaby out of the stroller. For twenty minutes, more like half an hour, he has been walking along, without an eye to the lawn or the bars or the vegetables or the fruit trees or another person. Since the park is small, he has made several circuits, but shows no sign of boredom or constraint, nor has he said anything or even simply cooed at grandbaby, and then he heads for the gate. I follow and watch him walk down the dreary street as he passes along the forbidding wall, perhaps five metres high, that encloses the garden, then makes his way down the rest of this grim, charmless, and uncharacteristically long block for Paris. Pépé et bébé, silent and still as if arm in arm, turn at the corner. By the time I get there they are gone.

 

They tell me is impossible to discover an unknown treasure in Paris. Michelin was here… and here… and here, too, years ago. Even so, journalists periodically serve up hidden gardens or fountains or courtyards for the excitement of their readers, and writers of guidebooks do the same, and the city of Paris has a website for its gardens. But perhaps it is possible—will be possible—to discover something else or at least set off on its trail.

 

I think, you see, I did make a discovery after all, though what it was I still can’t quite say other than Grand-père as I saw him. But I have a case of future hope. On the other side of the wall at the back of the garden is an ancient hospital that will be torn down and replaced with an apartment house. The new residents will have a view of the park. I could get to know someone who lives there and ask after Grand-père. Is he a regular? Does he always dress the same? Does he ever speak? Is there really a baby in the stroller? Did I really see him? Have we found an unknown treasure? Ah…

 

©Joseph Lestrange

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