This week our creative writing group visited Luxembourg Gardens, one of the most popular and well known parks in Paris. The challenge at a location such as this – one that’s been written about hundreds of times – is to find an angle, a story, something to draw the reader in. Let me know what you think:
Weight a Minute!
There’s nothing that quite rounds out a lovely fall day in Paris like a late afternoon visit to one of its parks. Either strolling the grounds or relaxing in one of the ubiquitous green metal chairs scattered throughout every park is a perfect way to capture the sun’s last warm rays and to unwind. For me, and a few hundred others, on this particular day, it was Luxembourg Gardens.
One of the most beloved parks in Paris, Luxembourg Gardens dates from the early 1600’s when Marie de’Medici, the widow of King Henry IV of France, decided to replicate the Pitti Palace from her native Florence. In the years since, Luxembourg Gardens has expanded to include an Orangerie, tennis courts, a large pond for sailing small boats and a puppet theatre among other things. With my husband, Gary, in tow we rambled about the park taking photos and trying to determine whether or not we had actually heard of any of the queens, saints and illustrious people immortalized in the 106 statues on the grounds.
That is, until I noticed the scales. Two sets of scales in fact. Quite large and painted dark main green. Standing within 100 meters of one of the main gates to the park. I scurried over to investigate. I had never seen scales in a park before and I couldn’t begin to imagine who would think that visitors might suddenly get the urge to weigh themselves in such a public place: especially within spitting distance of an ice cream stand!
Unlike the other monuments and statues we’d seen there was no plaque indicating who had put the scales here, when they had done so or why. The scales looked old yet seemed solid enough to withstand whatever abuse their “customers” might exert. The only indication of ownership was on the foot-bed which was stamped with the name: “Société Anonyme Francaise des Bascules Automatiques”. Fortunately this was sufficient for me to be able to satisfy my curiosity.
In a nutshell, by the end of the 19th century scales for weighing people had already been in place for a number of years in Paris including at Luxembourg Gardens and the Tuileries. Focusing on one’s health was in vogue at the time and the scales were quite popular for the apparent thrill of discovering one’s weight. Physicians were also known to request that a patient visit a scale to determine, and then monitor, his/her weight. In 1911 the original scales were replaced by the entrepreneur M. Chameroy (who owned a scale company named “Chameroy” of course) for an annual fee of 50 francs per unit and an additional unit was added to the park bringing the number of scales at Luxembourg Gardens to three. People were charged 5 centimes to weigh themselves. On the death of M. Chameroy the scales became the property of the Société Anonyme Francaise, essentially a public limited company. Apparently there are now seven such scales in Luxembourg Gardens although I’ve yet to discover them all! The Société’s website supports this initiative saying that these scales allow for “the better monitoring of their health among users”.
With such a fascinating history I decided this was where we would while away the rest of our afternoon. I wanted to see if anyone actually still used or even noticed these scales. With so many hi-tech health and fitness gizmos available I predicted that the scales likely attracted little attention. First, of course, I made Gary try them out.
Me? I never weigh myself either in private or public but I discovered another “healthful” way to put the scales to good use!
Then we settled in to watch. To my astonishment not only did many people notice the scales, quite a few also stopped to try them out although, to be fair, almost no one was interested enough to pay the 20 centimes to actually find out their weight.
After about 20 minutes a quite stylishly dressed elderly very French couple approached me while I was leaning against one set of scales and taking photos of the other. I began talking with them (…en français bien sûr!) and asked why they thought the scales are here and who would use them? The man explained to me that the scales are antiques and are therefore important to have in the park. He further suggested that not everyone has scales in his home and so it’s good to have them here to allow people to monitor their weight. I expressed my deep concern for weighing oneself in public, particularly for women, to which he just laughed. On that note his wife deposited her 20 centimes and stepped onto the scale. She did not look distressed at all as she watched the dial; in fact she smiled.
We chatted a little longer and then, with a “bonne soirée”, parted ways. I couldn’t help but smile to myself when I glanced over a few minutes later and noticed the couple in line at the ice cream stand.