In the glamorous neighborhood of Saint Germain des Prés, not far from the Hermès and Emporio Armani boutiques and next to the Clément Hotel proudly boasting its Michelin starred restaurant, is something you won’t find in the guidebooks: Soupe Populaire, Paris’s oldest active soup kitchen.
Situated at 4 rue Clément, just off the boulevard Saint Germain, and run by a team of volunteers, Soupe Populaire provides free food to visitors Monday to Saturday, all year long. Anyone can come, and nobody checks IDs. Every day they wait outside the crimson colored window shop until the organizers hand out tickets for each round of service. Ticket holders get a three-course meal.
The place is modestly furnished with red-clothed tables, large pictures of volunteers hanging on the walls, and a noisy kitchen at the back. It has 34 seats and there are four daily services, amounting to 136 full meals each day.
Soupe Populaire’s presence in Saint Germain des Prés exemplifies the blatant contrast one encounters walking around one of the smartest, most famous Paris quarters. Amidst all the luxury and elegance, the appearance of dozens of homeless people is a familiar sight. It’s a hair in the soup.
“Not everyone in the neighborhood approves of what we do, so we try to keep it quiet,” says Fanny Lavigne, a cheery middle-aged woman with a limp who volunteers for Soupe Populaire.
“We’ve especially had problems with the hotel next door, but nowadays it’s okay, we try to tolerate one another,” Lavigne says.
As we talk, Lavigne is regularly interrupted by visitors knocking on the door, asking for tickets.
“Don’t try to be sneaky and get two tickets, okay, I know you!” she jokingly reprimands one interlocutor.
According to Lavigne the idea for Soupe Populaire dates back to 1895, when local groceries decided to make a soup with their leftover vegetables instead of having them stolen by hungry passersby, as often happened. The soup was originally made and served in large caravans next to the adjacent church. It moved to its current location in 1901 and since then has been turned into an association funded by individual donations.
These days, the popularity of Soupe Populaire does indeed seem to be a source of concern for nearby businesses. “Around noon there are always big queues and a lot of beggars, so some clients complain about it,” says a staff member at the Clêment hotel.
Pascal Loiseau is a long-time customer. He’s carrying a large rucksack and anticipating his lunch with great appetite. “They prepare different food and it’s always good. If you have no money like me, it’s the best place to eat,” he says.
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