I don’t remember what it was I did on that first day in the orphanage. It is simply a blank. However, I do remember that at some point the children began lining up in their little black uniform aprons in front of some large wooden doors at the other end of the courtyard. This I was told was the refectory, where we ate our meals.
Unsurprisingly, as I didn’t know the procedure, I wound up at the tail end of the queue, and began waiting, as all the other children were doing. The line was not moving at all, and being hungry, I took the apple out of the brown bag my mother had given me when she left, and I began munching on it. Not too long after I had started eating my apple, the little girl in front of me, whose name was Pia by-the-way and who became a great friend, asked me if she could have my “bobine.” I had no idea what she was talking about, because the word “bobine” in French simply meant a spool, as in a spool of thread. But when I asked what she wanted, she indicated that what she wanted was the core of my apple. Having no objection, I gave it to her, half wondering what she was going to do with it. It didn’t take her long. A couple of bites later she had eaten the apple core, pits and all. She was starving, and by the following day, I was also. To this day, when I eat an apple, I eat the whole thing, core and all. Indeed, I don’t even notice the core or the pits.
We ate in the refectory, which was a large hall in which tables and benches were arranged in rows. The problem was that there was never enough food. Our only occasional source of protein was salted and dried codfish. We hated it. At first I thought that the other children were exaggerating how bad it tasted, but after a while I agreed with them. It was awful. The rest of the meals weren’t all that much better, although there was never enough of anything. When we had cabbage, it was mostly the central stem. When we had potatoes, we got mostly the peels. When we did get potatoes it was in such minute quantities that it helped to encourage hunger rather than to assuage it. We discovered that if we mashed out small portions long enough with our forks, after some time it would become quite mushy, almost whip cream-like, and that it would take up more space on our plates and thus take longer to eat. We never saw butter or fruit, throughout my stay there, and the bread was always a dark mix of flour and sawdust.
I have no idea why there was so little food. Possibly it was because there were no ration cards for all the children hidden there, and what legal food there was had to be shared by a larger number of children. Yet, it did have consequences, as children fell sick of malnutrition and other unpleasantness such as scabies. Eventually, I wound up at the hospital for these conditions bred by dirt and lack of food.