On Valentine's Day, Marcie Akers of Raleigh, N.C., decided to surprise her husband. She didn't offer him the traditional heart-shaped chocolate box or candlelit dinner away from their two kids. Instead, as a sentimental gesture, she bought him a tree in Versailles.
She is one of 800 Americans who have helped finance the reforestation of the Chateau de Versailles in France after a furious storm ravaged its park last December. The castle launched a worldwide "adoption campaign" last month.
Of the $400,000 that has already been collected, 40 percent comes from American wallets. Most of the Americans who have contributed are individuals who fell in love with Versailles some years ago, says Hubert Astier, the president of Versailles.
The large number of American donors does not surprise Mr. Astier. The American infatuation with Versailles has several sources, he says. Some see Versailles as a romantic place, others as the meeting point of two histories, French and American.
Akers says she would never have contributed to the restoration of any other monuments abroad. But she remembers the magic and romance of Versailles, where she dragged her husband right after they got married.
"We went to Versailles, and I fell in love all over again: I fell in love with my husband, with the place, with the whole atmosphere," she says.
When she heard about the storm, she felt so terrible that her husband refused to show her the pictures of the devastation. A few weeks later, she read about he adoption campaign and decided to offer a tree to her husband for Valentine's Day.
Instead of buying a material gift that won't last, "I felt [I was] making a contribution that will always get bigger and better and stronger," she says.
On Dec. 26, gusts of wind of up to 100 m.p.h. turned the Chateau de Versailles into what resembled a battlefield, razing 10,000 trees. A number of unique trees were uprooted - some of them centuries old, including a Virginia tulip tree, brought back from the American Revolution by Gen. Lafayette.
It will take years and $23 million to restore Versailles' park, Astier estimates. He has already received enough money to buy 2,400 trees and hopes the campaign will raise enough to replant all 10,000.
After the storm, Astier received so many e-mails and letters of support from America, that he decided to organize a fund-raising campaign, he says.
"The idea of the adoption just popped up at a dinner with friends in Paris," he says. "We were talking about all those e-mails from Americans who wanted to help us. We decided we could not refuse their help."
For $154, anyone can adopt a tree to be planted in Versailles' garden. Contributors will receive a certificate singling out their tree, but will not have any property rights to it.
Some high schools and colleges have also participated in the campaign. On March 20, high school students from Atlanta will plant the first tree, which will be shipped from the United States.
Jim Lewis, a mathematics professor at the University of Nebraska, has also contributed to the adoption campaign. Mr. Lewis likes to donate to various causes in Nebraska and recently helped purchase a kilometer for a local hiking trail. But this is the first time he has made a similar contribution to an international cause. He did it because he feels very connected to France and Versailles and because he wants to do something for posterity.
Lewis is going to be a grandfather for the first time in May, and his son-in-law is French. Lewis wants his grandchild to learn about both his French and American heritage. "We want our grandchild to know we purchased this tree in his honor," Lewis says. "I have this image of his or her parents taking a picture of him or her beside the tree as both grow up."
To make a contribution, write Muse et Domaine national de Versailles, Chteau de Versailles RP834, 78008 Versailles, Cedex, France. Telephone from the US: 011-33-1-30-83-76-76. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit via the Internet at www. chateauversailles.fr/tempete
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