Ah, Paris. City of light, of love, of Moulin Rouge and film noir, catwalks and cobblestones, Art Nouveau lamp posts on moonlit bridges, champagne flutes clinking at sidewalk cafes. ... And, of course, playgrounds.
My acquaintance with the kid underbelly of the French capital started with my frequent flyer miles. I had a lot of them. So I offered to take my daughter, my son-in-law and my 11- and 7-year-old granddaughters anywhere that American Airlines flies. The adults picked Paris.
I was admittedly a little nervous. I love Paris, and I know it well. But, seriously? If I were a kid, I’d rather spend my vacation in the Galapagos or, for that matter, Miami Beach. For months before the trip, I sent the girls books about Paris, but it’s not easy to convey the city’s magical joie de vivre. (As 11-year-old Rebecca later told me, “I had a stereotypical view that everyone in Paris was a guy with a mustache, a beret and a baguette under his arm.”) I envisioned glazed eyes and zero ooh la la.
My misgivings disappeared when we emerged from the metro station after the trip from the airport. Rebecca gazed up, jet-lagged but goggle-eyed, at the city’s distinctive creamy limestone architecture, blue slate mansard roofs and filigreed balconies, and immediately shouted, “OH MY GOD! IT’S PARIS! IT’S REALLY PARIS!” And began snapping away madly with her iPod camera.
This paparazzi routine was a recurring motif during our week in Paris and the three days we spent at the beach in nearby Normandy. Telling kids to find some good pictures to take — in Paris, or I suspect, anywhere — will focus their attention, even if you’re someplace they might otherwise find less than scintillating.
The adults — four of us, since my other daughter joined us for part of the trip — naturally had activities we were eager to do. But we also had a list of child-friendly pursuits, including the bateaux-mouches tour boats, the Catacombs, the famous Berthillon ice cream stand on the Ile St-Louis, the Eiffel Tower, the gargoyles of Notre Dame, the Cite des Enfants children’s museum, the sidewalk artists and street performers in Montmartre and Les Halles, and the city’s various parks, such as the Tuileries, the Luxembourg Gardens, the Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin des Plantes.
There were some hot spots that we never even got to, including the Eiffel Tower. (After a close-up cruise-by look from the bateau-mouche, the kids stopped lobbying for the view from the top.) But the master list gave us daily flexibility to adjust to the weather and to what was near our other destinations. There was at least one pit stop for the younger set every day — sometimes the whole day.
Rebecca turned out to be easy. She’s an artistic kid, although not previously much of a fan of looking at other people’s artwork indoors. But the museums of Paris really clicked for her, far more than any of the adults anticipated. In the Louvre, she was transfixed by the Mona Lisa. “I did a report in third grade on Leonardo da Vinci, and it was amazing to be right next to something he actually physically touched,” she marveled. (Moral of the story: Although you shouldn’t count on traveling the way you would without children, at least give them a chance to appreciate why Paris is one of the world’s leading adult tourist destinations.)
The kid-oriented stops were crucial for 7-year-old Julia, whose idea of a good time usually involves either Harry Potter or a surfboard. The city’s gorgeously manicured parks turned out to be a surprisingly interesting cultural experience, too — with merry-go-rounds, trampolines, boat-sailing ponds, puppets, chessboards and other exotica rarely seen on American playgrounds. (Which did Julia like better? “They’re both cool,” she decreed, “but in different ways.”)
Probably the biggest challenge (and most fun) for both girls involved simply fitting into new rhythms. “I don’t know why, but when you go into a shop in France, it’s really rude not to say ‘bon jour’ when you enter and ‘au revoir’ when you leave,” I explained early on. To American kids who may never even make eye contact with clerks in stores, this was a novel concept, but they rose to the task. They were soon parlez-vous-ing all the other basic politeness phrases, as well as asking for their room key in French. I almost burst with pride one day when they were skipping arm in arm up the Rue Mouffetard pedestrian street, bumped into someone, and instantly chorused, “Pardon! Excusez-moi!”
The fact that Paris is so far north meant that summer nights stayed light until 10, and the girls were up late (which also usually meant that getting everyone up, clean and ready for breakfast before the hotel stopped serving at 11 a.m. was an impossible dream). Having our own kitchen would have solved the problem, but when I had looked for apartments that could accommodate a family our size, the pickings were as slim as a Chanel suit … and in any case we liked the convenience of hotel maid service. But the typical French dining schedule — specific prescribed times for meals, few restaurants with continuous service, little snacking — took some adjustment.
The food itself, however, was a smashing success. Moments after their arrival, I brought the girls to a patisserie and introduced them to the glories of the Paris-Brest eclair. “That … was … the best pastry I ever had,” said Rebecca, in the reverent tones usually reserved for seeing the stained glass rose window at Notre Dame. This became a refrain. “I never knew croissants and hot chocolate could be this good,” Julia declared after our first breakfast together, in a restaurant that blessedly served until noon.
Like Parisians, we sometimes ate Greek, Italian, or Asian food for lunch or dinner, but mostly we dined a la francaise. The kids chowed down rare duck breast in chocolate orange sauce. Ditto for terrine of grapefruit with tea sauce. They ate macaroons in weird flavors, like mojito. They ate stinky cheese. They ate cold soup. And yes, they ate oysters. (They did draw the line at snails.) They also took photographs of food. A lot of photographs of food.
Restaurant bathrooms were as culturally noteworthy as playgrounds, from modern self-cleaning toilets with whirling seats to old school models with a tank above and a pull chain. (Sadly, neither of our hotels had bidets. I’m still not sure the kids even believed me that they exist.)
Sometimes the key to a great travel memory was just to let stuff happen. At a bus stop the girls began playing a popular American schoolyard clapping and singing game (“Down by the banks of the Hanky Panky, where the bullfrogs jump from bank to banky …”). A bunch of local kids who were also waiting for the bus stared with undisguised fascination and then began thwacking out a French equivalent — literally a hands-across-the-sea cross-cultural clapapalooza.
I realize that Julia and Rebecca will probably turn into teenagers any minute now, busy hanging out with their peers. But this trip was well worth all those miles — for them, their parents, and certainly for me. As Rick said to Ilsa, “we’ll always have Paris.”