Paris with Kids
Sunday, May 14, 2006
You know you've reached middle age when, all of a sudden, Paris is no longer the city of light, of love, of romance, of a thousand vins rouges and cafes au lait and moonlit walks along the Seine, but instead . . . a place to go with your kid.
And, as it turns out, a wonderful place to visit with children. You just have to adjust your sights a little.
Instead of spending hours in the Musee d'Orsay, the old train station converted into a resplendent home for impressionists and other 19th-century artists, it'll be 15 minutes or no stop at all. Instead of bistro dinners stretching into the night, it might be a few nems (as the French call Vietnamese spring rolls) wolfed down at a counter. And those walks along the Seine? In afternoon sunlight, oui; moonlight, mais non .
My son, Martin, now 6, and I have been to Paris three times in the last year, and we fine-tune our travel method each time.
The first visit was during summer, high tourist season, and the annual kid-magnet carnival in the Tuileries Gardens was on just down the street from where we were staying in the first arrondissement. When we ventured out on the day we arrived, I tried to resist the bright lights and whirling rides, dismissing them with the snob's standard, "I didn't come to Paris for this!" But I quickly relented, and Martin was soon in a Parisian kids' heaven composed of equal parts Ferris wheel and merry-go-round and, of course, barbe a papa ("papa's beard," aka cotton candy). When I thought his eyes couldn't get any wider (whether from jet lag or the sugar high), I splurged on a taxi to take us to my idea of a Parisian kids' activity: a genteel stroll in Parc Monceau, in the oh-so-correct eighth arrondissement.
Thinking we'd have a picnic in the park, I stopped the cab in front of the foodie-chic grocery Boulangepicier (known simply as Be), the creation of chef Alain Ducasse and master baker Eric Kayser. With its clean lines and carefully presented food, it's a far cry from either McDonald's or a croque monsieur (the grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich that's a mainstay of many French kids' diets). A simple sandwich on a luscious skinny baguette was procured for Junior and an elegant cold soup for Senior, along with other goodies and, best of all, a plastic glass of wine. All of a sudden we were way too famished to take another step, and the few tables outside the shop proved the perfect place for us to watch the good citizens of this leafy quartier as they made their way home from work.
Sated and reenergized, we proceeded to the Parc Monceau at last, where the small playground was a big hit, allowing me to sit on a bench in the fading late-afternoon sun, reading first my guidebook, then a newspaper. And, best of all: The playground had its own, kids-only restroom with all the fixtures in miniature size.
That night, it soon became apparent that any attempts to maintain a regular schedule, especially bedtime, had been blown out of the water by the several-hour nap that we had idiotically taken when we first arrived. So, long after teeth were brushed and lights should have been out, we gave up on sleep and went out. I thought of long-ago ventures into the night-world of Paris. Where does one go with a child at night? Smoky boite , no. Opera, unh-uh. Glass-clinking cafe, probably not.
Then it hit me: the Eiffel Tower. In all my previous visits to Paris, I'd never been! Silly me, I'd thought the Eiffel Tower was for unknowing tourists. I hadn't realized that I'd been inadvertently saving it up to enjoy with someone who could really show me how: a 5-year-old.
The night was inky and the tower was lit up extravagantly. When the icon came into view, the goggle-eyed look on my son's face made his expression at the carnival look like one of Buddhist serenity.
Much discussion ensued about which sort of ticket we should buy -- in other words, how far up we wanted to go. (You can choose to go only up to Level 2, which is scary enough for a height-o-phobe like me, or to continue on to the very top, Level 3.) Martin insisted he wanted to go the distance -- or, rather, the height. But after much tedious waiting, both on the ground and along the way up, somewhere around Level 2 it was as if a switch had suddenly been turned off. On a narrow, curving staircase, I heard a firm voice from the step below me: "Mama, I need to go home and go to sleep."
Myself, I'm still hoping to return and see Level 3.