Two springs ago, when I found out I was going to spend a year living and teaching in Paris, I was awash in fantasy. There we were, my wife and I, walking arm-in-arm along the Seine, exploring the ancient alleys of the Marais, sipping kir royals in a cozy Left Bank cafe, rekindling passions dulled by years of child raising and the rigors of life in the Big Apple.
In the grip of my romantic fervor, however, one small detail escaped me. It wasn't just my wife and I who were packing our bags for a year in paradise. Our 7-year-old son, Jesse, was packing too -- a suitcase full of Legos, stuffed animals and baseball gloves.
What would it be like to share Paris with a 7-year-old boy? How could he survive without peanut butter and Oreos, the Muppets and the Mets? How would we survive? Would we ever visit a cathedral or a museum or take that restorative romantic walk?
I'm happy to say Jesse had a wonderful time -- and so did we. In fact, my wife and I got to do many of the things we'd always dreamed of and, in addition, discovered a Paris we might never have seen without Jesse by our side. All it took was strategy, guile and cunning, plus the willingness to yield to the needs and enthusiasms of a 7-year-old boy. Whether you're taking your child to Paris for a week or a year, it's possible to do it without the additional baggage of an enfant terrible. Take it from three experts.
Our child's tour of Paris began -- where else? -- at the Eiffel Tower. The day we arrived, we rode the dizzying outdoor elevator to the very top as Paris unfolded below us like a gigantic aerial map. From the observation platform 984 feet above the city, we picked out monuments below and worked up enthusiasm for future explorations with the help of the wonderfully detailed diagrams on the walls.
Since children love to climb, we used climbing as an enticement when we began to explore the city. We puffed our way to the top of the Arc de Triomphe and saw Paris from its busy center, climbed the steps of the Basilica of Sacre-Coeur for a view of Montmartre, and scaled the steep hills of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont to take a rare breath of fresh Parisian air. Next, we set out to conquer the south tower of Notre-Dame where, at the summit, there are close-up views of the monstrous gargoyles as well as a video presentation of the cathedral's history. By the time we'd finished our expeditions, Jesse had become an expert on Parisian geography. From then on, he was the official family map reader and pathfinder.
Before we attempted to set foot inside a church, the three of us read together David Macaulay's book for children, "Cathedral," which traces step by step, through drawings, the construction of a Gothic cathedral. Suddenly, Jesse was curious and happily visited the interior of Notre-Dame and, later, other churches, including the magnificent Sainte Chapelle, which he decided looked like the inside of a jewel box.
To combine sightseeing with much-needed rest, we took a ride on a Bateau-Mouche, an open-topped excursion boat that departs from the Pont de l'Alma for a narrated cruise on the Seine. These large, comfortable boats travel down the river, circle the Ile St.-Louis and return past the miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty that is the high point of the trip for most American kids.
But it's one thing to get children to climb towers and take boat rides, and quite another to get them to march through the Louvre. The best way to conquer museum-phobia is to start off slowly, by visiting one of the many museums in Paris that appeal to kids. After that, you can move on to bigger things.
The Pompidou Center, also called the Beaubourg, opened in 1977 to bring art and culture to the masses; it is now the most visited tourist attraction in France. Its high-tech exterior of multicolored exposed tubes and ducts makes it look like it's built out of Legos. In fact, there's a Lego model of the building on the main floor; seeing it is a good way to get kids inside. In addition, they'll love riding the glassed-in escalator up the side of the building for the great views of the city. Inside, there are exhibits of art, photography and technology that will appeal to some or all of you. There's even a children's activity center that offers daily art workshops. You can sign up on the spot.
The esplanade in front of the Pompidou is a show in itself. A wild assortment of fire eaters, sword swallowers, jugglers, fakirs lounging on beds of nails, folk singers and mimes perform there night and day to large, enthusiastic crowds of tourists, while a mysterious digital clock above the main entrance ticks off the remaining seconds until the end of the millennium. Don't miss the wacky kinetic fountain behind the Pompidou with its multicolored spouting elephant, gigantic red lipstick lips and whimsical water-powered constructions.
One remarkable new museum we certainly would not have seen without Jesse is the space-age City of Science and Industry in the 136-acre Parc de la Villette in northeast Paris. This immense, ultramodern applied-science museum is composed almost entirely of hands-on exhibits, including an elaborate children's touching museum. Be prepared to say hello to the talking robot who greets you at the door.
Across from the entrance to the museum sits a gigantic chrome-plated sphere, La Ge'ode. It contains the world's largest wraparound multiscreen movie theater, and shows breathtaking science and nature films.
We always tried to make a museum trip into an adventure by combining it with a book, a special treat or both. Before we went to see the collection of Monet waterlilies in the small, peaceful Musee Marmottan in the 16th arrondissement, we read Jesse a children's book by Christina Byork called "Linnea in Monet's Garden." It tells the story of a young girl who loves Monet's paintings and comes all the way to France to visit Giverny, Monet's house and gardens outside of Paris.
Jesse loved the book, loved the waterlilies, loved seeing Monet's actual palette on exhibit in the museum, and loved riding on the last remaining hand-cranked carousel in Paris in the tranquil Jardin du Ranelagh, just across the street from the museum. A week later, sketch pads, baguettes and "Linnea" under our arms, we took the one-hour train trip to Giverny and spent a delightful afternoon wandering around the beautifully restored gardens, sketching on the banks of the lily pond and imagining ourselves impressionists for a day.
Without a child, we would have occasionally ended up collapsing on park benches around Paris recovering from the pains and swellings of excessive sightseeing. But with Jesse along, we were forced regularly into the parks so he could play.
Of all the parks we visited, our favorite was the lovely Luxembourg Gardens on the Left Bank, probably the most famous park in Paris and filled with things for children to do. Rent a model sailboat and a wooden launching stick at the boat pond and your children can sail their boats as you sit peacefully watching the procession of elegant Parisians stroll by. There's also a beautifully maintained and supervised children's playground area with slides, swings, sandboxes and a yellow ball attached to a long aerial wire on which kids can glide from one end of the playground to the other. Nearby, a cranky old Parisienne rents three-wheeled go-carts that can be pedaled around a long, circular course.
When Jesse grew tired of the playground and we grew weary of people-watching, we simply walked a few yards to the wonderful Luxembourg marionette theater, a treasured French institution. It presents two shows on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesday afternoons (a day off for French schoolchildren) and every day during school vacations and in summer. Heading the cast of characters is Guignol, a puppet as famous in France as Kermit the Frog is in America.An American child with no French can easily follow the broad, slapstick action.
After the show, we often bought freshly made gaufres (French waffles) sprinkled with confectioner's sugar or huge clouds of cotton candy called barbe a` Papa (literally, Papa's beard) at the old-fashioned wooden candy stand near the theater entrance. Then, if there was time, we'd try the carousel, take a pony ride, or visit the park's bee-keeping area for a free demonstration.
Once we discovered the treasures of the Luxembourg Gardens, we never went anywhere in Paris without locating the park closest to our sightseeing destination. What we discovered, to our delight, was that almost all of Paris's parks have attractions for children:
The vast Bois be Boulogne has fields, lakes on which to rent rowboats and two large children's amusement areas -- the Jardin d'Acclimation and the smaller Relais du Bois, which offer miniature train rides, a dinosaur museum, carnival games, amusement park rides, a Ferris wheel, restaurants and a cafes.
The Jardin des Plantes, a 10-minute walk along the Seine from Notre-Dame, contains a botanical garden, a natural history museum (yes, with dinosaurs) and a small zoo.
The stately Bois de Vincennes, on the eastern edge of the city and easily in reach from the newly gentrified area around the Bastille, has the largest zoo in Paris, a medieval chateau and a lovely formal garden.
On rainy days, when boredom set in and only the most strenuous exercise would expend Jesse's energy, we often searched out one of the 38 immaculately clean indoor pools around the city where, for around $3 (less for children), you can rent your own locked cabine and swim the entire day.
But what about food? Did visiting Paris with a child condemn us to a diet of Big Macs? Not at all. Granted, we didn't often experience the three-star meal of our dreams when we dined en famille, but we did find that you can eat well with a child if you patronize, as most Parisian families do, any number of small, inexpensive, local restaurants that serve good, well-prepared and authentic French food. Yes, French food even a child can love.
Jesse's favorite restaurant was the tiny Le Baptiste in the Latin Quarter (11 Rue des Boulangers; closed Saturday nights and Sundays), where a three-course dinner costs about $9, the waiters are friendly, and he was perfectly happy eating steak and frites or the French version of a cheeseburger, steak savoyard.
When we craved a fancier meal, but one with special appeal for children, we went to L'Assiette de Boeuf, on the Rue Guillaume Apollinaire around the corner from St.-Germain-des-Pres, where the walls are mirrored, Grand Epoque style, the specialty is steak, and the mousse au chocolat comes a` volonte' (in unlimited quantity).
For those times when only moo shoo pork or cold noodles would do, it was always easy to find a good Chinese or Vietnamese restaurant. The greatest concentration is along the bustling Avenue de Choisy in the 13th arrondissement, the main street of Paris's large Chinatown.
An immensely helpful discovery we made early in our explorations was that seemingly every cafe and brasserie in Paris has at least one American pinball machine, which is guaranteed to keep a child flipping while you peacefully eat your croque monsieur (a French grilled-cheese sandwich) or savor an omelet and salad.
Our ace in the hole when we needed to keep Jesse motivated for sightseeing was to announce that after we saw the next church or monument, we'd pay a visit to the undisputed ice cream Mecca of Paris, a tiny family-owned shop called Berthillon on the lovely Ile St.-Louis (31 Rue St. Louis en Ile; closed during August and on school holidays). Berthillon produces a staggering number of delicious home-made flavors, from chocolate a` l'orange to green apple sorbet. In the evening, tired and aching, we'd often recuperate by buying ourselves three-scoop cones and stand on one of the bridges overlooking the Seine, blissfully watching the boats glide by.
Our year in Paris is long over now. We've returned to the harsh realities of New York life and are trying our best to keep our Parisian memories alive. True, we never had lunch at La Tour d'Argent or dinner at Taillevent, we did miss a museum or two and we didn't get to see all the romantic Parisian sights we might have seen had we been alone. But what we did discover, to our surprise and delight, was that traveling with a child permitted us to see a side of Paris we would never have seen by ourselves. Not the Paris of the bus tours, boutiques and trendy bistros, but a slower, simpler, more human Paris. Paris with a giggle. Paris reflected in a child's eyes.
Richard Schotter is a playwright and professor of English at Queens College, CUNY.