The idea of the adventure was born almost exactly a year ago, when my then-19-year-old son, home on winter break from college during his freshman year, burst into my bedroom at 11 at night. “I got it! I got it! I’m going to the castle.”
The “castle” is the 13th-century castle in the Netherlands owned by Boston’s Emerson College, where Andrew is studying writing, literature and publishing. Because, of course, every institution of higher learning should own a 13th-century castle. The castle program, in which Emerson students spend a semester studying in the tiny village of Well and traveling extensively, is one of the school’s major recruiting tools. But the reality is that, with only 80 students going per semester, being chosen to go to the castle is a rare opportunity.
As soon as I started telling friends that Andrew would be studying abroad, the question came: “Are you going to visit him?” To be honest, I was a little nervous about bringing it up. What if he didn’t want his mom butting in on his chance at independence and exploration? But the Emerson program allows for a six-day “travel break” at midterm. The school’s travel office assured me that “lots of parents” meet up with their students during this time, so I broached the subject with Andrew.
“I was thinking that maybe during travel break, we could meet up in Paris.” As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. His response was instantaneous, enthusiastic and, I like to think, only marginally influenced by the fact that I was offering to foot the bill for five days in one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.
Which is how, in the last week of October, Andrew and I wound up on a trip that makes me understand how “We’ll always have Paris” became cliche.
We arrived within an hour of each other — Andrew from Vienna and me from the District — on a crystal-clear morning when my weather app told me the temperatures would reach into the 70s. (I had packed for five days of 45 and rain.)
One of our first images of Paris was of three heavily armed, camouflage-garbed soldiers walking through the main terminal of Charles de Gaulle Airport. They swaggered and swung their machine guns casually. “Charlie Hebdo,” I whispered to Andrew. We would see similar threesomes during the next several days — walking among the tourists under the Eiffel Tower and at the Arc de Triomphe, where a less heavily armed but still-imposing police presence was in evidence. We noted them each time we saw them, commenting on how odd it would be to see something like that back home, but in time it came to be as Parisian a sight as a native carrying half a dozen two-foot-long baguettes.
I had booked us into the Paris Pullman hotel — yes, a chain — but the combination of its easy access to the Metro and its location in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower more than made up for its lack of true Parisian charm. The Eiffel Tower, the iron behemoth that looms over the city, had left me cold in previous visits to Paris, but something about having it as a neighbor for five days gave me a new appreciation for its statuesque elegance.
Our days in Paris were marked by what — at the risk of sounding like a credit card commercial — could only be described as priceless moments. I am a firm believer that the only way to defeat jet lag is to get on native time immediately, which means doing a full day of sightseeing on your arrival day, even after a sleepless transatlantic flight. So with our bags stowed in our room, comfortable shoes on our feet and map in hand, we set out for a walk across Paris.
My plan was to walk along the Seine and cross over at the Place de la Concorde, walk through the Tuileries, past the Louvre and up to Notre Dame. Anyone reading this who has been to Paris is probably saying at this point: “Has she lost her mind?” Okay, it’s more than three miles. In my defense, it looked far less daunting on a map.
Did I mention that the sky was crystalline blue, that there were still flowers blooming in the Tuileries, that the crepes we bought from a vendor and ate by the fountains were divine and that my teenage son kept looking at me and saying, “It’s so good to see you, Mom.” He seemed to have grown a foot because he carried himself with so much more confidence. This was not the same boy I had put on a flight to Amsterdam a mere seven weeks earlier.
When we got to Notre Dame and Andrew stood on a bridge to take a picture across the Seine, we noticed the Eiffel Tower in the distance . . . very, very small in the distance. “We’re not walking back, Mom,” was as close to teenage insolence as I would get all week. The reality was that our feet were aching, and so, after a quick spin through Notre Dame, we grabbed a seat on a bench overlooking the Seine. In the distance on a bridge, an Adele wannabe was singing standards with a crowd gathered around her, but we were content to sit in the sun and be serenaded with “Moon River.” Really, if you saw such a scene in an Owen Wilson movie, it would induce eye rolls. But it happened, and it was as close to a perfect Paris moment as you were likely to experience. And, in a city renowned for being expensive, it was free.
Which brings me to another point about Paris: There are definitely ways to save money and anxiety so that you can get the most out of the city. One of those is the Paris Museum Pass, which allows you access to most of Paris’s must-do sights (notable exceptions are the Eiffel Tower and the Catacombs) with a single omnibus admission fee of 62 euros, or about $67, for four days. (For 48 euros, it’s also available as a two-day pass, which must be used on consecutive days.) But in addition to the convenience of paying only once, the Museum Pass eliminates much waiting. When we arrived at the Louvre, for example, the line snaked across the plaza, but as Museum Pass holders, we used a side entrance and were in the gallery five minutes later. Similarly, later that day we showed up at the Musée d’Orsay, home to much of France’s most famous impressionist artwork and housed in a magnificent restored train station. The sign at the entrance noted that the wait to get in was 30 minutes. Not for us!
As we set out for dinner on the Champs-Élysées that evening, it was impossible not to notice our neighbor the tower, all lit up. But it was as we were returning from dinner that Paris once again delighted. It was just turning 10 p.m., and suddenly the tower started twinkling, with lights dancing up and down the 984 feet of the magnificent edifice. We squealed with joy, and Andrew turned to me. “Did you know it did that?” I didn’t. The last time I had been in Paris was the early 1990s, and this light show, which lasts for five minutes at the top of every hour, got its start just ahead of the millennium. For each of our remaining nights, we tried to make sure we were around to see the show. By the end of the week, we felt we were veterans, but it was possible each night to see new visitors squeal, surprised and excited to see the city living up to its name.
I had largely planned the itinerary for this trip. Louvre, Orsay, Eiffel Tower (we walked up: much cheaper, more satisfying and not so daunting as it might seem). We would go to Versailles and Montmartre. But on Wednesday night, Andrew said, “Next time I come to Paris, I’d really like to see the Catacombs.” I confess, it had never even made my list. It was not in a convenient part of town; it was not on Rick Steves’s must-see list; it was notorious for having long lines; and it was not covered by the Museum Pass. But my son, who had enthusiastically gone to museums, churches and gardens, wanted to walk under the city for a mile and encounter the bones of 6 million Parisians. So off we set.
Andrew has written about our experience in the Catacombs, so I won’t steal his thunder. But suffice it to say that, like sharing a bottle of wine with your son, it was one of those moments when, as a mother, you realize that your work is largely done. You can tell that the person in front of you is moral, insightful and caring. And you know that in the countless sleepless nights that have led to this moment, that’s really what you were praying for: Let him be a good person.
For us, Paris held so many other cherished moments.
We walked the gardens of Versailles, which Andrew found far more impressive than the crowded palace itself. (Worth noting: Except on “Fountain Days,” when the fountains do elaborate water dances, the gardens are free and an easy 30-minute train ride from Paris.)
Andrew had a vision of a quintessential Paris moment, which was to buy bread, cheese and sausage on the street and have a picnic. On our last day in Paris, after walking through Luxembourg Gardens, we turned onto Rue de Seine in the Latin Quarter, and right there in front of us was a knife-wielding vendor cutting samples of cheese. Five minutes later, armed with chunks far bigger than the two of us could ever hope to consume, we set off for Montmartre, where, sitting on the steps at the highest point in Paris, we had our picnic.
After the vacation, people would ask me about my time with Andrew in Paris. You know how you look forward to something so much that it becomes impossible for it to live up to expectations? Well, not this time. “I just want to put those days in a bottle and save them forever,” I said over and over again.
Two weeks later came the horror of the Paris attacks. Those street corners, although not ones we had been on, seemed so familiar. And the faces of the dead and injured so reminded me of Andrew — young, exuberant, optimistic and seemingly invincible.
And I remembered our quietly spoken references to Charlie Hebdo. Now, I suspect, there will be more soldiers in the streets, there will be muttered references to “the Bataclan.” And perhaps, for a while, people will be nervous about going to Paris. But ultimately, the city will call us back. And we should heed her call. Paris is a city of priceless, eternal memories. Just ask a mother and her son.
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Pullman Paris Eiffel Tower Hotel
18 Ave. de Suffren
A modern hotel convenient to the Metro and the Eiffel Tower that seems to cater to tourists and business travelers. The concierge staff is helpful, and the location is unbeatable. Rooms from about $250.
Cafe de Flore
172 Blvd. Saint-Germain
The legendary Paris coffeehouse in Saint-Germain-des-Prés that was a haunt for the likes of Pablo Picasso. Highly recommended are the soft-boiled eggs, which come with baguette crisps for dipping. Menus are available in English and French; the highest compliment I was paid during my trip was to be given a French menu after uttering a few words asking for a table. Superb coffee.
38 Ave. de Suffren
An easy walk from the Eiffel Tower, this comfortable pizza-and-pasta restaurant boasts friendly servers, amazingly quick service, and a lively atmosphere that attracts locals and tourists alike. We ate there twice and saw families with young children, couples on date nights and, like us, parents with college-age children. Very moderate prices for Paris, with many dinners under $20.