Paris with Kids

With a 5-year-old: Swap museums for parks, bistro cuisine for picnic fare -- but keep the Eiffel Tower.

Washington Post | 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.

• • •

The next day, before setting out, I began thinking about how far my son's little legs were going to take him. Although Paris is one of the great walking cities, I decided to opt for the Batobus, a boat that plies the Seine, making eight stops along the way. There's none of the loudspeaker narration that can mar a trip on the traditional bateaux-mouches , and it's a great way to combine getting somewhere with a leisurely ride on the river. You buy a ticket that permits you to get on and off all day. For us, though, the boat itself became the focal point. We just sat back, pointing to Notre Dame as it sailed past, the Eiffel Tower again, the Musee d'Orsay. (An old train station! Imagine that! I figured that although I wasn't going to attempt any museums this visit, I could at least lay the groundwork for future visits.)

We both wanted to do more than we had time or energy for -- it seems that the tourist version of "eyes-bigger-than-stomach" syndrome is passed on genetically. We took to repairing to cafes for our afternoon gouter (snack -- literally, a taste), armed with that week's copy of the wonderfully comprehensive Pariscope listings guide and a highlighter. Martin would screw up his face with great concentration as I explained the grand guignol marionette tradition, and that practically every Parisian park has a marionette theater. But then there was the circus to consider. And wait, another circus. And Parc de la Villette, with its science and music museums. And the barge up the Canal St. Martin. Not to mention the famous tea room Laduree, whose equally famous macaroon cookies come in flavors as different as pistachio and rose water.

We chose the Luxembourg Gardens' marionette version of "The Three Little Pigs" ("You mean 'Les Trois Petits Cochons' means exactly the same thing?"), only to get caught in a drenching summer rain midway between the Metro and the park. Although soaked to the bone, Martin seemed to enjoy the show, while I focused on eavesdropping on the French kids and their mothers and nannies and grandmas (much to my discouragement, I couldn't make out a word of kiddie French).

It was only after the curtain came down that we were in for another of those travel epiphanies. We were hurrying out of the park -- on our way, I thought, to the hotel and dry clothes -- when Martin spied a playground, this one bigger and better than the one at Parc Monceau. I wasn't terribly interested, and was even less so when I saw that they had the temerity to charge admission. The park was fenced in, with a little ticket office and a turnstile to keep nonpaying interlopers out. But I eventually forked over a few euros, and it was a very good thing I did. The inventiveness and imagination that went into creating this play equipment were astounding.

There was the standard playground array -- climbing equipment, train, sandbox -- but so much more. Martin became mesmerized by one thing that was more like a ride than a regulation playground item. He would climb a little set of steps onto a platform, pull a heavy vertical pole into place, mount it and, either sitting or standing, push off and the pole would whoosh along its circular track. And then again, and again. We were there so long I was able to brush up on my rusty French well enough to exchange pleasantries with one sweet little girl's equally sweet grandpa.

Although the casual cafes that dot every Parisian street are great kid-food options, that night an in-room picnic suited our low energy level. So we got ourselves over to the storied Place de la Madeleine -- home to the Church of the Madeleine but, more importantly at dinnertime, also to Fauchon and Hediard, fancy food stores par excellence. Fauchon provided us with a bizarre collection of picnic fare (Martin opted for sushi -- of course, what else do you eat on your first trip to Paris?), and we snagged a dozen mini-macaroons next door at Laduree. Bliss in a box.

The next day, we took the Metro out to Parc de la Villette, which in summer shows films on a large outdoor screen and hosts concerts and a plethora of other activities. Our idea had been to visit both the music and the science museums, but the Cite des Sciences contains a special mini-museum for younger kids, so we got no farther than that.

Like the Luxembourg Gardens playground, the science museum was a model of good design and intelligent thinking about how to engage kids. Mine pulled every lever, turned every crank, gazed through every peephole and often went back to do it all again. Afterward, we walked along the Canal St. Martin, making friends with a Russian girl and her mother. The kids found a slide in a tiny playground by the river, and when the time came to say goodbye, Martin couldn't understand why he was never going to see her again. It was his first taste of the bittersweet pleasures of travel: 20 minutes, eight hours, that's it, you're gone. I suppose they could have exchanged e-mail addresses.

• • •

By the time of our next two visits, a year or so later, our lives had taken a surprising turn: We'd moved to France -- although, sadly, not to Paris.

Now, when I eavesdrop on kids' conversations, I can actually make out a bit of what they are saying. Martin has learned how to say gouter like a pro, and the all-important fact that every French child's birthright is a fresh pain au chocolat at 3 or 4 in the afternoon.

On our last visit, although we were still tourists, we made ourselves more at home: Instead of staying in a hotel, we found an apartment to rent in the Marais. It was tiny and none too clean, but it did make it easier to eat our dinnertime nems in our pajamas when we were too tired to go out for dinner. We explored the neighborhood boulangeries near our Metro stop instead of taking taxis to chic groceries in far-off arrondissements (one result: we stumbled upon a brioche flavored just slightly with orange -- look for one next time you're in Paris). We met my cousin (then living in Paris, lucky woman) at her neighborhood pool and went for a swim.

We took buses, something I'd never ventured to do in Paris. Predictably, many stops were missed.

Knowing we'd been here before and that we would come back, we didn't mark up our Pariscope quite as much. Martin was fascinated with the Metro maps in each station and loved to help plot our route, so taxis were a thing of the past (which improved our finances greatly). When he heard that the new No. 14 line was ultra-mod and driverless, it went straight to the top of his to-do list. Although we never managed to make it onto the No. 14, we did fit in a barge ride on the Canal St. Martin, which was a huge hit.

The barge proceeds from the Musee d'Orsay at an extremely stately pace, arriving at Parc de la Villette three hours later. (Bring food: The boat offers incredible views but no nourishment.) Some of the trip is through mysterious, lichen-encrusted tunnels, and several stops are made to wait for the locks to achingly, slowly fill with water. When the gates open and the waters rushes in and sprays everywhere, all the kids (and a few of the adults) on board get extremely excited.

One day we went to the Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Gardens) in the fifth arrondissement to see what a Parisian zoo looked like. The snakes were great, and saying the tongue-twisting names of the animals out loud in French was even better.

Another day, we journeyed out to the Jardin d'Acclimatation, an amusement park in the Bois de Boulogne on the edge of town. Built in 1860, this place has stood the test of time and then some.

From the minute we got on the little train that would take us from the entrance of the huge Bois into the amusement park, Martin was transfixed. The park had none of the glitz of the Tuileries carnival, none of the souped-up modernity of Disney, but from river ride to bumper car, it's an excellent place. After we left, we took a city bus into another part of the sprawling Bois. We ended up in front of a lovely lake with boats for rent, but we were out of time. We passed a man with bikes for rent, but we were out of money.

Ah, well. Two more for the to-do list.

Since moving with her family to France last year, Anne Glusker has been averaging a trip to Paris every three months.

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