Four Americans in Paris

by Rachel on September 25, 2009

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

Though I do love Paris, I feel it is best to start with my petite list of complaints and then move on to the accolades. If you aren’t interested in a long story about our stay in Paris, go get a coffee and a cigarette and come back in half an hour – I’ll surely be on to another topic by then.

To begin, we did not take a single taxi-ride in Paris with a taxi driver who didn’t seem completely put out that we had the nerve to actually want a RIDE somewhere. They’ve all got this heavy sigh, “could my life get any worse?” attitude. As far as I can tell, I am not personally responsible for any of them being forced to place a “taxi” sign on the roof of their vehicles. They elected to do that long before they met me. The first thing every cranky driver said to me in complete disgust was, “that’s not far.” Invariably we wanted to go two miles. Somehow the economics of taxi driving are beyond them because even my ten year-old understands that the first mile is the most profitable. Most of them looked to have been sitting at the taxi stand for hours reading tabloid magazines. Apparently they’d rather read about aliens mating with Carla Bruni than actually earn a living.

We stayed at Hotel de Tourville, a 4-star hotel that surely bribed its way into some serious grade inflation on the part of whomever gives out stars. It’s on a quiet street and the rooms are bright, tidy, slightly bigger than a breadbox and charmless. This was our second experience over the summer in a hotel that had chosen to put rubber sheets between the cotton sheets and the mattress. This seems totally reasonable for toddlers and I too used them to make sure that my children didn’t get wee-wee on the bed. It’s much less appealing to sleep on them as an adult. The sound my husband made when he rolled over on the rubber did not move me.

Beyond the surly, inhospitable taxi drivers, and the joy of settling in to a night’s sleep on heavy plastic sheeting, I do so love Paris. It is a great city for kids. I knew it was a great city for adults, but seeing it through my children’s eyes was terrific. We went first to Luxembourg Gardens. We spent a fabulous four hours there and took advantage of the small wooden boats you can push into the breeze on the central pond, the mule rides, and the large playground in the center of the park that charges an admission fee but will let you play forever and ever. The formal gardens are as beautiful as I remembered them and the Parisians and the tourists were out in abundance enjoying a lovely summer’s day.

Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

We expected the children to walk a great deal in Paris and my youngest was a mite bit vocal about his dislike of the long forced marches. We walked much of the way from our hotel to Luxembourg Gardens, and then walked again from the park to Notre-Dame covering 3-4 miles in total. My child’s various ailments brought us no end of amusement. If it wasn’t his achy feet, it was his bum knee or his failing hip, and at one point he was sure he was going to faint. The great thing about his ailments is that they all miraculously disappear – poof – as soon as he gets to do something of his liking.

We ended our first day in Paris at a small, very traditional French Restaurant (L’Auberge Bressane) just around the corner from our hotel. Filled with Parisians and the four of us Yanks, the evening was perfect. My older son had escargot that were so tasty, so swimming in garlic and butter, so piping hot, and so completely flawless they could not have been improved in any way other than by dipping them in chocolate. My husband had a rooster stew that was rich and earthy and so not what you get at a French restaurant in Los Angeles.

Day 2 started blissfully at my favorite museum on the planet, the Musée d’Orsay. Some right thinking person in 1970 opted to save the Gare d’Orsay, a superbly striking train station that was no longer useful as a transportation hub, and turned it into a hub of a different sort. The French consolidated a number of collections of Impressionist artwork that had previously been spread across the city and created a bridge between the works in the Louvre and those at the Pompidou. There is something about the art from this period that speaks straight to my soul. Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, and more, all hung in bright broad rooms spanned by girders that were rescued from the original rail station. My children, well rested and fed, literally yelped with joy at the work. This bliss lasted a solid two hours at which point a number of underlying medical conditions surfaced and they both needed to be carried out on stretchers.

We lunched on sandwiches at the museum and then made the short forced march across the Seine to the Jardin des Tuileries, the vast gardens that sit between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde. In the summertime they turn over a part of this amazing garden to weary looking amusement park rides and games. French park games rely heavily on shooting things with real guns that have to be reloaded after each shot. I found it particularly thoughtful that they provide an ashtray next to each gun so that you can kill other things while simultaneously killing yourself. Despite my leftist leanings I reluctantly let the boys shoot (though I drew the line at smoking) and then quickly hurried them along to the bumper cars, which seemed a safer pursuit. However, these are not liability neutral bumper cars suitable for litigation-happy Americans. These are FRENCH bumper cars and driving them can best be described as willingly choosing to participate in a car accident every 20 seconds for five drawn-out minutes. I laughed hysterically for the first two and then feared for my life, or at least for my brain, which was being slammed around inside my skull something fierce. It was horrid. I had an immediate headache and I’m certain that any number of critical bones in my body are no longer located where they should be. I complained that I needed a stretcher, but no one listened.

We took another forced march up the Champs-Elysées to show the boys the Arc de Triomphe. The boulevard, once sparkling and elegant, it is now a sea of humanity flowing from McDonalds to the Virgin Megastore with a large number of stops at car dealerships in between. I find it tragic. It was once lovely and grand, mais pas maintenant. It feels much like Vegas, or the couple of blocks in Hollywood near the Mann Chinese Theater minus the guys in Star Wars get-ups. I feel certain that in another year or two the Star Wars guys will have moved in as well.

Our third day in Paris was spent visiting the Louvre followed by a lovely afternoon in Le Marais, the old Jewish quarter. I believe that the key to success with two small children in a museum the size of Delaware is to identify the 4 or 5 things that you must see, structure the decision process so that the children believe that they were responsible for choosing more than half of the 4-5 priority areas, arrive on or before the exact moment that the museum opens, stay two hours and then bring on the stretchers (either that or ice cream). We employed this strategy to near perfection at the Louvre. They have moved the Mona Lisa to new digs. One used to wait in a long tedious line to file past her in her deep, dark cage. She moved three or four years ago to much nicer quarters. She now has a lovely large room with a better bullet/fire proof box around her. The boys were quite enamored and elected to stay for a quite a while gazing upon her unusual visage. They chose to see the Egyptian and Greek antiquities (our third visit to such a collection at a major museum this summer). The Stern boys never tire of a good sarcophagus. I dragged them past the Rembrandts, which made me ever so happy (not the dragging, the Rembrandts), and Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People.” The boys did note that the place is too vast (which it is) and that there are an awful lot of paintings of Jesus (true as well). We exceeded our two-hour allotment by 30 minutes and left just before the paramedics were necessary.

The Stern boys and their parents love Le Marais. If you’ve not been there, it is the old Jewish Quarter not far from the Pompidou Museum in Paris. It makes a lovely juxtaposition to the Louvre in that it is not at all vast and there are absolutely no paintings of Jesus. The roads are just wide enough for those remote controlled cars three year-old boys like to drive erratically down one’s hallway, and yet, cars of every shape and size drive down them as the pedestrians scatter like cattle. The shops are an interesting combination of forward French Fashion and Old World Jewish charm. There is a hub at the intersection of two narrow streets where competing Falafel joints pump out fantastic Middle Eastern cuisine to awaiting throngs. We had a mouth-watering lunch of Falafel and Shwarma. No issues about cloven hoofs here. We did our only travel shopping and came away with new kippas and mezzuzot and a massive amount of apple strudel, poppy seed pastries, and baklava. It was a total heaven (though we Jews don’t believe in heaven, so it was something closely approximating heaven if heaven is a place where one can get a really good knish).

Bastille Day, Paris

Bastille Day, Paris

Our last day in Paris was spent celebrating Bastille Day. Two very enthusiastic Stern boys rose at dawn and we made the 1.5 mile walk from our hotel to the Champs- Elysées without any word of underlying medical issues. Bastille day is, from my perspective, an opportunity to watch the French demonstrate, for all the world to see, that they own a lot of very nice looking military equipment and some pretty silly hats. It’s hard to come up with better entertainment for American boys (young and old). The fighter planes screamed overhead, the troops marched by in all sorts of regalia that would surely violate the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the US, and just when you thought no more tanks could possibly appear another 100 armored personnel carriers rolled by. We even saw Nicolas Sarkozy review the troops just 30 feet from us. We spent the evening with three American friends and their offspring. We had a fine French meal around the corner from our hotel and then joined one million quite well behaved Parisians and assorted tourists to watch the absolutely spectacular fireworks display at the Eiffel Tower. We Americans could take a lesson or two from the French about large-scale celebrations. The massive crowd watching the fireworks was frighteningly civilized as they waited patiently for the festivities to start. I’ve never experienced anything like it at home. Large crowds like that in the US cause me high levels of angst. This was something else entirely. Perhaps a little French ennui helps in a crowd? The fireworks were absolutely super, so beautiful, so artfully conceived, and with just the right sense of humor and REALLY loud music (a little Piaf, a little 1812 Overture, a little contemporary French pop).

My whole family loves Paris. My children wanted to go back immediately, if not sooner, and are already planning a return trip for Bastille Day. Care to join us?

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