“Paris is always a good idea,” says Audrey Hepburn in the movie Sabrina. (or so some say) Who could disagree? I love Paris. I’ve traveled to Paris alone, with friends, with my husband and daughter. I’ve been to Paris for work, for pleasure, and everything in between. I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time and effort to ensure I didn’t look like your typical tourist. (I’m talking about the fanny-pack-wearing Americans who speak English louder in the hopes of being understood – we’ve all seen that!)
In retrospect, it seems so silly.
Anyway, going back in time (way back), I took the requisite European “backpacking” trip after college. Then (as now) I didn’t want to look too American, so I wore handmade Italian boots, dragged a suitcase instead of a backpack, and sported a tweed jacket with suede patches. (Don’t judge me, I thought I looked British!) Anyway, three weeks into the six-month trip, I dumped my suitcase and got a backpack, but I stuck to my guns with the tweed jacket and boots. My feet still haven’t healed.
Fast forward to July 2014. I’m spending five glorious days with my 12-year-old daughter, Yao Yao, in Paris. She had been to Paris when she was nine, but as she explained to me before we arrived, “There were many things I’d want to do differently now that I’m older.” Her last trip to Paris was for a surprise birthday party for Ricann, one of our best friends. That weekend, we dragged her to everything from the Louvre to the Marché aux Puces, the legendary Paris flea markets. Her only disappointment was the lack of pink poodles. (She had always imagined fashionable Parisian women with a pink poodle in tow – talk about la vie en rose!)
This time, I would make this about what she wanted to see, not what I thought she should see. We did a fair amount of planning. I read and searched every online resource I could find. I asked friends and acquaintances for their must-sees. My good friend Janet shared the hidden secrets she had unearthed when she took her 13-year-old daughter to Paris, like Berthillon ice cream on Ile St. Louis and some wonderful walks in smaller neighborhoods. Yao Yao did some research as well, mostly by reading Not for Parents Paris: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know (Lonely Planet Not for Parents). The book contains a world of little known Paris facts every kid needs to know. For instance, ever wonder how many dogs live in Paris? (About 300,000 — there are more dogs than children in Paris!) And did you know that Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower at first, referring to it as “metal asparagus”? And do you know how plaster of Paris got its name? (After the devastating 1666 fire that destroyed much of London, the king of France required all Parisian buildings made of wood to be covered in the stuff.) The book shares Paris history lore in an engaging way, and we had a great time reading it together.
Initially, I had mapped out an itinerary that looked like a Napoleonic battle plan. I had maps, phone numbers, time schedules, prices – you get the picture. And I was looking pretty darn Parisian, too: I brought Italian loafers, Audrey Hepburn black cigarette pants, a cashmere shawl, and crisp white blouses. I would not look American. For Yao Yao I packed adorable dresses, slim pants, and striped French sailor tops, as well as a French raincoat. Little did I know most of the above would sit in our hotel room.
My plan was to visit the little known museums that often get overlooked. We’d catch a few musical performances, shop the quaint stores, and visit the gardens of Versailles and Giverny. I selected a few historic bistros to visit (or revisit). I put together walking routes to ensure we visited as many arrondissements as possible. I had also selected a “cool” modern hotel that was more to Yao Yao’s liking than to my taste. (The hotel we had previously stayed in was deemed by Yao Yao to be “too old,” which meant the lobby was dark and had antique furniture.) I chose a hotel in the Marais, one of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris, once the city’s aristocratic district and now a bustling hotbed of art galleries, fashion houses, and trendy restaurants. It also puts you within easy walking distance of Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Tuilerie Gardens, and more. If you have little ones, no worries, the streets are great for strollers. Best of all, the Metro is the easiest transportation systems ever invented!
So, that was the plan. Let’s not say it was a waste of time, but the trip — as most trips will — took on a life of its own.
We had just spent a few bucolic weeks on Ile de Ré and my husband had to head home for work. We had arrived at Gare de Montparnasse and had a few hours before Jim had to leave for the airport, and I convinced him to come with us to the Musée Carnavalet — the history museum of the city of Paris — and then out to lunch. Yao Yao was singularly unimpressed with this particular museum, though we did spend a few hours looking at exhibits listening to Jim tell us how wonderful it was. After lunch, Jim took a taxi to Charles de Gaulle Airport and Yao Yao and I sat down to discuss the rest of the “plans.”
I laid out the rest of the day and was met with a look of sheer joy. Who among us doesn’t like French chocolates? Unfortunately, right after we procured our lovely bag of outrageously expensive bonbons (this became a daily tradition) the skies opened up. (It’s April showers, isn’t it? Not July!) We headed back to the hotel so I could change from my sopping wet strappy sandals and soggy white blouse into walking shoes and white jeans and headed out to conquer Paris with huge umbrellas. Yes, my sneakers are French, but the point is, I wore sneakers in Paris! And guess what? I wasn’t tossed into the Seine. No one shouted, “There goes that style-less American!” Though my glorious locks started to take on the look of a Chia Pet, we laughed and kept going. Fashion be damned, we’re going to enjoy Paris!
Yao Yao is not a big shopper so most of the must-see shopping areas were immediately crossed off the list. (I shed a tear or two but did my best to hide them.) We walked to the Left Bank and explored Shakespeare and Company. (The bookstore at this location is named after the original haunt of Pound, Hemmingway, and Joyce, which closed after World War II — at its current digs, Shakespeare and Company served as a gathering place for, among others, Henry Miller, Anaiis Nin, and the Beats). Yao Yao and I ate crêpes on the street and watched the colorful pedestrian life unfold. We strolled to Notre Dame and, as would become yet another tradition, stopped for a little “libation” at around 6:00 p.m.
As Yao Yao had been to many of the big historical and tourist destinations on her previous trip to the City of Lights, we adjusted our agenda and allowed for more café time, sketching time, and getting lost time. Yao Yao loved walking across the bridges, like the Pont Neuf (“new bridge”, but actually the oldest in bridge across the Seine. And no, I don’t know why it’s called that.) We walked and walked and walked and then we took the Metro.
Yao Yao loved the Metro and how easy it was to navigate, and started shouting, “I’m the captain now!” whenever a directional decision had to be made. Despite our need to linger in cafés, we did go to the catacombs (prepare to wait in line forever!), the Musée de la Magie (located in the basement of the Marquis de Sade’s house in the rue saint Paul — talk about your “if these walls could talk” moments!), the Galerie National du Jeu de Paume (where the impressionists used to “hang” but now a photography museum), the Tuileries, Place des Vosges, and so much more.
But the activity that changed the game for me was bike riding in Paris. Now, if you have read any of my other posts about Ile de Ré, you know that due to a somewhat unreliable arm, I hadn’t been on a bike in years, and Yao Yao hadn’t ridden that much due to the terrain and road conditions in our town. But the bike experience on Il de Ré boosted my confidence and hers, too, so we enlisted Fat Bike Tours, and off we went. The first big obstacle was that no one was wearing a helmet. I’m sorry, but bike riding through busy Paris streets without a helmet? Not on my watch. So I did what any mother would do: I dug my heels in. Uh, let’s just say that one 12-year-old rider was not happy. (No photos allowed with the helmet!)
It probably comes as no surprise that I don’t like tours, group activities, or anything that screams out, “I am a tourist!” Well, you can’t look more like a tourist than when you’re in a group of 12 bike riders of varying sizes, ages, and nationalities on rental bikes in Parisian traffic.
But . . . a funny thing happened on the way to the Tuilerie Gardens. The man who led our group was curious, funny, and generous, and he somehow catered to the entire group’s varying knowledge of Paris as well as our varying bicycle skills. He hid his tour fatigue well, and I learned quite a bit about Paris. He imparted knowledge in a very engaging manner. More importantly, Yao Yao loved it, with the one huge exception of the helmet. (I admit I relented when we got off the city streets, but made her put it back on when we hit the pavement again.) The tour took us to many of the important sites in Paris, like the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. We were able to ride into the Tuilerie Gardens and order lunch from the menu, which was a blessing. And we met a lovely woman who repeatedly helped me get things on and off my bike rack (that damn arm!). But most important of all, Yao Yao saw a different Paris than she would ever see on foot or car or Metro. Would I do it again? You bet! Although I would probably do a private bike tour, as we stopped more often than either Yao or I wanted to so it was hard to get momentum going. We planned to do an all-day biking expedition to Giverny, but the rain made it less than appealing. Next time!
Now here’s the big concession to my newfound Inner Tourist: I even bought the discounted boat trip from Fat Bike Tours down the Seine, something I had avoided for over a quarter of a century! It’s only about an hour, and if you can avert your eyes from the three-foot pencils, tea towels, and mugs with the Eiffel Tower on them, it’s not all that bad. It was a lovely evening, and you get views you wouldn’t be able to enjoy otherwise. Yao Yao and I even picked out our new apartment on the Seine. Gee, I hope Jim likes it!
So in jeans and flats with bad hair and an umbrella, with a boat full or tourists from around the world and no shopping, did I have a good time? Bien sur! Paris is always a good idea!
Next post, Yao Yao’s Paris hits and misses