More ink has been spilled writing about Paris then probably any other city in the world – its physical beauty, the antics of its literary residents, its amazing history, its movable feast of food and drink. So instead of dredging up facts and yet another list of must-sees, I thought it would edifying to see the City of Lights through the lens of a 12-year-old girl. My 12-year-old girl, Yao Yao.
The first time Yao Yao experienced Paris, at age nine, I was so excited to have her love this amazing city that we packed in too many “have-to’s” into too short a time. She liked most of what she saw, but I think the pace we set didn’t allow her to truly experience the magic of the city. And this time, I still had quite a bit planned, but time and the weather (it rained much of the time) rendered my itinerary a bit . . . well, soggy – which was probably a good thing, considering. . . .
Tires on the Ground
During our Fat Tire Tours ride, we made a stop at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the gateway to the Tuileries Gardens, commissioned in 1806 to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories at Austerlitz and elsewhere. Our guide pointed out the symmetry of the urban landscape and its vast, unimpeded site lines, much of it thanks to Georges-Eugene Haussmann, architect to Napoleon III and the man who singlehandedly transformed Paris, for better or worse, into a model of urban planning.
After that bike ride, Yao Yao really began to notice the architectural makeup of the city – she liked the way “things lined up,” and that you could see from one vantage point to another. She was really fascinated by the “beautification” during Napoleon III and would point out what was rebuilt and what was left as old. She loved the beauty of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, (the “other Arc” – the more famous one). She was excited to be able to ride her bike through the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, and to imagine the victory procession of Napoleon’s army.
Paris from Below – Way Below
We read about the catacombs before leaving for France. The grisly truth was that by the late 18th Century, Paris’ central cemetery had turned into a huge bone dumping ground, and a solution was to turn vast mining passageways below the city into a gigantic underground sepulcher. Yao Yao was able to imagine the Paris of years gone by, with bones galore on the streets and the actual task of relocating them to the catacombs. She loved the designs made by the bones and the eerie feeling of walking under the city. I don’t think this is a good place for very young kids to visit – or older people who may be subject to panic attacks. But most of the kids we met loved it – while I was just a wee bit creeped-out.
Going My Way?
The Métro was an epiphany for Yao Yao. The lightbulb went on when she saw the Métro’s push-button map and legend – she could see the “connections” between the Montparnasse and the Eiffel Tower, the Marais and the Latin Quarter. This was a liberating moment for her. Though I’ve taken her to many big cities in the U.S. and abroad, this was the first time she was able to understand a major metropolitan transportation system and how to navigate it. Her perspective? “The French are really lucky – they have an easy Métro system and the world’s best butter!” True, that!
Because we walked the city, took the Seine boat trip, and rode bikes, we were able to see many of the same sights or sections of the city from various perspectives. Yao Yao was excited about being able to go up the Eiffel tower, walk under it, take a boat past it, and ride a bike around it. We walked across many of the beautiful bridges that span the Seine, and it was wonderful to join in with other strollers, walking their dogs, pinning locks to the bridges, shopping at book stalls, waving at the tourist boats – but taking those same boats under the same bridges made the city and the bridges take on a wholly new perspective.
From Yao Yao’s vantage point, the French move at a much slower pace than Americans – they stop for more snacks and drinks and talk a lot more to friends in cafés. Now to be fair, it’s high season and we tended to stop in cafés at “cocktail hour” for a little refreshment before wandering or resting until dinnertime. Yao Yao realized that connecting with friends for a quick glass of wine or coffee is just part of the day. I love the she was starting to understand the little cultural differences.
Dinner at Eight – or After
We dined at some classic restaurants like Le Procope, Bofinger, and Les Philosophes, and we had libations at both Café de Flore and its better-known, more literary rival, Les Deux Magots. We had crêpes everywhere, now that Yao Yao had “learned to love the crêpe” on Ile de Ré. We ate in little bistros and a few hip, trendy eateries in the Marais, but there’s one particular evening Yao Yao remembers with a smile, each time we talk about it.
We had had our usual evening drink, but it was late so we had a few appetizers as well. We weren’t starving but we wanted something more to eat. We decided to walk and find something close. We wandered into the Jewish Quarter of the Marais and stumbled on a large crowd standing in front of a restaurant. It had started to rain but no one dispersed. (Now I was starting to get hungry – and interested!) Everyone was standing in line for what we later heard, and would eventually confirm, was the absolute, without-a-doubt, best falafel in the world. Right there in the rain with probably 75 other people, we devoured it standing under our umbrella – and enjoyed every bite!
Yao Yao Ponders Paris
Here are just a few things Parisian that Yao Yao found . . . interesting:
- The oldest bridge spanning the Seine is called the Pont Neuf (“new bridge”).
- People smoke cigarettes right next to you when you’re eating dinner!
- Dogs are permitted in restaurants, cafés, and hotels – but many parks don’t allow dogs!
- Many Parisians don’t like people stopping to pet their dogs. (Keep your hands off Fifi!)
- Even the undersides of Paris bridges are really pretty.
- Parisians seem to stop for coffee and snack breaks – a lot.
- The butter is better in France then in the United States! (“Uh, so’s the rest of the food.” – Samantha)
- It is pretty easy to tell a French person from an American. They walk differently and dress really nicely. In New York people dress up too but it’s more like Mom’s black suits not fancy dresses.
People in Paris stop and eat and drink all day and there are a lot of really nice bakery’s but I didn’t see many heavy people.
There are all different kinds of parks in Paris. I love the little private ones and the big open ones like the Luxembourg Gardens.
I don’t think French people are rude, I think some are shy and they just have different social rules.
Since we got home my mother keeps making this lavender chicken my dad likes. Seriously, she makes it ALL the time. This always happens when we get home from a trip. The only time she didn’t make the food from the country we visited was Africa.
- Gone bike riding without a helmet
- Seen the Mona Lisa again, but we ran out of time
- Found a way for my mom to visit the Picasso Museum
- Stayed in Paris a few more days
- People were not friendly with their dogs.
- The Métro is really easy to navigate.
- Bike riding in Paris is the best!
I love that Yao Yao is noticing cultural and lifestyle nuances along with the visiting of museums, historical sites and amazing exposure to what nature has to offer. Experiencing and understanding differences in culture is a big part of what is so wonderful about traveling.