We spent the first week of April in Paris, in a cozy corner apartment a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, and right down the street from my amazing cousin Georgia. As soon as we knew we would spend a year in Europe, I knew we’d spend at least one week in Paris. Paris is the only place in Europe where we have an actual relative. Not a relative in the sense of someone you don’t know but is somehow distantly related to a great aunt whose father came to the New World on some boat from Sweden or Poland or some other place in the Old Country, but an actual relative – my first cousin.
I also wanted to go to Paris because Jason and I had been once before and hated it, and everyone else who’s been seems to love it. We were college students, railing around Europe after semesters abroad, and we made the obligatory stop in Paris. But we soon discovered that the city was in the grips of a massive train workers strike that meant almost every major attraction was closed because people couldn’t get to work, or they decided to stay home out of solidarity, or both. For us it meant walking around a hot, dusty city, schlepping a large duffle bag that I for some insane reason felt was the appropriate luggage for a trip around the continent. We were broke and annoyed, and after two days of cheap wine, cheese and bread, we left, humming Jonathan Richman’s song, “Give Paris One More Chance.”
So, we gave the city one more chance, and we’re glad we did. This time the trains were running, the museums were open, it was fresh and cool, we had a bit more cash in our pockets, and while we had three children to amuse, we also had extremely generous Georgia to help us out. We arrived late on a Saturday afternoon, and after checking into our apartment, we headed down the street to Georgia’s place, where we were greeted by her gorgeous and mellow Collie, Briar, and the sumptuous aroma of the dinner she and her husband Stefan were cooking.
Paris is of course known for great food, and we did have several really fantastic meals out, but the best food we ate in Paris was at Georgia’s house. We quickly adjusted to the later eating times and longer meals of “real” adults in Paris, and enjoyed three wonderful dinners at Georgia and Stefan’s home. Walter endured the wait by studying a National Geographic magazine about the Titanic, and then recreating in great detail several diagrams of the sinking ship. The girls took an immediate shine to Georgia, whom they had met only once before, and joined in the conversation and routine. Each dinner included both veggie and meat options, as well as pasta for picky Walter, and always a cheese course, with at least five different cheeses to sample with bread and fruit. Georgia’s place quickly became our second home, filled with wonderful books, cool art, comforting food, generous family and a lovely dog.
Our first full day in Paris was the first Sunday of the month, when most museums are free for everyone, so we decided to introduce the family to Parisian art at Musée D’Orsay, with its expansive collection of impressionist art, and L’Orangerie, home to Monet’s massive water lily murals. Unfortunately, the line at the Orsay was so huge we could barely see the entrance, so we decided to pass and walk across the River Seine to the Tuileries Garden. There we found an eclectic collection of sculptures, some beautiful trees, and a Spielplatz (none of us use the word playground anymore)!
After playing, we headed over to check out the line at L’Orangerie. Fortunately it was more manageable, and after scarfing down some bad street vendor food, we finally got inside to see some paintings. The museum layout was apparently designed by Monet specifically to house his giant water lily murals. After stepping through a blank white room, we emerged into a large, oval room with four massive paintings surrounding us. The natural light seeping in from above and the actual serenity of the fairly crowded room were perfect for studying the paintings.
All five of us were awed by seeing the brushstrokes so closely and experiencing Monet’s complete command of painting the vast spectrum of subtle light. A second similar room displayed paintings of the same scene at four different times of day, underscoring this specific brilliance. Jason and the girls took a closer look at the rest of the art and checked out the special exhibit on Debussey and visual art. Walter loved best the models of the Orangerie building. All in all, a great first museum for us all!
Afterwards we walked from Place de la Concorde past up L’Avenue des Champs Elysées to L’Arc de Triomphe. It’s one of the most famous strolls in the world, but any past glory has now been overtaken by modern excess. The street is filled with obscenely expensive cafés and hyperfashionable stores, and crawling with people who simply want to be seen. Perhaps that’s what the street has always been, fashions changing with the era. By the end of the street we were all tired, and the famous Arc de Triomphe was also disappointing, surrounded by speeding cars and concrete – a celebration of the excesses of war capping off a celebration of the excesses of consumerism. Luckily we ended the day with another great meal with Georgia and Stefan.
The next day we set out to climb the Eiffel Tower. A broken elevator meant that the Tower lifts were running at half-capacity, making booking in advance impossible for our timeline. So we decided to hike up the over 700 stairs to the second floor. With all the walking we’ve done in Europe this year, a few hundred steps didn’t intimidate us, and little Walter was most excited to get a close-up look at how the Tower was built, so he could replicate it with Legos. Unfortunately, by the time we got over there, even the line for the stairs was snaking endlessly around the Tower legs! So, we quickly changed direction and headed for Notre Dame, hoping to climb the bell tower and come face-to-face with a gargoyle. Jason also wanted to see the glorious stained glass windows in Sainte-Chapelle, a smaller church on the same island in the middle of the Seine. However, excessively long lines again foiled our plans on both accounts!
We did get to see the inside of Notre Dame’s impressive sanctuary, with its beautiful rose-shaped stained glass windows and gothic grandeur. The massive organ was being tuned while we were inside. Greta and Jason marveled at the minute changes in pitch coming from the giant pipes, but the deep, loud rumbling agitated Walter and Anya, so we couldn’t stay too long inside the crowded church.
Thrice deterred and more than a bit grumpy, it was clear that we needed some good food to lift our spirits. We found exactly what we needed at L’AS du Fallafel, an Israeli-style falafel house in the old Jewish quarter of the Marais neighborhood. Numerous friends had recommended L’AS, apparently it is world famous. The giant, mouth-watering falafel sandwiches on warm pita, dripping with sauce were served by cute Israeli guys in a family-friendly locale (where we witnessed a French child screaming about her lunch, by the way, so don’t believe everything you read). We stuffed ourselves with perfect comfort food, perhaps the best sandwiches our family had ever eaten.
I then slipped inside the kosher bakery across the street to stock up on supplies for our Passover Seder. Lugging a giant box of matzoh and a jar of gefilte fish, we made our way through the Marais to Place de Vosges, Paris’ oldest square. Anya and Walter played in a sandbox with a couple other kids, while Jason, Greta and I took in the sun and watched dozens of people doing the same. Reluctantly leaving this spring grandeur, we headed to the Centre Pompidou, the National Museum of Modern Art.
The Pompidou Center was the only museum Jason and I managed to get into during our first visit to Paris. For whatever reason it remained open during the train strike so we took full advantage of its free lockers to stow our luggage and air conditioned rooms filled with eclectic modern art. The building itself looks like it’s been turned inside out, with pipes and innards jutting out everywhere. The kids enjoyed the wacky architecture and art as much as we did, although at first they weren’t sure what to make of the art that didn’t really look like art. Why is a large white canvas with one red blob, art? Commentary is art, I suppose.
The kids had fun hiding in the crevices of Winter Garden, a large white cave with black lines dividing sections. And they especially liked the early 20th century art – Walter was impressed with cubism and Anya with paintings containing circles. Greta liked to study the progression throughout the decades. Later Jason tweeted Walter’s assessment of cubism: “They painted a picture, crumpled and cut it up, then pasted it back together. Cool!” The Pompidou Center picked it up and retweeted it, so accurate was his description!
That night Georgia and Stefan were busy with a second set of guests, Stefan’s brother and wife, so we set off on our own for dinner. Around the corner from our apartment was the famous little street, Rue Cler, which, in a two block section, is packed with wonderful food markets and restaurants. There we found our favorite restaurant, Le Petit Cler, which had something for all of us, even Walter who loved the spinach goat cheese lasagna so much he had it both times we went. The place was filled with tourists, including an American couple who told us that their cousin who lived around the corner recommended it (so did ours!), but the lack of locals didn’t detract from the really good food and kid-friendly staff.
The next day we headed across town to the Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, a science museum which looked like it would be a boon for each of the kids. Unfortunately, the rigid and expensive ticket pricing, as well as the method by which the museum was divided up by age group, left us a bit caught in the middle. We opted for the older kid, less expensive option, which unfortunately required a more reading than we expected, especially challenging given that many exhibits weren’t translated. And the entire place was absolutely crawling with French school children on field trips, so every section was loud and chaotic. But, we still managed to find some activities that appealed to everyone, including a mini-rocket launch, a DNA matching game, a transportation exhibit with a fun video-photo collage, and a very cool optical illusion exhibit. We spent several hours there weaving through exhibits and crowds before we had to escape for some fresh air and quiet.
The museum is part of the Parc de la Villette complex, which is an incredibly odd combination of eclectic sculptures; gardens; play, exhibition and performance spaces. Apparently the Park’s design is post-modernist, deconstructivist architecture, as inspired by the philosophies of Jacques Derrida, and if that’s the case, it is really effective. We wandered through the maze of a park, climbing on various structures, including several of the 35 giant red “follies” that Anya was convinced were constructions sites.
The kids and I rode on the double-decker Jules Verne carousel, and then we found a gem of a post-modern Spielplatz. It included zip lines, human-sized hamster wheels, mini-golf-course-like elements, sand boxes, bouncy areas, and lots of nooks in which to hide. We all had a great time there, playing and relaxing. On the way out of Parc de la Villette, Jason peaked into the Musée de la Musique, while the kids and I searched unsuccessfully for some ice cream. Jason spent some time in a Bob Dylan retrospective, before dashing through the enormous collection of every type of musical instrument possible. He came out saying he wished we’d visited music instead of science that day, but alas, we had no more energy for museums just then.
That night an attempt was made for a family meal with Georgia, Stefan and their other guests at a small restaurant, which serves primarily omelets and wines from the small town of Sancerre in the Loire Valley. It’s a family restaurant and Georgia and Stefan, and Briar, have become part of the family. Hopefully after our branch of the family visited, Georgia and hers weren’t disowned. I was able to dig up several sentences of French as I apologized to the owners for the screaming boy who parked himself under the table. Jason gulped down some wine and eggs before dragging an extremely fussy Walter back to the apartment for some pasta. C’est la vie avec les enfants, non?
The next day we finally climbed the Eiffel Tower. Jason went to wait in line early while I got the family ready, and stopped in our favorite bakery on our block, Nelly Julien, for croissants and other baked goods for our wait and climb. We met Georgia and Briar in line, and Anya went off with them to shop and prepare lunch while the rest of us ascended the metal hulk. When the Tower opened, we were some of the first people to start up the stairs. Climbing just over 700 stairs wasn’t actually difficult. After a few hundred we made it to the first level, which is the wide lower platform that includes displays about building the Tower and its history. Walter was fascinated by the mechanics of how the Tower was erected in 1889, and wanted to see each photo documenting the process. It was incredible to see workers, sporting no safety gear at all, hanging onto the sides of the Tower-in-progress.
Climbing up to the next level, Walter started to tire, and Jason and I remembered just how much we really didn’t like heights, but Greta plowed forth undeterred. The second level had an even better view of the surrounding city, but was much more crowded and chaotic. But, having gotten this far, Greta was keen to take the elevator to the very top level, so I ignored my vertigo and agreed to go with her. Jason and Walter took the elevator down to wait for us in the park way below.
As the packed elevator whirred ever upward, I flashed back to a visit my family made to the World Trade Center in the late 1970s, my terrified mother pinned to the inside wall of the top level of the Tower, unable to look out at the magnificent view of New York City. Not wanting to repeat this scene, I managed to ease myself to the edge of the Tower to look out over Paris. As I did so, my fear diminished, and Greta and I had a great time watching the tiny scenes below, especially a nearby soccer game and the boats on the Seine. The top level includes a replication of Gustav Eiffel’s famous visit with Thomas Edison in Eiffel’s tiny office, as well as one of the shortest public bathroom lines in Paris!
After meeting up with the boys, we went back to Georgia’s apartment for a gourmet lunch prepared by Anya, Georgia and Georgia’s sister-in-law, Deanna. Given the choice between climbing hundreds of stairs and then looking down at tiny buildings below, or shopping for and preparing fresh food for everyone, Anya easily chose the latter. She loves to shop and cook and eat, so my future chef went with Georgia and Deanna to Georgia’s favorite Paris market, the Marché du Pont de l’Alma.
When we arrived, the three of them were happily chatting and chopping in Georgia’s tiny kitchen, Anya in her own personal heaven. Anya beamed as the food was laid out and we all shared asparagus-stuffed pasta, meats, breads, veggies, and Anya’s gorgeous salad, beautifully adorned with heirloom purple tomatoes. And of course there was a cheese course, and magnificent mangoes and strawberries for dessert. A perfect Paris morning for us all!
After all that climbing, shopping, cooking and eating, we could have had naps, but Paris was calling. We headed over to the Musée de l’Armée and Napoleon’s Tomb. We saw the excessively decorated tomb in its grand home, but we, especially Jason, enjoyed looking closely at the impressive armor collection. The beautiful, intricate, and sometimes downright odd designs were interesting to contemplate, especially in their context as battle costumes.
We also enjoyed, especially Walter, looking at the contents of the Musée des Plans-Reliefs, which was a series of miniature models of various towns, forts, castles and harbors used in the 17th and 18th centuries by the French army to plan battle strategies. The intricately detailed scenes were well preserved for their delicacy, and again, interesting to contemplate in their context as battle fabrications. It was fascinating viewing together the personal and architectural defenses of war.
Afterwards, we went to the Musée Rodin to take a walk in the peaceful sculpture garden. The museum itself was closed for renovation, but the garden alone was worth the stop. Rodin’s famous, The Thinker sits contemplating life just inside the garden, and many other sculptures are scattered about. I’m not a huge Rodin fan, but the juxtaposition of his works with the serene, ordered garden was the perfect setting in which to view his art. If I lived in Paris, I’d visit often just to sit and be a thinker (or reader) in the beautiful garden. We ended the day with luscious crepes in a traditional creperie around the corner from our apartment. There was no fussing that night as we all found what we wanted rolled inside the savory buckwheat and then sweet buttermilk crepes. Bon Appétit!
Having finally hit our stride, we decided the next day would be major art museum day – first the Musée d’Orsay to finally see all those Impressionists, and then Le Louvre because you’re supposed to go there and see the Mona Lisa when you’re in Paris, right? (Unless there’s a train strike.) The Orsay, a former train station beautifully renovated into a museum in the early 1980s, and even more recently updated, is perhaps the most perfect museum I’ve ever seen. Not only is the art exquisite, but the building and light and layout and colors are exactly right for showcasing the work. Although it was busy and the most famous paintings sometimes required a little wait for a good view, it never felt chaotic. The museum’s design evokes the necessary peace to enjoy the art, and architectural elements such as the giant clocks are beautifully integrated into exhibitions.
For me the paintings and period covered by the bulk of the art in the Orsay coincides with those covered by an amazing art history class I took my final year at Oberlin. I loved that class so much that if I’d taken it as a first-year, I may have been an art history major. So it was great to see some of the paintings I’d studied, in person, and to share with the kids what I remembered about their significance. While there were dozens of paintings I was excited to see, probably Manet’s Olympia was the most amazing to experience “in the flesh.” Anya and I spent quite a bit of time staring back at the stunning Olympia, wondering what she was thinking and who had sent her the flowers.
(When Anya was a toddler, we dragged the family across London on Easter Sunday so I could see my favorite painting of all, Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere at the Courtauld Institute. After paying the large entrance fee, we learned that the painting was on loan in Berlin! We tried to look at other paintings, but Anya was tired and wanted to get back to her Easter basket, so she had a huge meltdown in the middle of the gallery. Seven years later, it was wonderful to be sharing a quieter moment with her in front of a different Manet masterpiece.)
But in addition to so many paintings that Jason and I knew, there were plenty that the kids themselves recognized. So, they were also excited to get up close and examine the brush strokes, step back to see the full effect, or view it from a different angle to see how the light changes. Walter loved the model of the Paris Opera House, as well as the many Monet paintings–he was particularly fascinated with the painters who were set-up in the museum, creating copies of famous paintings, presumably for an art class. The girls seemed to love it all! But, we all did get tired, and hungry, so we had to rush through the gorgeous Van Gogh’s before heading out.
After some parental arguing over an appropriate lunch place, we lucked into a tiny vegetarian restaurant where we ate the only two dishes offered – ratatouille and lentil stew. Both were perfect so we ordered some more since Walter surprised us and devoured his share. Fueled for the walk to see some more famous art, we headed for the Louvre to find that mysterious woman. Alas, the Mona Lisa wasn’t difficult to find, we just followed the herd of people heading toward her. Unfortunately, the massive flow of human beings meant that many amazing works of art simply got crowded out on the way to see one small portrait in a giant room. The number of gawkers in front of Mona Lisa prevented us from seeing her entire visage, and Walter and Anya, who were the most excited to see the famous smile, were able to see the least.
Anya and I went in search of some David and Delacroix paintings, the most impressive of which was the latter’s Liberty Leading the People. But the horrible light, cluttered method by which paintings were hung, and the noise and crowds soon got us down. Greta, Walter and Jason caught a quick glimpse of some Greek sculpture including theVenus de Milo, and then we all escaped through the giant glass pyramid. Score one for the Orsay, as the Louvre was just too damn nutty! Commenting at the end of the day, Jason summed up the juxtaposition of these museum experiences this way: Musée d’Orsay takes an old train station and turns it into an elegant, beautiful museum, while The Louvre takes an old museum and makes it feel like a chaotic, overwhelming train station.
That night we had another lovely dinner with Georgia and Stefan, after which the girls stayed for a sleepover. They loved the special attention, especially the relaxing breakfast and morning walk in the park with Briar. They threw her ball and meandered through the Eiffel Tower gardens, and truly enjoyed time spent in Georgia’s world. Later in the morning Walter and I picked up Anya for a quiet day in our neighborhood, while Jason gave a talk at the American University in Paris, and Greta and Georgia spent the day together at the Musée National des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet. After seeing so much European art during our travels this year, Greta was thrilled to see something new, and to try to figure out a different historical puzzle. For example, in what was billed as the “Asian Pantheon,” Greta and Georgia tried to decipher the many Buddhist gods, finally realizing how little they knew about them, compared to Greek, Roman and Egyptian gods. They arrived back at our apartment bearing gifts of decorative turtles and intricate origami paper, and stories of their great day together.
For our last evening in Paris, we took a boat ride along the River Seine from which we had fabulous views of many of the sites we’d seen during our week, including a closer look at the wonderful flying buttresses on the back of Notre Dame and the diverse collection of bridges crossing the Right and Left Banks of the River. Afterward we walked along the Right Bank to get a different view of the Eiffel Tower, and for the kids to enjoy a final carousel ride. Finally, we enjoyed another great meal at Le Petit Cler and then walked a few blocks to get a full view of the Eiffel Tower’s nightly glittering light show. It was a great way to end our week in Paris. The next day we reluctantly bade farewell to Georgia, making a final bakery stop before heading for our train back home.
We gave Paris a second chance, and despite its reputation as being a city for lovers, it turns out that it can be a city for family. While lines, crowds, fatigue, and some over-hyped sites got us down, the best part was finding some gems, and then sharing them with family – a favorite painting; a great view; a cool building or spielplatz; the perfect falafel, croissant or bleu cheese; a wonderful cousin and her dog – a great week in Paris!