Paris Review: Part II of European Journal July 2012
Here are my journal entries for the second half of my month in Europe, starting when my family joined my in London for six days and continuing through our ten days in Paris.
Part 1 - God Save the Tween
It has been ten days since my last update, coinciding with the arrival of my kids in London. Clearly a coincidence. What makes it an unfortunate ¨coincidence¨is that I am now subjected to a French computer keyboard which, for the uninitiated, does not have the standard QWERTY setup and is just different enough to make typing a chore. If there are a lot of typos herein, apologies. I will backtrack to Friday the 13th, go through the first eight days after my family`s arrival, and leave he remainder for the next entry. Last Friday I got to work early on a drizzly ,morning, had three coffee meetings back to back to back and then made a jittery walk back to the hotel midday to meet Ora and the kids. They had a smooth flight and trip to the hotel, using the Tube because it was more direct than the other options. It was really nice to see them; I think the kids might have actually missed me. First stop was to a local, highly-touted fish and chips joint called Happy Days, and it did not disappoint, though the ketchup was not a natural color. Everyone loved their first taste of London. From there we made our way to the Tower of London, which was very fun. They do some great historical enactments where the Lord of Monmouth and other characters pop out of nowhere and get into arguments and make passers-by take sides and make grandiose speeches from balconies...it`s very fun to watch and the kids ate it up, though Layla was probably even more impressed with the crown jewel collection at the Tower. The Tower is also great for just walking around and exploring the inner workings of its fortresses. We spent the afternoon at the Tower of London; at which point the overnight flight began to catch up to Ora and the kids. We headed back to the hotel and later had dinner at the Indian restaurant directly behind the Club Quarters, which was excellent. I got to sleep ,much earlier than what my bedtime had been the first two weeks of my trip, though the hotel room was large enough to allow Ora and me to stay up and talk while the kids dreamed of the rack and other medieval forms of torture. On Saturday we got up early and walked to St. Paul`s Cathedral which, unless you are looking for a minyan, isn`t all that much fun to visit, though it is immense and grandiose like a preeminent church of England should be. We then took the Millenium Bridge ) a very nice walkway over theThames- headed toward the Globe Theatre and the Tate Modern. Unfortunately, the steady drizzle that had been ubiquitous since my arrival suddenly turned into a steady rain just at the wrong time, leaving us fairly soggy in our raincoats but no umbrellas. We made our way into the Tate and warmed up in the children`s play area and then through several of the exhibitions, which were really interesting for all four of us even if two a,ong us were not totally willing to admit it. We then stopped in at the Globe; I had tried to go see the current production of Henry V but the entire season was already sold out. We had hoped to sneak a peek at the theater itself but it was closed for rehearsal. Archie, who has read a biography of William Shakespeare, wanted to go back and try, try again; instead, we made our way over to the famous Borough Market, which had an impressive array of prepared and greenmarket foods, including a very good haloumi veggie burger, but was too crowded to truly enjoy. We got lunch and then took the Tube over to South Kensington and the Science Museum, which we enjoyed but not as much as the ,any people who had described it as a ¨must-see.¨ The most impressive moment was when Archie recognized a photograph of Alan Turing. It`s safe to say he is the only one among us who did. From the Science Museum we headed over to Piccadilly Circus, bought Archie a German national soccer team jersey (we`ve come a long way baby), checked out Trafalgar Square (one of the best spots in London), and then had what is sure to be on Archie and Layla`s list of Top 5 Moments on the entire trip: dinner at a conveyor-belt style sushi place called Yo Sushi. We sat down and before I could finish explaining to the kids how the color-coded plate pricing system, worked they had each grabbed é-" bowls off the conveyor belt in front of them, and the bowl grabbing didn`t stop until Archie declared Yo Sushi one of the two best meals of his life (2nd Avenue Deli). Layla was just as efflusive about the meal, raving about how fun it was. And actually, the food was mostly very good. We slept well that night. On Sunday we somehow got up early and hit the Southwest train service into Surrey and on to Hampton Court Palace, home of Henry VIII. Before hitting the palace we walked the grounds and completed the famous hedge maze, which had us all cracking up by the time we were done. The palace was beautiful and the audio tour was really fun for everyone. At the Tower of London Archie had listened to the audio tour and then told us what we needed to know, but at Hampton Court we all got our own recoding. There was some very lively historical reenactment between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, who roped in ¨Prince Archie¨ to the lover`s quarrel in the hopes of making Henry VIII jealous, which instead sent Sir Archie into a rage rather than the King of England (DAAAAAAAADDDDDDDD!!!!!!!!!!). Once again, a great historical tour that the kids clearly enjoyed. From the palace we took a local bus to Kingston, where the previously ,entioned Paul and Sarah and Tama and Cyrus live. Sunday was Tama`s birthday party at a local swim center, and Archie and Layla had a blast. Afterwards, we hit a local park where Archie got involved with a bunch of adults playing a cricket-flavored version of baseball. The most egregious rule changes were that you could steal or take an extra base even on a foul ball, and that there was no such thing as a foul ball, which works on the cricket pitch but makes for some ,essy baseball. Plus, if you got out in this game you ere out for the rest of the inning, and the bat was not more than 14 inches long and about as thick as a salt stick. Archie more than held his own with the Brits. Eventually I joined the game as well but I don`t think I lived up to the Brits`assumption that I would be some kind of Ruthian figure si,ply by dint of ,y American passport. Still, it was fun to meet some yokels. We two families spent some time at a carnival set up in the park and then mad our way over to a cozy restaurant right alongside theThames. We sat down to get some food and drink and then switched tables to one that was closer to the riverbank and had a heat lamp. The kids ate a bit and then grabbed some bread to feed the ducks in theThames. I kept one eye on the kids while I continued to talk to Sarah and Paul, which was fortunate because in one swift motion Layla lurched toward the river, lost her balance, spun out of control and fell into theThamesRiver. I don`t really remember what happened next other than I jumped out of my seat, over or around a picket fence (accounts differ) and into the water, pulling out Layla before anything really bad happened. Thankfully, the experience seems to have been far more traumatic for Ora and me than it was for Layla. (she has mentioned the experience a couple of times but does not seem fearful of the water. Please do NOT bring it up the next time you see her.) We retreated, wet and shell-shocked, to Paul and Sarah`s to dry our clothes and take a breather before heading back into the city. Paul and Sarah were incredibly good to us that afternoon and we look forward to repaying the favor when they are in Brooklyn next month. On Monday I went to work without a Blackberry or iPhone, both of which had become victims of theThamesthe day before. I eventually got a replacement Blackberry fro, the London office, but I have really missed the iPhone, especially for taking quick photos or videos. I was having a lot of fun snapping rando, photos in London the first two weeks. Anyway, I had yet another busy day at work. Ora and the kids toured Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palce including an abbreviated changing of the guard (due to the incessant drizzle conditions, of course), and then hit Harrod`s department store for some lunch and stuffd animal shopping. After work we took the train into North London, Golders Green, qnd hqd dinner at one of the kosher joints. Layla had lamb chops, her favorite, and what else could a boy named Archie have but corned beef and cabbage? Later that night Archie and I watched a cricket match and, with the help of Wikipedia, eventually figured out what the hell was going on. We are now both huge cricket fans. Tuesday I went in to the office very eary, took care of a fez things and said my goodbyes. The zork experience in London turned out to be extremely rewarding. I got to meet so many people who are essential to the company, and I got to serve as an ambassaor for the US operation during a time when we are trying to become an ever-more important piece of the puzzle. It was a very memorable three weeks. Ora, the kids and I spent our last day in London taking a double-decker bus, visiting the massive and interesting British Museum, and after lunch we took advantage of a...wait, is that? It can`t be8 Why, it`s a sunny afternoon!!??! We had a great ockney cab driver aho told us he is coming to NYC for the entire Oly,pics because there will be too much gridlock to earn a decent fare. The Londoners just do not seem very enthused about hosting these Olympics...took the taxi to Kensington Gqrdens, western portion of Hyde Park, which I hqad not yet seen; a,awing how large London is and how you can be there for almost three weeks and not see half of it. The taxi took us past the Royal Albert Hall, pretty special for music lovers. We walked through Kensinton Grdens, just beautiful, and ended up in the Princess Diana Memorial Playground, which is beautifully designed: Kids spent a long time there horsing around. Finally We headed back to The City and had a pan-Asian dinner while Archie read the Evening Standard cover to cover. Kid you not. (I should add that Layla had a lot of sparkling moments in London that didn`t involve almost drowning; it`s just harder to capture Layla`s Laylaness in words) And just like that, it was tme to pack up and head to Paris on the Eurostar train Wednesday morning, which was also my birthday. The kids gave me some tschochkes to celebrate, then we got one last brekkie at Leadenhall Market and away we went. Ora and the kids zeren`t in London for nearly as long as I was, so perhaps their memories aren`t quite as indelible; but they saw and di an incredible a,ount in the tme that they had and more mportantly; the kids showed they were ready and able to enjoy a trip as ambutuous as this one. Speaking of ambitious, I think that is enough for one dispatch so I`ll pick up next time deep inside the Chunnel.
Part 2 - Tour de Kranz
Wednesday July 18, 2012: Woke up in rainy London and boarded a morning Eurostar train to Paris. Before I move on to France, a few more words of appreciation for London. I love the Underground. I love all the different food names (aubergine, courgette, jacket and rocket are all edible items in the mother country). I love the different coffee terminology: flat white, filtered, short, long. Speaking British English was more fun than speaking pigeon French has been. I loved the size of London, the way its history oozes out of every neighborhood. I love the beautiful parks, the Tudor architecture. I love British dispositions, at least the London variety: snarky, pessimistic, arrogant, prickly; as a long-time New Yorker I felt right at home.
London is a great place. It combines old and new, it`s provincial and cosmopolitan, it moves fast and slow. And not a single Londoner I met was enthused about hosting the Olympics. I hope to get a return trip over there one day in the not too distant future:
Back to July 18: I wouldn`t say the Eurostar train through the Chunnel was a dramatic experience but obviously the achievement of the Chunnel is historic, plus it`s a nice train. We had fun at our four-top - two seats facing two other seats, with a little table in between. We ate and napped a little and in less time than it takes to say Äcela Express¨we were in the Gare du Nord in northeast Paris. We stayed at a hotel the first two nights near the Opera, on a great pedestrian side-street called Rue Cadet. What a great find: Fifteen places to eat and drink right outside our hotel door, and a bunch ,ore around the corner, and only a few steps away from the Metro. I`d love to brag that I just know how to find the perfect hotel but in truth, after a very long search this was the only hotel that was able to give us a room with occupancy for four. Parisian hotel rooms are very small I guess. The Hotel Cadet suited our needs perfectly, and I was able to walk to work in less than 15 minutes. But on the 18th I didn`t have to go into the office so we spent the afternoon having a leisurely outdoor lunch - it wasn`t all that warm when we got to Paris but it was DRY - and walking around the upscale neighborhood.
In the late afternoon I met up with Denys, with whom we were doing an apartment exchange for the rest of the week. Denys met me at the airport and drove ,e south to his apartment in the 14th arrondissement, on the Left Bank. He got lost a few times on the way, explaining that 1) he rarely drives and 2) almost never drives on the Right Bank and doesn`t know the streets. It gave us more time to talk. He and I found each others`apartments on the Home Exchange website. We were both first-timers; getting to meet each other before the week started definitely put us both at ease. At the apartment I got to meet his two teenage children, Roman and Clara, and his ex-wife, Agnes, who was joining them on their trip to New York. Apparently they are on very good terms. I also learned that Denys spent 2003-2009 living in Tahiti for his job. Did you know the largest city in Tahiti has 15,000 people?
Denys had done a very thoughtful job making sure everything in his place would be user-friendly, and he gave me an Excel spreadsheet of things to see and do in Paris. (I prepared similar information for his NYC trip) He drove me back to the hotel. From there, Ora, the kids and I hit the streets that border the Champs de Mars for a birthday dinner; beats Chuck E. Cheese.
In what has quickly become a recurring theme, none of the guidebooks we brought provided reliable dining information, so we settled on a place on Rue Dominique, at which point I advised my New Yorker family that in Paris we should anticipate very slow meals most of the time, which actually complements Layla`s glacial eating pace to a T. This bistro (or was it a brasserie?) was simply excellent. The food was fresh and the preparation simple but intense; I had smoked haddock in a light butter sauce. Ora had sea bass done in a meuniere style. The kids had beautiful pasta, fish and salad, and we finished off the meal with the waiters singing Happy Birthday not just in words I did not understand but carrying a tune we did not recognize. Archie`s head almost exploded when he tasted the first top-shelf chocolate mousse of his life. A perfect first dinner in Paris.
As dusk approached at 9:30, we made our way down the Champ du Mars toward the Eiffel Tower. We had 10:30 pm elevator tickets up to the middle tier of the Tower, a risky parenting gambit that paid off handsom,ely. The kids were immediately enthralled by the Eiffel Tower, as were Ora and I. I think it`s the fact that it has no other function other than to be a beautiful building. It is a truly elegant structure. I told Archie it was my second favorite building in the world, after 20 Plaza Street.
We took photos high up in the Tower and then all four of us walked the steps down, with only Archie and I admitting to some acrophobia. As we were walking down the Tower suddenly lit up in a blinding display of flashing lights that lasted for five minutes. We were only a few feet from some of the lights. We then took a long walk across the plaza and got to bed after midnight. Everyone slept late except for me, who had to go to work after all. When I got to the office after a very nice walk I learned that 1° our Paris office is one floor above Google`s (I`m not sure that is a good thing) and 2) nobody was expecting me to show up that day. In fact all of my contact people were out of the office. I grabbed a desk, got some work done and headed back to the family for some touring.
We took advantage of our temporary Right Bank status by heading west to the Bois du Bloulogne, a large park in the farthest western portion of Paris. WE first took a long and fruitless walk looking for a kids`train that would ferry us to a kids`park inside the Bois, and finally found our way to the park by foot, a place called the Jardin du Acclimatation, which is a clean, uncrowded and thoroughly pleasant combination of the Prospect Park Zoo and Coney Island. The park is beautiful and as a lot of ani,als, plus it has some very fun rides, great play areas, and even has delicious grilled cheese sandwiches and crepes. I mean, where in the USA could you find that combination? We spent the entire afternoon and part of the evening in the Jardin. The kids loved the roller coasters and horsie rides and aviary and very cool playgrounds. For dinner we had our first mediocre meal and had only ourselves to blame having ignored the obvious warning signs inherent in a restaurant called Chez Jonathan. Actually, some of the (kosher) food was very good, especially the falafel and the Israeli-style salad bar that came with our meals. And the restaurant was right around the corner fro, our hotel, even though we were not staying in La Marais.
On Friday I had a great meeting with some people in our Paris office - like Jerry Lewis, the French might appreciate me more than my compatriots - and said au revoir to work for the rest of the trip. We met up at the hotel and walked north to the Montmarte district (18th) (district, that is; easiest way to describe in what area of Paris things are located), a very old school part of the city and home to the Sacre Couer, a very revered church and a northern fixture of the Paris cityscape. After first stopping for several carousel rides, an activity which has become almost a prerequisite for every day, we headed up the hill to the church. On the way we saw a rather clumsy version of three card monte; the dealer was very fast but the plant in the crowd - ¨Ï`ll bet 50 Euros. I WON!!¨ was clumsy and obvious. Archie, however, was convinced he could win. ¨Why can`t I just do it once?!?!?!?!¨ Because Daddy doesn`t want to get knifed, sweetie.
Once Archie was convinced that the monte was, in fact, a scam, we soon encountered a different scam: young women asking you to sign a petition for a charity for handicapped people and as soon as unwitting people signed, they would berate them and demand money for the ¨charity.¨ I was tipped off when one of the women came up to me, said ¨bless you¨and kissed my head. That was never going to pass my NYC BS meter. Filthy business, using a fake charity to rip off unsuspecting tourists.
After touring the Sacre couer we walked the cobblestone streets in hilly Montmarte and after a too-long walk settled in for a 4 pm lunch at a brasserie. The kids deserve so much credit for adapting as well as they have to our very flexible schedule. We had another great meal and headed back to the hotel, picked up our bags and took a taxi to our new apartment. The apartment has three bedrooms and nice living space. It is on a street with a narrow boulevard running through the middle called Alee Samuel Beckett. This neighborhood, Montparnasse, was where Hemmingway wrote his memoir about Paris, Ä Movable Feast.¨ My memoir will probably have less booze and more time on the iPad.
The first night we had some surprisingly good pizza, takeout from a local joint. I also shopped at the local supermarket, which has a fantastic wine section and whose produce blows away Keyfood, et al. In the morning the kids played with the toys in their room (Playmobil and other surprisingly age-appropriate stuff for both) while I got to know Denys`s espresso machine and then the local bakeries. I found a gem on Place dÀlesia, just 5-10 minute walk from our apartment; one of those places where you want one of everything. I chose several items including a broccoli and cheese quiche (wow) and some great breads and pastries. By the end of the week Archie was praising Paris because he had had something with chocolate with every single breakfast.
On Saturday we started the day at the Musee dÒrsay. Archie and I checked out the 19th century exhibit while Layla and Ora checked out the snack bar. Archie complained at first (Ï HATE museums¨) but quickly showed a lot of interest and asked a lot of questions. Eventually Ora and Layla joined us for the impressionist section as well as some other great turn-of-the-century art for which the Orsay is famous. We had a lot of fun standing far away from the Manet and Sisley and other impressionist paintings and then walking towards them to see how they changed. Archie insisted they looked the same no matter where you stood. That`s the Mona Lisa buddy.
From the Orsay we walked over the Seine (using a bridge, ahem) and onto the Arc du Caroussel, which connects the Louvre to the Jardin Tuileries, which connects in turn with the Champs Elysses and westward to the Arc d`Triomphe. You can see why it was a Frenchman who designed the symmetry of Washington DC; it`s just too bad LÈnfant didn`t bring his personal chef with him.
We walked around the Jardin Tuileries, a beautiful park maintained to perfection, with lawn chairs that aren`t bolted down and not a piece of trash to be found anywhere. By Saturday the temperature was into the high 70`s with strong sunshine. On the north side of Tuileries was a temporary amusement park with some terrifying rides and some more kid-friendly action. The kids had a great time on the rides, especially the trampolines and a fun house/labyrinth thing, and they successfully squeezed 3-4 ¨just one more ride!!!¨s out of us. We ended the day with another nice meal at a cafe, this time back near our apartment. The woman at the table next to us had a very impressive sauerkraut platter; a variety of cooked meats on top of a specially made mound of sauerkraut. It`s a French delicacy, FYI. The kids have been mostly very well-behaved during these languorous meals. I think they are enjoying the Parisian pace for the most part. The one thing they really don`t enjoy is the ubiquitous cigarette smoke. They cannot stand the smell. May that never change!
On Sunday we somehow tricked the kids into another museum, the Georges Pompidou Museum of Modern Art. The museum has a phenomenal six-story escalator that runs on the outside of the building (encased in glass) and offers spectacular views of the city. Spotting the Eiffel Tower on the horizon never gets old. The museum was great; they had a Gerhard Richter exhibit that was amazing, and their 1960-present section was a lot of fun for all four of us. Plus Ora and Archie checked out an exhibit on Italian architecture while Layla and I spent some extra time checking out a giant mushroom and a prismatic, enclosed living room.
We then headed into the Jewish district of La Marais, which other than the Jewish History Museum was not overtly Jewish, save for a few falfel/shwarma restaurants. We met up with Avi Liberman, who went to college with Jonathan and me. He was in Paris just for the day. We sat at one of the few places which, according to Avi, was truly kosher. Archie got merguez and Layla ordered schnitzel. So authentic. We caught up with Avi a bit and then all took the Metro over to the champs Elysses in time to watch the final sprint of the Tour de France. The kids were quickly allowed to move up to the front of the crod, and Ora and I eventually joined them while Avi took off to make his return train to London.
I tried to explain to the kids just how difficult it is to complete the Tour de France, and how standing just a few feet from the riders as they were just a few kilometers away from completing a 2,130 mie race was like sitting at the front row of the World Series. The kids were duly impressed. We stood with a pack of Brits and cheered on the British winner, Wiggins. We all felt great as we walked away from the boulevard, and felt less great 45 minutes later when both restaurants recommended by our guidebook were closed. Ÿou worry too much about where we are going to eat. Any place is fine,¨ said Archie. I couldn`t decide whether I was proud or disappointed. I was mostly hungry. We settled on teriyaki and sushi in the Little Japan district and headed home content and ready for the ¨work week.¨ To be continued...
Part 3 - Whole Lotta Louvre/Au Revoir
It has been a very hectic return to the US, which has delayed my dispatch for the final week of our trip. Here goes:
Monday, July 23, Paris: This was Ora’s favorite day of the vacation. We arranged for a private, kid-oriented tour of the Louvre. The tour included our own guide, and just as importantly we got to skip the two-hour wait to get into the museum. The tour itself was very fun. Our guide was a 20-something American woman from Northern California who had just moved to Paris four months earlier to take this job. She led the kids on a treasure hunt through the museum. The kids had to read clues, find the answers among the myriad art pieces in the museum, and then decipher codes that eventually led them to a prize. But the real prize was having a guide navigate the Louvre for us. It is the most massive museum you can imagine, and if we had been left to our own devices we would have been at sea, adrift and the owner of two very distracted and fed up kids very quickly. Instead, we got to see the best that the Louvre has to offer in just under two hours. And it is a fantastic museum, far more interesting than I recall from the last and only other time I have been there. They have spectacular art that goes way beyond the Mona Lisa, dating back all the way to Hammurabi. Archie and Layla stayed engaged throughout.
After lunch we started walking across Jardin Tuileries for a second time. Just past the Arc Du Caroussel there was a large fountain where we rented small wooden sailboats, which Archie and Layla navigated around the fountain with the help of wooden poles. They had fun pushing the boats and then following them around the circle wherever the summer breezes pushed les bateaux.
From there we successfully avoided the trampoline and carnival rides, though we did make a return stop at the playground Archie really liked. Layla and Ora got a snack at an outdoor café, then we walked further to the edge of the Champs Elysses, at which point Ora and I pulled the wool over the kids’ eyes, telling them there was a great “pit stop” nearby. The pit stop was the Musee Orangerie, for which we had already purchased tickets when we visited the Orsay. It’s a small museum whose rooms contain Renoir’s Lillies paintings, these giant mural-size pieces that wrap around the curved walls of the oval shaped rooms inside the museum. The paintings are really nice, and all of a same theme, so we had fun ranking them and picking the best of the bunch in each room. The downstairs had some nice paintings from Picasso, Modigliani and a few other people you might have heard of. Orangerie is a perfect museum for when you only have an hour, and when you happen to be in Paris of course.
From Orangerie we hopped on the Metro and got off at the Arc D’Triomphe. Archie was not feeling well; he ended up having a slight fever for the next few days until we were able to prescribe antibiotics for him (and by “we” I mean Ora). Luckily, we convinced the people at the Arc to allow us to use the elevator to get to the top; it’s a 284 step climb otherwise.
Archie’s favorite building in London was Big Ben, and his favorite in Paris was the Arc D’Triomphe. He loved looking around from the top of the Arc, which affords some very nice sight lines to the north, east and west. Twelve different streets radiate from the Arc. And the Eiffel Tower is in prominent view. When we got back to the ground floor we got to watch the daily ceremony for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The torch is re-lit every day at 18:30. There is some military garb and pageantry involved.
From there we got on the 6 train to head back to our apartment, and were treated to a stunning view of the Eiffel Tower from the train as it headed above-ground and over a bridge onto the Left Bank. Really fun surprise. For dinner we found a local place that sold pasta and salads. Dissatisfied with that selection, I picked up food for the family, brought it to the apartment and went back out by myself to a creperie (much faster meal than a café) and had a cheese crepe followed by a salted caramel crepe that was so intensely good I almost ordered a second one. But I didn’t want to give America a bad name.
At this point we had settled into a rhythm in Paris, which was one of our goals and why we didn’t try running around to do any overnight trips outside the city. Not getting too ambitious, staying in the same beds for eight straight nights, enhanced the enjoyment factor, reduced stress. It doesn’t mean things were always la-di-da, but it was great to wake up when we wanted, leave the house when we wanted and go to sleep when we wanted. The kids, who usually thrive on structure, adapted very well. Having chocolate in their breakfast every morning might have helped rally the troops.
Layla was born to spend time in Paris. From day one she knew exactly what outfit to wear every day, how she wanted her hair, and how to carry herself. More than once she ingratiated herself to French-speaking children on the playgrounds, and of course French fries is her main staple so the food was not a problem.
Archie was a super trooper during this week. We would load him up on Advil and head out for the day, and he did great, showed a lot of interest in the city’s history and georgraphy, was energetic and in a good mood, and finally recovered, as I noted, once we could establish he needed antibiotics.
On Tuesday we got an especially late start, stayed local and visited the Jardin Luxembourg, a gorgeous park only 2 long subway stops away from our apartment. The landscaping, the fountains, the immaculate condition, the trees, the sculptures, the chairs and benches and playgrounds and tennis courts and pony rides….everything is just beautiful there. We had actually read a book about this park while still in Brooklyn, and it lived up to its reputation. The kids loved the playground. Flowers everywhere.
From there, we walked up to the famous St. Germain district, making a stop at Pierre Herme for what I had been told were the best macarons in Paris (even better than La Duree, which now has stores in NYC and London) We picked a six pack of macarons and continued walking while Ora elaborated on her previous diatribes why macarons are hopelessly overrated. From there, we peeked into a few clothing stores (again, “we” meaning Ora) and walked far too long before finding a café to eat a late lunch/early dinner, during which Archie accidentally (and not completely his fault) sat on the precious macarons, smushing but not running them. Which was more than enough justification to make a stop at Grom gelato (very good) before making it a short day (Archie was at his most tired this day) and heading back to the apartment for a movie on the iPad for the kids and some wine and cheese for Ora and me.
I think I have already discussed how consistently good the food is in Parisian restaurants, but it cannot be understated. Whatever you choose, it’s going to be good. The stereotype of Parisians walking around, munching on a baguette? Totally true. And who can blame them?
But so many people leave France with a sour view of the French. I am sure there is some truth to it but we didn’t experience very much obnoxious behavior. Almost everyone we encountered tolerated our language deficit, were polite and patient and helpful, and other than the widespread cigarette smoke that plagued Archie and Layla, they were perfectly fine hosts. And there is no city that has streets more pleasant to walk than the streets of Paris.
On Wednesday we took the Metro to the northeast portion of the city (19e) to Parc de Villettes, which has some highly regarded playgrounds that left us underwhelmed, but also has a Science Museum that actually was a lot of fun for the kids. We also watched a 3D movie about ocean life during prehistoric times that was absolutely fascinating, really and truly. In between the kids got to ride a charming little carousel and rode these toy sulkys, a kid-size wooden horse that you pedal around and control using reins like on a real horse. It looked really fun, and it was in a beautiful space in the park. And everything in the Park de Villettes cost a third of what it cost in Tuileries. We had some ride tickets remaining so I went back to the carousel area. The woman told me the ride was closed. I showed her my tickets. She shrugged, took my tickets and gave me a more than fair refund. What could I say? “Zai gezunt!” I said. And I meant it, even if she offered no reaction.
After the Villettes we took the 5 train to the Latin Quarter, not for anything Latin but to check out a place called Oya, where you can play obscure and interesting board games, drink juice or soda, and if you really like a game you can buy it and take it home. We played some very fun games together. One that was especially good was called Indigo and involves hexagonal shapes and creating pathways as you play…hard to explain but easy to play once you get it. All four of us enjoyed it and I plan on buying it off of Amazon next week. We enjoyed some other games, spent a couple of hours there, and headed back home. I picked up some very good pizza and pasta and brought it home so we could all chill out. I think the length of a restaurant meal in Paris proved a bit daunting at times, and relaxing at home was the right option here and there.
On Thursday We headed out for our one excursion, the mandatory visit to Versailles. It’s a very quick trip, in fact; we got door to door in an hour. Archie was still under the weather, it was almost 90 degrees out, it was very crowded and bathrooms and refreshments were scarce, which is a long way of saying we enjoyed Versailles but not really. We did the entire Palace tour but did not get to visit many of the gardens on the site. It’s just such a gigantic place, possessed of a scale and grandeur that you can only appreciate in person. And so it was interesting and spectacular, but we didn’t enjoy the visit as much as we enjoyed the more accessible Tower of London and Hampton Court Palace (where, btw, they ran some Olympic bike races this week. Very cool!). I’m glad we saw Versailles but I’m also glad we didn’t push the day too long.
On Friday, with some rain in the forecast for the first time since we had arrived in Paris, I convinced the family (having lost my appeal to try the beateaux mouches tourist boat rides down the Seine) to visit Les Iles, the two islands in the middle of the Seine between the two Banks, and home to the Cathedral of Notre Dame, among other things. It’s a beautiful church with an interesting history. I shared with the kids my limited understanding of the religious imagery in the church, took photos of the beautiful stained glass windows, but we did not climb the steps. The kids weren’t interested. We had a classic bread and cheese picnic in the square outside the church, then walked across to the smaller of the two islands, Le Ile Saint Louis, home to the famous Berthillon ice cream. Which was closed. Which drew the ire of our son. However, some other local places were selling Berthillon. I got a cup and can vouch for their absolutely incredible chocolate, rhubarb and salted caramel flavors. Absolutely A plus ice cream. Everyone else went to Amorino for gelato, also very good. We walked around the islands a little more and then took the Metro up to the Opera shopping district, checked out the fancy dome inside the Lafayette mall, and eventually took the train that gave us one last look at the Eiffel Tower, had sushi, and settled in for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, which were fun to watch in French.
Saturday. Last day of our trip. Depressing. What better way to address our melancholy than to visit the Catacombs, a major tourist attraction a mere five minute walk from our apartment. We (meaning I) failed to get on line early, which meant we had to wait close to two hours in line to get in. The Catacombs only allows 200 people inside at a time. We were in line before it opened and by the time we got to the front of the line, 650 people had already paid and entered. But it was kind of nice to sit in line in the sunny weather, talk about our trip, relax. Of course, by the time we got to the entrance we realized we were a little under the gun if we wanted to get to the airport on time, so we made sure not to dilly dally too much in the tunnels.
What are the Catacombs? They are a 19th century series of tunnels deep under the 14th arrondissement that house over six million skeletons. Seriously. There is a long background story as to why the French sent all these skeletons here, but really all you have to know is that it is a very fun walk underground, kind of creepy, and there really are six million skeletons. (our host family has never been inside the Catacombs, much like I have never been to the top of the Washington Monument). The guidebooks say not to take children under ten years old. Our kids loved it. LOVED it. We had fun pretending we were the Scooby Doo gang (I was Shaggy, Archie-Scooby, Layla-Daphne and Ora-Velma). I went up to one skeleton and asked for directions. We got shushed. We didn’t care. This was our Paris swan song and we were going to enjoy it.
The exit side of the tunnels was even closer to our apartment. We hustled back, packed and cleaned up, and walked with luggage (ugh) to the nearby RER train, which took us all the way to the airport. Other than foolishly ordering the kosher meal during the nine days of Av (and therefore getting a gross dairy meal) we had a very easy flight back. Layla slept most of the way, Archie watched movies, and Ora and I both loved The Hunger Games. (I also watched Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, which was okay) The kids were happy to return to the largely cigarette smoke-free streets of Brooklyn. Ora and I were in no rush.
WHY is Paris so much more beautiful than New York City? I think population density must have something to do with it. It must also derive from Louis XIV, like every Parisian has a little bit of Versailles in them. Regardless, it was a remarkable ten days for all four of us.
But how remarkable? Does a vacation like we just had have a lasting impact? Is it life-changing? What will the kids remember? What stays with us? How do you walk away from a trip like that with more than just consumerism, something slightly more than just being a tourist? I don’t think there is any easy way to answer that question, but it was something I asked myself throughout my month in Europe. I’d like to think there is a shimmering residue that will stay with each of us.
The day before we left Paris, Archie gave me an impromptu reading of a beautiful cihildren’s book Ora bought at the Louvre called “Who Stole Mona Lisa?” It tells the true story of the Italian man who stole the Mona Lisa and kept it in his apartment for two years, 1911-1913. The book is told from the perspective of the Mona Lisa. Near the end Archie read the following:
“Now you know why I am smiling. I am happy to see you. I am happy to be back where I belong. I am happy to be me. But mine is a knowing smile.”