Monday, February 11, 2008

Paris 2003 As The Taking With Begins

“WOW! You’re an amazing woman!” he blurted. His eyes flashed with admiration as a giant smile washed across his face. Realizing what he’d just said, how he’d just proclaimed his private feelings, he shyly dropped his chin and glanced down. I have never heard more enchanting words. Sure we were holed up in some dimly lit café in Paris, the epicenter for passionate outbursts. But the fact was this was not some dashing young suitor. This was my 13 year old son, thoroughly impressed with my ability to get him a coke and a hamburger in my halting college French.

Two years ago I took our sons, 10 and 13, to Paris over their Thanksgiving break. Those who didn’t think I was crazy surely thought I was stupid. I admit I have an uncommon love for Paris and all things French, and I probably painted a slightly biased picture in their imaginations (hot coco and chocolate filled croissants for breakfast!). But truly, Paris is a wonderful travel destination for children. The secrets? Stay close to a metro stop. Keep museum visits short – less than an hour. Never get too hungry or too tired. Forget shopping – except in the toy stores which are delightful. Keep it fun and active.

At first a sunset cruise on the Seine, directly upon our arrival seemed like a horrible idea. Two jet-lagged boys on a guided tour sounded like a recipe for disaster. As it turned out we were practically the only people on the boat that chilly November evening, and my boys were so tired they were incapable of round 27 of “He’s Touching Me – I’m Not Touching Him”. As the sun set, the twinkling lights of the Eiffel tower reflected in their eyes. They were awed by the sights, the sounds, the thrill of this new city.

The next day at the Louvre my boys displayed an astonishing amount of art appreciation. The secret here was telling them the dollar value of the art they are meant to appreciate. I didn’t know it myself of course, but gave them fantastically inflated numbers that made their eyes grow big and round. Plus, somehow they got the impression that if the even seemed to be considering touching the art, before their fingertips could brush the canvas, they would be shot by guards who dressed as tiny old French ladies in big coats. These women were everywhere in the museums, always alone, and staring at young children with menacing glares (Think Granny from the Bugs Bunny cartoons with an enormous hound’s-tooth check overcoats and maybe…… just maybe, an M16 hidden in the folds). They didn’t believe me of course, but when they saw how well-behaved and fearful the French children looked in their tidy little uniforms and precise straight lines, they did wonder.

We saw all the greats, Mona Lisa, Water Lilies, Winged Victory; but we never spent more than 30 minutes in any museum or between snacks. It worked wonderfully. In fact, due to the untold hours that each had spent playing some computer game called Age of Mythology, they recognized the Greek and Roman God sculptures much better than I. Don’t think I didn’t revel in the admiring glances from other parents as my young boys, in their turtle necks and corduroys said “Mom, look! It’s Aphrodite and Eros!” Ah yes, the value of a classic education!

The food was incredible and not terribly expensive. My boys squeamishly tasted pate, fois gras, and escargot. They hated it of course, but now take pride in telling people that they ate liver and snails in Paris – just like fear factor! We usually ate from street vendors and bakeries at impromptu outdoor picnics, keeping restaurant visits to a minimum. Their favorite activity was our self-guided hot chocolate tour of Paris. They kept a journal, and rated the delicious concoctions at each café. The very best, at Café Flore en I’lle, was served in 2 separate steaming pitchers, one of milk and one of liquid chocolate. It was the distinct winner, and my boys were consumed with creating the perfect mixture. I got to rest my feet and enjoy views of Notre Dame from our cozy table by the window, my sons on either side of me with matching chocolate mustaches.

Best of all though, is that when I embarrassed myself, as I do in every place I visit, my children were spared the humiliation since they didn’t understand the language. We were visiting a glorious little chapel called St. Chapelle. While inside, I set down my guidebook and camera to tie my son’s shoe, and accidentally walked out without them. Just as we were leaving, I realized my mistake, but the doors had been locked behind us and I couldn’t go back inside. I wandered around searching for security when I came upon a small cluster of young policemen. I asked them in French “Please, can you help me?” Then realized I didn’t know how to say that I had “left” my things inside. So what came out was “I have a book and a camera inside, can you help me?” (Complete with my most charming smile).

Well, I thought it was odd that the policemen all smiled sheepishly, hands in pockets, and looked at their shoes. They shot sideways glances at one another, and seemed embarrassed, on the verge of laughter. Again I pleaded “I have a book and a camera in there. Can you help me please? It is closed and no one is inside.” (Again the smile).

Finally, after much gesturing, I got one of the men to understand me and he kindly helped me retrieve my things. We left without further incident.

As I was falling asleep that night I was trying to understand my failure with the language. Then it dawned on me. The French word for book is “livre”. I had been saying “lit” which means BED! I had been begging these men “Please, come with me inside; no one is there. I have a BED and a camera; come with me now! No one is around.”

Don’t get me wrong here. It wasn’t a week full of meaningful moments filled with famous, awe-inspiring artwork while the sparkling lights of Paris reflected in my son’s eyes. There were plenty of excruciating rounds of “I Know You Are – But What Am I” “I Did Not – You Did Too” and the perennial favorite “Nolan Children Family Smack Down”. The point is that with humor, a sense of adventure, and lots of activity we had an unforgettable time together.

And not that I’m counting, but twice……TWICE they told me they thought I was amazing.

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