Baguettes and Big Macs: Tips for Traveling With Kids
Oh, no, the stroller broke!The rubber strap on our otherwise trusty MacLaren stroller snapped just as we arrived at Luxenbourg gardens one humid afternoon that set a heat record for Paris. Mikey's rubber-wheeled chariot had been our lifeline.Small wonder it broke. After 15 days of hauling the damn thing through dozens of turnstiles in the metro, up and down hundreds of steps, in and out of art museums, sidewalk cafes, open-air markets, the laws of physics finally prevailed."Ah, Paris in the summer." Before waxing rhapsodic, amend that redolent phrase to, "Ah, Paris in the summer with a three year old." Paris may be the city of lights, art, fashion, food, but it is not the city of kids. To survive in this cradle of sophistication with a young child takes nerve, moxie, and endurance.Without the stroller we were dead. Trying to circumnavigate the Parisian crowds would be like the salmon's heroic struggle upstream: We could do it, but once our vacation ended, we'd be dead -- at least, dead tired. Try carrying a napping 35-pound kid through crowded Paris. About the only one who'd approve would be the Marquis de Sade.Desperately seeking stroller first-aid, we ducked into a pharmacy on the Right Bank. A sympathetic clerk pulled out a roll of adhesive tape. But the tourniquet lasted just a few hours. In the middle of rush hour, Mikey's chariot collapsed again. We limped into the Chatelet Metro station, where an ingenious shoemaker scratched his head, punched three rivets in the stroller strap, and pronounced Mikey's single-seater fixed with a grand "Voila!"But our problems were far from over. Let's face it. Kids are not impressed with 17th Century architecture. The Power Rangers are more exciting than the Mona Lisa. A meal of pate, canard a la presse jardiniere, and salade nicoise just doesn't have the same sine qua non as a McDonald's Happy Meal. The aroma of freshly baked baguettes is likely to make a kid long for squishy Wonderbread.We were determined to spend a month in Paris with Mikey. When we told his grandmother about our plans, she was aghast. "What, are your crazy?" she said. "He's too young to appreciate it."But we replied that a trip to Paris would make a Francophile out of him. He'd make bons amis on the balancoire in Parisian playgrounds. Sitting at a choice table at La Coupole, we'd discuss Babar while sipping citrons presse.Staying in a hotel, of course, was out of the question. Nightly rates at moderate Paris hotels average more than $150, and few places offer discounts for extended stays. Surely, our friends at the International Herald Tribune could set us up in an apartment of someone on holiday. But they didn't have the faintest idea where we should stay. If they knew a reasonable place, they'd take it.We called several Paris apartment locators based in the states. These are agencies that rent furnished apartments in Paris, but the minimum weekly rentals were as high as $800. We got several publications that advertise Paris flats -- France USA Contacts, The Chronicle for Higher Education, New York Review of Books. One ad sounded promising: a one-bedroom apartment near the Place des Voges in the Marais for $600 a week, but when I mentioned that we had a three year old, there was an awkward pause, and then a click.We finally settled for a one-bedroom apartment just outside Paris, south of the city, in a suburb called Bourg-la-Reine. The apartment owner, an American who lives in Pennsylvania, glowed about the flat, saying it was located in "one of the finest residential neighborhoods, only a few minutes from the heart of Paris -- Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Champs Elysees." He used phases like "fabulously good fun" and "gracious living with exceptional convenience." The spiel would have shamed TV advertorial king Ron Papeil, the man behind hair-in-a-can. But it seemed like our only opportunity. When I mentioned Mikey, there was nary a grumble. "No problem," he said amiably. All the owner asked was that we use rubber sheets (not for us, for the boy). We agreed at $495 a week, including maid service.The flat turned out to be clean, spacious and airy, in a complex of 20-year-old, low-rise apartment buildings. The accommodations weren't the problem. Bourg-la-Reine was five stops outside of Paris on the RER railroad, which meant the "few minutes" to the heart of Paris actually was more like 45 minutes. To get to the train station we had a half-hour uphill hike. And that was after we clomped down four flights of stairs with the stroller.So, we weren't in the trendy 6th or the 16th arrondissment, -- hell, we weren't in any arrondissement -- but we were 10 kilometers from Paris, and how bad could that be?Our first night, Mikey and I ventured to the apartment playground, which was strictly BYOT: Bring your own toys. We sidled up to two neighborhood kids playing soccer. But just as we were about to take them on, two-on-two, the French kids' mother called them in for dinner.Walking back to our apartment, I promised Mikey I'd buy him a kick ball. "Yeah, Dad. I'll get a Paris ball, right? So the kids will ask me to play, right Dad?"The next day we found the perfect Paris ball, emblazoned with pictures of the French comic-strip character, TinTin and his dog wonder, Malou. Truth be told, the purchase was part of a gambit. We had planned that day to embark on some tricky business with a three year old: visiting the Louvre.The Berlitz travel guide suggests spending four days at the Louvre. With a three-year-old kid, try 20 minutes -- unless you have a daring plan. We were going to buy postcards at the Louvre gift shop. Once inside, Mikey's assignment would be to match the postcards with the paintings inside -- sort of like a haute treasure hunt.No way, the kid said. Trying to coax culture into Mikey had a price. The only way that Mikey would see the world's most famous art museum was with a bag of M&M's. All right, I said, but don't open it.But as we meandered through the Denon wing, looking at Etruscan pottery, sudden terror struck: Mikey dropped the opened M&M bag, and as the tiny colored pellets clicked and skidded like marbles on the 400-year-old stone floor, a phalanx of security guards charged us. I expected them to pull out .9-mm Beretta pistols, line us up between the Roman urns and Greek vases, blind-fold and shoot us.Whom were we trying to fool? Paris and kids go together like Bordeaux and Cheese Whiz. Enough of the adult stuff. L'affaire M&M told us that we desperately needed to find kid stuff.The next day, we headed to Paris' primo playground, Jardin du Luxenbourg. It must be one of the only places in the world where admission is more expensive for kids than for adults: six francs per adult ($1.20) and 12 francs per kid ($2.40). Parents congregate in metal chairs outside the playground's fence, and read the paper or talk over cafe au lait while their kids tear through the playground. The play area is covered with a spongy black cushion that makes the football field-size playground almost injury-proof. Two attractions stand out: a rope sculpture in the shape of a ship's mast that kids love to climb; and a monkey-bar slide that rewards daredevils with a fast-paced 50-foot ride.There are other kid magnets in Luxenbourg gardens, including model boats, go-karts, a merry-go-round, and guinol, the French equivalent of Punch and Judy. But beware of the 45-minute puppet shows: the cost per person is 21 francs ($4.20). Then the ushers stick out their palms and demand a tip. The bigger the tip, the better the seat.In our continuing quest to keep Mikey moving in the record-breaking Paris heat, we took the RER train to the Piscine de Plein Air du Parc du Sceaux, a complex of five modern pools, located in a 1,000-acre regional forest. It was packed by mid-morning. We peeled off our clothes, and the three of jumped into the blue water.Our pleasure was short-lived. A bronzed and beefy lifeguard rushed in my direction, blowing a silver whistle at an ear-drum-piercing level. He pointed at me accusingly, and said something that roughly translated to: "You, low-life, good-for-nothing derelict. Get out of the pool immediately!"Everyone stopped: the mothers who were breast feeding their infants, the topless girls playing Frisbee, the guys with the pumped pecs bouncing on the high board. Total silence. As I pulled myself out of the water and into the glare of notoriety, the guard pointed to my hip Gap-issue bathing jams, and sneered. Positively, no way were bathing trucks allowed; the only swim gear permitted for males were racing, Speedo-type, suits, said the swim Gestapo.Fortunately, we were able to roll up Mikey's trunks, and slip him undetected into the kiddie pool.But I was banished.After the first week, we had a daily routine. Everyday, we planned a single excursion, and each morning Mikey awakened us, asking, "Guys, what's our plan today?" That was my cue to trudge down the four flights to the neighborhood patisserie six blocks away to buy fresh croissants and brioches. Iris and I squeezed chairs onto our postage-stamp-sized balcony, sipped coffee and nibbled on our rolls while poring over our Michelin Blue map of Paris. Meanwhile, Mikey was a coach potato, imbibing French culture while slurping Yoplait and watching a TV show called Mini Keums, which featured dubbed versions of Casper the Friendly Ghost, and Denver the Dino-Dinosaur.A highlight for Mikey was our trip to the Eiffel Tower (miserable lines; if possible, try to go in the early morning or evening hours), To commemorate, we bought Mikey a bronze miniature, which he proudly placed next to his bed.Each day posed different culinary challenges. We did make several pilgrimages to McDonalds. Each visit proved to be disappointing for reasons other than the food. The lines were long; the restaurants were always packed; and since there was no air conditioning, the places were hotter than the French fries.We braved several "adult" restaurants with Mikey during our month's stay. Once we went to a Chinese restaurant near the Luxenbourg gardens and lived through haughty stares from both the waiter and the sole other diners, an elderly couple eating moo shoo pork. After the debacle inside the Louvre, we had a lovely afternoon of wine and cheese at Le Cafe Marly, a civilized brasserie that looks out onto the Pyramid and classic courtyard of the Louvre. Mikey napped nearby in his stroller.We sat for almost an hour at an outdoor table at Chez Jo Goldenberg, the well-known delicatessen in the Marais, before a waiter paid attention to us. We should have picked up the cue; the potato pancake and borsch were inedible, the potted chicken tasted as though it had been cooked in mud.When we poked our heads into a pizzeria near the Bourse (the stock market), the waiter hauled the stroller upstairs, next to the toilets, and we had the floor to ourselves. Actually, it was sort of nice.We had a large and proper lunch one day at Flo, La Coupole's spin-off on Boulevard Haussmann on the top floor of Le Printemps, Paris' largest department store. The restaurant, located under a stained-glass dome, is a good place to entertain your child as Parisian matrons pamper their pet poodles.Usually, though, instead of braving restaurants with Mikey, we packed a lunch and headed to playgrounds everyday. There are the landmark parks, but most are crowded and many are overrated: Le Jardin des Enfants aux Halles (new and innovative), the Tulleries (crass and commercial), Champs de Mars (avoid at all costs), Jardim d'Acclimation (a rip-off with costly rides like bumper cars and river boats, which are old and in disrepair), Bois de Boulogne (enormous but with little to attract a child under six). The most fun of the trip was discovering Paris' many pocket parks, some well-known, but most obscure.Words of advice: You might want to buy or pack an inflatable ball, a ballon in French, along with a toy shovel, bucket, and rake. The sandboxes are full of urban gardeners. Also, don't expect the playgrounds to be like their counterparts in the U.S. The French, especially Parisians, take a rather stern view of childhood. Parisian children are expected to grow into civilized little adults as soon as possible, and as such, can be rather prim and proper. Where could you go in America and see a little girl at a playground dressed in a neatly pressed white dress -- and never get a speck of dirt on it? When Mikey stretched out his arms and pretended to be a jet plane, other children stared at him like he was E.T.These neighborhood parks are tucked away between buildings, in squares, next to churches:* The Rodin Museum is set in a lush sculpture garden, which Mikey loved. It is an especially pleasant choice since there is an outdoor cafe adjacent to sculpted green hedges and a grassy courtyard, just a stone's throw away from The Thinker. Parents with children are admitted free to the grounds.* Place des Vosges is the oldest and certainly one of the most beautiful, squares in Paris. Thirty-six matching pavilions of red brick and stone facades surround this grassy area in the Marais, where a small but popular playground is located. The usual fare is here -- sandbox, swings, slides. What makes it such an ideal choice is how civilized the park is, located smack in the middle of some of the most perfect city planning on the planet. Chic women in Christian Lacoix sit beside Gitanes-smoking French philosophers reading Sartre.* The church at St.-Germain-des-Pres provides a respite from all the beautiful people making the scene at Cafe de Flore, Aux Deux Magots, and Brasserie Lipp across the street. Except for a bronze Picasso sculpture, the playground itself is nothing to write home about. It's shaded, with two swing sets, and your usual quotient of French pigeons. (We named an especially friendly pigeon, Walter.) As we left, walking onto Boulevard St. Germain, whom should we see stoking up a long stogie, but Jack Nicholson.* Near the Hotel des Invalides, there is a lovely plaza adjacent to the church of St. Francois Xavier. Mikey made friends with a French kid named Julien whose father is a chef. The two played hide-and-seek while Julien's mother, a New Jersey native, told us stories about her C-section.* Another neighborhood park is in the courtyard of the church St. Sulpice in the Latin Quarter. A boulangerie across the street makes this popular, well-situated playground a great lunch stop.* Square Boucicaut is wonderful playground across the street from the oldest, and arguably the best, Parisian department store, Au Bon Marche. First, go to Bon Marche's ground-floor epicerie, 2,800 square meters of food-to-go. Buy a box lunch and then sit on one of the benches while noshing as your child can take his pick of slides and swings. While riding on a see-saw, Mikey spotted a boy dressed in cowboy hat, chaps, boots, taking aim at him with a six-shooter. "Watch it, podner," the kid said. Mikey could hardly believe his ears. The cowboy was a New Yorker named Shepherd.* Jardim de Babylon, near the Sevres Babylon Metro, in a secluded courtyard that used to be a monastery. It is shaded, far away from traffic, and a wonderful place to struggle through the day's Le Monde.* Place du Pres de Xavier on the chic shopping strip Rue de Bac, near Rue de Commalle, is another postage-size park -- a perfect place to eat lunch.In between trips to playgrounds, we did visit other museums besides the Louvre. Mikey was not impressed by the impressive Musee d'Orsay, located in a huge, converted train station. However, he was wowed by the Monet water lilies in the downstairs circular room of the very manageable L'Orangerie, near the Place de la Concorde.At the Picasso Museum in the Marais, Mikey looked at a Picasso canvas and asked why the woman had two noses and three arms.The Pompidou Center was a treat for Mikey, not so much for what was inside, but the elevator ride outside. The newly opened Museum of Natural History in the Jardin des Plantes, near the Gare d'Austerlitz, is an enormous atrium that delights kids with computer games at each exhibit, as well as hundreds of taxidermic animals out in the open (not behind glass).A trip to le Cite des Science et de I'Industrie is as close to nirvana as any kid will get, certainly in Paris. Inside this huge complex is La Cite des Enfants, an ultra modernistic, hands-on kids discovery museum, divided into two sections: for kids three to five; and another, for kids five to 12. For crowd control, the museum allots 90-minute sessions throughout the day, where a set number of kids are allowed in at one time. Everything from how dams operate to how buildings are erected is there. While hauling fake bricks up a fake freight elevator, Mikey met a homesick California kid named Sam, who talked non-stop to Mikey for hours. The rest of the Cite has attractions for all: a three-dimensional movie, a planetarium, Argonaute (a beached submarine), monster slides, and a SuperMax cinema.A quick pick-me-up is a river ride on the Batobus. Granted, it's not your romantic boat ride down the Seine, but the trip from the Hotel de Ville to the Trocadero is enough to make most kids' jaws drop. (Beware, though, the short ride isn't cheap - $12 per person.)Realize, of course, that traveling with a three-year-old in Paris doesn't have too much to do with Paris. When we went to Versailles, we hopped onto a double-decker train, which Mikey thought was the most wonderful mode of transportation in the world. At Versailles, the dances of the fountain, the ornate gardens, the French provincial-to-the-max furnishings were a snooze for him. The only thing that kept him going was the prospect of our double-decker return trip.A vacation to Paris can appeal to young children. It requires planning and patience. If all fails, there's always a sure-fire way to please your homesick kid: Euro Disney, just 20 miles away. Once there, you may not feel you're still in France, but your kid will think he's got the coolest parents in the world.Traveling to Paris with a stroller will not recreate your honeymoon. Our trip wasn't an instant success. But like French wine, the trip has aged remarkably well. Mikey still talks about the playgrounds, the Eiffel Tower, and all his Parisian pals. His parents, meanwhile, talk about how crazy they must have been to take little Mikey to Paris.