Everything good that Paris could have been, it was.
Before we left my mom was like, “Oh, man, you have a two hour layover? Ugh, that’s awful.”
One must only lament a layover if one is laid-over with children. That layover is like a hangover. Layovers solo are like a precious amulet of alone time, presented with a book and beverage.
Despite LAX having precisely zero signs signaling the way to the international terminal, I said to myself, “This is the no-complaint trip. I shall have zero complaints.” How could I? So I walked around the soon-found international terminal grinning like an idiot and basking in the quiet of walking without talking. It’s an odd and welcome pleasure.
Speaking of pleasure — a nine hour flight with nothing to do but eat, drink, watch movies, read, and nap is a vacation unto itself. Every mother of toddlers reading this is thinking, “I’d pay the airfare just for the alone time. You could circle my city at 30,000 feet and bring me straight back.”
I was only able to sleep a short nap on the way over, but deplaned saying, who cares? I’m in PARIS! ONWARD.
The surprise to Erin and Joey of my coming on the trip wasn’t able to come off like we’d hoped, because my parents and I couldn’t find each other after customs. Turns out concourse E has two floors. Who knew? And again, who cares? To Paris!
We Uber’d into the city and paid to drop our bags at a hotel down the road from our apartment, since it was several hours prior to check-in.
We had a quick espresso at a café to perk up after the flight, said goodbye to the honeymooners and off we walked the short distance across the Seine to:
Notre Dame herself.
I whipped out my Rick Steves and started our self-guided tour. For those unfamiliar, Rick is the European travel guru of our time, with dozens of books, a PBS show, and a brick-and-mortar store here in Edmonds, WA. I don’t travel without him. He’s like Uncle Rick to our family. It helps that his son (also now traveling for a living) is friends with my dear friend Maggie. They’ve all gone boating together. It makes it less creepy that I go hear him speak and get photos with him.
Notre Dame sits on an island in the middle of Paris called the Ile de la Cite. It was settled by a tribe called the Parisii in 250 BC. Clearly the plat du jour is a heaping pile of history, served rare.
Since it was Sunday, they were holding mass. It was incredible to see so many worshippers in spite of the tourists milling around the periphery.
After Notre Dame we walked through the Deportation Memorial, which honors the French lost in the Holocaust. We stopped for lunch at a café along the Seine, which was lousy, but we didn’t have time to find something better since we needed to check into our apartment.
When Mike and I stayed in Paris in 2011, we were budget-conscious; we chose a modest hotel that had a view of the Eiffel Tower, but you could basically touch all four walls of the space at once. I think the shower stall and toilet were hard to distinguish.
My mom and dad are conservative, but they’re over that way of traveling. I stood only to benefit.
We walked to Sainte-Chappelle, which I’d never been to, and were utterly struck dumb when we walked inside. There’s an old joke when you travel through Europe that it’s ABC: Another Bloody Cathedral. This isn’t to deride them, it’s meant to imply that you get grandeur-fatigue, like your brain goes blank after the seventh soaring ceiling and flying buttress.
Sainte-Chappelle laughs at the idea of visual boredom; the cacophony of color in the stained glass is more spectacular than in any cathedral I’ve ever seen. It’s criminal that these photos don’t capture the effect of feeling like you could collapse from the kaleidoscope of stunning ancient light.
When I first considered coming to Paris, one of my concerns was the nine hour time difference, and not being able to talk to the kids very often because of it. However, once we arrived, I realized how totally freeing it was to know they were asleep when I was awake and vice versa. I couldn’t be tempted to micro-manage, check-in, or worry because for most of my day they were unconscious.
So, worry I did not. We hopped on a cruise of the Seine, wine in hand, and this was the moment when our collective dam burst: we are HERE. NOW. TOGETHER. IN PARIS. LOOK!
It was so exciting to go from lots of walking and careful navigating to: sitting back, sipping a Bordeaux and sailing down the river with the highlights of the city rising before us. We were absolutely giddy.
Is the French flag too much? Never.
We ended the day with dinner on a magical avenue in the St Germain neighborhood. We stumbled upon it, only to later learn from Uncle Rick that this street is the heart of the Left Bank. This really showed me that I don’t need his books anymore; he sends me places subliminally.
I ordered beef bourguignon, because it felt right; it was delicious. Dad ordered duck confit because it’s a French classic; it was delectable. Mom ordered scallop risotto for reasons no one understands; it was disenchanting.
The next morning we took the metro to the Musee de l’Orangerie, because Monet is my mother’s favorite artist. The space was designed specifically for the enormous canvases which were his final works before his death.
My mother was underwhelmed.
“These are a little dull. His earlier works had more interest.”
Apparently French field trip kid agrees.
Dad and I thought they were amazing, particularly because what appeared simple from the center of the room was a myriad of colors when approached.
Here’s the same tree trunk seen above, up close.
After enjoying the artists’ work downstairs (Renoir, Rousseau, Matisse, Picasso, you know, the lesser-knowns), we all felt like a Parisian patisserie was the ideal mid-morning break. Naturally, I turned to Uncle Rick, who led us to Laduree Paris on des Champs Elysees. My parents said one metro ride was enough, so we grabbed an Uber.
It was a patisserie worthy of being on the most glamorous avenue in the world.
It was extravagant; dark carved wood, elaborately painted ceilings, crown moldings two feet deep, and gleaming serviceware. The pastries, tea and coffee were exquisite, and we sat in the light-filled sunroom in perfect contentment.
The upper floor was more opulent than the first, boasting a ladies room that looked like a toilette from a doll house.
And their claim to fame: the pastries. Heart-stopping.
We ran into Joey and Erin at the Arc de Triumph, which was actually pretty crazy considering the size of the city.
We were on a special mission in that neighborhood; mere days before we left, my grandfather casually told me that he’d worked in a hotel in Paris after fighting in the Battle of the Bulge in WWII. I gasped and wrote down the name, determined to find it.
We found it.
While we rested in the lobby for a minute, a concierge approached, asking if he could help in any way. I explained about my grandfather working there during the war, and in classic French style, he said, “No, he did not.”
We all looked at each other, until he said, “Follow me.”
He led us outside and explained that The Majestic Hotel was located directly across the street during WWII, but is now a different hotel altogether. So while we’d found the one, we couldn’t visit it as it was while he was there. My mom and I nudged each other, because many employees wouldn’t know or care about the history of their hotel 70 years ago, and the one who did just happened to approach us with this priceless information. God shows off like this all the time, and I love him for it.
Here’s Paris in a nutshell: we headed to Le Café de Flor, a favorite of Pablo Picasso, right across the street from Hemingway’s favorite café, on a busy street dotted with other hundreds-year-old cafes, including the very first café in the entire Western world (1686). This is why Paris makes people swoon.
The place was bustling and jovial and totally alive with Parisians leaning over tiny tables to be heard above the din. A gentleman with a delicately creased face and a casual day suit sat next to us reading his newspaper and slowly enjoying his omelette and espresso.
I lifted my phone to take a picture of my parents and stupidly told my mom to reach for her wine glass, which led to:
Joke’s on me. It’s the no-complaint trip, and I mean business.
The waiter brought me a giant gray canister of seltzer which was adorable, and useless.
We walked to the magnificent Luxombourg Gardens, which are exactly what you’d hope to find if you opened a calendar of Parisian scenes and watched them come to life: the elderly gentlemen in dress pants and sweaters playing chess under the bougainvillea, the children pushing rented sailboats across the pond, the leathery ladies and gentlemen brazenly sunning themselves across green park chairs, shirts and tank straps removed.
It is meticulously manicured gardens under a cloudless sky, set against the matchless backdrop of the Luxombourg palace.
We walked on to the Pantheon, but midway decided after all that walking we’d earned happy hour, so we stopped for a glass of wine.
We approached the Pantheon the moment it closed. Oops.
After resting on the apartment balcony awhile, we changed for dinner and walked across the bridge to the Ile St Louis, recommended to me by my friend Maija (who lives in Paris with her husband and three kids, having moved there from Seattle two years ago).
Just the walk is a delight unto itself.
The menu and everyone around us were entirely French, which is always the sign of a fabulous restaurant, but also the sign that we are about to embarrass ourselves. Here is my father systematically typing in menu items for translation, in a Vacation Dad move so bold I laughed until I was shaking.
We had a fabulous meal once the waiter basically ordered for us and treated us like old friends.
Tomorrow it’s on to Versailles — if you want to feel simultaneously awestruck and full of disgust toward Marie Antoinette, meet me here.