Friday, April 13, 2007

Paris Ctd

Just got back from a week at the beach...more on that later but that's the reason for the blackout.

Back to Paris: Thursday was very much a tag-along with the tour day. Friday I declared independence from the itinerary. Saturday the itinerary declared independence from me. Intrigued? Read on.

Thursday we had a full day of touring planned, beginning with the obligatory trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Since it's impossible to get a double stroller anywhere near the Metro without significant assistance (tips on this later), John took JieJie with him and the students (she loves riding trains and trams and had studied the Paris Metro map for days before we went) and I took MeiMei and the stroller to get a cab.

Who says Parisians aren't friendly? Certainly not I. A woman actually gave up her cab so we could get in. My French is good enough to know that she said "I will give it to you, madame, since you have une enfant." Then the cabbie was so nice, he suggested she get in anyway since we were going right past where she needed to go. 25 Euro later (ouch!) we were at Tour Eiffel and we met up with our group. It was hazy and chilly, very hard to see much. I told John the main reason I'm glad to have been up in the Eiffel Tower is that I won't ever have to do it again. I guess I've never been one for going up in tall buildings Just Because. But come on, you have to do it if you visit Paris, right?

Then we caught one of the non-Metro trains that serve the Paris area, en route to Sante-Chappelle, home of the World's Most Beautiful Stained Glass. The girls were starting to melt down a bit and I was sensing that they needed a break, but ultimately a nice guard (see? see? another nice person!) waved us through and we went in. The girls were definitely in awe and appreciated the beautiful colors. I have never been quite that dazzled by a stained glass display as I was by this one. Definitely worth a visit. John bought the girls some coloring books in the gift shop downstairs, one of famous stained glass windows and one of different sights in Paris.

The books came in handy at lunch. We ate in a pleasant, modern pizza/pasta place near a beautiful fountain and plaza. The girls colored while we waited for our food, and John, Mr. K and I talked about various things. Eyeballing the map, I thought it a good bet that I could walk the girls to the Musee D'Orsay for the afternoon tour. The group was going to take the Metro, obviously not an option for us. The inconvenience of the double stroller in Paris led us to the decision to sell it earlier than we'd planned - we may be saying goodbye to LaStroller as early as this Tuesday or Wednesday!

Turns out I guessed right, and the girls and I had a GREAT walk from the restaurant to the Musee D'Orsay, which contains a fantastic collection of Impressionist art including works by Monet, Degas, Gauguin, L'Autrec and my new favorite, Caillebotte (sp?). He did this amazing work of three men refinishing a wood floor that is really mesmerizing. Or maybe it's just that we had all our wood floors done last summer and I have an increased respect for the work...naw, it's really a great painting.

So we walked along the Seine and I quickly realized that with so many bridges going back and forth, I could go across and come back where the museum was. It was a great idea to have the program go on the Bateaux Mouches ride our first night in town because immediately I had a sense of where things were and could recognize the giant clock towers in the Musee D'Orsay, which used to be a train station.

We crossed the Seine at the Louvre and passed by three serious looking guards with automatic weapons. Wow. To my right I saw the famous museum with its new I.M. Pei pyramid of glass. To my left: The Tuileries Gardens. Yay--something I'd wanted to see, and I got a chance to walk through it with the girls. JieJie had fallen asleep (bless the stroller) but MeiMei ran through the entire Tuileries, chasing pigeons the whole way through. She's so cute the way she runs, still stiff-armed and kind of bouncy with her sweet little short hair swishing from side to side as she goes. Hard to believe she's only a few months from turning four, but I can tell by the fit of the clothes we packed in January that time is passing.

We came out of the Tuileries and I saw the bridge to the Musee D'Orsay. And I saw the many steps that led to and over the bridge. DRAT! If I went down and doubled back, I'd be late. Only thing to do was look vaguely meek and helpless and say "s'il vous plait, m'aidez vous?"

And again, Many Nice Parisians. Several people saw my predicament and lent a hand without my even having to ask. One woman said "bon chance!" after she and her husband helped me part of the way. But she was smiling.

We rolled into the museum's waiting area at the same time as the students, and Mr. K offered to walk the girls around so I could go on the tour! I was so grateful. Turned out to be brilliant timing too, because MeiMei fell asleep so all he had to do was take a walk with two sleeping girls on a nice day.

The museum's collection was truly spectacular. Our guide was one of the best we've had. It was a GREAT opportunity, one I'm so grateful for. We came out of the museum just as the girls were waking up, got them some cocoa and figured out how to get the double stroller back to Saint-Mande (don't try this at home and don't tell the Paris police until I'm back in the USA). We waited until someone pushed open the glass exit door coming from the Metro, held it open, and sent John in the exit with the stroller to meet us at the platform. Mr. K and I took the girls through, and it was clear sailing from there. Getting the stroller on the train itself was a piece of cake, but unless you have a really small collapsible stroller, leave it in the hotel room. The entrance turnstiles have a three-prong design but right after it is a double door you have to push your way through (like a saloon entrance) and THAT is the problem.

So. Dinner at La Tourelle again since it was so good. This time I had entrecote with frites (rib steak) and it was the best steak I'd had in a long time. The girls had desserts called Charlottes, sort of a lady fingers / berries / custard sort of affair. I noticed that Strawberry Shortcake is called Framboise Charlotte on French tv--cute!

Took the girls back to the Etap and tucked them in for a well-deserved rest. I had decided that I would not be going on Friday's excursion to the Louvre, no way. The girls deserved a day for them, and being in Paris doesn't mean as much to them now as it may later. They needed something with intrinsic appeal and I found a great recommendation in my Take the Kids to Paris book: Cite des Sciences, at the northeast corner of the city.

After a nice breakfast of rolls and croissants from the boulanger near the Metro (thanks to John who ran out to get them--love that man!) we said au revoir to the group and found our way to the bus, sans stroller. It was shaping up to be a crappy day weather-wise, cold and rainy, so an indoor destination was just what the doctor ordered. In no time we were at our stop. We were a bit late for the 11:30 time in Cite des Enfants, the very popular interactive exhibits for little ones, so we bought a 1pm ticket and got another ticket for the Light and Shadows exhibit.

The Light and Shadows exhibit was so well done! The design of the exhibit rooms was analogous to a house. so there was a parlor, a kitchen, a basement work room, a back patio, a back yard...all very easy for kids to put things in context. And somehow they went from looking at your own shadow to understanding a lunar eclipse. Brilliant work by the designers.

We had a quick lunch downstairs in the fast-food cafe. Again (how many times do I have to learn this?) one kids' meal would've fed both girls, each of whom ate exactly half of her sandwich, fries and drink. Oh well. I was getting text messages on my phone from John and Mr. K who were en route to meet us, their Louvre visit having concluded. I was able to guide them to where we were just before running out of minutes on my pay-as-you-go phone. Dumb me, I hadn't bought an extra scratch card before leaving Antwerp.

Cite des Enfants was SO AWESOME!!!! I can see why my guide book called this museum the most popular attraction for families after Disneyland Paris. We went in the age 3-5 area after assuring JieJie that, although she wanted to go in the 5-12 area, she hadn't actually "learned everything in MeiMei's area." So intense, that one.

I liked that only a certain number of slots are available for each 1.5 hour slot in the exhibits. We had plenty of chances to explore interactive exhibits about weather, the behavior of water, the way grain is grown, processed and turned into bread, the design of machines, and the piece de resistance: a little construction site! Kids don hard hats and vests and go into a kids-only area where they can load foam building blocks onto cranes, conveyor belts, rail carts, and hoppers. They can climb up to a second story to receive shipments of blocks from the crane. They can build walls, staff a checkpoint for rail cars, and move blocks in a wheelbarrow. I watched with the same fascination I feel when realizing that the seemingly random movements in a beehive all have a purpose. It's wild to see kids gravitating toward particular tasks and roles. Some of the blocks are too heavy to move alone, so kids need to cooperate to get things done. JieJie immediately appointed herself Foreman, her too-big hard hat falling over her eyes occasionally as she called orders in English to anyone who would listen. MeiMei tried her best to please the boss, and soon the two of them ended up filling in the walls of a skeleton house.

All too soon our time in Cite des Enfants was over and it was time to meet Daddy and Mr. K, who agreed that we had found a great place. And we didn't even see the IMAX 3D theatre! If you are taking your kids to Paris, do yourself a favor and block out most of a day for this museum and its surrounding park. If you are lucky enough to have nice weather you can even take a canal boat ride from the park down to the Seine.

We capped off the kid-focused day with dinner at the most popular kid-friendly restaurant in Paris, Hippopotamus. It's a chain, and we chose the one at Bastille. Kids get coloring books, balloons, fancy swizzle sticks and a smile from the staff. The food was great too! Mr. K was glad to have a new dining option in Paris. Only sour moment was a grinch sitting next to us who growled at me "atten-DEZ, madame!" when JieJie's arm entered the woman's aura. I can hear her now, planning dinner with her friend: "I abhor children. Let's go to dinner at Hippopotamus!" I mean come on, get real. Not as if there aren't a few other restaurants to choose from IN PARIS. Anyway.

We'd had such a great day, and Saturday promised to be the best of all. The itinerary was BLANK. Free time til the 1pm bus departure meant that we could do anything we wanted. We decided to get breakfast somewhere on the Left Bank and wander our morning away. I couldn't wait for a family day.

I woke up Saturday morning to the sound of John outside in the hall on the phone with Mr. K explaining that one of our students was in police custody for alcohol-related reasons. WHAT?! The student was okay, thank goodness, but our morning together was not to be. I ended up taking the girls to a playground in our neighborhood (Paris has a ton of playgrounds, thank goodness) and then to a mall, shopping. We tried to meet up with John but missed each other and my phone wasn't working. He and Mr. K signed the student out of police custody around 10am. He couldn't find us, so he ended up going to the Arc de Triomphe, buying a few postcards, and coming back to the hotel.

I felt like such a selfish baby for doing it, but I have to admit I looked out the window and cried as the bus left Paris. I was mad that I'd let my phone run dry, mad that I'd been unable to meet up with John, mad that he got to see more of Paris, mad at myself for not being happy for him getting to see at least something, and just mad at the circumstances that took our morning away. I just have to remember: I'm in Europe, touring with my family. Everything else is gravy. We can come back, and we have a foundation now, a sense of what we'd want to see. And the student had a really scary experience. My inconvenience was not much compared with what she confronted. We're glad that things turned out ok for her and everyone involved.

Not the best way to end the visit, but we know we would like to go back to Paris again someday. I think it would be good to do when the girls are maybe 10 and 11, when they are better able to grasp what it Means to be in Paris. Still, they had a pretty good time and we continue to be amazed at their ability to go with the flow.

You can search FTJ for past posts, e.g. China info...