As I sat on the steps outside the Musee d’Orsay, listening to the click and swish of the street performers’ roller skates, it sadly dawned on me that I would once again miss the inside of the museum. No wandering through the majestic corridors or getting lost in the muted colors of Monet, Manet, Degas or Renoir.
Instead, just a few yards away from the museum entrance, I was sitting on grotty steps, watching a pair of street performers, one testing the limits of roller skates and the other whose gig was to mock innocent passersby. My kids were reduced to falling over in giggles every time an unsuspecting tourist was victimized. It was entertaining, but I couldn’t deny the call of the French Impressionists. I was counting down until closing time. Thirty eight minutes left. How had inertia anchored me here, in Paris of all places?
You see, I had never liked Paris. The only reason I came this time was out of a sense of duty. My husband loved Paris, and since he couldn’t join us on this part of the trip, I felt compelled to include Paris in our summer itinerary. It was a nod in his direction, a feeble recognition of what he had done to make this trip possible. After we had traveled together for the past month in Spain and Morocco, he flew home, and the kids and I headed off to get a taste of the rest of Europe, wandering through five weeks of Germany, France, Italy, and Austria. My husband acted as our ‘stateside support ,’ researching hotels, making reservations, and paying the bills, of course.
So it was just the kids and me. And Paris. Which I hated. I hated the rainy weather, the expensive food, and the unfriendly shopkeepers. And I hated the promise of Paris. The romance. The lure of the Eiffel Tower. This was my fourth trip to Paris, and I again swore it would be my last.
The first time I was in Paris, I was in high school. It was the spring break language trip. The weather was chilly, and my experience couldn’t compare to that of my Spanish-studying classmates who were spending a fabulous time on the sultry Iberian Peninsula. Not yet 21 and under the constant scrutiny of chaperones, I and my classmates couldn’t even find much pleasure in the realization that wine was, in fact, cheaper than Coke. And it was more than just the Coke that seemed expensive on a babysitter’s budget. Even though it was the 90s, and the Euro had not yet taken over, I probably only had a few hundred bucks for the week. That could last one meal in a metropolitan city like Paris and wouldn’t get me very far in the much anticipated French boutiques. Even kitschy souvenir shopping, which suite my budget better, was a lackluster experience. The unaccommodating shopkeepers rebutted my attempts at speaking diligently practiced high school French. Either I received a blank stare or a curt, tight-lipped, “Excuse me?” in perfect English.
My second foray among the Parisians was definitely a notch up. It was a 21-day, whirlwind tour of Europe with my mother and sister. I could enjoy the cheap wine, had a bit more money to shop, and relaxed at many mediocre pre-arranged meals. But my memories are vague. It was a quick trip. Eiffel Tower, Monaco Casinos, Coliseum, Venice Canals, the Alps, Schoenborn Palace, Goldenes Dachl, Neuschwanstein Castle. . .just like the movie.
I haven’t thought of my third trip to Paris in years. I guess I’ve blocked it out. That time, I was in my final semester of college, doing my student teaching at an English-speaking school in Germany. A group of us drove to Paris for the weekend. Imagine that. Driving to Paris for the weekend. I do remember being distinctly impressed with the compactness and ease of travel afforded to the Europeans. But I was once again not impressed with Paris. This time, I was too hung up on love. As I stood on the precipice of Place du Trocadero, with a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower at night, I was with a man with whom I was less than in love. As I tried to force a meager enthusiasm for my date, I vowed never to return to Paris without genuine love. I can’t remember the details, but there were probably a few forced kisses. After all, we were in Paris. It was our last date.
But this trip was different. Finances and weather weren’t going to put a damper on this journey. I was ready to take on Paris. I was armed with a rain coat, a few umbrellas, and weather proof shoes. I had plenty of cash and credit. Of course, with two kids, I was not remotely interested in sitting through a five-course meal for three hours or shopping in expensive boutiques, but I could comfortably order a meal in a restaurant for the three of us and buy as many Eiffel Tower key rings as we could carry.
The rudeness of Paris didn’t faze me this time either. Paris is just another big city. I don’t think Parisians are particularly more discourteous than those residing in other big cities of the world. Sure, there’s a bit more snobbery in Paris. Though, at this point in my life, after having crossed the globe a few times, I would give a bit more leeway for Parisian snobbery. It is an impressive city. I guess I also have a tougher skin. Curtness doesn’t bother me as much anymore. I myself have become more practiced at stone cold stares. I was an eighth grade school teacher, have been married for thirteen years, and have a ten and an eight year old. Sarcasm, silent stares, and snooty looks are just a few of the nasty tricks that I’ve acquired. I can raise an eyebrow with a snide lip as good as any Parisian.
And finally, love was no longer an issue. I had traded in my glass slippers for Saucony running shoes, with an occasional high-heeled black leather boot slipped on for fun. Stability, fidelity, and the rewards for working at love were now my priorities. It’s not that my life had become devoid of romance, but that it no longer needed the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. A simple Saturday morning when the kids slept past 6:30 and we had a few more minutes together would kindle a romantic trajectory that would last through waffles, soccer, an afternoon birthday party and grilled burgers, until the kids were tucked in for the night. At that point, Eiffel Tower or not, we may or may not find ourselves too tired to go on.
So that’s where I found myself in Paris for the fourth time. My conditions were different, but in my estimation, the city hadn’t changed. Arc de Triomphe, Sacre Coeur, Tour Eiffel, and of course, the Louvre.
We had spent a morning in the Louvre. It was a brief visit. We rented the museum guides, walked around for a few hours, and ended up in the Louvre café. I knew the next five weeks would be full of museums, cathedrals, palaces, and long walks. Spending only four hours in the Louve felt like a travesty to me, but the goal of the trip wasn’t to present a concise history of Eastern and Western civilization gleaned from a museum. Instead, it was merely to launch the kids on a life of travel. Two days or even one full day in the Louvre is certainly not the most effective way to infect them with the travel bug.
We walked out of the museum and found ourselves in the Tuileries Gardens. Little did I know that this path would set the tone for the rest of our summer.
Slinging wet pea stones in their wake, both children raced down the garden path to the man with the toy boat cart. They begged for a boat. Exhausted, I collapsed on a chair by the concrete pool. I knew there was a lot more of Paris to see over the next five days, and I suppressed the nagging guilt I felt about ‘giving up’ for the afternoon.
It was two Euros to rent a boat for an hour. The children were given a pole and a boat with a sail. The French-speaking boat peddler, a strange but satisfyingly friendly cross between a gentle grandfather and a homeless man, was accommodating, letting the children choose their boat, suggesting the fastest boats among his collection, and helping them with their first launch.
At that moment, although I wanted to keep hating Paris, I felt my grip loosening. This distaste had taken years to cultivate. I wouldn’t even deign a meal in a French restaurant back home if I could avoid it. It was simply a principal to me now: a snobbery about being snobby.
But this moment challenged every bit of Paris that I found detestable. It was friendly, accommodating, and an undeniably good deal. I had more than two content children, a reclining chair by the fountain, and a spectacular view in every direction. As I sat there for the afternoon, sometimes lost in my thoughts and much of the time thinking nothing at all, I realized I had never let myself completely go in Paris. I had posed for pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, bartered for the prerequisite Eiffel Tower key rings, and had hung on to a Sorbonne University t-shirt, buried somewhere in my bottom drawer at home. But I had never released my Type A American intensity to become a part of the scenery.
As I melted into the background of tourists photos, I began to see how unimaginably beautiful the city was. How had I missed this on my visits to Paris? I started to look around, to notice the architecture. I absorbed the dampness of the gardens, imbued with the graceful sculptures and aged trees that have literally seen history unfold. And as I sat there, I even began to dismiss the quirky ways of the Parisians, and appreciate the annoyance of the pandering demanded by tourists.
Of course, it did rain for a few minutes that afternoon, but somehow it didn’t matter. The wind and brief moments of pelting rain made the boating all that much more exciting.
I realized that traveling with children affords a certain amount of freedom. Freedom to sit and watch the street performers instead of wandering through high-ceilinged galleries. Freedom to eat crepes for lunch. Freedom to skip the afternoon at the Louvre with the great masters, and instead, become one of the scenes of the great masters: Boy Pushing Boat at Fountain.
As I sat there, I also realized I had never really thought of the goal of our trip. After all, what goal do you need when you’ll be spending the summer in Europe? Pictures of us for the Christmas card in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Grand Canal, and at the top of the Alps? But maybe it was about more. As I watched tourists take photos of children, my children, push-boating in the fountain, maybe this trip was destined to be one where we didn’t see everything, but we instead became a part of everything.
I never did make it into the Musee d’Orsay that afternoon, but I did make the conscious choice to become a part of every place we visited. No check lists, ‘top ten’ lists, or ‘must see’ sights.
Instead, we visited the same little pizza shop in Rome almost every afternoon and got to know the owner’s name and all about his family. Each kid had their favorite stool and type of pizza.
We went hiking in the Alps with a German family that my daughter had befriended on the train, spending the next two days sharing meals, Prosseco, and the common struggles of raising kids, balancing work and family, and the German perspective on the dilemma in financial markets.
We fed the pigeons at Notre Dame, scattering our leftover baguette from lunch. We never made it to the top of the bell tower in Notre Dame, but no one complained about missing it. They did complain when we ran out of bread, and then the birds wouldn’t eat the gummy candy they foisted on them.
I did my share of eating too—from croissants to gelato. I even ate brats and drank beer at a playground in Kaiserslautern, and at every other playground I found after that day that served them.
There were poignant moments, too. Things came up that I wouldn’t have necessarily brought up with my kids. At the bus stop for the Appian Way, we talked with a Roman who was fiercely racist, protecting his job and lifestyle from North African immigrants. The children listened quietly, and after we parted from him, we spent many hours talking about racism, prejudice, jobs, and country, as we walked from one catacomb to the next.
In Venice, we passed an afternoon with a researcher who was working on an international project on chickens. She was studying how interbreeding chickens actually made them more resistant to disease, more attractive, and provided a lower mortality rate. The children didn’t miss connecting her research to our Appian Way talks about racism and prejudice.
Of course, I could go on. There were so many moments of connections. But this year, although our Christmas card did contain the requisite posed picture in front of a recognized site, it also showed a snapshot of my daughter sketching by the canals of Venice and my son pushing his boat with a pole, raggedy boat-man in the background. I’m not in the photo of course, but I can see my empty green chair, reclining by the fountain pool, where I was sitting when I became a part of the background of Paris.