Starring Dante the Dog, JuJu, and a Real Live Mummy
One of the consequences of living in Los Angeles is that you develop a true fear of temperatures below 60 degrees. Not kidding. We are really bad at sub 70 degree temperatures. Try tearing your drawers apart finding matching socks when you spend your life in flip flops. Never mind remembering gloves, scarves and turtlenecks.
It was worth it though because visiting Paris in the winter is a look at the real Paris. There are far fewer tourists. It’s a northern European city, after all, a city with an underground transport system, out of the weather, well-heated museums, and hundreds of warm cafes awaiting discovery. No, you are not going to see the Luxembourg gardens in bloom, but you can visit every major tourist spot easily. Had we chosen to, we could have walked right into the elevator up the Eiffel Tower. We did not – more on that later.
John and I brought our 6 year old, Juliet, along for the first time. With traveling parents, it was high time she had a passport. She was a little nervous. “Everyone is going to speak French, and I don’t know any French. Fine for you guys (not that we are fluent, by any means).” John: “Say ‘je m’appelle Juliet.’ They’ll love it.” Which they did, with our concierge at the hotel helpfully telling us the nickname for Juliet in French: Juju. Juju was her name on the trip, though it has not especially stuck back in L.A.
Wearing 3 layers of shirts, a pink plaid scarf and a little brown jacket with a faux leopard hood, “Juju” became a metro-savvy junior Parisian, gamely marching along corridors, watching the train countdown on the platform, and confidently swaying with the train, standing, when no seats were available.
A direct flight on comfortably-appointed Virgin unfortunately did not stave off jet lag. It hit us hard. The grown-ups were either up at 4, or sleeping till noon as precious vacation moments ticked away. On the plus side, Juliet was wide awake and ready for touring right up until midnight or later, no tears, no whining. A little cough she was developing had me bring along her cold medicine, which knocked her out every night. John and I developed “Triaminic envy”. Apparently it gave you 8 blissful hours, while mom and dad awoke, cranky, after a 5 hour nap.
The sun rises at 8:30 in February in Paris, so we dressed for the hotel breakfast in the dark, while our bodies said “what?”. Around 5 a.m. you could smell bread baking in the neighborhood, something you know when you are jetlagged and not sleeping. That set our stomachs up for good boiling coffee and hot milk (typical Parisian coffee service), plus ridiculously good pastries served casually on the breakfast buffet.
With many Japanese visitors at our hotel, there was soft rice and miso soup available, as well. We promised to try it every day, and did not. We of course found room for the breakfast tart on display. One morning, pear, another apricot, and on another, dense chocolate. All delicious.
Every trip to Paris, for us, involves a lot of Parisian-style speed walking, punctuated by crystalline moments of charm. This trip was no exception. A bit drizzly? Walk faster, between the drops. Need a metro ticket? Buy a carnet (book of ten) from the weary ticket seller behind the plexiglass. Keep it handy as some stops make you re-insert your ticket to get out to daylight. Rest assured, you’ll only need to make this mistake once to never do it again!
On our first night, we were tired but wanted our first Parisian experience. We walked a bit and found an old school upstairs bistro. Adults were dining on French classics, eyeing the arrival of a 6 year old warily. Juliet gamely tried a local treat – grenadine syrup in milk. Pink milk should have been a hit but was only sipped at. An acquired taste, apparently. Dad and mom split a delicious onion soup and club sandwich. Ultimately, she was so good the waiter gave her a lollipop as we left. She proceeded to be a trooper every day thereafter. I do think Parisians are generally rather formal and polite, and guess what, children kind of fall into line of the prevailing mood.
Day one we decided it was high time, after numerous trips, we visited the Bastille. We got on the right metro line, got off at Bastille, checked the “plan du quartier” (local map posted near the velo bikes you can use by the hour) and . . . could not find it. Okay, plan B.
We set off to find some hot chocolate. We turned a few corners and came upon a playground set in a quiet square surrounded by some small shops. Storefront by storefront, we asked for “chocolat chaud” and finally decided we better go to the fancy place with the yellow awning and spend 20 euros. How nice to part the heavy scarlet velvet curtains and step into a blast of warmth, greeted by a terrier dog who we learned was called Dante.
Dante came over to us sooner than the waitress, but not by much. I think he felt he was to inform her of every new customer, and a good job he did. We ordered some lattes and Juliet requested pickles, her go-to comfort food. Okay, “Avez vous les cornichons?”. The black-clad waitress in the stylish dress and boots blinked a bit at the 9:30 a.m. request and came back with 4 mini pickles on a plate. Juliet was thrilled. The waitress smiled. It turns out the cafe is quite famous, having been in many movies due to its timeless decor. Check it out at www.squaretrousseau.com.
March on tourists, you can’t spend all day in a cafe like a Parisian. Juliet did some gymnastics on the playground across the street, and a little bonding with an absurdly bundled up 3 year old who wanted to copy her every move. Afterwards, we headed back to Opera to see the Madeleine church which was only a block from our hotel. We lit candles for our departed, as we did later in the week at Notre Dame as well. A nap was in order for all before our pre-arranged dessert baking class, all the way over in Montmartre.
Never had flour, eggs and sugar combined in so many ways in so little time, to such great effect, thanks to our Australian-transplant instructor Briony. Pear tarte, choux pastry, frangiapani, profiteroles, creme brulee, eclair – the five adults in the class, besides Juju, all ate like 6 year olds that afternoon. One blurry picture of the 3 of us, taken by a classmate, records the moment.
Montmartre is an arty part of Paris, bordering on rough-edged Pigalle, but the class was in the gentrified part and we had no worries.
Well, the moments came fast and furious after that as the days ticked down. Here’s one: a lovely meal in one the nicer restaurants inside the Louvre. Just as we were paying the check, a mouse scampered across the restaurant floor and disappeared into the staff area (John wrote a children’s book about it: Sebastian Mouse in the Louvre). In the U.S., all diners in eyeshot would have had a free meal. In Paris, a shrug. Was the mouse actually in your food, monsieur? Admittedly, no.
In the Louvre, we saw old favorites like Winged Victory and trudged a mile through the Egyptian section in hopes of seeing a real live mummy. And yes, we did, to Juliet’s delight.
Other moments: a masterful trapeze artist dangling on a rope above our heads at an old-fashioned cabaret show at the Paradis Latin; a cafe stop near Napoleon’s Tomb where we people-watched out of the rain; enjoying the elaborate scenes set up for dolls at the beach, having tea, and going to school at the darling Musee de la Poupee (Doll Museum) near the Pompidou Center; Juliet almost accidentally joining in a school group assigned to sketch swords behind glass at the Armory Museum; out of gas after miles of walking, finding a perfectly-timed pedicab at the Place de La Concorde who rode us back to our hotel for ten euros. I heard a tired older Parisian asking his daughter how he could get a ride on one, and, in tones of horror, she reminded him it was “pour les touristes.’” Damn straight, and happy we were for the ride.
A walk along the Champs Elysees after a terrific Italian meal at Findi at 24 Avenue George V (Italian food in Paris is usually great) finished the trip. It was close to eleven p.m. and Juliet was running along ahead of us by a bit, window shopping at the Disney store on the Champs Elysees and hoping for a Ferris wheel ride before it closed. No such luck.
And we missed going inside the Eiffel Tower, deliberately, as the throngs of hawkers and would-be pickpockets all around the Tower were just too depressing – even in the winter. That’s two moments we’ll save for next time, perhaps when all is in bloom, or perhaps again in winter.
Check out our Top Five Day Trips from Paris in Winter for more travel ideas.
By Laura Glendinning