A romantic getaway gone awry (or the realities of visiting The City of Lights with my 3 children & my parents)
When Radek mentioned he’d like to take me to Paris to celebrate my 40th birthday (which happened to coincide with Easter weekend), it sounded too good to be true. I imagined walking hand in hand along the Seine, visiting Trocadero at sunset to see the Eiffel Tower, and climbing the steps to Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Afterward, we’d drink champagne and eat mussels cozied up at a table for two in the Latin Quarter. It would be the perfect way to enter my fourth decade.
Twenty years ago, I’d studied in Paris, and Radek knew my experiences during those months had formed my first impressions of Europe. I loved Paris for its wild bohemian side, its wrought-iron metro entrances, stuffy waiters, and even its dirty streets. Plus, Paris was the city of romance – what more could a woman in the middle years of her life want?
When we started to plan our Parisian trip, however, reality sunk in. I was no longer 20. And romance (while still essential) wasn’t quite the guiding force it had been in the beginning. We were parents with responsibilities. We had to be practical.
At first, I thought we could leave the children with Radek’s mother. After thinking it through, however, we decided Easter was a time we should be together. I swallowed my visions of candlelit dinners and agreed (almost smiling) to make my birthday a family event.
On the bright side, it was time to introduce our children to the world of city travel. Although our family is often on-the-go, most of our weekend trips focus on outdoor adventures and happen close to home (either in the Czech Republic or the neighboring countries of Austria, Germany, or Slovakia). The children were used to hearing different languages and eating different foods.
Now, Radek and I were curious to see if they would also like the kind of traveling that meant exploring a city on foot, visiting museums, and using their best table manners in restaurants that weren’t mountain lodges or village pubs. We agreed to go by car, give the kids a crash course in city manners, and hope for the best.
Just after Radek and I had booked a family apartment in a shabby-chic hotel that was in our budget and close enough to the major sights to give the children their big-city thrill, we got a call from my parents. One of the children had mentioned that we were heading to Paris for Easter, could they come, too?
My romantic birthday getaway was slowly turning into a multi-generational Easter reunion. My parents and the children were thrilled. I, on the other hand, was nothing short of overwhelmed.
How to combine my desire for romance and nostalgia with my children’s (and my parents’) travel needs?
For their part, Anna (13), Oliver (10), and Sam (7) believed they were ready for Paris. As for my parents, well, they were ready for anything. My parents booked flights to arrive in Paris on Thursday (the same day we would) and fly out on Monday morning (they same day we would return to Prague).
When I told one of my adult students that my parents would join us in Paris and then fly back to the US, she was shocked. Other Czech friends echoed her sentiments. For Americans to fly all the way to Europe for 4 days seemed nothing short of nutty. But my parents were game.
“We’ll babysit,” my mother offered, “You can have your romantic dinners out.”
Although the idea sounded tempting, I couldn’t imagine my parents coming all the way to Paris to babysit.
To prepare, I ordered a guidebook for kids called Mission Paris: A Scavenger Hunt Adventure (For Kids). For the adults, I ordered The New Paris, a recent travel guide written by an American journalist in Paris. The book was filled with tips for restaurants, cafes, bars, and shopping that represented New-Age Paris style, tastes, and trends. And, it had gorgeous pictures.
I constructed a three-page itinerary that included everything from walking in my old neighborhood in the Latin Quartier to touring La Menagerie (zoo) at the Jardin des Plantes, climbing Arc de Triomphe for views of the city, riding La Grande Roue de Paris (the giant Ferris Wheel at the end of the Tuileries Gardens), and eating crepes from street vendors. For my father, I added gourmet patisseries that specialized in eclairs, macarons, and artisanal French bread. At my parents’ urging, I even booked a birthday dinner for two.
When Radek read my itinerary he smiled and said, “Seems very detailed. The way I see it, we just walk out of the hotel, find a cozy café for a glass of wine, walk a bit more through the city, find another café, and so on.” I liked Radek’s approach, but I wasn’t sure if it would work for our group.
Just before we left, Radek sent me a note: “Looks like we’re heading to the right place,” with a link to an article where Paris was rated by TripAdvisor as the top destination in the world. Despite my apprehension at being in charge, I started to get excited.
We left at dawn Thursday morning, both to beat the traffic and to give Radek the freedom to drive as fast as he wanted on the German autobahn while the rest of us were sleeping. (I saw the speedometer pressing 220 kph through one cracked eye.) We made the 1050 km drive in 9 hours and arrived at the hotel shortly after my parents.
Within the hour, we were chasing the children up the steps of Arc de Triomphe to get our first bird’s eye views of the city. Because I hadn’t been able to reserve Eiffel Tower tickets in advance, I hoped the coolness of getting to see the city’s boulevards fanned out beneath us, with the Eiffel Tower a beacon in the distance, would suffice.
Later that night, we stopped at a neo-brasserie at the top of Champs Elysees called Le Drugstore for French wine and cheese and ham baguettes. My dad and the children indulged in gourmet macarons and pastries for dessert. Back at the apartment, my parents read the children bed-time stories while I unpacked and reread my itinerary.
Over the next three days, we managed to walk at least 16 km/day (mostly without complaints). Although our children were used to walking, keeping them walking in a forward direction (not swinging on street poles, hopping on and off the curb, and playing impromptu games of tag by weaving through groups of pedestrians) was a challenge of city travel that I hadn’t anticipated.
Still, we checked off most of the highlights on my itinerary. The children and my parents rode four carousels and La Grande Roue. We visited the Louvre long enough to make sure di Vinci’s Mona Lisa was still there. And, they consumed no less than 48 macarons in almost every corner of the city. (At the end of the trip, the artisanal pistachio and cotton candy-flavored macarons from Pepone on Rue des Abbesses in Montmartre were declared favorites.)
We saw newborn baby wildcats in La Menagerie and took pictures on the street where I once lived. We also did some things that weren’t on the itinerary like getting a charcoal portrait of the boys in Place de Tertre (at their request), chasing sailboats in the Luxembourg Gardens, and watching preparations for the 200th anniversary retro parade of the first bicycle in Paris.
True to their word, my parents even watched the children while Radek and I went out to dinner. After learning that they had returned to Le Drugstore to dine on macaroons and more pastries instead of having a proper dinner the first night we left them alone, Radek and I offered to stay with them the second night.
But the children begged for us to go. “Just leave us with Grana and Opa, please, please.”
“Oh no,” my mother said, “Don’t stay with us. Go on, don’t worry about us at all.”
We later found out they’d eaten at the flashiest pizzeria they could find and all ordered Coca Cola’s. While the boys feasted on Nutella pizza for dessert, Anna and my mother had headed to teenager heaven at the massive Abercrombie & Fitch flag store.
Despite a few hitches (leaving their scavenger hunt guidebook at lunch on our first day after fighting non-stop about who would fill it in), not getting to go inside Notre Dame because the line seemed too long, and having to bypass some playgrounds in route to other attractions, it seemed (at least to me) that the children had enjoyed their time in Paris. (Their table manners are still a work-in-progress.)
And, they did notice differences between Paris and Prague. They remarked that they couldn’t tell who was French and who was a tourist because the city seemed so multicultural. They noticed that many native French had dark skin and we talked about how French colonization and immigration over the centuries had created a melting pot of cultures, heritages and even languages in the city. There were sirens going off constantly and the children remarked on how many emergencies the city had.
Oliver also noticed the beggars (especially the ones with dogs) on the streets and how dirty the streets seemed compared to Prague. Samuel was captivated by the men hawking cheap souvenirs (5 mini Eiffel Tower key rings for 1 Euro) and bottled water in the square in front of the Louvre and the parks around the Eiffel Tower. When two police came through and the men grabbed up their sacks, Samuel wondered aloud what was going to happen.
For Anna (and my mother) window shopping on the Champs Elysees was a powerful sensory experience that rivaled the grandeur of the Eiffel Tower and the majesty of the Seine River.
The three days passed in a flash.
Once we had bid farewell to my parents and were in the car headed back to Prague, I asked the children, “So, what did you like best in Paris?”
I expected to hear Anna talk about the shopping and Oliver and Sam to discuss one of the carousels or perhaps some of the sweets they’d gotten to eat.
“Seeing Grana and Opa,” Oliver said.
“Yes,” said Sam.
“For me too,” said Anna.
“But, what about the city,” I pressed, “What did you enjoy the most about being in Paris?”
“Well,” Sam said, “I liked seeing the city with Grana and Opa.”
A few days after we returned to Prague, I asked each of the children the same question.
And got the same answers.
I shouldn’t have been surprised.
As excited as I had been to spend three days in a city that had once opened my eyes to the richness and diversity of the world beyond my small-town upbringing, the best part of my Paris weekend had also been simply having my family together. I realized how fortunate I was to have parents who would even want to go through the hassle of 2 full-days of international travel for 3 days of visiting, just to keep their connection with their daughter, Czech son-in-law, and grandchildren strong.
As I watched my children’s relationship with my parents deepen over shared laughs, games of street tag, and sticky-sweet macarons, I realized that this was my birthday gift – being able to look beyond the hassle of trip planning, check lists, and typed itineraries to fully appreciate the power of family relationships.
Of course, my candlelit dinner with Radek was also the perfect touch.
More pictures from our Paris adventures are on Instagram at @halfnhalfprague. (Click on the sidebar link at the right of the page.) If you like what you see, please consider following me on Instagram to see more shots from our lives in the Czech Republic (and beyond).