Prior to parenthood, I lived in Paris, married a Frenchman, and enjoyed la bonne vie in our 12th arrondissement neighborhood between the Bastille and the Gare De Lyon. I buffed up my French, eked out a living writing and leading walking tours, and frittered away many a glorious day in open-air markets, museums, and cafes. Then came a move to America, and before I knew it, 10 years had passed without a trip back to my favorite city. I decided that the time had come to rediscover Paris -- and that my daughter would make a perfect traveling companion. Not that Camille would be inclined to spend hours admiring Picassos or sampling French cuisine. Like many kids, she pooh-poohs art museums and "weird" food. Rather, her raison d'?tre in Paris was to rocket to the top of the Tour Eiffel. So, with that in mind, we kissed Dad good-bye, reiterated cat-care instructions, and set out to spend two weeks in France.
My mission when traveling long distances with my daughter is to plan activities that she will look forward to, then have a backup in case Plan A unravels. During our first days in Paris, we stuck close to our flat and saved exuberant excursions for the mornings, when we had more stamina. We began with a 10-minute walk to the Centre Georges Pompidou, also known as Beaubourg.
"Pompidou! Is there really someone named Pompidou?" giggled Camille, gaping at the most widely visited cultural site in the world.
"Of course," I replied. "Pompidou was a French president who liked modern art."
"Is that modern art?" she said, staring at the tangle of pipes and tubes looming above our heads.
People flock to Pompidou for different reasons -- the mishmash of modern architecture, the dance and theatrical spaces, the cavernous modern art museums on the fourth floor -- but foremost, it's a fine family venue. Admission is free for kids, and there's plenty of room to move around, with a stew of mimes, musicians, jugglers, and portrait artists to entertain everyone standing in line. Our favorite part of the visit, though, was the panoramic view from Pompidou's glass escalator.
"There it is, Mom," shouted Camille, spotting the Eiffel Tower.
"And over there is Notre-Dame and Quasimodo's bell tower," I pointed out as I thought about lunch. Because of the time change, Camille and I always seemed to be hungry. Outside, we grabbed two seats at one of the creperies surrounding the Fontaine Stravinsky, which boasts an array of whimsical figures including ruby lips, mad-hatter hats, and playful snakes that spiral and spit water in the air. Feeling very French, I ordered a salmon crepe for me and a sugar one for Camille.
"What's that?" cried my daughter, glaring at the thin, speckled brown pancake being placed in front of her. "It's not like the crepes we eat at home!"
"It's a French buckwheat crepe from Brittany," I explained.
"I don't like it, Mom. It looks strange."
In a city where food is art, eating would become our biggest challenge. A litany of complaints accompanied each meal: The cheese smelled like bad breath, the mustard was the wrong shade of yellow, and the cr?me fraiche wasn't real whipped cream.
"Eat," I implored, sounding like my mother. "There's no better food on the planet than here."
After the crepe meltdown, we agreed on a culinary compromise, starting with croissants and cocoa for breakfast. Two blocks from our flat, we hit the croissant jackpot on rue Montorgueil. This cobblestone lane is a quintessential slice of French life. Vendors proudly hawk pretty produce from wooden carts as Frenchmen, heads buried behind Le Monde, sip thimble-size cups of coffee at sidewalk cafes. The bonus on the block, though, is La Patissier Stohrer, the oldest family bakery in Paris, boasting crusty croissants that are considered by many the best in the city.