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Family-Friendly Paris? Oui!

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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.

"Attention!" cautioned a baker, wrapping four fat croissants as though they were fine pieces of silk. "Voilà, chérie," beamed the baker, handing the warm bag to Camille. "Bon appétit!" For lunch, we stuffed our backpacks with ham, cheeses, baguettes, olives, and fruit, then picked a park for a picnic. For dinner, we looked for an Italian or Chinese restaurant. We didn't starve.

Lines! If the Guinness Book of Long Lines existed, the Tour Eiffel would top the chart. Rain or shine, there's always a huge crowd winding around the tower.

"Achh," I groaned the afternoon we visited, calculating the four-hour wait.

"Forget the elevator, Mom," said Camille. "Let's climb to the top. It's a shorter line."

It certainly was: Forty-five minutes later, we were on our way up the mighty monument. "Ooh la la, look at Paris!" I exclaimed as we arrived at the tower's second tier -- mercifully, the maximum for climbers. Feeling giddy, we took turns taking pictures in every direction.

The next day, we set out to find what my hometown newspaper calls "the best crepes in Paris." On rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement, we joined a gaggle of crepe aficionados and watched a monsieur drop dollops of ivory batter onto a grill. Thirty seconds later, he flipped the bubbling batter and slathered it with chocolate. "Now these are real crepes," said Camille, licking her fingers.

To get around, we purchased a Paris Visite card for unlimited bus and metro travel. The metro sprints across Paris as quickly as one can take a shower, but with a drawback: It's underground, passing below all the sights we came to Paris to see. So we reserved the metro for night outings or when we were in a hurry and otherwise crisscrossed Paris on city buses with open-air decks.

In the five years I lived in the city, I managed to avoid the Bateaux Mouches, a one-hour boat excursion that glides through the Seine with an invisible guide who booms out information about historical sights over a loudspeaker. Camille couldn't wait to board the boat with the rest of the romantics and tourists. Afterward, we agreed it's the fastest and coolest way to see Paris.

Eight is a grand age for kids to discover the world. They're not tied to a parent's hip, and they make friends easily. They're curious and energetic, and anything new is still cool. But that doesn't mean every day is hunky dory, even in Paris. One big challenge I faced in traveling solo with my daughter was finding moments when we could each relax in our own way. After a week on the go, tempers frayed. I reigned in the sightseeing and changed tactics, letting Camille sleep late while I savored coffee on the balcony. We discovered small playgrounds filled with children. Ultimately, I indulged my daughter in some of my favorite French frivolities.

Our feet were first on the list. Finding the perfect pair of red tennis shoes on the rue de Rivoli swallowed a chunk of one day, so afterward we skipped lunch and ordered two banana splits in the first cafe we spied along the Seine. Our most exciting moments were similarly unexpected and often free: puppeteers and musicians performing on stone bridges, skateboard competitions near Notre-Dame, and watching the Tour Eiffel light up the night like a trillion twinkling stars. One afternoon, we peeked into the pyramid at the Louvre, made a mummy wish, picnicked in the Jardin des Tuileries, rode the Ferris wheel there three times, and conked out by 9 p.m.

We reserved one day for a country outing and chose Monet's gardens in Giverny, arriving before the crowds on an early train. We loved the lemon-colored lilies cloaking the ponds, the family photos inside Monet's house, and the tiny tearoom in town.

Suddenly, our days in Paris were dwindling. Sitting along the Seine savoring mango ice cream cones, we mapped out our last adventure: the five-story museum of science and technology at La Villette, which houses a planetarium, greenhouse, submarine, G?ode, and more hands-on treasures than we could possibly experience in a day. The fluorescent anatomy section, lighting up the circulatory system, was my favorite. Camille preferred broadcasting a weather report from the museum's television studio. I found the old-fashioned waterwheel illustrating the relationship between energy and water clever, and Camille gave the greenhouse rave reviews.

On our last night in France, we donned snazzy duds and our new shoes, took the metro to the Left Bank, and devoured a pizza in an outdoor restaurant on Boulevard Saint Germain. We topped off the evening with dessert at Deux Magots, the famous cafe where Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre often sat. It was here that Camille made her confession: "I love Paris, Mom, and I'd love to come with you again. There's just one problem: I don't think anyone here understands you, because you speak really bad French!"

"You're kidding!" I said in my best French. C'est pas vrai!

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the August 2002 issue of Child magazine.