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Taking the Kids to Paris

The author takes his kids to Paris for their first time in the City of Light.

By Chip Brown

We probably should have started with one of those outings that have introduced so many generations to the city: a bateau-mouche ride on the Seine, perhaps, or a visit to the Eiffel Tower. Even a jet-lagged promenade around the Tuileries Gardens, eating French ice cream and listening to Edith Piaf on iPods, might have gotten the kids—Oliver, nine, and India, almost four—off on the right foot.

I didn’t want my kids just to like Paris; I wanted them to fall in love with the city where my wife, Kate, and I had gotten engaged on the Pont des Arts 13 years before—and where, in a sense, the idea of their existence had been conceived. I wanted them to glimpse the spiritual glory of civilization in the city’s gold-gray façades and mansard roofs, in the chestnut-lined avenues, the intimate streets, the parks and gardens, the high-strung dogs, the femmes fatales. In that prayerful way of parents, I was hoping that years from now, Oliver and India would trace some essential part of themselves to the cultural and aesthetic awakening they had that first night with mom and dad in la Ville Lumière.

Did I mention my kids were nine and almost four?

Kate, who used to live in Paris and now visits several times a year for French fashion shows, had booked a room in a Left Bank hotel. After we unpacked, the kids sacked out for naps on the foldout couch. In the evening, we all headed for a soirée in honor of Suzy Menkes, the fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune. Suzy had told Kate it was fine to bring kids; her grandkids would be there and other children, too.

When we arrived at the Musée de la Mode de la Ville de Paris, Kate wisely asked the cab to wait. I didn’t see a lot of people accessorized with children. As if we weren’t conspicuous enough, India began to bellow “pamplemousse” like Richard III calling for a horse. “Pamper moose! Pamper moose!” she cried, loudly enough to be heard over the techno pumping from speakers twice her size. She must have simply been enamored of the word because when I came back from the bar with a glass of “pamper moose,” she took a lusty swig and coughed it right back up, crestfallen that something so much fun to say could actually be grapefruit juice—and worse, fresh grapefruit juice full of yucky pulp. A waiter glided by with what appeared to be a plate of golden Oreos infused with chocolate swirls. The chocolate was actually dried olive paste. After a bite, India coughed her second taste of French cuisine into her pamper moose and thrust it at me with a please-revoke-my-visa-now expression. This is not the Paris I know, nor do I care to!

Meanwhile, over by the wall, Oliver was locked in a pantomime light-saber battle and looked about to lay waste to a display of purple flowers. I suggested he might divert himself with one of the computers in the lobby displaying a selection of Menkes’s work. He agreed, not because he was keen to know more about the use of mesh and perforation in the latest Miu Miu show, but because he was chafing to continue his Wikipedia research into a monster named Rancor from Star Wars: Episode VI.

India had marched over to where Kate was having a conversation with the fashion designer Donatella Versace.

“This is my daughter, India,” Kate said. Donatella held out her hand and crouched down to greet India eye to eye. India screamed and jumped back.

When I spotted event marshals pulling Oliver off the computer, it was obvious our company had delighted everyone for long enough. I flashed Kate the “evacuate now” signal, and we tacked through a crowd on the front steps where photographers were mobbing Carine Roitfeld, the kohl-eyed Parisian landmark who until recently served as editor-in-chief of French Vogue. She was wearing a sheath dress topped by a beveled white collar that looked like one of those prophylactic neck cones that keep French dogs from biting Americans.

“That went well,” Kate said in the cab.

But as we were zooming along the Seine, we saw the Eiffel Tower bathed in dreamy blue light. The kids were transfixed.

The next day, they slept nearly until noon. Kate brought back some chocolate croissants from a neighborhood patisserie, and when the kids finally woke, they opened the French doors and sat out on the tiny balcony eating their breakfast. Tawny, mothlike crumbs fluttered down toward Rue du Bac. It was a belle day, crisp and cloudless, the city muffled in its Sunday hush. The top of the Eiffel Tower poked up over copper roofs to the west.

It occurred to me that rather than press our agenda of Paris attractions on our kids, we ought to see where their curiosity led them. Oliver was as fascinated by the coffin-size compartment of the hotel’s stairwell elevator as anything he would see in the Louvre. Likewise, I was touched by the ardor and sincerity in his voice when he pointed to the seemingly mundane Walk/Don’t Walk signs showing a silhouetted pedestrian turning from red to green.

“I really love those lights,” he said.

And India, with her see-the-tiger-in-the-grass eye for toy stores: in all the years I’d visited Paris, I’d never spotted a toy store, but on her first stroller ride in the Seventh Arrondissement she picked one out of the jungle. It was a truism worthy of Goethe: the eye sees what the mind knows. Which is to say it was unfair of me to want them to see the city as I did or look at it through my peculiar prism.

Neither Oliver nor India was old enough to be curious about what it might be like to live in a country and culture with different values. The French axiom of working to live rather than living to work, often such a revelation to Americans, meant nothing to them. But they were impressionable enough to grapple with the disorienting effects of travel, the strange words, the new customs, the unfamiliar foods—those discomfiting and enlivening disruptions of routine that can make adults see the world as freshly as children do.

We went en famille to the Luxembourg Gardens that afternoon. The kids rode the carousel and ate ice cream and picked up chestnuts scattered among the fallen leaves. India lobbied relentlessly for a shopping stop until Kate finally caved. Oliver and I headed back to the hotel, playing catch along the way with a chestnut. We tossed our makeshift ball over Smart cars and wrought-iron fences and poodles and philosophers drinking Côtes du Rhône on wicker chairs. When an errant throw sent the chestnut skittering into a nasty Paris gutter, Oliver cheerfully fished it out of the water. No guidebook will recommend chestnut pitching as a quintessential Parisian experience, but short of driving to an accordion lesson in a Citroën Deux Chevaux with Catherine Deneuve and a case of ’82 Château Haut-Brion, I can’t think of its equal. In the past 24 hours, Oliver seemed to have soaked up an incalculable volume of French protocol. I noticed him slinking away when I stopped in front of a Prada store on Rue de Grenelle to study a map.

“What is wrong with you?” I said.

“You’re embarrassing me,” he hissed.

“Why?”

“You look like a tourist!”

He had even learned a little French. Of course it wouldn’t help us find our way back to the hotel, since it was an Anakin Skywalker line from Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith“Vous sous-estimez ma puissance.”

When India returned to our room, she brandished a doll in each hand, holding them aloft in a proud I-told-you-so silence as if they were a pair of trophy salmon she’d caught in a river reputed to have no fish.

At dusk, Kate slipped off for a fashion show, and I took the kids down to the Seine for a picnic, stopping for some ham, baguettes, apples, and chocolate at a tiny grocery store. The kids were thrilled to tour a supermarket that looked like it was made for the Calico Critters. The proprietor gave them some caramels. We crossed the Quai Voltaire and set up on a bench down by the river. “Batter moosh!” India cried (her new favorite phrase). The floodlights of the bateau-mouche flung our shadows against the stone embankment. Oliver ventured down a set of stairs that tapered into the black water and tried to heft a giant mooring ring. He let the tendrils of an old willow tree caress his face, looking, for a moment, like someone entangled in a fortune-teller’s beaded door.

We rode through the heart of Paris on a bateau-mouche the next night, and the night after that we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower, from which la Ville Lumière was spread out like a bed of coals and the Seine rolled below like an avenue of black velvet. In the Carrousel du Louvre, India found the perfect pink Hello Kitty handbag. She wore it on her shoulder like a femme fatale; unlike a femme fatale, she clutched it in her hands all night as she slept. We spent a morning at Versailles, where Oliver let a French sheep lick his hand. In the cathedral of Notre-Dame, we lit a candle for Kate’s mother, Glynne, who had died in June and whose absence was still uncoiling in all of us, especially her two grandchildren.

And maybe that’s why I wanted to drag my kids down to the Pont des Arts, intent on showing them where their lives began. The beauty of the place was part of what created them, and yet here it was guttering on a wick, as if it were part and parcel of mortality itself. It was a windy afternoon, a slight chill in the air, evening coming on. I tried to take pictures but India kept holding her new purse in front of her face, and Ollie was experimenting with French gang signs. They were in no mood for Dad’s tiresome sentimentality. I watched them gambol about the bridge like colts and thought of the city they would see one day when they came back to light candles on their own.

Chip Brown is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine.