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The Great French Saga, Part V

Friday the 14th was Day Two of the Paris Museum Pass.  We went to the Louvre first and saw the bare essentials.  As it was 16 years ago, so it was on this trip: I have a hard time being motivated to spend a ton of time at the Louvre, since we go to NYC's Metropolitan Museum on a regular basis.  They both have vast collections of gorgeous art, but as philistine as it sounds for me to say this, except for a few very notable pieces, I find the two museums somewhat interchangeable (though the physical structure of the Louvre itself is far more fabulous).  Don't hate me. 

So: we saw the Mona Lisa, which is much better placed than it was 16 years ago.  You could actually see it despite the mass of humanity standing in front of it.  We saw the Winged Victory (above) and the Madonna of the Rocks.  We saw Paul Delaroche's Christian Martyr, an engraving of which hangs over our living room fireplace.  You may have seen it right here at Novembrance before.

The kids were thrilled to see the original: very gratifying.  But the Louvre was a mob scene, so we left after an appallingly short visit and walked down the Tuileries to the Orangerie Museum.  Everyone liked this one better because there were very few people there.  Four of Monet's gigantic water lily pieces hang in a very cool oval room.  After having been to Giverny, the kids were thrilled to see Monet's masterpieces.  The museum also has a lovely collection of other Impressionist art, so we took our time and enjoyed it all. 

It was lunch time.  Café Angelina awaited.  We got there ahead of the lunch rush and got a big table in the back.  The lunch was delicious, but the real reason we were there was for the hot chocolate.  It is ridiculously thick--like pancake batter--and so creamy, dark, and delicious.  Once again, reality exceeded the high expectations I had given my children.  The bill was a small fortune, but I know the kids will never forget that meal.

After Angelina, we got on the Métro and headed for the Arc de Triomphe.  Countless stairs later, we emerged at the top of the Arch and had a great look around. 

The air was a bit hazy, but the skies were clear and the views were still terrific.  Daniel absolutely loved the Arch; it whetted his appetite for the Eiffel Tower.  The Tower and Notre Dame were the two things he most wanted to see, and he had been so patient.  His reward was coming.

That night, we watched a French movie called Les Choristes on DVD.  It's available in the U.S.--titled The Chorus--and you must see it right away if you haven't already.  It's about a man who gets a job teaching at a boarding school for troubled boys.  He forms a choir, which of course transforms everyone's lives.  Yes, I know; it sounds like Stand and Deliver and Blackboard Jungle and every other movie about idealistic teachers and cynical children, but it's a lovely film and the music is exquisite.  When we got home, I bought the DVD, the soundtrack, and the sheet music for two of the songs so that my children can learn them.

The next morning: Destination Eiffel.  We got there early.  Tess and I hopped out of the van and got in line while Patrick and the others parked the car.  I'd never been to the top of the tower before because the crowds are always so daunting.  But this time, it was all about satisfying the kids.  They loved it: the views, the elevators, the kitschy gift shops.  It really was great fun, and how satisfying it was to descend and see lines three times as long as when we arrived.

We walked all the way down the Champs de Mars toward our next stop: Les Invalides.  It was hotter than blazes, but we walked in the shade and the kids sang the rounds that I had taught them on the way home from Normandy.  The stares we got were very gratifying--the Von Perkins Family Singers on their European tour. 

Les Invalides is totally cool.  Napoleon's ginormous porphyry tomb is so over the top; you have to admire the ego that persisted long after his death.  The mosaics, the bas reliefs, the stained glass, the gold-encrusted dome: it's all a huge temple to one man.

Kitty corner to "Napoleon's house," as Daniel called it, is the Rodin Museum.  This normally would not have been on my list (though Rodin's work is amazing), but James got the nickname "Rodin" at Scout Camp this year (apparently because he's a deep thinker), so he was all fired up to go.  It was on the Museum Pass list and so close by, so we included it. 

The sculptures and gardens were lovely, but the guards didn't want Patrick walking around inside with Anne in the backpack, and since she'd fallen asleep and had had so few naps on our trips, there was no way we were taking her off his back.  We let the older kids go inside the manse and explore on their own while we waited on the steps. 

After Rodin, it was a long walk back to the car, but we made it with periodic water breaks and by playing the SmartCar game.  There are SmartCars parked on nearly every block in Paris, much to Daniel's endless delight.  We finally made it back to the parking garage.  We got in the van, broke out our lunch, and headed for Fontainebleau.

Fontainebleau is an accessible palace, not nearly as grand as Versailles (and practically deserted in comparison), but it's so much easier to imagine actually living there.  Which is exactly what Tess did--as we toured the blissfully empty halls, she decided exactly which bedrooms would belong to whom in our family, etc.  I had never been to Fontainebleau; it was a delight to discover it along with the children. 

Anne loves sculpture of any kind, it turns out.  She points and stares and coos: it's terrific. 

This is the library.  The whole thing is just so beautiful.  More elaborate gardens; more giant fish in the predator-free ponds.  I highly recommend it.

Sunday.  This was our last day of the Museum Pass, and we wanted to squeeze every last minute out of it.  We got going right after church.

The Orsay.  My second favorite museum in all the world (second only to the Frick Collection).  The kids LOVED it: the structure, including the huge clock; the sculpture; the scads of Impressionist fabulousness; and my favorite painting there.  The looks on the apostles' faces slay me every time.  I get all choked up taking in the joy and wonder and disbelief and cautious hope they are radiating as they run to the Garden Tomb. 

Next we went to La Sainte Chapelle.  Oh, the glory of it.  Christian had enjoyed all the churches we'd seen, but when we got to the Chapelle's second floor, he literally gasped.  It's no small feat to get a 15-year-old boy to gasp. 

The photos never do it justice, and I am surprised by joy every time I enter it.  We didn't want to leave, but Notre Dame called.

The square in front of Notre Dame was very crowded, as always.  We went through the cathedral's interior, which is lovely, but not so lovely as Chartres or Bayeux.  The real draw for us was the tower ascent.  I had been having a bad feeling about taking Anne up there, however, so I sent Patrick and the Big Five up while Anne and I waited in the shade below.  It was a good thing, too.  The wait to get up to the top was an hour, and the balconies were all very crowded once they were on top.  I didn't see my crew again for 2.5 hours (though I did happen to look up at the exact moment they looked out over the front balcony--we waved to each other--that was a fun moment).

All the kids loved the gargoyles and the big bells, not to mention the views.  But Patrick reported that it was unbearably hot and sunny up there; Anne would have been dreadfully uncomfortable and probably would have gotten sunburnt.  As it was, I read while Anne slept, and then we entertained ourselves by feeding the pigeons when she woke up. 

Once we were all together again, we walked over to the Ile Saint-Louis for ice cream at Berthillon: the best ice cream in the world.  I don't know how they make those flavors so full and rich and perfectly evocative.  Why, oh why won't they import it?  I would gladly pay a lot of money for tiny, perfect portions of this delightsome substance.  We floated back to the car, licking our cones in utter bliss.

After four solid days of Museum Pass action, I needed a down day.  Monday, Patrick took Christian, James, and Hope to the Holocaust Museum (one of Christian's requests), while I stayed at the house and played French housewife.  I had read that the Holocaust Museum was inappropriate for anyone under 10, so it worked out perfectly. 

Anne woke up that morning with red, sticky eyes, so I walked to the village square with the kids and went to the pharmacy.  What a peerless system.  I described Anne's symptoms to the highly trained pharmacist, who also looked at Anne's eyes.  She gave me some antiseptic eye drops and told me that if they didn't help in a week, to take her to the doctor once we were home.  I paid about five dollars for the drops, which worked like a charm.  The whole event took 10 minutes.  Health care reform: we need it yesterday, already.

We also went to the village market for lunch food, then went back to the house so that Anne could have a proper nap.  After naps and lunch, we went to the lovely little park around the corner and played for a long time.  P and the Big Three got back to the house just after we did that afternoon.  They had had a great time; after the Shoah Museum, they hung out in the Latin Quarter, whereupon Christian announced that he wanted to move there.  The kids bought souvenirs at the second-hand booksellers on the quais and ate crèpes Nutella--a great afternoon. 

Things were winding down.  The next day, we went to the Château de Monte Cristo, the house of Alexandre Dumas (James's request): charming, deserted, great fun.  It was only about a half hour from "our" house. 

Dumas had a lovely little house built up the hill from the main house; this was where he wrote.  Covet.  Forget a room of one's own; I want the "Chateau d'If," as he called it. 

After the fun scavenger hunt through the house and gardens (given to the kids at the Dumas Visitors' Center), we got in the car to head home. 

But on the way back, we saw a place that demanded exploration.  It turned out to be the Parc de Marly, the site of a ruined château, now a public park.  With a huge pond.  And the most giant fish ever.  Fortunately, I had some stale brioche in the car.  Really: these fish were unbelievable.  Not so plentiful as those in Versailles, but HUGE. 

At this park, as nearly everywhere, Tess and Daniel crowed: "Mom, your favorite!  Straight lines of trees!"  Indeed.  I'm a sucker for them every single time.  We walked around for a while, satisfied that our urge to explore had borne good fruit.

Wednesday was our last day of fun; we planned to clean the house and make a trip to the Montfort pool on Thursday, then get up and head to the airport on Friday morning.  We drove into Paris for the last time and parked behind the Basilique du Sacré Coeur.  We knew Montmartre would be crowded, but when isn't it?  The day was beautiful, and the white towers of the Basilica were starkly gorgeous against the azure sky.  When we went inside, a choir of nuns was singing a motet; we happened to arrive in the middle of a mass.  We quietly walked around the ambulatory, taking in the brilliant mosaics while listening to the perfect music.  A lovely series of moments; I had teary eyes and chills from the beauty overload. 

We walked down the hill, then took the funicular train back up to the top; we had Métro tickets to burn, and riding the funicular train is one of Patrick's fond childhood memories.  Then it was time for lunch.  We found a great little restaurant that had room for us and were delighted by the terrific meal. 

Next, we drove to Patrick's old neighborhood (he lived in Paris for a year when he was nine) and went to the Parc Monceau.  Patrick remembered feeding black swans there as a child.  The swans were gone, but our bread did not go wasted; there were plenty of carp in the ponds to feed. 

That was it.  We drove back to Neauphle.  The kids had one last chance to hold their breath while going through each and every tunnel of the Boulevard Périphérique.  We had one of our last packages of Prince cookies.  We waved goodbye to the Eiffel Tower, La Défense, and all of the other landmarks the kids had come to recognize. 

We cleaned the next day, and the menfolk had one more chance to sport their Speedos at the Montfort pool.  I made jam with the huge quantity of mirabelle plums we had picked from the neighbor's tree.  We left eleven little jars and one huge jar of spiced plum jam for our exchange family to split with the neighbors.  We had a simple dinner, but did not stint on desserts.  Friday morning we drove to the airport and took a plane home.

Once we arrived in New York, we stayed with friends for four days.  We had signed a contract with the French family for 8/2 through 8/25, but then Patrick decided he couldn't miss three Sundays in a row, so we changed our return and came home on the 21st.  This was after the French family had bought their tickets, so we made other arrangements for those last few days.  It was a nice transition for the kids, who got to play all day, every day with our friends' children.

I've probably made the trip sound too perfect; it wasn't.  There were a few whines and short tempers and meltdowns here and there.  These things are inevitable when eight people are constantly together for three weeks straight.  I fell down some stairs and did something bad to my elbow; I went to the doctor when I got home, and the ulnar nerve is still inflamed.  (It's slowly getting better.)  There was the quicksand incident.  The kids broke a couple of toys.  The exchange family's cats threw up on the couch once.  We may have killed the hydrangea and a couple of roses through neglect (I never have to water yard plants here in New York because it rains so much, and I fear we did too little, too late in the French yard). 

But it was as close to perfect as a trip can get. 

I HIGHLY recommend the house exchange experience.  We met the French family Saturday morning when we came to our house in Cold Spring to pick up a few things.  They were a delight.  We offered to cook dinner for them on Monday night and they enthusiastically accepted.  We had such a good time that night that I was heartbroken that they were leaving the next day.  We had become friends; a real bond will be between us for years to come, I am sure.  They loved our house, Cold Spring (our village), and the Northeast in general.  They made the most of their days in NYC; it sounded to us as though their trip was as good as ours was. 

When we came back to the house for good the next day, they were just leaving.  We hugged and kissed them and watched them drive away.  Our revels now were ended.

What patient readers you are; thanks for sitting through my virtual slideshow these past few days!  You're the best.

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Reader Comments (15)

Now I feel less guilty for only spending an hour in the Louvre on our very short trip to Paris two years ago. We had so little time so we split the kids up and each adult took a child on a short tour. Remind me to tell you about Josef's photography experience with the classical statues. Now I REALLY know what children see when the go to a museum.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTiffany

wow, what a trip, how well used, how enjoyable.
I can totally recognise the balance food & culture on our trips to France...somehow it's always all about those 2 things for us :)

thanks also for reminding how much more I still need to discover in this part of the world "closeby". sometimes we tend to forget ;)

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGoofball

Loving the cute kid pictures--esp. Anne pointing at statues, and your group of "thinkers."

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLee Ann

I am truly hungry. Hungry for good food, hungry for adventure, hungry for friendships that spring up in the matter of an evening.


This has been a delightful ride. Thanks for taking us on it.

(Those houses of Dumas'! I'm in love!)

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEowyn

Like any good read, I couldn't read fast enough AND I didn't want it to end. Now I will have to adjust my mind to "being home" from your travels. I have thoroughly enjoyed this. What I wouldn't have given to have toted along with you.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJenna Consolo

You are my hero for doing France with SIX KIDS! (and expertly, I might add)
They will remember this their entire lives. Trust me, my dad took us to Hawaii for six weeks when I was ten. I still remember EVERYTHING.

Oh, and ditto on those long rows of trees. They stop my heart.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commentercharrette

Um.... part V??? Where have I been??? Okay... going backwards now.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjenofa2eatwrite

OH. Oh, oh, oh, what a lovely end to my week. This was bliss, truly, Luisa.

I adored that picture of Christian and Anne - how sweet!

Meltdowns or not, it sounds like something you all will treasure the rest of your lives.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterjenofa2eatwrite

Gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. Sigh.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette

I am in mourning for the end of this series. I have lived another live in these posts and it's a gift I can't repay. The rapture in your tone, the eternal beauty in these pictures, THAT AMAZING LIBRARY! What shall I do?

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterL.T. Elliot

Thanks so much for posting about this! It was great to read about your trip.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHeffalump

Not counting the line for the Eiffel Tower, I think we spent the longest time at the Rodin Museum. I still keep a couple of picture postcards of my favorite sculptures on the fridge. I really like Rodin's work. And I loved the Paris crepe stands.

September 18, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie J

I wasn't a patient reader, but did enjoy seeing all the photos. Welcome home!

September 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTC

I hope that the people who lived in your home appreciate this travelogue on all of the wonderful things you found practically in their backyard! And wouldn't it be fun if they had written a blog of their time living in your world, and telling about all of the magical things that they had discovered that may be overlooked by the "locals". What a great experience for both of your families!

September 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHeather R.

Briefly I felt transported from this awful room that is beginning to feel a little like a prison. What a gift!

September 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKimberly

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