It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and the kids were eating yogurt in the kitchen. Don’t you just love jet lag? They promised to get back in bed, only if they slept with us: Ethan and Chase followed Aaron to one bedroom, while Ada snuggled into bed with me. Within minutes, the sweet sound of silence was abruptly broken by Ada’s sobs. She was homesick.
No words would comfort her, and my mind spun wildly – why didn’t family-travel sites mention how to combat homesickness? Did other parents experience this? Was it just me? I was stunned.
Over coffee the next morning, I asked for Aaron’s advice on Ada. He suggested we let her plan our day: “Perhaps she’s overwhelmed and she needs to feel more in control.” We shook the kids awake at noon and announced: you get to plan our day! Where should we go? The Eiffel Tower? Without hesitation, she declared that we’d feed the pigeons and ride the double-decker bus that she saw yesterday. That’s it. The boys nodded in solidarity and I relented through gritted teeth.
You see, I have this ego that leads me to believe I’m better than them: those tourists who don’t try to blend in, and choose to ride those overpriced, hop-on/off, florescent-bright tour buses. And I just agreed to spend my day feeding dirty birds and being a (gulp) tourist – the sacrifices I make for my children.
We fed the kids croissants from our local boulangerie, fed the grungy pigeons our croissant scraps, and walked over to the Louvre to board the hop-on/off Paris L’Open Air Tour Bus. The kids laughed, I cringed, and we set off lumbering down the Parisian streets.
Do I dare admit this? Being high up and without a roof was actually fun. And with the kids seat-belted in place, I could relax and enjoy those grand views of the Parisian skyline and the intrique details of Parisian window boxes without worrying about losing a kid. Yes, I felt like a tourist — but surprisingly I didn’t mind. In fact, I loved it.
Our first stop was Notre Dame Cathedral. We let the boys wrestle in the square before hushing them and going inside.
We walked down the aisle, staring up at the massive stone arches and stained glass windows, before sitting in a wooden pew. With Chase in my lap, and Ada’s head against my shoulder, I marveled in silence at the altar, and the symmetry of the arches. But I guess I’m not a big fan of Gothic architecture because, overall, I was disappointed. I kept comparing Notre Dame to St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. St. Peter’s felt massive, bright, ornate, and even when flooded with tourists, St. Peter’s felt sacred. Notre Dame was dark, and the swarm of us tourists made it feel like an attraction. After several minutes, we left.
We fed the kids sandwiches and juice (which we packed at home) in front of the front portal depicting Jesus and the Last Judgment. While Jesus contemplated the End of Days, we contemplated our next sightseeing stop.
Ada wanted back on the bus. I wanted to go and buy the Paris Museum Pass and use it to see Notre Dame’s Archeological Crypt. To Ada’s distress, we ignored her wishes, and walked across the street to buy the pass. The cost of the pass covers the entry fees to the major museums and sites (except the Eiffel Tower) plus, it allows you to skip the notoriously long ticket lines (such as at the Louvre). We bought two four-day passes (children are free at most museums and sites anyway) and used our pass to see the Roman Ruins in Notre Dame’s crypt.
When archeologists excavated underneath Notre Dame, they found an original Roman house from before Paris existed, when the area was still part of Roman Empire. I wasn’t sure what I was looking at in the crypt, other than brick walls. But I didn’t mind – I’m a Roman history fanatic and always thrilled to see a bit of the Empire wherever I go.
After a boring cathedral and boring Roman bricks, Ada was miserable. She wanted back on that bus, and didn’t care that I needed to see another church: Sainte Chappelle. After trying the “suck it up and do what I say” approach (which didn’t work) I remembered this was supposed to be her day. I scrounged for bread crumbs in my pocket and led her to a bush full of sparrows.
An old man saw her and placed a large piece of bread in each of her hands. He looked at me, said something in French (while I subtly checked my bag to make sure this wasn’t a pick-pocket scheme) put Ada’s hands over her head and:
Once the birds left, so did her joy, and she again begged to get back on the bus. But I was determined to see Saint Chapelle. I did a report on the it in high school French class, didn’t she understand that? She whined, and I countered with: “You were easier to travel with as a toddler.” As we walked and argued, Aaron dragged a crying Ethan. (I don’t know why he was crying, I was too busy quibbling with Ada.) We were the picture-perfect postcard of why not to travel with children.
At Saint Chappelle, we skipped the long security line (because we had kids) and the ticket line (Museum Pass) and entered. While I was busy looking at the lower chapel, the kids scurried up the narrow spiral staircase to the upper chapel, giggling. I quickly followed, trying to shush them but at the same time, happy that they were having some fun.
And after all that whining and complaining – Saint Chappelle was another disappointment. This chapel is famous because of its three walls of stunning stained glass. But during our visit, it was under renovation. Plywood and scaffolding blocked two walls and the sunlight, diminishing the awe I had hoped to experience. And the kids, while respectfully quiet, were getting restless. I frantically took pictures, hoping they would capture what I felt too rushed to see, and we left.
I felt guilty. Instead of letting Ada ride the bus around Paris like she wanted, I led the kids through churches I wanted to see. And you know what? Forcing them to do what I wanted ruined the experience for all of us. The family needed a pick-me-up. And the answer awaited us at a café.
We ordered several crepes from a robust, red-faced woman, who had a one-sided conversation with Chase while pouring crepe batter. Chase smiled in return, between bites of his ham and cheese crepe. Ethan and Ada attacked their oozing Nutella crepes like chocolate-devouring experts. Ada even offered to share with me.
A delighted Ada (and her family) hopped back onto the bus. The kids insisted we ride back on top, despite the brisk, late afternoon wind. The bus slowly wound its way through Paris, giving us more breathtaking views.
We crossed the river and stopped under the massive Eiffel Tower. I begged Ada to let us off the bus. Nope, she said. But it’s the Eiffle Tower!, I whined. Aaron gave me a look, and I gave up. It was her bus ride — no Eiffle Tower at sunset for me.
Within minutes, Chase’s head fell against my shoulder; I looked across at Aaron and saw that the other kids were also asleep. No wonder Ada didn’t want to get off the bus – she was exhausted. (That darn jet lag.) Aaron and I froze for the next forty minutes while looping through Paris’s tourist highlights, until the bus finally dropped us off near our apartment.
While snuggled in bed that night, we talked about our favorite and the least favorite parts of the day, and our plans for tomorrow. And once again, as soon as the lights went out, homesickness crept in, this time attacking Ethan as well. With two kids sobbing, I promised that tomorrow we’d skip cathedrals and see really cool parks. Their sobs slowed and they were soon asleep.
Our second day in Paris wasn’t ideal. We struggled with jet lag, homesickness, disappointment and a battle of wills between parent and child. But we also had some unexpected moments of joy: riding that tourist bus, Ada feeding the birds, eating those hot crepes. Thankfully, we had seven more days to find our stride and find a balance between keeping the kids and parents content. Late that night, Aaron and I opened a bottle of wine, and drank a quiet toast to the roller coaster ride of traveling with kids.