“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.
“You look like a tourist!”