July 10, 2013

Eiffel Tower, Pigeon Poop, and Picasso

Have you ever had the crazy thought of touring Europe by rail for three weeks with four kids in tow? Without your spouse to help heave suitcases onto luggage racks and drag overtired kids out of bed in the mornings?

If yes, and especially if Paris is one of your travel destinations, you might benefit from the following lessons learned:

  • If you travel by train, make sure you look at the train diagrams posted on each platform, showing you where to stand in relation to the seats you have booked. Otherwise you’ll be spending your entire trip hauling your bags through the obstacle course of an overfilled train, bumping into people left and right and possibly sustaining injuries from the dagger-like stares you’ll attract.
  • Make sure you listen to any announcements that might contain a last-minute change to the train diagram you just studied.
  • If you didn't make any seat reservations, brace yourself to be hauling your bags through the obstacle course of an overfilled train, bumping into people left and right and possibly sustaining injuries from the dagger-like stares you’ll attract.
  • Don’t split up in a train station leaving some to watch the bags while the others search for the bathroom. A) you won’t find the bathroom. B) if you do, it will cost money in a combination of coins you won’t have on you. And C) the people staying behind on the platform will throw a tantrum when the train arrives on another platform and they are saddled with five bags between two people, even if there are fifteen minutes to spare.
  • Don’t trust your train ticket telling you which platform you’ll depart from. Inevitably you will find yourself on the wrong one and only realize your mistake with about 30 seconds to spare and two long flights of stairs between you and the arriving train, leading to a ginormous burst of adrenaline you frankly could have done without.
  • If you’re planning a trip to Paris, book the Eiffel Tower online at least a week in advance to avoid the lines.
  • Except when one of your children gets sick the minute you arrive in Paris, it will be a good thing you totally missed the deadline for booking tickets online.
  • When you finally do make it to the Eiffel Tower with all your healthy children, it is entirely possible it will be closed down and evacuated because some crazy person is climbing it on the outside. But you will only learn this after standing in line for an hour and belatedly realizing it has not moved one inch and going to the front to investigate. The many message boards advising you of ticket prices will not make any mention of a closure whatsoever.
  • If after all this you’re still intent on climbing the Eiffel Tower, consider sending your kids to the top by themselves while waiting in a nearby café over some coffee and a croissant – it is so much more relaxing than dying a million deaths if you have a fear of heights.
  • If you want to spend 11 Euros in order to have your feet trampled on for an hour and be pressed through a funnel of human congestion and body odors, all the while clutching your backpack and obsessively checking your pockets lest you be robbed, go right ahead. Buy a ticket to the Louvre to catch a reflection-riddled glimpse of the Mona Lisa. Or you might prefer to send your kids in for free with instructions to take a picture to prove you were there – a picture, mind you, with many a stray elbow and backpack and iPad in it in addition to the Mona Lisa - while you treat yourself to another coffee and croissant while Googling the Mona Lisa over free WiFi and getting a much better view. Or you might be sensible and skip the Louvre altogether and visit the much more manageable and arguably interesting Musee D’Orsay.
  • The Paris Pass for major attractions sounds like a great deal, until you do the math and realize it doesn't include the Eiffel Tower and for it to pay off you’d have to visit three museums a day. I don’t know about you, but three museums a day with four children in tow are not something a sane person should ever undertake.
  • Buy a baguette and cold cuts at the corner store for a couple of Euros and make a picnic lunch of it in a park somewhere rather than dishing out 70 Euros each time you sit down in a café.
  • If you do sit down in a café, at least ask for a “carafe d’eau” which means you’ll be getting free tap water rather than paying 6 Euros for a tiny bottle of Perrier that your youngest child will have accidentally spilled before anybody even had a sip. The waiter might very likely kill you but it will be good for your budget.
  • Speaking of budgets, sharing a one-bedroom apartment with five people in the building Pablo Picasso once had an atelier in is both quaint and very cost-effective.
  • Sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the building Pablo Picasso once had an atelier in means the apartment dates from the time when Pablo Picasso had his atelier in the building, including the kitchen appliances and shower curtain.
  • Sharing a one-bedroom apartment in the building Pablo Picasso once had an atelier in also means you will probably live in closer proximity to your kids and everyone’s bodily functions – especially if the toilet is at one end of the apartment and the sink at the other end – than you might have hoped for.
  • The city of Paris provides a number of free WiFi spots in certain public locations and buildings. It’s a good idea to study the map of these locations before leaving the apartment while you actually do have a WiFi connection. Or you might just find a Starbucks which often has free WiFi  You’ll just have to go there secretly without telling your kids or you’ll have to spring for four Frappucinos for 5 Euros each.
  • When a pair of pigeons dive-bombs you in the Jardins de Luxembourg while also pooping on your head, you’ll be extremely glad you didn't book the even cheaper apartment which you found out at the last second didn't have a shower in it at all (which is why it was such a bargain). You’ll be very grateful for your shower, even when the water has turned completely cold because the water heater is probably also from the time of Pablo Picasso.
  • Invest about fifteen minutes on your first day in Paris to study a metro map with everybody including a quiz for the kids at the end on how to find their way home. It will make for much calmer travels. Plus you could technically send your kids off on their own while you admire the view from Pablo Picasso’s building and rest your feet on the windowsill, if indeed you trust the windowsill to be stable enough for such a load. It doesn't look like it, but then again, it has already lasted this long.
  • Tell your children not to throw away their Metro ticket stubs right after feeding them through the machine and passing the entrance, because it is entirely possible the tickets will be checked on the other end when getting off and it makes for a much better day when you don’t have to explain why you don’t have one on you. Also, a Metro ticket stub is a useful tool for scooping pigeon poop off somebody’s hair. Just thought I’d mention that here.
  • If there is an elevator when you get out of the metro and you’re hauling four heavy suitcases, take it. The French don’t ever waste an elevator for a few steps, so it is very likely you’re either emerging from under the Seine or inside of an entire mountain.
  • You will always be recognized for a foreigner however hard you try, so you might as well give up. But with some practice you can join in the game of detect-the-foreigner yourself and refrain from buying your crepe in spots where there are many of them, or you’ll be paying way too much.
  • The hat game is ALWAYS a scam. Do not be fooled into playing it. I am proud to say that I don’t speak from any bad experience in this regard. Not on this trip.
  • When you finally meet people who won’t automatically address you in English and who’ll admire your beautiful French, it is very possible they are from Quebec and have their very own troubles at making themselves understood in what they thought was French.

So – if you don’t mind a slanting floor, a few missing window panes, and a mattress full of straw (I know this because the straw was leaking out), then I have a place I can recommend to you in Paris. It’s a magical city and I think it’s safe to say that we are all returning home with fond memories.

Except perhaps not of the pigeon poop in our hair.



Montmartre, the neighborhood we stayed in from afar. Gorgeous,
right? Just don't look too closely at what's leaking out of the mattress.

The view from Pablo Picasso's building, by day...

...and the view at night

The proof! Or at least the claim...

The view inside the kitchen in Pablo Picasso's building after it turned out the dryer wasn't working.

Somehow this picture shows a bigger room than it was in reality.
TGV pulling into Paris Gare de L'Est

Pulling suitcases along endless train platforms
Our Metro station, Abesses, one of the few original Art Nouveau entrances left

Don't be fooled by the scenery - the Abbesses spiral staircase is agony, especially carrying
a heavy suitcase on each arm.

Musee d'Orsay, well worth a visit for its Impressionist paintings and the building itself, which
used to be a train station until it was closed because the platforms turned out to be too short

The view from inside the Musee d'Orsay; possibly my favorite Paris picture (except all
the Eiffel Tower ones)

View of the other bank of the Seine (I never know which is left and right) from Musee d'Orsay

Rodin's Thinker. Looks a bit like my pose when sitting on the toilet.

Don't leave home without it. This was my typical stack of things to stuff my pockets with as
we left the apartment. We were a bit freaked by all the literature about pickpockets so we often
left the backpack at home. That might also have had to do with it being plain heavy.

After I was told it was our shoes that might give us away as Americans, I was obsessed with
looking at people's shoes. Can you spot l'Americaine in this shot?

Montmartre neighborhood parade

We saw plenty of these, and they all screamed "Steve Martin" at us. 

Sacre Coeur, only two minutes from our apartment (which
Picasso once had his studio in, did I mention that?)

Hello, Paris!

Dome des Invalides; the boys enjoyed the military museum inside

The Louvre. If the Mini screamed Steve Martin, this one screamed Dan Brown.

A lot of pushing and shoving...
...to see this. Is it really worth it?

All happy to be outside again
View of La Defense from l'Arc de Triomphe
View of the Eiffel Tower from l'Arc de Triomphe

The closest we got to the Eiffel Tower for 3 out of 4 days

Forgive me, but I went a bit crazy with Eiffel Tower pictures


The guy who almost thwarted our Eiffel Tower plans altogether with his own plans of suicide,
which thankfully he was later talked out of, so that we could return for a beautiful night time visit.




Also see previous Europe with kids blog posts: