Paris has a reputation for being the city of lovers, but it's also notorious for being a city of haters: namely of North Americans and children. The prevailing wisdom – wrong-headed, as my family would soon discover – was that if we took our three innocents there, our reservations would inexplicably vanish the moment we entered a restaurant, locals would run for the nearest Métro if we deigned to ask directions, that we'd be socio-cultural scourges with fanny packs. More than a few times we were asked, “To what end?” There is nothing, nothing, for a family to do in the City of Light.
Mais pas du tout. We didn't stop for a week straight and still felt like underachievers when we left. The city is an inexhaustible playground for young families. There were kid-friendly parks, guided museum and neighbourhood tours. We even made it to Parc de Villette for a Feist concert. We watched as Canada's indie darling shook her bangs for two hours, but didn't have time to go next door to the Cité des Sciences et de l'industrie, Europe's largest science centre, home to an Imax cinema and loads of interactive games.
Also contrary to popular belief, we didn't die the deaths of a thousand disdainful looks. Even when our kids became a little boisterous during a tour of Notre Dame – when the very Crown of Thorns was on its annual display and our eight-year-old daughter, Noa, was complaining loudly about the heavy incense – a nice madame came over, graciously asked us to pipe down and asked us if she could give us her own tour.
Almost no one treated us rudely – or no more, say, than they would have in Toronto, if that is any barometer. Maybe weather played a part in the warmth: It was sunny and 15 C every day, and perhaps after a particularly nasty winter, Parisians had collectively experienced some kind of emotional thaw. Even the ghastly terrorist shootings in Toulouse, which happened the day after we arrived, couldn't dampen the friendliness, nor did the gendarmes with M16s all over the city. The local Cartesian compartmentalizers largely waved off the violence as either a Toulouse problem, an Arab-Israeli problem, or the act of a lone maniac. Their good cheer seemed imperturbable. “Shouldn't they be angry?” asked Eli, our 11-year-old son, when we were discussing reactions to the shooting. “Is there capital punishment here?”
Clearly, despite all the planning, booking and reconfirming, it's the unplanned excursions that resonate. For kids (and perhaps this adult), the Byzantine flourishes of Sacré-Coeur Basilica quickly vanished from thought, but Noa hasn't stopped talking about what happened outside the church: A gendarme snuck up a set of stairs in a near-comical Clouseau crouch, stealthily approached and quickly collared the last poor illegal vendor before he could gather all his cheap Eiffel Tower replicas. “Will he go to jail?” Noa asked at the time. “Do you think he's in jail now?” she still asks when I tuck her in.
Her six-year-old sister, Lila, wasn't wowed by the Eiffel Tower – nor by the fact her mom booked tickets in advance, allowing us to skip the three-hour lineup. She was more impressed by the reaction of her grandmother who joined us toward the end of our trip, and was getting mad at the wind for roughing up her stiff coif. “Mum-mum didn't like the Eiffel Tower,” Lila said. “The Eiffel Tower is bad for her hair.”
Another tourist trap, the ghoulish Catacombs, had a philosophical effect on Eli. While tourists made videos of themselves in front of skulls stacked as neatly as sweaters at the Gap, he questioned the existence of the afterlife. “It's all fiction,” he said.
For Eli, the real profundity arrived with the risotto with scallops and jus de veau he ate at the nearby Café Daguerre. No fiction there.
In the end, if there was anything to hate in Paris, it was the ruthless itinerary my wife put together. It was I, not the Parisians, who was doing the complaining.
IF YOU GO
Concierge service: We rented what turned out to be a spacious, spectacular and reasonably priced apartment near rue Cler through vrbo.com. We also used Trufflepig (416-628-1272; trufflepig.com), a resourceful do-it-all service that can arrange everything from a few hard-to-get restaurant reservations to an evening tour of Paris.
Getting around: We were happy to take the Métro. As part of our package, Trufflepig supplied us with five-day passes for Zones 1 and 2, which took us pretty much anywhere. Also, chances are you'll probably go on a boat tour of the Seine. You may want to avoid the siren call of the famed Bateaux Mouches and instead take the Batobus, which allows you to hop off at different stops for a walkabout before hopping back on.
Parks: Yes, Champ de Mars near the Eiffel Tower offers table tennis equipment that Eli used for hours on end. But your first stop should be the Parc d'Acclimation, a zoo where animals were cooked during the Siege of Paris – and that once featured human exhibits from the colonies. There are now more modern attractions. It's well worth the trip.
Tours: Paris Muse offers very patient and informative guides who can whisk you past the line at the Louvre but take their time when explaining the Venus de Milo, the Code of Hammurabi and, of course, the Mona Lisa.
Food: Our most memorable family meal was lunch at Le Petit Vendôme. The atmosphere was Montreal's Schwartz's Delicatessen with a basic but incredibly tasty menu (and much better mustard and pickles than Schwartz's, too). The food at the only restaurant where the staff were a little shirty, Le Basilic, was extremely tasty, especially the steak for two, and the merest taste of the ice cream more than made up for the attitude. Also memorable were the macarons at Pierre Hermé, slightly gooey, with artful flavours that range from salted caramel to a rose, vanilla and clove combo called Jardin Secret. You almost don't need to bring them home because you can still taste them. You might call them immortal