An American toddler in Paris

Times Staff Writer

When we told friends we were going to Paris with our 1-year-old, they looked at us as though we were out of our minds.

"How long is the flight?" they would ask, eyebrows arched.

By the time we left for the airport, unsuspecting boy babbling in his car seat, Pack 'n Play stashed in the trunk, diapers crammed into every spare pocket in our luggage, even we were starting to wonder if we were crazy.

In the weeks leading up to our departure, we mentally prepared ourselves. This would not be the Paris we had known in our respective carefree youths. There would be no lazy prix fixe menus stretching late into the night, as we sipped Bordeaux and stared gaga into each other's eyes. We would not smoke Parisian cigarettes, discuss existential philosophy or make out madly on park benches. Whatever our escapist fantasies, whatever the romantic French backdrop, we would still be parents, albeit Parisian ones.

But, we reasoned, at least we would be able to walk along the Seine. Drink delicious coffee. Window-shop. Eat buttery croissants. How bad could it be?

It was glorious. The trip was life-affirming, inspiring, delicious and bohemian, and it reminded us that, yes, there is life — and travel — after a child joins the party. The trip opened us up to a whole new Paris, full of treasures we might have missed without our son. Still, here are a few tips for any parents who drag a mischievous, mobile 15-month-old to the City of Light.

We got an apartment (not a hotel room) and didn't move. This was more luck than planning, but it saved us. We had tried one vacation with all three of us in the same room, and no one slept. It was so unbearable that we were ready to cancel this vacation. But a friend offered us his pied-à-terre, a two-bedroom apartment in the heart of the 7th arrondissement.

The apartment meant we could prepare our own meals at all hours, with fabulous ingredients from our neighborhood boulangerie, fromagerie etc., and cook up an omelet with chèvre and Champagne in our Parisian pad while our boy slept in another room. There was a bathtub and a secret stash of toys. Best of all, the building had an old-fashioned, low-tech elevator that bewitched him.

Before we left L.A., we resolved not to battle jet lag but to go with it. We slept late and went to bed late. This is important, because babies cannot have schedules imposed on them, as much as we like to impose schedules on ourselves. It avoided cranky baby syndrome, and we all got about as much sleep as normal.

We tried to time certain activities to coincide with naps: museums and meals.

With museums, he was good. We tried to convince ourselves that all this art would linger in his cellular memory. We showed him Rodin sculptures, the Mona Lisa (he had watched us read "The Da Vinci Code") and the Venus de Milo.

As the days passed, he realized that museum rooms function like echo chambers. He refined his experimental noises for three days until we were finally kicked out of the Picasso museum by a very apologetic guard. Ah, well.

We discovered parks near many of the city's best museums, though. Behind the Rodin Museum, past the sculptures and well-manicured lawns were two giant sandboxes full of French children and wooden chaise longues for exhausted parents. We made use of both.

Near the tip of the Île de la Cité was a tiny park surrounded by cafes, where he could play while we drank wine in the afternoon. And just blocks from the Picasso museum was a top-notch playground, packed with French nannies and their charges.

Renaissance babies We never found a park near the Pompidou Center, but after a spin through the Miró exhibition, we took Theo for his first multilevel escalator ride. Riding down plastic tubes on electric stairs, he ran, laughing, from one escalator level to the next. It was a 1-year-old's dream come true.

With our son, I looked at Renaissance art through a new lens. As we strolled down the hallways of the Richelieu wing of the Louvre, I noticed that the cupids and Baby Jesuses of classical art are modeled on 1-year-old boys like mine, all curly light-brown hair and pink cheeks (idealized with wings but no diapers). And I observed some interesting maternity clothing in the days of Christ: drapey tunics with well-placed slits.

Perhaps our best day was spent at the Luxembourg Gardens. It was our last day, and we chose a Theo-focused itinerary. The air smelled of flowers, fresh water and sunshine. One of the great attractions of the park, we read in our guidebook, is the Théâtre des Marionettes, where you can catch one of the classic puppet shows for a small admission fee.

When we arrived, the show had already started, the strollers were parked outside the theater in neat rows and our boy was asleep. We roused him and rushed into the darkness. It was a story of a sultan and his search for treasure, with a tiger and lots of evildoers. Children were crowded around the stage, squealing warnings at the hero. (The bad guy is behind you, look out! The treasure is over there, by the tree!)

Outside were swings, funky jungle gyms that would be sued out of existence in the U.S., a merry-go-round and more children than I had ever seen. Across the park a man with a cart rented tiny sailboats and poles. Adults soaked up the sun in green chairs scattered everywhere, while children chased the boats.

Our biggest regret was that we couldn't do the prix fixe menu. At least not together. We tried. We wanted one perfect meal, so we walked all day, trying to time the moment when our son's head would sag, then fall. But short of tranquilizers, you can't time a nap.

Just once, he fell asleep right on cue. We got ourselves into a super-chic bistro we had been eyeing for days. They found a place for us in a nonsmoking section. We toasted each other and winced when the waiter jogged the stroller.

When the smell of a perfectly cooked steak au poivre wafted over the table, he stirred, and before we could get one bite into our mouths, he was up, grasping for glasses, silverware, the tablecloth.

So we changed tactics. We dined early. Our best meal was at a quintessentially French bistro in Montmartre. There were no lines to guide us, because we were dining hours before any Parisian. The food came, and we ate in shifts. While I chased my son around the restaurant, I watched as my husband bit into warm Camembert, and the gooey center oozed out into the fresh salad. I could see his face redden, tears fill his eyes. He looked as though he were seeing God. He stuck wads of bread into his escargot shells to sop up the last of the sauce.

Swap. My turn!

The bartender made Theo his own nonalcoholic cocktail and an older woman let him play with her lap dog. An artist at the bar watched him swinging his tiny rainbow umbrella and exclaimed, "He is a tiny star in his own spectacle!"

As for my husband and me, we talked a little existential philosophy, and we stole a few quick kisses on some park benches, but we never got our French cigarette. I had to settle for sneaking one on a lunch break when I got back to Los Angeles. And as I did, I let my mind drift back to our magical time in Paris, with our baby. Ooh-la-la, was it divine.

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