Everyone says you're crazy. You're seriously thinking of taking the kids to Paris -- the trip you and your spouse intended to take before you had kids.
Well, relax. It's not a crazy idea. French society is very family-oriented, and the Paris that's great for lovers is great for families too.
Paris is an easy city to enjoy. Despite a population of 8.7 million in the urban area, Paris is accessible and unintimidating. Good food is everywhere, the public transportation system is easy to understand and -- although like elsewhere in Europe, there was heightened security because of the Persian Gulf war -- it is a safe city. You can walk almost anywhere at any hour.
Our children, ages 3 and 6, fell in love with the Place des Vosges during their first week in Paris. I liked the quiet grandeur of the 16th century buildings surrounding the city's oldest monumental square (Henri II died in 1559 of wounds received while jousting here). The kids liked the playground in the corner with slides, climbing bars, seesaws and more. Much of Paris is like this: something for everyone.
You'll see a lot of children in Paris. Take a few cues from the French and you'll fit right in:
*Keep children well in hand in shops and markets. "Ne touchez pas" means "don't touch" and the clerks mean it.
*Let the kids play. Most parks and many other open areas have playgrounds where you can rest while the children let off steam. The play areas are usually filled with sand. The grass is greener in other parts of parks -- no one is allowed to walk on it.
*Be prepared. Bring an umbrella stroller if you suspect your child won't be up to the walking you'll be doing. Carry a tote bag with juice boxes, mineral water and cookies.
*Take buses and the subway. Children who never get to ride either at home think they're almost as good as amusement park rides, and you'll appreciate how inexpensive and easy to use they are. The two subway systems, the venerable Metro and the newer R.E.R., are clean and safe. During the peak tourist months, July and August, almost every subway train and every )) station will have singers and musicians performing for your pleasure and your francs. Maybe your kids will even catch a quick puppet show on the Metro. And there are carousels during the summer outside many Metro stations.
*Don't take children to fancy restaurants. Your hotel may be able to arrange baby-sitting for your big night out.
*Take advantage of street foods. Most tourist areas, especially in summer, are dotted with stands selling crepes, baguette sandwiches and hot dogs. You'll also find ice cream cones sold at every other corner during the summer.
*If you want an early restaurant dinner with the children, look for places that are open "sans interruption." Most places don't open for dinner until 7:30 p.m.
*Guidebooks will tell you it's gauche to have hard liquor before dinner. It's also considered gauche to order milk or Coca-Cola with your child's dinner. Milk is OK at lunch or with a snack, but order a carafe of water with dinner.
The cliched snooty headwaiter is very much a reality in Paris -- and you're likely to come across him if you pile into a grand restaurant at 8 p.m. with tired, cranky kids. Food is one of Paris' most celebrated attractions, and you and your children can enjoy great food and true Parisian ambience with a little planning.
Let's start with breakfast. No Big Boy breakfast bars here. Stop at a cafe or bar, where coffee, juice, milk, croissants, pains chocolats and tartenes buerre (buttered baguette pieces) will be available. Or stop by a bakery and eat your croissants on the street or in a park. For lunch or dinner, try a bistro. There usually are only a few offerings, but they'll be good and hearty. For two small children, you might order one hot dog -- in Paris, that means two sausage links in half a baguette adorned with melted Gruyere cheese -- and split it. Brasseries (usually larger than bistros and with larger menus) are also good bets.
Another meal could be pizza. Children are welcome at most American-style pizzerias and at Italian pizza restaurants. Pizzas usually are single-serving size; two small kids should be satisfied splitting one.
You also can follow French families to to the favorite restauran of Parisian children: Hippo. This steakhouse chain has special meals, balloons, coloring books and colored pens for kids. Beef-eating adults will love the steaks.
Of course, you'll also come across Burger Kings (kids get crowns there, too) and McDonald's (complete with Happy Meals), and sometimes it's nice to get a taste of home when you're far away. If you want real food to take back to the hotel, look for "plats a emporter" -- carryout food. Get something good for the parent who missed lunch while the baby napped. Between meals, there's sightseeing. Or combine both with a picnic, maybe at Versailles. Take baguettes, sausage, cheese, fruit and drinks and stretch out along the canals. Bicycles and paddle boats can be rented.