When your husband’s been working away for six weeks and you’ve heroically manned the fort at home, getting up at 3am with the 5-year-old who has nightmares, and the 2-year-old who thinks the day starts at 4.40am, and you’ve dealt with the school runs and the wee-stained bedding and the bin juice running down your arms because the bloodyfucking foxes keep tearing apart the bags – well, I think that deserves a little holiday. Or some ‘family time’, which is how I sell these things to myself nowadays.
So I booked us a little trip to Paris. I know, as you do. I figured we’d get on a train, stay in an airbnb – a proper Parisian place, with L’Egoïste balconies and a tiny, ancient, rickety lift – and I would drift from café to restaurant, stopping by at Sandro and Maje and all those shops that feel sophisticated because they’re French, and we would go up point at the Eiffel Tower, et voilà! Everybody would be happy.
Some time between booking the trip and going, it dawned on me that my children might not play ball with this plan. They are not like French children (or not like the image of French children sold by parenting books, anyway. Have you seen how many parenting books about French kids there are? Seriously, look on Amazon. I’m so over French children. I want to know about Saudi children, or North Korean kids. I bet they know how to behave.)
Another city, another playground
And I remembered that brunch with my sons isn’t a leisurely affair, with newspapers and conversation, but an emergency drill, where you spend half the time pleading with the waiter to bring bread, juice – anything, just now – and the other half apologising for leaving the table piled high with salt, shredded napkin and loom bands. I can’t eat out with my kids in France. Restaurants with children are stressful enough, without having a bunch of impossibly perfect Parisians glare at me and my louty English offspring.
But this wasn’t a problem, I figured – we could stop by a supermarket and pick up a baguette and some fancy cheeses, and some cartons of those crème caramel things, and have a picnic. Maybe not in the park, being as how it’s November and all, but in the airbnb. We could be like real French people, eating a sandwich, at home.
And realistically the shops were out, as it wasn’t fair to expect the kids to join me for an afternoon looking at cashmere gloves and scented candles they had no real intention of buying. But at the same time I didn’t want to go to the Louvre or the Notre Dame or any of the other places where you get to queue for hours to look at old things. My memories of the Tower of London at half term are still too raw for that. Plus my kids are a bit young for art trails and drop-in programmes. They only really want a swing.
So we would go to the playground, and then to the Natural History Museum, which felt suitably off-the-tourist-track (because did you know Paris has a Natural History Museum? No you didn’t, don’t lie.) And we would look at the taxidermy, because I forgot that that’s basically all natural history museums are, and when Emilio asked me to translate the signs, I would say, ‘Something something reproduction blah blah…. Oh, it’s boring anyway.’ Because, despite having studied French for nine years, the only phrase I can remember is, ‘J’habite à Birmingham. C’est une grande ville industrielle,’ which hasn’t served me that well since I moved.
And then we would go to another playground and eat another croissant. And their dad and I would look wistfully into the window of another bistro, dreaming about red wine and duck confit and more red wine. And we would say ‘God, we’ve got to come here again soon… But next time without the kids.’