Sunday, December 23, 2012

Paris When it Sparkles: A Guide to Holiday Family Fun

Ahh, Christmas in Paris. The twinkling lights, fabulous holiday shopping, vin chaud and cozy nights by the fire. Isn’t it romantic? Sure, unless you have kids, in which case, copious lists for Santa, too many unscheduled hours and sugar overload can lead to a merry meltdown, turning even the cheeriest maman into the Grinch. That’s why I’m filling our family calendar with lots of happy holiday diversions.  Here’s what we’ll be up to this most wonderful time of the year.

Festive holiday windows. Parisians are accustomed to lust-worthy window shopping; faire du lèche-vitrine (literally “window licking”) is a time-honored activity here. But the Christmas season takes this pastime to a whole new level. A trek up to les grands magasins on Boulevard Haussman is a holiday must with kids. The windows of Galeries Lafayette and Printemps come to life with music and animation, all at eye-level for your little elves’ entertainment. The windows of Le Bon Marche and BHV are also worth a visit. 

                                                                             My little elves.
Another day, another carousel. Pint-sized Parisians love them a carousel. Just look around: There are dozens dotted around the city and easy to find near most major monuments. Between Christmas and the New Year, the Marie de Paris offers its own cadeau to the city: Free rides on the carousels! Our favorites (we’ve tried them all, I swear) include the two-story merry-go-round at the base of Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre and the manège at the Luxembourg Gardens. (It’s more than one hundred years old and kids spear little tin rings with mini wooden “baguettes.”)

A view from on top of the world. If your brood is feeling brave, take a ride on the Grand Roue de la Concorde, the city’s towering ferris wheel at the foot of the Champs Elysees. Its glittering views over the Tuileries, atop the Louvre and beyond give new meaning to City of Light. It’s only up until January 13 so don’t delay. Tickets are 10 for adults, 5 for kids under ten.

The circus is coming to town. A highlight for us last year, Le Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione ( is poised to become an annual family favorite. It offers all the timeless magic of a bygone era circus (think traditional clowns, awe-inspiring acrobats and trapeze artists, jugglers and even a tiger-tamer) set to a live orchestra under an authentic “big top” in the Marais. This year’s production, Eclat, runs until March 2013.

A giant of an exhibit. Know any kids who aren’t fascinated by dinosaurs? Me neither. We love the Jardin des Plantes any time of year but the dinosaur exhibit at the Museum of Natural History (through May 2013) requires a special trip. Although not a specifically “holiday” outing, pair this with a hop across the Seine to Notre Dame Cathedral. Like the museum’s massive meat-eaters, the cathedral’s towering Sapin de Noël is sure to leave the little ones wide-eyed in wonder.  

Christmas with a conscience. In this season of consuming, er, giving, it can be a challenge to teach kids about the real meaning of the holidays. The Musee Quai Branly is making it easier. From Dec 26 to 31, kids who bring a toy to donate can participate in a special free atelier where they’ll make a new toy out of recycled materials. Donated toys will be given to children living in refugee camps. Stay and explore the intriguingly curated exhibits housed in this Jean Nouvel-designed jewel. A win-win for the whole family.

And if your holidays just wouldn’t be complete without a traditional Marché de Noël, head to the Champs Elysees for the obligatory stands hawking tartiflette, marrons grillés, knit woolies and carved wooden ornaments. You’ll also find some rides for kids and an indoor skating rink at the nearby Grand Palais where little ones can take to the ice. Courage, parents, courage!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Are My Children Safer in France?

Before we moved to France, we lived in a town called Arlington, just a few miles from downtown Boston. It's a sweet, middle-class community populated by a mix of life-long residents, many now living in the homes where they grew up, and young families drawn by good schools, quality housing and proximity to urban life. There are lots of parks, a wooded bike path, decent restaurants and kids everywhere. In many ways, it's an idyllic place to raise a family.

When we lived there, my son started kindergarten at our local elementary school. It was, again, almost idyllic. The school was just a few blocks from our home. Groups of kids walked together through the leaf-strewn streets that fanned out around the school, crossing guards manned nearby intersections and parents were welcome to get involved. It felt safe.

                                                 Walking to school in our old neighborhood.

And yet, in the days since the atrocities in Connecticut, I've been haunted by thoughts of Arlington. Just a few hundred miles from Sandy Hook, I imagine my friends gathered in clusters on Arlington's playgrounds, sending their kids to school and volunteering in classrooms. I know they are scared. In the wake of news like this, what parent isn't?

I cannot help but wonder, somewhat guiltily: Are my kids actually safer in France?

Like so many mothers, I believe that my very first job as a parent is to keep my kids safe. Even on days when I'm least proud of my parenting -- when I've been tired, less attentive or less patient than I'd like to be -- I always console myself with one basic fact as I tuck my children in each night: They are safe. No matter what else I did that day, they are alive and well. And that is something.

And yet I know rationally that threats are everywhere, that the relative safety I feel here in Paris has little to do with geography and is, simply, a state of mind. Harm could come to them just as easily here as anywhere. We are, after all, in the heart of a big city, buzzing with dangers and joys in equal measure. Threats abound everyday -- in the streets we must cross, in the strangers we must trust, in the lives we must lead as fully functioning human beings.

I do, however, know this: They will not be killed by gunfire in their school.

So are they safer in France? Probably not. But are they safer from guns? No doubt about it. 

The loss of young life in Connecticut is beyond rational comprehension. Unlike loved ones in the U.S., I have the luxury of shielding myself and my children from much of this crushing news. I simply cannot bear it and the reasons are obvious. It brings to the fore all that we fear most: That out of the blue, through no fault of our own, something evil and horrendous will take from us that which we treasure above all else. That this should happen to ones so young is the realization of our darkest imaginings. That they should be harmed in their havens of learning, growth, social connection and joy is truly inconceivable. A realm of innocence has become a place of fear, for parents as well as children.

It is just so wrong.

Consider this: Great Britain had exactly 42 gun-related deaths in 2008. The U.S.? 30,364. Britain has some of the toughest gun-control laws in the world. In fact, most police personnel in the U.K. do not even carry firearms.

Would stricter gun laws have prevented this tragedy? In all likelihood, yes. Of course, this can be debated, foolishly and incomprehensibly. But how bad does a tragedy have to be before we tighten the laws and find out?

As the web fills with guidance ("How to Talk to Your Children About ...") and schools fortify security, re-examine emergency plans and reassure nervous parents, I feel grateful to be so many miles away from it all. I'm not going to have "that talk" with my kids. I'm not going to explain to them that a deranged man did something terrifying at a school, something that -- mercifully, for now -- is far beyond what their young, innocent minds can fathom. For this, I am lucky.

I know my friends at home are fearful today as they send their babies off to school. What will they hear on the playground? Will they be afraid? Will they still want to go to school? Most of all, will they all be safe? God, I hope so. I really, truly hope so.