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.
You'll find a lot of overlap between what a child wants to do in Paris and what an adult wants to do: visit the tops of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, take boat rides on the Seine and the city's canals, maybe even tour the sewers or the bone-filled catacombs. The Georges Pompidou Center, with its avant-garde architecture, modern art and exhibitions, is a must-see for most adults. Children might not care for the art inside the building (though they'll enjoy riding escalators up glass tubes on the side of the building), but they're sure to like the art and street life outside. There's a fountain in which twirling parodies of human figures spray water and can get passersby wet. The square outside the Pompidou Center is a mecca for backpackers and street performers from all over the world. My kids were fascinated by a Korean quartet singing Beatles songs and by a performance artist who continuously wrapped and unwrapped herself with aluminum foil.
Here are some other places that are especially good for children. Visit them between museum tours or as rewards for good behavior. All are easily accessible by bus, Metro or R.E.R.
*The Tuileries. The park between the Musee du Louvre and the Place de la Concorde features amusement rides in July and August. There's a gigantic Ferris wheel, pony rides, toddler rides and rides for older children and adults. This is the way to thank the child who suffered the Louvre in silence.
*Jardin D'Acclimation. This amusement park is in the Bois de Boulogne, a huge park on the west side of the city. It has a zoo, a Normandy-style farmyard and many, many rides. A miniature train connects the park with the subway station at Porte Maillot. You can also rent bicycles and paddle boats in the Bois de Boulogne.
*Parc Zoologique du Bois de Vincennes. This zoo is the city's largest. Marylanders might be especially interested in the variety of ducks here -- many species not seen in the United States. The zoo also has pandas and free-strolling peacocks. There's a train ride through the zoo and carousels just outside the gate.
*Jardin du Luxembourg. What may be Paris' most beautiful park also is the best park for kids. There are pony rides, an antique carousel, a puppet theater and an elaborate playground with frightenly tall slides. The Pantheon is nearby.
*Aquaboulevard de Paris. Tennis, bowling, a shopping mall and Europe's largest water park are combined in this huge sports complex. The water park has wave machines, fountains, sprays, whirlpools and water slides. There are indoor and outdoor pools. Most water attractions are indoors. On sunny summer days, sunbathers are outside. (You'll figure out the unisex locker room in no time.)
*Cite des Sciences et de L'Industrie. This five-year-old museum offers hands-on exhibits (a la Maryland Science Center) and a 360-degree theater. It's the heart of the city's ambitious La Villette area -- a complex of exhibition halls, a music conservatory and sculpture-filled grand promenades.
*Palais de la Decouverte. Just off the Champs-Elysees, this science center also has hands-on exhibits, plus a planetarium, films, a full-size spaceship and a moon rock.
*Les Invalides. Napoleon, who built the Hotel des Invalides, is buried there in the Eglise du Dome. The Musee de l'Armee and World War I and II museums fill the rest of this sprawling complex with countless suits of armor, weapons and military vehicles.
And coming soon: Euro Disneyland. Mickey Mouse's Paris park is to open in the spring of 1992. Later will come a Disney-MGM Studios park and, around the year 2000, a European version of Epcot Center.
If you go . . .
If you're a couple traveling with one child or two small children, you'll have little trouble finding affordable accommodations in Paris.
Hotel rooms -- doubles -- tend to be just that, a small room with one double bed. At an additional charge, a small bed can be added to allow one other person or maybe two small children to stay in the same room.
For families that need more beds or more space, some hotels will give a discount on two adjoining rooms, and a few -- the Holiday Inn at Porte de Versailles, for example -- have rooms with two double beds.
Ask a travel agent to check with French hotel chains (Campanile, Climat, Ibis, Mecure, Meridien) to get the accommodations, location and price that you want. Don't spend $300 or $400 a night at a big-name hotel if it means having to skimp on other aspects of your vacation. Aside from luxury and prime locations, the big hotels can have special appeal for families. The Intercontinental and the Concord La Fayette, both popular with well-heeled Americans, offer baby-sitting among other services.
More modest hotels, though, often will try to arrange baby-sitting. If you will want a baby sitter during a stay in Paris, ask about it when making your reservation.