PARIS — For my husband's birthday this spring, I decided to take him to Paris. It would be my first chance to experience the city of which he has been enamored for years. Well, not really my first chance; in a way, I had been there many times before.
I grew up reading Ludwig Bemelmans' classic children's book "Madeline." Bemelmans' charming illustrations and his tale of Madeline's adventures defined my image of Paris. When our daughter was born, we named her after Bemelmans' feisty heroine. Our Madeline, too, loves the book and knows almost every line of the video by heart.
I wondered how much the city had changed since 1939, when Bemelmans began to sketch his book on the back of a menu. The answer, our little girl would tell you, is: Not much.
Although our Maddie is only 2 1/2 and does not have red hair like her fictional namesake, she has the spunk and love of adventure that Madeline demonstrates in Bemelmans' six-book series.
There was no question that Maddie would come along with Tony and me. Having the use of a friend's apartment for our three weeks in Paris helped us feel right at home.
We were in the 15th arrondissement, a residential quarter of apartment buildings and large private homes not far from the Eiffel Tower. Maddie instantly recognized the tower and the Seine River and talked of Madeline everywhere we went. Her curiosity drew us into a Paris of surprises, the biggest one being the discovery that this is a great city for children.
Everything that children love, Paris has. Paris has carousels on what seems like almost every other block. Paris has beautifully maintained parks throughout the city, a reprieve from the busy streets. Paris has fountains everywhere, and children love to play with water. In Paris, dogs are allowed in restaurants, often the most boring place for kids; there is no better entertainment for a child than being under a table with a chien. Best of all, Parisians love children, so we felt welcome almost everywhere.
We wanted to do things in Paris that we would all enjoy as a family, so we ruled out the typical kid-oriented excursions like amusement parks, zoos and Disneyland Paris. A friend advised us to call Travels With Soha, a San Francisco-based travel agency run by Soha Yamin, who specializes in organizing itineraries for families in Paris. She put together a great list for us that would take many trips to Paris to fulfill, and recommended a fine bilingual baby-sitter so that Tony and I could enjoy some time on our own.
Our first morning in Paris was a Saturday, and a Parisian friend who's a great shopper took us to what she claims is the antique dealers' favorite flea market at the Porte de Vanves, in the 15th arrondissement. Unlike the better-known flea market in Porte de Clignancourt, this one was not overwhelming in size, covering only two streets. Maddie led us through the stalls, calling out "Come, come," pointing at costume jewelry she wanted to try on. We stopped for sugar-and-butter crepes at a stand, and a street performer played a song on his piano while she danced.
On Sunday we walked around the Marais district and stopped for tea at Mariage Freres. It was quite crowded, so we checked out the tea museum upstairs while we waited for a table. Afterward we looked into the shop next door, Virus, and admired hundreds of handmade kites.
On our walk through the Marais, we turned a corner and found ourselves in the Place des Vosges, a jewel box of a park bordered on all four sides by almost identical 17th century townhouses. Maddie romped with the Parisian children, all in their Sunday best. She seesawed and slid down slides and threw white pebbles from the paths into the fountains. I thought if I could go to this park every day with Maddie, I would be in heaven.
It seems all French children dress well, in traditional styles that would be familiar to "Madeline" and her cohorts: girls in hats, ruffled socks and smocked dresses, and boys in short pants and collared, short-sleeved "dress" shirts. Stores selling children's clothes were everywhere. Prices for a little Parisian outfit ranged from a shocking $200 to a reasonable $15.
At Petit Faune on the Left Bank, we bought moderately priced smocked dresses and more costly hand-knitted sweaters. We had fun looking at the classical linen dresses, tops and pants at Bonpoint on the Left Bank, but chose to buy the bargains at Bonpoint Soldes, the still-pricey outlet for last year's collection. We also bought some colorful, inexpensive jumpers and dresses at Dipaki, on the Right Bank, but the real bargain hunters go to Du Pareil au Me^me, on the Left Bank, where I had to search through racks of clothes to find the right size. My favorite was Monoprix, a chain of department stores with Sears prices and Saks quality. Even the necessities, like pajamas, underwear and bathing suits, had a fine touch that spelled style a la Parisienne.