Jessica Helfand | Essays

"Oui, Oui, Oui" All The Way Home

Drawings by Fiona Drenttel.

Our children delight in the retelling of the story of my apprehension when, as a child, I embarked on my first airplane trip. Marking the ceremonious start of our family's four-year stay in Paris, it heralded a host of unprecedented firsts — a new language, a new school, at least one weird new ice cream flavor. I was ten years old and terrified.

It soon became apparent, however, that my anxiety lay in the oddly mistaken assumption that changing planes took place in mid-air.

Today, our daughter, Fiona, is a seasoned traveler who has been airborne for a good part of her single-digit life. Other than the time, as an infant, that a British Airways flight attendant put Perrier in her bottle, her European experience has been largely uneventful. As a family we've traveled to Rome, to Zurich and frequently to London: but what would she make, I wondered, of a city of such splendors as Paris? And how had it changed, this Paris I knew so well as a child, the one that is permanently imprinted on my psyche — which for all things Parisian, remains terminally arrested at the age of 10?

I decided to find out. And so, on a sweltering day last August, we embarked with a friend and her daughter on a 6-day tour of Paris: Kid Paris, the Paris of candy stores and carousels and more than a few weird new ice cream flavors.

In my childhood memories of Paris, food is the prevailing barometer. I remember places by virtue of the delectations they offered: the poulet frites at our old bistro in the 16th, for instance, or the palmiers at our local patisserie. And while I recall being initially vexed by the absence of such things, in the French national diet, as peanut butter and grape juice (and envious of my friends whose parents were diplomats and able, therefore, to avail themselves of such riches at the American commissary) I gradually came to know Kid Paris by eating my way through just about every arrondissement.

Now, some 30 years later, Fiona and I began our visit by stopping for our first croissants: flaky and buttery, they required nothing but our slow appreciation of their unparalleled perfection. Until the check came — and required that I deposit a whopping 32 Euros on the table.

Resisting a dual surge of jet lag and sticker shock, we proceeded down to our first stop: the legendary Parc Monceau, home to the Ecole Active Bilingue, my old school. It was exactly as I remembered it: the black-and-gold gates, the limestone facades, the sandy area outside the school where we played endless games of marbles and where, sometime in the fall of 1971, I uttered my first words in this new, exotic language — provoked by what I recall as uncontainable moral outrage at a cheating companion. "Mais tu as triché!" I bellowed, letting loose a string of angry epithets in my newly minted, pitch-perfect playground French. (My children like this story, too — particularly the mental image of Mommy screaming at the top of her lungs about social injustice and, well, marbles.)

We proceeded through the park in search of the famous dark green bungalows where, as a child, I would spend considerable time reflecting over which candy to buy after school. My favorites were the petits ours, small chocolate-covered marshmallow bears that were occasionally traded for a Carambar or even better, a Malabar — the unparalleled caviar of bubble gums. Today's park bungalows, I soon discovered, have expanded to offer additional exotic samplings — things like cappuccino, compote and flan — grown-up goodies artfully positioned opposite the licorices and chocolates that remain as enchanting (Fiona agreed) as ever.

Later, looking for treats to bring home to Fiona's brother, we came upon large bags of Carambars in a nearby market. I was elated, but Fiona wasn't so sure. "If that's what you brought home for me," she replied skeptically, "I'd be really disappointed." I realized that Fiona needed her own memories, and here in the candy aisle at the Franprix, she was staking her ground. She chose the fruit-flavored Carambars — and with only the gentlest prodding from her mother, a box of crèpes dentelles — and we were on our way.

The following day, we walked from the Parc Monceau to the Arc de Triomphe and all the way down the Avenue Victor Hugo. Its broad residential streets, empty in these last days of August, were just as I remembered them, with leaves already beginning to fall and not a child in sight. We stopped to admire the confections at Le Nôtre, to sample the playground at the Square Lamartine, and for a ceremonial Orangina (site of my virgin taste of this quintessential kid favorite) at the Place Tattegrain before heading wearily back to our hotel.

After the briefest of naps, we strolled to the Champs Elysees where we stopped to savor our second Orangina of the day — this time, accompanied by a classic sandwich au jambon: a buttered ficelle graced by one perfect slice of sweet, saltless ham. It cost 3 euros and Fiona talked about it for the rest of the week: how much better it was than the hamburger at the Drugstore Publicis, the quiche at the Brasserie Lorraine, the whatever-it-was at the Restaurant Jules Verne, halfway up the Eiffel Tower, where I politely requested something "un peu moins luxe" for the children. Our waiter begrudgingly agreed to modify the chicken entrée — though not, it soon appeared, it's exorbitant price. (As child in Paris, I recall being invited one evening to an elegant restaurant by a friend whose mother brought their puppy, Figaro. The imperious waiter refused to amend the menu for us, but Figgy was served liver and risotto in a silver chalice. He was constipated for a week.) Here at the Eiffel Tower, inches from the table where Tom Cruise had allegedly proposed to Katie Holmes only days earlier, the expression "too rich for my blood" suddenly made sense to me: I will not soon forget Fiona's face when served a puree of potato and root vegetable, prompting my friend's daughter to deliver an impassioned monologue about her own love — and deep longing for — Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.

After touring the impressionist paintings at the Musée D'Orsay the following morning, we spent a glorious afternoon on the left bank. Following stops at Notre Dame and the Louvre, we stopped for lunch at the enchanting tea shop, Ladurée, which proved somewhat more accessible than the Jules Verne (less silver, more sandwiches) but was all still rather posh: from the seven-page dessert menu to the impeccably composed towers of pastel-tinted macaroons, the fare here seemed more enigmatic than edible. With the afternoon growing hotter, the fantasy of ice cream loomed: but where?

Years ago, my favorite Parisian ice cream was sold by a young Arab man who had a crush on my sister. He would gaze at her adoringly and pay absolutely no attention to the cone he was dispensing for me, thus ensuring a massive, gravity-defying serving and ruining my appetite for the next two days. While the ice-cream man of my youth is long gone, we did manage to sample the ices at Fouquet's (a Champs-Elysees tourist trap) and Fauchon (exotic and expensive) while over at La Samaritaine, we found a sorbet packaged in a tube. The fact that it looked more like hand cream than ice cream was a source of utter fascination to Fiona, who insisted on bringing the containers back and trying to produce our own homemade tubular versions. (Yes: we failed.)

In the end, like most children, Fiona's favorite moments were the simple ones: the panini on the street, the pain au chocolat at a corner boulangerie, the ride on the carousel at the Champ de Mars. It was Hemingway who described Paris as a moveable feast, and we had proved him right. Next time, though, I think we'll have to stay two weeks .

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [16]

Psst. You can get Carambars and Malabars here in Montreal :)

Wow. Sounds like fun!!!

Hey! I went to the Ecole Active Bilingue, too, though I started there in 1975. What I liked best was that on Wednesdays we had only a brief morning of class and then a full afternoon of playing in the park.

I've never even heard of anyone else going there, so it was a big surprise to read your story. Thanks for the great memories.
John Alderman

so your one of the ones ruining the atmosphere with your frequent air travel. nice one! do you want a pat on the back?

Jessica - your writing here is so good. I have to say that unexpectedly (and significantly), the reading-from-screen just disappeared - I was right back to my first french and fumbled francs on the streets of Paris. Here's to making the DO a place where designers write about anything they want and not always about each other. And I hope Fiona got a taste of crêpe Nutella?
Andrew Breitenberg

Dear Jessica,
here are two good addresses to find good ice-creams in Paris today (and at an affordable price, too) for your next visit : one is Berthillon, in the île Saint-Louis, the other one is Alberto Gelati, rue Mouffetard — though the second one is situated in a rather more popular neighbourhood than the ones you chose to visit this time.
Mes hommages
Stéphane Darricau

I agree with Andrew that the tale was well told. Even I , someone who has never been to Europe, could easily picture the landscapes. Its always intersting to learn a little about the people behind the work.

This will indeed be an experience that Fiona will close her eyes and smile about when she's an adult reminiscing about her trip to Paris with her Mother.

Thank you.
James D Nesbitt

Though it wasn't Paris, my wife and I recently ate our way through Lyon. In fact, we make it a point to eat our way through every city we visit, which is the only way to go. Pizzas, crepes, tarts, cakes, ice creams, sandwiches, a spread out breakfast at the hotel to get us started. Walk the city with someone you love, eat as you go... there is nothing better.

You mentioned moral outrage and yelling about social injustice. Perhaps you might visit the suburban areas of Paris where riots took place over immigrant's displeasure over unemployment and rights in France in late 2005.

See the sweet and the sour.

When reading your story, I was struck by just how fortunate you are to be able to fly all over the world with your child. Many people don't get the chance to travel - especially across the globe. She gets a wonderful opportunity not afforded to many.

I don't begrudge anyone who has the ability to travel - I wish that more people could. I think it opens their minds and expands their thinking past their own country's borders. And your description of this personal French Food Fair sounds like a magical experience. Paris is a beautiful city.

I just felt it worth mentioning that during these uncertain times not all of France is candy and macaroons, and that many people will never have such travel opportunities.

I did enjoy reading about your adventure. A well told story, and one that I'm sure you will never forget.
It did make me hungry!

Chris Murphy

wonderful drawings! they capture the spirit!

I just want to pointed out that I can't agree with you when you say that "Carambar or even better, a Malabar".

Carambar is really much better than Malabar for several reasons (I can't list all of them here). Carambar is mostly a caramel candy and its main feature is the jokes available on its wrapper. Malabar is just a sort of chewing gum (yes, I can admit that you can do enormous bubbles with it) and don't play in the same category. :)
Jean François Porchez


It was great to read your story - I had a similar experience as a kid only my destination was Brussels, Belgium when I was 7 years old. A few years ago I had the chance to take my (then) fiance there and show her my old school, see some of my old teachers and show her a lot of my memories as a kid. I look forward to doing the same with my new son in a few years.

Thanks - Ryan
Ryan Coleman

Beautifully written. Vous m'inspirez écrire.

I'll never forget the summer of 1996, my first trip to France. The first thing I did when I got off the plane was find a pain au chocolat. They just aren't the same here....

If you do come for 2 weeks, I would suggest spending some time away from all those tourist traps you named - your wallet will thank you !
I've lived here 29 years, spent a few months at Ecole Active Bilingue too - high point being the time I caught a pigeon with my coat in the Parc Monceau - and regret reading that you spent 32 euros for a couple croissants (worth less than an euro apiece at the best boulangeries)

My family did Europe on Five Dollars a Day back in the mid-60s, so we were in Paris twice. The city, like so many cities, was a children's paradise. I remember the stationery shops, both familiar and exotic, the croissants and hot chocolate, our hotelier with his deeply resonant "bon", the tents on the roof of Au Printemps, the foie gras pate and the wonderful creperies. I even learned something about my parents as adults when they went out on Bastille Day and returned telling my sister and me about dancing in streets to the band at the local fire station on the Left Bank.

Have we learned something about graphic designers? Three of the readers who actually make comments went to the Ecole Active Bilingue. What are the odds on that in the general population?

Sounds like a lot more fun than the Tokeneke School, where I was at the same age. But I did get a chance to spend a year at 67 Ave Victor Hugo between college and graduate school, and I did manage to visit the Maison de Verre a few years later, an absolutely fabulous house that I see listed to the right in "Observed."

On the same day, we got a tour of the Pompidou, still under construction, from Richard Rogers. The contrast between the two was like night and day.

At the Maison de Verre, the plumbing is poetry, prominently displayed. At the Beaubourg, the plumbing is even more prominently displayed, on the outside of the building. But the Maison de Verre makes the Pompidou look crude and overblown. If you ever get a chance to see Chareau's house, do it!

PS: Michael Graves's most famous armchair is only a hair away from being a copy of chairs designed by Chareau for the Maison de Verre.

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