So, several weeks ago lovely T who lives in Paris said, rashly: “I’ll be in the South of France for the summer. So my apartment will be empty, if you want to use it.”
Now, the words ‘Paris’ and ‘apartment’ have the same effect on me as the furry cushion had on our Border terrier before he had his bits cut off. Conveniently ignoring the fact that taking three children to Paris means less strolling elegantly along the Left Bank, than being sworn at in French McDonald’s for mis-ordering, and trying to find somewhere the littlest can do an emergency wee that will not involve being smacked by a Parisian matron, I said ooh, yes, please. And then invited a fourth child, just for fun.
The evening before, as I packed duvets, suitcases and picnics for five into a bulging car, I began to see that this might be folly. As I calculated the miles to Paris – 400! And counting! – I wobbled. As I hyperventilated in a traffic jam at 7.30am, calculating the minutes until the ferry departed, I thought wistfully of the joys of spending school holidays in pyjamas comatose in front of CBeebies. But we made onto the ferry with less than 2 mins to spare (a personal best – the children particularly enjoyed my screaming: “Move! MOVE! There are NO ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS IN THEIR BOOT!” in the passport queue). And then, following the worst Americano I have ever drunk in my life (£2.51 – why, thanks, Costa Coffee!) we were off the ferry and onto the right side. The French side. The side where traffic moves and motorways are roadwork-free. The side where I weep with gratitude.
T’s apartment is glorious. Set in a particularly lovely part of Paris, around a courtyard and next to formal gardens, it is furnished with the kind of effortless chic that causes me to pre-order a skip for my arrival home, in which to throw all our belongings.
T has four children, but no crates of Lego here; no fetid little underpants or mouldering piles of other people’s plastic toys picked up at school fetes (“it’s a bargain, Mum! 89 bits of Transformer for 10p!”). It has carefully chosen, lovely things. And herringbone wood floors. And views over the whole of Paris. It took ten minutes for the 13 year old, with the breathy certainty of someone meeting their biological parents for the first time, to announce that THIS was how she wanted to live. Yeah, babe. Me too.
Day 2 – and here I adopt my smug parent face – I took the children to a science park. Yup, an actual French Science Park. Admittedly I wouldn’t have attempted this without Emma, who was also staying with her boys, and who speaks fluent French (I just make gutteral noises, and shrug apologetically). But yes, we crossed Paris and did the science park. We did interactive stuff. The children learned what happens to a constricted blood vessel, their exact height in digital centimetres, and that yes, you will cry if French children poke holes in the wings of butterflies in the Butterfly House. Mummy probably will too.
I learned that it is possible to shepherd four children the entire width of Paris without losing one, even through the extended circle of hell that is Chatelet les Halles in rush hour, and the teenage girls learned how to growl “Touche pas!” at over-friendly violinists on the underground train. (Yeah. Next time, Monsieur. I’ll show you how to make a really interesting sound with that fiddle). Emma learned that it is impossible for her to visit Paris without getting physically assaulted by pensioners. She is basically Old Lady Reverse Catnip. Her littlest wasn’t even doing an emergency wee.
We arrived home that evening bearing the fixed, slightly manic smiles of parents who have done their educational duty, and got away without re-mortgaging their houses in the gift shop. Good parents. Parents who have just paid €17 for a round of ice creams.
And yes, it is possible that E and I had a glass of wine. Don’t judge me. It’s all part of the French cultural experience.