Home to Paris after 13 November attacks

We awoke in a London hotel room Saturday morning to a blizzard of texts and Facebook messages. Were we ok? Weren’t the events in Paris horrific? In a hotel with our six year old daughter , we’d been asleep and blissfully ignorant of the horror taking place. We immediately turned on the television and could not believe what we were seeing. Gun attacks, explosions, grenades. Cafes, a stadium and a music hall. Carnage. The sheer number of fatalities stunned us. It was immediately clear this was far beyond the horror of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Our planned family weekend break in London was consumed with anxiety and fear over what was happening in Paris. A need to stay tuned to the rolling news coverage. Thanks to Facebook, we knew all our friends were safe. But we felt outrage and fury, mostly directed at the terrorists but also frustrations (perhaps unfairly – it is too soon to know) with the French intelligence services.

The purpose of our weekend in London had been a theatre outing with our daughter. The colour and music of a West End show were a welcome escape for a couple of hours but we felt it was somehow frivolous to be there whilst so much suffering went on back home in Paris. Silly as it may sound, we felt we had abandoned our post and that we really ought to have been back in Paris, even though our presence there would not make a difference.

We told our daughter the minimum we felt she needed to know – that there had been an attack in Paris, similar to what happened in January and that the bad men who did it were all dead (not strictly true at that point on the weekend but it felt right to reassure her on that front). She took it in stride, so much so that it distressed me. Attacks on her home city feel on some level normal to her, this being the second in one year. She asked some questions. We had no answer for the first question (“Why did they do it?”) and we simply didn’t want to answer her second question of how many people had died. The number seemed too high for a six-year-old’s ears. Touchingly, she repeated what we had said to reassure her during the Charlie Hebdo attacks, that the French police and soldiers would protect her from any other bad men.

On Sunday night, I shocked myself with the satisfaction I felt on hearing French forces had bombed Islamic State training camps in Raqqa. I don’t normally feel vengeful or believe in violence at all. I think it is a testament to how much Paris really has become ‘my’ home city that I could feel such uncharacteristic pleasure that ‘we’had struck back at ‘them’.

I cried in St Pancras station as passengers gathered together to mark a minute of silence to hour those who had died, acutely aware of how what I valued most at that moment, the closeness of my little family, had been ripped away from well over a hundred Paris families. Our Eurostar rolled home to Paris and we were a little apprehensive of what we might find. Of course what we found were shops and cafes open, with just a heavy police and military presence and stoic faces to reveal what had occurred at the weekend.

Tomorrow we will join the rest of Paris who are already resuming normal life, as big cities do so well after tragedy. I am sure we will feel on edge, just as people in la place de la Republique did over a false alarm on Sunday night. But my thoughts dwell less on the likelihood of further bloodshed – I worry even more about longer term, deeper changes for Paris, France and even Europe. There are of course the obvious changes to our daily lives. I already know all of my daughter’s school trips are cancelled until further notice. I will not be allowed to enter the school courtyard to drop her off as usual as parents must now remain outside the gate. I know from an email the American Library will check my bags on entry when I visit this week. That there will be armed police and soldiers on every corner. All of these are infringements on our daily freedom and quality of life. I actually do not mind them a bit. If they can keep my child and everyone else’s safe, I can live with even more restrictions than that.

My real fear is what this attack will do to our interaction and relationships as a society. I love this beautiful city and the people in it. The distress of the weekend confirmed to me that it really has become my home. I have been welcomed here and so appreciate the friends, French and international, that I have been so fortunate to make. But after Charlie Hebdo, Muslim friends told me distressing anecdotes. One woman had men make threatening, menacing gun signs with their hands at her on the street. On a separate occasion a well-dressed, elderly woman came up to her and pulled at her headscarf and asked her why she wore it. She explained she was a Muslim. “Well, you look ridiculous. You live in France.” My heart ached for her and I fear what she might face in the weeks and months ahead.

When I heard that taxis turned their meters off of Friday night and people were opening up their homes to shelter strangers, I felt so proud of Paris. The city was being her very best self – generous and resilient, dignified and unified But I fear beneath the surface there are tensions in France that will rise when the country is put under this unbearable pressure. Right now there is solidarity. There is a strong sentiment that these are terrorists, not Muslims. For now, extracts from the Koran circulate reminding us that for real Muslims, to take a life is a sin and to save a life is divine. But I fear that such solidarity could evaporate. Anti-semitism lurks here in France too. I have been at a business lunch with a well-educated man who blithely informed me that: “Corsica is a bit like the Jews. They make up a tiny percentage of the population in France but they have to make the most noise”. I reeled and wondered what lies beneath if such a sentiment can be aired publicly at a business lunch. Some Anglophone friends tell me their French in-laws make Jewish jokes. Of course, all of these anecdotes are exceptions and not part of my daily experience. But they show that intolerance festers here beneath the surface and if France is put under the terrible pressure of continued attacks, the intolerance could rise to the surface.

When asked why the terrorists targeted the 11th arrondissement and its trendy restaurants and young concert-goers, one young woman told the Sunday Times: “We are educated, young and liberal. This is what they hate.” I think this is true. So-called Islamic State did want to target the young, innocent people enjoying a family dinner or catching up with friends. I also think they want to make Muslims unwelcome in Europe so that they’ll increasingly turn to extremism. Well, that is where we really can defeat Islamic State. They might be able to get our school trips cancelled and force us to live with armed police. But let’s not let them take away the wonderful spirit of friendship, tolerance and acceptance that Europe can achieve so well. We are as educated and liberal as they fear and as such we can treasure our friendships between religions and nationalities. Muslims and Jews do belong here and we do want them. That is our daily, personal way to defeat Islamic State.

An Ode to the Musée de Poche

ode to the musee de poche

When we stumbled somehow upon this little museum (its name refers to its ‘pocket size’) tucked away close to Goncourt Metro station in the 11th arrondissement, it was like striking gold.  It is an art museum for children and features real exhibitions, currently ‘Dans le Foret des Masques’ by Laurent Moreau.  But its real appeal are the ateliers run by the director Pauline Lamy.  You can sign up for many different formats.  Our first was the Sunday ‘Artyfamily’ where parent and child work together with Pauline and other families on an art project.  Its fun to participate on an equal level with your child in this way.  As our daughter’s confidence grew she eventually participated in ‘drop-off’ ateliers.  The best is when Pauline takes the children out and about in Paris to the Louvre or Musee d’Orsay to learn about an artist and then the group comes back to the Musee de Poche to work on a related art project of their own.  Pauline’s workshops are very creative and she is not afraid to introduce the children to lots of techniques – very stimulating for the arty child. Her kindness makes her ideally suited to integrating a child into the group who does not yet speak French.


Thinking wistfully of the Ile de Ré

Jen iPhone Sept 2012-2014 233

My first post on family holidays in France just has to be about the Ile de Re, a gentle joy of an island.

It is hard to explain how an island 19 miles long and 3 miles wide on the West coast of France, near La Rochelle, with just ten main villages, can be so captivating.  White-washed cottages, gentle grey shutters and hollyhocks by the door.  Wide-open, uncrowded beaches.  Big waves for the big kids and hermit crab-hunting for the little ones.  Daily outdoor markets with fresh vegetables grown right there on the island.  Night markets with moules frites and paella. Theatre, carousels and pony rides.  It is the ultimate family island, where the children get to have a simple bucket-and-spade holiday and their parents relax, safe in the knowledge of good French wine and seafood to come later.  Add in the fact that it has the same sunshine quote as the South of France but with a gentle breeze and fairly consistent temperature of 25 and you see the family appeal.

It is possible that you have heard the island is a little too chi chi and that there are too many immaculate Parisiens cluttering up the cafes.  It is true that some of the port towns on the North of the island can feel that way.  Base yourself on the south side of the island, in the unpretentious, family-friendly villages of Sainte Marie, La Noue and Bois Plage with their huge, soft sand beaches.  That way you can head up to La Flotte or St Martin when you feel like exploring and then retreat back to your base.

I overheard one British man on the beach saying he was “underwhelmed” by the island and he couldn’t quite see the appeal.  I feel he missed the point.  If mornings at the outdoor market, picnics on the beach, nature trails and bike rides and barbeques in the evening with all your spoils from the market are not your thing, then the island is not the place for you.  For those of us who enjoy doing very little surrounded by beautiful nature, it is pretty close to perfect.  The charm and the appeal lies in the focus on simple pleasures – delicious fresh food and unspoiled nature.  Perhaps that is why it appeals so much to families with young children.

For me, it is a happy thought to know that the island is just a train ticket away.

Accommodation on the Ile de Re

I would advise making this a self-catering holiday so that you can really enter into the pleasure of the daily outdoor markets.  There are some hotels but most people choose to either rent a house or stay on one of the campsites.

Wake Up In France has a great variety of villas to rent, many of which have their own pools.

Camping Interlude has a fantastic location right at the family-favourite Gros Jonc beach.  Pitches available for camping and mobile homes to rent.  Village Oceanique, close to Bois Plage, has bungalows, chalets and mobile homes to rent and a communal swimming pool.

Alastair Sawday’s recommendations are always sound and he has Fisherman’s Cottage in St Martin as well as Venelle-de-la-Croix in Ars-en-Re and Maison de l’Ange in Sainte Marie.


The best Paris fiction for children

Kiki and CocoMadame Martine A walk in Paris  A Lion in Paris

Whether your family lives in Paris or you are looking for a gift for a child visiting Paris, there are some wonderful books aimed at 3 – 6 year olds.

Our current favourite is Madame Martine by Sarah S. Brannen.  An elderly lady, rather set in her ways, lives right next to the Eiffel Tower and yet has never been up it, dismissing it as a waste of time, just for tourists.  A new friendship with a little dog called Max leads her reluctantly up the tower and she discovers the magic of seeing her city from above.  A beautiful and funny tale with a serious message about being open to new experiences and friendships.  And possibly a few gentle digs at Parisian closed-mindedness for the grown-ups.  We can’t wait to try the follow-up book, Madame Martine Breaks the Rules in which Madame Martine and Max go to the Louvre.

A book we never get tired of is Kiki and Coco in Paris by Nina Gruener, Jess Brown and Stephanie Rausser. A little girl, Kiki, takes her cloth doll to Paris and together they explore the city until the beloved doll is lost (and, don’t worry, found again).  The book is based on beautiful photographs of the city.  We see Kiki and Coco in the Café de Flore and enjoying the glittering lights of the Eiffel Tower. The story behind the book is just as charming.  Dollmaker Jess Brown is given equal billing in the credits as the creator of Coco, the doll used in the book.

The very best for Paris residents and visiting children alike is A Walk in Paris by Salvatore Rubbino.  The text is charming as we join a little girl and her grandfather as the explore the city.  The illustrations are beautiful and detailed, with plenty to talk about.  My daughter knows the city geography well enough to piece their journey together as they walk but it would work equally well for a newcomer and could even serve as a guide.  We like the smaller print details with facts about the city.  You could skip those with a younger child.  My favourite page involves the Tulieries metro stop simply because my eagle-eyed-six year-old gleefully told me: “Mummy, they have made a mistake!”.  She knew the Paris metro system well enough to know that Tuileries is on the number 1 Metro line and she saw the artist has drawn a driver on the metro train.  “But Mummy, the number 1 metro line has no drivers, it is driver-less! The book has a mistake”.  She’s right.  I have been here four years and cannot know if I will ever feel completely at home.  But this kid has the makings of a real Parisienne.  Or a future job at RATP.

For the sheer beauty of the artwork, treat your family to a copy of A Lion in Paris by Beatrice Alemagna.


From Couch to La Parisienne – A running adventure

La Parisienne - les filles!If you had asked me even three months ago whether I was a runner, the answer would have been an emphatic no.  I didn’t like running and I was sure I simply couldn’t do it.  Yet somehow this past Sunday saw me running the 6.7km La Parisienne race in Paris with 40,000 other women and loving the experience.  And when I say running, I mean 53 minutes of uninterrupted running – no stopping, no walking.

My worst school memories involve being sent on what was called in those days in the UK a ‘cross-country run’.  This seemed to be an excuse to make the class run so that no teaching was required and it was awful.  I made an occasional attempt as an adult to try and run, but of course, with no guidance, I tried to go too far and too fast and it ended each time in predictable frustration and failure.

So at the end of June, when an old school friend mentioned  that a couple of months after the birth of her son she was really enjoying running thanks to the Couch to 5 K (C25K) programme, I just had to look into it.  It seemed so simple.  The app would have me out three times a week and would involve manageable intervals of walking and running.  After nine weeks, I would be able to run continuously for 5km.  This was possible.  It could mean the end of every ridiculous diet I had ever tried and of every wasted gym fee.

I dug out an old pair of shorts and a t-shirt, an ancient sports bra (a relic from one of my many lapsed gym efforts) and what I think are own-brand Marks and Spencer trainers circa 2003.  The scruffy clothes were important.  This was not to be another of my whims and wild schemes to lose weight.  No expensive kit.  No fees. Just me running.  When I had completed the 27 work-outs of the C25K programme, then I would allow myself the fancy running gear. Not before.

I set out in my fetching outfit and walked over the Pont Sully. The woman’s voice on the C25K app then told me when to start jogging and then when to go back to walking.  It was tough.  But the programme is so well-designed that each running interval stops just before you have truly had enough.  You are left feeling that maybe you could even have managed a tiny bit more.  That is the trick – it reverses every feeling you ever may have had about diets and exercise regimes being doomed to failure or unsustainable.  C25K leaves you feeling that next time you work-out you might indeed manage a bit more.  The views of Notre Dame, the early morning glistening of the Seine and the sense of privilege of experiencing Paris hours before most Parisians would be out and about – all of this helped to ease my way.

A cocktail with two good friends sealed the deal.  I told them about the C25K app and that I would be sticking to it all summer and that I would be registering to run in La Parisienne in September.  I had said it out loud, semi-publicly.  I needed to stick to it.  And this time, unlike the various diets and gym memberships that have preceded this, I really wanted to do this.

And so it began.  Me, my M&S trainers and those cotton shorts made their way around Paris.  My parents were astonished that I was up and running each morning on the Pembrokeshire lanes on our UK holiday with them.  My old university friends were supportive and encouraging when I did the same in the Vendee during our annual reunion.  I did indeed complete the C25K programme over the summer and proudly came back to Paris and bought my real running shoes and clothing.  I had officially become a runner.

On Sunday 13 September I ran with 40,000 other women through Paris.  The atmosphere was joyful.  A very French build-up, with organised warm-ups to music, laughter and cheers among the women who were all ages, backgrounds, shapes and sizes.  We were there to have fun and to show the city a mass of women enjoying their sport.  I admired the women who speeded past me.  I admired those who walked.  I felt great pride in myself for running the course continuously and for having come so far in the weeks since I huffed and puffed my way past Notre Dame.  It was a wonderful moment for me.

What next?  I really believe I will run for the rest of my life.  This started out as being about weight loss (and my running continues to deliver weight loss) but it has become about so much more.  It was amazing to me how quickly my attention stopped being drawn first to the ‘calories burned’ stats on my iPhone after each work out.  Instead I want to know how far I ran and how fast.  I am intrigued by how far will I eventually be able to run.  I dwell less on what my body looks like and I am thinking more about what it might be able to DO.  I feel stronger and more confident about what it can do already.  6.7km I tell you!

My relationship with my six year old daughter has evolved since I took up running.  She is gaining something from seeing her mother get up and go out into the dark to run most mornings.  She wants to know how far I plan to run and how fast I can do it in.  She sees me set goals and achieve them.  She sees me prioritise my health and fitness.  She positively beamed when I brought home my La Parisienne medal for her.  My running is shaping her views of what I am capable of and what women are capable of.  And of course she wants a running outfit.

I have found a fantastic online community of (mostly UK) mothers who run.  Its called Run Mummy Run (RMR).  14,000 women post on the RMR Facebook page about the challenges and highs of being a Mummy who runs.  They love running so much they squeeze time into their busy days to do it, many of them pushing jogging strollers as they go.  They share their injuries and personal best times and they meet up at races.  On the days I am struggling to get out on run, a quick scroll through their stories gets me out and moving.

I have just signed up to go to London to run the Winter 10k on 31 January.  And after that, I will take on the Paris Half Marathon on 6 March.  13.1 miles sounds a horribly long way right now. But so did 5km just three months ago.  After the summer I have had, it all seems possible.

Run Mummy Run website http://www.runmummyrun.co.uk/

Run Mummy Run Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/runmummyrun/

A wonderful book by Alexandra Heminsley ‘Running Like a Girl’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Running-Like-Girl-Alexandra-Heminsley/dp/0099558955/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1442521451&sr=8-1&keywords=running+like+a+girl