There was Notre Dame and the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, of course.
We biked through the heart of Paris on Day One, four hours in the morning, anther four in the evening, enough to give the kids a few blisters before we finally got back to our Montmartre flat just past midnight.
That was the first day we saw the Eiffel – first from the subway when the train poked above ground, then shortly later while straddling our bikes, looking up, eyes large.
On Day Two, with a funky and informative curly-haired guide, we went up to the top. And down. And then had cotton candy.
And when we saw the tower again, lit up on the last evening a couple of nights later, there was nothing like it.
“This is my dream coming true,” is how a stranger, an American girl of college age put it to her friend, next to us, the 300-metre tower dazzling over the city of lights.
My family had no such dream. We just had the good fortune to explore Paris for a few days on the way through, on our annual spring return from Africa to Canada.
Even so, while looking at the Eiffel on that last night, lit up like a gold jewel – the five of us took in the sight while standing on top of the Arc de Triomphe – I bent down and whispered in my one daughter’s ear: “Don’t ever forget this moment. Don’t forget it your entire life.”
There is nothing like a boy in a plane in a window seat, and Jon has now seen what plenty of boys around the world will never get the chance to see, this sort of view from above, from where I now write, Jon’s mother and sisters sitting in front of us.
The view of Paris in all its largeness gives way to farm fields, a patched quilt with roads like stitches running through it. Now higher still, and clouds, and everything below is disappearing from sight and Jon’s tired head rests against the side of his seat.
I bend down to speak in his ear. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
“Pretty cool, eh?”
Rarely do little boys not know what to say and my eight-year-old is no exception.
“Dad,” he said, a few days ago. “Why are pilots always men? Why aren’t pilots ever women? Women are just the ones always pushing the trolleys.”
The women in this family – the three sitting in front of Jon and myself as we fly now – didn’t appreciate this observation so much, and quite naturally and immediately rushed to the defense of women pilots everywhere with a burst of “Sure there are plenty of women pilots!”
A couple of nights later, we got to the bottom of it in a quaint little restaurant on a narrow cobblestone street in Paris’ Latin Quarter. It was there where we happened to sit near a gentleman who, we overheard, was a pilot.
“Monsieur,” I said. “How is your English?”
“Better than my French,” he said.
He was a silver-haired and refined and light-hearted spirit who seemed to genuinely love children, and so he explained that his co-pilot on this particular trip just happened to be a woman. And if she wasn’t back at their hotel, she’d have been joining her male colleague for this meal and proving to Jon that he’s wrong.
This seemed to satisfy Jon’s mother and sisters, although the pilot – his name is Scott; Scott from San Antonio, Texas who flies for United – noted the ratio is still about four men for every one woman in the flying world.
This then led to all kinds of other discussion. The waiter – he was from Greece – got in on it when he left us a 6 litre bottle of wine, empty of course – and we laughed about that. For a brief time, we did what is so easy to do in Paris, we engaged each other as human beings.
We talked about our work and Africa and other things and then I asked the pilot about his family – he has one child – and he asked more about ours. “I don’t know how you do it,” he said, and I said, “Well, it’s easy, because, of course, our children are perfect,” and he said, “Well, they certainly look happy.”
Which is about as good a compliment as any parent can expect.
So for all the time we spent exploring Paris, including a couple of well-worn churches – (Notre Dame, the 800-year-old cathedral of Victor Hugo’s ‘Hunchback’ fame, has 13 million visitors a year) – it was those few minutes over soup and salad and French baguettes in the company of a pilot that turned out to be a sort of communion in itself.
It was something holy, a chance moment with another soul we’ll likely never seen again, a meeting that was and wasn’t common, one that was somehow meant to happen.
It won’t take long for it to be forgotten by the children. This after all is the nature of things. But sometime later, at just the needed moment, it will be remembered. Because this is the nature of things too.