PARIS — The answer: French pizza.
The question: What possible compromise can there be between three very picky eaters on their first trip to Europe and their parents, who dreamed of culinary adventures and swore that under no circumstances would they set foot in a Parisian McDonald's?
Of course, you can't eat pizza all the time — although Danny, Josh and Benjamin, my three sons, would like to give it a try. There would be adventures with crepes (not entirely successful) and croissants (they'll stick with baguettes, merci). And, occasionally, we would find a restaurant in which we could all eat and eat well.
Appropriately, it was Napoleon who said that an army marches on its stomach; clearly, the same can be said about a family that includes three boys, ages 6, 10 and 13.
This kind of problem was new to us. We are not the kind of family that picks up and goes to France for a week; we are instead the kind of family that spends its vacations by a Vermont lake, with occasional excursions to Ben & Jerry's ice cream factory.
But this year's tax refund was a large one, the exchange rate was great (seven francs to a dollar), and the Internet travel agency go-today.com offered a good deal for airfare and hotel.
It would be an opportunity for Mom and Dad to revisit a place they so loved so many years ago, before they had kids who looked askance at coq au vin. And it would be an educational trip, especially for Danny, who is studying French.
As it turned out, this would be a learning experience for all of us.
These are a few of the things we learned in la belle France:
WE DON'T LIKE TO WALK. Well, that's not entirely true. Dad loves to walk. Everybody else trails behind, hoping desperately that Dad will slow down.
It is easy to underestimate how much walking is involved in seeing Paris. If you use the Metro — as we did, constantly — the stairs and the endless concourses between transfer points can be daunting, especially for short legs.
There are several bus tours that stop at all the attractions, allowing you to jump off and jump on anywhere over a day or two. We chose one that cost about $23 for adults (including Danny) and $10 for kids; unfortunately, we did not realize that the last bus left at 6 p.m., or that our plans for the second day would takes us to places where the bus did not go.
WE DO LIKE LE PETIT DEJEUNER. Our hotel in Montparnasse, the Waldorf (no relation to THE Waldorf), was a typically nice three-star hotel that offered a typically nice breakfast of rolls and croissants, coffee and hot chocolate. Every morning was a treat — an opportunity to recap the previous day's events and plan for the day ahead.
And years from now, if 6-year-old Benjamin remembers anything from this trip, it will not be the impressionist paintings of the Musee d'Orsay or the glories of Versailles. It will be the morning when Dad dropped the jar of jelly into his orange juice.
WE HAVE MIXED FEELINGS ABOUT MUSEUMS. To Mom and Dad, the Musee d'Orsay is the glistening repository of some of the artwork they most love, a former rail station that houses Renoir and Degas, Monet and van Gogh. To Benjamin, it is a museum of monotony.
"BO-ring," he said as he passed each exquisite painting.
"BO-ring . . . BO-ring . . . BO-ring."
We got the message. When it came time to visit the Louvre, we sprinted — "Winged Victory," "Venus de Milo," "Odalisque, "Raft of the Medusa," and of course the obligatory participation in the roiling mob that muscles up to see "Mona Lisa."
Someday, when they are older, the boys will come back and enjoy the nuances of these masterpieces. Not this time.
Other museums were more popular. The boys loved Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides ("like a big toy chest," Danny says) and the adjacent Musee de l'Armee, which offered a fascinating exhibit on France and World War II — mainly in French, but the boys were spellbound.
They also enjoyed the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, a massive, kid-friendly science museum on the city's outskirts, and the subterranean archaeology exhibit in the plaza in front of Notre Dame. They were less entranced by the modern art of the Centre Pompidou or by the Picasso museum, though perhaps only because Dad had walked them into the ground by that point.
If it hadn't been for the Carte Musee, we would have done far less. The card gets you into most of the city's museums and monuments and some outside of Paris (unnecessary for kids — they get in free). This saved us about 200 francs (about $28) over five days, but more importantly, it saved us time and tedium — we strolled past tremendous lines, and entered unimpeded.
WE LIKE GOING TO THE TOP. The Eiffel Tower was a highlight. So was the Arc de Triomphe.
EURODISNEY? NON. Why? Because Dad said so.
FRANCE IS LESS FRENCH THAN IT ONCE WAS. When Mom and Dad last visited Paris, those many years ago, there were still old men in long black coats and berets, walking the streets with cigarettes dangling from their lips. Now, most Parisians look like . . . Americans.
Danny is disappointed. He expected a more exotic, more FOREIGN place. Mostly, he finds Paris to be a prettier New York, only in French.
And in truth, there's less French — or more precisely, there's more English. In museums and on menus, much is translated; in the Metro, some ads are entirely in English.
American films are everywhere. McDonald's is ubiquitous. Turn on the television, and you'll find the French version of "The Weakest Link." The French inquisitor is less severe than the one on British and American television. At the end of the show, she winks and smiles for the camera.
Our family does not understand the questions or the answers. And yet we watch "Le Maillon Faible," transfixed.
BUT LA FRANCE IS STILL BELLE. What will our children remember of their week in France? Aside from the jelly jar in the orange juice?
Perhaps that ride in a horse-drawn cart at Versailles. Or that morning in the Luxembourg Gardens, sailing rented toy boats in the fountain. Or that boat ride on the Seine, as dusk fell and the sights of this beautiful city passed by in a gorgeous parade.
Or our last night in Paris, up on the hill of Montmartre. We sat on the steps in front of the basilica, Sacre Coeur, and watched the lights come on in the City of Light. We walked through the Place du Tertre with the rest of the tourists, gazing at the less-than-sterling art. And as the sun set, we sat down to dinner at a lovely bistro. Blessedly, there was something for everyone on the menu.
"This," said Danny, "is what I expected."