Travels with Spencer
And you thought you knew London and Paris! Going there with a six-year-old, writes columnist-cum-godmother Liz Smith, is an entirely different adventure.
Day 1 When my six-year-old godson Spencer saw the Virgin/Atlantic lounge at New York's JFK Airport, with its help-yourself ice cream, TVs, and games, he announced, "I'll just stay here and not get on the plane." But get on we did, nestling into our Upper Class cocoons, enjoying the British accents of the attentive stewards on our overnight flight to London. He promptly fell asleep and I also managed to catch a few z's after turning down the complimentary massage.
Day 2 As we leave Heathrow, the driver says, "Spencer, you are going to see things here that are older than you ever imagined." Spencer quipped, "Older even than Lizzie!"
Our first taste of royalty was finding a lone guardsman in the traditional red uniform with bearskin hat behind St. James's Palace. Spencer went to investigate. When the guard stomped, turned, and shouted, my little guy ran back to the taxi. The guard was soon relieved with proper pomp and marched smartly off. "It's his job to protect the queen!" Spencer said.
We sightsee with eyes popping, Spencer being most interested in the Texas Embassy Cantina, a restaurant off Trafalgar Square. I have to explain that Texas no longer has a diplomatic presence in London. We arrive in Chelsea, where we stay in a private townhouse owned by a distinguished banker. We're joined by our 18-year-old high school graduate, Emily.
A WORD OF ADVICE The best ratio for traveling with a kid is two adults to one child. Emily was a helpful Spencer manager as I sometimes stood in line getting tickets, phoning, arranging, paying.
Day 3 Our butler once worked at Buckingham Palace so he takes us to see the Changing of the Guard up close from the inside. We enter through the gilded and black gates. We are slightly dressed up, since we've been told not to wear jeans or sneakers. We pass some royal ducks sitting happily on the red gravel inside the gates, unperturbed by the commotion around them.
The Changing is a long, fascinating ceremony whether you're inside or outside the gates. Spencer is thrilled, as he's able to all but graze the sleeves of the guards. He says the red coats make the soldiers "very vulnerable because the enemy sees them easily." We chuckle when the approaching military band plays a kind of jazzy abbreviated version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" then segues into ABBA's "Dancing Queen."
SOME WORDS OF ADVICE If you're traveling upscale, a car and driver or a hired taxi that will wait for you is the best investment you can make. We tried both, and they're expensive either way you go. The London subways and buses are excellent; just be sure to bring along your guidebooks and cell phones. Spencer's lime-green backpack—light to carry, easy to see—became our most valuable item. We used it to hold everything and to keep our hands free.
Day 4 We take a ride on the London Eye Ferris wheel, the No. 1 must for children—and adults. Its ever-changing view of the city and its outskirts lasts almost an hour and is worth every minute.
A WORD OF ADVICE Book your tickets in advance to shorten your waiting time in line. You can, in fact, reserve an entire glass gondola for yourself.
Instead of going to visit the London Aquarium at the base of the Eye, we eat some pizza nearby and head over to Westminster Abbey. Here we wait in line for half an hour (no hotel concierge or local insider to help us out this time).
A WORD OF ADVICE Take along a Game Boy in the backpack; Spencer sat on the grass playing with his while I admired the modern sundials on the tower.
We finally reach the door, and hearing that kids under 11 come in for free, Spencer does a little Rocky-type dance of celebration. Inside he is taken with the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, examining everything in the uneven steps and floors. He is fascinated with the Sword of Honour of the Bath, which is hung with heraldry flags in the Chapel of Henry VII. A docent asks Spencer if he'll return and carry the sword in the coach opposite the queen's crown when they go to open Parliament. Spencer says he will.
His favorite sight is the tomb of the Unknown Warrior located in the nave. It is surrounded by red poppies made of paper and dedications to FDR and Churchill. Spencer lights two candles, thinking they are for making wishes. "I will get one wish," he tells me, "but the other is impossible!" In the very good gift shop, he buys all varieties of heraldry bearing his names and then attaches these to the backpack.
Day 5 We visit Shakespeare's Globe theater and Spencer is the only child there. He rushes through exhibits and keeps returning to grab my hand. "Lizzie, you have to keep up!" He likes the open-air stage, examines the fake rocks and ropes, and is mesmerized by the painted ceiling, with its signs of the heavens and its opening for actors to come down from the sky. He wonders how people can stand for a whole evening of Shakespeare. "How can they hear with helicopters and planes flying overhead?" he asks. Good question.
In the gift shop he selects a wooden sword and shield bearing a red griffin, which he insists is a dragon. He makes plans to paint the sword red and gold and to paste stars on the handle.
As we continue on in our expensive taxi, he is fixated on Big Ben and keeps checking the time against my watch. He finally pronounces, "It is midday!" We plan to go to the top of Big Ben but never make it. We're told St. Paul's Cathedral is also quite a sight if you can take all the steps. Spencer doesn't want to go to the Cabinet War Room, the place from which Churchill conducted World War II. He says he feels threatened so I don't insist.
At the matinee of the musical hit Billy Elliot, he doesn't understand the meaning of the striking coal miners. "Let's leave!" he insists. But a half hour into the show—when the dancing starts, children appear, and there is tap, ballet, and modern chaos onstage—he takes an interest. He stands on his seat and applauds, declaring the show "brilliant." It is indeed! Later he tells me the minor bad language onstage is okay because "they weren't really swearing. They didn't have swearing then!" I let it go.
That night our host takes us to the beautiful Waterside Inn at Bray on the Thames, an hour from London. This is elegance personified and Spencer wears his orange seersucker blazer. He sees a little boat moored nearby and the maître d' tells him he can drive it. We adults board gingerly, but Spencer turns on the electric switch and guides us gently out and up the Thames among swans, geese, and ducks. After this adventure he is able to endure the full-course dinner. Children seem very welcome in England.
Day 6 As we go to the Tower of London we are laughing about the writer Leila Hadley Luce's advice for visiting the city with children. "Show them the torture chambers!" But Spencer is queasy about decapitated monarchs. So we stick to the crown jewels, having cleverly ordered our tickets by phone so we don't waste time standing in line. Spencer gives the jewels a high of 10 on his scale and goes back again on the moving walk to see the Cullinan diamond—the largest top-quality diamond in the world—set in a scepter. In the inevitable gift shop, he buys a red tunic with three golden lions on it. He is mopping up in these shops.
Because we are not really sure where or how far we are going, we get a whopping taxi bill for picking the famous River Café for Sunday lunch. But the flat pasta with little vine-ripened tomatoes and pecorino cheese is worth it. Spencer drinks three Schweppes lemonades and counts 25 geese on the nearby Thames.
We adults aren't thrilled with the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang matinee, but Spencer loves the audience of children. And they sell ice cream at intermission, which cheers us up. Next we take the amphibious Duck Tour. Our particular bus/boat is named Mistress Quickly, but actually she is Mistress Slowly and Roughly. After we leave the streets, enduring a slightly funny but vulgar rendition of history by the guide, we plow right into the Thames and chug along wetly under a few bridges before turning back to shore. Spencer wouldn't hear a word against the Duck Tour.
He loves London's numerous statues, from Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square to Sir Thomas More on Cheyne Walk. He wants to hear what each man did even if he does not understand it. While we look around enjoying Covent Garden, its junk and its jugglers on unicycles, we happen upon the nearby St. Paul's Church, which was designed by Inigo Jones in 1631. Dedicated to actors, this serendipitous discovery gives us a chance to sit in a lovely garden and rest our feet. Spencer lights more candles and makes more secret wishes. I try to explain to him that the lighting of candles in churches is unrelated to "wishing," but I give up.
Day 7 On the hottest day recorded in Britain in 29 years, we decide to stay indoors and tackle the British Museum. Spencer is enthralled with the Egyptian wing, including the Rosetta stone. He explains to me that it's in three languages and Napoléon stole it from Egypt and then the British took it from him. He wants to keep going back to see the "brain hook" with which they pulled out the mummy's brain through its nose.
We have lunch at the newly finished Court Restaurant, which is situated under a dome. As we pass a statue fragment showing feet under part of a long gown, Spencer says this King of Lagash is actually a man in an ancient toilet. We take in the Elgin Marbles and Spencer says these make him "feel sad" because they are so "beaten up."
At Harrods, another must for children, he loves the Egyptian escalator, with all its porphyry heads and alligators. This is one free treat that's easy to miss. Harrods also has much-needed luxurious bathrooms, and we spend hours in the toy department, where Spencer buys a set of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards in the British edition. "Are we having fun yet?" I ask. "Yes!" he says. "Nobody at home will have these cards."
Day 8 The Chunnel to Paris. We arrive and go to eat at a sidewalk café. The hamburger, which Spencer already has the ketchup ready for, comes with a fried egg on top. He says, laughing, "I didn't see that coming!" Afterward, we rush to Notre Dame, but so does everybody else. The wait to the top, where Quasimodo reigned, is 45 minutes. We look at the rose window, light candles, then go to a café across the street to observe the flying buttresses.
We stroll around a wonderful children's playground on the far side of Notre Dame then have a fine time riding the Bateaux-Mouches boats on the Seine. This saves a lot of taxi fares as two of the boat exits are located near our hotel.
A WORD OF ADVICE Try to buy euros before landing or arriving in Paris. It's a hassle to have to exchange your English pounds for the new currency.
Day 9 The Eiffel Tower. An elevator has shut down, so it's a wait. We finally reach the top, get dizzy, and come gratefully back down to the Jules Verne restaurant. Many children are here and we eat a brilliant lunch served by indifferent waiters. I guess they haven't accepted that they are toiling in a major tourist attraction.
That night we eat Chinese food at Zen Garden, near the George V. Any version of the pupu platter enthralls Spencer, which leads him to try unusual things. He experiments with chopsticks and pays homage to a great gold Buddha.
We stop at the George V for a nightcap. The pianist, bored with adults, plays all the Walt Disney tunes for Spencer, who indulges in an ice cream and a Shirley Temple. The bill would pay a monthly mortgage. Ah, but this is France.
Day 10 The Louvre. We go and see the three biggies—the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory of Samothrace. Spencer adores each one. He fights off Japanese tourists to stand in front of "My favorite painting!" He studied the Mona Lisa in school and likes what he already knows. After two hours of Renaissance paintings, I try to leave. He cries: "But are we leaving? I haven't seen anything yet." I promise to return when my feet have recovered.
Day 11 We move from our small not helpful hotel to the Hôtel de Crillon for a two-day blast of luxury. This great place gives us free tickets to every public building with no waiting. They arrange our reservations; they stand on their heads. We visit the Musée d'Orsay and eat in the lunchroom behind the big clock. Spencer is mildly interested in Lautrec, Degas, Monet, Manet, but he knows more about Van Gogh and Gauguin than I do. A big plus. He loves the rococo statuary in this former train station.
That afternoon we take a long taxi ride to the new science museum in Porte de la Villette in the northern part of the city. This is catnip to Spencer, who loves earthquakes, volcanoes, space flight, submarines, and the like. He never wants to leave here.
A WORD OF ADVICE The museum has a reserve-in-advance program for children. Best to call before you go.
That night we take another longish ride to Georges, the ultramodern restaurant atop the Pompidou Center. Here is a building children love, with the inside workings on the outside. This is the future. The view at sunset is fabulous and the food is great. Again, children are welcome.
Day 13 Waking in the luxury of the Crillon, the sybaritic Spencer exclaims over hot chocolate and a roll, "This is the best day of my life!"
We return to the Louvre and do the Napoleonic apartments. Spencer struggles to separate his hero, Napoléon, from his successor, the Third. We also study the Law Code of Hammurabi, but Spencer prefers the Rosetta stone in the British Museum. When I say the Louvre's Egyptian wing isn't as good as London's, he is highly insulted. He makes us go through Egypt again, teaching me that when the statue has a bulb of a beard, it means he was alive when sculpted. If the beard is cut off, the person was dead.
SOME WORDS OF ADVICE The best place to eat within the Louvre is the serve-yourself cafeteria near the shops—and don't miss these for posters, cards, books, sculpture, and art. You could take care of all your unusual Christmas shopping here.
We stroll out into the Tuileries and under Napoléon's arch signaling his win at Austerlitz then continue all the way to the Place de la Concorde. Before dinner we go for another walk, Spencer wearing his blazer and a tie. A Frenchman stops him near Hermès: "Monsieur, vous êtes très élégant!" At dinner in the Crillon, Spencer refuses to take off his jacket. "None of the other men have their jackets off!" he declares indignantly. He kneels on the stool near our table so he can look out the window. (This small stool is actually a place for women's handbags. Très chic.)
Before heading back for bed, we come upon a street carnival across from the Rue di Rivoli. Like such the world over, there is a dodgem car. And though you can't usually win at the games, Spencer triumphs, scoring a plastic sword and announcing, "Now I can go home."