When the chance came to spend a week in Paris this summer, my mind filled with visions of Nutella crepes, red wine at sidewalk bistros, and sunset walks along the Seine.
"What Paris, Mama?" three-year-old Eli asked, bringing me back down to earth and replacing my romantic thoughts with more prosaic concerns: getting two kids through a 10-hour flight; finding vegetarian food in the land of steak frites; navigating the Metro. We needed to prepare.
I bought a copy of Miroslav Sasek's beautifully illustrated children's book, This Is Paris, to add to our bedtime story rotation. I hesitated at its description of the guillotine, but we forged on and soon six year old Ben was making lists of the landmarks he wanted to visit: Notre Dame, Ste. Chappelle, the Arc du Triomphe. We bought guidebooks tailored for families and found an apartment to rent near a spectacular playground. Then I remembered a movie from my childhood, The Red Balloon (Albert Lamorisse, 1956), and brought that home to show the boys what Paris looks like.
The Red Balloon is short, just over half an hour, and practically free of dialogue (its minimal French is subtitled), so it's an easy movie for children to watch. It tells the story of an unnamed little boy (Pascal Lamorisse) who finds a bright red balloon on his walk to school one morning. The balloon acts like a puppy, bouncing and dancing after the boy, waiting for him while he's in school, even pestering the occasional grumpy adult. It makes a good companion for the boy.
The boy is alone, but not lonely as he moves through the two days of the film, walking across the muted gray city from home to school and back again, playing little games with his balloon the whole way. Adults nudge him from the curb to protect him from a passing car, or unquestioningly share their umbrellas to protect him (and the balloon) from the rain; we see the boy's schoolteachers, and briefly glimpse the grandmother with whom he lives. None of these adults speak, but we get a sense of how they probably do when we hear the boy address his friend: "Balloon, you must obey me, and be good!" As Libby Gruner has written, some of the best children's stories dispense with parents so that the children are free to adventure independently; this boy hasn't any parents, but abundant adult supervision. The balloon lets the boy be both a goofy little kid and a bit of an adult, too.
But as beautiful playthings inevitably do, the balloon attracts the attention of a gang of boys. They pursue our hero, trying to get his balloon, and follow the pair down narrow alleys and across vacant lots until finally they succeed in hitting the balloon with a slingshot and stomping it flat on the ground. I cringed; first the guillotine, now this? When he was three, Ben had spent months mourning the loss of a balloon that floated out of his grasp. This was sure to reopen that wound, I thought, and who knew how Eli would react? I'd enjoyed sitting with them as they laughed at the balloon's antics and pointed out the beautiful old Parisian streetcars, but now I began to regret exposing them to this sad vision of Paris.
Except, it really wasn't. The boy is upset, of course, but then a beautiful fantasy unfolds: one balloon comes floating over to the boy as he crouches on the ground, and then another, and another, until the boy is surrounded, laughing, by a crowd of candy-colored balloons. Like so many fairy godmothers, the balloons carry the boy up into the sky, away from the cold gray stone of Paris, away from the world of schools and adults and rules. The boys watched the scene quietly, not revealing much. "Hey, Curious George gets to do that!" Eli remembered, smiling about his favorite movie. Ben was guarded; he adores planes and rocket ships, but flying on a bunch of balloons? Having announced early in the viewing that the balloon's movements were likely controlled by invisible monofilament, now he suggested that the line wasn't strong enough to support the boy's weight, too.
Literal viewers that they are, the movie was both less sad and less joyful for my sons than for me. Sometimes a balloon is just a balloon - not a symbol of freedom or innocence, but an everyday toy, and the boys lose or break or struggle over toys all the time. On the other hand, they're still young enough that their lives are also frequently brightened by surprising moments of deep pleasure: an unanticipated dessert, a spontaneous play date, a trip to the park. Six and a half years into my mothering, I'm still delighted by how much good will I can create by one simple, unexpected yes.
The boy in the movie doesn't hear "yes" from anyone, nor, when we were visiting, did we see a cloud of colorful balloons floating across the rooftops of Paris. But our gray city was brightened by small charms that are glossed over in the guidebooks: jeweled carousels, delicate as music boxes; crayon-bright play structures in the Jardin du Luxembourg; the sparkling lights of an amusement park plopped down in the Tuileries.
Still it wasn't all fantasy, and the boys could have used a red balloon. Accustomed to running ahead of us on the quieter sidewalks of San Francisco, they chafed at the close rein we kept on them, wary of Paris' unpredictable drivers. At the playground, Ben had to contend with a group of big boys jockeying roughly for position at the top of a play structure. We never did find great food for them, so by the end of our visit they were sick of plain pasta and pb&j, and made our meals a struggle. So now when I think of Paris, I keep a more realistic vision in my head of the difficult, beautiful city we discovered together; we took our sunset walks along the Seine, holding tight to each other's hands, chocolate-smeared from Nutella.