And that not only was it a lovely, character-filled, classically-Parisian apartment, but it was in the exciting, colorful neighborhood of Montmartre?
Well, it's true! But even more unbelievable is the fact that the whole thing was made possible by the Kiddo. I'll tell you how...
Remember this photo of the Kiddo, taken back in August? Well, that day we were visiting one of his favorite playgrounds in Central Park. In the warm weather, he loves to run around there. There's a sprinkler and these amazing, lifelike Hippo sculptures that kids can play on. It's a great place to just let the Kiddo be free -- we can watch him from a nearby bench while he easily navigates all the fun elements on his own.
On this one particular beautiful sunny summer day, T and I were chillin' in the shade while the Kiddo frolicked amidst the hippos. At one point not long after we arrived, a couple of older children (both adorable girls) started to interact with the Kiddo. They were incredibly caring, fun, and sweet with him, and we could see that he was instantly entranced by them. For at least an hour and a half we watched these three playing together. Other children came and went from the playground but the two girls each continued to hover around our Kiddo, entertaining him the whole time while watchfully making sure that he was safe from any rough-and-tumble play that might have been occurring in their vicinity.
I remember watching these proceedings so happily, enjoying the sight of my son so blissfully wrapped up in an encounter with other children. T and I were thoroughly impressed with the delightful and courteous behavior of the two little girls, and at the same time we were a little jealous that the Kiddo seemed to have so easily forgotten about the very existence of his parents.
After a while the girls' father, who had been sitting across the playground from us the whole time with his wife and youngest son, approached us and introduced himself and his family. They were visiting from their native Paris, and he sang the praises of New York City and Central Park. We complimented their city in return, mentioning that we longed to return someday (our last visit was in 2006). We asked how their vacation was going, and where they happened to be staying. He replied that the family was doing a home-swap, coordinating with Manhattan residents to exchange homes during the same period of time.
Suddenly, almost in unison, T and I found ourselves offering to swap our home with this family of charming Parisians. The idea of swapping homes had never occurred to us before, and yet here we were rattling off the location and attributes of our apartment, practically begging this complete stranger to trade homes with us on his next vacation! Before we knew it, we were exchanging phone numbers and email addresses and our new friend was suggesting that we all meet again the next day for drinks and snacks in a non-playground environment.
The next day, as T was coming home from work, our new friends arrived at our apartment. T's mom was visiting as well, so everyone was able to meet. We ordered pizza and drank the delicious wine they brought us while the four kids romped around. The two girls (who speak only a few words of English) are quite talented artists, so after I presented them with my magic-marker and crayon stash they went to town, drawing these fantastic little pictures for us:
It was such a lovely, memorable evening. It was so great to connect with a family with children who all get along so beautifully with the Kiddo -- the fact that they live in Paris went from seeming like the coolest thing about them to seeming a little sad! And to think that if we ever actually swapped homes, we wouldn't get to spend any time together! The irony.
Before they left that evening, we all posed for a little snapshot to remember our incredible meeting. From the left, that's T and me (with my hands on the Kiddo) and sitting on the couch are Juliette, Alice, T's mom, Aurele, Pauline and Nicolas. Aren't they the cutest family ever?
As far as I knew, when they all left that night our communication with our new friends dropped off. Even though we had exchanged contact information and talked about one day swapping homes, life got back to its everyday patterns and the experience of meeting them faded from my mind a bit. Meanwhile, T was almost immediately in touch with Nicolas, secretly planning my birthday trip to Paris! When he asked if they would be willing to swap homes during the dates of our trip, Nicolas explained that, being busy with work and school, they would be unable to leave home at that time to come to New York. However, he incredibly graciously invited us to come anyway, and stay with them in Paris. For months now the plans have been unfolding behind my back, and I had no idea! Even once we were on the plane bound for Paris, T obscured the fact that we would be staying with our friends. He kept referring to our "hotel" and when I asked him we should try to look up the sweet family we met back in August he acted like that would be a good idea, remarking that he thought he had packed their phone number.
So imagine how surprised and overwhelmed I was when we arrived at the airport in Paris, retrieved our checked bags, and were met there by Nicolas! This is what a kind person he is: Despite the fact that his car had failed to start that morning, he took a cab to the airport to pick us up and ferry us into the city. Not only that, but he was so apologetic about having to take a cab that he refused to let T pay for the ride, despite his protests!
That kindness set the tone for what was a week of an incredibly hospitable and generous gifts from their family to ours. When we arrived at their home, Nicolas and Pauline gave us a tour of the place and showed us the room that they had specially prepared for me, T and the Kiddo to stay in-- complete with a play area/bed for the baby and some stuffed animals to play with. In fact, it was their bedroom, the master bedroom, which they gave up for us. The two of them insisted on sleeping all week on one of the children's bunk beds! What hosts!
As you can imagine, being able to spend the Paris trip living in a real home with a family of friends really added an incredibly wonderful dimension to the experience. They prepared a delicious meal for us on our first night there, and as soon as we arrived Nicolas gave us an excellent tour of the surrounding neighborhood and all the best shops to frequent, buying us unbelievably delicious croissants along the way.
And so there you have the story of how my birthday surprise actually was layered (or, rather "lay-ahed") with more excitement, comfort, and intrigue than meets the eye! It was a birthday gift for the ages and I am indebted to the wonderful people who all worked together to pull it off. One of the most amazing things about our vacation is that due to the generosity of our Paris friends and the use of frequent-flyer miles (a combination of ours, but mostly T's mom's) the whole trip was actually very inexpensive. An amazing fact when you consider that the experience, from start to finish, was absolutely priceless. I will never forget it.