Thursday, November 01, 2007

Ratatouille's Paris

We were in Paris last week and I had a really big idea about using film “hooks” to create better travel experience for children. In my role as children’s travel anthropologist, I would take Eloise to all the places immortalized in Pixar’s charming new film, Ratatouille, which is set in Paris, to see if the connection to the film could be used to enhance both the fun and the educational impact of travel.

We would visit the Eiffel Tower, the sewers, the Catacombs, the Alexander Bridge (where Remy forms his partnership with Linguini) and perhaps splash out on a meal at one of the restaurants the animators used as inspiration for the kitchen and dining room of Gusteau’s. All I can say is Pixar must have awesome expense accounts because the list includes the crème de la crème of Paris restaurants: La Tour d’Argent, Guy Savoy, Taillevant, Helene Darroze and Le Train Bleu. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I was on to something. There was only one intractable problem. A problem I did not want to recognise or accept. Eloise had absolutely no interest in experiencing Paris from a rat’s point of view.

I should have figured it out early in the week when we descended twenty five meters underground and began our hour long tour of the Catacombs. There is some pretty cool stuff down there including the artfully arranged remains of about 6 million people and a warning over the entrance which states, “Halt, for this is the Empire of Death.” There are even Parisians called Cataphiles who are considered experts on the 300 kilometers (roughly 186 miles) of underground tunnels and special police called Cataflics who chase down and issue fines to any unauthorized visitors.

Now I would have expected this spooky netherworld to appeal to any child, especially ones imagining that they were part of Remy’s happy rat family scampering about, but what was Eloise’s reaction? “Mom, maybe we should have gone to the sewer museum.” It was all so disappointing, but I had much more rat magic up my sleeve. Or so I thought,

In fact, I was totally unsuccessful in interesting Eloise in another underground adventure (too smelly), or the Eiffel Tower (too crowded) or the Alexander Bridge (too boring). I was becoming quite desperate. My whole film hook concept was coming apart at the seams but then I noticed an ad for a museum that I had never heard of, the Palais de la decouverte, which claimed to have a L’Ecole des Rats.

Wow, I thought, a school for rats, how fantastic! Already wary of trying to sell the rat idea to my daughter, I pointed out that this science museum, located in the heart of Paris, was offering a special exhibition on volcanoes, a topic about which Eloise would shortly have to make a presentation for her class back in London. I argued that it would be a fun way to do her homework.

“Yeah right, Mom, the whole thing is probably in French.”
“OK, then you can practice your French at the same time.”
“Mom, we don’t talk about volcanoes in French class. We talk about the colour of my clothes and how many brothers and sisters I have and stuff like that.”
“OK, but they have this really great School for Rats. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“Mom, you have rats on the brain but OK lets go to the science museum. How long do we have to stay?”

As it turned out, we stayed all day and had a fabulous time. The Palais de la decouverte was the big revelation of our trip. It’s a huge barn of a place, lost in time, but conveniently located right behind the Grand Palais. It is relatively unknown, virtually empty and has a 1960s Doctor Demento meets “Back to the Future” feel with museum staff who look like mad scientists in white lab coats. Some of the exhibits, such as the ones on volcanoes and tsunamis are state-of-the art, hands-on displays while other parts of the museum have been left in a dusty, old fashioned state.

Surprisingly, the highlight of our visit was getting the chance to see the rare 1932 film of Inuit life, Palos Brudefaerd (Palos Wedding), which tells the story of the rivalry of two contestants for the love of an Inuit woman. Filmed in Greenland and written by the famous anthropologist and explorer, Knud Rasmussen, the hour long docudrama bears poetic witness to the ancient customs and traditions of a lost way of life that completely captured the imagination of one 10 year old girl from London – and her mother. In a million years, we never expected to be swept away by a 75 year old black and white movie about Eskimos but such is the nature of the many unexpected pleasures of the Palais de la decouverte.

And what about the School of Rats? It was great too with more white coated staff getting rats to perform in front of an appreciative audience of school children. There were neat mazes and puzzles to play with that taught humans how to think like rats. We may not have had a “Ratatouille moment” but we sure learned a lot about rodents.

And it was in the School of Rats that I finally realised why my whole Ratatouille’s Paris idea was rubbish. Ratatouille may be a delightful movie. The way Pixar depicts Paris may be stunning. The French may have embraced this film as their own and I may want badly to eat at the Tour d’Argent, but no little girl wants to follow in the footsteps of a rat. More importantly, no child on a school holiday wants to be a guinea pig for a rat obsessed mother determined to raise every child’s “sentimental” education through better travel experiences.

On the drive back to London, Eloise did her best to make me feel better. “It’s OK, Mom, it really was a good idea but just in case you want to put it in your blog, my favourite things were shopping and that weird Eskimo movie.”

Useful Information

The Catacombs of Paris
1, avenue due Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy
Tel: 33 (0)1 43 22 47 63
Fax: 33 (0)1 43 22 48 17
Open Tuesday-Sunday 10 am to 5 pm
Metro – Denfert-Rochereau

Palais de la decouverte
Avenue Franlin Roosevelt
Tel: 33 (0)1 56 43 20 20
Tuesday to Saturday from 9:30 to 6 pm
Sunday and public holidays from 10 am to 7 pm
Metro – Champs-Elysees Clemenceau or Franklin Roosevelt


  1. When children grow up taming the neighborhood squirrels or chipmunks, have rodents as pets such as hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, mice, rats, etc., then they might more easily warm up to Ratatouille. Some city kids might be too remote from all that. The kids who do have rodents as pets might have loved this tour!! As would the adults who have fond memories of their rodents......

  2. You make an excellent point and it is so true that the Ratatouille tour could be perfect for lots of children and lots of parents.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.