The Reluctant Parisienne Visits the Paris Aquarium

Our correspondent Mindy Jones is a Seattleite living in Paris for two years. When she’s not busy trying to figure out what the French are saying, she’s busy trying to figure out what to say to the French. She posts frequently at An American Mom in Paris.

Seattle has a fine aquarium. We’ve spent many hours of family fun on Pier 59 and we were happy to hear we wouldn’t have to give up the fish when we moved to Paris; Paris has an aquarium, too. It wasn’t long before we jumped on the metro to go visit, joking that the Paris aquarium was probably full of deformed creatures snagged out of the Seine.

Of course that’s not true. They have nice fish. But there are other issues.

It was a strange visit from the get-go. We saw a large “Tickets!” sign in the entry. Under the sign were several touchscreen machines. We assumed, I don’t think irrationally, that we were supposed to buy our tickets at the machines.

Alex put a credit card in the card reader but no menu appeared.  Instead, we got either pictures of fish or trivia questions about fish, which we dutifully answered assuming we had to prove some knowledge of fish in order to be worthy of admission. After answering a few questions and watching some fish swim by, we eyed each other and suspected we were doing something wrong.

Alex eventually walked over to an unmarked counter next to the coat check and asked how to buy tickets. The man said we could buy them right there, with him. Alex pointed to the “Tickets!” machines and asked what they were for and the man said, “That’s how you used to buy tickets but they don’t work anymore. Now it’s just a game.”

Alex suggested they hang a helpful sign. Or maybe the employee man could walk ten feet to tell confused tourists they were making asses of themselves trying to buy tickets from a fish game. (We were not alone at the “Tickets!” machines. There were several groups of people poking the screen and answering trivia questions in futile attempts to get some goddamn tickets.)

That was just the entrance. It got more confusing inside. The Paris aquarium is called “CinéAqua” because it has a split personality; it is part fish home and part movie museum. We don’t understand how they’re related either.

We passed through the shark exhibit and entered a room full of movie costumes. We saw the getup from Robocop, which is really something special but if you’re expecting to see fish, it’s also disorienting. We passed from the Caribbean fish straight into an exhibit on Japanese animé. We walked past the jellyfish into a makeup studio where a guy worked on bloodying a severed head on a table.  

We watched the makeup man until he looked up, saw our young son, Lucien, and asked if he wanted to be made up like a pirate? “Heck yeah,” we said, brimming with parental enthusiasm and wrinkling our noses at each other like, “Gosh, isn’t this so fun and silly?”

We assumed it would be a normal kid face-painting but we were wrong. The guy grabbed some greasepaint, told Lucien to close his eyes and started painting a large black eye patch across his eyelid. Did I mention it was greasepaint?

I cursed under my breath as the eye patch grew bigger, then as the mustache, beard, and bloody scar appeared because that was a lot of greasepaint. I knew from back in my theater days that greasepaint doesn’t set without powder, and there wasn’t any powder on the table with the severed head. Greasepaint will also stain anything it touches and we were only halfway through the movie aquarium and a metro ride away from home.

As soon as he finished the makeup, Lucien started poking at his face because it felt funny. The makeup smeared and his hands changed colors.  His black-stained fingers reached for Mommy and Daddy who began ducking and weaving away from him with impressive agility because we like our clothes.

Lucien started to look very Heath Ledger Joker-esque as we held him at arms length through the rest of the aquarium. Soon he was an incomprehensible mess. He no longer looked like a pirate; he looked like he had a black eye and a few bruises from a bar brawl. I took him to the bathroom in an attempt to at least clean the paint off his hands but only succeeded in turning them a sticky, sickly gray.

On the positive side, there were some very cool exhibits at the Paris aquarium, such as the tank where kids could feed fish. The employees gave the kids food and the fish came and nibbled it right out of their hands. Both kids and parents were delighted. 

My enthusiasm was tempered by the design choice to make the wall surrounding the tank just a few inches higher than the kids’ knees. The combination of “excited kids leaning way over” and “short wall” didn’t work well. We held onto demented pirate Lucien by the collar of his shirt as he flailed wildly at the fish. The kid next to us thankfully had a Daddy with excellent reflexes; otherwise he would have gone headfirst into the tank with his fistful of food.

There was a “No Swimming” sign next to the tank. Perhaps there was some confusion on the part of aquarium management about “swimming” versus “falling in.” Or perhaps there are some people who truly can’t resist stripping down and wading into a shallow tank filled with carp.

Two days later, I was still trying to get black greasepaint out of Lucien’s eyebrows and trying to understand the connection between movies and sea life. I’m glad we decided against getting the annual membership. It’s a fascinating place, but we’re going to save up our aquarium love for when we get back home.