The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs Review
Elaine Sciolino has the life I can only dream about- noted author, journalist (she’s the former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times), and Paris resident for more than a decade. Even though my French is tres mal, I am game for anything Paris/French culture related, so I immediately made note of Sciolino’s latest book, The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue Des Martyrs.
I think that many people visiting Paris, myself included, rarely venture beyond the quite beaten tourist path. Well, The Only Street in Paris is not that. There’s no talk of the gargoyles at Notre Dame or the chain stores along the Champs Elysees or even the beloved but now uber touristy ice cream at Berthillion. No, it’s all about the tiny Rue des Martyrs (Martyrs Street), one that most people will have never heard of. It describes the people, the businesses, and the life on this Paris street that so far has been able to maintain its unique Parisian identity, escaping from the commercialization that has seeped in elsewhere.
Located on the city’s Right Bank, Rue des Martyrs is actually located in two arrondissements, the 9th and 18th. It’s only half a mile long (mostly uphill as Sciolino notes), and it was Saint Denis, the bishop of Paris in the 3rd century, that gave the street its name after he was martyred for preaching the forbidden works, i.e. the Christian Gospel.
Sciolino notes how the Rue des Martyrs is what the popular and now tourist congested Le Marais neighborhood used to be. It’s a popular shopping street filled with those businesses that are so quintessentially Parisian-a 100-year-old bookstore (Amazon, qu’est-ce que c’est?), a woman who repairs 18th century mercury barometers (seulement à Paris), and a husband and wife cheesemonger duo. I’ve read this before but know that Parisians (and the French in general) are very averse to outsiders in the sense that they’ll never be fully accepted as “Parisian.” But I found it endearing to read how even the most stiff of the Rue des Martyrs’ lifelong residents eventually fell deep into Sciolino’s clearly charming personality which exudes through her writing. Not to mention the fact that her author bio photo of her showing her beautiful smile with teeth says a lot (i.e. it’s not another serious brooding author pic).
When you read Julia Child’s My Life in France today you can’t help but look upon it as more of a historical travel/culinary narrative since it first begins in the Paris of the 1940s. The Paris of today is probably one Child wouldn’t recognize save for streets like the Rue des Martyrs, a street that has withstood the test of time otherwise known as globalisation. Sciolino’s writing flows throughout the entire book. Although I have no idea what she sounds like (she lived in New York City for many years and is from a big Sicilian family so I can’ t help but make one up in my head), in the voice I do hear, I can easily imagine her sharing many anecdotes with me over a glass of vin , the ones she writes about in The Only Street in Paris.
I love how Sciolinio’s telling of life on the Rue des Martyrs includes a little bit of everything-how to catch a mouse a la Parisian, to the time kale first arrived in Paris, to history, lots of it ranging from martyred saints and the Renaissance period to the Holocaust. One of my favorite chapters was probably the “Murdered Schoolgirls.” She tells readers the story of how 19 female students and one of their teachers from the Edgar Quinet school died during the occupation of Paris during World War II. She doesn’t say they were Jewish and yet she includes the following statistic, “In the 9th and 18th arrondissements, the Nazis deported about 600 Jewish children to death camps.” She notes how today the students are mainly from North and sub-Saharan Africa and yet the plaque in the foyer makes sure people never forget; it lists all of the 20 names. Another interesting fact Sciolino writes-the plaque has been in place since the end of the war even though it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the French president Jacques Chirac finally acknowledged France’s role in the deportation of its own people, French Jews, and formally apologized.
I have no idea when my next trip to Paris will be (well, if I had my druthers it would be demain), and yet it’s books like The Only Street in Paris that will always fuel my desire to visit. To search out the Paris that hasn’t changed, the city that Degas and Child would still remember. The Only Street in Paris is a beautiful, touching, and intimate look at one of the world’s most unique destinations.