The Only Street in Paris:
Life on the Rue des Martyrs
W. W. Norton & Company
Genre: Nonfiction/Travel writing/Memoir
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
La rue des Martyrs keeps attracting authors. I already reviewed here Paris, Rue des Martyrs, a novel by Adria J. Cimino. Elaine Sciolino even dares calling it The Only Street in Paris. Her wonderful presentation will help you understand why this street is so unique.
The first lines set you right away in the ambiance of the book:
With a collection of vignettes, the work is all about relationships between people, inhabitants, shop owners and clients, in all their wonderful diversity.
The author moved to Paris in 2002 with her family, for work reasons. As often happened, what was supposed to be a temporary stay ended up much longer than planned. They found an apartment very close to Rue des Martyrs.
Meeting locals, Sciolino discovered the fascinating history of the neighborhood and got more acquainted with its architecture and its living stones of today.
Lots of things happened in this street, from Thomas Jefferson’s visits to Edith Piaf’s first songs, not forgetting scenes from Nana (a novel by Zola) and Truffaud’s movie Les 4oo coups. Other famous inhabitants comprise famous musicians (Ravel), authors, and painters.
On it, you can also find the chapel thought to be the site of Saint Denis’s beheading. This is the exact spot where Saint Ignatius of Loyola and his first companions took their vows.
The author became “une flâneuse”, “wedding the crowd”, and following the daily and weekly rhythm of the street, with its large number of small businesses, especially related to food. Little by little, she formed a bond with the shopkeepers, leading to a wonderful potluck party for the whole street, which makes for a perfect ending to the book.
There are also lots of artisans, and 3 independent bookstores, imagine, on the same street, half a mile long!
Of course there’s a good number of bars, and some unusual places, such as a transvestite cabaret, for instance.
The author tackles the theme of the evolution in society and shopping habits. The street had to deal with the confluence between the old and the new, but it seems it has so far been spared the common phenomenon of “chainstorification”, for the most part.
I had to laugh in the chapter on the knife sharpener, as I basically experience the same thing here. Every summer, I feel like I’m sent back to the Middle Ages when I hear the bell of the knife sharpener walking on foot and pushing his cart, and then sitting in front of houses when people come out and offer him their knives to sharpen. It does sound delightfully out of age, whether you live in Paris or in a Chicago suburb in 2016.
I have read some very negative reviews of this book. As some claim, I have personally not found anything boring about it, nor felt that the author’s personality took too much place. I think she really lets the street speaks for itself, and I highly encourage you to read the book to get a real feel of Paris, not the Paris of tourists.
VERDICT: Beautiful portrait of a street, both unique and representative of the real Paris.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
Elaine Sciolino, the former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street. “I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs,” Sciolino explains, as she celebrates the neighborhood’s rich history and vibrant lives. While many cities suffer from the leveling effects of globalization, the rue des Martyrs maintains its distinct allure. Sciolino reveals the charms and idiosyncrasies of this street and its longtime residents—the Tunisian greengrocer, the husband-and-wife cheesemongers, the showman who’s been running a transvestite cabaret for more than half a century, the owner of a 100-year-old bookstore, the woman who repairs eighteenth-century mercury barometers—making Paris come alive in all its unique majesty. The Only Street in Paris will make readers hungry for Paris, for cheese and wine, and for the kind of street life that is all too quickly disappearing.