'The Only Street in Paris' captures something essentially French

Rue des Martyrs is more than just a street. It is, as Sciolino describes, 'a half-mile celebration of [Paris] in all its diversity.'

The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs By Elaine Sciolino W. W. Norton & Company 320 pp.

Paris has always been a city that fascinates and inspires its visitors. Oscar Wilde captured the sentiment in “The Picture of Dorian Gray”: “They say that when good Americans die, they go to Paris.”

There are many things that attract people to the so called “city of light”: its status as a hub for artists, its remarkable history, its architecture, its art, its food and its wine. Maybe it is easier to sum it all up by simply saying: its vibe. And that’s what Elaine Sciolino attempts to capture in her book The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue des Martyrs.

Sciolino moved to Paris in 2002 as bureau chief for The New York Times, and in 2010 she and her husband decided to move to an apartment on Rue des Martyrs. Being a journalist, Sciolino did not just become another resident on the street, but also became its observant eye.

The book is set in a street in northern Paris. But Rue des Martyrs is more than just a street. It is, as Sciolino describes, “a half-mile celebration of the city in all its diversity” and the representation of “what is left of the intimate, human side of Paris.” 

Rue des Martyrs is in a neighborhood where big writers and artists left an indelible mark: Emil Zola lived there for a time, Francois Truffaut went to school there, and in the early 20th century a “poor, thin and only four feet, eight inches tall” singer would peform in the street’s courtyards for its residents. She eventually became well known as Edith Piaf.

Besides its proud history, Rue des Martyrs is full of colorful contemporary characters. There's Ezzidine, the street’s green-grocer, originally from Tunisia, whose fantasy it is to one day kiss Sharon Stone. There's Yves Chataigner, a cheese shop owner in his eighties who was raised in a poor family and spent two years in a sanatorium after becoming sick from tuberculosis. There's Laurence Gilerry who proclaims proudly “that she is the only artisan in Paris who repairs mercury barometers.”  And there's Michou, the owner of the nearly 60-year-old transvestite Cabaret in the neighborhood who likes to say  “I am the best-known, the most-beloved homosexual of France.” 

On Rue des Martyrs residents are members of a big family. When the street’s longtime fish store is going to be closed, the neighborhood does not take the news easily, because “it was the end of a family business and the destruction of a web of neighborhood relationships with the fishmongers.” And the neighbors give a hand to one another. When Sciolino wants to go to a black-tie event, the street’s antique dealer Guy Lellouche lends Sciolino a necklace for a black-tie event and at the time that Guy’s apartment is flooded, Sciolino invites him and his daughter to celebrate Passover at hers.

Throughout the book Sciolino explains the French mentality. We learn that the French prefer the pleasure of verbal play to going straight to the point and believe that “constructing a beautiful argument is more important than which side to take.” 

“The Only Street in Paris” also offers occasional flashes of Gallic humor. When Sciolino finds a mouse at her apartment and asks the butcher’s advice on how to deal with it, he says “You’re American, so use your gun!” Another time the owner of pastry shop Patisserie des Martyrs says he does not know to which historical character the word “Martyrs” refers. When Sciolino asks “Don’t you have customers who wonder about the origin of the name?” he answers “The only origin my customers want to know is the origin of the strawberries and lemons in my pastries.” 

Each book chapter starts with an introductory photo. However the photos do not give much of information to the reader. The photos would have made a more useful contribution to the book if they had been more about the people and the life that goes on on the Rue des Martyrs.

Nevertheless, this is a pleasant read with All in all, the book is a pleasant read with something interesting for everyone: If you like food, architecture, history, art or simply human stories, you will not be disappointed.

“The Only Street in Paris” is a well-researched book that goes beyond a simple depction. Henry Miller once remarked that “to know Paris, is to know a great deal.” So too could be said about Sciolino’s version of Rue des Martyrs.

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