I think we all have an “only street”. Where everyone feels like family, where everyone knows everyone else’s business. It’s the street where you can buy everything you need, access any service you could wish for. It’s like a condensed version of your city. My “only street” here in Toronto is Roncesvalles Ave. We define our “only street” as the one we can get everything we need without needing to get in the car – there’s a library, a bank, a butcher, a fishmonger, a supermarket, a liquor store, flower stores, clothing, kitchenwares, a pharmacy, a cinema, restaurants and bars, schools etc… A true village within the city with all its local personalities and distinctive characters that make it special.
My “only street” when I lived in Paris was the rue Montorgueil. By chance I ended up in what is now a super trendy area of Paris (back in 1995 is was not so much, more just a regular old quartier) and over the 5+ years I lived there, I got to know it inside out and upside down. I learned my way around the stores and the people who worked there, made sure I was up to speed on all the local gossip thanks to my building’s concierge and kept up with the comings and goings, not just in my building but around the neighbourhood. It really is something very special to be a part of a neighbourhood like this, so it was with great anticipation that I started reading The Only Street in Paris: Life on the rue des Martyrs (coincidentally, one of my favourite streets to visit when I am there now!)
In The Only Street in Paris, Elaine Sciolino, the former Paris Bureau Chief of the New York Times, invites us on a tour of her favorite Parisian street, the street she calls home. No it’s not the touristy side of Paris that many people dream about but it’s a street (and neighbourhood) with a rich history and a vibrant culture.
Sciolino celebrates her neighbourhood through the pages of the book as she offers an homage to street life and the pleasures of Parisian living beyond the glitz and glamour of the “big” tourist sites. This is the real Paris, the Paris of everyday Parisians and it’s a side of Paris that many visitors never see. There’s a joie de vivre there that is hard to understand unless you are a part of it. “I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs,” Sciolino explains.
The rue des Martyrs has managed to maintain the “village” atmosphere despite gentrification in neighbouring quartiers and through a combination of genuine curiosity and an understanding of just how special this street it, Sciolino has become a part of this tight-knit little community with a storied past.
On this street, the patron saint of France was beheaded and the Jesuits took their first vows. Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted circus acrobats, Emile Zola situated a lesbian dinner club in his novel Nana, and François Truffaut filmed scenes from The 400 Blows. Sciolino tells the stories of 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 – this is real-life, everyday Paris and it’s utterly charming. For many, this is just another street. For Sciolino, it’s a treasure trove of stories waiting to be told.
Sciolino’s passion for her new neighborhood combined with the respect she shows the community (lots of observing and patience as she worked to understand their ways so she could be a part of them) and her reporter’s sense of what makes a great story makes this a highly entertaining read as she intertwines stories around history and cultural tidbits. You can tell from her words that she’s not just telling a story either – she genuinely cares about this cast of characters that she, too, is now a part of.
For people who love Paris, this is a “must read” but even for those of you not familiar with the city, it’s a fascinating look at how the history of a place heavily influences its present personality (yes, neighbourhoods have their own personality!). Even if you think you know Paris, I am going to guess that you will learn a lot about the city from this book and it may just convince you to stray off your usual route and check out this charming village. Who knows, maybe you’ll be able to spot some of Sciolino’s cast of characters when you’re there!
WORLDWIDE giveaway! Win a copy of The Only Street in Paris: Life on the rue des Martyrs! Details here.
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Disclosure: I received a copy of The Only Street in Paris from the publisher for review purposes. I was not asked to write about this book, nor am I being compensated for doing so. All opinions are 100% my own.