Elaine Sciolino’s latest book about her French neighborhood street, la rue des Martyrs, is already rumored to become the favorite in this year’s list of best Paris books. Sciolino has lovingly, brilliantly and thoroughly written about la rue des Martyrs in the 9th arrondissement of Paris, which for the author is “The Only Street in Paris”. She leads us through her favorite street like a familiar friend sharing quirky stories about the eclectic array of shopkeepers, artisans and neighbors she has encountered daily for the past 10 years.
Readers familiar with Elaine Sciolino’s writing as a New York Times correspondent and author of the bestseller, La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life, know she has an unbeatable talent for penetrating an already good story to extract layers of new revelations. Each chapter in her non-fiction book introduces us to a different character who cracks the door open to reveal the secrets of the street, the shop, the craft, the people and the dynamics of a quintessential French neighborhood.
Elaine Sciolino shares an excerpt of “The Only Street in Paris” and explains to INSPIRELLE readers why she is so passionate about la rue des Martyrs, and the preservation of the French way of life.
From Buffalo, New York to Paris, with assignments around the world as first Newsweek and then New York Times writer, do you call Paris home?
Home is where I am living at the moment! When I covered the Iranian revolution for Newsweek in 1979 and had to live out of a suitcase for two months, I used two hotel rooms as the Newsweek “bureau” and my adjoining bedroom. I tacked maps and posters to the walls, created a small library and put rugs from the bazaar on the floors. Made it homey. I’ve lived with my husband Andy in Paris since 2002 (We came with our two daughters and they lived here for several years before they went off to college in the US). And when they came back to Paris over Christmas, they were coming “home.”
This book is dedicated to my Sicilian-born grandfather, who taught me how to can tomatoes and grill lambs’ heads, and to my father, who owned a small Italian food store in a working-class neighborhood of Niagara Falls. My grandfather taught me the importance of bonding over a shared meal; my father taught me how to have a conversation with just about anyone – as long as it involved the pleasures of food. At home, my father was a tough, authoritarian figure; at work, he was beloved by his customers, who laughed at his jokes and reveled in his stories. On the rue des Martyrs, I came to understand my father better. In a sense, I discovered the good father here.
I take the spirit of my grandfather and my father with me to the rue des Martyrs. And that makes it feel like home.
There are so many famous streets and neighborhoods in Paris. The Champs Elysées, Boulevard Saint Germain, le Marais and Montmartre. Why is la rue des Martyrs the “only street in Paris” for you?
People always ask me, “Why in the world did you write a book about a street? A whole book about a single street?” I tell them that the rue des Martyrs is not just any street – that for me it’s the only street in Paris. You won’t find it in most guidebooks. But believe me, it’s a half-mile of magic. That’s because, as I write in my book, “I can never be sad on the rue des Martyrs.” There are espressos to drink, baguettes to sniff, corners to discover, people to meet. I’ve spent so much time on this street that the merchants and residents have embraced me and made me part of their everyday lives.
Also, I can be anyone I want to be on the rue des Martyrs. I can be outrageous. I can be playful. It is here that I have discovered my inner Julia Child. Like Julia, I can talk forever with greengrocers about fresh almonds and cherry tomatoes, and to cheese mongers about the perfectly ripe camembert cheese.
How easy was it to strike up a conversation with your French fishmonger, cheese shop owner or grocer to the point you know their family story?
I’m a journalist! I have had to learn how to talk to anyone about anything. In my forty-year-plus years as a journalist, I’ve interviewed kings and presidents, refugees and guerilla fighters. I’ve covered every kind of story: wars, revolutions, droughts, earthquakes, fashion shows, political campaigns, cooking competitions. In the case of the rue des Martyrs, I came by, day after day. And finally, I feel as if I belong.
Every object you write about – a mercury barometer, a particular cheese, a vintage designer bag – has a story, a past, a surprise. Why is it important to learn and understand the origin of a person, place or object that we come in contact with?
Life’s too short if we don’t make contact with people. It sounds trite but it’s true. I think it’s my open American spirit that contributes to my acceptance into this tight-knit community. I have tried to make friends with almost everyone on the street. The Tunisian greengrocers with special vegetables reserved for special customers, the woman who repairs 18th century mercury barometers, the owner of a 100-year-old bookstore, the husband-and-wife cheese mongers who taught me how to tell when a camembert is ripe – all of them have enriched my life!
Can you explain why every Parisian quartier has its own baker, butcher, librairie and hairdresser as if each neighborhood was a tiny village?
Actually, I feel as if Paris has lost some of its neighborhood feel over the years. I mourn the loss of old artisanal food merchants even as I embrace the arrival of new ones. When I moved to Paris the first time in 1978 (I moved to Rome in 1980) it was rare to find a supermarket or a store that was part of a chain. Still, thanks to an urban planning law in 2006 the rue des Martyrs is one of about 60 Paris streets with zoning protection (including the rue Montorgueil and the rue Cler). That means that ground-floor artisanal shops producing or selling food or crafts can be replaced only by other artisanal shops. No big chain or clothing stores are allowed.
Your last book, “La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life” explains how seduction is at the essence to understanding French human behavior. From work to play, the art of seduction has been an intricate part of French lifestyle for centuries. What’s the best way to learn to play this delicious game?
Take more time and be playful! A key component of seduction — and of French life — is process. The rude waiter, the dismissive sales clerk, the low-ranking bureaucrat who demands still another obscure document are all playing a perverted version of a seduction game that glorifies lingering. It may be a waste of time and end without the desired result. But played well, the game can be stimulating. And when victory comes, the joy is sweet.
That’s because seduction is bound tightly with what the French call plaisir — the art of creating and relishing pleasure of all kinds. The French are proud masters of it, for their own gratification and as a useful tool to seduce others. They have created and perfected pleasurable ways to pass the time: perfumes to sniff, gardens to wander in, wines to drink, objects of beauty to observe, conversations to carry on. They give themselves permission to fulfill a need for pleasure and leisure that America’s hard-working, super-capitalist, abstinent culture often does not allow. Sexuality always lies at the bottom of the toolbox, in everyday life, in business, even in politics. For the French, this is part of the frisson of life.
Do you see the way of French life enduring or do you feel it changing?
It will endure AND it will change. There will always be an appreciation of the good life – good food, good vacations, good family life. But France must change, modernize, stop clinging to the past and find creative ways to create jobs, especially for young people. I don’t know one young French person living here who doesn’t long to live abroad for a few years. Brooklyn? It’s considered a fantasy promised land where you can seek your fortune, do whatever you want to do and be cool too.
Paris suffered several major terrorist attacks in 2015. The French capital is still under a state of emergency. Has the ambiance changed and what do you think Parisians are feeling?
Parisians continue to mourn and to honor the victims of the terror attacks of November 13. But there is also a determination to celebrate a way of life – the French way of life.
After the attacks the terrorists condemned Paris as a capital of “abominations and perversions.” They could have been talking about the rue des Martyrs. In the second half of the 19th century, the Brasserie des Martyrs was the go-to place for literary bohemia, including Charles Baudelaire. In the 1890s, the modern striptease is said to have been created in a theater at the top of the street. Nearly 60 years ago, Michou, an octogenarian showman who dresses in electric blue, created a transvestite cabaret that some of my neighbors insist was the inspiration for “La Cage aux Folles.” After the attacks, the terrorists warned that they will strike again and that French people would “even fear traveling to the market.”
Well, my Parisian neighbors are resilient. On the morning after the attacks, and ever since then, the greengrocers and butchers and cheesemongers have been open for business.
I was in Paris in 1986 when there were terrorist bombings in a hotel, a bookstore and a FNAC, three bombings in three days.
The routine of daily life went on, and so it has again.
If rue des Martyrs is the only street in Paris, is Paris the only city in the world?
The rue des Martyrs is MY only street in Paris. Paris is my most beautiful city in the world.
Follow Elaine on Twitter @ElaineSciolino