Book Review: “The Only Street in Paris”

Of the 6,100 streets in Paris, the Rue de Martyrs is the only one that matters.

Nestled within the 9th arrondissement of France’s capital city, and just below Montmartre, home to Moulin Rouge, is the Rue de Martyrs. In her book, “The Only Street in Paris,” former New York Times Paris Bureau Chief Elaine Sciolino describes the everyday occurrences and complexities of life on her favorite street in the city of lights.

Filled with vignettes about food, fashion, and anecdotes from her Parisian life, the book portrays the street as more than just a three-dimensional landscape. Sciolino gives the rue a heartbeat and a life that makes it feel tangible for readers who may have never traveled to the city before. Filled with a non-pretentious grasp on culture, the book frames its themes of individuality and anti-globalization around specific people who call both Paris and the Rue de Martyrs home.

Each chapter begins with a quote. This quote can be from someone profound and innately tied to the French culture like Julia Child, or a simple and youthful like Remy, the rat from “Ratatouille.” Each quote is a little preface to what lies within the following few pages. Sciolino is completely aware that her words and ideas on Paris are not the first to be written, spoken, or even sung. Many people have come before her in hopes of explaining their relationship with the city to outsiders. She uses these quotes as a way to acknowledge this, but then goes far beyond them and shows the reader her Paris in a concise, descriptive, and personalized manner.

The books biggest strength is in Sciolino’s ability to personify the buildings and businesses on the Rue de Martyrs. The concrete buildings with signs identifying their name and number are no longer just four walls that people live and work in. They have personalities that are enhanced by the people inside. For example, Sciolino focuses one chapter on Marc Briolay, a fishmonger who owned the shop La Poissonnerie Bleue at No. 5 Rue des Martyrs. His shop was a family business that Briolay had been working at since 1978. It was not until financial problems caused by a deteriorating building and a necessary yet expensive investment in an 8,000-euro ice machine happened, that La Poissonnerie Bleue had to come to terms with its financial problems. And yes, it was the building that had to deal with the financial ruin, not the Briolay family. When Marc and his family decided that they had to close the store, there was no pity, no crying, and no party. There was only an announcement written on the board outside the store. Even still, the family’s biggest fear was in what type of business would replace them. There was no talk of money or time, or “what will we do now?” The situation was completely focused on “what will the people of the Rue de Martyrs do now?” Who will be there to teach the children about fish? Where will the residents of the street go to buy their fish? If a chain store were to replace their small business, the history and culture tied to small, family run store would be lost as well. Through these little vignettes of people’s lives, Sciolino is able to show how the Rue de Martyrs is not just a street; it is her home and the place that defines her Paris.

As a journalist herself, Sciolino’s book is part history and part journalism. When discussing the lifestyle and happenings in a famed city, the two go hand in hand. Her journalistic style makes the reader feel as though they are learning about hidden places, although the very locations she is discussing are not hidden at all. They are the restaurants, boutiques, and bars that our eyes glaze over, that Sciolino took the time to learn about and, in the process, has left a little piece of her with each and every one. The history, while necessary, does make the book lag a little bit. To me, reading about churches and monuments in anything other than a travel guide, which is exactly what you are signing up for when you pick up a travel guide, is in essence boring. Even still, reading about these places can only bring you so close to the action. Anyone can talk and know about the history of these sorts of places. In the end, the best way to experience cultural monuments is by seeing them with your own eyes. Sciolino produces mediocre history based chapters when talking about the Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, her favorite church, but redeems herself as she shines in her anecdotal chapters. When discussing the sorts of places that others neglect, like Bistrot 82, the transvestite cabaret at No. 80, or the Circul’Livre bookstore, she draws attention to the locales that the average traveler tends to neglect.

The book is like taking a long walk down a street that you have only ever known in your dreams. The readers may not feel the connection to Paris that she does, but they can relate to the feelings and sentiments Sciolino brings up to a city of their choice. The importance of themes such as fashion and food can be seen in any city from New York to Beijing. Paris just happens to be the backdrop for these themes in this book. Time and time again though, Sciolino shows that the best way to learn about and better understand a city is by defining it in your own terms. The people in her book are united by Paris, but individualized by their personalities. Sciolino herself is an American of Sicilian decent who immigrated to Paris. Despite being an outsider, she shows the reader how one can still be accepted into the culture even if their veins don’t flow with pure Parisian blood. Through the explorations of her home, the interactions Sciolino has with Paris form into a relationship and Paris becomes a person.

While Sciolino addresses her love for Paris through the people around her, the underlying themes of globalization and gentrification are ever present throughout the book. Sciolino’s style of writing pushes back at those ideas. When discussing how globalization is slowly chipping away at the quintessential Paris, she makes sure not to assimilate Paris through her language. After referencing the name of the business or restaurant, she then refers to each building by its number, an allusion to a European custom that she takes no time explaining. In addition, she uses French words such as patrimoine, loosely meaning heritage, to better describe the world around her when English does not suffice. Since Sciolino is not a native Parisian, these attempts to describe French culture seem genuine rather than condescending or pretentious. When she moved to Paris, Sciolino felt like an outsider herself. By explaining the culture through what she has learned over the years, readers feel like their friend is letting them in on a secret, instead of feeling like a teacher is instructing them. In the end though, the best way to feel accepted into a foreign culture is to find “your place,” and for Sciolino this is the Rue de Martyrs.

The Rue de Martyrs is a cocoon of culture surrounded by the ever-expanding influence of globalization and gentrification. Sciolino shows how despite the fact that Paris is rapidly succumbing to the damaging affects of both of these phenomena, the Rue de Martyrs is a place where “there is beauty to be discovered, perhaps even adventure and love.”

All Photography by Emily Houston

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