All the Life in the World on One Street In Paris
Elaine Sciolino and Lauren Elkin in Conversation About Their Adopted City
Some streets in Paris accrue their own energy, the kind that draws merchants and myth-makers, artisans and artists. The Rue des Martyrs is one of them. Half a mile long, connecting central Paris to lower Montmartre, it is lined with mom-and-pop grocers, cheesemongers, butchers, bars, cafes, nightclubs, used clothing shops, and purveyors of all manner of tchotchkes. Until recently it managed to retain its working-class heritage while also offering the kinds of hidden, leafy spaces that are so attractive to the city’s affluent classes.
Then came the hints of change: an organic British bakery, an Australian café serving filtered coffee in beaded, wooden-necked decanters that looked like they were straight from the outback, black-curtained vintage clothing stores curated to feature one pair of shoes, or one handbag, rather than a bin full of 5-euro rags. Which is to say that though I lived there in the mid-noughties, I can no longer afford it, and continue to love it from afar, from the shabby heights of Belleville.
Elaine Sciolino’s The Only Street in Paris is an ode to the Rue des Martyrs, where she moved in 2010 after eight years living in the chic, frostier quarters of the Left Bank. It immediately felt like home: “I got hooked on its spirit,” she writes; “the rhythm, the collective pleasures, the bonding with merchants, the way I felt when I walked up and down it.” Anyone can look into its shop windows and poke their heads into its courtyards, but Sciolino, the former Paris bureau chief of the New York Times and a serious reporter with years of experience in the Middle East, goes much further, kibitzing with everyone she meets, until the locals have embraced her as one of their own. In the end, she shows them a side of their street of which they themselves were unaware; it takes an outsider to see the heart of the place.
We chatted by phone the day before the terrorist attacks in Paris. As I transcribed our conversation with those events weighing on my mind, it struck me that the Rue des Martyrs represents exactly the way of life that so many people around the world identify with Paris, and which Parisians are so determined to defend. A month has passed since those attacks—we’ve decided to let this conversation stand as is, a testament to what Paris has been, and will always be.
Lauren Elkin: What made you decide to write a book about just the one street, rather than a neighborhood or some element within it?
Elaine Sciolino: It’s actually two different streets—the part in the 9th was constructed very quickly in the 1830s and 40s, after the Grands Boulevards took off, and you needed cheap housing when the city was pushing north, and that was a very different feel, that cheap post-industrial housing compared to the Montmartre part, which until 1860 was a completely separate village. My goal was to bring these two worlds together. Because this was partly my imagined rue des Martyrs, an impressionistic encounter with the Rue des Martyrs. Other people might come to the street and feel and see something very different.
When we moved to this neighborhood I looked at it as a street of small shops. It evoked memories of childhood. It was the kind of neighborhood I grew up in, on the west side of Buffalo, where there were little individual food stores, where you could buy live chickens and watch them cut the head off. There was a cheese shop, a fish store, a butcher, and a greengrocer—that’s the way I grew up shopping. My father had a little Italian food store in Niagara Falls that would be very chic now, but that back then it was in a working-class neighborhood where he sold petit gris snails before the USDA banned the importation of live escargots. He sold spices out of huge vats, and macaroni machines—they didn’t call it pasta back then—that he told his customers would do double-duty as paper shredders. So this was my history, and this has given me standing in the neighborhood. I come as the child of a cheesemonger.
LE: So much of what’s really wonderful about writing on place in the last couple of decades is that kind of subjectivity. The theory behind psychogeography is that you’re mapping the emotive forcefield of the city as you walk through it, and the Rue des Martyrs is such a perfect place to do that.
ES: I don’t know if you know the historian Thierry Cazeaux, who is a banker by day, but he’s written two little books, one on the Rue des Martyrs, one on the Cité Malesherbes, but his book on the Rue des Martyrs ends at the border with the 18th, because for him, what’s on the 18th side is a foreign land. People who live and work a quarter of a mile away from each other don’t know the other’s world exists. The people at the bottom of the hill had no idea that Laurence Gillery was up at the top of the hill repairing 18th century mercury barometers.
LE: Which partly has to do with the fact that Montmartre was its own village until 1860, when it was incorporated into Paris, and partly with the fact that the boulevard dividing the 9th from the 18th is where they had a massive wall—the farmer’s tax wall—these structures are gone, but we still feel their presence somehow.
ES: Absolutely. You can approach a city in so many different ways, and this is about approaching it through the microcosm of one neighborhood.
LE: It was great to see all the lengths to which you would go to get someone like the knife sharpener to keep talking to you—bringing out all the knives in your flat to keep him there. Was it hard to get people to open up to you, or did people relish the chance to chat?
ES: Both. Some people wanted to talk, and some people it took a lot more time. It takes time. I’ve done journalism my whole career, and if you spend time with people you can get them to talk to you. I’m curious about people, I want to know about their lives, and if you treat them with respect and you tell them their stories are worth telling, they’ll start talking.
LE: I really like this quote you mention from the writer Paul Léautaud, who lived on the Rue des Martyrs: “To know people, to gain their confidence, to know their private lives, even their vices and their villainous stories. To write everything.” Is there something about this street that is so inspiring to nosy writers and journalists?
ES: Well, Léautaud lived there only as a child, so even though I see his ghost on the street, it’s a bit of a stretch. But it’s all about seduction, basically, and that voracious desire to know Paris, it becomes like an obsession. I have discovered wonderful corners of the Rue des Martyrs that I didn’t know existed because there were hidden gardens behind these banal 1840s façades. You have to get beyond the exteriors and into people’s lives, and the richness of the book, such as it is, is in the people.
LE: You wrote a great piece for the New York Times about being a flâneuse, which you also write about in the book. I’m seeing the word around so much more now, which I’m obviously attuned to because that’s the subject of my own book. What do you think is so fascinating to people about the figure of the flâneur, male or female?
ES: Well, because the challenge is this. Anybody can come to Paris and be a flâneur. That’s what’s so wonderful. You just wander aimlessly with no fixed destination and no fixed time. I think so many people who come to Paris get seduced by the rhythm of the city and just discover walking, because Paris is such a wonderfully walkable city, unlike Los Angeles, or Chicago in the winter.
But I had to become more than a flâneur for this book, because a flâneur is a detached observer. I had to engage in conversation, which means leaving the world of flânerie and entering the world of engagement, which requires giving of yourself as well as getting back.
LE: I’m trying to redefine the flâneuse, and make her not just the female equivalent of a detached male walker – on the contrary, the flâneuse is engaging with the city and being inspired by it and warring with it – so one of my flâneuses is Martha Gellhorn, walking around Madrid, in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, getting the story from the ground up. So a journalist can be a flâneuse!
LE: Before you wrote this book and your previous one, La Seduction, you had published two books on the Middle East, as well as an impressive amount of correspondence for the New York Times on the United Nations, the CIA, becoming their chief diplomatic correspondent before Paris bureau chief. Does it take an expert in diplomacy to make sense of daily life in France?
ES: Well it’s interesting you should say that, because last night I gave a talk at Princeton, and we were talking about women and I said I don’t know if I could have written this book if I hadn’t done those things, because in a sense they gave me gravitas. I do think women writing about Paris are perceived to be frivolous, seduced by the joys of Parisian life.
LE: The Grand Paris project is imminent, in which Paris is yet again about to leap over its boundaries for the first time since 1860 and become incredibly large, on a scale to rival Greater London. Something I came across recently was this cartoon from 1860, when Paris had expanded to include all of those villages that we now think of as making up the outer ring of the arrondissements—Montmartre, Belleville, Ménilmontant, etc.—and it showed these two people standing on a hill in the countryside, and you can sort of see Paris way off in the distance and one of them says to the other, Can you believe it? we’re Parisians now!
ES: I don’t know very much about the Grand Paris plan but I do know the banlieues. I entered this world when my younger daughter was on a French soccer team, when she was 12, and like good soccer parents we would drive her to all these games, which were always out there because soccer for girls is a working-class sport—middle-class girls don’t really play soccer. For most Parisians, it’s a different world. They might go to Neuilly or Versailles but they won’t go to Clichy-Sous-Bois or Saint Denis. I covered the riots in 2005, and I’ve written a lot about the “two Frances,” which I think is getting much more serious, both because of the incredible Islamophobia in France but also the threat of a refugee influx that has fuelled the fear of the Other. There truly are huge swathes of people who do not feel French or like they’re part of civil society in France, that they don’t have a stake in the future of French life. I do not know if it’s ever going to get addressed because there is a very insular feel to Paris, as defined by the périphérique [ring road].
LE: What sort of future do you see for the Rue des Martyrs at this point?
ES: The Rue des Martyrs is going to change, and it’s changed even in the last few years. There are all of these very precious shops now, like one that only sells jars and jars of honey. But even the guy who works in the honey shop gets into the spirit of things, standing out on the street watching the people go by. French law protects certain streets and makes them artisanal, so that if one artisanal business goes out it has to be replaced by another artisanal business. That’s not going to change.