Everything that makes Paris Paris—its eccentric shops, its sense of living history, its perfect buttery brioches—Elaine Sciolino finds on the Rue des Martyrs.

By Elaine Sciolino
October 19, 2015
Credit: Marie Hennechart

Some people look at the Rue des Martyrs and see a street. I see stories.

For me, it is the only street in Paris, a half-mile celebration of the city in all its diversity—its rituals and routines, its permanence and transience, its quirky old family-owned shops and pretty young boutiques. This street represents what is left of the intimate, human side of Paris.

I can never be sad on the Rue des Martyrs. There are espressos to drink, baguettes to sniff, corners to discover, and, most important, people to meet. There’s a showman who’s been running a drag cabaret for more than half a century, a woman who repairs 18th-century mercury barometers, and an owner of a century-old bookstore with a passion for left-wing philosophers. Merchants have introduced me to their gastronomic passions, like a sweet turnip with yellow stripes named “Ball of Gold” and a pungent butter made with unpasteurized milk from the Kabylie region of Algeria. They have taught me how to liberate a raw almond from its skin by slamming it against a wall and how to test the ripeness of Camembert with the pressure of a thumb. The small food shops on the lower end have no doors, which makes them cold in winter, hot in summer, damp when it rains, and inviting no matter what the weather.

The Rue des Martyrs does not be- long to monumental Paris. You won’t find it in most guidebooks. About a mile northeast of the Place de l’Opéra and half a mile south of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, it cuts at an uphill angle through former working-class neighborhoods of the Ninth and 18th Arrondissements. It lacks the grandeur of the Champs-Élysées and the elegance of St.-Germain.

Credit: Marie Hennechart

The street jealously guards its secrets: it has no landmarks, no important architecture, no public gardens, nor any stone plaques on the sides of buildings telling you who was born, lived, worked, or died here. Yet it has made history. On this street, the patron saint of France was beheaded, the Jesuits took their first vows, and the ritual of communicating with the dead was codified into the séance. It was here that Degas and Renoir painted circus acrobats, Émile Zola situated a lesbian dinner club in his novel Nana, and François Truffaut filmed scenes from The 400 Blows. Claude Monet, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Bizet were baptized at a church at the street’s base; the modern strip tease is said to have been invented in a cabaret at its top. More recently, Pharrell Williams, Kanye West, and the band Phoenix came here to record songs at Motorbass studio.

The Rue des Martyrs is not long—no longer than the stretch of New York’s Fifth Avenue between Rockefeller Center and Central Park. But its activity is much more concentrated: nearly 200 small businesses are packed into its storefronts—among them fishmongers, pastry shops, florists, hairdressers, clothing stores, book shops, cabarets, butchers, jewelers, a gay sauna with a façade like a Greek temple. Who could ask for anything more?

Credit: Marie Hennechart

The Rue des Martyrs can be perceived as two streets—or, better, two worlds—divided by a wide boulevard about three-fourths of the way up. The part below belongs to 19th-century commercial and financial Paris, the part above to what was once the village of Montmartre, outside the city limits.

Although it is wide enough for cars to park on one side, the street is so narrow that people living in apartments facing the street know the comings and goings of residents and shopkeepers just across the way. There is the old woman who stands on her balcony for a cigarette each morning, the man who washes his windows every Tuesday, and the young couple who open their shutters and play loud music before going to work.

Early each morning, a respectable-looking young woman heads to her job at a massage parlor that everyone knows offers more than massages, while nannies from far-off places like Mali and Cameroon drop off children at a day-care center hidden inside a courtyard. Late each afternoon, as residents begin returning home from work, an elderly woman sings to herself, filling the sidewalks with childish tones of “la, la, la, la,” while a battered musician with missing teeth and a guitar strapped on his back wanders in and out of shops, displaying varying degrees of coherence.

Every Saturday morning, I sit at the café at No. 8 and face the Rue des Martyrs to watch the show. The actors perform on six mini-stages on the other side of the street: my greengrocer and my cheese shop and my butcher at No. 3, my second cheese shop and my fish store at No. 5, and my supermarket at No. 9, where an itinerant chair caner sets up. I order a café crème. Mohamed (a.k.a. Momo) Allili, the day manager, doesn’t mind when I bring a sugared brioche from my favorite bakery next door. This café serves as my personal salon, where neighbors and merchants come and tell stories of the street’s history and its transformation over the years.

Credit: Marie Hennechart

The Rue des Martyrs has managed to retain the feel of a small village, despite the globalization and gentrification rolling over Paris like a bulldozer without brakes. Chain stores and soaring rents have homogenized other streets. But on the bottom stretch of the Rue des Martyrs, the local law states that for every artisanal shop that closes, a new one must take its place. Now there is a chic rotisserie poultry outlet offering grain-fed, perfectly roasted, $40 birds; a French tea specialist; and a shop that sells nothing but buttery, flaky, icing-topped cream puffs.

The result is that something essential remains unchanged.

Credit: Marie Hennechart

When I first came to live in Paris, in 2002, I had hoped to shed my American skin, to become more French. I was set on speaking flawless French with the smoky voice of Jeanne Moreau and on dressing with the insouciance of Inès de la Fressange. I tried hard to fit in with the rhythm of my neighborhood off the Rue du Bac, in the Seventh Arrondissement, where refinement, restraint, and politesse reigned. It didn’t happen. There were just too many codes to master, and the effort that went into it—which should always be invisible—showed through.

On the Rue des Martyrs, the codes don’t matter. I am embraced for my lack of a glossy French veneer. Having four grandparents from Sicily gives me status. I tell people “Je suis issue de l’immigration”—“I have an immigrant background”—and that I’m a classic American success story. Authenticity—my identity as an American with deep roots in a foreign land—trumps pedigree.

Even better, I understand the rituals and passions of the Rue des Martyrs’ food merchants as they explain, revel in, and sell their products. From the time I was five years old, my father owned a store selling Italian specialties to working-class Italian-Americans in Niagara Falls, New York. He taught me the art of delivering small pleasures through food and conversation. I take his spirit with me every time I step out onto the Rue des Martyrs.

I am aware that I am part of the forces of modernization. Yet over time I have broken into this tight-knit community—partly through what I call random acts of meddling, inspired by my journalist’s curiosity. I have built not so much deep friendships as attachments created by a shared passion for a discrete geographical space. At first they involved transac- tions—goods bought and sold— and with enough time, they extended to experiences shared.

I’ve learned about the lives of the traditional merchants and artisans: their aches and pains, their vacations, the names and ages of their children. I’ve heard about the family wedding back home in Tunisia and the attempted holdup of the jewelry store by gunmen. I know who takes a long, hot shower every morning and who has a fantasy of meeting the actress Sharon Stone. I know who has diabetes and who secretly dyes his hair.

Credit: Marie Hennechart

I know about the merchant whose marriage ended in divorce when he discovered his wife in bed with another man. He went for the lover’s throat, spent 48 hours in jail, and was given a fine and a one-month suspended sentence for assault.

I know about the torture Kamel the greengrocer endured when he went home to Tunisia for a sciatica cure. The local healer made deep cuts in Kamel’s ankle and back until he touched the sciatic nerve. Then he took a nail with a head the size of a quarter, heated it in charcoal until the head turned red, and seared the cuts. He didn’t use anesthesia. The large burns on Kamel’s skin healed unevenly. I know this because he lifted his shirt and one of his trouser legs to show me. Somehow, the unconven- tional treatment worked.

Advice is freely given—on just about any subject. When a mouse took up residence in my apartment, Yves Chataigner, the cheese monger, revealed what kind of cheese would work to trap it (Vieux Comté, because its thick rind lodges securely into traps). He also gave me samples— cut into tiny, neat cubes. After Roger Henri, an itinerant knife sharpener, sharpened a score of my carbon steel knives on his grinding machine one day, he taught me how to keep them from turning black and when to oil my whetstones. I have learned to be open to any conversation.

No matter what the day, I never walk alone on the Rue des Martyrs. I say and do things I wouldn’t dare say and do anywhere else in Paris.

Somehow, I have made the street mine.

Adapted from Elaine Sciolino's The Only Street in Paris, out this month from W. W. Norton & Co.