One Walk Down One Street in Paris…Make it this One
I don’t want to sound too hyperbolic but The Only Street in Paris is the best Francophile book I’ve read in years. I consider myself somewhat of an expert on this type of book, written by women about Paris, because nearly every publisher sends me theirs to review. It’s not as small of a niche as you’d expect.
Every expat that moves here, men and women alike, seem driven to write about their experience in the city of light. Perhaps it’s just in the air in Paris where so many great writers before them have done the same. Strong is the desire to smoke a galoise, scribble something erudite in a notepad at a sidewalk cafe and later do a reading at Shakespeare and Co. It’s romantic, it’s Parisian. After all, it’s the town that still reveres books and bookstores in the age of apps and YouTube. But the truth is most of these books are simply rubbish. They are silly and trite, not befitting of the great literature that went before them, written down in those same great sidewalk cafés.
Elaine’s book is different. It inspired me – to take a look at my own Paris in a different light. The Only Street in Paris explores Ms Sciolino’s everyday life centered around the shopping and strolling we all have to do in our own neighborhoods. By concentrating on one street, delving into its history and its neighborhood characters she manages to remind us that romantic, luxurious, tourist ridden Paris is only one side of the coin. Paris at its heart is still a collection of small villages strung together with very real, not always impossibly chic, but usually quite charming and even very friendly people (once you get to know them) living in these villages.
She dives deeply into what seems at first to be small inconsequential topics, such as getting an antique barometer fixed. Yet her journalistic urge to learn everything about a person and a topic ends up shedding light onto the changes we are seeing on street level in Paris, on the pride of métier (one’s vocation) that remains such a defining French characteristic and exemplifies just how different the French culture is from our own American ideals.
There is such a beauty in that difference especially when you look at it without the desire to judge as Elaine, former NY Times Paris bureau chief manages to do so well.I asked her when she interviewed me for my book if she missed the excitement and pace of running a bureau at a newspaper where she worked for 30 years but she said no. She had that time and she’s grateful for it, but now she has the time to write books. Lucky for us she was able to dedicate her abilities and journalistic prowess to unearthing a tiny corner of the 9th arrondissement which she so artfully reveals for her readers.
The charm of this book reminds me of the feeling I had when I first read Peter Mayle’s a Year in Provence coupled with the well researched and well written feel of Paris to the Moon. Like Lunch in Paris, you can’t help but fall in love with Elaine as you read this book. While she’s interviewed Pope’s and Presidents she is at home with her local fish monger as much as she is amongst celebrities like Ariana Huffington. She treats everyone with interest and curiosity knowing that each individual whether they are selling her a newspaper or helping her choose a ripe nectarine is of supreme value with an important life and a story to tell. We could all take a lesson from Ms Sciolino as she shows us vrai Parisian life which it turns out is even more romantic and wonderful than the mythical Paris of our dreams.