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Opinion | The Street That Still Offers Paris Hope Press "Enter" to skip to content

Opinion | The Street That Still Offers Paris Hope

PARIS — Even as suffering and sadness envelop Paris these days, there is a street that offers a respite, however brief: the Rue des Martyrs.

A narrow, half-mile stretch built in the first half of the 19th century, this street proclaims no landmarks or important architecture as it cuts uphill through the Ninth and 18th Arrondissements into Montmartre. In recent years, gentrification has rolled over Rue des Martyrs without mercy. At No. 3, a shop selling high-end coffees and teas replaced a greengrocer a few months ago; the surrounding neighborhood of South Pigalle has lost many of its massage parlors and nightclubs and is so chic it now goes by SoPi, or “soapy.”

Yet Rue des Martyrs celebrates — even in crisis — what remains of the intimate, human side of Paris. With more than 22,000 people dead from the coronavirus in France, and President Emmanuel Macron extending the country’s lockdown until at least May 11, the street has become more important to the neighborhood than ever.

Because of a zoning law that protects small, independent “artisans,” the bottom part of the Rue des Martyrs is devoted mostly to small food shops. The feel here is still that of a small village.

Although cafes and restaurants in France remain closed, food stores are exempt. The shopkeepers and artisans on my street are a tough breed, and most have decided to carry on.

I have lived in the neighborhood for a decade and feel so much a part of the street that I wrote an entire book about it. From the base of the street to Rue Manuel, a short distance away, I have access to two butchers, a fishmonger, two cheese stores, two liquor stores, Italian and Greek épiceries, four greengrocers (one organic), three bakeries, a pastry shop, a chocolate shop,a jam shop, a shop devoted to regional French food specialities and a supermarket.

Obviously, confinement has changed the rhythm and rituals of everyday life. When the first food merchants arrive at 6:30, they are now joined by joggers determined to get in their run before the ban on jogging (10 a.m. until 7 p.m.) begins.

But some things remain the same. By 7 a.m., the butcher at No. 4 still moves his rotisserie outdoors to begin the daily ritual of roasting whole chickens, as piles of peeled, whole potatoes cook in the drippings below. He and his employees, like other shopkeepers, reluctantly and clumsily wear protective masks (much of the time). The closest bakery, a few doors away, is still offering customers two types of baguettes by 7:30, but the employees are now masked and separated from the public by ceiling-to-counter plastic sheeting.

Many of the shops have no doors, which can make it hard to enforce the rule of one meter of social distancing. Some merchants have posted signs allowing only one to three customers at a time, and find it unnerving when customers ignore the rules and insist on barging in; others have strung tape across their storefronts and are serving on the sidewalk.

I’ve spent so much time on the street that I know many of the shopkeepers and they know me. I’ve learned the landscapes of their lives: the names and ages of their children, their vacation destinations, their plans for retirement. That openness allows us to have safe-distance conversations.

“The word to describe the mood is morose,” said Yves Chataigner, the 85-year-old cheesemonger who runs the cheese store at No. 3 with his wife Annick. “But what are we supposed to do, stay shut up in our apartment upstairs and pretend to be on vacation?”

Mr. Chataigner said that the day before, in the absence of normal operations at the vast Rungis wholesale food market outside of Paris, he had to walk three miles — he clocked it on his pedometer — to find all the cheeses he wanted.

At the Au Bon Port Montmartre fish store at No. 5, Joël Vicogne, one of the fishmongers, kept the focus on the product as he arranged scallops in their shells on a counter that spilled onto the sidewalk. “The red snapper is magnificent, the tuna too, Elaine,” he said. “The octopus, so beautiful.”

At the fruit and vegetable shop one block north, Kamel Ben Salem was all alone at 8 one morning, so he was eager to talk. He and I had bonded years before, when I introduced him — and the street — to “chou frisé non-pommé,” a.k.a. kale.

“I’ll give you a great deal if you take all my super-ripe cherry tomatoes,” he said. I took all five pounds. Then he sweet-talked me into buying pots of herbs that had come in that morning, lemongrass leaves, anise, verbena and thyme. Then he threw half a dozen apples and a pear into my tote bag.

“You can make a tart,” he said.

Despite his bonhomie, he said he changes his mask twice a day and puts his clothes in a plastic bag for washing when he arrives home after a bus ride every evening.

Whenever I go out, I carry a signed, timed “attestation de déplacement dérogatoire” (certificate of exceptional movement) with my name, address, place and date of birth and one of seven reasons checked off justifying my outdoor excursion (necessary shopping, medical visit, essential work, judicial convocation, for example).

I can stay out for only an hour and not move farther than a kilometer away from home. The French government has deployed tens of thousands of police officers throughout the country to check that people are carrying their certificates and obeying the restrictions. If not, they can be issued fines. I have seen as many as eight police officers at a time on the Rue des Martyrs. They can be overly bureaucratic: One of my neighbors was fined because she had checked off two reasons instead of one for her sojourn.

The coronavirus may determine the rhythm of our lives in France for some time. France has suffered the fourth-highest mortality rate from the virus in the world, but a research institute in Paris estimated on Monday that when some confinement restrictions are scheduled to be relaxed on May 11, only 5.7 percent of the population will have been infected. It warned that the low initial infection rate means that “population immunity appears insufficient to avoid a second wave.”

“I can never be sad on the Rue des Martyrs,” I tell people when they ask me why I am such a cheerleader for my street. In the face of the unknown, I revel in the shared pleasure of conversations — however brief these days — with shopkeepers and take comfort in the spirit of community that lives on here.

At a time when I am cut off from most of Paris, and from family and friends in America, I am more connected to my street than ever.

Elaine Sciolino is the author, most recently, of “The Seine: The River that Made Paris.”

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