Camaraderie on the Rue des Martyrs

by Marissa Rosenberg-Carlson

The atmosphere on the Rue des Martyrs is unexpectedly familial. The shop owners rely on each other. When one fish seller had to close up shop some years ago, his neighbors joined forces to make sure another fish market took its place, according to Elaine Sciolino, former Paris bureau chief at the New York Times. Many of the Rue’s shops sell just one product – cheese, watches. They make no room for brand name stores. “People expect something real when they come here,” said the owner of Première Pression Provence, an artisanal olive oil shop on the Rue, to Princeton University students during their Saturday morning visit.

This camaraderie blossoms all the way up the street. Shop owners make time for visitors, even at busy times. During late afternoon rush hour, acclaimed chef Sébastien Gaudard welcomed the students into his patisserie to chat about how his industry is changing. The meaning of “noble ingredients” in pastry-making has flipped entirely in the past half-century, he said. In the 1950s, white flour and refined sugars were considered noble, or “trendy.” Now, whole grains and natural sweeteners are noble, and Sébastien has had to adjust his grandmother’s recipes.

In the evening at Café Miroir, the students found dinner to be no less than a family affair. Sciolino said that the restaurant’s head, also named Sébastian, keeps one table per night unreserved so that his friends can walk in and know that they have a place. After several glasses of wine and plates of foie gras, the café’s spirit carried the students up the Rue to the Sacré-Cœur. Above the streetlights of Paris, people sang in many languages and danced with strangers.

Bérengère Sim, a young Scottish-French journalist who moved to Paris four years ago, said, “Paris sucks you in – every time you think you’re going to leave, you find that you can’t.” On the Rue des Martyrs, it is easy to see how that happens.

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