This is a transcription of Episode 13 — Paris: It’s Always a Good Idea.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Hello, Welcome to Episode 13 of Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: Lucky 13!
David: Season Two. We made it to Season Two.
Melissa: Great job everybody!
David: Raises all around. Today we get curious about Paris.
Melissa: I have a giant, squishy, soft spot in my heart for Paris.
Melissa: And I know that there are people who don’t enjoy Paris because it’s quite large and it can be overwhelming. But I feel like today we’re going to make a strong case for why Paris is pretty much always a good idea.
David: I also have a friend who he travels a lot for business and we have a chat channel that we share. And at one point he said, does anybody have any ideas about what I can do in Paris? I’ve been here for three weeks and I’ve seen everything. And it occurred to me then that not for the first time, that people are different than I am.
Melissa: Yes, people have different ideas about what it’s like to explore a city.
David: Paris is one of the very last places we were before the coronavirus.
Melissa: It’s true. We went to Paris last October specifically because we wanted to see an art exhibit, a Van Gogh art exhibit that was taking place at the Atelier des Lumieres, which is so much fun to say. It’s a really cool exhibit that is still going on, although I don’t know how long it will be. Where there’s an old factory space and they’re projecting Van Gogh artworks onto the walls and they’re animated. So you can actually feel like you’re walking into the Van Gogh paintings. And there’s music. It was even better than I thought it was going to be.
David: And the animations are several stories tall.
Melissa: I thought that was going to be the highlight of our trip.
Melissa: But then we went to the Catacombs. We went underground and I thought that was going to be the highlight of our trip. And then we actually enjoyed the highlight of our trip.
David: Which was?
Melissa: We went to a bakery that actually breaks kind of one of the fundamental rules that I have heard about bakeries in Paris, which is: baguette, croissant and pastries are never made in the same bakery. Those are three distinct baking skills. And you should not have those things from the same place.
Melissa: But we did find a bakery that was recommended by David Lebovitz, who is an American who’s lived in Paris for decades. He’s a cookbook author. He recommends a bakery that makes croissants and baguette that are both award-winning. And we started with delicious café creme, which is coffee with cream. And we had a croissant. And then we decided we should have a baguette, too.
David: Yeah. So I asked the guy, you know, do you have —
Melissa: Adorable 20-year-old French boy…
David: Sort of cinematically perfect, right?
Melissa: Yes. He was like the male Amelie.
David: Yeah. And I said, you know, do you have this baguette? And he said, well, they’re there in the oven. Can you wait for five minutes? And the answer was, yes, of course I can wait for five minutes.
Melissa: We saw them bring a basket from the back room into the front sales counter with all these baguette. And then he just slipped it into the paper sleeve in front of us. And the heat coming through the paper, like, made it hard to hold. That’s how hot it was.
David: walked out into that neighborhood and ate that baguette as we were walking. It is a moment that I will remember on my deathbed. It was fantastic. It was so good.
Melissa: It was just crunchy and chewy. And the air was crisp and cool because it was October. And we came on this little square that looked like a movie set. It was so perfectly French. I don’t know, it took us maybe twenty minutes to eat that baguette and it was hot all the way to the end.
David: That square had where had a little church and a little theater, a market. I expected Gene Kelly to appear.
Melissa: I feel like that story for me kind of highlights one of the things I love about Paris, which is of course, there’s incredible art and history and architecture and you can pay to have these incredible cultural experiences. But for me, some of my favorite moments are always when we’re just walking around enjoying the fresh air and the really beautiful quality of the light in Paris and just kind of soaking in the vibe of the city. And that doesn’t cost you anything.
David: Do you want to do the 101? I do bring us all up to date on where this fancy Paris place you’re talking about is?
Melissa: This little hidden gem of Paris.
Melissa: First, a disclaimer in this episode. We are concentrating on Paris, but we are well aware there are a lot of wonderful things in France, outside of Paris. So for everyone who’s wondering, we will get to the rest of France eventually. As you may or may not know, our goal is to get to every country in the world and every state in the United States at some point, and for places like France, which have an outstanding city and a bunch of other things to do, we’ll probably be revisiting those places multiple times. So fear not. We will get to Provence.
Melissa: OK, I am pretty sure our audience knows this, but we’re just going to quickly cover the basics just in case. Paris is the capital of France.
Melissa: It is located in the northern part of the country, but almost exactly in the middle, going west to east. So it’s right in the middle. France is roughly the size of the US state of Texas, and Paris is at roughly the same latitude as the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada. So it is pretty far north, which also explains why the light is so beautiful. One more orientation fact. Paris is about half the size of Brooklyn.
Melissa: Yeah, so much smaller than New York City. Now let’s talk about the vibe, because that’s really what I think is the important part. Whatever daydreamy, romantic, gauzy, light-infused ideas you have of Paris as a visitor are probably not too far from reality. As we already mentioned, the light is very soft and kind of gives everything a glow. Pretty much anywhere you go in Paris, you can see the Eiffel Tower. And for me, that is a magical, wonderful thing.
Melissa: But the famous French writer Guy de Maupassant legendarily hated the Eiffel Tower, and the mythology is that he used to eat lunch in a cafe right underneath the tower every day because he said if he sat there, it was the only place in Paris where he couldn’t see the tower. I’m kind of here for that kind of pettiness.
Melissa: One of the other things that makes Paris, I think, look particularly like Paris is, of course, there are cafes lining all of the streets, and they have the way of arranging the chairs so that the chairs are facing the street, as opposed to facing the table, which always feels like this invitation to sit down and watch the parade of humanity go by.
David: It’s one of the things that I think I love most about Paris is that they as a culture are all up for the sit. They are set up to have a seat, look around, have a coffee or a glass of wine and just enjoy where you are right now.
Melissa: Which I feel like for us has been a real shift in, well, us trying to shift how we think about the world. To get out of the habit of grabbing a cup of coffee to go and actually taking 20 minutes to just sit down and be. I feel like it can be really challenging for us because we’re American, maybe just because of our personalities.
David: Yeah, I agree. Starbucks is very anti-Paris. The idea that you would drive through, get a coffee spill on your gullet while you’re trying to get to work. Is not the same experience as sitting down at a cafe and having a moment while you are also enjoying a cup of coffee.
Melissa: Of course, if you’re interested in cultural things, like, amazing art and food and literature and architecture, you are going to find that in Paris. There have been people in the vicinity of Paris since a Celtic tribe settled along the sand around 259 B.C.
David: That’s a long time ago.
Melissa: That is a long time ago. If you fast forward to 508, the first king of the Franks made Paris his capital.
Melissa: Then jump to the 12th century, and we get the founding of Notre Dame Cathedral and the first university in France. Then of course, we get the French Revolution and Napoleon and the Belle Epoque and the 1920s with Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Picasso and Dali, kind of the golden age of Paris. Cheers! And then —
David: World War I, World War II.
Melissa: Nazis flying swastikas in Paris. Not a fan of that.
David: As long as we’re talking about petty actions that happened in Paris. Hitler rolled into Paris. He wanted to see the Eiffel Tower and he could not get up into the Eiffel Tower because Frenchmen had cut the cables to the elevator before he arrived.
Melissa: Well done. That’s fantastic, isn’t it?
David: Yes. Yeah.
Melissa: OK, so in addition to all of that dramatic world influencing history and the romantic daydreaming aspects of visiting Paris, it’s also a thriving, modern, multicultural city.
David: Yes. With the problems of a thriving, multicultural city.
Melissa: That’s one of the things that makes it so fascinating to me. And I also feel that way about Prague, too. You can visit and kind of immerse yourself in the past and this kind of gauzy, romantic version of the city, but there are also people going to the grocery store and working and raising their families, and that makes it feel very alive and relevant right now, in addition to having this deep-seated historical context.
David: Yeah, both things are true, right? There’s the magical Paris and then there’s the working Paris. And both fascinating.
Melissa: And that’s a really great background for storytelling. And the books we’ve chosen cover all of those aspects of Paris.
David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
David: OK, so I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel does not know which one of these is true. First, there is a restaurant in Paris where you eat in complete darkness. Two, the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. One of the suspects was Salvador Dali.
Melissa: Oh, I love Salvador Dali. I just have to say, like, surrealist art, I could take it or leave it. Intellectually, I understand it. It’s not my personal favorite thing to gaze upon, but him as a person, the mustache, the crazy cookbook he wrote, his whole ‘my life is an art project.’ Super into it.
David: Yeah. Third, there’s an underground group of hackers and agents who secretly fix the clock in the church where Voltaire is buried.
Melissa: Hmm, once again, you’ve done it, they all sound true. I am 99.9% sure that there is a restaurant where you eat in the complete dark. I believe that one is true.
David: That one is true. It’s called Danse le Noir. It has a 4.3 stars after 1100 reviews on Google, although a lot of reviewers don’t love the food. It’s staffed entirely by visually-impaired people. You get your server’s attention by calling their name. In the words of one diner, ‘You have no idea where your fellow diners are sitting and how many are at the table, how big the room is, or if indeed the guy in the next seat has stripped naked. It is genuinely disconcerting.’ The menu also is a surprise.
Melissa: I was going to ask you what kind of food they serve.
David: Yeah, you go and you sit down.
Melissa: You don’t know what you’re getting? You know, that would be tough for me. Like, even if I could get over the hurdle of just being in the complete dark, which is not my favorite thing.
David: Yeah. So that gets us to Dali’s stealing the Mona Lisa or the underground group of hackers who fix the clock.
Melissa: Ok, I’m going to say that someone stole the Mona Lisa, but I don’t think it was Dali.
David: That is correct.
David: Dali was not a suspect. So on August 11, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen by three men who spent the previous night in an art supply closet in the Louvre.
David: They came out in the morning, lifted the 200 pounds of painting and frame and protective glass off of the wall, and they walked out of the Louvre.
Melissa: Wow. They just picked the whole thing off the wall as it is and walked out with it?
David: Yep. And they got on a train. And it was two years before anybody saw the Mona Lisa again. But the the Mona Lisa was not what it is now, then. It wasn’t until the next day that anybody noticed that the Mona Lisa was gone. The staff that thought had been taken to the roof to be photographed.
Melissa: Oh, my gosh.
David: Because photography wasn’t good. They needed the sunlight. The Louvre announced the theft, The New York Times ran a headline that I love. The headline said, ‘Sixty detectives seek stolen Mona Lisa. French Public Indignant.’ [laughter]
David: After two years, one of the thieves decided that the heat had gone down sufficiently and he took the Mona Lisa to a dealer. The dealer, according to the story, the dealer did not recognize the Mona Lisa, but he saw the on the back there was the mark of the Louvre, and they were busted and the paintings returned. And it said that the theft helped make the Mona Lisa what it is today.
Melissa: Wow. That’s pretty cool story.
David: And as much as I’d like it to be true, Salvador Dali was not a suspect. He would have been seven. [mel laughing] But Pablo Picasso was a suspect.
Melissa: [mel gasps] No. I love it. I want someone to write that novel now.
David: Picasso was a suspect because he and a buddy had stolen stuff from the Louvre before. [mel laughing]
Melissa: What a thug.
David: Yeah. In 1907, his buddy lifted a 3rd-century statue and gave it to Picasso. A couple of years later, Picasso returned the favor. Another buddy, a third butty ratted them out to the cops. Picasso and his buddy made plans to throw their stolen art into the Seine, but ultimately could not do that.
Melissa: So did they give it back?
David: I don’t know if they did, but they weren’t cleared until the Mona Lisa was recovered.
Melissa: Wow. What was happening with security at the Louvre?
David: Yeah, I mean, it was lax. It was lax.
David: And that leaves us with: There is a group of hackers and thieves who fix the clock in the church where Voltaire is buried. This is all according to a 2012 article in Wired. There’s a group in Paris called the UX for Urban Experiment. Their most sensational caper was completed in 2006. They spent months infiltrating the Pantheon, which is a monument that houses the remains of France’s most sort-of cherished citizens. Eight restorers built their own secret workshop in a storeroom which they wired for electricity and Internet access and outfitted with armchairs and tools, a fridge and a hot plate. And they stayed there for a year.
Melissa: In the pantheon? Undetected?
David: They’d sneak in —
Melissa: What is happening with security in Paris?!
David: During the course of the year, they painstakingly restored the Pantheon’s 19th-century clock. The clock hadn’t chimed since the ’60s. And then one day in 2006, it rang for the first time on the hour, the half hour, and the quarter hour.
Melissa: Wow. That’s amazing.
David: OK, so the management —
Melissa: Uh-huh —
David: Not amused.
Melissa: Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure that instead of being filled with gratitude, there was a lot of WTF going on.
David: Well, OK. So the director of the Pantheon went so far as to hire a clockmaker to restore the clock to its previous condition by sabotaging it. The clockmaker refused to do more than sort of disengage a part of the escape wheel. UX slipped in and stole that part from them and are said to be safe-keeping it now in hope that someday a more enlightened administration will return.
Melissa: I feel like all of the Two Truths and a Lie today need novels written about them. So if anyone is listening and is a budding novelist, could you please get on that for me? Thank you.
David: UX claims to have conducted 15 other such covert restorations, all in Paris.
Melissa: So their intentions are good? Or are they just mischief makers or both?
David: They’re both: mischief makers, but they have good intentions.
Melissa: I love it. I need a TV series.
David: Remember when we went to the catacombs and there was that story of a group who had been in there and set up a movie theater?
Melissa: Yes, yes.
David: That’s the same group.
Melissa: I love them. Do you think they wear black turtlenecks and black berets?
David: I can only hope. And occasionally bandit masks.
Melissa: And maybe when the women smoke cigarettes, them in long cigarette holders.
David: There’s a comic series called Bandette, which I really love.
Melissa: Oh, yeah, I read one of those. So cute.
David: Yeah. And I’m thinking that Bandette is a member of UX.
David: Definitely. That’s all I got. That’s Two Truths and Lie. Do you want to talk about boks?
Melissa: I always want to talk about books. My first book is Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain. It is translated from the French by Emily Boice and Jane Etkin. I feel like it’s really important to mention the translators because the translations of his books are beautiful. Translation is such an art. I love to plug the people who do it.
Melissa: So if I was going to conjure the perfect book to represent romantic, whimsical Paris. Daydreaming Paris. The Paris of movies like Amelie and Sabrina, it would be this book. The story starts in 2017 in an apartment in Paris.
David: Oh, very recent.
Melissa: Yes, contemporary. There’s a group of people, some of whom know each other and some of whom have just met, and they’re sharing a vintage bottle of Beaujolais wine from 1954. So imagine the scene: beautiful apartment with high ceilings, windows looking out over the city. There’s a Gothy antiques dealer. There’s an American named Bob from Milwaukee, and he’s visiting Paris for a very personal and poignant reason. So Bob might have some hidden depths. There’s a cocktail mixologist who is really into creating new cocktails, and he makes a cocktail that actually is pretty important to the plot. And then there’s the host who is a very, very French Frenchman. He is not super comfortable socializing. And now he’s got all these people in his apartment sharing this really, really important bottle of wine. And then. Something magical happens, although they don’t know it at the time
Melissa: The wine flows, the conversation is rolling along and by the end of the evening, they all part ways and they’re all feeling very content and warm and glowing. And the next morning when they wake up, they are in 1950s Paris.
David: What do they do about that?
Melissa: Well, I’m glad you asked. As they’re trying to figure out exactly what has happened, because now their cell phones aren’t working. You know, they go to the metro stop where they usually go and realize that things look different. And why do the light posts look like that? Like the dawning realization?
David: Yeah. How long would it take you to realize that you are in 1954? If you just woke up one morning —
Melissa: That’s kind of a comical part of the novel because they’re all so entrenched in their routines that it takes them a little while to notice that things aren’t functioning the way they’re supposed to. Because you would look at your phone and be like, oh, I don’t know, I guess it’s just not working right now.
David: Service is out.
Melissa: Yeah, and Bob has never been there before, so it takes him a while to realize things aren’t functioning the way they’re supposed to.
David: The phone suggested some elements of your life went back with you to.
Melissa: Yeah. I mean, they have their stuff. As they are trying to sort out just what is happening, they’re visiting all of the Paris landmarks that you would want to see on a trip to Paris. So they go to Harry’s Bar, which is a very famous cocktail bar. Of course, they go to the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. And then eventually the story moves to the French countryside and this beautiful vineyard at Chateau St. Antoine. And they’re trying to unravel the mystery of this magical bottle of wine as they are going on these adventures in the past. They also run into famous Parisians, which is really fun. So real-life people make cameos like Audrey Hepburn.
Melissa: Edith Piaf and the photographer Robert Doisneau, who did that famous picture of the people kissing in Paris. FFilmmaker Francois Truffaut. So they just, like, run into them in cafes and bars and have conversations with them. It’s thoroughly enchanting. My notes from this book have adjectives like effervescent, overtly optimistic, wistful, delight with lots of exclamation points.
Melissa: But aside from the kind of stylistic, frothy bubbliness of it, it also has a lot of things that I really, really love in a novel. There are some kind of devastating family secrets that are revealed. There is, of course, romance. There’s this big adventure because they’re transported back in time, and there’s found family, which is, of course, my number one favorite thing in a novel. This is a 100-percent feel good read. And it made me really homesick for a Paris that I’ve never experienced.
Melissa: And which maybe never actually existed. It’s a very idealized version of Paris.
Melissa: That’s about the best you can get from a book with a strong sense of place I think.
David: Also, I love a time travel with a romance in it.
Melissa: Yes. Very sweet. I am not a fan of time-travel science fiction novels. I have a really hard time wrapping my head around the paradoxes and the science of time travel. But this book is not that. This is, like, the most whimsical, ‘I just happened to find myself in 1950. Hey, Audrey Hepburn.’ So if time travel is not your thing, don’t worry because —
David: It’s more of a fantasy than sci-fi.
Melissa: Yeah. The author, Antoine Lorrain has written six other novels that have been translated into English. He’s very popular, very well-known. I also read The Red Notebook, which is another really charming love story about a neighborhood bookshop in Paris. The owner of the shop finds a handbag lying on the street. And there’s a red notebook inside of it. And he becomes determined to find the woman who lost this handbag. At first, he’s worried that something has happened to her. He’s worried that she’s been assaulted or something —
David: This is the same guy wrote _The President’s Hat.’
Melissa: Correct. Which is also very well reviewed and much adored.
David: So he sort of specializes in Parisian fantasy.
Melissa: Yes. And you can go really deep with him if you find that his books suit your taste. But I’m going to recommend that you start with Vintage 1954.
David: Nice. What’s the author’s name again?
Melissa: Antoine Laurain. And I will put a video of an interview with Antoine Laurain in the show notes. Because if you were going to a conjur in your imagination, a French author, it would be him.
David: Yeah, he should be carrying a baguette. But other than that, he looks a little a little bit to me like —
Melissa: Adrien Brody.
David: Yes, Adrien Brody.
Melissa: Kind of a more suave and charming French Ichabod Crane. With a really good accent.
David: My first book is The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. This is a children’s book. It’s unlike most children’s book in that it’s about 500 pages long.
Melissa: Oh, I love that.
David: So, a brick. I would consider it a graphic novel. It’s rich with full-page images, some of which advance the plot. There are 284 images, Wikipedia tells me.
David: Yeah, but there’s also a ton of text.
Melissa: His style is really, really, I would say, whimsical. Charming.
David: Oh, for sure. This book won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 and it was the first novel to do so. Caldecott is normally for picture books and the committee decided that this was a picture book as well as the novel. It was made into a movie by Martin Scorsese. In 2011, the movie was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Melissa: We saw that movie. I really enjoyed it.
David: Yeah. You know, it was funny. I was thinking bout that movie, and I remembered it as being animated. And then I went back, and it’s live action.
Melissa: But it does have that kind of sheen of fantasy where you could it could feel animated. Yeah, I feel like these two Vintage 1954 and Hugo Cabret would be a really good twofer if you wanted the kind of whimsical, charming Paris.
David: Yes, definitely trading in that. The story follows a young boy, Hugo, who lives in a train station in Paris in the 1930s.
Melissa: I mean, right there, I could not be more in.
David: He’s alone. He takes care of the clocks in the station. When the story starts, his status is a little fuzzy. He seems to be parentless. He’s a little bit of a scamp. He has holes in his shoes. He definitely seems to be sneaking around to fix the clocks. And he’s a thief. And it’s unclear why he’s doing any of that. He also has an automaton, a clockwork man, like a robot, but sort of simpler. But it’s also not a simple device. It’s clearly complex mechanical device. We don’t know where the automaton is from or what it does. It’s a man sitting at a desk holding a pen. It’s broken and Hugo determined to fix it. And that’s Hugo’s normal. That’s his day to day. And then one day, he has a run-in with an old man who runs a toy booth in the train station. Hugo is stealing parts to fix the automaton and he gets caught. Eventually, the automaton reveals its secret, which leads to more secrets and revelations. Hugo meets a girl who’s the toy maker’s goddaughter regains her trust and he loses it again.
David: There are bits in the book that are just just a little heartbreaking.
Melissa: I mean, you can’t have the golden glow without a little bit of heartbreak.
David: It’s true. The book does two really impressive tricks, I thought. First, it’s a magical story that doesn’t have any magic in it.
Melissa: I love that.
David: Yeah, Hugo feels magical. It feels like it’s a fairy tale that could very well have an ogre in it. But it’s it doesn’. It’s grounded in our reality. And the second trick is kind of related to the first but different. It widens into our reality. There are elements of our world that come storming into this story about two-thirds of the way through. The really cool part of this trick is that it reminds us that our own world is full of wonder. The climax of this book is how magical our own world is, which I just adore. That’s so great.
Melissa: Yeah, I mean, that’s my favorite kind of fantasy, which is pointing out the magic that can be found in the real world. Or superimposing a sheen of fantasy on top of the real world. As opposed to creating something from whole cloth. Because the world is magical. Look at the Eiffel Tower for heaven’s sake.
David: The end result of this book to me is that the book feels a lot like Paris which is why I picked it for the show. This Paris feels magical even though it’s really not. The city has unexpected and delightful elements, but there are elements that are firmly grounded are in our own world. It’s a really good trick. This book is The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.
Melissa: My second book is a complete departure from the mood of our first two recommendations. This book is called The Godmother by Hannelore Care, translated by Stephanie Smee. And this is a contemporary crime novel. It’s short. It’s only about 218 pages, so it goes really quickly, but it’s like concentrated detergent. It’s super powerful. The little book that could. It’s awesome. So, our heroine is named Patience Portefeux. She’s 53 years old and she is an interpreter for the Ministry of Justice. Her specialty is listening to tapes from wiretaps and translating from Arabic to French. And most of the conversations that she’s listening to are between drug dealers from North Africa.
David: Oh, OK.
Melissa: Although she works for the police, Patience is starting to extend her empathy towards the crooks. Listening to them for hours on end has humanized them. And she knows what it’s like to be in some tough spots. Her husband died recently, and she’s now become solely responsible for her elderly mother, who is in a care facility, and for her own adult daughters. So she’s now a single mom with a lot of responsibility. So all of these circumstances lead Patience to make a shocking, life-changing decision, and from there we just like off to the races.
Melissa: I don’t think it’s giving anything away to say that there’s a reason this novel is called The Godmother. There are hints in the title of what might be happening.
Melissa: So things I love about this book. This is not the Paris of Vintage 1954 or Hugo Cabaret. This is a gritty, crime-riddled, urban destination, which is also an aspect of Paris that we have to acknowledge. Paris is a large, thriving metropolis. The suburbs are very different than the arrondissement with the Eiffel Tower in it.
Melissa: Paris is home to more than two million people. They are not all going to be elegant ladies in little black dresses with a glass of wine. The second largest ethnic group in France after French people are people of Arab origin. So this is a big part of the population. But, this is really interesting, ethnic statistics are forbidden in France. So there are no official figures about what the actual demographics of the Arabic population are. But we know from the news that relationships between the Arab population and the French population are not always smooth.So that’s one of the things that I really liked about this book. It’s another facet to what life in Paris is like. The second thing to love about this book is that Patience is just an awesome character.
Melissa: She’s a 53-year-old woman who is not taking anybody’s crap. I wanted to be her. I wanted to have her as my best friend. I mean, first of all, she’s a wizard with languages. You know, she’s translating Arabic to French in real time. She’s very tough and smart and really snappy. And even though she becomes the Godmother, she’s also honest in her own way, which is one of my favorite things in a character, I particularly a detective character to kind of have a shadow side. And now I guess, I like my criminal characters to have an honest side.
David: Yeah, right.
Melissa: She’s super likeable, even though she does some really dodgy things because she has really good reasons for doing them, which I’m not going to give away. She also kind of struts into what’s traditionally a man’s world and takes control of it. And she does that not by acting like the men, but by fully embodying her practical female side. Aside from the really thrilling caper aspects of this story, it’s also really sharp examination of societal issues that are happening right now, how modern Western culture cares or doesn’t care for the elderly and who we kind of put in charge of taking care of our elderly people in these facilities.
What it’s like to be an immigrant in Western culture, the sidelining of women of a certain age. We don’t stop being interesting people once we get past 50. But all of those things are tackled, like, really deftly. So you’re not getting pounded over the head with it. It’s all kind of integral to this story that’s really a page-turner. And it’s also a really moving look at what people are willing to do for their families. That’s ultimately her motivation for all of the things that she does.
Melissa: OK, one final thing I want to say about this book. The translation by Stephanie Smee is fantastic, and I’m not the only one who thinks so. The novel was the winner of the European Crime Fiction Prize and the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière, which is the most prestigious prize for crime fiction in France. And it also inspired the movie Mamma Weed. So if you’re looking for a book in translation because you’re trying to read more translated books, this is a great one.
Melissa: Very accessible. Super page-turner. Short. It’s punchy. It’s a fun story. It’s got some feelings in it. That is The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre.
David: It sounds packed. How do you get all that stuff in 281 pages?
Melissa: I told you! It’s concentrated like superpowered detergent.
David: Yeah, you did. My next book is The Only Street in Paris: Life on the rue The des Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino.
Melissa: Can I just say again how much I love your French accent?
David: Thank you so much. I should have put that disclaimer up front that I was going to butcher —
Melissa: Right. We meant to talk about that in the introduction that you have charmed all of Paris with your impeccable French accent.
David: It’s true.
Melissa: Well, listen to me, smug over here. Like my accent is so much better.
David: The Only Street in Paris. The author, Elaine Sciolino, is the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times and also a Chevallier for the French Legion of Honor.
Melissa: So she might know what she’s talking about. She could probably help us with our French accent.
David: She’s been covering Paris for almost 20 years. This is a book about one street. It’s her neighborhood. It’s almost the perfect nonfiction, strong sense of place book. Sciolino spends about 300 pages describing her favorite street in Paris. We get descriptions of its people and its food and its history, the architecture, the sights. She is thorough and it’s engaging, as you might expect from the former Paris bureau chief for The New York Times. She is a good writer.
Melissa: Huh. Shocking.
David: Yep. And she’s also really good with people.
Melissa: Oh, I mean, that’s a rare combination.
David: It is a rare combination. Yeah. She seems to know everybody on her street and she describes them in ways that makes you want to get to know them. The book’s written in a series of vignettes. For instance, there’s a chapter that follows the man giving a touron the street with one of the first chapters. And I thought it was a really super clever way of doing that. She establishes the neighborhood by following the route of another guy and talking about what he’s talking about.
Melissa: I also really love to do that. I love when you’re visiting a foreign city and you come up on a tour group and you can kind of hang on the fringe of it and hear what the tour guide is saying.
David: Yeah, it’s like that. There’s another about ghosts in the neighborhood.
Melissa: Oh, that sounds good, too.
David: When she’s at her best, which is frequently, she manages to describe the community vibrantly while she’s maybe telling you about something else.
Melissa: Mm hmm. That’s a really good trick.
David: Maybe the third chapter in the book is about the tragedy of the local fishmonger closing. It gives a real sense of the community. And for me, it really punched up why the French are the same and also different from people I’ve known. I’m going to read about a page of it. The setup is that there’s a family-run fishmonger, a fish shop, La Poissonnerie Bleue, that has announced that it’s going to close at the end of the month. The author’s describing a local woman’s reaction.
Quote from ‘The Only Street in Paris’: To any customer willing to listen, she said, “This is going to kill the bottom of the rue des Martyrs! This is a little village. Parents bring their kids here to teach them about food.”
Her greatest fear was that a shoe store would move in. The more she talked, the darker her predictions: “If there’s no fish shop, the neighborhood is dead!”
Everyone had an opinion about what could happen next, and all of the opinions were negative. Maybe the Carrefour supermarket next door would break down the walls and expand. Maybe yet another cheese shop or bakery would take over. No one had much hope that another fishmonger would move in.
“Where will we go for fish?” one customer lamented. “Picard?” Picard is a national all-frozen-food supermarket chain with an outlet around the corner. Its frozen red mullet is half the price of the fresh counterpart at La Poissonnerie Bleue, but Picard is viewed with disdain by traditional French cooks. The dirty little secret is that some Picard fish is pas mal, which in French doesn’t mean “not bad”; it actually means pretty good, only no one was admitting that in this crisis.
There was a smaller fresh-fish store several blocks up the street, but for residents of the lower rue des Martyrs, that was a world away. “Too far, too far,” said Yves Chataigner, who runs a cheese shop with his wife Annick, at No. 3 rue des Martyrs. “It might as well be New York.”
It wasn’t only that. The distant shop offered less choice, was owned by a chain, and employed fishmongers who didn’t bother to learn their clients’ names or fish preferences. (When I asked them for their reaction to the impending closure of their main competition below, they replied with Gallic shrugs.) It was also up the hill, an incline that gets steeper as the street moves north, toward Montmartre.
“How will all the old grandmas get their fish?” asked Valérie Levin, the baker’s wife across the street.
Since this is France, where people hold the government responsible for just about anything that goes wrong, Valérie insisted that city hall should guarantee access to fresh fish. “The authorities have an obligation to put a fish store here, a civic obligation,” she said. She circulated a petition demanding a fishmonger. Two hundred people signed.
Melissa: That’s awesome!
Melissa: Yes, I love the idea that you get the right to liberty, pursuit of happiness and a fish store on your block.
Melissa: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité… poisson.
David: Yeah, right. And the idea that the fishmonger teaches your children about fish. It’s an educational experience. It’s an important educational experience.
Melissa: If you’re going to be a well-rounded person, you need to understand the world of fish and how that fits into the world of cuisine and how cuisine fits into the rest of your life. I’m signing the petition.
David: How can you know yourself if you don’t know what fish you enjoy? Truly. The book is fairly recent, it was s published in 2015. You can use Google maps and walk the neighborhood that she’s talking about. It’s a love letter to the street in Paris.
Melissa: That sounds really, really good.
David: I really enjoyed it. It’s _The Only Street in Paris: Life on the Rue de Martyrs by Elaine Sciolino. What’s your last book?
Melissa: I’ve made it to my last book, but again, because I’m a cheater, I want to mention one book before I get to my final book.
Melissa: In our Scotland episode, I recommended the book City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab, which is why a novel about a precocious 12-year-old-girl who can slip through the veil between this world and the other world — and whose best friend is a ghost. That was the first book in a series. The second book in the series is called Tunnel of Bones, and it’s set in the Paris Catacombs.
David: Oh, lovely.
Melissa: And I actually read that book before we went to the Catacombs. So when we went in them, I was remembering scenes from the book, which is really fun. These books are great. They are, on the surface, adventure stories about this 12-year-old girl and her best friend, the ghost. But they’re really about friendship and loyalty and finding your place in the world. So they have an emotional resonance, even though on the surface they’re just adventure stories. This one is great for Paris. They go to the Catacombs, they go to Père Lachaise Cemetery, which is another one of my favorite places that we visited, the Eiffel Tower, of course. They’re non-scary ghost stories. Highly recommended. That is Tunnel of Bones by Victoria Schwab.
Melissa: Now on to my actual last book recommendation. This book is called Little by Edward Carey, and it’s a fictionalized biography of Madame Tussaud, the woman who founded the famous wax museum.
Melissa: So this story actually begins in Switzerland in 1761. And then the action moves to Paris and eventually through the French Revolution in 1789. And we know the WHAT from the outset, right? We know that this little girl is eventually going to grow up to be the famous Madame Tussaud. The story is all about the HOW and the WHY this little orphan girl from Switzerland becomes the toast of London with her crazy wax figurines. So Maria is called Little and she’s called Little because she’s tiny. And she’s a really wonderful heroine, especially at the beginning of the book when she’s just a little girl. She reminded me a little bit of Jane Eyre. She’s just kind of raging against the injustices of her life, the way she’s treated really unfairly and callously. She’s a little bundle of angry energy. Have a soft spot for that.
David: I wonder why.
Melissa: She is sadly abandoned by her mother, and she’s taken in by Dr Phillipe Curtius, who’s a real person. He was a physician and he specialized in making wax body parts for a teaching hospital. That’s real life. Fact. So he takes her in and I feel like it’s not quite an adoption because I feel like that kind of insinuates that there’s some warm feelings of love and caring there. But he doesn’t really adopt her. He just sort of takes her and cohabitates with her.
David: As you might a cat.
Melissa: Yes! And she becomes his apprentice. This is where the tone of the book kind of starts to emerge. For me, it’s very macabre, but gleefully so. A little bit like Edward Gorey illustrations where you’re, like, this is really disturbing, but also kind of funny and makes me feel a little warm-hearted, even though it’s very eerie. It’s like that. Both Little and Dr. Curtius are comforted by each other, but they don’t love each other. So it’s this really weird, symbiotic relationship where they need each other and they’re helping each other, but you wouldn’t really say that they’re like father and daughter.
Melissa: As little gets older and learns more about making these wax figurines — and she and Dr. Curtius kind of become a little bit famous in Paris — real-life famous Parisians pass in and out of their lives. So you’re learning things about the history of Paris and the figures that were really significant in the 18th century. For example, there is a writer named Louis-Sébastien Mercier. He kind of becomes an adopted uncle for Little. And this is real. This is true. He wrote a book called The Year 2440: A Dream If Ever There Was One. And it’s a utopian novel set in the year 2440.
David: Wow. When was this?
Melissa: Yeah. This was the late seventeen hundreds.
David: Wow. It’s hard to think about.
Melissa: Yes. And the world he imagined in this book is very much like the world of Star Trek. He really envisioned extreme equality and really comfortable clothes and hospitals based on science and everyone’s minds were blown. So he becomes kind of like Little’s uncle. Also actual fact: The woman who became Madame Tussaud was tutor to Princess Elizabeth, who was the younger sister of Louis XVI and actually lived at Versaille for a while. But as we know happens when you’re at court, favors can change really quickly, so that didn’t go quite as well as everyone would have liked. I rarely laugh when I’m reading. That’s just not an experience that I have, even if I think something is funny —
David: Yeah, same. I kind of read things and think, ‘Oh, that’s funny.’
Melissa: Yeah, yeah. This book made me laugh out loud so many times because it’s so just audacious and really, really enjoying being dark and Little is really a treat. There’s this one scene — So, she and Dr. Curtius are moving from their original house into the Monkey House.
David: What’s the Monkey House?
Melissa: Like a zoo, but it was a house that had been filled with monkeys. This is a real thing. In seventeen hundreds Paris. It was like a monkey exhibit.
David: So there is a house in Paris that was filled with monkeys and people would pay money to go in and look at the monkeys.
Melissa: Correct. And then the monkeys moved out and Little and Dr. Curtius and their lab and her kind-of adopted mother moved in.
David: Can you imagine the cleaning that would be involved with one of the monkey house?
Melissa: And that is in the book. The house is super disturbing. It’s really an upsetting house. It’s cold. And she’s like 10 or 11, so it’s scary. It’s dirty. There used to be scary monkeys in here. She doesn’t like it. And at one point everyone else goes out and she’s left alone in the house by herself. And she walks into the middle of the house and she tips her head back and she shouts, ‘You can’t scare me and I’m not going anywhere. So you may as well make peace with me.’
Melissa: And I was like, ‘That’s my girl.’ That’s her whole attitude — these terrible things happen to her over and over. And that’s her whole attitude. Like, ‘I’m scared, but I’m going to fight back.’ Very endearing. And from then on, she wasn’t scared anymore.
Melissa: So I really like this for Strong Sense of Place. Aside from it being a great story, I like it for Strong Sense of Place because it’s really drenched in atmosphere and the descriptions of places that she lives in Paris are just deliciously bleak, which is not a view of Paris that we get frequently. It’s very chilly. It’s very creaky. And the other thing is you get a perspective on the French Revolution, which I hadn’t really experienced before. The revolution is going on, the town is in chaos, but there’s also all these other people just trying to live their lives. And there are literally people getting their heads chopped off in the street outside their house. So in some ways, it’s also a war story in that you see what the Revolution is like through the eyes of people who are not directly involved in the Revolution. I thought it was funny and moving and surprising and educational, which is all the things I’m looking for. That is Little by Edward Carey also.
David: Those are five books we love set in Paris.
Melissa: Six books we love that Paris! [laughter]
David: Visit our show notes at strongsenseofplace.com for links and details. Mel, what did you write for Paris?
Melissa: Over the next two weeks, we have some very exciting blog posts coming. The one I’m most excited about is that we’re sharing a recipe for a Potato Chip Omelet from the book Tasting Paris by Clotilde Dusoulier. She is the founder of the website Chocolate and Zucchini. She is a Parisian lady with fantastic taste. The Potato Chip Omelet is from a Michelin-star restaurant.
David: She wrote a whole book of very French recipes that I very much associate with Paris that is arranged by day part. It’s morning, afternoon, evening. Late evening, I think.
Melissa: Yes, yeah, yeah. So if you want to have a day like a Parisian, you can just select a recipe from each section of the book. Done.
David: A lovely staycation idea.
Melissa: Yes, OK. Also coming up, we have photos and details about an English language bookstore in Paris that I really loved, called the Librairie Galignani. We have more books set in Paris because I think in my life I’ve read something like 30 books set in Paris and that is all coming over the next two weeks at strongsenseofplace.com.
David: Thank you for listening to Strong Sense of Place. Be sure to sign up for our free weekly newsletter. It’s packed with our favorite book and travel related things. And please follow us on Instagram for photos and illustrations and short book reviews and other things we love. We are @strongsenseof.
Melissa: If you enjoy our show, please rate it, review it, and tell a friend. That is the way you can help us ensure that we can keep doing this show because we really love doing it, and we hope you love listening to it. And don’t forget to subscribe so you never miss an episode.
David: Where are we going for our next show?
Melissa: By request from our audience, we are getting curious about the state known as The Last Frontier.
David: Star Trek.
Melissa: It is not Star Trek, David. It’s Alaska.
David: Thanks for listening. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Sergei Aleshin/Shutterstock.
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