Every year I spend some time in a tiny apartment in Paris, seven stories above the mayor’s offices for the 11th arrondissement. The Place de la Bastille – the spot where the French revolution sparked political change that transformed the world – is a 10-minute walk down a narrow street that threads between student nightclubs and Chinese fabric wholesalers.
Twice a week, hundreds of Parisians crowd down it, heading to the marché de la Bastille, stretched out along the center island of the Boulevard Richard Lenoir.
Blocks before you reach the market, you can hear it: a low hum of argument and chatter, punctuated by dollies thumping over the curbstones and vendors shouting deals. But even before you hear it, you can smell it: the funk of bruised cabbage leaves underfoot, the sharp sweetness of fruit sliced open for samples, the iodine tang of seaweed propping up rafts of scallops in broad rose-colored shells.
Threaded through them is one aroma that I wait for. Burnished and herbal, salty and slightly burned, it has so much heft that it feels physical, like an arm slid around your shoulders to urge you to move a little faster. It leads to a tented booth in the middle of the market and a line of customers that wraps around the tent poles and trails down the market alley, tangling with the crowd in front of the flower seller.
In the middle of the booth is a closet-size metal cabinet, propped up on iron wheels and bricks. Inside the cabinet, flattened chickens are speared on rotisserie bars that have been turning since before dawn. Every few minutes, one of the workers detaches a bar, slides off its dripping bronze contents, slips the chickens into flat foil-lined bags, and hands them to the customers who have persisted to the head of the line.