Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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Paris, France
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December 31
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Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
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www.alysasalzberg.com
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A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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MARCH 28, 2011 9:01PM

Rats

Rate: 35 Flag

 

For most of my life, people have called me a bookworm, and I've seen no reason to argue.  Like one of those perhaps mythical worms, I feel nourished by books.  I love the physical presence of printed pages so much that I often bury my nose into them, savoring the smell.  Well, there isn’t one uniform smell, of course, and I’ve become a bit of a connoisseur of the different varieties.  As I rode the Metro today, reading and appreciating the occasional whiff of my book’s barely opened pages, I found myself thinking of the French equivalent of “bookworm”, rat de bibliothèque – “library rat.”

Maybe it’s because I prefer mammals to insects, or maybe it’s because there’s a whole story here (doesn’t “library rat” conjure up images of a charming children’s book – or a time when libraries and bookstores were riddled with rodents?), but I love this term.  If I had to create one universal language, I would have rat de bibliothèque in the lexicon, no questions asked. 

Interestingly, a few years ago there was a big poster ad in many stations of the Paris Metro for a book called Firmin.  The reason the ad caught my eye wasn’t because a large advertisement for literature is a rarity in the Metro.  (OSer Brassawe made an interesting observation in a recent post that the people of Montreal are readers, and the people of Mexico, not – the French fall into the former category, with at least half of every Metro car’s passengers engrossed in a novel at all times.)  Rather, it was the fun illustration of a kind-but-battered looking cartoon rat sitting atop a stack of books. 

 

firmin

(image source

 

A rat de bibliothèque, right here in the Metro! 

Normally, the only rodents I see in the Metro are the mice that occasionally scurry among the tracks. They resemble the stones that are around the rails, so it’s not easy to spot them, but when I do, I always marvel at how they’ve learned to live in such a strange environment. 

Once I did see a rat in Paris, at a perfectly wonderful time.  My boyfriend and I had just left a movie theater, where we’d seen “Ratatouille.”  On our long stroll to the bus, we spotted a large rat picking at one of the public garbage bags on a ring that spot the city streets.  It was like our hero come to life!  Speaking of “Ratatouille,” which is a really fun film I highly recommend, the shop window with its hideous display of dead rats really does exist.  You can find it a few dozen paces from one of the Châtelet Metro exits.

exterminator 

 (image source)

I’ve seen other Parisian exterminators who like to display such “trophies”.  For many victims of pest infestation, this is very convincing proof of their skill.  To me, it’s horrible. I don’t believe any living thing, no matter how scary or inconvenient to have in your home, should be cruelly murdered if there's another way to solve the problem.  There are many friendly ways to get rid of them, including no-kill traps.  But these exterminators are old-school.

Funny that there’s no appreciation for rats anymore; during the Siege of Paris in 1870, and, a few months later, the Paris Commune, when the city’s inhabitants were suffering from a lack of meat, many turned to killing these rodents and passing them off as something else – except for a few irreverent restaurants, who joked about the elegant preparation and accompaniments of their servings of rats.  Parisians claimed that rat wasn’t the worst meat, and they would know, since they also slaughtered most of the animals at the zoo in the Jardin des Plantes.  That prey was served in fine restaurants or sold at butcher shops fresh or canned, at a high price.  The only animals that were spared were the pigeons (At this time, Parisians were apparently obsessed with pigeons – sometimes called “winged rats” by us Anglophones! – because some were messenger pigeons, one of the few ways to communicate with the outside world.  In reality, few of these birds made it back to Paris, but it was forbidden to shoot any pigeon, just in case.).  Some of the big cats also survived (too difficult to kill without human casualties), and the apes and monkeys were left alone, since they were considered too “human-like” to slay and eat. 

siege menu

 

Among the many honestly yet appealingly described dishes on this famous real menu from a restaurant operating during the Siege of Paris, we see "Cat Flanked by Rats".  To read the whole menu, go here . If you're intrigued and don't read French, please feel free to PM me and I'll translate. 

 

Another kind of Parisian rat that became famous in the 19th century were the petits rats de l’Opéra, the young girls who were trained as ballerinas at the Paris Opera. Unfortunately, cute as the name might seem, they were often forced into prostitution, and most did not go on to have careers as professional adult ballerinas or opera singers. 

Angelina Ballerina

 

Don't be fooled - Angelina Ballerina is not an actual rat de l’Opéra.

(image source

 

 

petite danseuse de quatorze ans

But Degas' Petite danseuse de quatorze ans (The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer) is.

(image source

 

Despite the fitting image of a rat with books, Firmin’s titular hero is not a rat de bibliothèque, but a bookshop rat (close, but no cigar, especially as far as book smells go). And despite the rat’s prevalence in Parisian culture, the book is actually an American novel by Sam Savage. The full English title is: Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife. 

I don’t know how well the book sold here in France, but I found the poster irresistible, and immediately went home and ordered the original English edition, and loved it.  The book tells the story of Firmin’s life, and also the story of the decaying Boston neighborhood in which he lives.  Firmin eats book pages the way I smell them, and then his relationship with them evolves.  I would highly recommend this novel – it’s one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

I don’t know of a French story about Parisian rat, told from the rat’s perspective.  I’m sure there is one, but all of the major literary rats I can think of generally come from Anglophone culture – like Templeton in Charlotte’s Web.  No, the rats of Paris seem to have burrowed more into the city herself than into the literature and art that’s come from her.

 

templeton

Templeton and his friends

(image source

  

Though literary and literal rats may not be easy to spot in Paris, the linguistic ones abound. Tomorrow, I’ll spend my lunch break as I often do, being a rat de bibliothèque in a dark, low-ceilinged library near the Pantheon.  When I walk home, I’ll pass the site of  a small street once called the rue des Rats (Rat Street).  On Thursday, I’ll be working near a building whose ground floor was once a famous 19th century café called the Rat Mort (The Dead Rat). 

Interestingly enough, these places are never far from another creature who might be invoked to keep them in line: the erstwhile rue des Rats is a short stroll from the rue du Chat qui Peche (Fishing Cat Street), and the Rat Mort used to be located near the legendary Chat Noir (Black Cat) cabaret. 

 

rat mort

(image source

  

Still, despite these cats, the rats' spirit remains, running free.  For me, the rats of Paris are those of us living secret lives, hiding away in libraries with our noses in books. Or those who change billboards and advertising posters before dawn, so that each week a part of the cityscape is altered.  Rats are sanitation workers in their own right, and like the rats themselves, their human colleagues aren’t usually as appreciated or valued as they should be.  Rats are survival, the desperate last resort of the starving – or, in true Parisian fashion, the need for meat to slather in a delicious sauce (peu importe the Siege and political strife – dinner must be balanced!). 

Even this post is a bit like a rat, scurrying quickly from one place to another…..

Vive les rats de Paris!   

 

rue des rats

"Rue des Rats" carved into an old Parisian building facade.  This is the way streets were designated here before modern plaques and panels.

(image source

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To learn more about the strange diet of Parisians during the Siege of Paris, just do a search, for example "food, Siege of Paris". You'll get a lot of interesting results.
If anyone could make a rat taste good I think it would be the French. Very interesting post, Alysa. Ratted ... I mean, rated.
Lea, I think you might be right...though I'd be sad to eat a rat. I have a lot of issues with eating meat when I know the animal well. Cows and chickens I haven't lived among, but I had hamsters and gerbils growing up. I can't even eat rabbit, which is very popular here. I would have become a vegetarian during the Siege of Paris, I think.... If you can, you should read the rest of the menu -it's really extraordinary. I'm so glad someone thought to save a copy; otherwise, who would have believed contemporary writers and journalists weren't just exaggerating?
I love the book Firmin. My copy actually has a bite out of the book making all the pages have a big chunk out of them. Great post, Alysa. Rats will outlive us all! R
Un peu de civet de kangaourou pour mois, s'il vous plait.

Ils faites des "joyeus hopity-hops" dans m'estomac.

C'est bon, n'est-ce pas.
Padraig - I'm so glad you liked my post - it's been brewing for a while and it was so fun to write! Yes, zoo animals were eaten by richer Parisians during the Siege (the Jardin des Plantes had - and still has - a zoo, and there was also another one in the city). It is curious when you think about what animals we don't eat. As I wrote to Lea, I personally have problems consuming animals I've lived with, like rabbits. If I could, though, I would probably just be a vegetarian, but I think it's normal for humans to eat some meat. I try whenever possible to buy animal-derived food products (meat, eggs, etc) where I know the animals have lived in decent conditions and didn't die in an extraordinarily cruel way - but it's never easy to know. At least with eggs they have seals and organizations set up to see if the chickens are really free range. As for your rat story -wow. That must have been unnerving! And as for your poem, I'd love to read it - please send me the link.
How absolutely intriguing, and so very well written! I have long fancied domestic rats, and harbored no ill will toward nondomesticated ones unless they come into my house or hitch a ride on my windshield (true story - the longer version is understandably alot funnier).

Actually, there was nothing entertaining about the house rat. I fired three cats who lived in the same part of the house as the rat was discovered (quite alive and well, and I'm pretty sure sticking his tongue out at my inept cats).
Rita - Yess! A fellow "Firmin" fan! I've seen pictures of the "bitten" edition, and I really wanted it, but had to settle for a much tamer UK edition with a mouse silhouette and the title inside the outline of a book with its corner chewed off. The UK publisher did not go all the way.

steve - Je crois qu'il n'y a plus de kangourou au Jardin des Plantes aujourd'hui; par contre, il est tres facile a entrer dans l'enclos des wallaby - est-ce que cela ferait l'affaire?
Keeper. You do quality Post. I love Children books.
You didn't call DC's Rats on the Run in meeting mazes.
I recall one T- ball Player who got a home run on a bunt.
A Rat ran into the infield and everyone screamed`CEO!
I look into these books for Annabella. She's a ballerina.
kitd - I wouldn't be mad at the cats; rats are very clever and apparently could take a cat in a fight. The cats were doing what cats do best - looking out for number one! And I would LOVE to read about the rat on your windshield!
Art - Thanks! I'm glad you liked this post and it was indeed not an exhaustive survey of rats in literature, film, and the like; I only limited myself to Paris...it's tempting to do more on the subject, though....
Mais oui.

Responding in French would require verb tenses I have long ago forgotten, if I ever had them nailed down in the first place.

IMHO eating rats isno more scary than eating USDA inspected ground beef.
Oh - I eat neither when I can avoid them.
When my daughter was young she had breakfast with Angelina Ballerina. She had a fun time. I am very interested in the menu but cannot read French. Thanks for the information on France.
LOL
I was going to a rat post this week but ma soeur beat me to it.
Loved this.. I told you we were related in some life..:)
I too stare at wee moving things on the tracks..
rated with hugs
When we were talking while riding the Paris Metro, we saw people glaring at us because our conversation was disturbing their reading. And when I created a slide show of photos from my trip, I had a picture of a rat in a public place and my caption was, "We saw the star of Ratatouille."

OK, that's all the material I've got. Fascinating, informative post, Alysa. I didn't realize rats had so much significance in Parisian culture.
I'm glad Paris's rats have you in their corner. Everyone deserves learned representation.
There are (well, last week there were) large blow-up rats all over Manhattan to protest non-union workers. Very very large rats.
Loved your post - we're all rats in one way or another, aren't we - and I also loved the movie Ratatouille and of course Angelina. While I can't say I'm fond of the real thing, a fascinating book you might want to read is called "Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants" by Robert Sullivan. (It's about rats in NYC.)
I don't smell books, but sometimes I like to hold an open copy of "Moby Dick" up to my ear -- you can hear the ocean, but it smells like tuna.
This was a joy to read. Thank you!
Oh rattttssssss! Very fun blog. I love your inclusion of Angelina Ballerina - one of my daughters favorites!
Passenger pigeons were driven to extinction, not that I would have eaten one!
rated
Alysa, this is so fascinating...I learned of this from visiting Paris...what is particularly interesting is that 1870 isn't very long ago...only what...141 years...just so...I dunno...French and human and weird and wild....I hope this goes onto the cover! xox
The rat in the library rat poster is adorable...I confess to being less fond of the actual creatures. Since I live with two 'better mousetraps' I.E. cats, rats don't seem to have a problem avoiding me. Which suits me fine, as I have no idea whether either of my cats would actually DO anything if they encountered a live rat. And I definitely wouldn't be hanging their trophies in my front window!

But I believe that if one were obliged to try rats in the culinary sense, you'd be better off doing it in Paris rather than London. =o)

rated.
A really informative post, but I think I'd starve before eating a rat. -R-
We have a Rue des Rats here in the US too. It's the street Congress is on . . . .
Rats are the soft pet du jour now among art students and young hipster bohemians, and so I have had the chance to meet a few characters. They are smart, loving, and clean. This was a lovely post about the little fellas, and of course if they are French, they are extra chic. Merci!
Then there's King Rat, the book by Clavell and the movie with George Segal. And then there's our pet Dumbo rat, Tinkerbelle, who eats nothing but a piece of cheese each morning and a cracker or piece of fruit at night. I also keep her supplied with fresh nuts. Sweet lady, she.
I suppose they will say
it tastes like chicken
fascinating post
rated with love of all little critters
but rats kind of freak me out
rated with love
Okay, anyone who can make a conversation about rats interesting has some skills...fascinating historical portrait. I remember when “Ratatouille” came out and some scoffed at the image of a rat in the kitchen...eeww. Nonsense I thought, it's fantasy fiction. You're supposed to engage with the character not imagine a real rat in your kitchen...duh!
I lived in Montreal for a while and I noticed how bookish it was. I loved the bookstore/bookshop culture, but sadly, I spoke no french and couldn't partake. 8(

That said, Montrealers were 100% cool with having philosophical and political discussions in English with Americans, provided you could "hold your own." They are very cool in that regard. I wonder if Paris would be the same way toward American intellectuals?
I will have to look up Fermin. My view of rats was altered after seeing Ratatouille, but I think I will still refrain from eating rat--or something prepared by rat. That said, my mother was a "library rat", and she passed her love to me. Guess we won't be interesting you in a Kindl or a Nook? Great post!
Alysa, I can affectionately see you as rat de bibliothèque and thank you for a most fascinating post on such a diverse and interesing topic. The Turkish term for "book worm", by the way, is kitâb kurdu. How serendipitous to have seen a rat after exiting the movie "Ratatouille"! I adore that film.
♥R
Thanks so much for reading, everyone. I had a lot of fun writing down my rambling rodent thoughts!

steve – I understand and will look into the wallaby option.

Kimberly – Thanks for reading. I remember those Angelina Ballerina books from childhood. Here’s the menu. I didn’t translate the drinks, since those are pretty normal. Also, two things to note: 1. Radishes and butter are still a very popular snack here. 2. Cheese was very hard to come by during the Siege, so the Gruyere must have been a real delicacy.:


Menu
December 25, 1870
99th day of the Siege

Hors d’Oeuvres
Butter, Radishes, Stuffed Donkey Head, Sardines

Soups
Red Bean Puree with Croutons
Elephant Consommé

Starters
Fried Gudgeon
Camel roasted à l’anglaise
Kangaroo Stew
Roast Bear Ribs in Pepper Vinaigrette

Roasts
Wolf haunch with Venison Sauce
Cat Flanked by Rats
Watercress Salad
Antelope Paté with Truffles
Porchino Mushrooms à la Bordelaise
Peas in Butter

Sweet Dessert
Rice cake with jams

Savory Dessert
Gruyere Cheese




Linda – C’est dingue! Nous sommes absoluement des soeurs! I hope you’ll do your rat post anyway – it could be like an OS infestation!

Cranky – So you’ve seen a real Parisian rat! Very special experience. On the other hand, the rude looks in the Metro are all too common….

Leon – Thanks. I always root for the little guy!

Bernadine – I heard about this! Someone should do a New York rat post. That would be a very looong story!

Margaret – Thanks! And thanks also for a book I will definitely be checking out….

Gratuitous – We have something in common, and it’s not the butt (alas for me!): I’ve also got a Degas work I’m obsessed with, “The Bellilli Family”!

john – I would have thought it smelled like sperm! Oh…oh I am so sorry….totally inappropriate…I love that book, too….My apologies to Melville, to sperm whales (it’s not their fault we call them that!) and to you.

Snippy – I’m glad you liked it!

Susie – Thanks for reading and I’m glad you liked it. You scared me, though: passenger pigeons are indeed extinct (very sad!), but carrier pigeons live on today; according to my quick wikipedia check, any race of pigeon can apparently be trained to carry messages. And so my hope of one day receiving a love letter via pigeon, lives on!

Robin – Thanks so much! It is amazing that all this isn’t long ago. For me, 1870-’71 was a really transitional time, from the days of hoop skirts to a more modern look and feel. The Belle-Epoque began after this conflict, and with it came world-changing events like the start of Impressionism, the invention and popularization of cars and electric lighting, etc. It’s really interesting to look back at the moment just before all this started. That such tumult was happening in Paris at the time to boot, is another fascinating element.

Shiral – “better mousetraps” indeed! Viva friendly extermination! I don’t know what any cat would do with a rat, either, though – they are apparently well-matched. But I’m glad that you wouldn’t eat a rat your cats caught, or put it in your window.

Christine – I’m with you!

Pilgrim – Well said, well said…

greenheron – Whoa. I have heard about hipsters having pet rats, but somehow forgot it. You’ve jogged my memory. Glad to see the little guys are getting (hopefully un-ironic) love!
Matt – How cool!!!! You have a pet rat! I’m glad living with her seems like such a joy! Also, thanks for another rat-related reading suggestion. Sadly though, this is another one that doesn’t have a rat telling a story from his perspective while in France/Paris, written/created by a French author. I really, really want to find a book or movie or something like that! I know one must exist!

Romantic – I love how you give your love to all creatures, even though you don’t like rats. I think it’s the animals people find repugnant that need our good vibes most of all.

BB – Thanks. I thought “Ratatouille” was adorable and was in no way disgusted – plus, it’s not like he could handle the food; that was his human friend. People need to pay more attention! : - ) On the other hand, my stepmom is deathly afraid of rodents, and she had a hard time watching this movie.

Rw – Educated French people often like to practice their English skills, for better or for worse (“worse” being insisting on speaking English even if they risk being misunderstood, like a doctor who once gave me the wrong diagnosis because he wanted to show off his English-speaking skills). That said, it’s always a good idea to approach anyone in any foreign country with at least a few words of their native language (Bonjour, Au revoir, Merci…), and to remember that unlike Montreal, where a lot of people speak excellent English and French, France has less English-speaking people. Even if a person has studied English, due to their innate French their terror of being embarrassed should they make a mistake, you may not be able to get them to come out of their shells. It’s always good to try, and that’s the fun of travel – you never know what might happen or what connections you might make, or how.

Satori – You should definitely read “Firmin” –it’s great, especially if “Ratatouille” has already prepared you to like rats. And you’re absolutely right – though they have many practical uses, no electronic reading devices for me, merci.

Fusun – Thanks for your kind words. What does kitâb kurdu literally translate to? I am intrigued….
Your "rambling rodent thoughts" are exceptional. You have brought a critter I loathe and fear to life. Fascinating rat meditations and rat discussion, Alysa.Vive les rats de Paris! INDEED.
I am happy to discover I'm not weird for smelling books, I especially enjoy the brand new ones.
One of my earliest childhood books was about a family of rats, dressed up in fancy clothes. They make fascinating topics for books and films but are scary in real life.
This was an interesting read.
Shouldn't Andrew Lloyd Webber--or somebody--do a musical based upon rats in a historical setting? Or has that already been done?

I fail to see how anyone can become a truly effective writer without first having been a voracious reader. You are my Exhibit "A" for that proposition, Alysa.
I have a new respect for rats. Thanks for enlightening me.
Pigeons are cute. Rats are cute. Yes, even the rats on the NYC subway tracks.
I knew the sad facts about "petits rats" but still wished I could be one, when I was an aspiring ballerina. Even sordid stuff seems romantic when it happened a long time ago, to pretty girls in grimy tutus, who were painted by Degas...
Anyway, I agree with you about humane traps! Thanks for an interesting and enlightening post.
Alysa, only you could write a post about the creature that can send me screaming through the streets and make it magical. This should have made the cover.

Lezlie
fernsy – Thanks so much! I’m sorry you don’t like rats, though. My big domestic pest fear is spiders and insects in general. Rats are okay.

A. Walrond – Thanks for reading, and you are definitely not alone as far as smelling books goes! I agree, the brand new ones usually smell the best, though there is a certain slightly glossy-type page in some American hardback library books that has an intoxicating odor for me,too.

Brassawe – Thanks for your kind words and for making me dream of a really cool sequel to “Cats”!

littlewillie – My pleasure! Glad you liked this.

Eva – You make such a good point about the way time can turn something sordid into something romantic. And I’m very glad you agree with me about humane traps. Vive les humane traps!

Lezlie – Thank you so much. That means a lot. As for the cover – that’s always nice, but nothing could compare to the fun I had writing this. It’s been in my head for a while and I just let go and let it scurry around. It was a very cool experience.
Amazing relationship we have had with rats
throughout history, hm?
For all the unfair defamation they have suffered
as bringers-of disease,plague, etc.,
they have not only nourished us nutritionally
and imaginatively,
but sacrificed themselves
to, ironically,
cure our diseases.
Weird Karmic obligation they have taken on.


The history of homo sapiens would be incomplete
without mention of our mammalian cousin
rattus
Imagaine my surprise when I clicked on your name and saw the title of this post....just after I posted my ratty story! How delightful! We have something else in common....I love books! You should see my library. I'll never carry around a "nook!"
I think rats are cool. Scavengers are clever animals in general.
I love the scurry of this post! I'll have to look for that book -- the cover is so very appealing. (I don't eat meat, but I imagine if I were under siege and hungry, I'd get back on the meat wagon real quick! I did eat squirrel as a child. I think the squirrels in our neighborhood KNOW, somehow, and they scold me from their tree branches while I'm walking to my car.)