In Australian vernacular, a ‘tragic’ defines a boring or socially awkward person, typically having an obsessive and solitary interest. Self-appointed “Paris Tragics” Oleh Butchatsky and Graham Jones are not your typical guide book authors. They are two Australian mates who would regularly get together to watch the football, but would also use these game-time gatherings to talk about their other unlikely passion: Paris. They may call themselves tragics, but they proved to be far from boring.
We asked Oleh to tell us more about this shared fascination.
What was your first experience of France?
My first experience of France was completing a school project on Paris when I was about 12 years old. It was a splendid project full of great pictures of place de la Concorde, Notre Dame, les Invalides etc. I was in love with Paris from that moment on. But my first true experience was a three week road and rail journey with my wife in 1998 from Strasbourg to Nice and finally to Paris.
What was that first trip like? Did it match expectations?
It was and still is one of the great highlights of my life. The extraordinary beauty we experienced and the exceptional variety of landscapes, local cultures and cuisines still live in my memory. To travel through the route de Vin of Alsace, around the grand lakes of Neuchâtel and Genève, the mesmerising alps at Chamonix, the charm of Haute de Provence and the splendid Méditerranée was an experience never to be forgotten. And then, of course, the first taste of Paris…..magique.
Have you spend much time here since?
I have lost track but at least eight times in Paris. We usually combine some time in the countryside –Bourgogne, Loire, Normandie, Dordogne, Champagne– with an extended stay in Paris. At least two weeks in an apartment and often longer than that. We have deliberately chosen apartments in various parts of Paris and have never stayed in one location more than once; the last being on Île Saint-Louis.
Why did you decide to write the book?
Why not write about one of my great passions? My co-author and lifelong friend Graham and I somehow found ourselves separately but at the same time in love with the grand city. He loves the art, the architecture, the street life. I love all those things too, but food, culture and history are my special interests. So, combined, we have it all covered. And then not only can we write about it but Graham can show it to you with his fantastic drawings!
What was the highlight during the process of research/writing?
Without a doubt it was uncovering the many layers of Paris and what it offers to both Parisians and visitors. It is not an exaggeration to say that the wonders of Paris are endless. So to do the research, by personally visiting and seeing first hand, and through lots of reading, was infinitely fascinating. The major dilemna was what to leave out! And of course all that international travel, the long walks, navigating the buses and Metro, the many restaurants to try, the museums to visit… such hard work.
By the way, I know why the celebrated Hôtel Crillon in Paris had to close for a major renovation recently. It was to get rid of the mice. The last time we were there, sipping a glass of Bollinger in the bar, a very fast and very French mouse scooted across the marble floor to hide under one of the armchairs. Given the location, I dubbed the character ‘The Five-Star Rodent’ in Paris Tragics. The Crillon staff were all of a fluster as to what to do. Carry on as normal? Evacuate the bar? Summon Hercule Poirot? My suggestion was un gros chat but this was not accepted by management.
How did you find the experience of co-authoring?
As we did when we played tennis together for many years, we quickly worked out our respective strengths. I am the steady, reliable player at the back of the court, sweeping up from behind, strategising, keeping the rally going. Graham is the match-winner, pouncing on opportunities on the net and decisively finishing the point.
What does your co-author bring to the table?
He is one of the most talented artists I know and his sketches of Paris are simple but so evocative. They do the job of transporting the reader to Paris splendidly. Then, of course, he has some strange ideas. For example he won’t venture on to a bus in Paris, always sticking with the métro. But, look, nobody is perfect.
What is your favourite way to spend a day in France?
It must be in late spring or early summer, when temperatures are mild and daylight stretches well into the evening. It will involve the art of the flâneur, exploring on foot without too much of a plan. It may even involve a boat trip down a river or canal. It will definitely incorporate an unhurried lunch which presents the best of local food and wine. (At least two hours is required for lunch as this allows ample time to discuss what we will have for dinner.) An art or history musée will certainly be on the agenda and a classical recital in a local church could be the perfect way to end the day.
Are there any French cities/regions that you would still like to explore?
I think a trip along the western coast, maybe staring in Saint-Malo and finishing in Biarritz, would be fascinating. This would also allow some time in the hills of the Basque country which I am told are very unspoiled and beautiful. I am also told that the island of Corse is very special so that is on the list as well.
Have you ever considered moving to France or owning a holiday home here?
Many times. But this might defeat the purpose of having the opportunity to explore ALL of France. After all, if you have a home in one particular location you are obliged to return and stay there on every occasion.
How do French people react when you say you’re from Australia?
The French seem to love us Aussies. Maybe because we are different from the English. Or maybe because Australia could well have been a French colony rather than a British one had certain moments of history in the 18th century taken a different turn.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Throw out your Paris city guide and join the journey of two lifelong Australian mates who don’t agree on much except for their obsession with Paris. Regular visitors will enjoy delving deeper into the city’s many layers, but for those who know Paris only a little bit, the book Paris Tragics is a way to get to know it a whole lot better.