There are many publications about London and Paris. From them, we learn about Big Ben and the Arc de Triomphe, the Westminster Palace and Notre-Dame Cathedral. But based on these publications alone, one cannot truly understand the cities in question, since this requires looking not only from the outside, but also from the inside.
The book by Olena Yashchuk-Codet, entitled Paris and London: the Capitals of My Life, is just what you need to get immersed into daily lives of Londoners and Parisians. After all, the author is a Ukrainian who spent 4 years in London and has lived in Paris for over 14 years.
In addition to working as a writer, Yashchuk-Codet is an active citizen, as she co-organizes the Literary Walks in Paris, in particular the Ukrainian Paris cycle. She has also organized eight charity book fairs and worked on other initiatives. Therefore, we discussed with her the issues of Ukraine’s international cultural policy as well.
THE ART OF LIVING
What did you aim for when starting to write Paris and London: the Capitals of My Life?
“This book fits into my plan, which is to create a bridge between cultures so that the Ukrainians can better understand the French and the British, borrow something positive for ourselves. Since I have lived in these European capitals for quite some time, I can offer my opinion on lives of their inhabitants.
“I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: the less time we spend in a certain place, the more contrasting, more critical opinion of it we acquire. Everything is perceived from a black-and-white perspective of sorts. It is later, when you have lived there for a long time, got to know the language, acquired friends, that many sharp angles disappear and the vision changes. I wanted to show this in my book.”
In the introduction to the book, you call yourself a “poet of everyday life.” Can you tell me why?
“Because I did not write about the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, it is not a tourist guide. I am more interested in the cultural phenomena of everyday life. Of course, all people have shared problems – family, work, relationships. But there are also specific features, the national character, which manifests itself in certain situations, reflecting particular rules and rituals that exist in this or that country. They make clear who is a foreigner and who is not. They are not discussed in the street, they are internal, but shared by everyone, as they are part of everyday life.
“The notion of ‘everyday life’ has always had a negative connotation in our culture, as if it destroys the romantic side of life. However, everyday life is just that: our life as it is lived daily. It is not that romantic, but it is normal and can be happy. The art of living (art de vivre) consists precisely in making it work this way. Because life is a true art, not just a set of unending problems.
Photo courtesy of Olena YASHCHUK-CODET
“For example, there are restaurants in both France and Ukraine. But for the French, a restaurant is not just an eatery. This is, firstly, a center of social life providing an opportunity to chat, meet friends. Secondly, a restaurant is a kind of cultural and political center. In my book, I tell the facts about the oldest restaurant in Paris, Le Procope, where French revolutionaries had met, and Benjamin Franklin had pondered on articles of the future US Constitution.
“The French society has its own peculiarities, which will seem strange to Ukrainians. I also describe them in my book. For example, before each trip, it is advisable to check that there is no strike going on at your airport or train station. There are even websites for this purpose. It is because transport workers often strike during school holidays when everyone is going on vacation.”
GOING BEYOND LOOKING THROUGH THE EYES OF A TOURIST
But this also testifies to the human-centeredness of French everyday life, unlike that in Ukraine, for example, does not it?
“Yes. This is evident, in particular, from the way in which the British and French societies treat families with children. I hope to write about this more, perhaps in a sequel to my book. I found London to be a truly child-friendly city, that is, one convenient for parents and children. As soon as the baby is born, one could go with them to a restaurant or a museum, to meet people. Restaurants often have a children’s corner. For example, we like to go to the Carluccio’s restaurant chain, because they treat us very kindly and give us free coloring books and pencils for our boys.
“Of course, this is also a commercial decision, because when a person can come with a child to a restaurant or museum, they will bring the money as well. However, such an approach, which is ‘sensitive to the needs of the family,’ makes life simpler. Meanwhile, the Soviet way of life, with which we have not yet completely parted, was created as if specifically to make life uncomfortable. And to change such a way of life, first of all, the efforts of Ukrainians themselves are needed.
“It happens that when our compatriots come to France, it seems to them that what they are seeing has always been that way, that it is a given. However, it has actually been created by generations of the French (and immigrants too!), which have daily done something to improve the state of the nation. And this is an unending process of change. Each new president and their team are expected to offer solutions of key social problems and take decisive actions.
“Speaking of Britain now, there are laws still in force there that were introduced by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. He laid the foundations of society which still matter. It has been a thousand years since his time...
“In Ukraine, healthy individualism, respect for the laws and nature were all violently destroyed. And returning to these foundations will take a long time.
“In addition to making changes, it is important that Ukrainians look at other countries not only ‘through the eyes of a tourist,’ that is, an individual who, in essence, comes to enjoy the achievements of others. Ideally, such trips should give rise to the desire to use the best achievements and create similar ones in Ukraine. This, by the way, is another reason why I wrote this book.
“My book also suggests that one should not expect a quick improvement in life after moving abroad. Firstly, there are no perfect nations, each has its own difficulties. Secondly, moving is one’s personal choice. In another country, one will also need to find one’s place, occupy it, and prove that one has the right to it. Besides, one must be quite open and be able to adapt to live according to different rules.”
“WHEN PEOPLE WANT TO BE PRESENT, THEY FIND OPPORTUNITIES, AND IDEAS, AND MONEY”
And how would you describe the attitude of Britain and France to Ukraine? What is our international image in these countries?
“I think it is necessary to distinguish between two levels: the level of diplomacy, or the interaction between nations, and the perceptions of ordinary citizens, effectively the domestic level. The Maidan events, the Revolution of Dignity, the war in eastern Ukraine aroused a powerful wave of interest in ordinary citizens. The interest in the Ukrainian issue went beyond journalists and people who are knowledgeable in international politics. Waiters, shop assistants in stores, people of various classes and professions were worried about our fate.
“Now that the hostilities have become a constant, the attention to these events has significantly decreased in the French media space. However, the information war has only intensified. Therefore, it is very important for Ukraine to develop the right long-term strategy of cultural policy in such conditions.
“Developed countries, such as France and Britain, see culture as soft power, an extremely powerful tool for, so to speak, ‘conquest of the world.’ Both the French and the British maintain their languages and cultures in other countries through the network of cultural centers managed by l’Alliance Francaise, l’Institut Francais, and the British Council. They also do it through ‘exporting’ cultural products: art, literature, cultural events. Some Ukrainians think that language is of minor importance. Meanwhile, the world’s leading countries treat language as a tool through which culture and power are transmitted.
“To protect our interests, we need a strong cultural presence. It is artists who create a positive image of the country. Building cultural ties requires a lot of money and patience. And it is not always a profitable business. The result can take 10 or 20 years to achieve. So, to implement long-term projects, we need to have strategic thinking at the national level, understand why and for whom we do it.”
“THERE IS INTEREST IN OUR CULTURE, BUT IT IS US WHO NEED TO SHOW INITIATIVE”
It is believed by some that Ukraine is now experiencing a kind of cultural Renaissance. Is it felt in the West?
“It seems to me that there have been many positive changes in Ukraine lately, and we have always had a lot of talents. At long last, we can show these talents to the world. For example, two brainchildren of Vladyslav Troitskyi have been touring France for a few years: the DakhaBrakha band and the Dakh Daughters frick cabaret, and they have had great success with the French public. They represent something innovative, exotic and powerful, show Ukrainian culture as it has not been seen before. But that is not enough, for we need to have dozens of concerts by our performers. After all, the Russians continue the Soviet tradition and hold concert tours all the time.”
Tell us, please, about an important cultural event that occurred in Paris, we mean the festival Un Week-end a l’Est, which took place in November 2017 and was devoted to Kyiv and Ukrainian culture in general.
“This was probably one of the most colorful festivals to be held since Ukraine’s independence. Thanks to the excellent organizational effort of our Western partners and with the financial support of the Ukrainian state, it was held at a high level.
“For six days, literary meetings with famous Ukrainian writers and intellectuals, art and architecture conferences, photo exhibitions, master classes for children, and film screenings were held in the prestigious, ‘highbrow’ Parisian district of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The closing day of the festival was dedicated to the problem of freedom of speech and political prisoner Oleh Sentsov. The event took place at the Odeon Theater in a 1,000-seat auditorium and brought together many representatives of the Ukrainian community and prominent French figures. Leading French media (newspapers and TV channels) wrote about the festival, interviewed its participants.
“Thanks to cooperation with our French partners, Parisians were able to learn about the Kyiv period of Kazimir Malevich’s career and the style of Wladyslaw Horodecki, to see works of the Braty duo, photos of Oleksandr Chekmeniov, to meet Serhii Zhadan, Oleksii Nikitin, Andrey Kurkov, Oksana Zabuzhko, Volodymyr Yermolenko, Tetiana Oharkova, et al.
“The Polish Bookstore in Paris and the Antoinette Fouque Bookstore opened their doors to us. Thanks to the talented translator Iryna Dmytryshyn, French readers have the opportunity to read and ‘hear’ works by Ukrainian authors.
“One could see that there is a real interest in our culture, but it is us who need to constantly show initiative. In my opinion, culture is no less important than bayonets. Of course, we must also talk about the war, the occupation, Crimea, and political prisoners of the Kremlin. After all, it is upon us to draw attention to this important topic, to not let people forget about it. But positive information about Ukraine is extremely necessary too, and this can be provided by our unique culture: music, theater, artists, writers, translations of our authors. So, to achieve our victory, we need to preserve our identity and demonstrate it to the world. We will win the war when we conquer people’s hearts.”