'Paris Syndrome.' What is this? A psychological fear of the French capital? Erm...as bizarre at it sounds, yes.
The form of intense culture shock was first named by Professor Hiroaki Ota, a psychiatrist working in France in 1986. Japanese tourists have been diagnosed with the syndrome after having arrived in Paris for the first time, only to find that reality did not match the marvellous Parisian romanticism they anticipated. The apparent symptoms of Paris Syndrome could include; hallucinations, vulnerability, dizziness, nervous sweats and feelings of being treated with hostility.
(Before you read on, please note that I am not making this up.)
The Japanese Embassy in France has noted about 20 occurrences per year. For over one million Japanese visitors each year, this figure of cases seems somewhat insignificant, and rather mythical as Dr. Ota has never further explained the condition. For years, journalists and psychiatrists have tried to unravel the causes and conditions of this mysterious syndrome. The most believable explanation I could find was in Libération; Mario Renoux, the president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association explains in his article, "Des Japonais entre mal du pays et mal de Paris" (December 13, 2004) that the Japanese media is to blame for painting a 'no less than parfait' picture of Paris. Along with the great socio-cultural differences and, more often than not, the language barrier between the French and Japanese, a minority of Japanese tourists are deeply affected when finding out that the City of Lights is not what Jean-Pierre Jauent's Amelie makes it out to be.
I may not be Japanese, nor can I explain why they are more susceptible than other foreign tourists, but as a student studying French, I can attempt to understand how the idyllic city can become a disappointing reality for first time travellers. International media and marketing creates this fantasy of Paris with its sweet smelling Chanel No. 5 waffling in the air. One may find reality replacing eau de toilette with cigarette fumes, but of course that never comes into the picture.
The perfume industry is a classic power-house of making us believe Paris is a fairy tale of amour and glamorous splendour. Sofia Coppola's Miss Dior Chérie adverts have told us that the average day of a Parisienne (all elegant and quaint, of course) involves sniffing roses, eating strawberry tarts, and cycling the city before coming home to a handsome man in a tuxedo.
On my first visit to Paris, I strolled along the narrow streets of the Latin Quarter, enchanted by postcards Robert Doisneau's iconic photography in the souvenir shops that fill the area. Taking a turn to the street that leads to the Notre Dame, I was pretty disappointed not to find myself running into children roaming wild and free with baguettes in their arms, or seeing couples lost in an enchanting embrace along the river Seine.
Okay, I exaggerate. I've watched Michael Kassovitz' La Haine too many times to be oblivious to the nitty gritty realities of some parts of the city. However, I have a peculiar passion for analysing the differences between fantastical stereotype and reality when it comes to all things French. Reality doesn't necessarily come with disappointment to me, but rather intrigue and further interest in exploring the French culture.
I am not saying the capital is not the beautiful gem of a city that movies and advertisements make it out to be. In fact, I think it lives up to many of its charming stereotypes. The view of the city from La Sacré-Cœur Basilica will always take my breath away, and I love nothing more than watching the city go by from the corner of a café window. And yes, I've seen and admired many elegantly dressed Parisians. But, like all cities, Paris has its pros and cons. Unfortunately, the music to Parisian life cannot always match Brigitte Bardot's Moi Je Joue that Dior promises it does. But Paris without all of its romance would be like Rome without Italians belting out opera from their balconies or Havana without the swinging salsa dancers on the streets.
These exciting anticipations, cultural stereotypes and imaginary preconceptions (whether disappointing or fascinating) come hand in hand with the marvellous experience of travelling, and discovering new places in the world.
I'm still for this moment though.