Paris Syndrome: A First-Class Problem for a First-Class Vacation

At least 20 people this summer -- most of them Japanese -- have suffered from the disorder after realizing Paris isn't what they expected


As tourist season here in Paris winds to a close and the air once again becomes crisp, fresh, and new, we must unfortunately acknowledge that it does not end without a few casualties. Yes, this summer, like the ones that have come before it, has claimed at least 20 victims of a very particular affliction: Paris Syndrome. And though it may sound like a disease unique to freshman girls with Le Chat Noir posters everywhere, it is a serious disorder that causes tourists, especially Japanese tourists, many problems on their trip through the City of Light. And what is Paris Syndrome, exactly? Simply put, it's a collection of physical and psychological symptoms experienced by first-time visitors realizing that Paris isn't, in fact, what they thought it would be.

It is no secret that the representation of Paris in entertainment is a limited one. If the subject matter even makes it past the World War II era, one is still usually going to get a fairly idealized picture. Watching movies set in Paris leaves one with an image of the city that is quaint, friendly, affluent, and likely still in black-and-white. When we use Paris in advertisements, it is invariably some non-threateningly attractive young woman riding a bike around the side streets or skipping down the Champs-Elysées, daintily nibbling a macaroon. We imagine the whole city just smells like Chanel No. 5 and has a government-mandated mime on every corner. And nowhere is this narrow view of Paris more prevalent than in Japan, where the media portrays the city as one filled with thin, gorgeous, unbelievably rich citizens. The three stops of a Parisian's day, according to the Japanese media, are a cafe, the Eiffel Tower, and Louis Vuitton.

Yet, despite our international desire to imagine that this is a city where pigeons stay in the parks and the waiters occasionally burst into song, Paris can be a harsh place. It has its share of social problems: crime, filth, inequality, and -- our special treat for the visitors -- not-so-friendly locals. Parisians are constantly breaking new scientific ground when it comes to being unaccommodating and even disdainful towards foreigners. If you do not speak French, you can look forward to stumbling through many uncomfortable, labored conversations with people who resent your very existence. The service industry, too, is notorious for treating tourists like something they recently scraped from the bottom of their shoes. Even the public transportation, instead of being the jolly metro cars in antique underground stations we see in films, are hot, overcrowded carriages filled with groping couples, screaming children, and unimaginably loud accordion music.

And while this does not stop Paris from being a wonderful, beautiful city -- every city has its pros and cons -- the fact that its downsides are wiped so institutionally clean from the media isn't doing it any favors. Unlike New York, which embraces its gritty underbelly in its public image -- "Hey, you might get shot walking to the post office, but that's what makes it fun!" -- the world seems determined to represent Paris as perpetually spinning inside a little girl's music box. This disparity between what we see and what we get hits tourists, and it hits some of them very hard.

Paris Syndrome manifests itself differently in different people, but amongst the most common symptoms are acute delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, sweating, and feelings of persecution. The shock of coming to grips with a city that is indifferent to their presence and looks nothing like their imagination launches tourists into a psychological tailspin which, in at least six cases this year, necessitated the patient being flown back to his or her country under medical supervision. Usually, though, bed rest and hydration seem to take care of the problem within a few days. The Japanese Embassy, though, has had no shortage of people who, in the throes of the Syndrome, call or visit to be reassured that the city is not going to collapse in upon them.

This illness seems to have taken its place as the 21st century gout -- just slightly too privileged a problem to sympathize with. One imagines women with large, ornate folding fans fainting on street corners and mustachioed men's monocles dropping, with a little tinkle, into champagne glasses. Yet, for those who succumb to it, Paris Syndrome and its after-effects are very, very real. Sufferers have reported being traumatized by the experience, of fearing ever traveling again.

But what is the city to do about it? Should they accept that there is an actual medical condition associated with how much of a disappointment Paris can be? Should they embrace the risk? Even if they went that route, what PR firm would be capable of turning "some people are hospitalized from how scary and mean our city turns out to be" into "Paris: Only the strong survive"? No, it is in Paris' best interest to continue feeding into the rose-colored glasses the world seems so ready to see it through. Paris tourism only climbs with every Amélie, or Dior perfume commercial directed by Sofia Coppola. Last summer, the image all over Paris' tourism brochures was a gorgeous model with a small Eiffel Tower strapped to her forehead with red, white, and blue ribbon. She was, literally, a Gallic unicorn. That is how far their delightful, twee little presentation has been taken.

So how can tourists prepare themselves for the City of Light, and avoid being rushed home with a doctor on an emergency flight back to their homeland? If repeated viewings of La Haine and Taken are not appealing, and extensive reading on the 2005 suburb riots would require too much time on Wikipedia, they could always just remind themselves of the realities of the city they're so excited to visit. They could remember that obesity is a growing problem in France, that McDonald's, KFC, and Subway are popping up like acne all over the city, and that pickpocketing and mugging are some of the most common crimes in the area. They can remember that, despite how beautiful the sun is setting behind the Eiffel Tower, at the base of the structure, there are sure to be hundreds of pushy men screaming at you to buy their 1-Euro trinkets. They can remember that it is not a tipping culture here, servers are getting paid the same amount either way, so their attitude towards you will depend solely on how nice you are willing to be to them. The customer is not always right -- he simply exists. That is as far as the Parisian waiter is willing to take it.

With these things in mind to balance out a shoebox full of Doisneau's most charming photos, one can expect a Paris that meets the reasonable portrait in one's imagination. The city will be dirty, crowded, loud, and indifferent -- but it will be beautiful and breathtaking. And as long as one does not expect the furniture to spring to life and help you get ready for your dance with the Beast, a trip to this city will be fulfilling, exciting, and, most importantly, free of debilitating hallucinations.

Image: Moyan Brenn/Flickr.