Paris Syndrome? Really? How the City of Light Gives People the Blues
The French capital is magnificent, to be sure, but many people discover it's not quite—or at all—what they expected.
PARIS—“At last I have come into a dreamland,” American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote shortly after she arrived in Paris in the summer of 1883.
A couple of decades later the famed American novelist Edith Wharton echoed her sentiments, writing in a 1907 letter to a friend that she had “sunk in the usual demoralizing happiness which this atmosphere produces in me.”
“The tranquil majesty of the architectural lines, the wonderful blurred winter lights, the long lines of lamps garlanding the avenues & the quays—je l’ai dans mon sang! (I have it in my blood!),” Wharton gushed.
Paris, je t’aime, indeed.
More than a century has past since Wharton strolled the streets of the city’s chic 7th Arrondissement where she kept an apartment, but the allure of Paris among foreign visitors doesn’t appear to have an expiration date. Fueled by books, Hollywood films, fashion editorials, and the legends of expatriate creatives who once called the city home (back when artists could actually afford to live here), the city’s mythical appeal has only intensified since Wharton’s day, luring millions of tourists from around the world.
Some 36.5 million people traveled to Paris in 2016, and the number is expected to increase significantly this year. Even the global uneasiness set off by the 2015 terror attacks was remarkably transient, and visitors have since flocked back to the city in droves.
“Paris, a legendary city, has inspired artists, photographers and musicians throughout the ages,” the city’s official convention and visitors bureau announces on its website, liberally making use of words like “mythical” and “magical.”
It’s a lot for any city to live up to. And in Paris, where myth often dwarfs reality, disappointment is bound to ensue.
“I was OK in Paris for about a week. And then, little by little, I started to realize I wasn’t happy there,” Eleanor Brown writes in A Paris All Your Own: Bestselling Women Writers on the City of Light,” a collection of essays she edited.
Brown had traveled to Paris after sifting through letters penned by her grandmother, who had spent almost a year in the city in her early 20s. Even more intriguing for Brown, her grandmother had lived here in 1924—when the legendary Jazz Age was in full swing and expat writers like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars at Left Bank cafés and Right Bank bars. Basically, Brown’s granny had lived and breathed the Paris that films and tourist boards continuously romanticize.
Determined to retrace her grandmother’s steps, Brown spent a month in the French capital only to find it more “meh” than “Moveable Feast.”
“While you can go to Paris, you can’t go to Paris in 1924,” Brown writes. “My grandmother’s Paris was not the Paris I was in. Nearly a century separated those cities, to begin with, with all the attendant modernization, for better or for worse.”
“It wasn’t terrible. It was . . . just a city.”
And for some visitors, discovering that Paris is indeed “just a city” can be downright traumatizing, especially if you are Japanese. The shock and mental strain that reportedly has affected certain Japanese tourists in the City of Light even has a name: Paris Syndrome.
WIDELY REPORTED IN the international press, Paris Syndrome is described as a temporary mental health disorder that strikes visitors upon discovering that the Paris doesn't meet their romantic expectations. The dissonance between the myth of the city and its reality is apparently so great that a sort of psychiatric breakdown ensues.
According to a medical article about the condition published on the website of L'Association Françoise et Eugène Minkowski, a Paris-based psycho-social center that specializes in the psychiatric treatment of migrant and refugee patients, Japanese visitors have idealized the French capital since the 19th century, believing it to be a “quasi-magical symbol of European culture.” This idealization, the paper reports, is amplified by mass media portrayals in Japan of Paris as a bastion of high culture and style.
However, the discovery of the less-than-romantic realities of the city—the indifferent waiters, the crowded metros, the dirty sidewalks—can trigger the disorder, whose symptoms run the gamut from panic attacks to suicide attempts to persecution complexes and megalomania. One sufferer reportedly became convinced he was Louis XIV, the French “Sun King.”
It all sounds almost too bizarre to be true, so I decided to approach the man who discovered the condition and coined the term “Paris Syndrome.”
Dr. Hiroaki Ota came to the city from Japan 33 years ago and runs a thriving psychiatric practice on the Left Bank.
“We wouldn’t refer to it as a malady, so much as a form of culture shock,” Ota told The Daily Beast.
He explained that Paris Syndrome is rooted in the vast cultural differences between the French and the Japanese, specifically each culture’s markedly different ways of communicating—both verbal and nonverbal.
“The French code of communication is direct,” Ota said. “Yes or no. It’s very clear. And you are expected to respond quickly.”
In Japan, Ota explained, communication is far more discreet.
“You don’t respond immediately, you think a lot first before answering a question,” he said. “But the French aren’t very patient.”
Ota said that media portrayals of Paris have caused many Japanese, particularly young women, to regard the city as an “idyllic place.” This, coupled with cultural misunderstandings can lead to disappointment, and, in some cases, the onset of Paris Syndrome, which is an extreme manifestation.
“Young women in Japan have certain illusions about France, the French, and Paris,” he said. “They see only the positive side [in media depictions], but never the negative side, and they tend to naively believe what the mass media portrays.”
According to Ota, the phenomenon was more common in the ‘80s and ‘90s when many newly wealthy Japanese sent their offspring to Paris. As Japan’s economy has suffered setbacks in recent years, fewer young Japanese have been making their way to the city and cases of Paris Syndrome have thus dropped.
Moreover, despite sensationalized media headlines, bonafide cases of extreme Paris Syndrome are rare. Ota said that of the 100 or so patients he sees annually, only about 5 or 10 are suffering from the condition. Moreover, between 1988 and 2004, only 68 patients required hospitalization because of it.
Indeed, when I approached Osaka native Tomoko Nakayasu, who came to the city 20 years ago, about Paris Syndrome, she was skeptical.
“I think it is exaggerated,” Nakayasu told The Daily Beast during an interview at her small atelier in Montmartre, where she gives Japanese language, calligraphy, and cooking lessons, including a lively sushi-making class. “I have never heard of it, and I’ve never met anyone here who experienced this.”
She agrees with Ota, however, about the cultural differences between the French and the Japanese, saying that while she is at home in the city now, it took some getting used to.
“In Japan, if you have an appointment with someone, it is treated like a promise, almost like a marriage vow,” she said, adding that showing up late, or, worse yet, cancelling a planned meeting are all but unheard of. In France, by contrast, it is considered rude to arrive exactly on time for a dinner party. Such differences were initially a bit shocking to Nakayasu.
“I was a bit lost at first,” she admitted. “There weren’t many other Japanese living in the city at the time.”
WHILE SHAKEN TOURISTS believing themselves to be the second coming of the Sun King may be rare, Parisian dreams versus reality can still hit foreigners hard and sessions at a shrink’s office are not uncommon.
“I was living in the most beautiful city in the world, and I couldn’t understand why I was depressed,” Barbi Chan-Friebel, 43, a makeup artist who grew up in Manila, told The Daily Beast. “Before you arrive here you have this dream illusion that Paris is so magical and so fantastic. But then you arrive here, and you’re like, ‘Shit! What happened?’”
Chan-Friebel was so unhappy that she went to counseling, which helped her adapt. And even though she maintains that Asian cultures are warmer and friendlier than French culture, she has come to appreciate the good points of living here and speaks fondly of her adopted city.
“The good things balance the disappointments,” she said.
A casual Internet search for English-speaking psychotherapists practicing in Paris yields an interesting find. In addition to counseling services for depression, anxiety, and other common mental health issues, many Paris-based therapists specifically treat culture shock-related problems (called “cultural adjustment issues” in therapist parlance) for foreigners in the city either on a temporary or long-term basis.
Marjorie Oberman, a Paris-based psychotherapist who mostly works with young women, especially study-abroad students, doesn’t have any stories of Paris Syndrome-induced madness, but she did treat one young Anglophone woman who refused to leave her apartment because she was afraid of being criticized.
Like Ota, Oberman points out that cultural misunderstandings can cause anguish among newcomers.
“Our [Americans’] friendliness is often greeted with a shutdown from the French,” she said. “It’s an invasion of their space.”
“It’s not a welcoming culture—the French will even tell you that. And the thing about it not being welcoming has to do with not knowing the [social] codes.”
The advent of social media and the rise of sites like Pinterest and Instagram have helped bring the myth of Paris into the 21st century via images of a sterile, Disney-fied version of the city that one can easily imagine could appeal to young would-be tourists.
ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR Paris-themed Instagram feeds belongs to a young woman named Carin Olsson. Originally hailing from Stockholm, Olsson came to Paris a few years ago and currently works as a fashion photographer. Followers of her Instagram account, “Paris in Four Months” regularly ooh and ahh over images of Right Bank ultra-luxury hotels, the Eiffel Tower, pink peonies, and Olsson herself—an attractive blonde who is often clad in designer outfits and clutching the same bling-festooned handbags favored by nouveau riche foreigners who swarm the luxury boutiques around Place Vendôme.
Her pastel-hued images exclusively feature central, tourist-heavy areas such as Le Marais, the region around the Place de la Concorde and the Jardin des Tuileries, and the fashionable 6th and 7th Arrondissements. Browsing through her feed gives the impression that the French capital has undergone a dramatic restructuring, eliminating most of the eastern and northern neighborhoods, where, incidentally, a sizable portion of Parisians actually live. Many of the photos are deliberately overexposed, giving them a peculiar whitewashed quality that borders on the cartoonish.
Nevertheless, Olsson (who didn’t respond to requests for an interview) and her hyper-glamorized version of Paris have paid off. Her account currently boasts 945,000 followers and has spawned several imitations. She is also courted by luxury brands to photograph and promote their products. One can argue that she has succeeded in perpetuating the mythical “Parisian dream” as effectively as the city’s tourism officials. More importantly, she has made a successful career out of it.
There is a word in German, fernweh, for which an exact translation in English doesn’t exist, but can roughly be defined as the intense longing for somewhere you have never been, and for experiences you have yet to have—literally “far-sickness.” It can be argued that Hollywood movies and Instagram accounts like Olsson’s that perpetuate the Paris myth take the concept of fernweh a bit farther by crafting concrete images to pine for. The object of this longing appears to become more tangible—striking images of the city of romance and beauty—even though it isn’t actually any more real than a nebulous ache for nameless, distant locales, which is what fernweh is.
Similarly, the Welsh word hiraeth, also without an exact English equivalent, and also a form of nostalgia, signifies a longing for something that may have never actually existed to begin with. Although the city’s past is often romanticized, especially the Lost Generation 1920s, the reality of that age was a bit more bleak. Rents were lower, yes, but Hemingway’s Paris was also grittier, smellier, and covered with soot from coal heating. Beggars and drunks regularly camped out in bistro doorways, and artists crammed into cafes not for the atmosphere, but for more practical reasons: the tiny garrets and residential hotels that housed them lacked heat. Plumbing could be iffy, and public urination was so prevalent that “Defense d'uriner” was printed on posters and stencilled onto walls. As much as we may idealize the city in its la bohème heyday, it’s safe to guess that modern travelers would find its sordid side unsettling.
The possibility of enchantment is what often lures travelers to Paris, not the potential idiosyncrasies and complications that exist in any large capital and can drive you crazy if you spend enough time here. Even Edith Wharton, who, despite falling madly in love with Paris upon her arrival in 1907, found herself embittered after spending more than a decade here.
“Paris is simply awful,” she wrote in a letter to a close friend, the art historian Bernard Berenson, in 1920. “A kind of continuous earth-quake of motor-busses, trams, lorries, taxis & other howling & swooping & colliding engines, with hundreds & thousands of U.S. citizens rushing about in them.”
The city’s newfound modernity and glut of fellow Americans so soured Wharton’s view of her once-beloved city that she spent the remainder of her years in France about 10 miles north of Paris at her villa in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt, where she died in 1937. However, the legend of Wharton’s undying love for the city lives on, and a memorial plaque honoring the writer mounted on the façade of her former residence at 53 rue de Varenne commemorates this love, not her ultimate disillusionment. A quote attributed to Wharton is inscribed on the plaque:
“My years of Paris life were spent entirely in the rue de Varenne—rich years, crowded and happy years.”
It seems that Wharton herself has become a part of the myth of Paris—the acclaimed American writer in love with the City of Light—even though her relationship with the city was actually a bit more complicated. Also, to be fair, “my years in Paris” has a better ring to it than “my years in Saint-Brice-sous-Forêt.”
OTA SAYS THAT PARIS SYNDROME is treated with psychotherapy and medication, much like other mental health conditions. Less acute forms of culture shock seem to resolve themselves with time and patience. Of the dozen or so foreigners in Paris that I interviewed for this piece, none of them, not even the most jaded, had any plans to leave. Daily reality may have dashed expectations—one grad student from the U.K. went to check out an apartment unit, only to discover it shared a building with a brothel—but those living here seem to have made peace with their lost illusions and have embraced the city for what it is, even if it is less than postcard-perfect.
“There is more that I love than that I hate about the city,” says Kasia Dietz, a freelance writer and handbag designer who moved to Paris from New York to live with her Italian husband. “It is a challenge and it keeps you on your toes; it keeps you engaged with life.”
Perhaps the most amusingly candid chat was with a 20-something American woman who had come here for grad school. She said that many of her preconceived ideas about Paris came from the hit TV series “Gossip Girl,” which ran from 2007 through 2012, and depicted the daily lives and melodramas of fictional Upper East Side teens. In the Paris-based episodes, two main female characters spend sunny (Sunny?! In Paris?!) summer days hanging out at Café de Flore, shopping at Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent, and getting asked out at the Musée D’Orsay by a gorgeous member of the Grimaldi family. In other words, perfect fodder for a bout of Paris Syndrome.
The woman regaled me with harrowing tales of her first apartment in a gritty eastern neighborhood, of the dog shit littering Parisian sidewalks, of witnessing a man urinate in a courtyard of an apartment building in the upscale 6th Arrondissement, and of her exasperation at naïve friends back home who constantly carried on about how lucky she was to call Paris home.
“I want to tell them, ‘Yeah, you try living here!’” she recalled.
Surprised that she had lasted this long without fleeing back home or succumbing to a Paris Syndrome-induced breakdown, I was in the process of jotting down the details of her experiences when I received a panicked email instructing me to leave her interview out of the piece. Apparently, her immigration lawyer had advised against painting her adopted city in too negative a light because it could jeopardize her visa renewal process if the French authorities got wind of it.
Public urination or not, god forbid she would have to go home.
And that’s the thing. Paris is beautiful, but it’s not a postcard or an Instagram feed. It can also be dirty and gray and depressing and frustrating, just as many 21st-century cities can be. Nevertheless, it is still magnificent in its own deeply imperfect way—so much so that even the most jaded of residents is reluctant to leave. As for the tourists, the pull of the Parisian dream is far stronger than the unsettling possibility of a bout with Paris Syndrome, and as long as the city’s myth endures they will keep coming by the millions.
Just check your expectations at the door. You’ll have a better experience, and it also could save you money on therapy bills.