Whether in guidebooks, TV series, or films, Paris is touted as the city of romance, with cheese and wine on every dinner table and fabulously fashionable people on every street corner. But these fantasies most often fail to manifest as realities when you visit, creating a recipe for disappointment, anxiety and sometimes even serious psychological reactions that require hospitalization.
Experts call the phenomenon “Paris syndrome,” and say that Japanese tourists are the most vulnerable.
Nicolas Bouvier wrote in his 1963 travel diaries: “You think you’re taking a trip but soon enough it’s the trip that’s taking you.”
For many first-time tourists to Paris, Bouvier’s sentiments cut deep. The city, which has inevitably gone through a series of metamorphoses over the past century, can seem light years away from its stereotypical, romanticized image.
Gone are the pristine sidewalks laced with smiling shopkeepers in striped shirts or supermodels strolling up the Champs-Elysees. The traffic is loud and terrible, café servers are rude and in-your-face, and where in the heck can you truly get a decent cup of coffee in this town?!
How Paris Syndrome Happens
The difference between what a tourist expects to find in Paris and what they actually experience can be so jarring that it sometimes causes such symptoms as anxiety, delusions and feelings of prejudice. This is more than simple culture shock, say health professionals, who now agree that a transient psychiatric disorder is actually taking place.
Because of the difference between Paris culture and their own, Japanese visitors in particular seem to feel the brunt of the problem most severely.
“There are many people who are led to France by a cultural fantasy, especially Japanese [visitors],” says Regis Airault, a Paris-based psychiatrist, who has written substantially on the psychological effects of travel.
“They go to the Montparnasse neighborhood and they imagine they’re going to run into Picasso in the street. They have a very romantic vision of France, but the reality doesn’t match with the fantasy they’ve created.”
In Japan, a soft-spoken demeanor is most respected, and petty theft is practically absent from daily life. So when Japanese tourists witness Parisian’s steely, occasionally aggressive demeanor or find themselves the victims of pickpocketing (Asian tourists are the most targeted, according to statistics), it can not only ruin their vacations but thrust them into psychological turmoil.
Japanese tourists have encountered so many problems with the culture clash between home and abroad that a special service was opened at Paris’s Saint-Anne Psychiatric Hospital to treat cases. A Japanese doctor, Dr. Hiroaki Ota, has been practicing since 1987, where he treats some 700 patients for symptoms such as irritability, feelings of fear, obsession, depression, insomnia, and the impression of being persecuted by the French.
In addition, the Japanese embassy set up a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from severe culture shock, and provides help in finding hospital treatment for those in need.
So what else accounts for Paris syndrome? Not every Japanese tourist who experiences a Paris different from their fantasy will fall victim to the phenomenon, of course. A significant cause is one’s personal propensity for psychological disorders, so someone who already suffers from anxiety or depression at home could be a likely candidate for psychological troubles abroad.
The language barrier can be equally frustrating and confusing. Another reason, says Airault, is the specificity of Paris and how it has been particularly hyped-up over the years. “For many, Paris is still the France circa the Age of Enlightenment,” he says. Instead, what tourists find is a rather ordinary, big city with a diverse, immigrant-rich population.
How to Avoid Paris Syndrome
Despite the name, Paris syndrome doesn’t only exist in Paris.
The phenomenon can happen to anyone seeking paradise abroad – a tourist taking a trip to an exotic land, a teen taking his or her first solo adventure, an expatriate moving abroad, or a political refugee or immigrant leaving home for a better opportunity. Similar experiences can take place for religious individuals who travel to Jerusalem or Mecca, or westerners traveling to India for spiritual enlightenment. All can cause hallucinations, dizziness and even feelings of depersonalization—e.g temporarily losing one’s normal sense of selfhood and identity.
Your best bet when traveling to Paris is to have a strong support network, either abroad or at home, to keep tabs on how you’re adjusting to French culture. Try to learn a few words of French so that you don’t feel completely out of touch with what Parisians are saying to you. And remember that Paris has changed significantly since that movie you watched in high school French class was filmed. Keep an open mind, stay cool, and enjoy yourself. And when in doubt, get in touch with the nearest health professional who can calm your fears.