“Oh my god, I love Paris. You are so lucky.” As a Parisian living abroad, I have heard this sentence one too many times. To foreigners, Paris is the city of superlatives — most beautiful, most romantic, most interesting and most everything. I will not lie, I love to brag about being Parisian and how fancy it sounds. But the truth is, living in the city of love is a lot less glamorous than it seems and many Japanese have learned it the hard way. Indeed, visiting Paris can turn out to be the most traumatising experience of their lives.
About 20 Japanese tourists each year experience “Paris Syndrome,” which is a psychological condition caused by a severe contrast between expectations and reality when visiting the City of Light. Severe is actually a euphemism considering the intensity of the symptoms — anxiety, hallucination, feelings of persecution, depersonalization, derealization and even vomiting. At least Paris has the merit to be the only city that can literally make you sick.
I did not understand, back home, how such a thing could exist. Paris can be a pain, but tourists still seem to enjoy visiting it. After all, it is one of the most visited cities in the world and everyone seems to have a preconceived idea of what Paris is like. It is only when I began to familiarize myself with Japanese society that I started to understand how such a phenomenon could exist and why it is so specific to Japanese tourists.
There are two main reasons for that. The first one is that Japanese people’s obsession with France, and especially Paris, is too extreme. There is not a day where I do not come across a store named in French whether it is a bakery, a restaurant or a clothing store. I once encountered a Japanese clothing store called “Congés payés, adieu tristesse,” which literally means “Paid leave, farewell sadness,” and this is not an isolated case. These names often makes no sense at all, they just want something that sounds French. Needless to say, Japanese people associate anything French with luxury, class and refinement. It is a common preconception of France around the world, but I have never seen a country which has been so consumed with this cliché.
Dear Japanese people, Amélie lies. Paris smells more like piss and cigarettes than roses and freshly baked croissants. The banks of the Seine is the last place to go for a romantic night—except if you mean by romantic, hanging out with rats, hobos and drunk teenagers. Furthermore, a shopping spree in the Champs-Elysées is likely to end up with your wallet stolen if you do not pay enough attention.
Japanese people don’t expect Paris to be so different from the ideal they have. They also do not expect it to be that different from Japanese society. The contrast between the two cultures is striking. Just think about how Japanese people have such a pet peeve about people smoking on the street. Now imagine how they would react to thousands of people smoking and throwing the butts of their cigarettes on the streets. If there is one cliché by which Parisians definitely live up to, is that they smoke all the time. Picturing Paris as a big ashtray would have been more accurate. Add to that the fact that Paris is quite dirty and that the metro is not very welcoming and you have all the ingredients for a mental breakdown.
Still, Paris Syndrome seems much more dramatic than it really is. It mostly affects fragile people, already exhausted by travel and jet lag, the shock of the real Paris is sometimes just the straw that breaks the camel’s back. If your find yourself guilty of idealizing Paris, do not restrain yourself from going for fear of experiencing Paris Syndrome. It remains one of the best cities in the world, just not in the way you picture it.