Is “Paris Syndrome” actually a real thing?

Image: Getty.

On reading most definitions of “Paris Syndrome”, it’s easy to assume it’s an urban myth – and a xenophobic one at that. Defined generally as a kind of mental disorder which takes hold of tourists who visit Paris and are disappointed by what they see, it's also one which apparently afflicts Japanese people in particular: in 2006, the BBC reported that 12 Japanese people were struck down with it that summer, and in some this resulted in full “psychiatric breakdown”.  In 2014, Bloomberg straightfacedly ran a piece noting that this “epidemic” was now affecting Chinese tourists, too. So what gives?

The roots of the syndrome, and our cultural obsession with it, seem to lie in the 19th century, when the author Marie-Henri Beyle (better known by his pen name Stendahl) claimed to be suffering from something called “Florence Syndrome”. He wrote of visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce:

I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call "nerves."

Florencian hospital staff still report incidents of tourists with elevated heartbeats and fast breathing after visiting various beautiful sites in the city.

This, however, is essentially the opposite of Paris syndrome, as it resulted from the wonder of the art and architecture in the city. The Japanese tourists who allegedly required psychological treatment after visiting Paris in 2006 were reported to be disappointed by the city, not impressed by it.


A news report at the time noted that the visitors came with a “deeply romantic vision “ of the capital, its culture and art, and the “beauty of French women”. Bloomberg claims that Chinese people arrive “expecting to see a quaint, affluent and friendly European city with smartly dressed men and women smelling of Chanel No. 5”  after seeing films like Amelie or An American in Paris. 

In reality, the thinking goes, the city’s “scruffy streets” and “unfriendly locals” are so shocking that visitors experience psychological problems as a result.

So do we – and Japanese people in particular – really have such an idealised vision of Paris? It was notable in the wake of the Paris attacks that much of the outpouring of sympathy and grief centred on a version of the city that would be virtually unrecognisable, or at least fairly meaningless to its residents  a "culture of baguettes and wine", the "city of love". It's idealised despite the fact that, in most ways, it's pretty much the same as other European capitals. 

There's also a chance that "Paris Syndrome" is little more than "tourist syndrome". Culture shock is a recognised phenomenon, and it’s true that Japanese visitors may face more of a language and cultural barrier visitors from other European countries; they're also more likely to visit Paris than anywhere else in Europe. Many of the symptoms described by Stendahl and modern reports reflect those of heatstroke, or over-exertion – it’s easy to forget that walking around an unfamiliar city for a full day is much more draining than what we'd be doing at home.

Then there’s another possibility: the not-uncomon phenomena of inexplicable psychological reactions which repeat within a certain group, like the case of the fainting cheerleaders in the US. It’s impossible to know whether the 12 Japanese who needed treatment in 2006 knew one another – but it’s notable that similar statistics don't emerge every year, though there were reports of 20 cases of Paris syndrome in 2011. 

Paris Syndrome, a 2014 novel by Tahir Shah, uses the phenomenon as its theme and title. In it, a character becomes obsessed with the French capital throughout her childhood and young adulthood. and finally goes there – only to be gripped by the syndrome, “rampage” through Louis Vuitton, and moon a sales clerk.


I haven’t read the novel in full, but it seems a clever satire on our interest in the phenomenon, as well as an exploration of the aspects of it that seem real. In one scene, a psychiatrist is asked on the news what causes Paris Syndrome:

“Obsession,” he said, mouthing the syllables thoughtfully. “An extreme obsession with Paris. An intoxicated sense of awe at its architecture, its customs, and its general jooie de vivre. Paris Syndrome is a manic inability to make sense of it all…. Paris Syndrome is among the most misunderstood and most dangerous of all psychological conditions.

Here, Paris syndrome seems to be the fixation and elevation of a thing until it can never really satisfy. The use of Paris seems basically incidental: tantrums among children on Christmas morning are an obvious parallel.

Perhaps it's simply a case of expecting a lot from a holiday, and reacting badly when it doesn't happen. Throw a long distance from home and an unfamiliar culture into the mix, and we have our explanation. 

 
 
 
 

The smartphone app placing virtual statues of women on the map

A virtual Edith Wharton in Central Park, New York City. Image: The Whole Story Project.

If you’re a woman, then in order for you to be immortalised in stone, bronze or whatever once you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, you should either have royal blood or be willing to be sculpted naked. That is the rule of thumb.

A statue that actually celebrates a woman’s achievements is a rare sight. Writing in the New Statesman last year, equality campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez found that out of 925 statues in Britain, as listed by the Public Monuments and Sculpture Association, only 158 are of solo women. Of these, 46 are of royalty, including 29 of Queen Victoria. Fourteen depict the Virgin Mary.

There are signs of change, albeit slow. The suffragist Millicent Fawcett is set to be honoured with a statue in Parliament Square, where currently all 11 of the statues are of men. (They include Nelson Mandela and a nine-foot Gandhi.) The monument is to be unveiled next year to celebrate the centenary of British women receiving the right to vote.

Elsewhere, the late comedian Victoria Wood is being honoured with a statue that’ll be erected in Bury, Greater Manchester. In the Moss Side area of the city, a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst will be unveiled in 2019. Unlike the Fawcett one, neither of these is expected to receive public money, relying on crowdfunding and other sources instead.

So how many more statues of women, regardless of how they’re funded, would we need to build in order to reduce the gender gap? Well, according to Jonathan Jones, art critic at the Guardian, the magic number is: zero.

Jones’s argument, back in March, was that building statues doesn’t advance feminism, but simply traps us in the past. He wrote:

Statues don’t hold public memory. They politely bury it. These well-meaning images melt into the background scenery of our lives.

Whether this is empirically true is questionable, but it’s true that we tend not to erect them as often as we used to anyway. This is partly because there is less space available for such monuments – a noticeable disadvantage cities of the present have compared to those of the past. In order to reduce the imbalance, statues of men would probably have to be removed; many would no doubt be okay with that, but it would mean erasing history.

One partial answer to the problem is augmented reality. It can’t close the gender gap, but it could shine a spotlight on it.

To that end, an advertising agency in New York launched an app at the beginning of May. The Whole Story allows users to place virtual statues of women on a map; other uses can then view and find out more about the individuals depicted at their real-world locations, using their smartphone cameras.


Currently, users have to upload their own virtual statues using 3D-modelling software. But going forward, the project aims for an open collaboration between designers, developers and organisations, which it hopes will lead to more people getting involved.

Contributions submitted so far include a few dozen in New York, several in Washington and one of Jane Austen in Hyde Park. There are others in Italy and the Czech Republic.

Okay, it’s an app created by a marketing firm, but there are legitimate arguments for it. First, the agency’s chief creative office has herself said that it’s important to address the gender imbalance in a visual way in order to inspire current and future generations: you can’t be what you can’t see, as the saying going.

Second, if the physical presence of statues really is diminishing and they don’t hold public memory, as Jones argues, then smartphones could bridge the gap. We live our lives through our devices, capturing, snapping and storing moments, only to forget about them but then return to and share them at a later date. These memories may melt away, but they’ll always be there, backed up to the cloud even. If smartphones can be used to capture and share the message that a gender imbalance exists then that’s arguably a positive thing.  

Third, with the success of Pokemon Go, augmented reality has shown that it can encourage us to explore public spaces and heighten our appreciation for architectural landmarks. It can also prove useful as a tool for learning about historical monuments.

Of course no app will replace statues altogether. But at the very least it could highlight the fact that women’s achievements are more than just sitting on a throne or giving birth to the son of God.

Rich McEachran tweets as @richmceachran.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.