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. 

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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