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. 

 
 
 
 

A nation that doesn’t officially exist: on Somaliland’s campaign to build a national library in Hargeisa

The Somaliland National Library, Hargeisa. Image: Ahmed Elmi.

For seven years now, there’s been a fundraising campaign underway to build a new national library in a nation that doesn’t officially exist. 

Since 2010, the Somali diaspora have been sending money, to pay for construction of the new building in the capital, Hargeisa. In a video promoting the project, the British journalist Rageeh Omar, who was born in Mogadishu to a Hargeisa family, said it would be... 

“...one of the most important institutions and reference points for all Somalilanders. I hope it sets a benchmark in terms of when a country decides to do something for itself, for the greater good, for learning and for progress – that anything can be achieved.”

Now the first storey of the Somaliland National Library is largely complete. The next step is to fill it with books. The diaspora has been sending those, too.

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Some background is necessary here to explain the “country that doesn’t exist” part. During the Scramble for Africa of the 1880s, at the height of European imperialism, several different empires established protectorates in the Somali territories on the Horn of Africa. In 1883, the French took the port of Djibouti; the following year, the British grabbed the north coast, which looks out onto the Gulf of Aden. Five years after that, the Italians took the east coast, which faces the Indian Ocean.

And, excepting some uproar during World War II, so things remained for the next 70 years or so.

The Somali territories in 1890. Image: Ingoman/Wikimedia Commons.

When the winds of change arrived in 1960, the British and Italian portions agreed to unite as the Somali Republic: a hair-pin shaped territory, hugging the coast and surrounding Ethiopia on two sides. But British Somaliland gained its independence first: for just five days, at the end of June 1960, it was effectively an independent country. This will become important later.

(In case you are wondering what happened to the French bit, it voted to remain with France in a distinctly dodgy referendum. It later became independent as Djibouti in 1977.)

The new country, informally known as Somalia, had a difficult history: nine years of democracy ended in a coup, and were followed by the 22 year military dictatorship under the presidency of General Siad Barre. In 1991, under pressure from rebel groups including the Hargeisa-based Somali National Movement (SNM), Barre fled, and his government finally collapsed. So, in effect, did the country.

For one thing, it split in two, along the old colonial boundaries: the local authorities in the British portion, backed by the SNM, made a unilateral declaration of independence. In the formerly Italian south, though, things collapsed in a rather more literal sense: the territory centred on Mogadishu was devastated by the Somali civil war, which has killed around 500,000, displaced more than twice that, and is still officially going on.

Somalia (blue) and Somaliland (yellow) in 2016. Image: Nicolay Sidorov/Wikimedia Commons.

The north, meanwhile, got off relatively lightly: today it’s the democratic and moderately prosperous Republic of Somaliland. It claims to be the successor to the independent state of Somaliland, which existed for those five days in June 1960.

This hasn’t persuaded anybody, though, and today it’s the only de facto sovereign state that has never been recognised by a single UN member. Reading about it, one gets the distinct sense that this is because it’s basically doing okay, so its lack of diplomatic recognition has never risen up anyone’s priority list.

Neither has its library.

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Rageeh Omar described the site of the new library in his fundraising video. It occupies 6,000m2 in the middle of Hargeisa, two minutes from the city’s main hospital, 10 from the presidential palace. In one sequence he stands on the half-completed building’s roof and points out the neighbours: the city’s main high street, with the country’s largest shopping mall; the Ministry of Telecoms that lies right next door.

This spiel, in a video produced by the project’s promoters, suggests something about the new library: that part of its job is to be another in this list of landmarks, more evidence that Hargeisa, a city of 1.5m, should be recognised as the proper capital of a real country.

But it isn’t just that: the description of the library’s function, in the government’s Strategic Plan 2013-2023, makes clear it’s also meant to be a real educational facility. NGOS, the report notes, have focused their resources on primary schools first, secondary schools second and other educational facilities not at all. (This makes sense, given that they want most bang for their buck.)

And so, the new building will provide “the normal functions of public library, but also... additional services that are intentionally aimed at solving the unique education problems of a post conflict society”. It’ll provide books for a network of library trucks, providing “book services” to the regions outside Hargeisa, and a “book dispersal and exchange system”, to provide books for schools and other educational facilities. There’ll even be a “Camel Library Caravan that will specifically aim at accessing the nomadic pastoralists in remote areas”.

All this, it’s hoped, will raise literacy levels, in English as well as the local languages of Arabic and Somali, and so boost the economy too.

As described. Image courtesy of Nimko Ali.

Ahmed Elmi, the London-based Somali who’s founder and director of the library campaign, says that the Somaliland government has invested $192,000 in the library. A further $97,000 came from individual and business donors in both Hargeisa and in the disaspora. “We had higher ambitions,” Elmi tells me, “but we had to humble our approach, since the last three years the country has been suffering from a large drought.”

Now the scheme is moving to its second phase: books, computers and printers, plus landscaping the gardens. This will cost another $175,000. “We are also open to donations of books, furniture and technology,” Emli says. “Or even someone with technical expertise who can help up set-up the librarian system instead of a contemporary donation of a cash sum.” The Czech government, in fact, has helped with the latter: it’s not offered financial support, but has offered to spend four weeks training two librarians.  

Inside the library.

On internet forums frequented by the Somali diaspora, a number of people have left comments about the best way to do this. One said he’d “donated all my old science and maths schoolbooks last year”. And then there’s this:

“At least 16 thousand landers get back to home every year, if everyone bring one book our children will have plenty of books to read. But we should make sure to not bring useless books such celebrity biography books or romantic novels. the kids should have plenty of science,maths and vocational books.”

Which is good advice for all of us, really.


Perhaps the pithiest description of the project comes from its Facebook page: “Africa always suffers food shortage, diseases, civil wars, corruption etc. – but the Somaliland people need a modern library to build a better place for the generations to come.”

The building doesn’t look like much: a squat concrete block, one storey-high. But there’s something about the idea of a country coming together like this to build something that’s rather moving. Books are better than sovereignty anyway.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason. 

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