An important part of any holiday is immersing yourself in a new culture. Ideally, this should involve being swept up by the place you’re visiting – its people, food, art, languages, and more – but for a few unsuspecting tourists this can go too far – with disastrous consequences.
It sounds too bizarre to be true, but there are certain places – namely Jerusalem, Paris, and Florence – that have been known to evoke in tourists such strong mental and psychological reactions that area-specific syndromes have been identified.
Since the 1930s psychiatrists have reported a strange phenomenon among visitors to Jerusalem: occasionally, a tourist will, upon arriving in the city, become possessed by religious-based psychosis.
The syndrome appears in three forms, the most common of which affects a person who has displayed no previous mental instability, but who, upon arrival, parts from the group they travelled with, becomes obsessed with cleanliness and bathing or showering, fashions themselves a toga out of bed linen, and begins preaching religious doctrine from the city’s streets or holy places.
Although the syndrome does not affect any one religion – with the ancient city holding high importance in Judaism, Islam and Christianity – Christians do seem to be more frequently affected.
Perhaps the most famous sufferer of Jerusalem Syndrome is Denis Michael Rohan, an Australian sheepshearer from a town 370km west of Sydney, who, it’s worth noting, had previously been hospitalised with mental health issues. In 1969, Rohan arrived in Jerusalem, where he became convinced that his mission in life was to establish a new Jewish temple on the embers of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, the principal place of worship for the city’s Muslim residents and the third holiest site of Islam.
A fire started by Denis caused causing extensive damage to the Mosque. His actions triggered riots across the Muslim world as far flung as Kashmir, warranted a complaint to the UN Security Council signed by 25 Muslim countries and exacerbated the already volatile Arab-Israeli conflict. A major diplomatic incident all from a little-known psychological disorder. Boy, did that escalate fast.
Now this city-specific syndrome is slightly more benevolent. Also known as Stendhal Syndrome or hyperkulturemia (which offers a clue as to the key trigger to this particular mental disorder), sufferers report a racing heartbeat, dizziness, fast breathing and, in the most extreme cases, even paranoid psychosis.
But this raft of symptoms occurs only after seeing the beautiful art and buildings of Florence.
The affliction is named after the 19th century French author, Marie-Henri Beyle, who wrote under the pseudonym Stendhal. He described his experience:
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen [Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo are all buried there]. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty ... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations ... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul... I had palpitations of the heart... Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling”
Paris was the third most visited city in the world last year, welcoming 17.4 million international visitors. Enticed by the idealised view of Paris seen in films such as Amelie, Ratatouille and Moulin Rouge, people travel from across the planet to see the City of Love and Lights.
But where they expect to visit a romantic, quaint city of cobbled streets and well-dressed locals, some tourists instead find a sprawling metropolis covered in murderous multi-lane roads and angry Parisians; a city that, in many ways, is just as terrible as the place they came on holiday to escape. And they can’t handle it.
Symptoms include hallucinations, paranoia of persecution and anxiety, alongside physical responses such as dizziness and vomiting. Not exactly what you want from your mini-break in Paris.
Curiously, Paris Syndrome is particularly noted among Japanese tourists, likely due to the Japanese media’s particularly romantic representation of the city. The Japanese Embassy in Paris has even set up a 24-hour helpline for sufferers.
All of which got me thinking about what symptoms or syndrome London might induce in hapless tourists. Possibly a bad crick in the neck after a walk through the City, trying to have a good look at the buildings towering over narrow streets. Or anxiety brought on by trying to do battle with Oxford Street. Or, thanks to the pollution, being forced to blow black gunk out of your nose for 12 hours after visiting. See, London isn’t all fun and games either.