Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.
These are the opening words of Paula McClain’s novel, The Paris Wife. Told from the viewpoint of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, the book shares the story of the young couple as they dive into life in Jazz-Age Paris.
I’ve not read the book, but I’ve read the first page, on the back of the most recent issue of the travel magazine Afar (which, by the way, I purchased with frequent-flier miles). The page is part of an advertisement, displayed on a Kindle Paperwhite held by a tourist overlooking the iconic white and blue buildings of Santorini, Greece. The caption for the ad reads, “Perfect for Getaways.”
It seems that some Japanese travelers have the same view of Paris as Mrs. Hemingway: It’s a condition in need of a remedy.
Back in 2006, BBC published an oft-quoted story about a phenomenon called “Paris Syndrome.” According to the article, each year, a dozen or so Japanese tourists have a psychiatric breakdown of sorts upon visiting the French capital. First identified by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist in France, the syndrome is brought about when the realities of Paris don’t match the visitors’ romanticized expectations. While some of the symptoms sound like culture shock, others, such as delusions and hallucinations, are more extreme.
While some deny the existence of an actual syndrome, BBC reports that the Japanese embassy in France has set us a 24-hour hotline to help deal with the situation.
Below is a short documentary from John Menick, Paris Syndrome (2010). It takes a more in-depth—and sometimes sceptical—look at the condition, including interviews with French psychiatric professionals. Besides Paris Syndrome, the video also touches on such topics as Stendhal Syndrome, psychiatric portraiture, and historical views of travel-related mental illnesses. It even looks at Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the inspiration for the movie The Terminal.
So . . . what is the cure for Paris? While some are searching for one, most see no need. The author Gertrude Stein, a friend of the Hemingways from their time in France, saw the City of Light as a place that nurtured her creativity. “America is my country,” she said, “and Paris is my hometown.”
(Paula McClain, The Paris Wife, New York: Ballantine, 2011; Caroline Wyatt, “‘Paris Syndrome’ Strikes Japanese,” BBC News, December 20, 2006)
[photo: “Another Summer Day in Paris,” by Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs, used under a Creative Commons license]