“There is but one Paris, and however hard living may be here, and if it became worse and harder even — the French air clears up the brain and does good — a world of good.”
— Vincent Van Gogh
Tens of millions of people travel to Paris every year. By day, they explore Gothic cathedrals with colorful stained-glass windows and wander through the sprawling gardens of the Château de Versailles. They venture inside turn-of-the-century opera houses and gaze at iconic paintings in world-famous museums. By night, they float down the Seine on romantic dinner cruises and watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle like diamonds. For most of them, exploring the French capital is a dream come true.
Some travelers, however, have an unpleasant experience. To them, the city’s negative aspects overshadow its beauty. The people in this camp fixate on Paris’ dirty streets and its museum exhibits packed with selfie sticks. They worry about the homeless people sleeping in metro stops and beneath bridges.
Still others feel so disappointed, so disillusioned, by the City of Lights that they experience symptoms of psychiatric distress: panic attacks, increased heart rate, dizziness, hallucinations, aggressive behavior, the intense feeling that they’re being persecuted. Some researchers refer to this condition as “Paris Syndrome.”
To be fair, this unlucky third group makes up a very small percentage of the people who visit Paris every year. But in the most severe cases, these travelers have to be hospitalized or even repatriated, so this bizarre phenomenon definitely merits attention.
Paris Syndrome usually claims Japanese tourists as its victims, and the first researcher to study the condition was a Japanese psychiatrist living in France. Several years ago, a Japanese Embassy administrator told a British newspaper that the syndrome affects about 20 Japanese travelers per year; some websites have even reported that the embassy even maintains a 24-hour hotline for nationals suffering from Paris Syndrome. (Note: I couldn’t find the phone number on the embassy’s site, so you might want to take this last claim with a grain of salt.)
In a nutshell, researchers believe that Paris Syndrome is an extreme form of culture shock. Around the world, and especially in Japan, people often over-romanticize the city, and unfortunately, the real Paris just can’t match the fairytale expectations of the world’s collective imagination. Japanese tourists are often disappointed by the froideur that they sense between strangers, by the locals who have little patience with non-French speakers, by the dirty sidewalks and metros and river. Perhaps above all else, they’re turned off by the me-first, individualistic lifestyle that’s so different from the community emphasis back home.
Although it’s not very likely that you’ll develop Paris Syndrome during your next trip to the French capital, it is possible that your travel expectations could set you up for disappointment during your upcoming journeys. To that end, we’ve come up with a few strategies that will help you anticipate your future adventures in a fairer light.
Remember that no place is perfect
No matter how beautiful or enriching a destination may be, it’s important to remember that there are no utopias on this planet. Every country faces social issues and environmental problems, and no place is tailor-made to fit the specifications of its visitors’ expectations.
On Mount Everest, Sherpas rarely receive the praise or attention that they deserve, and trash and old equipment pile up outside camps, courtesy of thoughtless (and worn-out) climbers. At Horseshoe Bend, which was a quiet hideaway just a few years ago, thousands of people arrive every day, all intent on ’gramming their adventure. Visitors to New York City quickly realize that the Big Apple is home to an abundance of tourist traps and kitschy souvenir shops. And London is drizzly, Venice is crowded, and Amsterdam is downright pricey.
And, as we’ve already mentioned, Paris has its fair share of problems, too. No destination is romanticized more than the City of Lights, but even the French capital is prone to disappoint its visitors.
Are these places still incredible? Yes. But they’re not perfect. And if you recognize that before you arrive, you won’t feel crushed by the weight of your own expectations. No matter where you go, you’ll be much better prepared to deal with the negative moments that you’re bound to experience.
Focus on people and culture
As you prepare for your travels, you’ll probably research your destination through a variety of resources: social media posts, travel articles, guidebooks, and even pop culture. And that’s a great way to get ready for your trip. Those resources will help you decide when to go, what to do, and where to stay — but, if you really want a meaningful experience, the bulk of your preparation should revolve around learning about the local culture, not drawing up your itinerary.
Try teaching yourself the basics of a new language, and learn everything you can about the destination’s ecology and geology, or its culinary scene and artistic community. Research the ways that immigrant communities have impacted the city’s evolving identity. Ask what matters most to the people living in the place you’re traveling to.
That extra context will set up an excellent framework for better understanding a different corner of the world. Just think: in Paris, as in most of the Western world, there are signs everywhere that indicate that people focus more on their individual needs than the collective good. (Just think of the locals who don’t stop to help lost tourists find their way, or the commuters who shove their way out of a crowded subway car.) For Japanese tourists, who come from a society that emphasizes the importance of the collective, those differences can feel jarring, especially if the travelers aren’t aware of the contrasting values before their arrival. But, by recognizing that the French look at the world differently than they do, those visitors will be better prepared to understand why Parisians act a certain way. They can minimize their culture shock by examining the context of their new setting. Then, instead, they can focus on enjoying Paris and appreciating what the city does well.
Leave room for good and bad surprises
There’s danger in being too firmly attached to your preconceived notion of how a destination should look or feel, or in setting your expectations too high. You can only get to know a new place by immersing yourself in that setting, and even then, you’ll only scratch the surface.
So, if you leave some wiggle room in your expectations, you’ll learn more as you travel, and you’ll have more fun along the way. You’ll get to know the real Paris or Peru or Portugal, not a wishful projection of that destination.
You might experience some disappointments, but you’ll also be more receptive to the destination’s good qualities. You might find a hidden gem — a secret garden, a speakeasy, an old arthouse theater — or learn something fascinating about the local culture.
In short, you’ll allow that destination to teach and surprise you, and you’ll return home with more nuanced, realistic insights about what life is actually like in other parts of the globe. You’ll realize that you don’t know everything about the places you’ve explored, but you’ll understand them much better than you did before.
And really, isn’t that what travel is all about — recognizing that the world is more surprising and less predictable than you previously thought? That it doesn’t always deliver everything you’d hoped for, but that it’s always bigger and better than what you could ever dream up?
We sure think so.
How have you managed your expectations throughout your own travels? Let us know in the comments. And if you’d like to read up on Paris and other destinations around the world, check out our growing collection of travel guides.