The Cure for the Paris Syndrome

Jul 15, 2013

“The national characteristics… the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.” -Lawrence Durrell

To dream of coming to Paris, wandering the streets surrounded by beauty, food and love is the vision that dances in minds of virgin travelers to the City of Light. Such a dream, while containing aspects of the truth, are the romanticized version that Hollywood and endless other sources have depicted. The sky is bluer, the love felt deeper, the food (well, it’s true about the food, I must say) and the magical tingle must unquestionably occur simply by stepping on the terra firma of Paris.

Reality – without preparation, without knowledge, without flexibility, patience and a willingness to be present and open minded, a trip to Paris could lead to what has been labeled in Japan as “Paris Syndrome”. The Japanese embassy in Paris handles approximately 10-12 such cases in which the starry eyed Japanese tourist is in such a state of shock due to disappointment when expectations aren’t met that they must be transported home with nurse accompaniment. Now, that’s a small number considering in 2012 over 29 million people visited Paris, but I’m willing to wager that many more people experience a certain level of shock when their expectations don’t measure up to the reality.

Why does this happen? Is Paris not as grand as it has been presented? I would argue that it is far grander than one can imagine, but again, proper preparation must be followed prior to arrival at Charles de Gaulle.

I can remember thirteen years ago arriving in Paris with next to no grasp of the French language. I immediately wanted to be whisked back to the states and was too intimidated to dine in the many French cafes and bistros, let alone attempt the Metro. When I returned last year, the experience was far different, as I came with basic conversational language skills, an idea of what I wanted to see, but still far too little preparation. Which brings me to my current trip in which I have become enamored. Why? How was I able to cure the small nibble of the Paris Syndrome bug? Well, let me explain what I have discovered as well as insights from fellow expats living or having had lived in the city.

1. Language Skills

While I must share that compared to thirteen years ago, far more shop keepers, locals and those of the younger generation are more apt and willing to speak English with those who stutter with their attempts at French, it is still very helpful to know how to read basic directions and converse in a simple conversational manner (thank you, how much, where, which way, etc). Either take a French class with your local Alliance de Francais (most major cities around the world have their own chapter), purchase Rosetta Stone (it’s what I did as I live in a rural area), or hire a tutor (college towns especially will have this option available). Begin as soon as possible.

2. Bring Adapters and Converters

Ignorantly, on my first trip to France, I did not bring either which left me to air dry my hair each day and thank goodness the internet wasn’t as big of a life necessity as it is today. As the lesson was quickly learned, I now travel with this adapter from Walkabout Solutions and this converter for my hair dryer. Something to also note, if for some reason you don’t have an adapter for the three prong US cords, don’t worry. The third prong is the grounding peg – which means you don’t need to have a hole for it to go when you’re in a bind. Simply plug the two prongs into the adapter and you’ll be fine.

3. Become Friends with the Metro

Based on horror stories from those who traveled briefly or didn’t grow up or live with regular subway transportation, I was fearful of going “under ground”. And when your French is far from superb, that can help nudge you into not making the attempt.

What I’ve discovered is that the Metro is actually the easiest place to navigate if you know very little French at all because it’s just matching up words and colors and following arrows. Also, I find it a calm respite after walking along the busy streets during the hot weather Paris enjoys in the summer.

While I will be going over in detail later this week how to master the Metro, I will begin by stating that acquiring a Metro map is a must (I picked up this one), download Visit Paris by Metro app (it can be used offline and is free), keep your bag tucked close (pick pocketers take advantage of those who look lost or are unsuspecting – although I’ve never had any problems) and be aware of your surroundings. You’ll be fine. Also, purchase 10 billets (tickets) or a 1, 3, or 5 day Paris pass so all you have to do is slip your ticket into the turnstile and be on your merry way.

Note, the ticket stations are inside the metro just as you descend the stairs, and they do accept credit cards.

4. Create an Itinerary, but be Flexible

“Coming [to Paris] has been a wonderful experience, surprising in many respects, one of them being to find how much of an American I am.” -Augustus Saint-Gaudens

It is key to create a list of places you want to visit and then look up the days and hours they are open. Each museum, shop, boulangerie, etc keeps very unique hours. For example, the Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, a favorite boulangerie of my is closed Saturday and Sunday, and often on Mondays you’ll find certain businesses closed. Do your homework, plan your schedule around their schedule as you are visiting their culture, not imposing your culture upon them.

5. Accept Jet Lag Fatigue and Frustration

We forget that we are not infallible, and if you’re like me, traveling for more than 17 hours, when you arrive and it’s mid-day, so some reason you think you’ll be fine. While you should remain awake and go to bed on Paris time, if you do, accept that your emotions, your energy and your perceptions may be a bit skewed. It takes me about two days to get into a regular rhythm, but the key is not to let your mind take the upper hand. If nothing else, such travel is a wonderful reminder of how valuable and necessary quality sleep is for the mind to function at its optimal level.

6. What to Skip

“A final reminder. Whenever you are in Paris at twilight in the early summer, return to the Seine and watch the evening sky close slowly on a last strand of daylight fading quietly, like a sigh.” -Kate Simon

I mentioned in this post that the best part of the day to enjoy the city in the summer without excessive tourists is in the morning, and knowing this will allow you to see the beauty of the city without as much editing. What I have discovered is that if I’m going to skip any part of the day and choose to take a nap or work at my apartment rental it is in the afternoon (the hottest part of any day is 3-5 in the afternoon, so it helps you avoid sun burn and heat exhaustion). After resting up, heading out for a lovely evening is absolutely divine, and you’re more apt to enjoy it without the extra unnecessary stressors.

7. You’re Never Alone

“Paris is a place in which we can forget ourselves, reinvent, expunge the dead weight of our past.” -Michael Simkins

As someone who travels alone frequently, Paris is a dream for dining solo anytime of the day. Pick a seat at one of the endless cafes or bistros and gaze out onto the street watching passersby. In the morning, I love the quiet time of sipping my thé (tea), nibbling on a chocolate croissant and planning my day. On Saturday, I chose to have petit dejeuner at Poilâne  and delighted in the elderly man (dressed impeccable in a blazer, hat and trousers) who also was dining alone. The conversation with the wait staff is also delightful in the morning as fewer people are about and the day has just begun.

8. Sign up for a day tour

“The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music… it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in everything.” -James Thurber

The best way to connect with people if you don’t know the city well is to take a tour which will provide context, ideas, directions and a tour guide who speaks your language and can answer any questions. If you love food, I highly recommend Paris by Mouth as they offer different tours around the city focusing on your preference of food.

9. Be Open and Present

“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of Life.” -Thomas Jefferson

While you should come with an itinerary, as the day moves along, allow it to take you where it will. If you are a avid photographer, allow your camera and events that catch your eye to dictate your plans. Allow meals to continue as long as the conversation warrants. If you are tired, go take a nap. If you are full of energy, take the Metro to another destination you’ve been curious about. And trust me, inspiration is everywhere if only you choose to look. Let go expectations and absorb all that you are seeing, hearing and feeling.

10. Eliminate the Stress

There are certain aspects of travel that are stressful, and for me the biggest worry is finding my apartment rental with all of my luggage in tow upon arrival and getting to the airport in time for departure. Because I know that these are two stresses I have, I’ve chosen to eliminate them as best as I can. Scheduling a taxi that is waiting for you at the gate when you arrive (with your name on a sign) and picking you up at your hotel or rental to take you to the airport is money well spent. Eco Cab is who I have used in Paris and have had great success (for arrivals especially, purchase the flight delay insurance as well).

Pinpoint what stresses you out the most when you travel, and do what you can to eliminate them.

11. Let Go of Expectations (Yours & Those Left Behind)

“People wonder why so many writers come to live in Paris. I’ve been living ten years in Paris and the answer seems simple to me: because it’s the best place to pick ideas. Just like Italy, Spain… or Iran are the best places to pick saffron. If you want to pick opium poppies you go to Burma or South-East Asia. And if you want to pick novel ideas, you go to Paris.” -Roman Payne

Upon learning that I am going to Paris, a handful of people give unsolicited advice which I always listen to. After all, you never know when they are going to suggest something that is exactly what you’re interested and many of the places I have discovered are from people who have traveled to this wonderful destination.

On the other hand, while Paris is full of sites to see, it’s also a city to exist in. What I mean is that because the way of life in France is something that I am drawn to, I simply want to go about a daily routine that the Parisian culture is known for – fresh baguettes and other bread in the morning, shopping the local, fresh markets throughout the week, dining at length with wine and exquisite fare in the afternoon and evening and wandering around allowing inspiration to come forth. Do what you love on your next trip to Paris and let the world’s expectations fall by the wayside. You’ll return from your travels far more content.

While we all have expectations of Paris, don’t expect to fall in love any more than you would expect to fall in love on any other given day in any other city. The trip will be what you make it, so when things don’t go as plan, relax, take a very deep breath, perhaps get some sleep and start fresh in the morning (or evening) with a destination in mind and be malleable.

~Let the discussion begin! I am eager to hear from fellow travelers to Paris. What have you learned through your journey and experiences? Share in the comments below or on Facebook.

Images: (1) source (2) source (3)source (4) source



16 thoughts on “The Cure for the Paris Syndrome

  1. So glad you’re having a wonderful time! I love the concept of Paris Syndrome. My first visit there was part of a larger European trip and I was not at all impressed. (I was also exhausted with jet lag and traveling without a plan). My second trip was when I really began to understand Paris’ allure. I stayed with a friend so I had much more of the “real life” experience you described. So – here’s my bit of unsolicited advice: the bus is as easy to use as the metro and it allows you to see more as you go. You’ll discover tons of little parks and restaurants and neighborhoods to visit.

  2. The key to our trip to Paris last fall, was to limit the amount of sites we wanted to see daily. We had only two or three things daily on our list and it gave us time to experience each place without being rushed. It also gave us the flexibility to see other things we may have stumbled upon. True, we didn’t see everything there is to see, but now we have reason to go back. And who doesn’t want to go back!

    1. Denise, Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I think you offer great advice. Flexibility is key to allowing yourself to be open and able to see all that Paris has to offer – none of it something you can plan.

  3. Great tips! We scheduled our “must see and do list” in the morning and left plenty of time for exploring; we did the same for restaurants – reserved some but wanted to find new places. We rent apartments in the 7th and love living like locals.
    I also used Rosetta Stone before our trip and found it to be quite helpful. The links you provided to your adapter and converter link to Rosetta Stone. I am in the market for new ones. Last trip, I brought a GHD flat iron which is dual voltage but my curling iron was not and melted. I thought I used the right converter. Oops.
    xoxo, B

    1. B – Thank you for the heads up on the link. All should be fixed. I have been very happy with these two items and couldn’t recommend more highly.
      Sounds like you have figured how to thoroughly enjoy the city. Thank you for sharing your tips!

  4. I have just returned from Paris , my 6th trip from the UK ,, My piece of advice would be ,, stay away from the tourist areas when eating out ,, (one treat is ok) , stay in an apartment , shop like the locals ,, and as I just read, use the bus too .. I used the bus from Porte de Clichy to Gare du Nord to catch the Eurostar home ,, what a joy ,, not more steps ..:-)

  5. The first time I visited Paris (six years ago), I had a touch of the Paris Syndrome, and wasn’t as impressed as I had hoped. However, when I returned a year and a half ago, without any pressures or expectations on myself or the city, I fell completely in love with it.
    These are such great tips, and I think they could be edited to hold true for any foreign city!

  6. Lovely post. I would add: Google Maps can ease some worry. On my second last trip, when we came to Paris from Italy/Provence, I had used Street View to “virtually walk” from the Metro to the Hotel, so when we arrived above ground, I knew exactly where I was going.
    Also: Make friends with the waiters. I hung out at Cafe de Flore quite a bit on my last trip (took my mom on that trip, and I needed some “me” time, believe me!). I used as much French as I could, and spent an afternoon having my Champagne flute topped up chatting with a hilarious waiter who told me “when the customer is boring, I am boring”.
    Paris is stunning, but like everything else, it’s what you make it.

  7. I definitely agree with the sentiment that the magic of Paris is even grander than one can imagine. It’s a bit hard to explain how though – for me, none of it is about the conjured up fairytale stuff existing on tv (think Carrie from Sex and the City – the beauty of Paris for me isn’t all about the fanciest restaurants and shopping at Louis Vuitton, running into Mr. Big etc). But the reality of it is WAY better than anything found on tv. Personally, I find Paris to be something of a comfort. I feel for whatever reason, kind of “at home” walking about the streets. There isn’t the advertising, rushed sense, obvious trends and keeping up with the Jones’ attitudes and work stress that there is in North America. You can enjoy a meal surrounded by alot of other people doing the same, in a beautiful setting.

    Don’t get me wrong – it’s a challenge. Last summer was my first trip over to Europe and Paris was the first stop on my list. I got totally lost on the metro my first day, at night, and when a nice elderly couple stopped to help me noticing my frustration, I burst into tears. Fortunately, I’ve learned the ways of the metro since then along with favourite neighbourhood spots. There are endless things to see and do in Paris and it’s not all about the touristy stuff (though lots of it is fantastic) – it’s just the *feeling*, a je ne sais quois. Like you Shannon, I wasn’t nearly prepared for my first trip. I’ve realized since how much there is to still see in Paris. I was fortunate enough to visit for a short time over New Years, and I will be stopping in Paris for 3 nights and 2 days in a couple weeks at the end of my upcoming vacation. It still is not quite enough, but I learn something new about it every time. I hope to return for a longer stay sometime in the next few years so that I can really relax while I am there! In the meantime, I feel so grateful to return to this most amazing city even just for a few days very soon – it truly is a gift just being able to stop back in at all. The magic is really what you make of your experience, and if you choose to embrace all that is Paris with a combination of excitement, curiosity and a realistic set of eyes, you will experience the true magic:)

  8. ParisByMetro is my bible. Ill never carry a Metro map again but then I am deeply attached to my mini iPad, another life saver -it fits perfectly into a little sportsac and my cover is not the obvious Apple cover so peep thinkits a Kindle. I’m crazy for CityGardens – free app for all of Paris 600 gardens. ParisMarche is indispensable. reeParis is food for offline maps and tips. I no longer use my Canon. The iPad camera is terrific!

  9. I just got back from Paris and I completely – completely – agree with leaving everyone’s expectations behind: “You MUST visit this, you MUST do that…”

    The first time I went, we tried to pack far too much into the trip and really ignored the things that make me happy (re: shopping and girlie stuff). The ONLY girlie experience I had was visiting Laduree – that was very nice.

    But other than that – it was just NOT fun. We’d rented an apartment and that was really so-so and we did tours… the weather wasn’t very nice, so I’m sure that contributed to my malaise. And the people didn’t seem as friendly.

    That was two years ago.

    I just got back from Paris (literally the day this post was penned) and it was easily one of the best trips I have EVER had. This time, I didn’t pressure myself to “do Paris”. I simply went with a few “me” goals and I did those. I ate at 58 Tour Eiffel overlooking the city. I shopped and shopped and shopped at Hermes (multiple locations) and LV (actually bought my first LV bag – a signature limited edition clutch). I bought my macarons again at Laduree. I finally got to see Versailles.

    We weren’t there a horribly long time, and so I made sure to get in the stuff that was important to me (shopping – yes, I know that may seem shallow, people-watching at cafes, ONE museum (Versailles), and one really grand touristy thing – 58 Tour Eiffel). And I went with a larger group of people (about 9), and we stayed at a very nice hotel.

    I think the key to enjoying Paris is doing it YOUR way. Not the way everyone else expects you to. Sure, my way cost more $$ than my first trip, but in the end, it was worth it to me.

    By doing it my way, the magic of Paris unfolded naturally for me.

    And I plan on going back, obviously.

  10. Dear Shannon,

    I wanted to reply to this post after an exciting two days in Paris. I planned my trip a few weeks ago, and have been consulting your blog periodically as I’ve organized. I re-read this post last night as I was unwinding in my hotel room and it really brought a smile to my face, because I could relate to it so well! My first impression of Paris several years ago was a bit deflating; I hadn’t made any plans beyond “see as much as you can” and ended up staying in a very poor location. When I returned however (this is now my third trip), I’ve paid more attention to location and learned some valuable lessons along the way…
    1. As mentioned, look into location in advance! While the metro is a valuable resource, it is still nice to return at the end of the day to a neighbourhood where you feel safe. Furthermore, if you want to walk and explore, look into the characteristics of the different neighbourhoods to see what suits your interests. Apartments are ideal, but if it’s a short trip then sometimes you have to go with a hotel.
    2. I couldn’t agree more about the morning – it is such a wonderful time in Paris. I got up early to get pain chocolat at my favourite place each day and avoided crowds. In addition, I felt like I had the expansive Tuilleries to myself!
    3. If you’re up to it, try to speak french. I am certainly not a polished or seasoned francophone, but I always tried to embrace the language when shopping or in restaurants.
    4. Pick just a few activities that you want to be sure to do and research those in advance (ie. make sure the destination is open, hours, etc). Then, leave some time to explore and let chance lead you around a bit. I think it is the best of both worlds, and you’ll often discover new places you weren’t aware of beforehand, which will just make you eager to plan the next Parisian adventure!

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