Paris syndrome, Stendhal and the deconstruction of travel

September 24, 2011

I wouldn’t mind seeing China if I could come back home the same day. Philip Larkin, English poet

I love Paris in the springtime.

I love Paris in the fall.

I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles,

I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles. I Love Paris, Cole Porter


These sentiments of Cole Porter would seem to be a truth universally acknowledged. However, the French capital can actually make some people very ill.; Paris syndrome is the name given to a transient psychological disorder that afflicts tourists when they discover that the City of Light fails to live up to their expectations. The Japanese, and in particular Japanese women, are the most affected, with between twelve and twenty cases a year reported. We need to put this number into some kind of context. Millions of Japanese travel abroad every year and Paris is one of their most popular destinations.

Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, is credited as the first person to diagnose the condition in 1986. The Japanese embassy in Paris is said to have a 24-hour hotline for those suffering from the syndrome. The vulnerability of the Japanese may be linked to the popularity of Paris in Japanese culture, notably the idealized image o f Paris prevalent in advertising. They become disillusioned when they discover that Parisians don’t put on Louis Vuitton to go to the boulangerie, or that the French are far more overweight than the Japanese population. Apart from this romanticised image of Paris, factors such as culture shock, the language barrier and sheer physical exhaustion may also contribute. According to Wikipedia symptoms include acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealisation, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, etc.

Youcef Mahmoudia, a physician with the hospital Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, argues that Paris Syndrome has nothing to do with any disillusion experienced by tourists. His theory is that the excitement resulting from visiting Paris causes the heart to accelerate, causing giddiness and shortness of breath, which results in hallucinations that are similar to the Stendhal syndrome described by Italian psychologist Graziella Magherini in her book La sindrome di Stendhal.

In 1817, Marie-Henri Beyle, AKA the famous French writer Stendhal visited Florence and soon found himself completely overwhelmed by the city’s heady mix of history and art. When he visited Santa Croce he was overcome with emotion:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty … I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … 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.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”

Whatever the reality of Paris Syndrome, and I am somewhat sceptical, writing about the gap between the expectations and reality of travel is not new. It comes up in A Rebours (Against the Grain), a 1884 novel by Joris-Karl Huysman. His central character, the aristocratic Jean des Esseintes, is a misanthrope who lives alone in a large house on the outskirts of Paris. He prefers not to venture beyond the confines of his house because he doesn’t want to have to put up with the ugliness and stupidity of others.

Des Esseintes had only ever felt drawn to two countries:Holland and England. He had already visited the former. Having seen the wonderful Dutch artworks at the Louvre, he travelled there with high expectations. But the trip was a disaster.  He was disillusioned by the reality of what he saw inHolland– he had been deceived by the art of the great Dutch masters:

“They had simply served as a springing board for his dreams. He had rushed forward on a false track and had wandered into capricious visions, unable to discover in the land itself, anything of that real and magical country which he had hoped to behold, seeing nothing at all, on the plots of ground strewn with barrels, of the dances of petticoated and stockinged peasants crying for very joy, stamping their feet out of sheer happiness and laughing loudly. Decidedly nothing of all this was visible.

Despite this setback, Des Esseintes is going to repeat his mistake. One day having read a volume of Dickens, he suddenly gets the urge to travel to London. He books a seat on the next available train. With some time to kill before the departure of the London train, he pops into Galignani’s English Bookshop on the Rue de Rivoli where he picks up a guidebook. He then goes to a wine bar frequented mainly by English patrons. The atmosphere is straight out of Dickens. Feeling a bit peckish, he then enters an English tavern on the Rue d’Amsterdam, near the Gare Saint Lazare. Des Esseintes sits at a table and orders some oxtail soup, a smoked haddock, a helping of roast beef and potatoes, a couple of pints of ale and a piece of Stilton. The time of the London train is approaching. He should be feeling excited, but he begins to feel a sense of overpowering listlessness:

He told himself: “Come now, let us get up, we must take ourselves off.” Immediate objections thwarted his orders. What is the use of moving, when one can travel on a chair so magnificently? Was he not even now in London, whose aromas and atmosphere and inhabitants, whose food and utensils surrounded him? For what could he hope, if not new disillusionments, as had happened to him in Holland?

He had but sufficient time to race to the station. An overwhelming aversion for the trip, an imperious need of remaining tranquil, seized him with a more and more obvious and stubborn strength. Pensively, he let the minutes pass, thus cutting off all retreat, and he said to himself, “Now it would be necessary to rush to the gate and crowd into the baggage room! What ennui! What a bore that would be!” Then he repeated to himself once more, “I’m fine, I have experienced and seen all I wished to experience and see. I have been filled with English life since my departure. I would be mad indeed to go and, by an awkward trip, lose those imperishable sensations. How stupid of me to have sought to disown my old ideas, to have doubted the efficacy of the docile phantasmagories of my brain, like a very fool to have thought of the necessity, of the curiosity, of the interest of an excursion!”

“Well!” he exclaimed, consulting his watch, “it is now time to return home.”

So des Esseintes pays the bill, leaves the tavern and takes the first train back to his house.  He will never leave home again.

In Paradise News David Lodge uses a holiday in Hawaii to ponder the meaning of tourism. Lodge creates another of those pompous academics that he likes to satirise. His name is Roger Sheldrake, a professor of anthropology at South-West London Poly, who has forsaken the traditional anthropological fare of an African village or a Pacific island to study instead the travel industry. Sheldrake is travelling to Hawaii as part of his anthropological research, with a grant from the British Association of Travel Agents. He is a man on a mission:

“I’m doing to tourism what Marx did to capitalism, what Freud did to family life. Deconstructing it

While on one level Lodge is sending up Sheldrake, on another level I think he is using him as a mouthpiece for some interesting reflections on modern life. There are two kinds of holiday. One is as a kind of secular pilgrimage, with the souvenirs as relics and the guidebooks devotional aids. Lodge is mocking those sightseeing tours where coach potatoes are shunted around all the essential sights of a city museums, churches, cathedrals, castles etc. They have very little appreciation of where they happen to be. If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. The second variety is the holiday destination as paradise on earth. The classic example is the beach holiday in the Caribbean or of course, on Hawaii. Tourists are looking for an illusory paradise. Few of the millions of tourists who visit the islands every year will ever find the deserted paradisiacal beaches they see in the brochures.

And Sheldrake argues that this tourism is wearing out the planet:

The footpaths in the Lake District have become trenches. The frescos in the Sistine Chapel are being damaged by the breath and body-heat of spectators. A hundred and eight people enter Notre Dame every minute: their feet are eroding the floor and the buses that bring them there are rotting the stonework with exhaust fumes

He believes that the only way to stop this planetary curse, short of draconian legislation, is to convince the public that they aren’t actually enjoying themselves when they go on holiday, but are engaging in a superstitious ritual.  For Sheldrake it can’t be a coincidence that tourism arose just as religion was in decline. Tourism has become the new opium of the people.

I can identify with Stendhal and des Esseintes. I have a really beautiful image of Florence in my head. The Medici, Brunelleschi, Savonarola, and Botticelli – how could the reality ever live up to that? And what about all the hassle that comes with tourism? Some airports now have recombobulation areas, where you recover from all the indignities –having to de-shoe etc – that airport security heaps on you. Delays, strikes, overcrowded landmarks and tour operators going bust – it’s all too much

I suppose this contrarian take on travel is a kind of defence mechanism on my part. Travel has become a luxury for us. It all comes down to cost. With a family of four, any trip can be prohibitively expensive. I haven’t checked it out but I imagine a week in Florence could easily come to over €2,000 for the four of us. That’s a lot of money. I’ve travelled to France,Belgium,Germany, the Czech Republic, Poland Thailand and the USA among others. I can’t really complain. Of course there are many countries and even whole continents which I haven’t been to – Italy, Russia, India, China, South America or Australia immediately come to mind. It’s a bit of a shame because now I’m sure I would appreciate everything a lot more than I used to. Now I will have to make do with my e-book and my imagination. I’ve been to Florence in my mind and it was wonderful. You can’t take that away from me.


The worst Americanisms in English

September 24, 2011

When the BBC did a piece on Americanisms entering the language in the UK, they were inundated with thousands of e-mail examples from readers. You will probably know that I am very sceptical about this kind of thing. Some people just have too much time on their hands. See my previous post Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English. But I know people like this kind of stuff and so here is a selection of the readers’ gripes:

When people ask for something, I often hear: “Can I get a…” It infuriates me. It’s not New York. It’s not the 90s. You’re not in Central Perk with the rest of the Friends. Really.” Steve, Rossendale, Lancashire

The phrase I’ve watched seep into the language (especially with broadcasters) is “two-time” and “three-time”. Have the words double, triple etc, been totally lost? Grammatically it makes no sense, and is even worse when spoken. My pulse rises every time I hear or see it. Which is not healthy as it’s almost every day now. Argh! D Rochelle, Bath

Using 24/7 rather than “24 hours, 7 days a week” or even just plain “all day, every day”. Simon Ball, Worcester

The one I can’t stand is “deplane”, meaning to disembark an aircraft, used in the phrase “you will be able to deplane momentarily”. TykeIntheHague, Den Haag, Holland

To “wait on” instead of “wait for” when you’re not a waiter – once read a friend’s comment about being in a station waiting on a train. For him, the train had yet to arrive – I would have thought rather that it had got stuck at the station with the friend on board. T Balinski, Raglan, New Zealand

Dare I even mention the fanny pack? Lisa, Red Deer, Canada

“Touch base” – it makes me cringe no end. Chris, UK

10. Is “physicality” a real word? Curtis, US

Transportation. What’s wrong with transport? Greg Porter, Hercules, CA, US

The word I hate to hear is “leverage”. Pronounced lev-er-ig rather than lee-ver -ig. It seems to pop up in all aspects of work. And its meaning seems to have changed to “value added”. Gareth Wilkins, Leicester

Does nobody celebrate a birthday anymore, must we all “turn” 12 or 21 or 40? Even the Duke of Edinburgh was universally described as “turning” 90 last month. When did this begin? I quite like the phrase in itself, but it seems to have obliterated all other ways of speaking about birthdays. Michael McAndrew, Swindon

I caught myself saying “shopping cart” instead of shopping trolley today and was thoroughly disgusted with myself. I’ve never lived nor been to the US either. Graham Nicholson, Glasgow

What kind of word is “gotten”? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington

“I’m good” for “I’m well”. That’ll do for a start. Mike, Bridgend, Wales

Take-out rather than takeaway! Simon Ball, Worcester

“A half hour” instead of “half an hour”. EJB, Devon

Train station. My teeth are on edge every time I hear it. Who started it? Have they been punished? Chris Capewell, Queens Park, London

To put a list into alphabetical order is to “alphabetize it” – horrid! Chris Fackrell, York

“Normalcy” instead of “normality” really irritates me. Tom Gabbutt, Huddersfield

As an expat living in New Orleans, it is a very long list but “burglarize” is currently the word that I most dislike. Simon, New Orleans

“Oftentimes” just makes me shiver with annoyance. Fortunately I’ve not noticed it over here yet. John, London

Eaterie. To use a prevalent phrase, oh my gaad! Alastair, Maidstone (now in Athens, Ohio)

I hate “alternate” for “alternative”. I don’t like this as they are two distinct words, both have distinct meanings and it’s useful to have both. Using alternate for alternative deprives us of a word. Catherine, London

“Hike” a price. Does that mean people who do that are hikers? No, hikers are ramblers! M Holloway, Accrington

I hate the word “deliverable”. Used by management consultants for something that they will “deliver” instead of a report. Joseph Wall, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire

The most annoying Americanism is “a million and a half” when it is clearly one and a half million! A million and a half is 1,000,000.5 where one and a half million is 1,500,000. Gordon Brown, Coventry

Surely the most irritating is: “You do the Math.” Math? It’s MATHS. Michael Zealey, London

I hate the fact I now have to order a “regular Americano”. What ever happened to a medium sized coffee? Marcus Edwards, Hurst Green

My worst horror is expiration, as in “expiration date”. Whatever happened to expiry? Christina Vakomies, London

Period instead of full stop. Stuart Oliver, Sunderland

My pet hate is “winningest”, used in the context “Michael Schumacher is the winningest driver of all time”. I can feel the rage rising even using it here. Gayle,Nottingham

My brother now uses the term “season” for a TV series. Hideous. D Henderson, Edinburgh

Having an “issue” instead of a “problem”. John, Leicester

To “medal” instead of to win a medal. Sets my teeth on edge with a vengeance. Helen, Martock, Somerset

“I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less” has to be the worst. Opposite meaning of what they’re trying to say. Jonathan, Birmingham

My media week 25/09/11

September 24, 2011

The BBC has produced an eight-hour dramatisation of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. The adaptation, which features, Kenneth Branagh and David Tennant, will be broadcast from 18 to 25 September on Radio 4.  Life and Fate, which is set in the battle of Stalingrad, charts the fate of both a nation and a family in the turmoil of war. It has been compared to War and Peace. The Soviet authorities did not share this opinion and the book itself was arrested.

To mark the Pontiff’s visit to Germany Der Spiegel has an interview with dissident theologian Hans Küng: ‘A Putinization of the Catholic Church’

On BBC Radio 4’s Analysis Jamie Whyte investigates riots. The programme opens with the following premise:

Smashing things, running amok, making mayhem: something about riotous behaviour delights us, especially when we’re young.  Getting a flat-screen television, a pair of trainers or a bottle of vodka without paying for it is also nice.  Which makes it strange that, in the weeks following last month’s riots, everyone was asking how they could have happened.  As Roger Scruton, the philosopher and social commentator points out, this question arises from the wrong assumption:

Riots, that is the normal condition of human beings. What needs explaining is why they don’t occur, not why they do occur!  And they don’t occur in England, on the whole.  That is an important observation.

I like contrarian stuff and I was surprised to see this piece in Spiked about Real Madrid defender, Pepe: Football is not just for ballerinas.