Ever wonder if maybe Americans enjoy “being French” more than the French themselves? It’s an interesting theory explored with humor by author and part-time Parisian Jordan Phillips in her new book, “Inspired by Paris: Why Borrowing from the French is Better than Being French”. I met Jordan Phillips when she was living in Paris several years ago. Now she’s mostly in NYC, but still gets to enjoy the best of Paris by “borrowing” the best parts, from the food to the fashion (with a cameo appearance by “Naughty Paris”). Here is an excerpt from the chapter, The Paris Syndrome.
The Paris Syndrome
The modern French mind-set was established during the Revolution. Parisians are frugal and practical. Meanwhile, the rest of the world clings to the gilded Versailles vision of France, all Champagne towers and layers upon layers of macaron-colored garments.
Though the Revolution seems like ancient history, it was a recent occurrence in France, relatively speaking. The United States is a toddler compared to France, and the events surrounding the birth of the United States are still very relevant to the modern American mind-set. Both countries are theoretically founded upon many of the same principles, but Americans emphasize the liberté while the French emphasize the fraternité. Strikes in the street in Paris are still commonplace, and we know that—we see them in the news; we make jokes about them—but why are they celebrated? To understand the reasoning is to understand the French. Asserting revolutionary heritage is of the utmost importance.
Putting the nuisances of strikes aside, French solidarity is a really beautiful thing to witness. A strong sense of place pervades all aspects of life in this prideful country. Powerful feelings about les droits de l’homme (human rights) hang like watchful clouds over every conversation and every decision. Fairness trumps all. In a time of crisis, there is nowhere better to be than surrounded by French people, who instantly kick into fraternité mode and will go to any length to help out a fellow human being.
Marie Antoinette may be a symbol of France, but she was beheaded and does not at all represent the mentality of French people today. They’re still metaphorically storming the Bastille while we’re wandering around the Hall of Mirrors, taking selfies. Sure, we’ve studied the Revolution, but what do we want to remember, Robespierre or royalty? The Sofia Coppola version of the story is breathtaking, but the film doesn’t show the people’s struggle leading up to, or after, the fall of the monarchy and subsequent rejection of its luxurious trappings. During the time of the Louies, yes, Paris had some spectacular buildings, but much of the rest of it was filled with scenes of poverty, its cramped streets narrow and filthy. The pre-Revolutionary Versailles version is certainly a much more palatable visual for visitors than that of Parisians parading around with aristocrats’ heads on pikes. The guillotine may be long gone, but resentment toward the wealthy still exists.
A real Parisienne is more Rosie the Riveter than Marie Antoinette. Parisians take comfort in being resilient and a bit pessimistic. A surly waiter is not necessarily considered to be a bad one.
This discrepancy between tourists’ lavish assumptions and the more sober reality is the cause of an actual thing called “Paris Syndrome,” in which some Japanese tourists experience psychiatric breakdowns upon arrival in Paris because the city does not meet their expectations. The Japanese embassy even set up a twenty-four-hour hotline for those suffering from severe culture shock. Japanese psychiatrist Hiroaki Ota first identified the syndrome decades ago.
Symptoms can include dizziness, delusions, and hallucinations sometimes so serious that the traveler must be flown back home under medical supervision. While this extreme reaction probably seems preposterous to Westerners, the underlying cause is something that can rattle any first-time traveler. As Chelsea Fagan points out in the Atlantic, watching movies about Paris leads viewers to believe that the city is affluent, quaint, and friendly:
We imagine the whole city just smells like Chanel No. 5 and has a government-mandated mime on every corner. And nowhere is this narrow view of Paris more prevalent than in Japan, where the media portrays the city as one filled with thin, gorgeous, unbelievably rich citizens. The three stops of a Parisian’s day, according to the Japanese media, are a café, the Eiffel Tower, and Louis Vuitton. Yet, despite our international desire to imagine that this is a city where pigeons stay in the parks and the waiters occasionally burst into song, Paris can be a harsh place…And while this does not stop Paris from being a wonderful, beautiful city—every city has its pros and cons—the fact that its downsides are wiped so institutionally clean from the media isn’t doing it any favors. Unlike New York, which embraces its gritty underbelly in its public image—“Hey, you might get shot walking to the post office, but that’s what makes it fun!”—the world seems determined to represent Paris as perpetually spinning inside a little girl’s music box.
During my time living in Paris—which I found to be harsh on some days and postcard-perfect on others—I learned to better appreciate all of the little things that make life good. And that, really, is the best thing about spending time in France.
Denial and delays are such a big part of Parisian life that you are forced to slow down and surrender. If you try to rationalize why something should be open, why something should work, or why something should be easier or faster, you will go crazy. So you stop. And maybe you take a break from being pissed off that your Wi-Fi is out yet again, and you focus instead on the delicious yogurt that you’re eating for breakfast. You know that this yogurt does not exist anywhere else outside France, and yet here, you can buy some at every Monoprix. It’s not sweet like American yogurt or tangy like Greek yogurt; it’s just right. So you shrug about the Wi-Fi and savor every bite, drizzling on one last drop of honey from Provence.
You can find “Inspired by Paris” at your local or online bookstores.