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'Paris Syndrome' And The Shock Of The City Of Light

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However much the rest of the world may romanticize Paris, the Japanese are guilty of inflating that already idealized image 10-fold. They dream for years of the distant City of Lights, imagining it as an aesthetic haven packed with supermodels and tranquil beauty, only to have that dream instantly shattered by the first waiter they come into contact with.

According to psychologist Hervé Benhamou, "Fragile travelers can lose their bearings. When the idea they have of the country meets the reality of what they discover, it can provoke a crisis." Take these exaggerated expectations and add to them the stark contrast between the two cultures' sense of politeness, social graces and communication in general, and you just may have yourself a case of "Paris Syndrome." This is the term that was dubbed in 1986 by Professor Hiroaki Ota for a form of Gallic culture shock so severe that it may require hospitalization and at times even immediate repatriation to Japan.

The Japanese Embassy in Paris now has a 24-hour hotline for Japanese tourists suffering from the syndrome, whose symptoms can range from depression and anxiety to acute delusional states, dizziness, sweating, hallucinations and "feelings of persecution."

Now I have to admit, when I first learned of Paris Syndrome, I thought it was pretty funny. Sure, I felt sympathy for the 12 to 20 unsuspecting Japanese tourists who are officially affected by it every year, not to mention the -- I'm sure -- thousands of unreported milder cases (I myself watched a group of unassuming Japanese tourists serve as the butt of an entire show's worth of jokes at the Lapin Agile one night), but it all just felt so distant and vaguely absurd that I couldn't really empathize.

After all, I had been living in Paris for a solid three months, and though I had certainly struggled with the language barrier and undeniably missed certain American conveniences (namely Hulu and Netflix), my feelings of alienation were anecdotal at best. Sure, I still made mistakes. Only a month earlier I had gone to the radiologist's for dental X-rays and after being told by the receptionist upon my arrival that the scans I was getting wouldn't be sent to my dentist's office until "tomorrow," I nodded and promptly exited the building, thinking she had said that the radiologist couldn't see me until "tomorrow" (she called an hour later to find out why I had left before my appointment).

But I had come a long way, even since then. I could now engage a French person in conversation without worrying that if they didn't respond in one of the three ways I had preplanned in my head, the discussion would be terminated. Even more importantly I was beginning to master the art of pretending to be Parisian -- I could silently stare into space and ignore people asking for money or yell "Pardon!" at old people in my way with the best of 'em! I even went to see a comedic one-man show called How to Become a Parisian in One Hour, and while I was laughing along with the rest of the audience, I was also mentally checking off all the stereotypes I had already adopted.

But then, finally, just when I thought I was in the clear, I had my own personal encounter with "Paris Syndrome."

When I first saw the toilet, I never would've guessed that it was going to eat me alive -- which is not to say that it didn't look suspicious. It was a sort of a cylindrical, partially steel structure planted in the middle of the Parisian sidewalk, as if it might have just fallen from space and happened to land there. Normally I try to avoid porta-potties, even futuristic-looking ones, but what can I say, I really had to go.

It was my last week in Paris and I had decided to finally make the trek to a gorgeous park I had heard about in the northeastern corner of the city -- Les Parc des Buttes Chaumont. At the time I was living on the opposite side of the giant cinnamon roll that is the Parisian Arrondissement Swirl (a pastry I honestly can't believe they haven't invented yet) so the train ride was extensive, and by the time I finally got to the park I seriously had to "faire pipi." What luck! I thought as I exited the Metro stop next to the park, spotting a rare outdoor public toilet being offered not 50 feet in front of me.

As I got closer I noticed that it had some sort of automated door system, a piece of news which, as someone who does not like elevators or anything else with doors of whose opening/closing functions I have essentially no control, I was less than thrilled to discover. I prefer to keep a basic laws of physics push/pull relationship with doors, and I am generally not a fan of any which involve buttons, electricity, or any other sort of mechanized aspects. Given my druthers, I would simply use saloon doors to enter and exit all spaces (the enhanced cool-factor that this would bring to all comings and goings would just be an added bonus). This particular outhouse-from-the-sky also involved an extensive set of confusing buttons marked with what its designers must have deemed "universal" symbols, but which in actuality were functioning merely as symbols that could be "universally" misinterpreted.

My fears were not quieted by the Spanish girl who went in before me. Accompanied by her boyfriend, she had seemed equally confounded by the buttons involved in operating the mystery can, but had nevertheless chosen to step inside, only to be found minutes later screaming for someone to "Please God help her" get out. Her Spanish pleas and futile door pounding had prompted the mutual panicked button-pushing on the part of her boyfriend from the outside, and after several seconds the door finally opened and she leapt into his arms like someone jumping from a burning building. We all exchanged uncomfortable glances, politely laughing it off the way you do in international toilet situations, but I couldn't ignore the fact that she seemed genuinely upset, and as they walked away I heard her repeating over and over to her boyfriend in Spanish "I couldn't get out! I couldn't get out!"

Driven by the blind force of nature calling, I responded to this situation by immediately waltzing into the exact toilet from which she had just (barely) exited.

Once inside, I pushed a combination of the mystery buttons, eventually convincing the metal door to slide closed. In the process, my eyes took in a large red button on the interior which seemed to be reserved for "Emergency" situations, as well as an enormous red handle with similar implications. The idea of needing an emergency exit from a toilet did not bring me comfort, but at the moment the idea of peeing my pants at the beginning of a two-hour walk seemed even less appealing.

In a pee-pee dance balance of franticness and gentleness, I dropped by backpack with all my belongings onto the floor in front of me and pulled down my pants. Almost as soon as I had done this, but before I had a moment to actually experience any sense of relief, I was abruptly lurched to attention by a loud robotic female voice who calmly announced to me in French that "the door will open in five seconds." Hurriedly pulling up my pants, I was able to get them over my hips and buttoned (not zipped) just in time for the mechanized metal door to swiftly slide open, bringing me face to face with an entire sidewalk of Parisian pedestrians. Like a deer in the headlights I stood there frozen, gripping the top of my jeans while a couple passers-by glanced my way. A man waiting in line for the toilet stared back at me blankly.

Flustered and frustrated (and still having to pee really bad), I pushed several "universal symbol" buttons on the wall until eventually the door slid closed. Greatly relieved, I scampered back to the toilet and quickly pulled down my pants again, finally making ready to "faire" this darn "pipi." But just as I was once again hovering half-naked over the toilet, the French robot came on again with more news. I had been so disoriented by the preceding 30 seconds that any French-processing parts of my brain had been largely shut-down, and the only information I was able to glean from this announcement was that something else was going to happen "in five seconds." As soon as I realized this, a loud beeping alarm began to sound and I yanked my pants up in a panic, whirling around just in time to see the toilet over which I had just been hovering begin to retract into the wall.

By now, it was clear that the rules of the reality I had been living in before entering the toilet no longer applied, and I began genuinely preparing myself for the explosion/blast off into space that was sure to come at any moment.

I was so distracted by the sliding metal trap door, the deafening beeping alarm, and the toilet tipping back into a suddenly opening wall, all of which were combining to make me feel like I was in the meltdown scene of so many movies, that I didn't even react to a second explosion of sound that came from behind me -- until I felt my feet getting wet.

Jumping up and screaming, I bolted around to see that water was pouring in from the bottom of the walls. I frantically grabbed my now-wet backpack and, lurching backwards from the rushing water that was quickly flooding the floor, I legitimately wondered for a moment if I was going to drown in this toilet. (It was at this time I realized that the only thing worse than dying on a toilet "Elvis style" -- that is to say, on your own terms -- would be dying inside a toilet, on it's terms.)

I made for the wall of buttons and, like any rational human in this scenario would do, began pushing all of them at once as fast as I could. Seconds that felt like hours passed during which time I began hoping that the doors would open before the water reached neck level (I've seen Titanic, I know the stages to prepare for). And then finally, by some miracle (or as a result of repeatedly pushing and pulling every emergency exit option available), they did.

Bursting forth from the porta-potty like a madwoman I leapt onto the sidewalk with my pants unzipped and instantly screamed "What the F%*k!?!" (in English) at the innocent French man waiting behind me in line. He responded with silence and I, like an alley cat that had just been electrocuted while standing a puddle of water, stumbled off in a semi-soaked state of shock towards the park.

I still had not released a single drop of urine.


So for the record, if you happen to see a girl stumbling alone through a beautiful Parisian park on a lovely autumn day, wearing half-zipped pants and sobbing hysterically as school children skip past her and toddlers innocently feed ducks by her side, it may be because she was just almost eaten by a toilet.

(I would later find out that the horrors I had been subjected to were apparently part of the toilet's "self-cleaning cycle," a process which no human should ever be present for (hence the nuclear reactor-esque alarms) and which I can only imagine would result in the instant death of a Japanese tourist.)

If there were any remaining doubts about whether or not I was ready to return to America, the toilet from hell washed them away. I had spent a solid three months enjoying Parisian culture with relative ease, but after what probably amounted to less than five minutes inside a commode, I felt ready to check myself into the Japanese embassy with the rest of the shaking, disillusioned, hallucinating malcontents.


During my stay in France I came a long way in my grasp of the language, and it was exciting to begin to feel capable of communicating and getting around in a foreign tongue, even managing to crack a few successful jokes (always the hardest thing to translate). But my trip also made me realize that the same thing that makes visiting another country interesting -- being able to experience and appreciate its culture, food, art and people from an outsider's perspective -- is the same thing that ensures you remain just that, an outsider. Which is not actually a bad thing, it's just part of who you are. The same part that makes you feel at home in your own country ensures that elsewhere, at some base level, you will always be a foreigner.

Sometimes it just takes a brush with death inside a public toilet to be reminded of that.