Gambrels of the Sky

Paris Syndrome

Sometimes things turn out exactly how you predict. I knew Dave would hate Paris the same way I know, from time to time, he’ll hate a bit of tasteless gossip I’m about to share. Then I’ll carry on anyway, telling him about so-and-so’s break-up, or chin hair, or brother’s prison sentence, and he’ll grimace and pretend not to hear.

Last summer, we rented an Airbnb apartment in Le Marais: a fourth-floor studio reminiscent of a mouth, with dense purple carpet and a tiny, damp bathroom. To access the place, we first had to obtain the key by speaking a code word to a barman around the corner, then jimmy open the exterior door with the proper combination of finesse and shoulder, then climb 4.5 flights of unlit circular stairs using our cell phones as flashlights, and then, finally, unlock a door directly off the staircase. To date, I have yet to see another apartment entirely lacking its own landing. On first climb, we missed the apartment entirely. “Six…Sept…Neuf?” we counted, holding our cell phone lanterns up to each door. It look several up and downs before we realized the narrow, angled rectangle of wood we kept passing was not, in fact, a broom closet or electrical panel, but an entrance intended to allow full-size humans to pass into their miniature living quarters.

I have to give old Dave credit. “This’ll do,” he said, as we ducked into the apartment and he hefted his backpack onto the twin-size futon that was to be our shared bed. “This’ll be fine.” And maybe everything would have been fine, if not for the heat. Paris was in the middle of several-weeks-long heat wave, with temperatures reaching nearly a hundred every day. The heat had a way of stifling even my zealous traveling ambitions, reducing me to one activity per day followed by a dramatic flop onto the creased futon mattress, which itself seemed to emit waves of heat. Dave wisely stayed indoors for most of the week, eating popsicles and lounging in the semi-dark in his underwear, with a weak plastic fan oscillating the noises of the street around the room. Each morning, we woke up exhausted and headachy after hours of trying to share the bed without letting our limbs touch in the night.

Only recently did I hear about “Paris Syndrome,” a psychological disorder suffered almost exclusively by Japanese tourists who become overwhelmed by a sense of disappointment upon visiting Paris. This may sound like a joke, but to the 20 or so tourists who require medical attention each year for hallucinations, dizziness, paranoia, and intense anxiety, the effect is apparently nothing to laugh at. The dissonance between the Paris of their dreams—the city where lovers clasp matching berets to their heads as they peddle down the Champs-Élysées—and the hot, crowded reality of Paris is so great that these tourists literally collapse under the strain.

In the past, I have felt a touch of Paris Syndrome myself, though not exactly the Japanese variety. Rather than hoping for a glossy city of insouciant models with Louis Viton handbags, I’d wished for something truer, something to sink my teeth into. Before this trip, I’d visited the city twice without making a dent in the tourist shell. Sure, there’s tons to do—towers to climb, opera houses to visit, catacombs to comb—but, in Paris, more than other high-tourist cities, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that every single thing you do has been done in the exact same fashion sixteen million times before. When I try to figure out what, exactly, is wrong with treading the worn path, I settle on the fact that it seems boring. Call me an annoying, over-privileged tourist and you wouldn’t be wrong, but when visitor attractions are captured and codified into a brochure-ready form, it just seems to suck the life out of them. The trouble is that, in Paris, all those sites you might skip if you were elsewhere just seem so damn important. The specter of regret looms. What if, you find yourself asking, future you really, really regrets going to an air-conditioned matinee instead of the 13:20 Gargoyle Tour of Notre Dame?

Dave does not feel the same urge to See the Sights! as I do while traveling. Even in more humane temperatures, he’s satisfied with a late breakfast, a few hands of cards in a park, and a nice long nap before dinner. No nymph statues for him. He prefers to marvel at bike lanes and real estate shop windows. But, try as I might, I can never bring myself to skip the newest pipe cleaner exhibit at the Centre Pompidou, and so we often spend our traveling afternoons apart.

I did cajole him out for a walking tour of the city one blistering afternoon. A few weeks prior, I had finally gotten around to reading Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which contains a chapter in which the characters visit THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. That day, as I forced Dave to squint into the sun for a picture on the Pont des Arts, the bite of DeLillo’s irony seemed especially acute.

Needless to say, when the week was up, we were ready to go. Paris had exhausted us with its noisy, sweaty abundance, and our next destination, the cool, quiet Irish coast, was calling our names. Just one small hitch. On the day of our departure, en route to the airport, I was robbed. As I struggled to pull my luggage through the Metro turnstile, a man lifted the wallet containing all my money, credit cards, and identification out of my backpack. I never felt a thing. Afterward, a woman standing nearby mentioned nonchalantly that she had seen a man take something from my bag. And at that moment, as I searched frantically through my backpack, I reached the pinnacle of the cliché touristic Parisian experience.

The following hours are a bit of a blur, but I know they involved tears, a rapid attempt to cancel credit cards (too late), a call to the American embassy (no appointments for days or “maybe weeks, mademoiselle”), two failed attempts to get the French police to take a statement, and lots of sweating. As the day droned on, and the top of his head got sunburnt, Dave morphed into a man I have only ever seen glimpses of, usually during calls to the internet company. My kindly, Que Sera Sera husband was enraged. His ire was broad and encompassing, but also directed specifically at the French police, who milled around with tiny cups of coffee at both of the stations we visited but were simply too busy to take my statement. By dinnertime, we had resigned ourselves to staying in Paris until the American embassy would give me a new passport or we grew old and died, whichever came first. We checked into a fleabag hotel in the center of town, and, when hunger got the best of us, found a table at a brasserie. We sat eating from picturesque ceramic pots of slow-cooked meat while Dave railed against Paris. “How could people be so bad, so rude, so fucking incompetent,” he said, spearing a haricot vert with savagery that alarmed me. I clucked softly, the way I suspect all female animals know to do by instinct, and said a few words in defense of the pickpocketer. Maybe he was poor, I reasoned. Maybe he never had the support of his parents. I pictured him as a modern Jean Valjean, sharing a crumbling apartment with his ailing grandmother and seventeen cousins. Maybe my wallet was the only way he could afford the $1900 of stale baguettes needed to feed the hungry horde. But Dave would have none of it. “I hate this place, this god-forsaken city” he declared. “I hate the god-damned tiny sidewalks, and the fucking motorcycles, and the people, especially the people who call themselves French fucking civil servants.”

Ah Paris, the god-forsaken city that turns men into shells of their former selves.

Upon return to the hotel, we had an email. Someone had contacted our car insurance agent, who contacted Dave’s dad, who contacted us. A few phone calls, and a short Metro ride later, and voila! At 9:30p.m. we were standing in La Place de la République, in front a fountain celebrating the majesty of the French Republic, waiting to meet the man who had found my wallet. We took bets on the likelihood he wouldn’t show, that it was all a cruel joke, that he was really just the robber, coming to rob me some more. But then, suddenly, there he was, a 5’6” French angel of mercy, emerging from the mist of the fountain. He was a slight man, and he wore a red striped shirt and—I kid you not—a beret. Probably the only person in the entire city wearing an actual beret.

We bought him a beer, and gave him a hundred bucks. As the story goes, he noticed a wallet lying in a trashcan at his Metro stop, pulled it out, and spent the afternoon tracking me down using the information on my IDs. All the credit cards and cash were gone, but, miraculously, my passport was safe. Before we parted, the guy even helped us find a hospitable police precinct and talked the cops into taking our statement. Now he and I are friends on Facebook. A true modern fairy tale, as far as I’m concerned.

Later that night, as Dave and I walked back to our dingy hotel, the breeze picked up, offering a touch of relief from the heat. The stress of the day melted off, and I marveled at our luck. Dave just shrugged with a sigh that meant he still considered Paris a cesspool of degradation and bad cops. I didn’t try too hard to convince him otherwise. I knew he wanted to hold on to his version of the city, just like I needed to reform mine. With one hand, I held Dave’s arm, and with the other, I clutched my wallet tightly, appraising fellow nighttime strollers with the knowing gaze of a real Paris insider.