Paris, Florence, Jerusalem: When Traveler Syndrome Strikes

There are millions of people who travel every year. But for some, exotic cultural exploration can lead to psychological trouble.

Towering problems
Towering problems
Elodie Cerqueira

PARIS — For many travelers, going abroad means taking a break, going on an adventure. But sometimes, the adventure take a disastrous turn and leisurely exploration becomes a true clash of cultures. This phenomenon has a name: "the traveler syndrome," and can range from feeling merely off to severe bouts of delirium. Tourists in India, Jerusalem or Florence suffer from it. In Paris, Japanese people have been found to be the most likely to experience psychological trouble after exploring the city.

In the collective psyche, Paris is a symbol of romance, luxury, elegance and fashion. This is especially true in Japan where the media continuously conveys fantasized images of France, and especially its capital.

Olivier Bouchaud, head of the travel medicine unit of Bobigny Hospital, in a northeastern suburb of Paris, explains that he's faced cases of Japanese tourists coming to Paris "with a ‘romanticized" image of it" who had to face the reality of the city and its chaotic traffic, "people in a rush, pushing each other." Bouchaud adds: "Some were brought down to earth with a bang so badly they suffered from bouts of delirium or from a severe depressive syndrome caused from disappointment."

Overwhelming Florence — Photo: Heidi Kaden

France is the top touri​st destination in Europe for Japanese — with nearly 500,000 visits in 2018. Olivia Goto-Gréget, a clinical psychologist in Paris, says she regularly treats Japanese patients suffering from psychological disorder, at different levels, related to their adjustment problems — regardless of the length of their stay. "Being fascinated by France is one thing, living here is another," she says. "Imagination can be blinding."

If some of these situations may seem harmless at first, they can cause real psychological consequences. "In France, we kiss each other on the cheek, we ask intimate questions. In Japan, when you first meet someone, you keep your distance, you don't talk politics. It's considered rude and it makes them feel uncomfortable," says Goto-Gréget. The psychologist says these cultural differences can be difficult to face for Japanese people whose social conventions are at opposite ends of the French. "They fear judgment, other people's opinions, the idea they could lose face."

Imagination can be blinding.

Still, says Bouchaud, "these are extreme and rare situations". Experts have observed that patients suffering with "traveler syndrome" of such a scale usually have a natural predisposition towards mental health issues, and the travel itself only acts as the trigger. For Goto-Gréget, some may have "dormant conditions' they would not have "developed in Japan because they feel safe there."

The "Jerusalem syndrome" — Photo: Tim Mossholder

Although this syndrome remains present, the ever-growing flow of information across the Internet and social networks makes it less common. To date, no study has been able to measure the number of people affected by it — particularly given that the syndrome is not recognized within the scientific community. "I would be exaggerating if I said this was a fully recognized scientific concept. Every situation is different, quantifying the phenomenon is impossible," says Bouchaud.

Tourists in Florence were overwhelmed with extreme emotions before the beauty of the city.

Paris is not the only city challenging the mental health of its guests. Other emblematic destinations have their own syndromes. In the early 1980s, psychiatrist Graziella Magherini counted some 100 tourists in Florence who were overwhelmed with extreme emotions before the beauty of the city's works of art and monuments. It was called "Florence syndrome" or "Stendhal syndrome" (for the French writer had described a state of euphoria in recounting his travels of Rome, Naples and Florence). Bouchaud says such "euphoric outbursts can go as far as bouts of delirium. Out of the blue, someone becomes completely exuberant and manic."

Then there is the "Jerusalem syndrome," which has been qualified as a "mystical delirium." People think they are a prophet, or Jesus, or they believe they have a mission," says Goto-Gréget. The "India syndrome," on the other hand, affects mainly Westerners. Psychiatrist Régis Airault, who worked for several years in the consular office in Mumbai, described several interesting cases in his book "Crazy about India" (Fous de l'Inde, 2000).

Expats can also suffer when they go back home. The readjustment period can take some time and be demanding, depending on the duration of the stay abroad and the cultural differences between the countries. This also has a name: the "return syndrome" or "expat syndrome."

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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