Life

Nuala McCann: I can see how Japanese syndrome could happen in Paris

I like how foreign Japan is. I like the idea of a country where you must never blow your nose in public. You should never point at anything with one finger and you should never use your mobile phone on the train... except in special designated carriages. How very polite

'In springtime, people take time out of work to go and sit beneath the trees and gaze up into the delicate pink petals'

FORGET the French, holiday Japanese is the thing. It’s the run-up to the rugby and then to the Tokyo Olympics next year. I’m tempted to try.

Blame it on Miss Happiness and Miss Flower. The picture of the two Japanese dolls on the front of that old child’s story book was an old favourite – they were so perfect, so dainty, so not me.

It’s the serenity. In Japan, nobody shrieks much at anybody, nobody stomps about. Or maybe that’s just how it looks.

Blame it on a love of the Great Wave; of Mount Fuji in a snow top; blame it on a Zen poem or a woodblock print.

A close friend got her first job in London with a Japanese company. It was a very small family firm. They treated her with great respect.

We’d be sitting having a tea and she’d say: “My boss, Mr Watanabe says...” and even his name sounded exotic – four syllables in a surname tripping softly off the tongue.

Another close friend has just returned from a visit to China – she was in awe of the terracotta warriors, the forbidden temple.

But I have no desire to go there. I'd rather rake the stones in a Japanese garden into perfect sworls, watch just-married couples pose on a rickety red wooden bridge over a stream or follow the cherry blossom as it rains confetti across the country.

In springtime, people take time out of work to go and sit beneath the trees and gaze up into the delicate pink petals. Companies rent chairs under the trees and let people go and dream.

I know a little of that. On long ago summer days at school, our art teacher, Mr Elliott, let us take our books outside and sit on the lawn beside the old convent, drinking in the light.

I like how foreign Japan is. I like the idea of a country where you must never blow your nose in public. You should never point at anything with one finger – use the whole hand – and you should never use your mobile phone on the train... except in special designated carriages. How very polite.

No wonder Japanese people can succumb to Paris syndrome. Professor Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist working in France, first identified the syndrome over 30 years ago.

There are registered cases of Japanese people developing a psychosis when they discover to their dismay that Paris is not the city of their dreams.

Wooed on the picture-book images of Notre Dame, the Pont Neuf, the cutesy world of Amelie, the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre – the grim reality of big city Paris can be a disappointment.

Take the clochards – homeless people lying over the air vents on the pavement to keep warm in the heat from the metro.

Try to forget that distinct late night whiff from certain metro stations... less je ne sais quoi and more essence de hot vomit. Cue rats scrabbling across metro tracks, chewing gum and dog poo on street corners and rude, very rude people.

That must be hard on the Japanese. You come from a country where people rarely shout and the customer is king. And you meet a bolshy taxi driver who asks which of the iles do you really want – there are a few in Paris.

You meet shop assistants who could not be ar**d serving tourists who roll their eyes and throw a hissy fit if you touch something in the window display.

“Tourists,” they mutter – and, yes, I was that customer too.

After a year living in Paris, the local shrug is second nature. That, a cursory “Eh ben” and the full eye roll says everything. Mostly, it says, Do you honestly think I really give a *****?.

Of course there are lovely, lovely Parisians. But there are cheeky brats too. I have seen drivers bump and scratch their cars into impossible spaces. I have seen old women drop to their knees and scramble under the turnstiles at the metro just to avoid paying the fare.

I have been groped by men in the metro who really wished they hadn’t because I yelled great gobs of French at them. Amazing how fluent you get when you’re angry.

So I can see how Japanese syndrome could happen in Paris. How the complete culture clash could knock you off your feet.

I love Paris – despite all the sh**ty bits. Japan? It’s a dream... but what will it be really like when I get there?

Perhaps there is a Japanese syndrome for eejits like me.

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