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Updated: May 20, 2023

Lost in the City of Love

Text: Megan Masselink

Image: Lingli Crucq

Paris, to some, is the most romantic city in the world. The French capital is a popular destination for enchanting getaways and Insta-worthy photos. It is also the setting of many films and series: stereotypes of French love work their way into media and literature, reproducing the vision of Paris as the City of Love. But once in Paris, you are often overtaken by reality: Il ne faut pas se fier aux apparences.

Paris has a long standing reputation for being the world centre of art and elegance. Starting in the 17th century, the court of Versailles was the epitome of glorious art and culture worldwide. Controlled by absolute monarchs such as Louis XIV, art was used as a tool to display the grand artistic ability and riches of the French state. A few centuries later, Paris became the stage of the World Exposition, an international exhibition organised in different countries every five years. Around the same time, different art styles emerged which contributed to the charming image of the city: Art Nouveau, Impressionism and, most importantly, Romanticism. With its focus on nature and beauty, Romantic art became symbolic for the deeper search of meaning and love, as it favours emotions over reason and the senses over the intellect.

The theme of love is a red thread woven into the fabrics of Paris. The iconic Eiffel Tower has become a site which symbolises love. Every year, it is estimated that around 9.000 marriage proposals take place at the massive metal structure. Walking along the Seine, you see many couples and loved ones standing on the Pont des Arts, interlocking their love in an eternal material symbol. Further up North, in the 18th Arrondissement, there is Le Mur des je t’aime (the Wall of I Love You). Covering many blue tiles, the words ‘I love you’ are handwritten in over 250 languages. Place names such as Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) suggest the imagery of romance and a deep sense of longing for love.

L'amour à La Française

The idealisation of Paris as a romantic destination is linked to the concept of L'amour à La Française (‘Love the French way’). Social analyst Alice Cappelle explains how certain ideas about French love, passion and devotion are reproduced by stereotypes amplified in films and literature. Some stereotypes include French ‘looseness’, implying that infidelity, polyamory and public flirting are a common occurrence in the French dating culture.

These stereotypes accumulate in what is called the ‘French art of seduction’. The idea is that a man is in charge and leads by approaching a woman. He is straightforward in his advances; it is a very physical form of flirting. The French girl, another stereotype often portrayed in the media, will act playful in response, appearing just emancipated enough to maintain a certain form of sex appeal. This dynamic is often seen in classic French films such as Et Dieu... créa la femme (And God created the Woman) with Brigitte Bardot. Feminism has brought about great cultural change regarding these stereotypes. The emancipation of women is rooted in the principle of égalité: equal partnerships and love built on mutual interests and consent.

In a documentary by ParisianVibe, this same sentiment can be discovered in conversations with modern-day Parisians. Two Parisian couples are interviewed about their views on marriage, love and French stereotypes. One woman emphasised that (French) women still dream of that same romance, whilst at the same time want to stay independent in their marriages, be financially established and build up their own careers. The stereotypes, for the obvious reason that they are stereotypes, did not reflect the reality of marriage, according to the second couple.

Paris Syndrome

It’s not only Parisians who question the stereotypes about French love and romance. Once tourists take off their rose-coloured glasses while walking around Paris, they start to notice things that do not meet their idyllic expectations as seen in the beautiful images on the internet. This can result in what has been named the Paris Syndrome.

The ‘Paris Syndrome’ is a psychological form of culture shock. It overcomes tourists who are faced with the reality of Paris which does not match the expectations they had in mind when they decided to visit the Capital of Love. The term ‘Paris Syndrome’ was coined by Japanese psychiatrist Dr. Hiroaki Ota. He accidentally stumbled upon the condition when he treated a Japanese patient with severe culture shock in a Parisian hospice. Although it is not formally recognized as a mental illness, the condition is often accompanied by many uncomfortable symptoms such as nausea, hallucinations, dizziness and an increased heart rate.

Researchers at the University of the Pacific explain that such culture shock ‘comes from the natural contradiction between our accustomed patterns of behaviour and the psychological conflict of attempting to maintain them in the new cultural environment’.

Nowadays, not much is known about the phenomenon in terms of actual physical symptoms, but the disappointment about the reality of Paris echoes around social media. Videos showing garbage piles are posted by tourists who voice their discontent with the uncleanliness of the French capital. When France24 did a news item on the dirtiness of Paris, natives had differing opinions. A younger man explained that ‘people are gross, that doesn’t change’, while an older man stated that many Parisians do not mind the dirtiness as much. Rather, they see it as something natural: a part of the big city life. The last statement aligns with the general sentiment Parisians have about their city. Paris is not just a fictional, idealised place like its Disney counterpart. Rather, it is a bustling metropolitan city with real history, real life, and real people.

The City of Love

It seems that the reputation of Paris as the City of Love is multifaceted. It is material, because its rich history of art styles and influences has led to a vast offer of architectural sites and museums full of artefacts. It is also cultural, since French stereotypes of love and seduction have worked their way into the media’s portrayal of Paris as the most romantic city in the world. Contrastingly, for most Parisians, French love is nothing but an abstract cultural phenomenon. Apart from material and cultural aspects, it is also symbolic. Sites symbolising love such as the Eiffel Tower and Le Mur des je t’aime reinforce an idyllic atmosphere, making Paris a popular romantic getaway. Like any metropolitan city, however, dirt and garbage can accumulate in the streets as a result of actually living there. For many, dirty streets and crowded places are a natural part of city life. Nevertheless, as you look around this city and the accumulation of its history, traditions and symbolism, it is clear that Paris has its own unique concoction of love, resulting in its famed reputation.

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