The Displaced Nation

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Tag Archives: Valentines Day

A valentine to kindred creative spirits encountered in far-away lands

Expat life has a transient quality that is not always conducive to making close friends. Thus when two people reach out and find a connection, it feels very special, as we learn from this guest post by Philippa Ramsden, a Scottish writer who until recently was living in Burma/Myanmar. Philippa has been on our site before. Her story about discovering she had breast cancer shortly after her arrival in Rangoon/Yangon was one of the dragonfruit “morsels” that Shannon Young, who contributes our Diary of an Expat Writer column, chose to share with the release of an anthology she edited in 2014, How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? True Stories of Expat Women in Asia. I must say, it is a pleasure to have Philippa back in our midst. Not only is she doing much better health-wise, but her story of friendship makes a perfect read for Valentine’s Day! —ML Awanohara

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating.

That’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew in South America*.

It was a striking coincidence given the special place dragonfruit holds in my creative heart. The first time I had my writing published in a proper book was when it appeared in the How Does One Dress to Buy Dragonfruit? anthology, which came out in 2014. What’s more, something unexpected emerged from the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, which ultimately led to my present surroundings.

* * *

We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our editor, Shannon Young, towards producing a collection of stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in countries where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. From a dozen different countries, we varied enormously in our situations but were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates.

It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead-up to publication.

Just after my writer’s copy of the anthology arrived, I received an email from one of the other writers, Sharon Brown. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. I, meanwhile, had read her story, “Our Little Piece of Vietnam,” in which she recounted hurtling through the streets of Hanoi on the back of a motorbike while being in the throes of labor, reaching the hospital just in time for the (safe) arrival of her daughter.

Sharon had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon!

“Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day,” her email said.

And indeed we did. Just think, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club.

A wonderful connection, thanks to the Dragonfruit anthology.

cuppas-and-chats

Fast forward two years, to May 2016. As it turned out, Sharon and I were both preparing to leave Myanmar. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America: Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco-lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure.

Sharon said:

“You should come to the lodge. It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come.”

What a fascinating thought—but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long-distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning that this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than five continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than two continents in any year in the past.) How many grandmothers are able to do that?

* * *

So here I am, in the beautiful La Casa Verde Eco Guest House, nestling in the hills of Ecuador. I am sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing the year to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

Had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I might never have made it to this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, Dragonfruit!

Editor’s note: In fact, dragonfruit, or pitaya, is native to the Americas.

serendipity-and-friendship

* * *

And thank YOU, Philippa, for such an uplifting story! Displaced Nationers, do you have any stories of friendships that blossomed because of creative pursuits, and if so, did they lead you to new parts of the world? Do tell in the comments.

And if this excerpt has made you curious to about Philippa Ramsden, her blog is Feisty Blue Gecko, where a version of this post first appeared. You can also find her on Facebook and twitter. She has written several meditations on the challenges and joys of life in a foreign environment—and they are all fascinating. She is currently working on a memoir.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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Photo credits:
Opening visual: (clockwise, from top left) Dragonfruit anthology cover art; the photos of schoolgirls in Baños, Ecuador (where the eco-lodge is), of the two young women in a field in Myanmar, and the two kinds of dragonfruit are all from Pixabay.
Second visual: The photos of the cups of tea and of the two women making a heart with their hands are both from Pixabay. Image on the left: Inside The Strand Hotel & some of their gift shops – Rangoon, Myanmar (Burma), by Kathy via Flickr (CC BY 2.0); image on right: downtown Rangoon with Sule Pagoda in distance, supplied by Philippa Ramsden.
Last visual: The photos of the green hills of Ecuador and the eco-lodge balcony view were supplied by Philippa; the photo of the blue grey tanagers is from Pixabay; and the rainbow image should be attributed as: Ecuador, over the rainbow, Baños, by Rinaldo Wurglitsch via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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An expat’s valentine to her adopted home is podcast series and now book

Kay Mellish Valentine CollageThe Displaced Nation aspires to be a home to international creatives. As such, we are fond of showcasing memoirs written by those who have spent large chunks of their lives abroad or novels that were in some way inspired by international travels.

Very occasionally, though, we come across an expat who has written a guide to life in their new country that strikes us as being highly creative. Not long before the Brazilian Olympics, for instance, we featured works by two expats living in Brazil because of having a Brazilian spouse: Mark Hillary’s Reality Check: Life in Brazil Through the Eyes of a Foreigner; and Meagan Farrell’s American Exbrat in São Paulo: Advice, Stories, Tips and Tricks for Surviving South America’s Largest City.

Both authors felt justified in producing their own guides to Brazilian life because they’d noticed so many newbie expats falling into the trap of becoming an “exbrat” (to borrow Meagan’s term)—constantly complaining about Brazilian food, prices, bureaucracy, and crime and thus missing out on one of the world’s most fascinating cultures and friendliest peoples.

And both books, while offering practical information and advice, also communicated the authors’ affection, even love, for the land of carnival and samba, beaches and jungles—warts and all.

My guest today, Kay Xander Mellish, has composed a similar kind of ode to her adopted home of Denmark, which, too, has its attractions even if if Danes are far less sociable than Brazilians and their culture a great deal less lively.

Yet apparently not all visitors seem to appreciate the many appealing features of the country that was recently crowned the the world’s happiest, which is what led Kay to produce her podcast series, How to Live in Denmark, and now a book of the same name.

Born in Wisconsin and educated in New York City, Kay has lived in Denmark since 2000, speaks Danish, and after working in the corporate world has founded her own company to help Danish companies communicate in English. She hasn’t married into the culture but is a single mother bringing up a daughter.

Ironically, Kay’s valentine to Denmark has come out at a time when another foreigner in Denmark, the British journalist Michael Booth, is in the news for a book expressing disillusionment with the Scandinavian way of life. We’ll talk to Kay about that development as well.

But first let’s get to know her a little more.

 * * *

“Santa Claus has the right idea: visit people once a year”—Victor Borges, Danish-born American comedian

Hi, Kay! I once lived in England and then in Japan, and there were times in reading your book that the Danes reminded me of the English and the Japanese: easy enough to like but not so easy to love. Is that a fair description?
It can be difficult for outsiders to make friends in Denmark, because for Danes friendship is a serious business. A real friendship is a lifelong relationship, sometimes starting in kindergarten or even before – my daughter, for example, has a friend she “met” when they were four weeks old! The idea of casual chat with strangers is alien to Danes: they have to force themselves to do it, and it is nearly always uncomfortable for them unless a great deal of alcohol is involved. Once you are within their friendship circle, Danes are excellent friends, reliable, supportive and direct. But it is difficult to come into that circle. Danish society is based on trust, and it takes Danes a while to be sure that they can trust you.

HTLID_cover_and_hearts

Kay Xander Mellish’s book cover; random Valentine’s hearts and one kiss.

Humor is of course an important element in any long-term relationship, and your have subtitled your book “a humorous guide.” Tell me, are you laughing with or at?
With! Danes are very good at making fun of themselves; in fact, one of the highest compliments they can give a famous or accomplished person is that he or she has “self-irony,” or the ability to make fun of himself. By contrast, anyone who is selvfede (literally, “self-fat”) and thinks he or she is God’s gift to the world is held in contempt. So, in general, humor is not hard to come by in Denmark. You just have to be willing to make fun of yourself. Danes have an old tradition that if you’ve fallen down in public or otherwise made a big mistake or fool of yourself, you’re supposed to buy kvajebager (failure beer) for everyone who saw you. My book, which is based on a podcast series, is very popular among Danes, which it would not be if they could not make light of themselves. Occasionally I get a few crabby emails from people with Danish names, but not many. I’ve found a lot of Danes buy the book for their foreign friends.

“To be of use to the world is the only way to be happy.”—Hans Christian Andersen

Oxford Research recently published a study finding that 9 out of 10 expats enjoy living and working in Denmark and close to half choose to prolong their stay—mainly because of career opportunities. What makes Copenhagen’s work opportunities so loveable?
If you can get a job in Copenhagen, the working conditions and benefits are excellent. Most people work 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and then go home to their families, so it’s common to see an office entirely empty by 5:00 p.m. And there is less of the cutthroat competition, both internally and externally within companies, that you see elsewhere in business life. You also have the ability to do work you will be proud of: Danes demand quality, so you rarely meet anyone who is incompetent. But getting a job is difficult, even for the Danes, and it is extremely difficult for foreigners who do not speak Danish. Many foreigners with only rudimentary Danish either work in the “caring professions,” such as state-sponsored jobs caring for the elderly or the very young, or in IT roles that there are not enough Danes to fill. If you are looking for anything else, besides the usual cleaning and waiting tables, plan for at least a 6-month job search, possibly a year.

“I’m afraid I have to set you straight…”—Michael Booth, Copenhagen-based British journalist

Meanwhile, the journalist Michael Booth has just published a book The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia.
Denmark is a small country where everyone knows everyone, so I should start by saying that Michael Booth is the friend of a friend, although I have not met him myself. Michael has developed a great shtick for himself, which is running down the Scandinavian countries while continuing to enjoy their benefits. (The fact that Michael is a white male from a friendly country allows him to get away with this performance: I don’t want to even think of what the reaction might have been if such a book had been written by someone from the Middle East.) At any rate, his timing is excellent: it’s become fashionable, particularly in left-wing Western circles, to paint Scandinavia as a utopia, which it most certainly is not. Michael’s book is a strong antidote to that.

An excerpt from Booth’s book appeared recently in The Atlantic, where he says Denmark is “stultifyingly dull” and “boring” because of its “suffocating monoculture.” You don’t agree with any of that?
Personally, I don’t find Copenhagen dull, and this is from someone who used to live in downtown Manhattan and be very involved in the New York art and nightlife scene. I find Copenhagen sophisticated without being too intense. There is certainly less of a gallery or theater scene here, but by contrast people have more time to enjoy the arts events that take place.

“I come from a culture where you don’t divide it up [between] what you can do on TV and what you can do on film.”—Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen

You are a professional voice actor, and, unusually, your book is based on a podcast series. Since we’re talking about love today: which do you love more, podcasting or writing?
The podcast series was actually based on an old group of essays that had been mouldering on a rarely-updated website I started when I still I lived in New York. (In those days, the days before podcasts and before the web, I used to put up parts of my stories as flyposters in a graffiti format—but that was the 1990s!) When I came to Denmark, I wrote a few essays about the experience, but then I pretty much abandoned the site while working full-time at a corporate job while raising my daughter. The site was still online, and newcomers to Denmark kept finding these old postings and emailing me, saying how much I had helped them adjust to living here. I began to feel an obligation to help people just arriving in Denmark. It can be a difficult place to get used to. So when I left corporate life and was in the process of building my own voiceover business, doing the podcast How to Live in Denmark was a natural move. I soon found out that many people weren’t listening to the recordings at all: they were just reading the transcripts available on the podcast site. By this time, I was spending so much time on the podcasts that I needed to earn a little money off the project, so I turned the transcripts into an eBook. Customers then kept asking for a paper book, so I published one of those as well. Now we also have the Chinese version, and there are so many Syrian refugees in Denmark that there have been requests for an Arabic-language version, so we are working on that as well. I really feel it’s important for me to serve to others who may be facing the same challenges I once did.

“Give to a pig when it grunts and a child when it cries, and you will have a fine pig and bad child.”—Danish proverb

Turning to your daughter: what do you love most about raising and educating a child in Denmark?
Children in Denmark given much more freedom and responsibility than children in many countries. My daughter has been riding the Copenhagen trains and buses alone since she was eight, for example. Even when they are very young, children are expected to sort out their own playground disagreements with little interference from adults. There’s no such thing as a “helicopter parent” here. Also, children don’t spend most of their childhoods trying to get into a good university, going to cram schools and trying to build up their CV with impressive-sounding activities. They relax; they have time to play, time to think, time to develop themselves and their creativity. There is very little standardized testing in Denmark and not many grades of any kind until the kids are 13 or 14. I think that’s a healthy way to go about things. My daughter enjoys living here; she enjoys her school, where there is very little pressure but the kids learn to put knowledge together in a holistic way, which I think will be much more useful for the future just learning how to spit out facts or repeat the teacher’s viewpoint back to her. Most importantly, parents in Denmark have a lot more free time to spend with their kids, since working hours aren’t particularly long here. So we do a lot of stuff together—sports, travel, crafts. I don’t know if I would have had the time and energy to do those things had I been a single mother in the US.

Do you think she misses out on anything by not being in the United States?
Of course, she’s missing out on the ethnic diversity of the US, as well as the ambition and drive and energy of living there. But she speaks frequently of going to college in the US, so she’ll have a chance to experience those aspects when she’s a little older.

“There was the constant, tinny squeak of a thousand rusty bike chains.”—Greg Hanscom, senior editor at Grist: “An American in Denmark”

You’ve now lived in Denmark for nearly 15 years, longer than many marriages last. If you had one irritating habit about the place you could change, what would it be?
I suppose it would the Danes’ general rudeness in public places. When someone brushes closely by you, or even runs right into you, there’s never an ‘Excuse me’ or the Danish equivalent. Instead, you get a sour look or a grunt that signifies “Why were you in my way?” Customer service in Danish shops or restaurants is not much better: in Denmark, the customer is always wrong. Some of the nonwhite foreigners I’ve met here assumed that they were being treated so badly because of racism or racial discrimination, but that is not the case. Sad to say, everybody gets bad customer service, even other Danes.

And if you and Denmark were to “divorce” and go your separate ways one day, what would you miss the most about it?
Probably the biking culture and the great mass transit. While I have a drivers’ license and enjoy driving a car, I love that I can hop on a bike and get anywhere quickly. No parking problems, no stopping to buy gas, and it’s a very easy and convenient way to keep fit. That said, bringing home groceries on your bicycle can be a headache. And trying to bring home fresh dry cleaning on your bicycle is the worst!

Thanks, Kay! It’s been a pleasure. Taking a closer look at your work, we see you’ve created an intricate valentine to your adopted home, full of love and irreverent humor, the perfect tribute.

* * *

Readers, if this interview has piqued your curiosity about Kay Xander Mellish and her creative output, we encourage you to visit her author site, like the How to Live in Denmark page on Facebook and/or follow her on Twitter: she has a personal account and a podcast/book account. Also please note that Kay was the recipient of one of our Alice Awards for an irreverent post explaining why public nudity is okay in Denmark, whereas public ambition is not.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts!

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CAPITAL IDEA: Singapore: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Singapore.

Wait a moment, isn’t that an island? Well, it’s actually made up of 63 islands, but Singapore is, in fact, a city state.

Like the Vatican? There’s fewer Cardinals, but yes, the Vatican is an example of another city state.

All I know about Singapore is that chewing gum is illegal. As a confessed chewing gum addict, I think I’ll have to pass on this one. Some forms of therapeutic gum is allowed.

So I can get hold of gum? If a doctor or dentist sells it to you for health purposes, then yes.

What else is banned? Candy? No, in fact, when I was last there I noticed that Singapore immigration put out bowls of hard candy as you went through passport control.

That’s definitely preferable than dealing with Homeland Security.Isn’t it?

This still isn’t quite explaining why I should visit. Well, being a well developed, self-contained city state, it’s easy to get a sense of Singapore quickly and it’s easy to get around.

So I should go because it’s convenient? No . . . Well. . . Yes, I suppose it is. Everything is easy and doable. You won’t have aggressive taxi drivers trying to trick you over fares as you leave the airport. It’s a very well-run state. That’s interesting to see, and it means some of the more stressful elements of travelling, aren’t such a problem here.

Wouldn’t that be primarily due to Singapore’s soft authoratinism? Hey, I thought you only knew about the gum?

I’m smarter than I look. Considering your looks, that’s not too difficult, but to answer your earlier question, yes, Singapore’s laws can be draconian at times, and it’s these laws that make it, on the surface, a well-run state that you’ll feel very safe in for the duration of your visit.

What else do I need to know? Well, being a financial and business center for the region means that there’s a large number of European, American, and Australian expat communities in Singapore. 40% of Singapore’s residents are foreigners. Accordingly, no matter where you’re from, you’ll find something or someone to remind you of home. What’s also useful to remember is that English is one of Singapore’s four official languages. Don’t assume that that means that everyone speak it, but a large number of Singaporeans do, which does make it a more convenient destination in terms of being understood than most other Asian destinations.

Will I be able to understand Singlish? You’ll have better luck understanding a drunk tramp screaming at you on Sauchiehall street. The Singapore government strongly discourages Singlish, but personally we find it charming and a rich part of Singapore’s identity.

Okay, so if I do decide to go, what should I do there? If you’re with young children then you need to make a visit to the Singapore zoo? They do an amazing night safari.

Really? The zoo? I was expecting an answer a little more imaginative than that. It is a nice zoo, though. You can also visit the botanical gardens that houses one of the world’s largest orchid collections.

Orchids? Don’t mock. You can see an orchid dedicated to Princess Di AND one dedicated to Margaret Thatcher.

Umm. . .sounds thrilling. The must-do is checking-out Orchard Road.

What’s that? It’s the main road through Singapore. It’s the social epicenter where people come to…and forgive me for using this phrase…shop til they drop.

Are they that into shopping in Singapore? Yes. Orchard road isn’t shop after shop, it’s high-end mall after high-end mall. It needs to be seen to be believed. For a not quite so high-end retail experience, but just as fascinating, visit the Mustafa Centre in Little India. You’ll be able to find anything in this department

I thought this site had cultural pretensions. All I’m hearing about is shopping, zoos, and flowers dedicated to Maggie bloody Thatcher. One of our favorite museums can be found in Singapore.

What would that be? The National Museum of Singapore. They really do an excellent job of presenting the island’s history. It will you a marvellous grounding in the Singapore. Once you’ve finished there you can head over to Raffles for a Singapore Sling.

Wasn’t Raffles a gentleman thief? You’re thinking of a different chap. This Raffles, is Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles a member of the East India Company who founded the city of Singapore. The Raffles Hotel is named after him. It’s an ornate colonial hotel that is worth a visit. It was also here that the cocktail the Singapore Sling was invented.

What’s in it? Gin, Cherry Heering, Bénédictine, and fresh pineapple juice. It’s a very attractive pink color. Drink it in the Long Bar. Bowls of peanuts are also provided in the bar, you’re expected – nay encouraged – to throw the peanut shells on the bar floor. It’s the only place in Singapore you’re allowed to litter. The Long Bar was a favoured hang-out of Ernest Emmingway and Somerset Maugham.

What other food should I try? Kaya toast is my favorite. Kaya is a fruit curd made from coconut and sugar, spread it on hot buttered toast and at with a runny, soft-boiled egg – it’s heaven. Also, if anything is made with pandan – be it bread or cakes – then gobble it down. Pandanus leaves make the most mundane item delicious. You should also go to Clarke Quay to try Chilli Crab, and Little India for some Fish Head Curry.

Fish Head Curry? Sounds gross. It’s an experience, and one I didn’t find unpleasant, though I don’t think I’d want to make a habit of it. The eyes are the best bit.

Should I eat durian? I would say, yes. It’s an experience, you should try it.

What’s it like? Initially, it tastes rather pleasant. There’s a creamy custard taste. It’s the second taste that may make you retch. I’d describe that second taste as being a mix of raw onions, halitosis, and burnt dog hair. In my experience, you may want to try it first as an ice cream flavor before you build up to the real deal.

What should I read? For fiction, A Many-Splendoured Thing by Han Suyin, King Rat by James Cavell, and Far Eastern Tales by Somerset Maugham. For history, try A history of Singapore, 1819-1988 by C.M. Turnbull.

Thanks, I’m off to try and find some durian ice cream. I’ve had garlic ice cream, can it be any worse? Careful what you wish for.

STAY TUNED for a new Displaced Nation post tomorrow.

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Image: MorgueFile

CAPITAL IDEA: Paris: A quick guide

Welcome to another “Capital Ideas” – our somewhat idiosyncratic, ever so slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to various world cities, perfect for the ever discerning readership of this blog. We know our readers are always visitors, never tourists (an important distinction). As it’s Valentine’s Day we thought it only right to take a look at the world capital of romance – Paris (not very original — ed.).

Do feel free to contribute your own ideas or suggestions in the comments section, we’d love to hear your thoughts, too.

Capital: Paris

Paris, Texas? Um, no.

Don’t be too quick to judge. I hear it’s lovely. I’m sure it is. I liked the movie, if that helps.

Not really. So I guess you’re this is all about the other Paris — the city of love? That’s the one.

Ahh, so this is an easy Valentine’s Day tie-in post? I’m disappointed. Could you have not gone with something a little more left-field for a romantic destination? Such as?

I dunno. Cardiff? Sacramento? Sometimes it’s best to stick with the tried and tested.

Why should I go? I think the British expat writer Lawrence Durrell put it well when he wrote the following about Paris:

The national characteristics … the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.

But I heard Paris can send a man mad. You’re probably thinking about the likes of Toulouse-Lautrec and the perils of consuming too much absinthe.

No, I mean modern-day tourists. Ah, then you’re probably thinking about Paris Syndrome; it is, in the words of Wikipedia, a transient psychological disorder encountered by some individuals (primarily Japanese tourists) when they visit Paris. It is characterized by a number of psychiatric symptoms such as acute delusional states, hallucinations, feelings of persecution (perceptions of being a victim of prejudice, aggression, or hostility from others), derealization, depersonalization, anxiety, and also psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and others.

Sounds weird. It is. One of the contributing factors is that many Japanese visitors have an idealized image of Paris as the city of romance and sophistication and trying to reconcile that image with the rude and noisy metropolis they instead encounter is simply overwhelming.

Um, so you’ve written a guide extolling me to go to Paris as it’s Valentine’s Day and Paris is the city of romance and at the very same time you’re also telling me if I go with that expectation I could break down with a psychological disorder? Amazing. You know this would never happen in Sacramento. True, they are no reported cases of Paris Syndrome affecting visitors to Sacramento.

Well, if I go — and I manage not to break down with a psychological disorder — what should I do? The obvious tourist checklist is taking a walk along the Seine, having a wander around Montmartre, making a visit to Notre Dame, climbing the Eiffel Tower, and catching an unsatisfactory glance of the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.

But I thought this site (and this nascent series) prided itself on shying away from the obvious? We do, we do. If you’re looking to uncover the “hidden” Paris you can take that suggestion literally and go to the Catacombs.

I see what you did there. Merci beaucoup! Catacombes de Paris were built following the removal and evacuation of the Saints Innocents Cemetery (Cimetière des Innocents) in the late 18th century as the medieval cemetery was no longer sanitary and was considered the cause of numerous infections in the area. On a related note, you may want to read Pure (2011), by the somewhat displaced English novelist Andrew Miller — about the breaking up of the cemetery.

Thanks for that, but can we move onto a different topic? I don’t think visiting catacombs is a particularly romantic move on my part. Do you have any romantic suggestions? I know a couple who spent the weekend trying to find the best macaroons in the city. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you may want to give that a try. Laudree is famous for theirs — in fact, they claim to have invented them, so you may want to start there. Another macaroon purveyor definitely worth trying is Pierre Herme. Indeed you’ll do well to resist eating all their pastries and sweets.

You’re going to try and convince me to go on a guided walk, aren’t you? You seem obsessed with them. I do think walking around a city rather than hopping from metro to taxi is a better way of getting to grips with a city, and if you can do that with a knowledgeable guide, so much the better. I’ve heard good things about Paris Walks, so you may want to give them a try. Alternatively, we are living in the age of smart phones. If you don’t want to be with a tourist crowd (and I totally understand why that may be the case), then why not download a walking tour direct to your phone? Invisible Paris offers three walking tours for you to download that are absolutely free. The walks highlight aspects of the city that other guides ignore.

What’s a must-do? Embrace the cliche and go for an evening stroll along the Seine.

Is it easy to get around? Yes, the Metro system makes getting round the city easy. As a visitor it’s well worth purchasing a Paris Visite Pass, which allows you access to all of the city’s public transport

And where’s good to eat? Any recommendations? It’s Paris. You won’t struggle for decent places to eat. You know the drill when it comes to avoiding tourist traps.

What should I read? If you want to brush up on Paris, then you may want to give Graham Robb‘s Parisians: An Adventure History of Paris (2010) a try. Also worth a look for the befuddled foreigner trying to make sense of the city is The Sweet Life in Paris, by displaced American food writer David Lebovitz — it tells the story of his move to Paris. For a solid historical overview of France’s capital city, try The Seven Ages of Paris (2002), by British historian and TCK Alistair Horne. And for a work of fiction sometimes the obvious is the most appropriate — and that’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris”), by Victor Hugo.

What should I watch? You can go all New Wave cool and watch The 400 Blows (1959, dir. François Truffaut), Breathless (1960, dir. by Jean-Luc Godard), or Bande à part (1964, also dir. by Jean-Luc Godard). The antithesis of these is the Old Hollywood glamor of An American in Paris (1951, dir. Vincente Minnelli). Of course, what I’d really advise you to watch is one of my all-time-favourite movies — Les Enfants du Paradis (1945, dir. Marcel Carné). In fact, as it’s Valentine’s Day today, watch it tonight!

But I have reservations at the Sizzler tonight! The Sizzler?

Hey, it’s Valentine’s. I thought, why not splurge? Hmmm, maybe Paris isn’t right for you after all.

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