"City of Light" Paris and the Strange Phenomenon of Reality vs. Expectations!

The “City of Light”! What comes to mind when you think of Paris? The Eiffel Tower…the Cathedral of Notre Dame…the Louvre…beautiful paintings and world-class cuisines!! You might imagine that everyone cycles or walks everywhere. Slender, beret-sporting mimes in black-and-white striped shirts give street performances, and people relaxedly enjoy baguettes with brie on the Champ de Mars. But something else interesting may happen when you visit Paris…or any city for that matter. The real-time…vivid…concrete experience clashes with the storybook painting in your head. Sometimes the collision produces harmony. Other times, though, it produces discord! We’ll revisit that phenomenon shortly. In the meantime, let’s explore some of Paris’s most prominent sites.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

Its global icon may be the Eiffel Tower, but we’ll begin with the real, historical, beating heart of Paris…the site that Victor Hugo immortalized through literature, which went ablaze in 2019. We’ll begin with Notre-Dame de Paris. Notre-Dame is a medieval Catholic cathedral located on the Île de la Cité (an island in the Seine River) in the 4th arrondissement of Paris. The cathedral is dedicated to the Virgin Mary (hence its name- “Our Lady”). Its strident features- rib vaults, flying buttresses, and magnificent rose windows- are some of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture1. Notre-Dame also features three pipe organs and immense church bells1.

Historians believe that, prior to Notre Dame (and Christianity in France), a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter stood in the Île de la Cité1. Construction for the cathedral began in 1160 under Bishop Maurice de Sully, who envisioned converting two earlier basilicas into a single, larger scale building1. Pope Alexander III laid the first foundation stone (in the presence of King Louis VII)1. They consecrated the high altar in 1189, completed the choir, western façade, and nave in 1250, and added porches, chapels, and other embellishments over the course of the next century1. Notre-Dame Cathedral consists of an apse, choir, nave flanked by double aisles and square chapels, and a short transept1. Designers restoring the cathedral in the 19th century added a large central spire1.

Notre-Dame’s interior is 427 feet by 157 feet (130 by 48 meters)1. Its roof is 115 feet (35 meters) high1. The original builders added large clerestory windows on the cathedral’s eastern side between 1235-1270 C.E. and two massive Gothic towers between 1210-1250 C.E1. Each tower is 223 feet (68 meters) high1. The cathedral’s western façade features early Gothic carvings and surmounted rows depicting the figures of Old Testament kings1. Notre-Dame cathedral suffered throughout the centuries1. After the French Revolution, Napoleon rescued the damaged, deteriorated, and nearly destroyed church, and he crowned himself emperor inside of it (1804)1. Victor Hugo’s famous novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) popularized the site and inspired renovation efforts1. French architect Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc undertook many such restorations1.

Notre-Dame Cathedral

The Eiffel Tower

Let’s return to Paris’s pies-de-resistance, though…the crown jewel of the Champ de Mars…the wrought-iron lattice structure that dominates the city’s skyline…the Eiffel Tower! Locals nickname it “La dame de fer” (“The Iron Lady”). Its eponymous engineer, Gustave Eiffel, designed the landmark, and it was constructed between 1887 and 1889 as the centerpiece for the 1889 World’s Fair (commemorating the centennial of the French Revolution).

Roughly 5-6 million people visit it every year, and, in 2015, at least 6.91 million people ascended its interior. UNESCO deemed the Eiffel Tower a World Heritage site in 19912. The tower- 330 meters (1,083 feet) high- is the tallest structure in Paris, and, at the time of its initial completion, it surpassed the height of the Washington Monument3. Its square base measures 125 meters (410 feet) on each side4. The Eiffel Tower is comprised of 18,000 pieces (including over 2.5 million rivets) …all designed, calculated, and traced out to an accuracy of one tenth of a millimeter4.  

Eiffel’s inspiration came from the Latting Observatory in New York City4. Eiffel worked with two engineers- Emile Nouguier and Maurice Koechlin (the latter of whom had an idea for a very tall tower in June 1884)4. The three men designed the tower like a large pylon (with metal girders placed at regular intervals)4. They added four columns of lattice work girders, separating them at the base and joining them together at the top4. Nouguier and Koechlin hired architect Stephen Sauvestre to work on the project’s appearance4. Construction began on July 1, 1887, and the crew of 150-300 workers completed the tower in 22 months4.

The Eiffel Tower was at the heart of much controversy and debate, and various pamphlets and articles (published in 1886) criticized it4. The Eiffel Tower’s opponents derided it as ugly or otherwise aesthetically tasteless, and they lambasted Gustave Eiffel as essentially arrogant and delusional. Satirist Léon Bloy called the tower a “truly tragic streetlamp.”4

Paul Verlaine dubbed it a “belfry skeleton,” and Guy de Maupassant had the following to say: “this high and skinny pyramid of iron ladders, this giant ungainly skeleton upon a base that looks built to carry a colossal monument of Cyclops, but which just peters out into a ridiculous think shape like a factory chimney.”4 Sunrise, sunset, though. All works of art, architecture, and storytelling throughout history- including the various masterpieces- suffer initial blasts of skepticism and censure. It’s a classic, universal phenomenon. Today, the Eiffel Tower is likely the first thing that comes to many people’s minds when they think of Paris and/or France.

The Eiffel Tower

The Louvre Museum

If there’s a top-five list of “first things that come to mind” when discussing Paris, the Louvre would certainly make that list. Located on the Right Bank of the Seine in the city’s 1st arrondissement, the Louvre is famous for its canonical works like Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the ancient Greek “Venus de Milo” sculpture, and I.M. Pei’s steel-and-glass pyramid located in the center of the museum’s enormous courtyard. Long before it was a world-renowned art gallery, the Louvre was the 12th-century fortress of Philip Augustus5. In 1546, Francis I, a great art collector, razed the old castle and built another residence (which almost every subsequent French monarch added to over the centuries)5.

Architect Pierre Lescot completed a small portion of the present Louvre (this original section today is in the southwestern part of the Cour Carrée)5. Kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV both added major 17th century additions, while Cardinal de Richelieu (chief minister to Louis XIII) acquired great works of art for the residence5. Cardinal Mazarin (minister to the succeeding monarch) acquired outstanding art collections (including that of England’s Charles I) as well5. Architects Claude Perrault and Louis Le Vau, as well as decorator/painter Charles Le Brun, planned the portion of the Louvre known as the Colonnade5.

When King Louis XIV moved his royal residence to Versailles in 1682, the idea of converting the Louvre into a museum originated5. The comte d’Angiviller continued to acquire major works of art and helped to build/plan the Louvre’s Grande Galerie5. The revolutionary government of 1793 opened the Musée Central des Arts in the Grande Galerie to the public, and, under Napoleon, the renovative construction of the Cour Carrée and a wing on the northside along the rue de Rivoli began5. In the mid-19th century two major wings, galleries, and pavilions extending west were completed, and Napoleon III was responsible for the exhibition that opened them5.

Major restorative efforts took place in the 1980s and 1990s5. Today, not unlike the equally popular Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre is filled to the brim with classical works … an endless buffet for the eyes—paintings, bronzes, miniatures, pottery, tapestries, jewelry, furniture, mosaics, and more5. Paintings like “The Mona Lisa,” “Liberty Leading the People,” “The Winged Bulls,” “The Wedding at Cana,” “The Horse Tamers,” “The Seated Scribe,” “Portrait of a Woman,” and “The Turkish Bath” represent only a tiny, miniscule fraction of the museum’s collections on display.

The Louvre Museum (Interior)

The Arc de Triomphe

Standing powerfully at the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle (Place de l’Étoile, formerly), the Arc de Triomphe commands the western terminus of the avenue des Champs-Élysées (just 1.2 miles, or 2 km, from the eastern terminus, the Place de la Concorde)6. The massive triumphal arch (arguably one of the world’s best-known commemorative monuments) is a symbolic icon of French national identity6. The annual French military parade marking July 14 (Bastille Day/French National Day) begins at the Arc de Triomphe6. The Tour de France bicycling race ends at the arch6. Napoleon commissioned the triumphal arch in 1806 (following his great, 1805 victory at Austerlitz)6. Construction began on August 15 of that year (Napoleon’s birthday)6. Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin designed the 164-foot (50-meter)-long, 148-foot (45-meter)-high structure6.

Little more than the foundation had been completed by the time Napoleon married Austrian archduchess Marie-Louise (1810)6. In honor of her ceremonial entrance into the city, builders completed a full-scale depiction of the Arch from wood and painted canvas6. Chalgrin made a few further amendments to the site6. Napoleon abdicated his position as emperor and the Bourbon Restoration took place in 18146.

In 1823, though, the French invasion of Spain and their restoration of the Spanish King Ferdinand VII as absolute monarch motivated King Louis XVIII to resume building efforts on the Arc de Triomphe6. The builders finished the basic structure of the triumphal arch in 1831, and the project was finally completed on July 29, 1836, during the reign of King Louis-Phillipe6.  Situated in the center of Place Charles de Gaulle’s circle, 12 grand avenues radiate from the arch, forming a star-like shape (étoile)6. The Arc de Triumph of the Star is the landmark’s other notable moniker6.

The Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum (Rome, Italy) inspired Chalgrin’s design6. The facades of the Arc de Triomphe’s four pedestals feature decorative high-relief sculptures celebrating military victories of the French Revolution and First Empire (courtesy of Francois Rude, Jean-Pierre Cortot, and Antoine Etex)6. The most famous of the sculpture groups is Rude’s Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 (popularly called La Marseillaise)6.

The names of hundreds of generals and battles, a stairway with 284 steps that reaches the ground level from the top of the monument, an observation deck, a small museum, interactive exhibits, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (1921) are all part of the famous landmark6. An annual ceremony marking the anniversary of the 1918 World War I armistice is held at the arch, and the coffins of various French luminaries (such as Victor Hugo and Ferdinand Foch) were laid in state there before their internments took place elsewhere6.

The Tuileries Garden, Roden Museum, Place de la Concorde, Centre Pompidou, Saint-Chappelle, Luxembourg Gardens, Palais de Garnier, Musée d’Orsay, Musée de I’Orangerie, Panthéon, Latin Quarter, Marais District, Hôtel des Invalides, and La Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre all epitomize the Parisian spirit, but let us “eat cake” for a moment and indulge in its most opulent landmark- the Palais de Versailles.

The Arc de Triomphe

The Palace of Versailles

Located just 10 miles (16 km) north of Paris in the Île-de-France region, the Palace of Versailles once served as the grandest theater of European, monarchial absolutism7. Originally a hunting lodge and private retreat for Louis XIII (r. 1610-43 C.E.) and his family, Versailles expanded under the king’s entrusted architect, Jacques Lemercier. Lemercier constructed a château on the site (today the Versailles’ exterior façade, which overlooks the Marble Court, contains the original preserved walls)7. Versailles became an immense and extravagant complex between 1661 and 1710 under the guidance of King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715)7.

Renowned architects such as Jules Hardouin-Mansart, Robert de Cotte, and Louis Le Vau contributed to all the countless details intended to glorify the “Sun King.”7 Charles Le Brun oversaw Versailles’ interior decoration, and landscape artist André Le Nôtre created symmetrical gardens that various ornate fountains containing “magically” still water accentuated7. The Place d’Armes was constructed to the east of the palace and features a bronze equestrian statue of Louis XIV7. The Gate of Honor, a gilded iron gate and stone balustrade that marks the palace’s main entrance, is located on the west side7. The northern and southern Minsters’ Wings flank the expansive Court of Honor, and various outbuildings were constructed in the 1860s to accommodate the king’s secretaries of state7.

The Hall of Mirrors (1678-89 C.E.), which extends more than 230 feet (70 meters) and is comprised of 17 wide arcaded mirrors opposite 17 windows (with garden views), is perhaps the complex’s most famous room7. Gilded statues and reliefs border the room’s marble walls, glass chandeliers adorn its arched, ornately painted ceiling, and the striking Salons of Peace and War flank the hall’s opposite ends7.

The palace chapel- which hosted daily masses, royal weddings, and baptisms until 1789- rises above the rest of the grounds in the structure’s north wing7. Hardouin-Mansart began construction on the chapel in 1699, and de Cotte finished it in 17107. Ange-Jacques Gabriel built the Opéra Royal (under Louis XV) at the far end of the palace’s north wing7. Its first use was for the marriage of the dauphin (Louis XVI, later) and Marie Antoinette (May 16, 1770)7. A lavish banquet was held for royal guardsmen in the palace’s theater on October 2, 17897. Three days later the so-called “women’s march” reached Versailles7.

The people forced Louis XVI and his wife to relocate to Paris7. Marie Antoinette allegedly gave her famous, apocryphal “pastry suggestion,” and the palace’s days as a royal residence were essentially over7. Both the king and queen faced the guillotine7. From 1871 until the proclamation of the Third Republic in 1875, the Opéra Royal hosted the National Assembly at Versailles7. The French Senate met there from March 8, 1876, until the legislature returned to Paris in 18797.

Versailles’ other major claim to fame was the eponymous Treaty that took place inside its Hall of Mirrors on June 28, 1919. Signed exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Frank Ferdinand (leading to World War I) and six months after Allied negotiations at the Paris Peace Conference, the Treaty of Versailles (in)famously excluded Germany from its proceedings and pinned all the punishment and responsibilities on them. This of course precipitated what decades later would arguably become the nastiest and most violent conflict in human history!

The Palace of Versailles
“Paris, Standhal, and Jerusalem” Syndromes

You touch down in Charles de Gaulle airport. You catch a handsome cab ride into the city. An amalgamation of various aromas- cheese, pastries, chocolate, and bread baking- overwhelm your senses. Enormous boulevards stretch out before you, and endless rings of cigarette smoke fill the air. On every street corner is a mime, juggling trapeze artist, or highwire acrobat. Everyone is as thin as a rail. A jovial florist sings and plays an accordion as he sells daffodils and dandelions. Nude artistic models pose for students across the city’s various beautiful parks. And there…on the far horizon…the Eiffel Tower looms majestically. It’s just as surrealistic and as magical as every painting you’ve ever seen— The “Bal du moulin de la Galette” by Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1876) … “Paris Street; Rainy Day” by Gustave Caillebotte (1877) … “Impression, Sunrise” by Claude Monet (1878). Or maybe no such experience occurs!

You touch down in Charles de Gaulle airport. You catch an Uber. Your Uber travels down the renowned Champs-Élysées, but you don’t feel all the surrealistic magic you were expecting! You see people walking…people bicycling…people eating their lunch and then returning to work…someone sits on a park bench glued to their phone. Another person gets in an argument with their spouse and then storms off in a fit of anger. Basically, it’s just the normal, day-to-day elements of life you’re all too familiar with.

There is an official name for this discrepant, “let down” of an experience— “Paris Syndrome.” “Paris Syndrome” is a rare experience that many Japanese visitors have reported. They arrive in Paris, and the city is a culture shock, and so they experience various unpleasant conditions (delusional states, hallucinations, derealization/depersonalization, anxiety, and psychosomatic manifestations such as dizziness, tachycardia, sweating, and vomiting).

Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese physician working at the Saint-Anne Hospital Center in France, wrote and published a book on the phenomenon in the 1980s, and, in 2004, the French newspaper Libération wrote an article on it8,9. In the article, Mario Renoux, president of the Franco-Japanese Medical Association, stated that touristic advertising and media were the primary explanation(s) for the syndrome11. The literature on the phenomenon seems to suggest that a prejudicial belief exists. This prejudicial belief paints an image of high-fashion models and Van Gogh types occupying every street corner of Paris. Tourists simply encounter a city like any other city- lots of people, lots of stuff on the ground, lots of “usual happenings.” This isn’t a pejorative observation in any sense of the term—just a realistic assessment of a normal city with a high population.

The inverse of “Paris Syndrome” is “Standhal Syndrome.” Stendhal Syndrome- a psychosomatic condition frequently involving rapid heartbeat, confusion, fainting, and even hallucinations, occurs when individuals encounter objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty or antiquity12,13. The term is named after 19th-century French author Stendhal (a.k.a. Marie-Henri Beyle) who described such an experience when visiting Florence in 1817 (he documented his travels in Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio). Stendhal visited the Basilica of Santa Croce (where Niccolò Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo Galilei are buried) and wrote the following:

“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty . . . I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations . . . Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves’. Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”14.

One tourist visiting the Uffizi Gallery in Florence allegedly suffered a heart attack when they viewed Sandro Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”15. Are “Paris Syndrome” and “Standhal Syndrome” actual medical/psychological conditions? A third phenomenon, “Jerusalem Syndrome” (an intense response to religious iconography/imagery in the city of Jerusalem) has also been noted. But, beyond that, it is hard to tell.

Reality vs. Expectations

Human consciousness is an eternally and ineffably strange entity to decipher. You find yourself occupying a unique and specific awareness of the world around you at any given moment. Maybe you’re out on a walk or you’re at work or you’re relaxing at home… or maybe you’re exploring the streets of a brand-new city somewhere very different from where you call home. Consciousness- an elegant coalescence of various perceptual systems (sound, sight, thought, tactile impressions, proprioception, and more)- is inexplicable enough on its own to decipher in whatever location you currently occupy (and the whole “spatial” element of consciousness is only the tip of the iceberg!).

Now plant yourself in an entirely new and foreign location (in whatever sense the term is applicable). Depending on the type of dasein (“being-in-the-world,” to borrow a term from philosopher Martin Heidegger) you occupy, you may adapt to a new environment very easily or you may not. Are you familiar with the French language? How much do you know about Paris? Did you study there during your third year of college? Did you get married and/or celebrate your honeymoon there? For much older generations, did you witness the carnage of war in Paris (World War II- era)? And so on and so forth…ad infinitum.  

Assuming we are discussing highly populated cities that are near-mythically renowned (Paris, London, New York, Tokyo, Beijing, Moscow, and the like) it makes sense that a profound sense of “shock” would affect people visiting those places for the first time. Hollywood, Broadway, television, storybooks, and so forth fill your mind to the brim with fantastical renderings of the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, Dome of the Rock, Times Square, and the Great Wall. Then you visit the places. Suddenly, the “rubber” of the seemingly boundless, abstract world meets the physical and real-time “road” in which you find yourself. Do those two worlds match each other or do they clash and conflict?

Can or does the former meet the latter’s expectations? (let’s bear in mind that any mismatch may cause great distress!) Do you feel “obliged” to experience Paris, Jerusalem, London, or wherever else in a “particular way (or with a particular spirit of being)”? Do you feel that visiting Paris, Jerusalem, or London will inevitably imbue you with a certain “fullness of experience” …one reminiscent of graduating high school/college, getting married, or witnessing the birth of your children? Should you?

When I visited Paris back in 2009 (college micro-semester), sitting on the Champ de Mars (peering up at the Eiffel Tower), it really was a surrealistic experience! I’m from the United States. France is a foreign country with a foreign language, and, yet, something seemed so uncannily familiar, like I had seen the place a thousand times before. I can only imagine, though, the inexpressible terror of what the inverse would’ve been like…that strange “something’s not adding up right” sort of feeling. But we’ll set aside all existential feelings pertaining to travel and tourism. The Paris that I did perceive when I visited it many years ago exploded with magic, wonder, and beauty…all the je ne sais quoi one might hope for!


[1] Notre-Dame de Paris | History, Style, Fire, & Facts | Britannica

[2] Clayson, S. Hollis (26 February 2020), “Eiffel Tower”, Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0014, ISBN 978-0-19-092246-7, retrieved 14 November 2021

[3] “Eiffel Tower grows six metres after new antenna attached”. Reuters. 15 March 2022. Retrieved 15 March 2022.

[4] https://www.toureiffel.paris/en/the-monument/history

[5] Louvre | History, Collections, & Facts | Britannica

[6] Arc de Triomphe | History, Location, & Facts | Britannica

[7] Palace of Versailles | History & Facts | Britannica

[8] Fagan, Chelsea (18 October 2011). “Paris Syndrome: A First-Class Problem for a First-Class Vacation”. theatlantic.com. The Atlantic. Archived from the original on 19 February 2021. Retrieved 20 February 2020.

[9] Wyatt, Caroline (20 December 2006). “‘Paris Syndrome’ strikes Japanese”. BBC News. Archived from the original on 31 October 2009. Retrieved 4 November 2009.

[10] Ota, Hiroaki (1991). パリ症候群 [Pari shōkōgun] (in Japanese). TRAJAL Books [ja]. ISBN 978-489559233-8.

[11] Levy, Audrey (13 December 2004). “Des Japonais entre mal du pays et mal de Paris” [The Japanese between homesick and Paris sick]. Libération (in French). Archived from the original on 19 December 2019. Retrieved 25 November 2014.

[12] Nick Squires (28 July 2010). “Scientists investigate Stendhal Syndrome – fainting caused by great art”. The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 1 October 2019.

[13] Nicholson, Timothy Richard Joseph; Pariante, Carmine; McLoughlin, Declan (2009). “Stendhal syndrome: A case of cultural overload”. BMJ Case Reports. 2009: bcr0620080317. doi:10.1136/bcr.06.2008.0317. PMC 3027955. PMID 21686859.

[14] Chatzichristodoulou, Maria; Jefferies, Janis; Zerihan, Rachel, eds. (2009). Interfaces of Performance. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. p. 196. ISBN 9781409486145.

[15] Jones, Jonathan (18 December 2018). “Stendhal syndrome: can art really be so beautiful it makes you ill?”. The Guardian. Retrieved 27 November 2019.