Tuesday, September 30, 2014

the Paris Syndrome

PARIS — Before arriving in the French capital, Wu Shuyun, a 56-year-old Chinese housewife, imagined Paris to be like a pristine film set for a romantic love story, picturing herself as a glamorous princess surrounded by elegant Parisians, decked out, perhaps, in Chanel.

Instead, Ms. Wu fromKunming in southwest China, said she was shocked by the cigarette butts and dog manure, the rude insouciance of the locals and the gratuitous public displays of affection. Though friends had warned her about thieves targeting Chinese people, she said she was nevertheless surprised when a member of her tour group was mugged on a packed Metro car, as other riders watched.

“For the Chinese, France has always been romantic, mysterious and desirable. We have been told that ‘God lives in France,’ ” she said recently after a two-week tour that included stops at the Eiffel Tower and Galeries Lafayette, an imposing, upscale department store with stained-glass domes where tour buses stop hourly to deposit tourists for marathon shopping sessions. “Once I realized that the Parisians were indifferent, I made the decision: Try to make the most of this trip, but never come back to Paris again.”

A growing number of Chinese tourists in Paris — armed with wads of cash, typically unable to speak French and still somewhat naïve about the ways of the West after decades of China’s relative isolation — are falling victim to their unrealistic expectations of the city, while also being victimized by brazen thieves who target them because they are easily identifiable as Asian, Chinese tourism industry officials here say.

Alarm that Chinese tourists are at risk from bandits is so acute that the Chinese government recently considered sending police officers to Paris to help protect them. Paris tourism officials said the proposal was shelved amid concerns over how they would operate.

The French capital — celebrated for its beauty, culture and savoir faire — still retains huge allure, making it the No. 1 destination in Europe for China’s burgeoning middle class and growing legion of millionaires, according to the European Federation of Chinese Tourism. Nearly one million Chinese tourists came to Paris last year, according to the Paris Tourism Office, spending more than one billion euros on everything from Cartier watches to meals at Michelin-starred restaurants, and outspending both Japanese and Americans on shopping. Now, however, Paris’s glittering image in China is losing its luster amid reports of robberies of Chinese tourists, according to Chinese newspapers and social media.

A group of 75 French luxury brands, including Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Hermès, warned last year that high-spending Chinese tourists fearful for their safety could choose to go to Italy or Britain instead. Concerns about the consequences for the country’s vaunted tourism industry have intensified as the French economy has stagnated.

Chinese nerves were already frayed after a group of 23 Chinese on a tour of Europe were attacked in March of last year in the gritty northern suburbs of Paris just hours after they landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport. The group leader was injured, and the thieves fled with 7,500 euros — about $9,600 — passports and plane tickets.

Psychologists warned that Chinese tourists shaken by thieves and dashed expectations were at risk for Paris Syndrome, a condition in which foreigners suffer depression, anxiety, feelings of persecution and even hallucinations when their rosy images of Champagne, majestic architecture and Monet are upended by the stresses of a city whose natives are also known for being among the unhappiest people on the planet.

The expression was first coined 30 years ago by a Paris-based Japanese psychiatrist, Hiroaki Ota, after several Japanese visitors to Paris fell ill when their culture of politeness and reserve rubbed up against Gallic haughtiness.

Dr. Ota said in an interview in his office that because China had been closed off to the West for so long, some Chinese travelers could be at risk for culture shock and depression when faced with the harsher realities of a city they had over-idealized. But he noted that the Chinese were less susceptible to Paris Syndrome than the Japanese, since they were fortified by a directness and an outsize sense of self that was similar to the French.

“Whereas Japanese are reserved, polite and formal, the Chinese have a strong sense of national pride like the French, and they are not shy,” he said.

Thomas Deschamps, the head of research at the Paris Tourism Office, said culture shock was particularly prevalent among travelers from Asia, who sometimes wrongly perceived the French capital as a museum.

“They watch movies like ‘Amélie Poulain’; they think all Parisians carry Louis Vuitton purses and smell like Dior,” he said. “They don’t know about the working-class suburbs, the overworked waiters, the grittier parts of the city. Paris is not a museum. People are busy, they are stressed, they are living their lives.”

Cara - Tuesday

Monday, September 29, 2014


The notion I am about to share with you came to me by free association while driving.

Many of you know of my music addiction.  In the car, I listen to random playlists of my wildly eclectic collection of songs.  In this case the number was “December 1963” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons:

The phrase that started me thinking was “…I didn’t even know her name…”  The singer remembers that it was “late December back in ’63,” and other vivid recollections of his experience with the lady who “walked in the room.”  But not one detail about her as a person.  This is how men think about willing women, I guess.

Only a few hours before I took that motor trip, I had read—on the blog Crime Writers Chronicle—a piece by Mike Welch called “Sex and the Hard-Boiled Private Eye,” in which he opines about the female characters of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet.  Mike describes those women as “scheming, untrustworthy, manipulative and dangerous.  And they are all smoking hot, too…female sexuality in these writers’ hands becomes perhaps the most polluted and corrupt thing in a polluted and corrupt world.”

Also swimming around in my hyperactive consciousness as I negotiated the Lincoln Tunnel were sights I had seen during my recent trip to Kenya:  Lions mating, the courtship and mating of ostriches.  And there in the wilderness where mankind had evolved I also heard about lions killing lion cubs in order that their mothers would come more quickly into heat and give the new guy a chance to reproduce his own genes.

Without my really knowing it, my brain started to wonder how all these ideas fit together when it came to the sexual behavior of us—the supposed “higher animals.”  And then it occurred to me.  That once human intelligence began to emerge, if the genes of brighter, more cerebral men were going to be reproduced, they were going to have to show the ladies something more than their muscles.  And if anyone was going to guard the tollgate on the evolutionary turnpike, it would have to be the women.   And so I came to the conclusion that deep in our species’ past, perhaps it was late December 1,963,000 years ago, at the dawn of human intelligence, there came a time when if a Neanderthal lass was approached by a lad in heat, she wanted to know more about him than that he was the toughest guy on the rock.  The females developed a preference for males with brainpower as well as biceps.  And they readily mated only with males who could figure out how to woo the lady.

Or maybe I could be full of baloney.

Annamaria - Monday  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On Passage

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks aboard a 45-foot Grand Soleil, a rather lovely yacht belonging to friends who were happy to have a slightly rusty crewmember to help with the usual hand-to-hand stuff in harbours and anchorages.

I started my Ionian odyssey in Corfu, where I was picked up by dinghy from a waterside café on the other side of the bay from Corfu Old Town. This was the last time dry land would feel steady under my feet for two weeks.

We sailed for the lovely little anchorage at Stefanos to the north of the island, and then set out for Kassiopi, but when the thunder and lightning started we decided that being the tallest object in the middle of a large area of water, coupled with having a mast reaching temptingly into the sky was a Bad Plan, and we returned to Stefanos with 45 knots of wind behind us. Still, at least the rain was warm …

I can never get over the number of feral cats in the Greek islands. This old boy was sunbathing on his own private dumpster. I know there are rumours that the locals only tolerate the local feline population during the tourist season and then do away with them over the winter, but if so this feller was wily enough to avoid the cull. Either that or he was the equivalent of a teenager who’d been living a very hard life.

What did surprise me since I was last on Corfu around fifteen years ago was the number of beautiful villas – obvious relatively new builds – which adorn the hills above Stefanos. There are clearly plenty of people on the islands for whom the recession is little more than a newspaper item.

At last, a calm and peaceful sunrise over the mainland of Greece and nearby Albania. We had to steer a very careful course to avoid straying into Albanian waters. Another surprising aspect of this visit was the increased size of the charter yachts we saw. No longer, it seems are people content to cruise around on 30-odd-foot yachts. They want 50-footers at the very least. It made for some comical boat-handling fails.

Having had too much wind, we then had not enough, and mainly motored down to the island of Paxos without enough to shake loose those flappy white things attached to the stick in the middle. (Don’t you hate it when I get all technical?)

Having gone through the Lefkas Canal and spent the night on a mooring off Ligia on Lefkada, we then headed further south to Nydri. There’s something about the quality of sunlight on water I’ll never tire of.

We sailed from Nydri down to Kioni on the island of Ithaca. This is the skipper, Bill, in his best sailing hat. Use of winch handle was choice rather than necessity, as just about every yacht has electric winches these days. Still, it saves the ship’s batteries.

The Grand Soleil is a racer/cruiser and goes remarkably well even in light airs, so the reefed main was a precaution against sudden squalls, which can easily knock you flat. We saw several boats way over-canvased and I wonder how many people scared themselves silly in such apparently friendly waters.

There is a faded beauty about many of the old buildings in Greece that begs to be photographed. This one on the quayside in Kioni was one such example. The detail on the edges of the roof tiles was wonderful, and people in cities pay a fortune to achieve that weathered paint look on the shutters.

One of my favourite anchorages was Port Leone on Kalamos, with its fabulous old olive trees. From this angle I could almost kid myself that we were the only boat there, but sadly it was a popular spot for yachties. The total absence of shore lighting meant that evening we could see every star in the sky, including a couple of shooting ones. (No surprise that I’d be a fan of shooting stars, is it?)

Port Leone has been abandoned since the earthquake of 1953, which damaged the village’s water supply. Apparently fearful of the same thing happening again, the villagers moved out. Only the church is still maintained and used on a regular basis, accessed either from the water or by rough road from further along the coastline.

Vathy on Ithaca – known apparently as Big Vathy because there’s also a Little Vathi on the island of Meganisi – presented a pretty harbour frontage. Used to sailing around the UK, where the rise and fall of the tide can leave a boat strung up on a harbour wall with six feet of air under the keel at low tide, I still can’t get over how low the quays are here. (I particularly liked this pretty little ketch we saw anchored in Vathy. A nice change from the plastic fantastics that were otherwise abundant.)

Gaios, on the eastern side of Paxos, is not the easiest harbour to enter, but it’s one of those most filled with character, and dotted with narrow little alleyways like this one, and – as with everywhere else in the islands – filled with scooters. I suggested to my hosts that we should set up a business supplying silencers for motorcycles, because none of the ones we encountered seemed to have one. Bill squashed that idea by pointing out that the first thing they do is take the silencer off and throw it away …)

Another point that struck me during this trip was the increased number of catamarans I saw. I was brought up sailing cats, and I confess that’s where my heart lies. Another advantage when it came to Gaios was that the cats could enter via the notoriously shallow southern entrance, where the monohulls fear to tread.

Speaking of cats, here’s another old lag, sunning himself on a wall in Gaios. There’s something about un-neutered tomcats that gives them all this particular expression. I think I can probably work out what that is without anybody drawing me a diagram!

People look at me with some scepticism when I say this trip to Greece was as much work as holiday – and to be honest, with all the crap that’s come my way this year I really needed the break. But I also went to shake free old sailing memories stored away in the dusty corners of my mind and to glean information. In fact, I’ve come back with a bulging notebook, and several definite plot ideas fermenting nicely in the vats.

This week’s Word of the Week is viduifical, meaning widow-making. Dates from the early 1700s. Sometimes applied to golf, or even to sailing …

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Literary Athens

I’m off in Athens for five days. I planned on only two, but two can so easily become five in Greece. Not that I’m complaining mind you, as I’m staying with friends who are genuinely more like family, and offer me my own maisonette and garden in which to contemplate and write. It’s a perfect setting, and I’ve finished most of my books in that garden.

This year, though, it’s my first visit.  Not sure why I haven’t spent much time in Athens this year; perhaps because I subliminally wanted to avoid more up close and personal exposure to the tragic toll the financial crisis continues to extract from the day to day lives of so many innocents.

Nowhere on Mykonos can you find a realistic measure of the painful impact those recent years have had on the Greek populace.  Most of Athens offers a contrary vision, though my “family’s” neighborhood—only an eight-euro taxi ride from the center of Athens—is not one of them.

But this isn’t about any of that.

I had several meetings scheduled over two days (the two that morphed into five) that had me travelling to Solonos Street.  Solonos lay at the heart of Athens’ university area and is the place (in front of the law school) where most student demonstrations against [fill in the blank] form up to march on Parliament. It also happens to be the center of Greece’s publishing and literary world.

Law School
Government Literary Office

To get there we passed through Athens equivalent of NYC’s Upper East Side (Kolonaki) into Exarchia, an area that reminds me of NYC’s East Village in pre-gentrification days. 

I was amazed at what I found there.

The place is awash in bookstores, every conceivable kind of bookstore. Block after block of bookstores! I can’t recall ever seeing so many in one place, anywhere.  These photos are less than half of those I passed by. And forget about the graffiti marring the buildings, as that’s a curse haunting all of Athens

I’m told this area stays alive selling books.   I’m also told it’s the “big bookstores” that are taking it on the chin.  Here’s hoping they all do well, but Athens, you really impressed me with how, in the depths of a cursed depression, you’re sustaining your literary balance.  Then again, what less could we expect from the country that so significantly contributed to bringing the play, the novel, and the poem to the world.

Bravo Athena!

Now for a quick Greek taxi ride. 

You’re coming in from Athens northern suburbs; passing by the US Embassy, Megaron Mousikis (Athens’ equivalent to NYC’s Lincoln Center), the Hilton, the Byzantine Museum, the National Gardens, the French Embassy (that one’s for you Cara), and turning right by Parliament at Syntagma Square across from the Hotel Grande Bretagne (featured in TV coverage of demonstrations at the square); driving by some of Athens most beautiful modern public buildings (including Athens University and the National Library); and taking a right turn onto Hippocrates Street into Kolonaki followed by a left onto Solonos. 

Enjoy the ride. And I've already paid the fare.

US Embassy and Music Center on far right
US Embassy
Music Center
French Embassy
Hilton Hotel on right (reverse travel)
Parliament left (really right), Grand Bretagne straight ahead
Grande Bretagne
Coin Museum
University Buildings
More still
Greece's National Library

By the way did you notice that this week was BSP Free!

Okay, I'm stretching it, but how could I resist this photo?
Can’t say the same for next week as my new book, Sons of Sparta, comes out October 7th.