A lot of myths surround Paris Syndrome, a psychological condition that supposedly affects Japanese visitors to the French capital.
As a former Tokyo resident (I spent three happy years there) I have often wondered, during the half decade I've been living in Paris, whether this legendary affliction is a spoof cooked up by the France-bashing Anglo-Saxon media. Tales of Japanese tourists being hospitalised as a result of traumas experienced in Paris seemed far-fetched to me – until a few weeks ago.
Allow me to set the scene. A group of Middle Eastern friends came to visit me at the end of Ramadan. Their arduous days of fasting were made even tougher by the longer European summer evenings, not to mention a heatwave. After consulting the Paris Mosque website to see what time that day's fasting ended, I booked a table for 21.30 at a restaurant on the banks of the Seine.
I arrived on time and asked to be shown to my table. "Non!" That wouldn't be possible. I'd have to wait at the bar. Time went by and still no news of the table. However, since my guests were nowhere to be seen I held off before approaching the front-of-house lady, who was marching around in a dress held together at the back by safety pins. I explained, "I have a 9.30 booking, it's now 10pm – is my table ready?".
She scowled. "I cannot force people to leave their tables can I?" She strutted off, flicking her hair. A case of Dissociative identity disorder? Perhaps she believes she really is that reality TV star she once served drinks to, I consoled myself.
Eventually my guests arrived. They'd been stuck in traffic and were ravenous. One was on crutches after a recent operation. They wanted to sit down and eat. Again, I asked front-of-house lady if our table was ready. "I'll tell you when it's ready. Some people have been waiting much longer than you." I was by now getting rather tired of her.
Another quarter of an hour went by. One of my guests took matters into his own hands, asking wannabe-celebrity front-of-house lady for an update. No answer. She just handed him a mint from the bowl in front of her, telling him he needed it. He threw it back at her in disgust. I tracked down the manager. "Yes, I know she can be a little rude at times but she's very stressed," he explained. "Perhaps you could put your complaint in writing?"
By this stage I'd been there an hour. I was livid. The gulf between expectations of a relaxing evening at a chic riverside restaurant and the hideous reality had become too wide for me to compute. I was short-circuiting. A eureka moment: so this is what Paris Syndrome feels like.
We left before these violent emotions took over, hailing the first taxi we saw. One of my guests told the driver to take us to a Lebanese restaurant he'd heard of on Avenue Marceau. The car's air-conditioning kicked in. One of the guys cracked a vulgar joke about the ghastly front-of-house lady at the riverside hell hole. I started to feel better.
Smiles and a chorus of "Marhaba!" greeted us as we arrived at Noura, where we were immediately shown to a table. The others abstained but I ordered an urgently needed glass of Lebanese red. Sighs of relief all round; never had tabouleh and kefta tasted so good.
My brush with Paris Syndrome was mercifully short-lived and the effects don't seem to have been long-lasting. But next time I see a Japanese tourist here, hyperventilating with rage, I'll be the first to step in and console them.
Tom Burges Watson is Monocle’s Paris correspondent.