Why Does Everyone Go to Paris After a Break Up?
It turns out the City of Love doesn’t always live up to its nickname—and that’s part of the appeal.
According to social media, the best way to get over a breakup is to flee to Paris. One TikToker starts a series of vlogs with “A day in the life of a heartbroken American living in Paris.” Another, using a backdrop of a Parisian balcony, writes a little post heartbreak poem: “POV: You get your heart broken and run away to Paris. The espresso and wine heal your soul, and the city of romance reminds you that love still exists, just not for a man.” And yet another, set to a recording of Jennifer Anniston as Rachel Green in Friends, has over 70,000 likes. The accompanying hashtags—among them #breakuptiktok, #breakupglowup, and #parisdiaries—say it all.
But the idea that a woman could jettison her current romantic reality and run away to the so-called City of Love on her own is nothing new. In fact, one might even call this breakup vacation cliche.
Film and television have done a lot for the image of a forlorn woman walking down the streets of Paris, carrying freshly baked baguettes in her arms or stuffing her face with a buttery croissant. In the Season 6 finale of the original Sex and the City, a ball gown-clad Carrie Bradshaw finds herself desperately alone in a luxury pâtisserie, while her beau, Alexander Petrovsky, is busy working on his art exhibit. In Season 3, Episode 11 of 2007’s Gossip Girl, Blair Waldorf offers some words of teenage wisdom to her best friend, Serena van der Woodsen, who has just broken up with her boyfriend: “If you’re gonna be sad, you might as well be sad in Paris.” And following in her sulking predecessors’ designer footsteps, Emily Cooper’s trajectory in 2020’s Emily in Paris is fueled by her Episode 2 breakup with her painfully average Chicago boyfriend.
It’s all over the big screen, too. In Noah Baumbach’s 2012 indie darling Frances Ha, the titular character takes a spur-of-the-moment, financially unwise trip to Paris in the hopes that it will mend her dire professional prospects and shifting bond with her best friend, Sophie. As she roams around the Haussmann-lined streets, she realizes that nothing is quite working out: Her French friends won’t answer her calls; the bookstore she’s interested in is closed; her lighter won’t light.
Some of these leading ladies find answers in Paris (oftentimes in the form of French romantic partners), while others deal with unmet expectations. But regardless of the outcome, the city serves as a portal through which a brokenhearted American enters, eats some baked goods, and eventually emerges with a renewed sense of herself—or at least a new perspective on her love life.
But why has Paris—a.k.a. the City of Love—become so synonymous with a crestfallen single woman’s rocky road to emotional recovery? The answer may be rooted in very real cross-cultural misconceptions. In 1989, Japanese psychiatrist Hiroaki Ota coined the term “Paris Syndrome.” He noticed that upon visiting Paris, a number of his patients experienced extreme forms of culture shock stemming from the disparity between the ways in which Japanese culture romanticized Paris and the city’s gritty reality. The symptoms were alarming—among them accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, hallucinations, and dizziness—triggering feelings of disillusionment and disappointment that often sent the tourists packing for home.
While Dr. Ota’s theory has since been challenged as just another form of Stendhal Syndrome, a condition in which the body overreacts when confronted with newly introduced items of great beauty, there has long seemed to be something in the Parisian air that creates a rush of blood to the head and inspires a visitor to alter their life’s course. Before the notion came to dominate chick-lit novels and rom-coms, it permeated 20th-century literature. Ernest Hemingway embodied the idea in his posthumously published memoir, A Moveable Feast, which chronicles the author’s plight as a struggling expat in Paris during the 1920s. The book, which also featured the likes of fellow literary giants Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ezra Pound, later served as inspiration for Woody Allen’s 2011 Midnight in Paris.
As Hemingway’s title suggests, Paris itself has the power to satiate both the body and soul. In one scene, the author recounts skipping a meal and going to look at some Cézannes instead. That sinking feeling in one’s stomach—one person might call it hunger, another, heartbreak—can easily be soothed by all the city has to offer, whether it’s a show at the Louvre or the gentle reminder that sadness breeds great poetry.
Hemingway padding around Paris in an effort to feed his melancholy, modernist masterpieces harkens back to the concept of the “flâneur.” The fodder of 19th-century French literary figures like Honoré de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire, a flâneur is defined as a man who leisurely explores the city by foot, idly absorbing all the aspects of modern urban life. And while the figure of the flâneur has traditionally been associated with men, Lauren Elkin points out in her 2016 book, Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, that female flâneurs did in fact exist. “To suggest that there couldn’t be a female version of the flâneur is to limit the ways women have interacted with the city to the ways men have interacted with the city,” she writes.
In fact, before there was A Moveable Feast, there was Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Published in 1933 and written from the perspective of Stein’s partner, the stylistically playful account details the couple’s move to Paris in the early 20th century and, more specifically, the many ways the author’s flâneuse era, if you will, shaped her artistic identity. Just a few years later, British novelist Jean Rhys told the story of Sasha Jensen in 1939’s Good Morning Midnight. Following an unhappy marriage, the middle-aged Jensen flees to Paris, wandering from bar to bar, reflecting on her troubled past.
So perhaps these fresh-out-of-a-breakup TikTokers are—with or without realizing it—embracing their inner flâneuse. In the spirit of romanticizing one’s life, the best way to start the healing process is to lean into it as if you were the lead in a 2000s rom-com, or an early 20th-century novel. And, as proponents of taking yourself out on a date would suggest, there’s no better place to fall back in love with yourself than the City of Love.