Now you may be wondering why I didn’t title this “why does everyone in Paris smoke?” That’s a legitimate question too. From the bistros, hallways, bathrooms, trains – everywhere reeks of the cigarettes dangling from mouths, twisted into fingers as they’re jabbed dangerously in the air throughout the conversations around you.
But that’s not what the title of this is.
Why does everyone smoke in Paris?
I see it often: a tourist comes for a visit, sits on a patio for their inevitable “café au lait” and eagerly lights up a cigarette. There’s something about this city that just makes smoking feel so right. Part of it is of course the fact that everyone around you is smoking and, unlike many other places around the world, the rules about where one can smoke are quite relaxed. So smoking is much, much easier just in general.
But it doesn’t answer the question of why everyone smokes in Paris.
I quit smoking two years ago. I’ve had a couple of slip-ups in the last two years, but not more than 3-4 cigarettes smoked in all that long time. I smoked for nearly 10 years previously. What started out with sneaking a cigarette in the parking lot of a sushi restaurant in Newmarket with my friend (“Promise me you wont get addicted”) gradually clawed its way up through my life until I was smoking nearly an entire pack of cigarettes a day by the time I was 23. It was awful. I do not regret quitting and have never been happier with any decision I have ever made.
But there’s something about Paris. There’s something about sitting on a patio and drinking a bottle of wine with friends and smoking cigarette after cigarette, or having your “café clop” in the morning with coworkers, looking at all the other office workers huddled by the entrances, perched on any surface they can find. All diligently smoking.
I walked past Le Bon Marché the other day, along the back street where there are no store-front windows, while all the employees were out on their cigarette breaks. There must have been 20 or 30 of them looking like the most well dressed group of crows. All in perfect little black suits, the women with gorgeous hair and bright red lips. Every man, woman and child with a cigarette.
I’ve had two cigarettes in the last week. Two. It’s been a stressful week and for some reason my brain tells me “a cigarette will make things better”. It of course never does.
There’s an attitude to the French that I’ve noticed after nearly a year of scrutiny. If I could describe it, it would be a reckless violence towards their own lives. It’s the casual permissiveness towards smoking, tanning, drinking coffee, drinking wine; all the indulgent vices that most other countries associate with the French. I had my strongest moment of culture shock when I left a restaurant and one of my pregnant coworkers bummed a cigarette off another coworker.
Yes, that’s right. A pregnant coworker.
Now, I’m not saying everyone was totally fine with it. There was tutting and eye-rolling, and a couple of mutters of “Mais, non!” but the fact remains that she not only received a cigarette, but pretty much nobody said anything about it after the initial act. She smoked multiple times that week, and when asked for a reason why she said “it’s been a stressful week.”
It’s the same sort of reckless violence towards their own lives that drives them to tan, tan, tan. All the time. And I recognize that I am a bit extreme in my sunscreen obsession (everyday, rain or shine) but I also watch as every single sunny lunch the park across from my office fills with the lithe bronze bodies of the French. Young mostly, but there’s the occasional older gentleman. They walk into the park, casually strip down into their bikini – or just underpants – oil themselves up with some SPF 5, and spend the rest of the lunch hour doing some bronzage.
It’s the same sort of reckless violence that I see as I walk home some nights. It spills out over balconies where parties are being held, the guests dangerously leaning over the railing as their laughter fills the streets. Always the cloud of smoke rises around them, always the drinks splash slightly as they talk and laugh and really, truly party. And yet it feels that at any moment the balcony may collapse under them, or someone will throw themselves over the edge, simply lean over and let gravity do the rest.
It’s a tempting call.
And I think that’s why everyone smokes in Paris.
There’s something about this city that makes you want to be a bit more alive. Makes you want tread that dangerous edge, going a bit closer each time. Makes you want to be a bit more dangerous. Makes you feel like you can disappear into the crowd at a bar and maybe be a part of that group on that patio over there, the one with the woman laughing in the red lipstick. You could be her, smoking, enjoying, not caring what comes next.
I’m not going to start smoking again. It never feels good. After one of the cigarettes I smoked the past week, I went into the bathroom at work and nearly threw-up. My body could not handle the disgusting toxins that I had just ingested and strove to get them out of my system as quickly as they could.
But there’s still a part of me that will always want to be that woman in the red lipstick, enjoying her coffee and her cigarette in the morning, laughing on a balcony in the 5th, spilling her drink slightly, tanning without a care in the world. The woman hurtling over the edge of the railings.
That recklessly violent Paris Woman.