Getting dressed this morning, I chose my outfit carefully. I don’t have huge plans for the day – just babysitting, doing a little apartment cleaning and then meeting some people at a bar in the 11ème for drinks and couscous. While the bar is chill and nobody really dresses up to go there (well any more than French people usually dress up just to live their lives), it is still a Parisian bar – which means you’re likely to be sitting in a cloud of stale smoke for upwards of an hour or two, which in turn means choosing your clothing wisely.
Even when the temperatures are measuring below freezing, I won’t put on a sweater – sweaters are a pain to wash and the wool sucks up the smoke like a vacuum. Some places aren’t so bad – clubs, for example, are still smoky but most have fairly high ceilings so it’s not a big problem. Chez Georges is one of the worst places for smoke – you won’t stop reeking until you’ve showered at least twice and you probably won’t stop coughing for at least 24 hours. It’s also one of the most happening bars for students, so sometimes you just have to suck it up, make sure your inhaler’s in your purse and be prepared to wash all your clothing the next day.
Tonight though, we’re going to Tais. Tais isn’t so bad – I’ll need to hang up everything I’m wearing and let it air out for about a day, but it’s pretty inoffensive as far as smoky bars go.
That’s just Paris though. Everywhere you go you expect to be surrounded in a cloud of smoke – or at least you did five years ago. As difficult as it is for a girl from the clean air of Seattle and its notorious but appreciated smoking ban, even I have to admit that the second-hand smoke problem is far better than it was either of the two previous times I’d been to France.
Just in the past few years a small number of non-smoking restaurants have begun to crop up around the city – this is a huge deal for Paris. Some restaurants have been offering non-smoking sections for longer, but a French non-smoking section is usually just a few tables without ashtrays.
I still inhale quite a number of exhaled carcinogens, but the Paris of today is a far cry from the old thought that “all French people smoke.” When I was staying near Bordeaux in 2002, 16-year old friends of my host sister would stroll into Isabelle’s house, roll up a quick cigarette from their bags of tobacco, grab one of the parents’ ashtrays and start puffing away.
A few weeks ago though, I went out with a boy to celebrate the fact that after being a smoker since he was 16 (he’s 20), he hadn’t had a cigarette in a month, and was really excited about quitting.
Some of the other tenants in my building are pretty obnoxious smokers – sitting on the steps in the courtyard so everyone else is forced to walk through their clouds of smoke to get in and out of the building, or even smoking in the elevator. Given the size of the average elevator in Paris, this is just disgusting, but it’s a long ways from walking down the street and feeling like I need to keep my inhaler out and at the ready.
One particularly interesting development in the smoking culture of the French came in the form of a weekly Sciences Po e-newsletter. Beginning February 1st, all buildings and courtyards of the campus will become completely smoke-free. This is kind of a huge deal – most of the lycées (high schools) have student smoking areas, and of Sciences Po’s two cafeterias on the main campus, one is the “smoking cafeteria.” On any given day, even the sub-zero temperature ones the courtyard between the two main buildings is filled with students grabbing a smoke.
At the beginning of the year, there were actually a few times I thought it might be easier to meet people if I started smoking – it’s very social at Sciences Po. The thoughts only lasted for a few moments – then my asthma brought me back to reality.
I feel like the climate of France is in the process of changing – one of the oldest and truest stereotypes about the French is that “everybody smokes.” But not for long – the times are changing. Maybe in a few years I could even wear a sweater to go out for drinks…errrr, or a few years after that.