You see them everywhere. When you walk out of your hostel. Passing by the outdoor seating area of a McDonald’s. Paired with an espresso. At the end of a long hike up Castle Hill. Overlooking the Côte d’Azur on the picturesque Promenade des Anglais.
Something’s up with the French and cigarettes. And yes, this is common knowledge—French stereotypes are indeed true.
The well-lit shops on almost every other street with the bright word TABAC proudly hold the title for the holy grail of hotspots for the locals. It’s the daily routine. The kickstart to any day. Back home, I place a mobile order to my local Starbucks for a coffee with a splash of caramel to start the day. But, for the French, instead it’s a large dose of nicotine with a generous amount of tar.
In the U.S., there’s a stigma associated with smoking. The brutal ads on television with the sounds of suffering patients with emphysema. The strict non-smoking laws on the streets of New York City. The emphasis your mom puts on securing a non-smoking hotel room.
In France, it’s a little hard to find that. The odor is omnipresent. It’s on the guy that shoves past you on the tram, on the server who just delivered your food, and even on the hostel employee who should probably be manning the desk, but is instead stepping outside for a smoke break.
The sight of an ashtray on your dining table at all times of the day is the norm. The cigarette, not the perfect bag or the perfect shoe or the perfect belt, completes the look.
Sitting in the non-smoking area of a café, it’s east to watch the smokers speak fast, rapid, fluid French with a cigarette placed elegantly between their middle and pointer finders, moving up and down in the most mesmerizing way. It’s almost like a conductor’s hand, guided by the melody of the low, quick French. It’s followed by a careful, yet mindless knock on the ashtray—a staccato in the midst of a symphony. A simple puff of smoke—a half-note rest—remarkably in no one’s face. The lighting of a second when the first cigarette runs out.
It seems to me that smoking is an art in France. One that reeks and eventually causes all sorts of detrimental diseases and tar in your lungs and other hazardous things.
But strangely enough, an art all the same.