Smoke-free in the Land of the Gauloises

e-cigaretteI used to be a smoker. ‘Used to’ being the operative words.

Giving up cigarettes was tough. I started smoking in my early teens. Quitting in my late 20s was like losing my best friend; I felt bereft. The grief lasted much longer than the nicotine withdrawal. But it was something I felt I had to do in order to get on with my life.

When I finally gave up my pack-a-day habit, after multiple attempts and false-starts, I figured I was quit of the evil weed forever. Little did I realize how hard it would be to rid myself of second-hand smoke in the land of the Gauloises.

France has a strong cigarette culture. It comes with the cafés, bars and fashion world. I almost regretted being an ex-smoker when I arrived in Paris; it would’ve been fun to smoke with so much entitlement.

That’s changed lately – smokers in France are now finding themselves ostracized just as they were before I left Canada. But the French being, well, French – it’s as if the marginalization of smokers makes them stronger. Those knots of people hovering in doorways (or further, as the smokers’ corners are moved away from the building entrances), in rain or shine, wet or cold, seem to have their own status of cool. They are the hardy, the daring, the I-blow-smoke-in-the-face-of-death survivors.

Back in the day, the smoker’s right to pollute the collective airspace of offices, restaurants, shops and hotels was sacrosanct. You could still smoke on planes! And smoke I did. On those first overseas flights, convinced that every groan of the engine or minor turbulence was the beginning of the end, smoking and drinking were the keep-calm crutches that propelled me across the Atlantic without a meltdown.

So you’d think I’d keep a soft spot in my heart for smokers. After all, I was one of them. Sadly, there’s no one more intolerant of tobacco than a reformed smoker.

Add to the fact that the French cigarette is particularly putrid. Gauloises or Gitanes, the acrid smoke is an assault that rises up my nostrils and into my brain and tickles my irritation factor. Not that many people still smoke those brands, Dieu soit loué (thank God).

To smoke in French is to fume (“fumer”). I remember fuming, literally, as I tried to work in those early days in a cloud of second-hand smoke. Thinking how unfair it was to have struggled to give up smoking only to be forced to breathe in all that poison. And sneezing: it was as if my body had doubly rejected tobacco after I quit by becoming allergic. Usually a sneezing fit was followed by a crashing headache, brought on by suppressed rage or remembered nicotine withdrawal.

The problem resolved itself, mostly. First, I got pregnant. The French are respectful of la maternité: smokers would take one look at my protruding belly and considerately clear the area. And some years ago they changed the laws to make it illegal to smoke in public places, from workplaces to restaurants.

Now they vape.

La clope, as the French fondly and slangly call the fabled smoke, is starting to fade in popularity. The modern way to indulge at table is to vape. E-cigarettes are all the rage here, and for the time being people are allowed to indulge everywhere – indoors and in transit. It probably won’t last, though: the government is threatening to ban vaping in public places by the end of the year.

But despite the high cost and health warnings, French smokers will still puff away. And I resent the fact that they continue to pollute my airspace, even outdoors. It would be nice to be able to enjoy a drink or a meal on a terrace without someone’s ciggy tickling my nose.

Last week was World No Tobacco Day and I realized it’s been about 25 years since I my last cigarette. And guess what? I don’t miss it all. No butts about it.

How about you? Are you addicted to or offended by the evil weed?


  1. Colin Bisset · June 5, 2014

    Gave up smoking in 1987. It was tough but great for my self-esteem – if I could do that, I could do anything. And it still works for me. (But I did love the smell of Gauloises…)

    • MELewis · June 5, 2014

      Kudos to you for quitting – and a special bravery award for loving the smell of Gauloises!

  2. Osyth · June 5, 2014

    I’m the classic reformed smoker these days – after numerous false starts, some of which lasted years, I am horribly smug about the fact that I don’t. I think it somehow sugars the pill of knowing I can never again indulge because if I do I will just be off again. Here in deepest rural Cantal smoking is still rife. More do than don’t but in Aurillac our giddyingly large capital with a population topping 140,000 we have a Vap shop to which I am taking my daughter aged 19 who is staying with me to try and wean her off the weed and onto the wet … wish me luck!

    • MELewis · June 5, 2014

      Good point about the reverse side of smug: I, too, am an addict and would never touch another cigarette for fear of starting again (although it’s hard now to imagine…). My worst fear was that my kids would start smoking but that has not happened so far. Bonne chance with getting your daughter to quit – or at least onto the lesser of evils!

  3. davidprosser · June 5, 2014

    I’m most definitely an addict on 3 packs a day but I was never one for smoking in restaurants and always tried to be considerate of others. Outside though where the air dissipates the smoke I am more carefree though I don’t toss the butts on the floor.
    If we smokers gave up (in the UK) the Government would have to get their revenue from elsewhere and the NHS would suffer. All the non-smokers as well as ex-smokers would suddenly find their taxes rising substantially as a result.
    There should be smokers pubs and shelters placed for protection from the elements at key points in all towns to protect smokers just to keep your taxes down. We may likely die earlier and be less of a drain on the State’s pension pot. All in all we’re practically Saints doing you all kinds of favours.
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

    • MELewis · June 5, 2014

      David, you sound like the most considerate of smokers! I am scandalized by the seemingly universal government approach to taxing tobacco addicts to the poor house. And all joking aside, I agree it should be an option to declare a pub or café a safe house for smokers. Just as long as I never have to join them! Bises xx

      • neil · June 5, 2014

        What about the wait staff and the impacts to their health?

      • MELewis · June 5, 2014

        You’re right, Neil, that is why it’ll probably never happen. But I’m sure you’d find wait staff that are die-hard smokers and happy to apply.

  4. mindfulexpat · June 5, 2014

    Congratulations on being 25 years smoke-free! I’m glad to hear that smoking is becoming less popular in France (at least in public settings). I’ve never been a smoker myself, and being around smoke just makes me miserable… I don’t know if I could go back to smoke in bars and restaurants now that I’m (finally) used to them being smoke-free!

    • MELewis · June 5, 2014

      Merci! Agree with you it’s hard to be around and many smokers themselves tell me they prefer smoke-free environments for eating, living and working. But I do think they should be entitled to some accommodations especially in airports, etc.

      • mindfulexpat · June 5, 2014

        Oh, I agree with that too. I would just prefer that the smoke be contained so that you can choose to avoid it if you don’t want to be exposed…

  5. George Lewis · June 5, 2014

    Almost 35 years for me , don’t miss it at all. By the way , latest studies indicate E-cigarettes are just as bad as the real ones

    Sent from my iPad


    • MELewis · June 5, 2014

      Bad for the smokers or those around them? And here I was thinking they were only going to ban e-cigarette until they figured out how to tax them too. 😉

  6. neil · June 5, 2014

    The only good thing ever about smoking to me was the candy bars i rec’d in return for getting my Sister her pack of smokes!

    • MELewis · June 5, 2014

      Ha, ha. You were cheap, available and grateful – the best kind of staff!

  7. teagan geneviene · June 8, 2014

    My father, most of his 11 siblings, and their father all died from emphysema. I was never even tempted by tobacco, watching the slow, pitiful, and nasty decline tied to that kind of death… And i expect my asthma and bad allergies are at least related to all that second-hand smoke. When several of them were together, you couldn’t see 3 feet away for the thick smoke.
    One day my dad finally quit, cold turkey, knowing that it was already too late. My sincere congratulations to you and all those who have managed to quit. Hugs!

    • MELewis · June 8, 2014

      Your comment reminds me that the consequences of smoking go way beyond the social and minor inconveniences I described. So far I’ve been lucky health-wise, but I still worry about the fall-out from those years of tobacco use. Good for your dad for quitting, however late in the game. And thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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