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?