Everyone in Italy and France smokes. So when in Rome … Of course not everyone there smokes, but a heck of a lot of them do, especially at sidewalk cafes and just walking around. Smoking-related etiquette must be culturally governed as there are few signs prohibiting smoking. I never saw anyone smoking inside a restaurant but never saw a sign telling you not to either.
You can’t smoke inside museums or cathedrals and such, but most museums have smoking sections just outside their restaurants or coffee bars — literally outside. It was not uncommon to see well-dressed professional-looking people on their way to work smoking in a crowd of similarly dressed folk. It seemed to me that more women than men would simply drop their burning cigarette butt at their feet and keep on walking, never even looking down to see where it landed. I once saw a woman drop a butt and it bounced off her shoe. She didn’t seem to notice.
We were in Paris for Bastille Day, the French equivalent of Fourth of July. There were massive parades, especially military themed, and an early morning flyover by what must have been most of the nation’s Air Force. All branches of their military were in evidence in bars and cafes later in the afternoon and on into the early morning hours. The men were dancing with any single girls they could find, buying them drinks and generally having fun.
French Foreign Legionnaire and bon vivant Marcus left his table of fellow legionnaires and new girlfriends and joined us for no apparent reason. The first thing he did was ask if I wanted to trade my hat for his white Foreign Legion hat. My hat is tan, nondescript and boring. His was gleaming white and stiff, like the movie French Foreign Legion troops wear.
I didn’t quite understand what he was saying and had to ask him to repeat. He said lots of people were asking to have their photos taken wearing those hats, and he’d like to have a photo of him wearing my hat, and I could wear his. We did that, and he stayed for nearly an hour. We were drinking wine, Marcus stayed with beer and smoked and talked about his life.
He was born in Honduras, orphaned before the age of 2. Taken in by an uncle with some connection to France, he grew up in France. He went to high school for a year in New Jersey but that connection wasn’t too clear either. He liked much about the USA but decided that the discrimination he saw and experienced would never change so he went back to France and joined the legion. With no other known, living kin, he said the legion is now his family and its members are his brothers.
Early the next morning, I was out for a stroll on the Pont St. Michel, which was about 50 yards from our apartment. City garbage workers were hauling away many dozens of plastic trash bags overflowing with the residue of the evening’s celebration. The bridge and sidewalks were ankle-deep in cigarette and cigar butts, but the municipal clean-up guys didn’t touch them. I would have liked to ask why but thought better of it. My French isn’t that good.
One guy scooping up loads of wrappers, bottles, cans, cartons and leftover food worked with a cigarette in his mouth for several minutes while I pretended to be watching something else. He dumped all the garbage in his mini-garbage truck, leaned over the bridge wall and flicked his cigarette butt into the river below. The Seine, right from on top of the St. Michel bridge. Jeez, I thought, wouldn’t you think the clean-up guy would be a little more considerate to another clean-up guy downriver? Other than cigarette butts, I never saw the people throw other trash on the ground or sidewalk.
Everybody smokes in France and Italy as I’ve noted. An irony I noticed immediately is that their cigarette packs have at least two cautions and warnings and urgings not to smoke. In Italy, “Il Fumo Uccide” warns that “Smoking kills.” The letters are big and bold, black on white. “Proteggi i bambini: non fare loro respirare il tuo fumo,” reads another even bigger label. “Protect children: don’t make them breathe your smoke.” That one took up about 40 percent of the size of the pack — “Il Fumo Uccide” is a tad smaller, maybe 30 percent. No one could claim they didn’t see the warning on the cigarette packs, but they all smoke anyway.
Here, the “Surgeon General warns that smoking is bad for pregnant women and causes cancer and lung disease, etc.” The lettering along the side of the pack, where nobody would look, is pretty small and kind of blends in with the color of the pack. Obviously, the Surgeon General’s warning is not intended to keep people from smoking or to caution us about the hazards of smoking. It’s to comply with some weakly designed laws that the tobacco companies grudgingly accept and tolerate.
So, the irony is, the percentage of smokers in Italy and France appears to be a good bit higher despite clear efforts to dissuade them from smoking. Where cigarette packs carry big, bold, scary slogans and warnings, more people seem to smoke than in this country where the warnings are puny, minimal and frankly kind of awkward. What all that says about both cultures and societies, I’ll leave to the sociologists to report. I have some theories, but I’ll spare you.
If you want to take the overnight train from Florence to Paris for example, take the day train as far as you can and spend the night in a hotel instead. Just sayin’…
Chris Daley is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. His column appears each Friday.