The Cigarette Commute: Summering in Paris and Musings Thereof

Illustrated By: Lane Feler
Illustrated By: Lane Feler

When you walk along the cobblestone streets of Paris, the emblematic French landmarks can be entirely obscured by non-Parisians and hordes of leashed cats. You are Moses, the sea will not part, and an unseen army of despair races after you as you wonder if Paris is simply manufactured for tourists. The onion soup, the boulangeries sprouting from each corner, the Eiffel Tower so blatantly bolstering the postcard economy. Fairly quickly, there’s realization that you are just as likely to hear Portuguese or Korean on the street as the national language. So, you wonder what – if anything – in Paris is really, well, French. 

Over the course of a few weeks in this magnificent yet aloof city, I have wandered and I have wondered.  I could muse about whether I have become intimate with the “real” Paris or what constitutes the true heart. I certainly tried to put my finger on the pulse; I even tried to beat in time. To my delight there were times when the immediate assumption by the Parisians was not, “Talk to this poor soul in English.”[1] Apparently, I can do a good enough impression of belonging that an inattentive Parisian may not know the difference. Considering I know exactly seven phrases in French, I should seriously consider an alternative career as a con artist.

But how do you experience something you cannot easily find?  In the center of Paris (I dare not call it the heart, after all), the stores, the cheese, the people, even the firm I work for:  everything seems imported.  That is, everything except the wine.  Yes, the wine is definitely French, and I think it would aggrieve any self-respecting Frenchman otherwise.  Can you even hear that Frenchman, though, protesting amidst the sea of tourists?

Then, at approximately six o’clock in the evening, the city loses its caution and that aforementioned sea suddenly parts. And you see Paris and its people in the flesh. I call it, the cigarette commute. Of course, the phenomenon is the one image I could never capture on film to place next to my framed Eiffel Tower. But as experiences go, it is one I’ll inexorably, undeniably, permanently associate with Paris.

There’s a “tabac” next to those boulangeries on every street, and while they sell the odd stamp or two, their business is tobacco. So you know that people smoke. Not just people – loads and loads of people to frequent loads and loads of tabacs.

So, it’s six o’clock, and you step out of your office into an orgy of smoke. The Parisians emerge from wherever it is that they’ve been hiding and engage in the (maybe) age-old ritual of smoking a cigarette en route home. Whether you’re holding your breath to avoid the cloud or to merely prolong the moment, you stand witness. It isn’t beautiful, it isn’t quite awe-inspiring, but it is real. The Parisians wait patiently, toss their cigarette butts to the ground, mount their mopeds, and then they melt into the crowd once more. And the stench of cigarettes is the only way of knowing they were and are, in fact, there.

[1] Example: a yoga instructor who issued intricate corrections en français as I tried to sink into Rabbit Pose.  Bikram yoga: just another import.

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