Disclosure: I was never a cigarette smoker and do not understand tobacco addiction, which is said to be more powerful than cocaine or other habituating drugs. I did dabble in the pretentiousness of pipe smoking in college when I was under the delusion that I might become a writer and I smoked what were in retrospect, perfectly horrible thin, long, stinky Philippine cigarillos when I was writing my antiwar screeds from Viet Nam.
Recently I had lunch one Sunday noon at a restaurant with a “terrace” opposite Les Invalides on a spectacularly beautiful day in Paris: cloudless, 80º F. with no humidity. I entered and gave my name and realized that when I had called to reserve I hadn’t asked to sit outside, so I asked if I might. Of course, she said after looking at the reservation list.
A female couple had been seated seconds before me on the terrace against the resto and seeing that one looked like a disgruntled Parisian complainer, I tried to choose a spot as far away as possible, a table that had no other table within several feet of it. Then I looked around; ashtrays on every table, oh oh.
But no way was I going to sit inside on a day like this, with no traffic fumes, with nice shrubbery and with a most gentle breeze blowing/flowing.
And, I knew that the city’s rules were “flexible;” spaces outside, if permanent, were supposed to be smoke-free versus those that had “temporary” plastic that were smokeable within; so I stayed and prayed. In this case, it was unclear which it was; the shrubs outside and “wall” were certainly fixed but the upper 5 feet were blocked with hard plastic and could conceivably be removed.
Three guys about my age came in separately and I sort of got the impression that they were old buddies out for a Sunday meal and none pulled out cigarettes or cell-phones – whew!
Just then I smelled, it couldn’t be – smoke; the ladies of course. I realized that since February this year, I hadn’t had the imposition (with a few exceptions, about which later).
The gods had conspired to send the ladies smoke 20 feet through a diffusion-free air-tunnel straight to my table. This was as remarkable a feat of engineering as was the acoustic phenomenon in the old Boulay Bakery in NY of our table’s hearing another tables’ entire intimate and unwanted conversation from the exact opposite corner 40 feet away.
So it prompted me to think on what’s happened here and in the US. Here, blissfully, you no longer enter restaurants like L’Astrance, which I did just before it opened, when the entire kitchen staff’s exhalations produced a result not unlike that of the riot police’s smoke-bombs in a tin-pot Latin American country. But, as I notice on my morning limpies through my quarter, the sidewalks outside cafes are awash in butts that are unsightly at best and while not as dangerous as dog poop, as unappealing at worst. And, like with this place, there are restos who open their windows on great days and where the huge sidewalk seating guarantees a smoke filled meal.
And, one no longer enters the news-shop, print-shop or notary’s office cutting short the conversation in order to seek more asthma-less-provoking surroundings. But notice how the shop-keepers stand on the doorstep smoking and miraculously the smoke is sucked into the shop?
OK, things are no better “back home.” In my university medical center, the geniuses in charge of compliance with rules and regulations have put up signs that have not only chased the smokers out of the buildings (good) but away from their sidewalks (better) onto the university’s property (awful). So if one wants a breathable walk from one building to another, one must travel on the hospital’s side of the street; what sort of message does that send to reporters, arriving patients and students?
So what’s the moral here: that the law of unintended consequences came into play again or that I’m in a perpetual grouchy mood?
Where should I have gone for the perfect smokeless lunch on a perfect day?
La Table d’Eugene
18, rue Eugene Sue, 18th (M: Jules Joffrin)
Menu 30 Euros.
© John Talbott 2008