Take back tabac

17 01 2008

Happy New Year and Bonne Annee!

At the last midnight of 2007 and the first midnight of the following year French law drove smokers out of the cafes and restaurants to smoke in the cold moist air of 2008. Tens of thousands of ashtrays lost their place of privilege, smack in the middle of the tiny round of the French cafe table. Morosity and celebration.

At that same instant the other half the French people knew they could walk into any cafe and linger to their lungs content. They could watch the cafe fauna with eyes that did not weep at the smoke and order another “demi” (of beer) while they burrowed deep into another long story about Kenyan violence, daydreaming in a smokeless way about whether to steer their winter getaway away from Kenya.

Midnight, 2008, French public spaces were returned to the rest of France. The cafes that mixed caffein and journalism and time in the 18th century to invent a new public space of dissent and assent, those cafes, became the place where the nation might once more convene.

Now smokers can recover from a substantial loss of territory acquired in the course of the twentieth century. It is for smokers, a kind of post-colonial attitude adjustment. They have lost their cafe colonies.

By French law now they can still smoke on the cafe terraces and plan “b’s” informal holiday poll indicates that increasing numbers of Paris cafes have added or wish to add heated and sheltered winter garden terraces.

This is a net gain for Parisians, including those Parisians of a week or a day, the tourists. Prior to the new smoking ban few cafes in Paris maintained inviting winter terraces, with the tall heat trees and the sparkling, transparent plastic walls. In the early days of the ban plan “b” saw few smokers at the terrace tables. Where had they gone?

The smoking ban story, without a doubt one of the great cultural and physical upheavals of the twentieth century, was amply covered by the French press of all political stripes. The ban uniquely eluded political designation in a country with a sweet tooth for finding the chewy political center of just about anything on the table.

For this expected yet unthinkable event (the ban) French could not conveniently lapse into a comfortable “French” divide, like the turn of the century dreyfusards vs. anti-dreyfusards. The aftermath of the ban cannot be described as a simple smokers vs. non-smokers.

Reporters spoke with all kinds of smokers who as a group refused to be taken as a group. Some were predictably in revolt, abrasive or poignant. Some were more tragic than revolted. Some hoped this might just help them quit, they’d failed so many times.

Non smokers, at least in press accounts, were the discreet winners in the tale. They tended to mute their joy at being able, at last, to be in cafes again without swallowing more ambiant smoke than beer.

Non-smokers, plan “b” included, glowed with the unexpected return of cafe life. There was perhaps something like a collective pleasure and anguish as those who did not smoke began to release their suppressed understanding of how deeply they had regretted the loss, for such a long time, of reading a news paper, writing notes, talking with friends, lingering over drinks until another one of life’s great secrets has been worked out, and on and on in a cafe. What had been lost, taken from those who were driven from cafe life by other people’s smoke was that access to “cafe time.”

Cafe time is the inverse of nineteenth century “factory time” the “time is money” ethic that eats years and leaves varying amounts of excrement behind. Cafe time has the possibility of conferring a timeless sense, the vivid experience of the moment, the revival of curiosity, those things that are put to sleep by the press of modern efficiency.

Not that everyone lingered in cafes, of course they didn’t. The cafe bar was equally the beloved standing space to throw an inch of espresso to the back of one’s throat, read the headlines, dig in a pocket and drop 50 centimes, one franc twenty, two euros fifty as the decades turned.

But for those who wanted to step into the other universe of simply staying for a while, the cafe always offered it. Now we the ones who never did care for cigarettes or who finally managed to quit can find our place in the time machines of the cafes again.

Naturally, it is not this simple. Numbers of smokeless people, plan “b” among them, felt a pang for dedicated smokers whose ritual moment of the day cig/coffee had been excised from their routine. “If I can’t smoke with my coffee I won’t go to the cafe!” (Si je ne peux pas clopper avec mon cafe, j’y vais pas au cafe,”) said D., a fashion publicist who has always considered the downstairs cafe to be the entry to her office.

plan “b”, like many non-smokers of the post-war era, has swallowed so much of other people’s smoke that by now it physically sickens her. Sad but true. But plan “b” is now experiencing something like smoke nostalgia.

Is she the only one who is fascinated, attracted by the varieties of smoking gestures? Easing the cigarette from its perfect package; striking the match or flipping the lighter; the movement of the hand, the way a face moves in pleasure with a cigarette between the lips; the narrowing of the eyes to gaze into that first exhalation; faces appearing in clouds of smoke. Now we must go to the movies, old and new ones, to admire the full panoply of smokers’ aesthetic.

In the first days of the ban cafe owners threatened mass cafe bankrupties. They were right in one way. Their clientele had probably become primarily smokers. In the Smoke Club the cafe became, owners never worried in headlines that they might go out of business because non-smokers couldn’t come in any more. They may well have simply forgotten about the substantial market share that non-smokers could represent.

plan “b” promises cafe owners that their intelligent and creative cooperation in the restrictions and latitude of the new law will give them a more inclusive business than ever.

This is a time for the famous (and well-loved) French political practice of Solidarity to safeguard the density of cafe life in Paris and the rest of the country.




One response

11 03 2008
Cafes and Restaurants » Take back tabac plan b

[…] Get the entire post from here. […]

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