Tag Archives: Smoking

Three Days in Paris (Partie deux)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

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…continued from Three Days in Paris (Partie un)

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Lawrence and Pace Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not that!

A Bleu Memory

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It was 1978 and I was living in an extremely modest rented room near Harvard Square. In that dark room, the narrow mattress sagged nearly to the floor, which was littered with feathers and other debris of the pigeons that managed to come through the rafters at night. Why they came in? I don’t know, on that top floor it was ungodly summertime Cambridge heat and humidity, and there was no air conditioning. If I were a pigeon, I’d stay outside.

And we did. We stayed out as late as possible, those of us at the so-called “Lincoln’s Inn”. Waiting for the city to cool down. I’d watch a Fred Astaire double feature at the Brattle Theater, and then scrawl the exciting details of my new life in my journal at a table in a corner of the Casablanca coffee house. It was my first exposure to iced coffee, served there with a bit of Crème de Menthe and a dollop of whipped cream, it cut through the heat, and I could nurse one for an hour or two before they’d kick me out.

In the morning, I’d pull open the window screen and chase out the pigeons. And this was okay. I was fresh out of college with my degree in English, and was in no hurry yet to work as a teacher—which I felt was my destiny—or to go to graduate school, which might be required, and which I could not afford. I had managed to get all the way across the country from California, and I was pleased to have work in Cambridge. Working as a tobacconist seemed as good as any other job, and better than most.

Before the whole civilized world had quite sensibly turned against the cancer-inducing addiction, there was a certain romantic and literary allure to tobacco and tobacco products. Especially at “Lawrence and Pace”, which was known to have been the preferred local source for a number of current and historical celebrities who attended or visited Harvard. There was the Perkins shop in Boston, and Ehrlich’s too, on Tremont Street, but those were the domain of business men, old men. They didn’t have the hip Harvard Yard cachet of “L and P”, a living museum of Harvard sports and its own tobacco history collected in framed and yellowed news clippings, articles from Time to the New Yorker, and a tremendous collection of other ephemera. Plus, we benefited from the living book of colorful local characters who came and went, revealing their own stories or narrating the tales of others.

On an August afternoon, our Assistant Manager, Thomas, persuaded one of the local Cambridge “boys in blue” to sample a blue-boxed French Gitanes cigarette.

Bill stepped off the street into our air-conditioned store to escape the swampy New England summer heat. He was about 6’5”, a large slightly paunchy man in his late thirties with a pencil-thin black mustache. He walked the Harvard Square beat in shiny black shoes, with a holstered billy club, the usual blue uniform and a blue hat, tilted back. It seemed too small for his slightly bald, large, round head. He was mostly known for writing parking tickets and harassing the many buskers and pan-handling street people who hovered around the Red Line T- stop like yellow wasps circling a glass of Burgundy. He occasionally purchased Newport menthol filters, and not many of those, and this day, made the mistake of telling Thomas he would like to try a different brand, something “more interesting”.

Thomas turned on the charm, the whites of his bulging brown Peter Lorre eyes flashing. He described the romance of “the continental” cigarettes, peppering his spiel with French, German, and Spanish—all languages with which he had proven on previous occasions to be at least passingly familiar. Thomas loved to wax dramatic, and his show went on for 15 or 20 minutes. He pulled various brands in exotic boxes from the shelves, German “HB”, Swiss “Davidoff”s, even the weird papirosa Russians. He took one of those, crimped the long hollow “filter” at the end in the proper manner—pinching it at right angles—occasionally taking a puff from it, but mostly using it as a pointer. Six or eight different boxes lay on the counter top.

Thomas lifted his thick dark eyebrows dramatically as he painted a picture of the Paris scene of the 1920s—which of course included brilliant ex-patriots smoking Gitanes cigarettes as they piled up the color-coded café saucers on the tables where they wrote their stories or poems. (Of course L&P had facsimiles of these props as well, used for ash trays.)French Cafe Saucers

In the end, Bill selected a blue pack of Gitanes, pronouncing the name, “Gee-tanes”, tapping his finger on the box. I watched in horror as he opened his wallet. Thomas took Bill’s money at the register, closing the deal with the explanation, “The French pronounce it softly, ‘Gee-tawn’,” then added his usual overly affected, “If you don’t like the cigarettes, bring them back and I’ll refund your investment. Bon appètit!”

(And yes, he did say, “investment”.)

Bill walked out the door.

There were no other customers for the moment and it seemed very quiet. I shook my head. Thomas leered his crocodile smile, glancing at me, sighing and leaning forward as if exhausted from his efforts, resting his arms on the glass top of the display case of hand carved meerschaum pipes.

He was smug. Laughing slightly, he said, “I think he’ll like those, but his buddies at the station house may not want him nearby!!”

Only moments later, Bill pushed his large frame back through the shop’s heavy front door, one huge hand wrapped around the door handle, clinging to it as if he needed the support to keep from collapsing. Like many of the furnishings at Lawrence and Pace, the door handle was unique, silver metal cast as an oversized briar pipe. At first, Bill just stood there. Even from across the store, in the walk-in humidor where I was stocking cigars, I could see the pained look on his dark green face.

Bill blurted, “I’m going to be sick…” and Thomas quickly escorted him back to our washroom, left him there, and came out to get him a glass of water, explaining, “The Gitanes were too much for him.”

Thomas’s eyes twinkled a bit. This had been his little joke, but things had gotten out of hand, and he quickly adopted a compassionate pout; he had not intended to hurt our friend and customer.

When Bill emerged, he was sheepish about the incident. Thomas refunded Bill’s investment and spent the next few minutes apologizing for overselling the smelly dark cigarettes.

For his part, Bill politely refused Thomas’s offer of more advice and a complimentary box of some other brand, explaining that he was now quite seriously quitting the dirty habit altogether. He was, he said, done with cigarettes, forever. “Nothing personal guys,” he proclaimed, regaining something of his normal commanding composure, “Newport, Gee-tanes, Gee-tawn, whatever. I’m done.”

— And I have to say, that although Bill still dropped in to the shop to visit once or twice a week, to my knowledge, he never smoked another cigarette, or consumed any other type or form of tobacco. In the end, for all the romantic expectation and comic drama, some good did come from that particular pack of Gitanes.

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To be continued…

— Christo

Three Days in Paris (Partie Un)

🇫🇷 The Great France Art Tour of 2017

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The coach lurched along from airport Charles de Gaulle past many Paris streets and squares that I thought looked familiar but probably were not. We caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower briefly, before the tall buildings and streets of Paris swallowed the open sky. That sounds nice. Actually, we arrived quickly at the east end of the Seine River, several long blocks below Notre Dame, near Bercy. Considering every moment in Paris precious, and anxious that we not waste any, I checked our halted progress via GPS on the “Ulmon City Maps To Go” app on my iPhone.

I could see that our relatively direct trip had stalled completely in the insane morning traffic as our off-ramp merged with one or two others, plus four lanes from various feeder streets. Every bus, auto, cab, and motor scooter, wherever it was coming from, seemed intent on getting to the other side of the stream of cars in front of it, where we were ALL headed. Caught up in the excitement of the streets of Paris, our travel cohorts were oblivious to the delay, except Donald. He was obsessed with the rising temperature inside the almost-stationary, sunbaked coach.

“Air Conditioning!!” He shouted repeatedly to the bus driver, “Air Conditioning!!”

Need I say he included no, “S‘il vous plaît.

“Air Conditioning!! Turn on the air conditioning!!”

The AC came on. I heard no one, except myself, say, “Merci!

Stopping and starting we made a few feet of progress at a time, taking about an hour to transit the single block to our hotel.

The Hotel Bercy is a “modern” glass and steel “business hotel” with several fountains and a 15-foot-tall, bright red, muscular, caped, male superhero statue in front. I could speculate, but I have no explanation for this statue. It was just there.

The female receptionist at the hotel was young (in her twenties?) and attractive with long straight brown hair, a smart suit, and dark, spiked heels—stylish enough to appear on the cover of Vogue or the New York Times Women’s Fashion magazine, although maybe not quite starved enough. This was true of all the women coming and going in the lobby. Not just the heels that is, but the stylish and attractive part too. Yes, we are in Paris.

The men? Oh, they are all thin, though not underfed, well groomed. Fortunately, very few sport the time-consuming, face-covering, trendy, hipster beards seen in parts of the USA. If these men have beards at all, they are close-cropped stubble that gives depth to their chiseled chins. The male hotel staff wear suits. Male businessmen wear typical European business attire: jeans or slightly more formal trousers, lined or solid (sometimes button-down) dress shirts, and dark leather loafers often without socks. Most wear sport coats, which in France are narrow sleeved, snug fitting jackets, the lapels held together with one button.

Nobody but the tourists, wear sneakers or running shoes. (Donald, blinding, in his bright white sneakers and bleached white socks halfway up his calves, steps off the coach trailing a wave of cool air.)

No sneakers, and thank goodness, no ties. Maybe the maître d’ hotel and the bartender wear ties. But otherwise, no ties. I don’t like ties.

Unfortunately, there is plenty of time to observe the lobby, because our rooms are not ready.

I consider the possibility that we do not actually have rooms, but we are assured the rooms are there, the Hotel Bercy is just behind schedule with cleaning. Way behind.

Several times the Front Desk receptionist walks over to our group, sprawled awkwardly on the artsy, cube-shaped chairs and couches. We rise. She hands Steve a too thin stack of envelopes with keys and room numbers. Steve reads the names and hands white envelopes to the lucky winners, who quickly leave to get settled in their digs and enjoy what was left of our “free” day. The lobby emptied a few people at a time, in this manner, the process repeated over and over.

We waited for hours. And we were, yes, the last, the very last to receive our room keys.

Before the eventual delivery of our envelope, Christine walked those of us remaining over to the charming, tree-lined Bercy Mall for a quick tour. Bercy had once been an industrial bakery, and has the red brick charm of very old buildings, but all the swag and glamour of a trendy destination for young business people and tourists. We noted the location of a small local grocer, the local ATM, the soon to be recognized as ubiquitous “artisanal ice cream” shop, and strolled along the partly shaded pedestrian promenade lined with tables and umbrellas that front the many bars and restaurants. We saw designer shops, stores with special French candy packaged in French art tins, a Surf store with surfer shirts, skateboards, and yes surfboards for sale and on display in the windows. Is Bercy near the beach? Does Bercy have quick access to mysterious Mediterranean swells? Is there an Internet “Surf Report” available for Bercy? “No,” would be the answer to these questions. (Nevertheless, I was drawn to the Surf shop, more than once, to peruse the shirts and board shorts.)

Christine escorted us down the escalator to the Metro. She provided quick tutelage in the basics of ticket purchase, the various lines, maps, and other arcane knowledge required in the underground. Important but not important, the “Purple Line” as we might call it in Boston, is not the “Purple Line” in Paris. It is the “M 14” between St. Lazare and Olympiades. But on all the maps and signs it is purple, so I called it the “Purple Line”, which was usually fine as long as we remembered we wanted to go to “Olympiades” to get back to Bercy. The ticket machines may challenge, especially if you use a credit card, but otherwise (from previous Franco-adventures), I considered myself fairly adept at Metro use. (A notion disproved dramatically a day or two later).

We popped back into the daylight upstairs, abandoned Christine and tour group to fend for ourselves in Bercy, searching for a place to lunch, and eventually settled at a little outdoor cafe. We sat next to tour manager Steve, and his wife Karen. After ordering salad for Deb, croque-monsieur for me, and two glasses of rosé of course, we got to know our tour hosts a bit.

A university academic, Steve, though well-versed in Literature (and an exemplary English Major), holds a PhD in History, the subject he teaches. Karen has a consulting business where she is engaged in multi-year research and writing projects. Their professions and interests allow for much international travel, which they have done with Arawho for years.

We enjoyed the relaxed meal and conversation, and I tried to remember what I had learned from the Rick Steve’s podcast about French restaurant protocols:

  • The wait staff generally leave you alone, for hours.
  • When you want the bill, DO NOT shout, “Garçon!”
  • To get attention, make eye contact.
  • They will come over.
  • Generally, do not tip, but ask if the check includes a service charge.

(This part is a little complicated at first. I’m sure we tipped when we should not have and vice-versa. By the end of the trip I was pretty clear about how it all works, but writing now I can’t recall well enough to explain it. Sorry. Listen to Rick Steve.)

The clouds and rain moved in, and I gradually became bothered by the drifting cigarette smoke from the tables of other diners. This was odd, I thought, the smoke, because although I had expected the worst on my last trip to Paris, in fact I had experienced very little exposure to second hand smoke.

You may know that the French were reputed to be smoking fiends until the last ten years or so. Just watch a French movie. They ALL smoke! Historically they had their “national brands”, the blonde Disque Bleu and Gauloises cigarettes, strongly aromatic and somewhat similar to the much milder American plain end “Camels”. I had smoked Gauloises when I first visited Paris. They seemed cool then. But I was fifteen.

Then there were the “Gitanes”, of many types, in my experience, made with black Belgian tobacco wrapped in slightly sweet tasting, yellow corn papers. I had tried a Gitanes just once after college at Leavitt and Peirce Tobacconists. Those fat Gitanes monsters were a little squishy between the fingers,  smelled like a bad cigar, and were known for driving away mosquitoes and other pests.

At least the smoke wafting over from the nearby tables was not like that!

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To be continued…
— Christo