The thing about Paris is that, like any city, it cannot be summed up in a few words. Movies would have you believe everyone here nibbles on baguettes and has a personal accordion player. The reality is far less exciting. Indeed, if two words could sum up Paris for every Parisian, they would be: pigeons and cigarettes. Let’s focus on the latter, the enticing but lethal icon of the city of light that seduces the rich and the poor, girls and boys, old and young.
Nearly every day for seven years now, my morning ritual has included a cloud of smoke hanging over a throng of students, many of whom have a cigarette in hand. If they don’t, it probably means they failed to get one from a friend (or to taxe from someone, as we youngsters say). No matter which arrondissement teens come from, the clothes they wear and the music they listen to, their main accessory is a cigarette (aka a “clope”). I have been confronted with this reality for so long that I dismiss it as something ordinary.
Cigarettes are undeniably an intrinsic part of the Parisian teenager’s life. This is mainly because they symbolize a step forward in life.
I was in my neighborhood park recently and saw three girls smoking; they couldn’t have been older than 12. My inner old lady wanted to tell them off and confiscate the pack, yet another part of me understood that this was just their way of feeling more mature. I went through the exact same thing at that age (let me just take a quick break to cry over my lost youth). Ok I’m back… and ready to say that almost everyone I know has at least tried smoking a cigarette around age 12. It’s just one of those things that fall under the category of “C’est la vie”.
This is a prosaic situation that illustrates the empiricist philosophy quite well: no matter how many health inspectors visit your school, or parents visit your bedroom to warn you, you will eventually end up with a cigarette in your mouth, out of curiosity or a desire to fit in. Now how long it stays there depends on will power and personality. Because the paradox of teen smoking is that it is at once a means of emancipation and the beginning of a new dependence.
We all have our addictions; some are less obvious than others. In the end, what is the difference between cigarettes and candy? Candy tastes better and doesn’t make your hands smell like a construction site whereas every pack of cigarettes comes with a bold, black, death threat. However, the (sometimes) lovely inhabitants of Paris tend to frown upon a candy addict more than a smoker.
Are Parisians as mean as people say? Do they all secretly want you to die of cancer? No. It’s just that the positive side effect of smoking is increased resemblance to Serge Gainsbourg or Audrey Hepburn, while candy just makes it impossible to fit into size 36 jeans (the Parisienne’s horror story).
Teenagers learn this early on, and quickly follow suit.