Outdoor cafés in France, and other problems

Anyone who’s lived somewhere with seasons – you know, summer, fall, winter, etc. – knows the feeling of the arrival of spring. It could happen anytime between March and May, depending on where you live (and if you think May is a crazy late arrival date for spring, one, I totally agree, and two, you’ve clearly never lived in the Midwest.) People start to venture to the park for lunch, winter coats are tentatively put away, and cafés open up their terraces. Everyone is in a cheerier mood when the first days of spring show up. (Except maybe Severus Snape. Cheery isn’t really his jam.)

Teatime Buttercup Lyon
What I did this spring

There is nothing better than sitting in the sun on a peaceful terrace with your latte or your rosé, am I right? France is well-known for its outdoor cafés great for people watching. Ah, the romantic cliché of sipping your cappuccino on a little sidewalk café on one of those cute Parisian streets. I can’t lie to you – I totally imagined this before moving to Paris, and don’t tell me you haven’t too!

Cafe in Paris
Café in the 10th arrondissement, Paris. Or maybe it was the 12th.

Sometimes, sipping your drink outside at a café watching the world go by is really as picturesque as it is in a movie starring Audrey Tautou. And sometimes, there are other elements to deal with that maayyybe you didn’t factor in when you were imagining your fabulous Parisian life.

It goes like this: you’re sitting outside with your café allongé feeling good about yourself because the weather is finally nice and you get to wear your cute warm-weather dress and you look chic like a black and white postcard sitting at your tiny café table with wicker chairs that stick to the back of your legs. Everything is tranquil. Then you hear the click of a lighter next to you, and suddenly, you’re coughing up second-hand smoke. The moment’s over.

Black and white Place des Terreaux
I said Paris, but this is Lyon. Still looks chic in black and white, doesn’t it.

This is my absolutely least favorite thing about France. (Yes, more than bureaucracy! Because even if French bureaucracy seems like it’s trying to kill me, it isn’t. Probably.) Even if you’re not a super-sensitive West coast girl like me, the gaping cultural differences between the French and American attitudes towards smoking can’t be denied.

It’s rare to hear “Mind if I smoke?” because the assumption is that you don’t. It’s apparently acceptable to light up at a café next to a mom and her eight-year-old, and it’s okay to push a stroller with one hand and hold your cigarette with the other. When I taught at a ritzy high school, the entire student body lined up in front of the school before and after class to pollute their lungs, including the ones planning to become doctors. *facepalm*

This is why the question “Would you like to sit inside or outside, Madame?” skewers me with indecision. I love to sit outside in the sun, but I know that sooner or later, someone will fire up their tobacco stick, and I’ll be left crossing my fingers that the wind blows the other way.

Red chairs Champs Elysées
This is May in Paris, believe it or not.

However, I think there’s hope. This week, I was in the south of France (I’ll tell you about it later!) at an outdoor bar watching the France vs Ecuador World Cup game, and I saw smoke wafting from the balding gentleman in front of me. I turned me face to the side and braced myself for the cloud of stinky smoke, but nothing happen. Instead, a subtle vapor breezed past. This lovely man was smoking an e-cigarette.

Now, I know that the jury is still out on the health implications of the e-cigarette. I’m not offering a commentary on that, because my expertise on e-cigarettes is approximately equal to my knowledge of the mating patterns of tropical fish (um, zero). However, e-cigarettes are infinitely kinder to non-smokers. Instead of choking on a cloud of burnt nicotine (or whatever) it’s a gentle vapor that dissipates quickly and sometimes smells like peach or coconut.  I wish all the smokers in France would exchange their tobacco rolls for these tropical mist machines.

Let me ask you this – what smells better, cigarette smoke or peaches?

That’s what I thought. No one hates the smell of peaches.

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