Rome VI: Smoky Smokers and the (Horrible-Smelling) Smoke they Smoke

Micah Osler, copy editor

To me, at least, there’s nothing appealing about smoking. Essentially, you’re taking a dry sludge of carcinogens, bad-smelling leaves, and (according to my health teacher, at least) crushed glass, lighting it on fire, and then deeply inhaling the thick, equally bad-smelling smoke that results from said trash heap. It costs a ton, it’s addictive, and you get weird jaundiced appendages from it, along with teeth that look like they were reclaimed from the mummified corpse of King Tutankhamun and made (poorly) into dentures, not to mention an omnipresent odor that subtly suggests a house filled with cats in both live and statuette form. I don’t get the idea that smoking imparts upon one a cool image, either. To me (the ultimate arbiter of coolness), it just looks like you enjoy eating paper and annoying pedestrians, both of which are favorite hobbies of the world’s three-year-olds, the main difference being that three-year-olds smell better.

Of course, I’m not the target audience for tobacco companies. I’m an asthmatic, and just walking by a smoker screws horribly with my poor sickly lungs.  My usual strategy is to unobtrusively hold my breath around someone smoking – I don’t want to be a jerk about their dumb choices, but I definitely don’t want to be inhaling their smoke.

There’s a problem with that strategy here in Italy, though. Following it would pretty much require that I not breathe while I’m outside.

It baffles me why so many people here smoke. Italy seems like a pretty healthy place in most every way. People here exercise regularly, from what I’ve seen. They get enough sleep. Their food is almost exclusively local, and their olive oil intake is beyond reproach. Health care is cheap and good. Most people walk to work or ride a Vespa – actually, walking seems to be the national activity. And yet smoking, which pretty much counteracts just about everything I’ve just listed, is as rampant here as tiny-dog ownership or wild hand motions, often involving karate chops, while talking.

I guess maybe I’m just used to a different environment – we Americans don’t suffer smokers very easily. A few years ago, during a layover on the way to the West Coast, I was in the Salt Lake City airport, and apparently in Salt Lake City they treat their smokers pretty much like bad takeout Chinese food – they stick them inside of a giant box*, shove them off to the side, and forget about them. Maybe we’re just the exception and the world is the rule.

But it’s more than that. Australia is way stricter on smokers than we are, and they’re evidently not Americans. Canada’s not exactly a smoking haven either. Yet smoking seems to be the way of life in Italy.

I’ve thought about it, and there’s only one logical conclusion that I can come up with: it’s the very nature of the city that I love that’s behind the endless parade of smokers here in Rome. It’s the way that Rome really is an eternal city and a land of tradition that seems to keep it asthmatic-unfriendly.

People here seem to live by some ancient clock. I saw something to this effect in travel guides I read, and I brushed it off as an attempt to make Italy seem like some sort of magical land away from time, but based on direct observation, it’s absolutely true. Romans rise in the mid-morning, dress for work, and head to a café for a cappuccino. I know this because there’s a café twenty yards from my family’s apartment, and every morning at 9:30 a.m. it’s filled with Romans dressed up and on their way to work, and yet at 11 it’s empty. Everything is closed from about 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. so that people can take a nap and dream of somewhere less hot. Everything’s closed on Sundays, too, and Sunday morning nobody’s out getting cappuccino or walking their dog because they’re all at church. The Smart cars and the iPhones might be modern, but the rhythms are as ancient as the hills upon which the city’s built.

And I just have to accept that smoking’s a part of that rhythm. Getting someone here to quit smoking doesn’t seem to be like getting someone to buy a new computer. It’s like getting someone to quit eating lunch. People here have always smoked, and in a place where tradition runs so deep, that’s the best reason of all to keep going.

As Americans, we’ve jettisoned that European sense of rhythm pretty seriously. Thanks to modern marvels like all-hour convenience stores, Mountain Dew, and the all-knowing Internet, we don’t sleep at the same times. Thanks to strange schedules and fad diets, we don’t have the same mealtimes, or even the same meals. As the whole smoking thing proves, that’s not all bad. In the same way we feel no reservations about eating a whole can of Pizza Pringles at 3 a.m.**, we don’t see quitting smoking as such a disruptive choice, or at least as a disruptive one in a bad way.

I certainly wish that Romans would stop smoking. It would give them many more years in which to confuse me with baffling cavalcades of Italian (see Rome V: Micah’s Misadventures With the Italian Language), and their city would smell as beautiful as it looks. But I realize that’s not exactly feasible, for a strange reason. Their communal health problem seems to be inextricably tied to the rhythm that makes everything here charming and beautiful and, well, Roman.

In that case, if suffering smokers is the price I have to pay for a city this great, then maybe tomorrow I’ll smile as I nearly asphyxiate myself walking down the street.


*I bet you think I’m making up the giant box o’ smokers. I’m not. If you ever fly to Salt Lake City, seek out the smoking area. You’ll turn a corner and see what appears to be a sort of futuristic glass prison cube filled with sickly-looking people hacking up a lung and a bluish haze hanging around their teased-up hair. I’m pretty sure the guys who clean that place get hazard pay.

**Well, I’d feel serious reservations about that. But that’s just because Pizza Pringles are awful. To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged by mankind that Sour Cream and Onion Pringles freakin’ rock, man.