A lot of Italians still smoke.
This is hardly a newsflash for many. I have always known that Italians are more relaxed (than Americans, for example) about smoking. But it is still a surprise coming from a culture where smoking is stigmatized to where it is not necessarily expected but accepted across many generations.
Italy imposed a national smoking ban in public places in 2005–the fourth country in the world to do so–but that still hasn’t done much to curb tobacco consumption. While the insides of buildings, restaurants, and workplaces are smoke-free, Italy’s outdoor public spaces are rarely without a whiff of smoke. Bus stops, flea markets, parking lots, courtyards, balconies, and sidewalk cafes are all prime spots for sneaking a smoke.
Italy also makes it easy to smoke and keep smoking. The Tabacchi shops are still necessary for everyday errands, e.g., paying utility bills and buying bus tickets and passes. Paying your phone bill? Why not buy some cigarettes while you’re at it? No one will bat an eye.
When I walk around Rome, I still think it’s weird to see well-to-do couples sitting at an outdoor cafe, each with a pack of cigarettes on the table. Also odd (and unfortunate) is seeing several generations of one family sitting around an outdoor table smoking together. I cringe when I see parents smoking around their young children and babies.
Even though the air is smokier here, there is something refreshing about Italy’s nonchalance towards adults who smoke. There is very little social shame associated with smoking.
I was thinking about all of this the other day when I happened upon an appropriate passage from an Umberto Eco short story. In the 1991 story “How to Travel on American Trains,” one of many essays in How to Travel with a Salmon, Eco describes how, in America, those who smoke are social outcasts. And yet, when Italians smoke in America, they (and their habit) are treated differently.
Among the poor, too, there are those who cannot manage to abandon the ultimate symbol of marginalization: they smoke. If you try to climb into the one smoking car, you suddenly find yourself in the Dreigroschenoper. I was the only one wearing a tie. For the rest, catatonic freaks, sleeping tramps snoring with their mouths open, comatose zombies. As the smoker was the last car of the train, on arrival, this collection of outcasts had to walk a hundred yards or so, slouching along the platform like Jerry Lewis.
Having escaped from this railway hell and changed into uncontaminated clothes, I found myself having supper in the private dining room of a faculty club, among well dressed professors with educated accents. At the end, I asked if there was somewhere I could go and smoke. A moment of silence and embarrassed smiles followed, then someone closed the doors, a lady extracted a pack of cigarettes from her purse, others looked at my own pack. Furtive glances of complicity, stifled laughter, as in a striptease theater. There followed ten minutes of delightful, thrilling transgression. I was Lucifer, arrived from the world of shadows, and I illuminated everyone with the blazing torch of sin.