hile there are many Italian peculiarities I’ve grown accustomed to — moody public transport, lack of peanut butter, and disdain for air conditioning among them — seven years later I still don’t get the country’s affection for cigarettes.
As a 20-year-old study abroad student descending from the taxi to the street where I’d live for the next year, I was startled by the cigarette butts scattered along the streets like a grown-up version of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. Combined with the spidery graffiti on building walls, I feared I would be living in a rough part of town. I quickly learned that my neck of the woods and the rest of the city looked quite similar. Everyone, it seemed, smoked — especially the teenagers and my college peers. Crowds of hormonal 16-year olds stood in throngs outside their high schools, smoking before class resumed, the girls with braces, the boys with wisps of facial hair. I wondered if their parents knew, and where they were possibly getting the money to fuel the habit.
My roommate, baby-faced and fluffy bunny-slippered, shocked me one Tuesday afternoon with a wave from our terrace. Her Marlboro was molting as she tapped it expertly along the side of a flowerbed. I worried about the peonies.
As my time at the University of Bologna progressed, I became used to accompanying my new friends outdoors on smoke breaks, learning the Italian words for pack (pacchetto), ash tray (portacenere) and Bolognese slang for cigarette (paglia). In the evenings, I grew impatient of my Italian friends’ addiction. They’d traipse through the dark until finding a cigarette dispensary, so they wouldn’t be emptied out by morning. “I need a cigarette when I wake up,” one said in apology. Upon seeing my surprise she quickly clarified “well I have to have a coffee first. I mean it’s not so bad that I can’t wait until after my coffee.”
At my East Coast university, I could count the number of regular, campus nicotine smokers on one hand. I’d spy them huddled around the tall, cement ashtrays, cleverly designed to double as lawn ornaments.
So why did Italians smoke so much more than everyone back home? I thought of our annual, elementary “DARE” program (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), which we rolled our eyes at but whose slideshow images of blackened smokers’ lungs I still remember. If our parents smoked, we were instructed by the DARE “officers” to paste our school portrait on their cigarette packs, so they’d think of us and the consequences before lighting up.
That sounded awfully time consuming to me. I’d have to fumble through my mother’s stock of photos, find a glue stick that hadn’t dried up, and get a pair of sharp scissors. Didn’t that also qualify as defiling private property?
But neither of my parents smoked anyway. In fact, no one in our upper-middle class Catholic school district had smoker parents. Were we reluctant — when we became teens — to spend money, or too aware of cigarettes’ side effects? Or did Americans simply prefer beer, swapping one vice for another, ruining their livers as Italians ruined their lungs? I wasn’t sure.
By the springtime in Bologna, I had my first boyfriend, who mercifully took me out of my misery and delivered my first kiss. He also happened to be a smoker, the pack-a-day kind, the roll your own cigarette DIY-style kind. Soon my clothes, hair, and skin smelled like smoke. He tasted like embers. When we traveled together, he’d anxiously shrug me off his shoulder where I’d fallen asleep, hop off the train, and hurriedly smoke on the platform.
When he visited me in America at Thanksgiving he said he’d have to bring along chewing tobacco to make it through the long flight. Once, we boarded a flight in which he, drunk, accused me of judging him for his affair with cigarettes. “I could die of geriatric age, I could die tomorrow crossing the street instead of getting lung cancer.” The next morning he apologized, blaming his outburst on the vodka shots. I forgave him.
By the time I flew home for good, my first boyfriend had all but vanished. He didn’t return my messages or Skype calls. Soon, he told me he had found someone else. For the next 10 months, the smell of a freshly lit cigarette was agony. Eventually though, it became nothing more than a nuisance, an eyesore, a curious Italian habit to analyze. I imagine him along with the other locals, walking the streets of Bologna, flicking cigarette butts to the ground, not thinking of me and me not thinking of him.