The bus driver is smoking. There are no passengers on the bus; it’s not scheduled to leave for another ten minutes. The window is open beside him, the smoke curling in the warm breeze. It’s not even eight in the morning, and already the sun is pounding the cracked dirt and hot asphalt, the sky as fiercely blue as it was yesterday, as it will be tomorrow. Yesterday, a fire swept over the hills, visible from our neighbour’s patio, and we watched planes buzz overhead, dropping precious water in bright curtains while the tiny figures of men in orange jackets struggled with heavy hoses.
They do that, in France. The bus driver wants to smoke; let him smoke! In Canada, in Vancouver, he’d be fired. He’d be vilified and reviled, crucified by public opinion. Smoking is the worst thing a person can do in Vancouver - if it’s a cigarette, that is. The parks and sidewalks of summer are heavy with the reek of marijuana, and the steps of the police station make a handy stoop for those who prefer to smoke crack. In Vancouver, only legal drugs are frowned on.
It’s different in France, where they take pleasure seriously.
It should be frivolous, but somehow it’s not. It’s humane. It’s a recognition of the bus driver as a man, not as a functionary of some social class, or even as a representative of the company that pays him. Let them eat cake, as Marie Antoinette never said, being ten years old when Rousseau wrote the line in his Confessions. The much vaunted French rudeness - something, I hasten to add, we have never experienced - may come down to this. For visitors from more service-oriented cultures, like that of North America, the snobbish French waiter is an archetype. But in France, no one expects servility, from anyone. When they talk of égalité, they mean it. Note that this is not the same as the equality an American might strive for. Obama, a Harvard-educated law professor, spoke on the campaign trail in a transparently affected manner; “folks are drillin’,” and so on. Donald Trump’s vocabulary is far more limited now as a President than it was when he was merely a billionaire. In America, being a man of the people is seen as desirable, at least if you want to get elected. But in France, égalité means that everyone is a king.
This is changing, as all things must. The French are more resistant than most to the flattening of the world that’s going on all around us, chewing up cultures while we sleep at night. But France in 2017 is not the same as France in 2007, let alone the France of 1957. And I won’t deny the utter frustration of living here, when your wife needs sanitary pads unexpectedly and every store in a good-sized city is closed because it’s Sunday. What is charming to a tourist can become a nightmare for a resident. And we, with our six-month stints here and there across Europe, fall right into the gap between the two.
I know smoking’s terrible. I don’t do it myself. But then, I do more than my share of drinking, and that’s not doctor recommended either. No one wants a bus that reeks of second-hand smoke, and I’m old enough to remember when going to the pub meant days of your clothes reeking with the lingering acid stench of other people’s smoke. I know why the rules are as they are. But it will be a shame, when the French stop taking two to three-hour lunch breaks on a workday. It will be a pity when someone reports the bus driver for smoking inside the bus, removing a little more pleasure from the life of a stranger. Personal liberty ends where the rights of others begin, and I know that, but it seems sometimes that we’re all simultaneously expanding the bubbles we live in while demanding that everyone else’s shrink to accommodate us. You will by now have noticed that this is no longer about smoking. To which I would reply it never really was.
Cultures die slowly. But they do die. The last time I was in England, I was struck by the changes in my old hometown. If ever there was a place that could do with some change, Coventry was it. But there’s just something so…American about the brightly colored bars, the gastro-pubs, the shopping malls hulking on the edge of town. And I have no problem with America, either. I just don’t want to see it in England. Besides, we can blame America all we want, but they’d close Disneyland Paris in months if it stopped making money. We all pretend to despise what we think we should, but someone’s buying those Nickelback albums. Someone’s keeping up with the Kardashians. In Venice, some wit had spray-painted a carefully stenciled Magic Castle on the wall of one of the narrow streets, with the legend "Disneyland Venice" below it in Disney’s trademark font. But I was a tourist there too. Complain about the crowds all you want, but every person in the faceless crowd has as much right to be there as you do. And American culture wouldn’t have achieved its international dominance if people didn’t like it. Once upon a time, Britain ruled the world, but the nations of Europe didn’t adopt tea and cricket the way they have hamburgers and Starbucks.
When the French start to put business before pleasure, all we’ll have is another Anglo-Saxon country. And something irreplaceable will be lost when the bus driver stubs out his last cigarette.