Back home, everybody smokes — 37 percent of Greeks are regular smokers according to a 2017 survey for the European Commission. On paper, a 2010 law has banned smoking in public spaces; however, in typical Greek manner, the law is ignored more often than not. From ashtrays under “smoking is prohibited” signs in restaurants to the Minister of Health himself lighting up a cigarette during a ministry press conference, smoking-related ironies are an essential part of the sociopolitical surrealism of modern Greece.
It is almost impossible not to be aware of the risks smoking poses to one’s health. Those are clearly underlined by the scary messages and pictures on cigarette packs. Yet, the phenomenon persists. A strong disapproval of smoking developed both in the context of the Greek family and the national education system seems to fade very quickly once students get to high school.
Throughout my life in Greece, smoking had, in my mind, been associated with a culture of dismissing rules and widespread hypocrisy. The nature of this self-destructive habit made it the perfect metaphor for the state of a country in a deep financial and political crisis. However, at some point, I started smoking myself. First socially and with time a bit more. But never regularly. I never saw myself as part of the “smoking culture,” which never stopped.
Then, I came to the United States. Where a cigarette is the perfect magnet of judgemental gazes and angry stares. In other words,the complete opposite of everything I had experienced before. Here smoking was not only enforceably prohibited in most places, but also seriously frowned upon. It was difficult for me to understand. How could my — usually solitary — outdoor smoking be such a source of frustration for the complete strangers walking on the opposite side of the street? Had I become, without realizing it, just like the people I was criticizing?
In Greece I hated the hypocrisy of people establishing anti-smoking rules only to break them. But here I was not breaking any rule. Back home I was critical of people who smoked in a way dismissive to everyone around them. At Yale I would only smoke in open spaces, where secondhand smoking was nearly impossible. In high school I was frustrated that people close to me were smoking because as a friend I was worried about their health. But how could such judgement and anger be motivated by concern for complete strangers in the land of “Let’s get a meal” and small talk?
Smoking really is the perfect antithesis to this culture. Taking smoke breaks from the hectic Yale routine has resulted in some of my most meaningful relationships here. The intimacy of borrowing a lighter, sharing a cigarette or just inhaling in silence is satisfyingly abnormal at Yale. In a place where everybody is always doing something, smoking is the perfect excuse to do nothing, alone or with other people. When friends ask me, they laugh that I compare smoking to meditation. But it’s somehow true. This really unhealthy habit helps me concentrate on myself and escape the hectic Yale routine. And that’s healthy for me on a different level.
Perhaps that is the cause of the contempt I receive when I am holding my cigarette outside my favorite coffee shop. How dare I do something so unproductive and risky? How can there be so irrational people in our community? Don’t I know that 80 to 90 percent of lung cancers are associated with smoking?
Of course I am not advocating for a smoking revolution. I am happy with the public health restrictions currently in place. I wish there were such rules back home. But the villainization of smoking I have experienced at Yale does not make sense to me. If Greece is one extreme, the United States is the other.
My smoking does not harm you. I am not the villain in your story. If I am, come talk to me about it. I’ll put out my cigarette. But if you just judge me with an angry look, I’ll feel better, because at least I have found my little temporary escape. And maybe you should find yours, too.
ViKtor Dimas | firstname.lastname@example.org