“You know you’re not supposed to shave here,” one of the coaches at my gym in Paris told me the other day. By here he meant the locker room, by the three sinks that looked exactly like the sort of spot where you might find people in other cities around the world actually doing the unthinkable: shaving.
“I didn’t know that,” I said. “Why?”
“For reasons of hygiene.”
I asked him to explain further, but he couldn’t. Hygiene was enough, even if it couldn’t be elaborated on. Neither could another employee at the gym tell me why shaving would be forbidden in a place where you’re supposed to be washing up anyway.
I’d been shaving there as a matter of course, without realizing that it was one of those things you just don’t do in France. If the gym were so concerned about hygiene, it might actually provide soap in the showers. You bring your own or you do without – as I’ve seen far too many men do who simply rinse off after a long workout (and who then dry off with the one towel everyone is given upon entering, and that everyone is supposed to use when working out). As it is, I don’t see how the locker room is any more hygienic for people not shaving there.
But then, nobody asked me. I’m still surprised at certain behaviors in Paris, as accustomed as I am to living here part of the year, and to knowing, up to a point, how to get along. Whenever I return, for example, I’m assaulted by the scent of cigarette smoke everywhere. I realize how little I’m subjected to this in New York (it’s true I don’t live in an area of the U.S. where smoking is still permitted in public places). But it’s shocking how many people continue to smoke in Paris, from the young hotel-school students at the nearby École Jean-Drouant who are blithely unaware of what maladies lie ahead as they crowd around tiny tables sipping beers and sucking cigarettes, to wrinkled old retirees who are long past caring and whose smoking is punctuated by catarrhal coughs that echo down the streets. Even some of the fitness coaches at the gym puff away on the street between workout sessions with their clients.
You pretty much can’t enjoy a meal at an outdoor terrace in Paris any longer, since most of those tables are taken up by smokers. A few weeks ago, my friend Bob and I were dining at a neighborhood restaurant while at a nearby table two women were chain-smoking as the baby of one of the women slept in a carriage next to where they sat. I guess they figured the kid needed get used to to tolerating the bad habits of others, and that children become accustomed to being exhaled on from an early age.
I realized that my attitude toward smoking smacked of a sort of purity-provincialism, as if because I don’t smoke others shouldn’t either. I actually don’t care if other people smoke. I just don’t happen to like inhaling it. And I also realize that I’m naïve in thinking that simply because I’m not surrounded by smokers, that smokers don’t surround me wherever I am. It’s just one of those sharp differences between there and here you pick up on: more people seem to smoke in Paris than in New York (to my surprise, per-capita smoking is higher in the U.S. than in France). I mentioned all of this last week to a visiting friend with whom I’d attended Alliance Française a few years ago, where we both learned French (and where we’d become acquainted with certain French ways of doing things).
“Smoking bothers you here?”
I said it did, although perhaps each time I’m back in New York I get used to the lack of smoke there, and that I expect stupidly everyplace to be a smoke-free zone. I mentioned to Craig that I’m aware that I can’t do anything about what I consider to be the hordes of smokers in Paris. Still, having grown up with parents who went through three packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day each, and never having smoked myself, I have had enough secondhand smoke to last several lifetimes.
“It doesn’t really bother me anymore,” Craig said. “I’ve made peace with it.”
“You’ve made peace with it? As in dying?”
“Smoking. It’s just what they do.” Along with, it seems, not shaving in the locker room, or not soaping up in the showers.
I guess Craig had a point – you have to make peace with certain relatively benign behaviors that you can’t control. Even though I realize that what “they” might do and what my discomfort consists of relative to their actions is of no interest to anyone, particularly the happy puffers who take no notice of sanctimonious scolds like me whose lungs, if not their bitter little hearts, are clean.
It’s one of those French givens. The French right to enjoy themselves trumps your right to be left undisturbed, whether this involves loud music, unasked-for opinions or constant smoking.
But then it’s also a matter of where you spend time. If I were from a city or state where everyone still smoked, les fumeurs ou les fumeuses of Paris wouldn’t seem so different from the smokers of Atlanta.
In any event, I asked a French friend at lunch today his opinion of the non-shaving rule at the gym. He was surprised at that, and unaware that such a rule existed. But he also suggested that perhaps gyms could sell soap at the front desk, for those who found themselves without. This being France, he added (where thriftiness is something of a national character trait), nothing is free.
Except, perhaps, secondhand smoke.