Since we’re in Paris let’s slap on a beret, pour a glass of Pernod, light up a Gauloise and do some deconstruction. The oeuvre at hand is a melancholy riff printed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s letters to the editor section of January 4, 2008 lamenting the smoking ban imposed on France that theoretically ended smoking in all "public" places, including the smoky cafes of Paris. It is those nouveau "smoke-free" cafes that strike a reflective chord in the letter writer’s soul.
He evokes the long zinc bars and Art Deco tables, sadly denuded of the ashtrays that for centuries have collected the residue from the bon vivants who "pass fire around" in a ritual of "commensality" that celebrates food and friends. Whew. While most of us, the non-Gallic barbarians, smoke because it feels good and tops off an exquisitely good meal or accents a delicious drink, the French smoke around their Art Deco cafe tables as a means of showing "fondness" for one another. The wreaths of aromatic smoke are a tangible, sensual manifestation of gratitude for earth’s bounty. Smoking is one facet of the "Holy Trinity" of French culture where eating pleasures the body, drink soothes the soul, and smoking clears the mind. The writer then throws a fistful of mud on his sparkling paean to Gallic joie de vivre.
Now don’t get me wrong. Smoking is bad. It is addictive, causes lung cancer and kills thousands of people every year. I understand why France enacted this law and I know that it is ultimately a good thing for my own health and for that of this nation.
How did this strident, self-abasing string of anti-tobacco’s talking points end up in a poetic threnody eulogizing the magic of tobacco? Ignore for the nonce the regurgitation of the tobacco control industry’s blatant lies. Focus instead on the type of person who weeps at the destruction of a pivotal manifestation of cultural glory then moves on to assure us that this destruction is a good thing for his health and for France itself. Is the letter writer a pernicious up-to-date but counterfeit version of the elderly Frenchman caught in the famous photograph weeping as he watches the Nazi soldiers goose stepping down the Camps Elysée? That old man wept as his society, culture, and country crumbled while the Chronicle’s letter writer weeps as well but preposterously proclaims the destruction is "good for my own health" and everyone else’s. Who is this defeatist? The author is one Vanick Der Bedrossian, purporting to be from Paris.
An unusual name makes internet searches easy and, with one exception, all links to Vanick Der Bedrossian refer to the same young man who appears in references concerning the University of California-Santa Cruz. He is listed as a highly achieving undergraduate in 2006. Other links to him refer to a stint studying study abroad in Ghana and he also appears as an inactive member of the Alumni of the French American and International High School of San Francisco. Vanick Der Bedrossian is a music aficionado who penned reviews for an acid jazz CD, dateline San Francisco, as well as another CD, dateline Santa Cruz. He signed an online petition submitted by the Open Debates’ campaign to reform the presidential debates, listing his location as a zip code in San Francisco’s Western Addition neighborhood. The one exception links to a Levon Der Bedrossian, associated with Armenian cultural issues in San Francisco, who took his teenage children, one named Vanick, to Armenia eight years ago. In short Vanick Der Bedrossian may inhabit Paris at this point in time but it is a stretch to regard him as a Parisian. He is from the San Francisco Bay Area and, as such, has absorbed California’s anti-tobacco mania his entire life.
The Parisian connection, however, is crucial to anti-tobacco rags such as the San Francisco Chronicle. If those "cigarette-craving" French are happily throwing in the towel on the smoking ban front, c’est magnifique! Vanick may be a nice young man who enjoys graceful purple prose but he no more represents the French than does the multi-national pharmaceutical industry that is purchasing the European and North American smoking bans from governments that value rapacious corporations more than they do their own citizens.