Belgium: The Final True Refuge for Smokers

It’s fitting that in the perversely brilliant 2008 flick In Bruges, Colin Farrell’s tortured hitman Ray finally wallops an uptight Canadian who’s whining on about the plumes of cigarette smoke Ray’s Belgian date, Chloe (Clemence Poesy), is blowing in his general direction, even though they’re sitting in the smoking section of a restaurant. While smoking bans are being gleefully and sternly enacted and enforced across the Western world (most vigorously in a New York City, which feels more like Los Angeles every day), a constitutional court in Belgium overturned that country’s ban – and it won’t even be addressed again until at least 2014.

I myself was in the gloriously majestic city of Bruges just last week, and one evening I wandered in to Cafedraal, a chic, decidedly upscale restaurant, and the very one in which the aforementioned scene was filmed. Those in the main dining room were keeping it clean, but in the adjoining bar, everyone, I discovered, was puffing away with extreme prejudice. I entreated Igor, a bartender-waiter, who explained to me that, “It still has to do with how much is the mix of food and alcohol. We are always testing the rules…we wait for it, but there is never any fine.” A reasonable chap, he added that while he doesn’t light up himself, “When my friends come to my house, they can smoke.”

Later that evening, at the rather posh new Hotel Casselbergh, where I had dropped my bags (in character, style, and vibe, very similar to New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel), I noticed wafts of smoke emitting from one of the expensively furnished lounge areas just off the bar. Soon, I was puffing away and having a laugh with a few affable chaps from London and South Africa, who were in town on some tech business. It felt…right.

The next day, I stumbled across Bar des Amis, a boho rocker bar in the center of town at which, at two in the afternoon (on a Tuesday, mind you), it was wall to wall drinkers and smokers. It was practically like stepping into a Pink Floyd concert in 1976. As Blondie’s “Rapture” pumped from the sound system (a sad reminder of a once more proudly debauched NYC), foxy bartender Peggy (Peggy? Not Griet? Or Geertje?), something of a less ethereal Charlotte Gainsbourg, poured me a Chimay, lit up, and waxed philosophical. “It doesn’t matter,” she shrugged. “If we have to go outside to smoke, we will go outside.” Of course, I had hoped for a little more militancy from Peggy. Tellingly, an old sign above the bar read Le Peuple Se Trouve Partout, “The people are everywhere.” Indeed, any time, day or night, that I returned, it was wall to wall patrons savoring their beloved Gaulouises.

Moving on to the nearby university city of Ghent, sort of Belgium’s Oxford, the tar and nicotine zeal was also in full-force. At the exclusive top floor bar at Belga Queen (four levels of unfettered, very Meatpacking District-y decadence along the Graslei), the DJ was pumping out Moloko and Grace Jones, while two moppy headed boys from Britpop central casting and the girls who hung on their every word were all chain smoking, just like pretend rock stars should be. Bartender Joe, the very epitome of Mitteleuropa cool, with his sleekly shaved head and black, form fitting (probably) Helmut Lang suit, lit one up, and offered his take. “I personally think that in a bar like this [set apart from the downstairs dining areas, that is] you should just be able to smoke.” He had recently been to the States. “New York is the worst! At least in Miami and Vegas they let you smoke at outdoor tables. Besides, people who don’t smoke are boring. Well…not really, but you know what I mean.” Yes, I did.

Few are aware that the driving force behind the fanatical smoking ban craze was those big bad pharmaceutical companies, whose number one revenue stream turns out to be – yep – smoking cessation products. In fact, Italy’s former Health Minister, Girolama Sirchia, who had rammed through that country’s unloved 2005 ban, was convicted in 2008 of taking bribes from the pharmas. But hard evidence means nothing to the anti-smoking lot.

My last morning in Ghent, looking to escape the sleeting weather, I followed some flickering candles down into the charmingly ratty cellar bar Het Spijker (The Nail, for those of you who never bothered to learn Flemish). At 10:30am, the punk and techno was blasting, and everyone (and I mean everyone), mostly student types, was smoking and drinking with unstoppable fervor (and, er, having fun?). Did I mention it was 10:30am? While grinning like Alice’s feline friend and enthusiastically chatting up the Agness Deyn lookalike bartender, I also cringed a bit at having to return to an increasingly rules-bound-clean-living-yoga-this-organic-that New York the next day.

No one with a brain will argue that smoking isn’t bad for you. But, in case you’ve forgotten, The Velvet Underground, CBGB’s, and The Limelight all happened because people were doing things that were, you know, bad for them. And you might want to ask yourself why you’re so obsessed with Mad Men. Could it be that you secretly realize that everything was just that much more mad, bad, dangerous, and glamorous when everyone from Madison Avenue to Levittown was lighting up in strategy meetings and casually quaffing gin and tonics before noon?

And sorry, but when you say, “It’s so great to come home at night and not have my clothes reek of cigarette smoke,” you just have admit that you sound like someone’s boring old grandma. Or worse still…like someone from California.

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