cigarettes in the rain

I felt a sharp splatter of water on my neck. Followed by another.

I suppose I wasn’t surprised. The sky had been cloudy ever since I had taken my first breath of colonial air after I had left the airplane on the train. I briefly looked around for some shelter before settling on a nearby the bus stop. By then, the soft drizzle had progressed into a steady downpour. I sat down and waited. After all, it was the first time in a while where I didn’t have a deadline. No problem sets to finish, no social obligations to attend, just me and the sound of rain.

I watched the cars pass by. There didn’t seem to be that many. One car would pass by, followed by a couples minutes of rain, and then followed by another sometime later. Some pedestrians would run across the street in a furious attempt to reach the jewelry store across the street. A bus or two would interrupt the unpredictable stream of cars. Two, maybe three, individuals would enter the long train of blue and white compartments, and then the bus would leave, letting the drizzle of the rain once again touch the moist concrete.

The lights turned red then yellow then green. Then green then yellow then red. One more yellow than I am used to. It’s almost as if the lights wanted cars to minimize their time in a state of idleness. Because, when the lights turned from red to yellow, the cars would slowly inch forwards, reaching the middle of the box before the light had turned from yellow to green. I found out a little too abruptly that the cars would not stop for pedestrians who decided to walk within the last couple moments of yellow.

A man pulled up next to me and lit up a cigarette. He wore a black trench coat with a pair of black jeans and stared off into the distance while he descended to a cycle of inhaling and exhaling. He lit another cigarette after he littered the first one under the seat. From my couple of hours in the land of neutrality, it seemed that cigarettes were a commonality. At least, much more of a frequented hobby than I observed in the confines of Philadelphia. Vaping, however, did not seem to be a regular occurrence here.

I wonder about the appeal of cigarettes, especially if the anti-smoking campaigns from the past couple of decades are targetting the right ideas. Because, by now, most people understand that smoking causes a variety of health problems. The majority of regular smokers in the United States comprise of low-income backgrounds. But here, especially in a country with as well-funded of an education system as Switzerland, I wonder why it seems that such campaigns were nonexistent.

Is it precisely because of the anti-smoking campaigns that smoking had been elevated from a casual activity to a representation of defiance against the expectations of society? I have noticed a sharp influx of black biker jackets. There seems to also be a sense of pride in the graffiti on the walls across the city. Urban art, as it is called. But as a country with the second highest GDP per capita in Europe, I suppose the sheer totality of disposable income could afford the adopt an edgy style.

It’s funny how perspectives change with perceived socioeconomic status. When poor areas have graffiti, it is considered vandalism, but when rich areas have graffiti, it is considered urban art. An embellishment to an otherwise architecturally coordinated city. I suppose there may exist a difference in the intention of the graffiti, but at the same time, I wonder if the narrative of perceived intention is also an aspect of perspective dictated by those with power who seek to create a hierarchy within the realm of art.

Drink a bottle of wine on a weekday lunch, you are considered an alcoholic. But, when incomes rise and the price of a bottle of wine becomes lower than a bottle of water, suddenly it becomes classy. In that sense, it seems that luxury products no longer exist as a symbol of status. Smoking a cigarette wearing a ripped pair of oversized jeans and a worn out hoodie from Target is considered plebian, but smoking a cigarette decked out in Yves Saint Laurent and sporting a Frederique Constant watch is considered tastefully edgy.

Not only does money buy status, but it also seems that money, paired with a superior culture, creates a romantic lense free from judgment. Those same aspects of society associated with the lower class — the cigarettes, the graffiti, the alcoholism — seem to be redefined into an amorous narrative when introduced a European environment. Because, with any concept, Europe sprinkles a bit of class and cultural hegemony. And I ask myself, is there any aspect of culture that cannot b positively twisted when it is adopted into a European norm?

I recall all of those times I had seen a man smoke a cigarette in the streets of Philadelphia or Beijing. And I wonder, does the same habit carries the same connotation as this man smoking next to me wearing a blue button up under a leather black trenchcoat?

This piece was written in my hotel room in Zurich, Switzerland.

Categories: travel, writing