Who would ever have thought that the rebellious Argentines would accept a smoke free environment? The cigarette and the cortado were a part of every Porteño's life. Sitting in cafes blue with smoke, those of us who don't smoke would choke down our meal or coffee. Sitting and ruminating over life was not an option.
My first trip to Buenos Aires was in 2000 to dance tango. It was the begining of summer. The smoke was everywhere. Non-smoking sections did not exist. I inhaled smoke for 10 days. One night at Torquato Tasso I had to leave. I was so overcome by the smoke I thought I was going to pass out. I remember running out the door to suck in fresh air.
I came back in 2001 3 times. Towards the end of the year, non-smoking sections of 10 tables found their way into some of the restaurants. Sort of a joke since the smoking sections were usually 10 times bigger than the non-smoking sections. It seemed like everyone smoked.
Slowly the non-smoking sections increased in number and in some places in size. They were still overcome by all the smoke generated in the smoking sections. The milongas at times could be unbearable. At places like Lo de Celia's you would die in the summer. Her air conditioning never seemed to function and she would not open the windows. Big fans would recirculate the horrid smoke.
Then last year, the government passed a law mandating public places to have non-smoking sections. Government buildings were designated as non-smoking. On October 1, 2006 all public places under 100 meters were to be designated as non-smoking. Over 100 meters only 30% could be smoking and had to be completely separated from the non-smoking areas.
It seemed like less and less people were smoking. One night when I had about 25 people at my apartment for dinner, we realized that everyone there was a non-smoker. Of the 25 only 2 were not Argentines. Lots of people seemed to be quiting or had quit. A new term "social smoker" was coined. These are people who smoke well...socially. LIke at parties, after dinner. I don't understand why they have to smoke at all. But that is me.
October 1 was drawing close. We wondered, would Buenos Aires really go smoke free? It seemed impossible that people here would refuse to smoke. Many people thought that there would be no way that the milongas would ever go smoke free or that people just would not go.
The weekend before the ban took effect, milonga organizers would announce that the next week the milonga would be smoke free. In Club Gricel a bastion of blue haze, a rousing cheer sounded. I was shocked. At Salon Canning a place where I usually suffocated people applauded. At El Beso, Porteño, and other milongas the scene was played over and over. Who would have thought?
Then it happened. The impossible. Buenos Aires went smoke free. Signs are up all over the capital. "Buenos Aires libre de humo." (Buenos Aires free of smoke) Restaurants posted smaller versions, versions of the law. All over the milongas, bars, and restaurants, signs prohibiting smoking were posted.
On Oct 3 the local paper Clarin had a story of how 250 police were hired to patrol the city to make sure the law was being followed. Only 2 patrons in a bar in Recoleta were cited. Over all people and places were observing the law. I think many of us were shocked.
On Oct 6 a man in a bar refused to put out his cigarette. The owner actually called the police! They came and the man still refused to put his cigarette out. He continued to smoke. When the police took him by the arm to move him outside and site him (250 pesos fine) he began to fight them. Not a very smart move, as it turned out he was carrying a quantity of cocaine. A very expensive cigarette, as he will now pay more than the 250 pesos.
We are now more than 2 weeks into a smoke free Buenos Aires. It is kind of weird in a way, but a delightful weird. I no longer have to hang my clothes out after a milonga. My hair does not reek of smoke. The milongas are smoke free. Every single one of them. The smokers hunker outside near the door. The funny thing is that there are so few of them. How could so few people make so much smoke?
At Campotango on Wednesday there were 5 smokers in the balcony. The organizer smokes, so I am sure that had something to do with it. Several of us looked up and glared at them as they hung on the balcony. Maybe we made an impression. They moved back. I don't think this place is 100 meters. Next time I will say something. Not going will not solve the problem.
One of the politicos tried to get the government to repeal the law. He said it was not right to hire vigilantes to patrol and arrest people for smoking. Better that the city should concentrate on the horrific carbon monoxide expelled from cars, trucks, and buses. Why can't they do both?
I went to my favorite Armenian restaurant last week. I love this place. The only thing I did not like was choking down smoke with my hummus and tabuli. The same in the sushi place up the street. I can eat and truly enjoy my food. The funny thing is that I used to sit outside the cafes so I did not have to eat smoke. Now all the smokers are outside.
Yesterday after Mataderos we stopped in to Las VIoletas. On weekends they serve a tea. The place at times has been so smokey that I refused to go in. Yesterday the 5 of us stayed for almost 2 hours laughing and enjoying our coffees. When I went upstairs to the bathroom I looked out over the restaurant. A solitary man was smoking in the back. As I turned away, the woman at the table next to him said something to him. He stabbed his cigarette in his plate. Got up, left some bills on the table and walked outside the restaurant....Buenos Aires libre de humo.