Holy Smoke, Batman!

The restaurant was packed full. A push-chair jammed up against our table made escape difficult. There were families with small children, a mix of ages, young couples, well-heeled fifty-somethings and groups of forty-somethings like us. The waiters were impossibly handsome- and this wasn’t even a gay place, and nowhere near Chueca. We were in Huertas, at Lamucca, apparently the ‘hottest’ new place in Madrid, possibly because it has a Trainspotting poster on the wall on the way downstairs to the loo, and industrial toilets where the tap is a rusty tube over a wooden barrel, activated by standing with one’s hands underneath the spout. The food was decent, the music good, the décor smart, and the atmosphere lively. But there was something that jarred and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t until late into the meal, probably because we’d all just come back from the UK and therefore hadn’t noticed at first, that somebody turned in their chair, and said, in an awed voice,

‘Look…. nobody’s smoking….’ We looked around. The cavernous space was clear, no haze hanging over our heads, you could see the ceiling and the far walls, and the people sitting opposite you. Not one person had a cigarette on. It was glorious and unnerving at the same time. For a few seconds I wasn’t sure where I was, which country I was in. Surely this couldn’t be the result of the no-smoking law just passed? The Spanish were actually taking heed! This was it, finally, the Brave New World where you could breathe clean air, where non-smokers’ rights were respected, where people obeyed the law…. Like I said, it was quite unnerving. I thought Hell would freeze over before people stubbed out their fags in public in Spain, but here it is, and apparently it’s happened.

Later, at the Ponce’s house, even he, a confirmed smoker, enthused about the new law. He had been out a couple of times in Madrid since the ban.

’It’s great, you can see the ceiling, you can see across the bar, you don’t stink when you leave, your eyes don’t hurt… everywhere smells nice and fresh. I went to the loo in a club and thought this is going to reek, and do you know what, for the first time in Madrid I smelled perfume, air freshener, it was all fresh and clean smelling, like incense or something….and…. And there aren’t fag ends all over the floor everywhere you go. Not one ashtray! Unbelievable.’ he reported, his eyes glittering with excitement. He was right. The city is markedly different already. He did add,

‘It kind of doesn’t feel like Spain any more though….’ But all tyrannies are briefly missed just after their passing, until people realise how much better off they are. This is just normal, healthy nostalgia.

I had heard of the ban, it had been spoken of for many months, but knowing the Spanish attitude to being told what to do, and having seen the ineffectual last ban, which changed precisely nothing, except bar and restaurant owners spending a fortune on constructing no-smoking areas, and small signs appearing on the doors of bars stating that ‘it is permitted to smoke here’, I thought this new law would come and go, unheeded as previous attempts had been. It seems to have been planned sensibly, coming into force on the 2nd January rather than the first, to avoid the overlap of New Year’s Eve into Jan 1st, and the Big Night Out. But here it was, no smoking in public. It had arrived and apparently it was working.

I am not familiar with the ins and outs of this new law, and there has been some propaganda. What I do know is that if you are caught smoking in a public place, like a bar or restaurant, you will be fined 30 euros. The establishment, on the other hand, will be charged a fine of 600 euros. Somebody has to report the smoker or the restaurant, and this is where it could get tricky to enforce: inspectors must them come and inspect, and find someone smoking to enforce a fine. But there must also be no evidence of smoking- ashtrays, ash, fag ends on the floor, etc. Esperanza Aguirre, the Iron Lady President of Madrid local government, had been heard to sabotage the ban recently on television, in answer to disgruntled complaints from the catering industry, who see this ban as their death knoll. She was heard stating that the government would not actually enforce the laws, in the same way she has tried to sabotage other statutes and laws passed by the Socialists. But people are obeying the law anyway. There were rumours: I was told that it will now be illegal to smoke inside your own car, especially if there are children in it, and that it will be illegal to smoke within a certain distance of playgrounds. A parent complained to me that she thought this was ridiculous, after all, this would mean if she took her small children to the park to play she would have to stand fifty feet away to smoke. The idea that perhaps she might not smoke while taking her kids to the park apparently hadn’t occurred to her.

Three days later, sitting at a local bar in Lavapies, a typical Spanish place that does great home-cooked tapas, I notice the clear air, the lack of smoke, the absence of ashtrays. A man perches on a bar stool looking forlorn, as though not sure any more why he is here. Perhaps he isn’t a smoker but he looks bewildered, at a loss with his hands, and has a sallow, grey complexion. On the television the local news reports that Sanidad (the Health Service) will now subsidise nicotine patches and schemes to help people give up smoking. The kitchen porter, a young lad with a shaved head, threads his way through the wooden tables and stands outside in the rain on his cigarette break. He returns with a grin and a shrug. A woman who I have seen before, a local in here, sits at the bar with her son and his dog. I see her holding a cigarette and think –Ok, here we go… but on closer inspection I see it is a false cigarette, one of those metallic ‘stop-smoking’ aids. Even the transsexual waitress who has a smoker’s face and voice, is not smoking inside as usual, though she has just demanded a cigarette and slung her green wool coat around her shoulders and headed out into the wet and the cold. In the doorway of the bar opposite there are a couple of people huddling and smoking in the rain. Inside, on the floor around our feet there are a few stray paper serviettes, some crumbs, and a twist of plastic wrapping. Otherwise the floor is clean.

I feel a pang of nostalgia myself. Can this really be Spain? I wanted this to happen, but it seems unreal now that it is. What I have always liked about Spain is that it’s different from anywhere else, rebelliously, staunchly, irrepressibly different, At least there is a huge television screen blaring away above the bar, two one-arm bandits flashing and providing an instant epileptic fit to viewers, one of them illustrated with busty cartoon tarts in micro-bikinis. At least there is the stink of cooking fat coming from the kitchen, a small ugly dog with a displaced jaw, who belongs to the transsexual waitress, a wall full of greasy ham legs, a tray of illuminated tripe and sausages, paper tablecloths over the checked cloth ones, framed bullfighting photos of ‘El Cid’, titled ‘Arte puro’ (poetry in motion) and ‘Asi se torea’ (that’s how you do it). At least there is an ultra-violet fly-trap suspended above a naïve-art (or plain bad, depending on your tastes) oil painting of a vase of flowers, a lime green payphone on the wall reminding me of the times I had to call my mother before mobiles, before locutorios (internet cafes/telephone exchanges), feeding coins into its greedy mouth and shouting over the one-arm bandits and the talking cigarette machines, the shouting customers and barmen, the sheer operatic cacophony of the Spanish bar. At least there is crockery as thick as your finger that can be slammed down with a satisfying smack! onto the counter top. At least there is a pale blue plastic waste paper bin at the corner of the bar, under the tv screen, there is a photographic sign behind the bar advertising unappetising multicolour plates of grease, there are plastic toothpick dispensers and metal paper serviette dispensers, there is a large vase of garish plastic flowers, and now the transsexual waitress is sitting at the bar tucking into a plate of ‘callos’ (tripe) and drinking a bottle of Mahou.

At least there is all this. Madrid is safe for the time being. I overheard a friend describe it recently:

‘Madrid’s an adolescent city. The type of place that attracts adolescent characters, it’s perfect for kids, I mean, you can drink all night, you can smoke everywhere, everyone’s off their head on drugs all the time, you can chuck your litter on the floor because someone will always come along and tidy it up after you, you can basically do whatever you like and nobody gives a shit. Not a very grown-up place, but great when you’re a teenager…’

Well, Madrid has taken its first baby steps toward joining the other European capitals as a big boy. And growing up normally means letting go of old habits that really aren’t all that good for you. Let’s see how long it lasts: last time it was about three weeks before people started totally ignoring the ban. In the meantime I propose to be out and about breathing clean air in the bars and cafes and supporting my local businesses, to help prove to them that business will not, in fact, collapse if you stop smokers smoking. We are saying goodbye to one of the things that made Spain really Spain, that made it stand out from other countries. But there are plenty of other less harmful and unpleasant quirks that Spain has, and will always have to offer. I remember when I gave up smoking full-time, thinking ‘But all the interesting people are smokers, the rebels, the mavericks, they’re all smokers, not goody-goodys.’ Eventually I realised it’s perfectly feasible to be a rebel and not kill yourself with tobacco to do it. You can be a non-smoking rebel too. Spain is not Spain just because everybody smokes. As the tourist board pointed out, ‘Spain is different’ and it can still be different without everybody smoking everywhere.

2 Responses to “Holy Smoke, Batman!”

  1. Oh,bliss,no smoking in bars and restaurants.I feel a flight booking coming on.Thanks for the brilliant description of life in Madrid bars.I can smell the grease from here.

  2. Trainspotting poster,eh? Cool,huh? What’s that 1995? Cutting edge really,almost like the devotees of the Velvet Underground or those having orgasms over Lou Reed.Next time I speak to my 16 to 25 year-old pupils I’ll see if they are impressed.
    Anyway,good to hear there is another Lamucca-the one I know and like is off Calle Pez

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