I have recently been on a school exchange trip to New York, and then I stayed on for a few extra days with my family. I had been looking forward to the trip for a long time and it was very exciting and interesting. Of course I noticed lots of cultural differences between Switzerland and America but for this blog I am just going to talk about the different attitudes to smoking, but it does involve other things as well.
There were sixteen people in our group, aged between sixteen and nineteen plus two teachers who were about thirty years old. Altogether there were ten women and eight men. Twelve of us were regular smokers and another three were occasional smokers. So the first thing we noticed when we got off the plane after a very long journey was that it is very difficult to find anywhere you are allowed to smoke. Inside the airport it was impossible and even outside it was difficult to find a spot where people didn’t shout at us for smoking. Not the most friendly welcome considering we’d been about ten hours without a cigarette and some of us were a bit desperate!
We stayed with host families. My host family were lovely and very hospitable. The family consisted of a mother and father and two children a bit younger than me, the girl was 15 the boy was 13. Non of them smoked, which was okay and it would never have occurred to me to smoke in their home anyway. However, on the first day the father had a private chat with me and said he knew it was normal for Europeans to smoke but he would appreciate it if I never smoked in front of his children. I agreed of course. Later that evening he gave me a key and an ashtray and showed me how to let myself out into a back ally behind their house so that I could smoke after the children had gone to bed!
It did make me feel a bit strange though, as if I had to lie and keep secrets from the children of my host family. Truthfully I never smoked in front of them, but of course they weren’t stupid and they knew I smoked. I got on well with the daughter and I found out that she did smoke sometimes. I felt like I was keeping secrets from everyone. It also seemed strange because when I was her age I was already smoking regularly and I didn’t have to keep it secret from my mother or my family; they just accepted it as part of growing up. I don’t think the daughter of the family felt comfortable about keeping her smoking secret from her parents, I think it just made a barrier between them in what was in all other ways an honest and loving family.
The subject of smoking came up in a class discussion we had at the exchange school in New York (well New Jersey actually, we were just across the border from New York City). This discussion made me see clearly the difference in attitudes to smoking we had compared with our American hosts. To sum it up we had the attitude that smoking “can” be bad for your health and that smokers are more likely to get some diseases, but that smoking is a lifestyle choice that has some advantages as well as the well known disadvantages. The Americans seemed to think that smoking was “always” bad for your health and that you will certainly die of a smoking related disease if you start smoking. Moreover they thought that only stupid, bad or rebellious people ever started smoking. They seemed a bit perplexed that we were not particularly stupid, bad or even rebellious!
One thing that seemed odd to me was that both at school and in our host families they didn’t seem to think it was odd that you could have a gun in the house, but they thought cigarettes were really dangerous!
Another thing that seemed odd to me was the political and philosophical attitudes. We will not mention Donald Trump, but generally in Europe we get the impression that Americans are (or think they are) more libertarian and individualistic than us. But when it comes to personal choice about smoking, it doesn’t seem that way. They seem determined that everybody should have the same opinion on that subject.
When the school part of the trip was over, Sophie and Cassie flew out to join me for some shopping and sightseeing for a few days. For that part, we booked into a hotel. I thought at least there we would be able to book a room where we were allowed to smoke. But it seems no such rooms exist anywhere in New York! Not only that, but there wasn’t even a smoking area in the hotel lobby. We had to go outside to smoke and even in the street there seemed to be lots of places where smoking was forbidden or where we got disapproving looks from people.
One evening my mother Sophie got into an argument with a total stranger about smoking. We had gone out to eat in a nice restaurant “downtown” and Sophie and I popped out for a cigarette in the street (because you couldn’t smoke in the restaurant obviously). This woman started talking to us but when she found out we were a mother and daughter she started criticising my mother for allowing me to smoke at all (I’m 17 FFS!) and she accused Sophie of being an evil woman who was leading her own daughter to death! I had to drag Sophie back inside before she could fully demonstrate her vocabulary of English swear words!
I suppose the Americans think they have the right attitude to smoking and that in Europe we have got it wrong. But even though I had a great time in the USA and really liked many of the people I met (especially my host family) I came away feeling very European and actually quite pleased to be European. It’s just my opinion but I think we are actually more grown up and more open minded over here. And I don’t think our lives are any shorter than the clean living, non-smoking Americans.