By MARIA NICOLOSI
While smoking my usual cigarette after work with fellow orientation leaders, we were approached by the guard and told to put out our cigarettes and go off campus. I believed it was a joke and laughed, thinking it was that cruel Italian humor after a long day at work. But I was the only one laughing. So the group of Italians and Americans took their mediocre 60-cent coffees and started asking why as they moved to the exit. We re-lit our cigarettes, surprised, and just stared at each other, completely confused.
The following Friday, the student body received an email from the President Franco Pavoncello’s office stating,
“… the Executive Cabinet of JCU has decided that as of today, January 16, 2015, smoking will be prohibited in the Lemon Tree Courtyard. Although most American campuses have NO SMOKING throughout their premises, both internal and external, up until now JCU has permitted smoking in open spaces around the university.”
It is true that the Nordic countries and United States have moved toward an idea of a healthier lifestyle, which implies low rates of cigarette consumption and smoke-free campaigns. But JCU is an international establishment full of people from 66 countries, all with extremely different smoking cultures.
After all, tobacco is a new-world crop that Christopher Columbus brought from the newly-discovered Americas in the 16th century. The plant spread from Canada to Argentina and soon made its way into Europe, Asia and Africa.
The prominent role of smoking in history has led people to produce strong images in the media about smokers, especially in cinema. Smoking, to many, is simply seen as cultural. Humphrey Bogart, James Dean, Audrey Hepburn romanticized the cigarette in their films. In Italy, apart from the aesthetic benefit of “looking cool,” smoking is a sign of maturing into adulthood.
Over 20 percent of Italians smoke as part of a daily ritual; I may even go as far to say they invented the coffee and cigarette rule. Any time the smell of espresso is in the air — in the morning, afternoon or evening — an Italian will reach for a cigarette. Italians are notorious for smoking as soon as they exit a train or airplane, at bars during aperitivo, after a meal or when a friend lights one up. Although the number of smokers in Italy is declining, as it is becoming less trendy, it is still engraved into the culture. Needless to say, plenty of degree-seeking students were surprised by the administration’s choice to ban smoking in the courtyard.
In a poll, students where asked if they smoked cigarettes, 53 percent reported no; 14 percent reported occasionally, and 33 percent reported they smoke. In other words, a third of degree-seeking students were heartbroken by the new rule. The courtyard was a smoker’s heaven.
Smoking in the courtyard allowed strangers to bond; sometimes the familiar ritual of lighting a cigarette is enough to break formal barriers that may have existed otherwise. With a cigarette in hand, I have talked to Russian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Maltese, Malagasy and Georgian students.
Faculty have also expressed their past admiration for the courtyard.
“For years, when it was warm, this was my office, where I could meet students and colleagues and talk about university and life, and usually share a cigarette.”
Even though smoking is unhealthy, it does have a purely social aspect. Before coming to John Cabot, I was not a smoker, but it soon became clear that it was a great way to meet new people. As soon as I walked into Guarini, the first thing I would do is check the courtyard for any friends and classmates because the JCU community I knew was born and lived in the courtyard.
Smoking, in a way, united people, by becoming an opportunity to bond and form deeper relationships. A cigarette break in the courtyard during finals week meant taking time off studying to realize that maybe the world was not going to end after all. All it would take was a silent nodding of the head towards the door in the library to say Let’s go smoke – let’s go enjoy the peace of the courtyard over a cheap coffee and ciggy.
The courtyard was the place where you could always find someone to give you a smoke and the time where you could help a friend in need by offering one of your own.
Smoking in the courtyard brought students together; it was a place where new friendships were formed by the exchange of diverse ideas. It was a place of intellectual inquiry, and where professors could be found. And, it was a place of calm as students crammed for last-minute reviews, cigarette in hand. In moments of high stress, especially finals season, I would not have been able to survive the long hours spent in the library without the short, blissful moments smoking a cigarette.
I know cigarettes are unhealthy — every pack reminds me of it — but what is the meaning of life if I cannot enjoy those few intimate moments with friends and a cigarette?