Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Coupla Skopskos and Rodeos

I was looking for some action
but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol
--Oasis, “Cigarettes & Alcohol”

If there’s one thing I now know for sure, it’s this:  it sucks to be an asthmatic in Eastern Europe.  I once read that, in these parts, one is never far from a lit cigarette.  In my experience that couldn’t be more true, as for the past few months it seems like a big, irritating cloud of cigarette smoke has followed me from the north of Russia all the way on down to the Balkan Peninsula.

And it’s not just that everyone smokes; it’s also that everyone smokes everywhere:  in restaurants; on buses; in bars; in coffeehouses; in airports; and even inside the main courthouse in Bulgaria, where I walked in on two ladies taking their cigarette break in the bathroom.  You generally don’t encounter something like that back in the States, and certainly not in fresh-air-obsessed California, from where I hail.

A cigarette-butt receptacle in
the shape of lungs on a Skopje street.
So it’s been something of a shock to the respiratory-system over here.  And worse:  it’s clipped my social-butterfly wings something awful.  Here’s why:

I have something that I call “childhood asthma”—which maybe isn’t an actual medical condition, but what I mean is:  at some point I grew out of the asthma attacks I used to have as a child, and nowadays my prescription inhaler generally collects dust until the rare occasion when someone blows cigarette smoke directly into my face; then I might have to take a puff for two.  Before this trip, in fact, my last inhaler went largely unused and had long since expired, so I had to up the prescription.  Right now I’m carrying two inhalers and each one, according to the label, is good for 200 puffs.

On my very first night abroad—in St. Petersburg, Russia—I got caught in a smoke-filled room and was forced to take Puff Nos. 1 and 2.   It was then that I decided that I must be careful, and to take better care to cordon myself off from smoke-filled situations going forward.  With 24 weeks on the road ahead, the last thing I wanted to do was run out of puffs and find myself in a scene out of Hand That Rocks The Cradle, struggling for breath with my lips turning blue in a country where I couldn’t speak the language.  From that day forward I began to keep meticulous track of the “Puffs Taken” in my travel journal, so I’d know when the end for my inhalers was near.

As a consequence, I’ve been completely missing out on the bar scene.  Smoking in bars is widely banned back home, but the same isn’t true here, and even when the law does formally prohibit it, most people choose just to break the law.  So I’ve stayed in while others have gone out, and sometimes that makes me feel bad.  I’m recalling one scene in particular from L’viv, Ukraine:  it was 10:00 p.m., and my lively Italian roommate was just headed out for the night in search of a bar and, presumably, some action.  Meanwhile, I had already brushed my teeth and was curled up in my bunk with a book about the Cambodian genocide.  I realized then that there was something seriously wrong with that picture, but still, I woke up in the morning with another potentially fun night having passed me by.

Then, in Bulgaria, things got worse.  For almost two weeks I stayed in a hostel that also owned a bar down the street, and every night our host would come around and pass out coupons for free drinks at the bar.  Each night I would take one, thinking, I really should go.  But I knew the bar would be filled with chain-smokers, so I struggled over what to do.

Now, before I go on, let me pause and say a contextual word about my own drinking habits.  When asked, I always say “I’m not really a drinker,” meaning—apart from the occasional glass of wine—you generally won’t find me with a drink in my hand.  I realized long ago—perhaps somewhere in the middle of a keg stand back at the college frat house—that I really don’t like the taste of beer, or most kinds of alcohol for that matter, so generally I'd rather hang out in coffee shops or movie theaters as opposed to bars.

I never did go to the bar in Sofia--where the party was always happening--and I've come to regret that because I feel I missed out some good, fun times.  So the other day I got to thinking.  I checked my journal and saw that—because I’d been so careful—I’d barely used any puffs from my inhaler, and with only eight weeks left of the journey, I had lots of room to move.  I decided it was high time that I hit a bar, and give beer another try.  And while I was at it, I planned to take up smoking, so I could really fit in with the crowd.  I know it seems crazy, but that’s what life on the road will do.

Earlier in the week here I spotted an extra lighter in the common room and last night I filched it on my way out the door for my evening stroll near the lake.  On the way back around, I found a convenience store and stepped in for a pack of smokes, feeling like the cool kid in school.  I stood for a few seconds considering the choices on the rack above when the clerk, an older gentleman who spoke English, asked, “What kind do you smoke?”

I really hadn’t prepared for such a question, so I just answered honestly.  “Actually, I don’t smoke, but I’m looking to start tonight—what do you recommend?”  He looked at me, seemingly dumbfounded that a 40-year-old woman from America had chosen this night on the shores of Lake Ohrid to pick up smoking.

I broke the silence.  “What kind do you smoke?” I asked, in return, knowing he must smoke, because everyone here smokes.  He pulled a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket and showed me.  “I smoke these,” he said, pointing to the word “BOSS” emblazoned on the front. 

“Are they Macedonian?” I asked, thinking if I could smoke a local cigarette, perhaps I could ratchet this nutty experience into a touristy one as well.  His weren’t Macedonian, but he pointed me to a brand that was, called “Rodeo.”  I saw that there were a few kinds:  silver, blue, and gold.  I didn’t know the difference, so I just picked the blue, and paid the man his 65 denars.  That’s $1.51 per pack—totally cheap in comparison to home—and probably another reason why everyone here smokes.

I headed down to a bar called Stils Caffé on the main strip, took a seat outside, and ordered a bottle of Skopsko—the local Macedonian beer.  The waitress brought it to me with a glass; I poured it in and fished the lighter from my bag while I waited for the head to subside.  I felt a little nervous—almost in a ridiculous, child-like way—but I was also excited to finally be part of the in-crowd.

It took a couple flicks of the lighter to get the first cigarette fully lit, but eventually I managed it, and was able to take my first long drag.  Immediately my head went light, and my hands started to shake a bit.  Must be the nicotine, I thought, now thoroughly amused with myself.  An asthmatic; smoking.

By this time, a group sat down at the next table; all smokers, of course, and Rodeo Blues to boot, I noticed.  I sat, drinking my beer and smoking my cigarette, while one guy, reminiscent of a young Dom Deluise, stood up from the table and began wildly gesticulating some story in Macedonian to his three friends.  They began to laugh hysterically, and the whole scene made me laugh out loud too.  The guy telling the story noticed my interest, and from that time forward included me in his range of vision as he kept on spinning his humorous tales for everyone in earshot.  And just like that, my social life in Macedonia turned around.  Of course, I didn’t understand a word of what was said, but no matter—I was smoking and drinking and hanging out, just like everyone else.

I ordered a second beer and lit up another cigarette, but by the time I took the second drag off that one, I felt faint and worried that if I kept on, eventually I wouldn’t be able to get up from the table.  I snuffed the cigarette out in the ashtray and finished the beer.  I was now half in the bag from just the two, pathetically, and decided it was time for the bill.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t feeling the effects of the smoking in my lungs, but in my heart I knew, it was time to kick my short-lived smoking habit cold turkey, and for good.  I got up to leave and offered one of the girls in the group the remainder of my pack, saying, “You can have these; I’ve decided to quit.”  For some reason, this made everyone laugh.  I laughed too, feeling like the life of the party again, even if for a fleeting moment.

I don't know if it's really true, but I once heard that when a smoker quits—as I have—any damage done over the period of time smoked can be completely reversed over that same period of time not smoking.   So, in other words, if a person had smoked for three years, and then stays quit for three years, his lungs would essentially be back to their pre-smoking condition.

Last night I got to the bar around 9:00 p.m. and was home by 10:30, so I figure, under the above theory, by midnight my lungs were back to their original condition.  But I wanted to be sure, so this morning I gave them a couple huffs off the inhaler and, for good measure, took them for a long, tranquil walk near the lake for some fresh air.  This also gave me time to think about all the fun I’d had in my life without Skopskos and Rodeos in the mix.  There had been lots of good times, I thought, feeling content and fortunate to be breathing in the new spring air, sober and smoke-free.