When I first moved to Paris, in 2001, I was a sporadic smoker, and since all the French friends I made were not just smokers but heavy smokers, my consumption of cigarettes shot up accordingly. But at first, I had trouble finding places in Paris that actually sold cigarettes. Some bars sold them – but not all bars. Most newsagents didn’t sell them – but a few newsagents did. Sometimes you even stumbled across a dedicated bureau de tabac, but as a retail system it all seemed very hit and miss. Since smoking seemed to be a French national sport, this struck me as very odd.
It took a long time for the penny to drop, and it now seems incredible that I didn’t work it out earlier, but then I have always been a bit doolally when it comes to practical details. Places that sold tobacco were designated by a cylindrical red or orange sign called a “carotte” – French for carrot, for obvious reasons. Most of them light up after dark, making them very easy to spot.
Three years ago I moved to Belgium, and now hardly smoke at all (just the occasional one filched from an increasingly small pool of smoker friends when I’ve been drinking) but I still miss those carottes. So I’ve been taking photographs of them during trips back to Paris. Even if you have never touched a cigarette in your life, you have to admit they are rather beautiful.
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