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PARIS — The city of lights is not Washington, D.C. The boulevards are actual boulevards, for one thing. And while Parisians aren’t always the best-humored people on the planet (just try calling them singes capitulards mangeurs de fromage), the trains do run on time.
I was traveling last week with best-selling author Richard Miniter, and we found ourselves waiting on Saturday for one of those trains — the high-speed “TGV” — at Gare de Lyon in Paris. With a bit of time to spare, we scoped out a table at the Café de la Plage for coffee, tea and cigars. In this case, the Partagas Serie P-2, a Cuban smoke received from a friend as a gift. (Yes, it’s legal.)
Miniter’s latest book, “Leading From Behind,” is due out August 21. I reported Monday morning on a bombshell from the chapter about the killing of Osama bin Laden. (RELATED: Book: Obama canceled Bin Laden ‘kill’ raid three times at Jarrett’s urging)
You can smoke all over Paris, just not indoors. There are brasseries and cafes at every major intersection, and they all have outdoor seating with ashtrays.
Washington, D.C. has a few smoker-friendly enclaves, but very few sidewalk cafes. Why can’t the nation’s capital figure this out? Ah, yes: because that might distract from the healthfulness of the Obamas’ organic vegetable garden or the USDA’s “Meatless Mondays” nonsense. The more our government postures as health nuts, the more they drive pleasure underground.
Often those health nuts have something to hide. A decade ago, the mayor of Friendship Heights, Md., a close-in Washington suburb, waged a campaign to outlaw outdoor smoking on sidewalks. The measure gained some momentum until he was arrested for fondling a young boy inside a restroom at the National Cathedral.
The French would never try to snuff out sidewalk tobacco, especially if Jerry Sandusky were leading the charge. Mistresses aside, they do have standards.
The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto, of “Best of the Web” fame, introduced Miniter to fine cigars in 1991. Since then, he has tasted his way through hundreds of puros in some 100 countries and nearly every time zone on the planet.
A faint hint of nutmeg and cream wafted through the Paris breezes as I raised a wooden match to the cigar’s business end. While we toasted the feet of our mid-day piramides, I asked him to share a few of his favorite cigar stories.
“I was one of the first Western reporters into Darfur,” he said. “I talked my way onto a Sudanese military flight from Khartoum to North Darfur.”
“The pilots were vodka-drinking Russians. I met the captain, smoking under the shadow of the wing of the Antonov cargo plane. I lit up a cigar and we talked in English. And he said, ‘OK, I’ll get you and your friend seats, but when we take off please join me in the cockpit for coffee and vodka.’ Yes, coffee and vodka — and smoking — while he was flying the plane.
“So once we’re airborne,” he continued, “a crewman summons me to the front, where there were five crew members in this huge cockpit area. They actually had an open flame on a Bunsen burner gas jet to boil water for coffee and tea.”
“They offer me vodka, but we end up drinking coffee and smoking cigars. They have the two little side windows of the cockpit open for smoke to escape as we fly over the trackless Sahara.
“That week,” Miniter added, “I published the first interview ever done by a Western reporter with a Junjawid rebel chieftain.”
Junjawid is Arabic. It means “devil on horseback.” These were the people terrorizing everyone in Darfur.
Miniter’s story ran on the front page of the Sunday Times in London. Virtually every other Western reporter was stuck in Khartoum, holed up at the Hilton and begging for an internal transit visa. But the cargo captain was a smoker, and Miniter had something to light up.