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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.
The Partagas we smoked in Paris is nothing like the Montecristo Edmundo I reviewed last week. It offers a mélange of flavors, changing puff by puff. The smoke is rich and thick, the flavors spicy and unrelenting. And the draw is something every cigar maker should try to emulate.
I could taste the first bit of pepper right on the cigar itself. The first draw hit me with vanilla and a touch of cinnamon, but with a powerful flavor that told me I was in for a full-bodied smoking experience.
A milk-chocolatey wrapper covers this six-inch-plus cigar with a 52-ring gauge. It’s not the most attractive smoke on earth: soft in places, more than a few veins on the surface, and an overall construction that left me unimpressed. But the taste explosion more than compensated.
“The collection of French intel is generally known as ‘la piscine’ — the swimming pool — and it’s a collection of about 16 different agencies. Through a Belgian aristocrat, I was introduced to a senior counterterrorism officer. He was trying to decide whether or not to trust me.
“After lunch, the two of us walked to this ‘cigar cave‘” — a French wine cellar that had been converted into a cigar shop. “Floor to ceiling, it was packed with every Cuban cigar — and only Cubans — that you could imagine.”
“I was looking at the cigars,” Miniter recalled, “and he was watching me.”
“I bypassed the Cohibas and went right for a small torpedo, a Bolivar bellicoso fino. The Frenchman watched me examine the color and the plume. He said nothing and saw everything.
“‘Let me see if you know something about life,’ he said next. We’d already had a couple of hours of conversation about Iraq — this was on the eve of the war. He was clearly testing me, and if I passed he could be a fantastic source.
“He asked me this question: ‘What is the single most worthwhile story by Ernest Hemingway?’
“We had not discussed Hemingway at all,” Miniter continued. “The question was a bolt out of the blue. So I guessed: ‘The Short, Happy Life of Francis Macomber.‘ It’s a hunting story set in Africa. He shoots his wife.
“He exhaled a cloud of smoke and said, ‘Yes, you’re right.'”
“For the next couple of hours we discussed the covert operations of French operatives in Northern Iraq preparing for an expected U.S. invasion there,” Miniter told me.
Despite a stiff Paris breeze and the cigar’s wonky construction, my cigar’s ash was only now ready to drop. The Partagas held together extremely well.
Some of what Miniter learned from his French intelligence friend ended up in his 2003 best-seller “Losing Bin Laden.” Although I met Miniter less than a year ago, I knew him already through this book about how the Sudanese offered the al-Qaida leader to the Clinton administration in early 1996 — fifteen years before 9/11. Sadly, Clinton took a pass.
The final third of the Partagas P-2 was full of penetrating spice and, to my surprise, a hint of lemon zest. Overall, its flavor profile gets more fiery as it burns. By the end, you might crave some ice — or my favorite, a sip of cold apple juice — to cool off the taste buds and cleanse the palate.
Talk of cool liquids reminded my smoking companion of another cigar story from his travels. He was in Burma, researching the recruitment of child soldiers.
“I had crossed the Moie River into Burma with the ‘Karen’ rebels early one morning. We timed the crossing to evade Burmese Army patrols.”
He was traveling with Jim Jacobson, a former Reagan administration official who became a missionary in Southeast Asia with Christian Freedom International.
The Karen, pronounced “Kah-REN,” are a tribe who converted to Christianity in the early 1800s when Burma was run by the British. Back then, a blonde-haired American missionary had shown up with a gold-leaf Bible. This just happened to match the profile of the “golden man with a golden book” that the tribesmen had been told, through centuries of tradition, to await as a prophet. They all became Christians through a quirk of fate.
In the rainy jungle, Miniter became dehydrated.
“I got dizzy, I had a headache, and then I collapsed,” he said. “The rebels decided to leave me behind with an old Burmese physician, Dr. Mohammed Singh, who was traveling with the group.
“The two of us had to keep moving or risk capture. I had sweated out all my electrolytes, so my muscles were cramping and it was hard to bend or move. We managed to make it up a series of muddy hills and through more riverbeds and jungle terrain for about four miles. It took eight or nine hours because of my condition.
“We finally came to a Karen village and I passed out.”
Dr. Singh kept making Miniter drink electrolytes and water, he said, and hung a mosquito net over him.
Jacobson had brought new Karen-language Bibles for the villagers, who otherwise would have shared a single book among them.
“I woke up at one point during the night and found candles all around me. The villagers were praying over me, for my health, using the new Bibles.”
“I woke up again later, and everyone around me — the villagers, the rest of my traveling group — everyone was snoring. Except for two villagers, who were standing watch.”
In a bamboo hut perched on stilts over a bog where the village’s water buffalo lived, the two were making a fire on a pile of rocks on the bamboo floor. In the flames was a tea kettle.
“They were holding AK-47s and smoking these mint-green-colored cheroots,” Miniter recalled.
The Burmese villagers offered him a cheroot, but he declined.
“I had smoked them before and they were terrible,” he said. “But I produced a cigar from my pack, cut it, and lit it.”
“I didn’t speak their language, and they didn’t speak mine. So after a few moments of looking at each other, the three of us drank tea and smoked cigars. Wordlessly. We made our silent cross-cultural connection as the sun came up.”
With our train about to depart, Miniter and I walked into the Gare de Lyon. I asked if he had one more story to share — perhaps something about a fellow writer.
He immediately thought of the late Christopher Hitchens.
“Hitchens and I were coming back to his apartment on the hill above Dupont Circle one day. As we went through the door, I asked, ‘Mind if I smoke a cigar?'”
“Hitchens laughed and said, ‘Of course not. But it amuses me that you always ask.'”
Next up will be a visit to a cigar shop in Washington to speak with a legendary tobacconist about his business and how the cigar world has changed.