On my first visit to France, I fell in love with the country's tabacs, or tobacconists. Found in nearly every neighborhood in Paris, and usually at a strategic intersection near a métro station, les tabacs sell tobacco and much more. Métro tickets, phone cards, lottery tickets, stamps and, of course, cigarettes can be bought at these little mom-and-pop shops. You can also have un café, un verre du vin or a beer.
The atmosphere is usually décontracté (laid back) to the point of being scruffy. Regulars stand at the bar, sipping their pastis and clutching their Keno tickets while le patron rings up those stopping in for a cell phone recharge or a packet of Camels. Because le patron is almost unfailingly grumpy, I have to ask myself why I like these places.
It's definitely not the service that draws me, or the litter of cigarette butts on the floor, although is there anything more French than a mosaic tile floor from the 1950s covered with cigarette butts? Despite the ban on smoking in public establishments I still encounter this scene often, and frankly I can't picture France without it. But there are many things to like about les tabacs: the compressed pop music coming over the radio, the whoosh of the espresso machine, the coming and going of everyone in the neighborhood, the careful organization of things — the boxes of cigarettes, the lottery machine, the espresso cups and saucers and sugar and glasses for wine and for beer and the brightly-colored cell phone recharge cards. Everything is stacked and placed just so, so the owner doesn't have to turn to look for anything. He or she knows exactly where each item is, and it is always within arm's reach.
Maybe that's why I like les tabacs: they're cockpits or control centers, the center of the universe — at least in their particular neighborhood.