The greatest single factor currently impeding our having a social life in Berlin? Surely, you would think, it'd be something enormous and immovable, like the language barriers (which are significant) or the constantly grey, wet weather. But nope. It's something much smaller, much more seemingly trivial.
In the year 2016, we didn't expect this to be that much of a problem. Most countries where we've lived or worked have implemented various smoking bans over the last few decades, making it possible to go about one's daily life without repeatedly inhaling secondhand smoke. This is good. Smoking kills, and even if you choose to do it yourself, you shouldn't be able to force bystanders to participate. (According to the EU Commission of Public Health, by conservative estimates over 79,000 adults, including 19,000 non-smokers, died in the EU in 2002 due to exposure to tobacco smoke at home and in their workplace.) Many people have asthma or other conditions which make exposure to secondhand smoke more serious. All in all, it's good that people are becoming more aware that they shouldn't necessarily impose their cigarette smoke on others.
Berlin, on the other hand, feels like it's stuck on a Mad Men set with everyone lighting up at lunch indoors. This is in part because Germany has some of the laxest policies on smoking in the EU &emdash; in fact, it's the only remaining country of the EU to not have a comprehensive nationwide smoking ban. A law introduced in 2007 did introduce a smoking ban in some public places and facilities: in federal institutions and the constitutional bodies of the federal government, in public transportation, and in passenger stations of public railways.* At least, in theory.
See, this is where the second part comes in, that very Berlin I-do-what-I-want, too-cool-for-you attitude. No one actually seems to give a flying fuck about theoretical smoking bans in public spaces, and I've lost count of how many times I've seen clusters of edgily-dressed Berliners wafting clouds of smoke around the RAUCHEN VERBOTEN signs on the U-Bahn platforms. The fines are low (individuals risk up to €100), and I've never seen them enforced. I recall seeing a large sign posted indoors at the Ausländerbehörde (where foreigners apply for visas) that threatened a possible €5 fine for smoking indoors (!). With such a low risk, everyone smokes, everywhere.
Because that's the other surprising thing &emdash; smoking is much more widespread among the population here. Germany has one of the highest per capita levels of cigarette consumption (1480 cigarettes per adult annually) in the world, significantly more than other countries where we've lived in the past, with the exception of my summers in Turkey. (Smoking at work was a huge problem there, too, but that's a different story.) In Berlin, smoking is still cool, and it seems to transcend demographic categories more easily than elsewhere. In the States, people I met who smoked were the exception; here, they're the rule.
And the frustrating thing is that this has been incredibly limiting. We keep trying to attend Meetup events that sound perfect, only to find that the French conversation group in the cute little candlelit bistro is going to be obscured by a haze of cigarette fumes, or that the queer girls we met last week are going dancing but of course the venue is filled with smoke. A few weeks ago we were so excited to finally hang out with some queers from an awesome lesbian Meetup group in a non-smoking wine bar. We had a great time chatting with everyone and making new friends. But when we asked about the next time they were meeting up? Another place with smoking indoors. Turned out we had caught them on the rare night that they weren't at a smoke-filled location.
Yes, there are some ways around this. When considering attending events, I've learned to ask in advance about whether smoking will be allowed indoors, and I've started calling ahead to restaurants. I asked my language-exchange partner not to smoke when we meet up weekly at a cafe to practice German and English. But the net result of this is that we go out less, hang out with others less. Ultimately, it's one of the most frustrating things about life in Berlin.
*In some parts of Germany, laws are stricter. Bavaria (in the south) in particular is known for the toughest regulations on smoking.