Re-Post: A Trip To China (Part One)

I am reposting this from 2013, as so few of you will have ever seen it. It is a very long post, of 2,390 words.

I had always wanted to see China. Ever since watching films as a child, and later reading about Marco Polo, Kublai Khan, and others, it seemed a place of mystery, and home to a totally different idea of culture. Later interest in the Boxer Rebellion, the Japanese invasion in the 1930’s, and the Communist dictatorship formed by Mao, and I was more than ready to go and see this legendary country. But it never happened.

Despite travelling to lots of other places, China had always seemed too daunting, too vast, and also too expensive. Over the years, I often wondered if I would ever get to see the Great Wall, The Forbidden City, and the other spectacles on offer.

In the late 1990’s, an old friend contacted me. He was working for an advertising agency, and he had been offered the management of the Audi contract, through an agency in Beijing. He was off to China, and he would be in touch, and let me know how it was there. His wife and son were going too, as it might be a long contract. After a period of settling in, and adjustment, he contacted me.

At the time, I was single, and living in London. I had recently moved to a flat in Camden, subsidised by being in my EMT job. I had a reasonable amount of savings, and a fair bit of disposable income, courtesy of that reasonable rent. I had two weeks holiday booked for September 2000, and with a bit of shift-jiggling, I could manage a few days either side as well. The world was my oyster, and I was looking to do something extravagant.

My friend suggested that I come to visit him in Beijing. He would put me up in his luxury high rise in the city centre. Although he would have to work, his wife would be around most days, (and I knew her already) and he would arrange some weekend trips, as well as some interesting evenings out after work. I made some enquiries, and found that I could fly direct, with British Airways, for around £700 return. With Visas, spending money, appropriate gifts for my friends, and a reasonable crop of souvenirs, I could definitely do fifteen days, for around £1500, maybe £2,000, at an excessive pinch. I decided to throw caution to the winds, and booked it all. I could never see a time in the future when I would have such an opportunity again. OK, it was ‘only’ Beijing, but as that was my first choice anyway, so what was the problem?

I went to Oxford Street, and booked a scheduled flight with British Airways, which came in at a shade under £650 for the chosen dates. I also applied for my visa, to be collected from the Chinese Consulate in Portland Place, a short walk from my flat. My friend was really happy that I was coming to visit. I went shopping in Camden, and bought his son a model car, and his wife some perfume. He would be content with booze, which I would get at the airport. I sorted my camera gear, ready for the photographic opportunity of a lifetime, and arranged all my leave, and finances.

When the day came, I was more than ready. I took a cab to Paddington Station, and the Heathrow Express out to the airport. It was nice to be travelling on a scheduled flight again, so much more civilised than some of the package tours that I had become accustomed to. It was a little disconcerting to be travelling alone, though the prospect of being collected by and staying with a good friend assuaged any concerns. The flight was long and uneventful, but very comfortable. My arrival in Beijing was exciting, but the time of day meant that my friend had to drop me at his flat and get off to work, arranging to meet four hours later for lunch.

I learned the first rule. Do not sit behind the cab driver with your window open. Despite a humid temperature in excess of 35 degrees, my old pal closed my window, and I soon discovered why. The Chinese spit. They do this constantly, and habitually. Everyone does it, from old men, children, housewives, to attractive young girls. All the time, day and night. Their culture demands spitting, to expel the things in their system that they believe are bad. They see nothing wrong with this, or with contaminating their walkways and paths with gobbets of spit. It is accepted, even encouraged. It is very different to what we regard to be acceptable behaviour, and it takes a great deal of getting used to.

I also discovered something else that I had not expected. Six-lane highways choked with cars, and wall to wall traffic. Tower block offices, western advertising signs, neon-lit garish illuminations. Subway, MacDonald’s, Starbucks, and any other Western-influenced product or establishment you can think of. Every high street bank familiar from the UK, and chain hotels from the same companies known so well here. I was left wondering what had happened to the China that I had imagined. I felt that I could have just as easily been in Chicago, or Hong Kong perhaps.

The flat, right in the heart of the business district, was luxurious. On the nineteenth floor, with panoramic views, tiled floors, and a well-staffed concierge entrance. I was taught my first words in Mandarin; ‘Neih Ho’, and ‘Shei Shei’. Hello, and thank you, both addressed to the immaculate staff in the foyer. I did not learn much more, save for something that sounded like ‘Jella Ting’, said to taxi drivers when you wanted them to pull over on the right. After settling in, I met my friend in Subway, of all places, for lunch. I told him that I was disappointed, that Beijing was too modern, too western. He assured me that I would see the ‘real’ China during my stay. He also told me about his contract and salary, and the fact that his Chinese female ‘boss’ was only earning $200 dollars a month, and she spoke three languages. She also supported her family on this salary, as well as running a new car, so she wasn’t doing too bad. However, this was only a tiny percentage of what he was getting, over $200,000 a year! So some indication of how economics worked there at the time. It was nice to see his wife and young son again, and we spent the first night in the flat, catching up.

The next day, his wife took me to the shopping district, and to a large department store. We went everywhere by taxi as it was very cheap, comparable to bus fares in the UK. I got cash from an ATM, a branch of my own bank in England, with the same pin number, and no formalities. I found the Yuan notes colourful, and the exchange rate was good. I bought cigarettes at half the price compared to England, and we went for a light lunch, in a reasonable outdoor restaurant that was acceptably cheap. Things that did prove to be expensive were red wine, and some western sweets that I bought for their son.

We ate at home again that night, and I was introduced to someone from the Turkish Embassy (my friend’s wife is Turkish) who was a heavy drinker, and a complete hedonist. My head was spinning, as here I was in China, and I was eating Turkish food, and getting drunk with an Englishman and a Turkish diplomat. I resolved to see more of the city, and decided that the next day would be spent exploring.

I started out early, and took the easy walk to Tianenmen Square. This was a long time after the televised demonstrations, and excessive reaction from the authorities, that have since given this place an infamous, rather than famous name. It is certainly huge, and home to many official buildings, heroic sculptures, and hundreds of tourists. I was a lone westerner that morning, and could feel what it was like to be so out of place. Opposite the square, the huge portrait of Chairman Mao, so often seen on TV, marks the entrance into the Forbidden City, the main destination for me that morning.

Built in the fifteenth century, this vast complex of almost 1,000 separate buildings was the Imperial Palace of Chinese emperors until 1924, when the last emperor was forced to leave. It has since been a museum, and an amazing one too. To go into detail would take a complete post in itself, but it is an overwhelming place that cannot all be seen in one visit, let alone one day. The entrance fee was very reasonable, and the large numbers of tourists, almost all Chinese, really did make it feel as if you were wandering around in a populated city, at the time of the Ming Dynasty.

The architecture is fully restored, and each level leads into the deeper depths of the city, to where the Imperial family would have resided. It is crammed with interesting statues and carvings, with the numerous buildings each housing exhibits. My camera was on overdrive, and I was so excited, I almost ignored the 35 degree heat that was sapping my energy. I stopped and bought water and a strange twisty bread confection from a vendor, and had a break. Carrying on later, I realised that I would never see it all, and even after almost five hours inside, I still felt that I had not done it justice.

On the way back in the late afternoon, I noticed how many cycles, mopeds, and motorcycles were on the roads, and alongside them too. They all seemed to be heavily laden, often having to be pushed instead of ridden, so high and wide were the loads. Crowds of brightly-uniformed children were getting off buses and coaches returning home from school, and street vendors were beginning to set up for the evening, in the streets around the main station. Crowds gathered around their stalls, which all seemed to be selling food. On closer examination, I realised that they were selling fried insects of some kind, grasshoppers, or similar. They were selling fast too, as hundreds of people walked around with the stiff paper cones, full of the crunchy creatures. And no, I was not tempted to try them.

As I strolled back to my friend’s flat in the business district, I took in the sights and sounds of the approaching rush hour. Thousands of people, and almost all of them, including children, and young women, spitting constantly. The traffic was already at fever pitch, and the strangely old-fashioned looking vans and trucks all belched black smoke into the sky. Looking across at the horizon, the pall of pollution was easy to see, hanging over the natural basin that Beijing is built in, like a cloud of low fog. I had to almost pinch myself. Here I was, wandering in Beijing, as if it was nothing. I could never have imagined this, thirty years earlier. It felt fantastic, but as I was alone, I had nobody to share it with. Perhaps the only downside to being a lone traveller, on that occasion.

That evening, we went to an expensive restaurant, housed on the penthouse floors of the same building my friend lived in. I was raving about my day, and how much I enjoyed this strange city. They were unhappy living there, they told me. They found the Chinese to be ‘difficult’, and were hoping for a transfer to somewhere else. They had not even bothered to visit the Forbidden City at that stage, though they did recommend a trip coming up that weekend that they had arranged, along with a group of diplomats from the Turkish Embassy and their families. I ate the best Chinese food that I had ever seen in that restaurant, though I confess to refusing a huge black scorpion, deep-fried, and offered as a complimentary starter. I just couldn’t do it. I had delicious braised eel, snake ‘cooked in its own blood’ (according to the translated menu), and various delicacies, best not elaborated on here. Other than the insects and arachnids, I did not refuse to try anything. We had numerous courses, and copious amounts of alcohol, and I went to bed thinking that it had been a great day indeed, one of the best ever.

The next morning, I took myself off to the famous street market, to buy souvenirs, and to get a feel of everyday life once again. I was a bit early, and many stalls and shops had not yet opened; but as soon as they saw me wandering around with a camera, and a presumably bulging wallet, they waved me in anyway. Disappointingly, most places specialised in clothes. Padded jackets, winter gloves and hats, ski wear, mittens, and waterproofs. This seemed strange in late summer, when I was sweltering, but this part of China does face harsh winters. I did buy a watch with Chairman Mao on it, his arms serving as hands. I still have it, but it no longer works, unfortunately. I had to haggle fiercely, even worse than in Egypt, or Istanbul. The start price was just laughable, hundreds of dollars. The whole transaction was carried out on a calculator, due to the language problems. After spending an eternity with this lady, I finally bought the watch for $10US, about £7 at the time. (My friends later told me that I was too easy, and should have paid no more than £1, but it was acceptable to me.)

I took a taxi to Sanlitun, the embassy district popular with ex-pats, to have coffee and lunch. Taxis were all metered, and no attempt was ever made to rip me off. If you gave the driver a tip, he would be very appreciative. Sometimes I could see them cruising the area, hoping to get me as a return fare, waving at me as they went past.

I had not even been there a week, and felt that I had seen and done so much. The rest of the trip will be covered in part two, otherwise this post will be far too long.

(Part Two to follow.)

Featured blogger: Suzan Khoja

Suzan is a young blogger who lives in India. She is a confirmed book lover who also tackles serious subjects on her blog, like body-shaming.

https://magicalbooklush.blog/

Anyone who has ever visited her blog or has been lucky enough to have her as a follower will be aware that she is fully-engaged, lively, friendly, and very entertaining. Her book reviews range from childhood favourites like comics, to serious classic novels such as Orwell’s ‘1984’. There is definitely something for everyone on her blog.

This is what she has to say about herself.

Be Free!!
These days all I hear is people don’t have time to read or don’t know what to read. People feel shy reading in public because they get labelled as ‘Nerds’ and are often insulted. Athletes and social butterflies who love reading hide to avoid embarrassment. I am here rebelling against those human shaming people that force readers to hide their love. They actually forget that they read everything including text messages to time on their watch. It’s a rebellion against the racism created by the cool people for the love of BOOKS, for ourselves. Join me in this rebellion, help me spread my word, help me encourage readers, help me bring out their best and loveable side. Books are the imaginary world we all need. It solves half of our problems. Click on that tiny button and join me for not only book reviews but many more things like reviews on apps, fashion, technology and the situations that usually occur in our lives. Join me for a nice chat with a cup of coffee and all your problems on the table.

She has some regular features, like ‘Bookish Friday’.

BOOKISH FRIDAY || IT’S READING TIME!!! {10}.

And ‘Literary Monday’.

BOOKWORM IS BACK!!! || LITERARY MONDAY.

There are author interviews too.

LAILA BHAIDANI’S INTERVIEW || AUTHORS’ INTERVIEWS.

More about her.


Hey guys, if you are reading this, thank you for your precious time. I love books, they have been my life since childhood. As I am the only child, I don’t have anyone to share my views, opinions and discuss what I like and dislike. This blog is like my mirror image. I post all my opinions about books, society and everything that comes to my heart. So if you like my blog please share it with me. Discuss your opinions on my blog and tell me your suggestions, I would love to hear you all. Thank you once again for reading.

Suzan also posts about Indian culture and celebrations, as well as family life, and the day to day routine. During the time of the Covid-19 pandemic, she has also written about the impact of the virus on India, and her own city.

Please take a moment to read more of her blog, and get to know her better.

Indian Bloggers.

A recent perusal of my blog stats has told me that my Indian readers are now the third most numerous, after the USA and Britain. This is undoubtedly helped by the fact that so many people in India speak English, and write their own blogs in English too.

As well as that, they represent a significant percentage of my blog followers, and many of them are fully-engaged bloggers who regularly comment on my posts. This pleases me a great deal, as we have hundreds of thousands of people from an Indian background living in the UK. When I lived in London, I met and worked with many, and was always interested in their culture. This not least because my dad spent a long time in India, serving there in WW2 from 1941-1946. He showed me numerous photos of his travels there, and regaled me with tales of that exotic land in my youth.

Sadly, I never got around to visiting any part of that country, and fear it may be too late for me to do that now. But through the wonder of blogging, I can see and hear the lives of people there, and appreciate the differences, good and bad.

I have featured some Indian bloggers and authors on this blog before, but I would like to do more.

So if you are one, and follow my blog, please think about sending me a guest post, telling me and all my readers about where you live, what you do, and what life is like for you in that vast country, with its huge population. If you are interested in doing that, then send me an email to petejohnson50@yahoo.com and I will let you know what is required.

Best wishes to you all, Pete.

The Quintessential Possession-my saree box

A wonderfully evocative post from Indian blogger Ritu Ramdev, about the importance of the Saree in her culture, and her own treasured Saree box.

MusingAmusing

A must have in every Indian woman’s wardrobe…saree.It not only symbolises femininity but also the great Indian traditions. The versatility stored in its weave and draping reflects the region from where it belongs. Though over the years it is losing its significance to the hassle free western dresses but still it occupies an indisputable place in each household. Every woman likes to boast of her heterogeneous collection from different parts of the country- Baluchari, Taant, Painthni,Chanderi, Kanjeevaram and the list is endless. An army wife for sure feels highly jubilant when she flaunts her collection by virtue of having been posted to such places where she gets an opportunity to pick an exclusive piece from the maiden source. Over the years, it definitely adds to her self glorification…but other than just being reflective of one’s indulgence there are innumerable stories associated with each and every saree in the box.

The…

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The Daughter

I came across this short yet powerful post on the subject of arranged marriages in India. No doubt many of us in the west will appreciate not having to live in this very different culture.

InkBlots by Abhipsa

images

Hey guys, wish you a very happy Sunday!

This week, I thought of sharing this old write-up. This reflects the situation of many girls in India, who are expected to obey their parents and do not possess the freedom to choose their own partners. This also talks of how life changes after marriage. Written as a open letter, I’m sure this will be relatable to situations you have experienced or read.
Here it goes:

Dear Parents,

I’m glad that you didn’t kill me straightaway like many people do nowadays. You raised me and even educated me well. Now I’m married in a well-to-do family that you chose for me. Everything is going fine, but I still have a few complaints.

First of all, why didn’t you warn me that once I’m married, you were absolutely free to wash your hands off all my responsibilities? And I could no longer seek…

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Guest Post: Marina Kappa

Marina is a blogger from Greece. I have followed her blog for some time now, and enjoy the artistic and cultural aspects, as well as her writing and paintings.
She has chosen to feature her sketches and paintings of horses in this guest post, and I think you will agree that they are excellent.
Here is a link to her blog. https://athensletters.com/

Equine art series.

I like to do as much sketching from life as possible because, although often imperfect, it helps capture movement and spontaneity. And I do find nature is a great inspiration.

Plants, trees and flowers are easiest, because they don’t tend to move around much, and humans can be persuaded to pose. Animals are a lot trickier. Dogs are best when they’re asleep, but mine sadly is so small and dark that from above she just looks like a black blob; I would need to get down on floor level, but, when I do, she wakes up and starts jumping around like a flea.

A nice field of cows having a siesta in the sun is not too bad, but horses are a nightmare. No sooner are you set up that they decide to come over and see what you’re doing, eat the paper, chew your clothes, etc. Even if you’re on the other side of the fence, you get a load of snorting nostrils, bug eyes and, if there’s a few of them, shoving. And then they gallop away…

The famous 18th century painter George Stubbs used to hang cadavers of horses in his barn to be able to study their anatomy. The smell must have been unbearable—and the flies! Ugh…
Nowadays we have manuals and photographs to study from, and videos that can be put in slow motion to break down movement.

Horses are fascinating, expressive creatures, so I’ve been making a whole series of paintings, incorporating my previous work with layers and collage. Under some of the paintings I used pages from an old book, primed with gesso—amusingly, the book is an old French manual of equitation (you can see it most clearly in the first painting.) I also used tissue paper, silver foil and eco-print paper for the collage, and charcoal, pencil, graphite powder, watercolor, and oil pastel for the images.

I did not aim towards photorealism, but made the horse the center of a dreamlike, abstract landscape. The background could be water, or snow, or an indistinct field, or clouds of dust.

Horses are prey—that makes them nervous and fleet, because of the flight response. However, when not threatened they are serene, and enjoy being in their natural environment.

I’m also drawn to horses of myth, who play a big part in many legends, and are especially prominent in Greek mythology. Immortal horses drew the chariots of Zeus, the sun god Helios, and Achilles in the Trojan war. They were gold-bridled, sometimes fish-tailed when they belonged to Poseidon, and often winged, like Pegasus.
So I had to have winged horses in my series.

And finally I added the human form, since men and horses have been linked since the beginnings of civilization. The painting below is entitled The Red Trousers. A girl on her horse, bareback and bare footed, standing in water.

Please visit Marina’s blog for a great variety of artwork, photos, and much more.

Ambulance stories (22)

With the recent conviction for FGM in the news, I thought it appropriate to reblog this post, from 2012.

beetleypete

The Hammersmith Swordsman

In the early 1980’s, female circumcision was not something that I was well acquainted with. In truth, I don’t recall that I had heard of it at that time, though in recent years, it has received a lot of attention in the media. For those of you who are not that intimate with this practice, I will give a very basic version of what is involved. A young girl, sometimes only a baby, has parts of the outer lips of her vagina cut off, usually including her clitoris. The resulting wound is then stitched together, in a somewhat rudimentary fashion, with a small opening left, to allow the flow of bodily fluids. On her wedding night, her husband then cuts the sutures prior to having sex, thus ‘guaranteeing’ that he has wed a virgin. I think this is the process in a nutshell, please forgive me for…

View original post 814 more words

Dying for a cigarette?

My earliest memories are of people smoking. Stinging smoke in my eyes, an ashtray on every flat surface. By the time that I was old enough to think about it, I didn’t hardly know anyone who wasn’t a smoker. My grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, many of my cousins, and all their friends and neighbours. Customers in shops, and shopkeepers and assistants too. Most of the teachers at school, a large section of my fellow pupils, and any man I ever met over the age of sixteen. They all smoked.

You could smoke on the top deck of a bus, in the smoking compartments of trains, and in any seat in a coach. The cinema was fair game too, though theatres had generally restricted smoking to the bar only, and during intervals. Restaurants provided ashtrays on every table, large stores employed people to sweep up the butts discarded on the floors, and nobody ever complained. Cigarettes were relatively cheap, as were matches. It was part of growing up, a rite of passage, as well as a huge industry.

Advertisers had been urging us to smoke for decades by then. Once commercial TV arrived, smart and glossy adverts urged us to try different brands. Almost sixty years later, I still remember some of the tag-lines. ‘You’re never alone with a Strand.’ ‘Consulate, cool as a mountain stream.’ Sponsorship followed, with F1 racing teams like JPS being financed by tobacco companies. Then there were the films. From the earliest days, smoking in films was portrayed as sexy, manly, or just a good way to chat someone up. Studio stars had portfolio photos taken, showing them lighting cigarettes, or sitting swathed in swirls of smoke. Soldiers in war films prized their smokes above all, with product placement for brands like Chesterfield and Lucky Strike accepted as fact. Lovers were shown lighting up after sex scenes, as if the post-coital cigarette was the reason for it all to begin with.

Almost everyone smoked, and nobody seemed to care.

In 1967, I was taken to see my GP. I had very swollen eyes, a result of my first experience of hay fever. Not only was this kindly old man smoking as I entered the consultation room, he offered my Mum a cigarette as she sat down. By the time I reached the age of sixteen, I had resisted the urge to try smoking. Still at school, I had little or no disposable income, so the prospect of spending what I had on cigarettes did not even occur to me. The following summer, I got a holiday job. I was on full-time wages, and finally had some real money in my pocket.

On payday, I went into the local shop, and bought twenty cigarettes and a box of matches. There was no question of not selling them to me. I had been sent out to buy cigarettes for my parents since I was seven or eight. I used to be allowed to spend the change on sweets, so always looked forward to being asked to run over to the shop. I lit my first ever cigarette, just over six months short of my seventeenth birthday. I expected to cough violently, and to not know how to smoke. I thought it might taste bad, feel hot, or be otherwise unpleasant. But it wasn’t. It was easy. I felt a little light-headed, but in a good way. I just had the one though, then put them away in a coat pocket.

A year later, and I had left school to take a full-time job. I smoked all the time by then, trying different brands to settle on the one I liked best. My parents had seemed relieved when they saw me smoking. To them it was perfectly natural, and it didn’t worry them in the least. I had joined the smokers, something that they had all been waiting for me to do.

Over the following decades, I smoked without thinking. I met my first wife, who also smoked, though only casually. My second wife had just given up when we met, but had no problem with me smoking at all. I could still smoke almost anywhere. Even the receptionists in the hospital smoked, as they booked patients in. Doctors would sneak into the staff room, to join the heavy-smoking nurses for a much-need cigarette break. But the tide was turning. Cinemas had brought in the ridiculous ‘right-hand’ system. All the seats on the right of the auditorium had smoking allowed, but not the left. That meant I would be sitting less than four feet away from a non-smoker during a 2-3 hour film, puffing away happily. On aircraft, you had to request a ‘smoking seat’. These were always the few rows at the very back. This still meant that a non-smoker was only one seat away from a person who might be smoking a cigar or pipe, as well as those using cigarettes. But duty-free cigarettes and cigars were sold to aircraft passengers, so there was a vested interest. Restaurants introduced ‘smoking tables’, again close to non-smokers who had to suffer in silence, most of the time.

Soon after, the anti-smoking lobby was gaining ground. Sides were taken, battle-lines drawn. Some of those same doctors who had sneaked into the staff room for a smoke in their youth, were now making television programmes about the hazards of tobacco smoke. Gory photos of cancerous tumours and diseased lungs were all over the media. And then there was the cost. Successive governments had increased the taxes on cigarettes, knowing that they could milk the nicotine addicts of their money, like so many cash cows. But I had a well-paid job, so I continued to buy my expensive Lucky Strikes. When I eventually met Julie, in the year 2000, one of the first things I told her was that I was a heavy smoker. By then it was important to get that fact across as soon as possible in any relationship. Fortunately, she told me that she also smoked, so that problem was solved.

Twelve years later, with retirement looming, I realised that I could no longer afford to buy cigarettes. They had increased in price to an extortionate £8.80 back then, and cost even more now. I could easily do the sums. Ten packets a week = £88. Multiply that by 52 weeks, and you get £4,576. That was more than one of my two pensions, just for cigarettes. So, we both gave up. Well, not exactly gave up. We switched to e-cigarettes, called ‘Vaping’ in some countries. It’s a fraction of the price, and is currently thought to be 95% safer than smoking. Very little in life is 100% safe, not even tap water, so it’s a fair gamble.

But it might all be too late of course. The damage could have been done all those years ago, as I sat enjoying my Lucky Strikes. Ask any smoker, and they will tell you it’s mostly about habit. Answering the phone? Light a cigarette. Driving in traffic? Light a cigarette. Enjoying a beer, or glass of wine? Better with a cigarette. Stressful day, or an argument with your partner? A cigarette helps. The first cup of coffee in the morning, or that last hot drink at night. Start the day with a cigarette, and round it off with one too. Just eaten a nice meal? Time for a cigarette. Leaving the house? Pat down your pockets, or check your handbag. Make sure you have those cigarettes and lighter on you. The habit is stronger than the addiction for most of us. And I say us, because I am still a smoker, albeit one of a different kind. I don’t preach, or take sides. It is what it is, for whatever reason it began.

But the next time you hear yourself say, “I’m dying for a cigarette.” You probably are.