“Some people say you should pay your respects first. I like that idea.” Saying this, my friend José smells his Romeo y Julieta cigar and invites me do to the same with my Cohiba. There is something a bit theatrical about the gesture, but it goes well with our accents. Our daily struggles with the English language have made us both sound more dramatic than we really are.
I’ve avoided cigars until now, perhaps because of the wrong associations with the nouveau riche. Or because I felt I was too young. Or maybe I was simply waiting for a tempting enough invitation. José wooed me for a few months before I agreed to give it a try. He texted me about each of his new acquisitions as if he was telling me about his (fictional) many mistresses. He spoke about his humidor with the pride that only a Spaniard can talk about an inanimate object. Eventually, the technical geek in me fell for the cheap humidor talk.
We gathered around a bottle of Chianti, a platter of French brie and blue cheese and home made bread. He presented me with a Dominican Cohiba and taught me Cigar 101: “When you finish a cigarette, you put it out like this (he gestures the violent crushing of a cigarette but). But with a cigar you never do that. You have to let it die with dignity. You just put it in the ashtray and it extinguishes itself.”
Much like red wine, what I loved about cigars is that they make good conversation a mandatory accompaniment. Our smoky evening went from Churchill and Hemingway to Oscar Wilde, the puritans, the Cuban Revolution and the subtleties of the Spanish language. I learned not only about the differences in size, shape and character of various cigars but also about the Spanish sound of one of the deadliest phrases in a woman’s arsenal (“Te quiero, pero sólo como amigo!”). The conversation veered naturally from corridas to love games and to political conflicts. And it lasted until my Cohiba and his Romeo y Julieta were finally put to rest “with dignity”.
José eventually pronounced me “a natural” and emphatically concluded that there is nothing more he needs to teach me about cigars. Which reminded me. I once had the honor to interview the great Peruvian writer and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Prompted by one of my questions, “El Hablador” told me that love and eroticism could not be possible in the absence of civilization, of culture, of imagination and of a love for rituals.
The really irresistible thing about the evening was not the Cohiba itself, but the ritual associated with it. And it’s probably what will make me go back for more.