Up in vapour!

In the cinemas, on the train platforms and in the flats of your non-smoking friends. With the decline in popularity of conventional tobacco, e-cigarettes are Berlin’s latest trend among those who are hesitant to stub out their fag permanently.

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Photo by Anna Agliardi

In the cinemas, on the train platforms and in the flats of your non-smoking friends. With the decline in popularity of conventional tobacco, e-cigarettes are Berlin’s latest trend among those who are hesitant to stub out their fag permanently.

The last thing I remember is writing to my friend: “I love that I can smoke in bed!” before taking another drag on my death stick while peering into my saucy German novel. And then… nothing. I woke up in a small panic. But as I had not woken up a crispy corpse, my panic wasn’t about burning myself alive, rather that I thought I lost my cigarette.

I thought back to my message and reconfirmed my love for smoking in bed – one of the advantages my smoking career had taken on now that I’d switched to the e-cigarette. No matter how tired I was or how many pre-bed gin tonics I’d downed, I was free to smoke until the very end.

Three days before, my best friend Josephine and I, both devoted smokers, traded in paper and cotton for a sleek metallic wand that glowed at the end as if to cast a spell over our hearts and lungs. It’s not that we wanted to quit – we’re just modern kids in modern times and thought we’d give it a whirl. We went with Berlin-based company PowerCigs.

E-cigarettes seem like a simple mechanism: A lower chamber is screwed into a longer metallic stick, two contrasting parts like the filter and tobacco on a real cigarette. The bottom chamber is manually filled with liquid which is vaporised by the top part and sent straight to your lungs. The battery needs to be charged, too, but for that, there’s a handy USB charger allowing you to plug device into your computer for maximum futuristic appeal. When the light on your charge turns blue, ping! For carnivalistic novelty’s sake, you can get the liquid in several different, almost child-appealing flavours, from melon to sour apple to Waldmeister. Taste the rainbow.

And I tried them all. It reminded me of breathing a piece of Bubble Yum. That exhilarating rush of the first few chomps before it becomes nothing more than chewing on rubber. Entertaining, but it wasn’t going to satisfy the hankering for what I was going to give up. I went with “natural tobacco” flavor because at heart, I’m just a grizzled old man content with a beer or three. Josephine, however, took to the flavors with zest.

From the get-go, the e-cigarette sparked a world of wonder. People would give me curious glances, ask “Is that an e-cigarette?” and then continue smoking their analogue versions. I turned quickly into a pusher and offered them to everyone. Tellingly, everyone gave me the same bland response: “It’s really weird.” They knew something was up, but no one could put their finger on it.

My first few days of e-smoking were a breeze. The damn thing worked. Anytime I craved a bit of nicotine, I sucked on my magic stick a few times and it was gone. The actual feeling wasn’t so unlike a real cigarette – I inhaled, felt my lungs fill up and exhaled a lighter version of the smoke I was used to. I went three days without rolling myself a real cigarette. And had no complaints. It was almost magical – except that I was still feeding my nicotine addiction.

“I love it!” Josephine told me. “I just snuck in three quick Züge before stepping onto the U8. And no one said a damn thing. I’d even smoke on the train, but somehow that still feels awkward.” It was no surprise when she told me that she began taking tugs on her e-cig at her office periodically. Instead of reserving specific blocks of time for smoke breaks, it became a day-long, drawn-out chain-smoking celebration. I began to do the same. At one drunken film screening at Eiszeit, I even managed to pack in a few puffs during the movie without anyone complaining!

But it didn’t always go down without problems. “I forgot my charger,” complained Josephine as I tried to draw her to Alibi one night. The damn thing needed to be charged every day and a half, which is as annoying as a mobile phone, but at least on a phone you’ve got that convenient visual to tell you that the battery is going down. Your cigarette can go at any time! And what a burden it is to have to hang around your house for an extra 20 minutes to get a good charge.

Two more days passed and while I still hadn’t smoked, my throat irritated me from time-to-time. I started to miss the reprieve of my smoke breaks. The hectic pace of magazine office life is often tempered by a few minutes of quiet bliss out on the balcony with my cig. Sure I could still go out there, but it really seemed like I was faking it. And on top of that, I didn’t know when to stop. I didn’t have something I lit up, smoked to the end, stubbed out and felt the ritual was complete. Supposedly 12 puffs equals a cigarette, but try counting when you’re mid-conversation or reading a book or people watching or whatever.

Eventually, I started to feel myself crack. The ersatz ritual of filling liquid into a container and taking care of its battery life didn’t replace the mechanical motions of pinching filter in paper, adding tobacco, rolling, licking, lighting, sucking and stubbing. I began to envy the smokers around me. They were feeling something real. I was not. I was supposed to go for two weeks, but on day 10, as I sat at Möbel Olfe with Josephine, I exploded.

“I can’t take this anymore!” I screamed as I covered my half-drunken Berliner, and left her there sitting at the bar alone while I went to the Späti around the corner.

And that was the end of my time with the e-cig.

There clearly is something to the electronic cigarette in one respect – if you have it in you to wean yourself off the real thing, this can help. But there’s clearly more to cigarettes than just the substance. The aroma, the sexiness and the ritual are all missing. The burning flame that signals the first rush into your lungs all the way through stamping it out on the pavement or an ashtray with a self-assured force hardly attainable anywhere else in life. Josephine to this day is still sticking with the e-cigarette. I, however, missed the drag.