[interview] Finding a Cigar in Seoul

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[interview] Finding a Cigar in Seoul

Pierre Cohen-Aknine walks into Casa del Habano in Hilton Hotel with a spring in his step, lint on his jacket and cigar in his hand. When the shop manager lectures him for not dressing up for his photo session and interview, Mr. Cohen-Aknine shrugs. Energized from an earlier meeting concerning bringing Formula Renault 2000 to Korea, Mr. Cohen-Aknine, president of PCA limited, a company with exclusive rights to distribute Cuban cigars in Korea, wastes no time lighting up a cigar. He discusses his first smoke, cigar culture and the link between smoking cigars and humanity.

IHT-JAI: Do you remember your first cigar?

Cohen-Aknine: It was 10 years ago. I was working in Korea for a company called Comex. Some of us spent one week in Cuba to celebrate Comex's 40th or 50th anniversary.

I'd never been to Cuba before and I'd never smoked a cigar. I smoked a Cohiba Coronas Especialist. My first experience was, wow, strong. It was a harsh feeling in the mouth for someone who has never smoked before. The nose was, oof.

But the smell lingered in my mouth. It was a strong, deep experience, not a fully satisfying one. So at the end of the day, I picked up another cigar, then another, and it was not so bad.

When I was young, my father's friends used to come over, play poker and smoke. The smell would come up to my room. I loved the smell, and the memory never left me.

Emotion is an experience. Experience is an emotion. I already had the experience through emotion, but only through my nose. I was very keen to do emotion through experience.

IHT-JAI: You've been in Korea 20 years, and have had a hand in the cigar scene here. What was it like in the beginning?

Cohen-Aknine: It was tricky introducing cigars to Korea. I didn't want cigars to be a fashionable item. People here are too much into quickly dying trends, and less deep on content. But content communicates.

I brought in cigars very, very slowly. I wanted to create a group of smokers that would truly be cigar lovers and adapt to it as a way of life.

IHT-JAI: And now?

Cohen-Aknine: Korea is full of contradictions. It's a country of passion, but strict human relationship rules. In this post-Confucianist society, it's hard to indulge in something new. You have to answer questions like, How will it be perceived by friends? Where can I smoke? It didn't take as easily as it did in Hong Kong.

Now we have a cigar club where people invite friends who invite friends. We rent out a space and meet once a month.

IHT-JAI: What does it take to make cigars a way of life?

Cohen-Aknine: It's not just about smoking, it's about knowing. You see a movie and the experience is etched on your emotions. Try to explain your experience to your friends, and no words come out. Vocabulary is shorter than feelings.

IHT-JAI: Do you have a favorite place to smoke?

Cohen-Aknine: You know the cliches - romantic revolutionary guerrilla, modern banker offering Cuban cigars only to his favored guests.

I've been anti-cliche, anti-conformist all my life. I'd rather not answer that. But I'll tell you, the modern way of smoking cigars is friendly and democratic. It's purely the joy of gathering, not limited to gangsters or successful businessmen.

IHT-JAI: Do you smoke in gatherings or alone?

Cohen-Aknine: There are two ways of smoking, by yourself when you want a moment of peace, and with friends.

With friends it's like a tribe. There's this moment of consensus: Now guys, it's time to smoke. And everyone understands. It's like communion.

Let's not kid ourselves, a cigar is nicotine. It soothes your nerves, cools you down. In South America, the Indian chief smoked his pipe as a sign of peace between clans. You bury the hatchet and seal a new friendship between war-raging clans.

The same is true of a business dinner. At the end of a meal, if you seal hours of 'yadiyada' [conversation] with a smoke, that extra time is more important than all that has been discussed.

Once you understand the history behind smoking, you realize the collective subconscious, that tradition of understanding each other without words, is still passed down. Just like hundreds of years ago, today there's no beautiful gesture like offering a cigar. It seals the friendship. You don't smoke a cigar with someone you don't like or respect. I love the gesture of sharing a cigar.

by Joe Yong-hee

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