Thursday, 11 August 2011

It's the bees' knees

Before I came to live in France I can't say that kissing played a huge part in my everyday life. It wasn't a thing we did much in our family. The odd goodnight peck. A special greeting or leave-taking with someone known for a long time. Or kids' games. Truth or dare. Spin the bottle. It wasn't that we never felt affectionate or loving: it just expressed itself in other ways than kissing. I'm speaking about day-to-day co-existence, of course. We just weren't particularly demonstrative, that's all. Les grands amours were clearly different, from that first tentative brushing of lips to those vertiginous occasions when you just had to come up for air or you'd have passed out.

Coming to live in France brought many surprises. One was la bise, the habit of kissing on both cheeks, left-right in quick succession. Or right-left, there's no etiquette: you just have to guess which cheek to proffer first and adapt if necessary. All you do is touch cheeks together and go mwah, change cheeks and go mwah again. Nothing more. It's a curious thing, but while many expats, particularly men, hang grimly on to the apron strings of the Mother Country and sell their Britishness dear, indeed over their dead bodies, they're prepared to abandon themselves to la bise without any problem, indeed with enthusiasm.

Now it's a commonplace, a daily courtesy. The magic lady that comes to clean, Kathy the window-cleaner, our doctor, local lady councillors, waitresses, neighbours, the girl in the tourist office, visiting musicians, lady members of my choir, friends generally. Children, girls and boys, automatically put their faces up to be kissed. When attractive 17-year-old girls do this as a matter of course, I still find it more exciting than perhaps I should. And Brit friends that I would never have dreamed of kissing back in Blighty, who have also become devotees of this very agreeable habit.

And we find the number of bises varies. Mostly in France it's twice. Locally it's three times, L-R-L or R-L-R. Occasionally we meet people from the north, and Belgians, who expect four bises.

Men mostly shake hands with each other, on first meeting each day and often on parting. La bise between men isn't uncommon. It took me a long time to get used to it. A few summers ago J. and I were taking part in pre-lunch drinks (known as the apéro, short for apéritif) at which the village mayor, a squat, gravel-voiced local politico, and other notables were present. In the course of conversation I remarked that la bise wasn't very common in the UK (although now it seems to me to be becoming more and more usual and I'm all for it) and it was practically unknown among men.

As it happens I have been kissed by this same mayor for various of my activities, mostly musical, which he seems to think have brought credit to his bailiwick. On hearing me say, at this apéro, how rare kissing between Brit men was, in the general run of things, he said that la bise I'd experienced between men in France wasn't kissing: it was l'accolade républicaine, the Republican Accolade.

H'm. Very curious. And how very different, as a late Victorian theatre-goer was heard to say after a performance of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, from the home life of our own dear Queen.


Vicus Scurra said...

I will get back to you

Tim said...

It was a shock to me when my first father-in-law first presented his stubbly Calabrian cheek to me. As regards the mechanics, my (female) friend C applies the rule of three - 'one on each side and one in the middle' - which is always nice. I don't recommend this approach when osculating with mayors though.

Z said...

Dave would never come to live in France. He finds this new-fangled kissing nonsense quite disconcerting and avoids it if at all possible.

Rog said...

Dave and I were brought up in North Kent where kissing was considered the height of bad form. Shaking hands was only allowed with close relatives. We got by with manly hugs and a surreptitious buttock fondle.

Dave said...

I have, as you can see, got my people to make the main points I would have wished to make.

Scarlet Blue said...'ll all end in tongues...

Christopher said...

Vicus: Please do. I have some herb tea I think you might enjoy.

Tim: You really are an exceptional chap. How few of us can boast a Calabrian father-in-law? Was he a mustachio'd bandit, selling local broccoli on the side?

Z: I knew it, tho' you may be relieved to know that Dave's osculatory habits are a closed book to me. All the same, were he to come and live in France, I think he would discover an unexpected need to shave closely every morning, for fear of causing cheek-rash among the ladies by whom he would find himself mobbed. Which I know he would enjoy. Being mobbed by ladies, that is, not the act of shaving, tho' some take their pleasures where they find them.

Dave: I have asked the One Above to communicate certain pertinent matters to you.

Rog: I see. How very masculine. And with the fondling you mention I suppose you do get two for the price of one, as it were.

Scarlet: Very true. It usually does. Just look at the Tower of Babel. (If you can't see it from where you live, I believe Dave can fill you in.) Or ask any flautist.

Tim said...

No. An incompetent motor mechanic in Milan, since you ask. But his daughter was tasty at the time, and I learnt a lot of linguistics.

Christopher said...

Ah. So Scarlet was right, then.

mig said...

I'm definitely in favour. Anything to avoid all that clashing of spectacles that so often happens with the frontal approach.

broken biro said...

I'm surprised no-one has mentioned our more risque epistolary osculation customs.

(kisses on the bottom)

Spadoman said...

This is interesting Christopher... If I could, I'd put my arms around a number of women friends, (and strangersb that I find attractive), I run into in my every day wanderings and kiss them. Lips, cheek, doesn't matter. Seems like here in the colonies it's being allowed to do it that is the prize. Sometimes, I'll get a peck on the cheek from a woman, (someone I know, never a stranger, although once at LaCrosse, Wisconsin's famous Oktoberfest I did get kissed by a perfect stranger and I liked it, a lot!), and that is always welcome.
And I thought that right hand left hand cheek brushing was something that Valley Girls did so they wouldn't mess up their make-up.
I think we should all kiss more, then again, I am Italian.
As for men kissing, well, I don't like that idea much at all. Although my nephew kisses me every time I see him, maybe twice a year. And I have kissed my Uncle as he was close to meeting his maker. Once again, on a daily basis, I don't kiss men or women. My spousal unit kisses me every day, and quite often. It is the little pucker of lips touched to my cheek or lips when saying hello or goodbye.


Christopher said...

Mig: Yes, I always take my glasses off first, if I'm wearing them. Otherwise horrific strabismal tangles may result. It's possible, of course, that great romances have started this way.

BB: You're quite right, as always, tho' I wouldn't recommend following Tim's (see above) rule of three in this case.

Spadoman: Thank you for this frank account. If ever we should meet I will remember your preferences, tho' I hope your spousal unit would have no objection to a chaste and seemly bise. Peace, dear friend, and thank you for coming here.