I’m always pleased when I find out that my preconceived notions about something are true.
This is why, for example, I sat with a big grin on my face when I arrived at Part-Dieu station from Lyon airport, having found myself surrounded by a buzzing crowd of busy people, with two little old men busking in the middle of it all. One of them was playing the accordian, the other had a violin. It was just so… French. Kind of like ‘Allo, ‘Allo, only without the silly accents and ridiculous storylines. I got myself a drink from a nearby vendor, and just sat on a wall in the station square, taking everything in, enjoying the sunshine, and listening to the general Frenchness of it all.
Imagine my joy, then, when I observed people doing the cheek-kissing thing for the first time.
It makes me smile every time I see it. The first was when I was walking along the street behind a sweet little old lady. A family member had been waiting for her, and got out of his car to greet her and take her bags as they exhanged bonjours. I had to stop and wait as they blocked my path, but I didn’t mind. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. Kiss. It was sweet. You’d be hard pushed to see a cool-looking UK youth kissing his granny in the street.
Opposite the apartment where I’m staying is a bar/café, and it seems to be a popular place for friends to meet for lunch, coffee or drinks. They sit outside under the shade of a parasol, and the sound of the conversations and laughter constantly floats up and in through my open windows. It is also a very good case study in the field of cheek kissing, as there seems to be some kind of social rule stating that you must greet a newcomer with cheek kisses. I think I’ve worked out that when it’s family or a very special loved one, four kisses are required – left, right, left, right. In a standard, friend or casual acquaintance type of scenario, one on each cheek seems to be the norm.
It’s amusing to observe just how much time people spend simply greeting each other. If two people are sitting at a table, and one more arrives, this necessitates four kisses. If three more then arrive, that means eighteen kisses. And if, in the middle of that, you’ve got very close friends and/or relatives, you’ll have to double the number of kisses between certain individuals. The whole set-up would make me incredibly nervous, being the worrier that I am, i.e. what if I kiss someone too many times and it means I’m accidentally declaring my undying love? Worse, in front of their significant other? Or worse yet, what if I don’t kiss someone enough times and it’s taken as a horrible, unforgivable insult?
Fortunately none of my encounters here have required kissing, and so I am free to look out of my window at the bar across the street and just watch others kissing. That sounds a bit disturbing, actually, now that I see it written down. It’s all perfectly innocent. My main source of amusement has been watching these social interactions at the bar and imagining how different they would be in the UK.Think about it: a group of people are sitting at a table, and more friends join them.
France: Everything stops at this point as the important business of saying hello is taken care of. Everyone has to pick someone to kiss first, and somehow keep track of who has been kissed, who remains to be kissed, and who they actually arrived with and therefore don’t need to kiss. The onus is generally on those arriving – those already there are allowed to remain sitting, while newcomers must visit all sides of the table, often stepping over chairs and squeezing past strangers, reaching down to kiss the seated party. Unless, of course, the newcomer is a significant female and the seated person is male, in which case it would be bad form to remain seated: the arrival of wives, girlfriends, mothers and grannies seems to require husbands, boyfriends, sons and grandsons to get up and approach for kisses. Only when all appropriate kisses been issued can everyone sit down and continue with a conversation.
UK: Brief pause as everyone looks up to see newcomers. Alright? say the newcomers, sitting down. How are you? says everyone else. Conversation continues.
It’s certainly a lot easier in the UK. But the French way does look so much more fun, n’est-ce pas?!