Perhaps one of the most prominent moments of my return after four months in the south of France, other than the standard and inevitable suitcase being too heavy debacle, was the tram journey to the airport. Sitting directly opposite me and within direct line of sight, a couple: the female’s legs draped over her partners, one hand dangerously high on his thigh and the other clearly passionately but somewhat comically clawing away at the woolly hat on his head, the male pulling her in closer, hands almost cupping her jean clad derriere.
Now in the fifteen short minutes to my stop, sitting less than a metre away from this besotted pair, my awkwardness reached an all time high. Perhaps an attitude not as prevalent in our current generation but stereotypically, we Brits are known for our rather straight-laced view on discussing sexual behaviour and our aversion, bordering on horror to baring witness to public displays of affection. Call me a prude but I did not share the sentiment behind the warm smiles plastered on the faces of those around me at the sight of the two lovers attached by the mouth, clearly midway through a game of tonsil tennis.
True enough, the tram incident if we can call it such, needn’t cause a big hoo-ha. It did however prompt me to mull over the cultural differences, some tongue-in-your-face obvious, others subtle but surprising. Now, the title of this article may be a little misleading. It’s not so much a reference to the art of snogging, apologies folks, but rather to a well known and perhaps the most obvious cultural difference, what the French call “faire la bise,” or the cheek kiss to the rest of us. Unlike a handshake or a hug between friends, this French hello can unfortunately get a little complicated.
…to bise or not to bise?
First things first: to bise or not to bise? (Not to be confused with baiser – ahem). I found that with friends or with new acquaintances in informal settings, faire-ing la bise is almost obligatory. Then one must consider the dilemma of how to act within a large group of people. Although long and a little tedious after the first few people, it is a good way of greeting and meeting everyone in the group. As a female, you almost always get the bise, but when it comes to guys things aren’t as clear cut. Now to the tricky issue of how many kisses one gives. Living in the south of France, the people are generally more laid back and welcoming and the norm is to go for three. In Paris it’s two and in some other regions it even stretches to four.
Lastly and potentially the most embarrassing, the technique used. Do you kiss the cheek or just the air? And what do you do with your arms? Admittedly, the first couple of times I was caught slightly off guard, left my with arms sort of flapping about penguin style, unsure to go in for unwanted bodily contact. Quite vividly and rather mortifyingly, I went in for an air kiss and a sort of smooch sound erupted from my puckered lips, akin to squeezing ketchup from an empty bottle. Having been in a bar at the time I am grateful for the French hip-hop that I sincerely hope drowned me out. Needless to say following this ordeal discreet observations where in order. Now, from what gather, a half air, half cheek touch seems to be the correct approach. If all this sounds like too much to remember, rub a little Roquefort on your face. Essence of smelly cheese should avoid all unwelcome bise-ing.