A group of young French teenagers caught my attention in the metro yesterday. There was something familiar about the way the girls were talking in louder than necessary voices, laughing too much and sneaking covert glances at a group of boys standing nearby. This sight transported me back two decades, and I saw my eleven year old self catching the school bus. As I attended a girls’ grammar school, the only exposure my friends and I had to opposite sex was on daily journeys to and from school. Our aim was to occupy the front seat on the top deck, where we took centre stage and ‘performed’, hopeful that we might catch the eye of the heartthrob of the moment.
These childish attempts at seduction were unsuccessful, of course, as you will know if you read my previous post about national health glasses. A pity, with hindsight, because the object of my affections went on to become a national tv star, and even dated Ulrike Jonsson for a while.
But let’s get back to the French teenagers. Their flirtatious behaviour was identical to any English teenager’s, except for one important detail. As each one neared their metro stop, the conversation came to a seemingly pre-agreed momentary halt whilst each and every fellow schoolmate was given la bise. Imagine how potentially loaded with information that innocent gesture could be. You could choose to kiss the air, accidentally-on-purpose brush a cheek with your lips, or execute proper lip smacking pecks of varying durations. As you change from one side to the other, you could conceivably brush the other person’s lips. Quite frankly, highly strung as I was at that age I think I would have swooned at such intimate contact.
La bise is second nature to the French. For a foreigner like myself it is a minefield.
First of all, there is the matter of how many kisses you are supposed to bestow. In Paris the norm seems to be two. In certain Parisian suburbs however you are expected to give four (which must be time consuming when you have to take your leave of a party of ten people). In some regions three is the customary number. Many a time I have proffered my cheeks twice, only to find that I was expected to go two full rounds.
The other ‘unknown’ which makes things awkward is that I have never understood which side I am supposed to start with. Whichever I choose seems to be instinctively wrong: causing an embarrassed direction change in mid-air to correct the trajectory. I’m sure if I asked Mr Frog which side to start on he would say that there is no right or wrong answer. It probably comes under the heading of innate French knowledge which I will never by privy to, however many years I spend in France.
How does one know in which situations an ‘I work in fashion daahling’ air-kiss is expected, or when it is appropriate to give an enthusiastic peck on one/more cheeks? I invariably air kiss (English reserve: I prefer to give too little rather than too much) and when the other person plants a proper kiss on my cheek and I feel like I’ve insulted them by not reciprocating.
Last dilemma: to kiss or not to kiss? The other evening I noticed Tadpole’s playmate’s mum giving our shared nanny a kiss when she greeted her. That would never feel natural to me. Nanny gets la bise on two special occasions only: her birthday and at New Year (when it is compulsory to kiss everyone).
The plot thickens when I return to the UK: at some point during my prolonged absence, continental-style cheek kissing was adopted by my peers. I don’t know if it’s the circles I move in or a more generalised phenomenon. So now I am faced with a similar dilemma when I greet my long-lost English friends. What is expected: a shy, awkward English ‘hello’ with no physical contact whatsoever, a kiss on one cheek and an affectionate squeeze, an air kiss on both sides?
The solution: read the book pictured above, written by a person with a reassuringly posh sounding double-barrelled name and dubious royal credentials.
On second thoughts, this one might be more suitable for beginners/dunces like myself.