We bumped into an English friend in the village the other day. After a minute or two, Millie apologised for not having gone through the kissing ritual. ‘Oh, don’t worry, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to all this kissing business’ was her response. Strange that, as I’d been thinking about the French habit of non-stop kissing a few days previously. (Blame it on my age).
The whole thing can be very complicated, especially for the Brits, who, despite being fairly hail-fellow-well-met in general are absolutely hopeless at greeting rituals. Having lived, on and off, for 35 years on what we quaintly call ‘The Continent’, I’ve become accustomed to offering my hand when meeting people and normally go for a quick peck on the cheek with women. The Brits seem to be the only people in Europe who tend to behave as though you are shoving a pistol in their face, when in fact you’re just saying hello. I once walked into a room full of people whom I didn’t know and held my hand out to them. They parted around me like the Red Sea and the best response I got was the generic Brit greeting of looking at you own feet and emitting this weird phatic utterance which sounds like ‘neirgh’.
For those of you wishing to know the appropriate etiquette, which incidentally, means the label in an item of clothing in French, you kiss woman and shake hands with men. This is lesson one. However, it gets more complicated. In the Paris region, you kiss on both cheeks. Some people prefer four times, but real Parisians consider this to be hopelessly provincial. Down here, it’s three times. Are you still with me, before we progress to the advanced stuff?
With guys it’s even more complicated. Being a musician, I’ve always known a lot of luvvy types and have quite a lot of gay friends, so even in Britain there were always certain men who I’d give a ‘bise’ to. Here I kiss my men friends and shake hands with guys I know less well. However, without exception, I find it easier to shake hands with British guys, even if I’ve known them forever - don’t know why, you can just feel somehow that it isn’t appreciated: stiff upper lip and all that. Bizarrely, many Brits will kiss French guys without any problem.
What people fail to realise is that if man kisses a male friend, you are accepted as being more or less ‘family’. It is in fact a sort of compliment and places you at the centre of their social circle. I’ve always felt that it is a clear indication of how comfortable someone is with their own sexuality; shoot off like a scalded cat and you’re definitely repressing something or other.
There are also exceptions. At the café terrace on Saturdays, most people blow a kiss to the assembled throng, as otherwise you spend half the morning kissing. If you bump into someone in the actual market however, a kiss is almost compulsory.