Thursday, 25 August 2011

163. Comment Faire La Bise pour les Nuls

22nd August 2011. Just the other day it struck me that I've been remiss in neglecting to write about the subject of today's post. As the saying has it, I'd been ignoring the "elephant in the room". I'm referring of course to the widespread social practice in France of kissing family, friends and acquaintances. Growing up in England, I was aware that us Rosbifs were considered cold and reserved by our more excitable and more tactile Latin neighbours.

Cold and reserved..? Us..? Never! OK, in the 50s, 60s and 70s, we didn't go in for much in the way of Public Displays of Affection (known in social code as PDA) - such as kissing, hugging or even handshaking - we just said hello and got on with it. Madame once asked me when my father stopped kissing me. I'm not sure exactly when that would have been but I think it would probably have been around when I was 10 or thereabouts - but I never had the sense as a child that I was being deprived of affection in any way - it's just that affection there was expressed in different ways. Nowadays, the pendulum has swung the other way and we've all become visibly far more demonstrative. I think the switch to more overt displays of affection started sometime in the 80s.
Mitterand and Kohl on their first date..
The rot started to set in with this completely ridiculous picture of two grown men holding hands.. who also just happened to be the French president and the West German chancellor. Someone should have told them..

No tongues please!
People suddenly started kissing each other. Women kissed women. Women kissed men. Men kissed women. However, men sensibly drew the line at kissing each other, apart from in Eastern Europe where we had to accustom ourselves - often during mealtimes - to the sight of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker (right) getting down and dirty. I always used to shout at the TV, "Erich! He won't write - they're all the same..!"

It became a ritual for the TV news to show excited schoolchildren (mainly girls I have to say!) hugging each other and squealing with delight at the results of their summer exams. Politicians weren't slow in getting in on the act either. The sight of politicians hugging each other with the obligatory single or double pat on the back quickly became the norm and is now a familiar staple of the news. Clinton has much to answer for!

In France, it's usual to faire la bise with friends and acquaintances. This kissing is purely meant as a social ice-breaker - and nothing else should be understood or implied from it. In my view it works very well. At the rowing club, the first few minutes are taken up with multiple bisous for the nenettes and handshakes for the mecs. The process does seem to unite us all in some subliminal way. By the way, it's not good form to faire la bise whilst wearing ordinary specs or sunglasses - they should be removed prior to swooping in - otherwise you run the risk of getting tangled up in earrings or the kissee's specs. There's a lot to be said for being approached by an attractive woman presenting herself expecting to be kissed (there I go again!). I think many Brits find this awkward - possibly due to their traditional non-tactile background - and they find it hard to distinguish between social kissing and kissing of a more intimate nature.

Physical contact is something we just weren't used to. For example, I once worked in an multinational organisation overseas with a dozen or so different nationalities (European and N American). One of my bosses was Italian and one day while walking down a long corridor there he linked arms with me..! I wasn't ready for that one (not sure if I'm ready now!) And it was all I could when talking to the southern Europeans not to noticeably flinch if they put a friendly hand on my forearm to emphasise a point. I think I have relaxed more now though with this aspect of life. This reluctance to engage in physical contact (of a social kind) in England would often manifest itself in the way some women there would present themselves for a bise - they would turn their face away almost to the point where their chins would be over their shoulder thus closing the door firmly to any attempt at a cheap freebie! I suspect that this was as a result of too many male Brits overstepping the mark perhaps and taking advantage..  

Kissing for Dummies
So, what's the approved method? Here's my guide: Comment Faire La Bise pour les Nuls (How to kiss for Dummies). It goes without saying that if you are going to enter someone's personal space for a bise then you should be clean, stubble-free and fresh mouthed. Next, either lean forward for a hands-free encounter or place your hands lightly on her upper arms making it clear which side you intend to deliver the first bise on. Now zoom in for a bise on their left cheek first and before swapping sides to finish with a flourish on their right cheek. The actual impact area should be well away from the kissee's mouth.

The bise can be delivered with either no mouth-to-cheek contact (rarely seen here) or with the very side of the mouth - never a full-on drain cleaner..! At no point do I ever utter a low moan of pleasure (although I might think it..!) (joke!) or worse, much worse, an air kiss accompanied by a "Mwaah!" This - the absolute naffest of audible accompaniments - personally makes me want to heave and is to be avoided at all costs. It became quite prevalent in England in latter years as we slowly adopted some of our European neighbours' conventions - or our version thereof! I'm told that in England men will sometimes get their targeting solution wrong and end up with a 'accidental' lip-to-lip contact. Any self-respecting gentleman would avoid a cheap attempt at a freebie like this at all costs.. unless it was really worth it!and even then never!

The next question is how many.. In England, the single peck on the cheek is probably the most common version and is the safest. Two is enough to get your card marked as a lounge lizard.. I've never experienced more than two bises in England. 

Cross the Channel, however, and it's a different story - the absolute minimum is two. I think many would be insulted if a single bise was all that was on offer. While two seems to be the acceptable number here in the south west, I know that in Paris that four - yes, you heard, four - is the going rate! Taking your leave from a dinner party at the end of the evening can and does take some time. 

As an example of British (Scottish) reticence when it comes to physical contact, here's a clip from only a couple of years ago of President Barack Obama and the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown entering 10 Downing Street. 
You have to ask yourself - why couldn't Brown just shake the policeman's hand in the same relaxed manner as Obama did? How uptight can you be..? As Madame once observed about someone: "If you put 3 olives between the cheeks of his a**, you'd get a litre of oil..!" (One of her classics!)

Another of those songs that I've always liked. It popped up the other day on the radio and I made a mental note to try and remember to download it..
27th August 2011. Nice outing this morning in a mixed VIII - did 14km (including an unforecast drenching). Running total 943km).

28th August 2011. Made a dirty dart across the border into Spain this morning to top up with some vital supplies (Ricard, whisky, sangria and diesel). Diesel in Spain is presently 1.22€/litre - which works out at £1.08/litre or $6.68/US gallon. As a comparison, here are the average prices in the UK and the US. Now, I don't want to hear a squeak from any Americans please!

30th August 2011. Time to finish up this post with some great old tracks from Dire Straits and a couple from Pink Floyd.. The first one from Dire Straits has a real Cajun feel to it:


POW16783 said...

I have a terrible tale to tell......humiliating and shameful in fact.
In March, at the cremation for my Dad, my ex approached me. I held out my hand, he moved in for a kiss and we missed and kissed on the lips euw. ;-( My current and final husband has not forgiven me and declares it was deliberate!

Pipérade said...

I have to side with you on this one. It would take a real optimist to imagine that you might be up for a crafty snog at a family funeral..
But you're right, there's nothing quite like a fumbled handshake that somehow morphs into a kiss to make you feel a right wally!

Lesley said...

Is it a bit like kissing the dog? You go face to face and hope that you don't get wet!
Here, in our neck of the French woods, we 'do' two, but only if on kissing terms otherwize it's a handshake. As old folks we sort of have the right to decide but we always do a Bonjour first to all including people working in shops. These habits are thought of as quaint when on our infrequent visits back in the UK. In UK, it is easier to say Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening Good Bye as appropriate.

Pipérade said...

Er, no.. I don't think so..!☺ I try and avoid kissing the dog as he doesn't know the rules! (plus he can't count).
"Old folks?" Can't believe it!
The "handshaking/bises" tradition does make for a more friendly atmosphere here - but please - no Mwaahs!