Oh là là, the French like to kiss.
Yes, I knew this before I came here, but there are times it takes you by surprise.
The other evening I noticed a French policewoman kiss a couple of stroppy looking teenagers on both cheeks before taking out her notebook and questioning them. Clearly something had gone down as there were a few police milling around and the smell of something distinctly weedy in the air.
It made me smile for a long time – the idea of kissing your suspects before you start interrogating them.
Yes, it was a small town, they obviously knew the cop and they were probably witnesses, not criminals – but it did strike me that the simple, intimate gesture of a kiss on each cheek transformed the dynamic of the conversation.
In New Zealand, given the same set of circumstances there is no obligation on the part of either party to kiss – even if the cop is a neighbour, a friend of mum’s or even an aunt. The teens can grunt, the cop can be officious – everyone is at arm’s length from the start.
But here, the kiss broke the ice and set the tone for good manners. Whatever happened next, at least it all started well.
It’s a ritual I like but am still getting used to. Last weekend I froze when a woman I have never met, never spoken to and only seen across the schoolyard, kissed me on both cheeks at a children’s birthday party. She didn’t smile, or speak to me or introduce herself and she hasn’t spoken to me since.
So why kiss me? Well, clearly she felt it would have been rude not to because she was kissing people she knew all around me. My hunch is that her choosing not to speak to me was not frostiness but because she assumes I can’t speak French, she can’t speak English and she wanted to save us both embarrassment.
I envy her certainty about what to do in that situation because I am still finding my way with the whole cheek kissing thing.
When I was a kid growing up in New Zealand, the only people you kissed were your parents at night and your grandmother or aunts when you hadn’t seen them for a while.
As the years have gone by, social kisses have become the norm between friends – automatic in social situations, if you haven’t seen someone for a while, or someone is going away.
However there are many situations, for me at least, where it’s not clear whether to kiss or not.
A good friend you have already seen in the day comes to your door. Kiss or no kiss? Depends. If she’s coming for dinner, yes. If she’s coming to pick up a child, or a plate or drop something off, then probably no. Or maybe yes.
What about the supermarket? You see a woman you know. Kiss or no kiss? What if it’s a man? What if you haven’t seen him for a while? What if you just saw him that morning?
Or the school gate? What if there are five people you know and one you don’t. Do you kiss anyone or everyone? Or exclude the stranger?
What about a meeting with your accountant, who has also become a friend. Kiss or no kiss? What if you are leaving the meeting and are about to go overseas for a whole year? I went for the kiss. Gave him a hell of a fright, poor thing.
See what I mean? Awkward. Or maybe it’s just me.
Anyway, here in Provence it’s simple.
“I kiss everyone,” Mme E, the woman who manages the house we rent, told us the day we moved in, as she reached down to kiss each of our children goodbye and they screwed up their faces and tried to wriggle free. “Mignon [cute],” she said cheerfully, not at all offended.
You can’t really go wrong with that attitude, can you?