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Christina: combien de bises?

April 9, 2010

“The Frenchman is never on time,” a friend once explained to me, “because he is always too busy kissing his other friends goodbye.”

And there it is: the bise, the quotidian ritual that supersedes all others in French culture. It’s the characteristic habit of a kiss on each cheek for both greetings and goodbyes.

If you ask any French person to explain the many nuances of the bise, he will always respond, “mais, c’est trop simple, la bise!” And then he will laugh at your charming American incompetence, all the while guarding that nebulous but important information about the bise.

Nothing in France has delighted or confused me more than the bise—not the illogical and haphazard assignments of gender to nouns, not the archaic and convoluted bureaucratic system, not even the spontaneous strikes. All these things I’ve learned to handle with a general attitude of indifference, like a true French person. But the bise? I’m convinced that is something which requires French DNA to execute with style.

All day long in Montpellier, men and women reconnect while riding the tram to school or work. Friends, lovers, mothers and sons, near-enemies and new acquaintances: they all faire la bise when they meet on the tram. It’s no wonder President Sarcozy’s feeble campaign to put a moratorium on the bise during the height of H1N1 hysteria was no match for such a deeply-rooted cultural practice.

A Frenchman will enter the tram at the end of the day, balancing a wobbly jumble of still-warm baguettes up to his chin. Seeing a friend on the tram, he will offer her a cheerful bonsoir and the bise. Cheeks, bread, hands—they all get mixed together in a flurry of activity no self-respecting French person would ever think of skipping. Moments later, the angsty teenage girl next to me will stop her rapid-fire texting long enough to faire la bise with an equally gloomy-looking girl. When the first girl turns her back, the other shoots her a look of disgust and rolls her eyes. But when one girl gets off the tram, you can be sure there will be a bise to say goodbye—that’s non-negotiable.

In true French fashion, this country is divided into somewhat arbitrary geographical boundaries based on the number of bises. The amount of kisses varies between one dainty kiss on the left cheek in Brittany to the marathon bise of four in Normandy. Paris boasts the symmetrical and elegant bisebise in Toulouse where two are the norm, or pulling away too soon in the north, where four kisses are more common. of one kiss on each cheek, while Montpellier is home to a more whimsical and lopsidedly friendly three kisses. I’ve learned to do my research before I travel, because nothing is more embarrassing than being left hanging for that third

The strangest aspect of the bise is that it even occurs between strangers. It never fails to shock me that I am expected to kiss someone I’ve just been introduced to. And then there are those moments when my new French acquaintance makes things even more complicated by speaking to me during the bise. Much to my dismay, the bise often goes like this when I meet someone new:

Bonjour, ça va? (first kiss on the right cheek) Je m’appel (second kiss on the left cheek) Mattieu, et toi? (third kiss on the right cheek)

Of course, whenever I manage to do it correctly, the bise is beautiful. It’s unfortunate something so wonderful and friendly doesn’t consistently exist within the United States, because the bise always makes me feel welcomed. It’s such a kind and gentle way of easing nervousness between new acquaintances, and it’s a poetic reminder of that symbolic bond between old friends.

Still, two and a half months of living here and it’s the one thing which never ceases to amaze me. If my host mother leaves for an hour or two to go shopping, should I faire la bise when she comes back? Do employees faire la bise between each other? What about young children, when do they start learning the bise? Where is the exact geographic boarder between two bises and three? And those erratic and complicated rules governing the bise between two men—how to explain those?

Nobody will ever know. At least, no American will ever know. For the French man or woman, “c’est vraiment naturelle.”

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