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FRENCH KISSING

“Does one kiss tu and not vous for example? Or is it the other way around?”

So you’re moving to France. You speak a smattering of the language, and you’ve read a couple of books about the country in general as well as the area in which you’re going to live. Maybe you’ve even spent some time there. But are you really prepared for French kissing?
Lets get this straight, I’m not talking about snogging – which is what many English people understand by the term. (Necking in America?) I mean the real stuff, kissing your friends, neighbours and acquaintances on the cheeks, once, twice, three or four times, (depending on the region in which you have chosen to live). How does it start? When does it stop? How many times a day is one individual supposed to kiss another? Do immigrants kiss each other? Once you’ve kissed someone once are you then required to kiss them every time you see them? (It takes a little more effort than the grunted or mournful ‘’Morning’ the English will manage on a good day). Does one kiss trades-people if one knows them well? Beginning with the left cheek or the right?
The kissing thing is almost as complex an area to negotiate as the tu/vous thing. In fact the tu/vous thing can add a further complication. Does one kiss tu and not vous for example? Or is it the other way around?

When you arrive no one will kiss you. But you will long of course, to be kissed. Everywhere you go they will be doing it, in the streets, in shops, in cafes. I once stood in a small supermarket in the Languedoc-Roussillon, where there were long queues at each checkout. I watched a group of five or six people meet another group they knew as they joined a queue. All the kissing that went on (each individual had to kiss all the other individuals three times), made it look like a party.
So you want to be kissed because everyone else is kissing each other and you feel left out. Being kissed, you think, will be a sign that you are accepted, that you have become part of things.
Well I have no list of strategies for would-be French-kissers. Indeed it is possible that without the kissing skills and experience of my husband (who has lived in France before), I would still be one of the great British unkissed.
But I will tell you how, for me, it all started.

Our maison de village sat in the place in a village in the Herault, and because the houses were close together and the village was small, one inevitably bumped into one’s neighbours. Our neighbours, Michelle and Ivan, were particularly friendly. When we arrived they welcomed us and offered help with settling in. They didn’t kiss us, but they shook our hands.
My husband talked to them quite a lot in the next couple of weeks, and I smiled and smiled because I spoke very little French.

“Trois fois ici, she said laughing, and kissed him again.”

I hadn’t thought about the kissing thing until, without warning one day in the Place de L’Eglise, my husband kissed Michelle. He said something like ‘Je peux t’embrace maintenant’, and without further ado they kissed each other on both cheeks. There was a slight pause, my husband appeared to think the kissing was done, but Michelle held on to him, ‘Trois fois ici’ she said laughing and kissed him again. Then it was my turn.

After that there was no stopping my husband. He continued to shake the mens’ hands, but as soon as we were on a regular conversational basis with any of the female inhabitants of the village, he kissed them. And everyone he kissed, I had to kiss too. In fact I was involved in twice as much kissing because if the women were with their husbands I had to kiss them too.
In those first few heady months of getting to know everyone I loved it. Kissing seemed to create more of a bond than just shaking hands. I felt closer to people, we were all in this joie de vivre thing together.

The rules for those first kisses were straight-forward. My husband had kissed them, so I kissed them. Three kisses, a ritual during which the other person seemed to me to be in control. Much laughter and celebratory chatter. I smiled and smiled. So far so good.
But then my husband got a job and I was left to kiss alone. That’s when I started wondering – all the people in the village I’d kissed – did that mean it was now de rigeur to kiss them each time I saw them? It seemed likely.

In the first few school runs I calculated I probably kissed between five and ten people each morning before nine a.m.
But gradually the kissing seemed to drop off a bit. Some people I had previously kissed didn’t kiss me again, others kissed me sometimes and sometimes not. Was this because I looked unenthusiastic? Perhaps I appeared cold and British.
I would try, I thought, to emulate my husband’s nonchalance and easy adoption of the French ways. I would instigate a kiss myself. I moved in thereafter to kiss a woman my own age to whom I had spoken a number of times, and whose little boy played regularly with my own little boy. But I must have got something wrong as I clearly surprised her. She was wrong-footed – literally. She tripped and fell on a kerbstone, knocking her son over as well in the process.
It didn’t put me off, by this time I was programmed ‘French people kiss’. I kissed the electrician, and the estate agent. This was clearly wrong.

“Such unexpected, intimate contact with this handsome nineteen year old, made me quite flustered.”

One morning as I made my way quietly to the post office I was astonished to be kissed by our neighbour’s teenage son. Such unexpected, intimate (or so it seemed to me at the time), contact with this handsome nineteen year old, made me quite flustered.
I was also constantly flummoxed by whether to begin on the right or the left. It was a bit like those times when you’re walking towards someone on the street and there is confusion about who is going to step to the right, and who to the left. Such incidents inevitably end up with a too intimate collision in the middle.

The kissing became more of a problem the more I thought about it. I would find myself talking into and through the kiss in order to give it less space. This didn’t work at all well. It is difficult to talk and kiss at the same time, and if your vocabulary is limited it is probably better to save and make the most of the small amount of words you have at your disposal.
Sometimes I went into the kissing too forcefully and ended up either feeling bruised, or knowing that’s how the other person felt when I’d finished with them.
I asked an English speaking French friend what the rules were. ‘There are no rules’ she said. She pointed out that she too had sometimes been involved in that dance familiar to me, of feint and retreat, an advance toward the right cheek when the left was simultaneously offered as the correct starting place; a dance which she told me had once resulted in an inadvertent kiss on the mouth.
I dreaded the inadvertent kiss on the mouth.

It was several months before I saw the light. Then one day I watched a couple of old ladies kissing the air rather than each others cheeks, and my moment of epiphany arrived. I understood that what I was hung up on was meaning. Here in the south of France, and because I’d never been anywhere else in France, I took all this kissing as a sign of the Mediterranean temperament. In the apparent lack of rules and the fact that kissing came after shaking hands, I found evidence of a people who did what they felt. And when what they feel causes them to kiss you, of course it is unsettling.
Once it clicked it seemed obvious, I looked around me and noted that as far as daily cheek kissing goes, too intimate contact with the lips was made only by the floundering foreigner. This French kissing lark had less in common with love than with theatre ‘lovies’. It was similarly stylized.
All that time I was trying to soak up enough sun to allow me to cast off my inhibitions along with my English wellingtons, when I should have been attempting to cultivate some British reserve. French kissing is, as I’m sure most of you already know, all about an insistent formality. It is not, as a variety of false signposts, plus my accumulated life experiences so far had led me to believe, some kind of institutionalized group hug.
Two years on I am happy to report that kissing no longer presents a problem to me. I kiss or I don’t kiss, but whatever I do I’m right; I’m becoming more French by the minute.

© Max Aniane
Max Aniane moved to the Herault region of France three years ago for the space and the sunshine and has found a million other reasons for staying. She says the UK looks different from across the channel and she has to remind herself not to kiss people when she goes there for holidays.

Writing as Fiona Dunscombe she has just won the Dundee International Book Prize for her first novel, 'The Triple Point of Water' which was described as "Gritty, dark and full of life" by the judges. The prize is one of the UK's major awards for previously unpublished work, with a cash prize of £10,000. Publication by Birlinn Ltd., publishers of Polygon imprint.