Turn the other cheek

Ruby red lips in a shop window

When you move to another country there’s a whole lot more to learn that just the language. Under the general heading of “culture” you might find food and dining habits, daily routines, and social interactions, for example. In that latter category we discovered something that initially was totally foreign to us: a kiss on the cheek (more like an air kiss while touching cheeks in most cases ) when meeting up with friends. I still laugh when I remember a comment from French teacher Géraldine who said that the one way to scare the heck out of a French person is to hug them. Bill and I probably terrified a bunch of people here before we learned the fine art of the bisou and now there’s even a website to help.

Why would we need to consult the Internet to find out about a kiss on the cheek? It’s because it varies both in the number you give and which side you start on. Depending upon where you live there can be from 1 to 5 kisses and it seems that generally in the south of France you start on the other person’s left side while in the north it’s the right…but it can be the opposite. Hence the need for a website to show you what typically happens as you travel around the country and even French people get confused. Maybe hugging would be easier? NON! We were told that this is saved for much more intimate encounters, hence the frightening observation above. 

Is it time to go yet?

We’ve had to learn a more relaxed approach to showing up “on time”. While appointments, say,  for the doctor, our bank adviser, or the immigration office follow the rules we were used to in the US, invitations that include party starting times are more like a suggestion of roughly when things will begin. While our neighbors who invite us over on a regular basis have probably grown accustomed to what we think of as timeliness, we do make the effort to be a bit more nonchalant when showing up at the homes of new acquaintances, but it’s not easy.

While we’re on the subject of manners, growing up we all learned those “golden” words of please and thank you. Their French equivalents are certainly important here but qualifying for platinum status might be bonjour and merci, au revoir when entering and leaving a shop or otherwise encountering someone with whom you’ll be talking. We always stress to visitors the importance of making that initial contact for politeness and for the secondary benefit of instantly signaling to a native-French speaker (they ALWAYS seem to know) that you don’t really speak their language, no matter how hard you try.

Bonjour, Christine at Madam Carcas wine shop

Despite these and all of the other “rules” we’re still learning (and breaking) we continue to feel welcomed by the people we meet. One of our neighbors stops by most mornings on her way to the market “just for a bisou”, she says. Left, then right. What a charming way to start the day.

How many kisses and which side: http://www.combiendebises.com/

5 thoughts on “Turn the other cheek

  1. Love this post. I find the “how many bises” thing quite confusing as well and I am definitely a hugger, so I understand! I do love the way French people always say “Bonjour ” when you enter a shop or doctors surgery. It’s just so polite

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  2. There are so many nuances in a new culture, aren’t there? After 7 years here the amount I still don’t know would fill a set of encyclopedias but we’re enjoying learning something new every day. Thank you for the link to the website – and bises to you both!

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  3. How DO they know??!! I always thought I was good at accents yet I can’t fool a single French person, even with one word “Bonjour!”s and “D’accord”s! Great article, Bob.

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  4. I just found your blog today and am going to enjoy reading all of it! My husband and I hope to visit Carcassonne next summer and hope to rent an apartment for 4 – 6 weeks. (My husband lived in France for years as a student many years ago so he´ll brush up on his French. I had 1 year in high school so I plan to do some intensive studying).

    We recently lived in Cuenca Ecuador for 5 years and now live in Grand Junction, Colorado. A big cultural difference is that in EC everyone hugs upon meeting. And, I mean EVERYONE, even someone you have never met before. Once I got used to it I actually loved it. It really makes you appreciate people. Now, back in the US I have learned to fight the urge to constantly hug people when you get together. Good to know from your post that we should NOT hug people we meet in France!

    Thanks again for your blog!

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