I don't know about you, Rudy, but I always feel a tad awkward when I'm traveling in France and I get introduced to French people. I'm never sure if I'm supposed to shake hands, hug or just... French Kiss. Of course the French kissing I'm talking about is that phony air kiss where you sort of touch cheeks while making that whining, poodle kissing sound.
This air kiss is about as passionate as a Boy Scouts salute, as erotic as plywood underwear and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't even be considered foreplay in Utah. So, I'm at a loss to explain how France ever got credited with two people locked at the lips, each trying to take throat cultures with their tongues.
The trick to kissing in France, as far as visitors are concerned, is knowing what kind of air kiss to give to whom and when. Here's what I discovered. In a business environment, it's simple. There's no kissing at all. But, everyone shakes hands with everyone else. . . every single day. The tricky part for those at a big office is trying to remember who they shook hands with. It's actually common for workers to pass each other in the halls each afternoon and stop and think if they've shaken hands yet that day. "Have we shaken?" one will ask. "I forget", the other will say. So, they shake just to be sure.
In a social setting, things get a little more complex. Men generally kiss when introduced to women unless the woman is much older, in which case a handshake is in order. And men just shake hands when introduced to other men, unless it's New Years or their birthday or a very close friend, in which case a kiss is in order. Women have it a bit easier. They basically get to kiss everyone, except younger men.
For those who do kiss, there's a strict kissing protocol, but no one will ever tell you what it is. So, you're left trying to follow the other air-kissers lead. The number of air kisses varies by region. In the south, they air kiss three times. In the north, it's four times, except Paris, which is twice. Unless someone is going on a long trip, in which case it could be four times, or the Parisian you're kissing, evident from their regional dialect, comes from a three-kiss or four-kiss part of France. Please don't ask me where these geographical kissing borders are, or if they are strictly enforced.
And, Rudy, this one has always given me trouble: should you initiate air-kissing on their right or left cheek? I usually wait and see what the other person is going to do. So, as if playing a game of chicken, I head straight at the person with my lips in "kissing-sound position", hoping they will swerve to one side and avoid the sort of kiss Boris Yeltsin gives Arafat when they greet. But it's also vital they don't over-rotate, which would leave my nose embedded in their ear.
If all this seems overwhelming, that's because it is. I've come to believe the only way to master this kissing is to be born French, raised by a French family, and spend your entire life living in France.
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