I spent my teenage years puzzling over who I got to kiss and who I didn’t. In the States, my encounters with young women triggered vaporizing looks of scorn, but in France, which I began to frequent at that age, I was not just allowed to kiss such creatures but even required to—on their cheeks, twice (except in parts of Normandy or the south, where it was three or even four times). The bise.
Salutations with men were different, depending. Handshakes were the usual thing—a rather limp affair, as if the other person’s mitt had turned into a trout that died some time ago, left to soften in the sun.
When you showed up at a mixed gathering, you’d go round the entire table: kiss, trout, kiss, trout, trout, kiss. By the time you finished, it was nearly time to leave, which meant starting the cycle all over.
One evening I arrived at a party and a friend approached. To my horror, he bore down as if to plant a wet one on my lips, veering off at the last instant to my cheek, like a motorcyclist who plays chicken with a brick wall. It was the bise once more! I’d seen this in movies, but only when members of the Resistance left on missions of certain death. Here it meant I’d made it to the inner circle.
Being kissed by men toward whom you are not romantically inclined is unsettling at first, but like everything else you get used to it.
The problem, of course, is getting un-used to it.
During the COVID era the touchy-feely part of French greetings has been put in quarantine. Masked people crossing paths outside pause and squint at each other. Then their eyes widen and names are cried out. They lean in out of habit, only to remember themselves and jerk back, like teenagers whose mothers just walked in on them. So it goes.
Even a limp trout in the hand would be welcome these days, but that gesture has been replaced by the fist-bump (inexplicably referred to as le check.) Frankly, the most distressing is to watch first and second graders outside their school in the morning. Usually they’d be slobbering greetings all over one another, but with grownup masks on those tiny faces, your chance of identifying a cheek isn’t great, much less landing on one. I haven’t yet spotted six-year-olds giving each other le check, but it won’t be long, and then I’ll know we’ve reached the end of civilization.
Trying to conduct life here without the bise or the handshake is a bit like conversing with an Italian whose arms are tied behind his back: something is broken. The big question is, is it broken for good?
Turns out not everyone was crazy about pecking at the faces of folks they barely knew and might not even like. And the more you think about it, the more the shaking of hands seems weird and otherworldly—the kind of thing aliens might do. How did it all get started in the first place?
They say the kids here may never learn the same habits of physical contact. The cycle has been interrupted.
I guess that’s all right. I mean, who wants to pucker up just to get a mouthful of socially transmitted disease? Not me. Probably not you.
And yet, I can’t help thinking: Quel dommage!
About Scott Dominic Carpenter
Scott is the author of the 2020 collection of essays, French Like Me: A Midwesterner in Paris (available in print or audio), and teaches literature and creative writing at Carleton College (Minnesota). You can read more of his writing in Secrets of Paris here.