Friday, April 14, 2006

Two, three or four kisses? French etiquette....

The long-distance relationship was romantic but I felt like we needed some time together to see if we worked in real-life. So when my contract in Japan finished in November 1994 I headed back to England and Jacques. He had changed dramatically in four years, his long hair in a pony tail was now cut short and neat and he wore suits and ties. He had a degree and was very career minded. Seeing England through his eyes was fun and we had a great time driving around England in his brown Mini car. After the mental challenge of living and working in Japan I needed a simple life and that was what he had. A few months later I got a job in London and moved into his house there. We became a couple.

For our first Christmas together he decided to introduce me to his family in France. I arrived on the 27th, planning to spend two or three days with them before we went to Paris for a New Year’s Eve Party. Jacques met me in Poitiers at the station and we drove back. I was scared and rightly so. Jacques told me all his family was at home plus a few other friends. There would be his parents, Odile and Rene, his three brothers Pierre, Philippe and Jean and sister Lucie who made up his famille nombreus or ‘big family’.

When I arrived the door opened about eighteen people stood up simultaneously to greet me. I had to kiss them one by one two or sometimes three times. This was very daunting for an English girl who only kisses close family, which is more of a hug than the French side to side technique. I was dizzy and dazed by the end of it. Then they all sat around the huge kitchen table while his mother made some tisane or herbal tea. They all stared at me, as if expecting me to say something, which of course I could not! Jacques’ older brother, Pierre, started firing off questions on the lines of How many brothers and sisters do you have? Where does your family live? etc. They were not difficult questions but spoken fast and I was dumb-struck with fear of not understanding the question right or not having the right answer. So I blushed red and tried to drink my tea and eventually they gave up and chatted about me between themselves. It was humiliating.

I soon realized that I could speak French but only with one or maximum two people at a time, say if I was helping his mother to set the table or sat next to a family member at lunch, or saying a hello to a curious neighbour. But I couldn’t do big groups where I just froze linguistically, and I found the whole kissing thing very tricky. I was also expected to kiss the family goodnight and good-morning. But after a few days it seemed almost normal and prepared me for the Paris party where much kissing went on between total strangers and this time four kisses! When I protested at so many they laughed and said ‘In my region we kiss four times’ and kept on going! I had to remember to always take my glasses off on arriving and departing and watch the persons head, as if you both go the same way – disaster! I realised you should not bump noses or go too fast or too slow either. I told Jacques I could have done with some coaching before stepping into this social etiquette, but it was too late, I had met them now.

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