As a good ol’ Anglo-Saxon, the idea of kissing strangers is extremely uncomfortable to me. Growing up in my household, it was considered perfectly adequate to give a firm handshake to family members, let alone strangers. So, arriving in France and having every third person leaning in for the kill practically induced panic attacks. In addition to the initial discomfort, I struggled with the rules of “when” and “where” to apply the kissing. Which strangers do you kiss and which ones do you not kiss? Do you kiss for every occasion? It was confusing, nerve-racking, and sweat-inducing (sort of like junior high school). Sometimes there would be the hesitant lean-in/lean-out to see who would come in first and sometimes there would be the “head dance” when both parties awkwardly went for the same side; often I would lean in with hesitance and then almost robotically shoot my arm forward for a handshake, wallowing in the relief of avoiding another invasion of personal space. My boyfriend tried to help me as best he could but he is a man, and as such isn’t quite as in tune to the devastation of social faux pas as I am.
About a week after arriving in France and still ripe with jet-lag, my boyfriend and I were invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house. I had met the couple hosting but would not know any of the other guests and was, understandably, nervous. My abilities in French were dismal and my comprehension of social mores was elementary, at best. Dread welled in my breast as we walked to the apartment; what would I get wrong?
The arrival went smoothly, the hosts opened the door and initiated the kissing but I still felt uneasy; I took my glass of wine and stood in the corner, palms sweating, heart-racing, unable to relax until everyone had arrived. The next couple walked confidently over and kissed me with no hesitation, and then I started to calm down, lured into a false sense of security. This is going to be fine, I thought. Finally, the last of the party arrived. The woman approached me first; she was more timid and less-confident than the others. Someone else made the introduction and then we just stood there and stared at each other. It was like some terrible, awkward western film, both of our heads vibrating nervously, like hands at the sides of pistols. I looked around for help; was I supposed to go in first or was that weird? She continued to stare, wordlessly, motionlessly. It was an inexorably long two minutes. Finally, my boyfriend came over and said, “You are supposed to kiss her.” He looked at me like I should have known better; everyone looked at me like I should have known better. I’m not from here, I wanted to scream; no one has told me these things!
I was so humiliated; I felt like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when the bellman is waiting for a tip and she says, “What are you lookin’ at”, before realizing what she was meant to do. Is this what my life has been reduced to, I thought. Is being an American in France like being a hooker at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel? Tears welled in my eyes and my lip acquired the slightest tremble, this time not from the fear of kissing, but from utter mortification. I wanted to run out of the room and escape the eyes that I was so sure were full of judgment and disapproval. But that was not an option and instead I did something that I have never managed to do too well; I laughed at my own foolish mistake, and then I laughed again, genuinely, at the absurdity of this woman and me staring at each other in the middle of the room. Then everyone else started laughing and offering kind words.
“It is very hard at the beginning”
“Yes, I remember having to use handshakes and it was so odd!”
“You will learn, don’t worry!”
The rest of the night went by naturally and without event.
In France, as in life, I will continue to make mistakes and wrong turns, but if I can manage to laugh when crying makes more sense then I think I will have made a success of it. Even a hooker at the Wilshire can keep her sense of humor.