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Column: How Do You Say Awkward Moment in French?

  • Philippa Lilienthal, wife of the author, stops to greet a friend with “les bises” as her children look on. Mark Lilienthal photograph



For the Valley News
Sunday, August 30, 2015
Admit it: when you have friends in from out of town, you like confusing them with a little harmless local lingo. “Want to run down to West Leb to check out the Power House?” Or, “What’s your mood: C&As, EBAs or Ramunto’s?” Or, “Is it just me, or is there a lot of drama at the Co-Op?” Things that are obvious to Upper Valley natives — Whippi Dip, Mascoma, Farm-Way, Stevens, Union Village Dam, Leverone, Post Mills airport, the Bema, Four Aces, the Miracle Mile — are foreign concepts to people from Elsewhere.

Now that I have been on the confused side of that coin in rural Burgundy, France for nearly two years, I am keenly aware that the list of Things I Understand will be forever dwarfed by the list of Things That Baffle Me. Want to feel like I feel? Quick, where or what are: Marcheseuil, oeufs en meurette, Bi1, grand cru , and les bises?

(For those planning to move to Burgundy in the event of a Bernie Sanders presidency, the answers are: Near where I live. Poached eggs in red wine sauce. The grocery store. The pinnacle of Burgundy wine. And les bises? Read on to find out.)

I am pretty good at the metric system, but I have no idea how to say “gas tank” or “kneecap” or “weasel” in French. In this land of different-sized paper bills, I can tell the denomination of the local legal tender simply by feeling its dimensions, but I cannot tell a single joke in French. (Frappe, frappe, qui est la? doesn’t quite work the same as “Knock, knock”). I will always be foreign here, different, not completely at home. That is not a complaint; I signed up for it. And France plays her part, rising up in her noble omniscience to shatter my confidence in swift, brutal and simple fashion. Nowhere is this feeling more pronounced than in the seemingly banal exercise of greeting people.

Les bises is the national custom of saying hello, a greeting exchanged between members of the opposite sex — or, for women, the same sex . . . see how quickly it becomes complicated? — whereby people kiss each other once on each cheek while saying Bonjour. It sounds like simplicity itself. Alas, it ain’t.

Here are some of the questions I have faced when trying to navigate les bises with women in Burgundy: When giving les bises to a woman, do my lips actually touch her flesh or is it more like a cheek-touch with a kissing sound? If a woman who has spent considerably more time on planet Earth than I have plants big wet ones on each of my dimples, is she flirting with me, somehow grasping at her disappeared youth? Is it rude to dodge a woman who is actively smoking a cigarette, knowing her breath could peel paint? With younger women, should I place my hands behind my back to express to the world that I am not sketchy, or let my hand rest innocuously on a shoulder to prove my trustworthiness? Sunglasses . . . on or off? When I see a woman I’ve never met in a group exchanging les bises with everyone in her path, should I expect to receive the same treatment, or anticipate a handshake? I spot a woman I know wearing sweaty work clothes at the dump . . . bises or non? Once les bises have been incorporated into my relationship with a woman, meaning the physical skin of our faces touch every time we see each other, am I to assume that from now on we use the informal “tu” form of address? When leaving a gathering where greeting bises were de rigeur, do I exchange them with every woman as I depart? Am I supposed to kiss the same woman each time I see her in a day, or is it a “first time we kiss; following times, we don’t” situation? Lastly, for God’s sake, which cheek am I supposed to start with?

(For those preparing to move to Burgundy in the event of a Donald Trump presidency, the answers are: Your choice. Maybe. Kind of. Trust yourself. Off. Either/or. Bise s. Absolutely . . . not. Depends how charming you are. First time only. Lean left to kiss right.)

Thankfully, after seven seasons here, these customs are more or less automatic to me. But France is always ready with a new set of challenges. A woman of a certain age gave me four bises the other day, a long ritual of puckering that left me confused. And last week, a heterosexual man friend walked onto a terrace populated by 12 gentlemen, removed his glasses, and began giving kisses to the assembled towers of masculinity. I dodged the situation by hightailing it to the safety of the hors d’oeuvres table, a crafty evasive maneuver. After all, when in doubt, the best strategy in France is always to find something to eat and confusion and anxiety will soon recede as your taste buds come alive.

The guy caught me there as I snacked on a smoked salmon toast with a little chive cream cheese. Naturally, he gave me les bises. As I do so frequently this far from my native Vermont, I surrendered to the moment and poured the guy some white wine. I admitted to myself that, especially with the women, French kissing is a lot of fun, even without the tongue.



Mark Lilienthal, a Norwich native, lives with his family in Burgundy, France, where he gives wine tours to visitors from around the world. He can be reached at mlilient@gmail.com.