Time to talk a little bit about culture. In France everyone is greeted with la bise, known as the kiss on the cheeks. It’s not as affectionate as you would think, . It’s not an actual kiss (as in “Let me press my warm lips on your frosty cheeks as you melt in frissons.” Unless of course you’re the creepy player at the bar). It’s more just pressing your cheek firmly against those of the person you’re greeting. For me as an American, this poses so many problems. It’s a gesture I find both entirely too intimate to greet a stranger with and at the same time not as satisfyingly enthusiastic as a firm handshake or a good hug. After all, it’s quite difficult to show friendly enthusiasm while you’re pressing your faces together without either crossing the line into romantic implications or walking away with sore cheeks. Secondly, with the hand-shaking culture ingrained in me, I cannot for the life of me judge cheek-to-cheek distance. Cheeks vary in distance depending on height of persons. And unlike hands that are extended in front of you, I focus my eyes on my target, cheeks simply drop out of the line of peripheral vision as you swoop in. As a result I’m always entire to far away from the cheek, letting just our little facial hairs tickle, or I press in too close leaving us with cheek burn. Finally, to further complicate things, when I’m introduced to strangers the introduction is usually accompanied with something along the lines of, “and she’s American!” These introductions set me and my victim up perfectly. I’ll dive in for a little cheek rubbing while they’re usually politely sticking out their hand for a little shake, leading to a stomach stabbing and cheek bashing awkward inferno.

And cheek bashing is an especially perfect pseudonom for la bise for me, given the peculiarity of my face. My beautiful mother is graced with lovely round and fairly typical Chinese cheeks, perfect rosy circles that would be the perfect cushy landing pads for “la bise.” Dommage, through some genetic gamble my sister and I posses highly atypical, highly angular faces of, well, of absolutely nobody else in my family. Our cheeks start with high pointed cheekbones right below our eyes, and then slant sharply down to our chins. This angulation becomes even more pronounced on long and stressful days. My mother is especially quick to notice, “Moy Moy!” she cries, “Your cheeks!” Which has basically become code for, “Go to bed! Get more sleep!” At that point I could glance in the mirror and see that they’ve sunken, concave, into my mouth, leaving two little hollow craters below my eyes. Ok, ok, time for some beauty sleep. A good eight hours later when I arise, they’ve puffed out to near normalcy, at least rising to flat lines between my cheek bone and jaw. All this to say that the bones on my face simply cannot and will not properly faire la bise without hurting someone. Just last week I walked up to one of my tutoring students and in a burst of enthusiasm smacked my cheek against hers “Bonsoir…OOF!” we both cringed as my bones collided with hers. Apologies ensued, and now I dive in for la bise so cautiously a passerby might diagnose me with acute fear of contracting francophilia.

And then I had the complete opposite problem when I went to visit my boyfriend in Finland over the holidays. There wasn’t much hand shaking, much less hugging, and definitely no cheek-pressing. I was suddenly, strangely missing physical contact with strangers in greeting. So how should I, the overly affectionate American express her gratitude? No, not la bise. I hugged them all of course…


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