Should you faire la bise or just shake hands? When Gillian Harvey greets her neighbours, she often finds herself faltering in that moment of deliberation
To shake hands or faire la bise? Columnist Gillian Harvey on choosing the right greeting
Around this time of year, more discerning nostrils can pick up signs of the approaching summer: cherry blossoms sprinkle local trees, the aroma of fresh coffee teases the senses from outdoor café tables, and even the air smells different – as if sunshine itself has a perfume.
Walking down to the local high street, as well as the few resilient ladies who totter up and down the hill with their baguettes whatever the weather, I see toddlers tripping along at the end of their mothers’ arms, workers stopping to chat together in the spring sunshine and even the odd tourist, arms full of local produce from the market.
One thing that stands out here is the fact that everyone seems to have time to stop for a quick chat – something that can be infuriating when you’re waiting in a queue at the boulangerie, but which most of the time is heart-warming. I may not know the names of all the people I pass, but their cheery “bonjours” and ready smiles remind me that here there is a real sense of community.
Back in my old stomping ground of Hertfordshire, strangers passing you in the street and beaming a ‘hello’ would have been regarded with suspicion or confusion. And if they’d tried to kiss me, I’d probably have called the police.
Here, although I still suffer from traditional British reticence, I am getting more used to the familiarity of proffered bisous – although the other day I did find myself uttering the words: “Quick, into the house or that man’s going to want to kiss mummy.”
It’s not the kissing bit itself that has me floored, but knowing whether or not to ‘go for it’. I’ve found with some there’s a window of opportunity, after which you’ll probably be offered a handshake instead, which can feel a bit like a consolation prize. Others have no such problem, particularly the aforementioned gentleman who grabs my shoulders and wetly smacks me on each cheek whenever we pass in the street.
That said, during a recent French lesson, I was informed that my minor mispronunciation of merci beaucoup meant that I was saying ‘thank you, nice bottom’ instead of ‘thank you very much’. Which could explain my apparent popularity...
As well as having a thriving community, my small town in Limousin has a real sense of inclusion. Old and young alike greet each other with ease and interest. And it’s wonderfully baffling to me that my daughter – whose school often takes classes to the local gallery, library or to sing at the old folks’ home – seems to know everyone. Wherever we go, people greet her by name and I’m left asking, “Who’s that?”.
Here, too, the high street is very much alive. My town of 2,000 inhabitants is also home to two pharmacies (of course), three boulangeries (naturally), four tabacs, five restaurants and several little boutique clothing and jewellery stores. The French seem very loyal to one another and support local businesses as a matter of course. And I try – as far as my inner bargain hunter will allow – to join them.
Because, since moving to France, I’ve learned the value of a close-knit community, have become more attuned to my surroundings and have tried to adopt a more relaxed attitude to life.
And this season, I am determined to shake off the British awkwardness and exchange greetings the French way without hesitation.
Although I’ll try to stop complimenting everyone’s derrière.
Gillian Harvey is a freelance writer who has lived in Limousin for six years, together with husband Ray and their five young children