PUCKER UP

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

Living France - - Contents -

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

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