“…When We’re Not Together, Dancing Cheek to Cheek…”
The French are discouraging a fine, old phony practice
By Ed Goldman
Here’s a new entry for the endangered species list: the charming, traditional and usually insincere cheek kiss popularized by the French.
As you know, these are the same folks to which we attribute the invention of French fries (actually, the Belgians came up with those), French toast (which was probably created by ancient Romans looking for a way to use up some ancient bread) and “Frenching,” the kissing activity that goes beyond the cheek and exercises the tongue even more than a juicy piece of gossip.
I’d love to say “Frenching” was another French innovation but I find it hard to believe that doing so didn’t occur to people in other cultures, in other centuries—especially if their chariots, oxcarts or buckboards had back seats.
The cheek kiss is something else altogether, and it’s so quaint and awkward, I can believe it originated with the same people who convinced us it was somehow desirable to consume snails. I love escargot, mind you, but it’s always been about the butter and garlic, not the chewy gastropod.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the cheek kiss faces extinction in the harsh reality of Covid-19’s excursion into our way of life. ”On March 5, 10 days before France imposed strict rules on confinement, 91 percent of people were still happy to greet those they knew with a kiss, according to French polling firm IFOP. Less than three weeks later, that had plunged to 14 percent.”
The French cheek kiss, “la bise,” is really a double kiss: a quick peck on each cheek, regardless of sexual orientation—or, apparently, personal regard, since President Emmanuel Macron laid one on President Trump, whom Macron is rumored to consider a toxic buffoon, during a state visit two years ago. Trump clearly didn’t enjoy the gesture and now he’s getting retroactive and possibly future support from an unlikely ally, Sylvie Briand, a World Health Organization exec. She told the newspaper: “La bise is putting the virus directly on the surface of someone’s face,. You don’t want people to have to wash their face every time they do la bise.”
No kidding—though I can only imagine how Macron felt after smooching Trump. He probably wanted to run naked through a car wash a half dozen times and then have himself Martinized.
The article mentions that, the French being the French, there’s a rather persistent disagreement over just how many cheek kisses it takes to execute a complete bise. “Parisians prefer two kisses,” the Journal documents, whereas “People in parts of Brittany are more restrained with only one… . Parts of the country close to the Swiss border and the South go up to three. And four, while time-consuming, isn’t unheard of.” Actually, if you’re going to go all the way to four, I say you might just as well moisten your tongue. That’s got to be next.
It may tickle you to know that these statistics come from a crowdfunded website called “CombiendeBises.com.” That means, “How Many Bises?” I wonder if you can also order French fries there.
Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).