27 November 2010

To bise or not to bise?

That is the question!

This article is beyond overdue! As an American in France, one of the most pleasing but perplexing customs is
la bise. For you non-francophones out there, la bise is a greeting in which French friends and acquaintances exchange kisses on alternating cheeks.

The first time I was greeted with la bise was by a work colleague my second day of teaching primary school. I sort of froze when she leaned in, and I noticed that her lips never actually touched my face. She just sort of pressed her cheeks against mine and made kiss sounds in the air. She noticed that I stiffened a bit and that I had not actively kissed her back, and asked if we had this custom in the States. I told her no, but that I liked it very much. I was elated to be assimilated into this pillar of French culture immortalized in cheesy junior high French class videos.

In eighth grade, I couldn't wait to visit France and get "bised." It seemed so chic, so breezy, so effortless, so very, very French. Au contraire, I never expected how much effort la bise would require for an American expat.

Mass bising anxiety
Last year while living in Metz, a French friend took me out to meet her friends at the ultra chic La Place Café. We arrived in a low lit fashion bar with pulsating music and extremely well dressed clientele. I felt awkward enough already in my fluffy white sweater amid a sea of sleek black outfits, but when we arrived at our table where 15 were already seated, my heart skipped a beat. We removed our coats, and I smiled and waved at the table of French strangers and began to sit down, thinking my friend would introduce me. I received some very strange looks. I glanced helplessly toward her, but to my horror realized she was halfway around the table, giving la bise to each and every person present. I stood up quickly, but then wondered if I was meant to do the same, since I had never met these people. The answer was OUI. If you attend a function and are introduced by a mutual friend, it is usually customary to offer "la bise." Thankfully, one of the other guests at the table introduced himself with a light kiss on each cheeks. I then bravely made my way around the table. After the table learned I was American and not accustomed to kissing strangers, the mood lightened considerably. Before leaving, the entire table repeated the ritual again. I did some calculating. If each bise consists of two kisses, that means I gave out 30 kisses to the 15 guests before dinner, followed by another 30 after dinner when we said goodbye. 60 kisses at one dinner? How much can my immune system take? I wondered.

Selective bising
One of the most unnerving experiences I've had with la bise happened with a work colleague at one of the schools I taught at last year. She was always very cold with me, and I never did figure out why. When we arrived at school in the morning, she would bise everyone but me. I developed all sorts of complexes, wondering if there was something wrong with me. I felt the sting of rejection each time she bised those on each side of me. I felt invisible... I would greet her and kind of lean a bit towards her, not sure what to do. If I received any acknowledgment at all, it was a curt nod and an expressionless bonjour. It wasn't until my last day of teaching at that particular school that I received a gracious bise from her as if we had been doing it all along... I never did figure out the reason for her selective bising, but I do know that it is a great way to alienate people.

Bising with strangers
Another awkward experience with la bise occurred when my American friend Kathy and I were photographing inside a beautiful gothic church. Although the church had been empty, a group of people soon arrived, to celebrate a baptism. We decided to leave out of respect for the event, and as we headed toward the exit, the mother approached me wither her baby in tow, and the next thing I knew, she was bising me like an old friend. She must have thought I was a friend of the family. I was stunned, and almost started to explain that I was not part of her group, but realized it would be easier to just bise her and get it over with. I glanced over my shoulder at Kathy, and saw her mid-bise with another person in the family. We smirked at one another and continued heading to the door, bising everyone between us and the exit. Many introduced themselves with warm smiles, and told us how great it was to see us. It really was lovely, and I almost wanted to stay and enjoy the dinner with them afterward. We smiled, continued bising dozens of complete strangers before eventually making it to the door. Safely outside, we collapsed on the ground in a fit of laughter.

Some wisdom on bising
After over a year of living in France, I can offer the following advice on la bise. ::DISCLAIMER:: I do not claim to be a professional, so be advised that I am not to be held responsible for any awkward situations that result from any bise gone awry due to my advice.

Gender roles of la bise
-Women and women bise
-Men and women bise
-Men and men do not bise each other unless they are close family or friends. They generally shake hands.

When to bise:
-when greeting friends and family
-when a friend introduces you to his or her friends, you should bise them (bise by association)
-when greeting colleagues (but follow their lead)

When NOT to bise:
-when the sleazy guy flirting with you in the street asks to (he will cheat and aim for your lips. ew!)
-when greeting your superior
-when you're sick

When in doubt:
-shake hands

Whatever you do...
Whether you choose bise or not, remember that you still must greet everyone individually when entering a home, party, or workplace.

La bise by region

Just in case you weren't already thoroughly confused by the intricacies of la bise, the French decided to complicate things even more by assigning different numbers of kisses to different regions. Depending on what region of France you visit, you will be greeted by 2, 3, or even 4 kisses. Living in Metz and Toulouse, I have had it pretty easy, administering only two kisses, but imagine my surprise, receiving a THIRD kiss when visiting beautiful Montpellier. Sound intimidating? Not to worry, even the French are confused by regional changes. To illustrate the complexity of la bise, I have included this adorable map which shows the number of kisses by region.

How to approach la bise as a foreigner

I can attest that most of the awkwardness that comes from la bise is due to our tentativeness as foreigners to greet someone in such an unfamiliar way. Even if you're nervous, outward confidence is key. Hesitation will only worsen the situation. Approach la bise as if you have been doing it your whole life. It takes grace and swiftness. Offer your right cheek first, like shaking hands. Don't actually let your lips touch the other person's cheek. Lightly press cheeks together and make the kiss sound. Stay loose, don't freeze up.

Even if it's uncomfortable at first, trust me, it gets better with time and experience. Barack and Michelle can do it! so can you! Yes we can!

Happy bising, tout le monde!

02 November 2010

Observations on French vs American Universities Part 2: FASHION

Dress is one of the most obvious comparisons I can make between American and French students. In American colleges, the "uniform" typically consists of jeans, t-shirts, sneakers, and backpacks. Many girls stumble out of their dorm rooms for 8am classes wearing pyjama pants, or jogging attire and no one raises an eyebrow. As an art student, my jeans were perpetually covered in oil paint, charcoal, and ink. I gave up straightening my hair or wearing makeup if I had an early class.

Now I, like many, assumed that college life, while not identical in various countries, had several...
universal qualities. Well, as a teacher in a French university, I can now say that FASHION is not one of these shared traits.

I am in absolute AWE of my French female students, who work the hallways like a runway. Their enviably an
d impossibly slender legs sport sleek leggings under tunics or miniskirts, tucked into leather high-heeled boots or perhaps ballerina flats. Throw on an edgy jacket and an artfully tied flowing scarf (which is a science of its own right), and crown with a messy chignon on top of head. Allow a feel tendrils to fall around an immaculately made-up face. The aim of this hairstyle (which I will henceforth and forthwith call a "topknot") is to look as though it took 30 seconds to achieve, yet probably took hours of arranging every strand just so... Or perhaps it really does take them 30 seconds, due to their French blood and the inherent flawlessness it entails. Many throw on a pair of the geekiest, thick-rimmed glasses I have ever seen... and here is the weird thing: it AMPLIFIES their hotness! Backpack? ::raises a critical brow:: You must be joking. The most popular bag seems to be a Longchamp bag. Even the guys carry them! Accessory number 1, of course, is a cigarette delicately poised between two fingers and elegantly bent wrist.

As for the French guys, forgive me if I pay less attention to their attire. What I do know is that they always have extraordinary leather shoes, never scuffed or anything less than gleaming. Only a French guy can wear a V-neck sweater, slim-cut jeans, a purple scarf, and carry a longchamp bag and not at all be concerned about his masculinity. Men in the States would sooner jam all their belongings into a bulging wallet stuffed in their jeans than carry a "man purse," but French men seem to have no issues whatsoever with this concept.

What really gets me is the French and their effortless ability to pull together an outfit from an assortment of seemingly unrelated and mismatched articles of clothing. I firmly believe they can walk through their closet with their eyes closed, select 5 random articles of clothing, and still manage to look sexier and more put-together than I do on my best days!

It's really amazing how I can look in the mirror in the morning and think I am the epitome of style and class. I could have a new outfit, gorgeous leather boots that click deliciously on the cobblestones as I walk, flowing hair and a flattering shade of lipstick, but the instant I enter the classroom, I feel frumpier than your great aunt Myrtle at a Sunday afternoon tea party. It's like walking a gauntlet each them I enter the classroom. The eyes of the female students dart over me from head to toe, checking to see if my belt goes with my shoes, grimacing when they realize I am carrying a reusable plastic shopping bag. They murmur to one another, probably about what soirée they are attending Friday night, but the paranoia has seized control of me after witnessing their stares. Maybe they notice the 4 kilos I've gained since moving to Europe.

Expat ladies in France, take note of my words of wisdom: No matter how much you spend on French clothes, how much you practice walking the medieval streets all day in high heels, how many desserts you decline, how many cigarettes you smoke, how many hours you spend emulating the way they tie their scarves or their elusive "top knot," you can never, ever compete with the French and their natural finesse for fashion, their absence of cellulite, and their talent for turning a disgusting habit like smoking into the sexiest thing in the world.

What you can do is take comfort in the following:

A. French MEN will love you anyway, if for nothing more than your charming anglophone accent. As horrible as you think it sounds, the French think it sounds cute! Even if you butcher your conjugations, all the better. Tant mieux! (Think sexy British chanteuse Jane Birkin, who despite living in France for over three decades has kept her very pronounced accent. I think she does it on purpose.) I cannot count how many free drinks I have received simply because of my "accent délicieux." As much as I wish I could eliminate my accent when I speak French, French men beg me to "keep it forever," as their gorgeous French girlfriends scowl next to them.

Just remember not to get cocky, because if a French girl comes to your side of the pond, not only will she be better dressed, but she will also speak her seductive brand of English which sounds "like zeees."

B. They may have fantastically trim bodies, but you can enjoy the fact that you can consume more than cigarettes for dinner! That means you can actually enjoy the delightful cuisine France has to offer. Living in the Toulouse region, that means Cassoulet, Foie gras, Gaillac wine, Roquefort and Tomme cheeses, sausages and more. Ever wonder why so many of them look perpetually pissed off? They're jealous of you and your gastronomic freedom!

You know, writing this almost makes me feel better for my fashion and fitness, shortcomings. I felt inspired to re-attempt the famous top-knot, which, it seems, is yet another "top-flop."

Beautiful French women. If you can't beat them, join them. If you can't join them, blog about them...

My failed attempt at the messy French "top knot"
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