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How Covid has killed off the French art of kissing

Two men pose as they greet each other with their feet in the Vieux Port of Marseille southern France, on May 17, 2020. Photo: CLEMENT MAHOUDEAU/AFP via Getty Images) - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

ALASTAIR CAMPBELL fears historians may look back at 2020 as beginning of the end for the traditional form of greeting around the world.

Several moons ago, way back in April, I wrote here about 20 things I was missing in lockdown. Number 1 was ‘Burnley FC’, and my God we have had a good run since the Premier League resumed with fan-less football. But fear not, ye poor souls who fail to share my passion for football, this is not a sports column. It is about kissing or, more precisely, about greeting.

Number 4 in my missing list was ‘Abroad’. Number 6 was ‘France’. Number 20 was ‘La Bise’…

’20. La Bise: Might Coronavirus signal the end of the little double and sometimes (in Provence) triple peck on the cheek? Will flirting be added to the long and grisly death toll? I would miss that, and not just in France.’

Well, as you may recall from last week’s column meandering through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy, Number 4 has been ticked off and now, enfin, so has 6. Je suis en France. And my fears about 20 would appear to have been well-founded.

‘Pas de bise,’ said our friend Philippe, hands outstretched as we bumped into him while out walking with his wife Eliane, ‘la bise est morte’.

We have been coming to the same part of Provence (see diaries volumes 1-8) for so long that we have a circle of friends and acquaintances wholly separate from our life in the UK. Some are aware that I’ve been some kind of ‘grand fromage’ in politics, maybe because we have told them of our past as we got to know them, or because they have seen me pop up on French TV, usually described as ‘ancien porte-parole de Tony Blair’. I prefer ‘ex-‘ myself. ‘Ancien’ is just one t short of ancient. Others know me as ‘Monsieur Millar’, because Fiona is the one who tends to be out and about in the community more, ordering and buying and organising things. It means, however, we have been students and practitioners of la bise for decades.

My first significant experience of France was as an assistant d’anglais in a school in Nice in 1977, and I found the initiation into la vie de la bise frankly overwhelming. I would arrive at the staff room reasonably early, and have maybe half a dozen sets of cheeks against which delicately to brush; but then as others came in, they too would have to faire la tour de la salle, so up and down we got from our chairs to greet the late arrivals, and as I imagined this going on in every workplace in France, my hard-headed Anglo-Saxon mind was wondering just how many hours were lost annually to this form of greeting, and how much less productive was the French economy as a result?

The sociology of la bise was a specialist subject in itself. With people who lived in the same apartment block, when was it time to graduate from nod of the head to shake of the hand to la bise? For how long did you have to be a regular at a bar or restaurant before the barman, barmaid or maitre d’ would think it appropriate for a bise greeting? Who made the first move? What happened if you made that move, but the other person thought you were going too quickly? And was there a sexual element to this? I got the sense that I was expected to graduate to la bise with a woman far more quickly than with a man, but perhaps that was just my Scottish/North England upbringing kicking in, kissing men not having been a big part of it.

The school was a bloody minefield. I was barely 20, and some of the girls I taught were just a couple of years younger than I was. So I might bump into them in a bar, or on the beach, and we would bise away. But in school? I never really knew what the rules were, and I worried what the head would think of me if I asked: ‘Am I allowed to kiss the girls?’

Nice was complicated by its proximity to Italy, and the influence thereof. The Italian equivalent of La Bise is Il Bacetto, but that is very much a lip to cheek thing, much more of a kissing action and sound, whereas La Bise is essentially a slight grazing of cheeks.

Despite these decades of experience, occasional embarrassments still arise. I might see the baker, the postwoman, the guy in the cafe, or the woman in the paper-shop, every day for weeks. We might talk, about politics, family, sport, what to do, where to go… but where is the science or guidebook that says after x days, y weeks, z months or years, it’s la bise time? Because once that first bise is done, (pre-Covid at least,) you will never shake that person’s hand again.

Also, as with whether it is two kisses or three, which cheek to go for first may vary region to region. And though you don’t actually kiss the other person’s cheek, you should make a kissing sound with your lips. Do not, repeat not, go ‘mwah, mwah’. Faux pas social affreux! You might as well fart or shout ‘J’aime le Brexit’.

Kissing as a form of greeting dates at least as far back as the Romans. Their kissing broke down into three separate groupings … saevium (romance/love); osculum (kisses of friendship or religious ritual) and basium (greeting). It is from the word basium that both la bise and baiser are derived, the latter meaning both ‘to kiss’, and also ‘to f**k’. See what I mean about how this would have been complicated had I raised it with the headteacher. ‘Je peux baiser les filles, ou pas?’

The point of the cheek to cheek greeting was to show equality between those who are doing la bise, a mutual act of respect between two people on the same level. Though far from mandatory, it was fairly common in France by the time of the Middle Ages, but guess what stopped it? The Black Death, the worst pandemic in all human history, which killed tens of millions between 1346 and 1351.

But as a kind of normality resumed after the plague was conquered, so la bise made a slow, steady return, with two important milestones attached to two of the most significant moments in France’s history later re-cementing it into French life. First, the French Revolution of 1789, and the rediscovery of la bise as a symbol of egalité and fraternité in particular. Second, after the First World War, it took another giant leap forward among the masses, in part as a way of rejecting, and distinguishing from, those de haut en bas types in high society with their condescending kisses of the hand. And in Britain, as we have become more European, despite the blip of Brexit, the double cheek embrace has developed into a much more popular form of greeting.

So for now, la bise est morte, but history suggests it can come back from the dead. I hope so. Humans need physical contact with each other, added to which I quite enjoy the sociology mentioned above.

Also, there is great history in the handshake – it is a peace symbol, a way of showing you carry no weapons – and such rich history in la bise too.

I don’t know, but I cannot imagine that if there is another pandemic a few centuries from now, historians will look back at the Covid pandemic of 2020 and say ‘this was the period in which elbow-bumping, the so-called bosse du coude, became the traditional form of greeting around the world, which has endured to this day’. God, I hope not.

À mort la bosse du coude. Vive la poignée de main. Et surtout … Vive la bise.

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