19 January 2015

Bonjour et Bisous, Bisous!

Photo of the sunrise through the car window, on a recent trip to Versailles

This weekend we went to a New Year's Fête in our tiny, tiny village. Not only did our next door neighbor invited us ... she is the village mayor! She has a few cows, some chickens, and a dog. Her French is rather hard for me to understand (my issue, not hers), but has a kindness in her eyes that makes me feel right at home.

I knew we needed to participate in this community event. (Plus, they were serving more galette pastries, hot chocolate and mulled wine. Well, okay!) It would be a small, but respectful gesture on our part. But, wow. It was intimidating walking into the village's salle de fête (a party or community room ... it seems every village, no matter how small, has one for it's inhabitants to gather).

Steeling ourselves for a social event all in French, we entered into the salle containing perhaps 60 or so people in all? And, as customary, you give everyone bises. You know, the kiss on each cheek thing. At one point I had to chasten myself to stop grinning like an idiot. I was so tickled by the mass bises-ing. And everyone gives a bise to everyone. Including children. And if you are thinking this might take awhile, you would be right. You may not have picked up their name or where they live or if they have a farm or just a house ... but you've given and received bises!

So, the whole bises thing (pronounced beez). I'm no expert, but I get asked a lot of questions about it. There is also the bisou (bee-zoo), which as I understand it, is appropriate for family, kids, or really good friends. It's the same thing, but one would call it giving bises or bisous depending on your level of familiarity or the age of the person. (Much like the pronouns "vous" vs. "tu" ... but that's a whole other conversation.)

It is used as a greeting in most every situation unless it is professional, or if for some reason it would be awkward ... which follows a confusing code of unspoken conduct. So if you see a friend? Bisous. For sure. If you are being introduced to a friend's friend ... bises. If you are meeting the entire village's inhabitants? Bisous for the people you know and the children and bises for everyone else. (Remember, it's essentially the same thing and I will now just use the terms interchangeably.) If you are greeting your 75 year-old grammar teacher? You do not give bises. That would be weird and freak her out. You know this because you did it once and will never do it again.

And what does the bise/bisou consist of? It's cheeks touching and making a brief kissing sound in the air. Cheeks touch, no lip contact. And it's not the goofy, affected Beverly Hills air-kissing thing. Because that's dumb. And for some reason, I always have this feeling that I might topple over while giving les bisous and tend to put my hand on someone's shoulder or waist. I'm pretty sure that's weird. People seem to keep their hands to themselves. I'm working on it.

Typically, you offer the right cheek first and then do the left. In the north, where we are, it's just the two bisous, one on each cheek. The further south you go, they add more. I've seen three, but I'm told it can go up to four-bises a person (right, left, right, left)! And if you goof and offer the left cheek first, everyone works with it but it's weird and you kind of smack faces a bit.

When you greet a child they will always offer you a cheek. Just one bisou for children (I think it turns into two about middle-school age?). It's a respect thing and even the toddlers will come up to you and just stand there with their cheek in the air until you get your act together and bend down for a slightly-goopy bisou. (Because, come on, they are little and they goop on everything.)

All of Lucette's friends (6th grade) give each other bisous when they greet each other. All of Peter's peers typically handshake. But if any of them greeted an adult ... bisous. And the men? Oh gosh. I don't know. Lots of bises still, but I think if they were at all unsure, a handshake is totally acceptable. But men and women? Bises for sure. Saying goodbye to your the husband of your friend? Bises. It's not weird, it's just normal.

{Sidenote. Want a sure-fire way to freak a French person out? Hug them. It's super weird and creepy to them. A hug is considered far more intimate than a bise, because bodies are touching. Which when you consider it, it actually makes a lot of sense. I'm not even sure there is even a French word for hug. I think it might be embrasser ... you know, to "embrace." In short, there is no informal hugging and it doesn't matter that you are an American. You will just oook them out. Promise.}

Sometimes I think we get the "deer in the headlights" look when we aren't sure to bise or not to bise. But people are quite understanding and handshakes are okay, especially if they realize you are a foreigner. But honestly, I am finding it a very charming custom.

We had a lovely time at the party. They began by listing all of the major events of the year (who got married, whose farm was doing what, some sort of an installation of a toilet (??), and the big introduction, name by name, to the wacky American family who moved into La Cressonnière. And then we had the galettes. And hot chocolate. And mulled wine.

Peter's piece of galette had the "favor" in it (a little ceramic figurine) so he got to wear a paper crown. And 13 year-old boys looooove to wear paper crowns at foreign-language parties! Woohoo! People were very kind and patient to us as we hacked out conversation in atrocious French and they said things like ... "Vous parlez très bien!" Which we totally were not "speaking really well," but that's okay too. 

We were informed of when the next fête would be and warm farewell wishes exchanged. And then off we trotted ... after, of course, giving the goodbye bises!

**Post-note. If you are learning French, you might be tempted to stick an "er" on the end and say Baiser (beh-zay). Don't. It used to mean kiss. It doesn't now. It's become a naughty word. Just stay away from it. Fa-far away.

**Post-post-note. Want to see a funny video on La Bise? It has one "ahem" moment, and it's in French ... but it's still rather funny.


  1. Interesting!

    Maybe you can do a day in the life sometime. So fascinated.

    1. Not sure how interesting our day to day is ... but I do know how curious I am about other people's day! Maybe I will!

  2. oh I love, love, love this post!!! I love cultural insights :)

    So adorable!!!!

    Interesting thing - I worked at a company that is very relationship-driven so everyone used to hug and kiss at meetings all the time, and most definitely for Christmas/ New Year's etc.

    I'm now at a new company and they are.... not kissy huggy or anything, so I have to literally steel myself to not kiss or hug (I was at previous company for 9 years so habits)

  3. That was a cute little film, but - that whole business would drive. me. crazy. :)

    1. It's funny how quickly we are adjusting to it! (Although the mass social group, was a new experience!)

  4. What a wonderful adventure your family is having! We have Belgian friends and of course its also the kissing or air kissing and then with some its 2 sides, others left, right , left

    1. No kidding! Sometimes it's two on one side? I love this! So funny, all of the differences.