When growing up, my parents stressed the importance of good manners. “Cheer up now”, I was told immediately, if I had a long face. Suck it up and smile. When meeting a new person, I was advised to stick out my hand, look directly at the other person, give a firm handshake and clearly state my name. This upbringing has served me relatively well, but every once in a while, I am out of my etiquette depth.
Like this past weekend, when we attended a christening in Belgium. It was a lovely small family gathering. Both Dutch-speaking Flemish and French-speaking Walloons at the party. People of our age, some of the older generation and kids of all ages. I had only ever met the baby’s parents before. We’ve been friends for years, but it was my first time at an occasion of this kind. I soon realised that upon arrival, everybody goes around the room and individually greets each person present. Kissing, lots of audible kissing. Muah’s all around.
Located towards the back of the room, standing tall as my mother always told me to, I was frantically trying to figure out what the appropriate kissing protocol was. I was sure the correct way of greeting wasn’t what my former Dutch colleagues once taught our gullible American coworker. They made her believe that the greeting ritual in the Netherlands was to kiss on left cheek, kiss on right cheek and smack on the mouth.
A traditional handshake seemed overly formal after I observed the others. Normally, I would have opted for a loose, light hug, but a kiss of some sort appeared to be expected. For my first attempt at this type of greeting, a child of about eight years old approached me. Leaning down, it was just a gentle brush of cheeks and kissing the air next to her cheek. All right!
Well, it all went downhill from there. A few close crashes of faces avoided by awkward halts mid-air. Left or right side? I leaned my face towards the left when the other person was aiming for the right cheek. Or perhaps it was the other way around. There was my clumsy second air kiss, when the other person stopped at one. And since I puzzled him by continuing for the second side, he went for the customary three. Ok, it’s either one or three. When I finally decided to revert to my roots and settle on simple handshake greetings, however stiff, I was so confused that I managed to turn them into half-hearted embraces with less than graceful lip-smacking sounds. And despite all my salutation tactlessness, the nearest and dearests of our Belgian hosts still politely muttered “Enchante”.
Not a very good display of social decorum on my part! Can I blame my parents for not teaching me air kissing? Anyways, the ritual was naturally repeated at the end of the party when saying good-byes. I still need more practice.