Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hugging in France

Unless otherwise noted, all materials on this blog are (c) 2009 by Madeleine Vedel

I love to hug. I was raised cuddly, leaping into my father's arms when he came back from work, snuggling for long warm moments at night before bed, curling up on welcoming laps, be they my father's, my mother's or a boyfriend's. Already in high school I hugged my good friends, and even more so from university on, and during my years in Seattle. I was the affectionate, outgoing, demonstrative one. Not only hugs, but back rubs too. However, that's another subject. Full body hugs of dear friends, both sexes, simply expressing the joy and pleasure in seeing each other. Arms wrapped tightly around their backs, face gently pressed into a warm shoulder, this was the warm greeting I adored giving and receiving.

Then I spent a year in Japan. In Japan, not only do you not hug, you don't kiss, and greetings are the non-touching act of bowing (at various depths depending on status, etc.,). Girlfriends can link arms, but, hugs? I actually wondered if I could still be me, the myself I knew or thought I could define, if I wasn't giving and getting hugs. It was an existential moment.

And yes, as you well know, I now live in France where I've been for the past fourteen years. In France we exchange kisses as greetings. These vary. In Paris, the tendency is two kisses, one each in the air located somewhere in the direction of your distant ear. You certainly don't actually touch the cheek, and you lean gently towards the person, but don't touch. In the occasional brasserie when men get a bit high on wine and the company of women, this can quickly become four kisses, for said women.

The word 'embrasser' which so resembles 'embrace,' if we go back in time, originally meant enwrap with arms (bra=arm), as you would think. But with the passage of the ages, the word has come to mean to kiss. And the word that you'd think would be to kiss, 'baiser' which so resembles the word kiss, bise or bisou, has come to mean something much stronger, that is, to have sex. Yes, things get complicated when etymology comes into it!

In Provence, we exchange three kisses, and yummy little grandmas and aunties make a sincere effort to smack their lips on your cheek (this takes some doing, try it!), properly leaving a nice smudge of red-orange lipstick. It is also quite common to hold the shoulder of the person you kiss while doing so. It adds an extra affectionate touch, which is not out of place between between friends and family members. This is my tendency -- and so far it hasn't gotten me in trouble.

However, hugging... even between close friends is a rare thing. A mommy can hug her kids, and they her. But Grandmas more often get kisses. In general, such an exchange of bodily warmth (fully clothed yet) is reserved for lovers. And yes, I do count on JP for my share of being wrapped in arms, pressed against a warm chest, my nose snuggled in a warm neck. But, ... that's beside the point.

As my time in France has evolved, I think I've followed a sine curve on the hugging thing. In the beginning I missed it terribly, but kept myself carefully in hand and observed local customs most attentively. Then, when my babies were born, I cuddled them, and held them, and nursed them, and even had them sleeping in bed beside me. Yes, I had missed that physical warmth, and my kids were the recipients of all that bottled up affection (it could have been worse).

In general, I've mostly adapted to the state of things. It's been over fourteen years now after all. However, in the past couple years, as I've lived through the difficult times of my divorce, and realized what truly wonderful friends I have, I just can't resist pulling them into an embrace American style. And, dear and wonderful friends that they are, they respond, and it's ok. I am after all their American friend. I'm Madeleine, I happen to be American, and where I come from and who I am is most truthfully conveyed when I permit myself the freedom of truly expressing my love and affection. So, be it my two dearest friends, or my much loved goat cheese makers Isabelle and Paul Pierre... I reach out and pull them close. I love them so.

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