How Beyoncé saved me from French assimilation disaster

September 13, 2010

faire la bise – how the French greet each other; involves a sort of “air kiss” on both cheeks (depending on the region in France, this can involve two, three or even four kisses)
à la européenne – in the European fashion
une salle de bain – the room in the house with the bathtub in it, not to be confused with “les toilettes” (“la toilette” in French Canada), which is a separate room with a toilet in it.  I’m not sure why the French use the plural form for the toilet, even when there is only one.  Maybe an extra one miraculously appears in times of great need?
On fait la bise… – One exchanges kisses…
dans la merde – up the creek without a paddle
à la canadienne – in the Canadian fashion


Have you ever done the awkward sidewalk dance?  You know the one – you’re motoring down the sidewalk, minding your own business, when suddenly you realize that you are nearly face-to-face with someone headed in the opposite direction.  You obligingly step to the right to let them pass, which would normally work, except that they have the exact same idea and step to their left at the same time, which means that you are still face-to-face.  You both then move simultaneously in the opposite direction, with the same result.  You, struck with a flash of brilliance, decide you’ll take the initiative and dart quickly to the other side before the other person can move – and they do the same, causing a near-miss (or sometimes not-so-near-missed) full-body collision.  It’s all very awkward, especially considering you barely know the person you are dancing with.  Finally, somebody half-laughs, throws up their hands in surrender and stays put, while the other person walks around them.

Well, welcome to my first few weeks in Paris.

It’s not that I bumped into a lot of people on the sidewalk.  Actually, the sidewalk dance almost never happens over here because if you don’t get the hell out of the way, the average Parisian pedestrian will just bowl you over and step over your still-warm corpse as they hurry on to the nearest métro station.*  I’ve been clocked on the shoulder and nearly taken down more times than I can count, and have now developed highly-tuned survival skills that allow me to veer my upper body suddenly to the right or the left while walking through pedestrian traffic with the swift dexterity of an NBA basketball player. Bonus points if I manage to avoid stepping in dog poop at the same time.

No, it wasn’t walking through pedestrian traffic that was the problem.  It was la bise, that bane of my early Parisian existence.

Faire la bise is how the French greet each other on a daily basis.  You’ve probably seen it done in the movies, especially foreign films with subtitles and ones starring Gérard Depardieu.  To the average North American outsider, it looks like they’re giving each other a kiss on either cheek, but in fact, there is no actual lip-to-cheek contact.  It’s more of a cheek-to-cheek thing, with each person making a kissy noise/blowing an air kiss as the cheeks come in contact. Typical Français – even when there’s no actual kissing involved, they know how to sell it and make it look good.

“La bise.”  So easy, even Prairie Dogs can do it.
Photo courtesy Mila Zinkova. Photograph edited by Vassil.

Now, this was not my first experience with la bise.  I mean, hey, I have friends from Quebec. I work in the arts. I’m hip. I’m cool. At film festivals and other industry events, it’s quite common to see all us Anglophones trying to be as chic as our cooler French-Canadian counterparts, putting on airs and greeting each other à la européen. But this is generally something we trot out only for special occasions, like trips to Montreal, Jean-Pierre Jeunet premières and French-themed murder mystery parties (“Monsieur Lafleur in the salle de bain with the chambermaid!”), after which we feel we have met our worldliness quota for the year and contentedly put la bise away into a tidy little box for next year’s St-Jean Baptiste Day celebrations.

Well, in Paris, I was suddenly expected to faire la bise on a daily basis. Everybody wanted to be kissed.  Friends, new acquaintances, the neighbour’s dog…  I’d be introduced to somebody, we’d faire la bise. I’d meet a friend for coffee and we’d faire la bise. I’d show up at a party and watch in utter amazement as everybody in the room would stand up and whoever I happened to be with would make the rounds, introduce themselves to the people they didn’t know, and kiss everybody in the entire room. Then, at the end of the night, they’d do it all over again to say goodbye. Yep, there was a whole lot of kissing going on, though perhaps not exactly in the way you might imagine kissing a party full of strangers in Paris might take place. It just seemed like so much effort. I longed for the simpler times, when I could stand awkwardly in the doorway and half-heartedly wave in the general direction of the group with a convivial nod and a friendly, “‘Sup?”

But at least when I was in French company, I knew what was expected of me. On fait la bise because that’s what you do in France. When I was meeting or hanging out with other anglophone expats, the rules of engagement were a little less clear. I mean, you both knew that if you were getting together for a friendly coffee in Canada you wouldn’t be exchanging la bise, so did you greet each other in the custom of fellow Canadians or did you do in Rome…? And if you went to faire la bise with a Canadian guy who was unaccustomed to such overtures from his own countrywomen, would he take it the wrong way and think that you were hitting on him? The whole situation in general is all very confusing and occasionally leads to both expats eyeing each other somewhat warily in an uncomfortable game of faire la bise chicken, neither one wanting to make the first move if it isn’t welcome, but neither one wanting to be misconstrued as unfriendly either. Eventually, I decided that the most cowardly courteous course of action in these circumstances is to simultaneously smile openly and hang back slightly in a noncommittal fashion, waiting for the other person to decide.

Now, for some reason, I could not seem to get it straight in my head which side to kiss first. I’d go to the right and the other person would go in the same direction. I’d quickly recover and switch to the left… then end up eye-to-eye with a startled Parisian who had thoughtfully changed directions to accommodate the bumbling foreigner. I was basically doing a microcosm of the awkward sidewalk dance several times a day, on a daily basis.  On a few occasions, I may have unwittingly made untoward advances on a friend’s boyfriend or a potential business contact. You’d think with all the practice I was getting that I would have been able to retain something as simple as which direction to move in first, but no, I had apparently developed some kind of mental block to remembering my right from my left. I was cracking under the pressure. I had become bise dyslexic.

Enter Beyoncé. Now, as I’m sure you know, Ms. Knowles’ music has long been helping Single Ladies everywhere deal with their Relationship Angst.  Her repertoire includes various anthems intended to bolster the female self-esteem, as well as songs that succinctly put into words the righteous indignation of women whose men have done them wrong. But while I had admired her work from an empirical standpoint, along with the sage wisdom that she imparted to the masses – I mean, hey, who could dispute the reasoning that if he liked it then he should have put a ring on it? – I must confess that I, personally, had never felt the need to turn to her for support in her particular area of specialty.  However, during those early days in Paris, Beyoncé became my inadvertent saviour in my time of need.

Beyoncé Knowles, shining example to Single Ladies and Parisian expats everywhere.
Photo courtesy Jen Keys

That’s because after multiple inept and (what felt like) disastrous encounters involving la bise, I was desperate to find something, anything, that would help me get it straight.  A word, a key phrase… a song…  I needed the equivalent of a bise pneumonic device.  And Beyoncé did not fail to provide, as she had provided for many other ladies long before me.

Any time I hesitated for a split second upon greeting someone, I just had to remember her words of instruction in the song Irreplaceable:

“To the left, to the left…”

I was like that awkward teenage boy on the dance floor, counting to himself as he marches robotically through the dance steps. But it worked! The near-fatal nose collisions stopped. Women stopped thinking I was trying to steal their boyfriends and other women stopped thinking I was subtly trying to make a move on them. I recited Beyoncé’s magical lyric to myself ad nauseum until it became my mantra, and soon I was blending in with everyone else, exchanging airy kisses with ease as if it was the most natural thing in the world, even though I secretly still felt a bit like an impostor and would occasionally be struck with the uncanny urge to accompany the kisses with an affected, Sunset Boulevard-esque, “Dahhhhling, it’s mahhh-velous to see you!”

Of course, my newfound success only applies to the Paris region. As soon as I travel elsewhere in France, I’ll basically be back dans la merde. Not only could the direction and velocity of la bise change, so could the number of kisses. But I’ll take my small victories as they come.  Baby steps.

I remember thinking at the time that to faire la bise would never truly come naturally to me, and that the best I would be able to manage was to look as if it did. But I now know that this isn’t true because three and a half months after I arrived in Paris, my friend Sarah came to visit from Toronto and when I greeted her for the first time, I automatically and without thinking moved to the left to give her an airy cheek kiss…  and started in surprise, completely caught off-guard when she instead grabbed me in a giant bear hug à la canadien.

That’s because back in Toronto, we hug our friends. Or, if we’re just meeting someone, we shake their hand. And although I have now assimilated enough into French culture to faire la bise without thinking about it, I still remember quite clearly that at first, kissing strangers upon introduction seemed a bit intimate. But then, I also remember the first time a Parisian friend of mine came to visit me in Toronto and saw two girls hugging goodbye on the street.  “That’s how you greet each other?” he asked, wrinkling his nose doubtfully. “All that close physical body contact seems a bit intimate to me.” Touché.

* I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect of course. Not all Parisian pedestrians are so impatient. Some of them might send the SAMU back to check and make sure you’re all right.

4 Responses to “How Beyoncé saved me from French assimilation disaster”

  1. Jodi Says:

    Je deteste faire la bise. I have a cousin from Belgium who has selectively infected my extended family, such that some of them do it, some only on one cheek, some two, I can never remember who, and none have a system of which side first. As if extended family gatherings aren’t already awkward enough!

    Also, what’s with the toilette(s) not having the sink?? Rationale for the toilet being in another room would make more sense if they didn’t make you return to the bain — touching all the door handles in between — to wash your hands. I mean, I’m no germophobe, but c’mon!


  2. Sarah Says:

    Ha! I had to laugh because as I was reading I was thinking “and then when I came to visit we practically bonked heads as I went to give you a hug!”

    Great post, Darlene!


  3. Andrea Says:

    In Belgium, IIRC, it is three times when you first meet someone, or after a long time, and when they go away, but once all other times. School morning greetings could be rather lengthy. When I got home, I still went to kiss everyone hello and goodbye — I had to pull myself back sharply several times.

    You’ll be really popular when you get back. :)

    (Oh, and CBC’s Wanted Words came up with a word for the dance: the Polka Dodge.)


  4. Jenn Says:

    This is hilarious :P You’re such a great writer!! I sooo know what you mean though! about the direction and the number and the intimacy!! I’d so much rather shake a hand or hug :-)


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