Kissing Off the Kissing Habit?

Written by admin on September 9, 2009 – 7:46 pm -

It’s as common as seeing a person carrying a baguette or drinking an espresso while standing at the bar of a neighborhood café, la bise.  But now, now la bise, the cheek-to-cheek pecks that the French use when saying hello or goodbye, has come under pressure as a result of the global swine flu threat.

Even though there have only been three (possible) swine-flu related deaths reported, the French Ministry of Health is alerting people they need to stop kissing. And they mean it even though it goes against the grain of French tradition.

Some are wondering how and if the French will be able to kick la bise habit—and habit it is.  Most Parisians will kiss twice, once on each check, and usually the right cheek gets served first.  I hear that overly enthusiastic students may kiss four times.  But if you kiss three times, people will ask if you’re Belgian.  This is not a compliment, though better to kiss too much than not at all, right?

As winter approaches, some French schools, companies and a hotline sponsored by the Health Ministry are advising students and employees to cut out the kissing, which is as much a ritual as a greeting. They fear that because of flu, a kiss might cause illness or in the extreme possibly death.  Which would be a high price to pay for an air-kiss on the cheek, but better to be cautious than get the flu, which causes people to run incredibly high fevers, is highly contagious and leaves people feeling as if they want to die even if the virus is a temporary affliction. Those who’ve had the flu report that every bone in their body has ached, and some say they’ve never experienced a flu that’s plowed them under as acutely.

So, the Health Ministry advises keeping a minimum of a three-foot distance from people and states that facemasks should be worn when possible. “These are recommendations, not requirements: People are free to do what they like,” said a hotline operator. The government’s main thrust is to encourage people to wash their hands frequently and use sanitary wipes and gels.  Caution is the rule of the week. Teachers are requesting that students refrain from kissing one another—which, if they’re keeping a distance of three feet would be hard to do anyway, but it might be interesting to watch them trying.

Some people are staying away from department stores and other closed places for fear of being infected. Since the swine flu vaccine won’t be available until October, many people are being extra cautious. That’s okay, but not kissing?

Besides prevention, stay home if you’re running a fever or think you might be contracting the flu.   Marie-Louise and Jean have decided to postpone putting their one-year-old into the crèche (day-care) until the flu has come and gone. It will mean one parent will need to stay at home with their daughter until they line up a caregiver.  Some parents are banding together to alternate homes where their children may stay with one parent at a time so they aren’t exposed to twenty or more children who spend their days at a local center.  That’s okay too—though you might ask how many toddlers create a critical mass of infection—but not kissing?

It will be interesting to see whether or not this is yet another blow to tourism. A French tour operator said some people have canceled their travel plans because of the swine flu epidemic—which has not reached epidemic levels in France.  All you have to do is walk through any airport and you’ll see people wearing facemasks.   Is this another avian flu that dealt the deathblow to travel in 1997? Are you postponing your plans for fear of contamination?  Let’s face it; most tourists would rather be sick at home than spending vacation time down and out in a hotel room—even if there is a view of the Eiffel Tower.

But trying to keep people from kissing, while hygienically sound, doesn’t sound very French to me.  I wonder if it will actually become the rule—and la bise will pass into history, along with the beret, the horizontally striped shirt, and the cigarettes known as Parisiennes, sold in paper packages of four really nasty smokes.  And what about shaking hands?  Everybody does that in France, constantly, sometimes even while kissing.  Can that be far behind?  And, while we’re at it, what about sex?

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