Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Other French Kissing

When my daughter was two years old, we were sitting one feverish afternoon in the pediatrician's waiting room. Waiting. The doctor's office was kind enough to furnish some pastimes to distract the younger patients until they could be escorted into the examining rooms.

My blond cherub picked up the stub of a purple Crayola and started scrawling on whatever paper was available -- in this case, a dreaded Disney coloring book. Her artwork was nowhere within any lines at that age, of course. After a few minutes she finished her embellishments and proudly exclaimed, "Look, Momma!" as she held up her masterpiece. The page of the coloring book was a black-and-white outline of Prince Charming bent over Cinderella's hand, giving it an elegant kiss. "Look!" she cried, "Da pwince is fixing Cindewella's boo-boo!"

I practically piddled trying to suppress my laughter. Of course, in her world, all spot-kisses were bestowed maternally with magical powers of healing bruised knees or pinched fingers. How could I expect an American toddler to know anything about the European culture of hand-kissing, le baisemain?

Even we American adults in general are not that familiar with le baisemain (pronounced le bez-menh). I think that most of what we know we've gleaned from movies. I don't know the long story of it, but it's a fairly aristocratic gesture in origin, so I imagine that it went out of style in the US around the time that American colonies chucked our ties to the monarchy. If it ever reached our shores to begin with.

Personally? I love le baisemain. It doesn't happen on a daily basis, not for me anyway. But oh, when it does! It's so full of gallantry and elegance -- when done properly by a Frenchman who's got the lifelong skill honed to a delightful art. I admit that I still blush a bit inwardly.

On the other hand, it's kind of sweet and silly to see American men imitating the gesture, trying to be polite and do-as-the-French-do when they're in Paris. Last year I attended a dressy Paris reception with a group of visiting Americans. One guy from Georgia planted a noisy wet smooch on the hand of the French lady he was introduced to. She was genteel and smiled broadly and kindly (before subtly reaching for a mouchoir, no doubt). Because contact in le baisemain should be even more distant than the other French kissing -- the double-cheek kissing, the bisous. The lips don't actually touch the other person's skin, en principe.

According to my good friend, French etiquette coach Marie de Tilly, there is a well-established code around le baisemain: where, when, how. Officially, minimum distance should be a few centimeters between gentleman's lips and lady's hand, for example. Often the man merely nods toward your outstretched hand as he lifts it ever-so slightly.

Tonight I was at a dinner and it happened again. A lovely baisemain, and with it a feeling of flattery, respect, and being totally charmed. Maybe someday I'll find it ho-hum. Until then, I probably feel the way Laura Bush looked when Chirac plied his French baisemain charms on her for this photo-op.

Just a teeny little frisson.

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