I was 11 when I missed my first kiss. We were on a school trip to Expo ’86 in Vancouver, and KC pulled me aside in the kids’ play centre. There, shielded from chaperones by a maze of padded punching bags that hung above us and swayed in languid, come-hither movements – huge, phallic fruit in an Eden about to be lost – we stood face to face, near enough for me to smell her candyfloss breath.
“I want to…something…but I’m not sure…” She stammered, awash with urges. I knew what she was asking, but I couldn’t yet provide it. “It’s okay,” I sad, and we left it there. For years after, I cursed my cowardice, imagining how differently my teen years could have gone if KC had been able to imbue me, there and then, with kissing confidence. Now I know better. It would have gone badly, because I wasn’t ready for kissing back then. I hadn’t been to France yet.
In English, a “French kiss” means to kiss with tongue. It’s one of several passing jabs that puritanical Brits have cooked up through the ages to salute their allegedly more lusty neighbours to the south. A more antique example is a euphemism for syphilis, used even by Shakespeare: the “French disease.” Mind you, the English acquired that cut from the Italians, so maybe the French call syphilis the Italian disease? It certainly gets around.
I have no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, that the French use more tongue when kissing, though, because I’ve never kissed a French person – unless you count Quebecois or Fransaskois. The delegates from those regions were terrific kissers, and I’d like to think I held my own, too. They were all post-France.
My first visit was two years after Expo ’86: a week in Paris, with my father, as a sort of consolation prize for the divorce. Having spent seven years in French immersion back home, I was obliged to provide most of the translating, which made me sullen and resentful – even moreso than my baseline adolescent resentment. Yet I brightened up in a hurry when Dad took me to a Folie Bergeres-style cabaret, complete with topless acrobats and dancers. Instantly, France was the best country in the world.
The next visit, one year later, was more aggressively chaperoned, as it was another school trip. But my teenage thirst for titillation still got slaked – first, by the topless models on Parisian billboards (I was more mature about this than my classmate Jeff, who upon spotting them sprang up from the back of our tour bus, yelling “Tits! Tits! Tits!”) – and then, in our hotel rooms, scrutinizing late-night softcore alongside Jevon, my fellow conspirator. If it could be said that I literally “learned how to kiss” from the French, I suppose it would have happened there (not with Jevon, though I’m sure he’s a fine kisser in his own right). It’s also when I learned that French aristocratic ladies require a lot of in-depth assistance from their handmaids during baths.
But “learning how to kiss” is not the point. I felt more ready after each excursion to my adoptive motherland (ew – not motherland. My kissing-cousin-country? Let’s just…France). And it wasn’t sex education so much as my own sense of capability and achievement. That’s why, after high school, I had to go back, and solo this time. In 1993, as a freshly-minted legal adult, I spent three months studying French in a small town outside Paris. Then my girlfriend at the time (Métis; great kisser) joined me for a few weeks of backpacking. Many rites of passage ensued.
When I got home, for a short time I tried “kissing like the French,” by which I mean the other French kiss, what they call petit bises, two fluttery smacks on the cheek when greeting friends. Canadians were flummoxed; they recognized the gesture but they couldn’t clock it – too casual to be seductive, yet too intimate to be convivial. I gave it up and reverted to handshakes (for the guys) and hugs (for gals and theatre folk).
It has only been on this last, longest visit that I’ve been able to study the petit bises up close, for it is more prevalent here in the northern part of the country. I’ve seen soldiers in full body armour bend down from their posts to kiss-kiss with their buddies. I’ve heard girls call out to one another from across the street – “Au revoir! P’tit bises!” – the way we might blow a kiss in parting.
And I’ve been schooled, a bit, by G – Canadian, but more enculturated here than I will ever be – and also by Una, who is Scottish but has a French beau. It turns out that lip-to-cheek contact is rare; it’s mostly air-kissing, with the slightest cheek-brush. Me, I tend to chicken out, planting my smacks a foot or more away from my partner’s ears, or else I overcompensate by holding my partner in a half-hug, steadying the target. Frankly, I’m surprised there are not more bloodied noses and boxed ears here, in the North, especially when saying goodbye after an evening of strong beers.
Yet I think I got it right when I said goodbye to T, the Frenchest of my French friends, and the one whom I will miss the most. And I think I understand the petit bise now, too. As a kid, kissing was a challenge, a show of maturity, and above all, a conquest, claiming something precious. That’s why, once we got started, we never wanted to stop.
But petit bises are not a conquest. They intentionally miss the target, swerving off into intimate yet empty space. It’s a bit too literal-minded to suggest that they mean je t’ai manqué – “I missed you” – but perhaps they do symbolize letting go. For – sad but true – friends, lovers, kissing-cousin-countries – are all fleeting. We kiss the air as they pass into memory, then hope we’re blessed enough to get another chance to kiss again someday.