Shortly after I arrived in France last year, my friend took me to a big party in a big house in some fancy suburban spot on the outskirts of Paris. The family who lived there had something of a von Trapp obsession. There were ten children, each one played a different musical instrument, and they were regularly called upon to give recitals in the music room, which was in the basement of the five-storey Swiss chalet style property that was painted pastel green with pink shutters. Party guests had been asked to dress in white. It was a “white party.” I’d never heard of such a thing; apparently quite a trend in France.
It stands to reason that a girl with equal propensity for wild gesticulation and wanton consumption of red wine does not possess any white items in her wardrobe. When I’d asked if she had something I could borrow, my friend’s French girlfriend (who was somewhere between a size zero and a minus two) had sheepishly held up a strip of material that I mistook for a napkin but on closer inspection turned out to be a white, strapless mini-dress that would have looked great on the 9 year-old me. In desperation, and lacking the budget or time to go buy something, I’d borrowed an off-white work shirt from my friend and was wearing it – loosely belted in – over jeans. Even though he said it was an old shirt, I steered clear of the Merlot and stuck to Champagne. Everyone else was in perfectly pressed white linen dresses and crisp, dazzling, starched-collared, open-necked shirts. I’d never experienced snowblindness before. It was painful. I had to wear my sunglasses until midnight.
At the time I had around ten words of French at my disposal (compared to the thirty or so I have now). I took to hovering at the edges of little groups, understanding nothing, but nodding and laughing occasionally, following the cues of others. Whenever I needed a break, I escaped to hang out with the youngest child, the two-year old. She had yet to start speaking (can you blame her for delaying competing with nine siblings?) and was still waiting to be assigned her chair in the orchestra. She was my perfect companion. We sat behind the buffet table for hours, building towers with plastic cups and pulling cheese off cold pizza slices.
Early on in the evening, during one of those moments when I was pretending to be an adult, I was standing in a small circle of people, next to my friend, listening politely to a stream of indistinguishable French, waiting for a suitable pause in which to excuse myself and go in search of Champagne and toddlers. Suddenly, a tall man in a dress shirt appeared in front of me and filled my empty Champagne glass. Someone introduced us (we’ll call him Pierre... it’s a safe bet that was his name anyway) and I held out my hand to shake his, the way in which I usually greet people when I first meet them.
“Votre main?” Pierre exclaimed. The group laughed in perfect unison. I looked blankly at my friend, who quickly explained,
“Your hand, he said. He’s asking why you offer your hand. It’s considered a little formal.” I turned back to face Pierre who, in the next moment lunged at me, grabbing my right shoulder with his left hand so I couldn’t escape, and dragged his sandpaper cheeks (French men don’t shave on weekends it seems) across each of mine, making me wince with pain. As if this wasn’t torture enough, with the “kiss” on the right cheek he had deposited a speck of spittle that I was desperate – ready to gnaw off my own knuckles desperate – to wipe off. I silently cursed the white shirt that made it impossible for me to do the quick shoulder to cheek maneuver for fear of leaving a nice peachy smudge of face powder on it.
Okay, before I go any further (and believe me there is so much further to go) in my observations of the French and their boundary issues, I should really confess my own. I do have this thing about my personal space.
People, for me, are like dogs. Some I want to pet and cuddle. Some I want at arm’s length... a long arm. It’s not so much looks-based (although I’m a German Shepherd magnet and repelled by Pomeranians – seriously, if you want a cat, get a cat, why do you want to get a dog that looks like a cat?) Initially it’s an energy thing. Most big dogs and babies gravitate towards me and I towards them. Cats cross the street to avoid me. Which suits me just fine (see above reference to Pomeranians and cats – interchangeably egregious as far as I’m concerned). As I get to know someone, even if I had an initial bad gut reaction, I usually warm up a little and get happier with the physical contact thing. But if I have literally never set eyes on a person, have never heard a thing about them, am not meeting them through someone I know well... well, I don’t particularly want their bodily fluids on my face. Is this just me?
I’m not good at faking it. And while we’re on the subject, let’s just clear up one fallacy. I’ve had two guys in my life tell me they wouldn’t date me principally because they never date actresses, because how could they ever trust what an actress would say or do. Well, here’s the thing. Actors are not actors because they know how to twist true emotions or pull the wool over anyone’s eyes in a real life situation. Actors know how to convey what they are actually feeling in a strikingly visible way. They respond viscerally. It doesn’t matter whether the stimulus causing that reaction is happening in the context of a drama on stage or a situation in real life, what comes out is the truth, not a carefully calculated response designed to have some specific effect on the observer. How I greet people is always a genuine expression of how I feel about them. Or how I feel they feel about me. If I’m not sure if they like me, I’ll usually hold back, even if I like them. Until I like them so much I can hold back no longer. But I’ll expand on that little nugget of a moment later. And not here.
I accept this is a cultural thing I am dealing with. It is French custom to kiss on both cheeks – arbitrarily hitting air or cheek – on meeting anyone, male or female, young or old, whether for the first time or the hundredth. Well, I may live in France but I’m not French. I’m sorry but this double air kiss, “mwah mwah” meaningless bullshit is never going to be my thing. It’s my preference to shake hands until we’re more familiar. I usually like to move onto the hug when we’ve made a significant connection. Sometimes with a kiss, that often lingers in the air a few inches from the cheek at moment of hugging impact. And my nearest and dearest get enveloped into bear hugs that are hard to extract myself from. My personal space, I like to choose – with a kind of mutual energetic agreement – who comes into it and how long they stay. And because I’m not good at faking it, I’ve forced myself to lie, on the odd occasion, with the old, “Don’t come too close, I’m getting sick,” line. This is a rare, desperate measure, I mean we’re talking the last time was ten years ago, and only because I was sick of my uncle’s lecherous golfing buddy thinking it was his right to try and shove his tongue between my tightly sealed lips every time we met.
Briefly going back to the dog thing and by way of an aside (and sneaky segue) I want to make it clear that I don’t kiss dogs. Okay, there was Zoe – my one and only Sapphic canine love affair – but otherwise I am not interested in having my face licked by a creature not of my own species. I am very loving towards dogs. The ones I like, anyway. I have taken care of many and given them much time and affection, but they are still dogs. Having said that (said sneaky segue coming up) I feel a little more affinity with dogs lately. Having had to pee three times in public during the Paris Marathon a few weeks ago, I’m wondering what makes me so different from them now. Yes, I did that. I ran a marathon (and peed in public, due to impossibly long lines for the scarce toilet facilities) – more about which much, much later. It was, indeed, a huge personal achievement, although the true miracle is the fact that I didn’t kill anyone during the training process. The guy who almost crippled me on a pedestrian crossing when it was my right of way, the group of American tourists walking forwards while looking backwards, and the woman who exhaled a huge plume of cigarette smoke into my path all came close, but narrowly escaped the full extent of my wrath. I found releasing a stream of expletives and breaking into a minute’s flat out sprint usually quelled my anger. And here, now, I find myself wondering, is there simply a general disrespect of boundaries going on in France? Is it acceptable to ignore someone running across the street just because you’re in a hurry to turn right? Is it acceptable to stand in a bus shelter exhaling smoke over a newborn baby in a buggy because it’s raining and you don’t want to get wet? And don’t get me started on the number of people who don’t pick up after their dogs in Paris... I can’t go there right now. I break out in hives thinking about it.
Well, I thought I’d seen it all. And then I got taken to a Parisian nightclub.
Now, I’m a super sociable girl and I’ve stacked up many visits to many nightclubs in my time. Big ones, small ones, fancy ones, and dives. I’ve done the velvet rope – both sides. I’ve been through pop, rock, techno, and a Swingers-inspired big band revival. I’ve danced in sneakers, Doc Martens, four-inch heels, and – once, on a beach in Fuengirola – nothing but a bikini, a sarong, and a hollowed out pineapple that used to contain a liter of sangria. I’ve seen and experienced my fair share of drunken kissing and groping and flirting and crying (over finding my 14 year-old boyfriend’s mouth suctioned onto my best friend’s neck), but I’ve never seen anything the likes of which I saw last Friday night. I’ve seen better behavior in a zoo. When I read Tristane Banon describe how DSK was “like a rutting chimpanzee” when he came on to her, I didn’t understand what she meant. Now I think I do.
My friends and I were on the guest list for some VIP area upstairs. We walked up a plush red-carpeted circular staircase and entered an intimately lit room decorated in Gothic style with an eclectic mix of beautiful antique and kitsch furniture scattered around the edges of the designated dance floor. At one end there was a bar selling what I call ten-buck beer (this is a generous description since they were charging 8 euros which is more like $12). At the other end of the long room, a DJ was spinning a seriously stylish selection of tunes. It wasn’t long before we were swinging our hips to The Doors remixed by Thievery Corporation.
I like to keep my hair off my neck and face when I’m dancing, and it’s rather long at the moment, so I had it scraped up into a high ponytail. I used to wear it the same way when I was five, and the boys in kindergarten would think it hilarious to pull it during story time. So when I felt something tugging the top of my head and turned to see two grown men giggling, I thought I’d stepped into some kind of freaky time warp. A few minutes later, after shifting our location on the dance floor, a group of guys barreled into us, and one of them grabbed my friend’s glasses off her face. Together we managed to wrestle them off him before any damage was done. I spun around searching for a bouncer who might have witnessed all this. But the bouncers were all downstairs with the common people... this crowd were supposedly the VIPs, the respectable ones who knew how to behave. My French friend hardly turned a hair.
“They’re just drunk,” she explained, rather redundantly. Drunk they may have been, but these were not depraved teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks. These were well-dressed, clean-cut looking men in – I’d say – their early to mid thirties.
And then the ass-kicking started.
I’ve metaphorically had my ass kicked countless times in my life, and I’ve done a little reciprocal “kicking” myself, but I’d never actually experienced shoe to butt contact. And never thought I would. Yet now, here, in 2012, in a Parisian nightclub, I was witnessing a group of guys who had decided it would be incredibly funny to kick the butts of a group of girls and then quickly turn around feigning innocence. They weren't softening the blows because we were girls, either. It actually hurt. It was so bizarre, I could only laugh. A girl a few feet from me didn’t see the funny side at all. She flew at one of these guys, lashing out with a ferociousness I’d never seen first hand in a woman, but I thought I might have to develop quickly if this kind of behavior was de rigueur in Parisian clubs. The guy who’d kicked me was now trying to kiss me. I pushed him away in disbelief. If this was supposed to be a mating ritual, I’d fallen down the wrong rabbit hole.
Of course not all French men are animals. I’ve met some incredibly charming, respectful, generous, intelligent, sensitive males on terra Français, and every culture has its losers who let the side down, but I’m wondering if there’s a connection between the assumed right to kiss a perfect stranger without asking permission and the assumption that it’s okay to attack a woman’s head, derrière, or eyewear after spending a month's rent on beer.
The Swiss – who never seem to mind a handshake if that’s all that’s on offer – like to kiss three times. Back and forth and forth and back and back again for luck. With my co-ordination it’s a miracle I haven’t headbutted any of my friends and relations who live in the country that is like France gone through a wash cycle with a pre-wash, extra-rinse and added laundry bleach. And the Germans have banned any kissing in the workplace. I guess I could move to Germany and get a desk job. But I’ve recently read some alarming tales of debauchery in Berlin bars. Maybe I’ll just keep working on my French until I can say, “Don’t come too close, I’m sick,” without the merest trace of an accent.
I’m not against kissing, kissing is wonderful, I love kissing; but I want to choose who I kiss, I want them to choose me, and I want it to come out of genuine feeling, not out of cultural obligation. Perfunctory kisses are no fun, they are a chore, they are uncomfortable; they are not good kisses at all. They are some of the worst kisses. But the best kiss? That's the one that you've waited forever for... and is even better than you ever imagined. Another story for another day!