On a trip to France, when I was 14, I remember the sink of estrangement when, in an extended gathering of my host-family, I was meant to greet each of the members of the party––a group of some forty or so. Now as we know, personal greetings in France take the form of a two-time brushing of cheeks––three and sometimes four with regional variation––or in case the parties are men, a sober shaking of hands. So strange to me, and so embarrassing, was this clamour of kissing that I found myself refusing when it came time to leave. I would not make the rounds again, I waited outside.
At that time I learnt that personal greetings in France extend to class-mates and peer-groups (I am supposing henceforth from an eligible age). What happens when class-mates, as is frequent at a certain age, find themselves in the midst of a feud? Is feuding cause for exemption? Or are French habits of greeting so inexorable that cheeks must be brushed lest the heavens fall?
Greetings in Paris follow an inexorable plan, albeit with contextual variation. In small shops, for example, there is always the same pattern, though it is uttered with seeming sincerity to each on every occasion. Sincerity is sounded at once in the tenor of ‘Madame’ or ‘Monsieur,’ a different intonation for everyone standing in line––seeming acknowledgement of our particularity. While that may be the rationale, shopkeepers sustain themselves in greetings all day by setting these to a kind of song, and that you are this Madame and not that is a function of where you fall in a phrase (and of course there are repetitions).
At the train station, on a first foray into town, there are elderly women around corners with flowers for people to buy. The flowers are terse and papery yet they wilt in the sun; the women stand alone, or occasionally, in twos. Have the women come from the same fields? The flowers suggest as much. Why station themselves apart then? Are they strangers with but fields in common? Is community unfavourable to commerce?
I see like-women later on the banks of the river dividing Buda from Pest. Now they bear textiles spun to a foregone pattern, and lace. They hold them up to show us as we pass, their fingers through the holes of the spin.
The faces in Budapest are hard to please, smiles are not forthcoming. Hospitality, in what becomes a favourite brasserie, where tea is served with a pot of honey and a silver tray, is as starched as the aprons. Who are you, stranger to me, English speaker, to ingratiate?