The first thing that really struck me in Belgium was “la bise”. For those who don’t know the French term, “la bise” is the kiss that Belgians do when meeting each other. For an expat, this may be really awkward, not to mention confusing & even a bit vexing. Imagine: Girls kissing each other. Teachers kissing each other. Students kissing teachers in less formal situations. Boys kissing each other (that was really shocking, as in Romania you will never see this; it would be simply outrageous), bosses kissing employees, employees kissing bosses and so on.
Saying “hello” or “good bye” is not enough. You have to also kiss the other. Some kiss by touching their lips on your cheek, others just touch your cheek with their cheek and some will just imitate the kiss by doing a gesture in air which resembles to the real kiss. Well, at least is only once. In France, one may kiss twice and in Turkey even three times.
But what do you do when you don’t like this kiss? As an expat, you are expected to embrace the culture of the country of adoption (y compris la bise). I have nothing against kissing my friends. In Romania, I used to kiss (on the cheek) my friends – especially girls, when meeting them after long time. With boys, it depends on the occasion and on the type of relationship. A hug sometimes is enough. A kiss is only for a dear friend or for some members of the family in some special occasions. I wouldn’t kiss my mom every day, as I wouldn’t kiss my colleagues at school every day. It would be too intrusive, not too mention all the germs exchanged… For me, kissing is something intimate, and intimate gestures are not gratuitous and done every day with every acquaintance.
However, here in Belgium, one has to enlarge the borders of the intimacy and accept this kiss. The worse is when you need/ have to kiss people that you don’t specifically like or that you don’t consider friends or close enough to be kissed. Imagine, you’ve just met somebody for the first time, but in order to mark this fact, instead of saying “Hi, it is nice to meet you” you have to kiss that person. And it is even worse, when that person stinks or provokes you disgust. In this situation, a handshake (so much practiced in most of the cultures) will be a good solution. But no, in Belgium (and in France) you have to kiss. And this is only for the sake of keeping good appearances or just because you don’t want to make your interlocutor feel rejected. I wonder if this kissing is a form of acceptance. In other words, by allowing this kiss, you open your area of intimacy, thus you accept the one you just met or greeted. Well, I personally don’t embrace this view, especially when in my culture we do differently and especially that every time I have to kiss somebody that I don’t particularly appreciate or just sympathise with, I act against my believes.
Given that Belgium and especially Brussels is the place where so many cultures merge, a solution for this “kiss” should be the randomness. Belgians can kiss each other as much as they want. But the expats should be expected by the Belgians to shake their hands or just greet verbally. I want to have the freedom to choose who I kiss and not to be threaten by a pair of lips or a cheek approaching menacingly. Brrrrr.