Image by chez loulou via FlickrOne lesson I learned very quickly in rural France was to address everyone, on every conceivable occasion, but never by name.
In the days of the old baker...who actually made bread from scratch rather than turning out batches of Readymix.......entering the shop at rush hour - ten minutes to twelve - was a bit like Highland dancing as you were passed up and down the queue shaking hands or exchanging the cheek to cheek salutation and it felt a bit like Strip the Willow - in slow time. The queue at the cheese stall at the local big town market was another Highland dancing experience, with the stallholders darting out from behind their stand to join in the ceremony. Entering the then doctor's waiting room was a more sedate experience, given the sticks, zimmer frames and sinister looking bandages, but the salutation round had to be completed even if the earlier arrivals could not rise to their feet. It could do your back in, crouching over Papy, even if the eau de vie on his breath at eight in the morning didn't take yours away. For some reason, people didn't salute each other in the dentist's waiting room...it could be that they were in too much pain, or it could have been the sight of the dentist with blood stained overall returning richly scented from the bar, ready to do battle with the next molar. I have even shaken hands while buying my ticket to enter a junk fair. All this I can handle. I do still have problems as to which cheek to start with, but a sharp eye on the head movement of your co respondant generally solves that problem. No good even guessing how many 'bises' to expect....'furreners' have perverted the ancestral traditions of even darkest France, so no one seems to know whether it is two, three or four...especially lascivious elderly gentlemen who would go for non stop action if not restrained by their wives. It is wise to adopt a certain posture with these gentlemen....feet well back and just the head and neck inclined as their hands seem not to have felt the decline of age and it is regarded as impolite to slosh one as he so richly deserves.
Of course, the cheek to cheek has been adopted by the British in France, just to show how well they are fitting in, but why do they have to do it when mixing with each other? Growing up in an era where the horror of every military man was to be congratulated by a kiss from a French general, touchy feely was not in fashion, except behind closed doors with the lights out and not with French generals. It is always a bit disconcerting to find that some chap thinks he can meet you for the first time at someone else's house and attempt to clutch you to his person while administering hot breath to the approximate area of your chin...and then expects congratulation on how well he has adapted to local custom! It is regarded as impolite to slosh these chaps, as well.
Didier complains that people nowadays don't even shake hands or say 'Bonjour', just rush past with their heads averted and he puts this down to the influx of Parisians to the countryside, where, as he opines darkly,
'No one knows what they got up to in Paris.'
Strangely, he doesn't include the Brits in this, but, given their full on attempts at physical integration described above, he probably gives them Brownie Points for effort in maintaining tradition.
My problem has not been the salutation process...but the recognition process. I read a book published some years ago about the life of women in my area which included some fascinating statistics about marriage. Apparently, the area had a tramway - a light railway - in the interwar period, and, in this period, marriages were registered with partners much further away from base than in the period before and after its' existence. Pre and post tramway, the choice of life partner seemed to be limited to bicycle distance. So, for a few brief years, the gene pool opened up, before returning to the norm. This, in my view, explains the French village clone phenomenon. It has been my experience that while I could not say with any exactitude whether the gentleman who has just saluted me is Georges Dixneuf or Jacques Leboeuf, I do know that whoever it is comes from the commune. I also know that if I attempt to address him by name I will get it wrong.....so many of them look alike, and it's not just the caps and vests. I also know that if he does not look like Messieurs Dixneuf or LeBoeuf then he is not from these parts and is probably an 'incomer' like myself. Inbreeding was exaggerated, not only by the demise of the tramway, but by the loss of life in the two World Wars. If you look at the population statistics, it is only now that some villages are approaching the number of inhabitants they contained in 1914. Further, the absence of men as POWs and forced labourers in Germany in the 1939 - 1945 war affected the choice of partners. I do not intend to discuss the odd fair haired child born in that period...their treatment has been a disgrace to a civilised country...but, in general, the inbreeding had been reinforced again until fairly recently, when further education has taken children out of their immediate surroundings to meet clones from other communes.
I suppose that the breakdown of a closed local society encourages the breakdown of the salutation...after all, who wants to be embraced by some chancer whose grandfather never knew your grandmother?