26 March 2012

Bisous et autre échanges sociaux

I wrote many months ago about how our boys are learning the language and customs of their current home not just through school but also through sports (see Le Foot, 9/23/11).  One particular custom that they have had to embrace very quickly here in Aix en Provence is the exchanging of cheek kisses.  This particular échange social (social exchange) is very important all over France, but is even more widely practiced in the south and not just between men and women.  Our boys had to get into the act pretty quickly as young athletes are more or less expected to line up and greet each coach properly on each cheek at every meeting.  For my spouse and me, the first few months at les entraînements (sports trainings) and weekend matches were awkward; the French parents and coaches didn't really know how to talk with us, let alone how to greet us.  With la bise (cheek kiss), or a handshake, or no eye contact altogether?  The interactions have changed considerably after the recent holidays and after we've indicated firmly that we can faire la bise (give a kiss), even though it still feels like a fairly intimate greeting and I have to stifle my instinct to put out my hand.  Now I can expect to greet and be greeted on the cheeks at any sports training or match by easily a dozen people, some of them with smacking lips, others with grizzly or cool cheeks, some with two kisses, others with four, but all of them cordial.  This past Wednesday, I arrived towards the end of Saku's football practice, and spent the first five minutes exchanging 10 bisous before I was able to sit down and bavarder en peu (chat a little).  After the practice ended, another 5-10 minutes was spent exchanging more kisses with two entraîneurs (coaches) and five 12-year old boys who marched over, making sure they greeted even la mère américaine (the American mother).  Cheek-kissing your way to and out of sports trainings and Sunday matches is very normal here, and my spouse says that at the office, one makes similar rounds in the morning, greeting one's co-workers.  One sees this in town too, between grocery clerks and restaurant workers going on and off work shifts.

We're not just exchanging kisses though.  Increasingly, the weekly sports trainings and matches are also places in which, through the limited but growing conversational exchanges we are able to have, we are building our social networks and our trove of social capital.  In my sociology of family course, we speak of social capital as something rather like financial capital, both of which families need in order to survive or achieve successful outcomes.  Most of us have social capital in the form of family, friendship, neighborhood, work, and school networks which we use to find information, services, jobs, and other important resources.  Building new social networks when one moves takes time and energy though, and the challenge is even greater when the networks have to be built in a language that one does not speak well.  Certainly, school networks are often the easiest avenue for building social capital, but we've found that meeting busy French parents via a large French public middle school is pretty difficult, and that the connections built on the sidelines of trainings and sports matches have come much more easily.  French soccer and rugby families have helped us get rides for the boys when our single automobile has made it impossible to be at two matches at the same time, and these families fill us in on weekend game times, locations and other important information, like local football club gossip shared over a goûter (snack) one fall afternoon.  This past week, a rugby family very kindly helped us find and get an estimate from a reliable garagiste (garage mechanic) at a carrosserie (auto body shop) for, ahem, a little dent we acquired on our car recently.  All of these social exchanges have added to the capital we need in order to live here successfully.

We've also had some very useful social exchanges with my spouse's co-workers, our French teacher, my Anglophone book group members, and the staff and fellow students at our new auto-ecole (driving school).   Even the limited school connections have been valuable; these led us to Jori's current piano teacher and to our initial apartment, as well as to some new friendships.  It is also through school that we will likely begin to repay some of the initial social capital 'investments' that were kindly made in us by the locals here.  As our boys are just about to start their last trimester of their first school year, we will soon no longer be the newbies here, needing so much help.  We've already been asked to share our perspective on the boys' school to some prospective American families, and I'm sure it will just be a matter of time before I am asked about school supplies, sports clubs memberships, French driver's licenses, and all this kissing.


Anonymous said...

Hello, just to note to say that I enjoyed catching up with your French adventure via your blog posts! I'm going to tell Austin about the cheek kissing custom--how do you think it would go over at a soccer game back here in Seattle?!


Anonymous said...

apua tuollaisen pussailun määrää!

Wayne B. said...

Hey Anne-
This is Wayne (of Davis & Wayne from Seattle). I happen to come across your blog after reading your comment on Davis' blog. I started on Sante, and this is the second entry I'm reading.

I also happen to be in Paris right now. I've been coming here every spring for the past 4 years as my annual reset and it is marvelous.

So, I am reading your sociological take on your acculturation with extreme interest.

I for one love les bisous- one can't help but be present and included with this cultural expectation.

Anyhow, as a recently developing francophile, I am really looking forward to reading the rest of your posts. Thanks again for sharing.

Bisous! et salut a tous!

Anne Tuominen said...

Thanks so much for reading, Wayne. We need to compare notes about our French experiences! What I've realized lately with les bisous, that yes, we must be present in exchanging them, but despite the physicality of them, the greeting isn't really personal. Maybe this is especially true here in the South, where les bisous are exchanged by everyone it seems. Maybe we can meet up in Paris next spring?!