What do I not miss from daily life in Geneva during these continuing months of contagion?
Two things, for sure: 1) thanks to my mask, not having to trade forced smiles with the masked passenger facing me on the train or tram; 2) not melting our credit card at the now-shunned corner table of our favorite Japanese-Peruvian resto.
Instead, I really, really do miss sharing bisous; that's the French word for the kisses on alternating cheeks that friends and family in Switzerland, France, Italy and beyond share in greeting and parting.
The Swiss way of kissing
Ten years ago, as an American arriving in Switzerland, I eagerly embraced bisous. We do it three times here beginning with the right cheek.
I’d already been introduced to the custom years before while living in Paris, though the Parisians are too busy correcting your naïve capitalist predilections to take time for the third kiss. But in famously efficient Switzerland, we schedule time for all three bisous (Küssli in Swiss-German, bacini in Italian).
What a wonderful way for touchy-feely me to greet people, even other men – especially other men, since it’s clearly devoid of any sexual undertones. Once, soon after I had arrived, I even gave the three kisses to a surprised construction contractor working for my mother-in-law. Granted, this big burly man was sort of a friend of the family, and the occasion was soaked with wine, but my gesture was definitely a faux pas.
Nevertheless, monsieur graciously accepted it with a flat smile, obviously chalking it up to me being an ignorant American who would probably also eat fondue on a hot summer day.
No more fist bumps
Now I think I'm clued in to bisous boundaries, but in this time of COVID-19, it doesn’t matter. That's because kisses shared with anyone except who you live with are as off-limits as shared ice cream, at least to those of us with an aversion to ventilators.
Exceptions are oblivious teenagers who think they're too cool to get sick and infect their grandmothers, and grown-ups zombified by conspiracy theories that claim the 900’000+ dead around the globe are a hoax.
The rest of us have hit the bisous pause button. The same goes for those other simple gestures that used to bond us – handshakes, hugs and exploding fist bumps.
One day in the not-too-distant future, will we be able to make these shows of affection again without fear that we’re dipping our fingers into a cauldron of snakes?
Yes. Surely yes, after the rising jagged-toothed graph of deaths begins to drop again. Right?
An elbow bump gone awry
Meanwhile, how can we safely show our affection, our connection with family, friends, colleagues and even those benighted unmasked souls who have drunk the Kool-Aid?
I’ve found one gesture that works perfectly for me. No, not the elbow bump. This awkward gesture has been serviceable as a jury-rigged emergency first-wave response, but it’s really better suited for marionettes.
Who can thrust out their elbow without feeling a little ridiculous? Not to mention that an elbow with a miscalculated trajectory could give your friend a black eye.
I recently had lunch in Geneva with a dear former colleague I hadn’t seen in many months. Pre-pandemic, Tony (an Aussie) and I have greeted each other with a big hug and three bisous. But this day, when we met at our sanctioned, socially distanced terrace table at a busy café, Tony offered his elbow. Tony is nothing if not generous and respectful of others. He even carries extra masks to give to others.
When we met, he was standing and I was already seated. To attain a geometrically successful meeting of the ‘bows, I had to raise my arm over my face. People at other tables might have thought that I feared Tony had an Austin Powers dart gun in his elbow.
He did not.
Nor did he poke my eye out. Injury averted, elbows bumped, we laughed, a little embarrassed at the awkwardness of it all.
There's a better way to greet
Two summers ago, Marie-France and I traveled to Tunisia for a couple weeks, accepting the invitation of Faten, a dear friend who lives in Geneva but is from Bizerte, where her family still lives.
We spent several days with her family and friends, then went to the town of Sousse to stay with Faten's niece's family. Often, after a gathering as we said goodbye and gave our thanks for the hospitality, we were answered with the traditional Muslim gesture of the right hand placed over the heart … with the slightest bow.
I had first experienced this 20 years earlier when vagabonding in Malaysia, another predominately Muslim country. Back home in Geneva, this blessing is also sometimes bestowed upon me in shops and cafés. Such a sweet way of saying “you are welcome, friend.”
Which is why I've adopted the hand over the heart as my COVID-19 alternative to bisous.
So sweet to receive from you: your hand over your heart, your small bow and smile, heart to heart, pure, wordless or sometimes with your softly spoken, "as-salaam-alaikum" ("peace be upon you").
And so sweet to give: my hand to my heart for you. A lovely greeting and parting and gratitude to you, an endearing inoculation against separation for us all during these strange times.
What do you think?
(Photograph copyright Marie-France Robert)