Hugs are great. I love a good hug. They’re versatile. They can be reassuring at a teary emotional level. They can cement a reunion between friends of any sex, whether it’s after just a few days separation or several years. They can celebrate a shared experience. They can even celebrate a shared manly experience like scoring a goal or, I dunno, shooting a boar. In a perfectly masculine way. Heck, think of all the American movies where a bunch of “the guys” are watching “the game” and their team scores “a touchdown” or whatever, and they leap up, spilling their cans of pissy beer, high-fiving, bumping chests and, yes, hugging.
It’s all good.
I’m really not very British about hugging. Many Brits are still more stiff and formal, proferring a hand for gentlemanly shake. Not me. When I was younger, I lived in New Zealand on and off for about three years with people others would probably describe as hippies. I would have been described as a hippy too. We all enjoyed hugs. I like hugs with my family too. Even with my more conventional brother, who’s tall like me (1.89m) but burly, so does a good bear hug. I’m even perfectly happy for a good Italian chum to give be jovial hugs or take my arm when we’re joking in the street.
When I am very British, however, is when a Euro-mankiss is involved. That’s where I draw the line, which leads to some slightly awkward situations living in Rome. I’m not sure how widespread the mankiss is, but from an outsider’s perspective, it seems to be absolutely commonplace in Italy, France and other countries in the Romance language group. Perhaps it’s the ancient Romans’ fault. Somehow, however, the habit didn’t survive the crossing to the barbarous shores of Britain with Caesar and co. For a Brit, it’s just not done. Unless you’re in theatre. Or unless you live on the continent and have gone really native. And I haven’t. My wife is a Brit too, and we have plenty of friends here who are either British or have a slightly closer cultural heritage (like Canadians). There’s no mankissing with them. We have plenty of Italian friends too, though, and that’s where the trouble starts.
It’s not all good.
So, the other night we were going out to meet some friends. She’s Sicilian, his background is from various parts of Italy. We go to a restaurant. I’m already antsy as I don’t like eating at Italian dinner time. For me, I’m generally hungry around 6pm, and my family always ate dinner at 7pm. I can survive a little longer if I have snacks, but not too many as I don’t want to ruin my appetite (as my mum would say) for the proper meal. Eating at 9.30pm plus seems crazy to me, especially if you’re shovelling away all the courses, and dolce, and coffee and digestivo. How can the body cope with all that? Never mind the diners who I hear yacking away at midnight in the summer at the restaurant just down the road from our flat. How the heck do they digest and get up for work the next morning? I mean, strong coffee is the obvious answer, but surely there’s a cumulative effect of eating late, not getting much sleep and drinking loads of coffee? I don’t geddit. But then I’m northern European.
Anyway. The restaurant. So we arranged to meet at 8pm. They finally arrive about 8.30pm. By which time, my (self-diagnosed) hypoglycemia is making me go squiffy. I can’t really think straight. I manage a Euro-womankiss, one on each cheek. That’s fine. I used to be involved with the art scene enough to have practised that at gallery openings and whatnot. But then my hungry brain and body have to contend with the male greeting. He goes in for a mankiss, I go in for a quick hug. He ends up airkissing, the hug happens sideways. Feathers aren’t notably ruffled; it’s a tolerably minor cross-cultural semi-faux pas. But I’m relieved half an hour later when some food finally arrives and I can start to think straight again. First thing I think is that next time I’ll have to try and line up my approach for either a handshake or a hug or both a bit better. Though I’m not quite sure what body language is required to give the message “Nice to see you but I don’t do the Euro-mankiss.”