John Lichfield: When a kiss is not just a kiss

Paris Notebook: The bise, and the handshake, are hard-wired into the French psyche

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France is, thankfully, a country where customs die hard. A semi-official campaign to stamp out the "bise", or friendly kiss on the cheek, has been mounted by doctors, schools, businesses and other busy-bodies, such as the mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoe. The
bise, even the handshake, they suggest, is a deadly conduit of swine flu, or "Grippe A", as the French insist on calling it. The advice has been almost universally ignored.

I met my very correct, elegant, 80-something neighbour, Mme D the other day. She immediately exchanged " bises" with my 11-year-old daughter, Grace. Was she not scared of spreading Grippe A? "My husband was a doctor," she said. "I spent years with him in hospital wards in Africa. I am still here. I'm not going to stop kissing people because there is a little bug going around."

The bise, and the handshake, are hard-wired into the French psyche. I was once introduced to a violent, muti-racial gang of suburban 15 year olds. They queued elaborately to shake hands with me. For foreigners, the " bise" can be a nightmare. How many kisses do you give? My older daughter Clare says that the code is "two for chic Parisians, three for beaufs (chavs) four for ploucs (yokels), and one for the English." In truth, there are many more social, regional and generational variations. I invariably get the count wrong and find myself taking my cheek away too soon, or worse, trying to kiss mid-air.

So helpful, the French

There are some Parisians who strive to defy tradition, whether you like it or not. My wife was walking home the other day when she was hailed by an elegant, but eccentric-looking old lady sitting on a bench.

"Do you speak English?" she asked in French. "This man requires assistance." She indicated a middle-aged American sitting next to her, peering at a map.

"Can I help you?" Margaret asked. "No," said the American. "I was just sitting here waiting for my ride and looking at my map and she decided to get involved." "OK," said Margaret and walked on. "But thanks anyway," shouted the American.

Monster mash

I achieved a record potato harvest in my garden in Normandy this summer by the drastic method of digging up part of the lawn. The variety that I use is a delicious, long, oval spud called "Amandine." I was delighted to see that two gardeners in Sainghin-en-Weppes in northern France have claimed a new world record for the longest potato chip ever cooked. The mega-frite was 24.5 centimetres long (about nine and a half inches). The potato variety was Amandine.

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