The politics of kissing in Europe is something us Brits have to get a grip on when abroad. None of this bashful side-stepping, half-hugging, awkard gesture-making rigmarole. In Italy (Spain, and a large portion of France) the perfunctory kiss on both cheeks is traditional for all informal acquaintances after the first hand-shake greeting. Aside from one French friend who insists on three (as traditional in her region) I spend a large portion of my days here double-cheek kissing.
It soon became habitual and is not something I usually dwell upon. It’s a very effective process of breaking down barriers between people. When you go to a party full of Italian strangers, it may take a long time to leave, but at least once you’ve had kissing contact with everyone in the flat you’re set as confirmed acquaintances (avoiding the ambiguous, ah yes he/she was at that party but he/she perhaps wouldn’t remember our brief conversation…better not to risk a blank face scenario when you re-introduce yourself to them in the hallway of university).
Here in Italy, invece, I find the advance of a proffered cheek a regular interloper across my peripheral vision. Often in corridors from faces I can’t quite place…Just a ‘ciao’ and a move-in as I rapidly try to recall a name/context of encounter.
It’s going to be difficult to regress to side-stepping indecision when back in Edinburgh. I was reminded of this awkwardness when on ‘holiday’ two weeks ago in Casperia, a medieval hilltop village an hour north of Rome, in the Sabine hills. I went to stay with a friend of a friend’s Dad, an eccentric englishman, sculptor and olive farmer, to lend a hand with the harvest. I’ve worked on several farms in Italy before via the organisation wwoof (willing workers on organic farms http://www.wwoof.org) which exists in most countries and which I would highly recommend to any erasmus student looking for a low-cost break from university and a chance to see another part of their country of stay.
I was unsure what to expect before arrival, and even felt anxious about leaving, having made such an effort to settle in over the preceding two months, make friends, establish myself in the city and digest the idea of Rome as home. Could all be lost in a week away?!
Needless to say, this wasn’t destined to be a traditional wwoofing experience. At least not in the hands of my delightful host, Johnny Madge and company of fellow wwoofer Mindy, 30, from Indiana. “Not the most serious of harvests this year” I recall Johnny concluding, after our poor attempts to scramble out of bed to harvest, having stayed up drinking very high-quality wine in front of the fire or in his wine bar in the village every night.
Our final load consisted of all of THREE trees harvested. “Not the most serious”. Rather than booking the whole olive press for our meagre crop, Johnny called an English friend/computer genius who happens to own an olive farm/villa whose trees he harvests with friends and family every autumn. They agreed to share their slot at the press with us in exchange for use of the van. We conceded and arrived at the villa for an awkward lunch. They had already started eating (ahem, clearly not expecting us to join them) so Mindy and I thought it best to decline faint offers of tucking into their picnic.
It was at the olive press that I was to find my comfortable adoption of Italian greeting culture horribly misplaced in an English setting. Seeing Johnny make his exit after kissing the lady of the house, Mindy and I advanced to say our goodbyes to the group of near-strangers and I naturally went in to kiss the host, only realising mid-action that it perhaps wasn’t appropriate in this British context. Mindy followed suit and we soon found ourselves advancing down a line of ten rather alarmed Brits (cue awkward commentary “ah, we seem to have got rather italian here! ho ho ho”) much to the amusement of the macho italian workers at the press. Not helped by catching Johnny’s bemused face half-way through this process as he turned round to see where we were…”Why the f*** is everyone kissing each other?!”
Further awkward encounters with afore-mentioned fellow Brits abroad were, from then on, carefully avoided by Mindy and I and invitations to help with their final harvesting declined. What?! You think we’re going to be up and ready at 9?! We’ve got 3 bottles between 3 to get through tonight! Although I couldn’t claim to be an olive-harvest expert it was a fantastic cultural (and culinary) experience, joining Johnny for his olive-oil tastings and tours, helping to serve wine at the bar, chatting and singing with the locals.
I returned to Rome refreshed, still giggling in the aftermath of our provincial adventures.