Few years ago I spent several weeks in the French speaking part of Belgium, Wallonie. Usually I plan my trips quite well, especially when I’m travelling alone (or at least I used to, I got pretty lazy now). I like to read about the country and its traditions in advance, Google stuff like “how much to tip to not embarrass myself”, “what places to go to fit into student budget ideally for free” and “what products contain fish and might potentially kill me”, but prior to this trip, I knew next to nothing.
This is why.
After graduating high school, I was very keen on maintaining my French (spoiler alert: it’s pointless, French is impossible, don’t do it) so I began to take private lessons. My teacher was an angel in the form of a very chic lady and one day, she just said: “I think you should practice your French with native speakers. I asked my friends in Belgium, they’re coming to visit me in August and they’re going to take you back with them for some time.”
And now you know all the info that I had about my trip. I didn’t know where exactly was I going, what was I supposed to do there, how long was I going to stay, how would I get back, nothing. I only knew I was going to speak French the whole time and that was all I could think about (usually woken up in the middle of the night sweating because I couldn’t remember the difference between verb endings in le futur simple and le conditionnel).
So I didn’t Google anything. I was going to travel to Belgium completely ignorant of the biggest culture difference, the kissing habit. When I met Manuela and Guy, the lovely couple I was going to stay with, I was a little bit surprised when they kissed me on both cheeks while I was prepared for a handshake but I thought they’re probably just friendly and want to make me feel welcome.
Boy was I wrong.
The thing is, as it turned out, everybody kisses everybody in Belgium. And by everybody I mean everybody.
I come from a land of hand shakers. We hug or give a peck on the cheek to a very limited amount of people who we’ve usually known for ages and often share their DNA. I value my personal space very much and am willing to suffer sharing it only during the peak hours on public transport (I don’t really have a choice there, do I, it’s either that or commuting between 10AM-2PM only). So when I arrived in Belgium and was kissed by more people than I knew the names of, I was a bit culturally shocked.
I was kissed almost every morning by Guy and Manuela, very often by their relatives who came almost every day (one of them was Manuela’s twenty-something years old aristocratic cousin with a name longer than my address, not complaining there), all the time by the infinite number of their friends and even by the lady behind the cash desk in the local shop who remembered me from that one time I went there with Manuela and said nothing but “bonjour” while the two of them chatted away over cheese (Maredsous, one of the best cheeses I have ever had by the way, no wonder people could spend hours talking about it).
Belgian kissing is not limited to women only though, men kiss as well. I have to admit I found this a little bit strange at first, but hey, it’s the time of equality, right?
So the rules for kissing in Belgium are as follows: everybody kisses everybody. That’s it. During my few weeks there, I didn’t really infiltrate the society enough to find out how many pecks on the cheek is the rule. Usually it was two, but sometimes only one. I think that you could never go wrong with two but don’t worry. If you’re like me, you would be usually taken aback by the situation over and over again anyway and let the other person do as they wish.
My attitude towards kissing people I barely knew hasn’t changed during my stay in Wallonie and I never learnt to peck or to be pecked naturally. But one positive thing resulted from this experience. After arriving home, I truly appreciated for the first time our cold-hearted, hand shaking, distance keeping Czech nature.
PS: It turned out you really don’t have to plan much while travelling as long as you have WiFi. But I would recommend downloading offline dictionary to your phone (and also offline maps, because you know what happens without them) before you leave your country. Especially when you’re about to spend 12 hours in a car with a French speaking couple not knowing almost any highway-related vocabulary. But I survived three weeks in Belgium speaking only French and to this day, it’s one of my proudest achievements.