Thursday, 8 May 2014

Greetings from the Continent

Each country has its own unwritten social 'rules', and some that I find quite interesting are greetings in Europe. While there is the usual run of the mill handshake, between friends there are also kisses on the cheek. Most places in Europe keep it simple at a kiss on either cheek. It varies in France as two, three, and even four (!) kisses depending on where you are in the country. In Britain, one can never be sure if it is just one kiss on the cheek, or if it is two. There this lingering doubt if two is being "rather Continental, what." In the Netherlands it is three kisses (which in my opinion is one more than necessary...after two there is a real danger of knocking noses...)

Having grown up in the States where hugging is more common, I find this cheek-kissing-as-a-greeting rather lovely. It's warm and friendly besides being quite social. It's something too that makes you feel properly on the Continent. Other things that invoke this feeling is ciao! which can be heard in many other countries besides Italy; the use of hands to illustrate a point (I'm not naming names, but the Spanish have this off to a fine art...); wearing leather and Ray-Bans; the art of drinking coffee; fashion and art just about everywhere; and really old buildings (I mean really old) that look perfectly normal next to a modern monstrosity.

Why is this all occurring to me now? Britain may be part of Europe, but they are quite separate in their own way. There is definitely a different atmosphere on mainland Europe. The last six months here in the Netherlands has shown me that while the Brits are lovely, they have a lot to learn (myself included) about living like a European. It's not all just beer, socialism, and sporty cars. It's a different mindset altogether.

Enjoying a cuppa on a terrace in Paris (2011)
Take coffee or tea for example: there is nothing more off putting than being served a hot beverage in cardboard. If I sit down to have a cup of tea in a café, I would like it, in fact, in a cup. Cafe's here serve coffee/tea with a flourish. It's as if it has become something of an art form....Animal shapes in the the coffee foam, intricate cups and saucers with witty loose leaf tea came served in a French press today. Maybe it's a slight hangover of my American life, but something inside me can't help but squeal, "How delightfully European!" Also, everyone sits outside on terraces drinking coffee at all times of the day. This too is delightfully European, because only they would endure the chill.

Or we can even look at fashion. I don't quite know how they do it, but everywhere I look on the streets of Groningen, it's like the people have stepped out of the pages of Vogue. The men with their leather and sun glasses and gelled hair; women with boots and skirts and scarves. It's all fantastically chic, full of colour and vigour, and it has made yours truly think twice about what to wear in the morning.

What I also noticed today while out and about was that it was Papa Day - when the father's look after the children too small yet to go to school, allowing mother to continue with her career as well. The Netherlands (much like the other Scandinavian countries) is quite tuned in when it comes to children and family life. I like this idea that the parents split both work and childcare down the middle. It is also incredibly endearing to see all these tall, blond hair, blued eyed, gorgeously (and fashionably) scruffy dads, walking around with babies strapped to their chests, holding the hands of toddlers, or pushing (also fashionable) baby carriages.

While it seems I spend my days loitering in cafés - I don't, honestly - it was nice to see dads coming in with their children to have a snack or go shopping with child in tow. I would hasten to add that it wasn't frazzled father's I was seeing either - these were dads that were enjoying their "Papa day" with the kids. How great that children get to spend equal time with the parents. I hope this idea will continue to grow and that we will see it more often.

Before someone pokes me and says, "well obviously you're on the Continent, they aren't speaking English!" I would like to say I love this about it too. It's a challenge! Western Europe may be joined through the Euro (for better or worse), but each country's language makes them unique. Whenever you get near the "borders", signs suddenly become chock full of different languages (usually about three). This too I like. If my French is hopeless, my German is at least slightly less so, and so on - again there is that exercising of what you know.

I could go on until next century about this subject of "Examples of Continental Europe as seen in The Netherlands" but let me come back to the greetings. It is something that one learns - some are quite shy about it, others fairly flamboyant with their greetings. It becomes a whole intricate dance, and if you wear glasses it can become slightly dangerous. But I do like it - there is something about it that is open and welcoming. Also, as I say, it does make you feel very much "on the Continent".

Thanks to films and books we like to think of Europe as this devastatingly romantic place. I would say that it is to a certain extent. Yes, it is expensive and crowded, and waiters have been trained to ignore you until the last possible moment, but it is also full of rich history that has trickled down the ages to make it this wonderful modern hub of creativity and energy.

I love it.