I have had both many siblings and none. To be clear, I had three step siblings, three half siblings and married into 5. I was however, raised as an only child – usually wishing for some company and always wishing I fit in with all those part-sibs. When I got married it felt like I’d won the lottery but joining that pre-made family did not turn out to be a simple process nor did the marriage last.
Now years later, I have a wonderful relationship with a wonderful man who has two sisters. Meeting them for the first time was nerve-wracking. When I was a child I wanted so much to connect with my father’s three other kids. Before seeing them I would think hard about how I looked and what I wore. I would worry about how I acted and wondered if I was thin enough for them? Surprisingly now, as a normally confident and happy adult I found myself wondering the same things about meeting my boyfriend’s sisters.
He is Swiss, I am decidedly American. Europeans have an odd relationship with Americans. They want to visit our cities and beaches. They want to see our enormous national landscape and to shop in our stores. However, they cringe at our politics, manners, too ready smiles, white socks and sneakers. They think we are cool and… decidedly uncool. When I met his sisters I wanted to fall on the cool side of that spectrum. Clothing-wise I knew I would be fine (I own no tube socks.) I had spent enough time around him to be clear on manners. My politics are in line with theirs. But there was one thing left that worried me.
Greeting people here at home is effortless. Handshakes and smiles around. A one-cheeked kiss with close friends or in big cities. Who thinks much about it? However, I knew in Europe they had a complicated cultural thing about cheek kissing. European women always look so stylish (with perfectly tied scarves) as they warmly greet each other with cheek kisses. No hesitation (right side or left, two or three, noise or no?) and they certainly don’t end up lip-locked. How’s an American gal meant to keep up?
I even went so far as to Google “cheek kissing in Europe” to find no less than 525,000 entries. Turns out there’s even a Wikipedia page explaining the custom. My research, though, did not really guide me. The number of kisses depends on where you are – not just which country but within each country! Some areas start left, some right. Some make contact and some make noise.
I gave up trying to perfect the local custom. I gave up trying to be sure I fit in and just decided to be terribly American and… smile. The cool part? They did too. They smiled and kissed and laughed at my ineptness. Now, a few years later, he says I am “family” and they make me feel like it is true. They laugh and tease me every time we greet. And I am still not sure, if in the German part of Switzerland, it is two kisses or three.