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Read an excerpt from Flirting with French

Mon dieu, am I becoming an insufferable language snob?

If so, payback is on the way, for that afternoon I am on a train headed to Orléans to meet, to speak with, Sylvie and her fiancé, Antoine. Yet before I so much as open my mouth, I need to handle a major dilemma that I've been dreading for days, one that makes the vous/tu uncertainty seem trifling by comparison. Do I greet Sylvie with a handshake or a kiss?

And when I say "kiss," I mean that cheek-to-cheek air kiss, where you touch cheeks and make a smacking sound with your lips as if you were actually kissing, which in most cases you are not, then repeat on the other cheek. And it doesn''t always end there. The French, it seems, are so fond of the kiss that they sometimes go for three or even four, depending on the region. In general they kiss twice in the north, and anywhere from three to a tongue down your throat in the south. As with the formal and familiar terms of address, this is socially important, so important that the French have a protocol reminiscent of tutoyer to assist in resolving any doubt: you ask. That's right, you say something like, On va se faire la bise?

On the one hand, I guess it's nice to have a direct and unambiguous way out of the uncertainty, but under no circumstances are those going to be my first words to Sylvie at the train station! Knowing I had to deal with this, I''d asked Cécile for advice before leaving class at Millefeuille. She'd taken my conundrum very seriously and, in a process reminiscent of my vous/tu decision tree, had gone down a list of questions to divine the correct protocol: How long have we been corresponding? Are we tutoyer-ing? What valedictions do we use in signing our e-mails? When I was done, she had concluded, "Kiss.%quot; Certainly, my alter-ego, Guy, wouldn't do anything but kiss, but frankly, I'm not sure which of us is holding the train ticket.

One thing we are not going to do, by the way, is hug. I've observed that the French don't hug socially. They just don't. This may be because they don't have a word for it. They used to — embrasser — but somewhere along the way the terms of endearment all got ratcheted up one level, and embrasser now means "to kiss," a real kiss, on the lips. Baiser, which used to mean "to kiss," is now the vulgarity "to fuck," although it can still mean "to kiss," depending on the context.

Well, there'll be none of that kind of talk at the Orléans train station, where I easily recognize Sylvie from her Facebook photos and take the plunge, confidently initiating a two-cheek bise before shaking hands with her fiancé, Antoine, saying, "Enchanté." This is the last intelligent thing I will say in French for the rest of the day.