Sunday, January 22, 2012

Letters from Portugal: The Kiss...

We were fairly intimate in Goa, which is why when she came to Lisbon, we spent a good amount of time together. It was in the course of these meetings; long, languid summer afternoons in the park, that she, a regular visitor to Lisbon, felt the need to educate me in the subtle manners of Portuguese society.

‘When you meet a fidalguia’ she informed me, ‘you don’t kiss her twice as you would do with other women. You kiss her just once’. My eyes opened up wide, confused and perplexed. ‘But mana,’ I responded ‘how will I know if she is a fidalguia?’ She just smiled at me nonplussed, ‘Don’t worry, you will!’ The conversation turned then, to this and that and other matters.

Given the multiple, and fine gradations of elite Portuguese society, the issue of what exactly is a fidalguia is still one of the mysteries that I am struggling to decipher. However, it should suffice us for now to know that a fidalguia is a lady of the upper strata.  In the interim however, I had still not figured out how I was to locate a fidalguia from a crowd of mudbloods, and how was I to respond to such a lady when greeting her.

The opportunity arrived at a party one evening when introduced to a venerable older lady who had obviously heard of me before our meeting. ‘Jason!’ she tinkled, wafting over to me, ‘I’ve heard so much about you!’ It should have been the bouquet of aromas that wafted before her, and the baubles around her neck that should have given it away, but the little wheels still did not click into place. The tinkle, the wafting and the scented breeze the gusted before her had me primed for a double kiss in the air. It was only when I was locked into cheek-grazing embrace, when I tried to disengage after the first formal peck and move to the other cheek that I realized I was still being firmly held on to! The nice old lady was not letting go of me! A few seconds later, she let go and with her right hand that held my own right palm steered me away from her.  I had apparently met, greeted and embraced my first fidalguia, and as it turned out, received one more lesson in my continuing education in the customs and manners of the Portuguese gentry.

It turns out that it is not so difficult to figure out which woman one kisses once, and which woman twice. It is apparently not the baubles, or fancy perfume that one must watch out for, since as everyone laments, the ‘real’ old families in Portugal are now quite impoverished.  What one has to be alert to in this greeting ritual is the body language of the woman that you bend forward to greet. While with most women one moves forward for the perfunctory kiss on the first cheek before moving on rapidly to the other; these ‘ladies’ hold onto that single kiss a few moments longer than would be necessary in the case of the regular double kiss. The pressure that they apply on your arm as you bend in for the kiss also seems that much more firmer, than in the case of the regular touch-and-go. In the poor language of one unused to such elaborate ritual, I would surmise that given that they are denied the opportunity to go for the double-kiss, the time they take to effect the single kiss is as long as that taken by more ‘regular’ people. The key to the ritual it appears is in being aware of the oh-so-subtle messages that are being communicated in the course of the otherwise quotidian and banal gesture.

Thus armed, onward then, to future adventures!

(A version of this post first appeared on the O Heraldo 22 Jan 2012)

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