We went to our favourite restaurant in the village the other night. Our friend Chris came down from Westchester for his birthday and we went together to Pylos over on 7th Street to celebrate it. Pylos serves gourmet Greek food, the kind of Mediterranean food that they say makes you live longer. It’s the kind of place that you need to book in advance, once you have been there once you’ll go there thrice. And all those thrices add up to backed-up, it’s always good, and people always go back, so it gets booked up.
The owner, Christos, is Greek as is his manager Alex and many of the staff. Christos greets me with a kiss on both cheeks, I’m getting into it, but I’m always a little reticent. I come from Ireland, no actually I come from Wexford, and that’s not the same as coming from Dublin. A Dubliner might give you a kiss, but you won’t be getting one in Wexford.
The other night Alex was on duty and I greeted him as vivaciously as possible, I was ready for him, and threw myself at him immediately, offered my upheld hand for a hi-five while he offered me a hug on top of it, we got a little mangled and I lost my bottle when it came to the kiss. He knew what was going on and retracted a little, it’s extra complicated because Alex is gay and I worried that he thought that that was why I was hesitant, I also thought that he was being sensitive to the fact that I knew he was gay and might think that I, like an idiot, thought that he wanted a kiss for another reason. I felt bad that he was uncomfortable and the whole thing was ridiculous, not a big moment, but I wanted to kick myself. Alex is such a nice bloke.
The Ireland that I grew up in wasn’t very kissy. And it wasn’t hand shaky either. You only shook hands with someone if a close relative had died. And you only kissed a woman if you were courting, or making out, as they say in America. When I returned home after my first three years in America (I wasn’t allowed to leave while I was applying for a green card), my mother met me at the airport with my brother Paddy and his wife Kathleen, I kissed them all except Paddy. That was the first time I had kissed my mother since I was a baby, babies got and gave plenty of kisses of course. What surprised me was how easily it came to us, it was a motion that I had picked up in America, and she liked it.
Now of course there is a lot more social kissing going on in Ireland. But not man to man very much. And some women are uncomfortable with being kissed too. I tend to adjust to the situation very quickly. My sensors are on from the moment I enter someone’s home, I am ready to kiss or shake hands, or bid good day from a distance. But my wife Clare insists on kissing everyone, regardless of who they are, so I have to kiss em too. One woman was so uncomfortable she blurted out with restrained annoyance “of course you love kissing, you have to bloody well kiss everyone” I was thinking “jays, no I don’t” I wanted to cancel the action entirely, but Clare was already halfway around the room kissing big red-faced men and shuffling women, they were only too happy when I stopped short with a wave.
I have to say that there is something lovely about a man greeting another man with a kiss. My friend Pat McGuire, the great Irish-American singer, always greets me with a kiss, and I feel genuinely that it is about deep friendship and affection, he is a very warm person, and it seems that shaking hands just doesn’t cut it. It never feels uncomfortable because he has no hesitation, and right away we know that we are really glad to see each other, there is no uncomfortable small talk, we have already knocked down the wall.
Maybe European men experience this all the time, it certainly seems that way from here.