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Last Updated: Monday, 28 May 2007, 15:28 GMT 16:28 UK
Sealed with an Argentine kiss
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires

One of the joys - and difficulties - of being a foreign correspondent is learning and adapting to local customs. Buenos Aires looks, on the surface at least, pretty much like a European city. You would think then that British journalists would not have too much difficulty blending in with the locals, but that is not always the case.

Tango dancing street performers in La Boca, Buenos Aries, Argentina
Argentines are famous for their passionate embraces
I have got nothing against kissing. In fact, I'm all for it.

But there is an awful lot of it going on in Buenos Aires and sometimes I do not know if I have got it quite right. You kiss pretty much everybody - one peck, right cheek to right cheek - when you greet them and when you say goodbye.

"What? Everyone?" I asked my Argentine wife on my first visit to the country.

"Yes, everyone," she replied.

I was doubtful.

That day we went to see her dentist - an elderly, very conservative woman who I was told had once scraped the plaque from the teeth of none less than the glamorous Evita Peron, wife of the former president, Juan Peron.

We met in the doorway, I stooped to kiss the diminutive dentist, she recoiled in horror, a door closed, hitting me on the back and pushing me closer towards her as she managed to duck and slip from my grasp in a move worthy of an international rugby player.

Charlie Chaplin could not have done it better.

"Well, perhaps not absolutely everyone," my wife explained afterwards.

Friendly kiss

Some years ago the custom developed for men to kiss men. Family members and very close friends had always done so. But in such a macho, sometimes homophobic society, this was a radical move.

When dropping my children at school in the mornings, I kiss all the mums and all the dads... insurance salesmen, architects, lawyers and teachers. Then we kiss again to say goodbye.

The kissing between men is done in a very macho, Argentine sort of way
On Saturday mornings when I take my sons to football, we repeat the process, only then the dads have not shaved and that is when I had much prefer a distant and very British mumbled "hello" and a weak wave.

I kiss colleagues, male and female, on my arrival and departure from work. I have kissed the cleaner, the bank manager, the receptionists and secretaries at the offices of people I have interviewed. But not the refuse collectors, my barber or the ticket collectors on the train - although I might if they were a little more friendly.

And everyone kisses children, enthusiastically and often. My own boys are well-trained to proffer their cheeks to all visiting adults.

Although on return trips to Britain they find they are often left hanging, with their necks arched, while stuffy, distant British adults look at them in confusion.

"Oh! You were expecting a kiss," they'll say.

Argentines are definitely more friendly. But sometimes, it is just too much. Too many lips and too many cheeks.

The kissing between men is done in a very macho, Argentine sort of way.

When two friends meet in the street, there will be the quick peck and a hearty slap on the upper arm accompanied by a loud: "Che! Que tal? - Hey mate! how's it going?"

You can still offer a handshake but that might be seen as a sign that you want to keep your distance, that you do not want to become too friendly in what is a very friendly, sociable society.

Too British

Kissing in public is important to Argentines.

Standing in the queue for the cinema the other day I heard frantic slurping and near drowning noises behind me. I turned to find a not-so-young couple quite openly and unashamedly indulging in a passionate kiss.

That is something I see frequently on park benches, outside offices and in restaurants.

So if you should visit Argentina, have your lips at the ready
"I hope you're not expecting that kind of behaviour from me," I told my wife. "No, you're still far too British," she retorted.

In fact now I think about it, Argentines in general like to get much closer than I am accustomed to. While in queues at the supermarket check-out for instance, I have elbowed many an elderly lady as I stoop to sign my credit card slip since they were standing too close.

Worse still is when they are practically in my back pocket while I take money from the bank cash machines.

"Perhaps you'd care to dance madam," I feel like saying. "Although I don't know you and I'm not sure this is the appropriate time or place to do a tango."

The guide books all say the same - that Buenos Aires looks, on the surface, like a mixture of Paris, Milan and Barcelona. And the immigrant mix of the residents reflects the same, with the subsequent evolution of a kissing culture.

Which is better? One kiss or two or three? On greeting and departure or just greeting?

The portenos, as the residents of Buenos Aires are known, have evolved their own style. So if you should visit Argentina, have your lips at the ready, beware of diminutive elderly dentists and, gentlemen, please shave first.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Thursday, 24 May, 2007 at 1100 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Argentina
03 Mar 07 |  Country profiles

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