My mother’s side of the family is French and when I was young, we used to spend my birthday weekend/Memorial Day visiting with them. And while there were many aspects of these trips that I enjoyed, the visits were never very kid-friendly. I usually felt underfoot and like one of the adults was doing me a favor by watching me*. Then, when you factor in all of the adults speaking French and/or (though usually and) about France, relatives I didn’t know, and art/music, it was like being in a constant state of confusion.
And every year, things really came to a head when we went out to dinner on my birthday. It was a big affair that involved fancy clothing (often my arch-nemesis, the pale blue frilly blouse that had a habit of unbuttoning itself every few minutes and the flowered skirt that “I-was-absolutely-under-no-circumstances-to-spill-anything-on”), my very best table manners, and sitting across the table from my 100-year-old great-grandmother who terrified me.
My mother insists that she has never met anyone who has ever lived up to my grandmémé’s standards, and while I understood that it was probably true, I still was determined to be the anomaly. Of course, things never went as planned, and I somehow always managed to mess up and be swatted at within five minutes of sitting down. The swatting would be accompanied by some remark in French that I did not understand, and some adult would whisper in my ear what I supposed to say in response. I would manage to bungle the sentence, the adult would have to apologize for me, and the cycle would continue until I finally gave up on trying to be perfect and got incredibly antsy.
It was on my eighth birthday that my dad introduced me to what he called “French math.”
“Okay, Eleanor, so you know how you have to kiss everyone hello and goodbye? Now, I want you to add up how many kisses that is going to be. Remember Mémé, Grandmémé, and your great aunts each get four, and everyone else gets two.”
I’d work out the sum in my head, and then my dad would change it up so that I had to come up with the number of kisses for the people with blue eyes or everyone wearing black. Eventually, this turned into me making up my own rules for calculating kisses, and I’ve done it during every long family dinner since.
So the next time you find yourself stuck in a room full of French people you are going to have to kiss, you can pull out this trick and go wild.
Note: You can adopt it for hugs when you’re not with the French, but the level of difficulty and fun vastly decreases, so I’d suggest that you instead spend your time changing the lyrics of Yankee Doodle or plotting escape routes in case of an attack.
*Or often not watching, with the case in point being the time I nearly drowned in the pool when I was five because all of the adults thought someone else had an eye on me.