I moved to Quebec in the late 90s as a young twenties-something. I came to follow love, to open new doors, and because I figured the twenty words of French I knew would serve me well more than they had in Hamilton. I set up my first apartment with the generous help of my parents and felt like I had moved to the moon. Not that the moon was a bad thing – I loved Montreal right from the very start. My first weekend in Montreal, Greg took me to the film festival on a warm end of summer evening and we watched The Red Violin on the street with hundreds of other people. Even though I knew exactly one person in the city, I rarely felt alone.
Now there are a few cultural differences between Quebec and Ontario. The obvious ones – language, history, politics. But there are some less obvious ones – things you only discover after spending some time here. For example, swearing in Quebec only works if you invoke some Roman Catholic symbolism – a chalice, the host, the inner tabernacle…those sorts of things. And don’t be too surprised if you hear a group of 7 year olds tossing around the F-word – it’s a benign word in the Francophone world that doesn’t lead to parental chastisement much to my white-bread Ontario surprise. Speaking of bread – no dinner is complete in this city without a bread component – most frequently it’s baguette but could also be naan or pita or injera depending on the menu. There’s no panic about making it to the LCBO on time because you can buy wine and beer at every local convenience store in Quebec.
But then there’s the issue of greeting people. This one took me a while to get used to. Greeting à la Québec: Whether you have just met someone for the first time or you’re meeting your best friend since Kindergarten for brunch, the greeting follows exactly the same pattern. “Oh, so nice to meet you, kiss-kiss. Now how do you know M…?” or “Elyse, I’ve missed you since yesterday, kiss-kiss, how are you?” It’s the same. A kiss to each cheek. Greeting Ontario-style: If you are meeting someone for the first (or second, or third) time, a simple handshake will suffice. This hand shake may linger and get longer if it’s someone you really like. But the next step is so much more intimate that you need to proceed with caution. For in Ontario, the handshake is followed by the hug. And hugs require a much greater intrusion into personal space than either a hand-shake or a kiss-kiss. Sure, you can try to get away with the quick back-pat hug but you could also end up in a tight embrace hug that lasts more than a split second.
I admit – I was a hugger, albeit a careful hugger, for the first two decades of my life. But when I moved to Montreal, where I met new people around every corner, the kiss-kiss seemed easier and less intimate. There were some awkward moments where you met someone from a hug-based hometown (somewhere in Ontario or Nova Scotia or BC…) and it was a negotiation of whether you would adopt the cultural norms of the current environment or whether you’d revert to the Canadian Hug. But more and more I identified as a Quebecker and the kiss-kiss became my norm. I think, underneath it all, I was so relieved to discover the kiss-kiss because, at the end of the day, it’s the safer, less intimate, more controllable option. And I liked having space between me and others around me. But then there was the time I returned to Belleville, after not seeing my friends there for some time, and I remember that first Jon VH re-hug. I remember feeling so…hugged. So embraced. So welcomed. It was okay because Jon VH is Jon VH and he can hug me any time he wants but I remember feeling like this was a seriously intimate act between people. And I realized that I’d grown a bit cold in my new life as a kiss-kisser. Somewhere along the line, I’d become comfortably distanced from people around me (kids and partner excluded of course!) Teenaged Liz could hug. And when I returned to my teenaged-world, I could hug. But adult, Montreal Liz kiss-kissed.
And then it all changed.
Oh Toby. Toby plays softball with me. She also secretly harboured a plan to sabotage my hug-free Montreal existence. She proceeded with caution, warning me that she’d be asking for a hug soon. And when that hug happened, it may have been a little stiff on my end – I admit it. But then the second hug happened and the third and a fourth. And then others joined the hugging. And over the course of the summer I melted into a hugger again. I’ve still got the kiss-kiss in me, don’t worry. But for those who are open to it, I think I’ve recovered my affinity for hugging.