Friendly greeting poses European dilemma as virus spreads

MILAN (AP) — When French President Emmanuel Macron leaned in to give Premier Giuseppe Conte the Italian double-cheek kiss not once, but on two separate occasions, during a Franco-Italian summit in Naples this week, it was much more than a greeting.

It was a signal to citizens not to fear their neighbours as a new virus from China spreads, with Italy established as Europe’s hotspot.

Friendly kissing in the time of coronavirus has become a fresh dilemma, especially in effusive southern Europe, with perhaps the power to reshape customs. But even more-reserved northerners are grappling with whether to forgo the hallowed handshake.

The government’s special commissioner for coronavirus, Angelo Borrelli, has suggested that Italians’ demonstrative nature could be contributing to the virus’ spread.

But there have been no official edicts on the social custom of kissing, which sociologists say is rooted in Italy’s Mediterranean culture as well as its strong family and social structure. “We have a collective social life that is very florid, very expansive. We have lots of contact, we shake hands, we kiss each other, we hug each other,” Borelli told reporters. “Maybe it is better in this period not to shake hands, and do not have too much contact, and try to be a bit less expansive, which is different from how I am.”

In neighbouring France, Health Minister Olivier Veran on Saturday advised people to cut back on la bise, the custom in France and elsewhere in Europe of giving greetings with kisses, or air kisses, on the cheeks, along with shaking hands.