ROME—With the crushing lockdowns ending and summer finally in sight, Europe’s kissing countries are in a bind. Now that the second wave is abating, will the traditional double cheek kiss—la bise in French and the bacio sulla guancia in Italian—be safe?
It has been more than a year since medical experts begged those who greet with such physical affection to stop, with then-Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte pleading last March that citizens “stay apart today to embrace each other more warmly tomorrow.” But now that the opportunity to be close is nearly here, people are nervous.
For many, the kiss has to return—how can one have tapas in Barcelona with friends without the beso-beso? For others, the cheek greeting is a kiss of death. “It seems risky to get that close to anyone,” Marisa Di Giacomo, a tightly masked vaccinated pensioner, told The Daily Beast. “I don’t want to go back to lockdowns and fear. Better to just smile and wave.”
In Europe, there is something awkward about not touching at all upon meeting a close friend or relative; such frigidity is generally served to enemies. The fist bump just never quite caught on in intimate Europe, where personal space often feels like an invitation meant to be breached. And the elbow bump just doesn’t really work with tight European tailored suits and designer handbags.
Early on in the pandemic, Italians tried the luckily-short-lived heel bump, and the French tried toe-to-toe, but nothing says hello or good-bye quite like rubbing jowls. Even for the traditionally reserved British, the notion that Prime Minister Boris Johnson is now allowing “cautious” hugs as the U.K. opens up, underscores the importance of touch.
In Italy, where face masks will soon be abandoned in outdoor spaces, the first post-lockdown opportunities to see friends have been met with a rather awkward compromise, the breast bump, whereby the two people greeting each other essentially try to touch hearts with their heads turned as far away from each other as possible. The French have gone for a slightly more elegant bicep bump, which minimizes contact and the chance that someone might accidentally forget and plant a fatal smooch.
There are also the rogues and rebels who—far too soon—attempt the traditional contact cheek kiss anyway, often preceded by an “I’m vaccinated, don’t worry!” And often met with the terrified recipient ducking the advance with a raised arm and pulling their mask up tight.
Fabrizio Pregliasco, a virologist with the University of Milan, has issued several public service announcements in Italian media to warn Italians not to let their guard down as they come out of their shells. “Certainly the most risky gesture is the one that leads to contact with the breath of another, that is the cheek kiss,” he says, adding that if one must touch cheeks, the air kiss is the only safe way to do it, but suggests no direct skin contact. "We need to gradually reintroduce a safe kiss, but not yet.”
Pregliasco also suggests that vaccinated grandparents hug their unvaccinated grandchildren from behind, but suggests they hold their breath while doing so. He strongly warns against the “aunt’s kiss” which is a full-lipped cheek plant, because he says the receiver might touch contagious saliva with a finger and then accidentally lick it or touch their eye. Until more is known about the transmissibility of COVID among the vaccinated, it’s just not worth the risk.
At the Tram Bar, a popular bar converted from a rail car in the Roman district of Testaccio, the aperitivo culture has also gone through a painful transformation. The traditional pre-pandemic summer pastime generally involves crowding around tiny tables for intimate conversations. But with restrictions only recently loosened enough to let people sip past 6 p.m., the tables are all rearranged with people sitting in what amount to rows, sideways talking, masks lowered and raised between slurps. The usual grabbing of a friend’s arm to underscore a point now replaced with non-contact gesticulation. “People are just so happy to be able to be out at all,” a waitress says. “No one wants to go backwards, so even if it's not as intimate, at least we are here.”
Last summer, Italy glided through the season largely unscathed after having endured harsh lockdowns early on while Europe lagged behind. But then the crushing resurgence of the virus hit and sent Italians back into lockdown. The winter across all of Europe was brutal, with the second wave killing more people than the first and shuttering many businesses for good. Europeans hope vaccines will spell the end of the pandemic, and that the worst is over. But until that, a kiss is not just a kiss.