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Birthdays as International Summits

Last week Dan and I helped our friend Celine (second from the right) celebrate her birthday with nearly a dozen people at the India House. In addition to great food and a lot of fun, we had a very international group with people from places like Belgium, Russia, France, the UK, and Canada (and the US of course). Lots of French was spoken, but English too naturally, and I honestly can’t imagine a better way to spend a Thursday evening than with friends, old and new, from all over the place.

Birthday party for Celine.

One of the things that inevitably comes up at these sorts of international get-togethers is what’s the best way to greet each other. In the U.S., you shake hands with new acquaintances and hug close friends. But in the Netherlands women kiss alternating cheeks 3 times (or make the motion anyway; not contact), and you do so even with friends of friends. Apparently it’s 2 kisses in France, one for each cheek.  Seriously confusing right?

Personally I tend to be slow to escalate physical contact and generally wait for someone else to initiate something beyond the rather distant US traditions. I’m not prudish; I just haven’t gotten over it being weird. Of course my initial reluctance often results in getting stuck at this awkward, half handshake/hug/kiss stage with people I know; which has to be really weird for everyone else I interact with too. My friends, I apologize for being strange. I try not to be.

I think most expats around here end up defaulting to the French-style two kiss and at Celine’s party there was certainly a lot of cheek kissing going around. Maybe our French speakers are just more aggressive about greeting everyone properly and the rest of us just follow along. Who knows.

I should probably spare a few words for the wonderful spread we had at The India House. The India House is located just off the far corner of the Vrijthof in what looks a bit like a residential building. I had passed it several times and wanted to eat there, but Dan always said he didn’t like Indian food. Fortunately a birthday party was just the thing to push him out of his comfort zone on that point and he discovered that Indian cuisine doesn’t have to be too spicy after all.

Dinner started with some flat, crispy bread and three dips of varying heat. With so many people, we opted to each order a dish and then share them a bit so everyone could get a taste. The dips came in handy for this. If you could handle the hottest dip, the owner recommended a spicier dish. If the medium one was too much, it was best to avoid the spicy dishes all together. I ended up ordering a medium spicy lamb in herbal sauce which was delicious with rice and naan bread. Of course my favorite dish was someone elses, a lamb in a tasty, mild sauce with wilted spinach. For dessert I had an Indian pudding made with coconut, almonds, and milk. It was good, but not particularly sweet and didn’t have the typical pudding texture.

I lost control of my wine glass over the course of the night, and it kept being refilled without my asking. But hey, it’s a party. ;) All in all, we had a lovely evening  and sometimes those can be hard to come by when you don’t have a lot of friends.

Happy Birthday Celine!

4 Responses to “Birthdays as International Summits”

  1. Judy says:

    Sounds like fun!

    Karel greets his friends with a “man-hug” (because a plain hug would just be girly, right?), but they always do the three-kisses thing with me. Apparently if you’re a woman, it’s always three-kisses if there’s one degree of separation between you and the introduced person, but for men it’s only three kisses if you’re related to the woman in some way.

  2. Amanda says:

    Thanks for the clarification. :) What is the definition of a Dutch “man-hug”?

  3. Aledys Ver says:

    Greeting protocol has been an interesting thing to watch for me as a foreigner living in the NL. In Argentina we kiss, even when we meet people for the first time, if the setting is an informal one – but it’s just one kiss. I notice that handshakes here tend to be rather weird – they give you their hand, but do not really grasp it but touch lightly.
    I remember when I had just arrived, I made a young kid cry because when I came into the house, they introduced him to me and I thought it was natural to hug the kid and kiss him – apparently it was not… :D

  4. Céline says:

    Thanks for the birthday wish Amanda! We did have a lot of fun.
    I feel I need to add the Belgian way of greeting people because by partner is traumatize every time it happens(he’s actually getting use to it slowly…). In Belgium it’s only one kiss for the boys, the girls, and the newly acquainted…everybody!. I think especially for a North American boy it’s quite a shock the first time you get a kiss from another boy (unless you like boys but that’s another story).

    And also the Russian is not a Russian, he’s a Belorussian. I really need to get my Russian history straighten up…because he tells me it’s not really the same thing.