Charlotte kabuki greetings.jpg

Illustration by Charlotte Dijkgraaf

I am back in Amsterdam. I lived there for 20 years, but I feel like an Englishwoman in New York. Everyone speaks the same language, but everything is slightly off kilter. It turns out I am not the only one feeling this.

For starters the city, again, is buzzing with people, but we wonder: How do we properly greet each other?

When I run into a friend, someone I met daily at the playground when our children were small, we don’t know what to do. Before COVID, we used to hug each other, but now we hesitate instinctively. Is hugging allowed? Of course it is, but is it worth a possible risk? How well do I know her? Is she even vaccinated? Our relationship suddenly is different. We stand awkwardly, waving our arms but getting no closer.

At a reception, out of habit, I stick my hand out to a person I am introduced to, only to be greeted with a closed fist. A fist bump is a different variation on a high five. I close my fist too, but step back. This body language is a contradiction. A way of touching while keeping one’s distance.

I know many people are happy to not feel pressured to give the obligatory three Dutch air kisses to just about anyone. Many used to complain, but it seemed unavoidable. Now there is an excuse. Never again, my niece said, who couldn’t stand the often fake familiarity.

Soon enough, I learn the most common way of greeting: swiveling sideways and sticking out one’s elbow. The first time, I make some sort of side step, to be able to let my own elbow touch theirs. I end up doing a Kabuki dance, to give myself an attitude. Oh no, I am frowned upon.

But I get used to it. If the Kabuki greeting is the right thing, I am game. I master it soon enough, the side-stepping, the raising of the arm, the embarrassed laugh — though I find my accompanying little song and dance giggle hard to avoid. It makes it fun!

Then, after a few days, I run into my former neighbor, a single man in his 70s. I hardly recognize him. He lost weight, his beard is untrimmed, and his clothes are even more worn than I remember. Seeing him brings back so many memories, that I almost start to cry. I had my children when I lived next to him; he heard me scream delivering them.

“Hey, Mackie!” I say. He looks up, then stands stock-still, as if to let the reality of the moment sink in.

I stick out my elbow, my newly acquired habit. He conspicuously ignores it. What the heck is she thinking?

Mackie takes a step back, tightens his checkered shirt, and … bows to me. His formal gesture somehow cuts the ice and elevates the occasion. Two years ago, his mawkish routine would have given me a laughing fit.

Now it totally feels right.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.

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