Forget Virginia: Chile is for lovers. Let me break down the reasons for you.
First, the typical greeting between men and women is a kiss on the cheek, not a handshake. In this respect, the cultural transition is easier for women because they just kiss everyone. When greeting a group of people, we men have to make a dozen split-second decisions centered around the crucial question, do I kiss this person or not? It’s easy to make mistakes; I, unfortunately, would know. Anyway, think about the number of given handshakes you exchange in a given day and tally those in the kisses column.
Second, the cheek kiss gets used way more often that we shake hands. When you arrive at the office culture dictates that you actively seek out everyone there for a cheek kiss (unless you’re a man, in which case you should heed the male-male exclusion rule). At parties it’s no different. You don’t waste time waiting for the host to introduce you; you move around meeting and greeting on your own initiative. Goodbyes also invoke the cheek kiss, no matter how little time has passed since the initial greeting. Seriously. Many times a 60-second encounter goes like this:
“How are you?”
“See you later.”
So add the number of people you greet daily to your earlier tally, then double to account for goodbye kisses as well. That’s more-or-less your cheek-kiss count for a typical day.
The third aspect of the prevalence of kissing in Chile, however, is the hardest to get used to. In the U.S., a couple just has to breath too close to each other and friends will cough, clear their throats, and shout “Get a room!” If your friends don’t react this way it’s not that they’re more accepting; they’re just saying behind your back instead. But as far as I can tell, a negative preception of public displays of affection doesn’t exist in Chile. On any given day you see routine, passionate displays that make Titanic and Casablanca look like tame children’s fare. The subway is a good venue, where kids go to hang out and hook up after school. The spectator experience is enhanced by the cramped quarters: often this is happening 18 inches from your face. No joke.
This is an unedited, completely accurate transcript from one afternoon at a summer camp two years ago:
“Hey Ryan, I see that you’re cleaning up the supplies closet. Do you need any help?”
“No, thanks for asking. I’m almost done.”
“OK. Oh hey, there’s my girlfriend. Even thought I’m standing so close to you that I can see my reflection in your eyes, I think this is the best place and time to examine her tonsils.”
At least that’s how I remember it. If you want more stories, I have fistfuls. There was the couple kissing in front of my house when I went grocery shopping and when I came home half and hour later. There is Parque Santa Lucia where I counted 15 amorous couples. Then there was a certain photo from last year: I uploaded a picture of Caitlin and Emily to Flickr and the next day I got an email from my friend Amanda wondering, “should I ask what is going on on the lawn in the back of the picture?” Well, nothing out of the ordinary. It was just Sunday in Plaza Ñuñoa.
My take is that people make out in public, ironically, so they can get some privacy. In their houses they live in such close quarters that it’s better to be in public where the family isn’t. Or maybe it’s part of my fabulous tourist campaign: Chile is for lovers.