BELVAL — What started out as a chance to have a drink and catch up after the holidays turned into an exhausting ordeal when a group of international students found themselves frozen by extreme uncertainty in the middle of greeting each other.
Joshua Bartleby, 21, a North American who organized the meetup, says that within seconds of spotting his friends outside a bar near the University of Luxembourg, it was clear that trouble was on the way.
“The first person I saw was [20-year-old French student] Sonia, so I went to give her a hug, but at the same time she leaned in for a cheek kiss, so I got confused and just froze, then she got confused and froze too,” Bartleby reported on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the incident. “Both of us were still leaning in, but we weren’t moving.”
At the same time, their former classmate, a 22-year-old German named Ahmet, showed up at the meeting point. Upon recognizing Sonia, he offered his hand, yet when he saw the deep red color of Bartleby’s face, Ahmet feared that he himself had committed some grave but imperceptible etiquette violation. He, too, was then frozen by doubt and decided not to move until he received a clear social cue from the others.
No sooner than the three settled into their yoga-like motionless postures, they were joined by Ellie Beardsley, 20, originally from the UK. With a cheerful wave she joined her friends but immediately felt self-conscious when she noticed they were all staring at her. In truth, they were begging with their eyes for her to break the deadlock. Too wary to act, she also froze.
Twenty difficult minutes later and much to the relief of the members of the meetup, who were by then suffering from terrible cramps in their legs, arms and backs, the fifth member of their party arrived, the one who would save them, they hoped.
“Out of the corner of my eye I saw Soo-jin, who’s from Korea, and I knew that salvation had come,” Bartleby later explained. “She’s really outgoing and funny, and she’s rather dismissive of local customs, to say the least. There was no way she was going to get caught in this weird social tangle.”
Instead, the 23-year-old native of Seoul saw her friends suspended in postures suggestive of a slight bow. Believing they were humoring her by using the greeting of her home country, she took a place in the circle, bowed, and stood still, waiting for someone else to make a move.
The group remained like that for the rest of the evening. Passing teenagers snapped photos, a barman swept around them, and at least one bird relieved itself on Bartleby’s shoulder. Still, nobody dared to move or impose his or her cultural practices.
It wasn’t until later that night when a common acquaintance, a young Luxembourger named Amélie, happened to pass by, said “moien,” and greeted each person, now in excruciating pain, with three alternating cheek kisses. The spell was finally broken and they were able to move, sit down, talk and have a drink, but unfortunately all the bars in the area were closed. It was time to say goodbye and go home.
“During the time we were frozen, we must have been communicating through telepathy or something, because we made an unspoken agreement, which was to give no parting kisses, hugs, handshakes, waves or bows,” Bartleby said. “And it worked.”
“When Sonia left, she did make a kissy face, but kind of directed at the sidewalk so as not to ensnare anyone,” Bartleby continued. “Ahmet just raised his chin, or at least it looked that way. Ellie only said bye. And Soo-jin, well, she made a broad cut through the air with her hand. I don’t know if that’s a Korean thing, or maybe she was just swatting at a fly.”