When I meet new people, I like to shake hands. I expect a firm handshake, accompanied by eye contact. If I find myself on the receiving end of a limp handshake, I struggle to resist the urge to wipe my hands on something I’m wearing, or grimace in disgust. And I hate when, in lieu of a handshake, someone grabs my fingers, and gives them a little squeeze. What’s with that?
Better than a handshake is a hug, a habit I acquired when I taught in an inner city Philadelphia school. Although the policy of the School District was strictly hands-off the students, my kids taught me to open my arms to them, and that made all the difference in my teaching life.
Here in rural Puriscal, the expat community is large, and we gather together regularly, perhaps out of a need to speak and hear English spoken. We converge every Sunday night at Miguel’s, a restaurant with gorgeous views and no walls to obstruct the scenery. At least ten of us, and often twice that, meet for dinner.
We mostly greet each other with real hugs and kisses: no pseudo-hugs or air-kisses for us. Especially among some of the women friends I’ve made here, the hugs are heartfelt and genuine. Perhaps our pleasure in connecting grows out of our lives away from home and family.
The Costa Rican people are wonderfully affectionate. Raphael, the lovely man who delivers fresh milk to us on his motorcycle– still warm from the cow– busses my cheek; so does anyone I’ve done business with downtown; doctors, dentists, even my lawyer. Folks are as likely to plant a kiss on your cheek and give you a hug, as they are to say, “Pura Vida,” a greeting as commonplace as hello.
On our first trip here, we traveled some distance by bus. During the first leg of our journey, I turned to the nearest sympathetic face on the bus for reassurance about the connection we’d soon make. When we got off the bus, an elderly man escorted us down and across the street to our next bus. He told the bus driver our destination, and then he hugged and kissed me, and pumped Jack’s hand enthusiastically while clapping him on the other arm. “What a country!” we said.
Years ago, I read in The Philadelphia Inquirer about a man, a Santa Clause type, who touted the benefits of free hugs. He said that effective hugs must be intentional, mindful— not off-hand or inattentive– and involve body contact from the waist up, rather than the popular hug in which one swoops in and out quickly, not really touching, or fakes to one side to avoid actual contact.
Experts agree, he said, that hugs promote health: they can lower one’s heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress and increase feelings of well-being. And when you hug someone, you both receive the benefits. Hugging has no unpleasant side effects and is all-natural. There are no batteries to replace; it’s inflation-proof and non-fattening with no monthly payments. It’s non-taxable, non-polluting, and is, of course, fully refundable.