Bésame mucho

Birds do it. Bees do it. And boy oh boy, do Mexicans do it.

They make out in the metro, they neck in caf&eacutes, they snog in the street. And not just the kids; middle-aged couples roll around in Chapultepec Park, hands up one another’s shirts. I think they put ecstasy in the enchiladas.

In Southeast Asia, carrying a girl’s books counted as first base. On the other hand, men expressed the kind of public affection for one another that would have guaranteed a head-kicking in downtown Limerick. Fifteen-year-old boys strolled around Phnom Penh with arms around each other, shyly checking out girls. Little boys walked to school holding hands, heads on one another’s shoulders. Girls, though, were not to be touched, except in the racier cities in Thailand. The only public kisses I saw were paid for.

The issue of daughters and public displays of affection was dealt with ingeniously (and disturbingly) by my own parents. There was a fateful Saturday when my fourteen-year-old sister was caught kissing her new boyfriend outside Todd’s department store in Limerick, surrounded by her gang of friends. My mother wanted to call out to get her to stop shaming the family. Instead, Dad grabbed Mum—at least, this is what was reported to me—and snogged her in front of Claire’s friends. I was twenty at the time, and living away from home, but in sympathetic horror I’ve never kissed outside a department store since.

In New York, Time Out magazine keeps running cheesy features on the best bars for making out, and which restaurants let you have sex in the toilet. I’ve never seen much evidence of this uncontrollable passion (though granted, I’m often oblivious). It’s a romantic city, but New Yorkers are a puritanical lot. Any couple enjoying themselves too much will hear ‘Get a room!’ from passers-by.

Who decides who can and can’t be kissed in on the street? In Catholic Mexico, where people often live with their parents until marriage, it makes sense that courtship is public domain. But why can’t Mexican (or Irish, or New York) men be tender with their straight male friends? And why can’t a nice Vietnamese boy kiss his girlfriend at the pho stand?