As a politically correct American, the only place I ever touch someone in public is their right hand to my right hand. There are rare exceptions. I might give my friends or my children a hug if we meet at a restaurant, and I have been known to press the shoulder of long time clients when our professional relationship has become personal as well. But I would never put my hand on a colleague’s shoulder or give him a pat on the back. The United States is a spacious, litigious society. We claim a broad personal space and we guard it well.
The line in Haiti is more closely drawn, if it exists at all. Haitians jostle one another in the marketplace as a matter of course. They live in small spaces, often many people in one room; sometimes multiple people in one bed. Holding hands is common across genders and activities; every day I see construction workers stroll the site with their hands clasped to one another.
When I first came here I would wave to people as I greeted them. Then I started shaking hands. Now I make a point to greet the workers personally each morning. I shake their hand and place my left over it; I give them a good morning look in the eye. This contact dances on the edge of my comfort zone, but I can tell they appreciate it. A few of the guys, as I take their hand, throw their left arm around my shoulder, which I accept as a gesture of camaraderie.
Walking home after work, I run into a laborer along the main road. Gascon bounces up to me, grabs my hand and embraces my shoulder. We chat and I move on.. A few steps later I run into Clebert, a mason’s assistant. Clebert is a small, spry guy with a gregarious nature and a constant smile. Mister Paul, he calls out, thrilled to discover me off the construction site. We greet and I continue on, out of town and over the river; along the highway to the turnoff where my path dips into the jungle. As I descend into the cool evening I hear footsteps behind me. At a clearing I slow and step aside, to let the person coming upon me pass. It is Clebert, at a good clip. Ah, Mister Paul, he exclaims as if it were years, rather than minutes, since we last saw each other. He reaches out and takes my right forearm in his left, lets his hand slide down into mine and grasps my fingers.
I am surprised, but I do not pull away. I suck in a breath and force myself to acknowledge that it is rather nice to have a warm, friendly hand in mine. We walk and in hand. I ask the small retinue of questions I have at my disposal when one on one with a person who speaks no English. Clebert was born in Grand Goave, has lived here his whole like, and has a wife and four children; a resume virtually identical to all the other workers. After a decent interval I point out a flowering tree, which allows me to free my hand. I do not return it to the same place. I have had plenty of hand holding with a near stranger on my first foray into such close personal space. We continue along with a more comfortable distance between us, at least for me, until he gives me a hearty m’ale and turns off towards his house.