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English speaking visitors to France, cherchez-ing a perfectly grilled steak haché or a nicely browned frite, could do worse than head for French restaurant chain Courtepaille. If your grasp of the language is limited to an embarrassed ‘merci’, it’s probably Bon Appetit all round and none the wiser. But for those with a slightly wider vocabulary, confusion reigns. Because Courtepaille directly translates as ‘Short Straw’, not the first name choice for a successful restaurant you’d think, right? Wrong. In France, if you draw the short straw you’re the lucky winner.
Black cats are another source of confusion when it comes to good luck/bad luck. Apparently The Pilgrim Fathers (who really should have had more to worry them) believed black cats were agents of Satan. But, for centuries, canny Scots have thought the melanin rich felines brought prosperity. Gamblers fear black cats and pirates love them – handy to know if you’re in Vegas or sailing the high seas.
Some superstitions are widely held: smash the bottom of an empty boiled egg shell so a witch can’t make a boat out of it: bird droppings are good luck: a single magpie is a bad omen: don’t put new shoes on a table: spilled salt isn’t good (counteract with a pinch over your left shoulder and into the devil’s eye): and a tall, dark stranger as your first visitor of the New Year heralds excellent fortune (yes, we used the word ‘herald’).
But we think it’s probably fair to say that the best superstitions/omens/etc are based on indigenous lore and legend. They’re certainly some of the strangest (only in Iceland would they give citizens’ rights to elves), most eccentric and, occasionally, plain creepy – Mexico you know who you are! So before we douse ourselves in bird droppings and catch us a couple of magpies in preparation for another Friday the 13th, here’s our good guide to some superstitions of the world – wise travellers, heed our words!
credit: Sergio Rozas
Friday 13th in Spain is just a day like any other. Because, although the Spanish are uncommonly superstitious, it’s Tuesday 13th that’s the unluckiest day in their calendar. And we’re not just talking, watch out for ladders and spilled salt: Tuesday 13th in Spain is a day of mortal dread. As they say – Martes 13, ni te cases, ni te embarques (Tuesday 13th, don’t get married or set sail).
Visiting Russia and tempted to make Blinis? Before you start slathering on the sour cream and caviare, beware. Don’t ever eat the first pancake out of the pan, it belongs to a witch and if she doesn’t get it she’ll get you. Most seasoned pancake makers don’t care, the first pancake’s never that great anyway.
It’s probably not surprising that the birthplace of the magnificent Brothers Grimm should have a healthy stock of very unhealthy superstitions – mostly about death and dying. Our particular gory favourite is the belief that the wounds of a murdered corpse will start to bleed afresh if the body is touched again by the murderer.
credit: Janek Kloss
Forget the poetry, stout and fantastic oysters, if you visit Ireland it’s the fairies you have to watch out for. This may not be of interest to the average traveller, but if you’re renting a holiday house you might want to make sure it wasn’t built on a Fairy Path. According to Irish legend, fairies travel all over the country and if you build a house on one of their routes you’ll never know peace as long as you live. To make sure you don’t fall foul of a fairy: choose your site, stick a post in each of the four corners and if they’re still there in the morning it’s a fairy-free-zone.
The highly intelligent Magpie recognises its mirror image, hence its liking for shiny stuff and glass reflections. But if you’re Scottish you don’t believe any of that old scientific nonsense: a single Magpie on your window sill means death is coming to your home.
Want to ward off evil in Italy? Well, if you’re an Italian man, just grab the front of your trousers (think Michael Jackson Thriller). Yes, that gesture which has most of womankind rolling their eyes in disgust, is actually designed to ensure the bad thing you’re talking about doesn’t happen to you.
If you’re wandering around Yorkshire and you chance to come upon a hairy caterpillar, pick it up and hurl it over your shoulder for good luck – it’s one of those ‘not such good luck for the hairy caterpillar’ things, we know!
credit: K. G. Hawes
Lighting a votive candle in a Catholic church is something almost everyone does, whatever their beliefs. But in France, never light a candle from another candle because only the prayer of the original will be answered.
Wear a turquoise bead when you’re visiting Greece to ward off the evil eye. But watch it closely, if the colour starts to fade, danger is coming your way.
Come any Friday in Brazil (13th or otherwise) wear white clothes and you’ll have good luck. And, to make sure you always have plenty of cash, get yourself an elephant statue for the house and place it with its back to the door – Brazilian Feng Shui.
Finnish folk love a sauna and with every sauna comes a ‘Tonttu’. The Tonttu is a Sauna Elf, and if you forget to throw water on the stove for the Tonttu, he’ll curse your next sauna visit.
When visitors come knocking at the door in Holland the superstitious Dutch rush to answer because it’s said that if the door blows open on its own you’ve invited the Devil into your home.
Famous foragers that they are, no outdoorsy Swede with any sense ever picks heather and brings it home as ancient lore dictates they won’t live to tell the tale.
And finally, for this Friday and any other Friday – watch out for flying swans: if you see them overhead in the morning it’s good luck, but in the evening they’re a very bad sign.
credit: Ben Brewer