SEEING BLACK CATS AND CROSSING FINGERS

by Richard Cherry

Get to know the Bulgarian superstitions and myths in order to avoid getting your fish and eggs mixed. Or was it milk?

I grew up in Sydney: beaches, banana trees, lawn mowers. I vaguely remember my impressions of Bulgaria as a kid; it was one of those Eastern bloc countries that showed up at the Olympics. Good at weightlifting. A mysterious and shadowy country, imprisoned behind a wall of political and ideological differences. If you'd told me that one day I'd be living here, I'd probably have laughed.


So, here I am in Sofia: banitsa, bureaucracy, beautiful women. The mountain. So many new sights, sounds and tastes. It's fascinating talking to the locals, and discovering their different perspective on things.

But be warned: just occasionally a Bulgarian is going to tell you something that will either make your jaw drop in disbelief, or have you rolling about on the floor in derisive laughter. And that may not be entirely appropriate behaviour if you happen to be attending a business meeting, or sitting at the dinner table enjoying some Bulgarian hospitality.

It's in the interest of avoiding such potentially embarrassing international incidents that I'd like to offer a primer on some commonly held Bulgarian superstitions and myths.

Everyone is just a little bit superstitious, aren't they? I, for example, ritually put my right sock on before the left. It's luckier that way. Everyone has a lucky number. That's great. I know a guy who considered it lucky to touch all four walls inside a building before he left it. But, then again, he was later diagnosed with a mild obsessive-compulsive disorder!

But let us not speak of unhappy things. Let's talk about luck. Bulgaria is a country that, few would argue, has had more than its share of bad luck, historically. Maybe that's why this culture has spawned a diversity of superstitious beliefs, ranging from the “logically understandable”, to the “completely bizarre”, to the “almost-but-not-quite-believable”.

The following collection of superstitions has been compiled from years of anecdotal evidence and research conducted with real live Bulgarian people, and where possible, the “real-world” explanations are given.

The Logically Understandable

1. Never put your bag on the floor. Okay. It could get dirty. (Bulgarian interpretation: you will lose money).

2. Never leave an unfinished loaf of bread. Right! My old mother used to say something similar: it's a sin to waste food. (The Bulgarians would say “No-one is bigger than bread” or “The Gypsy boy will rain on you,” whatever that means).

3. Never leave a loaf of bread upside-down. Same idea, I guess: don't disrespect food. (The real deal: it has Christian origins. Bread is the body of Christ, remember?)

4. Never take your rubbish out after dark. Reasonable! Is that because there is an increased chance of getting mugged in the street after dark? (Nope. It's pagan. Rubbish is considered a part of the home, and evil forces of the night can penetrate it through the rubbish. Hee hee!)

5. Pregnant women shouldn't walk over cables or wires. Just common sense, really. They could trip and fall over. (In fact, evil forces again - lurking just on the other side of that cable's vinyl insulation. Chuckle. Snigger. Guffaw).

So far, so good! But now, fasten your seatbelts because the next stop is the Twilight Zone.

The Completely Bizarre

1. If you sit at the corner of the table, you'll never get married. Or, you'll get married more than once, depending on where you come from. (It was suggested to me that it has something to do with hesitancy. If you sit at the corner of a table you probably don't know which way to lean).

2. Never cut your hair or nails after dark. It does make a certain kind of sense, I guess. If you're clipping away, and one of your toenails flies off (as they are prone to do) into the inky blackness, you'll have a harder time retrieving it. (Uh-uh. It's bad luck. Hair and nails symbolise the soul in many, um, primitive cultures. Spooks may get their hands on it, especially when there's one of those Hollywood B-Horror dark stormy nights outside).

3. If you eat the last piece of a loaf of bread, you'll get married away from your parents. Somehow, I don't imagine there's a lot of empirical evidence to back this one up.

4. If, when you're cooking, you taste the food with your finger and not a spoon, it will rain on your wedding day. Wait a second. Is that lucky or unlucky?

5. Never hang your washing to dry upside-down. (Oops! This is the way dead people's clothes are hung up). I think I might have done this. Often.

6. There is a special day of the year for getting your ears pierced. No-one could tell me exactly when, but there's an annual day when it's particularly propitious to get your ears done. Presumably your tongue, or belly button, too. Is there a patron saint of piercings, or what?

7. Never give a woman an even number of flowers. A dozen red roses? Are you trying to give the lady bad luck? Thirteen is better. (It turns out that even numbers are reserved for the dead. Here's what I think of you, darling…)

8. Once you are sitting at the dinner table on New Year's Eve, you must not stand up until after midnight. If you really, really have to go to “the little room”, you may only go there by crouching, or crawling, lower than the height of the table. On reflection, crawling to the toilet on all fours on New Year's Eve isn't such an unlikely activity, is it? (Imitative magic, James Fraser would have said. Country folk would explain this by their wish for a better harvest the following year. You have to bend over to reap heavier wheat. Clever, huh?)

9. If you eat fish and eggs together, it's poisonous. (Or is that fish and yoghurt?) Well, I can vouch that the fish-and-eggs myth is not, in fact, true. I've personally downed quite a few salmon omelettes and I'm still here to tell the tale. Of course, fish and yoghurt is an altogether less likely culinary combination; but I'd still be willing to bet that the mixture would be non-lethal (if slightly unappetising, except if you are Swedish).

10. When lots of itinerant Vietnamese workers were invited to Bulgaria in the 1980s to help with construction projects, all the street dogs disappeared. Well, I wasn't here at the time. But, if you're like me, you'll find it just a little bit difficult to believe that our Asian cousins were hunting down stray dogs in order to feast on canine flesh, when they could more easily pick up a tripe soup without breaking the budget.

Well, those are all a bit of fun, and probably your Bulgarian buddies find them just as silly as you do. But it's possible you may encounter some other ideas which, though held as fact by your Bulgarian acquaintances, may run contrary to your outlandish foreign belief system. Tact and diplomacy are therefore called for. Here's one.

The Almost-But-Not-Quite-Believable

Bulgarians believe: Sudden changes in temperature can make you sick.

So it's a really hot day. You're sweltering in your office. You ask your Bulgarian colleagues if you can turn the air conditioner on. Seconds pass as they exchange dubious glances. Finally, you receive permission; but “just for a short time”. Air conditioner on, you begin to relax into your work as the air temperature glides down from thirty-something to a comfortable twenty-something.

But, within minutes, you notice your Bulgarian colleagues grimacing and massaging their necks in evident pain; the women wrap whatever spare clothes are available around their waists to avoid imminent kidney failure.

Why? Bulgarians have a morbid fear of changes in temperature. It's for this same reason that, when you buy a bottle of water, you're usually given the choice of “hot” or “cold”. Drinking cold water on a hot day, you run the risk of getting violently ill. Didn't you
realise that?

It came as news to me when I arrived here. I was always under the misapprehension that sickness was generally caused by bacteria and other microscopic nasties. Okay, okay – to be fair, I realise that sustained and extreme changes in temperature can have an effect on your immune system. But, with the exception of Legionnaire's disease, I've never heard of a single case of “death by air
conditioner” yet. I checked out the air conditioner in my office. It has “warm” and “cool” settings, but it doesn't do “hypothermia”.

I can't wait for the next time I'm at the beach, in Sydney, on a 35-degree day. I'm gonna go to the shop and say, “Can I have a bottle of water, please? Make it a hot one”.

But don't listen to me. What do I know? After all, I think it's lucky to put my right sock on first.

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