Itchy Nose, Falling Cutlery – and What Ukrainians Have to Say about It
By Paul Miazga
In the West, the word “superstition” usually calls to mind the funky Stevie Wonder hit from the late 1970s. Ukrainians, however, live in a world bound by superstitions and whether your nose starts to itch, cutlery falls to the floor or someone is whistling in an enclosed space, they seem to have something to say about every aspect of life.
Take the itchy nose bit. Ukrainians believe that if your nose becomes itchy, it means you’re going to be doing some drinking that night. Call me a cynic, but this seems a little too convenient for many Ukrainians to use as an excuse to drink, but it’s there. Itchiness also applies to hands, as it does in some parts of the West. Scratch your left hand and it means you’ll be coming into money; scratch your right and it means you’ll be giving it away.
Around the house, Ukrainian superstitions pop up everywhere. If cutlery falls to the floor, it means you can expect guests. Once the guests arrive, don’t expect to shake hands over the threshold. While Ukrainians shake hands with one another out of principle – at work, on the street, wherever – they won’t shake hands over the threshold at any time. The idea is that you’ll possibly spoil relations by allowing a barrier to exist between friends or family. Once you’ve been invited into someone’s house, drinks are often offered all around, but unlike in the West, where a collection of bottles on the table often stands as testimony of a good night of drinking, Ukrainians don’t leave empty bottles on the table – it calls to mind emptiness, which is something all Ukrainians would prefer to avoid.
Going back to whistling indoors, an Italian friend of mine recently found out the hard way that whistling indoors happens to be one of the most taboo things you can do in Ukraine. He likes to whistle and, while waiting to meet in a bank with the local branch manager, he did just that. In Ukraine, whistling indoors means that bad luck, especially financial hardship, will befall that home or place of business. An angry security guard quickly approached my friend and told him to immediately cease and desist. My friend didn’t quite understand why the guard considered it such a big deal, but I’m sure everyone working at that bank will feel quite relieved if they make it through the year unscathed!
Health commonly factors in Ukrainian superstitions, and even a sneeze has meaning here. While the usual response is for people to make a wish to one’s health after another’s sneeze, a sneeze in mid-conversation also implies that the very last thing said or thought has truth, which often elicits a response of “Pravda!” (“True!”) from those around the sneezer. To add to health superstitions, Ukrainian women have a phobia about sitting on cold cement or steel at any time, considering this a threat to their reproductive capabilities, and a drink at night with ice (even a cocktail out at a club) will be frowned upon by most. Don’t ask me why.
Across much of Europe, but especially in the east, when giving flowers, people should present them in odd numbers if the occasion is a happy one and even numbers if the occasion is a sad one. To Ukrainians, the idea of giving a girl a dozen long-stemmed red roses on her birthday or on Valentine’s Day sounds more than a bit odd; frightful, even! Also, when giving flowers, an amount up to nine implies friendship (the more flowers, the greater the bond), but men should take care not to give too many lest they wish to imply that they have some intentions with that girl. The color of flowers also has meaning here (as it does to a lesser extent elsewhere), so follow western standards as far as meaning goes and you’ll be alright. And speaking of flowers, poinsettias continue to gain in popularity here, as the influence of the West increases every year.
What to drink around here?
Lately I’ve noticed a lot more brands of wine and champagne flooding the market of late, especially stuff from Georgia and Moldova. When the Russian government decided to ban imports of wines, brandies and champagnes from these countries, much of the excess had to go somewhere, and Ukrainians can now benefit from a wide variety of drinks from all across the region and at much cheaper prices to boot. Prices for a good bottle of Moldovan wine now go for about Hr 25 to Hr 40 per bottle, with Georgian wines ringing in at Hr 40 to Hr 60. Chilean, South African and Argentinean wines have also flooded the market, with prices beginning from Hr 50 and up. A few years ago I was complaining consumers had no choice in this country. Now the choice is almost bewildering.
For readers who don’t know much about Georgian and Moldovan wines, both countries have long wine-making traditions, with Georgia being one of the oldest (if not the oldest) wine-making regions in the world, its history in this respect dating back more than 1,000 years. Currently the industry is enjoying a resurgence due to higher quality standards and better marketing, but a few years ago often suffered due to economic setbacks in these countries. Despite excellent grape varieties and ageless traditions, the product suffered if workers could not be found to pick grapes at just the right time.
A South African friend of mine in Kyiv tells me that South African companies have begun investing in Moldova, and likewise French companies in Georgia, with the result being that open-minded consumers should shop around and consider the alternatives. Moldovan Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays can now compete with rivals from the New and Old Worlds. Georgian grape varieties, meanwhile, are quite unique and bear only certain resemblance to varieties common in the West. For red wine, a full-bodied Georgian saperavi, for instance, calls to mind a French Bordeaux or Australian Shiraz, being somewhere between the two in terms of boldness of taste and complexity of texture. With white wine, the tsinandali compares favorably to a crisp French chardonnay or spicy Gewürztraminer.
The key with Georgian and Moldovan wines is to sample as many varieties and brands as you can to find those you like. Thankfully, the cost isn’t prohibitive, making them fun to enjoy without the feeling of guilt associated with spending a lot of money. The only problem is how wines are stored in Ukraine: contrary to all logic bottles are stored standing straight up and often under direct lighting! Superstitions might abound in Ukraine, but in this respect, not a lot of common sense.