- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
May 28, 2004

Outside Eye: A non-Armenian's view of life in his adopted home

I caught myself knocking on wood the other day.

I don’t mean I was drunk outside somebody’s flat beating on the door to be let (back) inside.

I mean this:

An acquaintance asked me something to the effect of: “How are things?”

And, as naturally as a hog skating on ice, I looked around for the nearest piece of wood, found a staircase handrail, tapped it twice and said “Not bad”.

I have no idea what this means, but there’s hardly a day that passes that I don’t see someone here do it.

I mean, I sort of know that it is a superstition and that if an Armenian says something good, he – mindful of history – is supposed to acknowledge the possibility of something going horribly wrong and, somehow, knocking on wood is supposed to prevent the latter.

Of course, other societies do it. The Irish do it. But they also believe in leprechauns.

Here, the act is nearly as pervasive as spitting sunflower husks on a sidewalk and, like twisting a Jermuk bottle cap only halfway before opening it, I’ve taken the practice.

Earlier in the week I was in an office. Another acquaintance wanted to know: “Gortser eh lav en?” Is work good?

I said it was going well, then reached out to tap the “wooden” desk she was sitting behind. She pointed out that the desk was actually laminate and that the wood was underneath. So I reached underneath and tapped with upside down knuckles.

I am not proud of this.

But at least I haven’t gotten to the point that the Armenians have reached in their ritual. . .

I know men and women with doctoral degrees who, upon expressing some measure of contentment, then, looking around for something wooden but finding nothing will say: “Tuh, tuh, tuh.”

Scientists. Engineers. Academicians. “Tuh, tuh, tuh,” they’ll say. Seriously.

This, apparently, is the verbal version of wood knocking. Sort of like a dispensation by the Pope for a layman to administer last rites if a priest isn’t within traveling distance.

“Tuh, tuh, tuh.” The first time I heard it, I thought someone was spitting (again, sunflower seeds, probably).

Picking up such a habit troubles me.

Having made a public profession of my faith in superstition at the alter of a stairway banister, I figure I’m about one or two wives tales away from other nonsense.

Fact is, I’ve already cut down on whistling while inside. This, the Armenians tell me, will cause me to blow away my money. Like I need bad luck to do that. These are the same folk who, if salt is spilled, will make a cross in it then sprinkle water on it, a guard against argument.

I have a friend here who will throw water at me if she knows I’m about to take a journey. (Don’t ask.) The effect is that I’ve come to hide my travel plans from her, or only tell by phone.

How could a people with so many remedies for bad luck, be the victims of so much of it?

Recently, the water meter reader came to my flat. As he was leaving, I reached to shake his hand. This in itself is weird, for I cannot remember having ever shaken the hand of a public utilities person before moving here. That aside:

He had already stepped outside the apartment; I was standing inside. I reached – across the doorway, God forbid – to shake his hand. He, instead, turned his palm up to stop me, then pointed out that he was on one side of the doorway and I on the other.

But of course, shaking hands in that position would have brought bad luck. As a precaution, I knocked – on my own door! – before closing it.

I’ve been here too long . . .

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