A Toast To Knocking On Wood

Daniel Brooks


Much has been written about Russian superstitions perhaps because some are unique to Russia, while others are familiar to those new to the country. Let’s begin with spilt salt, bad luck in many places. In Russia, after accidentally spilling salt, the thing to do is softly make a spitting noise three times, off to the left, that sounds like ‘ptu, ptu, ptu’. It’s the same thing people used to do when they smoked non-filter cigarettes to fashionably get rid of bits of tobacco. After that, toss a bit of salt off to the left, preferably over your shoulder. This keeps away the devil. The number 6 is bad luck in Russia whereas the number 7 is good. Few seem concerned about the number 13 and all buildings in Russia have a 13th floor unlike in the US where it is often missing. Don’t step on anyone’s toes and if someone steps on yours, tap that person’s foot lightly. This will ensure that no conflicts will come with the person who has just stepped on your toe. After saying that good times are ahead or something is about to happen, knock on wood three times and for good measure, do the spitting routine mentioned above, again three times.

Russians seem to be forever looking for some wood to knock on. If you order a taxi and Uber tells you it’s coming in 10 minutes, knock on wood. If you say your flight is leaving at 2 pm, knock on wood. If you think you are going to get a big bonus, knock on wood. This is good to know when visiting the country to explain why all the wood knocking is going on.

I have mixed feelings about some Russian traditions probably because I’ve adopted some of them. Deep down I’d like to be free of these superstitions but resistance is futile. This makes me feel a bit restricted, perhaps because logically these beliefs can’t be true. Or maybe they are.  It all began with scarves. After buying a big scratchy scarf when I first moved to Russia in the 80’s (along with a fur hat that made my head sweat) my health improved and cold weather put me in a good mood. When your health gets better and your mood improves, beliefs change. Now I never leave the house without a scarf in Russia between September and about April. It was downhill from there. Over time I gave in to one Russian habit after another. These days I never shake hands across the threshold, even outside Russia. It can upset the household spirits, or something like that. If someone unwittingly reaches out their hand across a doorway, I step through it and then shake hands. The Russians understand this practice but non-Russians don’t, causing eyebrows to go up. Whistling indoors is something I never do any more. This is easier said than done. Americans are whistlers and I grew up believing ‘whistle while you work’ should be taken literally. As it turns out, whistling indoors will cause the money not to come. These days I am against whistling indoors entirely and if someone starts whistling with any four walls, I find myself wishing they would stop. I admit to knocking on wood quite a bit. It’s now an engrained habit.  Other habits are more personal. I never wear my clothes inside out because it will cause poverty, another Russian belief. This one is easy to follow for most visitors to Russia who will invariably wear their clothes with the right side out, regardless of Russian superstitions.

Some practices have become more relaxed. It’s true that Russians put empty bottles of wine or vodka on the floor during a meal. However, foreigners shouldn’t worry about this practice. If I do it, other Russians at the table think I’m taking things too far. I have noticed empty bottles tend not to stay around very long, though. Putting an empty bottle on the floor is, by the way, a dead giveaway for a Russian spy operating behind enemy lines.

Other beliefs prevail. Drop a knife and a man will come. Drop a fork and a woman will arrive. Or is it the other way around? I don’t know what happens if a spoon is dropped. Perhaps nothing.

Another persistent belief is in the danger of drafts. In my view, a draft is fresh air, a good thing. Growing up in Oregon, we had something called forced air heating at home, meaning air was forced into the house, making it drafty by definition. This, we believed, was essential for good health. In Russia, it’s believed a draft can cause illness and if someone gets a cold, the relatives recall the time when a draft landed on that person’s chest, neck or shoulders. These days I respect the local practices and when any Russians are visiting my home, I shut all the windows tightly. By the way, this is a widespread belief in Italy and France. In Germany, a draft causes stiff muscles. I don’t think it’s believed in the UK, however, although it is a country that is fundamentally drafty, just like Oregon.

Drinking cold things is something I do all the time, even in winter. It is well known among Russians that cold drinks cause a sore throat, especially in hot weather. In Italy, I heard the same thing. France as well. Interestingly, eating ice cream in the dead of winter is a widespread practice in Russia. I rest my case.

Some long standing Russian practices have less to do with beliefs and more to do with the way people interact.  In Russia, the table, or ‘stol’ is central to family, business and social life. At the table, toasts are made. Here are a few words about how the toasting tradition works. In my personal view, following these practices will bring good luck. As far as I know, I’m the only who has it.

In days of yore, most meals involved vodka. They still do, although less so today.  These days, vodka is gradually being replaced by whiskey, wine, cognac and other kinds of drinks. Traditionally, the table is groaning with traditional kinds of zakuski (antipasto…or for my fellow Americans, stuff eaten before you finally get dinner) such as sausages, pickles, various kinds of salads laden with mayonnaise, salted fish, piroshky, salted vegetable and sometimes – dubious looking salads. Expensive cheese and sausage from Europe are popular now because they are banned by the sanctions. Being illegal makes the food taste better. Especially cheese.

After sitting down at the table with Russians, the host customarily pours an alcoholic beverage into everyone’s glasses. Those who don’t drink will usually get one poured for them and will have to let it sit there all night. After that, the food goes on everyone’s plates. If drinking vodka, load up your plate with something salty like a pickle or salted fish; I’ll explain why in the next paragraph.  No one touches their food initially. Before anyone eats, someone needs to make a toast and usually the host kicks things off. While the toast is being made, or pronounced, everyone raises their glass and listens. Non-drinkers can lift a glass of water or cranberry juice. Eating during the toast is not allowed. Meaningful glances at the others around the table can be made. After the toast is made and the glasses are clinked together with more meaningful glances, a final meaningful glance can be made when you put your glass down. Everyone clinks glasses with everyone, resulting in a lot of clinking. It allows you to look at everyone in the eye. After all that, you can eat.

If you are drinking vodka, try something salty such as a pickle or a piece of smoked fish just after downing your vodka neat. A pickle has the same effect as salt after drinking tequila. The salt dulls the bite of a shot of vodka and leaves you feeling a warm glow inside.

After the first toast, several more will follow. Few raised outside the country will be able to make toasts as well as the Russians can. Russians grew up sitting around a table groaning with food and making toasts. It’s in their blood. If you are new to Russia, and need to make a toast, come up with something short and sweet. It might seem a bit artificial to make a toast to friendship, peace, or even good health but if you do it in the spirit of the moment, everyone will appreciate it. Avoid saying ‘here’s mud in your eye’. This toast is difficult to translate.

I had the chance to visit China and Japan where I found out that toast making works in the same way as it does in Russia. Toasting is also a big deal in the Caucasus regions, Georgia, Armenia, Turkey and the ‘Stans’.  Toasts in other countries can be very long. I once sat through a single toast in Kazakhstan that lasted four straight hours, in a tent, sitting cross legged. No one ate or drank the entire time. After that, I’m thankful for the comparative shortness of Russian toasts.

One way to keep the evening going is to make another toast. A second way is to say ‘na pososhok’, the Russian equivalent of ‘one for the road’.  This phrase literally means, ‘to your walking stick’ or in other words, happy trails.  It doesn’t include the word ‘one’.  Saying it could lead to several more toasts and go on almost indefinitely. Coinciding ‘na pososhok’ with the emptying of a bottle can lead to another one being opened up. A word to the wise. Normally, once a bottle is opened, the tradition in Russia is to finish it.  Consider your timing if you call out na pososhok especially among vodka drinkers.

Russians are enthusiastic about their beliefs and habits. They will tell you all about them. All you have to do is ask and you’ll get an earful. Just make sure no one is sitting in a draft. If they are, by the end of the evening, someone will have a sore neck.