The problem with food is that, no matter in what obscure corner of the planet you find yourself, you’ve got to have it. And in order to have it, you have to find it, and then somehow procure it. In some places this means you go hunt and fish, in others you pull victuals out of the ground and pick them off the trees.


Potatoes and cabbage are staples of the Armenian diet

In prosperous countries foraging for food is done in your local supermarket, which is the size of a small banana republic. You hunt around with your shopping cart and harvest items off shelves and from bins. Easy to do for most of us trawling the shopping emporiums of the modern world.

But here’s a story of one of my shopping adventures not in the culinary paradise of the Gourmet Giant in Virginia, USA, nor in the HyperU in France where I now live, but in a small neighborhood grocery store in Yerevan,  Armenia, a small country in the Caucasus Mountains where I domiciled for six years. I hadn’t been there long when this drama took place, and at the time there were no modern supermarkets.

Just a Few Eggs, Please

I’m in a small shop not far from my house where the neighborhood housewives go on foot to buy their daily needs. In a place like this, checking off the items on your grocery list is a tricky and humbling task for people who don’t speak Armenian or Russian. I’d be one of these people. Shopping can be an exercise in frustration, or entertainment on a good day. There are reasons for this:

In these little neighborhood shops you don’t pick things off the shelves. Most of the items are kept safe behind counters of which there are several, each tended by a fierce-looking matron with dyed hair — red, black, orange. (Hair dying is the GAP, the Great Armenian Pastime. Everyone participates – teenagers, menopausal mamas, grannies, and even the men. I felt obliged to join in to show respect. But I digress.)

Dairy is sold at one counter, bread at another, processed meats, eggs and canned foods at a third. A few shops have fresh beef, pork and lamb for sale as well, usually in rather large hunks that have not had the benefit of a designer butcher’s knife. This would be sold at counter number four. Sometimes shops carry a small selection of fresh fruit and vegetables in season. A small selection because there is no big selection.

For vegetables and fruit you’d best go to the large covered markets, such as Mashtots market on this photo by Rita Willaert. In the summer these are wonderful places to shop as you can see.

So here I am, an illiterate, you might say, in my corner grocery store. I can’t read the labels, and I can’t speak the language and I’m hungry. I’ve managed to get the bread, the rice, the tea because they’re recognizable and I pointed at them. Now I want eggs. I see no eggs. Where are they? How can I point at them and then raise ten fingers when they are not in sight?

I learned the word for eggs weeks ago, but it now escapes me. It has skipped away, hiding somewhere in my memory refusing to come out like a naughty child behind a sofa. Armenian words have a tendency to do that because they’re not like any other words in any other language in any other place on the planet. I explore every nook and cranny of my brain and cannot find the Armenian word for eggs. I can find it in several other languages, but none of these will do me any good. What to do.

This is what I do: I make the shape of an egg with my fingers. I look at the sales matron with big pleading eyes. She asks me something. I don’t know what she is saying, but she’s not understanding me. We are not getting anywhere, and something else is called for. Something more drastic than mere sign language.

I flap my arms and cluck like a chicken, then follow my performance by once again making the shape of an egg with my fingers.

Four stout mamas are looking at me in stunned silence. The dairy lady, the bread lady, the salami-and-beans lady. All with neatly coiffed hairstyles circa 1973.

I know why they are staring.

In Armenia people take themselves very seriously. You dress very neatly, no wrinkles allowed anywhere. You always have your hair done right and your shoes polished. You do not go around clucking and flapping your arms like a chicken. What would the neighbors think!

Here I am, crazy foreigner, making a fool of myself. It is unthinkable.

Then laughter erupts, rich and full-bodied. The kind of laughter that happens when you’ve not laughed for a long time because life is tough, but now, here’s this weird foreign woman clucking and flapping her arms, how can you contain yourself?

Laughter subsides. My counter lady turns around, steps aside and points at the eggs that have been hiding behind her body.

“Ayo!” I nod eagerly. “Ttass hat,” I say and hold up ten fingers in case she doesn’t understand my sorry Armenian.

She carefully puts the eggs in a plastic bag and shows me the amount I owe her by tapping it out on a little calculator.

I pay. I smile nicely. I say shnorrekaloodjoon, which means thank you, I kid you not. I turn and walk to the door, trying to look dignified, which is, of course, a lost cause.

I’ll be the talk of the neighborhood, but hey, I’ve got my eggs.

NOTE: Modern supermarkets have come to Armenia, but the small shops still reign in the neighborhoods.

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So tell me, have you ever made a fool of yourself on purpose, out of necessity? Or not on purpose, for that matter?



Spain: Eating twelve grapes in twelve seconds.

On New Year’s Eve, spectacular public fireworks are set off in many countries to celebrate the New Year, but there are many other fun customs and traditions to be found around the world. (This is a repost from some years ago, but things have not changed and you may have missed it.)

In many wine producing countries such as Spain, Portugal, Argentina and others, twelve grapes are eaten, one for each of the last 12 seconds of the year.

This apparently is not easy to do, so you start the year with a mouthful of grapes and you’d better not laugh and choke on them. If you somehow manage to chow down all twelve you’ll have twelve months of good luck in the New Year. The grapes are aptly called las uvas de la suerte (the grapes of good luck). You can buy them already peeled for your eating convenience.

Beach parties are de rigueur in the southern hemisphere in countries like Brazil and Australia. Australia is also famous for the stunning fireworks in Sydney harbor.

In Rio de Janeiro, along with the carnival-rivaling beach parties, there’s also the Festa de Iemanjà. Offerings of flowers, perfume, rice, and so on are made to Iemanjà, the Goddess of Water. They’re either tossed into the waves or put into small boats and set adrift.

Brazil: Offerings to Iemanja, Goddess of Water

In the USA, like everywhere else, people go partying. A major tradition is the dropping of the New Year’s Eve Ball on Times Square in New York. This event is attended by many thousands of bundled-up nutcases freezing in the arctic cold (usually), and millions of saner types who stay warm in homes or clubs and watch it on TV. At the stroke of midnight everyone kisses his or her significant other to the tunes of Auld Lang Syne.

Denmark has an old tradition, so I hear, which involves saving up all your broken glass and dishes over the year and then throwing them at your friends’ doors. The more broken dishes you find outside your own door, the more friends you have. At midnight party-goers climb on top of their chairs and then jump off to symbolize jumping into the New Year. Well, that’s what I read. Cyberspace is mysteriously devoid of photos to prove it.

In Ecuador, effigies are burned at midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Photo by Bill Herndon | CC-BY-NC-ND

These dolls are made of old clothes stuffed with newspaper and have a mask for a face. If you have worries, disappointments, regrets or problems you’d like to leave behind, you can write them down on paper and stuff them inside. Handwritten notes are also pinned on the outside of the dummy stating what improvements are wished for in the new year. At midnight the effigies are burned and people dance in the street, as you can see in the photo below.

I rather like this ritual. Very symbolic. I spent a few weeks in Ecuador some years ago and really enjoyed the people and the country.

In my native Holland we have parties at home or in pubs and everyone has his own bunch of fireworks to set off in the street at midnight. This after we’ve carb-loaded with yummie greasy, sugary oliebollen.

Wherever you are, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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What are your New Year’s Eve traditions? Anything fun or exotic?  Which foreign ones have you enjoyed in your travels?