Thumbs up for the post that sets out to understand the origins of the signs and symbols we use on our hands, and how they might differ from country to country. Inspired by my visit to Portugal, where people wear necklaces telling you to $#% off. Or do they?
I grew up in South Africa, and if anyone ever placed their thumb between their index and middle finger, they were telling you, in no uncertain terms, what you should go do with yourself. It was even worse than the bird (which I’ll get to later). So imagine my surprise to see the figa, or fig, worn around necks, painted on walls, and hanging from walls in Portugal! It turns out that the figa is an ancient Roman symbol used for good luck, and to ward away evil spirits. It’s also, coincidentally, the letter T in American Sign Language. Yet because of its physical appearance, resembling a sexualized vagina, some countries including Indians, Italians, Turks, Russians, and certainly South Africans take it as a definitive insult. So while you may want to wish your Portuguese friends good luck with a figa ornament, you might want to make sure it’s not for those at a South African wedding.
“Hail Satan!” Or perhaps: “Rock on, Dude!” Or maybe just: “Go University of Texas!” A clenched fist with the index and fifth finger pointing skywards, you’ll see the Corna at most heavy metal and hard rock concerts, an almost universal sign to rock! Growing up, I remember a certain taboo with the sign since it definitely had some sort of Satanic connotations, appearing as it does in the Satanic Bible. However in Austin, at the University of Texas, the Corna is known as “hook-em horns”, used to cheer on the Longhorns, resembling their mascot, a longhorn steer.
The V Sign
V is for Victory! V is for peace, man! Or, if your palm is inwards, V is for something else entirely, depending on where you are, of course. In the UK, or other English speaking countries, the palm inwards is an insult not unlike the bird (which we’ll get too soon enough). Confusion was caused by Winston Churchill, who used both front and back V’s during the war before he was told of their correct and appropriate usage. Stick your nose between the fingers, and Italians will get your point too. Also, expect something to be lost in translation should a Canadian deaf person order two drinks at an English pub.
According to sources, here’s a hand sign that is particularly sensitive to culture and location. We know it as “go for it!” or “awesome!” or “hey buddy, can I grab a ride somewhere?” In the Middle East, Latin America and West Africa however, you’re basically flipping the bird (which I’ll get to I promise). We probably developed its western connotation from pilots during World War II, and surprisingly it appears there is no evidence it was used during gladiator fights in Ancient Rome. But it’s best to avoid using the thumbs up in countries like Afghanistan or Nigeria, where it is used, you guessed it, as a substitute for the middle finger.
The Five Finger Scrunch
Israelis use it for just about everything, but other cultures along the Med are familiar with it as well. Scrunch your fingers together, turn your palm upwards, and you get a hand signal that means, well, anything you want it to mean. “Wait a minute.” “Hurry up!” “Relax!” There’s an element of frustration in the gesture, but like many of the others mentioned, it manages to transcend language, communicating with fingers what words do not.
Palm down, point four fingers at a Korean, and you get a hand symbol steeped in inter-cultural warfare and hatred. The Japanese were known to use this symbol to regard their Korean enemies as “animals”. No word if Koreans responded with the forearm jerk.
The Forearm Jerk
Leaving the middle finger closed for a change, this insult simply requires the left hand on the folded right arm, and the right fist extended skywards. Slapping the hand down adds to the insult, which is perfectly understandable the world over, regardless of what language is spoken.
The Bird. The Flip Sign. The Zap. The unholy middle finger! There are various theories as to its origins, but the one I like best dates back to the 100 Year War in Europe. See, archers were quite deadly in those days, using their middle fingers to release arrows from their long bows. If captured, it was practice for the English (or French, depending on who you believe) to chop off the middle finger of the archer, unloading their weapon if you will. Archers that escaped, or just felt cocky, would raise their middle finger to taunt and insult their enemies, and today we follow their lead. There’s also a theory that it evolved form Ancient Greece, relating as it does to the phallus (much like most hand insults). Regardless of its origins, the bird is probably the most universally understood hand sign, although in some Arab and Mediterranean countries the index finger is used instead.
The Vulcan Salute
OK, this isn’t really a hand sign (for this planet anyway), but its origins are interesting enough. Palm forward, fingers split between the middle and ring fingers, thumb out. Leonard Nimoy, the late actor who played Dr. Spock (RIP), is credited as inventing the Vulcan Salute, although he actually saw it used as a boy one day in his grandfather’s synagogue. It is used by the Jewish priestly class, the Kohanim, the symbolize the Hebrew letter shin in a way that symbolizes the name of God. A good enough reason as any I should think to live long and prosper.
Making friends at Montana's Testicle Festival. Yes, you've seen this, and now you cannot unsee it.
Originally Published on Sympatico.ca
Take it from me, there’s a lot of weird events out there. Fun stuff, but weird. Many of these festivals below have roots stretching back hundreds of years, which is ample proof that people have always needed an outlet to release their communal energy, or maybe just to leap over screaming babies. Most countries have a festival that belongs on my list, but these are my personal favourites:
Cheese Rolling at Cooper’s Hill
Take a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese and roll it down a steep, muddy hill. Fun I know, but the cheese doesn’t have to stop there. Allow 20 guys at a time to chase the wheel to the bottom. By chase, I mean a head over shoulders, slipping, sliding, bone crunching, joint smashing descent into certain physical discomfort. After several rounds of competition, the fastest guy to the bottom wins great honour, and presumably a lot of cheese. Dating back 200 years, this annual event in England’s Cotswold region has become so popular organizers have had to cancel it in 2010 for safety reasons. That’s OK, you can always head over to Whistler, BC, which has started it’s own Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival.
World Bog Snorkelling Championship
Swimming races are far more interesting when competitors have to navigate a murky peat bog. An annual event held near the small town of Llanwrtyd Wells in Wales, competitors must kick their way forward through a 55m trench, twice, in the fastest time possible. This popular event has expanded into a bog mountain bike race, and even a bog triathlon. I’d tell you more about it, but don’t want to bog you down with the details.
World Toe Wrestling Championship
There’s no reason to trip over the puns at this unique event, which attracts the feet of competitors from around the world. Opponents toe-off during a toe-down, with the goal to force each other’s feet off the toe-dium. If your little piggies are getting slaughtered, you can forfeit by crying “toe much!” Seriously. Rules are governed by the World Toe Wrestling Organization, and champion Toeminator Paul Beech is, I imagine, someone you do not want to get into a round of footsies with. The event takes place at the Bentley Brooke Inn in Ashbourne, everyone is welcome, and all proceeds go to charity. Toe-tally worth it then.
The Naked Festival
The origins of the Hadaki Matsuri date back to the 7th century, a communal act of ritual cleansing and purification. There are variations around Japan, taking place in summer or winter, but the gist of it is that men get naked (save for optional loin cloth and sandals) and go bananas. The Shinotoko, a highly honoured Naked Man, walks amongst the crowd who, with one touch, can expel your bad energy. The crowd heave their way towards the Shintoko in the hope of touching his skin, while officials throw mud or water to calm and cleanse the masses. Nothing gets rid of bad vibes like being naked with thousands of other guys, all going bezerk. Nothing.
Rolling Wood: Onbashira and Danjiri Matsuri are two different festivals with a similar premise. Large wooden objects are rolled, dragged and pushed through crowded streets. Danjiri are decorated wooden carts built by proud carpenters demonstrating their skill, which does not extend to cart pulling, since carts often reach tremendous speeds, topple over, and occasionally kill someone. Onbashira takes place in the Nagano region, as tall trees are cut down and rolled down a mountain to revitalize an ancient shrine. Huge rolling logs, steep hills, large crowds – what could go wrong?
Not everyone has the balls to enjoy the Testicle Festival, taking place annually in Montana. After visiting Testy Fest in Missoula, I can confirm that the taste is not unlike liver, which makes sense, since both originate from vital organs. Vital for me, anyway. The Testy Festy seems to attract a lot of drunk bikers, who clearly have what it takes to consume the vast amounts of oysters and “turkey fries” on offer. Given this unsavoury element, visitors might take special care to protect the family jewels.
Summer Redneck Games
The town of East Dublin Georgia hosts the annual Redneck Games, featuring events such as The Cigarette Flip, the Mud Pit Belly Flop, Hubcap Hurling, Big Hair, and of course, a Wet T shirt contest. Originating in 1996 as a response to a DJ’s comment that rednecks were hosting the Olympics in Atlanta, the Redneck Games now attract thousands of people every year, with all money raised being donated to charity. If your family tree doesn’t branch and you’ve got a natural knack at Bobbin for Pig’s Feet, head on down to Georgia. A legion of fans await.
SPAIN & PORTUGAL
Never have I been so thankful for the existence of a low wall.
Bullfighting on a Rope
Think running with bulls is impressive? On the island of Terceira in the Azores, they let their kids run with bulls on the beach! Bulls form the backbone of the annual Festival of St John. I experienced this first hand, including a thrilling bolt down a boxed-in street as a 600kg monster charged ahead in his quest to make mincemeat of anyone standing in his way. Unlike Spain, where bulls are killed in bullfighting, Portuguese bullfighting-on-a-rope spares the creature’s life. Several men hold back the bull from a safe distance connected with a long rope. Kids run safely into the sea, while on the streets, only the bravest men taunt the bull by running up close enough to touch it. Braver men than I, I might add.
In the Spanish village of Castrillo de Mercia, locals celebrate Corpus Christi by taking a running jump. Harmless enough, unless you place half a dozen helpless babies beneath them, which on a list like this, you bet they do. El Colacho, as it is known, dates back to 1620, when people were also known to burn witches at the stake. This tradition continues however, as men dressed like the devil jump over rows of babies, laying bewildered on a mattress. It’s a symbolic attempt to chase away evil, and clear a path for a healthy life. Providing the jumper clears the mattress, of course.
50,000 people. 100 tons of overripe tomatoes. A tradition that encourages throwing tomatoes at everybody and anybody as hard as you can? La Tomatina takes place the final Wednesday of August every year in the Spanish town of Bunul. Travel tip: Goggles help with the acidic tomato juice running into your eyes, and don’t wear an expensive suit. If you’d prefer to change the colour, the Italian festival of Ivrea uses oranges instead of tomatoes. And elsewhere, children go hungry. Just saying….
The Giant Omelette
Seven cities around the world join together annually to make a 5000-egg omelette, harking back to the Napoleonic era. Canada is ably represented by Granby in Quebec, joining towns in France, Belgium, New Caledonia and Argentina. The idea is to create a giant omelette, which is then fed to the community, free of charge. According the official website: “It has also become the symbol of a world-wide fraternity, rich in friendship, tradition and cultural exchange, known as the Confrerie.” Somewhere in the world, there must be a giant toast festival. If we bring in the tomatoes from Spain and pigs from the Rednecks in Georgia, we can start a new festival: Esrock’s Big Breakfast World Championship.
Things get pretty weird in a Finnish sauna
Finland deserves their own entry, because their festivals are so wonderfully bizarre you have to give credit where it’s due.
Wife Carrying World Championships
Its origins supposedly date back to that marvelously romantic custom of attacking a village and carrying away your future wife. He who runs fastest, or with the best technique (like the Estonian legs around the neck maneuver) presumably outran an enraged father not too far behind. The event takes place every year in Sonkajärvi, as competitors race across a 252m obstacle course. The wife does not have to be your own, but must be at least 17 years old, and weigh a minimum of 49kgs. Every summer, competitors come from all over the world, and the sport has spread to the United States, where apparently it is a lot simpler than dealing with divorce lawyers.
Finnish Sauna World Championships
If you can’t stand the heat, don’t compete. Sauna is deeply entrenched in Finnish culture, so it makes sense that the country would host the World Championships. Starting off at a cool 110C, water is poured on the rocks every 30 seconds until there is but one person remaining, able to walk out, unassisted. Everyone else presumably melts away. Competitors from 20 countries now attend this annual event in the town of Heinola, although naturally Finns dominate. I once spent two minutes on the top shelf of a public sauna in Helsinki, and saliva started to boil in my mouth. Yes. That is true.
World Cell Phone Throwing Championships
There’s a fuzzy connection between the country that gave us Nokia, and professional cell phone throwing competitions. But hey, this sport is dialed in. Depending on the event, athletes are given the same phone, and must throw the phone behind their shoulder as far as they can. A freestyle event awards points for creativity (no word if you get extra points for hitting the idiot who can’t explain why your roaming charges tally the GDP of Ghana). The World Championships take place every August in Savonlinna, and millions of people around the world are practicing every day, they just don’t know it.
Mosquito Killing World Championships
I’ve seen the mosquitoes in the Finnish summer. They’re more like bloodsucking vultures, hunting in packs. The WKMC takes place annually in the town of Pelkosenniemi. No chemicals or machines allowed. Competitors only have five minutes to extract revenge, even as the mosquitoes extract their blood. There’s also a mosquito swatting event held in Italy, and probably at every lake cottage in Canada during the summer months.
Earlier this year, I headed off to Portugal to taste some it's finest wines, marvel at the ancient vineyards on the terraces of the Doura Valley, and stay in hotels ranging from James Bondesque fortresses to 17th century villas. You know, because someone has to. I've long said Portugal is the best deal going in Western Europe: all the cobblestone without the price of Italy, France and Spain. Just like Portuguese wines are great value, so is the country itself. Below are some images from the trip.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your love.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.