Some traditional funeral rites in Japan dictate that bodies be pointed north, because it's believed that is the direction souls head when they die. Hotels often position the beds facing east, south, or west, so the afterworld doesn't get the wrong idea.
It may surprise Americans to hear that in the United Kingdom, it's considered lucky to cross paths with a black cat. But steer clear of crows or ravens — ill omens portending death and war.
The number four is considered inauspicious in much of East Asia. That's probably because the number sounds like the word for death in Japanese and Mandarin. The aversion is so strong that many hotels, hospitals, and office buildings skip the fourth floor entirely, and don't number any rooms four either.
In most parts of the West, the number 13 is unlucky. But in Italy, the number 17 causes the most fear. The Italian Cultural Institute points out that the number 17 in roman numerals is XVII. That's an anagram of VIXI, which in the Italian language means “I have lived” — basically, I'm dead. You're not likely to find 17 as a room number in a Rome or Milan hotel. And as a courtesy to its clientele from Italy and other countries, Lufthansa has removed both row 13 and row 17 from all of its airplanes.
Ireland is well known for its belief that a four-leaf clover brings good luck. But if you find the plant in a forest on a stroll, stow it away! As Jane Wilde, Oscar's mother, put it in a book about Irish folklore, he who has a shamrock “must always carry it about his person, and never give it away, or even show it to another,” lest the luck run away.
In China, it's considered bad luck to stick your chopsticks straight up in a V-shape in a bowl of rice (or in any other food). It looks too much like the incense sticks that are burned for the dead. Do it, and many locals believe you'll be cursed with bad luck, though some will just think you're disrespectful.
Presenting flowers as a gift can be a little tricky in Russia. An even number of like blossoms is used only for funeral arrangements. So show your undying love (or merely your thanks to a hostess) with 11, 9, or even 13 blooms — but never a dozen.
When going to the bathroom at night in Morocco, watch out for the bellowing Maezt-Dar L'Oudou, or Goat of the Lavatories, a kind of djinn, or spirit, that tends to inhabit toilets, baths, and other places where water flushes. According to a folk belief, the beast comes out at night, from roughly 11:30 p.m. until 2:30 a.m. To help ward the she-goat off, lore suggests you try an incantation of Rukhsa, ya Mubariqin (“With your permission, O Blessed Ones”).
In the northwest of Spain, traveling through lonely forests or roads at night can put you in a tough spot. If you visit the witch-haunted region of Galicia, you may see the Santa Compaña, a procession of dead souls wearing monks' habits, headed by a living figure carrying a cross, a bell, and a pot of holy water. Beware if you're asked if you want to join the party of “announcers of death.” It probably means you'll die soon.