I’ve never been a big fan of New Year’s. I’m a positive, looking-forward-to-next-year person, but always felt like the festive mood was a little forced. More than a few friends have told me they go out to NYE parties more because they felt they should rather than they wanted to. I think the worst party I ever went to was on New Year’s. I’ll save you the details, except to say it involved an icy evening, a leg in a cast, and a Jewish singles event called the Matzo Ball!
So, for our first New Year’s in Spain, I was more than a little hesitant to get out. One of our sons was visiting, and we had been out late tapas-hopping the night before. A nice three-person evening in with maybe some board games, a movie, and not having to work the brain translating Spanish seemed optimal.
Jiab, however, was determined to get us in the Spanish mix. She did her research (as she always does) and found that the Spanish tradition for New Year’s eve was:
…a nice family meal (so far so good),
…drinking of cava, or Spanish sparkling wine (nice!),
…then eating 12 grapes at midnight, either at home (still sounds good!),
…or in a crowded Town Square, no matter how cold it is (hmm….).
In Granada, the NYE gathering place is Plaza del Carmen, the square outside Granada´s Town Hall. The city organizes live music and fireworks in the square, beginning around 11pm and lasting until around 2am.
Our son, Journey, and I were a bit reluctant. We were a united front against being outside in near freezing temperatures (and losing the possibility of some video game bonding time).
Jiab insisted, however, and so our Misión impossible was set (whether we chose to accept it or not).
We went to the store earlier in the day to stock up, since the stores would definitely be closed New Year’s Day and possibly the day after (in keeping with the mas o menos Spanish way). While there, we bought more than enough grapes.
We saw that stores were offering pre-peeled, pre-pitted grapes, which we laughed at as only being for elites who had to have it just right.
If only we knew…
For our midnight date with the next year, we set out at 10:30 so as to get a good spot in the plaza. We look liked stuffed ticks as we were each wrapped in at least four layers of clothing to survive the twenty-minute walk to the plaza and the standing around once there.
We had our grapes packed in three plastic bags of 12 each, toted in a backpack along with a bottle of cava (no need to pre-chill with the weather).
Just in case Journey or I got cold feet about freezing feet, Jiab and arranged for us to meet along the way a couple (nice folks) and their two sons. We all met up and had a nice stroll to the plaza, though we were somewhat concerned as the streets were unusually empty. Were we too early? Were we too late? Was it all just hype as native Granadinos, all warm in their homes, laughed at the newbies walking in the cold to a non-event?
The Rally Point
Arriving at the plaza at 11:00, it was clear it was an EVENT. Hundreds of people in party hats, crazy glasses, or simply dressed inter-weaved, exchanging traditional kiss-greetings.
The crowd was so huge, it spilled off the plaza and blocked the main avenue through town. The center focus was a large stage, with television cameras aimed at it. We found out that each year a different city in Andalusia takes the lead in tolling the new year, and this year it was Granada!
Coming in from behind the stage, we swung wide and circled around to face it towards the rear of the pack. We were elbow to elbow with our fellow revelers, which gave little room for maneuver, but on the other hand, giving us all a collective warmth of body heat.
All of us being Americans, we tried not to invade the personal space of the people in front of us, at least until a group of young Spaniards saw this as an invitation to squeeze into that space. We were then forced to crowd in, with the Jiab and the other woman directing us all to form a line to block further invasion.
A DJ came out and got the already enthusiastic crowd pumped, then a band played some upbeat numbers. We, of course, could not understand the lyrics (except an occasional word like “ahora” or “tambien”), but when the call and response “Ay-yo” linked the performers and crowd, well, that’s universal party language and we added our voices.
And away we (and the old year) go!
Then a video began. A glamorous Spanish man and woman, fancied up for the event, were apparently explaining the whole operation about to be had.
We didn’t understand a word, but we took the time to hand out our plastic bags with twelve grapes a piece. I also took out the bottle of cava, although it suddenly occurred to me that having a potentially cork-shooting bottle in a dense crowd may not have been the best idea, especially as I had just been jumping around to music with it on my back. I put the bottle on the ground , but then realized an accidental eruption might mean me taking a cork to some of my most vital parts, so I held the grape bag in my left hand and the bottle in my right.
We could feel the nervous anticipation of the crowd, who all seemed to quiet down on cue and tense as one.
Then a gong rang out, and Jiab and I each popped a grape to start the fruit festivity…only to see no one else was doing so. It was the get-ready tone.
Then it went, and it went with all speed. One barely had time to get a grape in the mouth, one chew, and down, before the next “bong” would strike.
We realized how foolish we were to turn our noses up at pre-pitted grapes as we now had the extra step of spitting a pit each time. One of my grapes was wedged in a corner of the plastic bag and for a second I considered ripping the bag with a forceful jerk of my teeth like a soldier with a grenade in an old war movie. Mercifully, it rolled out of the corner and into my fingers.
And then it was done, and everyone was hugging and kissing, and kissing and hugging. It was like we all had just faced a speed trial and we all passed. We popped open the cava and passed it all around (our friends were one step ahead of us as they each had their own individual mini-bottle).
As we cheered, the skies above up opened up in a hail and fury of fireworks. Spaniards use any excuse for fireworks in general, but this was like a speed lightening show and each sonic boom of light was met with a roar of the crowd. It was as if all of Spain conspired to ensure that if anyone was asleep moments before midnight, they were roused from their beds now and compelled to join in the celebration.
We lingered a bit, exchanging more greetings, each telling about his or her near failure to consume the twelve guarantees of monthly good fortune. We three then decided to head back, even as the band returned to the stage for a follow-up set.
We turned to leave by way of the main avenue, but were met with a wall of new people pressing in for the music. We found the tiny trickle, maybe one or two people wide, that squeezed its way out. It was like being toothpaste coming out of the tube, as we were as much propelled by the pressurized force from behind and to our sides, our feet serving only to keep us upright so as not to be trampled and ending our good luck far too early.
Once clear from the immediate plaza, it was a joy to see all the streets and adjoining plazas filled with families, with people from eight to eighty all dancing, milling about, and joining in collective good cheer.
Loud pops and bangs occasionally echoed off the buildings, and for a moment I was taken at how nice it was to enjoy such a loud report confident that it was only a firecracker and not having to ask if it was actual gun fire.
Even away from the body-heated throng, we felt no cold as we walked home. We talked again of how we barely got down twelve grapes in time, while passing around the bottle of clava among the three of us.
Weirdly, it was a fulfilling feeling to wander through streets late at night with one’s wife and child, passing a bottle and laughing, and doing so as much like compatriots coming home from war as a family from a night of celebration.
We reached the warmth of home, where we were treated to, for once, waking our sleeping cats rather than the usual reverse situation. Exhaustion set in from both the adrenaline leaving our bodies as well as the cumulative effect of two long nights out in a row.
As I got in bed, I realized that this was the kind of New Year’s eve that I had always really wanted. It was not about how much I dressed up or tried to force myself to have a good time; it may not have even been so much about the turning of the calendar year.
It was about being with people, from intimate family, to newly-made friends, to hundreds of strangers you share a town (but not yet a language) with, all doing silly things together so as to say that we have no idea what will happen in the coming year, we probably have less control over things like luck than we want to believe, but at least we are all united in these shortcomings in this place and moment, so let’s just enjoy being alive, human, and be…
…wait for it…
May you all have a wonderful 2019!