“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the New Year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” – Bill Vaughan
Christian shouts at us when the metro comes to a halt. We scamper out and run to the stairs heading towards the exit of the metro Opera. The escalator is not working so we have to take the stairs. Skipping three steps, I feel my heart pumping both in excitement and gasping for air.
“Six Minutes! Hurry! Hurry!” He shouts again.
I can hear our thundering steps coupled with laughter, and a bit of huffing and puffing. Aurora and Mia are behind me trying to pace up with us. Jesica and Christian are three steps ahead of me.
“Three more minutes! Come on guys!” He shouts again.
“Sir yes sir!” We chorus.
We just came from Jesica and Christian’s place where we had a very sumptuous and a very heavy NewYear’s eve dinner which I believe will last us for one year. I am still so full that anytime soon, with all this running, I am ready to explode. But still, I carry on. We need to be there the soonest possible time. As per Christian’s calculation, we now only have three minutes to reach the place and find a very good spot. Finally, cold air touches my skin. We are now outside the metro. There are waves of people everywhere in calle Arenal. We squeeze ourselves through the throng of revelers as the crowd moves slowly, going with the flow.
It is no longer possible to increase our pace. Christian carefully hides the bottle of champagne inside his jacket as bottled liquors are not allowed in the area. Last year there were a few bottle throwing incidents that made those in the city hall decide to ban bottled liquors in the celebration. We are about to pass police inspection to be allowed entry in front of the famous clock. As I come near where the cordon is, I raise my arms signifying that I don’t have any liquors and bombs with me. The police officer lets me in.
Tonight, we are celebrating the New Year’s eve in Puerta del Sol. The twelve grapes! At last, after having lived in Madrid for three years, I finally made it. I have always wanted to come here to witness and participate the traditional Spanish way of welcoming the new year, with twelve pieces of grapes. The officer did not notice the champagne Christian is carrying with him.
As soon as the whole gang has entered the area we snake through the horde of warm bodies toward the closest available position facing the big clock of Puerta del Sol. As we wait for the main event, I see more merrymakers occupying the now vanishing gaps in the crowd like ants attacking a decaying prey. I survey the faces around me. It appears that there are more tourists than true blue Madrileños participating in this annual event. I remember asking my Spanish student Geronimo if he had ever been to the Doce Uvas in Sol and he gave me a flat “NO” and a smirk.
“It’s only for tourists Nats.”
To further support or possibly rebut his claim, I conducted an impromptu investigation by interviewing all of my Spanish students regarding the said event.
“We would rather watch it on TV.”
“Definitely, we are not going there, the last time was when I was a kid, but now, only tourists go there.”
“No, thank you. With all the drunks and wasted individuals around after the Twelve Grapes, I prefer staying with my friends in a more civilized place.”
Basing from the replies I got from my students, I therefore conclude that I can´t afford to miss it. After all, this is already my third year in Madrid and I don’t have an excuse to skip this event. It just spells adventure, fun and a lot of fun. I can always be a tourist, for all I know. So when we were eating dinner with my friends this evening and brainstorming what to do next to celebrate the New Year, the unanimous decision was to go to Sol.
Loud funky music booms in the background. People are dancing, others are shouting, howling, sounding off their trumpets, and most of them are taking photos. This is so much fun.
It was in 1909 where some Alicantese vine growers thought of a strategy to improve the sales of grapes. They created the Las Doce Uvas de la Suerte or The Twelve Grapes of Luck. It was right here in Puerta del Sol where they first celebrated this event that has become a Spanish tradition since then.
In the Philippines, the traditional way of welcoming the New Year can be both fun and dangerous. Aside from the customary preparation of food and putting rounded fruits on the table, firecrackers are the main attraction on this day. This is believed to drive away bad elements and spirits of the previous year and to usher the entrance of positive and good vibes for the coming year. Days before the New Year’s eve, most Filipinos buy firecrackers and horde them until the main event. Because at midnight, it is time to shock and awe. When I was a kid, I remember my father hoarding boxes of pyrotechnics months before the New Year. Ours were not as dangerous as the others. My mother was never going to allow my father to endanger our safety lest burn our house just to greet the New Year. Ours ranged from the not-so powerful Judas´ belt, triangulos and sparkling sticks.
An hour before midnight, people would wait outside their houses and adults would start to fire explosives to the delight of us, kids, who would pleasure ourselves with lighting up sparkling sticks and kiddie firecrackers which can also be dangerous if one is not so careful. Now, even if I am already allowed to fire a powerful firecracker, I refuse to do so. Images of gored fingers, burnt faces, hands with the thumbs falling off appear on television the day after. I just can´t afford losing my fingers or burn myself just to scare the bad spirits away.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn my head and look behind me. A group of Italian tourists is asking me to take a photo of them. The taller guy is wearing an Afro wig so enormous that he looks like a martian jazz artist. I oblige. After two snaps, they offer to take a photo of us in return. The tall guy takes off the wig and puts it on me. It’s my turn to be the martian jazz artist now. Everybody is having a good time oblivious to the cold weather that has been making my teeth grit the moment we stepped out of the metro.
“Ten minutes!” Christian, who is now enjoying his new role as our military training officer giving orders at us, shouts that in a matter of minutes we will be swallowing twelve pieces of grapes saying “Hello” to the New Year. He also fishes out the bottle of champagne he has been hiding under his jacket. Jesica takes out the six cans of canned grapes and gives one to each of us.
“Five minutes!!!” Christian updates us as if we don’t see the big and short hands of the big clock in front of us. The music gets louder and livelier so as the crowd. “Ready guys! One more minute!” Everybody stares at the clock. 48 seconds later, the bell over the clock tells us that it´s twelve seconds before midnight, before we say goodbye to the current year. I grip the can of grapes and take one out. “Dong!” the bell sounds.
Silence envelopes the air. On cue, everybody uniformly takes one grape. I can no longer think of chewing it, I swallow the whole grape. Then another dong, then another, then another. Somewhere along the way, I get so nervous that I swallow late. I have never realized swallowing grape by the second can be this stressful yet exciting.
Then the last dong! The sky is covered with beautiful colors of explosives forming rainbows of enigmatic shades. Emotions run high as we turn to each other and greet “Happy New Year!” “¡Feliz año nuevo!”, greeting even strangers in the crowd amidst the rapturous shouts of the revelers and the flickers of the fireworks. Christian releases the cover of the champagne aiming it to a safer place where nobody will be hit by the lid. He pours on to the six plastic cups that Jesica takes out of her bag. She really came prepared. As soon as everybody has his own cup of champagne, Christian shouts again;
“To good life in the coming year!”
“Sir Olé Sir!”