Or Lucky Grapes
Happy new year. Or szczęśliwego nowego roku. I am sitting in the tube at the moment and opposite me are a young couple who are having a lovely time. He is teaching her how to say happy new year in Polish. She is having difficulties but is gamely practising. I am inwardly debating whether to wish them shczenshleevehgonovehgorokoo myself. Shades of my father, I think, who would definitely not have missed this opportunity! Well, I did. Miss the opportunity. We just smiled at each other as I left the train.
I regret it now, of course, but that’s the way things are.
Now I’m at the bus station going to Charing Cross Hospital to see a friend who has been laid up for a couple of weeks and is waiting for an op. She slipped on the ice. One of the terrible treacheries of winter.
And I’m thinking back to that New Year’s Day which I celebrated in Spain in 1970/71, when I had been sent to practise my Spanish. I think I have mentioned before that I stayed with an elderly Basque couple who welcomed me unquestioningly into their home. They lived in a beautiful flat in Madrid, in Calle Guzman el Bueno 95. They had no children of their own, and their adoptive niece, Ana, had gone to the US to learn English before I arrived. For a few days the only company I had was the maid, Luci, and then they invited another niece, Laurita to keep me company. We got on very well and had by then met some of her sister’s friends. So, it was New Year’s Eve and we were invited to a party. I was terribly nervous, and excited, especially as Tia Paquita was encouraging us to get dressed up etc. I was determined to take my camera but had run out of film.
I had to take my courage with both hands and go by myself to the corner shop, and buy one. Here I encountered the first surprise of the evening. The young man behind the counter was very polite and friendly and began asking me all sorts of questions about where I was from, because I looked so foreign! I explained I was British born of Polish parents – but he’d never heard of Poland. I tried to explain about the country between the Soviet Union and Germany but his geography was limited. Then he got embarrassed but asked me if I wouldn’t mind going to the back of the shop so he could show me to his grandmother. She apparently had never seen a foreigner before! Very strange. I went through the back curtain to the tiniest of rooms, very cluttered and dark and claustrophobic. Seated at the table, with the long heavy tablecloth hiding her feet which were probably perched on the little camilla or electric heater, was a very tiny old lady, with a crocheted lace jabot at her neck, peering at me intently. The young man explained who I was and I think she was as mystified as I was as to why I was there.
She wished me a happy new year and told me to enjoy my grapes. I didn’t have a clue what she meant and went back to the flat. I had my film and was ready to go.
What I hadn’t realised, however, was that we couldn’t go to the party till after midnight. The custom was that everyone stays home with their family until the bells of midnight stop chiming. While they are doing that everyone has to eat twelve grapes – inserting one for each chime – and wish everyone good luck. Uvas de suerte. Then you drink champagne. And hit the town!
It was great fun, and Laurita and I arrived st the party quite merry already. I remember having a really good time, and then going for breakfast of chocolate and churros. Delicious. We arrived home about 8 a.m. I have never done that before or since. We piled into bed exhausted. At nine a.m my mother rang to wish me a happy new year. She was not met with kindness, I’m afraid. Lack of sleep and too much fun had taken their toll! But it was a New Year’s Eve to remember!