Youth is when you're allowed to stay up late on New Year's Eve. Middle age is when you're forced to. That’s a quote from someone else, obviously, as we’ve been frolicking through the end of 2017, even if we didn’t party until dawn like we once did.
Okay, it wasn’t every year!
A new year brings its own problems, chief of which for me is remembering to write 2018, not 2017, when filling in the date on official forms. I usually get it right by mid-February. Marigold can still be observed pondering, pen in hand, as late as next August. As we lack any form of structure or routine in our lives – by design – we often wonder what day it is, so getting the year right is a minor matter.
Marigold has made the same ‘new year’s resolution’ for many years now – to be kind and helpful. Annoyingly for those of us who lack perfection, she is both kind and helpful anyway. Many years ago, I made a New Year's resolution to never make New Year's resolutions. Unsurprisingly, it's been the only resolution I've ever kept!
Alfred Tennyson wrote:
‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.’
That’s not bad, is it? It even rhymes.
P. J. O’Rourke’s contribution was rather more prosaic. He observed:
‘The proper behaviour all through the holiday season is to be drunk. The drunkenness culminates on New Years’ Eve, when you get so drunk you kiss the person you’re married to.’
We observed many disciples of Mister O’Rourke in Nerja where we spent New Year’s Eve. Not remotely unpleasant, but most certainly ‘well oiled’ in honour of the occasion.
We spent a couple of New Year’s Eves amongst the throngs around the Balcon de Europa in Nerja back in the day when we lived in the area full time and it was good to be back. When it comes to New Year’s Eve, we’ve ‘done’ Trafalgar Square, we’ve ‘done’ Edinburgh, we’ve ‘done’ Sydney Harbour and the Balcon is just as manic, jolly and memorable as any, just on a smaller scale.
We arrived early, hoping to beat the crowds – a vain hope – and decided we’d go for a drink just off the main square first. We even got a seat. On the next table were three English matrons, all decked out in their best sparkly outfits. ‘Didn’t realise the cruise ships stopped off here,’ Marigold murmured. Even the stone deaf, I’m not quite there yet, would have overheard every word they said.
Here’s a sample.
‘What did Joe get you for Christmas?’
‘A sparkly toilet seat.’
‘I know. It’s not even a nice one. Told him there’s no way I’m parking my bum on that. He looked disappointed.’
At least half the people in the bar understood spoken English well enough to laugh out loud.
One more, on the subject of ‘what are the best and worse ways to die’ – Yes, it was an odd subject for New Year’s Eve - ‘The worst way to die has got to be in a house fire. If I smelled smoke and knew the house was on fire, I’d commit suicide.’
‘How would you do it, though, commit suicide?’
‘No idea, but I’d definitely do it.’
We finished our drinks and left them to it. At this point I realised I had left my phone in the hotel room, so no photos would be forthcoming.
The local Town Hall have pulled out all the stops this year and there are free goodie bags on offer containing Champagne and grapes. They even offered silly hats. Before you all book in for next year, it’s Spanish Cava, not ‘real’ Champagne and it’s only a small bottle. The idea is to eat a grape and take a sip of champagne with each chime of midnight and if you manage it, then it is supposed to bring you luck for the coming year. We’d both tried and failed miserably in the past but this time I came armed with a secret weapon, my own seedless grapes.
There’s a live band there performing their medley of hits. Pretty dreadful in my view and largely ignored by the crowd despite the noise. Spanish people don’t mind noise; they just shout even louder. There’s also a man on a small stage shouting something or other, very loudly, but again being largely ignored. Hey, it’s his one night i the year in the spotlight and he’s milking every moment. As the band decide they may as well stop playing and start drinking, the Nerva Council Glee Club President sees his moment. Marigold Says he’s speaking in tongues while I decide he’s a Tourette’s sufferer. No idea who is right but every vein on his forehead is standing out by now and he’s still only warming up.
As the excitement of the man on the dais reached fever pitch, the bell in the Iglesia El Salvador struck the first peel of the midnight dozen. I popped in a grape, took a swig of Cava and was pretty confident of success. As the fifth peel rang out, I realised my seedless grapes were at least half as big again as the seeded variety and took grape chomping to a whole new level. By the seventh ring I was swallowing grapes whole and by the tenth ring I was a spluttering wreck, admitting defeat. Marigold, even after chewing down a thousand pips failed as well. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
The grape swallowing tradition goes back at least 100 years or so, presumably when there was a vast surplus in the grape harvest and many regions of Spain now observe the tradition. There’s much kissing going on, I find I am far more attractive to complete strangers than I’d imagined and Marigold is practically submerged by a scrum of well wishers. There’s even more alcohol to be drunk as the New Year begins and the firework show, reflected in the sea for added effect, is magnificent.
Our Christmas may have been low key, but New Year certainly made up for it. As we’re in Spain, the main event, the Festival of the Three Kings, is still to come. How will they all cope? We love the pageantry of Spain and the way they involve the entire family, babes in arms to grannies in wheelchairs, in every aspect of the holiday season. We’ve often talked about the different ways in which Christmas and New Year differs from England and, indeed from the many Christmases we spent in France where in the days leading up to Christmas we received many visitors. Even though our first French house was so remote we never saw a bin man in all the years we were there, they still called to say ‘bonjour,’ as it’s Christmas tip time.
Then there’s the postman who calls at the door to hand deliver a calendar. Always tatty with washed out photos of kittens in a basket. He’s a lovely man, always gives a toot on his horn as he puts our post in the box, but even so, the calendar he’s come to sell us isn’t the best value aspect of Christmas. We get another calendar, one year it was the same as that from the postman, from the firemen. Les Pompiers, the French fire service, are the ultimate first responders if there’s a house fire, a road accident or just about any emergency. The ambulance, the police, they’re all on the way where necessary, but the firemen are always first on the scene. When we moved to the Pyrenees, we realised they do mountain rescue too. Another pricey calendar, another wine bottle opened, ten minutes chat and away they go for another year. When we left France, we missed it. Possibly the only ritual of Christmas we do miss. We don’t decorate a tree as we wander around so much, don’t get cards for the same reason and we don’t miss any of that. Especially those cards given out by work colleagues which require another in response. In one of my more ungracious moments I remember asking someone after being handed my twentieth Christmas card of the day whether they were only handing out cards because as work colleagues we were not worth a stamp. Scrooge was a much maligned character and had some very good ideas.
Despite us having talked repeatedly about going to a Verdiales Festival this year, usually on December 28th which is also the day of Santos Inocentes, holy innocents, we forgot all about it. Shame as we’ve been before and loved it. Oh well, maybe next year.
December 28th is a religious holiday in all Spanish speaking countries. It’s also the day for practical jokes similar to those on April Fool’s Day in Britain. Santos Inocentes originates from the killing of children by King Herod around the time of the birth of Jesus, hence the name Holy Innocents as they were young and innocent. Although it stems from a religious festival on the Catholic calendar, nowadays as with so much surrounding the Christmas period the religious meaning has almost been forgotten and it is far more widely known as a day of pranks and practical jokes.
We regard every day as April Fool’s Day, so we don’t give December 28th any particular attention, but have enjoyed several Festivals de Verdiales. The best are in the Malaga area, just along the road from where we’re staying, but we forgot, plain and simple.
The best of the festivals used to be on La Venta de Tunel just outside Malaga where bands of musicians compete to prove they can outlast the opposition in longevity and sheer volume. It’s all a bit mad, but gloriously so. I’ve heard it didn’t take place there this year anyway, but there would have been plenty more to choose from.
Verdiales is a form of flamenco that originated in the Los Verdiales olive-growing region and the name comes from a specific type of olive grown in the area around Malaga. We used to have fifty or so Verdiales olive trees on our land which we allowed our neighbour to harvest in return for enough olive oil to last us all year. An olive harvest can be fairly lucrative, but our trees were mostly at the bottom of a very steep hillside and we much preferred to let our neighbour harvest the olives as it’s a job best left to the experts. Not to mention being absolutely backbreaking. Not that that was a factor of course!
Verdiales music is lively, very lively, and intended for dancing. It's, apparently, one of the earliest forms of fandango, one of my favourite Spanish words, possibly dating back to the time of Bohemian Rhapsody. The players wear a variety of odd costumes and in some ways it’s like very, very spirited Morris Dancing, but much better! We’ve seen and heard a variation of Verdiales in several areas of Morocco and presumably like so much else in Andalucia the fandango originated there.
A Spanish friend, who we last saw well past midnight last night when he was rather the worse for wear, has just turned up and told me my failure to down a dozen grapes at midnight doesn’t necessarily mean 2018 will be wretched. I get credited with a month of good fortune for every grape so I’ll be okay until the end of October. Good news.
I apologised to my friend for my ignorance and he replied, ‘El burro sabe mas que tu’ which translates, roughly, as ‘A donkey knows more than you.’ I shall have to reassess the status of my ‘friends,’ it appears!
This same ‘friend’ tells me, ‘me gusta pedo,’ the most literal translation of which would be, ‘I like to fart,’ but, fortunately, I understand a few examples of colloquial Spanish vulgarity and understand he means to say he likes to get drunk. To fart or to be plastered, the meaning is in the context.
Should you ever wish to announce at a dinner party, for instance, in Spain, that ‘I have just passed wind,’ simply say, ‘me acabo de tirar un pedo.’
There, hope that’s helpful next time you’re dining with the Spanish Ambassador. No need to thank me.
On the way back, we call at one of our favourite places, the charming, unspoilt and virtually tourist free fishing village, Isleta del Moro, which sounds as if it should be an island, but isn’t. It’s virtually surrounded by the sea, however and there are always fishermen mending nets on the beach, as there are today. They don’t even look hung over - the fishermen, not the nets. As the only other sober people in Spain we still feel virtuous. There’s a decent beach here, a great big rock, a few small whitewashed houses, a very good fish restaurant in the harbour and not much else. Which is why we like it.
We walked along the (not very long) Playa de los Escullos with the two rocks of the Isleta At the far end? It was from this spot that Philip II and his armada sailed off to fight the Turks in the 16th century. Scarcely credible, looking at this tiny beach next to a small fishing village today.
Last time we were here there were a few people selling art and jewellery, of the ethnic style favoured by Marigold, and one girl is here again with ear rings galore on offer. She remembers Marigold, most people do, and they are soon chatting away. A man walks past with a rubber bucket absolutely crammed with fish, straight from the sea, and goes into the back door of the restaurant, ready to be served for lunch. Can’t get any fresher than that.