Monday, January 31, 2011


I am a New Year’s baby.  Possibly THE New Year’s baby.  Typically, companies shower gifts on the state’s first baby of the year.  You can imagine how eager I was to claim that new Amana washer/dryer!  Because my dad was a doctor at the hospital, however, to avoid any suspicion that he might have induced his wife’s labor in order to win the prizes, I wasn’t accorded the honor.  Despite being physically present for the event, I’m unable to report any details.

There are benefits and drawbacks to being born on January 1st befitting its singularity among holidays.  It is an easy to remember date, unconnected to a historical event or notable person, and arbitrarily scheduled.  Meteorologically, it ranks below the summer solstice, yet it is celebrated virtually world-wide.  And I’ve made it a point to travel to countries famous for their peculiar ways of celebrating it.

If you like iguanas or unusual parties, head to Ecuador.  Throughout the cities, giant straw effigies of politicians and international celebrities are set on fire while men dressed either as infants or as old women run around and through the flames.  Drinking to excess at the party is expected.  As are fireworks.

Appropriately for a country tucked between others - Sicily, Tunisia, Greece and Libya – Malta’s New Year’s eve is party central, a Woodstock fueled by music, abetted by alcohol and with fireworks as hallucinogens.  You just have to love the people in a country who have given their name to a small dog. 

One October, heading to Mumbai at night, our plane was engulfed by explosions and blinding lights.   Panic was averted when the pilot explained that Indians are celebrating Diwali, their New Year (which unhelpfully occurs sometime between mid-October and mid-November.)  They set off copious amounts of fireworks, possibly their biggest import from China.  We passengers set off for drinking to be followed by more drinking.

As universal as New Year’s is, so, too, is accompanying it with drinking and fireworks, both universal languages.

Speaking of China, I spent one birthday there in a hospital bed, enlivened by a quartet of nurses singing “Happy Birthday.”  I think that’s what they were singing.  They spoke no English and sang phonetically.  I barely recognized the tune amid the cacophony of fireworks and firecrackers outside.  I petitioned them to pour Champagne into my IV drip (which was basically sugar water anyway.)  I doubt they doused me with alcohol, but whatever concoction they administered made for a memorably enjoyable birthday present.

Put Capetown, South Africa on your New Year’s to-go list.  After a night of typical big city revelry (the usual: alcohol and fireworks), people pour into the city squares.  Around 7:00am tribesmen from the surrounding areas arrive, each tribe dancing its idiosyncratic dances.  Magically, the revelry eradicates any hangover traces.  And because it’s summer there, people head to the beaches to unwind in the sun.

Warm weather’s nice.  If celebrating outside in the cold is more to your liking, then your best friend is alcohol – a vasodilator that helps your body generate heat.  (Remember Saint Bernards carry caskets of brandy, not cocoa.)  And if vodka is more to your liking than Champagne, hit Budapest, Hungary.  Everybody gets a bottle and swigs liberally while strolling and singing on the Danube, all freezing night.  Food-wise, cold pork in aspic is nice, once you scrape off the aspic.

So, I hear you ask, is there any place that doesn’t celebrate alcohol, excuse me, I mean New Year’s?  Strangely enough, I’m living in it.  Los Angeles.  Here the car is a local deity.  Taxis are more of a curiosity than convenience and “mass transit” refers to sitting in traffic on the 405 (or the 10, the 101, the 605, the 705, the 105, or just the plain old 5) People rely on cars. Yet to drink and drive is a venal sin.  It is the quietest night of the year.  Many a midnight passed in an empty restaurant.  Luckily, we have 364 nights of jamboree to compensate.

Dry Los Angeles is the opposite from what purportedly is one of the world’s great all-night party towns: the Philippines.  Along with the all-night dancing, drinking and fireworks are special dinners consisting of 12 different fruits signifying the 12 months.  I wish I could attest to the festivities.  When I was there two American women were kidnapped from my hotel and bombs were detonated in shopping malls across the street.  Now, one common sense travel rule if you’re going off the beaten path is: have an exit strategy.  Since kidnappers split their take with the police, venturing out was out of the question.

So I don’t know whether reports of Philippine bacchanalia are true.  Please don’t disabuse my notion that they are.  After all, I live in LA where if the fiction is better than the truth…