By Daniela Enriquez
Spending New Year’s Eve in the United States can be both an amazing and a disconcerting experience for someone who was born and raised in Italy and is used to answering the question, “What will you do for NYE?” as early as the first day of November. I have lived in Washington, D.C. for six years and my New Year’s Eve experiences have improved as my expectations have been lowered. That said, I don’t understate it when I say that my first New Years’ Eve in the U.S. was quite a cultural shock.
The year prior I was living in Israel and decided to spend the last night of December in Tel Aviv, where I attended some of the craziest – and borderline legal – parties of my life; not to talk about the fact that the temperature was around 30 degrees Celsius.
With that experience and expectation in mind, I started to dream about a NYE in the USA!
Shock #1 – New York! New York! My husband’s veto!
Forget about taking a trip to New York City to experience the craziness of Time Square. No east coast American would agree – and here I quote my husband and his American friends – “to spend an entire night freezing, stuck between a giant mass of people, only to wait for a small ball – that, by the way, you have almost no chance of seeing unless you arrive there nine hours or more in advance – to move slowly upward for 60 seconds.”
So I easily gave up on my Times Square dream, (how could you blame me after they described it as such a nightmare?) and got ready to spend this crazy night in Washington, D.C. going to a house party.
Shock #2 – The Red Underpants
One of the most important things to prepare before the last night of the year is … buying red underpants for the loved ones. Red is the color of love but, according to the “holy” code of Sicilian superstitions, it is also a lucky color; if you wear a pair of red underpants before midnight, you are going to have a very positive year. Pay attention though: you shouldn’t buy this precious item of clothing yourself and/or wear it before you dress up for the party. Someone should buy them for you as a gift and you should only start to wear them beginning around 10:00PM.
So I was pretty determined to find a pair of boxers that would make my husband’s year one of his best so far. I already knew that was not a very easy task: being Jewish, I always try to avoid Christmas themed lingerie. But I couldn’t have known that my goal, far from being a little bit difficult to reach, would here in the States ultimately become “mission impossible”! Whereas Victoria’s Secret was full of red items for women — the shape of some of which I had difficulties understanding — men’s red underpants were nowhere to be found.
There was only one way to solve this problem: I had to take advantage of my last resort and asked my mother to buy the appropriate underpants in Italy and send them to me in time for the celebration. That decision caused an unanticipated cultural shock among my American friends and family: a mother in law buying underpants for the son in law? Unheard of! Absurd!
Shock #3 – The Countdown (or, better: the lack of it)
Imagine this. We are at this party (quite a fun one, to be sure), it’s 11:45PM and nobody seems spiritually or practically prepared for the big moment, the exact second in which you are supposed to simultaneously pop the bottle, kiss everybody, and make an international phone call to your family to wish them happy new year (it doesn’t matter if you’ve already done the exact same thing six hours earlier, for “their” midnight).
All our American friends didn’t seem to notice the time, no TV was on to monitor the countdown, and my anxiety was growing higher and higher when my iPhone informed me it was 11:59PM. What happened in the next 60 seconds was beyond my belief. The great mass of people continued to chill out, with just a few of them making a toast and exchanging timid kisses.
Shock #4 – Lentils and Grapes
When we finally overcame the disappointment, and were past caring about looking totally awkward, a Spaniard friend who had joined us for the party joined me in deciding that we could not give up on what is the second most important thing for Southern Europeans: eating lentils (Italy) and 12 grapes (Spain) after midnight. For what reason? Money and good luck, of course!
So there we were, eating a cold can of lentil soup (too shy at that point to even ask for a microwave) and a total of 48 grapes in the middle of the room under the bewildered glances of about 30 Americans, and too tired at that point to even explain what we were doing.
Epilogue: My second to fifth NYEs!
Experience has taught me that New Years Eve for many Americans is not such an important day after all. So starting with my second year in D.C., I’ve gotten organized and carefully reserve a table in European style restaurants where one can at least have a decent 10-second-long countdown. I have postponed the lentils until the morning of the 1st (it’s important that you eat them within the first 24 hours of the year), and I buy red underpants in Italy whenever I go to visit my family, and keep them stored until the fateful night.
All that being said, I don’t complain anymore about the USA and its weird way of celebrating. If it’s true that I have to get used to the American way, it’s also true that by moving here I also get to celebrate Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and the Chinese New Year as well. Three NYEs a year … how’s that for a shock!