December 31, 2014, aboard an Emirates aircraft somewhere between Madrid and Dubai, I experienced my strangest and most unforgettable New Year’s Eve.
First of all, I was alone.
Well, not exactly.
I was smushed in an economy cabin with three hundred other people. Across the aisle to my left: a cute, wide-eyed, curly brown haired toddler. It must have been way past her bedtime. I tried to guess which language of babytalk she was happily babbling to her parents in. Was it Arabic? Seated next to me on my right: an elderly Chinese man who said one word- “Whiskey!” – to every flight attendant who passed by, until I started furtively gesturing at them to cut him off. In front of me: A row of twentysomethings, clearly friends, wearing giant glittering party hats and brandishing sparkling wands, chatting excitedly in Spanish and trying to see out the windows even though we were in the middle row.
But I wasn’t with family or friends, and that was odd. I felt like an observer, peeking into someone’s house, watching strangers’ New Year’s Eve festivities through a snow-frosted window.
Time zones were muddled in my mind as they always are on international flights. But I guessed the time in Madrid was approaching midnight, because the Spanish friends were adjusting their party hats and passing out plastic champagne flutes and noisemakers. How they managed to bring a bottle of bubbly on this plane I do not know. I guess they bought it at duty free.
The toddler giggled and bounced on her mother’s lap. The flight attendant and her cart glided slowly down the narrow aisle. The gentleman to my right called out, “Whiskey!” She told him her cart had only tea and coffee. He looked confused.
What time would it be in Dubai? Or in Morocco, my home of the moment? What about in Nairobi, where my fiance’s family was waiting for me? I thought for a brief instant, then gave up on the math. In the air, time is suspended. On a thirty hour trip spanning three continents- Tangier to Madrid to Dubai to Nairobi- it doesn’t matter what time it is. There’s nowhere I could possibly go other than this plane and where it’s headed, no appointments I could possibly make other than our projected landing time, and my only clock, my cell phone, is turned off anyway. Until the wheels touch the runway, there is no such thing as time.
Except on New Year’s Eve, when wherever you are, even cruising at an altitude of 30,000 feet, you are pressed with a need to know what time it is, down to the very second, and so you latch on to the nearest time zone and find a way to count.
Diez… nueve… ocho…
The Spanish friends were standing on their seats, leaning on each other, touching the ceiling of the plane for balance, standing in the aisles. A blonde girl was passing out green grapes- to her friends, to strangers, to everyone who would take them.
Midnight struck. Not in Dubai, or Nairobi, or Boston, or Tangier, and probably not even in whatever place we were currently flying over, but in Madrid, it was midnight, it was January first, 2015. The Spanish friends were popping grapes into their mouths. Twelve green grapes, one for each stroke of midnight, twelve grapes for twelve months of good luck. Champagne glasses were clinking, people were hugging and kissing, a stranger hugged me, the elderly Chinese man was filming the Spanish revelers with one hand and waving one of his empty mini bottles with the other, a wide grin across his face, the baby was laughing, people were dancing on the seats of the airplane, cheering, laughing, dancing in the aisles. Flight attendants were telling everyone to sit down. No one was listening.
I wished my fiance was there so we could kiss on the stroke of midnight-in-Madrid and share this moment. I wished my friends and family were there so we could dance on the airplane seats and laugh together and tell each other happy new year thousands of feet above the ground. But I was also somehow strangely content. There was something peaceful about looking through the figurative windows at this moment of happy reveling, sparkling hats, green grapes, and joyous disregard for the concerned flight attendants urging everyone to sit down.
At last, the pilot’s stern voice over the intercom put an end to the reveling, at least the dancing on seats part of it.
This year, I celebrated New Year’s Eve with friends, on the firm ground, six hours later than Madrid. But as we huddled together under umbrellas in Copley Square, too excited and full of good food and drink to care about the light drizzle, watching the glowing clock projected onto Boston Public Library, I had a bag of green grapes in my hand. Twelve grapes for twelve strokes of midnight. Twelve grapes for twelve months of prosperity, or at least, for the non-superstitious, twelve grapes to bring people together- whether friends in Boston or strangers on a plane somewhere between Madrid and Dubai- in a moment of newness and anticipation and hope.