Saturday, January 1, 2011

S Novim Godom! Or, Happy New Year!

By the time New Year’s Eve in Moscow rolled around, I had been specifically warned—twice—that Red Square was no place for a solo, female traveler to be hanging around at midnight.  I knew that Russia had experienced some rioting and unrest in the preceding weeks, and there remained a distinct possibility that additional trouble could erupt on what was already certain to be a raucous night in Moscow.  It could be dangerous, I was told, for a foreigner trying to make her way home alone in the wee hours of post-New Year’s celebrations.  

I am one who likes to be in the middle of things, and I knew it would pain me to miss one of the world’s most fantastic New Year’s celebrations when I just happened to be in town, and in striking distance no less.  But I’m also not the kind of stupid that would have me ignoring thoughtful warnings like the ones I had received, so I resigned myself to staying put in the hostel, where I planned to ring in the new year by painting my nails and watching The Last Holiday, starring Queen Latifah, streamed over my computer.

I entered the hostel’s kitchen around 7:00 p.m. to cook up a bowl of New Year’s Eve ramen noodles and found Olga, the hostel administrator, along with several new faces, sitting around the table chopping, peeling, and dicing mounds of hard-boiled eggs, pickles, potatoes, crab sticks, cheese, ham, sausage, cucumbers, and tomatoes.   I recognized these ingredients, and knew that eventually they would be mixed with gobs of mayonnaise to form traditional Russian salads, including the classic and delicious “Olivier.”  Olga was preparing her own specialty—corn and crab salad—and invited me to come enjoy the feast later in the evening when even more people were expected.  I gratefully accepted and retreated to my room to await the start of this pleasant New Year’s Eve development.

A little before 11:00 p.m., Olga summoned me to the common room where a now-expanded group was gathering to say goodbye to 2010.  The kitchen table, which had been moved in and set for a dozen or so people, now held a lavish, traditional Russian holiday spread, including enough vodka, champagne, and whiskey to take us through to Easter.  We filled our glasses and stood while one of the guests led us in a Russian New Year’s toast.  I didn’t understand a word, but caught the main gist as we clinked glasses and then dug in.  

Then something odd happened.  I had just taken my first bite of Olga’s rather scrumptious crab salad when several members of the group hopped up from the table and began to bundle up in coats and scarves as if to go out.  Sensing my confusion at what appeared to be an unusually premature ending to the party, Olga explained that the group planned to run down to Red Square to hear President Medvedev’s speech and welcome the New Year.  She suggested that I go along.

Remembering the warnings, I initially hesitated as a barrage of what-ifs ran through my mind:  what if I get separated from the group?  what if they don’t come back until morning?  what if I end up alone?  what if I can’t find my way home?  And so on.  Olga, who I’ve begun to suspect is a mind reader, soothed my silent fears by saying, “Don't worry, they will take care of you and will be returning here in an hour.”  In an instant I knew that if I did not immediately put on my shoes and grab my camera, come midnight I'd be having serious regrets.

The next thing I knew, we were outside and racing down Bolshaya Ordynka toward the celebration.  A flurry of snow was falling over the already-icy sidewalks, and I had begun to slip a bit when Andre, a tall and quite-striking young Russian from Samara, gripped me from behind and, catching up to my side, placed my arm in his.  We walked this way together for the balance of the brisk, 15-minute walk to the square, and I thought to myself that indeed Olga was a woman of her word; I was being taken care of quite nicely.

We arrived and passed through metal detectors, and that’s when I caught my first, long glimpse of the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral that many of us picture in our minds when we think of Moscow.  Red Square was packed with throngs of dressed-up revelers eager to welcome the New Year, and I could feel the excitement build as people streamed in to observe Russia’s most celebrated holiday.

We made our way closer to the stage and soon the crowd turned its focus to the giant jumbotron, on which President Medvedev appeared just before midnight to wish his fellow countrymen a Happy New Year.  We held our hands in the air as the final countdown began in Russian — 5, 4, 3, 2, 1! — and then, in turn, each of my new friends kissed my cheek and embraced me warmly as we exchanged "Happy New Year" and "S Novim Godom" wishes in our respective languages. Immediately after, a spectacular fireworks display let loose in the sky and, with the help of live entertainment on stage, the Red Square morphed into a giant, outdoor dance party.  We rocked and swayed to Russian rock music, and from time to time, grabbed hands with total strangers and circle-danced into the new year.  

Some time later, with champagne drunk, sparklers burnt, and temperature quickly dropping, we agreed it was time to head back to the hostel.  Upon our return, Olga greeted me at the door and asked, “how did you like our Russian New Year celebration?”  I told her—quite sincerely—that it was the most exciting New Year’s Eve I had ever spent.  To this she responded with a proud, Russian smile that aptly punctuated the end of a night I will not soon forget.