New Year’s Eve, Albania — Anchorage

New Year’s Eve is not my holiday.  I’ve attended New Year celebrations in lots of places, but mostly as an observer, not a celebrant.  The forced gaiety makes me uncomfortable.  This year I observed New Year’s celebrations in Anchorage.  Each year the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) sponsors Anchorage “Fire and Ice.”  It includes a carved ice playground with rides made of ice that kids can ride, music, entertainment and, at 8 PM a fireworks display, early so families with kids can celebrate and then the brothers can put a wrap on the celebration and get to the serious parties that follow. 

The theme this year was “NYC in ANC”, with the fireworks at midnight, New York time.  The ice carvings included the Chrysler Building, Statue of Liberty and ice panels of the New York Skyline as well as pivoting ice cups with I Love NY.  The ice is lit by professional electricians.  Huge blank ice blocks sit in the Town Square waiting for future carving into shapes that do not necessarily fit the New York theme.  They are being worked on now for unveiling at sunset on Sunday.

 

New Year’s eve my folks threw a party in which we watched the ball drop on Times Square and afterwards sang “Happy Days are Here Again.”  I’ve celebrated New Year in NYC twice, once on Times Square and once with Count Basie in the Riverboat Room.   Both times I was more an observer than a party guy.  I enjoyed them, but in my own way.  There was the New Year’s Eve with my folks and Suzi the second year we were married, we went to the Jade Fountain in suburban Paramus, New Jersey to dance to Maliloki Schwartz and his Royal Hawaiians.  It was the second time we danced to Schwartz in three days.  That’s another, longer story.  Suffice it to say this was a Jersey show band that hit every beat on the square.  Every song was in 4/4.  They spoke Jersey and wore Hawaiian shirts.  They took requests “We play what you say when you pay.”  Basie was better.

Back in Anchorage, following the fireworks we went to the KLEF party, a loud disco featuring music from the 70s, 80s and 90’s.  The DJ was not reading the crowd very well.  There was little 70s or 80s heavy metal.  I’ve always looked at Anchorage as a heavy metal kind of town.  But I enjoyed the costumes and antics.  The bar line went particularly slowly.  One woman bought her drink, danced to the end of the line.  The drink was done by the time she got back to the front, she bought another, boogied on down the line, to the end, just to work her way back AGAIN.

Two things that happened on New Year’s day 2014, listening to the Vienna New Year’s concert and eating Baklava with Kevin and Shannon, brought me back to two New Year’s celebrations where I really was a celebrant, Albania 20 years ago, when 1993 became 1994 and Albania two years after that.  Here are excerpts from my family letters for those two years.

 

New Year’s Eve, 1993:  We passed the New Year with Çasku and Nora.  At midnight we stood in their kitchen watching the fireworks over Skanderbeg Square, Çasku wiping the mist from our warm breath and coffee from the panes.  The water droplets and mist on the glass gave a fine distortion.  After three and a half months in Albania I am seeing the world differently and don’t know if it is only now that I’ve wiped the glass clear or if the mist has just formed.

Albanians pass the New Year with family or close friends.  At midnight the visits begin that will continue for two days.  The first person to enter a home in the New Year is an omen for that year.  If the guest is wealthy, (in Albania, any foreigner) you’ll have good fortune.  A man of marriageable age may mean a husband for a daughter.  Americans get lots of invitations for “just after midnight.”  At one flat we visited the party was going on in the stairwell.  When we arrived we were ushered into the flat.  THEN the other guests were allowed to come in.  We were the first across the threshold.

Tirana has a nice feel as groups of friends or families with small children, all dressed in their best, go from home to home.  Along the way they wish everyone a “gezuar vitin i ri” or “cheers for the New Year.”  The streets are busy, but quiet somehow.  Drivers respect the conversation of promenaders and refrain from using their horns.  We visited many homes and at each were given Raki, sweet coffee and baklava, the traditional new years’ treat.  There’s a variation of baklava called kadieve.  It has the same sweetness and nuts, but is made with a type of shredded wheat rather than the layers of thin filo pastry.  It’s delicious.

In the morning we went down to Syri and Vera’s flat and watched the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna.  Originally Suzi and I wanted to go to Vienna for this concert but couldn’t get tickets, (there was a 13 year waiting list).  It was good we stayed because we couldn’t have had a better time than we had with our Albanian friends celebrating the fall of the communications curtain, the end of isolation, watching something live, with all the rest of Europe and much of the world.

We had our traditional New Year afternoon feast at the home of Vjollça and her husband.  She’s an engineer at Radio Tirana and he’s a history professor.  We started with raki, had different pickled salads, with roast beef and potatoes, went on to turkey and ended the main courses with fresh lamb, so fresh that the skin of the lamb, which the husband had killed the evening before, was still hanging in the bathroom.  Brian was impressed.  We followed with spomonti, an Italian type of Champaign, cookies, fresh fruit, and, of course, baklava with sweet coffee. Vjollça invited some teenaged neighbors to join her teenagers so that Brian and Kevin would feel at home.  The kids danced in the front hall while the adults drank coffee and talked about history.

 

New Year’s Eve 1995:  On New Year’s Eve morning Tirana was alive in a way I’ve never seen it alive before.  The streets were packed, people were shooting off fireworks randomly and car horns answered each report.  It sounded like midnight at 10 AM.  The streets were packed with people shopping for last minute new year’s gifts.  Everyone was in a good mood.  Since bakeries and food stores will be closed for two days there is a rush there.  Kevin went out to get bread and brought back three loaves, hot from the oven.  In the crush of people his knee got pushed through the glass front of the bakery.  (He wasn’t hurt.)

Most people already have their turkeys so there are not so many on the street today.  Yesterday people staged “turkey fights” outside their apartments.  People hope to pay for the cost of their Turkeys by wagering on the winner.   I don’t know how people decide who the winner is.  Turkeys are considerably more docile than chickens and we did not see much “action.”  Turkey fights consist of a little head pecking after considerable prompting.   The loser gets eaten and the winner… gets eaten.

Shops usually close for dinner at 3:30 PM but today people were wrapping up at around 1:30, getting ready to prepare for the New Year celebration.  Brian and I went out for last minute necessities, wine, soft drinks, mineral water, fireworks, an electric socket so we could run the microwave and the hot plate at the same time, and a washer for the sink faucet.

We swept the house and received our first New Year’s well-wishers, our landlords Merkur and Tefta, and we had our first round of raki.  To prepare for the New Year, we fixed the faucet and plugged in the microwave and hot plate.  At 3 PM the power went out, all over the city.  Everyone was cooking their New Year’s turkey.  This is exactly what happens in Sitka every Thanksgiving.  We feel at home.  Now we await midnight eating a candle light dinner with fireworks shooting off from all the buildings around us and hopes for electricity for the new year.

Midnight: it sounds like a war zone.  From every third balcony, including ours, there are cascades of fireworks, sky rockets, Roman candles, sparklers, firecrackers, all on top of what the city is shooting off, and the car horns as well.  Someone is sounding a siren.  There is a lot of noise.  I’ve been in Times Square on New Year’s Eve, and this is more exciting.  The city is bright, you can see every brick in the buildings from the light of the fireworks.  And just in time for the New Year, the power is back on.  People are in every balcony and window; waving, singing, and popping Champaign corks and firecrackers.

Albania Photos updated, Dec. 2014

We went down to our neighbors’ (Syri and Vera) for a post-midnight toast and ended up singing American folk songs and watching TV.  They can get satellite TV from all over Europe and using the remote control watched replays of the celebrations in Paris, Berlin, Rome, Milan and other European cities.  What a thrill for a people so isolated for so long.  On Albanian TV there is folk music and satiric skits for the New Year.  There is a music bridge between skits with the word Gazur on the screen and an electronic theme song.  The song is “Take me out to the Ballgame.”

Happy New Year.

The pictures below are the first sunrise of 2014 reflecting off the bluffs and ice of Cook Inlet.

Most of the pictures are from Anchorage, this year.  I am scanning Albania slides but have not gotten to them all yet.  I have not even found the 1993 slides.  The two bread line slides are from 1995.

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