Spanish New Year

One of the more intriguing contrasts between Australia and Spain is how the New Year is celebrated. Last year, I was in Portugal, so I wasn’t able to experience a genuine Spanish New Year. But this year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to spend the evening with a friend and his family at their home in Madrid…

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At the beginning of the evening, things tend to be pretty normal. You sit around with the other guests, enjoying dinner and a few drinks, in the lead up to the big event.

Ho hum.

But at 11:45p.m., the preparations start in earnest. See, in Spain (unlike any other place on earth!), when the clock strikes midnight, there is a particular ceremony to be followed, namely The Ritual of the Grapes. The Ritual goes as follows:- as the clock rings each of its twelve times, the assembled multitude are required to eat a grape. So, by the end of the twelve chimes, you should have eaten twelve grapes. Each grape equates to a month of good luck, so eat them all, and you’ll have a lucky year.

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Now, let me assure you, having twelve grapes in your mouth is not as easy as it may look, especially when the official clock is chiming away every couple of seconds. For this reason, some people elect to “make things easier” (i.e. cheat) by peeling the grapes and removing the seeds, so that they “go down smoothly.” Or, if you’re REALLY lazy, you can buy a little packet of grapes, seeds and skin removed, and all ready to go when the time comes.

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This is how you can buy your grapes in the supermarket.

Seriously, this thing is a SCIENCE.

For my first year with the grapes, I was determined to have the genuine experience, seeds, skin, and all. As the clock approached midnight, I arranged my grapes, and prepared for the countdown (hosted on TV by a man who appeared to have taken style tips from Count Dracula- seriously, who on earth wears a CAPE nowadays?- and his glamorous assistant).

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At the first chime of the clock…nothing happened. See, for some bizarre reason, the official New Year grape clock in the Puerta del Sol chimes four times as a kind of warm up lap, before starting the official countdown. This is a trap for the unwary! Hold back, and don’t start eating the grapes before the TV tells you to!

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The official clock in the Puerta del Sol.

When it’s the REAL countdown, twelve grapes appear on the TV screen, and, with each chime of the clock, you eat one of your previously prepared fruits. The problem, I discovered, is that you don’t really have time to chew, so instead of eating the grapes, it’s more a case of storing them in your cheeks until you have time to chew them and digest them properly.

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The whole thing is treated with the seriousness of a military campaign, and it was positively surreal to watch my friend’s dad, his sister, and his brother lined up on the sofa, eyes glued to the TV, and arms moving in unison to deposit the grapes in their respective receptacles on each strike of the clock.

Miraculously, I managed to insert all the grapes into my mouth without gagging/vomiting/choking/otherwise requiring medical intervention, which means that I ought to have avoided a year of bad luck. But whether this will extend to managing to avoid having to eat the grapes next New Year, I’m not too sure…

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Grapes 10-12- “You stop wishing, and concentrate on not choking.” If only this was a joke.

The portero

One of the most interesting things about Spain is that whilst it is incredibly modern in some respects (hello, superfast trains!), it is quaintly old fashioned in other ways. And nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of porteros

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A portero or portera is a type of doorman or doorwoman, who sits at the entrance to a building, typically an apartment block. They are not a concierge, because they don’t do things like making reservations for the guests or helping them with their luggage. And they’re not a security guard, either, because whilst they watch the doorway to the apartment block, they don’t prevent people from gaining entry.

So, you’re probably thinking, what exactly does a portero do? Very good question, to which I don’t know the answer, although my observations suggest the best response is “Not a lot.”

Case in point. The apartment block where I live has a portero. From what I can gather, his daily tasks are:

  1. Taking out and bringing in the rubbish bins;
  2. Putting the mail in the correct letterboxes;
  3. Sweeping and mopping the floor if it’s dirty;
  4. Watering the two pot plants in the foyer;
  5. Letting visitors and any repairpeople into the building;
  6. Acting as an informal and unofficial supplier of privileged local intelligence (in other words, gossiping).

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How long do these tasks take him? About 30 minutes is my guess, except for the last one, which can go on ALL DAY if you’re not careful. And yet the portero sits at his little desk for (wait for it) 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, doing pretty much nothing, except reading his book and playing on his iPad.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Talk about a good wicket (hello, Australian idiom! And hello, photo of Steve Waugh!).

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I’m not sure if the portero is paid a salary. I don’t think he is. But I know he is supplied with an apartment in the building. Said apartment has three bedrooms, and is exterior (so it’s nice and light), and would probably cost about 1,400 Euros a month to rent, so I guess this is a pretty good deal.

But I can’t help feeling that the days of porteros may very well be numbered. It simply doesn’t make economic sense to have a guy sitting in the building all day, doing virtually nothing.

And I’m still not certain if I feel incredibly jealous (Hey! I want to sit all day doing my own thing and being paid for it, complete with free apartment!) or incredibly sorry for him (Bloody hell, I would be bored out of my wits sitting in the apartment building all day, pretending to be busy, and I seriously don’t know how he lasts an hour, let alone a day!).

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But I’m glad I got to see this quaint spectacle, even if its days are well and truly numbered.