by Ember Hood
New Year’s Eve is probably the most glamorous holiday I can think of. Party dresses, champagne, sparklers – watching that huge ball of light slowly drop in Time Square. It’s about getting together with as many people as you possibly can, even if you’ve never met any of them before, and celebrating collectively that a new year is beginning. Most years I find a party or a group of good friends to go out with, wear my sparkly hat or silly glasses, have some champagne and toss some confetti. But in December of 2004 I found myself in a considerably more interesting situation.
I was twenty-two and putting off graduating from college by spending a year studying abroad in France. Wanting to take full advantage of my time in Europe, I decided to travel during our winter holiday from school, even though I had no travel companions. For the first leg of my journey, I spent the days leading up to Christmas in London, wandering the foggy streets and hunting down as many landmarks as I could. I snapped silly pictures of myself grinning like a chimpanzee in front of Big Ben and Tower Bridge.
Christmas day was a bittersweet affair, alone in my hotel room, flipping between the limited BBC channels and feasting on sandwiches and Coca Cola that I’d picked up the night before at a little shop down the street. A brief phone call home in a telephone booth (very red and very British) on the corner next to the hotel was the highlight of the day, getting to talk to my family for a few minutes before my over-priced phone card ran out. On the plus side, it was actually the first time I was able to sit through “Gone With the Wind” in its entirety.
The next leg of my journey was far less solitary. I headed up to Uppsala, Sweden to spend a few days with my favorite Swede in the world, my friend Ina, and her parents. They welcomed me with open arms, told me stories, made me real Swedish meat balls and mulled wine, and even took me to a bandy match (an amazing ice sport that seemed very much like hockey to me – but say that to a fan and you’ll get a dirty look!)
When my time in Sweden was up, I headed back to London for the least-anticipated portion of my trip – the sixteen hour layover in Stanstead airport outside of London on New Year’s Eve. Staying an extra night in Sweden and flying back to France on New Year’s Day or later would have cost at least 100 euros more. So, I packed a book and resigned myself to a very boring time. When we arrived in England, I found a suitably empty bank of chairs and settled in, propped my feet on my little wheeled bag and started to read.
It wasn’t long before my solitude was encroached upon. It turns out that airports are hubs of extremely interesting people. The first I encountered were two slightly-shabby and heavily-accented gentlemen who were standing near by, offering to help people find their terminal or carry their bags for tips. They had fair success until the foot traffic died down and they joined the rag-tag group that had begun forming around me.
Across from me sat an older Polish woman who seemed a little… well, off. She was so happy to be traveling down to Spain to see her boyfriend. She spoke of him fondly and showed off a stuffed bear he’d given her. Her happiness was the infectious joy you’d expect to find in a teenager.
An Italian man in a leather jacket and too-tight jeans sat at the end of the row, smoking cigarettes in that too-cool, European way. He spoke in broken English about his work, about missing his daughter. He lost me when he started to talk soccer with the two Brits, who I’m fairly certain lived in the airport.
I spent most of the evening playing the observer, eating vending machine food and drifting in and out of my book. But after a while I got sucked in and started to talk with them. I played cards with two Spanish girls on their way to Amsterdam. One of them didn’t speak any English so her friend translated for her. When the English-speaking girl wandered off to make a phone call, I had minor success in communicating with her friend by using French words and hoping they were similar in Spanish.
It was a far cry from the champagne and excitement I expect from a normal New Year’s Eve, but after a while I forgot that I was missing anything. I talked and laughed and listened to this odd little bunch of travelers from all over Europe. At midnight, the airport staff decided to play about 45 seconds of the most horrendous bag-pipe rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” over the loud speakers. We all laughed, probably because we’d forgotten we were counting down to a new year.
I never did get any sleep that night. Around 7 am, I wandered around until I found some coffee and pastries before I checked into my flight back to France. It was definitely the most bizarre holiday season, the farthest removed from traditions and family, that I’ve ever experienced. But it was also the most memorable one – a story I like to tell on New Year’s Eve now, while I drink my champagne and admire the cocktail dresses and party hats.