Unlike many of my friends, I find New Year’s Eve a very happy occasion and always want to do something very special.
I think this must be due to the fact that I spent many New Year’s eves in Madeira, the place to be on this occasion, and famous throughout the word for its New Year’s eve parties and above all for the amazing display of fireworks at midnight, as one year changes into another.
When I was a young child in Mozambique I don’t remember us celebrating New Year in particular. I think we went to bed – at least us children – before midnight waking up on the next morning to the New Year. Nothing much really. But then one year, when I was 7 or 8 we went to Madeira for a few days and there I had my first taste of what a real “réveillon” (as we say in Portuguese, even though this is very much a French word) was like.
I remember we dressed up and had dinner in the huge dining room of the hotel: the colours, the smells, the waiters in their impeccable white livery, the beautifully displayed food, the orchestra playing music…then before midnight everybody going to the terrace on the 9th floor and seeing in the distance the huge numbers of the year that was ending. Precisely at midnight the last number would change for the New Year and then the noise: the thunder of fireworks accompanied by the sirens of the several cruise ships that had left port and were waiting to greet the New Year just off Funchal bay. Funchal, the capital city of Madeira is built like an amphitheatre so with all the lights it always looks like a giant nativity scene. And, amidst all the noise and the lights, we all had a glass of champagne in our hand – well, the adults had, I’m positive – and everyone was kissing and hugging each other and wishing Happy New Year. Then we just stared at the fireworks doing “ahs” and “ohs” as each was more spectacular than the previous one, and when it all ended we went downstairs to the dining room for the party was about to continue. People danced to the sound of the orchestra and I was even invited to dance by a boy my age! I felt so shy that I said no, and my family laughed at me and said I was silly, but I felt too ashamed to dance!
We repeated this in the following years and then our life turned upside down due to the revolution in Portugal and the independence of Mozambique. The last New Year’s Eve before leaving Mozambique was spent in Durban, South Africa, also in a great party at a very good hotel but already we could feel the mantle of sadness sweeping over our lives. Then we spent several New Year’s eves in Lisbon, at home, as I was still young to go out.
Then as a teenager I spent this night in different ways: staying with friends, singing until the early hours of the morning; once I spent it in Madrid with my South African cousins who had come over for Christmas and we all went to the Puertas del Sol – it was different, but I’m not really one for New Year’s Eve on the street with tons of people around me.
And then as I turned 20 came the first year when I returned to Madeira for this special occasion and it was like coming home.
I arrived on the 26th to stay at my friend Luisa’s. We met at school in Mozambique and she went to live in Madeira after the independence as her family originated from there. I was going to stay for a little more than a week but I carried such a voluminous suitcase that it didn’t fit in her father’s Mini luggage compartment. After having to find a rope to tie the door of the compartment (it had to be left partially open) her father drove us through the “long winding road” that led to their house at Funchal, with me glancing worriedly back from time to time to check if my precious clothes and accessories were still there…
The atmosphere in Funchal was that of a continuous celebration. The city was full of beautiful decorations, at night the lights were incredible, one could hear Christmas songs on the streets, people looked happy, talking animatedly with each other in each colourful corner…then each night there was some party, some special occasion, some gathering of friends…and one could feel the tension building up for THE night…we girls never stopped talking about what we were going to wear, what “réveillon” party we’d be going to – as there were so many, and some were more famous than others.
And when the special night came it fulfilled every expectation, or even exceeded them. We had dinner at Luisa’s home, a large table with her parents, brother and sister, me and a friend of her brother who was also spending the holidays. Then we all went up the hill to a friend’s house at Santo António, a higher part of the city from where one could see the fire from a good position (the best places to see the fireworks are either from the sea, on a ship, or from a high location around the city). The display of firework was splendid and so was our mood as we drank the champagne kindly supplied by our friend’s father. After the fireworks we came down to the city and went to the party at Casino Park Hotel, where the band playing was that of Madeira’s Casino night club. They were an incredible band and played all the great songs – we danced until 7 am, until the band stopped. At the party we had met with a group of friends of Luisa’s and they were great company. After 7 we all climbed into some cars and went up again, to Pico dos Barcelos (a mountain near Funchal) – the traditional place to see the rising of the sun. There we stayed, listening to loud music and singing and laughing, until the sun rose over the mountains on the first day of the year. Then we went down again to “Moinho”, a place where we could have breakfast, and heartily ate the traditional steak sandwiches (“pregos”) done with the traditional Madeira bread (“bolo do caco”).
Then, after a long night, tired but happy, we went home at 10 am with our shoes in our hands and silently crept into bed so as not to wake Luisas’s parents who had retired somewhat earlier. And when we woke up it was around 6 pm and we ate a little and went down to the city centre for a stroll…
So many memories of those fantastic New Year’s Eves. In the following years I kept coming back and I would greet every year with the same enthusiasm, surrounded by fireworks and joyous people. Those were, definitely, unforgettable years.
Due to circumstances of life I stopped going to Madeira for New Year’s Eve. I finished University, started working, then married, had children…and wherever I would be on that night I would always remember Madeira and feel nostalgic and wish I’d be there. There’s no place I’d rather be on New Year’s Eve than Madeira, there’s no denying it.
Then, some years ago, I went back there again after Christmas. It was the year of my separation and again I went to stay with my dear friend Luisa (now at her own house, of course, not her parents’). I took my two boys with me, then aged 11 and 8. Again my friend was waiting for me at the airport, and we were again so happy to be together. A friendship of a lifetime. During the days that followed, the same emotions and excitement of so many years ago came back and I enjoyed every minute of it. The boys were thrilled too; after all it was their first time. On New Year’s Eve we again had dinner at home (at Luisa’s mother) with her brother and sister and respective families and then we boarded a boat where we would have our New Year’s Eve party. The boat sailed at 11 and near midnight we all went on deck with a glass of champagne in our hands. The weather was good – there is a tradition that says that, however bad the weather may be on the 31st of December in Funchal, at midnight it never rains!. At midnight again we saw the numbers changing, heard the deafening sound of the sirens (including our own boat’s, of course) and saw the magnificent display of fireworks. The boys were staring at the sky as if they could not believe their eyes – it was simply incredible, and I was happy, so happy – it felt as if I had come home, after so many years away.
Two years after I went back and again had the same happy feeling of being in the right place at the right time. And now, for, some time, I haven’t been back. But every year, like yesterday, wherever I am, as I’m preparing for dinner or drinking champagne and exchanging best wishes at midnight, I know in my heart that Madeira is the place I would like to be at that precise moment, and that New Year’s eve for me means staring at the sky to see the fireworks, while listening to the ships sirens and feeling that sense of utterly belonging to that place.
This year again it could not be. But I know I’ll be back for more New Year’s Eve in my favourite place in the world, with my lifelong friend. I’m certain of it.
Who knows – maybe next year.