New Year’s Eve in the part of the world I grew up in was the biggest night of the year. Bigger than your birthday, bigger than Christmas, bigger than the Day of the Republic. It was the night when girls in jeans transformed into princesses and gawky boys became dapper gentlemen dressed in designer suits and ties. It was the night of stiletto heels daring the icy streets, while the pale arms twisted around their date’s cloth covered elbows for necessary support. It was the night when no one minded snowflakes dancing around in the halos of the streetlamps and when the excitement ran as high as before a debutante’s ball.
While everyone searched for their assigned seats in the restaurant, the band played easy listening music. The waiters in starched white shirts and black vests circled around offering aperitifs. The girls reached for them with shaky hands and the boys pretended to be suave and snatched them off the trays briskly. When the dining room filled up, the platters with appetizers were placed on the tables and the band switched to slow, ballroom music. The first couples on the dance floor braved the scrutiny of hundreds of eyes and gingerly followed the melody, locking eyes for encouragement.
In no time the dance floor was a sea of undulating bodies displaying every move learned at a dance class the previous Fall. When the entrees arrived, the music switched to rock, and the more familiar rhythm allowed everyone to loosen up and embrace the moves with abandon. An occasional reach for the wine glass, a stolen bite easily devoured, while the dance floor became ever more crowded.
As midnight approached, the ties were straightened, the hair was puffed up and the dresses pressed down, awaiting the inevitable celebratory photo shoots. The waiters passed the flutes filled with champagne, and the bubbles matched the sparkle in young, excited eyes. The countdown, the darkened room, the glint of glass, the anticipation of something monumental. When the hands on the clock met and marked the beginning of another year, the champagne glasses touched each other, the lips touched each other, the arms entwined, while the band eased into the first notes of the traditional Viennese waltz, The Blue Danube.
For several minutes, while the waltz lasted, every girl felt like a Cinderella embraced by her prince and whisked off into a fairy tale, and every boy saw himself as a prince, completely capable of winning a woman of his dreams. The first moments of the new year were indeed magical, bringing on its wings the promises of wishes fulfilled.
As the rigorous notes of Strauss ebbed, the band played slow tunes, allowing the couples to rest, but still stay together. As more food appeared and more alcohol was poured, laughter became bolder and touches more daring. With the renewed energy the music shifted to Serbian folk tunes and the dance floor again filled with young bodies holding hands, forming a chain that kept weaving around and around following an ever increasing beat. More music, more dancing, more wine, smiles plastered on faces by default, the palpable energy of the young, hour after hour, in an incessant flow, until the dawn, when the band gave up and called it a night.
The feet were sore in high heels, the mascara smudged, the ties askew and untied, but the eyes continued to sparkle while the batches of young people exited the restaurant and dared the freezing streets swarmed by lacy snowflakes. The early morning resonated in stifled giggles and hushed up laughter. The arms went unabashedly around the shoulders and waists, strengthened by the night left behind, buoyed by the hope of youth, still reeling from the wine and adrenaline brought on by the night of excitement.
But every night has its end. Deposited at the gate, the girls made shushing faces as they entered their homes, sending air kisses to the disheveled boys. Tomorrow morning they would awake, rubbing their tired eyes, just before noon, ready to jump up and scurry downstairs to listen to the Vienna Boys’ Choir and watch beautiful dancers gliding effortlessly across the shiny floors of an imperial Viennese ball room, ushering in the New Year with more Strauss.
We did not have a traditional New Year’s Day breakfast meal when I was a teen in Serbia. The only thing I remember of January 1st was the Viennese concert at noon, and I made sure not to miss it, no matter how late I arrived home from my Cinderella night. But I know that the first breakfast of the year needs to be special, indulgent, and a bit sinful, a hint of days to come.
If you have a carton of eggnog in your fridge (and I cannot imagine anyone not having it in late December), use some of it to make the French toast for the New Year’s. It is just indulgent and rich enough to make me smile and imagine for a moment that I am eighteen again, luxuriating at the kitchen table, while rubbing my tired feet and humming a waltz.
Happy New Year!
EGGNOG FRENCH TOAST
- 4 eggs
- ½ eggnog
- 2 Tbsp bourbon
- a pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 tsp butter (optional)
- 8 pieces of stale French bread
- powder sugar
Whisk the eggs, eggnog, bourbon, and nutmeg until well blended. Heat the griddle on medium heat and add butter if it is not non-stick. Dip the bread into the mixture on both sides and place onto the griddle, four pieces at the time. When nicely brown, flip to the other side and let it brown.
Serve sprinkled with powdered sugar.