PARIS (AP) — Glittering fireworks exploded on Sunday as revelers in Australia and Asia welcomed 2012 and others around the world looked forward to bidding a weary adieu to a year marred by natural disasters and economic turmoil.
Some in Europe were already tamping down their hopes for a year that promises more financial pain.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel set the tone for a continent hammered by an unprecedented economic crisis: She warned in her New Year’s message that despite her country’s comparatively stable economic situation next year will be more difficult than 2011.
In Spain, which on Friday unveiled a brand new batch of austerity measures that include surprise income and property tax hikes, 53-year-old Joaquin Cabina, was going to celebrate at home with his wife and sons — but otherwise didn’t feel he had much to look forward to.
“The government has just hit us with higher taxes and says it’s going to cut spending,” he Madrid car mechanic said. “What I see is that prices are going up and all I hope for is to keep working and for my family to enjoy good health.”
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s New Year’s greetings came mixed with sarcasm toward those protesting his 12 years in power and his plans to return to the presidency for at least six more years.
Putin on Saturday used crude sexual innuendo to wish well-being and prosperity “to all our citizens regardless of their political persuasion, including those who sympathize with leftist forces and those situated on the right, below, above, however you like.” In Russian, the sexual innuendo was clear.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom. In Sydney more than 1.5 million people crowded onto yachts and along the shores of the city’s harbor to watch the shimmering pyrotechnic display designed around the theme “Time to Dream” — a nod to the eagerness many felt in moving forward after the rough year.
“It’s about giving people the opportunity to dream of the year ahead and that hopefully it is a bit better than the year we’ve had,” said Aneurin Coffey, producer of Sydney’s New Year’s festivities.
Some of the fireworks formed the shape of clouds — “Because every cloud has a silver lining,” Coffey said. Colorful lights beamed onto the center of the bridge formed an “endless rainbow” symbolizing hope.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who starts his second term on New Year’s Day, said he wants to help ensure and sustain the moves toward democracy that protesters sought in the Arab Spring.
The mood was festive in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, where, for once, revelers were the first in the world to welcome the new year, rather than the last.
Samoa and neighboring Tokelau hopped across the international date line at midnight on Thursday, skipping Friday and moving instantly to Saturday. The time-jump revelry that began at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 31 spilled into the night.
Samoa and Tokelau lie near the date line that zigzags vertically through the Pacific Ocean, and both sets of islands decided to realign themselves this year from the Americas side of the line to the Asia side, to be more in tune with key trading partners.
For Japan, 2011 was the year the nation was struck by a giant tsunami and earthquake that left an entire coastline destroyed, nearly 20,000 people dead or missing and the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in meltdown.
“For me, the biggest thing that defined this year was the disaster in March,” said Miku Sano, 28, a nursing student in Fukushima city. “Honestly, I didn’t know what to say to these people, who had to fight sickness while living in fear about ever being able to go back home. The radiation levels in the city of Fukushima, where I live, are definitely not low, and we don’t know how that is going to affect our health in the future.”
New York’s Times Square was awash in hopeful sentiments as it prepared to welcome hordes of New Year’s Eve revelers.
“2012 is going to be a better year. It has to be,” said Fred Franke, 53, who was visiting the city with his family even after losing his job in military logistics this month at a Honeywell International division in Jacksonville, Florida.
Authorities in Berlin expected a million revelers to gather around the city’s landmark Brandenburg Gate for a massive party complete with live performances from the Scorpions and other bands, as well as a 10-minute long firework display.
Merkel said in her annual speech — which was prerecorded and released in written form before being broadcast on national TV — that despite the problems Europe is facing, the financial crisis will eventually bring the continent closer together.
“Germany is doing well, even if next year will no doubt be more difficult than 2011,” Merkel said.
Across France, 60,000 police, firemen and other emergency personnel were on standby to assure the New Year’s celebrations went off safely, the Interior Minister said.
Thousands of revelers are expected to descend on Scotland’s capital to attend the world-famous Hogmanay street party, where around 80,000 partygoers will welcome 2012 at the stroke of midnight, before erupting into a mass rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
In London, round 250,000 people are expected to gather to listen to Big Ben strike twelve at midnight during London’s scaled-back New Year’s celebrations. Fireworks are set off from the London Eye, the giant wheel on the south bank of the river.
Revelers in Spain will greet 2012 by eating 12 grapes in time with Madrid’s central Puerta del Sol clock, a national tradition observed by millions who stop parties to follow the chimes on television.
Tens of thousands of young people in the Spanish capital were expected to gather at six indoor “macro-parties” the city council had authorized in big venues such as the city’s main sports hall.
Milena Quiroga was to be among the many there happy to move on. “I am glad to see 2011 go because it was a tough year; my restaurant laid off almost half of the staff,” said the 25-year-old waitress.
Raymond Lo, a master of feng shui — the Chinese art of arranging objects and choosing dates to improve luck — offered hope that things might get better. He said he wasn’t surprised that 2011 was such a tumultuous year because it was associated with the natural elements of metal and wood. The year’s natural disasters were foreshadowed, Lo said, because wood — which represents trees and nature — was attacked by metal.
2012 could be better because it’s associated with ocean water, which represents energy and drive and the washing away of old habits, Lo said.
“Big water also means charity, generosity,” Lo said. “Therefore that means sharing. That means maybe the big tycoons will share some of their wealth.”
Associated Press writers Harold Heckle in Madrid, Meera Selva in London, Melissa Eddy in Berlin, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.
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