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Fireworks in Sydney, ball drop in NY ring in 2011

By Beth Fouhy

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Dec. 31 2010 11:24 p.m. MST

Kelsey Kraft, foreground left, and her boyfriend Matt Burchill, right, both from Detroit, Michigan, share a kiss as they celebrate the new year shortly after midnight in New York's Times Square Saturday Jan. 1, 2011.

Tina Fineberg, Associated Press

NEW YORK — Nearly a million revelers crowded New York's Times Square to witness the traditional dazzling ball drop, fireworks lit up Australia's Sydney Harbor and communist Vietnam held a rare Western-style countdown to the new year as the world ushered in 2011.

In Europe, Greeks, Irish and Spaniards partied through the night to help put a year of economic woe behind them, and Japanese revelers released balloons carrying notes with people's hopes and dreams.

In New York, a crystal ball with 32,000 lights descended at midnight, setting off a wild and noisy confetti-filled New Year's celebration — the country's largest — at the crossroads of the world. And it all happened just days after a debilitating blizzard paralyzed the city and the surrounding area.

Computer engineer Chris Tulloch, who came from upstate New York with his wife, Sherine, to experience Times Square for the first time, said the celebration was a good start for the new year.

"The amount of people in the crowd, the friendships that we formed, made us realize so many people have the same hopes and dreams for 2011 as we do," he said.

All around the United States, people said they were setting aside concerns about the economy, bad winter weather and even potential terrorist threats to ring in 2011 at large and small gatherings.

Even more than most years, New York was in the spotlight as it battled back from a severe snowstorm and security concerns eight months after a Pakistani immigrant tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square. Police said the city wasn't the target of a New Year's Eve terror threat, but they had a strict security plan in place, with sealed manhole covers, counter-snipers on rooftops and checkpoints for partygoers.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endured days of withering criticism for the city's slow response to the Dec. 26 storm, which dumped 20 inches of snow. But the president of the Times Square Alliance said holiday tourists helped clear streets.

"We have the best snow plow ever invented — 500,000 pairs of feet walking through Times Square," Tim Tompkins said. "That's been melting our snow."

As rain clouds cleared over in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square, around 50,000 people, many sporting large, brightly colored wigs, gathered to take part in Las Uvas, or The Grapes, a tradition in which people eat a grape for each of the 12 chimes of midnight. Chewing and swallowing the grapes to each tolling of a bell is supposed to bring good luck, while cheating is frowned upon and revelers believe it brings misfortune.

Police had painstakingly screened all those arriving to make sure drinks and bottles were left behind to avoid injury in the crowded square, so many quickly downed their sparkling cava wine before joining the animated party.

"It's an annual tradition, and I'm here to make my wishes for the new year. If you eat the grapes your wishes will come true," beautician Anita Vargas said.

As the 12th grape was swallowed, the skies above most Spanish cities lit up with fireworks that slowly filled the air with smoke and the smell of gunpowder.

2010 was a grim year for the European Union, with Greece and Ireland needing bailouts and countries such as Spain and Portugal finding themselves in financial trouble as well.

"Before, we used to go out, celebrate in a restaurant, but the last two years we have had to stay at home," said Madrid florist Ernestina Blasco, whose husband, a construction worker, is out of work.

In Greece, thousands of people spent the last day of 2010 standing in line at tax offices to pay their road tax or sign up for tax amnesty.

"We can see that the quality of life is being degraded every day," Athens resident Giorgos Karantzos said. "What can I say? I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel."

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