I never cared for the North American New Year’s ritual, a very expensive and dramatic group blackout, an hours-long struggle to get a taxi during the worst hour in the entire year in which to need a taxi, and starting the new year incapacitated for a day. My immigrant parents hardly drink, so I was raised in a very different Latin American tradition: a gathering of close family,some kind of BBQ, and letting children stay awake until 12:30. I made it most of the way through my 20s still erring mostly on the side of my upbringing, so strong is my disdain for velvet ropes and covers over $10. Even when I went to a house party or a club, I would call my parents at 11.
One year, my academic research had me in Buenos Aires at year’s end, far from both family and inner circle. Paying more to be back in the US for NYE was hard to justify, but clicking around on the airfare website I discovered a perennial price hack: flying when the year changes brings the price down even below what it would be on a Tuesday with no holidays or three-day weekends in sight, and might even include an empty seat next to you. Combined with another chestnut no doubt familiar to the Rick Steves set—the 1-800-number segment change immediately post-booking—I booked myself something far better than an American New Year’s: two full days in a massive, history-rich city that I had read about and watched movies in, but never visited.
Santiago de Chile was an embarrassing city not to know, for an Argentine professor of Spanish, much less a middle-class Argentine. (I still don’t know Santiago del Estero, which is a little closer to Buenos Aires but which no one really visits.) I booked a private room at a suspiciously-cheap hostel, a creaky converted vestibule on the top floor of an 18th century mansion on one of the oldest blocks in the country. It would’ve been miserably drafty most of the year, but in late December the tall ceilings, original woodwork, trompe l’óeil frescos, and overheard multilingual sex were more magically realistic than dreary and alienating. I made no friends, outing-buddies, or even polite conversations by lingering around in the communal breakfast room—maybe it was the off-season vibe, or maybe Chile’s parochial reserve had rubbed off on its visitors, or maybe all of us felt, as I did, a strange guilt for using a mansion as barracks.
The mood in that breakfast room wasn’t much different than the mood in most of Santiago as I remember it; maybe the locals with whom I would have had the most in common with were all on holiday. I picked restaurants based on where it would be easiest to strike up conversations, yet I succeeded in striking up none.
On my first full day, I achieved a personal best: two war crimes museums and some arthouse theater about war crimes, miles apart, without no small talk the entire day.
The first stop was a diminutive 20th-century house nestled between two 18th-century buildings around the corner from my hostel, in the city’s colonial core, the downtown’s only torture center and rendition site during the Pinochet years, complete with secret trapdoors and human-sized dumbwaiters. When a left-leaning memory organization got control of it, they preserved all these tunnels and chambers to uncanny effect while converting the rest of the house into a community space: meeting rooms, a theater in which you can only imagine didactic film-essays being screened, and an exhibit space. At the time, this last held a detailed photo-essay about contemporary student protest movements that would not have been permitted a generation earlier. The architectural juxtaposition of eras and sociability was too much for me; for years I had nightmares about that house, confusing time-travel dreams about parallel universes with government agents infiltrating student politics.
Across town, I went to the flashy, high-budget Blockbuster War Crimes Museum, where I spent hours going through more conventional presentations. But a free paper in the lobby tipped me off to a play being performed across town, in an experimental theater space, about Freud’s treatment of hysterical women, PTSD, and torture of women under Pinochet; when I got there, I found an old shipping warehouse outfitted with steel bleachers, in a desolate and poorly-lit industrial zone. More than half the play’s lines were sung, screamed, or scream-sung by a single actress who must have been an opera singer not to lose her voice. Some lines from Gabriela Mistral made a subtle, tasteful appearance.
The rest of the trip was spent trying to recuperate. I wandered endlessly through micro-retail buildings and used bookstores and tried to find additions to my intercontinental collection of silly baseball caps. I saw some art, none of which I remember, mostly messy paintings of the kind my parents’ generation made in on both sides of the Andes. I ate one of those classic Chilean salads that are more than 50% seaweed, in the kind of functional downtown lunch spot that hasn’t changed its menu in 50 years. I milled around where people thronged, and I observed absolutely no one talking or making eye contact with strangers.
The NYT ran a story last week about Quirky Innovative Millennials using dating apps for non-dating purposes while traveling to unfamiliar cities, like dumpling-hunting or platonic matchmaking. Like most NYT writeups about people under 40, or people who make less than $100K/yr, it was a wasted opportunity to ask interesting questions across a cultural divide. But I did my own version on that layover in Santiago: I found a party I could crash on a BDSM messaging board. Judging from the discussion, it was a close-knit group, most of whom saw each other once a month but didn’t know each other’s real names. Their ages ranged widely; some joked about what they told their babysitters, while the younger ones all seemed to be metalheads or goths, two of the more welcoming and gregarious subcultures, in my experience. I had marked the address on my google calendar a month before when researching the trip and forgotten about it until my phone reminded me.
I almost chickened out realizing how far across town I’d have to schlep on a weeknight, but the deep loneliness of my solo voyage motivated me to go for it. I wasn’t expecting even the remotest chance of “getting lucky” or “meeting someone”—as the NYT would be gobsmacked to discover—because even in far more open societies than Chile’s, these are not the kind of parties where such things happen. These are parties where people let loose but only a little, with people who they’ll never see in their real lives, a literary and psychological excursion at best.
I went to the address listed at the time listed and found a very closed Italian restaurant in a strip mall in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood, feeling like an out-of-place manchild out of Fuguet, Bolaño or Zambra. I goofed around, manchildishly, startled some older people walking their dogs, got a cold shoulder from the doorman of a condo, and just as I was giving up and looking at a bus schedule back, a goofy and conspicuously working-class teen nervously got out of a cab halfway down the street, wearing a leather jacket and a deathmetal shirt. Once I got him talking, we realized that the party had been relocated minutes ago due to humo blanco, “white smoke,” an incongruous term cribbed from spy novels. We split a cab to the upscale suburbs.
I remember very little about that party; half the partygoers were dressed up in that hyperdramatic head-to-toe BDSM way that many gothic clubs require, so that I stuck out, An American Tourist, in my cheerful short-sleeve Madras shirt, short shorts, and token accessories. I ambled over to the edge of the pool, wondering if slamming a whiskey and jumping into the pool might cut the ice a little.
As I unlaced my very un-gothic tennis shoes, a very dry woman my age did the very un-Chilean thing of striking up a spontaneous conversation, immediately after denying her very dolled-up submissive’s request to get out of the pool. Sliding, rather than jumping in to the icy and underutilized pool, I managed to maintain this odd three-way conversation between land and sea; miracle of miracles, a half-hour passed and I had (still have, if social media counts) two Chilean friends! Extravagant dress code aside, and other than a few displays of the faux-rotic show-boating that gross heterosexual couples do for an audience at such events, it was mostly a low-key, cocktail-sipping party; it felt great after two days of failing to chat with Chileans. It is a genuinely warm crowd that can make a place for a lost intercontinental bumbler who barely squeaks past the dress code and fumbles all the social cues; I’d rather go back to that party than to any NYE party I’ve been to before or since.