Updated: Nov 22, 2020
Dr. Victoria Thomasin Harris
India’s wandering monks say that to avoid attachment you must not spend more than three days in one place. Stay longer and you start to belong – to the place, to the people. You develop habits, a routine. I have been in Santiago de Chile for 51 days and counting. I guess you could say that I’m attached.
This was not the plan. Well, it may have been part of Covid-19’s weird, globaldestabilisation plan (yes, I’ve started anthropomorphising the virus), but it wasn’t my own. Santiago was a four-day rest stop near the end of a three-month work trip. I’m an environmental writer and was documenting nine sites we will lose to climate change. I was also enjoying a personal reset after several years learning a lot about what doesn’t work for me in life but less about what does.
Things were going well, and the trip was happily confirming what I instinctively already knew: I like moving, I like to be warm, I like to be in nature, I like talking to new people and cheerfully massacring their mother tongues. And I get bored when I have to stand still for too long. Not just, like, in airport lines – although that happens too – but generally.
So being temporarily resident – and largely housebound – in Santiago, population 6.5 million, seems pretty much the opposite of what works for me in life. I could say that coronavirus gave me no choice. That I’m stuck here, my fluid, migratory life finally biting me in the ass. That being a dual UK–US citizen living in France is no longer so boast-worthy, given that none of those three embassies actually has to take any responsibility for me. It’s not a great situation: my parents live in the United States but that passport is both expired and at home. None of my British family can take me in given the lockdown. In France I live alone, five hours from the airport, and am currently without a functioning kitchen.
That is the sob story, and I’ve trotted it out when it’s suited me. But it’s not the truth. The French embassy would have put me on a plane, but flying into the pandemic’s epicentre, arriving in the cold Paris spring without a coat, bribing one of my friends to embark on a 10 hour mission to retrieve me, and then directly locking myself in my semi-uninhabitable house for an undetermined period of time without being able to buy said friend a thank-you beer … well, this didn’t seem very appealing. So I chose not to do it.
And I love this choice. I love it when I open my eyes in an orange bedroom that gives me the feeling of waking up actually inside the sunrise. I love it during my morning run around the outside of the large, tree-filled park across the street. Santiago’s parks have been closed since mid-March, together with schools, universities, bars and restaurants, part of the government’s early – and admirable – efforts to stem the spread of a disease that would have quickly overwhelmed its health services (and still threatens to, let’s be honest). Less than a week later freedom of movement between Chile’s regions – including in and out of Santiago and between its neighbourhoods – was strictly limited, before the government imposed a two-week lockdown on affected areas. Those neighbourhoods with a lot of coronavirus cases remain in quarantine a month later – I thank my lucky stars I’m not in one of them, although the latest news is that we will return to lockdown tomorrow.
Outside everyone is in masks, but people seem relatively cheerful, although unemployment is on the rise, and I am starting to be more wary of my belongings. Protests rocked Santiago this past autumn and everybody seems keen to avoid a repeat, my Airbnb host’s son commenting with surprise on the gentleness of the police when they checked his permission slip as he crossed between neighbourhoods.
We are twelve in this house, a motley crew from Latin America, China, and Europe, all stranded in our own way. We each have a sob story of a life derailed by global pandemic. Despite this, we share a stubborn positivity, a joyousness. The lush garden, filled with cats and bird song, helps. But between us we have created this reality, one of house dinners and co-working spaces, morning yoga and late-night dance parties. There is a lot of laughter and a surprising amount of sushi. Short trips to the street market or to buy muffins feel like adventures. We play football (soccer) in the street, a lamppost serving as goal. We even seem to get cranky constructively, which would be sickeningly saccharine if it weren’t so essential to our collective mental health.
And our bubble of creative energy means I wake up excited to write, fully conscious that this is what I like in life – to be still in the present moment and to write, wherever in world I’m sitting. I miss home, though. And I look forward to being back there, in my green mountains, writing, my dog at my side. But before that I hope to play football in the park across the street. Or hike in the mountains that encircle the city. Or dance to reggaetón in a club, free from our 10pm curfew. When moving again becomes possible, taking it slow before doing so would also feel pretty joyous.
A note from Jaime:
I had the pleasure of meeting Victoria at an Airbnb in Santiago, Chile. As the only Americans and female solo travelers, we instantly clicked and began going on daily walks, doing yoga near the pool and enjoying sangria (at all hours of the day!). 7 weeks after meeting, Victoria is still in quarantine in Santiago. I relate that going home can be more daunting than staying still in an unfamiliar location. It was by chance that we met and I know that is just the beginning of a lifelong friendship. Often unideal circumstances lead to beautiful unexpected things...