As creatures of habit, at four o’clock each day we drink tea with our neighbours. In the same spirit, two or three times each week we now share a sit-down meal with family or friends. Dealing with the government’s demand for social-distancing in public is difficult, even harder is being separated from those whom we hold dear. This blog describes two arrangements we are using that allow us to be close while staying apart.
We live in a pedestrian-only cul-de-sac (referred to on maps as an ‘Avenue’) in which two rows of terraced houses are separated by a garden. Although I call it a garden, it would be better described as a mini-forest. With its dense undergrowth of umpteen evergreen shrubs and bushes and its high canopy of palms, olives and a single maple, those living on one side of the Avenue can’t normally see across to their neighbours opposite. But, as these are not normal times, some changes in the foliage have been made.
A week after our confinement began, we the residents – some couples, some single, most in our seventies – decided that, while respecting the two-metre social distancing rule, we should have tea together each day for as long as the lockdown lasted. At four o’clock we would sit or stand outside our houses with cups in hand ready to chat. Gaps were cut at strategic points along the ‘forest’ so that wherever we lived we could all see and speak to one another (see illustration).
Since that first decision we have met almost every day – tea was foregone on the two days it rained. Our time together generally lasts around an hour and involves four to six of us – the maximum would be eight. Apart from the simple pleasure of being in contact, it has become a wonderful forum for exchanging ideas, concerns, information generally and pieces of local news. The day after one neighbour told of a particular field nearby that was now covered with a blanket of buttercups, two of us reported back how they had been to see the field and how it was as stunning as she had described. Back to our cuppas; there is no doubt that our teas together have made us a closer community with a new feeling of solidarity which, I know, has enabled each of us to deal better with the strains of the pandemic.
Now to our meals. Very early on in the lockdown our son Oliver phoned to invite us to Sunday lunch. We pointed out that, since he lived on the other side of London, social distancing rules meant a meal together was out of the question. “Of course,” he said, “it would not be a real meal together – it would be virtual”. He had worked it all out: we would put our laptop in front of us on the dinner table and, at an agreed time and having contacted him on Skype, we would sit facing him on the screen with the meal in front of us ready to eat. Beforehand we would have agreed on the menu, which, for the original lunch, he proposed be fish fingers, spinach and pasta.
We were excited by his idea, accepted his invitation with its various rules of engagement, agreed on the menu and, on the following Sunday, were eating together. The meal was both a revelation and a delight. Indeed, that first virtual meal was so successful, eight such meals have followed since.
At each meal I have felt that the guests were right there in front of me at the table. I am really eating with them. Obviously I have not been able to hug or kiss them ‘on arrival’ or say my usual goodbyes when they ‘leave’, but during the meal, the conversation, body language, eye contact and all the features of being together are as ever; we can even discuss the meal itself and drink a toast to each other’s health.
Interestingly, a lot of the trappings of eating with guests remain the same. We will often start preparing the meal hours beforehand, we have to arrange things so that the meal is ready on time, we have a baffling need to tidy up the dining room before our guests ‘arrive’ and, most bizarrely, when I have been responsible for making the main course, I have repeatedly cooked enough for three or four, so for our virtual guests too!
There are also some material advantages. When the cauliflower cheese I had prepared was served cold our guests never knew, and the same went for the raw rhubarb crumble.
One common feature of the Covid-19 pandemic is the demand to distance ourselves from others. Devising ways of neutralising the effects of such an unnatural constraint has helped us out enormously.
The illustration is a photo of Rohan and a neighbour having a tea-time chat through the ‘forest’ undergrowth.
For help with writing this blog I would like to thank Oliver, Jennie, Rohan and Vivien.