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.

12 thoughts on “Being Close While Staying Apart

  1. The daily ‘tea parties’ are incredibly important to us ‘singles’ and we feel very fortunate to live where we do. It is sometimes the only human
    contact we have in the day. Thank you Joe to you and Rohan for joining us despite being on the shady – often cold side !!!
    Kaye

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  2. Dear Kaye, thank you for your note. The teas work for us too. I think the scheme was started after Rohan suggested it to Jennie. I wonder how long it will be before the ‘windows’ cut in our mini-forest will have regrown?
    Love, Joe

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  3. We have T@3 on our Avenue but we sit on our all walls and chat across the street, some neighbours who find no one else has ventured out, bring their tea and a chair to us and we chat.

    Yesterday for VE Day, we have the most amazing street party and with social distancing we had bunting, music, tea, Pimms, cakes and chats… in turn we walked down the middle of the road to say hello to neighbours and re-bonded.

    Communities, neighbours and friends… all together because we have to be!

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  4. Dear Carolyn, Thank you for your comment. As you say, these street/community get-togethers are important and, of course are happening all over the place – my blog just talked about our experience made unusual by the mini-Forrest. Please look after yourself. Love, Joe

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  5. Great blog Joe – ‘tea time in the Avenue’ is a wonderful institution that has served to create a great bond between all us neighbours here and provide an opportunity for human contact that specially important for those living alone.

    Staying indoor today however as it’s too windy!

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    1. Dear Anis, Thanks for your comment. As a relative newcomer to the Avenue you can now see what you have moved into. It’s good to have you and Movana in amongst us. Yours Joe PS You were right to stay indoors today – it was freezing.

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  6. Dear Joe,

    We humans almost always seem to find creative ways to maintain that all-important connection and contact, whatever the circumstances. I love these two examples in today’s blog.

    As I know we both feel, it is a huge privilege to have a safe and congenial homes in which to be ‘locked down’, in good communities and with access to pleasant outside space for our daily exercise. It is also a gift to have inner resources as a something of a buffer against the distresses of the bigger situation by keeping us busy and engaged in various ways. All these also help to ‘neutralise the effects of [our current] unnatural constraints’ as you so eloquently put it.

    Socially distanced afternoon teas, interwebby dinner dates, video-conferencing get-togethers with family and friends, exchanges of emails, texts or photos, phone calls, good old fashioned cards and letters, window art and people putting cards and messages through neighbours’ letterboxes are cheering and cheerful ways we’ve all found to connect with fellow humans in dark times. Like you, I feel fortunate to have people in my life who care about me and to have others I in turn care about.

    Of course, in the end as you say
    , it’s not a substitute for the physical. presence of those with whom we want to spend time but I hope the new connections that have been made, and the novel ways of doing so, won’t be lost. I hope too that we will all appreciate the company of our nearest and dearest even more in the future.

    Thanks for your thought-provoking blog, Joe. Stay safe and well. Mine’s with milk and no sugar, thanks …
    Love
    JJ Fruitbat
    X

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  7. Dear JJ, As ever, your comment is so full of such wisdom. To say that I agree with everything you say might seem trite – but I do. And, you are always welcome to come to a distance tea. How do we arrange that? Love, Joe

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  8. Dear Joe,
    As always I loved reading your blog- and how wonderful that you have found ways to be with your neighbors and family!
    We still meet for coffee after we swim at Balmoral each morning- we stand apart and enjoy spending time together so much- particularly as some of us live alone. We had a picnic in a park the night before lockdown started- we all brought our own food and sat 1.5 meters apart. We can’t do that now as it is becoming cold and dark each evening in Sydney and we are prohibited from being in groups of more than 10, but that will soon let up.
    I know we now appreciate our morning coffees, but we always have done so. It’s just that there is an added incentive to go to meet friends as otherwise we’ll be alone most of the day!

    Love

    Robin

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    1. Dear Robin, Many thanks for your kind comment. As I read your note I could see you on Balmoral beach – distancing there must feel very odd. Nevertheless, I imagine that the atmosphere in Australia generally is not anywhere near as bad as we are experiencing now here in the UK. Love, Joe

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  9. I love your idea of virtual Sunday lunch.
    I’ll try and convince Abigail and Seb to do the same. May be during their holidays where and when ever that may be as at the moment they are finding home schooling, télé work at home with the 3 children a bit of a strain.
    We miss them so much that we trained ourselves Mike and I to play Cluedo and Minecraft with them. Quite a challenge for us but a delight to hear them laugh and talk
    Take care
    Love.

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  10. Dear Sauliac, Many thanks for your comment. Virtual lunch is a very valuable advance but our only experience is with adults. I imagine there might need to be lots of ingenious manœuvres to make it work with children. Love, Joe

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