The way we socialise in restaurants has changed — and some diners are feeling it more than others
I dare you to look through the archive feature on Instagram and not feel an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.
The messy curation of days out, nights endured and knives and forks laid on tables is a work of pre-apocalyptic art – the apocalypse, in this case, being the coronavirus. The feature tells the story of a life lived. A life that a mere five months ago, we enjoyed with foolish abandon and an ignorance of what was to come.
But that isn't to say the life we live now is worse. The mechanics that move us are changing direction, and the societal changes this pandemic will bring are progressive. Working from home, slowing down, and realising what is truly important are enlightening perspectives for a world that was spinning of control.
Yet I loathe the term "the new normal".
What's 'normal' about our situation? In times of world war, I don't believe people ever regarded it as normality.
This is a global pandemic and nothing about it is natural.
When the restaurants reopened their doors to the public nearly a month ago, there was collective elation. It was a big step, and from McDonald's to hotels, people sat down and thought "thank god I don't have to cook the dinner tonight".
It's a testament to the restaurants in this country that they have opened in such a seamless fashion in unstable times – if we think it's difficult, imagine how it is for them. I have been out for food with family and friends and each time the service and attention given to a customer's welfare is superb.
However, a Covid-19 night out is different.
Our pubs remain closed but I can already sense what the experience will feel like. It's not the same. It's not horrible or unenjoyable, but at times there is a discomfort that bubbles and by dessert, is flowing off the plate. I am hyperaware of my presence and the time limit. On my first venture out to a sit-down food establishment, I formed nervous tics that were never present before.
My cutlery, salt, pepper and napkin came in an envelope (a genius idea) but the nerves got the better of me. It felt like I was opening up my Leaving Cert results all over again and as I tore the envelope I twitched and spilled the contents on the floor.
Then anxiety kicked in. I proceeded to hand my menu to the waiter but he kindly informed me that they didn't take them back anymore for hygiene reasons and I thought about the interaction for two full days.
In the following visits, I was terrified of making a wrong move or touching someone else's cutlery by mistake and destroying the meticulous organisation.
It's hard to describe the feeling, but my body and mind couldn't fully relax. And while I accept our situation, it doesn't mean I like it. For a while, I thought it was all in my head. Sometimes I walk into public places and think I am the coronavirus. I presumed it was another idiosyncrasy, but I soon found out I wasn't alone.
A couple I know embarked on a road trip through the south of Ireland and while they enjoyed the break, the feeling of absolute holiday leisure was missing. A family member who owns a café also acknowledged the change in temperament. People walk in timidly, not quite knowing whether to sit or to stand. The etiquette we knew has been thrown aside. Both sides are skittish and apprehensive.
Nonetheless, all of this is to be expected. Like in war, we cover our tracks, but our enemy waits in the shadows looking for a surface to lay itself upon. No matter what we do, the thought of coronavirus lingers and pre-empts everything we do.
Eating pasta is offset with thoughts of sanitiser. Possibilities used to be endless after a meal and a cheap bottle of wine. The night could take you anywhere without asking, now it brings you home to bed at 9 pm and won't budge when broached.
It's reality and sometimes it's quite depressing.
Yet the measures and protocols are for the greater good. Wearing a mask and washing our hands means we are doing an immeasurable amount of positive action for the people around us and those on the frontline. I will continue to support the cafés and restaurants across the country who are doing their very best in the most testing of times, and I hope everyone else will too.
But we are still allowed to grieve for the Instagram archives and the forks and knives that once lay on the tables.
And we are allowed to wish for normality. For a day when we can eat our pasta, chicken, Big Mac, and just about any other edible item in peace.
Without the virus lurking in the shadows.
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