I liked my grandmother-in-law.
She was feisty and forthright. No-nonsense and funny. Candid and practical in that laconic grew-up-through-the-Great-Depression, rural-Queensland way she had.
The last time I saw her was during a late-afternoon picnic on the Gold Coast. It is my fond and enduring memory of her. Close to blind and near immobile, the octogenarian matriarch sat on a wooden bench on the windy cusp of the beach while others fussed about, laying sliced bread and containers of butter and Tupperware holding beetroot slices and lettuce and sliced cheese and ham and chicken loaf and a plate of sizzling sausages on a rug on the grass.
“This is stupid,” she said. “I hate picnics.”
Pressed, she elaborated: “Just you tell me the point of sitting in the dirt in the wind to make a sandwich when you have a perfectly good kitchen table at home?”
The point? The point? I’m still unsure.
But I’m thinking hard because Monday is “Picnic Day”. The day when the New South Wales government has granted the fully vaccinated a novel freedom to enjoy outdoor recreation in groups of five (including from other homes – unless, that is, you live in a local government area of concern, in which case you can only get together with your own household).
The “recreation” headline is, of course, picnicking, a custom which I – like my late grandmother-in-law – have had some reservations about.
It’s a long-running joke in my family.
“Hey Dad, it’s such a nice day – how about we go for a picnic?”
“Oh look – what a lovely picnic spot over there!”
Some people fear heights. Others, sharks, spiders, dogs, cheese and public spaces. Clowns.
I have a thing about picnics. Specifically, the bits my grandmother-in-law didn’t like. I’m great with alfresco dining (table, chair, cutlery optional) and, of course, drinking outdoors (I love a beer garden). I stress, I do like the social aspect of the picnic. And today I relish the idea that with this newfound recreational freedom I’ll be able to see family and friends again.
But since I was a kid I’ve had an aversion to the bit about sitting on the rug and constructing a gritty sandwich, or shooing flies from the chicken drumsticks while trying not to knock over a plastic tumbler of warm soft drink (let’s face it, the uneven earth covered with the rug makes for a challenging, uneven surface and now, as an adult, balancing a wine glass on it is even more precarious).
There was the childhood picnic when I was stung by a bull ant while sitting on a rug in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges. Another time, at Beaumaris Beach, a seagull shat on our spread. Some would say this explains everything.
My family has for two decades gently – though insistently – persisted with a program of exposure therapy.
We have picnicked all over Australia, in Greece and Turkey, in an almond grove in Spain, in Vietnam and in Italy. Then there was that picnic high above the cliffs and cobalt Ligurian Sea of the Cinque Terra that almost converted me. We sat on the ramparts at the top of one of the five ancient towns. The breeze was cool, the stone surface level enough on which to stand our wineglasses and spread a cloth. The best thing was that the food came fully constructed – arancini and ready-made sandwiches. It was decidedly un-picnicky.
A few years later – rural France. There was no blanket. No plates. Just the earth on which to sit and construct the lunch. For some reason it fell to me to butter the rolls and cut the tomatoes with a blunt plastic knife and shoo the ants away while I waited for the family who’d wandered off to take in the sights.
I entered new realms of patience, sitting cross-legged on the humusy ground, a soggy tomato roll balanced on each knee and one in each hand.
“Geez, did you stick dirt in these or something, Dad?” our son demanded.
And … we were picnicking in the shadow of a cafeteria.
So, on this, Picnic Day, the existential question, I suppose, is not: to picnic or not to picnic?
It is, rather: when is a picnic not a picnic? Does a pie and a stubby of Carlton Draught while standing (bull ants!) with a mate in a park count if we are fortunate enough not to be in one of those areas of concern?
Or is a picnic defined by the accoutrements – a wicker basket, rug, salt and pepper shakers, cutlery, reusable plastic plates and napery?
Today, the picnic is both a state of mind and a wonderful euphemism for renewing human contact. I’m up for it.
Even my late grandmother-in-law would go for it.
Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist