Why Reviving the Right to Picnic Offers Hope in Melbourne

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I used to joke that someone in Melbourne ought to make a song to the tune of the 2 Pac song “California Love,” but instead of the line “California knows how to party,” the words would be “Victoria knows how to picnic.” Because man, Victoria really knows how to picnic.

On any normal spring or summer day in Melbourne, every available green space is dotted with groups of people. Parks, median strips, beaches, even sidewalks and parking spots become spaces to lounge and eat and drink. Some revelers are simply eating sandwiches on the grass. Some have blankets spread out with elaborate cheese and fruit platters.

I joke that the median strip outside my house is my favorite bar in Melbourne — on days when the weather is warm, it fills with families and friends sitting on blankets and chairs drinking wine and admiring one another’s pets and children. I’ve seen long tables set up in tiny neighborhood parks, covered in beautiful tablecloths with extravagant table settings and people in full evening wear seated around them, clinking glasses as if they were in the poshest ballroom rather than on a small sunny patch of grass between city streets. It’s a glorious sight.

Of course, this spring has been different. Because of our sixth lockdown, which has now stretched to 42 days (which, combined with other lockdowns, makes 230 days stuck at home so far), sitting outside in the park — or anywhere — has been illegal. The legally allowed reasons to leave home do not include the simple pleasure of sprawling on the grass with a friend and a drink. Until today.

Despite rising case numbers in Victoria, our vaccination rates have finally become high enough for state officials to declare it’s safe for us to picnic. The new dawn in Melbourne began at midnight last night (Sydney has been allowed to picnic since Monday). These picnics must be small, and the privilege depends on the vaccination status of the participants.

It seems like the smallest possible freedom, and yet the relief and joy I felt yesterday when the news broke was the most I’ve felt in months. My phone exploded with text messages from friends and family. This beautiful, vital part of our city’s personality means more to many of us than the return to bars and restaurants that is likely still weeks or months away. It isn’t tied to commerce. It’s tied to our humanity.

I won’t be able to experience this new freedom for a little while longer. My husband’s workplace is a tier one exposure site, meaning that he and everyone in his household is required to isolate in our home for 14 days. This includes our son, who will turn 18 during that 14-day period. This morning, an email from his school came through saying that his year 12 formal — the equivalent of a senior prom — has been canceled.

For a while there, these things felt unbearable: so many milestones stolen; so many momentous occasions spent stuck inside. But I swear yesterday when we got the news about picnics, everyone’s mood lifted. It won’t be on his actual birthday, but my kid (soon to be man!) will be allowed to sit in the park with his girlfriend. People will be able to bring him gifts. It is something to look forward to. And that, more than anything, is what we all need right now.

Here are this week’s stories.

  • As Russians Vote, Resignation, Anger and Fear of a Post-Putin Unknown. Many in Russia say they are fed up with corruption, stagnant wages and rising prices. But they worry, as one man said, that “if things start to change, there will be blood.”

  • Cave Featuring Native American Wall Art Is Sold to Anonymous Bidder. The cave, which sold for $2.2 million in St. Louis on Tuesday, is considered a sacred site by members of the Osage Nation. A tribal leader called the sale “heartbreaking.”

  • What Should I Do About My Bird-Killing Cat? The magazine’s Ethicist columnist on whether an outdoor cat can be kept inside and how to handle a relative with aggressive parenting tactics.

  • Ohio House Republican, Calling Trump ‘a Cancer,’ Bows Out of 2022. Representative Anthony Gonzalez, who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump, will cede his seat rather than face a stiff primary challenge.

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