“Sorry mate, I actually have another picnic that night.”

Ouch. Add that to the laundry list of sentences I never expected to hear this year. It was last weekend and my friend had just turned down my offer of a catch-up drink.

Was I stung? A little bit, yes. I am generally considered to be a pretty good time – “easy, mindless viewing” is how critics would describe a hangout with me. But upon reflection, the rejection made sense. There are only so many opportunities to picnic right now; you have to make every one of them count. One-on-one catch-ups? On a Saturday? What planet was I living on?

It’s spring, and things are starting to heat up after The Longest Winter of All Time. But we’re still in step two of the road map (for heck knows how long), so our only way to socialise is to meet up in a park to eat and drink. In other words, we’re picnicking our sweet arses off.

Have you ever seen a city throw itself into a single social activity with as much gusto as Melbourne has with picnics? As soon as it gets sunny, everyone’s local park becomes a Seurat painting – or a scene straight out of a cottagecore mood board. If I weren’t starved of human contact, I’d find it hilarious. Instead it warms my heart. But with the return of social interaction comes the potential for awkwardness, faux pas and petty friendship-group politics – especially because, let’s be honest, we’re all a little bit rusty at the whole talking-to-other-people thing.

Songs have literally been written about the unpredictability of Melbourne’s weather. Expressions – very commonly used ones – joke about it. How are you supposed to plan a picnic in these conditions? The forecast only gets you in the ballpark of what weather to expect. If you want a sunny picnic, you need to be prepared to drop. Everything. For. It.

Being enslaved to the moody whims of this city’s climate inevitably means there are fewer picnic-appropriate days in any given week. This makes our time more precious: picnics need to be planned about a week in advance and need to involve seeing as many people as possible. (Legally, of course. But come on, we all know groups of five that have a very liberal definition of “housemate”.)

Good luck pulling something together on the day unless you’re Ferris Bueller-level popular. Spontaneity is a luxury of the past – plan, plan, plan. We all need to plan now. Pencil in that fun and let your scheduling-nerd flag fly. Here’s how:

Monday: feeler text to the group chat, suss everyone’s availability. Tuesday: cool it a bit. Wednesday: “Weather’s looking good for the weekend – we could be on for Friday?” Thursday: “Where should we meet?” Friday: “What time tonight? Early knock-off?” Planning a successful picnic is a week-long process. Follow my system, or proceed at your own peril.

More picnic politics kick off once you actually get to the park. Some of my friends have been oddly competitive on the snacks front. Apparently, my classic supermarket duet of hummus and Sweet Chilli Philly just isn’t up to snuff anymore.

Maybe we’re just trying to prove to ourselves that we’re still capable of entertaining. There’s no better way to dust off the social cobwebs than by demonstrating that, despite 10 weeks in hard lockdown, you can still knock up a killer antipasto board. When done correctly, this can be a serious power move. One of my colleagues literally brought an oyster platter to her first picnic. An oyster platter. I can only assume this has cemented her position as top dog of her friendship group, at least for the rest of the picnic season.

Another issue: because there are a finite number of parks within our five-kilometre radiuses (annexed golf courses notwithstanding), you’re bound to run into folks you know when you’re down at your local. So, what do you do if you lock eyes with a chum who didn’t quite make your five-person cut-off? Or – heavens help you – how do you respond if you see a rival picnic that you either blew off or didn’t cop an invite to? The situation is fraught, my friends.

The solution to overcoming the social politics and awkwardness is simple, and has been staring us right in our bemasked faces this whole time: just blame Covid-19. For everything. It’s easy. I do it, like, every day. Someone stroppy they didn’t get invited to your picnic? Say it’s the road map’s fault. Don’t feel like sauntering over to small talk with that picnic of snooty nemeses? Don’t worry – it’s probably not Covid-safe anyway. Can’t find it within yourself to hug that mate who’s always too touchy-feely? Elbow bump the goober to the curb.

Everyone in this town should use the novel coronavirus as the social scapegoat it is. Let’s exploit it, I say. Steer into the skid, and play this once-in-a-lifetime get-out-of-jail-free card. Blame the pandemic for every klutzy comment, invite snub, flubbed joke delivery, and foot-in-mouth faux pas you can.

It’s the ultimate awkwardness amnesty, and it’s the least we deserve. We have to look for silver linings right now. Luckily, it’s been quite an overcast spring so far.

Planning a picnic? These might help:
Eleven Fun and Fancy Goon Sacks to Jazz Up Your Next Picnic
12 of Melbourne’s Best Picnic Spots to Visit All Year Round
12 to Try: Create Picnic Envy With These Fancy Outdoor Feasts (And Some Drink Suggestions, Too)