OPINION - The gritty London remake of ‘alfresco’ is just so grim: drinking on benches in cold muddy parks

·3-min read
 (Natasha Pszenicki)
(Natasha Pszenicki)

We all know language evolves, but has any phrase had such a fall from grace as alfresco? Before, it conjured up visions of long, leisurely meals in warm Italian piazzas. Now we’ve been subjected to the gritty remake: alfresco meaning a meet-up where you tramp around a London park with a friend while trying to stave off hypothermia. If only London had somewhere warm, capacious and rule-free where we could all party in peace.

Without such a cosy hideaway, we had to make do with alfresco fun in the form of walks around chilly parks at the turn of the year. I recall drinking fitfully with an old friend on a bench one Saturday in February. We sat there for hours, not feeling the cold creep under our thermals. When Phoebe Waller-Bridge walked past and I — a social diarist — didn’t even turn my head after her, alarm bells started going. We got up to move and suddenly I felt like a Meccano man, joints rigid and limbs stiff. It took hours to get warm again.

We were just two of many. Hampstead Heath was turned into a PG version of the Somme, with more dryrobes and fewer Maxim machine guns. I dread to think about all the other London parks which suffered the same fate. I joined one of many on the Heath shuffling around in huge hordes like a zombie, churning the paths into mud, trying to eke a good time out of winter’s few daylight hours. We only called it alfresco to give us something to smile about.

And now alfresco looks to be back on the menu. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. For one, alfresco in Britain should strictly refer to the single week where the weather is good enough to eat outdoors (although that is changing — which is the only praise you’ll hear me giving climate change). More importantly, this gallows-humour alfresco was supposed to be old hat, like caring about the daily infection stats or looking at graphs drawn by Covid nerds.

But this is the era of coronavirus, the viral boomerang, and these things always find a way to come back at you. While our hapless Cabinet dithers, Omicron enforces a remorseless logic of its own. Many of us are looking at the figures and cutting back on our plans, or agreeing only to meet outside.

So like it or not, this winter has an alfresco twist. If that sounds a bit Hotel California, maybe there’s something in that. After all, in Italian the words “al fresco” are not really associated with pleasant outdoor dining — instead they’re slang for “in prison”. But look on the bright side: if this virus can feel imprisoning, at least we know we’ll soon be out. Then we can go about restoring alfresco to its proper meaning.

In other news...

Earlier this month I went along to Boisdale’s boozy bash: the Cigar Smoker of the Year Awards, which was very much not alfresco. There, in Canary Wharf (believe it or not), I discovered a whole new world. As the nominees were read out, hollering and whooping erupted from the tables at the name of their favoured candidate for cigar sommelier of the year, or robusta of the year.

I was briefly keenly aware of the cigar industry, which must have its own internal rivalries, secret loves, hates, jealousies and gossip. There must be countless such private worlds, barely known to most of us. It felt timely because it’s at this time of year where we each retreat (or try), not to the private world of cigars, but to worlds of our own. And, we hope, we emerge blinking, sated and stuffed, on the other side. Merry Christmas.

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