Róisín Ingle: Never mind the anti-vaxxers, we need to talk about the anti-relaxers

We’re all adjusting to the relaxing of restrictions and the shy return to this new version of normal

Former Japanese imperial army soldier Hiroo Onoda waving upon his return home, at Tokyo international airport, after living for some 30 years in the Philippine jungles. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/ Getty Images

Former Japanese imperial army soldier Hiroo Onoda waving upon his return home, at Tokyo international airport, after living for some 30 years in the Philippine jungles. Photograph: Jiji Press/AFP/ Getty Images

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We’re all adjusting to the relaxing of restrictions and the slow, shy return to this new version of normal. Re-entry affects people in different ways. For my part, I can’t stop getting intimate with strangers.

The other night, a young man and woman from Pakistan, sipping nonalcoholic cocktails outside Shouk in Drumcondra, were lucky/unlucky enough to end up sitting beside me. An hour and a half later I was pretty much planning their wedding even though this was only their fifth date.

Oh, don’t fuss. It was all highly consensual and enjoyable and when we parted, having exchanged social media handles and made plans to meet again, the beautiful young woman said, smiling but in a serious voice, “thank you, that was like therapy”.

I sipped the dregs of my very alcoholic cocktail and thought about how these deep post-lockdown encounters are another unexpected Covid silver lining, although I suspect such emotional intrusion would not be for everyone. Basically, if you see me approaching and don’t want to be thoroughly but intuitively interrogated, keep a very wide berth.

On Culture Night at Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar, I sat down beside a man from Bangladesh. Covid has delivered a killer blow to small talk, my arch-nemesis. I’ve always much preferred big talk. Within minutes my new friend was sharing his beer stash and making deep conversation about the Bhagavad Gita and the relative merits of Hindu gods Shiva and Krishna.

Yes, of course I got his mobile number. I think I will invite all my new friends around to my house soon. My Bangladeshi friend can bring the beer, my soon-to-be-married Pakistani mates can bring their authentic Biryani, which has around 40 ingredients. I, being lazy, will make a jug of Virgin Marys, which only has around five.

I am clearly adjusting exceptionally well to being out and about again, but it has come to my attention that not everybody is so keen to leave their Covid cocoons.

If before the pandemic you led a slightly hermetic life, it makes sense that you might not be desperate to get back “out there”. If you were antisocial before all of this, you are not necessarily going to become a social butterfly just because the State has said you now have permission to sweat beside strangers at Zumba class in a parish hall.

It makes sense that after 18 months of being told to treat our neighbours as though they were biological hazards, some people might be having a hard time adjusting

I know one woman who still keeps trying to arrange Zoom calls and even (shudder) Zoom quizzes with her family instead of adjusting back to real-life encounters. She is also still disinfecting her shopping.

I know of a man, who lives alone in a rural part of the country, that has maintained exactly the same routine he had during the first Lockdown . He says he is completely content and would not want anyone to be alarmed, but I can’t help being concerned.

Never mind the anti-vaxxers – it’s the anti-relaxers we have to watch out for and perhaps worry about now.

The anti-relaxers remind me of that Japanese intelligence officer, Hiroo Onoda, who for 29 years after the end of the second World War continued to hide, fight and kill in the jungles of the Philippines. He just did not believe the war was over. Even when, in 1945, he found pamphlets that said the war had ended, helpful communications dropped by American soldiers, he thought it was a trick.

Onoda carried on fighting until 1974. Somebody asked him once why he didn’t stop and he said “I’m very competitive”.

It makes sense that after 18 months of being told to treat our neighbours as though they were biological hazards, some people might be having a hard time adjusting. We were told for so long by the men at podiums to be neurotic about pretty much everything. This anxiety is not just going to disappear because suddenly the radio ads are telling us it’s okay to come out of the trenches.

But it is okay to come out of the trenches. And I am here to tell the anti-relaxers that for introverts, shy or nervous people, the world is actually a much more inclusive place than it was before the war on Covid began.

It’s a kind of antisocial nirvana in some ways. I mean, imagine, you will never again be forced to hug people you don’t know any more. And shaking hands? It is SO 2019. The awkward elbow tapping thing has become the new hand shaking, and I predict soon that will be replaced by nodding or, my preference, a small little non-committal wave.

One inventive friend recently tried to introduce a wrist version of the elbow tap, but as another friend said: “No way. I’d rather tap bare arses than start wristing.” In the new normal world, everyone must find their own way.

To the anti-relaxers I say: Relax! You have permission to be your full authentic, neurotic self in this post-pandemic environment. The word “uncomfortable” will be your best friend allowing you to easily escape all encounters that make you want to pull your eyelashes out with a blunt tweezers.

Uses include: “I’m just not comfortable going to dinner parties”, “I’m just not comfortable meeting up in groups of more than two”, and my own particular favourite: “I’m just not comfortable being in the office again.”

The rules of engagement have changed forever. Time to construct your own version of normal. And seriously, when it comes to me, do not forget what I told you: a very wide berth.

roisin@irishtimes.com